Crowded Little Rock

A rock theme seems to be emerging here. I guess geology is a little hard to ignore here in Iceland. I’m trying to break up the tourist resume posts with a little bit of reflection, and today I’m thinking about crowded little rocks. I’ve always had a fascination with isolated island nations, and have over the years been infatuated with Japan (before it was popular), Sri Lanka and now, Iceland. These places have developed almost in a vacuum, and external influences often become disproportionately significant and transformed beyond recognition in a way that is fascinating to me.

I think it’s a little easier to pinpoint inherent cultural traits in these places. Take for example, Japan and Iceland, which are remarkably similar (I see you raising your eyebrows – bear with me a minute). Both are small countries with challenging climates and unique geography that limits development to the coasts. As a result both countries feature dense urban developments separated by vast areas of sparsely inhabitated countryside. Both were further isolated for centuries (roughly the same ones) by artificial restrictions on trade and travel. Both nations approach ethnic purity, and speak languages that are useless in the outside world. Both have evolved from a medieval warrior society that nevertheless prized literature.

But could there be two more different cultures? Where Japan developed rigid and restrictive codes of behavior and elaborate class systems, Iceland consciously worked to develop an egalitarian democracy. In the interest of smooth social relations, Japanese prize politeness over authenticity with all but their closest friends. Icelanders will happily criticize their friends to strangers – after all, their opinions are already known and are taken with a grain of salt, being, after all, only opinions.

Crowd at Kinkakuji Temple

Appearances are so important in Japan. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” they say, and whatever rough edges or eccentricities you have, you keep them to yourselves and maintain a smooth surface to make things easier for everyone else. After all, the Japanese are all stuck on a crowded rock in the middle of the ocean, and they have to get along with each other to get along at all.

In Iceland, high school teachers wear Decapitated T-shirts to school and airline managers grow their hair long – or not. The metalhead manager may supervise a clean-cut folk musician, or report to a novelist. Everyone is just who they are. Everyone has rough edges, so everyone gets used to texture. After all, the Icelanders are all stuck on a crowded rock in the middle of the ocean, and they have to get along with each other to get along at all.

Crowd at KEX Hostel


Keeping the Sabbath in Iceland

You didn’t really think this post would be about church did you? My Sunday was all about music.

After spending Saturday evening in journalistic research and preparation, I took three melatonin, put in earplugs and went to bed at ten. And praise God, I slept until 9 am. I joined my new roommate, Amandine the French fashion-finance whiz, for breakfast, where we talked about food standards, immigration, and social programs.

At noon I headed back to KEX for an interview with the Icelandic folk-pop band 1860. Keep an eye out on Three Imaginary Girls for that one, but I can say now there is no way I will manage a simple transcription. Although drummer Andre was quiet, Hlynur and Ottar were both “talky as a jaybird with something smart to say on every subject.” Actually, I got the time wrong and almost gave up before they arrived, and then my recorder froze up somewhere mid-interview without my noticing. But I had such fun talking with them. Like so many people here, they are so well-read, and watch documentaries for fun, and pull the most unexpected references (usually with proper citations of sources) into conversations that it was really delightful. Even after I put up the notebook, we hung out and talked about Halloween and Airwaves strategies until it was almost time for my other interview.

I rearranged my papers and headed to the bar Boston on Laugavegur a little early to meet with Kontinuum. I hoped to figure out what happened to my recorder while I waited, but Boston was closed on Sunday, so I went to the Sputnik clothing shop next door instead. Birgir Thorgeirsson (Biggi- and yes, he has heard “like Biggie Smalls”) showed up right on time and we walked down to a nearby coffee shop. On the way, he said, “I looked at your website. You have an Iceland fetish.” Biggi fixed my recorder while we talked and I took notes. Once again, the official interview ended and we continued talking for a good long time. Topics ranged from music to the Icelandic crash to the U.S. elections. All of these Icelandic musicians have been so generous with their time. They give thoughtful answers to my questions, and don’t rush off as soon as I close my notebook. In fact, sometimes we’ve hung out longer than we interviewed. I really hope that it’s not simply because they are too polite to be the first to leave. I have really enjoyed these conversations.

By the time I got back to KEX, the yoga class I had planned to try was already started, and I realized I had once again forgotten lunch. The pot of coffee I drank had me really jittery, so I grabbed my laptop and ordered a beet salad at the KEX bar. It’s early, but I have interviews to transcribe and blogs to update. Plus, KEX is a really cool hangout (and no, they don’t know I’m saying all these nice things and they are not giving me discounts) so I’m just going to sit here on the couch under the framed shopping lists with my Icelandic beer (with Cascade hops!) and listen to Killing Joke on my headphones until my battery runs out.

