Friday, September 4, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 13

I didn’t completely grasp the significance of the soccer game I mentioned yesterday – Iceland beat the Netherlands (in Holland) and are now one point away from qualifying for the European Championship. So of course people were being noisy. They were watching the game on an outdoor big screen near the hotel, but once it was over they dispersed quickly (if nothing else, it was cold) and by the time we went out it was pretty quiet. We wandered round looking for the ideal last-night restaurant – for me it would have been easy (they all serve great fish) but if you strip away the burger and pizza places, Ally usually has a choice of maybe two things, one of which is always beef. Eventually we settled on a place called Torfan, where I had blue ling and, after all of that, Ally had beef. But it was a charming spot, with a feeling of being away from the fray. Actually, the main fray was over at the next table, where a couple of (we assume) academics and (it seemed) one of the academics’ somewhat younger girlfriend were discussing the whole span of twentieth century politics and culture in the kind of way that Woody Allen used to regularly parody. On this occasion, they got to close the place down. As we walked back afterwards, late night Reykjavik - the real Reykjavik, some might say - was plainly settling into place.

We were up good and early the next morning (I think the water in the hotel smelled like sulphur, but in the circumstances that was a nostalgic reminder of our experiences), and then for a while we flirted with disaster. Given Iceland’s horrendous cab fares, we'd made an online booking for the airport bus; we understood it would pick us up at the hotel at 7.45 am and get us to the airport at 8.30 am, which seemed OK for a 10.30 am flight. Actually though, the hotel pick-up only got us to the bus terminal at 8.30 am (if it had been on time, which it wasn’t), with the airport an hour or so beyond that. This only slowly dawned on us along the way, raising horrible fears of a brutally self-inflicted own goal – obviously 9.30 is logistically early enough for a flight leaving an hour later, but who knows how strict an individual airline might be regarding its stated policies? We tried to check in online from the bus, and Ally managed it, but getting there a couple of minutes behind her, I received a message that check-in was closed for our flight, thus raising a possible scenario where Ally might be allowed on the plane and I wouldn’t be. Anyway, in the end there was no line at the check-in counter, the woman seemed entirely unperturbed at our lateness (does being in the mighty Saga class increase their tolerance for such shenanigans? – it couldn’t hurt I suppose), there was no line at the security gates either, we did some duty-free shopping and still had twenty minutes in the lounge to calm down before walking to the gate. So I don’t know if we ultimately learned anything from that. But for anyone thinking that this vacation diary should contain at least a little bit of unbearable tension, we did get a dose of it at the end.

Beyond that, it was an uneventful flight home. The lunch selections were blue ling and beef…seemed strangely familiar. I finished rewatching the old Japanese movie (by the original Ozu) Tokyo Twilight, which I’d been getting through in brief chunks on various flights. I finished this week’s downloaded edition of The New Yorker and started on this month’s downloaded edition (which conveniently went online this morning) of the British movie magazine Sight and Sound (which, astonishing to reflect, I’ve been reading cover to cover since 1980 I think). Ally continued with the John Irving book and watched Ben Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty (some of which may well have been shot on the same road we drove along, given the prominent presence in one sequence of the pipe from the geothermal plant). IcelandAir is a somewhat self-effacing airline – even their safety announcement is in English with Icelandic subtitles. We didn’t watch much TV in Iceland, but most of it also seemed to be in English, without local subtitles. I mean, having almost all your programming dumped on you from somewhere else…where are we, Canada?!

Well, I suppose it’s been clear enough how much we enjoyed the trip. Leaving aside the complexities of the airport bus website, everything fell gracefully into place. We now have reasonable maps in our heads of the downtown of two more notable world cities. We spent time in some beautiful locations so unrelated to our normal frame of reference that it’s hard to process we were actually there. We went on long walks without seeing anyone else. We had great food and the usual string of quirky incidents along the way. And this was all with the knowledge of being lucky enough, and happy enough in our normal lives, that we didn’t want or need anything more from the trip than it gave us – at the end, we just wanted to go home. As I mentioned before, it would be wonderful to take that extra benevolent, easeful vitality you have on vacation and keep it closer to the surface of your normal life, but perhaps that would merely make normal life dysfunctional, and so is a necessary failure.
Given we have enough vacation ideas for several lifetimes, I don’t suppose the chances of us returning to either country are particularly high. Iceland is a relatively easy direct flight from Toronto, so maybe that will be a deciding factor in some future calculation. On the other hand, it would be extremely beguiling to pick a couple of more or less random Finnish destinations, as we did with Inari, and build a trip around them. Well, we’ll see… As for today, we arrived on time and got through Pearson in record time. We unpacked and settled in, and a while later I went to fetch Ozu. As always, he was deliriously happy to come home, and we all celebrated by running around like idiots. Once again then, I conclude the vacation diary with the key piece of evidence that all is back as it should be.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 12

We returned last night to the Northern Lights bar to close out the day. We were initially one of just two couples, then one of three, then the only couple, just like before. Because we too were obviously winding up, I imagine the waitress must have been looking forward to calling it a night, but then a group of eleven loud Americans came in and her prospects shifted, right in line with the reading on the noise meter. I guess she's used to it. It may already have been a challenging night because the fire alarm kept going off, apparently due to over-sensitive smoke detectors in the kitchen (it’s happened several times during our stay, but was more persistent tonight). Anyway, we left the waitress to her fate, and walked round the outside of the hotel in the pitch darkness, which was interesting for us, not least by virtue of the various guests who hadn’t got round to closing their curtains. In our defense though, voyeurism doesn’t count if it’s unintentional. No surprise, but we didn’t get to see the Northern Lights (we would have received a wake-up call, but it was always a remote prospect).
No surprise of course that there’s not a glimmer of a communication issue in Iceland. Also no surprise that the trip has run entirely on plastic – I think the only vendor who actually needed cash was the ice cream vendor in Helsinki on the first day. Since then I’ve only used cash when we were trying to get rid of it (because, despite being fully tuned into this shift, we still tend to bring too much, out of some old-fashioned paranoia I suppose) or to get the 10% cash discount from the  airport. It’s obviously all for the best, but traveling must have felt more tangible and mysterious when you had to worry about the logistics of paying for things, and about making yourself understood, and when you couldn’t possibly research your destinations and accommodations as thoroughly as you now can online. We’ve certainly lived through that shift – nowadays we plan and book entire trips in a couple of hours. As with many things, you’d resist any attempt to wind back the clock, but there’s plainly some degradation of experience, of perception, of adrenalin. We can only hang on to our scraps of self-justification, parading, as proof of continuing life, the fact that I’m here generating words about all the walking we did, rather than selfies taken on our bus rides…

