Saturday, January 30, 2016

mallitis

I went to Destiny USA today not to shop but merely for human intercourse, meaning not that but the sounds of footsteps, blather, shrieks, cries, laughs, arguments, mumbles, interjections, interruptions, sulks, swerves, objections, enthusiasms, profanities, sneezes, coughs, and the incessant undercurrent of fingers brushing across or up and down the screens of "devices." The new town square is neither in downtown nor square. I sat on a bench in front of the Apple store and wrote about Iceland. I exchanged texts as my unsmartphone chimed owing to its Outdoor setting. Some texts I ignored in deference to finishing a thought as I composed my Icelandic travelogue. I bought nothing. I sought to "create coincidence." As I was leaving, I ran into three people I know. We spoke. By then, the blare of the place was getting on my nerves. Had to go. And did.

Monday, January 25, 2016

last day in Iceland

[This is old news, but I felt obliged to finish the chronicle of my journey, in some form, fact or fiction.]

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Just before going through security at Keflavik, I asked two guards if I could go through with the Icelandic Glacial water that Icelandair had given me upon entering the plane in Newark. I was told I would have to empty it or drink it. “Will I be getting another one for my flight home?”
“Yes, you will. Once you pass security, you can fill up your empty container from tap water and take that with you. It’s just as good.”
”I believe that. I just may.” (I did not but carried the empty homeward.)

At the Icelandair check-in counter, I could not resist one farewell flirtation with the native Nordic beauties. But I added a twist.

“Where’s all the women my age? Where’s your moms?” I asked the two associates checking my bag and issuing a boarding pass.

They looked a bit puzzled and annoyed. (Tiredness must be a factor in my social tone-deafness.) After a pause, one of them replied, “They’re all taken.” She added a shrewd marketing promotion, “Come back this summer”  — which evoked my unspoken rejoinder, “Because they’ll be divorced by then? Their husbands are hunting or fishing?”

As we flew into the sun (“running blind...running into the sun,” as the Jackson Browne song goes,) I was neither blind nor running on empty. Flying above crenellated clouds that looked like a sea or a sky under sky, I wondered if we would beat the sunset and land in brightness (we would not). To bookend my landing on Tuesday, which seemed ages ago, I listened to Of Monsters and Men (OMAM) again. The title of their “Beneath the Skin” LP suited me. I went to Iceland seeking skin and what lay beneath. I received one, the latter. “Hunger” was one of the tracks of this journey, and of this album. Did I satiate my hungers? It turns out to be the wrong question. I looked at my hungers and my self and the wider beyond. Did I need to go anywhere to accomplish that? Perhaps not. But I sorely needed a retreat. Caregiving and grieving were taking a toll on me. I paid that toll and walked through the gate. And Iceland was the perfect choice: a glacial oasis of gray and blaze, geysers and lagoons, new tongues and ancient sagas. As I noted in my book Seeing the Signs, the world is adorned with signs for us to decipher. On a construction plywood fence on Hafnerstraeti in Reykjavik, I saw this graffito sprinkled with symbols that looked like ancient runes and the word “Berlin,” where my older daughter once lived and where I have journeyed:

you have to be who you are now . . .

you can’t wait until later

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Iceland, day 3: threads of meaning

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Just seeing traditional Icelandic sweaters in shops, and worn by tourists and locals alike, I knew I was going to get one. I was determined to allow myself this indulgence. I am not a person who buys many clothes, I live simply, and I have to resist feelings of guilt just for purchasing something for myself. 
I walked a few blocks into the main shopping district and stopped at Te & Kaffi. Perfect. Hot black tea, a toasted bagel with Smjör butter and as is customary in Iceland some cheese or meat or fish (cheese for me). I chatted with Alexandra and Jeremiah behind the counter. Jeremiah, wearing a Harry Potter-inspired medallion on a necklace and what looked to be premature gray hair, spoke in American-inflected English. He related having lived in Minnesota and Tennessee. He did a humorous Minnesota accent in English after I tried my own version. His was better, with an exaggerated American-Scandinavian lilt. I browsed through a local newspaper, not succeeding in parsing the meaning of the front-page story.


“Where’s a good place to shop for a real Icelandic sweater with good prices, not too touristy?”



“The Nordic Store, right across the plaza,” Alexandra and Jeremiah suggested.



I walked the twenty yards there. It’s a splendid display of sweaters, gloves, scarves. I walked to the men’s section and a very helpful sales clerk let me try on a few pullovers. I avoided looking at price tags. I decided I would not get the zippered cardigan. I liked the sweaters she showed me and let me try on, but I am a fussy buyer capable of an impulsive move. I wanted more color, I said. There was a green design I liked but she did not have it in my size. She was not pushy, and I greatly appreciated that. She was so cordial, I had to buy something. I bought a skein (is that what they are?) of hunterish green authentic wool for knitter/quilter Beth, from whom I've been cordially separated for more than two years, for her to knit or to have as a souvenir. The customer can choose from a robust palette of colors, demarcated on a chart reminiscent of a Pantone Matching Scale. This wool is authentic, the double-ply fiber used in the sweaters. (Beth later enthused it was the best gift I’d ever given her.) Locals proudly boast of how warm the sweaters are, wet or dry. And they are right. It’s all in the wool of their sheep, we are told. (Sheep outnumber people on the island. Speaking of “island,” two things: the Icelandic word for Iceland is Ísland, and domain names there end in .is. This invites wordplay and silly conjecture. Well, it is an island, but not the only one in the world that is a nation. More tantalizing, for my little philosophical musings, is the notion that I have found my being, my “is,” in the land whose websites end in “is.” It must’ve been preordained. Or not.)



