Friday, 14 May 2010
It will be for the first time that I miss Europe’s highest-profile music talent show since getting seriously hooked on it in 1997. I came close to missing the Contest once before – in 2005, as a TV-less student in Finland – but eventually broke inside a home of a near stranger to catch Greece make its way to the top. This is how bad I am when it comes to Eurovision. I love the show with inexpressible passion. I would do almost anything to watch it.
And yet I will be missing this year’s Contest. I will be revisiting Washington DC after six long years, and my friends there will likely not understand if I spend good three hours in the peak of an afternoon stuck indoors with my laptop. I am an adult now – and I have made my choice. There won’t be Eurovision this year for anjči. I’ll have to wait till next one. It is sad beyond words.
No-one could stop me from doing what I do every year, however – namely, listening to every entry weeks before the event and splashing out in profuse commentary. Below are my notes on the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest which no-one will hear coming out of my mouth during the Contest itself. Exclusively in my blog!
Voting system and participants
A shift in the voting system introduced at last year’s Eurovision – from all-public to an equal mix of the public and a jury of experts – was widely acknowledged as successful and is looking to stay. In 2010, it will be applied not only during the finals, like in 2009, but also the semi-finals. A real novelty in this year’s voting system will be allowing the public to vote from the moment the first song is played. It looks like the organisers are finally responding to the critique that the listeners’ memories tend to be short and therefore favour the acts nearer the close of the show. I am hoping that the new system will not lead to a certain time advantage for earlier acts – smart viewers will no doubt figure out the dialling codes for their favourites from the pre-announced sequence of the songs, too.
A number of participating countries have seen changes to their own selection processes. Germany, for example, staged a special multi-round TV casting show to select the winning song. Another notable change came from Greece. The country where the artist and the song are normally pre-chosen internally and handed over to the national vote afterwards – Greece dropped the internal selection this year. Bravo, Ellada!
While Germany and Greece introduced changes in an attempt to improve their results, some countries have done so for another reason – to cut costs. Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Serbia all chose to scrap semi-finals and reduced their national selection to finals alone. Serbia even went as far as dropping its high-profile annual Beovizija event – while Hungary and Montenegro pulled out of the Contest altogether, signalling real financial difficulty. Surprisingly, however, Albania not only continued its tradition of submitting the Eurovision entry first – but also expanded its national selection. I guess there were higher priorities at play there.
Old languages, familiar faces
A few trends are continuing from last year. The comeback of national languages can once again be observed, with the likes of Bulgaria, Finland, France, Israel, Poland and most of the ex-Yugoslavian republics all competing with non-English entries. There are also a number of interesting surprises. Iceland’s song is, rather unexpectedly, partly performed in French, a language unintuitive to Iceland. On the other extreme, Bosnia and Herzegovina will present a song in English, for the first time since 2004 and the second time in history. (FYR) Macedonia, too, will surprise the audience by an infrequent part-English entry.
A number of acts are seeing a return – both in substance and in form. The girl trio of Feminnem representing Croatia this year can be remembered for performing under the Bosnian colours back in 2005. Ireland’s Niamh Kavanagh won the Eurovision for her country back in 1993. Moreover, many composers will look familiar to Eurovision regulars. Take the example of Hanne Sørvaag and Fredrik Kempe – the co-authors of Didrik Solli-Tangen’s entry for Norway. Sørvaag co-authored Germany’s 2008 Eurovision song – while two of the songs co-written by Kempe have represented Sweden in the past.
Finally, a notable country return will be made by Georgia. The country was forced to withdraw its 2009 entry due to some lyrics controversy, but will be duly represented this year.
I welcomed the long-awaited changes in the selection process introduced by some countries to improve the quality of their Eurovision entries. It has paid off particularly well for Germany, whose entry – an energetically melodic “Satellite” by Lena Meyer-Landrut – sounds fresh and upbeat. In a difficult financial situation facing Europe, however, the scaling back of the national selection processes by some countries meant that the average quality of the songs has unfortunately decreased compared to last year.
Take the Baltic countries, for instance. All three had to secure sponsorship to be able to afford the luxury Eurovision is. The quality of the songs clearly came second. Latvia’s “What For?” by Aisha is a tearfully dull complaint about how difficult life is. Lithuania knew no better than re-using its embarrassing “comedy show” formula tried once before in 2006 (“We Are the Winners”) to come up, this year, with “Eastern European Punk”. Finally, Estonia’s “Siren” is absolutely fine a tune but a far cry from last year’s stunning “Rändajad”. It seems that the Eurovision success is following the Baltic region’s long-gone economic growth.