Iceland is awesome.

Rocked by Disappointment

My family has a tradition of being disappointed by rocks.

Years ago, my mom watched a documentary on Ireland. In it, a little girl in a white dress walked in the sunshine to a human-sized boulder in the center of a lawn, where she leaned in and kissed the “Blarney Stone.”

When we traveled to Ireland together, my mom, already quite a talker, was determined to kiss the Blarney Stone. I was a cynical college student in those days, and thought it sounded like a lame tourist trap. But travel partners should indulge each others’ whims, so to Blarney Castle we went.

It was late June, so the weather was cold and threatening. We stood in line on a stone staircase to the top of the “castle” for over an hour. At the top of the stairs, the line wound around the parapet before we finally got to the stone, which served as the top of a scupper for draining rain from the roof. To kiss it, you had to sit with your back to the stone, hold onto a metal rail, and lean back into the arms of an attendant who squatted at the side of the scupper.

Blarney Stone picture from Wikipedia

Draped upside down in the gutter, the “Blarney Stone” loomed above your head in all its damp, algae and lipstick covered glory for about a second before the attendant pulled you up. A second attendant snapped a photo, which you could keep as a souvenir (for a fee) as you sat up.

Needless to say, my mom was disappointed.

Recently, I began reading the Sagas of Icelanders. So many events in the sagas take place at the Allthing (there should be a ‘thorn’ character in there, but I don’t have one on my symbol menu). The Allthing was/is the Icelandic parliament, and represents the longest running true democracy in history. For most of Iceland’s history, the Allthing was held on the plain at Thingvellir, a natural wonder of a valley where the European and North American continental plates meet. Before the laws were written down, there was an important official called the Law Speaker, who had to memorize the entire body of Iceland law, and recite one third of it each summer at the Law Rock during the Allthing. He performed this task at the Law Rock. Important decisions, like the decision to adopt Christianity as the national religion, were also announced at the Law Rock.

Just as you can visit Thingvellir and say, “That rock is in North America,” or “That rock is in Europe,” my reading led me to believe that you could look at a rift and say, “That is the Law Rock.”

These rocks are in America

My tour guide was more interested in history and Iceland’s status as an early democracy than he was in literature. So on the way to Thingvellir, there wasn’t much talk of its role in the sagas. I didn’t mind. I had done my research, and only wanted to see for myself. I wanted to picture the booths on the plain, see the river where men were ambushed, the island where duels were fought, stand in front of the law rock and say, “This is the Law Rock.” Maybe I would even get to fully geek out and have the retired soils professor who was also travelling solo and asking questions no one cared about to take my picture as I anachronistically assumed the Orator’s Pose in front of the Law Rock.

Alas, the tour guide never once mentioned the sagas at Thingvellir, and I had no idea how much of the plain the booths might have covered in Settlement Days. He did say, however, that there were several contenders for the claim of Law Rock, and gave half-hearted support for the official site, marked with a flag pole, because the acoustics might have been better.

The Law Rock

The rock itself was actually more of a ledge. You couldn’t stand on it, or even in front of it, because a platform and railing barred the way. The rain that had been threatening since Gulfoss Waterfall finally began to drop as we arrived at Thingvellir. I alternated between taking photos and trying to keep the camera dry. Although we had 30 minutes to explore, it was cold and wet and late in the day. Even the soils scientist was back on the bus in 25 minutes.

Needless to say, I was disappointed.

Golden Circle

I left the pub after 11, a little before rúntur got started. I had wondered if Icelanders dress up for Halloween – either Reykjavik teens really top rave fashion, or the answer is “yes, on the closest weekend.” But I didn’t stay to find out more; I had a Golden Circle tour booked for 8 am pickup Saturday, and didn’t want to miss the bus. So I was in bed by midnight.

A slamming door woke me at 3 am. At 3:30, I got up and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. Then I tossed and turned for a long time. I thought to myself, I’ll just check the time, and if it’s after 4:30, I’ll get up. It was 5:15. So I got up, wrote up some notes, ate a big breakfast, and caught my bus promptly at 8 am.

I took a tour on Saturday.

The first stop was the geothermal town of Hveragerði, where geothermally-heated greenhouses make domestic bananas a possibility in Iceland. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually get to look in the greenhouses or talk to a horticulturist. We just stopped at a little mall that was meant to be an office tower; during construction they discovered an underground rift that limited the building height to one story. They built the floor of glass and put strings of lights in the rift for visiters to see. There was also a display about the disastrous 2008 earthquake that measured 5.0 on the Richter scale and harmed no one but did require dozens of outbuildings to be torn down. Posters with photos of townspeople described their frightening experiences during the earthquake. It was very cute, but I would have been more interested in bananas.

