Sunday, July 27, 2008

Aside: Photography

It's a little thing, but I think it's cool: some of my photos on Flickr have been chosen by Schmap (no, I've never heard of them either) for their online map/navigation program, which is also apparently being lent as an application for the iPhone. I asked to be listed as Christian Wilkie, though I'm very slow in effecting my name change, and my wife has recently asked me what I thought about taking up her family name.

Anyway. I think it's neat that I have some photos out there... though I look at them and wish I'd had a better camera at the time.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Day Four - Saturday - Hot Dogs and Trouble

After we cleaned up, we went outside for more adventure. It had been a bright grey overcast sky all day but now there was a fine drizzle that went from a heavy haze to something almost like raindrops. Rebecca was a bit discouraged at the crappy weather, but I was delighted with a childlike glee at the opportunity to use the swank new rain jackets we got at REI for the trip. The epitome of function over fashion, I'm sure I looked a little dorky trotting around in this thing, and no less dorky for the huge cheese-eating grin plastered all over my face.

It was my turn to pick something out of the guide book and I selected nothing more and nothing less than the traditional Icelandic hot dog. Iceland has put their own interpretation upon this dish, and there were hot dog vendors aplenty throughout Reykjavik, but the Lonely Planet guide book insisted that the sine qua non was the local legend: Bæjarins Beztu, which is short for "Bæjarins beztu pylsur," or "the best hot dogs in town." You walk from the commons down a back street through some tall, dark buildings that look like the kid brothers of castles, and then you turn down a street and walk towards the ocean. It feels like you're making wrong turns all over the place and just wandering deeper into an industrial area where you don't belong. To the right, behind a building, is a small and colorful booth with one guy working over a simple boiler, fixing hot dogs. It appeared even more quaint and pathos-evoking in the rain, but nonetheless there was a line of a dozen people waiting to order! I gave Rebecca my camera to get some action shots of me waiting, too. The stand makes a big deal of the fact that former president Clinton once ate there; so did James Hetfield, but I didn't know that until I read it on Wikipedia just now.

The book suggested ordering one with everything, so I stepped up to the booth, kronur in hand, and carefully pronounced, "Eina með öllu... did I say that right?" The vendor, a young man in his late 20s, laughed and assured me it was perfect, I was well on the way to mastering his language. Stuff like that always discombobulates me and I giggled almost to the point of hyperventilation, which made it hard to count out what I owed him. I was slightly off: if it cost 170kr I only had 150kr ready, for example, but he waived the last 20kr and called it a "first-timer's discount" and a welcome to the country. Would any Minnesotan vendor be as friendly to a foreigner struggling with English?

The recipe of the Icelandic hot dog is different not only in the consistency of the sausage, whose skin is a little more rubbery, but in the ingredients. Ingredients vary from place to place but as I recall "one with everything" entails this: hot dog and bun, a sweet variety of mustard, remoulade, a mysterious "hot dog sauce" (Rebecca thought it tasted like Thousand Island dressing), minced fresh onions, and a sprinkling of fried onions, called "crispy onions." The remoulade is intriguing enough, and "hot dog sauce" was not unique to Bæjarins Beztu, but the crispy onions were a feature I readily embraced. It made a fun tactile experience for the mouth, and it was awfully tasty besides. The last time I grilled for a group of people, I made a point of attempting to replicate the Icelandic hot dog experience as closely as possible. I hardly nailed it but I haven't surrendered the dream just yet.

After this we decided to go for a formal dinner and to give Tapas a second try. It was six in the evening so the place was not crowded at all; indeed, there was one table of people eating who left after we ordered, and another table who sat down just before we got our food, and that was the entire patronage. The owner was a gregarious Spanish gentleman or maybe South American, very warm and smooth in demeanor, seemed genuinely happy to see everyone who showed up. He could not be faulted for service, certainly. I started out ordering a Tio Pepe sherry: I've never had it before so I don't know what it's supposed to taste like, but my impression was that it was scandalously watered down. It could be that Tio Pepe is especially smooth and light, but I have never encountered so weak a sherry.

