Monday, September 20, 2010

Hvalfjörður, Hraunfossar, Reykholt

One of the friendly folks in the choir I now sing in invited me to a spur-of-the-moment day trip around the countryside around Reykjavík. It was almost like a 'dry-run' to the week-long trip I'll be taking at the end of this week around the country, and only really going an hour and some out of the city. I'm glad I brought snacks, just for the novelty of eating an apple while looking at a glacier. The normal sights for tourists in this area are usually found on the Golden Circle, but this was like the "Silver Circle", and nearly devoid of tourists so it felt like we had the whole country to ourselves!

It's really amazing how many amazing sights and landscapes can be found within a short driving distance. Elisa, my soprano-voiced tour guide took me first around Hvalfjörður ('whale fjord') and we looked at an aluminum smelting plant, along with the bay that Americans would hide/store submarines during WWII, building bunkers containing unknown items. The Americans left a few years ago and now the bunkers are overgrown, but the fences remain. We Americans do love putting fences around anything and everything.

We passed a waterfall called Fossárrétt first and I had to stop and record its sound, you could get up very close to it. True to its name (something like 'sheep-rounding-up-waterfall') there are stones piled into room-like arrangements that sheep could be corralled into, though they might not currently use it for that purpose. Also in this little valley were beautiful grasses, blowing gently in the breeze. It was warm enough that it felt like a New England fall day.

Onto Borgarnes for lunch, a town on the coast of Iceland. We saw a Viking burial mound and checked out ('chuck' out? why isn't that a past tense) the coffeehouse situation here, which is situated beautifully on a shallow harbor. The water must be less than a foot deep, going out for a quarter mile you could still only have water up to your knees.

Driving a short distance, we ended up at one of the 'major' sights of the day, two waterfalls right next to one another: Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Hraunfossar is of particular note as there is no river on the top of the earth that dumps over a cliff, like most waterfalls. This one comes straight out of the middle of the cliff! The whole mountain is basically a lava flow, and there are rivulets and underground streams buried in the rock; the water exits here into a real 'river'. There are small trees, berrybushes and plants hanging on for dear life to the sides of the rocks here, having carved up some shallow soil for themselves. And being a near fall-like day, the leaves were beginning to turn. Here in Iceland they don't get as dramatic as say, Massachusetts, but usually turn yellow and quickly fall. Still, it's a nice seasonal change and lends for quite pretty pictures.

Smack dab next to Hraunfossar is Barnafoss, or 'Children's waterfall', named because of a supposed folk tale. Legend has it there used to be a land bridge over the raging water here, and two children walked across it, having wandered away from their family one night; the landbridge fell and the children were never seen again. There is still a landbridge of sorts at the bottom of the rapids, but I'm sure the water will slowly carve its way through this one too. Total pāhoehoe here, by the way, for all you geology nerds, lots and lots of folded lava, with some rock piles marking the walking trails.

There was still more to see! Elisa stopped at Deitartunguhver, which is Europe's largest hot spring! You can see the steam from a distance and you know some geothermal action is at work. I'm still impressed at the fact that you can walk right up to a hot spring and look at boiling water being shot out of the ground of its own accord. I have a small fear that I am going to step on a fragile part of the earth and break through to something horrible below. But here it looked pleasantly safe, you can walk up to a little boardwalk thing and take photos, feel the steam, just you know, don't touch the 212-degree Fahrenheit water gushing out around 150 liters per second. Actually, that probably happens elsewhere, the hot springs that visitors see seem like offshoots of a main spring, which is tapped into with lots of pipes and a power-plant-type building, and carried off in large pipes to nearby towns. But what does come out is still intimidating.

We were nearing an old settlement of Iceland called Reykholt. Famous for being a site that Snorri Sturluson (writer and documentor of much of Iceland's historical texts) possibly bathed in, the landscape in the area is a giant archaeological paradise. There is an old church on-site, and a big new church, both beautiful in different ways. But the best part of this church was its harmonium! It looked very Victorian. And the colors of those walls, well, that will cheer up a dull grey winter day.

Quick stop in Húsafell, a 'forest' of sorts, a popular campsite for Icelanders, and views of two glaciers in the distance. Currently holding the Award for Best-Named Glacier: 'Ok'. Pronounced more like 'Awk' or 'Euch' and not like 'Okay'.