I had to do more exploring. Up the street, on Laugavegur, the Icewear store had gorgeous selections. I can’t articulate why I did not buy one there. Size? Style? I just was not psychologically ready. The fellow there was also gracious and patient. Both Nordic Store and Icewear were curiously empty of customers around noon. The guy at Icewear told me to try their store down the hill, closer to my apartment. Before that I stopped at 66º North. A decent but limited assortment of blacks, blues, grays. I went to the Icewear store, downstairs to the Vault. A few folks from Maryland were there, a couple. The woman seemed to be on the same sort of mission and knew sweaters. Then the fellow there mentioned The Handknitters Association of Iceland store. That was it. I would have to go there. Trond had mentioned it to us as he dropped off tourists at the end of the day the night before. I had to see what it offered.



I was hungry. Time for lunch. I was arrested by a sign at Prikid, on Bankastraeti, that declared it was the “oldest restaurant / cafe in Iceland.” (What does that even mean and how would one prove it?) It was inviting, giving off a simple 1950s American diner vibe. And looking at the menu sold me on it. I was up for a breakfast meal in the afternoon. I sat at a table by the window, able to view the streams of tourists. I had the Breakfast of Champions, the title of a Kurt Vonnegut work: scrambled eggs, tea, toast, oranges, bacon, and skyr. I had been urged to try skyr. I am glad I did. It is the original “Greek” yogurt that Icelanders have been eating a thousand years. Some crunchy granola or nuts on top was a literal crowning achievement. Prikid had the weird feel of a bar and a diner. It wasn’t rowdy, and was akin to an Irish pub in that it served as a haven for regulars, including an ostensible writer or two (counting myself). Old black and white photos of writers adorned the walls. I thought one was Henry Miller, but Geoffrey, one of the managers, informed me it was not.



While on Bankastraeti, I saw the lady who had waited on me at Nordic Store. We exchanged smiles. I nearly blurted out to her that I had yet to buy a sweater.



Even for one who is not a knitter (owing to clumsy hands and a restive nature), The Handknitting Association of Iceland store was dazzling: shelves lining the walls with cardigans, pullovers in several colors and styles, though not dozens of styles. I suspect they go through cycles as to what varieties of color and design are offered. Just as I love the smells of a hardware store in America, I loved the playful kaleidoscope of colors here (not that I could specify a smell or fragrance; more a woolishness in the air). You would have to work at feeling gloomy. I tried on three sweaters, all pullovers: a white one with gray and black subsidiary designs; a red one with blue and green; a charcoal one with white and gray. I was torn. I’d try one on and then waltz up to the front room and ask the clerk at the desk what she thought, seeking validation per usual in my life. (Is it a writer thing?) On the white one: “Sure, it looks very attractive. It’s good.” Me: “I don’t know. I look washed out.” Then the red one. Again, positive reviews by two clerks, and a Chinese young woman trying on more sweaters than I was. “Get that one. Red is a lucky color in China.” Me: “But I’ll look like a Christmas ornament. It’s too flamboyant.” “All the women in the room will like it. The design pattern stands for the church,” she said referring to the spire of Hallgrímskirkja, which dominates the city’s viewshed. That would be the tiebreaker. The sanctified endorsement would seal the deal. Hold on. Not quite. I eliminated the white one. Down to two. I tried on the red one and the charcoal sweater again. I concluded the red one was too special, as if reserved for Christmas or special occasions. It had too much of “lookie here!” The young clerk at the front desk agreed. I finally went with the charcoal, with a design signifying waves. It picks up my gray hair and gray goatee as well as the remnants of black hair I have (or persist in believing I have). 

I am glad with the choice I made. If my buying process paints me as as a fop or a dandy, so be it. It was an investment coupled with a statement. I knew it would be a remembrance, iconic of a journey. “Waves”? Sure. I’ll take that as a framework for this journey. I’ve even slept in this sweater. It is cozily warm and a work of art. I view it as a wise move, and unabashedly a conversation starter.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Iceland, day 2.5: not all is as it appears

I was tired but hungry after a Golden Circle Wednesday teeming with sights, sounds, and other Icelandic stimuli, so I went for the second evening in a row to Icelandic Fish & Chips in the Volcano House building, across the street from Katla, which is how my apartment 405 is termed in the Ice Apartments. 

Let me digress for a second to illustrate the scene from my bedroom window: a view of the Old Harbor; Volcano House to the left; a mountain or mountain range in the background that looks close enough to walk to but is, I am told, more than an hour's drive away; the modernist Harpa concert hall to the right (suitably attractive but I never did walk over to there and go in it); some ships, including work on one or two in dry dock; the library across the street closer to the right; and directly in front a construction site with ostensibly fewer than a dozen workers for a structure slated to take up half a block. They worked on concrete forms and seemed unhurried. Who operated the crane? was a big mystery to me until I tentatively concluded the crane operator was up near the top. The workers were my alarm clock, with their radio blaring pop music and their hands hammering forms securely in place, though I suppose getting up past nine was inevitable anyway. Do workers around the planet require the blare of distracting theme music while they pound, saw, cut, weld, or rivet? 

