Icelandic Adventures pt. 1: Driving

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Eyjafjallajökull: the volcano that ruined a lot of vacations when it erupted in 2010 and disrupted European air traffic. Fortunately, it was not a problem for me. And I even learned how to pronounce it!

When I started looking into the particulars of driving in Iceland, a variety of things popped up as major warnings: “the weather is changeable and could turn to snow any time!”, “watch out for driving sand and ash!”, “there are gravel roads everywhere!”, “there are, like, NO gas stations, so fuel the car when you find a place!”, and variations on a theme of ‘danger, death, and sheep on the road’.

And so I made my rental car reservation with trepidation and got onto the plane with thoughts of “What am I doing? Driving in a foreign country? What was I thinking?”

Those thoughts didn’t go away upon landing at Keflavik International and finding the shuttle from the airport to the rental office. ‘I barely slept last night. Driving a car on no sleep is a monumentally bad idea, and forget the fact that I can’t read the road signs!’

After a quick check of my Nebraska driver’s license and selecting what level of insurance I wanted, a nice Englishman in a poofy yellow coat gave me a quick rundown of the car, its features, and the GPS unit, and I became the temporary owner of a cute little black Kia Rio. Once I sorted out the sensitivity of the brakes and got on the road, I realized something: all that trepidation was for nothing. At least in the summer, driving in Iceland is not a big deal.

Weather: People like to state two things about the weather where they live. 1) “Don’t like the weather? Wait ten minutes, and it will change” 2) “We can have all four seasons in one week!” The first is true wherever you go. Weather changes throughout the day, from sun to cloud to rain and back to sun again, or variations on that theme. It’s the second one that confuses me. What do they mean by ‘all four seasons’? Does it get cold at night (winter), then rain one morning (spring), and then another day it gets hot (summer) and then cool right back down again but stays dry (fall)? Are there more drastic shifts?

See, I’m from Nebraska, where the weather is outright crazy. I’ve woken up on pleasant spring mornings, watched the temperature rise to 80+ by noon and spawn thunderstorms that dropped torrential rain, large hail, and tornadoes over regions where wildfires were burning, and then eight hours later an oncoming cold front brought a blizzard that buried us in more than a foot of snow. In May. Twice.

So when the travel blogger wrote “four seasons! one week!” I wasn’t sure what they meant by that statement. Should I prepare for snowfall? Rain? Both? Neither?

Aside from a few spots of rain here and there, though, the days were mostly clear. There was no need to worry about snow unless I planned to go off-roading in the interior mountains. As my Kia was not a 4×4 vehicle, such adventures were beyond me. The highways are well-constructed and made of some sort of material that, while noisy, help the car maintain traction when the roads are wet. As long as the windshield wipers can keep up with brief downpours, Iceland’s summer weather isn’t detrimental to driving. Overall it was pleasant, with temperatures around 55°F during the day and mostly sunny. The rainstorms I encountered were fairly short and not heavy enough to soak through my raincoat when I was out hiking.

Gravel Roads: This was the travel blogger issue that concerned me the least. I think all the teenagers in my rural town (population around 5,600) learned to drive on the gravel roads surrounding the community before we ventured onto city streets and the highways. Driving on gravel isn’t difficult. You just need to take it a little slower and keep your eyes on the road.

I only encountered three gravel roads during my travels. One on the way to Reynisfjara, a beach near Vik, the second on my way to Ólafsvík on the northern coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the third in the Reykjanes Geopark. They weren’t as rocky as the gravel roads I’m used to here in Nebraska, but they were easy to traverse in spite of the hills and rain. They were all relatively short spans of gravel- about ten miles at most- and there were spots where you could pull off the road if you wanted to let other drivers pass you, were having car trouble, or just wanted to take off for a quick hike.