Then the menu: I felt daring and ordered a dish with saltfish, a beast one hears quite a lot about in Iceland, and also a plate of puffin. The Lonely Planet guide suggests that puffin meat looks (and tastes) like calf liver, and perhaps this description is not far off. Mine was cooked and then prepared cold, served in a blueberry sauce. The meat struck me as a little gamey at first but this was solely the nature of the meat and not any fault in preparation. I adjusted quickly and appreciated this tender preparation, though I wondered if this was a borderline risque dish to try. Puffin are one of the cutest animals in the world, and the two kinds of animals I can't consider eating are cute and companion. Would I give up beef if I somehow developed a soulful relationship with a cow? Probably not. Anyway, as it turned out, we later saw a movie involving a guesthouse out in the middle of nowhere and the proprietor was plucking and preparing a great stack of puffin for dinner, so I suppose it's actually a common food.

There was also Minke whale on the menu, and while I was dead curious to try so uncommon a food, I could not override my personal convictions and order it. My head was full of the news articles of Japan bending/breaking the rules to continue hunting Minke whale "for scientific purposes" and selling the leftovers to restaurants, a fact which breaks my heart about Japan. Two species of Minke are on the "near threatened" and "conservation dependent" lists. While I realize the meat was already prepared and sitting in storage in the restaurant, I wasn't going to contribute to the demand for it and had to pass. I don't regret my decision. The saltfish, which came in a kind of chowder, was completely delicious and there was no ethical consideration to wrangle with. I haven't yet met anyone familiar with saltfish as a taxonomical term so I searched online and found a Jamaican dish that uses "salt cod" and calls it saltfish. I have no idea whether the Jamaican saltfish is the same as the Icelandic saltfish, but if you try to hold those two concepts in your head at the same time it seems unlikely.

We wended our way back to Café Paris once again for coffee and cake. We spotted the cute couple from Halifax again—that is, the cute wife and the emotionally reserved husband. Despite his demeanor it was still a nice little treat to run into someone familiar in this foreign city. Rebecca had to excuse herself for a bit and I people-watched in the meanwhile. A couple tables over there was a lovely woman with dark blonde hair parted and plaited down her chest and a man who at times appeared much older than her. I say "at times" because the woman's age fluctuated: sometimes she seemed young, early 20s, and sometimes she seemed aged and eroded, the way a soul-crushing relationship with do to a person. The man, late 30s and balding in a most elegant way, certainly was upset about something, though his stone-faced composition gave me to think he thought he was very good at swallowing it. The woman, on the other hand, was the picture of misery and hopelessness. Occasionally they spoke and that's when the man looked angry, speaking harshly to her but in quiet tones I couldn't begin to pick up. The woman looked down at her hands as though she were struggling to contain a reservoir of tears that might burst forth at any moment. The man would relent, or rather take a break to sip some coffee, think, and then lay into her again. I almost wondered if he were less angry and more heartbroken about something, because there was a kind of urgency in how he spoke and gestured, as though he were trying very hard to impress a point into her. The situation was far too complex for me to read clearly. At one point the man got up and left the table for a couple minutes; the woman happened to glance up at me staring at her, and she smiled forlornly at us (for Rebecca had returned and I pointed out this unhappy couple to her).

Rebecca practiced doodling an ostrich—my sisters-in-law got me a fun little sketchpad that shows you how to draw unusual animals out of letter and numbers—and demonstrated her mastery of the heron doodle, entirely from memory. She also researched areas that featured hot pots, you know, the geothermal spas that are so justifiably popular, but trying to bus out to one of those was quite a fiasco...

(to be cont.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Day Four - Saturday - Diving in the Cleft

Well into the swing of things, Rebecca and I hustled to be up and out of the apartment by 9:00 AM and stood out on the street corner while a utility crew sprayed down the sidewalk, street, and gutter, high-pressure jets of water blasting away all traces of last night's revelry. I have no idea what effect a regular scrub-down has on the population there: do the kids feel more free to urinate on a wall, knowing that someone else will clean up after them? Or do they feel less willing, knowing that their attempts to mark their territory will be completely obliterated in six hours? Hard to say.