The night before I tried white hake, and loved it. I found it light and not very fishy, over roasted potatoes with a side tin cup provided for tartar sauce (it was some other zesty concoction; it changed every night). My server said she believed hake is the fish depicted on the 10 kronur coin. The place is not pretentious, very inexpensive comparatively, and low-key, friendly. I liked it. And it was less than a hundred steps from my apartment. The second night I had cod, spread over a salad with mango sauce to spread over the fish. Again, I liked it a lot, even though I am not that much of a fish eater (mostly salmon and haddock). At the table next to me, to my right, a couple spoke more quietly than Americans do. They spoke French, from what I could discern. She started weeping. He touched her elbow. I, an old stranger, wanted to comfort them though I was curious about the emotion. He seemed detached but not uncaring, leading me to conclude her tears were not about "them" but some outside upset. It passed, as they were able to eat calmly, and find smiles and laughter.

Being awake, a tad restless though tired, I strolled in my downtown Reykjavik neighborhood. I stopped at the Stofan Cafe, where I had gone for breakfast (tea, bagel, cheese, salad greens). I ordered asked for decaf tea but ended up getting Earl Grey (not decaf) and engaged in friendly conversation with my server, asking if she was the owner (no). I was promoting this book, already in its early stages. Just as I was sitting down amid the cozy and comfortable couches and warmly inviting wooden antique furniture, I spied Gordon and his wife across the street, the Irish folks from the tour today. I walked out to the doorway and called out (you have to think of downtown, at least on Wednesday, as a quiet village): "Hey, Gordon and wife! Hello!" They came in and joined me. I was wrong in my assumptions (one of the temes before, during, and after this journey). It was not his wife, but his sister, Denise. We managed to secure a table (it was fairly crowded), and chatted amiably. She's a doctor, in Newfoundland; he's an entrepreneur and consultant, who lives near Dublin. Shortly before 11 p.m., we were told upstairs was closing; we'd have to go downstairs, which would stay open for an hour. We repaired down there, where it was harder yet to find a table amidst mostly twenty-somethings conversing, playing chess, drinking, laughing. And it was louder.

This was my first inkling of Reykjavik's fabled club life: in this instance civil, orderly, gregarious, a weeknight vibe.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Iceland, day 2.4: Geysir, onward upward

The sun was setting and dusk falling as we approached Geysir, just before 1700 hours. The area is a bubbling cauldron of fire and ice, just what Iceland is known for and marketed as. As one first approaches, there is a small steaming hole atop a small rise, surrounded by ice. Little signs throughout warn that the water is hot: 100 degrees Celsius or more. That means: boiling hot. Still, I wanted to reach in and just touch the water quickly, the way a WET PAINT sign counterintuitively beckons one to touch. But I did not. Some of these hot springs, which abound in Iceland, are always percolating and are not active as geysers. Our word in English borrows from the Icelandic place name of Geysir and the Icelandic word, which borrows from Old Norse: to gush, gusher, to pour. As a wordsmith, I had reverence for the place for this reason alone. How often does one experience such etymological originalism, or word-birtherism? Icelanders bake bread in the hot ground near here and other places, for 24 hours, but I neither saw nor bought any. I saw one or two other bubbling craters before seeing the large, active one, Strokkur, as in "churn," which had people shrieking and jostling some twenty yards away. The experience is oddly lunar, here and elsewhere, though how would I know, never having traversed the lunar landscape. (And there's no water shooting into the air there.) I walked up to THE geyser. It had just "gone off." some little kids were laughing; perhaps they were a tad too close and got doused with mist. Up on a slight incline, I was not worried about that. From the prior bursts, you could see which way the wind was carrying the steamy plumes. A low, chained fence kept people at a safe distance. We were told this active geysir goes off approximately, but unpredictably, every 2 to 8 minutes. A pool of water, perhaps 20 to 30 feet in diameter, percolated and rippled. Then it would start to heave, as if it were breathing, or as if it were a creature getting ready to cough. without exact warning, BOOM it bursts upward vigorously like a rocket launch with an iridescent blue at the bottom hurling skyward and turning steam white and exploding into the air. It pauses as a column, some 75 feet high, and starts dispersing downwind. I stayed to witness two or three eruptions close at hand. Having been warned about the difficulty of timing, I did not attempt to photograph or video record it. My battery was low anyway. More than that, I knew it'd be a futile attempt and I wanted to take this in and let it surprise me. Of course, that was in line with the explicit purpose of the whole trip: to reset my true north bearings by taking in new surprises, to see what would be revealed -- around me, in front of me, in me. The eruption was cleansing. And innocent fun. Erupt, release, spray, spout off, churn, release pressure, recharge: it was all there as the perfect natural metaphor machine. And onward and upward, too. As is said of the wind itself (as well as spiritual matters), one never knows exactly where it comes from or where it goes, or when. Same here. This seemingly endless geyser gives the appearance of everlastingness, though it merely happens to be "alive" now. It has not always been active and, like Geysir itself, can become dormant or more quiet.

We headed into the sunset, darkness enveloping us. Trond played some Icelandic music. It was a long and wondrous day in the Golden Circle. I drifted off to half-sleep on the way back to Reykjavik. We stopped in the cold dark to view the Northern Lights, off the highway, taking advantage of the absence of light pollution. If it were not for Trond pointing out the subtle greenish-blue wave above the horizon, which became two fairly distinct waves, I would not have discerned it as aurora borealis. I would not known where to look and would have expected (there's that word again) shimmering, Technicolor flamboyance. So, it was not postcard-dramatic, but observable and a fitting cap to the day. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Iceland, day 2.3: Apres le lagon

