Iceland January 2013: Reykjavik

Having been out until 2am last night, I didn’t wake up permanently until quarter to ten this morning. Of course, it’s hard to tell. There are three beds in this room. One of them is next to an accessible plug. This is not the bed I chose. That means if I want my phone as an alarm, or just as a clock since my watch doesn’t glow in the dark, that I can’t have it charging overnight. So with the phone on the other side of the room, I have no idea what time it is when I wake up in the middle of the night, or even in the morning. It’s still pitch black at quarter to ten.

Within ten minutes, Evelyn was calling me through the door. Do I want any breakfast? I decided it was time to get up and get out.

I saw Laufasvegur (Laufey’s street) in daylight for the first time and nearly made friends with a cat, then I walked down to the Tjörnin and along the edge towards downtown. It’s treacherously slippery and although the ice can hold the weight of a paving slab, among other suspended rubbish, I don’t think it could take the weight of a human being landing suddenly on it. I meandered past the cathedral, to the new Alþing, the parliament building. I say new. Built in 1881 when the Alþing moved here from their previous premises on a rock at Þingvellir, the Parliament Plains, where they’d been since 930AD.

The next stop was on the seafront to say good morning to Esja. She’s looking interesting at the moment – snowy from about halfway up, brown and orange around the bottom. Very pretty with a pale blue morning sky and even prettier when the pink clouds reflect on the snow. I took my photos and retreated, past Harpa which is also looking pretty because at the moment, they’re lighting up the windows with a kind of blue and green wavy effect that looks a bit like a digital version of the Northern Lights. It was freezing cold. Since I was only going into town and not into the wilderness, I hadn’t put on my thermals and the cold wind was going straight into my ears and freezing my entire head.

I sheltered in the first of my Important Tourist Shop stops, the one next to IE’s offices, to get the t-shirt I’ve been looking at for over a year. It says:

Is “Eyjafjalljökull” difficult to pronounce – TRY Umferðaröngþveiti (traffic jam)

Next stop was Puffin, in hope of finding a Sympathy for the Devil t-shirt in a size anywhere between S and XL. Still no luck. I’ve been checking since July.

I stopped off across the other side of the square at the tourist information to gather leaflets, particularly one that would tell me where the Culture House was. I hadn’t brought my guidebook out with me and had suddenly remembered that was where I wanted to go.

Next stop was Eymundsson, which was closed. I was horrified! Iceland is a bookish country, bookshops are open from dawn until dusk – well, considerably beyond on either side since dawn and dusk are in the middle of the day. I looked more closely. It doesn’t until noon on Sundays but on the other hand, it stays open until 10pm.

Instead I went to the bookshop/café on the main street, where I compared sagas in individual books to the big Sagas of Icelanders and came away with Sagas of Warrior Poets and the Saga of Grettir the Strong.

Since Eymundsson still wasn’t open, I decided next stop was going to be the Culture House. It’s on Hverfisgata (Hot Fish Street, as far as I can translate) and I must have been past it hundreds of times. It was silent and empty inside and where I would have put reception is a security guard who doesn’t even look up. A receptionist found me, sold me a ticket and gave me a token for a locker downstairs for my bag. After freezing outside in a cold wind, it was nice to take off coat and bag and store them away. There’s an exhibit of mediaeval manuscripts but it appeared to be behind a closed door by the security guard so I left it for the time being and headed upstairs.

First stop was a room full of sculpted heads. There was a list on the wall saying who was who and who sculpted them but I couldn’t tell which name was which, so I left that and went for the Old Reading Room. It’s a big empty room with bookcases around three walls. But it wasn’t until I spied EDDA on the spines of several that I was interested. I picked up a leaflet and discovered that the first three bookcases were all books of Eddas and sagas, dating from anywhere between the 17th century and the 19th, and in lots of different languages. There was a case of Halldór Laxness books – I hadn’t realised he’d written so many and I hadn’t realised it was so long ago. I had his house pointed out the first time I came here and assumed he was still living in it. Apparently not. Halldór Laxness is a national treasure, he’s their only Nobel Prize winner, I think. Or certainly he’s the only Nobel Literature Prize winner.

