Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Two-Month Marker, Kjötsúpudagurinn

This marks the two-month spot for me living in Iceland! Having lived only in the US but for a three-month stint in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2001, I find myself comparing my time here to my UK semester and thinking a bit about culture shock. Though I'm older and wiser now (sort of), a lot of the same experiences have occurred. The first month was the 'OMG' month. "I can't believe I'm here. Everything is amazing. Everyone is amazing. I need to see All the Things!!" and then the second month is Cultural Mishaps and Why Can't I Accomplish Anything Today. It took me a month and a half here to get an appointment to meet with someone for ten minutes. I got frustrated one weekend night by not having somewhere to go, but then realize after pacing around that I could also just read a book and not feel bad about staying in and enjoying my priceless free time here.

Then, as if by magic, my third month felt in Scotland felt like 'Gosh This is Not Bad' and Maybe I Could Live Here One Day. I remember singing in a magical concert with a choir, listening to my first James MacMillan work, and having other college friends visit from abroad. I wrote a really nice piece of music. Then it was time to go back to the States and re-adjust all over again.

Nerd moment! Studies have shown it is completely predictable how I will feel, using this Handy Homesickness Trajectory (more fascinating information from its source here).

The things which are irritating now (see paragraph below) will probably get better in the next month. And then if all goes well I will have lots of nice artsy friends, and won't even know how I could possibly not be in Iceland right now.

So, today I got scolded for using a glass drinking-glass instead of the styrofoam cups, which are down the hall in the "student coffee room you understand já?", and the lady's voice, while calm, seemed to emit 'I don't really care for you in my country, you unilingual immigrant'. I'm projecting a little more of my frustration into the situation being only the first week of language classes and not knowing my way around the building, but still. Guy just wants some water, and he'll even wash the glass when he's done.

For people whose second language is not English, I can see that it's much harder learning and growing into Icelandic language and culture than say, Americans (though we come with our own baggage, like Jersey Shore). I can't imagine how difficult it is to learn Icelandic when your only other language is something like Thai or Urdu; you don't even have English as a backup plan. I speak English with equal parts of thankfulness and regret. English is unfortunately the world-dominating language but one of my friends calls it "idiot-proof", which is a bit true- you can say what you want in only a few words, and you can butcher English to pieces but you still get your point across. In Icelandic it's a bit more old-fashioned, like 9th-century old-fashioned. Something I love about the language too.

Like I said, the things that are frustrating now are definitely going to get better. For example, there will be more days like this one recently, when I was lucky enough to go to a downtown festival marking the first day of winter, Kjötsúpadagurinn. Meat Soup Day. Many local business give out free bowls of traditional lamb stew to passers by on the street, and there are live musicians and performers. The townspeople form long lines for hot steamy soup, full of delicious carrots, a turnip-like veggie, and lamb, with lots of thyme. A great way to mark the first day of winter, which is done with much less hoorah than the first day of summer, but nonetheless celebratory.

There was also this fabulous lady giving some fun facts about the city to passers-by and a tour group; I only caught a few words of what she was saying but it's really all about the outfit anyway.

I also took the chance of a rare sunny crisp day to see the Einar Jónsson museum; he was Iceland's first sculptor, mostly active in the 30's, and he built himself this amazing castle-like museum on an empty lava hill outside of the city, with a beautiful apartment on the top floor. The apartment itself was incredible, with a spiral staircase, little rooms with lots of shelves, and preserved the way it looked in the '30's.

Little did Einar realize that the city would swell around him, so now his Dracula-like home is smack in the middle of the city with Hallgrimskirkja right next door.

Still makes a beautiful location, though. And with his type of sculpture, fixed somewhere between Expressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau, I was unusually moved by his work and will definitely visit again. There's a garden outside that is open to visitors for free (the museum costs 500 isk and is only open on weekends).