Gas Stations: This is where the travel bloggers were the most accurate. There aren’t gas stations at every turn, and if you’re planning to head down back roads or into remote places like Hornstrandir, make sure you have a full tank as fueling stations can be few and far between. If you are about to go somewhere and have less than 3/4 of a tank, make the first gas station you find your first stop. This is the same advice I give to tourists planning to head into Nebraska’s Sandhills, so it made sense to take my own advice and not get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Aside from deciding to rent the car in the first place, the next best decision I made was to also rent a GPS unit. My sense of direction is not the best, and while there aren’t that many roads in the Icelandic countryside (and they’re all well-marked), getting around and out of Reykjavik itself would have taken far more time if I hadn’t had it.

The nice Englishman in the poofy yellow coat cued up the voice for ‘USA English (Michelle)’. It was a pleasant voice so I left it there, and because Icelandic radio leaves much to be desired (one station playing boy bands, another playing Icelandic children’s programming, and another that sounded like country-western. None of which I wanted to put up with), Michelle became my travel companion, albeit one with poor conversational skills. There were times I questioned her loyalty to me, as well, when the conversations ran something like,

Michelle: In 700 meters, turn right.

Me: Okay. I’ll do that.

Michelle: (five seconds later) Turn right

Me: I can’t do that, Michelle. There’s a cliff. I will drive off a cliff if I turn right here.

She also wanted me to take a questionable road between Arnarstapi and Ólafsvík- a gravel road right up the side of Snæfellsjökull, a stratovolcano that makes up a large portion of the  Snæfellsnes Penninsula. There was a sign stating that anyone who wanted to take that road needed to have snow chains for their tires on account of the snow (the volcano is topped by a glacier, after all), elevation, and makeup of the road. I opted not to take the route that would probably have violated my car rental agreement. Michelle gave me the finger, then recalculated and provided a much gentler (albeit gravel) road to my destination.

So driving in Iceland is not the horror show that the travel bloggers indicated. It was a lot like driving around the foothills of Colorado, honestly, and while the summer weather was particularly kind, I don’t think the winter weather would phase me, either. Granted, I was driving on the main roads and highways and not venturing onto truly rough roads, but most of the things that people go to Iceland to see are close enough to the main roads that you don’t need a special vehicle to get to them.

Adventurers and experienced campers are a different story, though, and I saw a lot of big truck with big wheels meant to drive over hazardous terrain. All in all, though, the same basic rules of the road you need in the US apply to Iceland: be courteous and pay attention. And when you see a ‘sheep crossing’ sign, keep a weather eye out for the beasts. With their wandering ways and contempt for road markings and fences, the Icelandic sheep may be the greatest hazard you encounter during your drive.

 

Sunday Sum-Up

I’m back!

Obviously.

I did not drive off a cliff, get kidnapped by elves, or get washed away by sneaker waves on Reynisfjara. I endured fifteen hours of air travel and airports on a couple of hours of sleep, and I’ve mostly recovered from jet lag thanks to generous doses of iced coffee. Now comes the extensive photo editing and the general absorption of the trip.

To put it shortly, I had a blast in Iceland, and I didn’t need any volcanic eruptions to do so! I stayed at a charming little guesthouse in Reykjavik, and drove to the various places I wanted to see- Reynisfjara, a black sand beach near the little town of Vik; the Snæfellsnes Penninsula and the sea cliffs of Arnarstapi; Gullfoss, a waterfall more powerful than Niagara Falls, and Thingvellir National Park, the site of both the continental divide and the location of the first meeting of Iceland’s parliament in 930CE. I visited multiple bookshops and a couple of museums in Reykjavik. And I took photographs. A lot of photographs.

I’ll be recounting my adventures in later posts, so stay tuned!

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The kitchen in in the guesthouse where I stayed
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Mál og Menning, easily my favorite of the bookshops I visited in Reykjavik
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Skógafoss

I bought a book at Mál og Menning. I’d planned to purchase a copy of the Elder and Prose Eddas, but after looking at the wide selection of Icelandic sagas that were available, I picked Njal’s Saga instead. It looked so interesting and is new to me. I’ve already read the Eddas, so I’m not missing out on the story. There were far more sagas than I thought, so it will be fun to explore those in the future!

