Iceland – Day 2 (Monday, October 6, 2014)

Morning greeted us with a bit more rain and grey clouds…and more ever-present wind, but the weather reports favored it all passing by the afternoon, with temperatures even reaching unseasonably high mid-50s through the week. This was a little bit of a surprise given that I packed for early-Winter conditions and now almost wished I snuck a pair of shorts in my luggage (special emphasis on “almost”). Given the long travel day, late night Northern Lights tour and inevitable jetlag, our itinerary was light until the afternoon, giving us ample opportunity for sleeping in. My habits favor me being a nightowl, but I’ve noticed that my sleeping in practices have been declining as I get older. I’m not entirely happy about this given its implications, but on the plus side, I’m better at getting to work on time. So oddly enough, despite returning around 1:00 AM the previous night, I was awake, cleaned up and ready for today by 8:30 AM.

The Hilton Nordica serves a breakfast buffet that was included in our room rates, and it offers any and everything you could want – traditional eggs/bacon/pancakes, fruits, pastries, cereal, skyr, and even deli meats and fish.(1) Unlike previous group trips where we didn’t always have a central time or place for regular gatherings, breakfast became our unofficial daily meeting for comparing notes on the previous day’s activities or preparations for the day ahead and making tentative plans with any free time. Connections were more easily made and added bit of cohesiveness that at least I appreciated and enjoyed.(2) One of our Boston travelers commented this particular morning about another man in our group relentlessly teasing and giving her a hard time yesterday, and we explained and teased her about his “schoolboy punching a girl in the arm” crush on her.

(1) Although I love breakfast foods, I don’t eat breakfast much during the week. My workday habit consists of grabbing a banana or cup of yogurt that I eat at the office. By way of experimentation, I’ve found that, unless I’m cooking with it, I really don’t like Greek-style yogurt, but I found skyr tasty and it has a nice texture. For the record, and though I love it, I’m not a fan of fish and/or seafood in the morning.
(2) We met in groups of ranging from two to eight depending on who was downstairs at the same time. There was a clique of four people who almost always ate apart from us (as well as stayed together on excursions), so we didn’t get to know them as well. I guess we weren’t worthy of the “in crowd.”

Man About Town

Our rally time for this afternoon’s tour of Reykjavik’s landmarks wasn’t until noon, so I took advantage of the free time for a little neighborhood exploring around the hotel. Walking uphill and then east, I found that the hotel was on the western edge of an industrial area, with a mix of other hotels, home décor and hardware shops blending into more professional services storefronts. Walking along, I discovered a place called Joe’s Diner, which looked pretty questionable, and based on the few reviews I found on it online, I did myself a service by not eating there. Though I couldn’t help thinking of my friend Michael (the same one on the San Francisco trip last year), who has a penchant for greasy spoons and diner-esque eateries. The appeal is based on a shared love of stick-to-your-ribs food that – almost by definition – isn’t necessarily good for you while being so damn tasty, and that it’s usually cheap. I also spotted a British pub sports bar and a decked out Series 70 Toyota Land Cruiser that I know at least a few friends would covet.

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Heading south and downhill from the hotel, I explored a sports complex complete with a football/soccer stadium, gym and indoor pool. The striking thing about the gym was the rather…phallic monument in front of it, looking more like an adult novelty store display than a symbol of fitness and human perfection. A gym member walking out toward the parking lot said something in Icelandic, and given the wiseass smile on his face, I’m guessing it was something either at my expense and/or in regard to my sexuality.

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Experiencing History – Living and Dead…and Comically Nightmarish Sculptures

786652_300Meanwhile, back at the Hilton Nordica…(1)

Gathering downstairs for our afternoon tour of greater Reykjavik, we situated ourselves in one corner of the lobby, and I couldn’t help noticing a small crowd of people (mostly Asian) who were accompanied by two VERY large, VERY solid-looking men. The men had a certain “DON’T FUCK WITH US” coup d’oeil, looking far more serious than almost anyone else, and were scanning the room and crowd like predators. Minutes later, one of the elevators opens and another small and similar group walks out. Among them is a small, slim, mature Asian woman all decked out in black, complete with a stylishly tilted fedora and sunglasses that she could see over. And it’s none other than the legendary/infamous Yoko Ono. As it turns out, she visits Iceland annually for the Imagine Peace Tower lighting celebration, held on John Lennon’s birthday (October 9), and is subsequently turned off on December 8 (when Lennon was shot and killed). As the shock and awe of her walking by faded, one or two of our crowd were slick and quickly snapped pictures of her. By the time the rest of us were doing our best impressions of opportunistic paparazzi grabbing at our phones and cameras, her body guards blocked her off with a “NICE TRY BITCHES, NOW PISS OFF” scowl.

We piled into the bus and took off, heading down the same main drag we walked yesterday, with the guide explaining the ins and outs of the shopping district that Paul had previously summarized for us. However, a convenient intersection stop more or less…aroused…our attention because of the grand view of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which many of us vowed right then and there to visit before leaving Iceland.(2)

First stop, we arrived at the Hallgrímskirkja Church, Iceland’s tallest and largest church, and that’s no mean feat for a small island. The church, now one of Reykjavik’s iconic symbols (if it has that many), can pretty much be spotted from anywhere since it’s built on one of the highest hills in the city proper, and how can you not love a church adorned with a Viking statue out front (of Leif Erikson no less)? The church’s interior has the clean lines of Scandinavian décor, and being a Lutheran church, it reminded me of some Protestant churches I’ve seen – a strange mixture of Protestant artistic sensibilities and an Ikea showroom. The architecture itself is modeled on traditional church architecture with the outside emulating the island’s lava flow landscape…though it struck me as less organic and more stylistic in form.

