Friday, 22 March 2013

Tales of Northern Lights

Electric green light is dancing around my head.

Emerald wisps are weaving their way across the horizon, coiling and curving around the coast of Seltjarnarnes peninsula. It is cold, it is nearly midnight, and we have just walked for about 45 minutes out of Reykjavík. I can see my breath. My toes are numb, my hands frozen. The hip-flask of whiskey smuggled in my friend's trusty anorak makes an appearance and, after a few warming swigs, we trudge along the sandy beach towards the end of the coast. It is dark; there are no street-lamps, no houses, just the sounds of the sea and its spidery waves scuttling about our feet. I look up, and I actually can't believe what I'm seeing. It appears that we have been caught in an electrical storm of florescent lights bolting across the sky, before fizzling out by the shore. No my friends, I have not been abducted by aliens. But away from the street-lamps and car-lights of the bustling town centre, something magical is happening: the Northern Lights are out. 

I didn't take this photo myself (stupid camera),
but this is pretty much sums it up......
I've seen the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, once before; just a glimpse of green fuzz in the distance. But tonight, the lights are out in full force. The Northern Lights are something that anyone who visits Iceland in winter must try to experience: but you can never really predict them, and no two appearances will ever be the same. For those travelling to Iceland for the first time, just a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis is magical; in photographs the lights are still, but up close they dance and move and, if you are really lucky, rumour has it that they sing. Yet for Iceland's earliest settlers, only oral stories and legends about the mystical lights would have reached the ears of those sailing across the whale-road to Iceland. How on earth, then, did a little lone Viking in his longhouse one thousand years ago perceive such a magnificent light display? I like to imagine that our Viking friend believed the strange happenings in the sky to be the Norse gods rampaging about. It is not impossible to see how  - often the lights become tall and spiky, like Oðinn's spear, and at other times the sky tints red, as if blood has been spilled in Ásgarðr (Asgard). Perhaps Þórr (Thor) is angry and conjuring up an electrical storm? Maybe the large looming shapes are the frost-giants breaking free from Jotunheim and making war on the Æsir (Norse gods)? In fact, the strange figures in the sky really do look like great gods or ancestors fighting in the florescent fire-light. Stories of dragons and trolls, gods and giants come to life, as myth blends with the mysterious figures in the sky. I just can't believe what I'm seeing. All around the frozen sea-scape, a myriad of shapes are dancing and whirling, a smattering colour against the black-canvas sky. Iceland is alive, and the night is on fire.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Tales of Whales!....and sick bags

Oh dear god.

Esja, the snow-capped mountain
which looms over Reykjavík
(home to troll-lady Grýla and her delinquent sons)

I hate whales. As in, a knee-buckling at 'Free Willy' kind of hatred, a passing out during 'Finding Nemo', kind of fear. Yet after bobbing up and down in the Atlantic Ocean or wherever the hell I was today, I have somewhat rapidly discovered that sea sickness is far, FAR worse. To be honest, when your head is submerged somewhere between a paper bag and box of tissues, the last thing you care about is whales. In fact, I really couldn't have cared less if a whole herd of whales went tweeting by in top hats singing the national anthem, waving a giant banner declaring: 'HIII ANNA, WE ARE GIANT SCARY HUMPBACK WHALES'; I just wanted to get off that sodding boat. I mean, lordy me, there were icy-waves crashing over us and American tourists throwing up left, right and centre (first time in my life I'd ever seen them so quiet, in fact). Poor old Cecily had crumbled a long time ago, and was now reduced to sitting motionless in the corner, turning a rather startling shade of pale. We had agreed to go 'Whale Watching', for her birthday (which is today - Happy Birthday, Cec!) and plied ourselves with snúður með karamellu (an Icelandic cake, kind of like a caramel Chelsea bun only MORE HUMONGOUS) and were now regretting the decision considerably. I did feel a tad sorry for the wee scottish lad who admitted, 'oooch, I'm hanging! I've bin' on a four deey bender, I had beer for breeekfast and noow I'm hanging like a fish!' and proceeded to vom over the railings.

