The First Day of Summer

Takoy bolshoy veter napal na nash ostrov     

[Such a fierce wind attacked our island…]

N. Matveeva

Damascus steel swords and sharp arrows are Varangians’ weapons.

Song of the Varangian Guest, from “Sadko” by Rimsky-Korsakov

General

Icelandic Civilization

Civilization is the first point I usually consider about a country. The yardstick of such a consideration is the US (and its 10-11 affiliated provinces north of the border). That assessment will come later but first, about the sources of the Icelandic Civilization. Here, a surprising set of parallels comes to mind.

                                         Iceland                             Russia

Started as an entity            IX century                        IX century

By whom                          Migrating                          Invited

                                    Scandinavians                   Scandinavians

Acquired a stable              X century                          X century

government center

Christianized                    X century                          X century

Produced important           XI-XIII centuries              XI-XIII centuries

chronicles

Lost independence            XIII century                      XIII century

due to internal discord      to Norway                         to the Mongols

OK, OK, there are lots of differences, too. The Scandinavians in one case were more of a bondi  type looking for a place to settle peacefully, whereas the other group was mercenaries on the prowl for booty. And the government systems were as different as they could be in those times. And independence was lost to very different types of masters. But still, something must have remained…  At least the word for herring (sild vs. seld). And how about this: in the year 1241, Snorri Sturluson, the guy with the biggest portrait on the Icelandic history map, was murdered. This was just one year after Prince Alexander, a descendant of those mercenaries and known to the west from the eponymous Eisenstein movie, acquired his moniker Nevsky by defeating, of all people, the Swedish Vikings on the Neva River. Neither event could reverse the contemporaneous loss of independence thanks to the internal feuds. This could be extended through ages, even up to Jonas Hallgrimsson, “the only Icelandic poet with his own English-language web site.” Jonas was a contemporary of Pushkin, a founder of the new Icelandic poetry overturning the rigid rimar tradition, a romantic but also a realist who died at the age of 38.

To remove the suspense, let me say here that Iceland made it to the very short list of civilized countries, a distinction that by a close call was denied places like Switzerland and Germany. There is one caveat described in the section on our departure from the country (see Day 6).

NOTE 24 years later

The early history is not necessarily an indication of the future. Unlike Iceland, the country in the right column of the above chart, after showing some promise in the 1990’s on the way to becoming civilized, regressed to the worse than medieval condition, aggravated besides by the availability of the latest technologies of oppression.

Viking Cuisine

The next day after dinner at Þrír Frakkar  (Three Tailcoats or Three Frenchmen, whichever meaning you favor) whale and seafood restaurant, I mentioned to the lady at the reception that the whale steak was very juicy and tender, and where, by the way, did it come from? She immediately became extremely defensive and suggested that it was probably bought from Norway, a pretty weak defense, since for a product to be procured there needs to be a willing buyer. Nothing kills a business better than lack of demand. She also said that it was really America that was the worst offender: it presumably would kill 20000 whales a year. Stunned by the obviously wrong number (the US does not allow any whaling), I was not prepared to argue too much but just cited a huge outcry when the Makah Indians of Washington State wanted to kill one whale as an indigenous cultural tradition . She probably assumed that, like a typical American, I would pester her about the presumed barbarism of her country, and deployed preventive defenses. I decided not to reveal that I was in fact the damnedest barbarian myself and thought nothing of eating a whale steak any time I could get one.

Incidentally, I could not find whale meat in the menu at first, not in the seafood section. Finally, it occurred to me to look in the meat section, and sure enough, hvalkjot was there. I remembered then that whales were actually mammals. Still, they live in the sea, don’t they, so why not sea-meat?

After this authentic experience, I was still looking for an even more authentic one: a taste of Viking food.  A guidebook described traditional Icelandic cooking as being of the Temple of Doom variety (remember monkey brains, live snakes and eyeball broth?). Jellied sheep’s head, ram’s balls, and especially hákarl, pre-rotten shark meat, were listed in the practicalities section. The same whale-loving lady at the reception advised me that there was only one true Viking restaurant in Reykjavik, Naustið (The Boathouse). She did not recommend going there, however. In a true manner of a pious rabbi, obliged to turn away thrice any zealous gentile seeking the solace of the Mosaic faith, she informed me repeatedly how tough and uninviting this fare was. It did not look like her green-peacenik compassion extended to the native rams and sharks; rather, like the rabbi, she did not want to be blamed later for enticing us.

