Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Northern Iceland: Húsavík, Akureyri, and Far North

As a last hurrah, I traveled to the north of Iceland with a visiting friend from Italy who is currently living in France. And he speaks four languages. Intimidating! But luckily I'm the one who knows a little Icelandic, and can find my way around here well. We took a long drive and racked up about 2000 kilometers, saw a lot of places I had not seen before, and of the places I had seen, I'd either visited last in September about 10 months prior, or over the winter when everything was snow-covered and usually closed for tourists. So this was a lot of new experiences!

We visited Akureyri and I finally got a nice shot of the mural there (click for a larger view). It's a lovely town and I wouldn't mind spending a decent amount of time there! Sadly we only stayed for dinner, a swim, and then a short walk.

On the walk we noticed that some kids had somehow gotten themselves onto this jankety wooden raft, and had basically floated into the middle of the fjörd. Whether is was on purpose or just random I don't know, they seemed to be kind of obnoxiously goofy and nonchalant about the whole thing. But then they went through a lot of effort to paddle themselves back with some plywood paddles, and when they approached the shore, angry parents/onlookers and the police were waiting. Akureyri drama!

We drove across the fjörd in the morning and by some stroke of amazing luck, the museum I have wanted to go to for ages was actually open. Safnasafnid, or the Museum of Museums!

It houses a collection of Naive and Folk art from Iceland, a small permanent collection, research offices, a tiny café, and rotating exhibits, all in one beautiful open-plan house. The museum's mission is not so much focused on one field but to promote the creation of connections and thought between disparate fields and interests, perhaps why I love it so much. My favorites were the cabinets of curiosity- named after Renaissance-era collections of unexplained objects for perusal, the cabinets house a well-placed collection of really really random things. This particular cabinet photographed housed collections of dolls from all over the world.

Driving further west, we visited a couple places near Myvatn that I had not been to before, including sites near Krafla geothermal fields. There is a beautiful implosive crater called Stóra-Viti and several steaming lava fields and mud pits, which were bathed in beautiful weather. Strangely Stóra-Viti still had snow in it, even in the middle of July! But is has been unseasonably cold in Iceland this year (even for Iceland).

Heading then up north we stopped for the night in Húsavík and our guesthouse owners were kind enough to tell us about a free hot pot up on top of a beautiful flowery field, with a great view. I soaked it all in.

Almost too tired, but not willing to give up, we then managed to drive to the very farthest northern point of Iceland, Hraunhafnartangi. The weather was so gorgeous that it would have been a shame not to go, being so close. And if I couldn't make it to Grímsey, which crosses the arctic circle, then I am happy to be so close at this point! It is a lonely and desolate point for sure, with the midnight sun shining on a small lighthouse at the edge of the world. Nothing between here and the north pole!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Fulbrighty Thoughts about Iceland

The Fulbright requests an end-of-term grant report online, which has many question and answer fields. I thought I'd share with you some working versions of my responses.

What was your project? My original proposal for the Fulbright was to create a 'multi-media installation combining live performances and found sounds gathered throughout Iceland, exploring the connections between Iceland's people and their landscape. This was a little high-falootin', and the first section about the multi-media part ended up being nearly impossible due to funding and resources. The second section was easier, as it just involved watching a lot of people and how they live in a city or in the country, and the things that people do on a day-to-day basis. Multi-media installations aside, I was still able to write and perform new works live, as well as record music which will be released shortly as a full-length album of works from Iceland. My projects also included choral works, and I had two of them performed. One piece was professionally recorded.

What did the Fulbright provide for me in general? The Fulbright afforded me the time to meet and get to know many artists and musicians, as well as the time to travel, write, read, collect materials and recordings, and experience what being a full-time artist is like. I was able to work more closely with the ProTools recording software. I discovered that Sibelius software isn't all that much better than Finale. I took a lot of pictures, made some jewelry, made some collages. I learned a lot of a new language! I interviewed many composers, I attended concerts, and participated in events. And first and foremost it was time to be able to absorb another culture and get to know its inner workings.

What kinds of public speaking did I do? I gave a series of short concerts at the National Gallery of Iceland, which allowed me to interact with visitors and guests to the gallery. I also spoke to a young girls' choir, and to my own choir of local amateur singers. I was invited to perform in an 'artist's salon' evening and met many people in the performance-art field, which was very enlightening and they were very receptive to my work. I also wrote a review article for the English-language newspaper Grapevine, about the classical music festival 'Dark Music Days'.

What about affiliations?
Unfortunately the Academy of the Arts in Iceland provided me with little assistance other than a key to access practice rooms. My requests to do a guest lecture there went unreplied, and requests to borrow equipment which is available to students was denied. This being said, other orgz (I didn't say orgz of course in the official report) were more helpful. I was able to take away many Icelandic scores from the Music Information Center at a super awesome 'composer discount'. The Music Museum of Iceland was a dark horse; they offered me lots of creative resources, gave me a long personal tour, and they even interviewed me! In the future I'd have them be my affiliate. If only I'd had discovered them months earlier in my grant!