Iceland is beautiful, but dear lord it isn't half temperamental. We saw no whales at all (*phew*). Instead, we saw the fin of a rare white dolphin and lots and lots and lots of lots and lots of never-ending blue sea. There were gorgeous snow-white mountains tantalizing us in the background (land! stillness! alas...) and homicidal birds diving beneath the waves only to surface minutes later. No whales. Lots of sick. I'd like to say that I was peeved at such a turn of events, but in fact I didn't mind: it turns out that Elding, the tour company we went with, is firmly anti-whaling, and are actively seeking to create spaces dedicated to the conservation of whales. In fact, their catch phrase is: 'Whales - meet us, don't eat us!'. As a vegetarian who has frequently felt the wrath of the majority of Icelanders for my lack of carnivorous tendencies, it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that some Icelanders not only share my view that eating whale meat is barbaric, unnecessary and downright wrong, but they are actually doing something about it. So my money was not totally wasted, even if my breakfast was....

Cecily enjoying her first taste ofsnúður með karamellu,
(pre-sea sickness)
Despite head-in-a-bag nausea, whale watching was pretty cool. To be honest, it was just exciting to be ON the whale-road (a kenning or metaphor meaning 'sea', for those non-Norsey peeps) rather than being merely ACROSS it. I was half expecting Grendel's mother (Beowulf ref) or one of my sea-dwelling giantesses from Norse mythology to pop their head up and say hello (I bet they're not scared of whales), but alas all that transpired was a complimentary whale-watching ticket to 'give it another go' (fat chance), a dodgy stomach and no apparent cure for my whale phobia. alas.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Tales of Monobrows and Hitler

Soooo me and the sister were just casually chilling in Café Babalú   ( for those of you who don't know, it's Reykjavík's epic bright orange veggie café full of Fred Flinstone-themed awesomeness ) when a WALKING MONO-BROW just dandered right on in, complete with her dodgy-fringe daughter. I kid you not, it was like a living creature on this woman's face, a giant black caterpillar ChaCha-ing across her forehead. Zomg and no-one bothered to tell poor old Monobrow that a patent red fur-coat and gold sunglasses COULDN'T DISGUISE THE INSANE FURRY CREATURE LIVING ON HER FACE. It was bizarre.

Reykjavík looking pretty
 in the DAYLIGHT
So, when our pesto-panninis were finished ( I pretty much unhinged my jaw and swallowed, thanks to good old 'hangover-hunger' ), we decided to leave Monobrow to her skinny latté and dodgy-fringe daughter, when guess who ambled in? None other than a Hitler look-alike who was, wait for it, MONOBROW'S HUSBAND. It was the weirdest thing ever -- how did these two people BREED?! Hitler man had these little shark eyes and crisp suit and weirdly neat spirally-scarf ( not sure what was going on there ) and he was all starey and clinical. He actually reminded me of the freaky sado - dude from 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'. It was SO traumatic, especially when you still have a belly full of free Opal shots ( weird Icelandic alcohol that tastes like cough syrup ) and Aldi's basic vodka ( thanks, mum, for a taste of Britain ), the last thing we wanted to see was Hitler and Monny getting all cozy.

So we decided, to run away very quickly and purchase epic ice-cream dipped in melted chocolate, which is then rolled in crushed Smarties *just before* it solidifies. It is special ice-cream made in the old-fashioned way ( called 'gamli ísinn' ) which I think ( and Icelanders, please correct me if I am wrong? ) is made out of milk. Icelanders have a weird obsession with their ice cream ( it IS incredibly nommy ) and will be queuing outside the door of their local Ísbúðin ( ice cream shop ) at all hours. So Emily and I joined the ranks ( I wanted her to taste a little bit of Iceland, and make up for the awful Monobrow incident ) and nommed to our hearts content. Of course, the giant rat that greeted us on the stairs to my apartment negated any of the ice-cream goodness coursing through our veins. Trying to throw a shoe at a giant rat is surprisingly difficult. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that our little rodent friend was actually a projection of Monobrow's giant face-monster, like a dæmon sent forward to mock us tauntingly with its beady eyes spaghetti tail. Emily's rather wistful comment: ' all we need is a big man with strong boots to come and stomp on it ', funnily enough transpired when, lo and behold, a  random Icelandic dude with big boots and leather gloves came dandering around the corner, and squished the rat in his magnificent-sized hands.