Rather than a gleaming white tour bus, we were picked up by a young man in a small four-door car. His nickname was "Sibbi" (the full pronunciation was actually very regal-sounding), he wore a stocking cap with some abstract design embroidered into the front and a parka, and in conversation he mentioned he lives on the northern side of Iceland. We listened to rap music; Rebecca sat in the front passenger seat, I sat in back next to an infant's car seat (Sibbi has a two-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl), and there were miniature LCD TV screens strapped to the headrests of the front seats. We drove half an hour, past the snack shop where we took our first break for coffee on the Golden Circle tour, and met up with the people hosting the dive at a gas station/truck stop. There was a Burger King and a Subway here, and momentarily I wondered whether their recipes were exactly the same or if they even offered versions of local traditional dishes; didn't check. We also met Dan, a diver originally from Perth but currently living in London with his wife. I suppose this point was a rendezvous for the diving hosts; we got some snacks, loaded back into our vehicles, and drove out to Silfra.

I always get these names and terms confused, but I believe that "Thingvellir" is the name of the valley formed by the continental plates, the "Althing" is the large rock in the valley where vikings formed parliament, and "Silfra" is the name of the lake in the valley. This is a large valley and when we stopped by the lake we were hardly in sight of the area of the Althing: far off in the distance we could see a rocky cliff occasionally lined with tourists taking in the view. I'm sure there are many people out there who would be more than happy to correct me on every point and expose me as an oblivious, culturally repulsive tourist, but the benefit of maintaining an unpopular blog is that they will not regularly tune in to read.

The cars with us customers and the large truck with the diving equipment were grouped together almost like a circle of wagons. We pulled up and saw the truck already being unloaded: the guides informed us that another group had recently shown up (he indicated a much larger group of a dozen or more people on the other end of our clearing) but there were so many of them that we could suit up and get in the water well before they were ready. Crowding was apparently an issue at Silfra; Rebecca had read that this lake is one of the top ten dive spots in the world. I imagine that's because of the novelty of its creation, being the rift between tectonic plates, because there really wasn't much in the way of flora or fauna to observe, and under the water the scenery was even less. There are many photos, however, of divers floating in murky blueness, placing one hand on each excitingly chunky rock face, with a caption announcing that their left hand was in America and their right in Europe. There are some photo opportunities everybody is required to participate in.

We spread out a tarp, stripped down to longjohns, and started assembling the dry suits. People called out sizes and tossed garments from the truck. The clearing we'd parked in was a rocky bed covered in straw, and our gear was slightly damp (whether from storage or the misty morning, impossible to tell) so the dirt and straw took every opportunity to cling to us. I struggled to pull on a glove and a guide stared at me hard from the tailgate, finally leaping down in anguish and showing me how to don a dry suit glove so that I didn't tear off the cuff, as it seemed I was about to do. Rebecca, a licensed diver, took a moment to get reacquainted with the gear and dressed herself ably. Another staff person, a true blonde valkyrie, strapped a knife to her calf and my mind raced with scenarios in which it was used to free us from ropy seaweed (of which there was none to be had) or to murder the naive tourists underwater, where no one can hear you scream; I could see severed air tubes and slits made between ribs. This did not transpire either. Also there was a large dog trotting around, wish I could remember his name, but he was a trip. Kerchief around his neck, he wandered over to the enemy camp when no one was around and found a bottle of water for a play toy, and no amount of calling or chasing could coerce him to give it up.

Finally we were set and marched over the road and rocky wastes to a crack in the boulders. We descended to a ramp, climbed down into the water, and floated around as we got our bearings and split into two groups. As I was not diving I was assigned my own escort, the valkyrie, and the diver with the camera went down with the other divers. Rebecca and I split up for the time being, me, floating on the surface of the experience, while she plumbed much deeper. I belabored this analogy more than a few times.

