Fall Travels Part 1: Iceland

November 14, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

2014 Clarion Calendar

My 2014 Literary Pin-Up Calendar will benefit the Clarion Writer’s Foundation – the very same charity that brought Liz Argall to the states, and has been such a cornerstone to the writing careers of so many stellar talents, in both the writing and the teaching. As with the last two, it is a labor of love. And while the work of the redoubtable Neil Gaiman again graces its pages (this time it’s Neverwhere‘s Hunter) all the other authors are new to the project – from Kim Stanley Robinson to Kelly Link. And I got to illustrate Damon Knight‘s classic ‘To Serve Man’ into the bargain.

Here’s the link!

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Pre-Trip

I’ll spare you the tale of the miracle last-second finish, the broken tooth, and the drive up to Seattle.

The birthday dinner with Rob and Lisa’s family for Tessa Tweet, returned from college with friend Talia and sporting a Nabokov shirt, was a much jollier affair – filled with delicious curry, cake and cacophonous laughter.

The next morning we commenced the actual packing – making sense of the piles of unsorted foolery we’d tossed into the car in Portland the previous evening.

Chris Pramas, rocking the new neck scar from his successful spinal surgery, joined us for lunch in a curious neighborhood in West Seattle. But the North American fun was as short lived as the day itself.

Iceland

Tuesday came to us in Iceland. We watched the sun rise (barely and with exquisite autumnal slowness) from the giant window in the front of the bus to Reykjavik – dark and volcanic Iceland giving way to a curious city with just enough Dr. Seuss to temper its IKEA.

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The Best Western deserves credit for letting us check in so early and suggesting we enjoy breakfast before the inevitable nap. Though we’ve long been used to Venetia’s gluten-free diet, this was first time out in the world figuring out my new food restrictions. Corn flakes with brown sugar, ham and oranges did the job. The nap would prove fiercesome… and habit-forming. But we arose in time for the 12:30 tour.

Our brilliant young tour guide spoke French as well as Icelandic and English, but with no Francophones present, it was pure intelligible data. Amid her recitations she suddenly exclaimed “this is my husband and two year old daughter”. She was quite surprised to find them outside the big concrete church that occupies the city’s highest point. It looks deceptively large from a distance but feels comparatively small close up. And oh that autumn wind!

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We were startled to learn that Iceland, so progressive in many ways, has no separation of church and state, and that tax dollars regularly roll into church coffers. We were disappointed to learn that those politicians responsible for Iceland vast banking crisis were once again in charge of the island nation, but voters everywhere seem to have short memories. Even here, in a land small enough to see cause and effect with comparative clarity, and through one’s efforts, effect change.

Iceland reminded me of Duncan Jones’ film ‘Moon’ in some ways, and it’s no shock that Hollywood’s ‘Oblivion’ (which also reminded me of ‘Moon’) was shot here. It is a beautiful and fierce place – one that I think every writer of hard science fiction would do well to visit. Where else would they take the 4 enormous hot water towers that supply the reserve geothermal power to run a city and pop a glass dome and spinning restaurant on top of them? We did not enter the Viking recreation “Madame Tussaud’s” museum either, but it made us think strongly of our Norse-loving friends.

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The city is largely crisp and clean, however there was graffiti everywhere (well everywhere but the trains anyway – it seems that a history of Danes left them with no trains). Apparently waiting until winter to mark one’s territory old-school just wasn’t on. When does it get too cold for the taggers? When do children start being admitted to emergency rooms frozen to their spray cans? And why, in a country so small, is there not an obvious way to dissuade them? Perhaps because there is so much heavy industry. Maybe unlike America, the punks steal their spray cans from the docks rather than buy them in a hardware store.

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While Iceland’s national politics continue dismal, the city’s anarchist mayor is changing their political culture any way he can. An actor and performance artist pal of Björk, he’s taken city hall to areas heretofore unknown. Sure, a big city mayor might pop on a red dress for a gala in Portland or San Francisco, but actual cosplay? This mayor in his Luke Skywalker get-up would be right at him at the San Diego Comic Con! And after a full term, he still maintains the 30% popularity that got him and his “Best” party elected the first time.

The massive performance hall the ‘Harpa’ ended our trip and proved to be V’s favorite building. It remained unfinished when the economy tanked, but happily for all they found the will (and kroners) to finish it properly.

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What could follow such a spirited tour of the city? Only one thing. More napping.
And then another very different tour (if “tour” is even the word I want here, perhaps “quest” would be better)… In Search of the Northern Lights!

