Sunday, April 15, 2012

Of light and swimming pools

I have just returned from a few days in Akureyri, about 350 kilometers north of Reykjavik  (I flew there), and at about 18,000 people, Iceland’s second largest town.   And I think I have fallen in love—with the town.  It is just south of the Arctic Circle, but climate and currents mean its harbor is ice-free all year—although they assure me that the lakes do freeze over for excellent skating.  It is considered the best downhill and cross-country skiing in Iceland, just minutes from downtown.  And yet, it does not feel like a “ski town.”  It feels a solid community that is very aware of its heritage of being first settled before 900 AD, and which has managed to survive the cenuties and even thrive. 
Upon arrival--to snow showers and a frigid gale--I quickly found the local coffee shop, the building with the turrets in the photo, warm and cozy inside with huge windows, excellent soups, pastries and coffee.  And open until eleven at night.  I spent both evenings there and it was packed, a complete social scene.  The bookstore, very ample, is the store on the corner that starts with the E.

And I had dinner at the excellent local restaurant across the street:

Akureyri reminds me in a strange way of Port Townsend, somehow the feel.  It has a lower city along the harbor

And an upper city, separated from the lower city by a bluff of trees and gardens (small planted trees, we are in the polar north here…).

Each day, I went early to swim in the large outdoor pool.  I couldn’t take a photo of the pool unfortunately, but on the ponds in front, the ducks and swans congregated.

People say here that the swimming pool is to the Icelanders what the pub is to the English. Almost every town or village, regardless of how small, has a pool.  If the area has geothermal—which means that heated water is essentially unlimited and free—they have heated outdoor pools in which everyone swims all year.  Akureyri has just such an outdoor pool, but for the very cold winter days, there is an indoor entrance to the pool, you slip into the lukewarm water inside and can slide to the outer pool through a small door, meaning you never have to encounter the biting winter wind. 
Beside the large swimming pools are always several hot pools of varied temperatures.  This is where people congregate, chat, meet each other. For many people, this is their after-work ritual—just like the British pub—but the Icelanders, in this case, generally drink coffee not beer; as one Icelander told me, ”We tend to binge-drink on the weekends, but during the week, if someone drinks a beer, people begin to think he has a problem.”
Reykjavik has, of course, several pools.  I have begun to frequent the oldest one, an indoor pool built in the 1930s, all classic tile and long, paned windows along the pool.  It does, of course, have an outside hot pool, and the run-off water from the pool runs down the entrance steps so your feet are nice and warm as you rush, braving the elements in a wet suit, from the indoor pool to the outdoor hot one.
The house where I stay in Reykjavik is fairly near the water (as is most of Reykjavik actually) and walking distance to the “warm bathing beach.”  This area offers various options: it is an actual beach with sand (although I think the sand was brought in…. most of the shore is dark, rugged lava and this sand is yellow).  One cove is “normal” aka Arctic frigid, but some brave souls leap in there (which I did last time I was here, swimming around until hypothermia set in. Locals consciously train themselves, adding a minute or so in increments until they can survive a full half hour.).  A second cove has a piped warm spring bubbling directly into it.  This makes it almost as warm as Lake Washington, slightly better than the Puget Sound, but familiar in that the top two inches carry most of the warmth—I noticed that here, just as at home, people have learned to swim there very flat. 
Above the beach is a long, shallow concrete hot pool facing the fjord. Lounging in its waters, you almost feel as though you are on the beach itself.  Those who do not venture into the frigid cove smile in the hot pool as they watch the frozen frigid cove swimmers stumble to its warmth and sit comatose for a time until their bodies start functioning again. 
This bathing pool isn’t open yet, but this morning I wandered around the hill that lies between us and it, and between gusts of sculpture fumes (sadly largely caused by pollution from a geothermal plant outside town), I could smell the spring.

