From Dark Days to Shiny Times, Iceland's Seen It All

A quiet moment at the rink, which is usually filled with wobbles and happy laughter

This year's skate rink down at Ingólfstorg is a far cry from the one I posted a photo of a decade ago. It may be a bit smaller, but it's definitely got more atmo, with all the shiny lights and music filling the Advent-season air. Back in the 2006 post, I mentioned that a storm has come in, a proper wind-and-snow number that walloped the island, Arctic-winter style. This skating rink ice may be the only frozen stuff we'll see this year though, as all forecasts point to an unseasonably warm and rainy December here in Reykjavik. 

Since the gifting season is upon us, I'd like to recommend an amazing novel I had the pleasure of beta-reading: Heroes Road. Written by a super-prolific and ever-encouraging writer friend, Chuck Rogers, this alt-history swords-and-sorcery adventure is totally entertaining and absorbing. I definitely recommend this book for fans of the GoT-genre, and those who love getting all-immersed in great writing, memorable characters, a battle or three and a surprise ending that may just have a bit to do with our beloved Iceland. This excellent jólagjöf (yule gift) for the ævintýrafólk in your life (and yourself!) is now available in print at Amazon.

I'd also like to thank Expat Focus for short-listing Iceland Eyes as a Recommended Blog for the global expat community. I love the blurb that contributor Scar wrote up, and am super glad to be part of the Expat Focus community!

Getting back to the theme of old posts, though, while looking through the Iceland Eyes archives (over 720 posts!) I also ran across a piece I wrote in 2004, in this blog's freshman year. I'd just done a bit about the huge jólatré that Norway gives us every Christmas in which I accused them of crimes against our unfortunately-miserable ancestors starting in the Middle Ages: 
Every year since 1952 the city of Oslo has sent Reykjavík a beautiful Norwegian Christmas tree. The glorious evergreen, usually at least ten meters tall, is placed lovingly in our city-center park, Austurvellir, and ceremoniously lit in early December to start off the holidays in style.  
The sight of such a large piece of forest in the middle of town is both inspirational and intimidating. It is a reminder that we have close cousins just over there to the east a bit, and that they are thinking of us, but also that these same generous frændfólk (relations) used to own us back in the old days and would unfortunately forget to send supplies to us all too often, setting off many many decades of famine and trauma. The tree is like a guilt offering, given that during those destitude centuries our forefathers and mothers were forced to decimate all of Iceland's once-thriving forests just to survive. It is a beautiful tree, but there's a hint of gloat or pity about it. It would take hundreds of years of dedicated arboreal TLC plus global warming to ever grow a tree this large on our now-barren little island. It's like giving a girl a precious silver-backed antique brush and mirror set when you've just shaved off her hair. 
A good friend and reader corrected me by noting that it was the Danish who were guilty of neglect. In an effort to correct my assumption, I wrote the following:  
I had been thinking of the early times, during the 13th century, when "Iceland was for from being self-sufficient in overseas shipping so an agreement had to be made with the Norwegian king on necessary shipping to Iceland. The Norwegian king, however, did not always succeed in meeting his obligations with respect to a minimum shipping trade." *
I had always been under the impression that the Danes were specifically and purposefully repressive to Icelanders but that the Norwegians simply forgot us, often when we needed them most. Proud Icelandic chieftains had agreed to swear allegiance to Norwegian King Hákon, but refused to allow their country to become a Norwegian State. Still, a tax had to be paid annually to Hákon, and it was my understanding that the King didn't always hold up his end of the deal with his new "friends". In the 14th century, volcanic eruptions decimated a huge portion of the population, both human and livestock, and Icelanders needed help more than ever before. 
But by 1380, Denmark took over Norway and acquired Icelands' fealty in the bargain. And the years after that were not pretty, my friends. By the end of the 18th century, "poverty and deprivation increased enormously. A virtually hopeless struggle for the acquisition of bare necessities sapped the nation's courage and enterprise." It would be another 150 years before the Icelandic people managed to shake the yoke of oppression the Danish monarchy collared them with. In 1918, Iceland, after a long struggle, gained full independence, though the King of Denmark was still the King of Iceland as well. By 1944, Iceland was finally a totally self-sufficient Republic, 57,000 people strong. 
And now we go to Copenhagen to go shopping and to live a comfy socialized lifestyle, and think of ourselves as owning a bit of the Danish culture. Forgive and forget, maybe? Ask a random Dane in Denmark what they know about Iceland, though, and they'll screw up their face a bit and say, "Björk?" 
We are the little cousins with bravado and courage and a more than a tinge of absurd self-importance. But the thing is, we survived all the devastating volcanoes and the ships that didn't come in time for winter and the Black Death and the hostile takeover of our land and commerce by mainlanders. And we deserve to be proud and we deserve that Christmas tree and we deserve to be able to pop on over to downtown Copenhagen for some shopping, culture and inexpensive beer. We've somehow clung to this land for over a millennia and it's ours, goddamit, in all it's flawed glory. Now if we'd just dig up a little of that old fighting spirit and find a way to keep our own greedy, repressive native bad boys in check... 
all quotes from Iceland: a Portrait of it's Land and People" by Hjálmar R. Bárðarson  
So there's a bit of history to help keep things in perspective. This now-glittering plaza layered with man-made ice, bustling with visitors from across the planet, on the very spot where, to the best of our knowledge the very first Norse settlers made their homesteads (btw, great post, filled with info and links! :) is a testament to how far we've come in such a very short time. 

