Category Archives: Iceland

In a Forest Pitch Dark / Glowed the Tiniest Spark

Back to our regularly scheduled posts on Iceland!  I’d planned to do daily updates from Iceland, but our internet connection became spotty, and as you might imagine, I’d rather have no internet than internet that craps out on you at exactly the wrong moment.

So, on with the show.

Click here to skip to Björk.

Wednesday was a slow day to start.  I slithered forth around 11a, with everyone looking at me like I was slightly crazy.  The goal for the day was to obtain our tickets to Iceland Airwaves, and my ticket to see Björk in concert.

Before I get to that, I wanted to mention that our fancy night out the night prior came to around 91,000 kronur, which is about $760.  For eight people including cocktails, a full course, dessert and a few bottles of wine, not bad at all!

We found our wristbands for the festival at the Plaza Hotel, and then set out to find my ticket.  There was a bit of confusion over where to go; an initial email had said one thing, another said to go to the music store Smekkleysa, which made sense, since Björk was a partner there.  It turned out my ticket was waiting for me at the venue, which was pretty much where we started our trek 20 minutes earlier.  We decided to get a tasty lunch instead at Sólon, and then head to the Harpa, where Björk would be performing.  I had lasagna bolognese, a malbec from Chile and another excellent latte.  Everyone at the table shared their pretty (and tasty) pieces of cake with me.

The music festival was an afterthought for me—I was going to see Iceland!—and even once I had my ticket for that, Bjork was another afterthought.  I wasn’t a fan of the Sugarcubes during their heyday (I have all their albums now), and I’m not quite sure how I stumbled across her in the first place.  After my initial interest in college, I’d lost it after she finished promoting the album “Homogenic”.  She was moving more towards an ambient sound, largely based on what she thought was natural, and it kind of bored me. When a friend purchased tickets to see her at Airwaves, I got one myself, mostly writing it off and looking forward to just spending time with my friends.

I was mistaken.

After lunch, we headed to the Harpa, which is a new music hall with a honeycombed glass facade inspired by basalt lava formations.  The Harpa has several floors with a variety of music halls in it, the biggest one being able to hold about 700 people.  We  arrived around 4:30, picked up my ticket and then started poking around.  When Tia arrived around 5, Stephanie and I headed upstairs to meet her on the top floor.  I thought this was a little odd, because the front desk told us Björk was going to be on the second floor, but Tia is adventurous, so I trust her to find excitement, however unintentionally.

Tia was seated among a group of well-dressed people who gave Steph and I funny looks as we went to sit down next to her.  Our seats had names on them (call me “Nikita”), and when we queried about it, we were curtly dismissed by a blonde wraith who sailed past us.  We assumed there would be some pre-show for Björk, and that it would be odd, so this must be it!

An electric violinist started playing while a black-and-white film projected onto a wall next to him of a fit, furry viking-looking guy swimming nude to a thunderous soundtrack.   Is it art?  Not sure, but not bad.  And then…

THE LIGHTS WENT ON

Space Shepherd

… and we suddenly realized we were at a fashion show, and seated in the front row of the catwalk.  I was dressed DOWN, so I tried to shrink behind Steph a bit as the cameras started clicking after the models coming down the runway.

It was the Spring/Summer 2012 menswear line “Cast by Shadows” by Sruli Recht.  The clothes were in the style of rustic space cult leader: minimalist and austere, but structured.  I kept noticing the footwear, which were like slippers that had big useful parts cut out of them (seems fairly impractical for Iceland), and that the models didn’t seem to be wearing any underwear.  However, I’m pretty sure the only reason I was sweating was due to the klieg lights.  Pretty sure.

After it finished, the mini-viking who had been sitting next to us at the start turned out to be Sruli Recht himself—I was tempted to talk to him about it, but remembered we had bigger fish to fry.  We headed down to find Björk.

