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!

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