Poppets, lovelies and dear ones,
Here’s hoping you are suitably full of Sunday lunch, and in need of a little end of week entertainment. Coming to the end of my first month and ending with a bit of a bang. And just when you thought you were due a quieter week of news from Iceland…!
Monday (20.02.17) was a little unfocussed. After a short walk in the snow with Sara, in the studio I decided to write to friends and family. In my wisdom I decided to make beautiful intricate envelopes to save money- this of course took me all day…(*but those in receipt seemed to appreciate my efforts at the end of the week! You’re welcome!) Nobody seemed to be able to hold concentration and the studio seemed all but deserted by 4.30. I traipsed back to my house disappointed in my lack of work. Sara and Yang invited me for some last minute Chinese pancakes and soup- which was most welcome. Yang, who’s English is rapidly improving managed to clearly explain the Chinese political system and all that he felt was good and bad about it. Stepping back from my western judgements, I could see from his point of view, safety and peace were worth sacrificing certain freedoms for- and who was I to tell him that that is wrong.
After an unfocussed and slightly uneventful day I went to bed. BUT THEN. “KIMI, OUTSIDE” Nisa shouted. I leapt from my bed and ran for the door. They were here. For a split second I caught a glimpse of a large green-hued ‘S’ before it disappeared. I shouted for the others- “GUYS, NORTHERN LIGHTS!”Hiking boots and coat over pyjamas, no time for more appropriate layers, we headed out into the snow. By the time Nicole and Ina got up and outside all appeared quiet and clear. But no lights. Yang appeared from the other end of the road with his camera- he excitedly showed us a photo he’d got.
Then creeping up behind the mountains a slow green glow. It was more eerie and enchanting than I had imagined as beams begun to shoot up into the sky (Geek reference: one looked a little like Commissioner Gordon had turned on the light but forgotten the bat symbol!), and then formed shapes which danced above us. Like a delicate green cloth being dropped in slow motion from the sky. Nature’s discotheque! I had been watching a film earlier that evening, “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” which featured a made up word for the indescribably extraordinary, and here as I stood silently in my pyjamas it felt perfectly fitting- majestical.
We waited until they had completely disappeared and then cold, emotional and overwhelmed we headed back inside- my heart was full of the aurora, the strange lights, and I knew it would be for a long time to come. Maybe always.
On Tuesday morning (22.02.17), filled to the brim with excitement carried over from the night before I headed off on a more mundane adventure. Armed with 5 shopping lists (as everyone else had too much to do being their last week) and in the company of Peter and Nisa, we headed out into the white- to shop, and to collect a new volunteer, Jonathan, from Egilsstaðir.
“What’s the first colour springs to mind kids?!” said Peter as we crossed the mountain roads to Egilsstaðir. The drive was beautifully bleak and colourless, unable to distinguish and separate land from sky- like the Iceland of imagination and stories.
Once we arrived in Egilsstaðir- not terribly pretty, but a functional airport town, we headed for the service station. “Keep your eyes peeled for a red headed German!” said Peter as we got out of the car. Jonathan was easy to find! He had been on the boat from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður for three days, and was visibly still swaying! We decided to go to another petrol station, as Peter quietly informed us that there was a better one for hot dogs- “The best on the east coast.” A bold claim from Mr Cooper! (* I have since been informed by Vinny that there are better on the east coast, but these are certainly the best in Egilsstaðir!) I ordered in Icelandic, and the gentleman behind the counter even taught me how to say “with everything!
We then headed back to our usual supermarket to shop for the troops. I looked at the Easter Egg display and was pleased to see a little of home. The crazed little yellow chicks I so associate with my childhood and particularly one of my wonderful Aunts gazed at me on mass from the shelves. It was lovely to see that they had obviously flown across the miles to greet me!
Peter was very keen to get going as the conditions were certainly deteriorating. On the way back it was lovely to get to know Jonathan a little. His story and journey was an interesting one, and his enthusiasm and energy infectious- so poor Peter and Nisa has to put up with our chattering for the whole journey home! (*Peter did note that my speech slowed and become decidedly more distracted when I was noticing some form to hazard that obviously concerned me!)
