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Some Handy Tips for Travellers to Iceland

Kleifar-meadow-panorama

You Should Definitely Go

I had to say that first. Iceland is absolutely stunning. I kept on overusing the word “epic” while I was there, and I keep overusing it now, because it’s the most fitting word to describe this country. The snow-covered mountains, the fjords, the ever-changing landscape, the geysers, bubbling mud pools, crazy rock formations, volcanoes, thermal springs – it’s unlike any landscape you have seen. Put “Visit Iceland” on your bucket list. Near the top.

Now, a few things to be aware of:

Siggi-fish cooked on plate

It’s Expensive

I had been warned that living costs in Iceland are high, but my first supermarket receipt still came as a bit of a shock. Food here is expensive. A few examples: a packet of three chicken breasts will set you back about $35, a packet of cheese comes in at $17. Basically, prepare to pay about twice what you pay at home. Of course, I’m a bit spoiled living in Montreal, where I can fill a shopping bag with groceries for $20 at the local PA. But still… In the end I spent the month being nearly entirely vegetarian, living on sweet-potato curries and pasta. And cookies. I may have put on a little extra weight…

What’s true for groceries is also true for everything else. Iceland has many wonderful shops and boutiques with stylish clothes, innovative home furnishings, and beautifully designed small gifts. But they will cost you an arm and a leg. The epitome of this was a miniature glass jar I spotted in the airport boutique at Keflavik, about 5cm high, filled with half a teaspoon of black lava sand. This little item went for $10. I would like to point out that I filled an empty 60ml paint jar with black lava sand from Òlafsfjörður. That’s easily $200 of souvenir sand!

Krona coins

Making Change

The Canadian Dollar/Icelandic Krona conversion was fairly simple – just lob the last three zeroes off the krona, and that’s the price in dollars (as of July 2014). A bit more of a challenge was what to do with all those coins. Krona are heavy, and, frankly, not worth all that much. I ended up piling my coins in stacks of ten at the edge of my desk, just to keep track of my change. Five stacks of the massive 10 krona piles paid for one latte at Kafe Klara, and at the end of my stay I left the rest of the coins behind.
One big mistake I made: I didn’t change the krona back into euros or dollars at the end of my stay. Now that I’m back in Montreal it has been a challenge to find a bank which accepts Icelandic krona. In the end I had to resort to dealing with a currency exchange bureau downtown Montreal, who charged me an exorbitant fee to make the exchange ($40 on $300 worth of krona. Highway robbery, if you ask me.)

Icelandic_handwriting-1000

English is Spoken Here

Part of my preparations for my Iceland residency was the idea to learn some Icelandic. I usually try to learn the local language wherever I live, which is how I’ve accumulated English, French, and some Mandarin (of which I forgot nearly 80% by now. So sad.) So, I was quite excited about adding one more language to my repertoire.
Well, that didn’t work as planned. Icelandic is actually harder to learn than it appears. Written down the language is quite similar to English, and even to the north-German dialect. I was able to read most signs. But once it’s spoken – it’s a completely different ball game! Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that many letters aren’t pronounced the way you expect. For example, “u” sounds like “i,”  “eu” sounds like “ou,” and then there are the letters “ð” which is a “th” sound, much like the “þ” which is also a “th” sound… you can see where it gets tricky.
Luckily – or unluckily – everyone here speaks nearly perfect English. Even the kid at the supermarket cash register (he can’t have been older than 12, obviously doing his summer job) served me in English, despite my best efforts to say a few things in Icelandic. Once he even greeted me in German. Impressive.

gloves and bikini snapseed1000

It’s Cold

But seriously: fleece gloves in June? Yes. Fleece gloves in June. In northern Iceland the thermometer usually tops out at around 14°C, and on overcast, windy, rainy days it’s going to get rather chilly. Do yourself a favor and pack fleece sweaters, hats, gloves, and thick socks. You may not need them all the time, but there will be days where you’re really, really glad you brought them along.
However, the houses are all well heated, all year round. Iceland is powered by thermal heat, and many properties have steaming hot water piped into their homes directly from the ground. Free heating! Actually, Siggi told me that in Òlafsfjörður every home has a free hot-water spout installed at the end of its driveway. The homeowners can then use the hot water for whatever purpose they wish: install floor heating, heat their homes, and some even run the hot-water pipes underneath their driveways and sidewalks, so they don’t have to shovel snow in winter. Imagine!

Because it Bears Repeating: Go!

I’m not kidding. Book your ticket now.

Montreal: At Home and in Space

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I landed in Montreal in the evening after a calm and uneventful flight (my favourite kind), grabbed a cab, and unlocked the door to my apartment as the sun was setting.
I was relieved that Hoover immediately forgave me for my nearly two-month absence. Cats can be fickle and punish you with stink-eye for a couple of days, but my little furry monster was all over me before I even had a chance to put my suitcase down.
I had rented out my apartment to a filmmaker who was also in charge of feeding the cat and watering the plants. Apparently Hoover had immediately started a puking spree and emphatically protested against being locked out of the bedroom – usually at around 5am. Now I was back home, the puking stopped, and he curled up again, triumphantly, at the top end of my bed.

Bettina Forget

I didn’t have all that much time to decompress, because in only three days I had a studio visit scheduled by the International Space University. The ISU hosts a Space Studies Program all over the world every summer, and this year the program takes place in Montreal. Which meant that in a few days my gallery and studio space would be filled with astronomers, engineers, and rocket scientists. I think it’s a great approach to make art and culture part of the Space Studies curriculum, and it was an immense pleasure to host a group of people who have such an in-depth understanding of my work.