Björk’s show didn’t start until 8, but we got in line on the stairs leading to the level the auditorium was on around 5:30p.  We were in the first ten or so people.  Of course, nobody knew which direction the line was supposed to go—we’re all foreigners here, and the Icelandic natives don’t get worked up about standing in line—and so there were people who got behind us (GOOD), and people who instead pooled on the landing above (BAD!), firmly pressing our big red buttons associated with line-cutting.  A couple hours later, they started moving us in, and we found ourselves about to enter shortly after 7pm.

The concert hall was tiny!  Björk’s set, situated in the center of the room, took up most of the space.  There were 20 or so rows of tiered seating on the left with 15 seats in each row, and then standing room everywhere else.  We were no more than 20 feet from the stage, which had a circle of monitors crowning it showing graphics from her latest album, “Biophilia”.  Several strange instruments were arrayed before us: a gamaleste, which is a celeste with bronze tone bars inspired by gamelan music and a gravity harp which you can see in a video below.

She really didn’t seem like a crazed chihuahua / Bride-of-Ronald-McDonald in person; as they say, the video doesn’t do the experience justice.  The gravity harp was in a more compact configuration at our show, but it was just as hauntingly effective.  While being used, the interface to control it was displayed on the monitors overhead, small planets circling a sun.  When the sun changed from one color to the next, the planets that shared the same color dictated the melody on the instrument.

I wish I had pictures from the show, but they were inspecting bags and all cameras were sent off to be checked.  Unfortunately, the couple photos I snagged with my phone were lost in the great iOS5 upgrade of 2011, though Steph managed to get one.

The show was amazing!  The lights went down, and 20 young women approached the stage wearing what appeared to be a cross between a burlap sack and  disco jumpsuits.  Shortly after, a tiny figure wearing one of Macy Gray’s castoff wigs skipped towards the stage in giant clog shoes and a voice out of National Geographic began to intone the connections between humans, music and nature.   As a large cylindrical cage began to descend over our heads, graphics began to come across the screens in front of us.

Björk and her greek chorus began to sing nearly a capella about craving miracles, then paused.  The cage overhead came to life: she was using a TESLA COIL as bass for the first song, Thunderbolt.  It was powerfully effective.

Skip to about :49 seconds to see and hear the effect of the tesla coil.

Björk’s movements are very childlike and full of energy, and suited to her small stature.  I’d say she must be inspired by her young daughter, but really, I just don’t think Björk ever lost her sense of being a child.  Between each song she simply thanked the audience with a “Takk fyrir“, and waited as the documentary narrator explained the next part of our journey.

After having toured around the countryside, listening to her music in her hometown provided new insight.  Björk sang us “Isobel“, one of two songs that ran through my head most of the time I was in Iceland.  For instance, this snippet of the song took on an entirely new dimension as we drove for hours, the only souls around:

in a forest pitch-dark
glowed the tiniest spark
it burst into flame
like me : like me

my name isobel : married to myself
my love isobel : living by herself

when she does it she means to
moth delivers her message
unexplained on your collar
crawling in silence
a simple excuse

na na na na na

I was hoping she’d sing “Jóga“, the closest thing you can get to Iceland without actually going.  Do yourself a favor and watch this in a room with the volume up and the lights down, and experience the chills the Icelandic people felt for a thousand years as they tended to and trekked across their emotional and haunting landscape:

She sang “One Day” from her first solo album, “Debut”, something I listened to countless times.  For the first time, the song made complete sense to me, and I felt like I was being addressed directly by a wisdom that surrounds us all, despite being very difficult to hear at times.

one day : it will happen
one day : it will all come true
one day : when you’re ready
one day : when you’re up to it

the atmosphere will get lighter
and two suns ready to shine just for you
i can feel it!

Her percussionist amazed us with his abilities to draw unexpected sounds from inexplicable instruments, at one point dubstepping solo as though he were a beatbox from the 1980s.  She closed our show with the song “Declare Independence” from the album “Volta”.  The song takes on a whole new meaning after being in post-economic fallout Iceland.  I find it interesting that Björk talks about declaring indepedence—at one point she shouts “protect your language!”—but her success largely stems from singing in English to a non-Icelandic audience, and I wonder how she reconciles that.  The use of English among the Icelandic people is eminently practical, but it must be conflicting to depend on it when singing about being independent.