Now that I'm getting more settled in to my new city, I'm going to take my Einar Jónsson moments, soak them up as much as possible, and work my way back up the U curve.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Icelandic Lesson: Multiple Meanings

Here's a few things I've learned about everyday Icelandic, in my very basic introductions to speaking and listening to people, that perhaps you should know when visiting. (I could be wrong on some of them, of course, so don't quote me- I start my Icelandic Level 3 class on Monday so I'm eager to get speaking more again, but then again, there's so much they don't teach you in textbooks.)

Hvað Segir þú, also spelled 'Hvað segirðu'; usually sounds more like 'Kvsayatheuh' all blurred together. This can mean so many things but it seems to depend on context. It means literally, 'What say you', or 'How are You', but it can also mean 'What Did You Say/Say That Again', 'Wha?', and my favorite, 'You Don't Say!'.

Bara, the amazing word for 'only' or 'just', but also thrown around like candy, as easily as Americans use 'like' or 'um'. See also: hérna, which conveniently also means 'here', but now means 'like' or 'um'. I think also sko fits into this category.

Takk fyrir síðast. An amazing sentence that doesn't have any similar use in English, but I love using it when appropriate. Literally means, 'Thanks for the last time I saw you!' Great for maintaining friendships and reminding someone what fun it was when you last went bowling/sang songs/got drunk together and made out/bought hot dogs a month ago together.

Ha. Said only with downward inflection. A good tool when you didn't quite hear something and you want it repeated. Has nothing to do with laughter.

Near Inaudible Inward-breathing Já: Yes, but said breathing IN instead of spoken out loud! I didn't hear this for a good two or three weeks but now I hear it from people all the time, like a little too often. I think it's a 'yes' that's more like a 'uh-huh' or a 'yup', than a 'yes, of course/definitely'. But then again there is also jájájájájá (x infinity), which I also love.

Keyrum í gekk. Great phrase for going on a trip, when you're excited to leave. Colloquially translates to: 'let's drive this shit!'

Monday, October 18, 2010

Flight to Ireland, Dvořák errors

Today I was offered a reasonably-priced, tiny but beautiful one-bedroom apartment to myself, downtown Reykjavík! I'll probably be moving into it very soon. I also booked a flight to Ireland for Christmas, which set me back a pretty penny but will likely be amazing and beautiful and totally worth it. I thought about paying the same price to go home for Christmas but the family's visiting me a couple weeks later anyway, and I didn't want to get culture shock from being back in America and having to go back to Iceland shortly after.
I also finally met with the head of composition at the Academy of the Arts today, who offered me a potential master class lecture in the spring as well as a performance of an electronic music piece on his winter music festival. I'm riding high on good news!

But then I look at the Dvořák Mass we're singing in choir and notice the typesetting errors, and I get a little sad, my rollercoaster has peaked. I know it's a free score online and all, but do you have to pay the price of bad typesetting just to get some public domain music for a choir? Come on. My own compositions don't look perfectly typeset by any stretch of the imagination, but my Sax Octet or piece for folk trio and crotales is not in the classical canon. (Yet. Maybe then it will look really good on paper.)
This example below is forgivable. You forgot to drag the slur up, no bigs.

This one's a little weird, though. There's a ghost tie going nowhere, the notes don't seem spaced correctly within the measure, the top tie isn't high enough, and the bottom slur going through the half note just bugs me.

Bigger, meatier, maestoso-er:

This one, all the dynamics are under the staff with the text, instead of dynamics above the voices and lyrics below. You also get hairpins stabbing the dynamic markings, and a crescendo that leans upward. Reach for the sky, forte!

But the worst offender is below.

How can you possibly sing these syllables when they're set like this? I practically have to rewrite my part. The choir has had to ask questions about missing syllables, which I can understand if there's a mistake or two but this is just a little silly. Writing it as 'con-sub-stan-ti-a-lem', you know exactly what shapes your mouth should make on each note. I'm still working on my pronunciation of the syllables 'nsu', 'bsta', and 'nti'. I'll get it eventually.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Iceland Airwaves 2010

Four days of music at Iceland Airwaves (well, five, but I'm taking today off) and I heard about 20 different bands! This was, believe it or not, my first music festival ever. I'm glad that it was here and not in some dirty field in America where I couldn't go take a shower or get some water when I wanted to. I don't have any photos but above is one that Efterklang took from the stage, (copyright Efterklang, of course, taken here) but it's fun that I can see my face in it, directly on the left, a little back from the first row. This is also the most jam-packed night and venue I experienced; luckily I was not so squashed for the other concerts.