How does one get the best access to research in Iceland?
Much information here is held in the brains of only several individuals and you have to get to know these heads of 'power'. Most work and communication is done on a personal and mouth-to-mouth basis; email is rarely used and a phone call is often essential to remind people about outstanding requests.

How did I adjust to a new culture? What were difficulties?
One of the best ways I adjusted to Icelandic culture was to join a choir shortly after moving here. It helped to have a handful of other American colleagues around to share these comments with as well. Being forced to interact in a choir also helped me adjust to a different speed of working, the long days or long nights, and the lack of communication from many professionals in my field that I had hoped would be more helpful. Most of my problems arose due to my lack of patience with the slow pace of response of Icelanders in general, music colleagues, or businesses. However, I personally grew (and learned to relax) with every trip outside of Reykjavík, seeing new things and recording new sounds. Every day there seemed to be at least one thing that I was impressed and very moved by, not ever having seen anything like this waterfall, art object, sunset, style of music, land formation, etc. before. And then without doing anything, friends popped up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways, surprising me with generosity.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Things I Will Miss About Iceland

Some random things I will miss about Iceland:

A national database of everyone's health records that can be called up in any physician's office! How nice would it be to go to any doctor's office in the US and they know what you're allergic to, what your immunizations are, and when you last visited. But nooo, I currently have to have immunization records sent from three different states to a new physician, so I can be cleared to attend graduate school. This is a huge waste of time and money.

Also related: universal health care. A no-brainer, it's just better.

Appreciation for artists and composers as a legitimate career unto itself. Nuf said.

Creamy delicious milk and dairy products, including the famous skyr. And I don't even really like yogurt much, but I love skyr.

The drunk pig logo of Bónus grocery stores. Drunk with savings, amiright?

Giant suspiciously-large apples that provide me with about three servings of fruit. I have big hands and this is a full handful for me.

Spontaneous choir singalongs on the street, even in four-part harmony.

Nationwide legalized gay marriage. The gay pride parade in Iceland, and Pride Week, is the biggest-attended festival in all of Iceland, all year. Something to be very proud about indeed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Books read/pool addenda

Books read while in Iceland: 28
(Normally my book/novel number is about 13 per year, but you can see I had some extra time to be a bookworm.)
Some highlights:
Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Secret Historian: A biography of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring
Begin Again: A biography of John Cage, by Kenneth Silverman

Perhaps there were a trend of biographies this year, as I also read three of the '20th Century Composer' profile books by Phaidon press. I'd never really gotten into biographies before, maybe it was time to delve in!

I perused a lot of images from photo books as well, which don't quite make the cut of 'books read', but I would also say that the 'Altars' book of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the fabulous new book of artwork 'Undir Ros' by Icelandic artist Katrín Gunnlaugsdóttir were on the top of the list.

I'd also like to amend my swimming pool list, as I went for a short trip to the north of Iceland as a last hurrah, and found 1 amazing hot pot on top of a hill, and also swam in the public pool at Borgarnes, both of which I highly recommend!

Things I Won't Miss about Iceland

The last bus that runs anywhere stops running around 11pm, sometimes even 10pm. What happens when you have a dinner party? Or you are somewhere you can't walk? Or if you don't live downtown? You walk 20 kilometers home? You pay an expensive cab? Huge inconveniences, and perpetuating the necessity of car culture. Also, buses not starting to run until after 9am on a Sunday, sometimes even 10am. Sometimes I gots places to go. The mass transit generally goes to places that are convenient, just not late enough.

Breaking bottles/smashing glasses/throwing your trash on the street in a drunken stupor. The late-night dance parties are awesome, but for now, I am done with the frivolous waste of resources. Also related: while you have all the water you could ever need, the same rule doesn't apply to recyclables. I love recycling, and hate to have to throw glass/aluminum/plastics in the trash! Even in Pittsburgh I could leave bottles out on the street once a week for pick-up, and they wouldn't have to be walked several kilometers to the recycling center (which of course, the bus doesn't run to).

Thetta reddast. Sometimes it won't work out. And sometimes you gotta do something about it right here and now.

Nearly 100% white people. Somewhat related: I miss diversity in my religious freedoms too.

Not being able to find dried cranberries, and sometimes black beans! Random, right? Luckily there are all the honey nut cheerios I could ever want. Nom nom nom.

A roomful of people not speaking your native language, and you're the only one who's not getting the joke. This improved greatly over time, but would still take me a long time to become fully fluent. I am much more conscious now about making sure everyone in the room feels comfortable (and has a language in common with others, not being left out).

Buying most items for far greater than their actual cost. $28 pop CD's? Gas at 10$ a gallon?