Next stop was a volcano cone that collapsed 6500 years ago. It was pretty, and I got some good pictures. But I couldn’t help feeling these stops were really just to break up the long drive to the real sights.

The Faxi waterfall was next. The tour guide described it as “not very big, but very pretty.” True. Also, so icy that we couldn’t walk down the path and had to take photos from the parking lot. I decided not to rent a car on Monday. A “ditched” pickup truck confirmed my decision shortly thereafter.

Ditched Truck

One of the real Golden Circle destinations is the geysir (pronounced geezer). The original geysir no longer spouts, but nearby Strokkur goes off every few minutes. Despite the giggle-worthy puns, it was really impressive to see boiling water bubbling up in snow covered fields, and Strokkur, ahem, really does perform.

Little Geysir hot pot

Strokkur Performs

After the fire, we visit the ice. Gulfoss is the most famous waterfall in Iceland, and it is truly stunning. Or at least, it would be if the path wasn’t a frozen sheet of ice and you could safely look up without falling to your death. I found myself looking for patches of gravel to walk on because the rocks offered more sure footing. Down closer to the waterfall, there was no more gravel, and people were literally pulling themselves along the barrier rope to keep from sliding back down the trail. It was hard not to think of Skarphedin sliding across the Markarflot in the big battle scene in Njal’s Saga; at least, when I wasn’t thinking about sliding to my death in the falls, that is.


Finally, we headed to Thingvellir; in my opinion, the main attraction. But I’m going to give that a separate post. So I’ll skip ahead to dinner at KEX hostel,which has a restaurant that specializes in local food. I had a delicious salted cod with caramelized onions, a side of root vegetables with fennel, a local pale ale, fresh bread with locally made butter. Lots of butter. For dessert, chocolate cake with fresh whipped cream and rum-soaked cherries, and coffee.

During dinner, I went online to order a book for the girls. I had read about an Icelandic children’s author who sounded interesting. But I couldn’t remember the name, and nothing came up on google. I asked the waitress if she knew who it was (I was hoping it would be like asking a Finn who wrote Moomintroll) but alas, she had no idea.

A few minutes later, she came by and said, “It’s not Thorgrim Thráinsson, is it? I just thought of him because he writes books for older children, and he’s sitting at the bar.” It wasn’t him, as his books are not yet translated into English (she asked) and he couldn’t identify the mystery author either. But it was pretty cool to have a published children’s author handy.

[For the record, I looked it up in my travel book later, and the author I was thinking of was Jon Sveinsson, who went by the nickname Nonni and he mostly wrote in German – which is probably why the Icelanders couldn’t think of him.]

Toilet Training

Broadly speaking, our assumptions are just generalizations of things we know to be true in specific instances. With every additional piece of knowledge, our assumptions become more reliable, and because actual experience sticks so much better than book learnin’, travel provides the double benefit of specific information in a format we will never forget. 

For example:

Last night at the pub, I followed the “Toilet” sign directing me down the basement stairs. At the bottom of the staircase, a metal gate closed off an additional bar area on the left, and two doors opened into well-lit rooms on the right. I walked into one of them and almost tripped on man standing in front of a urinal. “Oops, wrong one,” I said, and turned around. In the other room, I found three stalls. Each one had a movie quote stenciled on the back wall.* I liked the first one so much, I had to read them all. I didn’t take a picture, though. The quotes were:

  1. The first rule of fight club….
  2. Are you a Mexi-can or a Mexi-can’t?
  3. Something from Superbad, which came out after I had kids so I haven’t seen it.

I loved them all, even though it struck me that none of them were quite what you’d expect for the ladies’ room.

As I came out of the stall, I almost bumped into a man walking into the bathroom. “Oh, this is the ladies’,” he said in an American accent, and quickly turned around. So in the space of probably 3 minutes, two Americans faced with unmarked loos both assumed the door further from the stairs to be the ladies’ and the one closest to be for men. Until that moment, I didn’t even know I had an assumption about where the women’s restroom goes. Then it occurred to me – even the idea of the “ladies’ room” is an assumption. I didn’t notice stalls in my glimpse of the room with the urinal, and the quotes in the stalls were from movies that are sort of masculine. Maybe the pub didn’t segregate bathrooms by sex. Maybe there was a “standing” bathroom and a “sitting” bathroom. That seems odd to me, and probably not true. But I won’t assume otherwise, or even that I know where the ladies’ room goes anymore.