Here was my schedule, some highlights, quips, links, stories, and my schedule.


Moses Hightower at Mál og Menning bookstore. This was an off-venue performance but one of my overall favorites! Soul and R&B from from funky Icelanders.

Later, at a venue called, appropriately, Venue, I saw Stafrænn Hákon, which would be delightful ambient rock-y type music but there were about 5 guitars too many in this big band.

Snorri Helgasson was charming, and fun to hear a Tennessee-style sound (and southern-US singing accent!) come out of an Icelander, in a style reminiscent of Josh Rouse/Fleet Foxes.

Stayed for one song of Prins Polo and decided I should prep myself for the next day, and I wasn't feeling the über-ironic band's stage presence, or their lack of much besides a I chord.

Thursday: A big day!

Olafur Árnalds at Nordic House: beautiful and intensely quiet piano and string quartet. Disrupted by the sound of one million fancy camera shutters clicking away from the press. Olafur started in music in a metal band, but these are his quiet, non-screaming pieces that he's getting quite famous for. Very 'pretty' but can't someone throw me a sixteenth-note every once and a while? Or even a flat or a sharped note for spice.

Saw two songs from Lára at Eymudsson bookstore, and I liked her performance here a lot better than what I've heard on her CD, which is a little too cutesy for me. But even performing in a bookstore she had a really strong stage presence, great tone, and her percussionist played maracas and slapped his hand on a giant art book for bass drum-kick sounds. That was very clever and literate, now wasn't it.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Steindór Andersen sang and played some ancient folk-songs at 12 Tónar cd store. Steindór was accompanied by Arvo Pärt-esque sonic backgrounds on keyboard and computer, but I would have liked to hear more singing and less synth strings. Hilmar has had a fascinating career but I think I'd like his other projects more. Either way it was the only taste of super old Icelandic folk melodies I've gotten so far.

Evening shows: Hundreds, a duo from Germany. I also enjoyed the performance of this more than the samples they have online. Having an electro-acoustic piano (amplified but with hammers and strings) was a great timbre on stage, plus beats, plus sexy female singer. Some beats felt subaudible and I could feel my clothes pulsing.

Amiina: much-hyped girl-band, classically trained, was the string quartet for Sigur Rós. Wish that I head heard them at a more intimate and less boomy venue than the big art museum in town. Half of the audience was talking when I'm trying to listen to this amazing musical saw, amplified autoharp, strings, beats, and vibraphone. I think their tighter, shorter songs have more interesting changes than the more sprawling ambient ones. But I'd also love to have these string players play something for me, that can play harmonics over a crowd of hundreds of drunk people and not be bothered.

Efterklang: highlight of the evening, smart dancey music from Denmark. All the teen girls were going crazy over the two front men, and I assume it's because of their Euro mustaches. The drummer was exceptional, and also played the trumpet and sang. I wanted to buy their CD months ago and now I definitely will. The music has an orchestral feel to it, not surprising as they did release an album playing with the Iceland Symphony.

Oh my God is it only Friday I am pretty exhausted I need a nap before I go out tonight.

Ljósvaki, "Awaker of Light": The music is funky but the Kraftwerk-look of the band doesn't quite match the sound.

Berndsen: The opposite of Ljósvaki, I really like looking at this band if it weren't for most of the teenager-band lyrics and chords. Still, the lead singer, this big bear of a man, wore a pink sweater with a heart on it, and his sexy sax player convincingly wore what I could only describe as a brown lamé zoot suit, without a shirt. He played an electronic sax at one point=very funky. These are some cool nerds.

