Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back to the Salt Mines

Yesterday I visited Wieliczka, which is about 15 km from Krakow. Wieliczka means "Mine" in Polish, and is famous for one thing; the salt mine. I suppose it's very possible that you've been there, since there are over one million visitors each year and it's been open to tourists since the mid-19th century. It has been continuously working since the 13th century. Just to get a grip on how old this is, keep in mind that Genghis Khan was doing his thing in the 13th Century. This was before eyeglasses and move-able type were invented. Before perspective was used in paintings. Copernicus visited this mine after it had already been in operation for about 200 years... right around the time America was discovered. So, you get's old.
As an American, I so rarely get a glimpse of things that are old. "Old" in America means a couple hundred years, so it's incredibly difficult for me to wrap my mind around age in this way. As if that wasn't enough, this place is staggeringly huge. There are over 150 miles (245km) of passageways and 2400 chambers that range in depths from 210-1,070 ft (64-327meters). Only 1% of the total mine is accessible to tourists, including the the 378 steps you have to walk down to start the 2 mile (3.5km) walking tour. It takes about 3 hours.

Something to remember is that salt used to be really valuable. Without refrigeration, it was the only thing that could keep foods from spoiling, and NaCl is vital for moving blood around the human body.
Workers in the mine were well paid, and only worked 7 hours per day. (No slaves or child laborers were ever utilized.) Once per week they could bring home as much salt as they could carry in their hands, so even with all of the occupational hazards, it was a pretty good job.
This is about the size of a small person. An entire village could be purchased with a block of salt this large.
The jewel of the mine is the giant cathedral, of course completely carved from salt by amateur artists who worked in the mine. Even the "glass" pieces on the chandeliers are made from salt.

It's a pretty amazing place. I found the old wooden tools to be most impressive. There are machines built in the 17th century that are in perfect working condition. This is because the wood is impregnated with salt and preserves it. Metal corrodes very quickly and wasn't used. Any of the same wooden tools on the surface have all deteriorated into nothing, so it's a great record of how exactly people worked.
And of course, the carvings in every chamber are stunning, especially because most of them were made by amateurs. 
It's hard to think about everything being made from 100% salt. 

It's a little expensive to visit this place. With a student discount, the costs was 54PLN, plus another 10PLN for permission to take photos and videos. That's only about $20(USD), but considering the cost of everything else in Poland, it seemed a bit steep. I'm not sure if I would recommend this place for children. Three hours and two miles of walking is a lot for a young kid, and although the group I was in was entirely adults, I heard a fair share of grumbling from those who were less than enthralled by salt.
One of the best parts of the tour is the very end, where a multi-story elevator carries groups back to the surface world. The ride takes almost a full minute and I was legitimately scared in that "reassure myself that it has to be ok" kind of way. Eight people go into each "floor" of the elevator and it's a little more than cozy. If you didn't get to know your tour group before, by the time you get off the elevator, you will know what brand of shampoo they use. The contraption is all metal and makes a tremendous sound. After descending so deep, it's just impossible not to think about what the drop would be like. I recommend getting on first, because the elevator rises to let more people on underneath you, and in the meantime you are plunged into darkness and waiting without any clue as to what's happening. Then at ground level, the people below you are let off first, so you get a little jolt of a drop down when it's your turn. It was a good way to wake up after the tour.

Like a Polish Universal Studios ride
Well, at the very least, it was one more UNESCO World Heritage site to cross off the list. Only like 934 left!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Don't be Sad That Uncle is Petrified

I try really hard not to be judgmental. As a traveler, it's basically an obligation. I even have to be careful not to pass judgments on myself, which can be difficult. I've been hanging out in post-Communist/Soviet-controlled countries for the last three months and while Americans might think that these places are dangerous and unsavory, I can assure you that there is a mutual sentiment here against America. (Cold War anyone?)
Before I get into my point on tolerance, let me tell you a little about where I've been, just for the sake of suspense...

Slovakia (The Slovak Republic) is a fairly new country, so anyone born in the 1980s has seen a lot of impressive changes. For example:
Here's Michal. Michal speaks decent English. (He happens to be my boyfriend, which is why I'm using him as an example) Michal was born in 1980 in Banská Bystrica, Czechoslovakia. He was born under Communist control, which means when he was five years old, he had to swear an oath to Brother Russia to serve and protect his country and communist ideals. Russian language was required in schools (although this changed when Michal was in school- his class was the first to begin learning English) Commodities were rationed. He remembers people waiting in long lines at grocery stores for exotic and limited items such as oranges, and if a family wanted a car or some new furniture, it could be years before they could get it. In 1989, the Velvet Revolution started, which ended the communist government in Czechoslovakia. Then in 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully separated and Slovakia became in independent nation. That same year, the European Union (EU) was officially formed under that name, and in 2004, Slovakia entered the EU, adopting the Euro as official currency in 2009. Ahhh, Slovakia, A Land of Contrast. And they speak English! But only in theory....

So the country where Michal was born no longer exists, and the government there has made a radical leap from communism to capitalism and democracy. The EU governs most things, and whereas before, Slovakia could brag about having the best butter and milk in the land, now it's being sold to Poland, and Slovak shops mostly carry Polish butter and milk. (As a side note- Slovakia has a great climate for agriculture and farming. Almost anything can grow. But I dare you to find Slovak-grown vegetables and fruits in a supermarket there. The same is true in America, where citrus grown in Florida is shipped to California, and California-grown citrus is shipped to Florida. When I hitchhiked with one truck driver hauling melons from CA to FL, he joked that trucks carrying the same loads are constantly passing each other on the highways. It doesn't make any sense, but that's money for ya...)
Slovakia is still a fairly poor country. Of the 17 countries that use the Euro, Slovakia is the poorest. It's also pretty small, with about 5.4 million people. But there have been a lot of changes in the last 30 years and things are often not very cohesive. English is taught in schools, but even young people have trouble with English. Perhaps English is more commonly spoken in the capitol, Bratislava, which is the only city that enjoys steady foreign tourism. However, in other cities such as Banská Bystrica, it's almost impossible. I was lucky to have Michal with me to translate and teach me some basics. He learned English when he was in the UK for one year, but it's far from perfect. Often our conversations completely relied on a translation book, which meant they were frequently derailed. It seems difficult, but we are both patient people, and we ended up avoiding a lot of needless drama. (When you can't be understand by someone, you can't unload your neuroses on them.)
When he wasn't around, I spend a lot of my time avoiding too much communication and relying on hand gestures to indicate what I wanted. Shrugging was also a popular choice. I know how to say "I don't speak Slovak", which is extremely helpful in getting people to sigh and walk away from you, or laugh, depending on their mood*. For three months I heard almost no English from a native speaker. I will even go so far as to say that for the last nine months, I've heard very little English from a native speaker, especially an American. (Icelanders have good English, but it's just not the same without regional slang.)

Yesterday I hitchhiked to Krakow, Poland, and spend some time in a cafe waiting for a friend to arrive. Krakow is a very popular tourist destination. Probably because Poland is a very cheap country, it's popular with British school groups and stag partiers. That means there is a ton of native English to be heard. The Polish in Krakow are also generally willing and able to speak English, so that makes things easy.
During my time in central Slovakia, I would nearly break my neck when I heard someone speaking English, spinning around to see who it was. It was always a fun and exciting way to meet and talk with someone. Being understood is very underrated! So when I was in the cafe waiting for my friend, I was momentarily shocked to hear two American girls speaking, and then later, a group of British girls talking.
And here's where I finally get back to my point on being judgmental....
The Americans were saying some of the stupidest things I've ever heard. I won't go into details, but imagine 16 year old girls having what they think is a very serious debate about ethics and philosophy. Throw in some "like"s and "whatever"s, and that was basically it. The British girls were equally enthralling with their conversations about how much they hate the other girls in their class, and how they hate people who complain about stuff, and like, omg, it's so cold outside!
I've never been sadder to understand people in my life.
On the 23rd, I am taking a flight back to the USA, where I expect to be able to understand most of what's going on. I'm a little worried. Not because I might hear some stupid crap (I think most conversations are probably pretty stupid), but because it might actually be weird to understand and be understood. I've been speaking a really simplified, slow version of English for almost a year, with the addition of some unidentifiable accents, and it's difficult to get back to normal. I'll probably be the one who ends up sounding stupid.