Björk rocked the house.  If you love music, specifically the the art of making music and the philosophy of instrumentation, you must see this show if it comes your way!

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Fjording and Fooding

I posted my last update rather hastily, and wanted to talk a little bit about some of the things before heading into today’s excursion into fjords.

Our first big stop past the fairy rocks yesterday was at a place called Thingvellir. It’s a vast vale where the Icelandic people would come together once a year to sort out their governmental issues; the word literally means “assembly fields”. I thought it was kind of strange that it was many kilometers inland and away from Reykjavik, but the reason is that it’s more centrally located, and people would travel for long periods of time on horse prior to the modern era.

It’s tremendous imagining what life must have been like when the country got together once a year to see what happened elsewhere, introduce brides and grooms to each other and generally share news, and then decide what they might change in the coming year. Of course, Reykjavik is now the central place of government since it takes hours instead of days to cross the island, and Thingvellir is but a destination.

The falls at Gullfoss are an amazing site to behold as they slowly unfold in front of you. It becomes more mind-boggling as soon as you realize you can walk around on them—you get the sense that the Icelanders have weeded out their idiots over the last thousand years by virtue of letting nature take care of them.

Today we decided to go fjording in the north, and all of us had the idea that it would be a destination, rather than a process. Fjords, however, have other ideas. We set out from the city on route 1, happy and fed, enjoying the kilometers zipping by on the paved road. I was the lead car today, with Tia acting as my GPS. We made a brief detour to get gas, and I had another experience with the natives assuming I belonged to them. After I filled up, an old man came over to the car and started babbling and pointing at the gas tank, so I said “pardon me?” and he continued to point and babble in Icelandic. I left him there, not knowing if he was a mental patient or just trying to be helpful, assuming that one of my car mates would sort it out.

Inside the station, I went to pay for the gas and the tall cashier looked me over and babbled my total in Icelandic. I started speaking English, so he switched into some sort of Scandinavian language. I persisted in English, and this is the following conversation:

Cashier: Are you Scandinavian?
Me, mirthfully: No, no.
Cashier: Are you sure?
Me, slightly incredulous: Yes. I’m from Michigan in the US.
Cashier: Oh really?? I met someone from New York earlier!
Me: Why do you think I’m Scandinavian?
Cashier: (points at my hair, waves his hand around)
Me: Ohhh.
Cashier: But I must say, you don’t look like you are from New York! You look completely different!
Me, not sure what to think: No, no probably not.
Cashier: Have a great trip!
Me: Takk fyrir.

I returned to the car to find the old interloper had shown Tia how to shut the gas cap and then wandered off. We jumped back in the car and were on our way. We soon hit a fork in the road: we could take route 1, or route 1. Our map was in the back seat being the subject of trivia, so we made a random decision and pressed forward, and suddenly found ourselves rapidly descending to the center of the earth via the Hvalffjordur tunnel. While it wasn’t particularly scenic, it was, like much of Iceland, very raw, warm and unnerving. We popped out and had to pay 1000 kronur for the experience, and found we’d cut an hour off our travel time up north.

We pressed on, with a goal to be at a small city called Stykkishólmur for lunch, and our map indicated we’d get onto route 54, and then 55 to cut across to Stykki. Shortly after turning onto 55, we pulled off onto the side of the road to debate whether or not to continue after finding it was a compressed dirt road. It also provided a couple of us for a bathroom break, so I promptly found a drainage ditch and then fell into it. Again, combat boots were very handy, as was the car heater for drying everything off.

Driving on route 55 was akin to what it might be like to drive on the moon shortly after they start terraforming it. The landscape is unbelievable, primitive and you are the only souls for miles. We didn’t see a single car while crossing the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which eventually became a bit fatiguing due to having to keep your eyes peeled for anything that might jeopardize the lonely trip across.