A bonus was an invitation to a sci-fi writing workshop lead by ISU alumni and SSP chair Eric Choi, who also happens to be a talented – and published – sci-fi author. I wrote my first piece of flash fiction that afternoon, and, following Eric’s suggestion, have sent it off to a sci-fi magazine in the hope of having it published. Fingers crossed – hey, you never know!

Òlafsfjörður - Bettina Forget

The final item on my list was to bring my precious rolls of film to Lozeau to have them developed. True to Murphy’s Law, my digital camera had stopped working one day before I departed for Iceland. This gave me the idea to bring me old analog, fully manual camera with me, the one I’ve had since art school. I hadn’t shot on film for ages, but it felt surprisingly satisfying to hear the robust “Kachrrd” after each exposure. I always loved the materiality of film and paper photography. The one draw-back is that you can’t instantly verify your shots, unlike with a digital DSLR camera. Picking up my prints felt a bit like Christmas, going through the contact sheet in the hope of finding a few treasures. Some of the shots were misses, but there are a few I really love. I’m going to print some large-size test prints soon!

Òlafsfjörður - Bettina Forget

Òlafsfjörður - Bettina Forget

 

Hamburg: Alsterwasser, Soccer Glory, and a Stroll in the Woods

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I touched down in Hamburg at the crack of dawn. Or, rather, very early in the morning – in July, dawn in Hamburg is just before 4:00am. This week in Hamburg was going to be the final leg of my seven-week trip to Europe. I was already missing Iceland, but I was also looking forward to seeing my family, to home-cooked meals, and to sleeping in the dark.

And – warm summer days! After freezing my buns off in Reykjavik, it was liberating to don sandals and a summer skirt and to have breakfast on the terrace in front of my mom’s home. Tan lines – how I’ve missed you!

Of course my family was immediately treated to (or tortured by) endless iPhoto slide shows on my Mac scrolling through the hundreds of photos I had taken during my trip. It felt great to share the images, and it also gave me a chance to re-live being there. I could still feel my feet sinking into the ice patches in the mountains, smell the salted herring, hear the Icelandic chants.

The week in Hamburg just flew by. A highlight was a long stroll through Hamburg’s downtown (or Innenstadt) with my old school friend Barbara. Actually, we spent most of the time café-hopping, chatting over lattes or Alsterwasser (beer with lemonade – perfect for hot summer days), interspersed with stints of browsing through the various chique boutiques of the Hanseviertel. A bonus treat was a free concert in front of a record store. A trio headlined by classical violinist Gudrun Schaumann performed Haydn, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and Brahms. Barbara and I sat for about half an hour and listened to the emotionally charged performance, which was, however, marred by the shrill voices of oblivious tourists and the occasional metal buzz of the small kiosk engraving pens.

Gudrun Schaumann

Another stroke of luck was finding a store which sold fancy-dress costumes and novelty articles. We tried on hats and silly glasses, giggling like teenagers, and I nearly bought a plastic egg with a big fake cockroach in it. Finally I opted for over-sized sunglasses in the colours of the German flag, black-red-gold paper streamers, and a three-coloured wax stick which paints the German flag on your face in one single stroke. Why the sudden act of patriotism, you may ask? Fifa! The German soccer team had advanced to the semi-finals, and they were going to face Brazil in what was promising to be a heated match. Little did I know…

Floh with flag

In fact, the Fifa World Cup is a pretty big deal in my sister’s house. Rainer, my brother-in-law, is a former soccer coach and followed the soccer championship with great intensity. The night of the Germany-Brazil match we were ready: beers in the fridge, chips in the bowl, a small plastic drum and rattle which was the promo-item of the 2014 Fifa Cup, and a vuvuzela left over from the last championship. My sister and I sported our near-identical over-sized novelty sunglasses, our faces were painted. Now: goals, please.

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Anyone who followed the 2014 Fifa World Cup – and even those who didn’t – must have heard about this epic game. Germany demolished Brazil with a 7 – 1 win. I’m not sure if you can imagine the roars and screams in my sister’s house. My nephews jumping on the sofa, my sister and I jubilant, and Rainer freaking out! The goals came so hard and fast, that when he ran around the house in euphoria after the third goal, by he time he was back in the living room the next goal fell and he started racing around the house again, screaming even louder. By the end of the game we were all exhausted, and feeling a bit bad for host country Brazil. As fun as it is to win, seeing little (and big) boys burst into tears inconsolably because their team is tanking in a most spectacular way will break anyone’s heart. But I’m glad the German team kept up the pressure and didn’t coast after the first few goals. It made the game exciting to watch – well, at least for our household.

Floh and Pferd-1000

After the jubilation and high spirits of the soccer win, the rest of my stay was more relaxed. One of my favourite afternoons was the long walk in the woods with my sister and her energetic chocolate lab. Sylvia lives right on the outskirts of Hamburg in what is called Schwarze Berge – black mountains. Not mountains so much as a picturesque area of hills covered by a dense mixed forest. And “black” because the area used to be mined for coal. Today it’s a mix of residential area, fields of wheat and asparagus, meadows with horses, and forest. I took the opportunity to finish my last roll of film, capturing the sunlight filtering through the tree tops and a carpet of viridian ferns carpeting the forest floor.

