Monday, June 25, 2007
The book is best when Kundera uses the lovers' stories to propel the political story of the communist occupation of Prague. I don't feel as though this is his ultimate goal, though. He would have been better served applying his elevated feelings to the material situation at hand, rather than using the material situation at hand to demonstrate his elevated feelings. I think that this is an usual response from me, but I feel it intensely, perhaps because he conveys said elevated feelings with so many clichés.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Elizabeth and Paul are wealthy orphans (as the book opens, their mother still lives, but she is an emotional invalid who spends her days in bed and must be cared for by her daughter; soon enough, she dies). Paul soon becomes an invalid himself (a victim of 19th Century "vapors," "weak constitution," etc. when a snowball hits him in the chest, sending him to bed for the rest of his life). With little else to concern them than their (perhaps valid) emotional damage, they build a fantasy world in their shared bedroom, filled to overflowing with clippings and trinkets and cushions, occasionally including a new-found friend in their sphere (with whom Elizabeth will toy and, eventually, destroy, in order to protect her relationship with Paul, upon whom she depends completely).
It is difficult to empathize with, indeed, such terrible infants, and Coteau's affected language (referred to as "poetic" by the translator) doesn't make it any easier; it's as immature and frivolous as his characters. I don't doubt that people have behaved like this, but I'd rather not accede to their sucking maws by paying attention to it. Somehow, The Dreamers managed to avoid this repulsion; perhaps via Eva Green's good looks, perhaps by the use of an American as foil to the French twins, perhaps because the movie takes place over a summer rather than five or ten years, their dreaming can be forgiven, because they will wake up. For the terrible infants, only death awaits, and Cocteau kills them all off at the end, as, in 1929, the writer of an affected, slim volume must.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Carrying the ever-present burden of his aspirations (a violin which he can barely play, which, even prior to his accident, he dreaded equally practicing and not practicing), Fisher's will is irrelevant to his life. He is moved, it can be argued, by three or four possible powers (which powers, three of four, at least, he considers during the novel's denouement, when he walks through the snowy night from Boston to Providence): Women, Frank of Oregon, the Ass, or (my edition) the author (who could very well be synonymous with the Ass).
Fisher would like to blame his demise on women. There are three of them in his life throughout the space of the book: the law student girlfriend at the book's beginning, a preppy librarian from work in the middle, and, ever-present, but only as a sexual partner at the end, a fascist hippie. It is his horror of the fascist hippie that drives him, the night of his accident, to a dreadful bar in the bowels of Boston, where he meets the hobo Frank of Oregon. The two get terribly drunk, Frank shows Fisher his manifesto and asks him to type it for him at work, and Fisher brings the bum to his law student girlfriend's apartment to spend the night. Things have already not been well between the two of them, and their sex life has devolved due to her medical fetish. The next morning, he wakes alone, and it later becomes apparent that his girlfriend has slept with Frank of Oregon (without any medically-related behaviour). They will later run away together. The librarian is merely an amusing interlude; she, too, has an absurdist fetish (she insists that Fisher act as her high school teacher and chide her for turning in a Wuthering Heights paper two weeks late; the details are imperative), and her ritzy set provides the perfect foil to Frank of Oregon's sloppy, soiled, homeless person, which person Fisher comes to mirror more and more each day, neither showering, shaving, nor changing his blood and coffee-stained clothes for the entire space of the novel.
Frank of Oregon, whose manifesto was written on a variety of scraps including napkins, foil wrappers, and a piece of leather somehow inspires Fisher, despite the girlfriend issue, to go along with his odd whims, organizing a meeting of the city's hobos. When Fisher arrives, Frank is not there, and after an hour or so, the crowd of derelicts gets feisty, shouting for Fisher to speak. He opens his violin case (which now holds a cheap replacement for his previous violin, which had been in turn drenched and then burned in the oven at the home of the fascist hippie; this new violin has a bow that doesn't fit inside the case, and all of its strings are broken. Fisher's hopes, clearly, are shot, but he continues to carry them, broken, and is viciously protective of them.) Here, he finds a note from Frank of Oregon, who has eloped with the law student, and is never to be seen again. The note urges Fisher to begin the revolution on his own. Facing the angry crowd, Fisher doesn't know what to say, so he begins to read Frank's manifesto. This incites the crowd to riot, and they mob the nearby market, tearing it down. Police, firemen, and perhaps even the National Guard are called in, and newscasts advertise Fisher's name and photograph on TV as the culprit.
The fascist hippie sees the newscast and comes to save Fisher, keeping him under sexual house arrest in her bed. His hate for her transmogrifies to extreme sexual passion, but the police come and he escapes through the window, haphazardly dressed and without his socks. He trudges along train tracks all night long, through the snow, at last a true hobo. He stops a couple and asks for money to buy coffee and a hot dog. His demise seems final.
Fisher makes it to an old friend's seaside house outside of Providence, where he takes up residence and where the novel ends. His (possibly mad) friend is struggling to write an epic poem by candlelight, and his house is filled with collected junk. Fisher takes one item per day from the house out to the beach, where another old madman, obsessed with erosion and entropy, artfully arranges the items so that the beach might wear them away. He does not part with his violin.
The Ass is Fisher's metaphor for God, which pisses down rain and shits down snow over Boston from it's toilet bowl in the sky, only occasionally lifting a cheek up a fraction so that a single shard of sunlight can peek through. The Ass, like God, like the author, doesn't so much willfully control Fisher as create impossible situations for him, such that logic does not apply and sanity is not feasible.
The book is a fantastic read, rich with absurd and poignant details, the perfect smattering of silly sex, and nonchalant collisions with existentialist questions (none of which are solved, of course). If I were to extremely picky, I would suggest that something is missing in the way that McEwen offers Fisher's demise without ever situating Fisher's previous existence—we witness his de-evolution without ever knowing precisely what tower he has fallen from. Ultimately, McEwen writes with such nimble flair that it doesn't matter much, but only if one embraces the post-modern and doesn't cling to the logic of the Classics.
Monday, June 18, 2007
On the drive to the Blue Lagoon, where we were going to spend a few hours (our flight didn't depart until five), we recapped. I told Michael that people would ask me what I thought, and that my answer would confound them: I would say that I'd had a good time, that it was very pretty at times and also very ugly in places as well, but that I wouldn't ever go back, and that I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I expected him to be offended, but he actually agreed on every point, particularly not recommending it to anyone, even a hiking aficionado. We decided that whatever one's preference: rugged countryside, different cultures, geology, history, or even just the weird-factor, other destinations were better on every account. He wondered where he might want to go next, being as this trip had somewhat disappointed him. I already know my next trip—India in January '08—but he has no interest in going there.
The lagoon was as good as the last time, though interestingly enough, this time the waters were sort of empty (it was early in the day), but my Finnish sauna was packed to beyond full capacity (15 people; standing room only?!). We swam and steamed and whatnot, I all the while hoping the pain in my right shoulder would dissipate, though passing up a massage because of (surprise) the outrageous costs (twice what I pay in New York, which is already more than people pay in the rest of the US). I made do with pummelling my upper body under the waterfall and eventually relaxing in the snack bar with a Carlsberg. People-watching was better than the last time, and, oddly enough, a TV crew was filming, literally inside the lagoon (yes, the entire crew was in swim gear and in the water, carrying the camera and sound equipment in the steam over the pool.)
Soon enough we had to leave for the airport, refill the gas tank, and whatnot. Begin drudgery; the drive to Keflavík is ugly, the gas station rejected my credit card as usual (nearly all stations require payment at the pump, and require the entrance of a PIN. I have a PIN only for my ATM card, not my credit cards), and we had trouble finding the right spot to return the rental car. I did, though, find out upon returning our little Nissan that I had driven a total of 1,498 miles during the trip, and remember, I only had the car for seven of our 10 days. That means that I did, pardon the expression, a fuckload of driving. No wonder my shoulders are killing me.
With time before the flight, we wandered the airport. We ate lunch/dinner (cheeseburger and fries for me, cheese pizza for Michael. Hopefully the last junk food I see for a long time), Michael bought some cologne at the duty free (I managed, somehow, to refrain; they had three scents I could have happily splurged on), and I attempted to spend the last of my kronur: exactly 150, in assorted low denominational coins. We went, of course, for the chocolate (I couldn't even buy a cup of coffee with it, which would have been Kr260). After enough calculating to make Michael totally annoyed, I found a combination of three chocolate bars that left me with only two remaining kronur, which I pawned off on my abused travel companion. I then began munching on the Bounty bar (do we have these here in the US? I don't know. It's like Mounds, but with milk chocolate. Mounds is better), saving the other two—a Snickers (it was the only choice that made the money work out!) and an unidentifiable mint thing, that I haven't yet tasted—for later. I still haven't finished that massive Sirius double bar.