Once I’d finished roaming the bookshelves and taking photos of anything that caught my eye – a series of books called Andvari did that – Andvari is a dwarf in the Volsung Saga, who created a cursed ring and had all his gold taken by him for Loki to pay the blood price for killing Otr, thereby starting the whole saga, really, and inspiring Lord of the Rings. He only gets a few paragraphs in the saga – I couldn’t understand how there could be a dozen or so thick books on the subject. As far as I can gather, Andvari was the title of a journal and this is a collection of it.

Next stop was the Child of Hope exhibition, on the subject of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of the Icelandic Independence Movement in the 19th century. I’m sure he’s very interesting but most of the display was in Icelandic, with only a leaflet in English to explain him and his story. My favourite bit of this exhibition was a painting of Vikings at the Alþing in Þingvellir, gathered on and around the rock, with Vikings sitting on the edge of the cliff, dangling their feet over the crack between the continents. I’ve always wondered just what a meeting looked like on the Law Rock.

Next was up a floor. Hanging outside the entrance to the Millennium Exhibition were three fleecy woollen flags, Icelandic ones of course, in shades of black, white, grey and brown. This was a collection of modern art borrowed from the National Gallery. I did not appreciate most of it but there was a fantastic collection of cars and coaches coping or not coping with river crossings – plenty of tractors visible hauling them out, plenty stuck sideways with people on top. There’s a particularly good one of a tough 4×4 with one wheel clearly stuck in a deep hole in the river, almost on its side, while a Reykjavík Excursions tourist coach quietly drives through in the background with no trouble. My guidebook says they have a book of similar pictures at one of the huts on the way to Þórsmörk.

When I came back down, the receptionist spotted me and showed me into the Mediaeval Manuscripts exhibition, which is what I’d come for. It’s dark. The entrance is pictures and casts of paintings and carvings of scenes from the ancient stories, usually dating from before the days of writing. Then you get into the manuscripts themselves. There are large modern books full of high quality pictures of pages from ancient manuscripts, so you can read them yourself in the original form without damaging the originals – you can’t actually read the ones in the exhibition but they exist, or existed for sale. Most of them are either sold out very quickly or given as gifts to VIPs. There’s a better quality picture of the painting of the Vikings at the Law Rock and some lovely illustrations of scenes from the Elder Edda – I managed to identify most of them, ranging from Gylfa meeting Odin to Hod killing Baldur to a portrait of Loki. Then there are things inspired by the stories – a Mighty Thor comic, modern stories, modern translations, retellings, paintings. Lots.

Then you go into a smaller room where the lights only come on as you walk in. There are genuine old manuscripts in here. None of them dating back quite as far as the actual original Codices Regius but still quite elderly copies of some of the sagas, and not just the myths. There’s a huge copy of Njal’s Saga, I think there was a Flatey Book that’s about A3 size, books of settlement. The really old stuff is kept elsewhere, not on display to the public.

The next room is about the process of making these books and the work of the scribes. One particular panel made me giggle:

It is not surprising that scribes found their work tiring. It could take a long time to write a book, even several years, and the scribe’s output doubtless depended upon his mood and circumstances.

The margins of Icelandic manuscripts sometimes contain complaints by scribes such as “writing bores me” and “the writing is bad because the ink is weak”.

That’s brilliant. I’d spotted a few scribbles around the edges of some of the pages earlier in the exhibition and assumed they were added much later.

Finally, there was a film/documentary on the subject of the Vinland voyages – when Leifur Eiriksson went and discovered North American 500 years before Christopher Columbus. I walked in 37 minutes into the 50 minute film so I only saw the end but it looked sort of interesting. Bits of it were acted and in between there were interviews and the whole thing seemed to be the work of Magnus Magnusson, who I assume is the same one as the one from Mastermind, since I think I remember reading that he’s interested in all this sort of thing. But I had a look at the Icelandic phone book earlier ( – everyone’s in it, listed by first name, including the Prime Minister) and there are 17 pages of Magnus Magnussons so it’s clearly a fairly common name. The bit I saw concerned the Vikings meeting the indigenous Americans and I came in just as they were trading red cloth for grey pelts before the locals were scared off by a rampaging bull. Later on they attacked the Viking settlement and shortly afterwards, the Vikings headed off home, giving up on settling Vinland for the time being. Most of the actors looked very blatantly modern, one of them even having very obviously dyed blonde hair, but it looked pretty good.