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Then it was time to pack my suitcase one last time. Because my departure coincided with the first day of school holidays we expected the highways to be gridlocked, so for the first time I took the metro all the way out to the airport. I was slightly concerned about how I was going to transport all my luggage, which now also included a vintage fur coat from a great-aunt. But, it was dead easy. If ever you need to get to Hamburg airport and you don’t have a family member available to drive you, taking the S-Bahn is a great option. The train rolls right into the terminal, and there are lifts everywhere.

After sweating a few bullets I got lucky one more time and managed to check in my bags without an excess weight penalty. Note to self: pack lighter from now on!
After so many weeks away from home I actually started to look forward to returning to my apartment, to sleeping in my own bed, to hugging my cat. Ten hours to home.

 

Reykjavik: An Old Farm, a New Whiskey, and a Last Goodbye

Árbær Open Air Museum

First of all: thank you, Expedia. That email prompting me to check in via the web made me realize that I had not, as I had presumed, booked the 1pm flight on July 3rd, but the 1AM flight on July 3rd. Ooops! Imagine arriving at the airport 12 hours late… Air Berlin may have the cheapest flights from Germany to Iceland, but there’s a reason: inconvenient departure times. This meant that today was going to be my last day in Iceland. I had one last day of never-ending sunlight.

Árbær Open Air Museum

We started our day with a trip to the Árbær Open Air Museum. As research for my art project I had wanted to see some more traditional Icelandic lifestyle, and this was the perfect place. Centred around the original Árbær farm which dates back to the 13th century, the museum has relocated over 20 heritage buildings to this swath of land at the outskirts of Reykjavik. Here you will find cottages, a stable, a blacksmith’s house, huts and a church. They have all been decorated with period-appropriate furniture and props, turning each building into a time machine. Best of all, somewhere in each building sits a costumed guide who casually knits or carves something, and who acts as a living information centre. The guides tell stories about the lives of the landless labourers in the half stone house, or the long days of the farm hands in the Árbær, providing context and historical background.

Árbær Open Air Museum

One of the building houses a collection of traditional Icelandic costumes which I found particularly fascinating. The women’s tall head gear is quite unusual and would look great in a sci-fi context. The twins roamed free, and we finally found them in the Landakot, which was originally built as a church, was later transformed into a gym (which, Sigrùn and I decided, is very similar to a church), and today houses the kid’s playroom. Frieða and Helga put on a show for us in the little theatre before we left.

Eimverk distillery

Our next stop was the Eimverk distillery. Ever since my first taste-test of Floki I had been looking forward to learning more about the process of making whiskey. We were greeted by the master-distiller Eva Maria Sigurbjörnsdóttir, who took me on a tour of the place. The space is dominated by the large copper distillery, a spaghetti-junction of pipes, and the rows of gin and whiskey barrels at the back wall. It smells yeasty and sweet. Eva Maria explained to me how the mash (ground barley mixed with Icelandinc spring water) is converted into a liquid wort, where the yeast is added to aid the fermentation process, and that everything then runs through the distillery where the alcohol level is controlled. Finally the liquid is poured into oak casks to mature.

Eimverk - Floki barrels

Whiskey takes a minimum of 3 years to mature, so the Floki barrels are patiently waiting for their turn. If you go to the Floki website, there’s a count-down clock to when the whiskey is ready for bottling. However, the 1-year old mini-barrels have already sold out. I think Eimverk will have to expand soon…

By now the grey clouds had split apart, and it was turning into a nice day. We decided to head to a nearby beach, and the girls rolled up their pant legs and ran across the black lava rocks, their bare feet slick with sea weed. Sigrún and I found a spot sheltered from the wind and took in the rays.
After a stop by Sigrún’s mother’s apartment (she had just moved), Sigrún and I took off for a long walk through lupin fields, down gravel paths, and across blueberry fields. At one point we had a spectacular view of both Elliðavatn lake and the city of Reykjavik, and I regretted that my iPhone’s batteries were dead. That would have been an incredible panorama!

Glacial Drift - Vor gin

Finally it was time to head back, and for me to start packing again. More fretting about excess luggage, more heaving the suitcase on and off the personal scales. One kilo over – fingers crossed for generous ground personnel at the Air Berlin counter.
While Halle prepared dinner on the barbecue, Sigrún and I sipped on Glacial Drifts made with Eimverk’s Vor gin and I took a few last photos of the vista of Elliðavatn lake and the mountains. Meanwhile Helga entertained us with card tricks the twins had learned the week before at Magic Camp. She was actually quite impressive and correctly identified the card I had picked and re-inserted into the deck about 9 times out of 10.

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Then, there it was: the time to say goodbye. I sat on my suitcase until it finally closed, and hefted and wheeled my luggage to the car. Sigrún had generously offered to drive me to the airport, only I didn’t realize what a long ride it would be for her. It’s about a one-hour round trip, though, I must say, the countryside was beautiful, in the south-Icelandic, desolate way.

A big, warm thank you to to Sigrùn, Halle, Frieða, and Helga. I was sad that my time in Iceland had come to an end, but my two days in Reykjavik were a wonderful bonus, and the perfect epilogue to a spectacular month in this magical country.