Bloodgroup: Pretty rocking. Great stage presence and 2 keytars. There is a duo of singers leading but it's really about the beats. This is also the band that all the drunk teenage boys make out with their 90's-retro Icelandic girlfriends on the dancefloor. It's a good thing everyone's pretty hot here or I wouldn't want to be forced to look at that crap.

Hjaltalín: I came to Nasa (the other large venue of the festival) tonight for this Icelandic chamber-pop band, which includes a violin and bassoon, and a keyboardist who looks like his piano parts for the band include playing fugues on stage. These people are too talented and I only hope to coopt them to sing/play some of my own works! These two lead singers have amazing and uniquely identifiable voices which compliment each other so well.

Heard 2 songs from a big band of kids at Nordic House, I forget their name. Was a bit like Beirut/Arcade Fire, except coming out of teenagers' bodies.
Also went to Kaffibarrinn for a half-hour of Bedroom Community + Friends. This was more classical music for me, with a violin, bass, and electronic beats. Normally I would be at Bedroom Community the whole time, but their main musicians are away on other gigs. I should have caught this afternoon's performers' names too, and thanked them for their multimeter jams, if it weren't for the drunk Viking (well, a man wearing a Viking hat and smoking a pipe) all up in my grill.

JJ- seemed kind of uninterested to be here tonight and/or painfully shy. Definitely a lowlight for a band that got so much hipster hype, but it just did not translate to a stage performance. Not one bit.
Mount Kimbie- heard some good beats but it was sometimes hard to tell if they were playing or if the in-house sound system between acts had started. Perhaps they finished early. Either way I didn't catch much of this band because Björk and Matthew Barney walked over and stood directly next to me and I couldn't not introduce myself and chat briefly. They're a big part of why I'm in Iceland this year, being some of my artistic role models, so I tried to act normal and not ask inane questions. And also said hello to the one artist that I knew in the crowd of people, so that gives me street cred, right? No, probably not.

Apparat Organ Quartet- this incredible band hasn't played together in years, and only released one album. Never before have four organs and drums kicked so much ass. The Icelandic Kraftverk, if I will go so far to say so. Also includes a rare reunion with Johann Johansson, who I've seen play his soundtrack-music in the states a couple times.

Hercules and Love Affair- American group who played mostly new stuff I didn't know, but there were three lead singers, all fabulously glamorous, gay, or gender-bending, and the beats were very danceable. I think Antony's voice, and live brass instruments (or at least samples of brass instruments), though, really makes this band special, and they were apparently just temporary inclusions to the band. Without that they're just good dance music and frantically energetic performers, but I don't think I can get as obsessed about it if there isn't more of a contrasting vocal/instrumental texture to all of the synthesized sound. Or maybe that's just me being a nerd.

Thus I come to the end of the Iceland Airwaves extravaganza. I think my Iceland Airwaves ticket was well-spent, don't you? There are a few more bands playing tonight but I think I've come to the end of my music saturation point for the week. It gives me a lot to think about for my musical time here, some people I'd love to meet in person (or meet again) and a lot of talent to live up to.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ring Road Day 7: Vík and Hveragerði: the Home Stretch

This is the last day of my Ring Road trip around Iceland, which stretches about 830 miles around the country, though I'm sure we put on many more miles/kilometers than that with all of our side explorations and wanderings.

We began our last day with a visit to the church in Vík, and it was pleasantly open, so I played the organ inside it while Nicole photographed a facsimile of the first Bible to arrive in Iceland.

We drove a short way down to the beach at Vík, which is known for its black sands and bold rock formations in the distance, jutting out of the ocean like dragon teeth.

The contrast between the white foamy surf and the pure black volcanic sands was really stunning.

Driving near Ejyafjallajökull and þórsmork, a lunch break stop was needed, so we picked a waterfall called Seljalandsfoss. I didn't realize that this would be a great stop as this particular waterfall pours over a cliff in a big arch, and you can walk all the way around behind the waterfall!