After the pleasingly languid lagoon, I resisted the allurement of napping on the bus, even though the post-lagoon experience was conducive to torpor. I didn't trek to Iceland to nap on a mini-bus while splendid scenery rolled by. Next was lunch and a tour of Gullfoss waterfall. I obeyed Trond's suggestion and had the lamb soup, apparently a national favorite. Very tasty; reminded me of the beef-stock-soup-bone homemade "red soup" my mom often made for Saturday supper, with paprika to spice things up. In the dining area, which looked out onto a white expanse with the falls sending up spray, I sat next to a man and a woman from Ireland. Gordon was the name I caught for the gentleman. The three of us walked together for a while outside and they snapped a rare Iceland photo of me. For whatever reason, it was wicked cold here. It was later in the day, not especially windy, but cold. The sun was going down behind the waterfalls, completing the "picture" in "picturesque." Trond, who was now being extremely explicit and repetitious in his meet-up instructions, would wait for us down by the falls overlook, below a boardwalk that was slippery in spots. It was so cold, I decided to occupy some of the time until 4:30 by marching up to the gift shop just to be in a warm place, since the bus had yet to arrive. I milled around the gift shop and took a bathroom break for five or ten minutes, and then went down the wooden steps again to the bus, which was idling in an attempt to keep us warm. The waterfalls? Impressive, with the ice chunks and natural sculptures. Not unlike Niagara Falls in the winter, if it is sufficiently cold to create the ice tableau. The landscape context of white quasi-tundra added to the scenic quality. It was odd how this was the coldest spot all day, several tourists agreed.

Next was Geysir.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Iceland, day 2.2

Thingvellir is the historical and cultural epicenter of Iceland. An assembly of chieftains met there shortly before the year 930, so Iceland had the world's first parliament. Around the year 1000, Iceland chose to adopt Christianity at this spot, even though the head guy was not a Christian. A number of stipulations were made, including a married priesthood and the permitted continuance of ancient ways (that's a vague euphemism, since I do not know which forms of Viking debauchery and mayhem were allowed). As our guide put it, the Icelandic compromise meant agree to certain compromises and conditions, but in reality things peacefully stay the same. As for my take on the place, I gladly absorbed the broad view, shall we say, and the pristine air and the pure water rushing through the rift we were in that straddles North America and Eurasia. I loved the idea of engaging this rift valley of seismic movement. Indulge in metaphor mania! I meditatively looked out as far as my eyes could see, perched like a sentinel on the viewing boardwalk. I walked the footpath lower into the valley, figured I had had enough and walked back up to the visitor center. It was about 1150 hours. A discomfiting site greeted me. The mini-bus was go. I double-checked the parking lot. Gone. I had the fellow at the gift shop call the tour company. The tour folks called back and instructed me to go back from whence I came, all 800 yards, give or take. So I jogged and fast-walked back down the rifty-looking pathway, almost brushing into clutches of other tourist groups. I calmed myself by knowing they would wait for me; they would have to. I pictured my being a laughingstock. When I reached the lower parking lot, the one I was supposed to have originally gone to, our bus was just arriving. I greeted it and our driver, relieved. Trond said all was fine and assured me I was not holding things up. Our folks were in the cafe, gift shop, rest rooms, or outside. Whew. That was a workout. But I was not mocked or derided.

Then it was on to the Secret Lagoon, which is a natural hot springs in the village of Fludir. All this is part of what is termed the Golden Circle. I should note that the famous, everyone-says-you-must-visit Blue Lagoon was closed for "repairs" consisting of maintenance, cleaning, and dredging. So if anyone castigates me for missing the Blue Lagoon, I've got this "secret." Walking into the visitor center, I heard one of those leaving the place, a man with what sounded like a British accent, yell to us, "Don't believe it. It's freezing in there." Great. I figured I was going to hate this. I'm neither a swimmer nor a lounger of hot tubs. I would give this a few minutes with my teeth chattering in the cold and my lips turning blue, as they did when I went swimming in my childhood.

We were required to take a shower before entering the hot-springs lagoon. Signs instructed us to take a naked shower, sans swimsuits, but I can report that the male participants showered with bathing trunks. I sure as hell was not going to be the lone exception. Leaving the dressing room and shower, I stepped onto the deck. . . the deck with ice on it! Right then and there, I almost turned back and shelved the whole thing. I would have been the only one to do so, from all the evidence. I walked over the icy deck into the stinging cold air and into the luxuriously steaming, welcoming, inviting, relaxing, comforting hot-springs (in some places very-hot-springs) lagoon. It was immediately soothing. And surprisingly social. (Maybe that's why people like hot tubs.) I was so gracious as to not only talk to bikini-clad lagooneers. There was a gal from Australia who was a lifeguard traveling through Canada, New York City, and Iceland; a retired couple from near Manchester, England; several others from Australia (which is a long, long ways away, isn't it?); a small handful of Americans.

I didn't want to leave. Who ever wants to emerge from the decadent languor of a perfectly warm bath -- into the cold?

(Incidentally, I took no photos. Cameras do not record the warmth enveloping mind and spirit, not even the waterproof cameras a few of the Aussies had.)


Iceland, day 2.1

Our driver and guide, Trond Eiksund, a kindly bear with a reddish beard, was witty, entertaining, and informative. He succeeded in making his audience comfortable and communal. Since it was sunny, he reordered our itinerary for maximum viewing effect. We first stopped at Pingvellir, or Thingvellir in English, national park. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trond told us to look around, go straight on the path some 800 yards, and meet back at the mini-bus at three minutes before noon. The morning sun in back and to the right, did not provide much warmth (it was around 30 degrees, no worse than Syracuse and not windy) but silvered the snow and distant mountains. In front of the guest center, I saw what did not surprise me: somebody wearing a San Francisco Giants hat; he was emerging from a tour bus. I walked up to him, pointing to my own 2012 World Series watch cap. "Excuse me. I just knew this would happen. Giants." We shook hands. It was Dustin and his female fellow traveler, Jenna. From Saskatchewan. "I have to ask: why the Giants?" He said he really likes baseball, and a couple guys he runs with got him into the Giants. Naturally, he is also a Blue Jays fan, and I reminded him that Syracuse was their Triple A team for many years. He knew that. Jenna took a photo of us. As I said, I knew this would happen. Lord knows what this fellow made of all this; he seemed slightly taken aback. Why wouldn't he be, with a stranger gregariously putting an arm around him and posing for a photo as if both were ol' war buddies? It was a brief encounter. I didn't tarry. But it was a given this would happen. 



