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I also read far more than I expected to while I was there, due in part to the long evenings I encountered. Sunset wasn’t until around 10:00pm, and it didn’t get fully dark at all. That made it easy to get lost in a book and not realize how much time had passed. Because the kitchen was cozy and quiet and the tea was free, I spent a few evenings resting up after the day’s travel and hiking with a book. I finished up Helen MacDonald’s memoir H is for Hawk, then started and finished The Martian by Andy Weir, Paris in Love by Eloisa James, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. The last two I mostly read on the plane from Reykjavik to Minneapolis/St. Paul because I couldn’t sleep very well, despite how tired I was.

Currently, I’m in the midst of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch and Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I started reading The Republic of Thieves a couple of years ago, but never made past about page 200. I have no idea why, since I enjoyed the first two books in the series and didn’t dislike the story. I’ve gotten much further along this time around. Uprooted was recommended by a couple of different sources I trust. I’m not too far along, but it’s been a wonderful read so far.

I had planned to go downtown after work last night, but after realizing that it would be packed with all the tourists coming in to see the total solar eclipse on Monday, I decided to stay out of downtown and went to Barnes and Noble instead. I got into a conversation about Catherynn M. Valente’s books with one of the booksellers, and she ended up recommending All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s a blend between science fiction and fantasy, with magic existing side by side with futuristic technology. It had been on my TBR for a while, and the recommendation pushed in over into the ‘books I own’ category.

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July Summary and August Preview

I survived July! The heatwave left me tired and a bit stupid and I didn’t finish many of the books I intended to, but oh well. I do not do well in the heat. My face tries to melt off, I have no energy, I can’t sleep, and my Snow White-worthy skin sunburns in ten minutes flat. Seriously. I sunburned in Ireland. And in Scotland. And through tinted windows on the way to Minnesota. Give me autumn and its sweater weather or winter’s snows any day. This week and next promise to be much cooler, though. I have turned off my jankety window air conditioner, so I can actually sleep and hear things again!

Things like the new album from Offa Rex, a collaboration between The Decemberists and Olivia Cheney. Voices I love singing English folk songs? Yes, please!

 

Onto the books! Goodreads says I read twelve books in July. I don’t feel that’s entirely accurate, as three of them were Penny Dreadful comic issues, and so were very short. I finished three of them within half an hour.

  1. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  2. Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón
  3. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  4. Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
  5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  6. The Awaking: Penny Dreadful #1 by Chris King
  7. Penny Dreadful: The Awakening #2.2 by Chris King
  8. Penny Dreadful: The Awakening #2.3
  9. Penny Dreadful Vol. 1 by Andrew Hinderaker
  10. My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
  11. Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
  12. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

I decided to start doing the Bookstagram thing, so I made an Instagram account for the blog. You can find me there at traveling.gladly

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What’s on for August? I’m going to Iceland!! I leave next Tuesday evening, and will land at Keflavik International Airport on Wednesday morning. I have several excursions planned to places like Vik, the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and Gullfoss. There are several bookshops in Reykjavik I want to visit, too. I’ve made it a habit of buying a book that’s particular to the place I’m in- Sherlock Holmes books in London, Irish epics in Galway, etc.- and my plan so far is to pick up copies of The Elder Edda and The Prose Edda while I’m there. And photographs. Lots of photographs. I’ll be taking two cameras (three, counting my phone’s camera), and a couple hundred gigabytes’ worth of memory cards. I’m getting more excited by the day!

In light of my upcoming travels, combined with the fact that I won’t be taking trains or buses in Iceland (and thus will have less time to read while I’m gone), plus the inevitable jet lag that follows international travel (Iceland is five hours ahead of my home time zone), I’ve only set aside four books from my collection to read:

  1. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
  2. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  3. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  4. Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

I will undoubtedly read other books, too. That’s always how it goes. But I think it’s more likely that I’ll finish this set, as opposed to July’s selections, which were maybe a little more dense than the hot days of summer would allow for. August’s selections are relatively short and sound wonderfully interesting.

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Sunday Sum-Up

This was an eventful week, in which I found myself renting cars in foreign countries, accidentally attending a big band concert, finally getting my hair cut after letting it grow for a year, and running in circles at work, all while trying not to melt while I read a new favorite and re-read an old favorite, then ended the week with some amazing Indian food.