I enjoyed snorkeling about the lake. The shock of the experience quickly passed: there was a small leak around one wrist, and the lower half of my face was exposed to the frigid water, but my body was constantly active and mostly dry so I kept my temperature up easily. I just floated along over the landscape, watching where the rocky rifts ran down into the depths. The water was quite clear and visibility was almost complete. The guides pointed out interesting features, like natural "bridges" formed by huge boulders having tumbled from the underwater cliffs and lodging at some narrow point in the crevasse (a crack in your teeth is a "crevice;" a crack in the lithosphere is a "crevasse"), and sometimes the divers would try to swim through these, though they were not daredevils looking for every risk to take. I swam over shallower areas and dragged my gloved hands through sand and silica, watching the dust kick up in my wake. I touched the rockiest rocks, the most savagely cleaved mineral formations, trying to imprint the realness of where I was into my mind. I was in the volcanic land of vikings, formed of frigid water and superheated rock, in the place where two continental plates shouldered against each other roughly. I was staring down into a gap in an erose, rocky barrier, beyond which was nothing until you reached the core of the earth itself. I breathed quietly and floated very slowly in the icy water, trying to feel all the way down, feel through these shattered and tumbled boulders, tune into the land.

We swam out in one direction, hooked a sharp left in a shallow area, swam out to a dead end and sat on a shoal of broad, flat rock, worn smooth with time, time, and more time, and we swam back the way we came. We had started out mostly together, the divers going lower directly beneath us but mostly as a group, but on the way back the divers went ahead and the valkyrie and I went our own way. We swam around the pool at the dead end, started wending our way back; she indicated where we were headed next and I followed her. At one point we were crawling on hands and knees over a large flagstone of boulder that I didn't recognize from the previous trip. I saw her sit up in the water, and the sand was so shallow that I knelt and lifted my mask. "What's up?" I asked.

She looked to the left, looked to the right, and said, "Where the hell are we?"

We laughed very hard at this, as she was a little embarrassed. I pointed to the tourists at the top of the cliff off in the distance and we reoriented ourselves. We crawled back over the flagstone, I told her I'd get to brag to my friends about our vacation with diving, snorkeling, and underwater rock climbing. We laughed all the way back to the landing where the other divers were waiting for us, and she got to explain to them what happened.

We unbuckled our fins and climbed up onto the landing and walked back to the cars. At this point the other, larger group had caught up and formed a crowd we had to fight through; two wide-eyed teenage girls stared at us as we climbed out. They were inadequately dressed in light tops and denim shorts, shivering as they watched people they knew climb into the water for a swim. We walked back to the cars but this was only for a rest: when we started to undress it was explained that we had paid for two dives. I was quite keen on going out again (especially if we'd paid for it). We took off our gloves and poured boiling water into them, made instant coffee and passed around cider. We soon dusted off and headed back out. I needed someone to help me layer my cuffs as I pulled my gloves back on, as it was somehow harder the second time.

Our group split up in a different division this time: the man with the camera would be following Dan down to the very bottom, where Dan would spend most of his time, but got a few shots of me dinking around on the surface of the lake. I tried not to feel inadequate. Aside from the massive rock formations there wasn't much to see, as I said, there being no form of kelp or algae at all; however, despite the fish being of nocturnal inclination, I did manage to peek through a natural tunnel in the rock and catch the profile of a small, pale golden fish drift across the small circle of light at the other end of the tunnel. It was there and gone again. We swam to the dead end and simply crawled out there, hiking back to the cars from there.

We weren't carrying several hundred dollars of cash on us, but they had a credit card machine at their main office so Sibbi drove us to Hafnarfjordhur. We felt awkward about the extra trip but he said it was perfectly fine. I was on the defensive, expecting a little conflict over the confusion, but everyone was very businesslike about the matter. A large, burly redheaded guy in Crocs came out to meet us. His mood seemed a little dark but when he learned that we'd been touring in Hafnarfjordhur before he brightened up considerably. Apparently he had a lot of pride about his down and was delighted we were enjoying it, so we really played that part up. We charged the fees, made our farewells. One of the guides told us a CD with pictures from the dive would be mailed to us, and Sibbi drove us back to Reykjavik. Rebecca pressed a 1000kr tip into his hand, which he was surprisingly modest about receiving. He just didn't see it as necessary!

(to be cont.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Aside: Good Morning

The week has slowly improved. I've managed to show up just before my bus, the last couple of mornings.

