Thursday, July 31, 2003

Reykjavik (2)

Friends: Reykjavik has rolling terrain like much of Iceland, though there is one sector flat enough for the domestic airport. It is about as close to the town center as Meigs Field was to Chicago's downtown. Unfortunately, there isn't a runway long enough for international flights. The international airport is 30 miles away. That will make a nice final ride through the lava fields and wind and rain.

Atop the two highest hills in Reykjavik are two of the city's most prominent features. One is a cathedral with a spire some 250 feet high. The other is a cluster of four gigantic, gleaming silver tanks, holding the city's hot water. They look like something placed by NASA to thank Iceland for letting Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts use the rugged terrain of Iceland as practice for their lunar escapades. It wasn't until 1940 that the country began heating itself with the massive amount of hot water that lies beneath it, some as hot as 400 degrees Celsius. The hill where the hot water tanks reside is laced with hiking and biking paths. I saw someone out mushrooming as I bicycled up it. There is an expensive restaurant above the tanks providing the best view in town. There are also two man-made geysers on the premises, one inside the complex shooting up four floors, and one outside, spouting even higher.

The best spouting I've seen here in Reykjavik, however, came at the Volcano Show, a two-hour movie of erupting volcanoes and flowing lava shot over the past sixty years by a father-son. The son is now about sixty. When he's not off filming "another volcanic disaster," as he phrased it, and as he'd prefer to be doing, he is on hand to present his film. Lucky for me, and the country, he was in town. He warned the thirty of us on hand for his noon show that he could go on for weeks telling about his experiences. He was so enthusiastic, none of us would have left if he had.

Yesterday I had a pleasant day of just meandering about this pseudo-metropolis letting my bike take me as it whimmed. We followed a bike path along the coastline and another around the mile-long lake in the heart of the city. There were hardly any automobiles to contend with other than on the four-lane wide arteries that skirt the city. They had no shoulder. A non-messenger might have had occasional cause for alarm, but the traffic couldn't make me flinch.

The Ring Road, Route 1, turned into a four-lane divided Interstate as it neared Reykjaik, but still, there were none of those dreaded sings of a bicycle with a slash through it, just signs of a tractor with a slash through it. And there are such tractor-restricting signs on some of the four-lane arteries in the city as well, though some that just apply during the rush hours. Reykjavik may be the only national capital in the world that has the need to restrict tractor use. Another common sign with a slash through it applies to dogs. Dogs aren't welcome in the parks or even on the main shopping street or in many of the plazas.

Today I purchased a pass good for many of the city's museums and its seven geothermal pools and the zoo. It may be the best deal in all of Iceland. The card also allows use of the bus system, but I remained faithful to my bike. I visited all eight museums it entitled me to and the zoo. The pool by the campground is open until 9:30 p.m., so I'll end my day there. It also grants me entry to a soccer match in the city's stadium. I swung by the stadium as preparations were being made for the game and was joined by four boys on their BMX bikes. They were going to be selling concessions at the game. They told me, "Iceland sucks at all sports." Like nearly everyone I have met, their English was fluent and accent-free. Nowhere that I have traveled, where English isn't the main language,  has English been so universal.

None of the museums here were as fascinating as the truly remarkable Maritime and Whaling museums of Husavik, but all were worthwhile. Two of the museums were devoted to sculptors. One of the sculptors carved a gavel that was Iceland's gift to the United Nations upon its birth. That gavel met its demise when the presiding officer banged and banged it trying to still the chaos set off by Kruschev's shoe-banging fit. One of the art museums had an exhibit devoted to the rock band Bad Taste when Bjork was a member. She joined the band when she was fifteen and was an immediate sensation. She may be the most internationally known Icelander, so it was appropriate that a museum would acknowledge her. It is the same in Sweden. When I visited Stockholm two years ago, two museums had exhibits devoted to Abba, its country's best known musical act. For many around the world Bjork represents Iceland, just as for many Abba represents Sweden.

The Museum of Culture had books of the Sagas that were over 500 years old. They were illuminated by the dimmest of light, activated by motion detectors when someone came in to their room. There was a video of the return of several of these books from Denmark some time in the 1970s. It was a huge event that was declared a national holiday. The Museum of Culture made a strong case for the Vikings, who were based in Iceland, as having visited America long before Columbus. The bi-weekly English newspaper has a regular feature interviewing tourists about their impressions of Iceland. Among the questions they are asked is, "What do you think about whaling?" "Who is the premier of Iceland?," and "Should North America be returned to Iceland?"

I had to bike to the outskirts of the city to visit a vast outdoor museum with some twenty typical Icelandic houses and structures, some 200 years old. Milling around were young Icelanders dressed in the costume of the various eras, engaged in traditional activities. There were several sod houses. With no wood or stone for building they were the most common dwelling in Iceland for centuries. In 1910 they were banned from Reykjavik, when its population had grown to 12,000. A Model T automobile represented the first car to come Iceland in 1904. There were some old bikes scattered about, but history has not recorded the first to arrive.

This has been another most memorable trip in an environment of many distinctive features, natural and man-made. The Icelanders are a sturdy and proud lot. I thought they might be similar to their fellow islanders, the New Zealanders, who feel isolated and overwhelmed by Australia, and suffer an inferiority complex of a sort. There was no evidence of such a thing here. Most of the Icelanders hop over to Europe for extra schooling and travel, but the majority remain loyal to the homeland. Iceland may be a speck in the international community, but that doesn't seem to bother them, or be an overriding concern. They know they have it tough here and they are proud to have the toughness to endure it. It was a pleasure being amongst such a people.

Later, George

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