As it was hot again all week, I spent my evenings away from my muggy apartment until the sun went down. The hottest day was Monday, with a heat index of 105°F in the afternoon. It had dropped all the way down to 101°F by the time I left work at 7:30 pm, so I decided to go to a cafe downtown where they have great food and a quiet atmosphere. I wanted to keep reading Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, and do it somewhere cool. Little did I know that there was a big band concert going on. I didn’t want to look stupid walking in and then walking back out again (and I really wanted their specialty mac&cheese), so I stayed. I have to say, reading Red Sister while listening to 1940s swing classics is a bit strange.

After procrastinating for four months, since I bought my plane tickets back in March, I reserved a rental car so that I can go see Iceland’s gorgeous sites at my own pace and on my own schedule. So far, I’m planning to visit the little down of Vik, with its black sand beaches and weird rock formations (also the filming location for the Iron Islands sequences in Game of Thrones), Snæfellsjökull National Park, and Gollfoss Falls. I also fully intend to check out the bookstore scene in Reykjavik. If I’m being honest about the trip, I’m a little weirded out by the thought of driving in Iceland since I’ve never driven in a foreign country before (I’ve gone places by trains, buses,  on foot, and via horse and buggy, but I’ve never driven), but I figure that if my friend who had never been out of the country until she went to Ireland last year could handle the left-hand driving on narrow Irish roads without getting too lost, then I can make my way through Iceland.

But if I suddenly disappear in mid-August, you’ll know I either got completely lost and decided to put down stakes in the Icelandic wilderness, or I went off to join the elves.

I read two books this week- Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It felt like a case of literary whiplash going from one to the other, but I don’t regret reading one right after the other. Pride and Prejudice was a breath of fresh air after the darkness of Red Sister.

 

 

What’s next? Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, for sure. It’s a mystery set in Iceland, so it appeals on two fronts: the first, because I’m going to Iceland in less than a month, and two, Iceland is much cooler than Nebraska temperature-wise and it will be nice to read about a place that isn’t hot and humid. The next one might be Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. A librarian-friend of mine gave it five stars on Goodreads, and when I read the synopsis, I was definitely intrigued.

Or I might read something else altogether. Who knows?

On the television front, I’m planning to watch the next episode of TNT’s Shakespeare show, Will before the new one premiers on Monday. And by the by, I tend to put literary quotes in my bullet journal to briefly sum up my day, and after watching the first episode I decided to include a Shakespearean quote. While I was browsing Goodreads’ quotes, I came across this:

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That tag, though… I do not think that word means what you think it means.

And…

GAME OF THRONES!!!!!

Can I begin to describe how much I’m looking forward to seeing this woman finally get to Westeros?

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My hopes for the new season? To see the Starks get back together and fully take back the North, to see Sansa get the better of Petyr Baelish and become the political master I’ve been hoping she’ll become, to see Arya continue to kick ass, and to see Cersei get taken down, preferably by Tyrion, just because she’s always been so horrid to him. I’d also like to see Gendry again. Hopefully he didn’t float out to sea in that little rowboat way back when.. I think it’s a safe bet that I’ll be commenting at length after watching each episode.

 

High Tea

I found a tea company here in town! And it’s not Teavana!

The Green Leaf Tea Company sells several dozen varieties of teas, along with treats, chocolates, and tea supplies in a cute little shop in the southern part of town. I didn’t know it existed until I came across it while searching for local events on Facebook. A couple of friends and I met up for Sunday High Tea, which included tiny sandwiches, scones, shortbread cookies, bitty lemon cupcakes, and a pot of tea. It tasted fantastic! If the shop was any closer to me, I might be in danger of spending a lot of money in that shop. As it is, it’s about a half-hour drive from where I live, so my trips there will be occasional treats rather than daily or weekly stops.

I had the wuyi oolong tea, while my companions had the classic Earl Grey and a rooibos chai.