At our first hotel pickup, the driver parked on an incline and came back to help someone with a bag or two. As the bus very slowly started rolling backward down the hill, we passengers (strapped in by Icelandic law) were startled:

V: Um, I think we’re moving…
Lee (loudly to the driver): We’re moving! WE’RE MOVING!
Just another example of our well-oiled collaborative style. ;)

But unlike our previous tour, this one pretty much involved driving east in the dark, and hoping the guide, a crotchety old chap who whistled like a quieter Nordic version of Peter Lorre in ‘M’ and easily set the Icelandic record for sarcasm, wouldn’t too often interrupt the silence of the night, the bright clouds and nearly-full moon. Hoping all the while that there would be the perfect opening in those clouds, and that the moon would not outshine any aurorae. We finally stopped at a man-made pumice parking patch paved amid ancient lava flows where at least 2 other buses would also alight. No Northern Lights had been seen in this part of Iceland for the previous 4 days, and the internet held dire prognostication for this night as well. But there was an opening in the clouds to the north, and it seemed worth squinting into gap as best we could, huddled among the masses of foreigners, yearning to see the lights. At first we couldn’t see anything at all, but our splenetic tour guide wisely took pictures to locate them (as his camera’s abilities were beyond even his own) and pointed out the very hazy cloudlike shape in the sky.

But it was incredibly cold, and was that patch his camera detected really a hint of lights, or just reflection of moon light on the breaking clouds? Eventually, the clouds cleared enough for us to see the low wide horizontal smudge that was the Aurora Borealis.

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It wasn’t the bright colors one sees in retouched photos, but it did ebb and flow in intensity, and was certainly interesting in a quiet sort of way. After watching the horizontal bar fill in, be briefly joined by another small bar beneath the vastness of the newly-revealed Big Dipper, and then ebb away – the cold finally overpowered us. We’d come, we’d seen, and if we didn’t exactly conquer, well, that was all in the game. But then…
Just as we were heading back to the bus…

Pow!

Northern lights!

Suddenly a blaze on the horizon of retreating clouds fired up and up. It was joined by others all rising, blazing and eventually, fading sweetly away as other shapes crossed and sparkled in the sky. And all the while the Big Dipper, that enormous shape so familiar in the sky, was dwarfed in every aspect.
Several minutes and many configurations later I leaned into to Venetia and said “this is the best planetarium show ever.” And quickly appended “but with the whole PLANET!” The two most surreal and beauteous moments were the Forum – where a long row of vertical pillars were topped by a bold horizontal line, and the Arch – wherein the back of the ladle and stars of the Big Dipper’s handle formed a perfect arched top to two huge pillars of the aurora that stretched up past them into the night sky. If Hollywood (or even Bollywood) had scripted the show we got, I dare say I shouldn’t have believed it. Not since I saw Night on Bald Mountain as an 8 year old child have I been so awed.

On the speechless ride back, I silently thanked our lucky stars and thought at length about the arbitrary nature of the universe, about the work of Nicholas Roerich, and about how my own work might change accordingly.

On Wednesday we were up at 7:30am for breakfast and swiftly packed onto a bus for the Golden Circle tour. By the time we transferred on, the bus was almost full, leaving us the only two seats toward the back.

First, we headed south-east, leaving Reykjavik to heavy cloud cover, and listening to our new guide share the history of this fascinating island. The Icelandic horses and sheep are rightly well known, less known is that their attempts to raise pigs all failed, and none remain. Many charming summer houses, small and tidy, dot the landscape, and the guide clearly enjoyed tales of the elves who live in the countryside as well. I did not anticipate a stop for tomato soup in a vast greenhouse (one never knows about the kickbacks wily tour guides arrange), but the soup (just herbs and tomatoes with basil plants one could cut and apply at will) was good, so why worry? The point of the stop (beyond the obvious commerce) was to show how Iceland’s command of waters warm and cold made it an effective garden spot. The endless rows of tomato plants producing massive bounties on almost no soil was indeed interesting. Their importation of bees (one of whom clearly found both Venetia and I irresistible) without a desire for the complication of a hive (lady bees are useful, but male bees just make things complicated) seem prone to unwanted interruption and unsustainable in the long run, but so far they seem have outsmarted nature on this strange moonbase of an island.

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Next we visited Gullfoss or Golden Falls, this massive waterfall is an astonishing multilevel diagonal cataract, and but for the dogged efforts of Sigríður Tómasdottir this important site would even now be a giant Hydroelectric plant….

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We looked down from the upper palisade at obnoxious tourists who’d chosen to ignore the careful guidelines for their safety and trod out onto the snowy and icy rim of the chasm. While we found their behavior galling, I must admit that their stupidity has given our photos a fine sense of scale….

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Looking at the sweet little creek above the waterfall, one might be forgiven thinking that no danger lurked, but as the sun shone free of the morning clouds, the spray of the falls was visible for quite a distance.

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Bigger still, the enormous glacier visible to the north swallowed a mountain the way the ocean wraps around the land. But the glacier’s “sea-level” is not level at all, rather, it’s a hard-to-fathom diagonal. Quite disorienting and wonderful.

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As we were exiting through the latest in the long line of gift shops, we saw a figure who reminded us of Journey, the game we had played in New Zealand. We named her Aurora and brought her with us.

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Unaccountably, as we shared the local lamb stew, on view in this massive tourist dining hall was an episode of Scooby Doo featuring Harlan Ellison and Cthulhu. Ah, the profundity of our cultural exports!