It turns out this scene is nearly a national icon, common on postcards.







Iceland, day 2.0

Ten minutes out of Reykjavik, I knew this trip was right for me, the right thing to do, my self-conjugation of verb and declension of noun, guided by personal pronoun. Despite the quiet, cozy small-town feel of this "bay of smokes," and the grayness I had encountered on the day of arrival, I yearned for more, if for no other reason than to be in slight accord with the lights and shadows and escarpments I had pre-visioned. So, now the sun was rising and blazing shortly after Gateway to Iceland's Hot Golden Circle Tour had begun. Well before 1100, our little bus was basking in unequivocal northern daylight. With snow-bedecked mountains and glaciers to the left and right (mostly left), the scenic vistas of postcard-riddled imagination became incarnate. The trip now felt right because it presented on a silver metaphysical platter the natural wonders so dearly hoped for. My tired and tiresome joke from back home, which barely yielded a chuckle if I were lucky, that I'd return with two Nordic goddesses, twins, Helga and Inga, blond and raven, was now officially irrelevant. I had threatened myself with not taking a camera, and the view from the bus endorsed that notion. No camera captures the majesty of the everlasting hills, the eternal expanse. But I snapped away all day, until the battery ran down. Nevertheless, these majestic and rugged views of grandeur lifted me, though I was tired from the day before. Just this, just this: was this one of the "meanings" for which I had traveled and arrived? Remember, I came alone. I doubt anyone else on the bus had done the same. I suppose I entertained slight pangs of envy or self-pity, but not for long and not deeply. Solo was the way to go. (Yesterday, no traveling companion would have put up with my endless traipsing and trudging onward and onward, ploughing forth. Today, by the way, I discovered the FREE shuttle to the Kringlan mall from around the corner of Ice Apartments! I resisted the slap to the forehead. It wasn't meant to be. Plus, I would have missed the intimate step-by-step experiential first-hand knowledge of the village-like [mostly] streets of the world's northernmost capital.) So traveling as one's own companion frees one of conflict, at least outer conflict, and liberates one from negotiation with respect to plans and their execution. 

Iceland, day 1 (catching up)

Today is day 3 but I am still chronicling day 1. Like all memory, it is now filtered by experience, colored by perception, stained by mental re-vision.

The shower.

Futuristic, to me -- perhaps not to Icelanders, Scandinavians, Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans. (I later learned the owner of the building, who also owns the Black Pearl, employs Dutch design.)

In the bathroom, the shower is not a separate entity. It is a portion of the room, partitioned by one glass door that bends to open wider or fold into the watery flow. The room, on the fourth floor, has several windows, less than a foot square, that sit in a vertical column looking onto the street. I am across from Volcano House (a museum with a restaurant, shop, offices), a construction site, the library. I doubt that anyone can see in from the street below and it does not bother me anyway. Back to the shower. Trying to turn the right metal dial, I was like the Woody Allen character in Sleeper. Water poured from five overhead metal "flutes" with holes. By mistake I first launched a wand next to the dials, splashing me and that side of the room. Finally, I got the water to warm up, and luxuriated in the cleansing warmth. A squeegee on the floor allows one to coax water, if needed (needed), down the drain, a slit in the floor, near the wall. 

Light switches. More sci-fi. Find out which white switch on a white background does what, if anything. I am in a Haruki Murakami novel, except the labels are in Icelandic, as they should be. White switches for room (ceiling) lights are demarcated by "loftljos." The room thermostat does not go above 21 degrees C. (69.8F). Sounds about right, in accord with home, even warmer, given my costs. Press to the right or left. (After two days, I learned a quick press on the left is off, to the right is on; pressing slowly or without a quick release is to dim. Or vice fecking versa.)

A great feature near the shower, discovered accidentally, is an S-like metal tubing on the wall. It is heated! It warms towels, or the foot mat. I used it yesterday to dry my swimsuit after the Secret Lagoon experience.

I took a nap, not more than an hour.

I ventured out again.

I met friends, by the lake.

I did not know the names of these friends, whom I was confident of meeting. But I did learn their names.

They saved the day.

And me.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Iceland, day 1: future forward (contd)

I followed the directions to get in to the Ice Apartments lobby. That was easy, despite being told to "pull" the code numbers when it was really "press." Hey, we've all pulled when we should have pressed, and vice versa, right? For the life of me I could not find the box for the key for the room. I tried the lobby; I tried the fourth floor. I went to the desk of the Black Pearl and had them call Erla, the manager. Daniel, of the Black Pearl, went up to the fourth floor and showed me the "box" on the wall and we got the key. The box looked like a thermostat, but what do I know? The place is spacious for about $100 a night. Lots of white. Modern to the point of science-fiction. All the light switches, in Icelandic, have dimmers and on/off and rocket launchers and artisanal pure air pumps. Or something. Sleek style. I do look out onto the Old Harbor but aside from the new opera house it looks industrial with mountains in the background. 