I retrieved my stuff, did not get my token back, and went back out into the real world. I was on the corner of Ingólfsstræti – Ingolfur’s Street, named after Iceland’s first permanent settler, Ingolfur Arnasson who came here in 974 and founded Reykjavík. It happens to run perpendicular to the sea front so when I came outside, I could see Esja looking pretty. I couldn’t resist going down to see her again.

Next, back into town to Eymundsson. This time it was open. I like Eymundsson a lot. There’s a collection of Icelandic books near the door – sagas, Halldór Laxness books, more modern stuff by the likes of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðadottir, photo books, books of fairy tales, guidebooks, poetry, all sorts. Mostly in English, quite a bit of German, I spotted some French and things like Sayings of the High Ones translated into languages I can’t even recognise. Upstairs, there’s an entire floor filled with English fiction. Downstairs is stationery and kids’ stuff. It’s a magnificent shop. Chain. There are two that I know of in Reykjavík, one at Keflavík, one in Heimaey and plenty more in other towns and cities around the country that I haven’t been to yet. This time I picked up a book on Icelandic place names and a pack of cards with pretty photos on and departed, via the 1011 across the road for some more food. I got some of that fantastic over-sweet apple juice and some pear juice too and some more bread and then headed home drinking my pear juice.

Got distracted by the Tjörnin again. I think I’d have to say that’s my favourite thing about Reykjavík, this busy little corner of the Pond which is just swamped by ducks, geese and swans and they make so much noise and there are always people feeding them which causes chaos. I also particularly enjoy that a lot of the Tjörnin is frozen (I hear that this corner is kept liquid by piping in hot water to give the birds somewhere to swim in winter) because geese slipping and sliding on the ice will never not be funny. Esja is my other favourite thing in Reykjavík. And Eymundsson.

Frozen ponds are not so funny when it’s a human being. Walking back along the edge of the Tjörnin, I’d forgotten how treacherously slippery it was, until my feet started slipping and I discovered I couldn’t go a step further without holding onto a bench. I was stranded without the bench. Then I realised that there are gaps between the slabs parallel to the water’s edge, up to three inches wide and filled with grass. Between the grass and the edges of the slabs, that makes some quite good grippy stuff.

I made it back to my room and proceeded to eat everything. I’d been half-starved for a couple of days, not having had the time to go shopping so I ate (and perhaps slightly regretted it later). Now I have one roll left that I don’t have space for. I won’t be wanting it at five o’clock tomorrow morning but maybe I’ll keep it for the airport.

I didn’t do much for the rest of the afternoon. I looked out at my view, enjoying being able to see it in sunlight. I can see something that is either a terminal at Reykjavík airport or the RE terminal. Reykjavík airport – just across the Pond from me – is not where I’m flying from. It’s the domestic airport, where smallish planes fly to and from other places around Iceland. International flights go from Keflavík, an hour away at the other end of the Reykjanes peninsula.

I wrote yesterday’s blog, packed, made use of a surprisingly well-behaved internet connection, read a book and thought about having a shower. My hair was still in the plaits I put it in yesterday morning. Having been to the spa and got it soaked in spring water (and yet my hair smells suspiciously of chlorine considering Icelandic pools don’t use the stuff) and then not washed afterwards, I knew it would just turn into poodle hair the moment I took it out of the plaits, which is why I left them in overnight and went out with them again this morning. It was proper Hermione-from-the-books hair when I finally undid them this evening. It’s now washed and conditioned and should be behaving itself again. Evelyn has called up (when the phone on my desk starting ringing, I approached it very suspiciously) to tell me that I’m being picked up by IE at 5.30 tomorrow morning. It’s very nice of her to phone them and check these things but I already knew that – I am in possession of a ticket saying I’m on a coach leaving at 6 and I know they pick up half an hour before that. I’ve kept that ticket safe ever since ten minutes after I landed here on Wednesday and I’ve been dreading the early morning ever since then as well. On the bright side, standing on the doorstep at 5.30am at least won’t be too scary, since it’ll look exactly like standing on the doorstep at 8.30am which I’ve done almost every morning since I’ve been here.

Never mind sleeping on the coaches and planes tomorrow, I’ll be asleep on the doorstep.

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