The financial difficulties aside, some countries also saw an unnecessary influx of bureaucracy. Who else but the usual suspects of Belarus and Ukraine? Belarus had its public contest replaced with an internal one having already selected a winner – and consequently made the winning act number two pick a different song. Similarly, Ukraine had to re-run the staging of its national contest following a change in the TV broadcasting company’s management – eventually also disqualifying the winning song and submitting a different one.
Go folk, life is peaceful there
I believe that Eurovision should not only be about uniform, catchy songs. Europe is a region with rich diversity of cultures, languages and traditions. The artists should use this diversity in their favour to stand out – not become painfully alike. Every song should therefore carry a bit of the country it represents, and some countries have consistently embraced their musical roots. Instantly recognisable by their respective national motives, Ireland and Greece have been particularly good at this. Ireland has the highest number of Eurovision victories on record, having won seven times. Greece won once before, in 2005, and has had numerous top 10 hits.
Norway’s Alexander Rybak proved that traditional motives can be successful with his semi-folk “Fairytale” of a winner in 2009. In a likely attempt to repeat Rybak’s triumph, a number of this year’s participants have taken their entries dangerously close to national folklore as well. Finland’s “Työlki Eellää”, for example, balances right on the edge of pop and folk; the song’s video features scenes from farm life in wintery Finland. The title of Slovenia’s entry, “Narodnozabavni Rock” (“Popular Folk Rock”), says it all. The lyrics of Slovakia’s “Horehronie” have been written by one of the most acclaimed national poets and praise the beauty of the country’s mountains – all that to an ethnic pop tune. Indeed it seems that Europe has gone all folk at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest.
And it is Serbia that has beaten the lot. The audience will have the honour of watching Milan Stanković and his supporting act all wearing Serbian national costumes and moving around the stage in a folkey dancey manner. The song “Ovo je Balkan” (“This is Balkans”, predictably) was written by Goran Bregović, the former frontman of ex-Yugoslavia’s once hugely popular band Bijelo Dugme. Bregović is not new to Balkan folklore, having previously composed songs for Emir Kusturica’s movies. I would suggest that the veteran rocker continues to focus on that – and perhaps some village festival themes – and spare us Eurovision fans in the future.
And the 12 points go to...
After the splash of criticism above, it may seem that I am actually missing this year’s Eurovision Song Contest on purpose. Not true! Although 2010 is no match for 2009 – where close to half of the songs boasted solid quality – it does offer some decent material.
Without further ado, I admittedly fail to understand the whole hype about Israeli Harel Skaat’s “Milim”, bookies’ current favourite to take Eurovision home. I likewise do not believe in the much applauded Azeri entry. Germany’s “Satellite” is certainly an impressive breakthrough, but a slight overshot for Eurovision. I like Croatia’s “Lako je Sve” and believe it will land firmly among the top 10. Disregarding the rest – hapless folk attempts, bland ballads, pure outsiders and the UK, whose entries I simply do not bother listening to anymore – anjči’s points are awarded below.
Eight (8) points go to Norway: Didrik Solli-Tangen “My Heart Is Yours”. The hosts have staged an impressive national selection and have involved celebrated composers to come up with a very strong ballad. Go, Norge!
Ten (10) points go to Armenia: Eva Rivas “Apricot Stone”. A Russian-born singer has teamed up with composer Martirosyan and lyricist Kavaleryan, of whom the latter has taken part in Eurovision six times. The result is a catchy tune with just the right touch of oriental rhythm. A real winner!
Twelve (12) points go to... Denmark! Chanée & N'evergreen “In A Moment Like This”, a deep, moving track with a memorable guitar line. Last time we saw a Danish duo at Eurovision was in 2000 – and the Contest took place in Copenhagen the year after. Again, we see impressive composing talent involved in maestro Thomas G:son himself.
My advice to everyone would be to book their visit to the host city of next year’s Eurovision Song Contest – wonderful Copenhagen – today! I will certainly not be missing that one.
In a moment like this!
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
I have for a while found it easy to get along with older couples –“older” stretching anywhere from just a couple of years to decades. The reason is likely twofold. Firstly, I used to be quite an avid church goer years ago. Family institution being one of the cornerstones of a Christian congregation, married couples at my churches enjoyed spectacular representation and sometimes even outnumbered my unwed peers. It was only natural for us singles to mingle with the families. Having been part of several church congregations, I made a few lasting family friendships.