It was all very traumatic.

I'm not quite sure what my sister made of her Icelandic experience, but I hope she plucks her eyebrows and eats more Ice-cream when she gets back home to England.
'well helloooo'
Emily (my sister) relaxing after various Icelandic

Stay tuned for more Reykjavík adventures!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Tales of a Fashionably Icelandic Nature

Hey kids!

Cultural Hybridity:
I import Hipster glasses, Brennavín and
lava-smoked schnapps to our English tea party,
and Emily brings the Pineapple,
Ireland's native fruit
(thanks to Julia's instagram're
a propa hipster blud)
So, today I realised that it has 
been six months since I first willingly marooned myself on this coffee-obsessed island in the North Atlantic, a hipster-haven dominated by granny cardigans and dodgily drawn-on eyebrows. I think that three months of eternal darkness, howling winds and sporadic snow blizzards have finally cracked me : I am now the owner of hipster glasses and Timberland boots. I look like the sad love-child of Napoleon Dynamite and Indiana Jones. I am not proud, but alas the god of Icelandic fashion finally pointed his finger and declared me, my wellies and spectacles ‘uncool’ . Feeling the wrath of the fashion god as he rampaged against any sense of individuality that my choice of attire may once have possessed, this has actually been to my advantage. Icelanders now automatically assume that, as their fellow clone, I too am Icelandic. 

For example, just yesterday when I rushed over to help what I thought was a lovely old man having a heart-attack outside the liquor-store Vínbúðin (when in fact he was just rat-arsed drunk), I was able to hold a conversation fully in Icelandic without automatically being asked that same sodding question: " aah, Britain , so that means you are from London, yes? " (NO I’M NOT FROM LONDON ENGLAND IS NOT LIKE ICELAND THERE ARE OTHER PLACES IN THE COUNTRY THAN THE CAPITAL CITY YOU KNOW). To be honest, I’m not sure that humouring the drunken ramblings of an Icelandic hobo really qualifies as a conversation, but still, my new ‘ Icelandic ’ look is a useful disguise which tricks unwitting Icelanders into speaking Icelandic with me and not automatically switching to English like they normally do. Sometimes, if my hipster glasses are being really disguise-y, I am even privy to an Icelandic rolling of the eyes and a sarcastic remark behind a tourist’s back : "uuh, útlendingar" (foreigners). I am even able to have conversations about the weather. It is all very exciting. Now that the sun is returning to the land of fire and ice (as in , I no longer have to carry a flashlight to work) and Iceland is emerging from long, dark, wintery hibernation, I am tempted to push the fashion boundaries here and see how Icelanders react to my bright-orange hareem pants and innumerable flowery scarves.

Riding on Ice:
Jo and I rocking the boiler suit look
One look that I particularly enjoyed rocking out was the fur-lined boiler suit, thermal underwear and man-boots that my friend Jo and I donned on our most recent horsey escapade. We may have looked ridiculous, but I swear that outfit stopped every single one of my toes turning into mini-icicles and dropping off like suicidal cocktail sausages. We were horse riding amidst snow-capped mountains and frozen lava fields in southern Iceland near Hveragerði and , beautiful though it may have been , it was fricking baltic. After six hours of hard-core tölting (the special gait that only Icelandic horses can do) across the wintery Icelandic countryside , however , fashion was the last thing I cared about. Survival and avoiding death-by-snow were more of a priority, to be honest. I was in good hands though as my noble steed, Margeir, was a bolshy litter critter who was more than happy to plunge head-first into oncoming snow drifts and slide down frozen mountain sides. 

