Campaganza 2016: Hraunborgir

Midsummer is nigh here in Iceland and although our run of astoundingly sunshiney summer days seems to have finally caved to the status quo and gotten rainy again, Mark and I have finally gotten the Summer 2016 Campaganza (that is a camping-extravaganza…the portmanteau maybe didn’t work as well as I was hoping) underway. Having done an absurd amount of research on tents, collected a not inconsiderable amount of gear, and investigated a number of local campground options, we decided to take our inaugural outing this weekend—a sort of test run, if you will, for a longer two-week expedition we intend to take further afield in July.

Because we were leaving later in the day on Friday, we decided to find a campground relatively close to the city and settled on Hraunborgir, a campground/summer cabin community close to Selfoss which boasts a swimming pool, golf course, mini golf ‘course,’ and a rec center where it’s possible to order yourself a pizza and watch sporting events of note, such as Iceland’s just-fine-not-great Eurocup match against Hungary on Saturday.

The weather forecast was, in all honesty, not so spectacular for Friday and Saturday, but waiting for the right weather in Iceland is a distinctly futile exercise, and also, what is the point of finding yourselves a sweet, water- and windproof tent with a sheltered ‘living room’ if you only camp in the driest and sunshiney-ist of conditions? So off we went, getting rather lucky with our weather on the first afternoon and night, even if it did go from being super warm to super chilly quite quickly. Which is when I realized, a bit despairingly, that I’d forgotten both a coat and a scarf.

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A good þumalputtaregla for traveling in Iceland

Image via the University of Iceland’s Vísindavefurinn, answering the question: “Hvaðan kemur orðið þumalputtaregla?” (‘Where does the word ‘þumalputtaregla’ come from?’)

I used to routinely get nervous when I’d travel to a new country—worried that I’d somehow inadvertently offend someone or do something wrong or misunderstand protocol and find myself publicly shamed or yelled at or generally embarassed by my own lack of worldliness. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded: I received a dressing down (in Danish) for turning off a water tap in a museum bathroom in Denmark (still not sure what went awry there), and I accidentally stole a woman’s seat in a theater in Amsterdam, to her shock and horrified displeasure (she yelled; I moved, trying lamely to explain that I didn’t know that while unassigned, the seating was, after the intermission, pretty much set in stone).

These occurrences aren’t the end of the world, though, and while I still find myself worried that I’ll make a fool of myself simply because I don’t know the unspoken system in a new country or city, a little more travel has gone a long way in alleviating some of my concern. Everyone, after all, is a tourist somewhere. And so, by and large, my go-to þumalputtaregla, or rule of thumb, is to just do my best to not be a jerk.

Don’t be a Jerk. Generally, this works out pretty well. But it’s still nice to have a bit of insight into cultural norms and practices before you go somewhere. To this end, the UK’s Business Insider recently tried to shed some light on common sources of irritation for locals when encountering visitors in their countries. Often, I feel like these sorts of lists are vague or stereotypical, but this time around, I found the Iceland advice pretty spot-on. There was only one rule of thumb mentioned for Iceland: Don’t be overly friendly.” This was drawn from advice given by two Icelandic Reddit users, and as summarized as follows:

“It’s not that Icelandic people aren’t courteous, or would respond unfriendly in the street. We’re just more used to everyone keeping to themselves in public.” – /u/KristinnK

“It’s usually not a good thing to start a conversation with us out of the blue at, say, a museum. […] Saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ would be the weirdest experience of the week for any Icelander.” – /u/KFJ943

This last one particularly made me giggle because I had just been trying to explain the general look of confusion that one (often an American, I might add) will get if she starts any kind of interaction in a shop (or cultural institution or coffee shop or restaurant) with chit-chat. Namely, “Hi, how are you?” Response: [Confused head tilt.]

As an interesting point of comparison, check out one of the answers given by someone in Norway:

Don’t ask people how they’re doing unless you’re ready to get deep. “We will give an actual answer.” – /u/maiset


Back to this issue of friendliness, however, I would probably suggest that the opposite advice should be given to travelers to the US: always start your interactions with a little chit chat. How are you today? Hi, there, how you doing? Unlike Norwegians, we will probably not respond to a stranger or acquaintance with a full-blown narrative of all of our ills (that would be weird), but we will appreciate that you’ve made the attempt to connect with us on a basic—and most importantly, friendly—level. Of course, this depends on where you are in the country, but boy, howdy, we Americans do (generally) love our pleasantries.


