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Monday, October 11, 2004

Reykjavík Diary: Day 2

Day two in Reykjavík began with my expensive (£6.50) breakfast at the hostel, followed by a bus ride into the centre. My plan was to get as much sightseeing done as possible in Reykjavík, as I was doing a Golden Circle tour on my last full day in Iceland. I took the bus in steady rain to somewhere central, and then walked from there to Kjarvalsstaðir, the second (and main) part of the Reykjavík Art Museum. (I had been to the Hafnarhus the day before; I would give the Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum a miss, though it was only a 15 minute walk from where I was staying.)

Kjarvalsstaðir is named after Johannes Kjarval, Iceland's most celebrated painter; his work, mostly from the early 20th century, takes up an entire wing of the museum. His landscapes were a joy to discover--he has a good eye for painting Iceland's varying scenery, in particular the different colours of lava. The museum, though, mainly focuses on contemporary art, and the
other wing contained a retrospective of an Icelandic lava artist. I had tea, read London's Sunday Times (in the café) and left to look for Nordic House.

It was pouring, and windy. I had to take of my glasses to make my way through the rain, and the fact that I was not sure where I was going did not help. I walked uphill until I got to the highest point in central Reykjavík, a hill atop which sits a church,
Hallgrimskirkja. This church was built in 1932, and it's clean, austere lines could make it right at home in a Fritz Lang movie. There was a cool sculpture display in front, and after taking a couple of pictures I went inside and lit a candle for the Beslan victims.

Exiting the church, the rain had temporarily abated, and I surveyed Reykjavík from on high. The city is definitely not photogenic. The skyline looks nice, but when you get close to see the wood buildings cladded in brightly-painted galvanised iron or pebblestone, you realise that the harsh North Atlantic weather has not exactly allowed for great aesthetics. Reykjavík was founded 1000 years ago, and the Danes moved the Alþing here from Þingvellir in the late 18th century, but there are few nice old buildings like you see in other Nordic capitals. (Well, there is Helsinki, which I'm told is Soviet-looking in parts.) Most of the buildings don't look much older than 40. Don't get me wrong. Reykjavík is far from ugly, and is in fact quite charming; all the same, it can't compare to, say, Gamla Stan in Stockholm. Then again, few places do, and Reykjavík should, and does, stand on its own.

It turned out that Nordic House was on the university campus, so I walked downhill towards it. I thought about getting a bus, but it was too close, and the buses too infrequent, for me to bother. It started to pour again, and I took refuge in the
university bookstore. Courses at the university are mostly taught in Icelandic, but most of the textbooks were in English or Danish. The American influence was evident in that a lot of the books were American, and not British, editions. More tea, and an overpriced danish.

I finally walked across in a light drizzle to
Nordic House. I wanted to see it because it was designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and I had never seen any of his buildings. it's small, and most of it was shut. It's a place for Scandinavian cultural exchange, though it's oddly located right next to the domestic airport, as if the Icelanders were kind of trying to send a message by the location.

In there, among other things, I found leaflets for learning Finnish. Now, Icelanders already have a language that nobody, and I mean nobody, else speaks. What is the value to them of learning another? (Then again, as a speaker of
Trinidadian Creole English, I want to learn Swedish after I finish with French.) I went towards the exhibition hall, and a man told me, in English, that is was closed. I said takk firir (thank you) and he started talking to me in Icelandic. I had to beg him to stop, and he laughed at himself.

Making my way back to the city centre--it had stopped raining, I made briefly for the ASÍ Art Museum, where I spent all fo 10 minutes, and then I went off to look for a place where I could have pylsur for lunch. I stopped by a hot dog stand, and when I walked in I had this exchange with the nice old woman there.

"Talarðo Ensku?"
"A little. Talarðo Íslenska?"
"Nej. (Pause.) Pylsur?" (holding up two fingers)

This is the only conversation I had that was mostly in Icelandic. Still, I felt very proud.

After my late lunch I set out to catch a bus to Perlan (the Pearl), an observatory dome built on top of the city's hot water storage tanks, and the other place from which you can see all of Reykjavík. I was reluctant--it did not look like much from below--but there was a free photo exhibition on there, and there was the Saga Museum (my guidebook said it was the best museum in Iceland) and entry was free. I took the bus, then walked up hill, the rain having stopped a while ago.

Contrary to my earlier impressions,
Perlan was very nice. There's a geyser simulator inside (which becomes annoying after a while, to be quite honest). The Saga Museum was 800 kr,
(about £7), a bit steep for what seemed to me to be a dispaly of wax Vikings set up to fleece gullible tourists. The café was good, though, and the photo exhibition, A Day in the Life of Sweden, was excellent.

None of this, though, compared to the views. The skies were clearing, and the view of late-afternoon Reykjavik were stunning in every direction; even the domestic airport at the base of the hill looked good. I knew i had to go out onto the observation deck to take photos. Then, on the other side of the revolving doors, the windchill hit.

Ground-level Iceland is way better than Iceland at altitude. The windchill out atop these tanks on the hill was murder. I rushed back inside, put on my rain jacket, and went back out to take
photos. I should have brought gloves.

Out on the observation deck I asked two teenage girls to take my picture. It turned out they were Latvians who were now living there. They told me they liked life there, though they thought that Icelanders were racist as they did not like Russians. (The girls were part-ethnic Russian.) When I could take the cold no more, I bid them farewell, went inside for more tea, and got off the hill to catch a bus downtown.

In the end I walked to Laugavegur; I don't have the patience to wait for twice-hourly buses. I got downtown in just over a half-hour. I found a late-opening bookshop-cum-coffeeshop, and went in. I didn't buy anything, not even tea; the barista has dropped her mobile phone and I put it back together for her, and she was very nice to me after that. I drank tap water with lemon--nobody drinks the bottled stuff here, and they're proud of it--and read Foreign Policy. I asked her where I could get a Björk postcard and she gave me a free Björk poster, from her new album. (No postcards were forthcoming, though.)

I made my way to Kaffeebarinn. (Literal translation on name: "Coffee Bar".) I had a cappuccino there the day before, and I decided to see if Björk would show up at "the coolest bar in all of Iceland." At 10:30 pm, I sat at a table by myself drinking earl grey tea. (The barman later gave me a free cafétiere refill.) I later shared my table with some art students, who had to do a project on minimalist art. I gave them an idea--a tape playing a constant sound in a uniform-dimensioned room--and they, surprisingly went with it. Minimalism is not my favourite art movement, but to these students I seemed to be an expert. Unfortunately before they could buy me some super-expensive alcohol I had to leave them to catch the last bus back to the hostel .

So. That was Day 2. The third day brings the Golden Circle tour, with the majestic Þingvellir, the view of which alone is worth a return trip. I have not seen even a photograph of anything else
like it, and I could spend days hiking all over it. Anyway, all of you must be tired of me by now, so I'll scurry off.