Iceland Air took way too long to get us onto the plane, but once we took off, the flight was smooth and fast. I read Kundera, wrote my blog for yesterday (I'd been far too tired to do it last night), and read Kundera some more. Then the plane landed. Wow. It took way too long to get off the plane, and the line for customs wasn't so very pleasant (neither was the wait for the luggage at the carousel), but I made it out alive. Michael and I decided to be cheap and take the airtrain/subway back to our respective homes, and although there was a bit of a wait for the A train, I had no trouble connecting to the 1, and got home right at nine. Considering that our plane had been due to land at seven (we'd landed half an hour early, believe it or not), this wasn't so bad at all. Of course, we hadn't even left JFK when we remembered all the things about New York that we hadn't missed—in fact, I felt as though I saw more people in one place just in the greeting area than I'd seen the entire trip. Being home is good, though. My doorman asked where I'd been, and I told him Iceland. "Is it true," he asked me, "that there's a lot of blond girls there?" "Yep," I told him, "But the hottest girls in Iceland are actually Swedish tourists."
Outside my window now, it's dark. I haven't seen darkness for awhile now; it will be strange to turn out the lights.
The first surprise (and ensuing U-turn) came when we were about to enter a tunnel and saw a sign for the toll: Kr900, or approximately $15. It being the last day, we didn’t even have 900 kronur between us, were uncertain of whether the tool booth would take a credit card. Michael’s maps revealed the fact that there was an easy way to avoid the tunnel: circling the long finger of the Hvalfjörður. I was particularly excited to see another fjord, this one’s blue, glassy surface much more rewarding than that of the small one we had passed on the East. Circling it took over half an hour, even at 60 mph, but the views were stunning, and it was well worth it.
After passing numerous waterfalls circling the verdant surroundings of the fjord, the terrain grew a bit more rocky, even though we had passed through the town of Borgarnes and therefore reached the official start of the Peninsula (the drive between the fjord and Borgarnes is long and tedious). The peninsula is known for some attractive beaches (too cold for swimming, of course), the usual smattering of historical sites, and the Snæfellsjökull, the smallest of the island’s four glaciers, and so small in comparison to the other three that it isn’t even rendered in white on the Lonely Planet’s color map. The glacier didn’t come into view until hours into our trip; it seemed we hadn’t even gotten to the peninsula until after two, when most other days, we’d seen all there was to see by that time.
Our first point of interest was Gufuskálar, the ruin of a 1,000+ year old outpost where Irish monks had once settled. The site—the ruin that is—isn’t interesting in and of itself, except for the fact the settlers had found a whale’s skeleton on the ground and used its giant jaw bone as a lintel for their well. Other unused parts of the skeleton—the other half of the jaw and some ribs—remain lying in the grass, bleached bright white, but also yellow and green with moss. The ruin, though, is right on the shore of one of my favorite beaches in Iceland thus far: piles of giant lava rocks, dry and hard and rough—perfect for climbing—pile out into a sort of cliff with a 10-15 foot drop into clear blue seawater. This was the warmest day we’ve had yet (it’s rare for this peninsula to be warm at all, so we were very lucky), and sweating in my t-shirt, I jumped all the way out to the farthest point possible, contemplating a conservative cliff dive into the clear water. Of course, I had no swimsuit with me, there was no obvious way back out of the water, and the seas surrounding this island are colder even than my San Francisco’s Pacific, in which I wouldn’t dream of putting even a toe. Also, the rocks underwater were populated by long strands of kelp, waving in the water like so much wet hair. Beautiful to watch, but stomach-turning to touch. I climbed the rocks parallel to the water’s edge, moving farther and farther from the car and the ruins. Soon, I saw a few (very bleached) logs—driftwood from very far away, I imagine, as Iceland hasn’t any trees—and also quite a bit of trash: big, plastic canisters for oil and cleaning products. There has been much more litter all over Iceland than I had expected, and this was rather upsetting. Before turning back for the car, I also saw the remains of another dead thing: another skeleton, this time tiny, but also sun-bleached; a rounded dome with a fin, a few ribs, and two six-inch leg bones confounded me. I don’t know what the creature could have been.
Back in the car, we drove a bit on the highway and then on a very long, very rough gravel (rock, actually) road out Skarðsvík, something I couldn’t imagine being worth the ravaging our car was taking, but which turned out to be worth ten times the ravishing. From behind piles of lava rock peeks a stretch of golden sand—a stunning beach on which a Viking’s burial remains were discovered in the early 1960s. Shockingly, two small boys were cavorting in the waves, waist-deep in water, while their father looked on. I ran down to the shore to test the water’s temperature and saw that, while the tide was out, the water was cutting a delicate pattern of rivulets into the sand. My shoes got wet, but I touched the water; it was, as I had expected, literally icy cold (as cold as the Jökullsárlón’s water, which, if you recall, was filled with giant chunks of ice), but at the shoreline I made an even better discovery. Amongst a meaty swath of kelp that had washed ashore were lodged hundreds of purplish starfish and thousands of tiny sea snails. The starfish were pliable, unlike any I’ve ever seen, and curled around themselves, at times looking more like the tiny purple-pink squid and octopus I’ve seen on dinner plates. I took many pictures, elated with my small, rich discovery—I’d seen many tide pools in Iceland, but very little sea life, and, other than the standard of sheep, horses, and cattle, and the occasional farm dog, and sea birds, of course, very little diversity of animal life. Not that I’m particularly fond of animals, but. . . starfish are quiet and unassuming.
From there onto Saxhóll, where the day began to (for me) lose its magic. Perhaps it was the loss of the beach, which I always fancy above all else, or perhaps it was the short but sharp physical trial of this next spot, but I was no longer having a good time, and it would remain that way, so that ultimately, I will think, perhaps unfairly, poorly of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Saxhóll is a volcanic crater, called “beautiful” by it’s point of interest sign, but which I consider quite ugly. Reddish-blackish-brown, it rises up from a plain of lava rocks: a big, big pile of lava rocks (exciting, right? Right. . .) There is a “path” that winds up and around it (at a very sharp incline), and I was heaving harder for breath than I ever have in any of my visits to the gym after only three or four minutes of fast climbing (perhaps my workouts aren’t what they ought to be). One must climb fast for fear of falling down or off; the incline of the path is about 65˚, the incline of the hillside about 80˚, and the space between the path and side of the crater is a matter of a few inches. After a 60 second break, I resumed climbing and reached the top after another three or four minutes, where the strongest winds I’ve yet encountered threatened to send my flying right off. Furthermore, there was no attractive view to make my climb worthwhile, so while I stood at the top, my throat dry and raw, my lungs as dry and raw, my chest heaving, hair blowing across my face and sticking there to the sweat, feeling as if I was about to upchuck the breakfast I’d eaten over six hours ago, I had nothing to gratify my senses; cheated, bereft, I turned around to make my way down. Michael stayed to take pictures (of nothing, I’m sure, because that was what was up there.) On the way down (far more treacherous than the way up, thanks to the “path’s” composition of the same loose dust, dirt, and gravel that composes the entire crater), I fell four times (and slid/skidded countless others), even though I kept my feet perpendicular to the path (parallel would have been an immediate snow-less, ski-less ski) and proceeded with bent knees and utmost care, as my dad taught me to do as a frightened child. I got back to the car, peed next to the driver’s side front tire, and took refuge from the wind inside. Here, I began to cough, my lungs slowly repopulating with the necessary flow of warm mucosal lining, and I continued coughing intermittently for an hour or so afterward. Michael liked it, though, so I can’t say it’s no good for everyone.
Back on the road, we were now seeing quite a bit of Snæfellsjökull, and we snapped pictures out the car window, hoping the clouds would move away from the snowcaps in order to render them more photographically visible (our digital cameras, it seems, have trouble picking the white of snowy glaciers from the bright light of the sky, and clouds makes it even worse; eyes are far better suited to this task). We saw a turn-off marked “Snæfellsjökull” and, the glacier seeming closer than any other thus far, took the turn, thinking this might be our opportunity to finally touch a glacier. Harumph. A bit up the (gravel) road, there was a fork, one side going up to the glacier, the other a flat drive that seemed to skirt it. We took the glacier side, but a minute or so up the hill was posted a big yellow sign reading “Danger! The glacier is a very dangerous area to cross. There are numerous deep chasms that are invisible until too late. Seek information.” This warning read in Icelandic, English, German, and French, but didn’t suggest where such information might be had, and was thereby incredibly frustrating. The warning sounded strong enough that, not having a four wheel drive, we decided to forego the road (with some disappointment). There was no place on the very narrow, steep drive to turn around, so I had to back down the cliffside (woot). As I did so, a blue jeep came up behind us (not yet onto the narrow incline; that is, before the fork. Even though I was clearly descending, in reverse, he continued to drive forward, without giving me space to remove myself from his path. Then, he honked and made gestures at me! Bah. I yelled a bit at him (which yelling, unfortunately, was only audible to poor Michael), and we turned onto the other side of the fork as he sped up the mountain’s side, where we had been too trepidatious to go. This side of the fork was another rotten, rocky road, and we bumped along for quite some time wondering where it would lead us when, suddenly, it just ended, without warning, dropping six inches down into a dirty plain littered with boulders and an abandoned bulldozer. I slammed the breaks and we skidded to a stop a few inches from the drop. Swearing, I turned the car around. We were (that is, Michael was) still aching after the glacier route, so when we came back to the fork, we decided to try it despite the warning. I began up the road, somewhat jokingly reminding him to keep his eyes peeled for chasms and insisting that he take full responsibility should anything bad happen. About half a kilometer up the road, though, the terrain went from gravel to rock, and the incline (maybe 50˚ or 60˚) coupled with the material scared the little car, which didn’t respond well to my pumps of the gas pedal. I told him that, unfortunately, we couldn’t go any further, and again set to the task of backing down the hill. Along the way, a red jeep came barreling down upon us, nose to nose, and the driver gave us a cold stare for standing in the middle of his road, and for the slow speed at which I was progressing backward. Somehow, I found a makeshift turnout of rock and grass to pull, backward, into, so that he could squeeze by me at whatever speed he so chose. Then, I continued down in my careful manner, until I had room to turn around and properly drive back to the main highway. Doing so, we saw the red Jeep speeding down the dead-end fork we had left behind minutes before. They didn’t know quite so well where they were going either, and we had a good laugh at them, almost wanting to hang around in order to make the same goony faces at them that they’d made at us just before.