*Here's some advice: If you travel to any country, the most useful phrase you can know is "Sorry, I don't speak/understand ___". I can say this in Icelandic, Polish, Slovak, Czech, and French. It's always one of the first things I learn. It sounds a little ignorant, but you can learn all of the basic phrases, numbers, and foods you want and still be completely clueless when someone talks back to you. When you say "I don't understand" in their language, people will either attempt English, help you in some other way, or go away. There's not much anyone can do beyond that. If you travel, know this phrase!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Engrish (Death or Blorg)

I know this blog has been pretty light lately, so I feel a little guilty that this post has nothing to do with my last 1.5 months in Slovakia, but at least it's something to show I'm still paying attention, right?

Today, Michal and I wandered around Banska Bystrica with the impossible goal of finding some new cargo pants for him. Seeing as how it's not 1998 anymore, we had no luck, but I did find a lot of great Engrish and odd packaging in the many side-street Chinese shops. Enjoy.


Totally appropriate children's clothing
A little more subtle (also a children's shirt)
The most inappropriately named children's underwear ever.
I have no idea what's going on here.
...but at least they've got a theme.
Underwear for very small boys featuring various killing weapons...and Blorg. And golf. Because of course. I almost bought these.
Sorry about that. I promise I will blorg again soon. :-)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's Never a Good Time Now

I had no intentions of visiting any concentration camps while in Poland, but somehow yesterday I ended up at the worst one. Deniz and Michal thought it was important to see Europe's history, but they are European and I'm not, so I was pretty nervous about the whole thing being less of a learning experience and more of a torture porn tourist destination. It turns out I was pretty divided on the subject and I'm still pretty confused as to what happened.
Oświęcim is about an hour's drive from Krakow, where I've been staying for the last five days. Luckily Michal has a car that he borrowed from a friend in Slovakia, so we were able to take our time enjoying the beautiful countryside and avoid the bus ride. Deniz wanted to take a guided tour through the museum, so he split off from us at the small camp because we weren't interested in doing that for our own individual reasons. The way it works is this: There were originally three camps at Auschwitz, I, II, and III. I is where the museum and famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate are. II is the huge main camp that's famous for everything else. III apparently doesn't exist anymore, or at least it's not open to the public. 
The place where we left Deniz, I, completely gave me the creeps, and not in the way you might think. It's hard to tell that there is even a museum or a concentration camp at the location because it's crowded with parking, tour buses, souvenir/book shops, and even a couple of stands labeled in huge block letters "FAST FOOD". When you go inside to get a ticket, there are huge lines of people and racks and racks of headsets being pushed back and forth by employees. There's even a post office and a pay toilet. Michal and I hung around for a bit and then decided to just go to the II camp and walk around. On our way out, an attendant demanded we pay 8 zloty for parking, even though there is not sign mentioning this. I told her we had just been in for 5 minutes and didn't see the museum, so she let us go, but it was the peak of our frustration with how much money and profit is involved with Auschwitz being a tourist attraction. 
Personally, I feel like it should be free and/or donation-based. I know it costs a lot of money to keep it running and do all of the restorations, etc, but there's something insidious about bringing currency into the atmosphere and it really bothered me. 
At the main camp, anyone can enter at no charge, but it's 5 zloty for an information booklet, and you have to pay for the toilets (as a side note- this is not unusual and I don't have a big problem with it, but I just want to point out that it's not completely free). 
Most people were crowded around the first building, which was the lavatory. It was really hot and Michal took his shirt off, which I knew would be trouble, but I didn't say anything. Then we sat in the grass and read our pamphlets and waited for the crowd to thin out. After about five minutes, a man came up to us and started yelling in Polish. I thought he was yelling at Michal for not having a shirt, and I told him to put it on. Michal asked the man "why?" and the guy changed to English and yelled at us that we couldn't be there. So we got up and joined the group in the first building to try to hear some information from one of the tour guides. After about two minutes in there, a woman came up to us and started yelling at Michal for not having a shirt. She told him this was a death place, a cemetery...and stormed off.
I completely understand what she means, and personally, I wouldn't have taken my shirt off, but we couldn't understand why neither of these people could have just explained it to us nicely and had some understanding instead of just shouting and ostracizing us for a pretty minor slip-up. I'm convinced that everyone there thought we were completely uncivilized troublemakers. The entire tour group glared at us and we had to leave. I can honestly say we meant no disrespect. 
It took a while for the sting to wear off, and instead of thinking about the people who actually suffered there, we ended up thinking about what a ridiculous tourist trap the place had become and I felt like that was more criminal than someone unwittingly stepping on the grass.

Fortunately, it's easy to be alone there, because it's huge and most people follow a tour that comes from the museum. Michal and I started going through the opposite way, starting with the barracks and ending with the monument and rails. I can't explain how enormous the place is and how easy it is to recreate scenes in your head. 
About halfway down the row where a big dividing gate is erected, I spotted a small rust-colored deer wildly zig-zagging around the ruins inside trying to find a way out. It was in a complete panic running toward the fences, where there were only two gates ajar that it could slip through. It ran toward the one further from us and met with a barrier. For a moment, it looked around and took in it's options, then backed up slightly and plunged through the barbed wire and shot off across the field and into the woods. 
It was a really beautiful and symbolic scene for me. Very soon after this we found the area where medical experiments were performed, and I completely broke down. After that I just didn't want to see anything else, which was an unfortunate time to decide that, because we still had to walk through the woods past the ash lake and the crematoriums. 
I still feel pretty shook up about the whole experience, but I wanted to share this small story because the bad feelings about this place were amplified and added to by the addition of car parks, ticket takers, and fast food stands. I'm sorry I went. I didn't need to see it. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

What about Warsaw?

I really liked Warsaw until I saw Krakow. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

I spent four days in Warsaw meeting interesting people and walking, walking, walking. It's a huge city, or at least compared to Vík, it is. I felt like I was the star of one of those movies where a caveman is thawed out and forced into mainstream society and gets totally freaked out. All of the traffic noise seemed amplified, and streets seemed endless. I was overwhelmed.
For all of the expansiveness of the city, I felt really safe, and was impressed by how clean the streets are. It was enjoyable to just wander around and get completely lost, except for the heat, which has been slowly killing me. A young Swiss guy named Vivian joined me on a day-long search for the Uprising Musuem, which came highly recommended. I'd never heard anything about it, so I expected it was some kind of uplifting story about freedom fighters, and was looking forward to seeing it. Given Poland's history, I should have known better, but until we finally found the place, I was blissfully unaware of what a metaphor for Warsaw it is.
In case you are just as clueless as I was, the Uprising Museum is basically a Holocaust museum. It's beautiful and obvious that a lot of money was poured into making it immaculate. And it's also immensely popular. There were tourists everywhere, shoulder to shoulder waiting to buy tickets, waiting to get in, and waiting to be able to see anything inside.
Again, I was hoping for something uplifting, so when I stepped into the entrance to find a dimly lit room with recreations of anti-Nazi graffiti on bombed out walls, my spirits immediately fell. In the first room, there is a huge black wall that is the most terrifying piece of artwork I have ever encountered. From within, speakers rattle the entire museum with the bass-y sound of a steady heartbeat. You can feel it inside your own body. It's that powerful. Along the wall are bullet holes, where smaller speakers play recorded sounds from the time of the uprising. You have to put your ear up to the holes to hear them, and so you get the cold sensation of the metal against your skin, the throbbing of the heart, and then a faint sound of something like singing or gunfire, or some other street sounds, which vanishes as soon as you step away.
It's the creepiest thing I've ever experienced, and the sound of it is inescapable throughout the entire visit in the museum. I suppose that means it's a great piece of art, because it really affected me, but I've never been so scared when trying to learn about history. I actually had to leave prematurely.
I won't go into the details of the exhibit. It's similar to any other WWII museum you've been to, so I don't really have to describe the things that are in there. Perhaps more powerful because it's actually in Warsaw where it happened, and fingering zlotys in your pocket and hearing only Polish while you walk through makes it that much more intense. It was a bit too real for me, is what I'm trying to say.
One thing I will mention is my complete inability to understand why people are so rude in a place like this. Every single WWII museum I've ever been to has been full of visitors who push, shove, and otherwise completely ignore everyone else. I would think that when someone goes to a place to see how horrible people can be to each other, that it would at least inspire them to say "excuse me" before knocking someone else out of the way to look at some old shoes or something. I just don't get it.
Anyway, it's an interesting place if you can handle it, which I couldn't.