Anyway, despite all that, it’s been a wonderful trip, exactly the intended blend of experience and difference, but as I mentioned, our minds are just about full up for now, so we don’t need any more. It didn’t matter then that it was raining on our final day in Iceland (it would certainly have mattered on the previous days, so our weather-related luck essentially continued) – if it had been dry, we would have taken a final walk in the vicinity of the hotel, but we didn’t have a specific plan in mind, Instead we drove back to Reykjavik, which as noted had never actually been very far away. It took almost as much time to fill up the gas tank and to find a parking spot as it did to drive back – Ally was weaving through the city like a seasoned local. We dropped our bags in the hotel and had a bit of lunch. As we were walking from there, we heard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries blaring away, and went to investigate, finding a crowd surrounding a large yellowish building, multiple faces staring out from the windows as if under siege. Suddenly, a large group of youths with painted faces paraded into view, wearing white togas and skimpy dresses, a Grim Reaper character leading the way. They gathered at the front of the building, then rushed toward it, running around and symbolically trying to gain entrance. Failing at this, they re-gathered at the door and entered into a ringing dialogue with its representatives. Presumably it’s some kind of student initiation ritual, perhaps one that’s persisted in the same form for generations, perhaps just this year's model. Either way, it was quite a spectacle to stumble across. We left without seeing the end, but I imagine it involves a happy coming together followed by heavy drinking for the rest of the day.
For our final outing, we decided to head to the nearby island of Videy. It’s only a five minute ferry ride, but the ferry terminal is rather to the edge of downtown, about an hour’s walk along the waterfront. Between that and the ongoing drizzly weather (which never really let up today), we were two of only four visitors to Videy during mid-afternoon today. We know this because we walked the whole thing and saw only the same two girls, who passed by us a number of times (no doubt muttering how close they’d come to being the only ones on the island).

Videy was occupied at various points through the centuries, the modern-day population peaking at 138 in 1930, but it’s been uninhabited since the 1950s. The old schoolhouse though is outfitted with some modern furniture and a modest kitchen, suggesting that something still happens there occasionally. Most of the rest is in ruins. The most famous artefact might be the Imagine Peace Tower, designed by Yoko Ono in the form of a wishing well, dedicated to John Lennon’s memory. At certain times of year, a tower of light emerges from it, but today, for all the impact it made, it might as well have been a utility building. There’s also a Richard Serra artwork, consisting of stone pillars arranged in various locations. Anyway, we spent an enjoyable two hours there, but at the cost of extremely wet feet.

We walked back along the waterfront and explored the town a bit more, walking for the first time up to Hallgrim’s church, seeming as mysterious and aerodynamic as a spacebird waiting for take-off. We’re staying for the final night in the CityCenter Hotel, which is right in the middle of things – perhaps too much so, because as I write this in the early evening, there’s an incessant booming in the background, apparently linked to a soccer game tonight against the Netherlands. But if it wasn’t that, I’m sure it would be something else! It’s Reykjavik!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 11

As everyone knows, we could be doing a completely different kind of trip in Iceland, submerging ourselves in Reykjavik’s drinking scene, which apparently gets going late and continues almost all night, at least at weekends. We picked up a copy of the English-language “Reykjavik Grapevine,” which dramatizes aspects of this life in colourful detail. Reporting on a recent “Culture Night,” the author writes: “Every successive street corner presented a new opportunity to see one or more people vomiting onto objects that didn’t normally have vomit on them.” That’s actually one of the more convivial sentences in the article. Or we could be having a less giddy, more acerbically observant kind of experience. On the following page of the paper, another writer paints the following image: “Imagine we – that is, people in Iceland – are living on a boat. We have now been travelling up the western shore of the Bullshit River for a number of years in search of answers to our problems.” And on it goes. Actually, I’m unfairly quoting these articles, in a way that misrepresents their overall wit and thoughtfulness. Just as a brief window into the Iceland trips we’re not doing.
Elsewhere in the paper, the issue’s “most awesome letter” muses on the “tourist defecation issue” - the conclusion, happily, is that Iceland’s doing no worse on this front (so to speak) than most other destinations. We would agree, although it can't match the Finnish trails for outhouse availability(and, by the way, they're surprisingly clean and odourless, given their simple composting facilities [a big supply of dirt and a little shovel]). Anyway, yesterday we drove back to the hotel from Gullfoss by a slightly different route, with only a single wrong turn which we immediately corrected (the map suggests this is the only region of Iceland where there’s any serious possibility of a wrong turn – elsewhere there’s usually just one major road so obviously you take it). Once you get away from the tourist route, there’s very little traffic, very little to see at all except layer upon layer of landscape, a vast long-written immortal story that you barely pierce. Iceland does have concerns about the environmental impact of increasing tourist numbers though (and not just the tourist defecation issue). I guess they can always limit it by raising prices further!