Bottom line: Living in a place is give and take. I've learned to forget about the problems that bother me when I know I'm in it for the long haul. I realize what I love about a place, what I don't like, what I won't tolerate, what I can't live without, and how to work with what I've got to make my little personal bubble the best it can be! Next post: the flip side, things I will totally miss about Iceland, and what will eventually bring me back again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thorsmork, or Þórsmörk

With the help of a small employee discount from a friend's mom, I was able to travel to Thorsmork for the day and see a part of the country that's really only accessible by giant 4x4 or super jeep. It was a beautiful day for travelling...well, it was rainy on the coast but the Thorsmork area tends to have much nicer and calmer weather as it's sheltered by mountains and glaciers. There was a breeze, however, that kicked up ash clouds from nearby volcanos, familiarly called Ejafjallajökull and Grímsvötn. I'm glad the bus didn't stop here as it looked like a sandstorm on another planet. This area was basically inaccessible for about a year, with all of the ash mounds blowing around.

We took this enormous monstrosity into the park, which is about 1.5-2 hours from Reykjavík. We didn't really need such big tires...until we did. The last 30km or so were so bumpy. And the many strong and deep rivers we crossed would never be cross-able without it.

There used to be a beautiful glacial lagoon here, but now only the tongue of the glacier remains and a lot of wet quicksand-like soil. This guys, is Eyjafjallajökull! The base of the volcano that caused so much trouble last year. It looks so quiet now, mostly just dirty.

The actual park part of Thorsmork is divided into three parts, a summer-housey bit, a camping and hiking bit, and a gorge. We did two outta three, and checked out the camping bit, hiking up through a forest (one of the few very lush places in Iceland) and out to some cool-looking rocky (of course volcanic) outcroppings.

Then I wanted to check out a fairly strong river. After chatting with a nice musician from Denmark named Thorbjorn, we walked together a bit and discovered that the park people had wheeled over a cool bridge for hikers to cross the river. Brilliant!

We hiked into this beautiful green gorge called Stakkholtsgjá. The bus driver/tour guide even told us about some edible plants along the way. He was a cool guy- I asked him if he ever got tired of leading tours after working on them for over 3 years, and he said 'only sometimes'. But I think I distracted his boredom by my surprising him with speaking Icelandic, we chatted about music a little bit.

The gorge gets narrower and narrower until you finally come to its source, a waterfall hidden up underneath a rocky outcropping. You can scramble into it and see the waterfall, and it was a little tricky but totally worth it!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

One week left in Iceland

This almost-year has gone by quickly. Or so it seems. I have just over a week left in Iceland and still there's a list of things I wanted to do and see, but many of those things will have to wait until next time. Small attempts at staying longer in Iceland didn't pan out this time, but there are now good connections made that make me think I'll be back again!

I wanted to write a few posts that summed up some of the things I've noticed over the past year, but that's sort of hard to do. Describing what it's like to live in a place for a longer period of time is difficult to encapsulate in a few sentences. And that's a good thing- I prefer thinking of a place in all its complexity, rather than getting the sugary tourist version of only a few days of all the best parts.

One of the biggest things that the Fulbright Fellowship stresses is about making connections between the US and other nations. I think one of the things I contemplate most is the comparisons and contrasts between the United States and Iceland, and what I admire (and then also perhaps find disturbing) about both nations. I came to Iceland thinking it would basically be everything good about life and culture (music! nature! universal health care!), but there are things that I end up appreciating about America that I never thought I would (fresh produce! cheap stuff! ethnic diversity!). Perhaps more on that later.

I'm particularly proud of my accomplishments in learning Icelandic and trying to use it frequently. I think I gained a respect for learning languages and now hope to brush up on those years of French that have gotten dusty! And I hope to somehow use Icelandic in the States...maybe it will work into some doctoral dissertation, or count as my second-language requirement for doctoral studies. I should be so lucky.

More soon.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Swimmin' Holes

Number of city pools and their hot pots I've swum in throughout Iceland: 10
Additional bathing areas: 2 lagoons, one geothermal river, one geothermal beach, one oceanside hot footbath, and one hotspring cave.
Times I've swam in the ocean here: 3

Degrees of said ocean: 7, 11, and 12 (Celsius, though even in Fahrenheit it's still darn cold). And then right after that I jump in the hot water by the beach, otherwise I don't think I could do it.
I hope to add a natural countryside hot pot in here before too long! As long as it's not too green and slimy, that just kinda freaks me out.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A Man Ate a Shopping Cart

A conversation between visiting friends.
"Did you know that a man once ate a shopping cart?"
"No way. I don't believe that. Let's look it up."
"Yup, well according to the internets, his name was Michel Lotito and he apparently ate 15 shopping carts."
"That's embarrassing."

I guess eating 15 shopping carts in your life is hard to bring up in casual conversation with your parents.