Sexy horse, less sexy rider
(I am squinting because of the snow,
and I'm a little bit special)
At one point, he even managed to get me across a partially frozen river in one piece. Testing the ice by pawing at the river with his hoof, Margeir decided to put some weight on the ice and see what happened. He fell through. Now, any British horse that I know would have had some sort of mild seizure by now, and be pining desperately for the comfort of their snazzy stable-rug , some soft meadow hay and a dry martini. Margeir, however, was not a fashion conscious horse and so, head-down arse-up, my four-legged friend proceeded to wade through the water, quite unabashed by the blustery gale and strong undercurrent that was trying desperately to drag him downstream until we made it back to the farm, thermal underwear and all.

Horse riding in Iceland during the depths of winter is certainly not glamorous, although it is fun to get back into Reykjavík and go into a trendy café stinking of horses. I’m not sure that boiler-suits and hard hats will ever really be fashionable in a city dominated by brogues and vintage satchels, but it is nice to know that the country side offers an escape route and brief reprieve from all the trendy-wendys and skinkas (skinka means ‘ ham ’ in Iceland , and is a nickname for Reykjavík chavettes). I think it is totally legit to fuse Icelandic wilderness with Reykjavík urbanity . So from now on, I shall don my farmer jacket, attire myself in floral scarves and wear my wellies with pride.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Tales of a Sparkly Icelandic Yuletide

Grýla (image by Brian Pilkington)

Hallo all! Festive Greetings and Yuletide Cheer from the depths of snowy Iceland. Just a brief update to let you know that I am alive and well, have not been eaten by the Icelandic Christmas Cat (Jólakötturinn), nor subjected to any abuse by Iceland’s festive family of 13 young delinquents, the Yuletide Lads (Jólasveinar). In fact, I have rather enjoyed the whole ‘foreigner in Reykjavík’ malarkey. I have been threatened with death-by-insane-troll-lady (named Grýla, who comes down from the mountains at Christmas to eat naughty girls and boys, and is mother to the ASBO-worthy Yuletide Lads); I have nearly passed out at the smell of rotten Skate cooking away for Þorláksmessa  (Feast of St. Thorlac, 23rd December) and passed out even more */slash died a little bit /* at the sight of old Icelandic grannies with no teeth chomping away on said rotten-cuisine, wiping away bits of rank Skate from their unnervingly hairy chins (I think one old granny’s chin was borderline beard, and now in hindsight I think she may have been troll-lady Grýla and not chomping on Skate at all, but roasted children).

Mjódd: tragic scene of abandonment
Christmas itself was a blast - somewhat eventful, but nonetheless exciting. Of course, if you have ever met me or been on the receiving end of my plans, it will come as no surprise to you that I am wholly incapable of making plans and *sticking* to them. I think somewhere deep in the murky realms of my Unconscious, there is a little voice whispering things to me: ‘So, you know you said you were going to do this really carefully, intricately planned thing which you spent about a month planning and you will screw other people over including yourself if you don’t stick to it? Here’s an awesome idea -- DON’T stick to it!’ So the fact that I found myself stranded in a bus shelter in Mjódd on Christmas Eve, far from my southern-countryside Christmas destination in Selfoss but equally unable to get back to Reykjavík came, in fact, as no surprise at all. In my defence, I had checked the bus times from Reykjavík to Selfoss, where I was to experience an exciting ‘traditional Icelandic Christmas’, courtesy of my lovely landlady Lóa, her boyfriend Kristján and their new kitten Tryggvi (the latter of which I was slightly suspicious of, given the many rumours of a fluffy, man-eating Christmas Cat) and the bus website ‘Stræ’ assured me that buses would be running on Christmas Eve (cue an angry British letter of complaint, Stræ You goin’ daaan). 

with Þórr in Hafnarfjörður. Nothing
to do with Christmas whatsoever
So, after downing an egg-nog cocktail at work (neither traditionally Icelandic, nor remotely tasty), I grabbed a taxi from Hlemmur (Reykjavík’s main bus terminal) to Mjódd, chatting away to the nice taxi man and quite oblivious to the fact that the reason I was taking a taxi in the first place was because Hlemmur was in lock-down, with neither a bus nor living-being in sight. Arriving in Mjódd, I was greeted by a similar scene of abandonment. Apart from a small gas station in the distance, there were no signs of life in this strange neighbourhood save for a rather pleasant Indian chap who talked extensively about Studio Ghibli, until I pointed out that we might be spending Christmas in a bus shelter, at which point he rather hastily shut up.