It was, by now, five o’clock, and neither of us had eaten since breakfast (that’s a lie; we had stopped at a gas station in Borgarnes for Michael’s Coke Zero and I’d had an ice cream, but that’s it). Thus began the dreaded search for dinner, in the middle of nowhere, with Reykjavík still hours away. We hadn’t seen the Northern coast of the Peninsula, and wanted to, so we took a turn out of the way and drove half an hour to Stykkishólmur, which has a bay containing 2,700 tiny islands. It looked like God’s toilet bowl after a nice big poop. The town had a few restaurants that looked appetizing enough to me, but which hadn’t any edible options for Michael except a $30 risotto he wouldn’t have liked anyway. This frustrated him to no end, because Lonely Planet had promised pizza. We hit the road again, did another 30 minutes to get back to where we had started, and poked our heads into a little dirty roadhouse called Vegemót, which, despite its name, boasted no vegetables other than french fries. We drove on, thinking we could at least get a Skyr at a gas station, so stopped at a few, finding nothing but soda, ice cream, candy, and hot dogs.
We kept driving. The road, as we came within the area of the fjord, began to get all bunged up with cars, and I repeatedly got stuck behind drivers moving at 50 mph, when I had been driving 80+ all day. To top it off, we were hungry, exhausted, and within, according to signs, an hour of Reykjavík. I wanted to speed home as fast as possible. Soon I realized that the signs for Reykjavík were completely misleading, because they referred to the tunnel route, while we were taking the fjord route, adding at least an extra half hour to the trip. Writhing with frustration, I moved to pass a trailer and heard a honk; I had almost plowed unwittingly into a white Yaris that had moved, without warning, to pass me. I railed and Michael shook. I swore and Michael suggested slowing down. “How fast are you going?” he asked. I told him 60. “54 is the maximum speed limit on this island,” he said. “I don’t give a fuck what the maximum speed limit on this island is,” I told him. Ignoring him, I prepared again to pass, when he pointed across the way and said, “there’s a cop right there; you’re going to pass someone, going 90, right in front of a cop.” Infuriated, I swung back into line behind the trailer. “Do you want to drive?” I seethed. Too bad he doesn’t know how. Going about 50 mph (the trailer had slowed even more when he spotted the cop), I burned inside with the rage of dreams in which you run and run and get nowhere. “I am having a problem,” I grunted out to my compatriot, for whom I was feeling very little compatriotism at the moment, furious with him, myself, and the situation. “Do you want to pull over?” he asked. That was the last thing I wanted to do; I needed to move, and now I had this stupid fjord to go around. I came up to the turn off for the fjord and took a left. I had the road back to myself again, but I was still wound tightly from moments before, and I began to cry and shake. I pulled over, got out of the car, and took big breaths of the icy air. I walked around the car for a few minutes, breathing, sobbing, stopping and starting again. All the while I felt guilty, knowing that my passenger was starving and that I was only adding more time to the duration he must wait for food, completely at my mercy. I got back in the car, perhaps prematurely, because I started driving and, apologizing, I explained, “It’s just that I’ve basically been driving for 10 hours.” The reality of that statement out loud broke me into tears again, and I continued along the road at a moderate 60 mph while Michael cleaned my glasses. Soon enough, the peace of the fjord and its empty road soothed me, and an hour later, we made it back to Reykjavík.
I drove straight to the corner of the Laugavegur where we had previously scoped out two vegetarian restaurants. One was closed, leaving the other, Á Næstu Grösum, which Lonely Planet calls the best vegetarian restaurant in Reykjavík. It was so good, and so cheap compared to our other dining forays, that I might call it the best restaurant period. The food is offered service-buffet style; you see vats of everything they have on offer and a kind hostess/server describes all the dishes to you. There is a daily special for Kr1150, or a combination of three items for Kr1250, four items for Kr1350, etc. There are also gorgeous soups, served in big, deep bowls, for Kr700 (mind you, this is cheap for Iceland, even though it’s a $10 soup; remember my soup in bread was Kr1090, or $15). I had a carrot/curry/coconut soup (beyond delicious) and the special, which was a vegetarian loaf (beans, seeds, nuts, and other stuff), sweet potato mousse, brown rice, mushroom gravy, apple/celery/grape/walnut salad (whole walnuts, and walnuts aplenty), and green salad. There was also all-you-could-want bread (the bread, by the way, was amazing; dense, chewy, and filled with nuts and seeds, it seemed almost raw inside—that is, uncooked—that is, technically not bread at all, but a better formulation devised by chefs who only eat raw, and had therefore made a hearty, nutty, and almost sweet loaf by pressing seeds and grains together under heavy pressure), with all-you-could-want dips: hummus and an incredible sweet ginger paste. We were starving and ate like savages, but the food was awesome and would have been even if we hadn’t been so hungry.
The restaurant is on the second floor of a corner building, right across from one of the more popular bars in town, so we had a great view of Independence Day revelers as we ate, and sat a while after we’d finished, just watching the drunken young Reykjavíkers dance and shout and flirt in the street. A cluster of girls, dressed in a combination of 80s, punk, and vintage that wouldn’t be out of place in the East Village or Lower East Side, stood outside the bar in a cluster and were our primary point of interest. Smokers can’t smoke in Icelandic bars, but they can take their beers out to the sidewalk, and this group was smoking, drinking, dancing, shouting, laughing, and accosting passersby, and a few of them were extremely attractive (the Icelandic combination of white blond hair, apple-y pink cheeks, and frosty blue eyes hasn’t been lost on us). We watched until they dissipated, and returned to our car and our guesthouse. I drew a much-needed piping bubble bath while Michael caught up on his reading of my blog. I then took to bed with Les Enfants Terribles and the little bottle of filched Cabernet, while Michael paced like a caged animal. Our drive, though long and tedious, hadn’t physically exhausted him as it had me. He decided to go out for a walk to watch the revelers, and I stayed in bed. I finished the Cocteau, read less than 10 pages of my next book, and passed out, not moving until 7:49 the next morning.
More photos of day nine.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
It being too early to check into our new guesthouse, and without much else to do, we decided to spend the day perusing the shops whose windows we had ogled our first day in town (a Sunday, when everything was closed). I parked the car on a side street (haven't paid a meter yet on this trip) and we started walking the Laugavegur (the "high street" of our old guesthouse). I didn't see much to knock my socks off; there are a few shops that wouldn't be out of place in New York or London, but the items were New York/London prices (or worse, thanks to the exchange rate). In particular, I saw a beautiful jacket of unlined, buttery black leather, that, after a disappointing moment grappling with multiplication factors, I realized was $2,500, not $250. I also saw a great pair of Chia Mihara shoes—forest green leather with high heels and open toes, and a brown elastic band across the fronts—but they came to $350ish, and even after the promised VAT refund, that is more than I was ready to spend. I couldn't even buy the pair of adidas warm-up pants I liked (I'm sick of the three pairs of pants I brought on this trip; it's too cold for my shorts, etc.) because of the absurd price ($60ish, on sale).
We stopped at the Svarta Kaffið and I caved in to the Kr1090 soup in a bread. Today was beef and potato, and it was really very good, although the beef was ground beef, not cubes of stew meat, as I expected. . . I've never before had ground beef in a soup, and I think it's pretty trashy. The flavor and texture were otherwise good, though, and mixed with the bread bowl nicely. I ate every last crumb, while Michael nursed a Guinness and we watched a group of men clearly from England with confusion (they were drinking cappuccinos at two in the afternoon, which is just very. . . not English; additionally, they were physically. . . tender with each other, in a way that I would only consider potentially, ahem, straight, in the extremely open cities of California and Italy). After shopping a bit more, and not buying anything, we finished the strip at the 10/11, where Michael had a cappuccino-flavored Skyr (it's painfully sweet; think Frappucino yogurt), which he loved and I loathed. Then we walked back to the car and drove to our new accomodation.
