Iceland 2001

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Of all the countries in the world, there are two or three which I have wanted to see since I was small. Some of them I have now seen, some seem as unlikely as ever, and others are in my "you know, I might just get there" category.

One of these countries is Iceland. Two years ago, Alan was invited to Iceland at short notice. I encouraged him to go, and then had to put up with him telling me how wonderful it was for the next year. Grr.

Just the things you hear about Iceland are enough: they don't have to be true (although it's nice when they are):

With all of these, how could I resist tagging along when Alan got an invitation to return?

Since this account got rather longer than I expected, it's split into three sections:

  1. The arrival and conference, below
  2. Friday, with the trip with the jeeps into the snow
  3. Saturday and on: more steam jets, this time with added shark and random tourists
The run-up
"Pack sunglasses", said Alan. I assured him that I had an old pair of glasses that had become sunglasses when I got new glasses. "They're in the dresser drawer". Fool that I am, I had forgotten the fact that these drawers were in disarray as we have not yet reconstructed the dresser since we moved house.

"You'll need a very warm coat", he added. I pondered the chances of taking my mantle, a great heavy thing which I acquired when doing re-enactment some years ago. Then I saw a poncho in a shop and had to buy that instead.

Alan was due to depart for the US within days of returning, so some "can't take this tshirt, need it for America" organisation had to take place, too.

The GNOME 1.4 release run-up was in full swing, so I took bits and pieces I was supposed to be doing with the intention of uploading them from Iceland when done. This time I remembered the power lead and the adaptor for the wall socket. I have forgotten both in the past.

Eventually, all was done.

Tuesday, 13th March
Mucho packing and so on was followed by yet another departure at 0510. Coach to Heathrow; duty-free raid there but successfully avoided acquiring more electronics for once. Plane to Iceland at 1300. On the 13th. Our seats were almost in row 13, too, but ended up being in row 14 in the end.

Wow, what a change from the last plane trips. Lovely food and the most amazing views as we flew along the coast to Keflavík. (Pronounced, allegedly, Keblaveek, or Keplaveek. Welcome to Icelandic orthography.) Met by Arnar (Pronounced as said, except that the Icelandic 'r' is rolled heavily, but somehow is said more rapidly than the other letters. Um) at the airport, who drove us to the hotel (the Hotel Borg, would you believe?) in Reykjavík. The drive was beautiful: long long road with dark dark soil and small round rocks on the surface. It rather reminded me of the Sojourner pictures on Mars. Later I learned that this is one of the typical volcanic landscapes of Iceland.

The Hotel Borg turned out to be both very cool and right in the middle of the old town: we had a view out onto the square and the old parliament building. Iceland is on Greenwich Mean Time (sensible choice, that) so we still had lots of time. Arnar left us to recover from the flight, and I went straight to the bathroom to see if it was true about the hot water smelling of sulphur. (It is. It's not unpleasant, but it's noticeable to newcomers. Later I found that the hot water is different all over Iceland, so you don't notice your local water: you only notice when you travel elsewhere. The shower was fantastic, though: the shower head was about a foot across.) Arnar returned to take us out to a coffee-shop called the Ugly Duckling in the evening. Friends of his arrived, one of whom, Arni, was a journalist who asked Alan various questions. I like coffee-shops so we stayed there for hours. Also, by then we'd heard about the alcohol prices and it seemed much better to stay there than go to a pub. Eventually it occurred to us that we needed to be up the next day and we departed, pausing at a fast food outlet for food and cringing at the behaviour of some other tourists there. I managed to acquire a veggie option which appeared to be Greek salad (feta, olives and so on) with chilli. Original.

Telsa outside the Ugly Duckling:  [pic of Telsa outside the Ugly Duckling]

Wednesday, March 14th
Up at a reasonable hour (say I; Alan disputes) to encounter a phone call from Eric Raymond who had just arrived. Met Eric and Cathy for breakfast. Investigated various local foodstuffs: Alan very into pickled herrings; Cathy very into skyr; Eric very into loads of meat. Much reenactment reminiscing, for some reason. Regaled them with tales of the gigantic shower-heads. They looked dubious.

At 1300, we were picked up from the hotel by Thorvaldur, who had offered to give us a tour of Reykjavík and its history. He had heard we were into history and came prepared, armed with printouts for us of various articles. I was awed.