Journal

Day 1, 4/19/99 The Joys of Lawmaking

The highlight of the first day in Iceland was actually its evening. After an exhausting and almost exhaustive trek around Reykjavik, loaded with bags of books, maps and posters, we tried to wait for a bus and failing that to walk home. A piercing wind, although moderate by local standards, made us capitulate and hail a Mercedes cab. Three minutes and 300 kronur later we were running into the lobby of our cozy Loftleiðir Hotel. Three more minutes later we realized that half of our newly bought treasure continued its ride on the back seat of the cab without us. The only question we heard at the reception desk in response to our sad tale was: “Where did you pick up the cab?” We mentioned Hallgrimmskirkja, the tallest church in the middle of Reykjavik that looks like a Viking itself, but also with Leifur Eiriksson purposefully gazing across the ocean from a granite ship bow in front of it. That was enough: by the time we woke up next morning, the bag was back. What a country!

Earlier in the day, a stroll through the center of Reykjavik gave us some hints of Icelandic tastes. A small, earnestly grey granite building with a good-looking national flag on the roof (Union Jack minus the cross of St. Andrew) was surrounded by other earnestly subdued edifices. Jon Sigurdsson, the father of Icelandic independence, was standing in the middle of the square. Unlike Lenin in similar circumstances, he was clutching the lapels of his bronze coat with both hands, leaving no free extremity with which to point the way to his flock. The building was the Alþingi, the 1000-year old parliament, “the oldest continuous democratic legislature in the world.” I could not figure out how this was reconciled with decades of powerlessness and even suspension of the Alþingi under the Danish rule, but if every guidebook says so… The only exception to the sedate neighborhood was a flamboyantly blue 4-story structure right across the square from the Alþingi separated from it by the redoubtable Jon. A green and yellow sign on the building read: “Erotic Club ÓÐAL.”  Icelandic is famous for inventing its own counterparts to even the most common international words. Telephone, for instance, is sími (wire). The sign for ÓÐAL, however, is reproduced here literally. A respectably looking man with a briefcase walked up to the door under the sign, rang the doorbell and, after a brief check, was admitted. It was noon. Possibly, lunchtime for the oldest parliamentarians in the world. Possibly, he was met behind the door by one of the guest-workers of another very old profession, possibly from Russia. Ben was eager to find out what exactly was going on inside. Rather than saying no, I used an old trick invented when his brother, at the age of three, wanted to take home a street kitten. Go and make your own arrangements, I told both of them. ÓÐAL was left unvisited, the kitten remained at large.

There was more to the cultural offerings of downtown Reykjavik than ÓÐAL (Icelandic for “estate”). Listasafn Islands, Icelandic Museum of Fine Arts, for instance, with a modernistic soccer player in front of the entrance. And right around the corner, next to the German Embassy, The Volcano Show. But one museum stood out. The pictures on display were a bit confusing: photographs of children in what looked like elf’s clothes next to hand-drawn schematic images of …  The big sign read: REÐASAFNIÐ. A smaller one said: HIÐ ÍSLENZKA REÐASAFN. And finally the English translation: The Icelandic Phallological Museum. It was open only on Tuesdays and Saturdays, from 2 to 5 pm, so we never made it inside much as we would have liked to. I later heard Andrei Codrescu, a Jewish Transylvanian from New Orleans and a regular NPR flak, report on the contents of this safn. 82 species of local fauna contributed their phallic specimens for this highly educational exhibit. Andrei, in his inimitable draculesque accent, marveled at the scene but did not elaborate on whether it included any samples from elves and other huldufólk (hidden people, a mythical elven tribe of Icelandic folklore) which the outside billboard might suggest, or even relics of ordinary Vikings. We’ll make it a point next time to free up a Tuesday afternoon.

The real ghost place was across town on the shore of Faxaflói. For a few days in 1987 it was overrun by spooks. The cleanup of any potentially hidden people was done for the first ever meeting of the two big G’s: Gipper and Gorby. An oversized white cape known as Höfdihús stood like a wart in the middle of a huge flat looking out over the bay at the snow-capped Mount Esja. Icelandic wind had a true field day around it. It must have been easy to protect Ronny and Misha across this prison-appropriate clearance zone, but less easy to warm the air inside.