For the first time in the trip, we got back to our room and stayed there, eating some sandwiches we bought in Laugarvatn. It was a different kind of evening, but entirely fine – as I already mentioned, we don’t really need any more big dinners. We went to sleep pretty early, and got out of the hotel before 10 the next day. A forty minute drive took us to Hverageroi, a pleasant but unremarkable town (guide book: “You’re not here for the architecture, you’re here for Hverageroi’s highly active-geothermal field, which heats hundreds of greenhouses.”). We had breakfast in a local bakery, and then drove rather randomly to the start of a local hiking trail. Through sheer luck, this turned out to be the way to Reykjadlur, a geothermal valley where lots of people do the 7km (there and back) hike, to enjoy a warm bath up in the mountains. Our visit coincided with a group of schookids, among many others (the parking lot was overflowing) – it’s a spectacular walk, one of the most memorable of our trip (although hampered on the way out by pervasive clouds of insects, and to a lesser extent by sulphuric odours, which have been a sporadic feature of our last few days), and not overly steep or difficult. Most people stop once they reach the main gathering point, indicated by boardwalks and not particularly effective modesty-hiding partitions for changing, but we walked on, climbing up a further peak and onwards for a while. To our surprise, a signpost indicated we could have continued directly from there to the mountain near our hotel – we didn’t realize how little distance we'd covered on a crow-flies basis (I made a similar observation in Helsinki a few days ago). Anyway, we walked back to the car and then drove back into town.
We had lunch at Kjot og Kunst, where Ally had an omelette and I had vegetarian pasta. From there, our efforts today were a bit less successful. We drove south to Eyrarbakki, which was once Iceland’s main port. It has a strikingly bleak, black beach, but you can’t spend much time there – we passed through the rest of town without barely seeing a living person, let alone a point of interest (maybe score a quarter-point for the neatly painted, box-like houses). On the way out you come to a prison, Iceland’s largest – you can see a lot of it, but no one was out playing when we passed. A few kilometres on we came to Stokkseyri, another small fishing village, described as having “a fun dose of quirky sites and summer art galleries” – I suppose that’s true, but it didn’t seem like a large enough dose to stop for. We drove a bit further and tried our luck with Urridafoss waterfall, which apparently processes a greater volume of water than any other in the country. I guess that’s a function of width and constancy, because it wasn’t particularly imposing compared to Gullfoss yesterday. More unfortunately, there aren't any walking trails around it, so all you can do is take a look and return to the car.

That wasn’t too much return on a few hours of driving, but of course it was still a funny experience, often giving the feeling of traveling through utterly deserted flatness; overseen at other times by astonishing mountain formations. On the way back we stopped briefly in Selfoss, cruelly described by the guidebook as “witlessly ugly.” It’s probably the same degree of wit as you see in functional towns the world over, which admittedly isn’t much. Anyway, we didn’t see much of it beyond the inside of a supermarket, where we picked up a snack for later, having decided to follow the same meal strategy as yesterday.

We did get one pretty good walk at least, by stopping at a trail just ten minutes from the hotel – we thought it would lead down to Lake Thingvallavatn, but in the event it never ended up getting close to it. Still, it was good to have an hour or so of reliably spectacular isolation. We may have scored a notable sighting as we arrived back at the hotel – a black Arctic fox, Iceland’s only indigenous land mammal. Sightings in the wild are reportedly rare, but this one didn’t seem scared in the least, wandering leisurely around in plain sight of us and several others. I assume they’ve been lulled into complacency by the easy pickings around the hotel. Still, you know there’s nothing better than animal sightings!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 10

Before wrapping up yesterday, we went back out for a brief car ride, just for the hell of it (something we’ve virtually never done in all our time together). We drove twenty minutes further along the road that brought us here and then came back. It didn’t yield much – just different studies in isolation: isolated houses or small groups thereof; an isolated (very pretty) church by the side of the lake; (most oddly) what appeared to be an isolated kid’s adventure playground; an isolated golf course – but this was all fascinating in itself, especially as by the standards of the country as a whole, we’re virtually in a suburb of Reykjavik. Then we had our usual afternoon time in the hotel, although we must have been super-energized because we didn’t have a nap. Ozu seemed to me to be licking his paws in a way that suggests we may still be dealing with his seasonal itchiness when we come back (if it was really bad though I suppose he’d have been wearing his cone, so that’s something, unless they’ve just thrown up their hands at him, which is a sentiment I could understand).
We had dinner in the hotel restaurant (Ally had celeriac; I had plaice) and our 9 pm reservation was late enough to shut the place down. This surprised us as the hotel appeared to be full or close to it. There’s also a “Northern Lights” bar with a huge window and sweeping view of everything that’s out there - this might on occasion constitute a prime location for seeing the Northern Lights themselves, but we're unlikely to get lucky on that so early in the year. Tonight the window was merely reflecting the huge painting over the bar, which appears to represent London being invaded by the devil, or something equally site-appropriate. There were two other couples in the bar when we arrived, but they soon left, so we shut that place down too. I really don’t think we were up very late; perhaps everyone else is exhausted by greater exertions than ours.

We skipped the hotel breakfast the next day (despite a lack of certainty, ultimately quite unfounded, about when or if we might find any food elsewhere) and embarked on a day of motoring around the “Golden Circle”, described in the guide book as “an artificial tourist circuit…loved (and marketed) by thousands.” Indeed, it was quite obvious that large volumes of people (many of them transported by tour buses) were doing much the same as us, in exactly the same order – you even get to recognize some individuals (like the two guys with the apparent project of being photographed playing ping-pong in front of each iconic destination, or the young guy with an apparent crippling fear of driving on gravel roads [should have done what we did and got the gravel insurance!]). First we went to Pingvellir, site of the world’s first democratic parliament, and situated on a tectonic plate boundary; there's a cliff edge so long and straight that it seems like the remnants of an artificial fortress. We followed various trails for a couple of hours before moving on. The next major attraction is Geysir, the original hot-water spout after which all other geysers are named. Nowadays, Geysir is content to take place to its younger companion Strokkur, which shoots out water every five to ten minutes (“stand downwind only if you want a shower”). It appears that Strokkur is constantly surrounded by a ring of people, cameras poised for the next perfect selfie opportunity, many of which would probably just end up recording a wall of white spray. There’s a rocky path up from there, allowing you to look down at Strokkur's efforts as if it were a mere common kettle. We walked as far as we could before returning to the car.

Probably most impressive is Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall. Apparently it drops 32 metres (Niagara Falls for comparison is 50 metres), but it feels higher, perhaps because it makes such an impressive entry out of almost nowhere (you climb down a staircase from a non-descript parking lot, walk along a bit and there it is). It creates a tangible, magical wall of mist above it, and today was sustaining a perfect rainbow. Like everyone else, we were suitably overcome with awe.

