Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The President of Iceland

Let me get this over with, photo credits: Þóra Margrét Bergsveinsdottír (mine ran out of battery in the first 5 minutes of turning it on)

Volunteers, posing in front of the president's house.

On the weekend of March 16-18, the AFS exchange students and a handful of volunteers went on a trip, meningarhelgi (culture weekend). We went to Snæfellsnes, one of the peninsulas on the western coast of Iceland. The whole shebang started at 12:00 at the AFS office in Reykjavík on Friday, and we proceeded to eat a ridiculous amount of pizza, then headed out to meet the president. Yes, the president of Iceland. But it's not that big of a deal, right? Let me explain.

But first, me looking dangerously at the camera

To meet the president, you have to be in Áltafnes, an essentially broken town, and then you go to Bessastaði (bessastathi), which is the plot of land where the president lives. Oh, the current president's name is Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. So you go to his house, you knock on the door, and you ask if he has time for some coffee. If he has time, you just met the president and are now drinking coffee with him. But since we were a group of 30 people, we decided to say "Hey, we're going to show up on Friday at 2:45, will you be there?" and he said yes so we went. That's as easy as it gets. You can just walk up and say hi. On security: there's a gate. But the joke is, there's no fence around the gate. Not really sure what the gate is for, you can just walk around it.

In front of the president's house

Volunteers, inside job

Peeing in the president's house, also an inside job

So we pile out, go inside, and sit around for a while, waiting for him to be ready, and discussing whether or not to say "Howdy Mr. President" instead of "Komdu sæll" (a formal greeting for a man). I went with "Komdu sæll," by the way (comm-dew sigh-tl). 

Waiting with air pipes, Margot and I

We meet him, and we start talking, he asks us where we're from and what we've seen in Iceland. Most of us scrape up enough Icelandic to say what we want to say and what we've seen. He was most surprised that not all of us have seen Gullfoss and geysirs, and urged (jokingly commanded?) the AFS president to take us on a trip to see them. We got pictures, and then we were free to walk around the house. But we weren't without our respects: we gave the president flowers!

Talking to the President

Somehow disappointed, we're all doing a horrible job of representing our country

Exchange students and volunteers, most of us looking scared out of our wits

 Also on security: the one security guard had a hand-tally counter and spent most of his time texting or something.
 We walked around the house, someone explained some of the artifacts in the library (there was a bible printed in 1500 something, translated literally from Latin, word for word, so that it made absolutely no sense when read), found a sword and a narwhal horn. They're surprisingly heavy (the horns, by the way).

Pile into bus, literally.

Pile into bus, drive to Snæfellsnes, stop in Borgarnes (where I live, if you don't rememeber) on the way, sit, wait, yeah.
Nothing much else happened that evening when we arrived (in Grundafjörður), I don't think. No wait, there was chess!

And energy drinks

Next morning, usual Icelandic breakfast, pile into bus, proceed to drive around Snæfellsnes and see things. I'm unsure what order we saw everything, but that doesn't matter that much.

So off we go!

Into the great white peninsula

We drive around with our infinitely knowledgeable volunteer tour-guides ("On the left is a mountain, on the right is another mountain that looks like a church," just kidding, they knew more than that). We drove past Kirjufell (church mountain), so named because it looks as much like a church as a giant rock can look like a church (which isn't much). We saw Snæfellsjökull (Snae mountain glacier), but didn't get to go on because that's expensive or something. Our first stop was Arnarstapi, which means Loss of Arnar. Never learned the history behind the name, but it's very close to the oldest house in Iceland (more on that later). There were waves, rocks, cliffs, birds, and lots of poop. Someone vandalized the pump sign to say "Prumpa" instead of "Pumpa." I saw a whale too! (well, there was some water spitting out of the sea really far away and I'm pretty sure it was a whale). Less talk, more pictures:

(Photo: Amy Beaulisch)

(it was briiiight)

So then we went to the oldest house in Iceland to have lunch. It was built in 1700 something [2017 edit: I have since learned that the saying "The year 1700 and sauerkraut" which means, "a long time ago in the indeterminate past," so I probably mistook the 1700 literally. Regardless, this building is very old] and it's by no means a tourist attraction. People live there, like grandfather, mother, 2 little daughters, the works. But you're probably thinking "Wait, 1700 something, the Norwegian settled Iceland long before that! 500 years before that!" And you're right. This is the oldest house, not the oldest dwelling. Icelanders lived in caves and whatnot for a long, long time, as well as the turf-houses you are probably so familiar with. Some people still live in them, but they're not technically houses. This is the oldest house, with wood and foundation and not dug out of a hill. The reason we got to go in and have lunch was because one of the volunteer's grandfather lives there right now.
So we had lunch in a very small, creaky old house (but man did it smell good!)