Day 2, 4/20/99 Costa del Klauf [kloyp]

Our Loftleiðir (Airways) Hotel was named that way for a reason: the city airport was in our back yard. (It was also the home of Bobby Fischer in 1972 during his famous and infamous, but victorious World Chess Championship match. More on it in this report from Buenos Aires.) Hence it was easy for us to take a commuter plane to Vestmannaeyjar, volcanic islands off the south coast of Iceland, in the morning. The newest island of the group, Surtsey, was formed by an undersea eruption in 1963, while the largest and the only populated island, Heimaey, was almost destroyed by another eruption in 1973. This “Home-island” was our destination. Gísli Magnusson, the owner of the tour van, picked up us, three young Norwegians and a middle-aged American couple at the airport.  Besides his touring business, he was also coaching the local soccer team, which had once been national champions (Íslands Meisterar). He was planning to fly with them to the Faroe Islands for a friendly game the following weekend.

The tour with Gísli began at the southern end of the island, a lava covered and hence black surface beach on the promontory called Klauf. Smaller islands, including Surtsey, could be seen from its tip. The locals, who like to vacation at Spain’s Costa del Sol, are proud of their own beach and call it Costa del Klauf.

On the lava field above the town, the cold wind could certainly keep you from falling if you spread your arms wide. Novella Matveeva’s song about wind blowing off roofs “as milk foam” on an island of fishermen fit as if written with this place in mind. The lava under our feet, however, was hot. A rock dug from under two inches of dust felt like a hot potato. The field is, in fact, used by locals for baking potatoes. Bread was also baked here, according to the guide’s tale, for the king of Spain (the modern one – Juan Carlos).

Descending to the town, we visited our old friend Keiko, the Free-Willy whale. We had seen him face to face two years earlier at the Oregon Coast Aquarium where he was fed “restaurant-quality fish,” according to the informational board. But Keiko was really an Icelander and was returned to his native land, or rather water, a year later.  He was still living in a pen separated from the open sea, this time in a rocky cove of Klettsvik (Rocky Cove). Critics maintain that the Free-Willy whale will never be free and point at a recent storm, when a big hole in Keiko’s pen was created, yet the whale chose to remain in his confinement. We did not actually see Keiko this time and so did not have a chance to ask if his fish was still restaurant-quality or whether this term has a different meaning in Iceland. An even bigger pen and boat tours were definitely in his future.

NOTE 24 years later

Keiko’s long peripatetic history – Iceland-Canada-Mexico-Oregon-Iceland – was to end only four years later in Norway. In 2002 he was released from his pen and was soon spotted in a harbor in Norway, where he was more inclined to socialize with people rather than other whales. He failure to adapt to independence was a controversial topic of discussion. In 2003, he died of pneumonia at an age of 27.

In the island’s capital we saw some more representatives of the local fauna. Fiskasafn, the aquarium, contained fish labeled in 16 languages, including Faroese and even Russian (e.g., wolf-fish – steinbitur or zubatka). It also contained the only puffin we saw in Iceland, a grey, fuzzy chick, probably a survivor of the famous young puffins cliff-jumparoo for which local children get a school day off every year. Out on the street, Otto, 5, and his friend were skateboarding, but fascinated by the foreigners, as rare as puffins this time of the year, they could not help approaching us. Summoning my Icelandic for the first time, I was able to find out that the kids were so young, they did not even know English!  Emboldened, I discussed with the giggling Otto, whether he heard of Baggio, whose jersey he was wearing (he didn’t), or of Manchester United (he did). Doubtless, a new generation of Meisterar was growing on the island.

The last memorable Heimaey encounter introduced us to dog-walking, Icelandic style. On a lava covered road along Klettsvik, a rust-colored shaggy dog appeared from the turn, jogging in a business-like but relaxed manner. Without missing a bit, it stopped, lifted its leg, and in a moment disappeared round the next curve. Immediately after, a four-wheel drive car showed up and followed the dog into the turn. 10 minutes later the same procession paraded past us in the opposite direction. Iditarod it was not.

