Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dublin Christmas, Whole Lotta Craic

I spent about a week in Dublin, not doing any work, but instead catching up on ideas about art, capturing the christmas spirit, reading, walking, but mostly drinking a lot.

My friends' apartment is amazing, for one thing. I had my own room, with a balcony, and it was snowing like crazy! Mark and Rhona threw a party for me as well, and many of the Irish artists I met from Mattress Factory Museum were there. We partied down until the wee hours of the morning, and made mini-pizzas to munch on.

I took a tour of Temple Bar area, where a lot of the touristy Dublin things are but where Rhona's studio is located as well. It looks as fun as I imagined, and totally different from my own working space, i.e. one IKEA desk, tiny keyboard, and a box of jewelry supplies-- hers is an artist's shop brimming with potential, AND room to dance around. I was delighted to see our Coaster Choir project on beautiful laminated sheets, and my face conducting in a catalogue of her work!

I met up with Rhona's family for Christmas Day proper. They live in Sutton, which is near Howth, the peninsula-like formation on the coast of Dublin. Little did I know that a taxi would take me across the bay, where I saw snow-covered palm trees and sandy beaches covered in this frosty/foamy ice. Apparently in the 1970's, someone brought a bunch of palm trees to Ireland from some tropical region, planted them, and they've been hardy enough to stick around. It was so unusual to see palm trees when I was expecting, I don't know, ivy and pine trees, but then add to that a bunch of mansions and villa-like homes in pink, yellow, and blue, and this is like the Miami rendition of Dublin. Top it off with a heavy covering of snow and it was something unreal. The freshwater of snow and ice was mixing with the foam of saltwater ocean, and making these strange little puffy ice piles along the coast.

Further down the peninsula was Howth Head, a lookout point with lighthouse and some beautiful (if very slushy) trails. Howth Head is redundant really, seeing how the word 'Howth' comes from Old Norse (hövuð), meaning head. Same word in Icelandic, basically. So it's really 'Head Head'. I digress. The views are stunning.

Christmas was delightful and full of family. Fairly stressfree for me, and lots of food, and lots and lots of wine. Also, fancy tables! But unfussy guests, which is the perfect combination. Most of the rest of christmas was spent hovering around the children and watching their cute and sort of stylish Peppa Pig cartoons.

The city of Dublin was also beautiful, and I went out for many a pint. We passed by this building and I liked the blue LED lights with the old Georgian architecture.

Time in Dublin was wrapping up quickly. With Christmas craziness out of the way, I went to the National Gallery and saw some works that I've definitely seen in art history classes before. They had a gorgeous Caravaggio, which was apparently hidden in some storage area of a Jewish building for centuries, until a restorer unearthed it. I also got to briefly stop into St. Patrick's Church, which is so gosh dern old I can't quite comprehend it. My map said it was built in the late 1100's. You can definitely feel some energies inside of it- if not souls, God, spirits, whatever, then at least the memories of 500-year-old flags, fluttering in tatters from the rafters, and thrones with helmets and swords next to the altar.

This time, with planes landing on time, I had a real day in London and could be myself. I had a delightful lunch with Lucinda and saw her gallery of music photography. I went to a leather shop, and the largest HMV record store. However, their appallingly small selection of contemporary classical (in the wake of rows and rows of Bach and Mozart) might deserve a post all in itself. I'll give them that it was just days after the Christmas hordes ransack all the stores, but in general Not Pleasing. I'll just go back to buying my music directly from artists and know, the old-fashioned way.

Some graffiti I walked by in a tunnel; the blurring wasn't intentional, I was just walking and didn't stop to take the picture but I kind of like the motion of it. There were probably five or six graffiti artists working in the tunnel when I walked through, all doin' their thing without the police invading.

I also got to see the London Eye, and the Tate Modern, both of which had not been built when I was in London last in 1999. And that was even in high school, which almost doesn't count as real life. The most spectacular thing there was Ai Weiwei's massive installation of sunflower seeds. Millions upon millions of them were handcrafted--handpainted by Chinese artisans, and made of porcelain, poured out on the Tate floor. Visitors could originally walk on it, but concerns were raised about the toxicity of dust from the porcelain crunching, so now you can just walk up to the seeds and stare in awe.