23-view from plane

Reykjavik: Heroes, Heaven, and a Phallus Collection

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

After a very filling lunch at the Laundromat Cafe, Sigrún, the girls, and I braved the horizontal drizzle and headed in the direction of Reykjavik’s port. A visit to the Harpa concert hall had been on the top of my To Do list, following the strong recommendation of my friend Tim, who is a musician. And I agree – even if you’re not going to attend a concert, it is worth the trip if only for the architecture. Partly designed by renowned Icelandic contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson, the intricate geometric glass façade is mesmerizing. The building looks alive as the sunlight refracts off the gently tinted glass, itself caught in a lace of steel. Inside, the cubic mirrored ceiling continues the theme of bouncing light, mingling light waves with sound waves and the rolling sea outside. We spent about half an hour wandering through the building, the girls perching in the windows, enjoying the view of the harbour.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

Einar Jonsson

Our next stop was the Einar Jonsson Museum. It’s an unassuming grey pebble-blasted building right opposite the famous Hallgrimskirja church, which we were also planning to see. My guess is that to fully appreciate Einar Jonsson‘s work, it helps if you’ve just spent some time in Iceland. There is a heroic pathos to his work which feels somewhat uncomfortable when seen from a cultural distance, but which is spot-on when you’re in Reykjavik. Jonsson’s sculptures fuse early 20th century romanticism, classical Greek forms, and German symbolism into a unique, overpowering aesthetic. The somewhat Wagnerian heroes loom large, their white plaster torsos glowing against the deep blue walls.

Einar Jonsson - Dawn

Einar Jonsson - Rest

I was particularly fasciated by the sculpture Dawn, which depicts a monstrous troll turning into stone as the sun approaches, and the work Rest, a giant head of androgynous beauty which is half covered by rays of columnar basalt. Jonsson’s works deal with myth, allegory, and religion, and he was a ground-breaker in Iceland at his time. Seen today, I’d say his œuvre skirts dangerously close to kitsch and Nazi art, but it is saved by the artist’s obviously genuine commitment to art and a search for a deeper truth. I must admit that Einar Jonsson’s art will always be a guilty pleasure of mine.

Hallgrimskirja

Next we headed across the street to Hallgrímskirkja. This Lutheran church, designed by Gudjón Samúelson in 1937, is a landmark in Reykjavik, and the church is visible pretty much anywhere in the city. Its white jagged geometric spires arching up the tower are meant to resemble columnar basalt, a recurring theme in Iceland. Apparently it took 38 years to build it, from 1945 – 1986. After a quick look inside we bought tickets for a ride up to the church tower. Its viewing platform provides an excellent 360° view of the city and the surrounding countryside.

Jo Yarrington - Hallgrimskirja

On the way up I was delighted by a piece of contemporary art which looked totally natural in this ecclesiastical environment. In the place of a clock or stained glass windows, Hallgrimskirja’s tower features four photographic duraclears by artist Jo Yarrington. The centre images show the close-up of a hand reaching into the view of typical Icelandinc landscapes. Each hand holds small objects, such as a shard of glass or a piece of wire. The objects cover the sun, suggesting an alignment of heaven and body. Surrounding the hand are smaller images of more hands. These are the hands of a conductor, captured during a performance. Here a parallel is drawn between music, the church, and the pastor’s role in conducting the religious service. I think this work is an excellent example of contemporary art in a spiritual context. After all, the church used to fuel artistic development up until the renaissance, so why not reference this partnership going forward?

Phallological Museum Reykjavik

We had one more point on our program, though this was rather on the opposite end of the spectrum from our church visit: a stop at the Phallological Museum. Yes, it’s a penis museum. Founded by Sigurður Hjartarson and now directed and curated by his son Hjörtur Gísli Sigurdsson, this museum houses a collection of over 280 penises from 93 species of sea and land mammals, all preserved in a variety of jars. Most impressive of these are the giant whale penises which measure several feet. The twins were fascinated by the small collection of dog penises, I guess mostly because they have a dog at home. I thought that the collection of penile bones was interesting, I finally understand the term “getting a boner.” Though most hilarious is the room featuring the penises of mythical creatures such as trolls and elves. Overall, though, I found the museum to be somewhat unfocused. Biological specimen sit side by side random trinkets, which are included in the collection only because they sport a penis but have otherwise no cultural or aesthetic value. Also, after a while one grey penis floating in a jar of formaldehyde looks very much like another grey penis floating in a jar of formaldehyde. Still, it was worth a visit, if only for the novelty factor.

We decided to call it a day. The girls had been exemplary, resolutely visiting six cultural institutions without any fits or melt-downs, and, frankly, we were all pretty bushed. After we got home we all went down for a nap.

But – not so fast – this was not the end of my day. I now know where Helga and Frieða got their energy gene: their mother. Sigrún suggested that after our nap we should go for a bike ride around lake Ellidavatn. Apparently after 8:30pm the wind settles and it’s a beautiful ride. So – sure, why not. I donned my anorak and fleece gloves (it was about 9°C), and we decided to ignore the drizzle and head out. It was an absolutely wonderful ride. This despite the fact that I’m not the greatest bike rider (understatement of the year). In fact, I try to avoid biking whenever possible, I just never took to it, even as a kid. But here the scenery was so magical that a bike ride was the only thing to do. Sigrún was kind enough to slow down once in a while so I could catch up, and it also gave us a chance to appreciate the view of the lake, the wildlife, the igneous rock formations, and the sea of lupins. The rain intensified, and during the last 20 minutes of the ride I had water streaming down my face, a constant drip on my chin and nose. But that didn’t curb my fun, nor did my wipe-out when I caught one of my wheels on a volcanic rock sticking out of the bike path. It was a perfect end of the day, though it felt like I had already spent a week here.