Day 3, 4/21/99 Jules Verne was here (or was he?)

After an unmemorable ride with a herd of 20 other snowmobiles on what had been advertised as a “glacier” but was more of a roadside snow pasture about to become green under the hot Icelandic sun of April, we returned to Loftleiðir prepared to twiddle our thumbs for the rest of the day.  The ugly squat building between our window and the airfield had a sign that attracted our attention: Ferðaþjónusta (Travel Service). All the standard excursions were either out of season or out of reach, but the pilots were just as mercenary as Han Solo: we could be taken to any place we wanted as long as we paid enough to stay aloft by the hour. A young guy named Sunil from Manchester, U.K., in Iceland on family business promoting bedsheets, filled the remaining capacity of the plane. Our captain was an experienced (10 years in the arctic air) Icelandic pilot named Mohamad. His dream of flying big planes was sure to come true some day, just like his landing in Icelandic paradise a few years after leaving his birthplace in Jordan (Middle East).  It was already late afternoon, but the white nights in Iceland were almost there – it was light till 10 p.m. We decided to fulfil an idiot’s dream and fly around Snæfellsnes but make a landing in Stykkishólmur on the way.

Half an hour into the flight, as I was furiously elbowing my back-seat mate from Manchester to get a better picture taking angle of the baby volcanoes below, I got a nudge across the cabin from Mohamad. He was pointing at Ben in the row in front of me. At first, I could not get what he was trying to say, especially that the roar of the engine completely covered a pretty good English of this Jordanian-Icelandian. Then I saw Ben’s hands on the controls! He had been piloting for a while covering a distance of about half of Iceland. Mohamad took over only for the landing. He should not have had to. Air traffic over Stykkishólmur was such that the traffic control building, same as terminal building, same as maintenance building was locked and bolted at this time of day and year.  There was no sign of humans in the steppe or rather tundra around us as far as the eye could see. The sun was still high, so Mohamad pulled out his cell phone and called the only guy who could help, Hermann Bragason. The guy was a local magnate whose van served as a taxi, but who also had a car rental business. His business card had his farsími (cell phone) number as well. Strangely, he spoke little English.

Stykkishólmur, the capital of Snæfellsnes, had spectacular views of fjords and snow-covered islands, as well as a reasonable selection of books for the smallest readers, such as Svarta Kisa (Black Kitty), at the local convenience store. It also had a historical museum, Norska Húsid, regrettably not open even on a white night, with a medieval Russian icon visible through the window.

Sunil took controls of the plane on the way back, as we looked in vain for the hole in Snæfellsjökull, through which Jules Verne’s heroes went down to the center of the earth. A thick layer of snow covered the whole extinct volcano.

NOTE 24 years later

Mohamad never got to fly big planes. I followed for while  an Icelandic newspaper Frettablaðið online, which reported a couple of years after our trip that a small plane piloted by him fell into Skerjafjörður, the fjord next to the city airport, while trying to land.

Day 4, 4/22/99 The First Day of Summer or Snorri’s Sense of Snow

Finally, leigubíll, a rental car, carries us to the standard tourist destination, the Golden Ring of Iceland. Golden Ring or some such nickname is what any tourist region must have, to string along a chain of attractions that a tourist must see. There were almost no tourists on Iceland’s ring, and most of them were locals. The day was a holiday, and while it happened to be the 129th birthday of one V.I. Lenin, that’s not what the Icelanders celebrated. For them it was Sumardagurinn fyrsti, the First Day of Summer. We could only tell that from listening to the radio. Nothing in the surrounding stark, bare landscape with occasional patches of snow hinted at the lazy season as we imagine it. The station we tuned to played what I could term Icelandic bards. The sound was a cross between Russian bards and French chansonniers, but in Icelandic. Very ambient, kind of like listening to Indian chants while driving in New Mexico. 