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Despite my surprise of not bursting into flames at a house of worship, we snuck in a short excursion down by the harbor, getting a closer look at one of Iceland’s coast guard ships (the extent of the country’s “military infrastructure”) and a whale skeleton (which I sincerely hope wasn’t hunted just for the sake of becoming a trophy in a boat-turned-gift-shop). As we circled around and out of the downtown area, the bus took us by Björk’s house, a strangely modest and low key dwelling (my expectations were for something more…interesting I guess? I mean, it is Björk’s house…). Our next stop was the Perlan (“The Pearl”), and I decided right then and there that I had found my future superhero headquarters. The building is a set of former water storage tanks that were converted into an exhibition and convention center, and houses a supposedly very good restaurant in the top floor dome. An added perk is the dome turns, giving diners a changing view of the city and surrounding area. You can see the entire city area from the 365 degree view on the hill it sits on, across the harbor and the President’s house (a modest little home that looks like a nice place to meet a world leader for tea).

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Top: The whale skeleton and Björk’s house. Bottom: The Perlan and the view from on top looking at downtown Reykjavik.

Next, we visited an art museum that convinces me that what Scandinavian’s might call “abstract” or “whimsical,” seems more “disturbing” and “suggestive.” We arrived at the former home of Ásmundur Sveinsson, apparently a well-loved local artist whose home looks like a long lost setting piece for an old Star Trek or Doctor Who episode. Surrounding it are the artist’s sculptures, which he apparently wanted accessible to the public, and especially for children. With all due respect to one of Iceland’s more beloved artists, I pride myself on keeping an open mind about most art, but a few of the sculptures here struck me as borderline nightmarish in a “set design for Beetlejuice” kind of way. Also, it seems the artist wasn’t very concerned with underwhelming onlookers regarding the male anatomy…whether envisioned realistically or symbolically.(3)

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I’m almost certain Tim Burton has been here.

790149_300Heading back into town, we dropped by the Höfði House, a small piece of Cold War history where Ronald Reagan (one of the few Republican presidents I like) and Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986 for negotiating the inevitable end of decades of tension (only replaced by more in the past few years). Having a healthy appreciation for history, this was one item on our itinerary that I was definitely enthusiastic for, especially with some of the things I’ve read about it (any place where the local government’s official policy is neither confirming nor denying that is has a ghost is worth visiting). Unfortunately, the house was closed, so no luck seeing its artifacts, and no ghosts were seen as were walked around outside.

Not far down the road, we stopped for a look at the Sólfar (“Sun Voyager”) sculpture, which some argue is a vision of a Viking ship or a “dreamboat” since the artist was very ill when he designed it. This ended up being a lot of fun for my group since, like the art museum, people were welcome to climb all over it…and we did.

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(1) Must be read in Ted Knight’s voice.
(2) And we do check it out.
(3) A few visitors taking suggestive and humorous pictures of some the said sculptures’ anatomical features and general snickering justifies this point of view.

The Harpa and Dinner

796276_300Our final drop off was downtown at the Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall. Our guide informed us that completing the hall became a matter of national pride back in 2008 when the economic troubles at the time pretty much devastated the Icelandic economy. While visitors could wander inside and check out the main areas, the hall itself was closed to the public, but one of our group went back a few days later for an inside tour and he said it is magnificent inside.

A long afternoon outside in the wind, combined with growling stomachs convinced more than a few of us that sustenance Icelandic style was in order. After some debate, wandering and brainstorming, we took up a suggestion for a two-course meal…at two different places. First up, we invaded Saegrefinn (“The Seabaron”), a hole-in-the-wall joint that serves a host of grilled, skewered meats and seafood, but also their famous lobster soup. Chilled and hungry, our appetizer was a modest bowl of curried broth deliciousness with incredibly tasty bites of langoustine lobster. While there, Paul ordered a small plate of grilled minke whale. Now, I know what you’re thinking, YOU ATE WHALE?! HOW COULD YOU?! It’s bad enough that I can claim having tried sea turtle (legally farm raised in the Cayman Islands…not that I feel any less guilty about that), but whale? Apparently, minke whale is considered “not at risk,” and if it helps conservation efforts, is much better off not being eaten anyway. Imagine a tough form of beef with a very unpleasant fish taste to it. Most of my crowd had a similar reaction, although on person not only liked it, but apparently he ordered it for dinner at another restaurant a day or two later. Warm again, but still hungry, we marched almost literally across the street to Icelandic Fish and Chips, which we were told was the place for good fish and chips. We were a large party, so the wait staff made us order from the group menu, bringing out huge piles of tantalizing fried blue ling and cod, served with four kinds of sauce (basil and garlic, coriander and lime, chili and roasted pepper, and traditional tartar), steaming hot and with just the right amount of residual grease. The chips were heaping bowls of hot, garlic roasted potatoes (with chunks of garlic so big that they’d keep away vampires for decades), and so good that the bowls were empty and practically licked clean.

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Well fed, warm and now getting into evening, we split into smaller packs for either hopping on the bus or walking back to the hotel. I opted for walking as a karmic gesture for what I just ate, arriving just in time for nodding at Yoko Ono as she headed out for a night on the town. A few nightcaps at the hotel bar and we were done for the day, especially since tomorrow meant a very long and highly anticipated day outside.

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