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Icelandic Showerheads Rule!

I begin this report sitting at a desk in a luxury suite in the Hotel Borg (no, not cubical; in Icelandic the name means "outcropping"), surrounded by old-world luxury. Or what passes for luxury in Reykjavik, Iceland, anyway. Nice chandeliers and rugs and quaint folk paintings on the walls and good solid furniture like you might find in a well-to-do private home. Very large feather bed. But the bed doesn't have a top sheet, and the Internet access here is a cruel tease — it turns out to be a Windows machine with one dialout line in a little cubbyhole off the lobby downstairs.

My wife Cathy and I landed here at 6:45am local time yesterday after a long night flight over the Atlantic. The sun was just rising as we hit the road from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik city, and the drive there was a perfect metaphor for the country's two faces. The busy highway, an emblem of modern Western normality, cut through a bleak lansdcape of moorland and lava flows, washed with pearly light from great jagged decks of grey cloud. Three feet off the road margin, it was clear that little had changed since the first Viking settlers landed twelve hundred years ago.

On the way into town, we stopped at a gas station and bought something about which we had read in the guidebooks and become curious — hardfiskur, a sort of dried or jerked haddock eaten as a snack with butter. Our local contact, grinning, asked us not to open the stuff inside his car — "The smell lingers for days," he said.

As we settled into the Hotel Borg, it became apparent that modern Iceland is in many respects a typical Nordic country — which is to say that the people are polite and handsome and well-spoken and usually understand English, everything is neat and clean and well ordered, the weather is cold but tolerable, the food is filling but bland, and in general the place is as boring as hell.

Well, that's too harsh really. But having been to Norway and Sweden and Denmark and now here, these are not places you would come seeking wild excitement (and I hear Finland is even less plausible that way). Sensual these cultures are not — while there are good times to be had, they're largely either food for the forebrain or the stark and direct experience of a rather chilly natural beauty.

In the food-for-the-forebrain category, I did get to see some original saga manuscripts at Reykjavik University that first day at the end of our city tour, barely seven hours after we'd gotten off the plane. That was satisfying — the Icelanders may have spent most of their thousand-year history as peasants doing ragged-edge subsistence farming, but they are rightly proud of their saga literature. These are epic tales of conflict and passion and honor written in a deceptively simple style that has stood the test of time quite well.

I've read a number of the major Icelandic sagas (the Saga of Burnt Njal, Egil's Saga, the Laxadaela Saga, the two Vinland sagas) and it was especially interesting to see the original of the Flateyjarbók, which is one of the major manuscript sources. Among other things, it contains the only primary copy of the Saga of the Greenlanders, the earlier and more reliable of the two `Vinland Sagas' describing the Viking explorartion of North America.

Unfortunately, saga manuscripts are about the only Icelandic historical artifacts worth mentioning — take a `historical tour' of Reykjavik and most of what they'll show you is mediocre 20th-century statues of Leif Ericson and the like. The architecture was produced by a late and hasty urbanization, and that shows — it's mostly drab concrete buildings in an ill-assorted jumble of modernist styles. The attempts to give them character with traditional Nordic touches like bright colors and steep-pitched gable roofs are brave and well-meant, but largely failures.

Except at dusk. Reykjavik looks its best in the long sub-arctic sunset; the bluish light of evening masks the gray of concrete and picks out the colors, giving the place an almost magical air like an illustration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. The locals are quite aware of this effect and enhance it with a galaxy of decorative lights.

Had a pleasant dinner with Alan Cox and Telsa Gwynne that night. My entree was a "wild game feast" — medallions of reindeer, wild goose (Cathy had a wild-goose entree), and puffin. The puffin was the interesting bit; strong-flavored, not unpleasant, but oily.

Icelanders like to remind foreigners that Reykjavik is the cleanest capitol city in the world, its heat and electricity supplied by geothermal energy direct from the plutonic heart of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Reykjavik's tapwater, in fact, comes direct from volcanic hot springs. What the locals don't dwell on is the perceptible tang of sulphur in the stuff.

My second morning here I learned that the hot-spring water makes taking a shower in Iceland a rather unique experience. These people have never heard of low-flow showerheads; the traditional style is about three feet wide and sits directly overhead, so standing under one is rather like being doused with hot rain that smells faintly of rotten eggs.

Alan Cox and Telsa Gwynne were excellent company for breakfast. We explored the dubious mysteries of the smorgasbord together (yes, you too can munch on pickled herring before you're properly awake!). The Icelandic smorgasboard differs from its continental-Nordic counterparts in a few details; they eat more sweet pastries, for one thing, and don't have any tradition of those coarse oat flatbreads (resembling nothing so much as roofing shingles) that are such a favorite with the Norwegians and Danish. Wherever the Icelanders buy their tea from, it's pretty good. Their bread is remarkably tasty, too.

