Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Iceland Fire: A Week With No Night: Part Two

Please read Part 1 of my Icelandic adventure.

Before I left, I raved about how excited I was to attend Elf School.

Álfaskólinn, 2nd floor.
The school was located in a mixed-zone industrial/commercial park, but it also seemed like an apartment. The place was piled high with books and troll figures and gnome statues. A small reception desk remained unmanned, and I called out until his wife appeared, and then summoned Magnús from the maze. He looked to be out of a fairy lore himself, a giant of a man, tall and round, with a white beard and a bright red shirt.

With regrets and several hugs, he informed me that since I was the only attendee, he would not be holding elf school that day. If I could wait until Tuesday when a big group was scheduled to come through? But no, I would be back in the states by Tuesday.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about missing elf school. I was in a fair amount of pain due to a minor operation I had just undergone at the hospital (more on that later), so was a bit nervous about trying to make it through four hours of lessons without passing out. He gave me the text book for free, and promised to send an electronic copy of the new edition when it comes out. So I got another rare folklore book to add to my collection, which made me happy enough. Half of it is in German, the other half in English, and I get the sense that the German stories are not the same as the English ones.

I've got a couple of random pictures I'd like to go through. First, viking hats. They were everywhere.

On a backpack...
...on a troll.
However, in spite of our long searching, we never once found a viking hat that would fit Ryuk. I guess we'll have to make one.

Next, weird art. Ha, I'll bet you thought art class was over.

In a coffee shop in Reykjavik.
In the restaurant near Geysir.
And then, just because I love signs so much, here's some product packaging:

Bonus Sexa! Já!
Speaking of sex...

So let's talk about puffin, shall we? Yes, puffin is on the menu.

What's a puffin, you might ask? This little guy is a puffin:

"Pwease don't eat me..."
Don't let his sad eyes fool you. Before you judge me, remember, puffins themselves are ferocious carnivores.

"I'm gonna eat ALL the cute fishies! RAWR!"
They do not weep over the tiny adorable fish they consume. It's the circle of life, and someday, something else is likely to eat me, no matter how cute I am.

And you are not one to point fingers. Unless you're a vegetarian, you've likely eaten one of these recently:

Original image from Crack Two.
Warning: Do not view before dinner. Or breakfast.
It was either the puffin, or the whale. I couldn't quite come to terms with eating a whale... Plus I wasn't that hungry.

The appetizer course was smoked puffin, which tasted like salmon, only softer, more purple, and OMG IT WAS SO GOOD. Puffin, I love you.

The main course tasted totally different... a bit like mild liver. I happen to love liver, so it all worked out.

So the bars in Iceland, on the weekend, are open all the time. That's because in Iceland, time has no meaning. They also let people carry their beer bottles from bar to bar, and I even saw a guy take his glass from one establishment. He had the courtesy to look slightly guilty as he did so.

One thing we quickly learned is that if it's late-night, say 10pm, and you're hungry, YOU WILL NOT FIND FOOD IN REYKJAVIK. They've never heard of bar food, and if you walk the streets looking for a restaurant still serving food, they will look at you funny. We did discover, thanks to some friends of friends we met up with, that after 11pm or so, the food trucks show up in this one part of town, and then it's waffles and kebabs till sunrise.

Except, the sun doesn't rise. We've been over that.

Viking Kebab!
Bacon Kebab!
Picture taken at 12:50am. Still sunny.
Location: The "Luna Bar" aka the Mánabar
The smoking room at some other bar. Taken at 3:16am
A few bars of note.

Boston was on the second floor, darkly lit, with gold baroque wallpaper and tiny chandeliers. The music ran the range of electronic tunes with that particular Icelandic sound we came to love via the car radio. Not necessarily Icelandic music, but a certain choice of style that was pretty awesome. Iceland has several music festivals, and it seems like that sort of thing might be worth visiting for.

The DJ was a woman, one of my first realizations that Iceland is subtlety less sexist than the states. It's these little things that told me Icelanders actually believe women are just as capable as men. (A guy we were hanging out with, who has done work for the Pirate Party campaign, BTW, told us the problem with Icelandic women is they're too emotionally detached and unwilling to commit.)

Boston, right next door to Dillon.
Then there's the place we called the Luna Bar, even though I think its real name was Mánabar. The inside was space-themed, with stars on the ceiling. The bartender looked a cool version of Maurice Moss from the IT Crowd. That he turned to me first to hand me the change, when Roland was the one who gave him the money, was another one of those subtle little outward differences in the assumptions about women.

Lookit! It's my bar!
Another bar of note is the Lebowski Bar, named after the movie. I don't know the story of how this place got created in Iceland. I'm guessing a couple of guys smoking joints turned to each other and said, "Þú veist hvað væri kúl? [You know what would be cool?]"