I walked across the modern Millennium Bridge with the hordes of tourists, and felt happy to be going back to Iceland. Where I'm sort of a tourist, but at least I'm not surrounded by loud American teenagers all day. London is an amazing place where you can do about anything and acquire just about anything, but the pace and the crowds and the waiting on the underground is all just a bit too large-scale for me. I liked the scale of Dublin better, and the openness of all the friendly people there. And of course, the delicious Guinness.

Thus ends the quick tour of good times in Dublin, a day in London, and I'm back to Reykjavík, ready to work for a couple days. Oh wait, there's New Years. Maybe I should just keep celebrating.

Christmas Travel Saga

Posts have been scant lately as I took a week out of Iceland to go to Dublin, Ireland for the holidays! I'm thinking I'll separate the travel stories into one post, and then actual fun times into another post. So Here begins the Travel Saga. Ferðasaga, if you will.

First of all, I should have realized that traveling to a different country for the holidays would involve some kind of travel disaster somewhere along the line. The devil appeared in the form of an apocalyptic-like Heathrow airport with thousands of stranded passengers during one of the worst snowstorms that Britain and Ireland has ever had. Thankfully, I was not one of the many people who were forced to sleep outside of the airport, as in "the outdoors", in temporary white tents set up for stranded people. It felt awfully cattle-like. The airport literally had no space to house everyone. Lots of temporary pillows and sleeping mats everywhere. Angry parents yelling at staff members, while crying children look on in horror. Staff members under a lot of stress as it's not their fault but they have to bear the brunt of arguments as best they can. Some poor people from places like Singapore had their flights canceled three days in a row, and couldn't get a hotel, so they just have to wait in the airport every day, checking to see if their one flight to Singapore will be running. Pretty terrible. We humans are no match against the 5 tons of snow that fell on each of Heathrow's hundreds of plane stanchions, which all had to be dug out. And Buffalo, New York this is not: Heathrow is not as prepared as my hometown would be, where rescue teams would likely soon come barreling through in some giant tractor-snowplows with chains on them, and soon the pathways would be clear.

My flight to Dublin was postponed. Then delayed. Then it was canceled, as it was Dublin airport that had closed. I was luckily to get a standby flight the next morning at 5:30am, but it meant having to travel two hours by underground to a friend's flat, sleep for two hours, and then take two night buses for two hours to get back to the airport at 5am. Thank goodness L in London was kind enough to house me and feed me, I was kind of a mess and appreciated a hug. We looked for train tickets, to get to a ferry to Dublin, in case the plane would be canceled. All sold out. What about that random other train to the south of England, and then the train from Cork? Sold out. What about the other airports? Sold out. There was literally no way for me to get to Ireland from London unless this standby flight came through.

When I got to the airport, it hadn't even opened yet! There were queues outside of the airport, hundreds of people long. It was also a mess. There was a random guy with a tiny megaphone shouting to everyone things like 'Berlin! Anyone for Berlin #55? Step forward!! Don't push!' and then everyone going to Berlin would RUN into the airport like a Black Friday sale at Walmart.

I made it into the airport just in time for my flight...and them right as we were supposed to board, the flight to Dublin was postponed about an hour. But magically, through some stroke of Christmas brilliance, we landed in Dublin, just before Dublin airport closed yet again.

The sun was just rising on a snowy, brilliantly white Irish airport. The Paper Bag Theme from American Beauty was totally playing on the airplane speaker system. Everyone else on the plane was clapping with joy and the pilot said 'I bet a lot of you are happy to be here, happy christmas'. I lost it and cried a little bit o'joy. But my tears were not unwarranted. This was the scene as we exited the plane. Kind of surprised we could land at all.