My talk that afternoon went well. I got to listen to Alan talk about the 2.4 kernel. Otherwise, the conference was conducted in Icelandic. This means I could barely understand a word of it, but on the other hand I got to listen to a large enough volume of spoken Icelandic for the linguistic pattern-recognition machinery in my brain to start firing.

I knew it was beyond hope for me to pick up more than a few words of Icelandic during a three-day stay — the language is knotty and complex, so havily inflected that it's often hard to recognize the same word-root in different grammatical roles. But I did learn one useful trick by listening to my hosts; how to tell spoken Icelandic from the other Nordic languages. Listen for the rolled `r' sound.

It's easy to recognize a Nordic tongue by the characteristic cadence of these languages and the distribution of consonant clusters. In fact, spoken Icelandic sounds rather more like spoken Norwegian, Swedish and Danish than I had expected from looking at the written language. However there are perceptible differences, and one of them is the way `r' is normally pronounced.

Danish `r' is a back or uvular sound, like the French `r' (think of the initial sound in `rouge' or `royale'). In the Swedish and city-Norwegian dialects I've heard, `r' is a voiced palato-alveolar approximant sound like the American or (slightly different) British `r'. But in Icelandic it's a full trilled 'r' like the middle consonant in Spanish `corrida'. Icelanders often speak Norwegian or Danish as a second language, and the ones I discussed this with agreed that this rule is good.

Icelandic orthography is a good match to the spoken language, and Icelandic is in general pretty easy for an English-speaker with a good ear to pronounce correctly — unlike, for example, Danish, where the spoken and written forms of the language are so divergent that seeing a word written down is no help or an actual hindrance when it comes to pronunciation. There are a couple of quirks, though; the distinction between thorn and edh is one, and what Icelanders do to "ll" is another.

Old Norse distinguished between the unvoiced `th' of `thick' (written thorn, þ) and the voiced `th' of `clothes' (written edh, ð). English and the other Scandinavian language have almost entirely* lost this distinction, but Icelandic preserves it. Also, the sound written `ll' tends to turn into a sort of flapped `tl' sound as in English `bottle' — I've heard Icelanders argue about whether this too was true in old Norse or whether it's a development of the last few centuries.

Despite minor changes in spoken pronunciation, written Icelandic remains a deeply conservative, even archaic language. Icelandic schoolchildren of today can read without effort transcriptions of manuscripts nearly a thousand years old. The persistence of saga literature is both a cause and a consequence of this conservatism.

Another consequence of Icelandic's archaism is that, to an Icelander used to its grammatical complexities, modern Scandinavian tongues and English sound rather like nursery talk or a crude pidgin language. It's not easy to get one to admit this, however.

That night we had dinner at Reykjavik's poshest restaurant, the Pearl. The place is, of all things, built on top of Reykjavik's municipal water tanks. We're told they used to be a huge eyesore, until they were shrouded by a concrete shell with an elegant glass dome on top. Under the dome is a ritzy dining spot, studiedly high-style, all tuxedoed waiters and Persian carpets. We went there with Alan and Telsa and the other conference speakers and organizers.

We got a bit of a look at what Icelanders can be like when they get a few drinks in them and let their hair down. Gylfi, a business-suited HP salesman in his day life, taught everyone the arcane art of suspending spoons from their noses. (Somewhere in Iceland there are pictures of me, spoon hung from my nose, with my hands making mudras in the manner of a Zen meditator...) Alan courageously drank a glass of a lethal, schnapps-like native liqueur the Icelanders call "Svarti Dauði" or "Black Death". Long talk over tea, coffee, and chocolates after an excellent dinner; the party didn't break up until nearly one in the morning.

And the third I write this I'm sitting in an Icelandic jeep, bucketing north along the road out of Reykjavik. An Icelandic 'jeep' is actually a customized SUV, often a Toyota Land Cruiser, fitted with fat oversized tires and a GPS and CB radio, meant for off-road driving in the bleak landscapes of the island's interior (Icelanders will tell you proudly that NASA astronauts have used the Icelandic interior to train for moon walks). These vehicles seem to be prized status symbols among Reykjavik's computer hackers; they fuss over them and compare accessories like American hot-rodders.

We're part of a convoy of three jeeps. We're headed towards the Þingvellir, the thousand-year-old meeting place of the Icelandic Althing or popular assembly. The landscape around us is moorlands so barren they're almost a cold desert. Rugged snow-marbled mountains ring the horizon, and plumes of steam vented from the ubiquitous hot springs drift over gnarled lava flows. The only green in this landscape is the lichen on the rocks — but our driver, Einar, tells us that this is an unusually mild winter; the roads are clear, and the snow is only patchy.

The Þingvellir itself sits on one edge of a crack in the world. Where the Mid-Atlantic ridge runs roughly northeast-southwest through Iceland, there's a three- or four-mile-wide rift valley wedged between the European and American tectonic plates. We can see clear across it from the overlook point; some steep-gabled houses built on the flat floor of the rift valley give a sense of scale to the scene.