I mentioned before that this museum was a metaphor for Warsaw because of this beating heart sculpture. It's a city that cannot escape the oppressive weight of history. You can walk down some streets and see bullet holes in the buildings. Resistance graffiti from the war is still freshly applied with spray paint. People like to talk about the war and how it still affects daily life. Every description of every building begins with "this was damaged during the war..." It's strange, and everything is a reminder of a horrible even that happened not too long ago. People from other parts of Poland describe Warsaw as "grey".
Don't get me wrong. Warsaw is a cool place with a lot going on. I felt good while I was there and didn't feel in a hurry to leave. But as soon as I left, there was a mood shift.

I bought a train ticket for Friday and realized on Saturday that the date on the ticket said Wednesday for some reason. I wasn't too worried about it, but was prepared to have to pay again once I was aboard. As it turns out, the ticket never left my pocket because no one checked it. I didn't even see anyone around who remotely looked like they worked for the train station. Trains in Poland are notoriously late, so about twenty minutes past it's scheduled arrival time, a huge mob of people rushed the cars and started packing themselves in. I thought that since it was Friday, there were more people than usual, but from what I hear, it's always like that. There are first class seats which cost more, and the second class appeared to be standing in the hallway. There is a corridor along one side of each car about 2.5 feet wide where everyone was crowded into. There was barely room for people to pass through, and when they did, everyone else gets crushed against the walls. Luckily there are windows, so people station themselves there to get fresh air. I got the end of one, thankfully, because it was so hot, I might have passed out without it. I'm really short, and sitting down was even a problem for me. The men next to me didn't even bother trying, and stood for the four hour trip. But people didn't seem bothered by any of this. I guess it's normal, but to me it seemed downright dangerous. Almost everyone in the isle was chatting and laughing, sharing food and earphones, and a girl beside me even made a little friendship bracelet and studied for her drivers test. A group of young men sang songs in Polish the entire time, and the lyrics must have been at least mildly amusing because everyone kept chuckling and shaking their heads, even when they repeated the same songs over again.

I suppose it was a good experience. It seems a bit strange to complain about a train ride from Warsaw to Krakow, but I was really relieved to get off and see the colorful marketplaces and generous green spaces bustling with people just next to the station. Krakow is totally different from Warsaw, and it was like stepping out of a black and white movie and into technicolor. Such a beautiful relief!

I'll post about Krakow next :-)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

CouchSurfing is my Philosophy

Look what I woke up to this morning. Anna made plum pastries and ginger hibiscus tea before I even got up at 7:00, with a map of Warsaw and the keys to her apartment on the table alongside them.
This is what is so amazing about CouchSurfing. Not that you get stuff, but that people are capable of giving. I know that a lot of places have very strong guest cultures, where Guest is God, but that's not really what I'm talking about here, because this type of thing happens in America and other places where it's not as common to dote on guests (or they are expected to cater to the host instead). It's not so difficult to do something nice for a stranger and give them some food or a gift to show them they are welcome, but the unexpected is that people give strangers their home, their personality, their habits, and part of their life. That's generosity.
With CouchSurfing, a host is choosing to let someone they don't know get very close to them and then choosing to trust that person as much as they would trust someone they've known for years. It feel amazing to have someone do that for you.
I've known Anna for about 15 hours, and I'm also her first CouchSurfer, so this kind of thing means a lot to me. Just the success of CouchSurfing and the way of interacting with strangers while traveling is the reason I know that people are good. If people were born bad, they wouldn't be getting up at 6:00 to bake plum-filled Postman's Letters and giving their house keys to someone from another country they don't know anything about. No wonder some people think it's crazy.
Although a lot of people who use the CouchSurfing resource cite is as a way to save money, it's usually not the biggest reason they use it. It's a way to test your faith in the human race and make connections with people, even if they don't end up being so great. I think some people who CouchSurf end up spending just as much money on their host as if they had stayed in a hostel or hotel. It's kind of a loose rule for some people, actually. When I hosted, it wasn't free. It costs a decent amount of money to constantly entertain people. Of course that doesn't matter and I never thought about it, but those who haven't experienced CouchSurfing often assume that hosts get paid, otherwise it wouldn't be worth anyone's time. That's also why dedicated members in the community are so upset by the infiltration of freeloaders, who are just using people's homes as a place to crash to avoid spending a lot on their holiday. It's not that they don't deserve it, it's that they don't appreciate the depth and symbolism of it, and you can't make a good connection with someone who doesn't appreciate the world around them.
Working at the hostel was proof that money creates obligation. I don't think any of our guests would ever leave such messes in their own homes, or especially at someone else's home. But as soon as you fork over even the smallest amount of cash, you've bought permission to do whatever you want. Would you leave a bottle of urine in your host's bedroom before leaving? Or rip a curtain rod out of the wall and not say anything? Would you track mud onto the floors and bed and not attempt to clean it? Of course not, that's insane. But since money is involved, it's acceptable. CouchSurfing would never work if there was money involved. So the people who use CouchSurfing as a "free bed" are money-minded people, and I don't think there is room for that in the community.

What I'm trying to say about all of this is that something simple, like a basket of pastries in the morning (ok, maybe pastries aren't so simple!) can do a lot to remind me that people are not just good...they are amazing, because there's nothing I did to Anna to deserve to be treated so well, or to earn her trust. I just showed up.
All of us who can feel emotions, at the bottom, are Good, and we want to be good to each other. This has been proven to me over and over again, and never is it more clear than when I am far away from home and reliant on strangers.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again....CouchSurfing is one of the best things I've ever done with my life. It makes me feel good about the world. It makes me want to be a better person. It makes me want to step outside of my comfort zone and redefine it entirely. It makes me want to keep going and going and....have another pastry :-)

Monday, August 8, 2011


Something that is very satisfying for me is adding a new photo folder to my collection. Today was an especially monumental folder-creating day, because I am finally in Poland, after eleven years of wanting to visit.

If you knew me in high school, you might remember attending a Roman Polanski birthday party, or one of my hand-made Myslovitz tank tops, or me driving that gold Toyota Camry around the high school and singing incoherently along to Polish pop songs. Oh! Do you remember that creepy poster of Bo Derek on my bedroom door from the movie "10" where I pasted Polanski's face over hers? Or maybe you blocked that from your memory. They were strange times, and that poster gave my step-mom nightmares.
I'm not sure exactly where the Polish obsession started. It wasn't really something I cried myself to sleep over at night, but it was always in the back of my head that I would like to visit someday, and somehow, I managed not to create any expectations about it. So being here is just totally new for me, and besides the basics, I really don't know what the heck is going on.

But let me backtrack a little bit....
I left Vík in the late morning after saying goodbye to everyone at the hostel. Þráinn was going to Reykjavík anyway, so I managed to catch a lift with him. I always really enjoyed any time that I spent with him, because he's so funny and always has interesting rants, so it was nice to be able to spend a couple of hours with him in the EconoLine chatting, since it was so rare when I was working. Leaving Vík still hasn't really sunk in. I feel a little like I'm either still in Iceland, or am just on a short holiday. When I was getting into the van, I almost cried.

Five months with these awesome people...