Yesterday, I wrote a presentation on how to write a police report (for Advanced Writing class) and stored it only on my flash drive, which I left at home this morning. Rather than lose a lunch hour busing home to retrieve it, I took a friend's advice and recreated it. I think I like this version better, and I included the arrest reports of Rosa Parks and Sen. Larry Craig as examples.

Ran up to Potbelly for my morning bowl of oatmeal, though I was quite late in doing so. They didn't know whether they had any left, and offered me a sample section of a breakfast sandwich: egg, mushroom, ham and swiss. Then it turned out they were just able to scrape a final cup of oatmeal from the morning's batch and gave it to me on the house. I really like Potbelly, always have.

Stopped by Caribou for some coffee. Used to frequent Dunn Bros., but one day two of the girls behind the counter whispering and pointing at me, and I noticed thereafter their service became frosty and begrudging. No idea what that was about, but there's no need to put up with that after two years of loyal patronage, when Mpls. is chock-full of coffee joints.

Today's trivia question was "what country is Robert Mugabe president of?" and I was pretty sure I knew the answer but wanted to be fully sure. On a whim, I sent a text message that only said "mugabe" to Google (46645) and received a small Wikipedia entry on him (seconds before it came time to order my drink!). I've texted Google for addresses, experimented with word definitions and financial exchange rates, and this latest discovery just rekindles my romance for the company.

So, today's looking to be a good day. My Nano is full of NPR and AP Podcasts, my breakfast is set, my presentation is highly polished... now I just have to coast.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Aside: recent event update

This will be no big, momentous post, just a brief overview. I regret that I don't have more time to continue updating the travelogue, as well as not getting the pictures uploaded. I should just make the time, it's a matter of discipline.

I almost got hit by a car in St. Paul, at the same corner I was almost hit before. The first time, a bus was parked in the same direction as I was crossing the street and it was preparing to pull from the curb and drive ahead, but some elderly self-important jackass drove around it on the left and swerved in front of it to make a right turn. Directly into me, of course, as I was crossing. Driving around a bus like that to turn in front of it is absolutely illegal, but in 13 years of living here I've never seen this law enforced. The driver stopped just short of running me down, and I never saw him coming: the bus driver laying on his horn is what alerted me to the incident. I turned to look at the man and he of course looked away, glanced around his car, checked out his local environment. Nearly all Americans are completely unequipped to accept responsibility for their actions. Rebecca was hit by a car as a little girl and the driver got out and yelled at her for it. The driver did not view herself as culpable for hitting a little girl.

So, again, I was crossing the same street at the same time of day. There was no bus, just a guy in a silver sedan turning right into the pedestrians. There was no honking, so I didn't notice anything until his bumper stopped a foot from my left knee. Again, I turned to look at the driver, who was suddenly interested in examining his left-hand blind spot and the architecture kitty-corner from his car.

All three of the adults depicted above likely consider themselves basically decent people. No matter how often they commit the described activities, they consider them anomalies, beneath consideration, and no indication of their character.

But to end on a positive note, at least Temple has closed. For about a year there have been garish billboards for an expensive, pretentious restaurant called Temple. The one ad that springs to mind features a woman in gauzy fancified belly-dancer garments (think 'I Dream of Jeannie') holding a hurricane lantern before her as she wanders into the desert in the middle of the night. Because I'm sure that happened all the time. To this day, Bedouin women like to dress up in as little as possible and just rove into the sandy wasteland of Sinai Peninsula, round about midnight, carrying nothing but a light source crafted by some unrelated foreign culture. Nothing suggests a "temple" more than some harem slut crawling over dunes in pitch-blackness, except maybe sushi.

They gained some buzz, not for their arrogantly overpriced, mediocre fare but for shocking Midwesterners with a cuisine stunt that was hot in Japan 20 years ago: nude sushi. This is where you make a naked woman lie on a table and you cover her in food, and fully clothed people titillate themselves by removing this food. Man, if Temple could've held out another year or so, maybe they could have cleared out a warehouse to construct a traditional Roman vomitorium, or stage public giraffe slayings.