Our new guesthouse, Áskot, is the very pleasant home of a very pleasant couple. It's in the older section of town, far (10-15 minute walk) from our spot at Von, but not too far from the University, the beautiful old graveyard called Hólavallagarður, and the lower section of the Laugavegur. Again, I have been given everything I've asked for, though none of it seemed to be provided (a hair dryer, free wireless internet, access to the kitchen for cooking, etc.) and this seems to be the way things are done here. We brought up our bags and Michael settled in for a nap. I decided to take a shower, but upon seeing the long, deep tub (all our guesthouses since Von have had stall showers only, and cramped ones with flooding potential at that), decided to have a proper hot bubble bath. The water, thanks to geothermal springs, I'm certain, comes out at up to a piping 50˚C (that's very very hot— too hot to touch— if you don't know), and smells strongly of sulfur. It's rich in that and other minerals, and feels thick and almost oily (in a good way), such that the bath (which was long and deep enough that I could stretch out my whole body under water, something I've never been able to do in a standard American tub) was as luxurious as the promised (and missed) hot pots at Hof's Frost and Fire could have been.
All hot and scrubbed, I read a bit of Cocteau while Michael slept, and when he got up, it was time for dinner. We have both wanted to try the Cafe Paris, whose candlelit ambiance we had observed when we first came to town, and which our Lonely Planet agreed was a choice spot. Although I was still feeling full from the soup, we went over and had dinner. A glass of Cotes du Rhone for me and a Pint of Guinness for Michael, we went a bit pricey; it's surreal that simple meals are such a splurge here. I had a steak sandwich with fries (I ordered it rare, but it seems that this is one of the many places where that doesn't mean anything and meat only comes one way: cooked, very much) and Michael had a tomato basil pizza (which came inside out, that is to say, with the cheese melted over the slices of tomato and basil, and which he therefore pronounced not so great; I didn't taste it, but I've seen more appetizing pizzas in my day.) The crowd was bland—mostly tourists and some very annoying ones at that—so we paid and split.
Without much of an idea of what to do next (not having had a nap, I wanted to hit the local Vinbuð, pick up a bottle of wine, go home and drink it, and go to sleep), we decided to go back home so that Michael could get his camera. First, though, we went for a long walk, because I wanted to track down a yoga studio (I haven't practiced since the Saturday morning of our flight, and my body is very angry with me). I had done some internet research while Michael was napping (google "yoga Reykjavík;" you'll be surprised at how little comes up), and found nothing other than a post in last month's Grapevine (the Village Voice/SF Bay Guardian/ Stranger of Reykjavík) about "ghetto yoga," a free class downtown. They gave no schedule, no phone number, and no web address. Google searches for "ghetto yoga Reykjavík" produced no further information. All I had was an address, so we walked there. Of course, when we got there, it was a five story office building, which was closed, with no listing for yoga on its directory, and no posters or signs in the window with even the word "yoga," much less a schedule. I guess I'll have to wait until Tuesday night, when I'm back home.
Michael didn't want to drink wine, having just had a beer, and Vinbuð was closed anyway, as of four o'clock. (Vinbuð is the government-owned/operated liquor dealer of Iceland, and is the only way to purchase non-beer alcohol outside of a bar or restaurant. Most gas stations in the countryside have small Vinbuðs inside. If Vinbuð is closed, you will not be buying that bottle of wine.) I still had my mini Gallo, nicked from Frost and Fire, but I lamented not having nicked one of the full sized bottles. Instead, we went home, fetched his camera, and "snuck" into the graveyard. We had passed by it our last night in town, right at midnight, and I had wanted to go in, but Michael, ever the law-abider, refused (a sign said that it closed at eight or some such nonsense, even though I had found an unlocked gate); realize that he couldn't have said no because of the spooks, since even though it was midnight, it was bright outside.) Walking away, I had warned him that girls like adventure.
It wasn't an adventure this time because it wasn't a spur of the moment discovery, and therefore wasn't as fresh and exciting as it had been that night. Perhaps because of my mood it was instead a bit melancholy. I never feel frightened in graveyards; instead, there is a compelling quiet and peace. . . the potency of supreme rest, I suppose. I like to look at the stones and see the dates; I saw one man who lived to 101. I also saw a lot of people who died young; a girl of 10, a girl of 14, a girl of 21. These make me wistful, a bit, moreso than infant deaths. The graveyards, technically speaking, are better in England, where the graves are much older and don't get much attention (here, many people who had passed in the 19th Century had stones as shiny and new as people who passed last year; it seems that with new deaths, families are renovating their plots). It began to drizzle, so we made our way home, and now Michael has gone to sleep again. I will stay up with Cocteau, and look forward to tomorrow, when we will drive North, a direction we've not yet been.
More photos from day eight.
Friday, June 15, 2007
We breakfasted at our hotel in Höfn (I have been pronouncing this word the way it's spelled, but apparently the "fn" sound goes to a "p" sound, and the whole word is supposed to be pronounced kind of like a one syllable hiccup: "hup!"), which offered the usual fare, except that the muesli had something like leftover Coco Pebbles in it (yick). I tasted the icky caramel stuff on toast with jam as planned, and while it was totally edible, it wasn't all that dandy, so we chucked the remainder, packed our bags, and hit the road. Our itinerary listed Höfn as our last stop before turning around; without ever having visited this country, we had no idea what the quality of the roads would be, what the distance between towns would be, and doubted whether we would be able to circle the entire Ring Road in our 10 day trip, particularly since I'm the only driver. It turns out that the roads are generally better than expected, and I can drive very far very fast; had we known this ahead of time, we'd have skipped the night in Selfoss for Vík, spent the Vík night in Höfn, spent the Höfn night in Egilsstaðir, and spent tonight in Akureyri (geographically, if Reykjavík is Los Angeles on Iceland, Höfn would be Atlanta, and Akureyri would be Minneapolis). We could have finished the whole circumference of the island, and I would have seen a lot of fjords. As of this morning, I had not seen one fjord, and was pretty testy about it. Michael and I both had the Let's Go! bug, and weren't looking forward to backtracking our way to Reykjavík. "Let's go to Akureyri!" I said (there is a small airport there, and I proposed taking two more days to drive East and then dropping the rental car at the Akureyri airport and flying to Reykjavík on Sunday just in time for Iceland's Independence Day celebration and our flight home Monday afternoon). I began singing, "It's a long road, to Akureyri" to the tune of It's a Long Road to Tipperary. We decided to keep driving East for at least 75 miles, to a fishing town called Djúpivogur. By then, we would decide whether to call Avis to change, Iceland Air to book, our guesthouse in Hof to cancel, and guesthouses in Egilsstaðir and Akureyri to book, or to just turn around and stick to the original plan.
About 50 miles East of Höfn, we saw a pristine black sand beach off the highway with a giant rock jutting up out of its middle; we decided that we had to go there, but the road was cliff side (akin to Devil's Slide on California's Hwy 1 if you know it, but all unpaved brown gravel that appeared to pour freshly off the cliff side daily), and there was no way to take the car down to the beach (or even pull over and hike down). We kept on for about another quarter mile until we saw a vague turnoff toward the shore marked by tire tracks in the grass. We took this very rocky path at about 5 mph to the coast, where we parked and hopped out for a good long walk. There was a glacial stream running all the way down into the ocean, which poured both waterfall-style (over rocks) and magical-style (underground through rocks, such that a copious flow of water seemed to originate from nowhere). I climbed some lava rocks in which tide pools (with no creatures, unfortunately) were abundant, trying to get high enough to scout out our secret beach. I couldn't see it, but we walked back that way, over mossy bluffs and rocky shores, where angry seabirds chided us for treading where people rarely, if ever, tread. We walked and walked. The air smelled like the beaches in California, salty and pungent (from the kelp), which was fresh and new (every other beach thus far has smelled like sulfur, except the Jökulsárlón, which didn't smell like anything at all).
After a brisk half hour, I spotted the giant rock jutting up out of the pristine black beach. Unfortunately, I was standing 10-15 feet above the pristine black sand, over a 90˚, concave drop. I skirted the surrounding promontory, determined to find a way down. I chose the section of the incline with lowest grade, despite the fact that it was wet by a slow, thin trickle of water and laced over with caramel-colored algae. Scooting down in a crouch on two feet and one hand, I reminded Michael what we say in yoga: "The closer you are to the ground, the less far you have to fall." I reached the next tier, a four foot high rift of pebbles and small round rocks, and dug my heels in as they gave in to my weight, bringing me down to the beach as if on an escalator. We'd made it! I walked all the way out to the giant rock (it was quite a long little beach), and photographed my footprints—the only mark on the hard-packed sand. Michael took a picture of me doing a headstand against the rock. I wanted to draw in the sand—leave a message that could be read from the road—but I couldn't find a stick. We mucked about a bit more, scrambled back up the cliff, and hiked back to the car.