Although all three sites (especially Geysir) provide the usual opportunities for eating and shopping, they do have a stirring collective coherence about them, attesting equally to the earth’s fragility and to its strength. The geysers and the waterfall dramatize the massive forces usually held at bay, acting up here as if the ground had lost confidence in its powers of containment. But at the same time, the whole allure of this area is its rarity – elsewhere, water scarcity if not outright drought is far more likely to be a threat. Iceland might almost seem like the world’s Achilles heel, the pressure point where a strategically malign application of force could usurp everything, or where a shrewdly benevolent one could redeem it. For now, it just marks time, the tectonic plate boundary widening by a few millimetres a year…
Also today, we visited the little town of Laugarvatn, primarily to visit Lindin, reportedly the best restaurant for miles. We ate in the more casual bistro part of it, where Ally had a barbecued lamb sandwich and I had bean patties (one of the nicest meals of the trip, but then I’m ready to slip back into our usual predominantly vegetarian diet). Laugarvatn doesn’t make much impact as a town, but it has some lovely lakeside views, a spa, and a big swimming pool that looks as if it were built with grander ambitions in mind. We walked round the local supermarket, and saw the two ping-pong guys I mentioned earlier. They’d found some meat that clearly delighted them as a bargain deal, especially when it was confirmed to them that the expiration date was still a day away.
So that’s basically the story of how we were almost entirely typical tourists for eight hours or so, except that at the end of it we probably got to come back to a nicer place than many of the tourists did!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 9

Compared to the lush, varied views as you fly in and out of Finland, it doesn’t take long for the stereotype of Iceland to assert itself from the sky – vast expanses of grey, with not a tree in sight. The cab ride from the airport reinforces the same impression – you can see some interesting terrain in the distance, but the immediate view is just flatness, punctuated by the occasional warehouse. We’re staying at the 101 Hotel, a boutique hotel (“member of Design Hotels”) which Ally read about in the New York Times. It doesn’t take long to realize how expensive Iceland is, even compared to Scandinavia. The cab ride came to something like $160 (even with the 10% discount for cash – hey, nice gesture!) and the hotel room is far more expensive than we would really have gone for, even given our lackadaisical approach. But what can I say, neither of us had checked properly. You can see the attention to design in the room, but it’s not always for the best – I nearly walked into the bathroom mirror several times. Also, it has the least stable wi-fi of any of our hotels so far, and it’s also the noisiest location, with Ally having been bothered at various points in the night by music from an adjacent nightclub, by voices, by traffic and by what sounded like horses. Of course, design can’t fix that, but maybe better sound-proofing would have helped a bit.

Oh well, you can’t win them all. The hotel is on a very plain-looking street, but Laugavegur, the main shopping thoroughfare, is one block up. It goes a long way in both directions, crammed with distractions. We arbitrarily chose a place to eat called CafĂ© Paris, although unlike the places I mentioned in Helsinki, this makes no actual attempt to evoke Paris. We split a cheeseburger and a Caesar salad, just for a change I guess, and walked a bit more afterwards. The next morning we covered some of that area again, along with a brief walk through the old part of Reykjavik, and then headed down to the waterfront, where the main eye-catcher, excepting the mountains in the background, is a newish, lonely-seeming concert/conference centre. There are more signs of construction around town than you might expect – perhaps reflecting the country’s recovery from its financial crisis.
We seldom rent a car on our trips – I think the last time was in Australia a dozen years ago – but it seemed like a necessary step this time. A guy from the rental company brought it, a little blue Hyundai, to the hotel at noon. We're spending the next three nights in the Ion Adventure Hotel, which is actually only an hour or so from Reykjavik, but ought to open up a whole different world (it’s just 18km from Thingvellir National Park, sometimes regarded as the country’s most important - although also the most touristy). The directions sound impenetrable on Google Maps, but actually only amount to taking the correct route out of the city, and then not missing a particular left turn along the way. Of course, we missed the left turn (well, I was navigating, so it was just me) and had to double back.
After that point we hardly saw any other vehicles until we reached the hotel, and you quickly start to realize how you could bury deeper and deeper into Iceland, to all intents and purposes limitlessly, reorienting your entire sense of proportion and scale (we did briefly consider, during our planning, whether to do a more extended driving tour, which I guess is one of the iconic ways to spend time here, but we concluded it wouldn’t really suit us). For most of the way, the road ran alongside a big pipe, and we eventually came to the geothermal power plant from which it emanates – we stopped at a lookout, and spotted the hotel a few kilometres away, so that was easy. It might not immediately sound too appealing to say that the hotel, nestled against a mountain on one side, faces a power plant on the other, but in this case it really only means a soothing background of pristine white steam clouds. Also not far in the distance is Lake Thingvallavatn, which is Iceland’s largest. The hotel is a base for helicopter tours among much else (the helicopter below is safely taking off, and not coming down in a disastrous whirl of smoke, as you might momentarily think).

Soon after checking in, we went out and randomly followed a trail up the mountain. We ended up walking a loop of 9km or so, much of the first half above the power plant, which has an aesthetically quite pleasing geometric tidiness to it. After that we wandered through a craggy area of boiling pools (signs warning of scalding temperatures) and warm streams, and then descended down between the lava fissures, giving us a feeling (albeit highly illusory) of isolated adventurism. We climbed out and walked back, mostly through a big meadow (causing outrage among more displaced creatures, this time sheep). And that was a very satisfying initial walk in what I guess is the real Iceland.