Dublin was a snowy wonderland, and I even got to spend a fun day in London, which made all the frustration more worth it. London is also huge, and makes Reykjavík seem like a little po-dunk, one-horse town. (see the next post about all the actual things I did during the holiday, and not just travel stories.)

There are a couple funny tidbits too, in all of this. Much to my surprise, no airport security stopped me or asked questions about the sex toys that I had bought for Icelandic friends. You just can't get that stuff in Iceland. Nor did anyone stop me about the leather gear which I may or may not have bought for myself (merry christmas, ho ho ho to me). I was fully expecting to have a 'what's THIS' moment with the security people. Instead they stopped me about my Kindle. I forgot that it's got a little hard drive in it, a tiny computer.

Also in security-land, I had to open my bag at a random security check after picking up my luggage in Iceland. The security guard thought he saw some food in my bag, so asked to open it. But my bookbag was stuffed to the max with clothes, ready to burst. As I attempted unzipping the bag, I said 'I think this might explode!'

The guard looked at me so seriously and said, 'Let's hope not'.

Awkward Silence.

I tried to backstep. 'No, not like that! I meant I have so much stuff in here.' My figure of speech was lost in translation, apparently. The security guy found what he was looking for- a box of Irish tea that I was given for Christmas. Nothing to worry about.

I left the airport and was on my way back to Reykjavík for a long sleep and return to the quieter beauty of my Icelandic home.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Iceland National Symphony

Let me just give a little kudos to the Sinfóníuhjlómsveit Íslands for a second, or the Iceland National Symphony. This is the little orchestra that does giant things. Iceland doesn't have a Philharmonic, so the options for playing orchestral music are limited to this one group, but when looking at their concert season, you wouldn't guess that these were all the same group.

SÍ is also in a unique place that they allot several slots for performances each year to local composers. There used to be a rule about playing a certain percentage of national works each year, though this may have relaxed a bit. It might seem strange to have this constraint in programming, but

Much due to the constructive and forward-thinking director of programming Árni Heimir Ingolfsson, and choosing a variety of conductors throughout the year, the symphony has several programming categories, from 'classics' to 'kids' to 'contemporary', usually varied from week to week. This fall I heard 'Porgy and Bess', Stravinsky's Violin Concerto, and Ravel's 'Tombeau de Couperin'. This spring I'm looking forward to a hugely diverse program including Pendereski's 'Threnody', Steve Reich's 'Drumming', Ligeti 'Atmospheres' and several concerts featuring mostly Icelandic composers. Having a tradition of performing local composers also seems to keep some fresh music mixed in with Classical and Romantic-era works. And for me on the Fulbright, it is a vital part of my listening to the 'sonic landscape' of the country. (Fancy, eh? Sonic landscape? I might have to use that one again.)

When playing several live (and videotaped) concerts with the chamber pop band Hjaltalín, the orchestra put down their instruments at one point to clap several rhythms in one piece. This sounds like no big deal, right? Try getting another major-city orchestra to even do something like a single hand-clap, or a foot-stomp. Getting the orchestra to whisper, shout, speak text an extended technique? NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE. I wouldn't be surprised to read that most orchestras in the US have written in their union contracts that a violinist must only play his violin and may only play it one way, and may be under no obligation to do things like lower himself to the point of a silly rhythmic clap. Col legno battuto, well, you're pushing it, mister.

My point is that SÍ doesn't seem to conform to anyone's conceptions of what they can and cannot do as a group. Thank goodness! Their sound really benefits from it. Here is an orchestra that is personal, a bit experimental, and yet also delivers solid interpretations of classics for my hungry ears.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Winter Observations in Iceland

Here are a few random things I have observed about Iceland in the winter time.

I am surprisingly not as tired as I thought I would be. In fact, I am weirdly not at all tired when I should be, because it is so dark so much of the time that it messes a bit with your internal clock. I am a bit restless in bed, and then sleep in late, a vicious cycle. What with the sunrise at nearly 11:30am, it's a surreal experience to wake up at 9am and it is still dark for a couple hours, then you have lunch, and it gets dark soon after.