It was made a little less fun because it added an hour and a half to our commute, and we arrived at Stykki way past when lunch had been served. However, I would still recommend taking the journey, especially if you have a small group of people. We stopped once on the long drive, and the photos and views were unbelievable, as they are the entire drive. This was about the point when I realized the fjords weren’t so much a destination as they were everything we were seeing as we drove through them. I had this vision of icebergs, deep blue water and Free Willy zipping around in a bay. It’s good to destroy preconceived notions.

Stykki is tiny, and we were told everything was closed, except for the gas station and the bakery across from it. And what we’re calling the “Bonus Pig”, a mini-market of sorts. We headed towards the bakery and were finally rewarded with the option for lunch at 4pm in the afternoon! Tia was grateful I’d spent the last four hours leading the pack, so lunch was free for me. Thanks, Tia!

As we sat in the bakery, a few different clumps of people came and went. We were surprised by a trio of young American women, including a nun in a blue habit from an order in Argentina. Apparently there are 3 nuns and a father who minister to the tiny community. The two other women had been rescued by the nuns after getting stuck on a glacier the previous day. Super nuns! We wondered how the nuns could spot people getting marooned on a glacier, and guessed that maybe they put a sign on them suggesting a leisurely drive across the glacier.

Fortunately, lunch made a big difference in my outlook on life, and we headed out for the trek back to Reykjavik. We made the decision to avoid completely rounding the peninsula, and to stick to the main, paved road for the trip back, and to avoid using the tunnel. We were rewarded with more amazing views of the fjords, gorgeous hidden waterfalls, and even a visit from wild icelandic ponies!

Dinner was at a new restaurant called Grillmarkadurinn, a place we’d noticed our first night in Reykjavik. It seemed like it would be very, very nice, and we spent that night trying to figure out what it was named. It was hidden behind a building, and we were initially drawn to it by the prominently displayed light fixture in their central stairwell, unavoidably hanging in the front windows. Fortunately, we have a level 36 Internet searching mage, and we armed ourselves with a reservation for 8:30 and headed over tonight.

The interior is modern rustic, with hammered patinas, wood and wood-based Eames furniture throughout. The front of the bar and columns downstairs were “wallpapered” with fish skins, with a massive slate wall on one side of the room, and one of moss on the other. Very warm and friendly, and the food is fantastic!

I started with an anise martini: it tasted marvelous, and the visual was top-notch. We ordered a few bottles of wine for the table (I chose a white Burgundy—big surprise) and started with a variety of appetizers: langoustine puff pastry, puffin (!), minke whale (!!), salmon ceviche, lamb skewers…

I tried both the whale and puffin. I don’t think I could get past my guilt over eating a whale: it didn’t taste like it was worth it to me. Sort of like a gamier roast beef. The puffin was a winner, on the other hand. Kind of like goose or quail. The lamb skewers were overdone and spicy, but the salmon ceviche was excellent, and covered in roe. Kind of like sushi-meets-oyakodon in a way.

A number of us got the fish gourmet entree, which included small bowls of salad, mushrooms (?) and curly fries (??). Mlis had the foresight to order coriander-mayo on the side, which paired well with the fries. The fish part of the entree were three small piles of fish prepared in various ways: salted cod, salmon and monkfish. The salmon prep was the best by far. I choked down the monkfish (texture, ick) and the cod was cod.

The best was last: I ordered a latte (excellent!) and the Grillmarket Chocolate dessert, which was this seeming ball of chocolate resting on a bed of fruit and chocolate sauces. We were about to dig in when a waiter came running over to pour caramel over all of it. I momentarily thought it was going to be overwhelmingly sweet, but the chocolate ball began to disintegrate, revealing a smaller dessert inside, with small rice krispy-like pop rocks that would continue popping in your mouth. It was insanely tasty.

I’m glad I got dessert this time.

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The Golden Circle

It turns out using an iPad to write and publish blog posts isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Writing the words is, but getting all the photos uploaded is a nightmare, and a real hindrance to doing a daily update. I figure I can at least write things down until I have a moment to upload some photos. I need practice writing, anyway.