Our final stop on the way back around Hvalfjörður was to spontaneously say hi to some horses by the side of the road. I'm sorry, 'horsies'. Elisa said that they'd probably be friendly horses and think that we were bringing food (which we didn't have any, but we were indeed friendly) so I got to pet them. The Icelandic horse is much more my size and speed. Here is a horse that isn't twice my height, but still seems quite regal. The sun was low in the sky (as it is all the time here) but it lent itself to a very romantic light, watching these guys prance (I'm sorry, tölt, as these horses have five gaits as opposed to most horses normal three) and cavort around in the autumn sun. I too am enjoying the warm days while I can!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bears on Ice, field recordings, buying pillows.

This weekend was my first 'Icelandic weekend', which I of course could not even make it through without naps, going to bed earlier than most people, and having a rollercoaster of emotions. It's been over two weeks now since I've been here so some things are beginning to feel familiar (buying milk, going swimming), and then other things are still very new, like going out to eat or shop somewhere new each time and not knowing what to expect, or trying to catch a bus to a new destination.
I did go to an organized event this weekend, which was mostly for visiting tourists, but it did include several night parties at local bars and clubs so I had a good excuse to go out and be social, and see the gay spots. The gay scene here is so well-intergrated into culture that nowhere is particularly exclusively gay, but there are currently two gay-ish bars in the city that hosted the weekend's festivities. Did I mention the event was called Bears on Ice? It was pretty amazing. I didn't do the tourist stuff during the day like many of the other guests, as I'm sure I'll have many chances to do that this year. Still, it was a great chance to be surrounded by so many great beards and friendly gays. I did end up meeting a couple locals and worldly travellers; I went dancing, out for drinks and ate a delicious brunch; I got to stay out late and watch girls just beginning to go out on the town at 4:30am, when I was ready to come home. I also learned the term 'Disco Nap', which I will be taking frequently when I need a little pick-me-up before the night begins.

I attempted some actual 'work work' the other day and took my digital recorder out to record some water features and bird noises, thinking I'd get some field recordings as tests of outdoor sounds before I go on a weeklong trip around the country soon. Well, silly me. Not only was it too windy, it also started raining. So my recordings consist of rain noises with about a half-second good bird-squawk, but basically 98% unusable wind corruption. Lessons learned: timing is everything, construct a really good windscreen, and store the recorder in a watertight container. Or make a piece entirely consisting of wind sounds, I suppose.

Here is a boring story! Once I recovered from the weekend, I decided that it was time to get a real-boy pillow and upgrade from the borrowed one I've currently been sleeping on. I will also want a second pillow for any guests that might come to visit! Well, I'm trying to plan ahead for meeting my still-undiscovered Icelandic Husband To Be, but this also means you! Hótel Midnight Shoveler is open for guests, and I can't wait to be a good host for visitors. Inconveniently, there is no store in the downtown area that sells pillows. Or if there is, it is going to be a fancy pillow for your fancy mod chaise lounge. I successfully made it out to another part of town to find the discount home stuff store, or Rúmfatalagerinn. Despite being a hike from the bus station, you do get to walk through a park that borders the 'botanical gardens' and 'zoo' on the way. Rúmfatalagerinn was across the street from Hagkaup, which is Iceland's answer to a Walmart, so I also got cheap socks and a teeshirt, cheap writing paper, some lunch, a pen, and a CD. One-stop shopping. Then I had to lug back two pillows and everything else on the bus, and I looked like THAT GUY. Whatever. Bottom line is, now I have seasonings, two clean pillows with pillowcases, and you will be able to come visit for a good sleep and a well-seasoned fish dinner.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Rainbow, Perlan, Korpúlfsstaðir

I saw two rainbows today! One was right as I looked out my window this morning. The other was a tiny rainbow in the clouds at Korpúlfsstaðir (more on that later) but it was a beautiful day to be outside so I spent a lot of time gawking at the scenery.
Perlan is a funny thing in Reykjavík, it is a structure that houses giant water tanks for the public water in the city, but conveniently it also has a great museum, a cafe, a lookout deck, and a fancy revolving restaurant inside of it (hence the name Perlan or 'The Pearl', for it's shiny glass dome). It's also next to a beautiful forest which leads to the geothermal beach in the city (only open in the summer season). I walked to Perlan recently, which I don't recommend when it might suddenly downpour on you and the weather report said nothing about torrents. Wah-wah. There are only highways and trees in between my apartment and Perlan, so I was an unhappy camper until I dried out a little. Luckily the views after the rain were beautiful and crystal clear, and the air around the city is so clean you can often see for miles. I suppose that's what also makes it great weather for rainbows, as it rains/mists a little bit almost every day.