Our next stop was Hveragerði, which isn't far from Reykjavík, but feels like years away. This large-ish town's main draws are the greenhouses which grow much of the country's fresh produce and plants, made possible by abundant geothermal hotsprings in the area. Many of the steam vents are located in pockets on the hillsides, so you can see them steaming from a distance like little campfires on the mountains. 'Cept I don't think these campfires get put out; you can't really do much to stop a hot spring from opening up in the ground- you just have to deal with it or perhaps plop a greenhouse on top.

I wanted to take one final sight-seeing walk on our trip before we headed back to the 'big city', and Reykjahlið sounded like a good destination- the guidebook called it a 'bathable hot river, bring your swimsuit' at the end of a 3-km hike, and we thought, hellz yeah. The beginning of the hike featured some amazing boiling hot springs and bubbling pits, not unlike those at Mývatn, but these were located more on a grassy hill than in a desolate moon-scape. Fun and leisurely. After this, however, the route became decidedly more difficult, and unbeknownst to us, the 3-km hike was basically a giant mountain trek up rocky terrain. There were some incredible views along the way, though, some of them being 'don't look down!' views when your footpath comes a little too close to the steep slope of a mountain.

After not seeing any signs of a hot river, Devon ran ahead of me and Nicole to scope out the scene. Luckily he returned safely, and after about an hour+ of hiking, we arrived at said hot river, which was quite beautiful, milky blue amidst green grasses.

It wasn't quite what I would call 'hot', though. Maybe in summertime? It was like bathwater, but with the wind on the mountain and the sun setting, it wasn't the relaxing soak I thought it would be. But I knew that I would regret not getting in, and I had a hilarious time frolicking around in the water. Devon eventually joined me but I think he found it much colder than I did. It's only been ten seconds and he's already wanting to get out in this picture, but I'm trying to enjoy some sunset action.

After scurrying to get dressed, we hiked back down to the car and set off back to Reykjavík.

This was probably the most exciting and incredible adventure I've ever had! I feel incredibly honored to be able to travel around the country and see all these sights. Devon asked me what my impressions were of the trip, but at the time it was too soon to tell. Now I think I'm mostly: 1. amazed at how quickly the landscapes in Iceland change, from deserts to lavascapes, to pastoral fields, mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and towns, all of which seem to be found within such short distances. 2. I am amazed at how the summer tourist season really impacts the country, as it brings in extra revenue to balance out the entire rest of the year, when it feels pretty desolate and most conveniences (aside from necessities, like a gas pump here and there) are shut down in small towns. 3. I'm also amazed at autumn here, it's much more colorful and beautiful than I would have expected! Nobody mentions leaf-peeping in Skaftafell instead of New England, but it's possible to do (if only for a short time). 4. Going on this trip also makes me very appreciative of the privileges I have in the city, being able to walk everywhere I need, make artsy friends my own age, go to museums, and buy the groceries I feel like buying. 5. I am also pleasantly pleased to think that in this world of modern conveniences and human-superiority, we can't control a glacier coming down off a mountain! Well, with global warming, we are certainly doing our best to make them slide faster. We can't stop the earth's tectonic plates from separating North America from Europe, millimeter by millimeter. And we can't control the ocean, which can be beautiful and life-sustaining to a town, but also relentlessly brutal.

I can't really say what was the most memorable part of the trip, as every day brought several 'wow' experiences that left me speechless. Most great moments happened looking at nature, admiring architecture, and experiencing totally new places that I hope will influence my art and music for years to come. Here is a small best-of the Ring Road Trip list that might not make the tour books:

Best 1970's-interior guest house: Ármini in Vík
Best organ stop: Vík's Tremolo, happily groovy and out of tune since 1995.
Best view from sitting in a car eating lunch: Seljalandsfoss
Most disappointing attraction closed for winter: Phallalogical Museum
Longest bumpy drive that you can't see anything: Snæfellsjökull F-Road, in the fog.
Best meal cooked in a guest house: Turnip-like roots, onions, and spices in a stew, with generous sides of cheese, crispy chocolate cake, and red wine
Best hosts in sleeping accomodations: Baldursgata in Húsavík, senior citizens who watched MTV and gave us a tour of their wall of family photos
Heaviest Rain: between Seyðisfjörður and Höfn, rough 1.25-lane twisting road with limited views of road edges but scary views of waterfalls on both sides of you
Best sneak-attack attraction: Dettifoss
Best dinner out: log cabin restaurant in Höfn; hamburgers and chick pea patties
Most available radio station on the trip: Alcoholics Anonymous Radio
Best souvenir: aftertaste of icebergs in my mouth

Extra special thanks to Devon and Nicole for making this trip possible, not only providing transportation and sharing expenses, but being the easiest travel companions ever!

Up next for Midnight Shoveler, a change of pace entirely: Iceland Airwaves Music Festival, Wednesday through Sunday of this week.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ring Road Days 5 & 6: Seyðisfjörður, Höfn, Jökulsárlón, Skaftafell

I'm going to combine two days as to give the last day a nice rounded-out summation, and Day 5 was much car-travelling. Brace yourselves.

Seyðisfjörður is quite nice, as I've said. There's a boat (more like a giant cruise ship) that docks once a week here and ferries people to Denmark! There are about five shops, a great art center, a Norwegian-looking blue church, and the scenery is lovely. Seyðisfjörður became even more memorable when Devon dropped the car key down a perfectly-placed drainage grate, and had to basically swim under the ditch to fetch it out. Luckily not only did we have a spare, but we (well, he) wrangled the key out without a full swim in the icy runoff of a waterfall. Nicole and I just documented the process. Isn't that our job as artists?! inoright.

There is an art piece nearby the grate of the ditch that conveniently also provided a place to sit, as well as wash off Devon's creek shoes.

The drive up the mountains and over the fjord is quite impressive. Nicole had plenty of opportunities to hunt for rainbows with all of the foggy/cloudy/misty/sunny weather one gets passing through the mountain range. Further down the Ring Road, we head south and stop in Djúpavík for a snack:

but sadly there was nowhere to get out and eat our lunch, no picnic tables, no community building, etc. So, we made the best of another meal in 'Café Bíl' (French and Icelandic for 'Car Café', obvi).

We then continued our drive to Höfn, through much rain and fog, some caused by Vatnajökull being so close by. Vatnajökull happens to be the largest glacier in Europe, so I can see why is would have an effect on the weather. It has ice that is over 1 kilometer thick at some points. However, tonight we were not able to see glaciers so we went to the fancy pool in Höfn, and I took another risk on my adventure trip and went down two waterslides! It's been a big growing-up time for Midnight Shoveler, now he is riding the Big-Boy Rides.

Day 6 far surpassed our expectations for sight-seeing. The things we experienced today made yesterday's rain seem like a worthwhile wait. We were finally able to see glaciers today, inching and groaning their way down from Vatnajökull.

But our main attraction for the morning was Jökulsárlón. It is a glacier 'lagoon', which formed only really in the last 75 years (I think I remember reading). When the glacier melts it calves icebergs off into this bay, and the icebergs float out to sea, under a bridge. The icebergs then either melt at sea, or some get stuck on the ocean coastline, which was almost even better than Jökulsárlón because here you have dramatically crashing waves and could walk up and touch (or lick, or pose with) 1,000-year old glacial ice.

The ice forms float around in the most amazing colors, textures, and sizes. Some are this intense blue color, others are clear, or have rocks and pebbled stripes in them. I heard one split off with a crack, and a chunk fell off into the bay- not quite as dramatic as calving off the glacier, but still sound-worthy.

Suffice to say we took a million pictures of this and decided not to go on the boat trip as we already had enough amazing moments, and still have more to see. Jökulsárlón is not actually very far from Reykjavík, drivable in a day, so I can bring friends back here too!