This suggestions didn’t come up for American advisors, however. Rather, they suggested that visitors don’t smoke weed in public, even in places where it is legal (seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again, similar to advice was given by Dutch people to travelers in Amsterdam), don’t stand too close while waiting in line (a distance of an arm’s length was advised), don’t imitate a Southern accent, and don’t assume the whole country is the same. Maybe not the specific collection of advice I would have given someone, but probably not bad places to start. (That not standing too close thing rang true for me—I didn’t realize I had a thing about being crowded until I moved out of the States.)



And that is your friendly Traveling-In-Iceland PSA for today. The More You Know, guys.

South Coast Gems: Naughty Nuns, Cozy Coffeeshops

Why, hello there, Internet. I’m alive! The school year has come to a close, and my work year is nearly finished as well (nine days and counting), so I find myself, mysteriously, with time on my hands. I’ve so far been filling it with walks and binge reading and Eurovision and cooking, but perhaps I can get back in the habit of updating this blog, too.

To start with, I’ll be posting some backlogged writing and photos in the up-and-coming, and I thought it best to start with this oldie-but-goodie that was published in the Grapevine in April. The trip, I should note, was one that Mark and I took in October of 2013, although the story itself didn’t make it into print until rather a long time afterwards. I should also note that my original article was about a kazillion times longer (there’s a lot to say about the sights we saw and I wasn’t watching my word count very closely), so while I’ll just excerpt the article itself in this post (with photos), I will also add in some of the passages that I had to cut for length.

The full set of photos from this trip (and there were many) are posted on the photo blog. I’ve arranged them by site, so click the location titles to see all the photos from that place. (General photos from the road have been sprinkled throughout this post and can also be found here.)

(Click the title link below to see the full article.)

Misbehaving Nuns, Ancient Ice: Five Seasonal South Iceland Sights

Ideally, all of your travels in Iceland would be accompanied by mild weather and cloudless skies, but waiting for perfect weather in this country is much like waiting for Godot. This shouldn’t faze you, though, because the shoulder seasons (September and October, March and April) are frequently, if intermittently, lovely. They are typically a bit cold and windy—but also bright and clear and with enough daylight to allow for a decent day’s hiking or sightseeing. On a recent three-day drive along the South coast, my partner and I went to see some new sights and return to some favorites. Here are a few highlights.

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Puffins: A Lot Like Puppies

Although I don’t have time (yet!) to regale you all with our most recent adventure to Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, I cannot fully contain my excitement at the moment. I simply must share these few photos from our weekend jaunt and tell you, dear readers, that holding a puffin is truly delightful. Pretty much as awesome (okay, almost) as holding a baby goat. This likely surprises absolutely no one, but what might surprise you is that holding a puffin is a lot like holding a puppy. A puffin—at least Tóti, one of the resident lord and masters at Sæheimar (the aquarium/natural history museum on Heimaey)—is rather warm and rather cuddly. When it gets excited, it nibbles at your hands (or, okay, just bites—but totally worth it). When it wants to be set down, it follows you around or waddles out in front of you. It is surprisingly small (Mark says “like one too many tomatoes to hold in one hand”) and it has surprisingly warm little feet.

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One of the women who was visiting at the same time as we were (an American travel agent visiting for a big convention who took a short daytrip to the Westmans) exclaimed as she was leaving: “Oh my god, that made the whole flight over here worth it!” I think a lot of things made the trip ‘worth it,’ actually—there were many amazing things about our visit which I will share (with photos!) shortly—but Holding a Puffin definitely ranks pretty high on the list of Awesome Things I’ve Done in Iceland.

Iceland is Now on Google Street View

Internet, it is the moment you’ve been waiting for: earlier this month, Iceland was added to Google Streetview. Commence long distance creeping!

Now, not all of the country has been Googlized, of course, but if you head over to the map linked to above, pick up the little yellow fella, and hover over the country, you’ll see large swaths of the coast are now blue, which means that they are stalkable.

So if you want to return to some places you’ve visited in Iceland and enjoyed…

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Or see some new places you’ve yet to go…

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This will probably keep you busy for awhile.

I also recommend checking out the Tumblr “Iceland Street Adventures,” which popped up just after Iceland Streetview went live, and features the enjoyably underwhelming motto “NOT the THE BEST OF ICELAND on Google Street View (but interesting none the less).”