After that entire month of rain in Vík, it was a small miracle that Reykjavík was gorgeous. The sun was out, and Laugavegur is mostly closed off to traffic now, so lots of people were enjoying sitting outside on the sidewalks and having coffee or beer. Gulla and I walked around, and she remarked at how much nicer it is, and the atmosphere has completely changed. She's right. It's totally different, and a lot of things have opened up or expanded, so there's a very festive feeling in the air. Of course, this feeling was compounded by the leftovers of the Gay Pride festival the day before, which is the largest event in Iceland.
Gulla was my first Icelandic Couchsurfing host in 2009 and 2010, and she became part of my extended family during my time in Iceland. So it's always really great to catch up with her. We had coffee at her favorite cafe and wood-fired pizza in the evening. It was a perfect last day.
It was cut short, though, because the next day (today) started at 4 in the morning. After creeping out of Gulla's house and hoping I didn't wake anyone, I caught the FlyBus from a nearby hotel and was shuttled off to the airport in Keflavik. I wish I had something interesting to say about the flight, but it was one of the most boring flights I've ever been on, and I couldn't get any sleep in the aisle seat, so it pretty much just sucked. The only thing that was mildly entertaining was some rough turbulence over Warsaw. At one point, the plane dropped, and the entire fuselage probably imploded slightly like a soda can being crushed from the collective gasping. Personally, I kind of enjoy turbulence. I've flown a lot, so it takes a pretty big screw up to rattle me.
I do not, however, enjoy the feeling of being stranded, especially when I am running on very little sleep and completely overwhelmed by a new country. Luck was on my side for a few things. I exchanged some Danish crowns for some złoty, got a Polish SIM card for my phone, and my bag was one of the first to come out in baggage claim. My Couchsurfing host, however, was nowhere to be found. After sending a text to Michal to let him know I landed safely, I had the airport page her and then texted him again to take him up on his offer for help. Just as I was about to give up and start thinking about camping, a lady was standing curiously in front of me with a handmade sign labeled "Bullet".
"Oh! It's you!" I jumped up and we awkwardly switched between starting to shake hands and hug, and finally settled on a hug. I was so glad to see her so I wouldn't have to use any more brain power. There was very little of it left.
My first Couchsurfing host in Warsaw is Anna, and I'm so glad that I picked her for my first experience. She's a wonderful person and a doting host. I am her first Couchsurfer, so I expected her to be a big nervous, but other than being a little frantic about making sure things were perfect, she seemed to relax once she started making borscht.
Oh, did I mention that I didn't eat anything all day except for some yogurt and a couple of chocolates? Well....yeah. When Anna told me she was making soup from scratch, I was both delighted and horrified, because I didn't think I would be able to wait long enough before eating my own hand. Perhaps she sensed this, because I was spared that fate from some homemade garlic-y treats.

The borscht was also not long in the making, and before I knew it, I was stuffed. What a lovely way to be invited into someone's home. A cup of instant coffee also revived me, miraculously, and Anna swept me off on a rainy day bicycle tour of Warsaw.
You probably don't know this, because I don't think I've ever told anyone, but I am afraid of bicycles. I'm not paralyzed by them, but I'm very, very nervous around them, and at one point I thought I wouldn't even ride again. I think it was a combination of incidents, culminating with the death of my friend this May, who was killed in a hit-and-run while riding his bike on the road. But I decided to say "yes" to a bike ride anyway, partly because it seemed stupid to refuse something like that, and also to try to get over my fear.
I have to admit, I almost balked at the whole idea when I was presented with a man's bike, but luckily, the bar wasn't too high and it was actually really comfortable. A bit of a rough start for me as a white-knuckled it through some foot traffic, but Warsaw is an incredibly bike-friendly town, with ample bike lanes and beautiful parks. Even cobblestone wasn't too tricky.
So of course, I ended up having a great time. I saw guys selling beer on the street, a huge fountain, the famous mermaid statue, and tons of old restored buildings. And even though Anna is way faster than I am, by the time we got back to her flat, I felt confident about riding again, and that's what's happening with me right now. Thank you, Warsaw!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Il Pleut

Not so fun fact:
It has been raining for a month.
I'm not even exaggerating. It's been the most depressing weather I've ever endured. And when I say "endure", I mean, completely losing my mind. I've forgotten what colors look like.
Also, because there's no break, it's seeped inside the buildings, so even indoors you cannot escape. Wet towels from the shower will not dry, no matter how long they hang up, and the walls are moist, which makes little rivers in the tile grout. My hair is oddly curly, as well, which might be the only positive thing about this.
The only solace I can take in these sad facts is that the entire country is suffering, and not just the Suðurlands, which is pretty typical. (I might have mentioned before that Vík í Mýrdal translates to "a valley in a wet bay", and it's the wettest part of Iceland.)
Of course, it's expected to finally clear up on Sunday. The day I leave.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Museum Reviews....Skógasafn

Skógar is an area that I hesitate to call a village because it's more like a cluster of tourist services by a big waterfall. Some people live there in farms, but I think the majority of the population are workers at the hotels, museum, and restaurants.
Skógar is the Icelandic word for "forest", and the waterfall there is immensely popular. Like many of the waterfalls in Iceland, this one has a perpetual rainbow, and it's tall, geometric cascade makes it one of the more beautiful of the easily accessible waterfalls in the south. It's impossible to miss it while driving on the main road, and most drivers stop there for a few minutes to get a nice snapshot.

For the more adventurous, Skógar is also the starting point for a popular hike to Þórsmörk. Climb the intimidating staircase to the top of the falls, go over the fence, and follow the path by the river. For about 27km, you can get a good sampling of every type of landscape in Iceland; Surging glacial rivers with impossibly tall prehistoric-looking waterfalls, jagged lava fields, snow, slush and absolute silence at the point where the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull shake icy hands, steaming vents left over from the 2010 eruption, marshland, forest, and lush name a few things.

It's pretty intense. But maybe I'll post about it later, since I never did get around to writing about that particular adventure.

Skógar is, of course, home to a museum called Skógasafn. ("Safn" is the Icelandic word for "collection" and is often tacked onto the end of words to describe it as a museum, but it can also be used to describe any type of collection. For example, the word for "library" is "bókasafn", or a "book collection". If you're concerned with pronunciation, the "fn" combination makes a "p" sound. Saying "sap" like from a tree is pretty close.)
Skógasafn is the result of a labor of love by a gentleman named Þórður Tómasson, who has been collecting objects in the area for about sixty years. He's written several history books, as well, which you can purchase at the museum, but they are pretty useless if you don't understand Icelandic.
Entrance fee is 1250ISK for adults, and 1000ISK for students and seniors. Children from 12-15 are 500ISK, and under 12 are free. This includes the transportation museum and settlement area.
If you're lucky, you will be greeted by a young woman named Emma, who gives informative tours of the museum. There are some highlighted pieces, such as the first Bible printed in Icelandic, textiles for the wealthy, a small fishing boat, a terrifyingly large and effective mouse trap, and articles of daily life such as clothing and farm tools. Most of the tour touches on objects that you might otherwise overlook, so if you see a tour group, join up and listen in.
Þórður will also play a spooky rendition of "Clemintine" on a dulcimer-like instrument, and show you the old way to spin wool.

The tour is only about twenty minutes long, and it's a snapshot rush-through that barely touches on what the museum has to offer. It's unfortunate that most people are shuttled immediately out the door and onto other things, because it's easy to spend at least an hour or two inside browsing around. This is especially true for photographers who like to get design-y type shots of little details, patterns, or interesting shapes.
There are a several rooms in the main building that you can explore on your own. Every spare inch of wall space is utilized for display. Glass cases are full of unexplained objects, ranging from small bones to mysterious tools that you may or may not recognize. (Such as a blood lancet left over from the Black Plague era). Or check out the case holding objects used for various spells, like a swan bone used as a straw for a baby to drink his first milk from.
It's interesting to see the ingenuity of the Icelandic people. Since they did mostly without the influence of the rest of the world until the 1940s, they used what meager resources were available, and anything that washed up on the beach was potentially a very valuable addition to the home. Whale bones were used as buckets or window frames. A sheep bladder was used as a barometer. Driftwood was precious stuff, and intricate prayers and poems were carved onto large slats to be used for bed-boards.

