Northern Lights

It is birthday season, and we are celebrating it with a series of parties for us and for several people who have birthdays in neighboring weeks. The first party was at our house on October 13. We then had a week to pack.

Our first destination on this trip was the second party in the series, in Seattle. We arrived a few hours early, and snacked on cheese and salami and gravlax, made from salmon James had caught in Alaska. My step-nephew Aaron and his wife Teresa arrived with Aila, his seven-month-old, who was extremely cute and attracted the admiration of Steve’s five-year-old granddaughter. It was nice to have individual time with them. Parties are never deep social events.

After awhile a couple dozen people arrived, many of whom were Ray’s college friends, and one of my college friends was there as well. Dean brought barbecued pork loin, Ann brought very yummy potatoes au gratin with loads of fennel flavor, and there were many salads and desserts. After several hours of eating all this food and drinking wine and talking with friends it was time to get horizontal, which we did at Dean’s house in a very ornate canopy bed that Raina’s grandparents had bought when they were missionaries in Shanghai in the 1930’s. They don’t use it because Shanghainese in the 1930’s were shorter than Dean. Raina’s father had just died the week before. It was very kind of them to host us despite having to rehearse for a memorial service to be held the day we left.

In the morning we had dim sum, stopped at Fry’s, then went to the airport where I again opted out of being bathed in backscatter radiation. They never asked Ray to step into that machine. Security theater is always unpredictable.

I slept some on the flight to Iceland. Ray didn’t. The northern lights were out the window forming a bright band much of the way across Hudson Bay and Baffin Island. They died down by the time we were crossing Greenland. We arrived at Keflavik just as it was starting to get light. We picked up the rental car, headed downtown, walked around in the freezing air waiting for cafes to open, and ultimately had breakfast. Iceland exhibits the spreading worldwide immunity to Daylight Savings Time. Although they do not have Summer Time there, they use GMT which is about an hour ahead of the sun, and the businesses don’t begin to open until 9 AM and some of them not until 11.

We went to the Institute of Phallology, better known as the Penis Museum. It had specimens of penises from many species in formaldehyde jars, many quite large (whales and porpoises). There were some small ones from creatures such as rats as well. But the most impressive display was a set of casts from the members of the National Icelandic Handball Team. (These should be required of all athletes. It’s as arbitrary a requirement as the ones involving what nutrients you can ingest, and much more aesthetic.)

We continued eastward towards the southern tip of Iceland. We noticed water falling off a cliff near the road, and several cars parked nearby. Then we noticed it was one of the places the visitor information office told us to go see in the area. There was a trail which went behind the falling water — it was nice to get out of the car and walk around. Continuing east, we drove past the glacier that brought European air traffic to a standstill in 2010. We decided not to pay to see movies of it, and kept going. Another waterfall was highlighted as “the crown jewel”, but while somewhat large it was completely rectangular and even and not that interesting.

Ray had booked a hotel just a short four-hours’ drive from Reykjavik, but forgot that we’d be super-jetlagged, and that driving that far in that condition wasn’t a good idea. So we stopped about halfway in a picturesque town called Vik. It was the off season; many hotels were closed. The one we stopped at had been cooking soup all afternoon and smelled great, and so we stayed there and had a nice dinner in their restaurant. In the morning we went to Dyrhólaey, a nearby cliffside park with dramatic basalt columns and birds nesting in cliffs. Even though it was cold, the fog lifted as we got there, making for beautiful views in all directions.

We drove inland to the “Golden Circle”, a collection of natural attractions east of Reykjavik. We saw Gullfoss, a picturesque waterfall whose river had carved a canyon in two levels, and Geysir, a geothermal area whose name ended up being used for geothermal fountains everywhere. Geysir itself doesn’t erupt anymore except during earthquakes, but Strokkur erupts every eight minutes or so. Most of its eruptions start out with a rapid fall in water level, followed by a dome of water, and then one or maybe two or three spurts of water for several seconds. At dinner we saw some feeble white Northern Lights — you knew it was them because there was definitely not a city on the other side of the hill.

Wednesday we went to Thingvellir, which was interesting both geographically and historically. It sits at the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates, which are moving away from each other. So the area is filled with cliffs and crevices. Thingvellir was also the site of the oldest parliament in the world, which began in 930 AD. The tourist timeline signs give the names of all the law-speakers who served. People would ride from all over Iceland to decide what the laws would be until the next meeting. The best part was hanging out with an assistant for an Icelandic film production company, which was contracted to shoot about three minutes or so of a Norwegian film. The pools were super-clear, and the silt on the bottom would settle very quickly, so they decided to shoot scenes intended to appear as though they were at the bottom of the ocean. The filming happened at night, and the actors were Finnish soldiers accustomed to diving in temperatures of three degrees Celsius. The assistant was loads of fun to talk to, and we stayed there almost until the sun set. He told us about Icelandic culture, including thorrablot, a festival in the winter where people eat fermented shark and sour sheep testicles and other delicious dishes.

We had a nice dinner at Nautholl that didn’t involve anything like that. It was notable that most of the customers were women. I suppose this is a random statistical variation. Every thousand restaurants or so, you are going to end up in a room with 10 dressed for success business ladies. But if this represents anything but noise, it could outdo that Menlo Park place for cougar night.