Of course, as with all my plan-making fails, I was rescued by a last minute stroke of luck. Lóa’s son (who conveniently was living in this alien land of Mjódd, quite unbeknownst to me) showed up with a battered old Landover, borrowed from a friend and, after about 45 minutes of wrong turns and a near-death-experience involving a ridiculously tall kerb, funky breaks and Meatloaf blasting out of the speakers, we made it out of Mjódd and were on the road to Selfoss. Driving past Elf Settlements in the mountains (no, really), stinky hot springs (which enamoured-tourists call ‘a thing of beauty’, and not-so-enamoured-Icelanders call, ‘mother earth farting’) and cold, bleak lava-fields, we eventually reached our destination in Iceland’s sleepy town Selfoss.

(please note epic fairylight-bedecked motorbike)
In Selfoss, I was greeted by a nommy ‘traditional Icelandic’ Christmas meal (Jólamatur): on the menu was Hangikjöt (smoked lamb), Hamborgarhryggur (smoked pork), pickled beetroot, vegetables, Laufabrauð (‘leaf bread’, a kind of sweet poppadum but thicker) and sugared potatoes (epic). Thankfully, for the meat-phobic vegetarian (i.e. me), my wonderful host Lóa had made a cheesy-gooey-vegetable wonder, BUT for those of you who know me and my somewhat peculiar vegan-vegetarian ways, you may be impressed / shocked / proud / disbelieving / totally ambivalent to learn that I ate *RAW* hangikjöt. Whilst being assured by Lóa’s boyfriend, Kristján, that it definitely wasn’t Horse or Whale, I tried what turned out to be a somewhat bloody, smoky chunk of raw lamb. Greeted by screams from Lóa: ‘You’ve killed the vegetarian! You’ve killed the vegetarian!’, and a slight wave of nausea on my part, I nonetheless felt proud - if not a little sick - at my achievements. Swallowing quickly, I washed the bloody pulp down with a glug of Iceland’s traditional Christmas drink Jólabland (Appelsín, Malt and Coke mixed together. Odd, but surprisingly tasty), not even with a shot of Brennavín to lend a helping hand. Totally bad-ass.

Laufabrauð ('Leaf bread')
All in all, the evening turned out to be a rather pleasant one, even with the various stranded-in-a-bus shelter and crazy-road-trip-through-the-mountains and eating-raw-meat incidents in mind. As you may or may not know, Icelanders celebrate Christmas on the 24 th December: presents are opened and big family meals are eaten on Christmas Eve, whilst the 25th is reserved for ‘bumming around’. So, in the evening after the amazing meal, I had an epic geek-out with Lóá’s boyfriend, Kristján (an old rocker from the ‘60s with a massive obsession with motorbikes). So when I got to handle Kristján’s collection of both pre- and post-Icelandic Independence Coins, as well as ogling at an old prayer book from the 1800s, my soul did a little happy-dance inside. Who’d have thunk? Around 11.30pm we drove outside and saw the epically awesome Northern Lights, and then went to Midnight Mass which was actually really cosy and an interesting experience, with the added bonus that I wasn’t struck-down with hailstones and fire (*bad heathen*).