On another recent afternoon excursion, I visited Nicole, another Fulbright artist, at her temporary digs at Korpúlfsstaðir. You can take one bus there from Reykjavík, and you don't have to transfer but the ride is about 45 minutes and you definitely feel like you're in a totally different place than downtown Reykjavík. The 'town' there is more like a suburb, with chain stores and strip malls nearby, but Korpúlfsstaðir itself is an old dairy farm, now converted into a gold course and putting green. And in true Icelandic style, the same golf course building also has a repurposed section in it for artists' studios and artist housing! I walked around the golf course a bit (on walking trails, heaven forbid I touch the greens) before dinnertime, and took a couple shots of the first landscapes I've seen here that are fairly uninhabited and treeless. And we're not even really outside the city limits yet! You just wait a few days as I'm planning a trip around the country, which I am so much looking forward to. Some amazing images cometh.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Atli Heimir, National Museum, First Choir Practice

As if to combat the frustration of a couple days' prior, today was wonderful. I called a composer I had long-since admired, and he invited me to his house for breakfast! Atli Heimir Sveinsson is a well-known (and loved) Icelandic composer with an outstanding record in meeting other famous composers (see the wiki page for the star-studded list). He also writes some kick-ass music that can turn on a stylistic dime in an instant, from neo-romantic to brash noise textures, from lilting folk-tune to rock-and roll. I heard his 'Symphony Number 2' in 2006, and it has stayed with me ever since. He's currently working on Symphony #7, though funny enough, Symphony #5 never got a premier as he was making edits to the piece. In any case, he's still writing some amazing works including lieder in English, Icelandic, and German, and has several albums out. We discussed my plans in Iceland, and he gave me some gems of ideas to think about which might inspire music compositions (Surtsey being one of them). He shared some of his own stories of compositions and composers past, including going to Germany to meet Stockhausen, and then realizing there was another (mostly forgotten) composer who wrote like Stockhausen but 'did it better'. But then Atli ended up studying piano and counterpoint and history first instead, so his time to be an avant-garde musician took a short rest.

He and his wife also talked about a change in the way of thinking for Icelanders after the financial crash; they seem to notice that people are less obsessed with money now, and if someone does have money, you wonder where the hell they got it 'cause nobody else doth hef it. Also, there may be more of a focus on more important things, or a growing interest in things like social events (knitting, music, travelling) and self-improvement, rather than just Keeping Up with the Jóneses, or who has the latest and greatest flat-screen TV or their third car in the driveway.

Also, breakfast included herring on buttered bread. Among lots of other things. But scratch 'herring' off the list of fish I haven't eaten yet.

I took a short walk from breakfast to the National Museum of Iceland, which had their free admission day today. This museum is the best one I've seen here! The exhibits are huge and it would be well worth the normal admission price. On one floor alone they have amazing artifacts from Viking age, early soil samples, early Christianity artifacts, Black Death talismans, sailboats, a reconstructed house, an exhibit on Beards and Beardgrooming (omgfinally!!), a good photography exhibit, and a reading room. On another floor is a special exhibit sort of based around an archaeological dig of one area, and the displays were really beautifully produced with purple walls. There are also children's activities and playthings integrated into the museum, which makes it a good place for families even though a lot of the exhibits are really geared for adults and very stylishly designed. The third floor has a more chronological feel, with artifacts from Iceland from the 16th century to the present, including some amazing contemporary groupings of toys and household items through the 20th-century.

To end the day, I went to my first choir rehearsal. Yes, that's right, I joined a choir in Iceland and the rehearsals are only in Icelandic. Luckily, the music is mostly Latin, and 'piano' and 'fortissimo' I can definitely understand. The group seems very social so I'm hoping it gets me to know a few more people, and the church has a beautiful piano and even a harmonium! I hope to get to play them sometime soon. While I don't really understand much of what people are saying in rehearsals, I can usually glean a lot out of body language, and I'm very good at picking out if a measure or page number has been called, so I can come in on cue. Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh it is also not, so I can help the basses out a little bit too. So their win for my bassi range is also my win for more Icelandic immersion. Sorry I can't laugh at your jokes yet, though. I'm sure it was funny, and I think it involved something about coffee.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Doing Nothing with a Purpose

I've heard from many people that Icelanders are often reluctant to give out information. Or at least, it's not a cultural 'thing' to give more information than asked, because why would you need to? Someone asks how much a bus ticket to a particular place costs, and you tell them, it's three dollars. Simple! You don't tell them that that particular place is in the middle of nowhere, because that's not the question they asked, now is it? That's just a vague example, but today's activities combined with an all-day rain and a sore knee compounded a bit of an annoying sitch.
Sample dialogue from today, as I'm trying to find a college faculty member to schedule a meeting.