At the entrance to Þingvellir National Park Visitors Center, we encountered another authentic Icelandic object: the manly “Jeep”.  Compared to it your regular SUV is like a Yugo without the brawn. These tanks had imposing deep-treaded tires and bristled with antennas and other appendages of a lunar module. Caked with mud, they were one step away from the giant all-terrain toy trucks, the stars of the most popular Icelandic sports programs on TV: vertical slope climbing competitions.  Not surprisingly, lunar is how the guidebooks describe the interior of Iceland, so these beasts were not all show, unlike their suburban relatives. The machine just described is one of the three most popular vehicle styles in Iceland, the other two being:

  • Mercedes (or Volvo for the poor)
  • Niva

Niva (field of grain) is a Russian-made peasant-carrier designed not to look worse even after traveling through Russian roadlessness for 20 years. This design goal required a car sufficiently ugly to begin with. The result: a souped up Yugo with high clearance. Icelanders really took to it. I assume those were the ones who could afford neither a toy monster nor a Mercedes.  We did see a Niva even in Reykjavik, albeit a clean one. My guess is that, as the supply dwindles, they may become a collector’s piece like the East German Trabi.

Þingvellir, the cradle of Icelandic liberty, is a big field spanning the crack between America and Europe. I mean the gap between those two giant tectonic plates. A saga hero is said to have once jumped across this crack now named Flosagjá (Flosi’s Crack) in his honor. Snorri Sturluson used to lead people-power gatherings there, when he was not serving as a henchman to the king of Norway in far-flung loot-and-burn expeditions. Jonas Hallgrimsson is buried nearby. There is a nice-looking church on the site but nothing like the amenities the Alþingi has acquired since its move to Reykjavik, in short, no Óðal Erotic Club.

The one Icelandic word borrowed by all languages named the next attraction on our well-beaten path. Geysir, the father/mother of all geysers, was in semi-retirement. It boiled but did not squirt. Its duties have been assumed by a younger colleague, Strokkur, striking every few minutes to the tune of 30 feet up in the air. As one might expect on a Golden Ring, there was a golden something awaiting at the end: Gullfoss, the golden waterfall. Impressive as these mineralogical wonders were, the fauna was no less enchanting. Having seen some sea and air inhabitants (puffins, conceptually, and whales, virtually), we were now getting to know the terrestrial critters. Icelandic sheepdogs lived up to their reputation of smart(-looking) and furry, but the soul of the land were the horses. Larger than a pony but smaller than their other relatives, these hestar íslenskar were:

  • furry
  • curious
  • friendly

not to mention unbearably cute. A visitor even behind the wire fence was assured of an all-hooves meeting within a minute of his arrival at the horseland border.  Most attractively, the animals did not seem to be there for profit but strictly for the pleasure of communicating. “I love you not for your money, but for your soul” kind of attitude is irresistible. While some students of evolution have recently debunked this idealization of puppy love, explaining it more in Wall Street terms, it still works pretty well on human suckers.

Back to humans, a white vision appeared on the horizon. Skálholt, the Icelandic Kitezh, materialized from the yellow plain with the backdrop of snowy Hekla. The seat of the bishops of Iceland for a thousand years, a tranquil idyll, it was in fact a place of intrigue and mayhem on many an occasion. The next vision to arise from the plain was also white but with a pleasant blue tower at the center, a high wire fence and a yellow sign reading: “Óviðkomandi stranglega bannaður aðgangur.” (Entrance for the unauthorized strictly prohibited) Although the advice not to pick up hitchhikers in the area, commonly found in similar circumstances in Arizona, was missing, we realized that we were seeing an, or possibly the, Icelandic jail. The complex seemed to be in harmony with nature, if not with our image of Iceland, but then we remembered Skálholt, mayhem, intrigue…

The prison was the gateway to a quaint seaside town of Eyrarbakki, recommended to us by the people from Ferðaþjónusta for its restaurants. The plural was a bit of an exaggeration, unless they also counted the cafeteria inside the white and blue correction compound, but we found a country restaurant named Lofolii, presumably after some Frenchman stranded in the area. As you’ll see later, Frenchmen don’t think much about Iceland as a deliberate vacation destination. They may have spoken French, but the teenage relatives of the owner did not speak much English while serving us, a clear sign of a remote hamlet, which emboldened us to use our bare bones Icelandic. It was also a safe bet that they had not heard Russian before, as indicated by some excited whispering around us.

When we drove back into the capital through rows of Krushchev-style apartment blocks, it was still not dark at 10 pm. Summer had, indeed, begun.