I worked a late evening at the Factory (with a short interlude so that Yang could teach me and Sara how to make his delicious spicy fish soup!), as with the shopping trip my day had not really started until the afternoon, and I was keen after yesterday to get something done. I cut a new seal woman print, and after midnight was pretty happy having completed it.
I was organising a story telling evening as Þór was leaving early the following morning. So I began the day (22.02.17) by baking cakes to accompany the festivities. Jonathan had excitedly bought an abundance of old cheap bananas at the supermarket so I had said I would “help him out” by turning them in to cake!
That afternoon we had decided to take a group trip to the premier tourist destination in Stöðvarfjörður- Petra’s Stone Collection. We walked in the snow, and a flock of little birds flew past. “Tiny birds. Like tiny fish in the sky.” said Yang. A beautiful statement.
A life time in stones and minerals at the museum is now loving cared for and looked after by Petra’s family and friends. Her granddaughter welcomed us in- I had never seen such a wonderful private collection. A mixture of personal objects and the stone displays (almost entirely collected in east Iceland- apart from the obsidian which is found further north)- everything clearly held equal importance for this extraordinary lady. Be it a precious rare stone, a tiny vase made by one of her grandchildren, a keyring in the shape of a character from South Park, or a signed poster of the Icelandic handball team! And I had never seen such beautiful and bizarre stones.
Petra’s granddaughter told me what a strong wilful person she was. Mischievous and headstrong- she knew exactly what she wanted. And looked for beauty and found it where others did not. There were many lessons to be learnt from Petra I was told- she sounded like an absolute gem of a human. She passed away in 2012 and now every Easter the whole family and old friends come together to clean every stone in the collection. I asked whether I could come to draw but also maybe to help and she said “sure”. So more visits to come, and because of the snow, the stones in the garden remain completely unexplored by my eyes!
I helped Brynja and Þór out with a performance project they had been working on. I recorded them out in the snow filming on Brynja’s Super 8 camera. I did warn of my notoriously shakey hands and general unsteadiness- Brynja told me it would be how it was meant to be.
That evening we headed to Lingolt and lit candles and turned out the lights. It was cosy and warm and perfect for stories. I read a couple of folk tales and a poem from books, and Þór told an epic story about the monkey god Hanuman from his travels in India- no need for a book, it was all in his brain! We then shared personal stories from our lives back home and ate cake (it was unanimously agreed that the vegan cake was better than the “normal” one!) It was a really wonderful evening, and a fitting last one in the company of Þór. This group would never all be in the same place at the same time again.
On Thursday (23.02.17) the studio had a notable empty space but we all got down to being busy. With the other’s leaving so soon there was a sense of urgency in finishing final projects before having to pack away towards the end of the week. Sara and Ina had decided to leave early on Saturday in order to see a little more of the country before their flights home, whilst others still had a few more days the following week. I worked on two more lino blocks in readiness for some printing on Friday- both mountain ones, inspired, possibly by my trip to the stone collection and new found excitement about geology!
Brynja offered to give me another Icelandic lesson, and this time Nisa and Jonathan joined- both also keen to learn a little. It was really fun and encouraging learning with others. We sat for hours and I really started to take in a lot. We went through all the sounds, numbers, useful phrases (some not so useful but very fun! Apparently “high five” is so lame it isn’t even retro!) and importantly, how to say ‘I love you!’. I think Nisa and Jonathan find it a little easier than I do, but they both have second languages already, and for Jonathan, although very different, there are German roots to some of the Icelandic language. But now when listening to people speaking there are definitely words I can pick out. And I’ve learnt one very important and useful (non jam-pizza related) phrase I can say well- ‘Ég tala bara smá íslensku’, ‘I speak just a small amount of Icelandic.’