            But now, I sit at my window on my almost final evening of this visit to Iceland. My friend with whom I stay here in Reykjavik has just gone out to collect the early spring chives and dock from the garden.  These she will add to our store-bought spinach for dinner.  We are also having mackerel.  Mackerel is a relatively new fish here, brought by the global warming; some people see with it new fish harvests and riches, others see that it is overwhelming the herring and leaving the puffins with nothing to eat. Fishing, economics, and environment are central to most discussions here.
The long shadows of twilight are beginning, but the sun has not yet set, a blue sky, and it is after eight in the evening.  Winter has passed. This is when the days rush headlong to chase away the dark; they pass quickly the lesser and slower changes of night and day which we in the lesser latitudes know.  If day is to achieve its midnight sun by the end of May, it can no longer dally with mere evening.
 The birds have come, in the thousands, probably millions.  I have the window open so I can hear their cries and clamor in their exuberance to pair and mate. The vibrancy of the birds is something different here, an explosion of life after the ice and dark.  I think of the long journeys so many have taken to come here.  Icelanders call the Raven their unofficial national bird because he stays all winter, but the swans and migrating ducks mean spring, a symbol and reality of regeneration as they shout and flap about in what appears to be pure joy.  The daffodils and crocuses have also begun to bloom. And to think that when I arrived here less than five weeks ago, this ground was under snow and silent.

Ah, but now I hear and smell our dinner mackerel on the pan, so I must go.  When you hear from me next I will be in a very different spring, in Britain.

Monday, April 9, 2012

spring in Iceland

Each of the villages where I have been doing research has its own personality.  Grundafjordur (see photos in previous blog) is called the “new village” because it only came together shortly after 1900.  Previously, there had just been a small collection of houses along the bay, but the emergence of the boat motor in 1907 in Grundafjordur changed where people fished.  Before that, they had to row out to fish, so they would choose a bay where they could get out to decent fusing grounds in a short distance.  These were often rough harbors, and Iceland is full of stories of sea people foundering on the waves while trying to come ashore, so close to shore that people on land could see their faces.  With the motor, they could go out further (many still drowned, a major cause of death until fairly recently), but they no longer had to row.  The boats, open rowboats of about 20 feet, were modified to have a bit higher sides to accommodate the motors and the harbors where they went out changed.  Because of this, Grundafjordur consolidated and people moved their houses up the hillside, rebuilding them in pieces, so the older homes have a quality of looking as thought they were added onto one section after another.  Grundafjordur is called the “windy Village” by the other villages, and having spent several days there when it was literally impossible to walk straight because of the wind, I have some sympathy with this description.

Another of the villages is Olafsvik.  On the day I was going to do some interviews there, I had to hitchhike because there is no bus. 
Hitch hiking spot

So I stood alongside the chilly windy road hoping someone would eventually come.   This is a fairly populated area (comparatively….) even in winter so after about ten minutes a car came by and kindly picked me up.  The fellow, clearly a fisherman, did not speak any English, so we exchanged simple pleasantries about the weather and wind.  This road between the two villages was impassible until the early 1960s and one can see why.  Halfway between the villages is a mountain rising straight from the sea, its sides of very loose lava ash and scree, impossible for keeping a road secure.  Even today they have to continually repair the road as it is always threatening to go tumbling down the cliff.
            Olafsvik is just slightly larger than Grundafjordur, about 1000 people, and lies protected beneath the mountains.

Of the three villages, it has the most fishing, and is considered by everyone to have the most money.  The economic crash of Iceland in 2008 actually helped the fishing because their local currency, the krona, fell by half.  This meant that the fishermen got a lot more for their fish, which are sold overseas.  The problem for the villages is that the quota system here is one where people can buy and sell their right to catch fish.  So if a fisherman with quota sells it to a person or firm from another village, or even to a person in Reykjavik, then the village that has fishing no longer has a right to fish for anything.  This has caused huge problems here because the quota is owned by a fairly small number of people and most of the fishing is moving to just couple of places in the country, leaving everywhere else with nothing to do and no way to make a living. 
            The major quota-holders in Olafsvik however have not sold their quota, so the town has a thriving industry and seven working fish factories (three of them with female directors…..).  Being as this is what my research is about, I thought I had better wander down to the harbor after warming myself in the little bakery with a traditional cardamom donut and a coffee.
            I will digress here a moment to talk about Iceland’s coffee.  Seattleites may drink a lot of coffee, but the consumption is nothing compared to Icelanders.  Every time you come to a person’s house you are offered coffee, coffee is drunk morning, noon, afternoon and evening.  And people seem, as far as I can tell, to be able to sleep just fine (although they do tend to start their dances at midnight).  Every cafĂ© or bakery has an espresso machine—and the coffee is almost uniformly superb.  When I read stories about Icelanders in the impoverished not-so-distant past, near starving each spring, they still served each other coffee, or if they absolutely had nothing, and that means coffee almost as much as food, then they would grind up some cheap substitute, but if at all possible, the nonalcoholic drink was choice was coffee.  It is very much that what tea is to the English, coffee is to the Icelanders. 
            But back to the chilly Olafsvik harbor. 