I only emphasize that point because up to then, Iceland was seeming rather artificial. The 101 Hotel was a mistake – even if we’d liked it, it would only have buried us in a little self-contained design bubble which doesn’t help to integrate you into a place. The Ion Adventure Hotel is actually its cousin in the “Design Hotels” pantheon (it's on the very next page of the global “Design Hotels” book they both proudly display in the lobby) but everything about it is more rational and pleasing (even our room’s bizarre floor to ceiling photograph of a horse’s eye doesn’t seem too grating). There’s nothing you can do about the prices though. We had lunch here after we arrived, and there’s basically no point even contemplating what it ran to (the modest chocolate bar in our minibar costs $18). This kind of price-inflation environment isn’t alien to us – we met in Bermuda for Pete’s sake! – but in Reykjavik it wasn’t really clear that the trip would deliver the kind of memories and satisfaction to make it worthwhile. But now it seems that it will, so we can just stop focusing on it (well, more or less)…

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 8

Breakfast at the Skandic Grand Marina was a bit of a surprise, after the sleepy rhythms of Inari – the buffet was vast and frantic, surrounded by people with heaping trays desperately circling in search of a free table. After surviving that we left our bags and headed out for a final stroll in Finland. We walked north from the hotel, following a new section of the coastline. After an hour of winding round the water, we were about ten minutes from the hotel on an as-the-crow-flies basis. At one point we passed what may have been Finland’s entire naval fleet; otherwise it was mostly elegant old buildings and water views, an easy-going Sunday morning feel. There’s a little island called Tervassari, connected by a bridge, and we walked around that. It has a dog run and a playground, not too much else. Based on our admittedly limited experience, Finnish dog runs are usually small and bleak.

We walked back through the centre, reliving some previous locations such as the biological gardens. We went into Helsinki’s big book store. I think it’s the biggest, but seems to emphasize presentation and carefully selected choices over completeness – the movie section had about fifteen titles. I guess that makes sense when everything else is on Amazon anyway. Even last night from here, since we were talking about it, I ordered some books for Ally on In the course of our trip we’ve done a little bit of reading. I downloaded the latest New Yorker and got through that; I also finished a short book on Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death and I’m now reading a book on Bernardo Bertolucci. Ally read all of Paul Auster’s Sunset Park and is just starting on John Irving's In One Person. We both read the news and other transient Internet material more than anything else though. Certainly a change from when we started traveling and the search for an English-language newspaper (often a day or two old) was part of the daily routine. So far the Wi-Fi has always been super-high-quality and always free (in the UK a few months ago, hotels were still charging extra for it).
The strangest thing in this bookstore was that although they carried The New Yorker, it was the July 6th edition i.e. 6 or 7 issues out of date. Distribution obviously can’t be that far behind. Maybe they think this was by far the best recent issue and they’re stubbornly sticking to that until a better one supplants it. It did have an interesting if not very uplifting account of trying to get hostages out of the Middle East. Anyway, the lucky streak I mentioned yesterday continued into today – the weather was gorgeous throughout our walk, then darkened as soon as we were done – by the time we were settling down in the airport lounge (courtesy of Icelandair’s “Saga Class”) it was pouring, although later it cleared up again. The taxi driver told us that fares to and from the airport are capped at 39 euros, regardless of what the meter says; funny how the previous three drivers failed to mention that. We gave him the difference as a tip.

And that’s it for Finland. I don’t think we ever absorbed a single word of Finnish, except for “ravintola,” which you soon learn means “restaurant.” Of course, a restaurant that needs to include the word “restaurant” in its name isn’t always of the highest quality. The three-and-a-half-hour flight to Reykjavik took us a good chunk of the way home, although it didn’t exactly feel like that. We seemed to be alone in the front section, until a half hour into the flight when another woman appeared, from the direction of the cockpit, disappearing back there half an hour before the end (she spent the intervening time watching sitcoms). Is that how Icelandair flight audit works maybe? Now, on all of our trips we like to go to one movie if we can. Ideally this involves (a) a movie we couldn’t already just have seen back home, or (b) a different kind of movie theatre, by virtue of its vintage quality, or quirkiness, or whatever, or (c) ideally, both. It didn’t work in Helsinki because the movies were all entirely familiar and everywhere just looked like another multiplex. But through Internet research we’d identified that Reykjavik has a new art cinema, the Bio Paradis, which is currently showing the French (but English language) film Love. It’s on at 5.30, 8.00 and 10.30 – given the time change (i.e. 5.30 would feel to us like 8.30) only the former was really a possibility. So, much as this might seem like a strange approach to a new country, we planned basically to arrive in Iceland, check into the hotel, go to the movie, and leave all the other discovery for later.

It worked, but just barely – at 4.10 we were still waiting for our bags, with Reykjavik 50km away (and of course 50km can take 25 minutes or 75 minutes depending on local conditions). We got to the hotel at around 5.05 and it so happened that the movie theatre was on the same street so we achieved it easily (especially because they had fifteen minutes of trailers, but then you can never count on that either). It’s very funny to have had the experience of essentially flying halfway across Europe to get to a movie on time. The film itself was a bit of a gamble too, having not impressed too many people at Cannes with its vast amount of explicit sex (and in 3-D!) and reportedly clunky story-telling and character-building in other respects – there was a risk that Ally in particular would just hate it, especially as it lasts well over 2 hours. But in the event we both found it very interesting, certainly not unflawed, but with flaws (or ambiguities as the case may be) that sustained several hours of conversation afterwards, which is really the main test. And so Love joins our classic pantheon of movies – Brothers Bloom in Jerusalem, Weekend in Copenhagen, Two Days in Paris in Hong Kong, and the rest.
Of course, there was more to our first day in Reykjavik than just that. But the rest can wait…!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 7

It was raining in Inari today, thus continuing our amazing streak (which ran all through last year’s New Zealand trip) of always arriving just after or departing just before the bad weather. We had breakfast and took a brief final walk along the river. As always, the fishermen (I think it’s always been men) were out there – in one place we spotted a little collection of chairs and rods where the fishermen presumably gather and have a beer over stories of the one that got away. On that point, we’ve yet to see any sign that the fishermen ever actually catch anything. Maybe the pleasure is all in the state of mind.