Continuing East, we continued to consider Akureyri. Michael was worried about Avis; I was not, although I had been very much looking forward to our guesthouse in Hof, the Frost and Fire, which had a very sexy website with pictures of hot tubs and whatnot. It was cold and my shoulders were (are!) stiff from driving. But we had come across a lot of unpaved road (the warning signs read "Malbik Endar," which probably means "End Pavement," but I've just been calling the gravel "malbik endar,") and I wasn't looking forward to retreading all those bumpy roads, upon which I can do 50 mph at best. We finally reached the fishing village (which has a population of roughly 300), where I saw my first (and what was to be my only) fjord (it was pretty unimpressive, to be honest, not looking any different from a bay). I snapped some pictures of an old blue fishing boat, Michael bought a Coke Zero and a Skyr at the gas station, I got an "American-style" chocolate muffin, and we popped a U-turn back West. Boo. (It was Michael's decision; this is, after all, his trip).
We drove and drove and drove and drove. Some heavy weather came, and it started to rain (the first rain we've seen since the night we landed, which means that we've been lucky; rain is generally ever-present on this Island). Because the plains are so low and open, I could see the low black clouds wrapping around the mountains like blanket, and see the clear blue sky high above in the distance. "There's going to be a rainbow, somewhere," I told Michael. "Keep your eyes peeled." We drove and drove and drove, and it rained and rained and rained. My defroster wasn't servicing me properly, and I had to slow to 40 mph. It wasn't unlike those dreams where you run and run and don't get anywhere at all. I was so frustrated. I got more and more testy, and began swearing quite a bit, quipping, "Where's my fucking rainbow, muthafucker? I earned that shit!" But no rainbow came. We drove and drove and drove, and stopped for petrol; I was on empty. We filled up at an unattended Esso station (it looked to be on post-atomic lockdown; there had once been a grocery inside, but the shelves were bare and partially wrecked. The WC, indoors, could not be accessed. Luckily, I had peed in a squat next to the parked car at our beach.) We drove on, knowing that our guesthouse was within five kilometers, and planning to settle in, even though it was only three o'clock.
Coming upon the turn off for Hof (so small I can't even call it an outpost), which features our Frost and Fire guesthouse, a turf-covered church, and a farm or two, we drove up the wet gravel road and parked at the main house (many guesthouses, including this one, are little compounds of small cabins around a bigger main house). Inside, we found the fanciest lobby thus far, designed as a sort of lodge and complete with fountain, television, board games, couches, and so forth, but with no attendant and no bell to ring for one. Icelandic proprietors have been pretty laissez faire, so rather than worrying, I did a bit of exploring. We found the loo and did our business, and I found the on-site restaurant (closed, empty, and vacant) and wandered into the (also vacant, but well-stocked) kitchen. A glass front refrigerator was filled with tallboys, and I was ready to settle in and get drunk, except that it was locked and all of my exploring availed no key. I did, though, find some available bottles of red wine—full and single-serving—which luckily don't need refrigeration, so grabbed a little Gallo Cabernet (screw top; would have taken a large bottle but for lack of a corkscrew) and planned to cozy up with my next book: Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles. Michael was looking antsy and did not want to sit around drinking. He rummaged around the reception desk and found a sheet of paper instructing visitors to go to a small house down the road if reception was empty.
We popped our umbrellas (it was still raining heavily) and I dropped the little wine bottle into my backpack (against Michael's protestations); down the hillside, I opened the door to the referenced house and found three young Icelanders enjoying some cigarettes. I gave our name, and the young woman went to fetch our key. She escorted us to the building in which our room was located, far from the main house and the house in which we'd found her. She didn't bother to open the door for us. I asked her where the hot tubs were and she looked at me blankly. "Swimming?" I asked. "There's no swimming," she said. "But up at the house, your brochures have pictures of jacuzzis. . . and the website said. . ." She told us that they were planning to build hot tubs this winter. She smiled and walked away. We were extremely disappointed about this, but happy that the building did have kitchen facilities (although we had no groceries and the next town with a grocery store was probably an hour away), since the only restaurant was the hotel's which charged KR2800 ($40ish) for a set menu dinner with no choices and no vegetarian option. We put the key in the door to our room, number four, but the lock wouldn't turn over. This was the straw that broke Michael's back, and he got that ashy look across his face to which six years of close friendship has strongly sensitized me. "Do you want to leave?" I asked, knowing the answer already. "It's just that there's absolutely nothing to do here," he said, "and we have at least eight conscious hours to spend. And I'm really unhappy about the lack of advertised hot tubs." He even had the internet printout, which boasted a pool, multiple "hot pot" jacuzzis, and a sauna. We drove back up to the manager's house and I left him in the car to do what he does best (study maps and locate an alternative town in which to pass the night) while I went inside to do what I do best (give the manager a piece of my mind and cancel our reservation).
First I told her that the key didn't work. She looked confused. Then I explained our frustration with the lack of promised bathing facilities, and showed her our printout. "Ah," she pointed to the page. "You are looking at the wrong location. That is the Frost and Fire in Hveragerði. It's 300 kilometers from here." I didn't understand. "This is the Frost and Fire in Hof. It's a different guesthouse you are looking at." Aha. The mistake had been ours (and, partially, the website's somewhat misleading layout and photo gallery). I asked whether she could call them to see if we could stay there instead, before I realized exactly what 300 kilometers meant: another three hours of hard driving. Doable, but not desirable. Hveragerði is practically Reykjavík. "Never mind," I told her. "Anyway, it's too early, and this place is too isolated, for us to stay with nothing to do. Can we cancel?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "I am not the regular manager of this guesthouse," she said slowly, "I'm sorry, but it's okay;" we said our goodbyes and I was back in the car, on the road, driving and driving and driving.
We stopped at another gas station for another Coke Zero. It was half past five and although I hadn't noticed hunger creeping up on me (I'd eaten the last of my nicked bananas as we'd driven back across the Jökulsárlón, popping out for few more quick pictures), I saw hot dogs (Iceland's favorite meal!) on the grill and decided that it was time to try one. They had them wrapped in bacon, and I ordered one; the attendant tucked fresh and fried onions along with some relish into the bun before tucking in the dog. Ketchup and mustard were self-serve. It was absolutely delicious and I scarfed it and ordered another. I scarfed that too while Michael sipped his Coke. Then five old couples besieged the previously empty place and we hightailed out.
Soon, we approached Vík. "Do you want to just stay at Hotel Edda again?" I asked Michael. There was the dual benefit of the awesome restaurant and the guaranteed free wireless. They had a room and we took it, then went off to dine, even though I'd just eaten two bacon hot dogs. I ordered a 0.5 L Carlsberg (the only alternate to Viking, which Michael ordered, and declared "sheep's piss") and a small "Cottager's Cheese Pizza," which came topped with blue cheese, Camembert, castle cheese, extra cheese, and with a side of jam (?!) Michael had a large garlic butter mozzarella pizza, same as last time. As before, the service was sub par (typical in this country, where there is no tipping), and we waited at least fifteen minutes to order, at least fifteen minutes for our food, and at least fifteen minutes after we'd finished to order dessert. I wanted to try the Skyr Cake, but though it was listed on the menu, they didn't have any. I picked another cake instead (the cake in the cake case I had assumed was the Skyr cake, a layered frippery with strawberries atop piles of creme and meringue) along with a coffee (I quit coffee a month or so ago in attempt to treat a chronically crinked neck/jaw/shoulder/arm, but have had to take it up again on this trip at breakfast-time in order to be conscious on the long drives, and I guess I've been re-hooked). The coffee was the best I've had here (it's generally not that good; potable, but cheap-tasting; better than a New York diner coffee which usually tastes like a rusty tin can, but not as good as even Starbucks', which I actually don't rank very highly); it was an Italian-style Americano made from roasty beans in an espresso machine. The cake was interesting and somewhat pleasant, though I doubt I'd order it again; the older I get, the stronger my inclination is toward savory rather than sweet, and the combination of meringue, chocolate chips, sugared cream, and icy berries put me over the top. We got back to Edda, and the combination of alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and plain old calories had me bouncing off the walls. The after-midnight sun is still in full affect and here I am, awake as awake can be.
More photos from day seven.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Cows (up real close)
Hálsanefs Hellir (I'll explain)
a Puffin (I'll explain)
Waterfalls (of course)
Núpsstaður (evil flies abound, but way awesome nevertheless)
Skaftafell National Park (four mile hike and best pictures ever)
Jökulsárlón (James Bond's Die Another Day filmed here for good reason)
Okay. Glad to begin with an outline, because today was like three awesome days, and I can't believe I haven't dropped from exhaustion yet. We started out with breakfast at Edda, where I got my paws on whole hard boiled eggs (a miracle) and freshly sliced apples and oranges (a greater miracle still). I scarfed that with a bowl of grainy cereal that required enough chewing to give me a sore jaw afterward, a slice of a soft and crumbly local brown bread with flavors I've yet to pinpoint (it looks like it would be sweet, with the texture of zucchini bread or spice loaf, but the flavor isn't sweet at all, nor salty, nor sour, but still very particular and far from bland).