After my wanderings, I met with an older fellow who is a real scholar of the local history.  He knows so much history with clearly a very exact memory for dates, places and names.  The life has changed so quickly here: their final independence from Denmark in about 1944, meant they owned their own fish, and rapidly transformed the average person’s life and the wealth of the nation.  I have met people here, who grew up before the 1940s, who lived in stone low huts with no electricity, reading by whale oil lamps at night; the roads were so bad, even until the mid-1960s, that villages such as Olafsvik were completely cut off for months of the year. 
Accompanied by the historian, I went to a restored fishing home from the 1930s outside Olafsvik. 

The main part of the house had an open fire pit for cooking and the upper part had a series of beds where people slept two or three to a bed.  Because the beds were so short, they had high pillows and slept half sitting up.

The next day, my friend who has been working with me on this research and I drove from Olafsvik to the bottom side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, taking the gravel mountain road over the center.  Fog enclosed us and snow crept closer and closer to the car.  She is a very good back road driver however, having grown up herself in such a village further north in the country, so I felt very safe.  We visited a farm and some small communities along the shore.

  This area, so benign in the summer and getting increasingly popular with tourists, seemed solitary, very remote, and beautifully desolate in this early spring.  The harbor was full of birds (which you can’t see in the photos), and, if you can imagine, hosts up to 40 fishing boats in the summer during the fishing season here.

Now I have returned to Reykjavik and today the sun has come out!! Such joy.  I think I will run outside, shout a bit, and see what small plants have emerged.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spring in Iceland

The drive down from Gunrdafjordur was very snowy; we couldn’t see much of anything, let alone the road.

But once in Reykjavik, after a few more days of snow, I awoke to a rainy, Seattle-dismal day.  The snow turned to slush, so I waded to the university through foot-deep water and horizontal rain.  Along the road, I met a couple from Louisiana; he had a conference so they had come for a little holiday.  They had just arrived, they were soaked, looked freezing, and their tourist-slick Reykjavik city map was already battered and torn to shreds from the wind and rain.    
“There are beautiful mountains at the horizon,” I said, pointing to the grey mist that obscured everything (somehow this reminded me of similar phrases I have used with visitors to Seattle).  The Louisiana pair looked at me in doubt (just like visitors to Seattle).  They asked me what there was to do and I suggested a hot cup of coffee. 
I know Iceland is promoting itself as the tourist destination of choice, but its marketability in March is dubious.  When I was in Grundafjordur last week, the local hotel had convinced a small group of English tourists to come for three days to see the whales and Northern Lights.  It was too cloudy for Northern Lights and while indeed there were orcas in the fjord, the driving snow hit your face like a scouring pad making the tiny distant fins somewhat hard to discern.  I never saw these tourists on the street so perhaps they intelligently stayed snug inside the hotel, drank beer, and played cards. 
I very much like the statue that adorns the front of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. It is of Saemundur Sigfusson the Learned, the Icelandic scholar and priest who lived from 1056 to 1133.  He is famous for his scholarship, but also well-known here for his ability to outwit the Devil.  He was studying in Paris and wanted to get home, so he made a bargain with the Devil to give the Devil his soul if the Devil could get him back to Iceland without Saemundur getting wet.  So the Devil turned himself into a giant seal and carried Saemunder on his back across the Atlantic.  But just before they reached Iceland, when the Devil was positive he had a new and exciting soul, Saemundur slammed him on the head with a book (a Prayer Book of course).  In the confusion, Saemundur slipped off the seal and swam to shore.  He made it home wet and saved his soul.  I like a university that presents the many ways a book can be valuable.
  Here is the statue in the soggy rain:

At the end of the week I went to a small fishing village near Reykjavik called Akranes.  About 14 years ago, they built an eight-kilometer tunnel under the fjord, making the entire trip only forty minutes.  Previously people took an hour-long ferry (which sounds very pleasant to me….). The tunnel is very deep; you just slip down, down, down to the bowels of the earth (where the Devil is perhaps still waiting for Saemundur?).  Then it is as if you are climbing a steep mountain pass (a very dark one) up, up, up, bursting thankfully into the light.
            It is strange about Akranes.  I think I am becoming the one-person advocate of this little town as a tourist site near Reykjavik.  No Icelanders I know who have not lived there, have ever even been there.  Tourists are never directed there.  There is almost nowhere to stay, except a hostel and a recently opened guesthouse (where I stayed).  A bit meager on cafes (only one that I could find at this time of year), but it is the closest town to Reykjavik that has beaches, it is on the end of a peninsula, backed by glorious mountains, has cliffs and in the spring, millions of birds. 
            It does have a dubious reputation; it is an industrial town in addition to being a fishing village. There is an ugly cement plant squatting right at the end of their city beach.  According to a person who lived there for years, the cement plant used to spew gases in the middle of the night when people were sleeping, and then, because this left a disturbing gaseous film on the cars, they also sent a midnight machine around to wash the cars before people awoke.  There is also an old aluminum smelting plant across the far fjord that used to send god knows what pollution their way.  Local people report, although unconfirmed (as these kinds of things so often are), a high cancer rate among women and children who lived nearby.
            But the cement plant, thankfully considering these reports, has now closed, so it stands a brooding bulk blocking the beach, but the guesthouse owner actually came to Akranes for the clean wind, and her health, she says, has improved.  The entrance to the town is pre-2008 Crash sprawl, now left incomplete. But along the waterfront are the old buildings, the okra-red fish factory, an old cinema converted to a theater, homes stubbornly standing for a century against sea gales, and (always important) a bakery of three generations where everything is made from scratch.

 In the 1990s, some of the local people organized gravel bike and walking trails around the seashore and through the grassland.
            I walked out toward the lighthouse that stands on a rock breakwater, jumping from rock to rock.

The wind then convinced me that this was a silly plan that could end me up flying off the breakwater into the turbulent and freezing sea, so I turned back and walked the shore that surrounds the town.

Everyone in Akranes (and elsewhere) was getting ready for confirmation parties, which are generally held at this time of year near Easter.  These are very important here.  People do their confirmation at about 14 and it is a huge party of food and lots of expense.  Then guests give gifts, totaling thousands of dollars.  Parents save for ages to pay for these gigs (or pay off debts afterwards), but it is also a kind of initiation. People don’t seem to go to church much, but this confirmation is the symbol of when a young person become an adult, a coming-of age, and I hear people now in their fifties talking about getting together for a reunion with their confirmation peers.  
The next morning before I left, I arose to see the bay in front of the little guesthouse covered with literally thousands of eider ducks.  I tried to get a photo of it, but even with the zoom, they come out as just a collection a dots on the water.  Then, on the way back to Grundafjordur where I am again now, as we drove across the bridge that spans the fjord just before the village, an eagle flew so close to the front windshield it almost hit it.  Then we saw five more, circling above our heads.  A signal of spring.  Indeed, just since last week, here in Grundafjordur, most of the snow is gone.  Of course, you can’t see the mountains or event the water for the rain and a furious howling gale makes it literally impossible to walk the street.  I hope no poor British tourists came to the hotel this week as it is now too warm for Northern Lights, they could be convinced they were staying on a flat plateau for all they could see of the mountains, and the fjord is way too rough to even think of looking for whales. But this is spring in Iceland.  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Iceland 3-14-2012