Anyway, the rain would certainly have hindered our walks today. That aside though, we felt quite attached to the place. Looking at a map in the hotel lobby, we reflected again on the wonderful arbitrariness of being there, the endlessly fascinating experience of dropping into a place and having it go from tourist-guide abstraction to a very specific, if necessarily, short-lived home base (stay anywhere for more than one night and you find yourself starting to develop a routine). We’d ordered a place on the group taxi to take us back to Ivalo airport – based on today's experience, it gets you there an hour and forty five minutes before the flight departure, which seems over-cautious for an airport with (today anyway) only one destination. The current section of the trip is a little choppier than we would have chosen (four nights, four different hotels) but there wasn’t any other way to make it work. It wasn’t possible to get back from Inari and catch a flight to Reykjavik on the same day, hence triggering another night in Helsinki, and the lodge where we’re staying in Iceland had limited availability, necessitating splitting our time in Reykjavik. On the other hand, the transit between locations won’t take more than a few hours on any occasion, so every day should yield a more than adequate amount of fun and stimulation!

Actually we did have a tiny amount of adverse luck today because our flight had to circle Helsinki for an extra forty minutes or so, due to a big wall of bad weather (which at least is optically interesting, seen from above). But it didn’t really affect anything. We got to our hotel and took off almost right away, catching a ferry to the nearby (15 minutes) island (actually six linked islands) of Suomenlinna. This is on the UNESCO World Heritage list as an unusual monument of military architecture – a sprawling sea fortress from around 1750, which at various times has been controlled by the Swedish and the Russians as well as the Finns. Some of the fortress itself is in disrepair now, and you feel like you're wandering around a much older ruin. But other parts of Suomenlinna, containing much newer, painstakingly well-maintained buildings in pastel shades, have something close to a toytown feeling. You can easily wander round for a couple of hours, following the coastline, walking down to little beaches or exploring the inner streets, absorbing one postcard-worthy view after another. People live there too, so the ferries go back and forth for about 22 hours a day. It felt like every prime spot on the island had already been staked out by some couple or group – it’s easy to imagine many of them would still have been there well into the night.

I mentioned on the first day that we didn’t overhear a lot of English, and now it seems this reflects how we weren’t really following a tourist track there. Today we heard plenty of it, very often being used within diverse groups of people apparently drawn from all over (I also heard one young English woman muse on the disparity between “trash” and “rubbish bin”). I still doubt that Helsinki is a major destination in the scheme of things, other than for those making brief excursions as part of a cruise (two big ships docked side by side today – the London Eye thing is positioned exactly to sweep up the passengers as they disembark). It’s a difficult city both to photograph (everything’s so big and multi-faceted) and to sum up (being a place of many small pleasures rather than a few obvious major ones). But if you plunge into it with all that in mind, I doubt anyone should ever be disappointed. Not in summer anyway.

Suomenlinna has plenty of restaurants too, but we came back around 8 and chose a restaurant on the mainland – a place called Strindberg, on a strip which seems to model itself after Paris (not the only such strip in the city) – wicker chairs arranged in two rows, all facing the same way, etc. We ate inside – Ally had croque monsieur and meatballs; I had asparagus soup and Caesar salad with crayfish (all pretty good, but I probably had the better luck there). When we left, the annual Helsinki midnight run was in full swing – through most of dinner, we could see people heading over there in blue shirts. It starts and ends from the square in front of the cathedral; I mentioned that we’d had the space entirely to ourselves after dinner on Tuesday – tonight was just about the complete opposite, filled with sponsorship booths, music stages, and of course enormous hullabaloo around the finish line.
We saw some of the front-runners cross the line and then returned to the hotel. To mix it up, we’re staying this one night in a different location – the Skandic Grand Marina. In most respects it's not as good a choice as the earlier one, being a little more off by itself and with a rather bland conference-type ambiance, but even this paid off because on our entire walk back we were able to watch the main pack of runners (the race has 11 staged starts), accompanied by excited crowds, fireworks in the bay, blaring music, and the London Eye thing (I guess it has a proper name, but who cares what it is) all lit up. It seemed like one of the happiest, most trouble-free cities you could imagine. And so with that experience happily under our belts, and given that we hadn't had a proper nap today, we more or less wound down our final night here, even though Helsinki had plenty more to give.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 6

At around this point in the trip, one of us always remarks to the other that even if we were going home tomorrow, the vacation wouldn’t have been too short. This doesn’t mean we’ve had enough, only that the experiences are so dense and full and satisfying that you hardly feel entitled to more. By the time the trip actually ends, after this much experience again, we’ll feel so satiated that it’ll seem we must surely have been permanently changed. Whether this feeling lasts beyond that, of course, is quite another matter.
Again, we both woke up earlier than we needed to, but went back to sleep eventually. I keep thinking I hear the sound of a kettle boiling, but actually I believe it’s just the ceaseless rush of the river outside. Otherwise it’s very quiet around here. I mentioned that Finnish people aren’t the most convivial, and that seems even truer up here. It wouldn’t be such a surprise if “sour-faced old bat” was actually part of the job description at the hotel. Still, everything seems to run efficiently. This morning, as we’d requested, they had a packed lunch waiting for us, even though (referring back to yesterday) much of it seemed to consist of the same stuff as the buffet breakfast.

We walked today on the Otsamo trail, for which (out of post-walk exhaustion) I will copy the blurb from the local guide: “The trail leading to Otsamotunturi Fell lies on the northern side of the Juutanjoki River, alternating between a pine forest and the riverbank. The last three kilometres of the trail ascends the slope of Otsamo, passing the mountain birch zone and reaching the treeless fell top. The top of the fell provides a panoramic view of the entire area: from Lake Inarijarvi down to the Juutanjoki River valley, the Hammastunturi fells, the Lemmenjoki fells and the Muotkanturi fells. The same trail is taken on the way back, which makes the total trip 18.4 kilometres long.” And they mean long. The combination of the extra five or so kilometres or so compared to yesterday, and the tougher climb at the end, certainly took it out of us. It’s distinctly satisfying though to do such a walk and not to encounter a single person, there or back (all we saw at one point was a fisherman in the middle distance), so that you get to the top and have the whole sweeping view to yourselves. You also have the outhouse to yourself, but given that it’s secured to its precarious spot by two dodgy-looking wires, you may decide to steer clear of it.