I hit the pavements, not yet tired. Not yet feeling or acting tired. It was cold and windy, always windy the locals say, with the sky finally brightening. I ambled up the main street of shops and walked uphill toward the Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church that sits atop the cityscape. A statue of Leifr Ericson is in front of it, a gift from the U.S. I went in to the church and heard echoingly loud organ music. It sounded like Bach, but the organist told me it was a French composer. Again, travel surprises. We do not experience what we expect. I assume massive churches to dwarf me, to make me feel struck down with awe. The nave was bright mint green and airy. It felt loose and open, almost retailish in its modernity. The interior was stunningly modern and simple (the Icelandic way), but I was trained to expect the moody candlelit somberness of a European cathedral. So when I walked out and viewed where I had been, the structure, though shockingly huge, seemed less. Granted, that is all conjured by my mind and its anticipation.


After I left, I used a free public WC. Then I went down the street and had a cup of coffee and fruit-laden and grainy bread with Icelandic Butter at Reykjavik Roasters. I chatted with Sebastian, British, I believe. 

I still needed to get to Kringlan shopping center to take care of my phone issue. I stopped a man walking two dogs to ask for directions. He intimated I was crazy, that it was that far. Take a bus, he urged. It was around noon. I brushed his concern aside and walked on. It was a lot of walking, on icy and snow-packed streets. They do a dreadful job of clearing sidewalks. It's a real hazard. I studied my map and turned left onto Miklabraut, a four-lane heavily traveled boulevard that sounds like a German dish. I asked a man shoveling his driveway if I was going the right way. He too tried to dissuade me, telling me to cross the street and take a bus. I trudged onward. Who knows why? I was almost there by now, I supposed. A few long blocks from the mall, I crossed under the street in a tunnel for pedestrians. It had graffiti mural and filth: rubbish, wrappers, plastic, scattered paper hearts in the swampy detritus. I asked another fellow if I was close. I was. For once, he (young, unlike the others I had asked) saluted my walkable mania. 

Here's the bad part. I got to the Simm-inn store and they said it was an AT&T problem, my phone was locked, they couldn't help me, and they couldn't give me a refund. Maybe they could at the airport. Good luck. This was distressing and deflating. Now I felt tired and hungry but mostly tired. In a word, I hightailed it out of there and took a bus back "home" and finally took a nap. Just that hour or so helped.

As for tired, I dare say: has Reykjavik, Iceland ever had a 67-year-old tourist walk so far in one day all by himself? I'll match anyone, though that was not my intent. (What was my intent?)

Then I took the most modern of showers.

[more to come but not tonight]

Iceland, day 1: future forward

What was that about things never being as you expect them to be (The First Spiritual Axiom of Travel and Life)? As we "deplane" at KEF just before 0630, we are greeted by gusts of snowy wind almost throwing us off the outdoor stairway. (True, I can't speak for the rest of the arriving guests.) The pilot had noted the presence of "snow showers." Nope, this had the feel of a good, ol' fashioned Syracuse snow squall. Fine. I held onto the railing as I descended. It was dark outside. Dark like the night. We walked to a shuttle bus, which transported us no more than a few hundred yards to an arrival building. Exiting the shuttle bus, several inches of swirling and drifted snow which belied all the pamphlet hype of "temperate" conditions. I joked with a kid from Wisconsin about it. We all took it in stride. 

The arrivals building (it may be the only building at the airport) is Icelandic slick and pristine: wooden floors, lean lines, bathrooms of white featuring waterless urinals and private closets for other discharges; quiet. I turned in US$150 and got back 18,834 ISK, or Icelandic Krona. don't fight me on this. Maybe I got back 18,500. Who knows? The window said no commission is charged, so I'd say this was a wise move instead of doing the transaction at EWR. I Joe Island (so says the receipt, though I think the sign says Joe + Juice), I bought an Earl Grey tea and a so-called blueberry muffin that looked Martin pink, stawberry-ish, for 798 ISK. Seemed like a lot, but amounted to a total of $6 when I figured it out afterward. Two young guys ran it, zippy, awake, affable, playing pop music (was that Rihanna?). I sat at a round table. They tried to have the feel of a coffee shop (though no bagels or anything; avocado smoothies and health stuff).

At a convenience 7 Eleven-type shop at KEF, I bought a Siminn Prepaid Mobile Service sim card for my phone because AT&T was not working. At all. "Emergency Calls Only." It cost around $25. seemed to make sense. I went over at a table and fumbled with my phone. I see the clerk who sold me the chip walking into the joint with something that looks an awful lot like my Ogio laptop bag, because it is my laptop bag, which I had leaned against the counter. A nearly disastrous close call. Chalk it up to not having slept a wink on the five-hour flight. I scratched off the number on the sim card package and inserted it in the space on my phone screen. (I do not have a smartphone. I did this seven or eight times. No dice, not even with the help of the folks who sold it to me. They told me to talk to the folks at the Kringlan mall and told me roughly where it was. The Siminn folks were not open yet and not answering calls. 

It was time to get out of the airport. I bought a round-trip ticket for the Flybus into Reykjavik. 5000 ISK. I scrounged around  in my pocket and could only find one coupon for the bus. Is it tiredness or nervousness that is spawning these slip-ups? I cut ahead of those waiting in line and asked the gal who sold me the ticket. She said just give your receipt to the driver and use the ticket/coupon on Friday (as if I was supposed to know that). I exit the terminal to make for the bus. Blustery snow. In the dark. At 0830. I had to laugh.