Day 5, 4/23/99 Ars Íslandica

The art day, primarily. We started at Norrænahús, ostensibly the Nordic art center of the University of Reykjavik, but really a very good all-herring-you-can-eat lunch joint. To be sure there was a Bidstrup style cartoon exhibition from all places Norse in the lobby, so the cultural aspect was not completely eclipsed by gastronomy.

Having circled “Cape” Seltjarnarnes, Reykjavik’s posh answer to Cape Cod that could fool anybody if not for the view of the snow-covered Snæfellsnes, we landed at Ásmundarsafn, Ásmundur Sveinsson Museum. Old Ásmundur, a moderately modernistic contemporary of Picasso, built an adobe-flavored “observatory” structure to house his sculptural oeuvre. Much more striking, however, were the works of a certain Ragnhildur Stefansdottir with which he shared the space. Ragnhildur was fairly obsessed with parts of human body which she created primarily out of white gypsum, except when dealing with innards that she preferred in neon-green and other cheerful hues. Ásmundarsafn also occasioned the first (and last) chance to use Icelandic in a somewhat intellectual conversation. Inexplicably, the guardian lady there felt a bit shaky in her English, so the conversation veered from artistic styles to the size of the Icelandic community in Boston while pointing up my lack of recall of even the basic words (like “eftir” for “by”).

Kjarvalsstaðir, Municipal Art Museum, was next on our path. Johannes Kjarval, its namesake and main exhibitor, looked like an undistinguished cross between Rockwell Kent and Munch. Much more interesting, in a morbid way, was Errö, who might be compared to Melamid if he were not so romantic and apparently earnest. His paintings reflect such topics as Mao in Venice and Diane and Apollo (Diane de Poitier from the Clouet painting with Apollo astronauts). As I learned later, Komar and Melamid, indeed, came to Reykjavik in 1996 and staged an exhibition in Kjarvalsstadir reporting on their research for coming up with Iceland’s most and least wanted paintings!

https://awp.diaart.org/km/ice/most.html

https://awp.diaart.org/km/ice/least.html

A tourist landmark called Perlan was on top of a small hill next to our Loftleiðir. This is a space age dome placed on top of six thermal water tanks overlooking and overheating all Reykjavik. The dome also covers the poshest restaurant in the country. As my French-Canadian friend Mario from Ottawa likes to say, you may not have dinner but why not look at the menu. We started looking from the snyrting. We should not have bothered to look at the menu after that. The snyrting had a little disposable color-coordinated cloth towel for each peeing customer. Under the dome, a corporate party with live entertainment was under way. While the company was definitely Icelandic, the party was conducted primarily in English. Since the dishes started at $40, we repaired to downtown to a fast-food place called Kebab Húsið.  The owners-founders came to Iceland three years earlier and were originally from Turkey. They felt Iceland was reasonably friendly towards immigrants and compared favorably to some other European countries, like Germany. It had few immigrants and easy to get into. In addition, everybody spoke English so one could get by on English for a while. The owners had a monopoly on kebabs in Reykjavik for now.  These kebabchi joined pilot Mohamad on the short list of new Icelanders.

One group was conspicuously missing in Iceland. When somebody inquired on the Iceland bulletin board about a synagogue in Reykjavik, the answer was that there was none for a simple reason: not enough Jews, probably not even a minyan.

Day 6, 4/24/99 The End of a Saga

Big mistake again: we took a bus tour of the lava fields of Reykjavikshchina on the way to the airport. Should have just kept our car rather than be subject to tour Nazis. A slightly plump couple sat behind us. The woman suddenly warned us that she understood Russian. This was the only time we heard Russian in Iceland. As I found out later, the few Russians that settled in Iceland were former handball players turned coaches (handball, along with off-road trucking and chess, is a national craze) and employees of the erotic club across the street from the Alþingi. The couple on the bus turned out to be Finns. She worked for some agency dealing with Russia. Unfortunately, I could not reciprocate having neglected my Finnish. I’ll get ’em next time.

The first stop on the way was at Bláa Lónið, the Blue Lagoon, a natural all seasons open air pool fed by the hot underground waters. Iceland, presumably the land of ice, is in fact all hot underneath. Its floor was still natural, i.e., uneven and slippery, at the time. It was reportedly later much civilized and probably lost some of its wild charm.