It’s a trivial example, but just think: if G.W. Bush had ever left the U.S. before he became president, what assumptions might he have questioned? Can you imagine that he would have made the same decisions as president? If more Americans had their assumptions challenged by the way things work in other parts of the world, do you think they would have supported his decisions?

*At the Culture House, I bought an English translation of the memoir of one of the Westman Islanders who was captured by pirates and enslaved in North Africa in the 1600’s. When I expressed surprise that a memoir existed from that event, the lady at the museum said, “We are a literary people.” It is true. Icelanders even decorate with words. Greenhouse Studios has a stairwell wallpapered with red-font text. At KEX, where I am staying, the communal kitchen is wallpapered with comic book pages, and newspapers cover the bathroom walls. A metal wall where the elevator should be is covered with poetry magnets (currently sporting quotes from The Big Lebowski – like me, Icelanders seem to include cinema in their definition of literature).

Welcome to Iceland

Reykjavik Bay

After years of yearning and months of planning, I am finally in Iceland. There is always a bit of cognitive dissonance in the last few hours before a big trip; it’s impossible to quite comprehend that this time tomorrow, you will be in a completely different place that so far only exists in your imagination. I am grateful in a way for the almost uniform sterility of airports. Their almost-the-same blandness worldwide creates a sort of purgatory that helps one make the transition from here to there.

It has been something like 15 years since I traveled to Europe, (even now, Iceland only sort of counts) and five years since my last real travel adventure. I am certainly rusty. I had forgotten how much longer everything takes when you don’t know what you’re doing. When traveling east means returning to the familiar, you don’t notice how much worse the jet lag is in that direction.

Yesterday I arrived early in the morning, and managed to stay awake until about 8. I mostly visited places where you couldn’t take pictures – museums with 800 year-old manuscripts and 1000 year-old building foundations. It made it easier to not miss the kids, spending the day doing things they would hate. After I crashed at 8, I was only dimly aware of the live music downstairs in my hostel, and then I woke up at 1:30 am, completely alert. When I finally fell asleep again, I didn’t wake until almost noon.

So I missed the lunchtime concert I had planned to attend, and walked to the mall to find out why my new Icelandic phone didn’t work. Turned out to be something stupid I did. I walked back to the hostel for an interview who never came. Eventually I remembered that part of what is good about travel is being unable to hide your own limitations behind routine, and caught a bus to the suburbs for an interview.

Greenhouse Studios

I won’t spoil it by saying too much, but it was an honor and a pleasure to meet Valgeir Sigurðsson, whose name I can’t spell properly in WordPress, but have to copy from Word where I have access to the ð. He was thoughtful and well-spoken and very generous with his time.

Now I realize that I have eaten nothing today but a frozen yogurt and two coffees, and I have another interview in an hour. So I will leave it at that for now and go look for some of that expensive Icelandic food (oh my Lord, things are expensive here). More and better-written updates to follow.

Macklemore, DIY Job Creator

A lot of things have irritated me this election cycle, but few get under my skin as much as jobs creation as an election issue. It wasn’t until this week, when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ completely DIY album hit number one on iTunes in America, Germany, and probably a couple other places, too, that I put together the messages of “Thrift Shop” and “Jimmy Iovine” to see just what was eating me about the jobs creators.

The spin-doctored term for the oppressed minority of rich white men upon whose backs the rest of us stand, ungrateful for the life-sustaining jobs they have given us with their very life’s blood assumes that jobs are simply created out of thin air the same way that the jobs creators’ wealth is created on paper. It denies the possibility of jobs growing organically out of the work that actually needs to be done to sustain our lives on this planet.

Jobs creation treats jobs like commercial products that must be endlessly regenerated to keep the system rolling, whether the outputs of those jobs are actually valuable or not – which I guess is an accurate depiction of the current system.

Like Macklemore, I prefer to make wise use of the commercial products and jobs we already have, rather than wastefully producing new ones without regard to their usefulness. Imagine if, instead of protecting the privileges of the tiny minority of jobs creators (who, let’s face it, haven’t served that purpose very well lately anyway) we as a society collectively said, “Fuck the jobs creators. Let’s find a system that allows musicians, sculptors, painters, writers, parents of small children – all the people whose creations sustain us – to make a living creating things of value instead of commercial products.”

Then, all the jobs currently held by value creators could be recycled to employ the folks who actually want them.

Our society doesn’t seem quite ready to ask the question, “What about the arts creators?” and we’re not very good at choosing collective responses to social issues. Until the day when proper funding of the arts becomes an election issue, I’m glad to see Macklemore proving it’s possible to DIY without the jobs creators.