by Guðjón (Stokkar og Steinar)
Christmas Day was not, however, as ‘bumming around-ey’ as I had previously anticipated. Instead, I was given a whirlwind tour of the countryside. I visited an isolated farmstead where Kristján’s friend, Guðjón, sculpts Viking crafts using techniques handed down to him by his father and grandfather from the ‘old days’ (such as Viking houses, longboats and weird totem-poles), which he makes for museums and movie sets. After resolving to become a Viking’s wife and live in these little wooden houses, I was quickly whisked away into the modern world, pulling up into the small town of Hveragerði, home of Iceland’s very own greenhouse-grown vegetables thanks to its amazing geothermal power. Taking a detour through the mountains, including some off-roading and driving through a river, we came to Raufarholshellir: a creepy cave below the earth, cold and dank and threatening to swallow you up in its dark, gaping mouth. Icy water dripped from the Grýlukerti (‘Grýla's candlesticks’, or ‘icicles’), and I learned that this magnificent natural feature once housed Iceland’s most notorious outlaws and villains (útilegumenn), living on the outskirts of society in perpetual hiding.  Spooky but fascinating. The day was truly wonderful. I experienced the delights of a landscape full of folk myths and legends (rumour has it that the cave Stórihellir in Hellisskógur is haunted by a ghost of a man who hung himself with a blue scarf, whilst the huge rock Jóruklettur is the result of the troll-maiden Jóra ripping parts of the cliff off in a giant rage and casting it into the river Ölfusá ).

So forget mulled-wine, brussel sprouts and the Brownie Guides’ never-sodding-ending Carol Singing: my Icelandic Christmas was full of trolls, mountains, Meatloaf and bizarre rotten-slash-raw food. But what I really like about Icelandic Christmas is its total disregard for all things Santa: no jolly-red coke-guzzling white-bearded borderline-paedophile to be seen anywhere; no magical reindeer, and no tinsel-strewn shopping aisles from the end of October. Icelanders don’t even start to think of Christmas until about the 12th December, and most of their Christmas shopping gets done only a few days before the Big Day itself. Icelandic Christmas is short and sweet, so you are not sick of it before it has even arrived. Icelanders have their own tradition, albeit with man-eating cats and delinquent Yule Lads. Although I missed Christmas pudding and brandy butter, nothing was more awesome than cruising through Elf settlements and lava-fields in the snow-capped mountains on a cold, sparkly Icelandic Christmas day

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A not-so-Hobbit's Tale: There and....probably not back again

Norman the Troll

I feel like an eccentric, rock-dwelling elf writing from my Reykjavík attic apartment, complete with fairy lights, candles and a little Viking troll for company. I have just returned from work, feeling rather proud of myself. Not only did I manage to dodge the china cup which was lobbed somewhat unceremoniously at my head, but I learnt the phrase: ‘toggaðu upp buxurnar! nei, ekki typpið, EKKI TYPPIÐ! ’ (‘pull your trousers up!’ I will let you google-translate the rest…). My endeavours to stop disabled children eating glitter, however, were marginally less successful. Nonetheless, I am in Iceland. After three years of Old Norsical dreaming, I bade farewell to Cambridge and began my journey to the frozen North. With no job, no house, no plans and (alas) very little common-sense, I rocked up in Reykjavík with only a back-pack and pair of cowboy boots to my name.

At last, I had made it across the Whale-Road.

In Iceland, home of hipsters and brennavín, over-sized jumpers and Sigur Rós, many exciting things happen. The aim of this blog (cunningly named to reflect both my literary interests and general giantess-ness) is to document my adventures in the Land of Fire and Ice. I shall regale you with tales of naked communal showering and my mission to combat Icelandic grammar, of skyr-curry and ‘Björk stalking’, of knitting obsessions and chasing hat-eating autistic children through shopping malls and car parks. I shall recount my struggle to survive as a ‘vegetarian Viking’ in a country which favours svið (sheep’s-head) and hákarl (fermented shark) over hummus and falafel. Like the intrepid Viking warriors who first set foot in Iceland over 1000 years ago, I have a lot to learn from this quirky little island marooned in the North Atlantic. Although often labelled as the odd, tea-drinking Brit, an útlendingur (‘foreigner’) who cannot rave until 6am and has never eaten whale, I nonetheless embrace the challenges posed by a new country and culture. Yet whatever the (Odinnic?) trials, nothing will deter me from my ultimate quest: to marry a Viking farmer, write novels and make jam in my little Icelandic farmstead surrounded by íslenskir hestar (Icelandic horses), mountains and, most probably, trolls.