We had our lunch up there, supplemented by a few wild blueberries – they’re as ubiquitous under your feet there as grass in a city park. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the mountain had been teeming with creatures, gorging themselves on blueberries. Actually though it feels oddly quiet here too – I guess the red squirrels prefer the easy pickings around the hotel. But we got our big wish – we saw a reindeer! Just a single one, wandering among the trees. It saw us and gave us that quizzical/outraged look you get from wild animals all over the world, before concluding we didn’t pose much of a threat, and heading off at its own pace. Probably not a major wildlife sighting in the scheme of things, but a nice authentic local touch.

Did you know that the Lemmenjoki fells are named to commemorate Finland’s love for the immortal jokiness of Jack Lemmen? Anyway, it was fairly cool today, and we made good time, faster overall than yesterday (we only ever find this out at the end because we don’t have a watch and don’t bring our cellphones, thus existing in perfect abstraction). We were understandably worn out when we got back though. But this is one of the many fortunate things about us as a couple – we always have the same ideas about what to do, and much the same amount of energy to devote to them. The late afternoon/early evening rest period in the hotel is certainly a key part of the vacation formula for both of us. We both nap a bit, we check in on Ozu (looking good; hasn’t had to wear his cone for several days), I write this, we read the inspiring news from back home, like the guy who was lured into an alley last night, beaten unconscious and robbed. So it sounds like they already did to him what the Republicans are trying to do to America. (Drumroll!)
We had a choice between heading back to PaPaNa or back to the hotel restaurant, and decided on the latter, mainly because of the menu. Ally had pasta (with reindeer of course) and I had Lake Inari trout (maybe the same one that so recently was flaunting it on the fishcam). We had some wine and then switched to our by-now predictable Karhu, for which we moved to the hotel’s bar area. Two things I didn’t previously document about ordering Karhu: (1) it always comes in a distinctive and no-doubt brand-mandated bear-themed glass, and (2) Finnish servers always do what we would back home call an “underpour” i.e. they pour it 95% of the way to the top and then consider that good enough, whereas Canadian and I think British servers strain to pour you a full glass. So I guess they inherently have a glass-not-full mentality? We didn’t expect to shut down the place, but we were by ourselves for the last hour or so – the hotel seemed very quiet tonight (perhaps it’s at its peak in the winter). Even at 11 pm though, there were still two people fishing in the river nearby. On our (excluding the fishcam) ten channels (which I’ve been enjoying checking up here because it’s so much more fun when it's only ten), excluding  the one that always shows landscapes, every single one was showing subtitled English stuff (including yet another dating show, Hercule Poirot, Steve Martin’s L.A. Story, Grey’s Anatomy, and a Canadian documentary about marijuana). Surely Finnish culture, sour-faced or not, glass-not-full or not, depends better than this…?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 5

Today we had breakfast for the first time on the trip, which always makes good sense before a long walk (handy tip for the day!) The hotel has a nice buffet, along with a sign sternly informing the guests that the buffet items are only for breakfast consumption and aren’t to be used to make sandwiches for later. Our plans thus dashed, we walked to the nearby supermarket and picked up some basic supplies, which came to the ridiculous-even-for-Scandinavia total of 40 euros. I’m sure there was a mistake there but sadly we didn’t really focus on it until later.

Our project for the day was to walk to the Pielpajarvi wilderness church, 7 or 8 km each way from the hotel. It was built around 1760 by the shore of a lake, near a winter settlement area. Entire years sometimes went by without a pastor ever making it out there – even in a good year, the schedule was sporadic at best. It’s surprisingly big though, looking capable of seating 500 people at a push, and even now it’s sometimes used for special events, including weddings. Despite apparent issues with maintaining it, it’s very impressive and beguiling.

I assume wedding parties would charter a boat, because the trail might be a challenge for the older guests at least. Actually it’s not that onerous – the ground is very flat so there’s no great climbing involved, but it’s often rocky and concentration-demanding. It winds through quiet forests of conifers, passing a series of lakes. When the water's frozen, it creates snowmobile routes that go on for miles and miles. Today was a good walking temperature, although the kind of day when you keep changing your mind about how many layers you want on. Most of the buildings that once surrounded the church are gone, but there’s a wooden sauna there, and a cooking hut or something. It looked like one of the groups we passed on the way out might have camped out there for the night. We enjoyed our super-expensive lunch on the steps of the sauna, looking over the lake.
Last night we overheard a British man at the hotel saying how he did this same walk yesterday and he came across some reindeer. He told several people this and it was obvious he’ll be telling the story hundreds of times in future years. Mind you, one woman who seemed to have a bit of local knowledge was obviously skeptical, so maybe it’s an outright lie. Maybe he’s lying about the gluten intolerance too (you know, just to get out of eating his wife’s lousy cooking). Anyway, we never saw a hint of any reindeer. You pass through a gated fence in a couple of places, apparently to keep the reindeer from wandering, but we couldn’t even guess what side of the fence you might find them on. Maybe it’s all just theatre for tourists, like airport security. We did see a dog walking the trail, but only a very small and uninteresting one. Otherwise all we have to report is the sizeable population of red squirrels around the hotel grounds.
Anyway, it was a very satisfying walk. As usual though, we didn’t see too many people along the way, and, the Sami museum aside, you wonder what else might draw people to Inari, if not to spend the day walking. It's the starting point for a two-hour lake cruise, twice a day, but I can’t imagine that’s a great attraction in itself. Maybe a lot of people just come here to fish. The town itself feels very much like somewhere you might encounter in rural Alberta. I’m just saying that as a true-life impression (which Ally shares) – take it as you will…
We were certainly ready for a rest by the time we got back. As I mentioned, it’s a more modest hotel room, but you quickly settle in. It has two tiny little single beds, but they can be pushed together (I mean, not that we would ever know for sure whether they could be or not, but it looks like they could be, you know, if anyone was ever to try). We both slept quite well on the first night, although we both did spend some time awake at various separate points. Maybe we’re not used to it being so dark and quiet. As I write this in the late afternoon, the fish camera has struck gold - a big fish hovering right in the middle of the screen. One of the other ten channels is showing America’s Next Top Model.