There's also an upstairs where you can see a room full of spinning wheels and look down on the fishing boat for a fantastic view. Downstairs is the natural history portion, plus a few other rooms filled with random objects and looking more like unsorted storage. In the biology department, you can make close-up observations on Iceland's birds and mammals, from the inside and out. Everything is well-labeled down here, but it's helpful to have at least some grasp on the Icelandic language to be able to figure it all out.
If you venture back into the furthest corner, there are pull-out trays of insects and books of pressed plants (these are unlabeled).
Depending on your tastes, this is the most interesting area, since there's no explanation for anything, and it feels a bit like you wandered into some forgotten catacomb of the Smithsonian. The dim lighting adds to the effect.

When you've had your fill of the main museum, step outside and follow the paths through the little settlement area, where you can poke your head into different original buildings, including the iconic sod-roof buildings. There's also a church, a school, and examples of 1800s-style homes, like the very first wooden house in Iceland. All filled to the brim with items as if the inhabitants just stepped out for a moment.
This area can also take a good amount of time, too, depending on how voyeuristic you're feeling.

But wait! There's more! During summer hours, there is also a transportation museum, café, and gift shop open in the sleek, modern building next door to the folk museum. Cross a small bridge and you're there. The style is shockingly different, but the warehouse-y looking building is still just as chock-full of artifacts and curiosities as the main building.
During our visit, we saved the café for last, but it might be clever to stop and have a coffee to regroup before starting the tour through the transportation museum. I recommend having a kleina with your coffee. They are similar to a donut, slightly sweet and dry except for their oily sheen. But the café also offers sandwiches and soup at very good prices. Take note of the airplane hanging overhead, marked with the slogan "Mjólk er Góð!" (Milk is Good!)

A transportation museum may sound a little dull, but it is not to be missed. Even if technology and machines aren't your thing, it's easy for anyone to appreciate the beauty of the modified antique cars equipped like a tank with sleds and snow chains. You can also follow the advancement of modernization in Iceland, from the horseback riding postman, to telephone poles, and an area full of squawking CB radios, to the pride of Iceland; Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg (Search and Rescue Team).

Skógasafn is ideally a half-day activity, especially when you include the waterfall. Take your time when you visit, and try not to blow through it. It can be overwhelming, but even people who generally dislike museums will be entertained by all of the variety and mystery. Children will also enjoy running around and exploring the collection of houses. On a sunny day, the grassy areas are perfect for a picnic, too. The staff is also very knowledgeable and happy to answer any questions you may have.
This is my favorite museum in Iceland. I've visited it twice and each time found about a thousand more things to marvel at. It's a definite "must see".

Friday, July 29, 2011

Museum Reviews....Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn

Another museum that is Iceland is famous for is Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn. But you might know it as the Icelandic Phallological Museum, or "The Penis Museum". Or maybe you've never heard of it at all and you're wondering "why the heck is there a penis museum? I don't want to hear about this!" Well too bad.

Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn is located in the northeastern part of Iceland in a harbor town called Húsavík, which is also well-known for being a big whale-watching area. If you ever come to Iceland, you will see big, glossy yellow pamphlets advertising whale watching. Those come from Húsavík. Oddly enough, however, the town is not known for it's whale museum. But given a choice between a room full of bones and a room full of boners, I think you know what most people pick.
Húsavík is actually pretty large by Icelandic standards. Over 2,000 people live there. They have all of the usual fare for large-ish towns, including a grocery store, several restaurants, a bakery, and a tourist information center. There is also a very charming café called Skuld, which is a good place to stop for a coffee and a snack (Coffee is buy one, get one free refill).

Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn opens at noon, which is pretty late, even by Icelandic standards, but it stays open until 18:00. It's closed entirely from September to May. The good news about all of this is that it appears to be slated for new management and a big move to Reykjavík sometime next year. I also expect that the admission fee will increase with the move. It's already a slightly pricey 800 ISK (most comparable museums cost 500 ISK) and they only take cash, so make sure you have some kronur before you visit.

The museum is owned by Sigurður Hjartarson, who seems like he would be a pretty jovial guy, considering what he does for a living. However, he seemed to be in a pretty gruff mood on the day we visited. I suppose there are only so many times you can greet giddy tourists before getting a little sour. On the day we visited, we arrived a little early, and we milled around with the handful of other tourists who were also waiting out front taking photos of the building. I've never seen people wait so eagerly outside of a museum before. And especially not in Iceland, where there are such thrilling attractions as The Sea Ice Exhibition Center and the Herring Museum. I'm not sure what level of entertainment can be expected from the Phallologcal Museum beyond lumpy masses floating in yellowed formaldehyde, but there we were.
The owner of the museum is more interesting than the actual museum, and probably more of a treasure. You can read about him on a print-out (offered in several different languages) found on a center table in the main display room. He is highly educated, holds a degree in history and has written and translated several books, including some written in Spanish and Latin. So how did this guy end up surrounded by penes (yes, that is the plural of penis)? As a child, Siggi was given a whip called a "pizzle" which is made from a dried bull penis. You can see it, along with a few others, in the museum. Apparently this knowledge leaked to some of his friends as an adult and he received a good amount of ribbing for it. The teasing culminated with some of his fishermen friends severing the penis from a caught whale and presenting it to him as a gift. This unnerving trend continued for about ten years until he had a sizable collection and put them on display in this little building.

After paying 800 kronur, you are given a rather confusing booklet in the language of your choice and let loose in the building. It's a fairly small room completely lined with stuffed, mounted, pickled, and otherwise preserved penes, plus a fair smattering of art mixed in, most of it humorous. The booklet is meant to be followed by number, but I found it difficult to locate the numbers on specimens, because not every specimen has a number, and they seem to be slightly out of order. But it doesn't matter. The information is a little hard to decipher, and it's pretty boring anyway. It's easy enough to glean information by intuition.

You can see the largest item in the collection, a blue whale penis which is fun to stand next to for photo comparison, and the smallest, which belonged to a hamster. That one is a little more difficult to see.
Here's the thing about penes, and it's true for both humans and animals. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. There's surprisingly little variety in the penis world, and most of them are slightly terrifying, vaguely corkscrew shaped spears. The penis of a whale looks remarkably like the penis of a polar bear and all the rest of them look the same, too. At least when 276 of them are floating in jars, it's hard to tell.

The museum is also famous for having a human specimen, but it's nowhere to be found. There is a cast of one in the front room, and a couple of papers signed by men who have agreed to donate theirs upon death. A 98 year old man died and donated his last year, but the removal wasn't entirely successful and the penis turned brown and shriveled up, making it unsuitable for display. Siggi commented, "it doesn't really matter. He was an old guy and I will get a younger and bigger and better one later", which is possibly the most hilariously blasé quote I've ever read. Again, it's a mystery to me why this would be the main attraction for the collection. A human penis is the easiest type of penis to find. I could go outside right now, and in ten minutes of asking around, I bet I could find one to look at. Not to be crude, but hey, I'm reviewing a penis museum here, so cut me some slack.

The most interesting part of the Icelandic Phallological museum, to me, was the anthropological and artistic contributions. A glass case to one side is full of knick-knacks and charms from around the world, ranging from tasteless to captivating. Elsewhere, there's an aerial photo of the Smáralind mall in Reykjavík, which looks exactly like an erect penis (Google it), newspaper clippings, and charming drawings by the owner's young daughter. There are actually a lot of things to look at in this small space, but somehow interest is lost rather quickly (is that a metaphor or what?). And perhaps it's my American prudishness, but I felt a little uncomfortable oggling all of that meat. I did get it together enough to pose for one photo next to an African elephant penis...
The intention was the compare the size between that and my tattoo, which is a .22 bullet but holds a very close resemblance to....well, you guessed it. It's such a close representation that I offered it to the owner for inspection. He looked at it, looked up at me, and asked me if that's where I like to keep it. "Yeah I like to have it handy", I replied, and he sort of shook his head at me and went back to what he was doing. So that was my big contribution to the Icelandic Phallological Museum, and as for me, I can safely say that it was the only time in my life where I will ever pay money to look at male organs.

So is it worth a visit?
Yes. Absolutely. Not because it's particularly interesting, but just because you can say you were there. I really think this is the reason that most people go. And many do! Attendance exceeds 11,000 each year, and it's interesting to note that 60% of visitors are women. This might just be because there are more women on earth than men and that's bound to happen almost anywhere, but maybe men are simply a little more sympathetic.
One more highlight from your visit here would be the postcards. They are cheaply printed and little pixelated, but from where else can you send your friend a photo of a human micropenis, a woman balancing upside down on a man's erection, or a child's drawing of things that they probably shouldn't be drawing?
Only at the Icelandic Phallogical Museum, that's where.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft- Review in New Series!