 

Segðu Já!

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Towards the end of September, when plane tickets, general living, and fun outings were starting to eat into my summer savings, I adopted a policy of “say yes!” whenever a work opportunity came my way. This wasn’t a bad policy, wallet-wise, and so I decided, when considering all of the new things that were on my horizon, that I would try to stick with this ethos when unusual life opportunities came my way.

Which is how, dear readers, Mark and I ended up standing on a glacier this weekend, in the rain, preparing ourselves to climb a vertical ice wall. Segðu já! (Full photos here.)

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Reminiscences on Easter Holidays: Part 1

One of the kabillion chocolate Easter eggs made in Iceland this year.

One of the kabillion chocolate Páskaegg (Easter eggs) made in Iceland this year.

It’s a bit late to be telling you all this, but Easter is a big holiday in Iceland. As during Christmas, it is a multi-day holiday—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday (which I had no idea was an observed holiday anywhere, actually, but it really is) are all public holidays, in which pretty much all your key services and shops—buses, grocery stores, pools…vinbúðin—operate on a either a vastly reduced schedule, or don’t operate at all. There’s also a week off from school. To maximize your spring (Easter) enjoyment, it’s best to plan ahead in regards to grocery shopping (and alcohol, should you be in need of it), buy one of the baby-sized hollow Nóa Easter Eggs which are filled with candy and enigmatic fortunes (although the smaller eggs are fun, too, as you will surely be able to tell from the picture above), and, if you don’t have family to visit, find yourself a nice place to relax for a few days.

I received two Easter fortunes from candy eggs myself:

Oft hafa fagrar hnetur fúinn kjarna
Beautiful nuts often have rotten cores

and

Ef þú ferð ekki upp á fjallið færðu ekki útsýni yfir dalinn
If you don’t climb the mountain, you won’t get the view of the valley

The university’s Easter vacation (Wednesday to Tuesday) presented Mark and I with the perfect opportunity to embark on a few more outings: one, a nice overnight for just the two of us, the other, a roadtrip to Ísafjörður (a small, but very notable town in the Westfjords) with two of the other Fulbrighters. We’d been wanting to get up to the Westfjords anyway, but what made the timing of this trip rather perfect was that there is an annual free music festival over Easter there, “Aldrei fór ég suður,” (I never went south) on top of which, another Fulbrighter is living and studying in Ísafjörður this year, which meant there were a couple couches/living room floor for us to crash on during our visit.

I’ll be recapping both trips over several posts (just wait for The Best Thing We’ve Done in Iceland So Far – no spoilers!), but you can also check the photo blog, which I will be updating shortly. All the photos from Mark and I’s first night in Laugarvatn have been posted now, however, and you can look at them here.

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Day 1, Part 1: Walking in Þingvellir and Laugarvatn

Mark had a class on Tuesday morning, so we waited until after it finished and were on the road by early afternoon. We were graced with very nice weather—maybe a touch cloudy, but not too chilly and no rain—and we decided to start our journey with a walk around part of Þingvellir National Park which we hadn’t spent much time in thus far. Looking at a map at one of the guest centers, we figured that there are actually a number of trails around the park which follow the various rifts, highlight abandoned farms, run through a little forest, and travel around Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland at 84 km² (about 52 miles²).

View over Þingvallavatn from Vatnskot camp site

We decided that we’d walk around the lake for awhile and started from the apparently popular Vatnskot (Lake Croft) camp site. Vatnskot is also the site of an abandoned farm. According to this interactive map of the park,

Vatnskot [Lake Croft] is believed to have been an outlying estate, leased from the estate of Þingvellir Church. It was probably inhabited over the centuries, but was abandoned as a farm in the 19th century. It remained in use as a “dry-house” (without facilities for any livestock), with rights to fish in the lake. Vatnskot is now a popular campsite.

We didn’t actually find the trail we had been looking for, but still had a nice time picking our way along the coastline of the lake, and then walking back to our car along the road, just for a change of scenery. Here are some photo highlights:

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Þingvellavatn has a great deal of fish. Anglers come to Vatnskot in the summer to fish from this lovely pier.

Þingvellavatn has a great deal of fish. Anglers come to Vatnskot in the summer to fish from this lovely pier.

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Looking down into Þingvallavatn from the pier. These rocks looked like deliberately laid floor tiles.