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are awesome and make for much holiday amusement and a delightful change from a fatty Santa. There are 13 Santas in Iceland, and each one is traditionally a trouble-maker, though now many of them have adopted Western Ways and give children small gifts for being good instead of doing sneaky things like plugging up the chimney, or eating all the sausages, or gobbling up the skyr. Jólasveinarnir also come out of hiding one per day, 13 days before Christmas. Their hideout is the mysterious Dimmuborgir, which I visited in late September.

I did not know about the existence of the Christmas Cat, or Jólakotturinn, nor Grýla! They are also holiday traditions here- the Christmas cat will steal children away unless at least one knitted good is given to a child for the holidays. You don't want to mess with that cat. Likewise Grýla, who will also steal children, is a scary-ass hag who is fabled to have long tails coming out of her backside, and the tails have bags strapped to them in which she hides 100 children per bag. Frightening. Nothing you'd ever see in America, even in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

I recently heard that about 90% of Iceland's published books come out during the holidays. The people here are well-read, or so it appears; at least they buy a lot of poetry and give it to others, who knows if it sits on the nightstand unread. There are even displays of new books that pop up at the grocery stores- I think in the States we would more likely see piles of cheap toys and DVDs. Iceland has plenty of those too but the books seem a little more respectable.

This Christmas I hardly did anything for gifts, but the things I did do I made almost completely myself. I bought one item for my parents and two souvenirs for relatives at local shops, but everything else was hand-crafted. It cost about as much to ship home the gifts as it did to buy all of them, but I think my family will appreciate them.

Also, where are the gays. It's been a few months in Iceland and I have yet to really meet any gay men my age. I've met teenagers, and middle-aged men. Are the 28-year-olds hibernating for the winter? Gone abroad? Some I know are already married, seeing how marriage often happens at younger ages here, and you can get gay married and it is no big thang (our prime minister is lesbian). But I go out on weekends to a club and everyone looks all stylish, I can't pick out the gays from straights, the society is so integrated. Eurochic style is a godsend, and a curse.

Finally, Iceland in winter is a place that one can go out wearing a custom-designed cape made from a sleeping bag (the designer Andrea Sisson made me a long-lusted-after cape, it's very warm and even has snaps and beautiful sewn folds) and in Reykjavík, no one bats an eyelash. It's like, oh, I have one of those too, no big whoop. 'Cept mine has a sleeve.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Kangaroo Sousaphone

A friend asked me to draw a kangaroo playing a sousaphone, just for grins. I didn't have the internet at the time so I drew everything from memory...or sort of. An actual kangaroo has a tail in the correct position, and an actual sousaphone doesn't look like it was made by Dr. Seuss. But my version is still very important.

Darkest Days in Reykjavík

We are nearing the darkest days of the year in Reykjavík; there will be two more weeks of increasing darkness until the Winter Equinox. Then slowly, the reversal begins, back to brighter days, and the frenetic activity of summer.

When I first moved here in September, things outside looked pretty much like they did back in New York State. It was bright and cheery when I woke up at 9am, and then dark around 9pm, pretty much like autumn. This picture was around the beginning of October.

Come November, I started to say, wow, this sun is quite low in the sky, and everything is golden-hued from sideways lighting. You can absolutely feel the shortening light, which at its peak, decreases by about 6 minutes every day.

Now in December, there is less light lost per day, but it's just basically grey out a lot. If it's cloudy, then it's even dimmer. When it's sunny I like to run out and stare at the briefly-appearing ball of light, just to say I saw it that day. The sun doesn't climb high enough in the sky to really melt even the frost on the sidewalks, so if the temperature stays below freezing, the sidewalks could stay slippery for a whole week.

To some, it sounds depressing, which it could be, especially for people working- they go to work when it's dark, sit in an office for most of the day, and leave when it's dark- one might never see the sun all week unless to go out for a lunch break. But because of my schedule here (or lack thereof), I can go out for a walk, do some exercises, go to the pool; having this kind of change in daylight is really quite magical. Time really does move differently this time of year; people are sleepier, they have more parties at home, they might be a little quieter.