Now, in our current politically unstable era (both locally and globally) it's crucial that we all remind ourselves that though modern civilization seems to be an ongoing process of shifts and changes, catastrophes, disasters, clashes and failures, it's also the product of an ever-evolving will to betterment, and a hope that our futures are more amazing than what we know today. 

Truly, what we imagine, we can, and do, manifest. So let's keep bright thoughts in mind this Solstice season, and make our best and most joyful dreams come true!

Norway Demands to Own an Icelandic Child - in the 21st Century

Leifur Eiríksson standing guard
(This post is published solely on IcelandEyes.com. If you've found it reposted without permission on a click-bait blog with any other title or a URL that doesn't include the words IcelandEyes, please do yourself a favor and visit the original Iceland Eyes website instead:) 

A classic shot, and a memorable view for anyone who has traveled here to Reykjavík. This statue of adventurer Leifur Eiriksson ('Leif Eriksson') gifted to Iceland by the US in memory of his travels back in the day, stands brave and tall, silhouetted against an early winter twilight. Son of the famous Eiríkur Rauði, or Erik the Red, who settled Greenland in 986 A.D., and an ancestor of mine 27 generations back, he was also the

A September Evening in Reykjavik

The intersection of Laugavegur and Klapparstígur

I took this photo back in September 2011 when I was out for a late evening walk in my neighborhood on Skólavörðurholt.

This intersection doesn't look too much different today. The greenish house there center frame, which is always called the Hljómalind House) has transitioned from the popular but totally grotty coffee house/pub it was in the photo (fire hazard, terrible plumbing) to the much more upscale but still charming Kaffibrennslan bistro (which btw I used to work at when it was down by Hótel Borg where, incidentally, my father worked as a porter when he was only 13:)

The art deco facade of Hótel Borg, from Austurvellir town square
Today the old timber and corrugated iron building in that first photo has been revamped inside, a far cry from when it used to be the Hljómalind record shop downstairs run by Kiddi Kanína in the 90's. He was the first manager of Sigur Rós, and the story goes that their song Hjlómalind, is named after the shop. Later it was a very convenient after-party house for when the hard-core bars Sirkús (the little blue house next door in the photo, now torn down) and Bar 22, (kitty-corner, now Bravó and Kíkí) shut down their thumping music for the night.

After that some acquaintances of mine opened the hippie-organic Kaffi Hljómalind, that was later booted out under grumbly circumstances. They re-opened a few houses up the street and did their best to keep things going, even holding yoga and meditation sessions in their new basement, but they got chucked out there too, to be replaced by a candy store, of all things. Today that location houses the everything Apple Macland store where a friend as well as a former student hold court.

The reason the hippie café was tossed out of the house in the photo is because property developers had swooped in and bought the block, and had intentions of tearing down pretty much everything on it and building something shiny, new and horrible. They were stalled by local protestation against redevelopment at the expense of historic Reykjavík. While waiting for things to move forward, the Heart Park mysteriously appeared, as if overnight, on the open lot behind this house:


The old Heart Park, or Hjartagarðinn
It was much-loved for the few years it existed, but eventually it was ripped up and redevelopment marched on:

Looking north from Laugavegur over towards Smiðjustígur and Hverfisgata 
This photo was taken from a little wooden observation deck set up so that the curious could see what was going on behind the walls of the construction site. I took quite a few photos while it was ongoing, which I'm glad about, because these are scenes of Reykjavik that'll never been seen again now that the new Hilton Canopy hotel, restaurants and shops are getting their finishing touches on this same lot. 

That said, I'm actually impressed with what's been done to preserve the look and feel of the local architectural style while totally renovating what was, in many cases, very degraded and dangerous old structures, underfunded and poorly built in the first place. 

 For a closing photo, here's a shot of the mountain-top mural that you can see at the top of one of the buildings in that first pic. That building still stands, but the mural is gone. Once again, I'm glad I took a photo when I did...


Lovely Wildflowers at Seljalandsfoss

Everyone who was visiting the falls at the same time seemed very happy and friendly. Fun and easy road trip!

The Magical Land of Þórsmörk and Volcano Huts

The little bowed bridge at Húsadalur. Photo by the fólk at Volcano Huts.

GUEST PHOTOGRAPHER: The Volcano Huts at Húsadalur

This is such a quaint scene, taken out at Þórsmörk (Thorsmörk) by the people behind the Volcano Huts at Húsadalur. They posted it on their Facebook page, and gave me permission to share it here as well. 

Þórsmörk is one of the most lovely areas of Iceland, tucked away beyond a glacial river that needs to be forded with expert care. This isn't a location you get to by rental car! The Krossá river rages fast and icy-cold in summer as winter snow melt from the highlands and glaciers fill its wide, flat basin. Every year the river carves new paths along the