Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reykjavík (Iceland)

In Þórsmörk, we came across a curious breed of tourist: the northern lights chaser. He caught the bug with a spectacular display of the aurora borealis in Norway. Since then, the gentleman had travelled again from his home in Thailand to the far reaches of New Zealand to try to see its southern cousin, the aurora australis, already this season. Coming to Iceland, we had lowered our expectations for seeing them since there are so many variables affecting the display (light pollution, cloud cover, etc.). However, with his enthusiasm ringing in our ears, and assurances that the odds for this evening were particularly promising, we booked ourselves on a northern lights tour that departed within half an hour of our arrival into Reykjavík.

It was a bit of a scam. The "tour" was really a glorified bus trip to dump hundreds of tourists for a couple of hours in the cold somewhere outside of the city. Again a situation that would have been much improved if we had just rented a car. The glimpses we caught of the aurora were hazes of shifting green colors, so faint that it was hard to tell if you were just imagining them from staring so long into the dark. Amateur photographers with their expensive set ups caught a much more dramatic display in the nonvisible light spectrum. It's a shame the tour rounded us up a short time later since it was clear on our ride back that the show wasn't over yet.  

While we'd used Reykjavík as a base for some of our earlier adventures, we wrapped up our trip there to see a bit more of the capital. The art and music scene is remarkable for a country so small. One book credited Icelanders' open attitude toward failure as the reason so many in the country feel free to make a go in creative pursuits. Galleries and clubs abound, and we fell in love with 12 Tónar. This place carries the torch for old school record shops. The scruffy guy behind the counter gives recommendations and opens up new albums and, even better than that, serves free freshly-brewed espresso while you listen on quality headphones! The shop also owns a record label, where indie bands can get their start ... and really, all artists in Iceland aside from Björk and Sigur Rós, are indie. The music on heavy rotation in our household now is from Ásgeir Trausti, Sin Fang, Mammút, and Samaris.

Our new albums set us back a pretty penny, as does almost any purchase in Iceland. In Reykjavík, we had to get creative to afford some of the country's cuisine. Hot dogs are really popular and cheap. The yummy ones at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a famous stand that has served Bill Clinton and Anthony Bourdain, are made from lamb and topped with 3 different sauces and 2 kinds of onions. After seeing it on menus across the country, we sought out a café serving traditional Icelandic meat soup... only to find out later that shopkeepers were ladling it out free to hundreds as part of their Annual Meat Soup Day further down the street - D'oh! While the hot dogs and soup were pretty straightforward, other traditional viands were maybe not so familiar. We saw seal, puffin, and whale advertised on tasting menus... though it's debatable how many of these historical seafoods (?) are consumed by the average Icelander versus as a strange food for tourists. The appearance of jellied meat products has always been unsettling for me, but I did finally satisfy my Laura Ingalls Wilder-induced curiosity about headcheese. The Icelandic version is from sheep and, I guess, not sooo bad on thickly buttered flatbread and with mashed turnips to accompany it.

This is not the case with hákarl. This traditional Icelandic protein starts with a carcass of a shark that is then beheaded, buried in sand, left to ferment for months, dug up, and dried out before serving. In short, ancient Icelanders must have been starving to consider this edible. The aforementioned Tony Bourdain called it, "the single worst, most disgusting, and terrible tasting thing;" bizarre food enthusiast Andrew Zimmerman described it as one "of the most horrific things I've ever breathed in my life;" and tough guy chef Gordon Ramsay just spat it out. We both tried a cube at the Kolaportið Market. It was soft and chewy - not surprising since sharks are mostly cartilage - with a strip not unlike sandpaper running through. The taste was actually not so off-putting until one begins to chew. This results in a release of an increasing and overwhelming flavor of... ammonia. We managed to choke it down, but let's face it, the lingering finish of household cleaner is just not something you can get rid of easily. ¡Qué asco!