We packed up the vehicle and backtracked a few minutes to another beach, because I was huffin' to see a puffin (a sea bird special to Icelanders, pictured on postcards everywhere, and served up at dinner in the more expensive restaurants), and the puffin beach we'd tried to go to yesterday (Dyrhólaey) was closed for mating season. On the way to Hálsanefs Hellir, our backup beach, we had to stop the car for cow crossing. I rolled down the window to take pictures and, well, wow; cows smell dreadful. Onto the beach. The first thing I noticed was the extremely satisfying sound of the rounded gray and black lava stones crunching under my feet. The stones reduce in size to pebbles as you approach the shore, and there isn't really any sand. The beach backs onto a number of dramatic caves comprised of stacked, blocky rock formations, better described in a picture than with words. There are also more psychedelic, drippy rock formations out in the sea. An older couple outfitted in Safari gear was our only company on the beach; they had a small telescope set up on a tripod, and the man waved me over and pointed to it, suggesting that I take a look. I peered into the glass and sighed a girly, breathy sigh. It was a puffin, tucking its curved orange and blue beak into its black and white feathers, perhaps snuffling around for an insect, and looking extremely snuglly and cute (I know, sappy; I'm sorry). I expressed my thanks in English and Icelandic, but the couple spoke neither, so I smiled and smiled and sighed and finally walked off. Michael did not get to see the puffin because he was too busy photographing rock formations.
We drove onto our next stop, Núpsstaður, which is village of abandoned turf-roof farmhouses and a not-abandoned (tiny as always) turf-roofed church. I've yet to discover why Icelanders build their farmhouses and churches into the sides of cliffs, caves, or hills, though I have a theory that it cuts down on necessary lumber (of which Iceland has none) or stonemasoning (of which Iceland has plenty) by at least one half, although it does require a bit of digging. The site was ranging with evil flies, though, which not only tried to nest in my eyes and ears, but clung to the underside of my cap like tiny vampire bats, waiting to feed on my mucus membranes. Combined with the annoying tourists asking me stupid questions ("Are you taking a picture of him taking a picture?"/"No, I'm taking a picture of the double waterfall."/"Oh, I thought you were taking a picture of your husband taking a picture."/"He's not my husband." (curtly)), I didn't hang around long, though I did peek into the church to find that it contained a small organ (rare).
Onwards, onwards, to Skaftafell National Park, where a variety of trails lead up to the Vatnajökull ("jökull" means "glacier," and the Vatna- is the largest one in the island. And it, my friends, is bloody ginormous. Immense. Literally awesome.) The trail Michael wanted was closed, so we took another trail that eventually led us up to a lookout point called Sjónarnipa, a 6.5 km hike (mostly level three on a 10 point scale in my book; uphill, but never very dangerous, with a few level four or five digressions from the path for better photo ops) up through the park, around the Svartifoss (beautiful long, long, waterfall coming freshly down off the glacier), and eventually up to a wicked lookout point over the Skaftafellsjökull (one of the many ice-valley outpourings of the massive Vatnajökull. We'd had our eyes set on this glacier the entire hike long, as it had emerged from misty skytop into sharp focus. It seemed enticingly close (Michael wants to touch a glacier so very badly), but though it looked as though another km of tumbling and trudging could get us down onto its surface, the path led there not, and it seemed an imprudent idea. Instead, we took some conquistador-style photos and made our way backward on the same trail, down to the gift shop, where we snagged a sandwich and some Skyr. I picked up what looked like a caramel Skyr-style tub, but which turned out to be a more salty than sweet paste (nutella's texture) that was basically inedible. Michael thought it reminiscent a bit of vegemite. I might enjoy it on toast with jam tomorrow morning, though; we'll see.
Back in the car, we kept driving due East, until we came to a big bridge and Michael pointed out my window. I replied, "OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod." It was the Jökulsárlón, or the ice lake (remember in Die Another Day, there are cars skidding across a vast lake of blue ice? This is the place.) which is the best attraction in Iceland and cannot be missed under any circumstances. It is, oh I hate to use the sullied word but I haven't a choice, mystical. Not in a God way (despite my exclamations, I remain very staunchly atheistic.) If you believe in God, of course, you'll find it here; I just found musical silence, and low, empty peace. Of course, in order to find these things, one must escape tourists, so we walked along the lake's shore at least a mile away from the bustle of the parking lot, the photography, and the boat tours, to where the seals felt comfortable sunning themselves on the big blocks of ice. The ice, hunks of glacier, constantly is in a state of flux, particularly on a sunny June day like today, as melting causes movement. The music in the air is that of a giant glass of tinkling ice water, except in stereo instead of from out your hand. The icy formations—some crystalline, some opaque, some black with volcanic ash—move against each other, melt into new formations, crack and bob and tumble under the water only to immediately pop up again, changed. I got tired, and sat with the sea birds on the gravelly shore while Michael pushed ahead (still itching to touch the glacier, although I had already grabbed a chunk of ice to hold, and snapped off a smaller piece to put in my mouth. It was, to my surprise, very salty, although it was so clear and had caught the sunlight in such a way that it had looked like a piece of aluminum foil floating in the water. I fell asleep on the shore (I'd walked a long way!) and awoke alone. I waited and waited for Michael to come back. It got cold, and the area felt lonely and desolate. The groaning ice and barking seals mocked my hopes for Michael's footsteps to come around the bend, so that we could hike back to the warmth of the car. I waited and waited, but I didn't see him anywhere. Of course, I began to worry, so I climbed up a very high hilltop, and began shouting his name. I heard baa-ing, and turned around to find a ram and two lambs looking down on my from the bluff above. I continued to scan the far edges of the lake for Michael, but I wasn't wearing my glasses, the bluff was a mile away from the last pin turn of the lake, where he had said he was headed, and I saw nothing. I stood and looked and fretted. Soon, I saw what looked like a bobby pin moving very slowly across the opposite shore; two pendula swung back and forth—legs. It could be him. Ten minutes later, the figure rounded the bend. Another ten minutes later, it approached close enough that it was identifiable as him. He was so far that his brisk steps afforded slow-motion progress. Soon we found each other and hiked the mossy bluffs back to the car.
Exhausted, I chugged some water and we drove the last stretch to Höfn, the tiny seaside town we're sleeping in tonight. We checked into our hotel (Asgardur, which is kind enough to provide free wireless internet), received a second floor room with harbor and fishing-boat views, and prepared for dinner. Again, no self-catering, so we dined at Kaffi Hornið, the best-looking spot both via the Lonely Planet and simple curb appeal. Dinner was Kr3900 (nearly $70, I believe) at this restaurant, where our food took half an hour to arrive and we were responsible for getting our own water from the cooler on one side of the room. I'm not complaining, though; this seems to be typical of Iceland. I had "glaciertrout," a salmon-coloured and -tasting slender fillet that was ever so gently panfried and tasted lovely. Michael had a cream sauced rigatoni with vegetables. Both came with small salads, much appreciated in Iceland. Now, bedtime.
More pictures from day six.
Our first stop was a random pull over on the side of the road when I spotted a long, elegant waterfall. Turns out there were two, and the stop wasn't random; we had found Seljalandsfoss, the waterfall our proprietress had told us about after breakfast, when she forced a variety of brochures and maps upon us. It juts out enough from the cave underneath that people can walk a (very wet) path underneath, but I was so wet just from getting up close to take pictures that I decided to skip—those who had planned to come were wearing full rain gear. The wind was blustery and wet, and I slogged through the dewy fields to find refuge in the car while Michael climbed up a hill for better photos.
This entire stretch of the Ring Road is marked by waterfalls; we probably saw 10 today alone, so I won't describe each one. Suffice to say, nearly every one got at least one photographic mention, even if it was just through the rolled-down driver's window with the car stopped dead in the middle of the road for five seconds (I hate driving behind people, because I speed—85 mph in a 90 kmp (60ish mph) zone—but I hate driving in front of people, because I like to stop dead in the middle of the street for pictures without taking the time to pull over. Luckily, the roads have only gotten more and more empty as our itinerary pushes East.)
Continuing on the Ring Road (Hwy 1), I pulled over when I spotted our first real ruins: the fronts and foundations of three stone farmhouses on the side of the road, sheltered by a giant rock jutting up out of the grass and covered in velvety green. I pulled over for this one, and we did a bunch of pictures. I wanted to jump the little wire fence and take close-ups (the ruins are on private property), but Michael usually discourages breaking the law, so I made do with zoom. The rock seemed to be home to a very loud species of bird, and when I started to have a Tippi Hedrin moment, we hopped back into the car and drove on. Next stop, a real attraction: Rútshellir. This is an abandoned farmhouse built into the side of a cave, with grass growing all over the roof (turns out that there are hundreds of these on this part of the island). Took some pictures, got back in the car. Drove; saw another awesome waterfall; stopped at a gas station so Michael could get a Coke Zero (his obsession, and an unintentionally conscious choice: Island has the greatest Coca-Cola consumption per capita in the world at 115 liters per year. Yuck.)