-(Me:) I'm looking for Só-and-Só-ersson.
-(Secretary:) Well, did you try his office?
-Yes, but he's not here.
-Well, he's probably teaching.
-Can you tell me when he teaches?
-Well, he keeps his own schedule, he's very busy.
-Do you know when he'll be back?
-No, not really.
-Can you show me the schedule of classes so I can figure it out?
-No, I'm sorry, I can't show that to you.
-Okay then, bye.

Luckily I did find a camera store, I think the only camera store in Reykjavík that's not at the mall, and they had a battery charger for my camera and a little tripod for long-exposure shots et al. So, minus one for professor, plus one for camera battery.

You might be wondering what I'm doing here, in Íslands, not going to school, but not really working a job either. Well, the plan on paper is to create a 'multimedia installation of music based on the landscape and people of the country'. In reality, I don't know if something that ambitious could ever be accomplished with the resources I currently have. Currently: count one new mac that shuts down inexplicably from time to time from kernel errors, one digital recorder, one 4-megapixel camera, and one borrowed MIDI keyboard (four octaves, not bad). But, the good thing is that I am under no pressure to create anything epic, and in fact, the Fulbright office here was more than happy to tell me that what I really need to do now is just 'be a sponge', get out and travel, see everything there is to see, and do as much as I can. This is supposed to me the time for me to think about art without having another job or two get in the way! It's just weird to think about doing nothing really...but doing nothing with purpose.
I also hope to meet as many Icelandic composers, musicians, and artists as I can. I think it will help me work in ways that I might not have ever conceived of before.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Graveyards, Orchestras, and Swimming Pools

I saw three amazing things today, all very different!
Eitt. I went to the Reykjavik cemetery today and saw the graves there from the 1800's onward. One of my favorite things to do is to visit cemeteries; I know it's morbid, but every city does it differently, and it's a good way to get back to reality, or ponder things, or just take some pictures. It's a small site but there are a lot of plots packed into a small space! And TONS of trees. I think this is the most densely-packed tree area in the whole city! It was a drizzly morning and quiet, save for a funny parade happening down the street with a marching band that sounded like it was playing 'Bomboleyo'. I noticed that one half of the cemetery has trees of almost solely one type; the other side has different species. You can also tell where newer sites are planted; some old plots have giant stones for gravestones, some have iron crosses, some have what I think of as 'traditional' headstones, and some are like fences around a square of grass. The best sites have a tree growing right out of the middle of the plot, which I assume (without reading up on anything) was a tradition upon death. The description of the cemetery does say that you can see the styles and habits of burial change, and I think a lot of people today here just get cremated. It also says that the side of the cemetery with only one kind of tree will change; those trees only grow to be about 80 years old and then they die, to be ousted by longer-living trees.

But oh my goodness do some of these plots look amazing! I just think of the most amazing images- imagine planting a tree over your loved one, and in a hundred years, that tree had totally taken over the plot. Its roots have literally crushed and covered over your beloved- they've become one again with nature. Strong but silent forces, over years and years. How very Icelandic, so it seems. And for the sites with cairn-like stones on them, it looks totally haunting, as if the stone is necessary to press down on the ground preventing the thin earth in Iceland from pushing the grave back up to the topsoil.

Tvö. I went to the Symphony Orchestra's 'Open House' for families, where the symphony played a couple short 'hits' and there were activities for kids and snacks. This is the way to do orchestral music for families, y'all! A pianist played some Rachmaninoff. There was a lady in costume who came out on stage and entertained the kids with stories. There were treats. And really great music. The kids were so well-behaved! It's just a first-impression, but I think Icelandic children are better-behaved than American brats. I saw a lot of babies and kids really enjoying the music being played, which lest I remind you was NOT Peter and the Wolf. It didn't have to be dumbed-down for anyone. Speaking of babies, I cried like one at several moments during the short concert. I think it's been a stressful week (good stresses, but nonetheless tiring) and to hear such well-played music really brightened my spirits, and the tears just poured out. Luckily I was sitting in the back so no one could see my slobber.