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A Quick Trip to Colorado and New Acquisitions

I took a quick trip out to Colorado to visit a friend, and I didn’t want to come back. It’s so beautiful out there! Cute little bookshops, shopping zones just for pedestrians, tasty coffee, a store completely devoted to old maps, and fantastic breweries. Not to mention the mountains, endless hiking trails, and gorgeous weather. I wished I could have stayed longer than just a few days.

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I bought a book while I was there (surprise, surprise). The title caught my eye first. I’m a long time Star Trek fan and so is the friend I was visiting, so the shows and movies had come up in conversation. So when you see a book titled, The Hunt for Vulcan, you’re going to pick it up and investigate. And if you’re me, the synopsis makes you want to read it, and so of course you have to buy it.

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Once I got home, I was finally able to pick up Hell Bay, Will Thomas’s newest Barker & Llewelyn novel. I had pre-ordered it from the indie bookstore downtown, and while it arrived before I left for Colorado, I couldn’t get it until I came home, since the release date was the 25th- when I was gone.

I started reading it on Friday, and so far it is fantastic! I haven’t been able to pinpoint the guilty party yet, though I have my suspicions.

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Home

What is it about coming home after a vacation that prompts all sorts of other things to happen to draw you out of the house and keep you busy when all you want to do is sit down on the couch for a little while? If it’s not friends coming into town for the last weekend before school starts, it’s all the little errands like grocery shopping that conspire to keep me going while still recovering from jet lag and a pesky cold.

I seem to have recovered from both of those, though, and after days of constant go-go-go, I’ve finally been able to stop and take a breath.

Thanks to long plane trips and a four-hour layover, I had a chance to finish a few books while I was gone. I finished another just after I got back, since I was closer to the end than I thought I was.

  • Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy- This was an odd book. It started out a bit slowly, going through minute details about Becket’s early life, then sort of dashed through the latter part of his life. Overall, though, it provided a window into English history at the time.
  • The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir- I like Alison Weir’s biographies for the most part, but this one tended to wander away from Margaret’s story and go into the lives of the people around her. I get that people like Elizabeth I had a huge influence on her life, but there were chapters that made it seem as though the book was about someone else.
  • The Moor’s Account– by Laila Lalami- This story is told from the point of view of an Islamic man who is taken to the New World by Spanish explorers. The expedition is plagued by human frailties, intolerance, and natural disasters as the group tries to make their way through strange lands and survive among the native peoples that many of them don’t even try to understand. This was a wonderful story and beautifully written. I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t been searching out books by authors from around the world.

I also finished up Neil Gaiman’s collection of essays and nonfiction. I only had two essays left to read before I left for Ireland, so I feel like I should have just read it the night before I left. Oh well.

The View from the Cheap Seats is wonderful! It’s filled with Gaiman’s articles going back to the early 1990s and includes the essay, ‘Make Good Art’. There were some parts I skimmed over- I haven’t read a lot of comic books, so the section about various comic book writers went right over my head- but I got pulled right into most of the essays whether I’d heard of the authors he was talking about or not. It’s not in chronological order at all, and yet you can start to construct the development of Gaiman’s voice from his early days as a journalist up until now.


In other news, school has started around here, and the weather service is forecasting a break in the heat. Autumn is on its way at last! It’s my favorite time of year, when the air is cool and crisp, and the leaves are turning. Pumpkin and apple-flavored everything is everywhere, and I can finally start wearing my beloved scarves and boots again.

I prefer the scents of fall, too:

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Two more things!

DSC03597I went to a few bookshops while I was in Galway, my favorite being Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, where I bought a copy of The Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley, to be specific), which is one of Ireland’s great epic poems. I read it in college, and the only copy I could find in the university library was a translation by Miles Standish from the 1890s or so. I was expecting some stifled Victorian tome that took all of the potentially objectionable parts out, but was surprised by how exciting and sometimes earthy the story ended up being. I’ve been searching for another copy of Standish’s translation ever since. While I haven’t found one, this translation by Ciaran Carson promises to be as good as Standish’s.

 

I try to buy one new piece of jewelry when I’m abroad. Nothing fancy, just something that I like that helps me remember where I’ve been. I bought this necklace on Inis Mór:

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