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!