We began with the statues outside the new parliament building and careered through the rest of the city: we saw many many more statues at the home of a local sculptor; we admired the statue of Leif outside and went up in the lift in the Hallgrímskirkja church and peered through the windows -- which turned out to be part of the clockfaces!

The skyline in Reykjavík is not like home. For a start, they have dispensed with the idea that the obvious colour for a roof is red: green, red, blue, white and black were scattered around. This is particularly obvious at the Tjörn ("pond") in the centre of Reykjavic where ducks, geese and swans live: you look around and see lots of cheerful bright houses. The skyline is also a lot clearer. You really can see for many many miles, as a result of the combination of low pollution and very dry air.

Summarising madly here, we also paused at the Árni Magnússon Institute to see old copies of manuscripts (Landnámabók and Njáls Saga among others) and ended up at the Culture House, with another display of many books from the early days of Iceland and very early maps. It's rather surprising to see the original version of something that is pictured in your guidebook. The guide was very helpful, telling us about the history of Hallgrímur Pétursson after whom the church we visited was named, and his Passion Psalms. Apparently, if you want a souvenir of Iceland, his psalms written as he faced death (and leprosy, if we managed the translation barrier?) are worthwhile.

We finished with a meeting which was for last-minute conference discussion ("Please don't go over your timeslots," and so on) over cheesecake (yum) where I discovered that apparently the Icelandic language is not popular in Turkey: they managed to get the characters ð and þ into the ISO-8859-1 character set at the expense of characters Turkey wanted. Given that Turkey is 60 million people and Iceland is just over a quarter of a million, I can understand their faintly smug expressions on that.

Finally, not trusting their foreign guests to find food for themselves, the organisers deposited us (Alan, Eric, Cathy and me) at a Very Icelandic restaurant, I blithely ignored all my memories of cod wars (Iceland kept expanding their claims of territorial waters and then complaining that Britain was using them) and had the best fish I've had in my life. I also filched some puffin from Eric (which tasted just like any other smoked meat, really).

We eventually rolled out, and navigated ourselves back to the hotel, where Eric was being picked up to go and collect his email as the hotel's internet kiosk did not meet his needs. ("It's a cupboard with a computer in it running IE!") Alan and I opted for the alternative approach. "Bugger the net. We have enough to do."

Thursday, March 15th
We were being picked up at 1100, but that still left lots of time for me and Alan to wander down to the Tjörn and the English-language bookshop (well, Icelandic, English, German, Danish, Swedish and French language: Icelanders read -- and write -- a great deal, it seems) and for me to buy what the guidebook described as a classic of Icelandic modern writing, "Independent People". I was later to discover that nearly everyone I spoke to said something like "Laxness? Ah yes, great writer... don't care for his stuff myself, though.."

Alan at the Tjörn:  [pic of Alan and lots of ducks at the Tjörn with the
     multi-coloured roofs in the background]

The conference was well-attended: 300 people (recall the size of Iceland: this is equivalent to getting sixty thousand people to an event in Britain). Only Alan and Eric were speaking in English. I heard Eric's talk, and then missed the right time to sneak in for Alan's. Instead I played with the demo machines and finally met someone I'd known on IRC years ago (this business of meeting people I never thought I'd meet is becoming a bit of a refrain at these events, I see).

After the conference, we headed back to the hotel and later in the evening were taken out for a meal for the speakers, at the Pearl. This is Icelandic psychology for you. They pump all their hot water out of the ground and store it in vast vast hot water tanks. But they decided the hot water tanks looked too ugly, so they put a gigantic dome on top which rotates once every two hours, and put a restaurant up there. Can't complain. They also put a pseudo-geyser fountain at the bottom which reaches almost to the top when it spurts up.

Lovely meal, which involved the Icelandic lamb lots of local people had been telling me about. First the cod is lovely; now the lamb. If ever any Icelanders visit here, I'm a bit stuck on what to offer them. (Wales is full of sheep, so I thought I knew all about decent lamb.) Met Sigrun, and had some lovely discussions with Eggert and others: everything from the imminent Reykjavík vote on whether to situate the new airport inside or outside the city (a matter of some controversy), to the nature of fate and people's belief in it, to which was the 'best' saga, and all manner of things. At one stage, Alan was persuaded to agree that Icelandic horses ("ponies? No. Horses", I was told firmly) sounded friendlier than Australian ones, and I entertained hopes of more riding. Ended up in the bar, and eventually remembered we should leave if we wanted to be up in time for the glacier expedition the next day. Fell into bed at about 1am. Oops.

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