Reykjavik: Concept Art, Vikings, and a Laundromat

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Despite the extensive “beta testing” of Eimverk’s blueberry liquor samples the night before, I woke up without a hang-over and ready to explore the town. I was lucky to have an expert guide during my stay in Reykjavik. Sigrún offered to take me to her favorite places, which meant that for the next two days I got a chance to explore spots that would not necessarily be on every tourist’s agenda.

Also along for the ride were Helga and Frieða, Sigrún’s adorable twin girls. They are charming, energetic, and always on the move. Like a pair of happy puppies they chase each other, climb anything within reach, and expertly negotiate for ice cream and treats. Sporting purple glitter converse sneakers and windswept blonde braids they always look like they’ve just chased an F-15 through a wind tunnel. They are both dead ringers for Pipi Longstocking and are an absolute delight to have around. Throughout my stay they kept a suspicious eye on me. We had a bit of a language barrier and I think they had a hard time figuring me out. I bribed them with a small Celadonite I found in one of my anorak pockets, so overall we were okay.

Peter Liverside

Our first stop was the i8 Gallery, Reykjavik’s foremost contemporary art gallery, who were presenting an exhibition titled Continuation featuring concept art by British artist Peter Liverside. The majority of the artworks in this show are actually proposals for artworks for this show, ranging from the feasible to the ironic. Typed out on an old manual typewriter on A4 paper, these pitches to i8 Gallery are framed and neatly hung on one the the gallery’s walls. Some of the proposals have been realized, such as a red neon sign with the words BEFORE/AFTER, as well as a flotilla of boats made from found materials. My favorite piece was stack of A1 sheets of paper with instruction (some real, some imagined) on how to behave in Iceland (Rules for Iceland). Taken as a whole, the exhibition makes an interesting comment about the value of ideas, and questions whether  realized artworks have become superfluous. Very Fluxus.

After the gallery visit the girls insisted that we make a quick stop at Volcano House, which is now mostly a cafe, but still houses a small geology exhibition which also screens a documentary about volcanoes. We played with some igneous rock and admired the collection of Icelandic minerals, but passed on the movie.

Next we walked over to the Reykjavik City Museum’s Settlement Exhibition, which lets you explore the oldest archaeological remains of human habitation in Reykjavik. This museum houses the fragments of a longhouse dating back to the 10th century and provides some insights into the life of the Vikings who first settled Iceland. It’s a nice place, and I enjoyed the interactive multimedia displays, but this museum didn’t have the immersive charm of the Herring Era Museum or the Icelandic Folk Music Centre. I suspect I’m a bit spoiled now…

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Because the girls behaved so well, our next stop was one of their favorite places in town: the Laundromat Cafe. This is the perfect family restaurant, not only because of its kid-friendly menu (burgers, fries, pancakes, waffles, milk shakes, and juices), but because of its most interesting feature: it’s an actual laundromat. You can wash your laundry downstairs while you’re having lunch upstairs. And even better: right next to the laundromat is a huge play room for kids with toys, bouncy pillows, and cushioned coves perfect for hiding and building a fort out of picture books. Seconds after we ordered our meals Helga and Frieða were headed downstairs burning off some excess energy. Meanwhile Sigrún and I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere upstairs. The food was delicious and plentiful, so much so that I really didn’t eat for the rest of the day. Ouf.

Good thing we took a big lunch break, because we still had a busy afternoon ahead of us. More about my first day in Reykjavik in my next post.

Goodbye Òlafsfjörður, Hello Reykjavik (Or: Drinking Spring in Summer)

Òlafsfjörður

The day had come. We were all leaving Listhús together – Mat, Danielle, Hyojung, Nutsa, and I. Bleary-eyed and sombre, we stood at the bus stop on Aðalgata waiting for the 7am bus to Akureyri. From there we would take the 57 bus south to Reykjavik, and finally home.
At 6:30am Siggi and Alice came to Listhús to help us with our bags, and the hatchback quickly filled up with massive suitcases and heavy backpacks. I took some last shots with my iPhone of the snow-capped mountains, trying to take as much of Òlafsfjörður with me as I could. Noone spoke to Nutsa, who was on the edge of tears the entire time and was, frankly, setting me off as well.
The bus to Akureyri felt familiar by now: tunnel – waterfall – Dalvik – meadows – the town outskirts – Akureyri Hof. We had some time to kill before we caught the bus south to Reykjavik, so we stored our luggage at the Tourist Information at Hof (100 Krona per bag – a great deal) and headed into town in search of a monster-sized latte.

Iceland - N1

The bus ride from Akureyri to Reykjavik was – again – beautiful, but this time the sky was as grey as my mood. The mountain tops were shrouded by the clouds, cold drizzle stung my face when I stepped off the bus at a rest stop. I tried to read, but instead my mind was absorbed by the melancholy landscape floating past me, the mountains changing into hills as we headed toward the capital. As we pulled into the central bus station I hopped off the bus. There was no time for a long goodbye, I had to catch my connection – we all promised each other to stay in touch electronically.

As sad as I was to leave Òlafsfjörður behind, I was also looking forward to exploring Reykjavik and meeting my friend Sigrún. Sigrún and I had met years earlier in Montreal. She is a gifted artist, and I have exhibited her work in my gallery several times. She has now moved back to Iceland, but we’ve been keeping in touch via Facebook, and meeting for lunch whenever she happens to be in Montreal. When she saw that I was spending a few days in Reykjavik after my residency she generously invited me to stay at her place.