We drove a short ways to Skaftafell, a large national park and part of the Vatnajökull Nature Preserve. This was the most amazing change in landscape. One minute we are gazing at a blue iceberg in a rocky lagoon. And a half hour later we are in a true forest, with waterfalls, hiking trails, and hidden coves. The fall colors here were in full form!

We visited two great waterfalls, Hundarfoss and Svartifoss.

Hundarfoss (pictured below, from a distance) was my particular favorite because you could lean right over the edge of a precipice (carefully) and feel/see/hear the full effect of the falls.

Svartifoss, however, is more well-known waterfall, as it pours over a cliff of gorgeous basalt columns, all hexagonal and quite architectural.

You used to be able to walk behind this waterfall, but rocks and plants were being disturbed too much, so one can only walk up to the falls and gaze longingly, and then you have to turn back. This is probably a picture of me turning back.

There was a totally magical and surprisingly windless grotto at the bottom of the park, and we stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and look at some of the tallest trees on the island, and some of the oldest spruces as well.

We then headed reluctantly (I think we would have stayed longer but for the rain starting to pour on us) back to the car and drove to Vík, where we'll spend the morning of our last day of the trip. As we were on our way, yes, we did see the ash-y remains of Eyjafjallajökull's eruption. The mountain/glacier is not really see-able from the highway, but we did pass it. I naïvely thought that much of the volcano's destruction to the landscape would still be evident, but I believe the ash acted as fertilizer for many farms, so things are greener than ever in that area. There are a few mounds of black soils where you can tell the road was washed away and rebuilt, but it looks as if life is back to normal for much of the countryside on the south coast.

After a brief stop-in at the Vík wool factory where Devon and Nicole bought darling lopapeysas, we headed to our 70's-flavored guesthouse for the night. One more day of travelling and we'll be back to Reykjavík by the next nightfall. So much to think back upon, to try to process how much I've already seen this week. But don't worry, there's one more day, and we won't end our tour without a grand slam-bang finale.

(Many thanks to Nicole Pietrantoni who provided photos for about half of today's sights. You'll recognize her photos as they are the good ones, sized correctly and with a real artist's eye...)

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ring Road Day 4: Námafjall and Dettifoss

This day is a little more manageable but includes two majorly impressive sights!

We drove from Húsavík back to the Mývatn area and stopped at what sounded awesome: Námafjall is an area of geothermal mud pits that sits on the increasingly widening fissure of the separating continental plates. This description did not disappoint. Some of the fissures in the ground go down 1500 meters and have 200-degree Celsius chemicals bubbling out of them. Acidity in the water of these pits creates the mud, as it slowly eats away at the outer layers of the pits, creating even more mud.

From here we drove to Dettifoss, the waterfall with the most volume flowing over it in all of Europe! It sneaks up on you after you drive for miles through through this barren wasteland-like field, and then walk for quite some time through lifeless piles of giant rocks, but then BAM.

You can get so close to nature here. In America, I think every natural sight worth seeing has a fence around it, and a concrete wall that you're forced to pay some toll/parking/tourist booth/security station for the privilege of seeing some Nature. But here, you're left to your own devices, like discovering some quicksand, clamboring across rocky precipices, or falling over a cliff to your demise ('cept that last one didn't happen).

We drove through more 'interior' of Iceland, which essentially is a desert- it's colder here, very little grows, though there are reindeer-crossing signs. We saw one reindeer on our way back home, too! There's a community as you drive toward Egilsstaðir with a whole lodge devoted to reindeer-inspired meetings.

We drove past the commerce town of Egilsstaðir and some weird American-looking homes (built pre-kreppa, perhaps, they look out of place and American Dream-y) and onto the delightful little town of Seyðisfjörður, nestled in the valley on the East Coast fjords. The hostel was in an old Hospital, but I thought this was kind of awesome! It still looked like a hospital inside- the floors were squeaky clean and I slid around on them, and the rooms and hallways were huge with giant windows.