Looking down into Þingvallavatn from the pier. These rocks looked like deliberately laid floor tiles.

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One of my favorite things in Iceland is the ubiquity of  picnic tables in isolated, beautiful spots. Here's one such picnic table.

One of my favorite things in Iceland is the ubiquity of picnic tables in isolated, beautiful spots. Here’s one such picnic table.

Following our walk, we drove to the nearby town of Laugarvatn, a small community on the edge of a large lake (for which it is named) which also boasts Fontana, a geothermal bath and spa (which itself sits on top of some natural hot springs), a satellite location of Háskoli Íslands which specializes in health and fitness studies, and a wonderful restaurant called Linden.

Mark and I ran across Linden completely on accident during our first trip to Iceland–we were driving to the sites along the Golden Circle and encountered a detour on the main road, which ended up taking us through Laugarvatn. We were hungry, so we walked into the restaurant, not knowing at the time that it is one of the best around. It was practically empty, so we got a seat right at the window, looking over the lake, had a delicious lunch of char sandwiches (with char fished from said lake) and truly enjoyed ourselves. It was because of this experience that we had initially wanted to stay in Laugarvatn on our overnight, but as fate would have it, the restaurant is not open on Tuesdays in the off-season. Nevertheless, we found a lovely B&B/arts studio called Galleri there, and since there were also a number of nice hikes/walks in the immediate vicinity, decided to stay the night anyway.

In lieu of Linden, we decided to drive to the restaurant at Geysir for dinner that evening, but had time (and light) beforehand for another short walk along a running trail at the base of the mountain (Laugarvatnsfjall) that we could actually see from our B&B window. This was a nice, easy wooded trail and all the more enjoyable for the exercise signs that had been placed at regular intervals along the path. The exercises, and the accompanying wisdom about keeping one’s body healthy, all came from the same text which was written (if I am remembering right) in the 20s. I didn’t understand all the text, but the images speak for themselves…

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A nice gate (with no attached fence) at one end of the running trail on Laugarvatnsfjall

A nice gate (with no attached fence) at one end of the running trail on Laugarvatnsfjall

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This particular stretch looked like an illustration from a super hero comic book, we thought.

This particular stretch looked like an illustration from a super hero comic book, we thought.

I’ll leave the rest of our travels for following posts–I should be studying!

The Sodden Circle

More photo recapping from February:

Mark’s dad R stayed with us for just about a week in February. On his last day, we wanted to take him to see some more sites outside of Reykjavík, and we thought that a day spent around the Golden Circle would be fun. And it was, but it was also wet and foggy and windy for pretty much the whole time, and it took roughly an hour just to get to the point where we could drive without the windows rolled down (the defogger on our rented VW Golf was pretty shoddy). So while Gulfoss and Geysir and Þingvellir are always pretty spectacular, they are, I admit, a bit harder to enjoy while completely sodden.

Nevertheless, I took some more photos (of course), some of which you can see below, and all of which you can see here, on the photo blog.

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Driving Home from Stykkishólmur

We’re about to take a couple more short jaunts over our upcoming Easter break, so it’s high time that I finish recapping the overnight trip that Mark and I took with his dad to the Snæfells peninsula. (Fun fact: in Icelandic, the suffix -nes means peninsula or cape, so saying “Snæfellsnes peninsula” as I had been doing, is redundant. Learn something new every day…)

Our first day’s drive around Snæfellsness was recapped in two parts, which you can catch up on here and here. In this post here, you’ll see the harbor town of Stykkishólmur, the super dee-lightful Settlement Center in Borganes, and the mini-forest on Hamrahlíð, a small mountain just outside of Mosfellsbær. To skip the narration and go straight to these photos, see the photo blog, here.

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24 Hours Around Snæfellsnes (Day 1, Part 2)

When last we left off from the recap of our most recent journey—a brief jaunt around the Snæfellsnes peninsula—we were watching teens practice their golf swings behind a lava field in Hellisander. The drive up to that point had been quite good, if still a bit (okay, a lot) muddy and the weather not entirely conducive to sight-seeing, given that dense, dense fog pretty much puts the kibosh on actually seeing much of anything that isn’t six feet in front of you. And yet! We kept chasing sunlight and were rewarded quite handsomely for it: part two of our first day was even better than part 1.

(Again, if you just want the pictures, feel free to skip over to the photo blog, here.)

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