We walked to a nearby place called PaPaNa, which received some disparaging online reviews in the past ("There were four of us and we all felt ill after eating here") but at least seemed to constitute an interesting change (notwithstanding the hotel’s reminder that “in our restaurant we respect the clean northern flavours”). It worked out better than fine – we had six Karhus, and a reindeer pizza (reindeer, mushrooms, peppers, blue cheese) which would have held up anywhere (don’t know about clean and northern, but certainly flavours). The establishment itself had a somewhat sparse but enjoyable atmosphere, supplemented by a ramshackle pub-style eccentricity (why a large African mask propped up over there? Who knows?) and a diverse clientele (crusty old-timers who paid no attention to us, and just a little more in the two female visitors who came in later; the local young brigade who mainly hung out upstairs, sometimes emerging for cigarette breaks [it appears they’ve banned indoor smoking in such establishments, but it’s clear that many Finns regret it]; obvious tourists like us, some of whom we’d seen earlier in the day). The soundtrack was of vintage quality – not one but two Jefferson Airplane tracks over the course of the night. We'd also heard one of these ("White Rabbit") in the Helsinki Public Corner earlier in the week, so it seems that there’s a distinct constituency in Finland that doesn’t feel so great about the recent evolution of popular music. We left around 10 pm, but could have stayed longer. Back in the room, I learned that the Academy has voted honorary Oscars to Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee, so you never know when the cultural temperature is going to soar!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 4

Maybe we should have wound down at the Public Corner last night regardless of the four hour meal, because we both had unusual trouble getting to sleep. In conjunction with my setting the alarm at 5.30 am, to get this diary and other bits and pieces done before leaving for the airport, it meant we went through the morning in something of a haze. I barely registered the flight to Ivalo at all. But then it was only some 90 minutes. Helsinki airport this morning might have been as empty as any airport we’ve ever seen. Anyway, if I’d known at the time, as I do now, that today was National Dog Day, I would certainly have found it easier to whip up some energy.
It’s very exciting to feel you’re engaging fully (or at least, some form of fully) with the world, that you can look at the possibilities of the globe and through some mixture of past experience and research and instinct conclude that of all those possibilities, we want to go there. That’s what we did this year with Helsinki and Iceland. But it’s almost as exciting, in a more whimsical way, to pick the occasional destination almost at random. We decided this year that if we were coming to Helsinki, then we’d also go somewhere else in Finland, but as we all know, no one outside the country itself can name a single other Finnish location, and the guide books don’t provide much help in shaping one’s sense of the place. We decided then, probably because it seemed likely to provide the best contrast with Helsinki and the best story in itself, to go to Lapland. For much of the year, this plan might require a major commitment to skis and snowmobiles, but even Lapland gets a break for a few months, and there’s currently no snow here. It’s a brisk temperature though – around 14 degrees today, compared with around 23 in Helsinki. Ivalo is Finland’s most northern airport, and from there we went by taxi another 30km or so further north, to the village of Inari. One could certainly travel up further, but stopping at Inari isn’t doing too badly latitude-wise.

We’re staying at the Hotel Tradition Kultahovi, which is much more modest than our Helsinki residence (three nights for the price of one, basically) but quiet and pleasant: everything looks and smells like pine. From our window we have an unimpeded view of the rapidly flowing tree-lined river Juutuanjoki. We went to a local restaurant for a snack. They say the Finnish are a taciturn people, and this place was full of glowering construction workers who seemed to have little interest in each other, let alone in us. Since the population of Inari is only about 600, it doesn’t take long to cover the sights. We tried out a river-side trail, but it seemed mainly to wind through garbage-strewn back lots, and even then didn’t go on for long. We did briefly wonder whether a more rigorous approach to choosing a location might have been useful on this occasion.

But then, as they always do, our plans started to take shape, as we studied the possibilities and worked out our ideas for the next two days. We’ll see how that turns out. For today, we went to perhaps Inari’s major attraction, its SIIDA museum devoted to the history and culture of the Sami (the “Lapps” in Lapland). The Sami are the most northern indigenous people of Europe, often associated with nomadic lifestyles, although the Finnish Samis have traditionally been more settled (based around semi-domesticated reindeer herds) than those in Norway and Sweden. The museum has a large open-air section, preserving traditional Sami dwellings and structures – more than a few of them constituting ingenious traps for foxes, wolves and other predators. There’s a display of relatively provocative images, many drawing on mass media imagery to argue for a better defined (and seemingly more aggressive) approach to preserving Sami culture. Then there’s a more traditional series of exhibits, seemingly not really updated since 1996 and so showing its age a bit. The whole thing concludes, of course, with a classic filmed cabaret performance by the most famous of all the Samis - Davis Jr.

We bought a few things in the gift shop. We don’t do a lot of souvenir buying though – as I mentioned, we already have the wooden Finnish sheep from a previous visit. Ally did buy a Moomin-themed umbrella the other day, but that was a gift for someone else. The Moomins are “are a family of white, roundish fairy tale characters with large snouts that make them resemble hippopotamuses,” as explored in various Finnish books, comics, spin-offs, and a theme park. It's hard to get away from them in Finland. I don’t remember whether I truly dreamed about being savaged by a rabid Moomin or whether I made it up, but I certainly believe now that it happened. It must say something that we didn’t buy the Moomin-themed umbrella from some junky souvenir store, but rather from the serious and respectable gift shop attached to the Museum of Contemporary Art. We didn’t see a Mapplethorpe-themed umbrella – after all, you’d be arrested whenever you tried to use it.
We ate in the hotel restaurant, which also has good views of the water. It’s a well-used river – even after it went dark, at least four people were still out there fishing, and two separate bonfires were visible in the middle-distance. The TV was displaying the hotel’s “fish camera,” by which you can watch a real-time feed of what’s happening beneath a strategic spot in the river, but eventually it got too dark and dissolved into static (we can access the fish camera on our room TV as well - it might even be the best of the ten available options, which as I write include that US show about naked dating on a desert island [about half the shows are in English with subtitles]). The food was pretty good – Ally had a reindeer/potato mixture (which somehow reminded me of school dinners) and I had "organic root vegetable patties"; we drank some wine and then a couple of Karhus. By then we’d outlasted all but a few tables. We took a brief walk outside (so much colder than Helsinki!) and that was basically that.