Good night Seyðisfjörður, we'll see you briefly in the morning, and then we're off again.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Ring Road Day 3: Mývatn, to Húsavík

Brace yourselves, folks, this day is gonna be one of the most busy travels days we'll be having.

Stopping for a moment on Route 1 on the way to Mývatn, we took a break at Ljósavatn, a lake-filled area punctuated by one farm and one lone church in the wilderness. The church was built by an architect that I met at a party! He gave us excellent recommendations of sight-seeing places along our trip, including Ljósavatn. His church features a beautiful wall of windows behind the altar, so there is nothing to separate the congregation from nature. Quite beautiful.

Nearby was Goðafoss, a small but beautiful waterfall.

We arrived at Lake Mývatn and its surrounding countryside. I have been wanting to see Mývatn for several years; many of you might remember my orchestral thesis by the same name, which tried to imagine the sounds of birds, bugs, water, and volcanic eruptions in this area. I had only imagined what it would be like. I was delighted to be able to play my piece on my headphones while looking at the lake, and I think it was a good complement (and compliment) to the landscape if I do say so myself.

Mývatn is sort of a place like no other on Earth, where within the scope of just a mile or two there are landscapes ranging from New England-like trees (such beautiful and unexpected autumn colors!) and forested nature paths, to lava formations, hot springs, geothermal power plants, and separating tectonic plates. "Travel between North America and Europe in thirty seconds! Just don't fall into a mud pit and be boiled alive", the brochures should say.

We stopped next at Dimmuborgir, a lava field of unusual rock formations and home to the Yule Lads, Elf-like Troll dudes who (so the story goes) hide/live in the rocks until Christmas, when they appear one by one to parade around the country for the holidays. That's another story I'm sure I'll discuss at another time.

We drove right around the bend of Dimmuborgir and arrived at Bjarnarflag, a hotbed of geothermal vents and human-made attempts (sometimes successful, sometimes not) to capture the geothermal energy trapped beneath the ground by essentially plopping a power plant on top. We spend some time nerding around here, recording the steam sounds and photographing a million different Mars-like hills. Don't get too close, light-colored soil is a sign of something cooking underfoot and the ground could give way under you.

Bjarnarflag is also the site of a former algae plant which captured little particles for use in toothpaste, fertilizers, etc. But now, it's just a scary, otherworldly lake, dangerous, probably toxic, and totally jaw-dropping. There are several pipes of runoff water which shoot into the lake violently, half-boiling and half just making a scary ruckus.

I've never really been to a place before that felt physically like this-it really gave me a sense of real potential danger, I was frankly a little scared but also exhilarated. The ground rattles at some places with the force of steam coming out of the ground.

Even the puddles have a strange glow from minerals in the soil. This is the Earth at work! It's not humans that somehow f-ed up the ground here (well, except for that fake Blue Lagoon), it's Nature just doing its millenia-long thing. This hot steaming waterfall here, this sizzling pile of rocks there- it's happening, for realz, no DisneyHollywoodification about it.

On to something more relaxed: a safe version of the toxic lake we just visited. The Mývatn Nature Baths (Jarðböðin). Like it's big brother the Blue Lagoon near Keflavík Airport, this swimming pool was a delight after a windy day and a great place to swim in the mineral-rich lagoon. I naïvely expected the ground underfoot to be white, like the bluish-white waters. But it's black lava sands (silly me).

We drove to Húsavík to spend the night, which was a much shorter drive than expected, through barren fields and cracking tubes of lava that looked like giant black loaves of bread. We spent the night in an older couple's guest house, and the owner only spoke Icelandic with us. We were essentially sleeping in his children's old bedrooms, and we felt a little awkward using his kitchen while he and his wife watched TV (and might I add, sang along to the TV too, our karaoke-like hits of the night included 'Hava Nagila' and Rihanna's 'Please Don't Stop the Music').

But even with dealing with the town's overwhelming fish smell and disappointment that the Phallological Museum was closed, Húsavík was charming. And with art like this on the walls, how could you resist a cozy stay here? Cross-stitched Fishermen for Everyone.