Welcome the start of another series here on BulletPun about Icelandic museums. This is something I hope to continue in the future, because I love visiting museums and I always take a ton of photos that, for the most part, never see the light of day.

During my time here, here are the few that I visited and will be reviewing.

Icelandic Phalalogical Museum
Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
Þjóðminjasafn (National Museum in Reykjavík)
Bjarnarhöfn Shark Farm
Reykjavík Bird Museum
Eyjafjallajökull Film
Petra's Stone Collection
Gestastofa in Hellnar

Some of these places are very small, and won't take up much of my time here and I will combine more than one review in one post. Most museums in Iceland are confined to one or two small rooms with minimal explanation for the artifacts, so it's not too difficult to blow through them in a few minutes.

I'll start with a very popular destination in the West Fjörds...Galdrasýning á Ströndum, or The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft.

Located in one of the West Fjörd's many charming oceanside villages, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is a must-see in many guidebooks. Perhaps this is because, despite it's charm, Hólmavík has little else to offer. But this area of Iceland is rugged and isolated, so with a population of 400, it's definitely the biggest thing around for a long time.
From the outside, the place looks sort of promising. There are large bones and rock formations arranged around a pathway to the entrance. When we were there, there were some large, crude signs up saying something like "please go to the other door". Inside there is a small cafe, which consists of a couple of chairs and a press pot of coffee, plus some cookies in a glass jar. There is also a Sorcerer's Cottage somewhere around, but we couldn't find it, and we were unclear as to whether is was part of the museum and it's admission fee or not, so we didn't bother trying to find it. This review will obviously not cover that part of the museum.
Admission fee to the collection is 500ISK, and includes a plastic binder stuffed full of information pages. Each page is extremely text-heavy. It's like reading from a textbook, and not a very interesting one. You must follow the numbered display cases through three different rooms, and the most engaging one is first.
Probably the main reason people come to the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is to gaze upon the famously creepy "necropants".

I don't believe that anyone actually ever performed this magical deed, but the story is that, with permission from a widow, you can skin the bottom half of a dead man and then wear the skin pants around for the rest of your life. The advantage of this? Well, if you keep a coin in the scrotum with a magic stave, the scrotum will never be empty of money. Again, I can't imagine that anyone actually did this. What kind of shopkeeper accepts coins that some guy just fished out of his second scrotum? The other problem with wearing necropants (besides the obvious chafing issue) is that you can never take them off. Ever. The split-second before you die, you must take one leg out of them, while your heir steps in, and in this way you can transfer them over without breaking the spell. It's sort of a tricky balancing act that you need absolute perfect timing for. Personally, I can think of better ways to make money. But perhaps this was some kind of weird motivation back then.

Here's the disappointing part about all of this: The necropants aren't real. Nothing is. There is not one single authentic artifact in the entire museum (except one, which I will mention later). The necropants are made of rubber or plastic, with hair sloppily glued down in all the wrong places. There aren't even any old books to look at. The closest you can get are some grainy photocopies of a few pages arranged in a case upstairs, where some of the props have gone missing. With all of the reading you have to do, they might as well just put the photocopies in with your textbook instead of making you go upstairs and trying to decipher detailed time-lines completely in Icelandic.

I suppose the history aspect of the museum is pretty interesting. I had no idea that so many Icelanders were burned at the stake for witchcraft (most of them in the West Fjörds, and for seemingly petty reasons like stealing a piece of driftwood.) However, I could just as easily not paid 500 kronur and read about it on Wikipedia.

Same goes for the Tilberi, which, admittedly, was a pretty disturbing display, despite it's cheesiness. A Tilberi is a little monster that only a woman can make from a human rib bone. It suckles between her breasts until it gets too big, then migrates to a nipple on the upper inner thigh. The creature can be sent out to steal milk from sheep. It gets large enough that it can suck the milk from two teats at once, and when it's full of milk, it dutifully returns home and vomits the milk into the butter churn. Then, when you're tired of it sucking on your thigh, you send it out into the countryside to gather up sheep dung, which is does with such a fervor that it explodes and dies. I have no idea how anyone was able to come up with this story, but it's one of the grossest and weirdest things I've ever heard of. I was actually a little tempted to buy one of the little Tilberar that are sold in the gift shop. It looks like the most tortured worm in the world, with a howling face, shaped like a comma, and wrapped in grey wool.
Oh, here, I found a photo for you. Aren't they cute? You can thank me in your nightmares later.

Besides some interesting fabricated "artifacts", the museum does have one real object you can look at. It's so special that it has it's own velvet-cloaked room and is kept behind a curtain in complete darkness save for a dim spotlight. An audio track of some male chanting plays softly in the background. Of course, you have to do a ton of reading before you enter the room to prepare yourself.
Should I spoil the incredible surprise for you?
Yeah, what the heck....
It's a stone.
Yep. a stone. A very special stone that was found in a nearby farm. It was carved out into a little bowl shape and may have been used for ritual sacrifice. When you start reading the impossibly long series of posters in front of the room, you get the impression that this was for human sacrifice. Then I think the writers figured most people would stop reading and just go look at the darn thing. Turns out, they did a lot of testing on it, under different types of lighting and with that spray they use to find blood on crime scenes, and they didn't really find anything. It was also probably used for animal sacrifice anyway. There's no evidence of human sacrifice in Icelandic culture. So what you get is a little carved rock on a velvet pillow that maybe was used for animal sacrifice, but probably not because no blood was found except for a few specks of something that are probably just known geological contaminants. But if you don't read all of that, then it's pretty creepy.

Two things I did find more interesting than the displays were submitted by guests. While waiting for my friend to finish reading her encyclopedia, I sifted through the books in the little sitting room and found an envelope with a letter from the United States. It was several pages long, and I didn't read it all, but the gist of it was that this person was a Pagan or something, and found out about the Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum in Iceland and was so happy that their religion was being spread, that they sent a check for $40. The check was absent, of course, but I'm not sure how easy it was to cash an American check in Iceland. I guess they figured it out.
The other thing that was interesting was this.

Another letter. Well, two letters, actually. That's a little carved pendant necklace under the glass. The letter explains that the necklace was purchased in the gift shop as a good luck charm. However, immediately following the purchase of the necklace, the writer was overwhelmed by misfortune. They sent back the necklace and asked for a replacement, and the second letter is a thank you note saying that they have been lucky ever since sending back the evil charm and getting a good one instead.
So I thought that was sort of funny. One other good thing about visiting this museum is that you can buy postcards of the necropants. It's just an image of what looks like a hairy guys' crotch and legs with no explanation, and they are perfect to send to your friends with a completely nonchalant message on the back. That might actually be worth stopping in for.

My synopsis of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft is that it's not worth your time. You can get the same information and look at the necropants on the internet while you're spending your 500 kronur on an overpriced cup of coffee at one of the nearby restaurants.
There only thing magical about this place is how it has managed to remain such a popular tourist destination.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

170 Days in 2011

As of August 8, 2011, I will have been alive 9,819 days. 207 of which were spent in Iceland. That's 2% of my life. A very small amount that made a huge difference. 
Here, I made a pie chart:

You can save that to your hard drive in case you need to reference it later.

I'm leaving Vík in two weeks. Fourteen days. 336 hours. It's really starting to hit me that I won't be living here anymore. This place has really become my home. It's a little scary to think about leaving, and not seeing the ocean and the peaks of Reynisdrangur every day. No more skyr or slátur or mountain moss tea. No waking up and wondering if a volcano erupted because the sky is so oddly dark. No more Arctic terns or puking fulmars or little puffins. No more Æsa, Þráinn, and Addý.