Iceland’s water smells sulfuric. Everywhere. It becomes obvious why when you head inland to check out some of the natural water features. Our group (now numbering eight) set out in the morning in two Suzuki 4x4s to take in the Golden Circle Tour, an absolute must while visiting. It captures many of the things that make Iceland’s natural geography unique, including:

You also can check out Iceland’s original seat of the Catholic Church (almost protestant in its interior sensibilities) and a city that’s Not Reykjavik, too.

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The sun here is incredibly bright when it’s out, and provides for stark contrast in almost every photo. It was a perfect day to be taking in these sights as a result. And despite lots of construction to allow you to walk through many of these natural wonders, having a good pair of boots is a good idea. The water in the stream flowing beside you may actually almost be boiling, as it turns out.

Most of the stops along the tour have restrooms, food and plenty of opportunity to take great photos. My meals and drinks of choice along the way today were hot dogs and hot chocolate. The Icelanders are quite proud of their hot dogs, so of course I had to put a couple in my mouth.

After the tour, we attempted to find dinner in the southern city of Selfoss, but the recommendations we’d been given were no longer in business. After trying to check out some places on the go, we decided to head back to Reykjavik, with the full moon rising in the east, and the sun simultaneously setting in the west.

Dinner was at the Skolabru restaurant where the sleek, minimal interior was in stark contrast to the traditional dollhouse architecture out front. Dinner was okay: 4000Ikr ($33) for a salmon entree with some house white wine (Chardonnay) set to a 70s soundtrack. The food was good, but the overall experience wasn’t particularly compelling.

I probably should have gotten dessert.

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Ég tala ekki íslensku.

(I don’t speak Icelandic.)

Despite that, people keep trying to speak it to me.

The flight over was uneventful, passengers seemingly evenly split among Americans, Brits and Icelanders. The chicly-attired and blonde (naturally) flight attendants were efficient and conspiratorial, offering sly winks as they managed our 6 hours across the Atlantic.

A couple times they’d try to talk to me in Icelandic, and I wonder what was setting them off, because they seemed to know when to use English otherwise for other people. Was it my attire? My hair and eye color? The way I carry myself?

Icelanders seem to be well put together, healthy within their age brackets, and the older women reminded me of my maternal grandmother in her grander days: perfumed and moisturized with blonde or white hair, chunky baubles and rings over stylish and elegant clothing.

After a smooth landing, we were quickly ushered through immigration, where I answered no questions and filled out no forms—do bad people just skip Iceland? Or do Icelanders trust people more?—and then it was onto a bus for a 2 minute ride to the main terminal to pick up luggage. The airport isn’t much bigger than your average small regional airport in the US, and it feels like one you’d find in the northern climates back in the states, with lots of wood and natural materials throughout. Mlis and Steph arrived shortly after and after a waltz through customs (again, no questions) the three of us joined our rental car representative to pick up our cars.

A note about Icelandic men… I’ve dated a couple guys of Scandinavian descent over the last couple of years, and the resemblance is uncanny. As we’ve been traveling around the city, I’ll startle as I notice someone walking or standing in my peripheral vision, only to realize that on second look, whoever he is, he isn’t anyone I know.

The women are—mostly true to stereotype—blonde, except for the one who lives above us and spends much of her time walking loudly on the concrete floor in clogs. I suspect she’s related to the Björk, and I shall call her Stömpi.

It’s chilly here, like Michigan in early December. Skies are a continual churn of sunny, slate gray and blue, and the water surrounding the city reflects that. I thought my windbreaker, hat and gloves might be overkill, but they’re not. Cars are mostly diesel, and either very small, or 4×4 trucks to deal with conditions outside the city. We have two 4x4s ourselves, and as we drove to Reykjavik from the airport in Keflavik, the primeval volcanic landscape coming to life under a dramatic sunrise just off the road provided a good potential reason for having them. A point in contrast: we also saw a Taco Bell.