We’ve been to geysers before, but this was the original accept-no-substitutes Geysir. The same fools who tempted the edge of the icy falls made themselves clear here as the obnoxious father modeled idiot behavior for his teen offspring. He crossed the ropes and thrust his hand into the hot water. He and his children walked all over the geysers. Even as the largest among them fired off a spectacular plume every ten minutes or so. It was lovely, but compared to Yellowstone quite tiny.

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We napped a bit en route to the site where the plates of 2 continents (Europe and the US) meet, and where the citizens of Iceland meet for the Althing.

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I longed for a close look at the falls to the north, but time was short and we walked south to the old camping and meeting site where the crag opened up and gave a view of the waters and plains below.

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The Obnoxious Tourists (TM) continued to be obnoxious of course, and we silently thanked the powers that be that they weren’t American….

After brief nap at the hotel we awoke at 7:30 to prepare for dinner with author Andri Snaer Magnason, who we’d been lucky to hear read at last year’s Norwescon. Andri

He pulled right up to the hotel on the sidewalk, startling Venetia. But in a town where there is so much snow, and so few parking spots, it seemed to work fine. Before dinner, he took us to his work place: the Power Station! A coal-burning back-up for the city’s power, it had been rendered obsolete some years earlier as Reyjkavic moved inexorably to geothermal and had lain idle. It was even said to be haunted, which might well have spared it some break ins and vandalism. When Iceland’s economy cratered, many lost their jobs, and the Station beckoned to unemployed creatives and became Iceland’s home to:

Deathstar acoustics!

Pagan altars!

Dials and levers and electricity (still working?) for film and television.

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After the tour Andri and his wife treated us to a dinner party in their home. Their own children were largely inconspicuous, but the two and a half couples they’d invited made for great dinner conversation. They numbered a jazz player and composer, theater director, artist, designer, and craft artist among them. Andri’s wife upholds the long Magnason medical traditions as a nurse. All spoke flawless English and kindly did so while we were there – humoring our sadly monoglot ways.

I could try to describe the warmth and beauty of the scene, but suffice it to say that it resembled nothing to me so much as a scene of the ideal European house party you might see in a film – all the people handsome and well spoken, piles of sushi and home-made rhubarb crumble, obvious long-time affection and mutual respect. In short – the party of the year!

After the first guests had left, we moved down to the living room, and talked about design, music, Small Gods, and Andri’s books as he kindly signed copies for us. All the while, their youngest daughter lay sleeping in her improvised tent under the wooden stairs with their sweet brindled whippet (described by Andri as half kangaroo, half koala), a leg occasionally arcing out from the blanket before disappearing again. We got back to the hotel at 1, amazed to have seen so much of Iceland’s past and future in a single day.

On Thursday, we slept in until 8:30 (living the high life!?) ambled to breakfast (corn flakes, the official breakfast of the dietarily restricted!), checked out and and stowed our bags.
It was snowing lightly as we walked downtown, and the city was quiet. As we window-shopped, we noted the stylish Icelandic clothing stores, but luckily for our wallets, nothing was open before11am, except the wool store where we tried on silly hats.

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We met Andri at the big central church, seeking shelter inside for some short period before he arrived. I wonder if drawing Small Gods in church is any more blasphemous than drawing them elsewhere? When Andri arrived we went to a vegetarian place so full that we were forced to the meat buffet across the street in retaliation. After lunch we grabbed our bags, and the bus to shuttle us from one hotel to another. This time the hotel, Northern Lights Inn, was an hour south of Reyjkavic. And while we were excited to visit the Blue Lagoon, first we needed a serious nap.

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The hotel shuttle dropped us at the Blue Lagoon just in time for sunset, and reflected colors in the milky blue water outside were amazing. Venetia had a wonderful time taking pictures.

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One of the Lagoon’s traditions is making mud masks for one’s face. Venetia’s hands were small enough to get through the cracks to the mud bucket without the tiny scoop so she slathered us both with mud. This meant it took a really long time to dry, and that we looked like golems. She got too cold to let her mud mask set fully, but enjoyed the sensation of its removal all the same. As the darkness came on, we explored all the bits of the lagoon – the soaking areas, the grotto, the bridges and the entire perimeter. We had all manner of fun in our explorations, but were occasionally surprised by outcroppings of stone and rocks from the bottom.

We encountered a wedding party in matching swimsuits and flowered swim caps, the men dressed identically to the ladies, save for their bow ties. The Blue Lagoon is very expensive, and while this tends to dissuade the natives from visiting (there are countless other, more convenient and vastly more affordable springs) it was clear that exceptions were made for big events. As well the man wading into the lagoon balancing a huge tray of cocktails might have told us, were he not struggling so valiantly not to spoil a drop.
We stayed until closing, and while Venetia was sad to have left our silver Ambercon thermos, I wonder what Icelander might be using it even now.

The next morning we arose in the black of night and e glow of the nearby power plant, stumbled through the morning ritual of cornflakes, and hopped on a plane to England. Part One of the trip was over. What would next lay in store? All we knew for certain? More napping.


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