Sigrún and Halle’s home is a far cry from the rustic charm of Listhús. A sleek, contemporary house, it has a stunning panoramic view onto lake Elliðavatn and a vast mountain range with thirteen peaks. I could even see massive vents of steam billowing from the ground, much like those which gave the city its name (Reykja = steam, vic = cove or inlet). Much has been said about how reserved Icelanders are, and that may be true. But once you make friends, Icelanders are the funnest, warmest, most generous people you’ll meet. Sigrún and Halle put on a huge dinner, and I quickly felt like a member of the family.

Eimverk - Vor and Floki

Among other things, Halle and Sigrún run the start-up distillery Eimverk, which has already garnered some significant success. They produce a first-rate Icelandic single-malt whiskey, named Flóki after the first explorer of Iceland. Since whiskey takes a few years to mature, they bridge the time by producing Gin. Their Gin, named Vor, which is Icelandic for ‘spring,’  has already scored double-gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2014, an exceptional feat. Halle explained to me that all ingredients are 100% organic and locally sourced, which means, for example, that citrus has been replaced by Icelandic rhubarb, and lichen and kelp have been added for ‘mouth feel.’ I’m not a huge gin drinker, but tasting Vor was a real pleasure. It’s intensely aromatic and has a wonderful complexity – definitely something you can drink neat.
Before dinner I was also introduced to Halle and Sigrún’s latest project: a blueberry-based alcohol. Think Grand Marnier, but with blueberries. This evening I learned about how alcohol levels affect flavor, and how to add a few drops of water to scotch to bring out its character. I used to drink scotch neat – now I know better. Things you learn…
Needless to say that it got quite late, and that we were three sheets to the wind by the time we called it a day.
As I tip-toed (read: staggered) into my stylish guest bedroom I was very happy to have decided to stay an extra few days in Reykjavik.

A Last Day in Òlafsfjörður

Icelandic grass

I tried not to think about it, but now there’s no getting around it: it’s my last day in Òlafsfjörður. It has been absolutely wonderful being here, so much better than I imagined: the epic landscape which is constantly changing, the never-ending days devoid of night, the magic valley, the snow-capped mountains, the warm black sand. I have never hiked this much in my life. I’ve never been so happy being totally by myself. My mind is at rest. Every day feels like a gift.
I could easily stay here for another month. The art project – Duracotus’ Journal – is now on its way, structure in place, waiting for more creative writing and concept sketches. I’ve gotten used to the sticky dark lava bread, and I just figured out an excellent recipe to prepare a whole fish (inspired by my visit to the Herring Era Museum). Wearing fleece gloves in June is no longer a big deal for me. It’s just starting to feel like home. And now I have to go.

Saebali

Icelanders name their homes

I spent today re-visiting all my favorite places. One more coffee at Cafe Klara, one more trip to the Black Sand Beach. I walked through Òlafsfjörður taking one last set of photos, documenting the town, the harbor, the mountains. I had tentatively planned one last hike, but the weather is cold and miserable – just as well. It’s “goodbye weather.”

Green rocks on Black Sand BeachGreen rocks on Black Sand Beach

Green rocks on Black Sand Beach

And then there is the packing. I figured out a way to fold my huge, fragile Moon map, now suitcase-sized. I decided which of my many minerals I’m going to take with me and filled some black sand into a small empty paint pot. I constantly worry about excess luggage. I keep hefting my suitcase onto the personal scale in the bathroom, then re-distributing the weight between the backpack, suitcase, and computer bag. It’s a 3D puzzle.

the spread

We had one “last supper” tonight. All the artists invited Siggi and Alice to a potluck dinner to thank them for their support throughout the month. We are all leaving tomorrow, and a new group of artists is moving in. It was a chance to use up all our supplies, and the bottle of scotch I brought at the beginning of the month was finally finished. Siggi got the last shot. We joked around a lot, but I think some of it was to hide the sadness of leaving, and the nerves of still having to finish packing.

1-Mountain through curtain

I made it to bed at around midnight, but I heard Nutsa and Hyojung scurry around the house much later, I’m not even sure they slept at all. One last sleep in my room, though it already feels different with the selves emptied and my belongings stowed away, in my various bags. I worry about being able to close my suitcase. I remind myself to take the yoghurt and the ice tea with me tomorrow. I watch the sun not set one last time behind the window shades.

The Era of the Herring

To think that I nearly gave a visit to Siglufjörður a miss! Well, I’ve been there briefly, to see art events at Alþýðuhúsið, but I hadn’t really spent a lot of time there. On the surface it looks like a bigger version of Òlafsfjörður, but after spending the day there today I realize that it’s a whole different kettle of fish. If you pardon the pun.

Herring Era Museum

Herring Era Museum

Today Siglufjörður is a small town with about 1,200 inhabitants (versus 800 in Òlafsfjörður). However, in days gone by the town would swell up to 11,000 inhabitants, especially in the summer months. Why? Because in the first half of the 20th century it was Iceland’s Herring Capital, and its second largest city after Reykjavik.

Herring Era Museum - Herring Girls

Herring Era Museum – Herring Girls

The reason I know this now is my extensive visit to Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum. I had the good luck to meet Guðný Róbertsdóttir yesterday, who went to see our 24 Hour Days exhibition here at Listhús. While we were chatting she mentioned that she was going to sing Icelandic chants at the Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum today and invited the Listhús artists to come and see the presentation. This morning Julie and I got a ride from Alice to the neighbouring town, arriving half-way through the Herring Girls’ act who were performing in front of the Róaldsbrakki, the old salting station. It was a lively show with dancing, accordion music, and singing. But the real treat was the Icelandic chanting performance inside the museum’s Boathouse.