Off to one side is the fabled Law Rock, the place where the legal code of viking-era Iceland was recited twice a year by the law-speakers, whose job it was to commit the entirety of it to memory. It was here that some of the most famous scenes in the sagas took place, and here that the last pagan law-speaker made the famous remark that "If the law is split, the people will be split" just before his regrettable decision to accept the Christianization of Iceland.

The next place we visited was a small, dormant volcanic stack nearby, perhaps fifteen feet high. It looks like a child's drip-castle hardened into lava. There's a vent in the center that leads down to unguessable depths. The area around it is clinker and tephra, with stuff on it that looks like black soil until you realize it's actually volcanic ash. But after that we descended a few hundred feet into less forbidding country; we saw grass, farmsteads, and even a few small herds of stocky, shaggy-maned Icelandic horses grazing in the mild weather.

A few miles further on we come to Geysir. This is the place that gave English the word "geyser" — a three-kilometer-square field of steam vents, geysers, mudpots, and fumaroles that looks like the back-lot of Dante's inferno. Our local friends told us the whole area had gotten much more active since an earthquake last year. The biggest of the steam vents, Geysir itself, only erupts a few times a day; we didn't get to see it go off. But one of the lesser ones, a geyser called `Strokkur', erupted several times while we were there, disgorging a huge plume of hot steam. We got to see this from barely thirty feet away.

The Icelanders told us that fully 1/3 of the active volcanoes in the world are located in Iceland. This becomes credible after you've seen your dozenth lava flow, and very easy to believe after Geysir.

Geysir is very near the inward edge of human habitation on Iceland; past it, the country rises into the glaciers and barren mountains of the interior. That's where we were headed — to Gullfoss waterfall, a famously beautiful cataract on a river of glacial meltwater so frigid that nothing lives in it until much closer to the sea.

The waterfall lives up to its billing — an intricate cascade foaming in a dramatically high and narrow gorge. It's a symphony in sheer cliffs, mist, and deadly cold water, worthy of a Wagnerian opera. To see it is to be reminded how narrow the margin of human existence is here — if Iceland were just a few degrees colder even the coasts would be like this, and the whole place would be uninhabitable.

Soon after Gullfoss it was time to go off-road towards our ultimate destination, the glacier Langjökull. We stopped for a break in the snowfield just off the road, and the driver of one of the other jeeps announced a surprise. The surprise turned out to be a haunch of cold raw lamb that had been smoked for preservation — "Viking food" he explained. Cathy and I figured it was the right time to bring out the hardfiskur we'd hauled along.

The dozen or so people on the expedition stood around the jeeps in the ankle-deep snow, carving flitches off the smoked lamb with pocketknives and eating it contemplatively, varying the pace with mouthfuls of the hardfiskur. The fish turns out to taste less like insulation material than it looks, but not that much less like. The lamb tasted oily and strong. I think I understand now why the Vikings ravaged Europe — if that's what their home cooking was like it's no wonder they were desperate to be anywhere else.

This was the point at which things started to get a little dicey. Mountain driving in Iceland is not a sport for the faint of heart, and it's considered dangerous foolishness to go offroad in groups of less than two or three vehicles. We began to find out why in that snowfield, when the jeep Cathy and I were in had to haul the one Alan and Telsa were in out of drifted snow with a rope.

After that our convoy mushed through stark white snowfields for an hour and a half, but conditions were worsening. Visibility was OK but the snowpack had softened in the comparatively warm weather, and even the balloon tires of the big jeeps couldn't keep them from repeatedly bogging down.

The last stop on the nature tour was to have been the top of Langjökull, but Alan and Telsa's jeep (the heaviest of the three) proved unable to make it through the deep snow. We had to stop ten or so kilometers short of the glacier. After a break for sandwiches and tea and coffee and chocolate, we headed back down towards civilization. Sigurjón, the driver of the heavy jeep, came in for a good deal of ribbing over the radio in Icelandic, some of which our friends translated for us. The downhill run was easy; the biggest suspense was whether some of us would get to a toilet in time, and in the event there were no further mishaps.

Alas, the aftermath of our expedition was not so pleasant. Alan and Cathy got food poisoning that evening, nausea and vomiting and the whole nine yards. We're fairly sure it was that smoked lamb — though Telsa and I, who also had the stuff, were completely unaffected. Took them a day and a half to recover, and Cathy wasn't entirely herself again until halfway home on the plane.

We got our stark and direct experience of natural beauty, all right. Not to mention a Viking heritage experience that caught some of us a good kick in the gut...but we're glad we went there anyway. Iceland truly is not quite like anywhere else, and that's the point of travel, isn't it?

Footnote: Linguistics professors will tell you that in English thorn and edh are what are called "complementary allophones" and English does not distinguish them. This is not entirely true; reader Kate Gladstone pointed out to me that either/ether is a minimal pair of semantically distinct words.
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