The second reason is a more personal one. Those who knew me in my teenage days may remember a much more withdrawn anjči than what the world is seeing today. I didn’t always find it easy to approach people – and was, more often than not, approached myself. Approached by couples and families who felt sorry for the shy little teenager tucking herself into corners. I was extremely grateful to anyone venturing the first move – and often responded with unreserved reciprocity.
Making friends with families: why bother?
I believe that befriending families may offer a number of advantages. First goes the "package" concept. A "family" is made up of at least two people by definition; thus making friends with a family means killing two (or more) birds with one stone. The added benefit here is that family members tend to understand each other better than two unrelated individuals – which makes the mutual understanding inside a group of friends easier. How many times have you tried bringing together friends from different parts of your life and failed to have them relate properly? Not all strangers seem to find that common frequency quickly. Of course this can be the case for family members as well – but the general rule implies otherwise.
Another benefit lies in the experience. Members of the families I am friends with tend to be older than myself. Life experience inevitably accompanying the age, my families offer a great source of life learning – at least in such important aspects of life as relationships and house-keeping. International families – or families of ethnic backgrounds different to one’s own – are even better, as they carry a great insight into a different culture as well. Asking such family friends for advice may be more effective than seeking peer guidance. And can certainly be more objective than parental advice.
Finally, families are typically more settled than the ever-migrating youth – and, more often than not, boast various critical aspects of life comfort. As much as I love my single friends, very few of them can offer a full guest bedroom in a decently sized house, a ride on an actual car or especially – if we are talking Norway here – a motor boat to sail to the nearest island. Yes, I do love spending my free time climbing volcanoes and sleeping on hard mattresses in old disintegrating cabins somewhere on a Greek island – with my single friends or alone. For some proper rest, however, nothing beats joining holidaying families. Especially my own one! Having the little comforts of life at hand can make quite a difference.
Coming back to my little "professional family member" idea though, I believe it could be of great benefit to all sides involved. All I would ask for is my own bedroom, some minimal food and Internet access. A bicycle would be welcome, too – as well as some free time to use it to explore the surroundings. It would also be very much appreciated if my hosts included me in their everyday activities and generally made me feel like part of their family. Nothing would beat combining the warmth of a family home with a possibility to travel galore.
In return, I could certainly help with housework. I have been running my shining little households single-handedly for six successful years to date and can provide references. On occasions, I have even been seen producing delicious meals for the loved ones – and could safely be allowed infrequent command of the kitchen. With five years of babysitting experience behind my shoulders, I could well be a babysitter, too – juggling a few Slavic and Scandinavian languages. Moreover, I could employ my Nikon camera to take some remotely professional family photos of my hosts and even their pets and neighbours.
I am sure my families would enjoy my humble singing attempts and travel stories, too. Last but not least, I could also provide expert Eurovision Song Contest commentary on every single song and artist, as well as a particular country's performance track record and voting history. That’s if you care about Eurovision, of course.
In short, I would make a perfect family member. Could someone please hire me?
Sunday, 9 May 2010
Those of you who have read my recap of the recent trip to Iceland may remember a parallel storyline there – the one dedicated to a certain “cute Dane with blue eyes”. The Dane I never got a chance of speaking properly to, for reasons unknown or soon forgotten. Yet the Dane whose image fell deep into my mind and refused to let go. After my return to London, I spent a few days dissecting the sequence of the trip in my head and trying to imagine what would have happened if things had turned out differently. Or if something had preceded something else. Or if I had dared trying and doing something instead. In short, I was getting a little obsessed there – and needed a release. The only way to re-gain some peace of mind was to contact the Dane in question immediately.
But there was a major problem there. All I knew about my Dane was his nationality. And that he had spent the past weekend in Iceland. And that he took part in the same two tours in Iceland as I did. That was it – I didn’t know his name, his profession or where he was living. I didn’t know the airline which took him to Iceland. I hadn’t even asked for a single piece of contact. Therefore, I was doomed to suffer until the end of my days trying to guess what I had missed – or gained – by not being more talkative on that darn tourist bus. The situation was hopeless.