I sat on the bus next to Eddie from south of Boston (but not "Southie" per se, he said), recently retired from the military as a helicopter pilot. A perfect companion for the trip in. We groused good-naturedly about the weather and the dark. "The sun comes up at 11 and goes down at 4," he said. He too was traveling alone. He thought he had read Baseball's Starry Night. He had great Ted Williams stories. Stayed at a condo next door to The Kid, who answered his door in boxers. They knocked down drinks together, in the morning. Jim Craig, the goalie for the U.S. hockey team that beat the Russians at Lake placid, was his neighbor; his brother was Eddie's accountant. Eddie traded away his tickets for that game, figuring our team was going nowhere. As for this morning, Eddie was going to go to a spa for a few hours because he was too early for his room at the Hilton.

Our bus sailed into Reykjavik in the dark. The snow let up. At 0930 it was still dark as we got got in a traffic jam. I saw one plow. do people go to work late? Or was it the snowstorm, which began the day before. No, it was not on par with a Syracuse lake-effect blast, predicted back home for this very day. But I pictured dramatic escarpments, geysers, ocean views, and Bjork on the way in. (More later on music on the flight.) 

At one point, Eddie, sitting on my left, slumped over, bent in half, immobile. Was he dead? We are of similar age. Should I try to rouse him? Listen for snoring? After ten minutes he popped back up. A valuable practice he had matered in the military: sleeping on a dime. 

On the trip in, a young fellow walked up to the driver. Five times we all could hear the driver say, in English, "I can't hear you. You're mumbling. What? I don't understand a word you are saying." Then: "I can't get your luggage while I am driving," with a dose of sarcasm. "You can't wait? Now?" Finally, the riddle was made clear when the driver stopped the bus, let the guy out, who ran behind some pines and took a leak. The bus crept along. Then the bus stopped, holding up traffic briefly, and let the fellow pop back onto the bus, relieved.

Our bus stopped at the BSI bus terminal and let most of us off to transfer to smaller buses. Eddie and I shook hands, mutually declaring we had a good chance of meeting here again.

My small bus dropped me off at the Black Pearl Hotel, in the old Harbor. Ice Apartments, where I'd stay, were said to be adjacent. It was past 1000. Still dark.

[more to come]

Monday, January 11, 2016

pre-Iceland: phase 1

Sheets of Sunday rain cascaded onto the thwacking windshield wipers of my 2007 VW Rabbit. Dark, windy curtains of driving rain greeted me as I sailed south on 81. Much of the time, I left the radio and CD player off. The rain was soundtrack aplenty for the drive that would take me to dear old friends in Florham Park, New Jersey, before flying out of EWR on Monday evening to Reykjavik, Iceland. Around Scranton, fumbling for decent music (rare), I tuned in sports-themed radio stations (FoxSports and ESPN). They delivered second-hand reports of the Seahawks-Vikings playoff game, but I soon tired of their false camaraderie and juvenile banter reminiscent of locker room towel snapping. I mildly rooted for the Vikings (after all, look where I am headed), but I later learned they lost a heartbreaker. Vikings. Heartbreak. Are encounters with Viking descendants the perfect cure for broken hearts, minds, or souls? That question is a shade too cute, even for this writer prone to the showy, cutesy turn of phrase. I suggest it is more accurate to say my Iceland journey is just that: a journey, a reset -- not so much a "cure" for anything. By encountering new vistas, fresh air, new sounds, new people, it will be like taking the Etch-a-Sketch and turning it upside down, shaking it, and scrubbing it of the angular, jagged drawing that was not working anyway. As for this first phase of the trip, I was consoled by my own company. Per her request, I texted trip updates to my youngest daughter back in Syracuse. In Pennsylvania hills before the Poconos, I heard the Rosary intoned. The Third Glorious Mystery: The Coming of the Holy Spirit. I resisted changing the station. Why not? I figured. Each Hail Mary was begun by a male voice who prayed up to and including the word "Jesus." The ten Hail Marys in each decade (dekkid, a severe nun of my childhood pronounced it) were finished by a female voice ("now and at the hour of our death. Amen."). They both had vaguely Irish accents, and the echo in their recitations made it sound like they were in a chapel. As I was listening to this, on a hill to my right, a billboard proclaimed "ULTIMATE MASSAGE. 24/7. No waiting." At a rest stop just inside New Jersey, shortly after the dramatic escarpments of the Delaware Water Gap, I texted my friend Hoagie telling him to tell Brett I had just driven through East Stroudsburg, the area where Brett used to live. By the time I was in the Garden State, the sun blazed through amidst wind-scudded cumulus, casting shadows on hills visible for miles. Temps in the fifties. And after arriving in Florham Park (the second locus of a ten-year stay in Jersey, where two of my children were born), conversation and coming and going. Then eloquent grace from Randy and a grand dinner with nine or ten around the table (family friend Michelle and I the only lefties and seated accordingly), vegetarian delights (couscous, spinach pie, eggplant), stories, laughter, and absence (with the patriarch gone almost a year ago). Today, departure. Like a nervous Nellie or eager child, I fret whether all my documents will be in order or some snag halts the progress of this narrative. Time will tell. It always does.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

I have arrived . . .