Herring Era Museum - Salted Herring

Herring Era Museum – Salted Herring

Icelandic Chanting is fast becoming a lost tradition. The songs are ancient, with complex melody structures which remind me of Gregorian chant. The musical scales climb and fall like the fjord’s mountains, women and men answer each other or sing in haunting harmonies. I captured one of the chants with my iPhone:

Icelandic Chant video still

Icelandic Chant video still

Click here to see the video

After the performance Guðný generously took us under her wings and gave us a guided tour of the Herring Era Museum. It turns out her husband Örlygur is the museum’s director, as well as a member of the Icelandic singing group. Both of them are incredibly dedicated to preserving and promoting the heritage of this town. Besides running the museum and bringing Icelandic chanting back to life, the couple also just renovated a 19th century house in Siglufjörður (strictly adhering to traditional building norms), built a small traditional turf-covered house, and they are running Herhusid, an artist residency.

Turf House

Turf House

The echo of Siglufjörður’s vivid past permeates the town. The Herring Era Museum is its flagship, comprising of five large buildings which recreate life in an early 20th century herring station. It is a living museum where you can explore the fish oil factory floor, offices, warehouses, fishing boats, and the living quarters. The museum is a time machine and the place looks as though the workers have just stepped out for a smoke. Also, you can touch everything: the 1920s pantyhose drying in the attic, the old coffee grinder in the kitchen, the fish-oil drum stencils. The museum strikes the right note between information and exploration.

Herring Era Museum

Herring Era Museum

Herring Era Museum

Herring Era Museum

Herring - fish oil casks

Herring – fish oil casks

Julie and I were struck by photos of Siglufjörður in the 1930s, when the town was booming. Drums of fish oil were stacked higher than houses and dominated the town’s sky line. There was a wild bustle of boats in the harbour, piers jutting into the water ready to receive the fish harvest. In a 1950s black and white film screened in the museum, we saw how the herring was gushing out of the vast nets, men knee-high in fish shoveling the catch around deck. No wonder that by the middle of the 20th century the herring stock was completely destroyed. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but the film mentioned that at that time continental European countries caught about 20 pounds per capita, Scandinavian countries around 100 pounds per capita, and Iceland caught 2 tons of herring per capita! Within 50 years the Norwegian sea was emptied of herring. The museum doesn’t address this point in any critical way, but Siglufjörður’s history is a vivid illustration of the ecological – and economical – impact of over-fishing. Anyone haggling over fishing quotas should take a stroll through the Herring Era Museum.

Þórarins Hannessonar sings at the Poetry Museum Siglufjörður

Þórarins Hannessonar sings at the Poetry Museum Siglufjörður

Today Siglufjörður’s main industry is tourism, and the town does offer some unique insights into Icelandic culture. If you happen to be in Siglufjörður, make sure to stop by Ljóðasetur Íslands, the Icelandic Poetry Museum. Julie and I stumbled upon this place a bit by accident. It looks unassuming from the outside, like a small book store with a cafe. But inside the museum’s director Þórarins Hannessonar hosts an ever-growing collection of Icelandic poetry, a literary tradition which spans over 1,000 years. Unfortunately for Julie and me all books were in Icelandic, but Þórarins took the time to explain to us the workings of Icelandic poetry, its many stylistic rules, and its ties to Icelandic culture. Besides running the museum Þórarins is also a poet, and he writes and sings Icelandic chants (and he has a new CD coming out next week). In fact, he had been part of this morning’s performance (he did look familiar…). Then spontaneously, he offered to sing us a few of his own compositions, right here on the spot. Julie and I were the only ones there, so we got a private concert. What a treat!

Before heading back to Òlafsfjörður Julie and I made one final stop: the Icelandic Folk Music Centre. Just like the Herring Era Museum, this place recreates Icelandic life at the turn of the century. This home is filled with instruments and period furniture. Music plays in nearly every room. There are flat screens fitted into cabinets showing videos of Icelanders (professionals and amateurs) singing Icelandic folk music and playing traditional instruments.

Bjarni Þorsteinsson

Bjarni Þorsteinsson

Anything we know today about Icelandic folk music is grace to one man: Bjarni Þorsteinsson. He was a pastor living in Siglufjörður in the late 19th and early 20th century who, together with a team of volunteers, collected Icelandic folk songs and printed them in one massive tome, published from 1906 – 1909. The book of about 1,000 pages is the “bible” of Icelandic folk music. Without his work, this part of Icelandic heritage would by now have been forgotten.

Julie and I left Siglufjörður with a new perspective of North Icelandic culture, and a deeper understanding of Òlafsfjörður and the region in general. I wished I had made this visit earlier during my stay, but I’m glad to have spent at least one day there.

 

A Hike into Fairy-Tale Valley

It was supposed to be a little walk – maybe a short hike. I had planned an hour, two tops. It ended up being a 7-hour expedition. What gets into me here? One moment I’m strolling along, enjoying a bit of fresh air, and suddenly I transform into the hike-monster. Must. Reach. Farthest. Point… There is this exuberant enthusiasm that descends onto me, this feeling of unmitigated joy at the prospect of discovering a new mountain top, or trail, or hidden valley. The hike becomes a challenge, mingled with unbridled ambition. That snow-patch up there – I can totally reach that. This boulder in the far end of the valley – I will sit on top of it. No idea how I’m going to get there. Can’t even see a trail. That’s my favourite part.