Grindavik

A south shore citadel of fishermen’s pride. A (bad) lunch stop for the tour bus with no sights to see. OK, except for a big statue on the hill: a bronze mother and child gazing out to the ocean. While our bus-mates were queueing up for crap sandwiches, we were enjoying, alone, an adjacent gift shop, where we found out from the owner:

  • that she had a house on that slope near the monument and indeed often watched the waves to spot her husband’s return;
  • that the president of Lithuania played basketball against the president of Iceland in Grindavik recently; given that Iceland’s most popular sport is hand, not basket, ball I doubt that Olafur Ragnar Grimmsson whipped Vladas Adamkus;
  • that the president’s (of Iceland) wife, a very popular and beautiful lady, pictured in an Icelandic national dress, peysuföt, in a magazine clip on the wall, died a year ago and was widely mourned;
  • that the flag in the middle of the town was at half-staff that day because of the death of cancer of a local guy in his forties;
  • that the town of Grindavik produced two Miss (ungfru) Icelands one of which went on to become Miss Universe

Lava fields past Grindavik were covered with wooden racks holding garlands of drying  fish , mostly ysa   (haddock). There are no flies over lava fields!

Keflavik

Once the bus passed children’s blocks colored set of Keflavik (US) Air Force Base buildings, we were dropped off at Leif Eriksson International Airport. A strange monument adorns the bare landscape in front of the airport building. In the middle of a small pool, on top of a conical pile of black rocks sits a giant shiny metal egg. One end of it is cracked and something resembling maybe a dinosaur’s limb or even an appendage of a monster from an “Alien” movie protrudes through the crack. Turns out the title of the piece is “Jet Egg” and the protruding tentacle represents hatching of a plane. I would have never guessed…

Inside, the airport consists of one corridor with about a dozen doors on either side and no waiting areas. Suddenly, the door at the very end opened, giving a glimpse of a giant United plane parked in the empty, seemingly lave covered plain, and a huge crowd of chattering citizens of troisieme age fell in. Half of them immediately started smoking disregarding big no smoking signs, in words and pictures, all around them. This puzzle had a simple answer: the senior citizens were French. Eager to use a language in which I was more fluent, I inquired about their source and destination. Those were Paris and Californie, respectively. The landing was actually forced by some probleme with their avion. Having heard us speak, the lady asked if we were islandais and was very proud to hear that we were actually speaking Russian which she claimed to have guessed. She was, however, visibly disgusted with the notion of vacances en Islande, which we confessed to have just finished. Californie was surely a much more deserving destination.

When boarding for our non-Californie bound plane was announced, I tried to determine which rows were boarding when. While I strained in vain my neck and ears, a tall elegant Scandinavian-looking lady with a red passport standing next to us explained that boarding in Iceland was in one big line. She also assured us that it was still much more civilized than in Norway, where the seats were not even assigned. I immediately relaxed with the knowledge that by luck we had been given Saga class seats for what could be considered quite prosaic if not downright cheap tickets. I also felt that my dream of going to Norway one day might need to be reconsidered.

P.S.

The following year, the anticipated with dread Y2K, Iceland celebrated discovery of America by one of its own, the omnipresent there Leif Eriksson. The locals would not be worth their Nordic salt if they did not recreate the mythical voyage. And of course it had to be done on an authentic Viking longship. Thus on 9-9-00 the Íslendingur docked by the recently completed Federal Courthouse. We could not miss it! Turned out most of the crew was from Vestmannaeyjar, most of them fishermen, as well as sailors or shipbuilders, like Herjolfur Bardarson. Besides the crew, a team representing Icelandic culture also arrived, though apparently not on the ship. For instance, Bára from Heimaey, a music teacher, conducted a music ensemble performance. She also recognized one of her former students leading a group of little kids on a picture I took on a street of her hometown. And soon to become very famous, Reykjavik chef Siggi Hall treated us to delicacies prepared on the spot. Siggi’s yogurt is now a marquee item at “fine” grocery stores like Whole Foods.

GLOSSARY

Bondi – peasant (Icelandic)

Troisieme age – old folks (French)

Huldufólk – hidden people (Icelandic)

Snyrting – restroom

Special Icelandic Letters

Þ þ = “th” unvoiced, as in “thing”
Ð ð = “th” voiced, as in “this”