After settling into the apartment below Stömpi, we took a brief walk around the city to find food, ending up at a place called Cafe Babalu, which was alarmingly stuffed with the women’s Canadian hockey team. The owners were just slightly concerned, quietly scurrying about and nervously glancing at their very full dining area. The city was pretty sleepy, so it was the only thing we could find open at that point on Sunday morning.

Dinner was after another walk around town (after crashing into a snoozing heap from jet lag in the afternoon), and we ended up at a decent place called Cafe Paris. We shared a goat cheese appetizer at the table, and had variants on cod and a lamb-based Icelandic goulash for dinner. The chocolate cake was a little too sugary for me, but it seems like every sweet is served with a side of real whipped cream which helps cut down on it. The cappuccino was excellent!

On the walk home, we stopped by a mini-market just down the street from us called 11-11. As I smartly loaded up my basket with breakfast items and then stylishly brought them to the cashier, he babbled at me in Icelandic. It turns out he was just asking if I wanted a plastic bag, but it’s the first time I’ve been somewhere I can’t actually speak the language. I paused, and instead of using the few words I do have, I switched into English and we all winced as the charade came to an end.

That said, everyone around here speaks English, and it’s all over the buildings, signs and windows. They seem to get that it’s probably in their best interest to be accommodating, because it’s probably few the number of people who are going to learn to speak a language only used by 300,000 people in the world.

However, tomorrow, I’m going to try.

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Reykjavík bound!

I’m sitting at the gate at Dulles in DC, awaiting my flight to Reykjavik. The reaction I’ve gotten so far has been “Iceland!” and then, “why Iceland?!” And the answer is “to understand Björk”. No, not really. Well, sort of.

Iceland seems like an exotic place to me: it’s on TOP of the world. Get out Google Earth (because who has a globe?) and center it on the equator. Spin the world around. Do you see Iceland? No, because it is ON TOP. Almost the arctic circle. Those mercator maps are full of lies! A volcanic ice ball of an island, fortunately heated by the gulf stream. It gets colder where I live, but our shortest day is 9 hours, not 2. Volcanic! Ice! I like juxtaposition. (I just hope no volcanos go off while I’m there.)

Roughly populated by the same number of people who live in my county back home, it’s hard to believe it’s an independent country. The only people they’ve gone to war with are the British, and that was over cod. There aren’t any trees, or at least not big ones. And if any of them are remotely like Björk, I suppose I’ll be surprised, but it probably won’t last long. (The people. I suspect the trees are very Björk-like.)

Exotic is hard for me to come by. I spent my teens in Japan, a place synonymous with exotic for many people. I get why that is, but to me, it’s also home. I understand how it works. I can read the signs and understand what people are saying. Once you get to that point, you can start to see the flaws in a place, and the exotic begins to wear thin. The rest of Europe seems reasonable: you’d want to go there to see history, or where your ancestors came from, or if it really lives up to all those chick flicks. There’s warm weather, beaches, vineyards, biergartens, which are very very nice, but not particularly exotic.

I haven’t been out of the states in over 9 years—Canada doesn’t count; I love Canada, and am of Canadian descent, even (mon Ecossais-Québécois grand-père, une travailleuse du Canada)—so I’ve been itching to go somewhere new and interesting, where few of my friends have gone before. I’m also curious to see if it provides any insight into what makes Björk tick. I get the cold, and the lack of sunlight, but is there more to it? Besides marrying Matthew Barney?

It’s been a long time coming. I decided I wanted to go there while driving back to university one night eighteen years ago, in the fall of 1993. I was speeding along through the crisp Fall night, the sounds of Björk’s solo debut filling the car, and I wanted to know… why.

So I’m off to Reykjavik and beyond to see what it’s about. I’m meeting up with old friends from university, and we’re going to a music festival during the latter part of the week we’re there. Of course Björk will be there, along with bands you’ve never heard of, AND Yoko Ono! I’m going to check out the hot springs, and hopefully a volcano or two. I can’t wait.

Ekki treysa nunnum.

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