Or perhaps it's the wacky sweater the Dude wears throughout the film, which, while not traditional, does distantly resemble a lopapeysa Icelandic sweater.

The Dude abides.
Yes, this is a White Russian menu.
I might have been up for more partying if not for a bit of a medical issue that appeared just days before our flight, which I tried but was unable to resolve before leaving. I got on the plane, hoping it would improve, but it didn't, so I got to experience first hand what it's like to seek medical treatment while travelling. If you're curious about my experience, I've hidden it behind this TMI tag. Click to read. I try not to be too squicky or go into too much detail...

TMI: click to expand
Briefly: I got a Bartholin's cyst. I had one before, many years ago, and it went away with a minor surgery. Unlike that one, this one was terribly painful. My local doctor wasn't able to do much for it with such short notice. So off I went. It added a considerable amount of discomfort and stress to the trip.

After it continued to get worse, I looked up a local clinic. Iceland has socialized medicine (and they do house calls!) but unlike France and the UK, they charge a fee for non-Icelandic people. People from the EU get a massive discount, but being from the US, medical care must always cost more. For me it was 6200ISK up front (roughly $51), and they told me they wouldn't change any extra unless they had to run tests.

Not bad.

I got seen within an hour. That was me showing up, saying I needed treatment, setting an appointment, and coming back, one hour. (Compared to state-side, I was lucky to get in before my trip because they had a last-minute cancellation, and I had to see the nurse practitioner, not the doctor.) We were able to walk around the neighborhood in that hour, and got coffee from a great little place called Stofan.

The doctor himself called me from the waiting room. He was no-nonsense. They all were. I told him my problem, he stared wordlessly at the computer for awhile, then left to grab another doctor for advice. They led me to her office, wherein they had me disrobe while they just stood there, and then she made a small incision to drain the cyst. With no anesthetic. Honestly, with how much it had been hurting, I was mentally prepped for it, and just wanted relief. When that didn't work as well as they'd hoped, she called the gynecologist for advice. From the next room, with the door open.

Thankfully it was all in Icelandic. However, both doctors had this frightening expression, a sharp inhalation of breath, like we do when we're negatively surprised or shocked. It was a bit disconcerting, them speaking Icelandic about my condition while I bled from a hastily-made cut, but I calmed myself by thinking it couldn't be as bad as it sounded. And yeah, it turned out doctors in Iceland make that sound when they mean "Yes," or "Ah-ha.." or "I see."

The doctor told me the gynecologist at the hospital could put in a Word catheter, the same kind of surgery I'd had years ago, on the other side, that fixed it right up. I was willing to agree to anything at this point. I just wanted to enjoy the rest of my trip.

They had me go to the hospital right after lunch. The only reason I needed to wait that long is because they'd had an unusually busy morning. I waited in the waiting room about 30 minutes, and then they had me on a table, and out again, in less than 15 minutes. Again, no bedside manner, no private room for undressing, no attempt to hide the gory details from me other than the language barrier. At least I got a local anesthetic that time.

(Now you can see why I was sort of relieved to miss elf school, which was scheduled to start just one hour later. If it hadn't been for my strong need for rest, I would have put up more of a protest and talked him into holding class just for me.)

Overall, they did a great job. I'm healing up just fine. Though the whole process was rough around the edges, I appreciated their openness and honesty, and the immediate treatment. Since my insurance sucks, it probably came out cheaper than I would have paid here... just under $400 for the whole thing. And, in the states, the catheter stays in for 4-6 weeks, and then you have to have them remove it. The way the Icelandic doctor did it, it fell out on its own just this morning.

Now let's leave the city for Iceland's majestic natural beauty.

The famous Blue Lagoon is near the airport, about a half hour southwest of Reykjavik. It was really hard to tell what time it was, since the sun was still just as bright (gray, overcast) at 10pm as it was at 10am. We got there a little late to pay the tourist-mine prices for a soak in the water, but...

Please take a moment to memorize this color.
You can see the water of the blue lagoon, the part they don't let you swim in, from the highway. Set in the grey, volcanic-bleak landscape, the color pops in the eye in a way it can't in a photo. It's a bright baby blue, the color of the bantha milk that Luke drank on Tatooine. It's a robin's egg that goes on and on, in vast pools surrounded by black basalt and framed in white minerals that coat the rocks beneath the surface. The air smells of sulfur, and in the distance, plumes of steam rise from one of Iceland's many geothermal plants.

Panorama. Feel free to zoom.

That's about all I have to say about it. I can't vouch for paying to go in. There are natural hot springs all over the country, as well as naturally-heated public pools. I read that it's cheaper and better to go somewhere else.