Or was it? Perhaps there was a way of tracking the handsome Dane down, after all. I put my fingers on the keyboard and typed “cute Dane with blue eyes who visited Iceland” into Google. I re-read what I had typed – and shut down my browser. Google was clearly not the right medium here. I didn’t even bother checking the search results.
Elementary, my dear Watson
And then I suddenly began seeing the light. There was in fact ONE source which had both the name and the contacts of my Danish crush. He was the only person other than me who took part in exactly the same tours, on the same days, with the very same Icelandic tour organiser. Of course! The Icelandic tour organiser itself. That’s whom I should have been writing to.
Excited beyond words, I had typed up the quickest email of my life. About how I had met this person whose contacts (and even name, dumb Latvian woman) I had failed to record. About how I was dreaming of getting back in touch. About how his name would be the only one, other than mine, repeated on both tours. About how I understood my request was a rather non-conventional one.
I stopped for a second there. The request was, in fact, ABSOLUTELY non-conventional – and I was dealing with a Nordic country there. Nine out of 10 tour agents in that part of the world would surely ignore my email; the tenth one would respond with a convoluted message musing over being “committed to protecting the customers’ privacy”, or something. I had lived there before. I knew the lot.
Then I remembered a similar situation. About how I spent a few weeks in 2006 begging my property manager in Finland to provide me with the name and an email address of one – just one – resident of the flat I had by then moved out of. Only because my Finnish ID number was due to arrive at my old address – and, remembering the fate of letters in my old flat addressed to absentees, I feared that mine would be binned at receipt. I had a strong case there – sadly though, not strong enough for the Finnish student property people. They could not imagine sharing an email address – or even a name, for that matter – of any residents, irrespective of whether they were living in the property I had previously occupied or not. In the end, I was left without a Finnish ID – and, consequently, without my student discount for public transport. All for some darn privacy concerns we care nothing about where I come from.
All this ran through my mind in a flash. After week-long humiliation four years ago with the Finns, I’d hate for another such situation to happen. My email to the Icelanders needed certain softening. “Please don’t get this request the wrong way”, I added. “Is there any chance in the world... you may send me just the name – nothing more” – no, let’s put “first and last name” – “of the only other person who took part in the same tours as myself?”
I hesitated for a few minutes before pressing “SEND”. After which I did. Whatever – I had nothing to lose.
Less than an hour later, I found myself in front of the computer, reluctant to open a fresh email sitting in my mailbox. A response from the Icelandic tour organiser, which had arrived surprisingly quickly. Surely I knew what it would be saying. I tried to guess in how many words it would refute my request. Then I imagined the exact wording of the refusal. There was no way anyone would consider me sane for requesting the full Christian name of a stranger under the disguise – that’s what everyone would be thinking, right? – of simply wanting to get back in touch with them. It was all hopeless. I bit my lip as I opened the email. I generally dislike being turned down – and that was what was going to happen.
Browsing maniaTen minutes later, I found myself still dancing energetically around the computer. “Hi anjči”, the email read. “I have checked for you, and believe you are asking about XXX. His email address is XXX @something.dk. Good luck getting back in contact”. May Icelanders be blessed forever! Perhaps being part of a small nation teaches one to be helpful. Perhaps also Icelanders are different from the rest of the Nordic crowd I think I know. Or maybe the person who responded to me was new at the job. The important thing is that I now knew not only who my Dane was – but also his email address.
One hour and a few cups of camomile tea later, I had finally calmed down enough to get seriously on the case. I first typed XXX's name into Google. Bless the amount of private data we so happily share on the Internet these days! XXX was on Facebook. Yes, I would not mistake those blue eyes for any other. He was on LinkedIn, Skype, Flickr and a few other networking sites, too.
Within minutes, I knew more about XXX than about some of my existing acquaintances. I could easily see where XXX had studied and was living. The name of the company where he was working was clearly indicated on LinkedIn. Searching further, I came across some of XXX’s queries on various computer geek websites. He was an IT developer, so I could already make certain conclusions about his lifestyle.
From XXX’s self-description on LinkedIn moreover, I had figured out the level of his written English. From his Skype profile, I discovered his full date of birth and, as little belief I put into all that zodiac nonsense, couldn’t help drawing some inferences about XXX’s character. Finally, the Dane seemed to fill his Flickr account with nothing more than the photos of hand-made stereo systems. Hand-building wooden cases for various amplifiers and speakers couldn’t have been anything but XXX’s biggest hobby.
And now what?