I have arrived. You thought that I have arrived in Iceland, didn't you? (Is it vain to assume that you, or else you, or maybe you instead, have been reading these prior musings about Iceland and Reykjavik, formulated before my having breathed its air or tasted its water or touched its land with my feet?) I have yet to arrive in my own private Iceland (and I have yet to view the 1991 movie My Own Private Idaho, though I've always loved the title). "I Have Arrived." That's the title of today's little meditation reading in my compilation of wisdom penned by Thich Nhat Hanh. He says, "The realization that we have already arrived, that we don't have to travel any further, that we are already here, can give us peace and joy. The conditions for our happiness are already sufficient." That being said and that being believed and that being practiced notwithstanding, I nevertheless yearn for reset, reboot, revival, restoration, and renaissance. I hunger for the "shock of the new," to echo that cogent title of the work by Robert Hughes. My own private Iceland beckons and calls and whispers.

Friday, January 08, 2016

winter verb-noun string 1


emitted flakes secreted sleep dying winds yawning warmth harboring rain jilting January

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

winter haiku 4


shiny slick roadway

ribboning backward, forward 

danger: solid ground

umbrage

Alas [such an archaic word, which is apt in this discourse obliquely touching upon a land with an archaic language; cf. earlier post], there are some who take umbrage at the idea that I [that I in particular, not "I" generically or as a nondescript impersonal personal pronoun] should have the bravado, the chutzpah, to gallivant off northward to ice-laden shores (i.e., Iceland), given my alleged or perceived or declared financial circumstances and my perceived duties, roles, and obligations. Ah [another archaic term], there's the rub. Perceived. As the Buddha asks us, can we trust our perceptions? [You know the old saw that when you "assume" you make an ass out of "u" and "me"; amen.] For these naysayers, doubters, and umbragettes [good one!] assume much in matters financial, fiduciary, spiritual, circumstantial, motivational, mental, physical, metaphysical. Which is perfectly fine, and to be expected. Is the so-called equation [are all things calculable?] altered if, say, a diagnosis of terminal illness enters the fray, posing a last fling, reckless and hapless? What if a traveler were on the verge, the Arctic ledge, of quasi-caregiving breakdown, craving, needing, begging for a respite, a literal re-creation? What if a wealthy benefactor is subsidizing this Icelandic journey, as someone generously did for my trip to the World Series in San Francisco in 2014? Who knows, perhaps our would-be Reykjavik wanderer lent himself money by using one of those low-interest "convenience" checks that come in the mail, or maybe our prospective boulevardier dipped into his 401k. What if. What if our putative sojourner sees utterly no need or cause for explanation (relatively speaking or not speaking), no reason whatsoever to defend, explain, or justify -- especially to an umbragette? (As in less than zero need.) Back to umbrage. It is the gorgeous delicious word for this monologue (or dialogue or trialogue for those who went to chime in aided by the north wind cleansing our souls). Umbrage denotes fancied (as in imagined) slights or insults or resentments and comes from the word for "shadow," which is utterly pertinent because the shadows shrouding perception spawn conclusions spurred by suspicion and what-not. Which is fine. We all do that. And Iceland is the lush, dramatic, and stoic cure for all this and all that, its northern lights, stark terrain, volcanic volition, crisp cleansing, and bubbling pools percolating with history.

Monday, January 04, 2016

winter haiku 3


pontifical plumes

alabaster frigid dawn

single-digit crunch

lingua franca Icelandic

From the sparse research I have done, I have learned that Icelandic is an ancient language that has not changed all that much since 1100, give or take the odd hundred years. Icelanders apparently can easily read the original texts of Norse sagas dating back over a thousand years. Yikes! I guess it would be as if modern speakers of English could easily read or speak the language of Shakespeare's time, with "easily" being the italicized, boldfaced operative word. More accurately, you would have to go even farther back in time, but not quite to the time of Beowulf! (I was an English major and recall a tiny bit from my linguistic studies.) From what I understand, Icelanders share with us who speak English the Germanic grammatical structure of S-V-O, subject-verb-object, with allowances made for emphasis or poetry. Speaking of poetry, I hear over and over again that Iceland is a land of bards. I like that. As a solipsistic bard, I am humming the tune for my own personal saga; searching for the narrative, plot, and story line. Many of the characters have or are playing their parts in my saga, myself included. Other characters wait in the wings.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

-lands' end

So, of all the -land countries to visit, I have chosen Iceland. Not Ireland, Greenland, England, New Zealand, Swaziland, Switzerland, Thailand, or the Netherlands, with its additional s. (I am deliberately not including the names of countries ending in Islands or Island; it's my list, my rules). (Am I missing anyone?) Having blurted out this suffix-laden list, I am no closer to revealing my raison de voyager except to say north is my magnet, attracting me like iron filings, flung seaward and landward, arching toward the Arctic Circle, aching to see what shall be revealed and to hear what shall be sung (by Icelandic poets and bards and artists of all provenances).

Saturday, January 02, 2016

my Iceland persona

Who will I be in Iceland less than two weeks from now? It is a question less pompous than it appears to be (I hope). I know I don't want to be the Ugly American: boorish, brash, impatient, arrogant, incurious. Though how avoidable will that be? Surely I will cart along with me all the cultural trappings that have conditioned my personality thus far. Nothing wrong with that. I can't help it anyway. It would be impossible to decondition myself in less than two weeks, stripping myself of prior personal shaping and sculpting, making myself as bare and barren as an Icelandic wintry landscape. And what would I be? Who would I have become? I can picture myself in a Reykjavik coffee shop, blabbling mercilessly about my books and my spiritual journey, affecting an urbane and witty pose, handing out my cleverly designed Moo cards, flirting with locals; in short, a hungry and not very accidental tourist. But what if the denizens of the place prefer solitude, silence, and taciturn unengagement? What if nothing is as I anticipate in scale or flavor or atmosphere? Naturally, nothing will be exactly as I envision beforehand. It is never exactly as envisioned.

And that's why we go.