The mysterious path leading to the Blue Lagoon.
We took a day to drive a bit north and inland, to Þingvellir national park and the surrounding attractions. (Pronounced "Thingvellir", not "Ping".). Our main goals were to see Geysir and Gullfoss, but what we found at Þingvellir was even more amazing: History. From 894AD. You can read more about it on Wikipedia, but briefly, Þingvellir is another name for the Althing, Iceland's folkmoot or "thing". A "thing" or a "moot" was a gathering of tribes wherein peace was guaranteed and political matters were decided. It's where our modern terms "thing" and "tithing" come from, as well as the roots of western law and democracy. Iceland seems to have done this bigger and better than England and Scandinavia.

Given my previous writing research into dark ages political systems, I was super-delighted by this surprise. If I'd been feeling up to it, I would have run to all the monuments and historical markers all over the valley. As it was I hobbled about the best I could and still managed to see alot. Have some pics:

The Althing took place in that valley. The bluff we're standing on is made of basalt, and a large natural crevice cradles the path that leads down. Here's the start of the crevice's humble beginnings, and the path:

At the bottom is another crevice, parallel to this one.

And then of course I have to take a picture of the only sign carved into the rock. I have no idea what it means, but that curly-cue "c" symbol looks really familiar.

So let's talk about cairns. The first thing I noticed driving to Reykjavik from the airport, is that out in the middle of the vast lava-flow rock covered in struggling moss, were rock piles. Most were only three or four feet tall. Others were more impressive, maybe forming low walls as if they could have once been huts. It was a common feature of the landscape. I speculated (rightly) that they were markers of some kind. Specifically, they were landmarks that once denoted roads and paths that no longer exist. They are hundreds of years old.

So imagine our surprise when we pulled over to a viewpoint, and found a whole field full of them:

My guess is this started out as one cairn, and as people stopped along their way to Þingvellir, they just added more. Some are very artistic. If I'd not been impaired, I would have made one of my own.

The Geysir area was just like a mini-Yellowstone, although, if you think of it, Yellowstone is more like a mini-Iceland. The Great Geysir itself is the first geyser ever written about by mankind. It goes years between eruptions now, but there were several other geysers nearby, including the very active Strokkur, which went off at random intervals of 2 to 6 minutes. Roland got some great video of it.

The sign wordlessly says "Don't throw coins in here, you jerk!"
Some jerk had thrown two coins in.
The water behind me is boiling hot, just like how Radiskull likes it.

Now for Gullfoss! No, this is not a product for cleaning between your seagulls. It is a giant waterfall. There's a larger waterfall to the northeast, Dettifoss, where Prometheus was filmed, but since it would have been a day or two drive, we opted for this tiny little thing:

See those dots on top of the rainbow? Those are people.
So, it's kind of a big deal.

On our way home to Reykjavik, we took the scenic route.. I mean, the other scenic route.. hell, they're all scenic routes, and we discovered Skálholt, a really old church, built in 1056AD. At least, it used to be that old, until it burnt down, and then they rebuilt it. Anyway, the site was once the largest religious and cultural center of Iceland until all the fires and earthquakes forced them to move to Reykjavik.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Because we fail at taking pictures of churches.
Before entering, we veered to the right, and saw the foundations of the old monastery buildings.

"Upon this rock, I will [literally] build my church."
This area was roped off, but just a little further away, very much to my delight and sense of mystery, was an underground passageway which was not roped off. It was lit and welcoming. So I followed it.

At the end was a tiny basement museum sporting huge stone sarcophagus lids, carved in art and Latin, dating across 700 years, the newest being from the 18th century.

We followed a narrow winding staircase to the cathedral above.

Perhaps it was because of the ancientness of the site, or perhaps hundreds of years of worshipers, or maybe it was the candles and the organ music, or the atmosphere of having entered via a basement full of ancient coffin lids, but in the cathedral I was struck with a sense of power that coursed through me like lightning. I've had few experiences like this in my life, but it's been a very long time, so I wasn't expecting it.

I almost cried. I couldn't speak until we left the building.

Iceland is small, but it's really big.
We were in Iceland for four days. The area within the red circle is how much we saw. We could see the Reykholt glacier from a distance, and we almost made it to Hella (right there near Selfoss) before we rode outta there like a bat outta Hella.

Here I am, back at the airport, coffee in hand, all ready to depart. I would definitely return to Iceland. Perhaps next time, we might travel around the Ring Road, aka the Golden Circle, staying in B&Bs we pass along the way. Or perhaps more partying in Reykjavik, or going in winter for the Northern Lights. I still crave learning the language and the elf lore, and would love to live there a couple of years to do just that.

One parting sign just before we went through security. I knew just enough Icelandic to recognize the word "coffee".

It says, "Prohibited from placing coffee cups in the window." And I was so sure "gluggann" had something to do with how fast you should drink your kaffi before boarding your international flight.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like you guys had a nice time... ;)
    Regards " Maurice"