We arrived in Vík and went straight to the beach ("vík" means "bay," if you're wondering), a blustery but stunning black sand stretch complete with black sand sand bar and a psychedelic triplet rock formation off in the distance. The wind at times was strong enough that the sand stung my face and I had to walk backwards, but I walked out to the sand bar's edge nevertheless, snapping pictures all the while. Michael braved the sandbar to touch the water.
After enough of the beach (we took some time to practice throwing rocks across the stream as well), we checked into our accommodation—Hotel Edda—which again had no cooking facility, disabling our desire to self-cater along with the bare grocery store, which sold Michael's company's He's Just Not That Into You in Icelandic, tennis shoes in a variety of sizes, and more candy than Rite Aid at Halloween, but not anything we could eat for dinner. It was five o'clock and the only restaurant in town seemed to be inside the gas station, but Michael found their menu highly distasteful (he would have had to dine on $15 cheese sticks). I asked the gas station attendant whether there were any other restaurants in Vík, and he looked at me as if I were crazy. "Of course," he said. "Where? Or. . . what's good, and where is it? I mean. . ." I bumbled. He rattled off the name of something that began with an "H" and ended with the syllables "-cafe" (and a lot of syllables in between) and pointed left. I thanked him, and we got back in the car to find the mystery cafe. What we found was the restaurant attached to the Guesthouse Lundi, where we had wanted to stay, but which had been booked solid (?!) that night. The proprietor told us that his staff wouldn't arrive until six, so we couldn't dine until then. We thanked him and decided to come back, since he offered a $30 pasta dish Michael found acceptable.
To kill time, we decided to drive up to the church (another tiny box church not much worth describing, and which we didn't even go into), and saw that the road kept going up the hill past the little white cross. We decided to go for the adventure, since we had 48 minutes to spare and counting, so I drove up to the hill's tip top, where we found a small graveyard and a fantastic panorama view of Vík; here we could see that the school had a brand-new full-size all-weather track, and Michael lamented not bringing his running shoes. I reminded him that they had been available at the grocery. We took some pictures, still had time to spare, etc.; we got back in the car. With a half-hour to spare, we decided to kill more time by taking the Ring Road past Vík, where we found another waterfall and snapped some pictures. With fifteen minutes to spare, we followed some signs for points of interest to a German Memorial Rock, decided it sucked, and turned around to go back to the restaurant. Arriving at 6:02, we were told by the proprietor that his staff still hadn't arrived. Kindly, he asked whether we knew about the restaurant next door; we didn't. He told us to go check it out, even though it was bad business on his part. We thanked him and did, and that is how we landed at the restaurant the gas station attendant had recommended: the Hallsdórskaffi, which had gotten a namecheck in our Lonely Planet.
I garnered the proprietor's respect by immediately ordering a large Viking (the local lager) and the "special" burger. Please note that a large lager is larger than a pint; it comes in a frosty glass mug marked with a 0.5 liter line, but is filled above the line such that the contents are likely 0.6 or 0.65 liters. Tasty. I am generally a stout drinker who avoids lager at all costs, but this was clean and refreshing and washed my burger and fries nicely. Michael had a garlic butter and mozzarella pizza with a Coke Light (European Diet Coke). Ought we feel guilty for eating such American food in Iceland? Blame the Icelanders for being so fond of American-style food; they drink Coke and eat hot dogs more than anything else. The only thing that detracted from our dining experience was the Abba playing at high volume throughout the meal. They are inescapable.
After dinner, it was still early and we had a bit too much energy for sleeping. We took a walk through the neighborhood, walking around a campgrounds, to a tiny waterfall, out to the track, over a small stream, and back to the hotel. We had to be in by 11:30 PM because the hotel locks its front door at that time, and Michael didn't want to have to ring the bell. The hostess in the lobby was kind enough to provide me with tea and a password for the wireless internet, and I stayed up late hyped up on English Breakfast, blogging (recall my excitement when Michael got my internet to work). Then, at last, sleep.
More photos from day five.
We ate our breakfast as usual, prepared to say goodbye to Reykjavík, and found the proprietors of our guesthouse (they were preparing breakfast at their other guesthouse, which is where they'd been all this time) in order to pay. They were very kind about their absenteeism and gave us a substantial discount, making it the cheapest (and best) guesthouse so far. Then we hit the road.
The first stop on the route is the Þingvellir ("Þ" is an Icelandic letter called the "thorn;" it's pronounced "th," so that this word is (poorly) pronounced "thing-vellir." Now, the "v" sound is sort of "f"ey, and the double "l" seems to be pronounced "tl" if that's possible, but you get the idea. The Þingvellir is only so exciting. It's the site where Parliament used to convey in the Eleventh Century, and there are supposedly ruins, which actually can't be seen. There is a small church (bigger than yesterday's, but still tiny), a graveyard with markers dating as early as 1863, a pretty stream, some tiny houses, a giant hotel, and supposedly more of those "cracks" where the tectonic plates are shifting (we didn't find them). There are five Icelandic flags on the site (less than a mile square). There are walking paths. We climbed some rocks and found a sun-filled grassy knoll and sat around awhile until the bugs started freaking me out. The weather was pretty, and I even got to take off my sweatshirt. The area has some interesting rock formations, but ultimately, that's just rocks. There are a few small waterfalls that were very exciting at the time, though I've seen better ones here since.
The next attraction is Geysir, which is actually a spot featuring a handful of geysers. The giant geyser, the pride of Iceland pictured on so many postcards, hasn't erupted in a long time; our Lonely Planet guide says it's been "bunged up with rocks," and since then, I have used the phrase "bunged up" at least thrice daily to mean "fucked up" (e.g. our car is bunged up, this road is bunged up, etc.), although it seems to technically mean "filled with." Anyway, Icelanders used to fill the geyser with soap to make it explode, and they killed it. There is another one that is still quite impressive, ringed by tourists taking photos; it seems to explode every two or three minutes, and does some heavy heaving when it's about to blow as a good warning. The blast is high but very short, particularly if you are accustomed to the Old Faithful Geyser in the Calistoga area of California, like I am, which blows and blows and blows. This makes photographs tricky, but I managed a few, and even did a short movie of the blast. The water that comes out is in exces of boiling, and there are some other neat holes in the ground that gurgle and steam and bubble, not unlike the Matmos in Barbarella. This was a pretty cool spot, even though it was all bunged up with tour buses and the same tourists we'd seen at the Þingvellir.
The last stop is the Gullfoss, Iceland's most famous waterfall. It's extremely powerful and fast, but it's wider than it is tall (or it seems), which makes it less appealing to my taste than other falls we've since seen around the Southern coast. Also, it was all bunged up with the same tourists we'd been seeing all day. Nevertheless, it's a must-see, and it was worth it. We got we on the passage to and from the falls (unavoidable), saw a rainbow in the mist (necessary for the complete experience), and Michael climbed out to the edge to touch the water, pronouncing it very cold. The smell of sulfur clings to the area, as it does to the Geysir area as well.
We bought snacks at the gift shop (I won't tell you the price because it's embarrassing): water, a tuna sandwich, and two little tubs of Skyr, which is that national yogurt product (it's extremely thick and creamy, and very tasty; I like the blueberry best. It's the only affordable food product I've encountered thus far, and we are eating quite a bit of it.) My sandwich contained tuna, hard boiled eggs, and creme fraische. I guess tuna salad and egg salad are one and the same here, although Icelanders do not raise chickens, and eggs are therefore very expensive, so this was odd. The sandwich had no lettuce or tomato because these things are even more expensive than eggs on this island. I also had a banana I'd stolen from breakfast, and had been munching on trail mix all day.
We then made our way to the small town of Selfoss ("foss" means "falls," if you've noticed it reappearing and wondered), where we had reserved accommodations at a farm-style guesthouse, which didn't have an address. Most country houses around here, it seems, have their own name, and there are so few of them that there are blue signs with these names on the main highway, pointing out the turnoffs. It was still quite early, though, so we decided to hit the pool in Selfoss and go to the guesthouse later. We found it with a little difficulty, parked, paid our Kr250, and went to our separate locker rooms for the shower drill. This being a local pool rather than the tourist-filled Blue Lagoon, it was filled with Icelandic children, and in the showers I saw more naked children than is kosher to post on the internet about. Anyway, the weather was quite windy and cold, so we found the hot tub, plunked down inside, and stayed put for an hour and a half. The water stung our sunburns, which, partially unbeknownst to us, were getting worse in gray late-afternoon sunlight. We abandoned the waters when three little girls came to join us, silently staring (they probably don't get many English-speaking tourists in their pool). Michael tried to be friendly and asked if they spoke English, but they silently shook their big eyes "no." Probably they did—I do believe it's taught at school, and all adults speak it—but they were very shy.