At the airport in Seattle, I went to the news-shop to buy some gum for the flight, and in front of me waiting to pay was an African woman in white robes, the upper garment embroidered with multicolored intricate designs. 
            “That is beautiful,” I said indicating the embroidery.
            “Thank you, “ she said in heavily accented English.  “It’s from my country Anta.”
            “In Africa,” she said, “Enoia.”
            I thought a moment.  “Ethiopia?” I said realizing how different the pronunciation I used for her country’s name was from what a native would say.
            She nodded and turned to the woman at the counter.  “You have fast gum, not sugar?” she said.
            The cashier, herself Asian speaking English with a very different heavily accented English, looked at her in non-comprehension.  “Gum?” she asked.  She pointed to the shelf below. 
            The Ethiopian woman looked at the large array of gum with dismay.  “Sugar?” she asked.
            I stepped forward and showed her the Orbit gum I was planning to buy. “This one has no sugar,” I said. “It is fine if you are fasting.”  The Ethiopian woman smiled, selected three packs and gave them to the cashier.  I then paid for my gum.
            “Have safe trip,” she said as we left the shop.
            “You too,” I said and we both laughed for no reason at all.  As I walked to my departure gate, I realized I was smiling.

I arrived at the Reykjavik airport to a slow blue-washed dawn, etched lava-black and snowy-white land, eggshell blue on the horizon deepening to indigo at the apex of the sky.
            On the second day, I took a bus to Grundafjordur, a village about three hours north of Reykjavik, for a few days.  On the bus were five people—and three got off at the first town where we stopped about an hour north.  As we drove further north, the snow deepened.  Then the sleet started, at one point buffeting the bus and slamming against the windshield with such fierceness that the road became invisible.  When this happened, the driver began to laugh.  He and the other passenger, who was sitting directly behind him, began to converse, to my untrained ear it seemed telling each other stories about Icelandic bad weather.  Whatever, it caused them to laugh for the entire storm. 
            At the juncture of the main road to the smaller road to Grundafjordur, we changed buses, standing alongside the road in a wide spot until a small van arrived.  Both the other fellow and I got aboard, leaving the driver alone with only a package to deliver on his journey north.  
            On first arrival Grundafjordur looked rather grim.

But the next morning, the sun came out, much of the snow melted and the birds began yelling, thinking for sure that spring was close.  A raven croaked on the post in front of the house where I am staying.  My friend Birna says that the raven is really the Icelandic bird, it stays here all winter, hangs around even when there isn’t much food and the weather is really terrible, doesn’t fly away when things get tough like the other birds do.  Every farm, she said, has its ravens, a couple claiming their territory. 
            Birna teaches at the local “college,” for students 16-20.  Icelandic young people go to school until they are twenty and they call this the “high school” or “college.”  Students come here from all over the area and a few members of farm families live here during the winter just so their children can go to school, returning to their farms on weekends and the summer.

The “high school”

            The school has a lunch program, serving hot lunches to the students and staff---and for a very reasonable 800 krona—to guests.  So, I have been going there for lunch—lamb meatballs the first day, fresh cod the second.  Frozen veggies of course but potatoes so good I wondered where they had got them—is it possible that they are from around here someplace?  
People are being very open and friendly to me here.  So, in the staff room after eating my lunch, one of the teachers asked me in Icelandic if I spoke Icelandic.  I said in Icelandic that no, I did not.  And then the whole room burst out laughing.  Ah well. Then the person said in Icelandic that Icelandic was easy, then the entire room--in Icelandic (which with my infant Icelandic I could get the drift) started talking about how easy Icelandic was, especially when you were drunk, that it just sort of spilled out of your mouth.  This moved on to everyone telling stories about people’s silly names, making puns or something out of them.  Soon the staff room was in an uproar, everyone laughing.  I wish staff rooms I have known in other places could be like that.
            After lunch I was supposed to be typing up my interviews, but it was so intensely beautiful that I took a long walk instead.   I wandered the main street

Then I thought, since I am writing about fishing, I had better amble down to the harbor.

And the few blocks to the edge of town.

Tomorrow I am heading off to a nearby town for some more interviews—catching a ride on the morning school bus.  We shall see how that goes….