Another birthday today (24.02.17), our wonderful Mountain- Peter! So my all important task was to construct the perfect crown for a wise, kind and lovely person who helps us all so much. I based his around the snowy mountains of the week, but also included another of his loves- playing cards. Stuck on to the front were a homemade ace of spades and the king of hearts- which featured a miniature portrait of Peter in a crown . I showed Yang, “That is so Peter. But why is he wearing a hat like a nurse?!” I had drawn Peter wearing a classic crown like a king on a deck of cards, but it did accidentally also look a little like an old fashioned nurses hat! Yang has been learning English for such a short amount of time and is so hard on himself- but he really has got the hang of humour whether he realises it or not!
We were organising a “surprise” afternoon tea. Nicole had made a cake and I made some cookies, which we decorated with flags and candles. Sara had made Peter an Australian flag with a mountain on the back. Jonathan collected him and we were all waiting in the Factory kitchen- was he surprised?! Perhaps not- but he was certainly happy!
I then got on with printing- I had three newly cut prints to work with. Unfortunately the press just wasn’t on my side so they came out a little less evenly than I would like. But that is down to press and human error so next week I hope to do some better runs. And at least, it was nice to be able to see my weeks’ work and to work out where adjustments might need to be made.
Peter had expressed his wishes for his Birthday evening, so pizza at Brekkan it was. We sang the wonderful Danish birthday song, for probably the last time. Peter’s choice for the instruments we should pretend to play were inspired- harpsichord, harp and trombone. I think everyone else in Brekkan thought we had completely lost the plot! I ordered my beer entirely in Icelandic, without any supervision- even with a few sentences I hadn’t learnt, I was able to get the gist- “did I want a big or a little glass?” Sara and I insisted that there should be a jam pizza amongst the order- nobody else seemed overly keen beforehand, but of course once it arrived everyone wanted a slice and it disappeared within seconds. We even had to ask for extra jam (possibly because I ate jam with all the varieties of pizza not just the jam specific one!). Next time I might insist there should be two though…!
Rosa, Una and Vinny had bought Peter the most beautiful blue Icelandic sweater. Peter was certainly very touched and overwhelmed- he said this was definitely in his top five best birthdays ever. We played some cards back at the house, and the lovely fish man and his wife- Jón and Jóhanna came to join us. Jonathan managed to hold a proper conversation with them- and by the end of the evening I think they were almost ready to adopt him! He had been invited for dried fish, fermented shark, and Jón’s favourite fermented fish- not sure if that is a feast I would be brave enough to try yet…!
It was then time to say goodbye to Ina and Sara who were leaving early in the morning for a weekend in Akureyri and Seyðisfjörður with Peter. This will be the pattern of my time here, I know, but goodbyes with people you have connected and shared experience with are always sad. I’ll have to hope somebody next month likes early morning walks!
And then there were fewer.
As Shrove Tuesday (aka Pancake Day!) clashes with the other artists last night, and an Icelandic feast day called “Sprengidagur” that Brynja has translated as “Explosion eating day”( where you seemingly eat ALL THE FOOD! My kind of holiday..) I insisted on making a pancake brunch yesterday (25.02.17). All vegan, and a good excuse to use the last of Jonathan’s sad looking brown bananas. I made a stack of banana and a stack of pear pancakes and we sat enjoying each others company, and the perfect gluggaveður! A beautiful little phrase that doesn’t exist in english that Brynja taught us- for when the weather is glorious and seemingly warm, you head outside perhaps unprepared for the elements and head back in- and so it is gluggaveður- “window weather”.
A few of us then popped to the weekly Saturday Red Cross shop in the village hall. I managed to pick up a new, handmade Icelandic sweater cardigan for probably a tenth of what it was worth. I insisted on paying an extra 500k (which isn’t that much) as I couldn’t take something that had so much work, time and love in it, without giving more.
Nicole wanted to go to the river to collect some more stones for her collection. It was beautiful and bracing, so prepared for the elements, and not just the window, we set off.
We spent a little time looking in the river and larking about in the sun and snow, but soon it felt like time to head back.