I will be back for more concerts with the symphony; in the winter and spring they're putting on some particularly-good works, including pieces by Icelandic composers, Penderecki's Threnody, and Steve Reich's Drumming.

Þrjú. The swimming pool! This totally made my day, as if the Symphony wasn't enough. For under three dollars you can swim as much as you want in the olympic-size pool, complete with kids' area, lanes for laps, and four hot tubs ('hot pots') of differing hot temperatures. I was particularly fond of 36 degrees (celsius), 'cause I could sit in that bath water all day, but the 40 degrees pot was pretty muscle-relaxant-y and one could feel a bit internally overheated after a while. There's a sauna too.

There are some rules in Iceland about pools. The water is not really cleaned, because people clean themselves before and after entering. There is a great (funny) article about swimming here at, but I will quote Joe Sugarman's article that yes, it does feel at first like high-school swimming torture/I mean CLASS, but then you realize the water is so wonderful and warm and womb-like, and that " America, people swim to cool off. In Iceland, people swim to warm up." After a half-hour at the pool, I dried off, put on some clothes, and I definitely felt more comfortable than I had been in the last few days! I went to the grocery store and didn't feel overwhelmed by baskets and meats and fish displays. I walked back to the apartment very relaxed. And now it's time for dinner, which I bought myself, and I'm going to attempt to cook some Icelandic ham (skinka) and pasta (conveniently, pasta) which I think I am going to conquer.

Pool photo credits:

Windy day, nice evening, Fulbright fellows

It was a windy and dark morning this morning, the first of many days I'm sure that I'll be using my hood of my new raincoat. But the view from the sea looks pretty cool with dark clouds making the water also very dark. I still took a walk through Gamli Vesurbænum, or the 'old' part of Reykjavík's downtown, which includes Fríkirkja and Landspítali, a big hospital. It also borders the area with the library and SÍM, the artist residence/workspace in Iceland. I saw the big boats docked there; I'm not sure if they're all used for whaling and fishing, though, as one seemed to look pretty touristy. This is also the area where whale and puffin-watching tours leave.

The evening was lovely, though, and after seeing some bad art I had a couple drinks with another Fulbright artist (Nicole) here in Iceland, and it warmed the evening very nicely with good company in a cozy bar. It wasn't exactly the craziness of the rúntur that happens here on weekends, but I'm sure I'll have my chances for all-night partying in the months to come. Besides, I'm more of a classy drink drinker, and it's hard for me to come to grips with paying a lot for really bad beers, when I could pay just a bit more for a better (though not awesome) couple glasses of wine and get a little tipsy, but then not also have to pee all night. But that might change, the Icelandic version of PBR could be my new best friend.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Around 107 Reykjavík

I almost have a sunburn, it was so nice out today! I didn't expect the sun to shine so warmly and I am very overdressed, at least right this second. That's bound to change.

Big news everyone, I went to the mall today and bought a cellphone. It's so much more easy here, buying one flat out and just paying for what you need. I also had a moment of joy when I heard my name being called out- in the mall- and it was for me! And it wasn't because I had forgotten my credit card in a store or something. Another Fulbright student, Nicole, saw me as she was shopping and we had an amazing lunch and shopping adventure together. I also bought an Iceland-appropriate coat, as nothing I brought was good enough for the damp wind and rain here.

Around my apartment are some great things. Though I currently don't live in the center of town, which is about a 20 minute walk away, there is plenty to do around this side of RVK. My apartment now is near the university (Háskóli Íslands) and many other schools, from elementary to high schools. There are children everywhere (tiny ones= okay, medium sized ones= annoying). I live about a three-minute walk from a movie theatre (Háskólabío) which also houses the concert hall for the Iceland Symphony Orchestra! I could just roll out of bed from a nap and get my culture on.
I can go swimming in one of the city's best pools very nearby, but I will probably just lay in the hot tubs there. And of course, I can walk to the sea which is down the street, past one row of houses. I can see the sea from my room's window! There is also a pharmacy, two convenience stores, and a hot dog shop (naturally) within a short walk, as well as the National Museum of Iceland which houses a lot of ancient artifacts, and the Saga Museum, housing some ancient manuscripts of Iceland.