And this is how I ended up perched on a large rock, nearly at the end of Botnaleið valley, with soggy feet, mildly hungry, nursing some minor scratches.

Botnaleið valley, Òlafsfjörður

Botnaleið valley, Òlafsfjörður

It started with the need to stretch my legs. After some intense studio days getting my work ready for the 24 Hour Days exhibition, I wanted to re-connect with the countryside. Nutsa had mentioned a trail which runs in the opposite direction of Kleifar, one of the few trails which I hadn’t yet explored.

The sky was overcast, throwing a melancholy light across the mountains. By now I’ve realized that this is actually great weather to take photos, because the clouds on those days tend to be more dramatic and sometimes even tantalizingly descend into the valley. I packed my camera and some cookies and went on my way.

Botnaleið Hiking Trail, Òlafsfjörður

Botnaleið Hiking Trail, Òlafsfjörður

Walking past the golf course I followed the sound of a waterfall and soon came to the sign indicating the Botnaleið (Valley Bottom) hiking trail. For once I wasn’t climbing mountains. The Botnaleið trail runs along the valley floor, the mountains curving up like a giant skateboard pipe. The gravel path is wide and well indicated. Sheep and their lambs amble across the meadows. I kept on picking up more rocks with quartz and celadonite inclusions. An easy stroll so far.

Botnaleið, Òlafsfjörður

Botnaleið, Òlafsfjörður

Once you pass the initial small hills the vista of Botnaleið valley spreads out before you. The place is absolutely magical. The valley floor is steeped in emerald green, a river undulates its way out toward the sea. Marsh birds stalk the low reeds, the lambs are bleating. I was the only person there. In the entire valley. I felt as though I had just stepped into a fairy-tale. It was about then that the idea crept into my head to walk to the very end of the valley. A long walk, maybe, but achievable. Maybe a bit of a climb at the end. The hike-monster reared its head…

Marsh weed

Marsh weed

The hiking trail meanders across some low hills until it comes to a fence which spans the valley floor. Or does it? Upon inspection I discovered that the only thing left of the fence are the fence post. You can just keep going. And I did until – squish! Wet feet! At this time of year the valley floor is flooded with melt water streaming down from the surrounding mountains. It’s not much, maybe 6 inches at its deepest point, but enough to cause a problem if all you’re wearing are hiking sneakers. Ah well, too late now.

Wet Feet!

Wet Feet!

But – I wasn’t going to give up so fast. I just needed to reach higher ground. I climbed into the hill sides, and now I had berry shrubs, moss, and rock under my feet. The ground was dry, but the walk became a bit more demanding. More climbing, passing the odd patch of snow, and skipping across streams of water gushing down the mountain side, balancing from one rock to the other. Occasionally there are rivulets which simply flood the grass, submerging the vegetation. Undeterred I marched on, now barefoot in my shoes, my wet socks tied to my backpack. Every so often I would reach for my camera to capture the graphite-coloured clouds hugging the black hillsides, fields of blue melting ice, the amazing air perspective.

Mountain clouds

Mountain clouds

I didn’t even notice the time. I had marched non-stop for three hours, climbing higher and higher into the hillsides where the streams are narrower and easier to cross. I must have been tired, lost focus for one moment. A rock underfoot gave way, and I fell hard on my butt, slipping down the mountain side for about two meters. No big deal, I quickly recovered. No equipment broken. Minor bumps, scratches on my wrist and arms. But this was also the moment when I realized that this rugged terrain can be unforgiving. I was alone here. The hike-monster had a quick conversation with common sense. Common sense suggested that I climb back down into the valley – wet feet are better than bruises. The hike-monster accepted the compromise.

Blocked path

Blocked path

My walk continued across rivers and streams, until… there was a waterfall too wide to cross. Not a huge river, but just too wide to jump with a back-pack full of photo gear on my shoulders. I followed the stream up and down the mountain for 15 minutes, looking for a way across. By now I had been on my feet for nearly four hours. And I had to walk all that way back.

The decision to make this my end-point was interesting. There was disappointment, annoyance, but also a sense of reassurance. I may be ambitious, but I’m not dumb enough to jeopardize my health – or my photo gear. Adolescents do that. I’m an adult. Adults know when to stop. Re-position the end-point, appreciate where you are.

Blue snow lake

Blue snow lake

I finally took a rest, climbed onto a large boulder and enjoyed the view munching on my cookies. I made another panorama. The clouds had moved into the valley, covering it like a blanket but leaving a view onto sunny Òlafsfjörður.

On my way back I took a lower route, wetter but faster. I also made sure to stop once in a while and live the moment. Lie in the grass, listen to all sounds. A few minutes of meditation. Just be there. In my race to the end of the valley I hadn’t really taken enough time to do that. I noticed the rockfall on the meadow, stumbled across a bird’s nest (Common Snipe eggs, I think), took close-up shots of lichen.

Rockfall

Rockfall

Bird nest

Bird nest

Black lichen

Black lichen

It was evening by the time I reached Listhús, my jeans caked in mud, shoes still wet, dead tired. But that feeling of being alone in the fairy-tale valley will always be with me. What a privilege it was to have the place all to myself for a day. I’ll never forget it.