This may be the first time in my life that I've been officially homeless. That's one way of looking at it, of course. I could also say that I'm completely free. I don't have much of a plan right now for what to do next. But I've never been very good at making solid plans, because I've learned that they always change in ways that are completely unpredictable. For example, I just re-booked my flight to avoid Oslo. Of all the places in the world to be hit by such a tragedy, Oslo was definitely pretty far down on the list. I don't think anyone saw that coming. What an incredible shame.
To avoid trouble in Norway, I'm now flying into Warsaw and spending a few days in Poland before meeting my friend and heading to Slovakia. I've been planning this trip for over a month and I'm really excited, but it's also starting to get stressful. Any change is stressful. That's the definition of stress. Everything always works out for the best, so I'm not worried about anything...just unsure of what to expect. And that's ok. It's what makes traveling so much fun. 
Unfortunately, the way I deal with stress is to completely freak out for about twenty minutes and run through at least a dozen completely different options like a bird flying at all corners of it's cage. I get so overwhelmed at all of the choices that it seems impossible to chose one. I always moan about how I wish there was someone in my life that could just tell me what to do every time there was a decision to be made. It wouldn't matter if it was right or wrong, she would just have to tell what to do so I wouldn't have to deal with it. 
Then after twenty minutes of overreacting, I make a painful choice and immediately feel great. There's sort of an emotional rush associated with it that I'm a little addicted to. 
Again, it's unfortunate that this process works so well for me, because it tends to irritate those around me (at the very least) when I talk and talk about every single option in the world that is available. It must sound completely insane. 
But no matter. I made a choice and I'm happy with it. I've wanted to visit Poland for about ten years, and this way I get to spend more time there before heading to Slovakia with Michal. I'll have to come back and visit Scandinavia some other time. 
I'm still waiting on that memory card so I can use my camera again, but hopefully it will arrive sooner rather than later, that way I will be able to take photos of the trip and continue updating these blog posts. As much as I'm going to miss calling Iceland my home, this should be a very interesting journey and I can hardly wait to get started!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 5. Vikings

Well, here I am again, ready to crush the very last stereotype that I care to tackle on this little blog. Grab your battle axes and join me in cutting down the mighty Icelandic Viking!
This was by far my most research-intense post of the last five "episodes" of EYHAIIWSO, because even though I knew a few things about helmets and the daily lives of Vikings, I was pretty ignorant on the history aspect of it all. I've always been terrible at history, which is another stereotype about women. Maybe because history is predominantly a bunch of stories about the dumb things that men do.
Once in community college, I was taking a pretty interesting history course where the teacher did a great job of making it as broad and entertaining as possible. During one class, we focused on Artemisia Gentileschi, who was a female Renaissance painter. Her story is always prefaced with an incident in which she was raped, and that this somehow influenced her to be a great painter. I've often been that kid in college classes who makes a significant pain in the ass of myself, and maybe the endless stories of men's conquests were getting to me, and I blurted out something like "What the hell! We finally focus on something a woman did, and we can't even give her credit for it because somehow it's the result of being raped! Maybe she was just a good artist on her own. Why can't we focus on that? Why do we need to give credit to some guy who raped her!"
The class stared at me and the teacher said something like "good point", and I think I ended up writing a semi-lengthy rant on the subject on the test later.
My point is, history is boring and frustrating for me, so I never really paid much attention. But this post was really fun to write and I took a lot of time sorting through dozens and dozens of different articles to get the most accurate information on three different points that I'm going to make. I apologize for any errors, however, because historical information still isn't the easiest thing for me to retain. Ok....onward!

Picture a Viking, will you? Just close your eyes and think about everything you know about Vikings and mash that information up into one single image. I'll wait.

Does it look something like this?

Or this?

How about this?

Not seeing a lot of variation here, are we? These are all drawings done by guests at Norður-Vík in the guestbook. Just one guestbook.

You may have noticed that each of the drawings above have three things in common; 
1. They have horned helmets
2. They have weapons
3. They are men

Of course you know what I'm going to say next... It's (mostly) all wrong.
But don't worry, it's not your fault. None of this is. It's August Malmström's fault. I had to do a surprising amount of digging to find the original image that the modern Viking stereotype comes from. That's because it's generally attributed to Richard Wagner and Arthur Rackham's illustrations for epic opera, The Ring of Nibelung. But that's odd, because The Ring of Nibelung isn't about Vikings at all. It's a fantasy piece about Germanic gods and heroes. It's possible that people referenced the illustrations from "The Ring" to gather ideas about Viking costumes, because they are incredibly captivating. Here are a few examples of imagined costume by Rackham, not because they have much to do with the subject here, but because they are so darn beautiful.

You can see how it would get mixed up, but it's irrelevant.
August Malmström illustrated a Victorian adaptation of a 14th Century Icelandic poem called Frithiof's Saga.
It wasn't a particularly good saga, which might be the reason why it was so difficult to locate any of the full illustrations. This was the best I could do:

There is scant evidence that any group of people have ever used horned helmets in battle. Winged and horned helmets were used by Celts and Germanics, but most likely for ceremonial purposes only. And get ready for this- there is very little evidence that Vikings wore helmets at all. Headgear was most likely made of leather, and the few metal helmets that have been found from the Viking age were simple and dome-shaped and probably were reserved for the extremely wealthy. Remember that life in Iceland in the 800s was not a particularly fruitful or prosperous time.

The idea of barbarians wearing horned helmets wasn't introduced into popular culture until the 1800s. And even then, it took a while to take hold, because the Celtic winged helmets remained more popular. The image of these aggressive pieces of headgear plays directly into the idea that Vikings spent most of their time fighting and pillaging.

In my experience, Icelanders love to brag about which brave, poetic Viking they are descendant from and reference the appropriate saga. I have one friend who pointed out the hill on his farm where one famous settler lived. "He killed his first man at six years old and wrote his first poem a year later", he told me. And he was a direct descendant, easily traced back thanks to good old fashioned Icelandic record-keeping.
Although people admit to the stories being exaggerated, they are indeed based in fact. But it's no surprise that any Icelander can claim bloodlines with anyone they please. After 1,000 years, there are one trillion branches in a family tree, assuming that each couple only has two children. (Keep that in mind when someone tells you they are related to Shakespeare or King Charlemagne, because you can quite honestly reply that you are, too.)
Icelanders are pretty good record keepers. Every person in born in Iceland is documented in the National Registry, along with marriages, deaths, and land exchanges. There is even a National Horse Registry if you want to trace your horse back to it's settler days. Amazingly, 80% of all Icelanders who have ever lived can be traced on family trees. This is partially due to the small population (approaching 300,000). I was just having breakfast with my friend Denní (Æsa's father) and asked him who was his most distant relative from the Sagas. He immediately replied that it is Egill-Skallagrímsson, who lived in the year A.D. 910. His father was a Norwegian, and Egill was born in Iceland. Egill's story is a popular one, because not only was he a gifted poet (he was three years old when he wrote his first poem), he was also completely insane.
It might come as a surprise to some people that (at least in Iceland) Vikings are more revered for their poetry than for their violence. It should not be a surprise, however, that Vikings did a lot more than go out on raids and kill each other.

The Icelandic Viking Age started in A.D. 793, and they were craftsmen, writers, traders, explorers, artists, and farmers. For a long time, the original settlers lived without rulers, laws, or government, but eventually they became the founders of Alþingi in 930, which remains the world's oldest functioning parliament.
The original settlers definitely engaged in a fair amount of bloodshed. The Sagas are chock full of revenge killings, and they did sail to Scandinavia on pirate-type excursions, but for the most part, they were average farmers with a complex culture.
Shortly after the establishment of Alþingi, they were converted to Christianity and their culture disappeared. I asked another Icelandic friend of mine, Þráinn, what he thought happened to the Vikings and why they vanished in the year 1000 because of Christianity. He said "Have you ever met an Icelander who was Christian?" I answered no.

For the most part, the Vikings never left. The word "Viking" wasn't introduced as a label for a culture until the 1800s (remember when that horned barbarian image became popular?) although it was used as a verb in the old Norse language. In the early 1000s, it was introduced into the English language as a synonym for a pirate, and Scandinavians still tend to use it to refer to the specific people who went out on expeditions.