Telling us about the house, a current resident. I didn't understand most what was said

As far as exchange students go, I'd say we're pretty cute

So back into the bus, drive drive drive!
We passed some frozen trolls on our way too. If you don't know anything about trolls, you need to know they're dangerous, and they eat people, but only at night. Because if they get caught in the sunlight, they are turned into giant pillars of stone (not salt). Our next stop was the monument of Bárður (I have a friend named Bárður too), a very fat troll (my friend is also quite large). There's a story that goes along the lines of "something happened and Bárður hid a box of gold in Snæfellsjökull, the glacier, and no one ever found it." Wonder why. But here's a picture of us in front of the monument (notice the jacketlessness of me)

Why did I do that, why?

We stopped at a natural spring that was FILLED WITH IRONNNNN. The iron made the water naturally carbonated and taste like a mix between stale Périer and blood. It was cool and all, but... more of a novelty than anything. It's good for you, but kind of makes you gag after too much.

No photo magic here

 Next stop: Bjarnahöfn (Björn's port, björn also means bear). Seen on several Discovery food shows like Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods.
But first, we saw the the sheep farm. The cool thing about this farm that makes it different from every other one in Iceland is that it's surrounded by cliffs and mountains, which means they're not required by law to let the sheep wander the mountains during the Summer (mostly because they psychically can't).

Kissing sheep

Fun facts to ponder: there were 500 sheep in that barn. 486 females, 16 males. All of the female sheep are pregnant and all will give birth within 2 weeks of each other. Those are some busy male sheep.

And on to Hákarlsafnið, the shark museum. It's hardly a mystery what is displayed here, so I'll let the pictures do most of the talking.

Oldest boat in Iceland

 Owner of the museum, explaining to Qi (China) the double thumbed gloves while wearing his grandfather's fisherman hat


Baby seals. Stuffed baby seals. Deal with it

There is a showcase in the museum of all the strange things found in shark's stomachs after capture, including, beer cans, a coffee grinder, various toys, more beer cans, and a polar bear foot. The shark used to make the famous Icelandic rotting shark, Hákarl, is the greenland shark, which has remained mostly unchanged over 5 million years, and it looks the part. The Greenland shark has rows and rows of endless teeth - so sharp that shark fisherman can't use ropes, but rather chains, to put the hooks on. Since they live around Iceland and Greenland, the waters are pretty cold, like below freezing point cold. The reason the water doesn't freeze is because of the salt content. The sharks don't freeze because their blood is basically antifreeze, and most of you know, drinking/eating antifreeze will downright kill you. Hence the rotting shark.
The only way to get rid of the ammonia in the shark's body is by letting it sit there for 3 months in bins, no additives. After 3 months the shrunken bits of meat are hung to dry for another month or two. Finally, after 4 to 6 months, the shark is ready to eat (and then not be eaten, if you ask me). Yes, I did try it. No, it's not that great. The taste isn't so bad, it's the smell. You keep smelling it when it's in your mouth. And it's traditionally eaten like an oyster shooter, a cube of hákarl in a shot of brennevín (Icelandic schnapps), then swallow it all together. Buuuuut we were on an AFS event, so no brennevín for us. Just nasty, nasty plain shark.

"Well... it's not so bad.. well... it kind of is"

That moment when you accidentally lick it

And back into the bus we go. It's getting late...ish. We make one last stop, and that would be Helgafell, Helga's mountain, close to a little town (that looks pretty run down) but with this church. We unload at the base of Helgafell as we're told the story, or what we should do while walking up. On the top of the mountain are the ruins of a small church, the walls are piled up only waist high, and if you walk up the mountain without saying anything, and not looking back, you can walk in the church, say one wish, and it will come true.

 Then we go up up up, make a wish, and then we go down. And the whole time I'm split between thinking, "Monkey's Paw" and, "That was a good ploy to get us to shut up for half an hour." Not to ruin the trip or anything :)

And because this post is ridiculously long and I know my audience, bullet points for the rest of the trip (no pictures were taken, I don't think):

Go back to Grundafjörði
Delicious lasagna
Groups of 3 exchange students in each perform skits about Icelandic culture
Dance party
popping and locking
Serious talk initiated by exchange students (who whoulda thunk?!)
(Aaron thinks of moving to Iceland) (maybe another post on this?)
Sleep (but not much sleep)
Drive to Borgarnes (to drop me and Nadia off, the Norwegian exchange student)
Was going to go swimming in Borgarnes
Weather is bad, rest of group heads back to Reykjavík
Go to pool sit in hot tub for a while with Nadia and Gabríel (Icelandic Doogie Howser)
Walk home

Takk fyrir að lesa, hahaha.
Sjáumst, krakkar!


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