I ended up having a completely ridiculous conversation with Brynja on the way, concerning the northern lights. As it was such a beautiful clear day I wondered out loud if they may come again tonight. Clearly this week I had misunderstood something somewhere in a conversation. I said that I knew we would have to go outside later if they came, because I remembered she had told me that you can never see the northern lights through a window. “No Kimi, that isn’t true. I never said that. Maybe it was just that I couldn’t see them one time.” replied Brynja. But I was so sure she had. Like it was science or fact. And I had been telling people back home with such conviction! I was crippled with laughter at this ridiculous lost in translation moment- and of course no one would let me forget my silliness! So, just to clarify, to anyone I said it to and for future reference- it turns out, if they are there, you can see the northern lights through a window!
I thought I would spend the rest of the day writing, and enjoying the rest of the days light quietly by the big window in the other house. How wrong I was.
A little while after Jonathan had announced he was going for another walk, he reappeared again. With a new friend. Samuel, a French Celtic travelling story teller, who he had met by the water. Jonathan had been contemplating some outdoor swimming in the fjord. They had got chatting, and Samuel had said perhaps a swim in the fjord was ill-advised. The currents could be strong, and there are no sauna’s, showers or hot pots near by- so not an ideal spot for outdoor swimming at this time of year. Samuel suggested the only way it may be ok is if Jonathan was on a rope that he could hold from the shore…but then it was putting the responsibility onto a stranger whom he had only just met. And that might not be fair. This was wise advise.
Samuel had been traveling since August, collecting stories and passing them on, as well as offering songs and celtic dance. He goes into schools offering his gifts, which are more often than not accepted. We shared a meal with him, and in return he gave us stories and songs by candlelight. We were existing in a time without mobile phones, in a magical bubble. He played wonderful instruments- a sort of box, a little like a harp that he plucked with an eagle feather. Brynja taught us a beautiful haunting Icelandic folk song called ‘Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu’ and we all sang it together.
He told us a beautiful Syrian folk story that brought tears to my eyes. Especially when he told us of his time in the country before the war happened. He spoke of the generosity of the people, and the unexpected peace he found between religions. And the beauty. It would take Samuel hours to walk down one street as everyone would want to invite the travelling story teller into their homes and hearts. All gone now of course. All the people he met and the places he’d seen, destroyed.
I asked him for a story about the seal women- he told me the Scottish version which differed for the Icelandic versions I had been reading. And he also shared a beautiful little story just with me, about sunshine as he said it felt right. But I will hold on to that one for myself I think.
He read us all, and gave us the stories we needed. A very special Greek story about holding your destiny in your own hand, and being the only one who can change it for one particular amongst us, but appropriate for everyone, and this was how we ended the evening. He was a troubadour in the truest sense. It was a ridiculously magical evening- the like of which I will never have again.
Sundays (26.02.17), are seemingly reserved for writing and quiet it seems, so I have been enjoying the gluggaveður, and apart from being conned by a group of children selling cakes ( Bolla, which the children make for Bolludagur- bun day. I accidentally bought a whole box when I just wanted one. But hey ho!) nothing much has happened. Which is probably just as well after the excitement of the week that as been!
So here I am reflecting on my first month as I left the UK four weeks ago today. I have experienced more in this time than I have in years. I have found a strange little corner of the world that I have fallen deeply in love with. Despite the isolation I have found more of a sense of community and feel more connection than I have in so long. I have unlocked my creativity again, after spending some time concerned that I had lost it. I feel lighter and less worried. I miss my family and my friends, but I do not miss the pace I had become accustomed to living. I have learnt many lessons from the people and this place, and have more to come. I unexpectedly even seem to be speaking the language- even if it is just “smá”! I like jam on pizza. And I even learnt that you can definitely see the northern lights through a window! This week there will be more goodbyes, and a whole group of new people to live and work with and new connections to make. Part of the challenge of being here for four months is the transience. So who knows what stories and I will find in the next month!
TTFN, much love,