This implies that Icelanders are purebred Viking stock, but a lot of genetic study has been conducted in the last few years that introduces some surprising (and not so surprising) ethnicities. The not so surprising one you might recall from my earlier post about Icelandic women. The original Icelanders kept Irish and Scottish slaves (Westmen, where the name for the island of Westmannaeyjar comes from) and apparently had no problem with keeping some of them as family. Icelanders with family trees that go back 1000 years have predominantly Viking grandfathers and Irish or Scottish grandmothers, but interestingly, they are less-closely related to their grandmothers than they are to their grandfathers. That's simply because some families were bigger than others. There has also been a discovery of Native American mitochondrial DNA from a single woman in Icelanders, but it's a mystery how this woman made it all the way to Iceland.
If you're thinking that Iceland looks pretty inbred at this point, you're not that far off from the truth.
I've heard stories of people who start dating and check the National Registry to see if they are too closely related. But this might be another tall tale.

Maybe I'll address is again in another posting, but for now, this is the end of Part 5. I hope that next time you think of the Icelandic Viking, you don't immediately picture a Victorian stereotype, and give a little credit to the artisans and poets who toughed out the tortured landscape of Iceland over 1000 years ago. Somehow people have managed to live here despite frigid winters, famine, disease, poisonous volcanic gas, floods, and any number of other horrible events that would have made most people high-tail it for Spain.

This officially marks the end of EYHAIIWSO. It was nice of you to join me in an annoyance-based series of short essays that I sincerely hope were at least more accurate than the original myths they were trying to dispel. Thanks.

(If you're interested in some of the websites I used to gather the information for this post, they are listed after the cut)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 4. Elves and Fairies

Brace yourself because I'm about to buzzkill all over your face.
The Icelandic stereotype that bothers me the absolute most is the one about how most Icelanders believe in fairies and elves.
It bothers me because there are two things majorly wrong with it.
1. Icelanders have never believed in "fairies" or "elves". They are called Huldufólk, which means "Hidden People", but for some reason was lazily translated into "elves", which people associated with fairies.
2. Most Icelanders do not believe in anything supernatural at all.

The stereotype most commonly thrown around to sum up the entire population of Iceland is this one, and it's probably the one that is furthest from the truth. Oh, how cute they all are, leaving out plates of food for elves and building them little villages. They must be such a simple and sweet people, they just don't know any better!

First, I will clear up the definition of Huldufólk. Since these stories are very old, there's a lot of discrepancy about where they came from, how many kinds there are, and what they look like. The most common and widely distributed tale comes from the story of Adam and Eve. You see, one day, God wanted to pay a visit to Adam and Eve and their many children (yes, in this version, Adam and Eve had tons of kids in the Garden of Eden, which makes sense...) but Eve simply did not have time to gather them all up and give them proper baths. So some of them remained dirty. To avoid the shame of having God see her filthy little ragamuffins, she simply hid them somewhere so he wouldn't think she was a neglectful mother. Apparently she didn't do a background check on her visitor, because she would have figured out that he was All-Knowing. Maybe it just slipped her mind. At any rate, God showed up and asked Eve to line up her children so he could have a look. She brought out the clean kids, and when God asked her if there were more, she lied. As punishment for lying, God forever banished the dirty children to a place between Heaven and Hell, where they could only be seen to humans if they wished to be. And they were called the Hidden People. They were exactly like humans in appearance, only mostly invisible.
Huldufólk can be roughly translated as "elf" in English, and there is more confusion when you take in account that Álfar is a synonym that started being used in 19th century stories. My theory as to why tourists have never heard of Hidden People, but are anxious to see fairy stones is that Westerners think that fairies are girls, and elves are boys. It's difficult to sort through the whole taxonomic mess because the tourism industry seems to encourage the notion that Icelanders really do believe in fantasy creatures because it makes them seem quaint and non-threatening. It also seems to do a good job selling wool sweaters and lava rock jewelry.

Iceland also has many folk tales about trolls, which are more consistent. Trolls are large, rude, stupid, and turn to stone when they are caught in daylight. Hence all of the oddly-shaped rocks that scatter the country. These stories most likely originate from old Scandinavian myths that explain interesting rock formations.
For example, the hauntingly beautiful formations, Reynisdrangur, in Vík í Mýrdal are said to be two trolls who were bringing in their ship, but were too slow and turned to stone when the sun came up.
Real, live trolls
As Þráinn so nicely summed it up, "people were pretty bored in the old days".

So that's why there are no fairies or gnomes, or tiny elves in Iceland.
However, I won't completely ruin your fun. Here's a freebie:
Iceland enjoys (or suffers, depending on how you look at it) the longest Christmas celebration in the world, starting on December 12 and officially ending on January 6. In this time, thirteen Yule Lads (pronounce it like Yoo-Lee) come out of the countryside and cause mayhem. The Yule Lads are an endearing, if not terrifying bunch of creatures. They are said to be the sons of Grýla, who is a mountain ogress with a big black cat who eats children who do not receive clothes for Christmas (is that clever, or what?) With the introduction of Santa Claus, the Yule Lads have become more modernized, often adopting red and white cloaks and softening their demeanor, but Christmas time is still a dangerous time.
The Yule Lads commit crimes ranging from slamming doors to harassing sheep, but most of them just steal food. For example, you might be surprised to find your skyr missing thanks to Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler), or Gluggagægir might startle you as he peeps in your window, casing the joint. His name means Window-Peeper. Ketkrókur (Meat Hook) will sneak around and use his hook hands and steal meat.
Of course, these are all stories made up for children, and it's comparable to how adults tell their children stories about Santa Claus, but none in their right mind would ever believe such a story. It's probably accurate that adults are the ones stealing leftovers and blaming it on poor Pottasleikir in the same way that American parents nibble on cookies and milk on Christmas Eve.

During Christmas time, images of the Yule Lads are everywhere. Their popularity remains strong, but they are gradually being replaced by the Jolly St. Nick as time goes by.
So now that we've cleared up some misinformation about exactly what supernatural beings reside in Iceland, let's look into the actual Icelanders.

It's most likely that when these stories first originated, they were just stories, and no one believed them. But there was a surge in their popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries because Iceland was suffering particularly bad times and probably found some comfort in fantasy as a form of escapism.
Here's a quote from a 2006 survey done by a folklorist named Terry Gunnell:

"According to the preliminary results of this survey, 8.0% of 650 persons who answered this question were certain about the existence of huldufólk and álfar, 16.5% thought it was likely they existed, 31.0% assumed it was possible, 21.5% thought it was unlikely, 13.5% thought it was impossible and 8.5% did not have an opinion on this."

I don't know how the survey was conducted. If it was random or not is unknown. But the numbers conclude that the majority of people do not believe in fantasy creatures. The large number of people who answered that they didn't believe, but also would not deny their existence is probably due to nationalistic and nostalgic feelings.
The interesting thing about these numbers, to me, is that I've talked about this to a lot of Icelanders, and not even once has one of them told me that they believe these stories. Most of them are just as cynical and jaded as the rest of the world, and think it's a load of garbage.
This is particularly telling to me because it's common fact that Icelanders are not a religious people. Although church and state is not separated in the country, only 10% of Icelanders attend church once a month or more. Of the religious people, less believe in God than in a "spiritual force". It may be unfair (or unwise) to link the belief of one supernatural to another, but it seems unlikely to me that it wouldn't be so divided.

The truth is, Icelanders are a modern people, and 75% of them live in a modern city. The idea that most of them build shrines to tiny people in the mountains is a bit demeaning for a country that is surpassing many other developed countries in modernization.

As for the famous adage about the re-routing of the main road to avoid sacred elf homes, or because of the mischievous interference of the Hidden People, I offer you this letter from the Chief of Publishing of the Icelandic Road Administration. It starts...

Dear mr. Harkin 
Stories on road construction and elves in Iceland 
are exaggerated and not worth your time. 
Attached is a Word file with an essay on the matter. 
Foxes and reindeer have not been an issue in road planning in Iceland. 
All the best from Reykjavik 
Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson 
Chief of Publishing Unit

 (Full letter after the break)
I believe that this letter will properly reinforce the points I've made here that these stories are greatly exaggerated for the benefit of tourism.

Join me next time for the very last "Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of..." where I tackle the mighty Viking and ruin one more thing for everybody.