Today the sun officially rises at 11:01am and sets at 3:37pm.
This is a shot of my bedroom this morning at 10:45 in the morning! It be dark.

And this is a shot of my bedroom at full daylight, around 1 in the afternoon.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for my early afternoon nap. Yawn..

Monday, December 06, 2010

Choir Concert

I survived singing in my first choir concert in Iceland, congrats to me. The choir is not a professional one, which is new to me, but everyone loves being in the choir so the atmosphere is quite festive (and certainly not competitive, like some divas like to make it so in the States). It's more like social club, with a lot of singing in between coffee breaks. I'm not a very loud singer, but it is nice to feel like I can help out the bass section with the music, as it's usually very sight-readable for me. Not to toot my own horn or anything but music is sort of, like, you know, mon field d'expertise. The giant challenge for me is that all the choir rehearsals are in Icelandic, which is great for my retention of the language, and the choir director is very clear in his direction, so I almost always know what's happening either musically or through his clear Icelandic speaking. Most of the other choir members are also very patient with me when I try to chat with them in their language, which makes me feel less self-conscious.

This concert featured Dvorak's Mass in D major (with organ), a couple different 'O Come O Come Emmanuel's, and a sneak-attack 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' as an encore. This piece and one of the 'O Come' works were in Icelandic; what an interesting experience to sing a song you know quite well in a translation that only makes half-sense. Thankfully Icelandic is very phonetic. There aren't any crazy exceptions to speaking rules like in English. (How stupid that we have words like 'through' and 'trough' and 'dough' which all have similarly-spelled endings but sound totally different. Dis iz DUM.) In Icelandic there are the ways that letters are put together and the rules of how you say them, and thankfully that's really without exception.

The choir sounded better than I expected. Things shaped up a lot in the 24 hours prior to the concert, i.e. 'panic time'. There were a couple moments of lock-in that I thought were quite resonant. But still, there were parts that I wish could have been in tune, entrances that didn't make it. There was one part I thought would be a total train wreck but luckily we just started that particular movement over again just two seconds after it began. The director was scolding people for not looking up from their music and said something interesting, that 'the people looking at their music the most, they read the notes the least'. Something which I never had thought about before-- if you are in a choir and don't read music very well, it would probably benefit you more to just listen to the people around you and basically memorizing the music than be chained to your part that only makes half-sense.

After the concert, there was much rejoicing. There was a lovely round of toasts at a dinner/drinks party, and everyone got tipsy and huggy and thankful and guitars appeared and songs spontaneously began, and I think that was one of the loveliest times I've seen here in Iceland, everyone congratulating each other on their hard work, and lots of glass-clinking. (Skál!)

The choir director also asked me if I might fill in for a random 1st-bass in a small all-male choir who will perform a couple songs at an Advent concert. What a dramatic change from SATB! I've never been surrounded by so many booming resonant voices before in TTBBBB. All the guys knew their music well by now, so it was me trying to keep up with sight-reading hand-written Icelandic lyrics to Christmas carols and barbershop arrangements of Jingle Bells. It was also really funny/great to sing songs in English with non-English speakers; I would generalize that most Icelanders over 30 speak English with British accent, but most younger people speak with an American accent (blame the cast of 'Friends' and American TV for this).

I'm enjoying all the Christmas-fest that's been happening around here, including a bunch of choir concerts, parties, decorating, and twinkly lights everywhere. With the sun so low in the sky during the day and limited day light, this holiday time is nice way to feel warm and cozy and forget about the winter blues. For now...we'll see how I feel in still-gloomy March.

In only two weeks I take a flight to Dublin for Christmas to spend time with some fantastic artist friends. I'm looking forward to even more new places to see. Here's a toast to a bit more Vitamin D in my daylight! Skál.

(photo: Kór Neskirkju on Facebook, from April, a few months before I joined.)