We separated again to tidy up and piled back into the car to find our guesthouse. The proprietress was a blinky Dane with a penchant for shoe horns (she required shoes off indoors, even in one's own room—apparently typical of Iceland—and placed giant shoe horns everywhere in order to better accommodate this requirement). We sat on our beds and immediately both fell into a deep sleep, even though it was only just after six. We woke up around 8:30, starving, but couldn't find any food. The only open eateries were Subway (neither of us will eat that) and a hot dog stand (Michael is vegetarian). I still had a banana and half of my tuna, but he needed to eat, so we went looking for the Pizza 67, the Icelandic chain akin to Domino's. We found it after some hard searching, but it was closed. We found another pizza restaurant, but it too had closed, two minutes before we got there, at nine o'clock. We would have been self-catering, but our guesthouse offered no cooking facilities, and the grocery store, which we had checked out earlier, had no deli or prepared food on offer. After a good amount of fussing, I decided to drive us back to Reykjavík, less than an hour West, where we knew there were plenty of restaurants, and, at worse, the 10/11. I joked that we had time to make it home before dark. Well, when we arrived, it was a few minutes after ten, and out of ten or so restaurants we checked, five had nothing Michael would eat (and were probably no longer serving anyway), four had something he would eat, but were not serving after ten, and one had something he could eat, but charged roughly $40-50 per entree (this being Salt, a very trendy restaurant in the Radisson 1919 hotel, whose menu and decor was closest to anything in New York I've seen thus far. It was vaguely Ian Schragery). Being awesome, I found a pizza restaurant that was still serving, and we split a four cheese 12 inch with very thin crust. I drank water; Michael had a coke. It was $40ish. Yup yup yup.
Before heading home, I wanted to stop back at the internet cafe to check email for some addresses I'd requested from friends for postcards. The email facility seems to be the most booming business in town, with three stories of 20-30 stations each, filled with kids playing Warcraft on giant screens and wearing giant headphones. I paid my Kr200 for 15 minutes, checked my mail, and hightailed it out. White people scare me. We got lost on the way back home because we were both so tired, but finally found the right road and our guesthouse, and fell fast asleep.
More pictures from day four.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
We woke up less early than we would have liked, but saved the showering time because we were headed to the bathing destination of the century. We wolfed our breaky, suited up, and trudged off to the bus terminal. I packed up all my toiletries, knowing I'd be bathing, but skipped the sunscreen, laughing at myself for even bringing it to Iceland, so very far from the equator, where the nicest weather we'd seen so far had been a windy 55˚F. Bus tickets included the flybus transport to the Bláa Lónið (Blue Lagoon), admission to the baths, and bus transport back to Keflavík, where we would pick up our rental car, no longer slaves to the flybus and its fares (this trip: Kr3600, or $60ish).
Iceland is known for its bathing opportunities; every major town has a pool open to the public for a nominal admission fee (usually under $10), and there are also geothermal hot springs dotting the still-active volcanic island. The Blue Lagoon is the largest and fanciest, but it is an artificial, man-made, engineered hot springs (featuring actual geothermally heated all natural water and all natural volcanic silica mud, but in a pool constructed by (mediocre) landscape architects (if you want better specimen of artificial lagoons, I recommend the fancier hotels of Maui, although those are cold water). It's still, though, worth the trip. When checking in, each guest is given a plastic bracelet that contains a computer chip. This bracelet both locks and opens your locker and works as a tab so that you can buy food and drinks at the cafe or massages at the spa area, paying one single tab on the way out the door. Towels are for rent at Kr600 ($10ish) each (!) Inside the locker rooms, before entering the lagoon area, showering, nude, with soap, in front of a lot of other same sex people doing the same, is very much required, here and at all other Icelandic pools. The lagoon is big, steamy, and lightly sulfurous. The water is bright and light, greenish blue, and stains the rocky bottom and sides white, reflecting what that day was a bright, cold sky dotted with cheery clouds. The color comes from supposed blue-green algae.
We puttered about in the water for an hour or two, pummelling our shoulders under the (fake) waterfall, and rubbing the silica mud on our bodies and faces; before we realized that there were stations at the lagoon's edges where the mud could be scooped up with a ladle, we used our feet to scoop it up off the floor. It was, well, fun, but, um, yeah, sort of gross if you think about it for too long. When I got bored, I sat in a very nice steam room for awhile, which has a glass wall that allows you to look out at the lagoon and the bathers while you're sweating and a waterfall that makes a soothing sound. There was also a dry sauna that I avoided. I wanted to have a massage, which would have been conducted in a special area of the pool, on a floating mat, but there weren't any free slots in the time we had allotted to stay. Instead, I spent a good deal of time enjoying the Finnish Sauna, which was built into an (artificial) cave with a low door one must duck down into. With very low light, it seats at most eight people, and is round, with one level of wood plank benches and a wood plank floor up through which hot steam spews. This was my favorite part of the experience and I wish there was a Finnish Sauna in every town, rather than just a swimming pool and hot tub.
We showered, scrubbed, and caught our bus (as it was about to pull away) to the airport. I had booked our (very expensive; surprise!) rental car through my company's travel agency (the cheapest way, believe it or not). Because I only drive automatic, I required a mid-size vehicle (all compact and economy cars here, and apparently throughout much of Europe, are manual); the car was therefore costing $680 for seven days. When we got up to the counter, the attendant announced that he was giving us a free upgrade and I thought that was lovely; I was to get a Vitara. "I don't know what that is," I said to him. "It's a Jeep," he said, and I said, "awesome," thinking of the off-roading possibilities now opened up to us—many good things here, like glaciers, etc., require four wheel drive in order to drive through streams, over turf, etc. I was a tiny bit skittish because I've never driven a truck—just sedans and sports cars—but he said it handled easily. Michael and I trudged through the parking lot, found the car, and saw that it was a giant white Suzuki SUV. I hate SUVs, I hate white cars, and I had no idea how I was going to park the massive thing anywhere in Reykjavík. I asked Michael if he thought we should try taking it for a spin around the lot, or just go back and request to be downgraded back to a sedan. We got downgraded back to a sedan (Nissan Altima; gold (gold is bad, but better than white, and I like the way Nissans handle; my car back in San Francisco is a Nissan)) and drove off on the long way back to Reykjavík, after signing up for $200 worth of extra insurance, just in case.
Major attractions along the way began with the Miðlína (the "Bridge Between Two Continents), where the continental plates are shifting such that on one side of a ten meter gap is Europe, and the other side is America (I am very bad at geography, so don't ask me how this is possible; just believe). Enough gravel and sand has slipped down in between that if you fell of the edge of one side, you wouldn't get too hurt landing (10 feet below? 15?) It was so, so, so windy and I ran laughing back to the safety of the car while Michael continued to photograph (this would become a pattern.) On the way there, and from there to the next stop, all the terrain looked like the moon (rocks rocks rocks and some dirt, no plants, and then more rocks, all flat, as far as the eye could see); it was rather boring and sad at best, dreadful at worst, because many parts of the roads (many parts of many roads around here, it turns out) are unpaved gravel. Before I accepted that this was "perfectly normal; perfectly healthy," I took these roads at 10 mph. Imagine. Now I take them at between 20-40, depending on the coarseness of the grind, which changes radically depending on how important the road is. All roads near cities and businesses and most (!) major highways are paved. Non-major sections of major highways are fine gravel. Roads turning off the major highway into small hamlets are medium gravel. Roads turning of these roads into individual homes or farms' "private drives" are coarse (think Courbet's Stone Cutters). The most exciting aspect of the landscape is the preponderance of cairns: who is out there stacking up all these rocks in this hideous weather?
The next attraction on the road was the Krýsuvikurkirja, the tiniest church I have ever seen. Perched atop a windy little hill, covered in grass happily being munched by six or seven untended sheep (common out here in Iceland's countryside, particularly in the South), it had a tiny door with a giant key sitting in the lock, and though the area seemed desolate, the guestbook had 24 signatures for that day already. The construction was nearly the barest minimum: brown planks for walls, red roof, four windows, and a door. It could probably seat 16 people comfortably, 24 people uncomfortably. I am telling you it is tiny, and you have no idea just how tiny I mean. I banged my head on the door on the way out, okay?
The next attraction was, to make up for the falsehood of the Bláa Lónið, a real geothermal hot spring: the Krýsuvík-Seltún. A big yellow sign reads, in Icelandic and English, "DANGER! Steam eruptions Hot springs" because the water that comes up is boiling. You believe the sign because there is steam everywhere, the powerful smell of sulfur, and the water on the ground is literally boiling: big bubbles are burping up at the rapid pace your pasta longs for. Minerals in the water stain the earth and the resultant patterns of blue, white, and orangey-brown and black are quite attractive. I took a lot of "arty" pictures here, and did a 10 second video of a boiling puddle so that you would believe me.
Our last attraction before heading back to our guesthouse and self-catered dinner (I made a tasty pesto/chicken/pasta/zucchini thing in a frying pan that looked ultra green and gross but tasted nice) was Kleifarvatn, a big, deep blue lake with black sand banks. Again, it was terribly cold and windy, but I parked the car off the side of the road (had some trouble getting it back up onto the road afterward. . .) and we ran down to the water's edge for pictures. This was the first night that we didn't need a long walk to get us ready for bed. I had driven five hours. Of course, undressing, we found that we both had serious sunburns. Only we could get sunburns in Iceland in 50˚F weather. Sleeping wasn't as easy as it ought to have been.
More pictures of day three.