The picture was looking fuller and fuller by minute. I was accomplished. I may have failed to talk properly to my Dane – but was persistent enough to have tracked those blue eyes down in the end. Viva Internet!
It would all be perfect – with one small remark. Now that I have all the details I’d need to contact XXX, I seem to have lost the interest. It was perhaps the inability to make contact – and the endless “what would have happened if...” speculation – that was bugging me so much. I am therefore not sure I will actually put to use the contacts I have worked so hard to get. Time will only show.
One thing for sure though. The amount of private information we feed into the Internet is truly impressive.
Thursday, 6 May 2010
As my trip to Iceland was approaching, I was getting increasingly more worried. Not only had my holiday in Hong Kong been cancelled because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland – the country's main gateway to the outside world, Keflavik airport, also remained closed for about a week. I even took up a habit of starting my day by checking the following websites, in that order: (a) Meteorological Office of Iceland’s nation-wide wind direction forecast, (b) the UK Met Office's regular updates on the spread of volcanic ashes and (c) naturally, flash news by Icelandair and Keflavik airport per se. Clearly not everybody's first choice of a daily media round-up, but I got so used to it that I might still be running it for a while upon my return to London.
I had eventually given up all hope of reaching Iceland – when, just a day before my flight, the Keflavik airport fully re-opened and all flights had resumed. After two weeks of uncertainty, I could barely believe my luck. At that point, I had spent close to four weeks without leaving the UK and was experiencing withdrawal symptoms of indescribable strength. A plane passing overhead would almost make me cry, as did minor airport mentions in the news. Playing the cabin crew's safety demonstration in my head over and over again, I felt like I was going slightly mad. I was longing for the skies.
Back in the air
But it was worth waiting for the magic moment of re-entering Heathrow – checking in for my flight, drinking coffee in the departures hall, following the announcement screens and hurrying through the terminal building towards my gate. All the magic moments of air travel. The moments I had greatly missed.
The queue for the Icelandair flight to Reykjavik couldn't have been more homogenously Icelandic. After seeing my colleagues raise their eyebrows repeatedly when hearing about my plans to visit Iceland, this was hardly a surprise. Iceland is not enjoying its heyday popularity in the UK these days and is, rather erroneously, often considered dangerous because of that notorious volcanic activity.
I didn't mind mingling with the cheerful Icelanders. Breaking the stereotype of Nordic people being “quiet”, those were chattering away happily, all at once. Perhaps, given the country's population of barely over 300,000 people, they all knew each other – or were related or something. What a brave bunch, I kept thinking – populating a piece of land that is basically half-volcano and half-glacier, and looking jolly optimistic at that.
The flight to Keflavik was pure bliss for a travel-deprived globetrotter like me. Twilight was building up mysteriously around us, but the horizon ahead never quite lost its golden coating – the sign that we were narrowly following the sunset. At some point, the captain pointed out the scarlet glow of Eyjafjallajökull's eruption below. In the clouded up night sky, it made a magnificent contrast. That is how I will always remember Iceland – the country of the eternal sunset and glowing volcanoes.
I was blessed to be sitting next to the most extravagant elderly Icelandic lady I could hope for. Let's call her Elin; with barely any daylight during a typical Icelandic winter, Elin prefers to spend six months every year in India instead. I caught her just returning home. She looked every bit Icelandic, but dressed in line with Hindu traditions. An unforgettable sight – and a wonderful source of Iceland-related gossip, too. For example, I was told the country was americanised to a great extent. That, under the "Icesave", they were supposed to send "[c]ash" to the UK but realised there was no letter "c" in the Icelandic alphabet (which I thought was outrageously cheeky). That Icelandic children were taught Danish language at school. That most Icelanders swear by Protestant work ethic and work religiously at a least three jobs for over 60 hours per week. That the country's president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was flying on the same plane with us.
Really? The president of a country was casually sitting on a passenger flight? I refused to believe a word – until, during the exit at arrival, we were held back for a few seconds to allow somebody important pass first. There emerged the President himself, responding to friendly waves from his fellow Icelanders and looking just like on television. Another VIP to add to my modest list of physical encounters. Iceland is a small country, and flying on scheduled routes is probably very much normal for a president. Also, as I later found out, Iceland's Prime Minister’s telephone number is listed in a public phone book. Personally, I found this fact even more impressive than all the geysers, volcanoes and geothermal springs in that unbelievable little country taken together. Imagine the likes of Berlusconi having their telephone number made available publicly.
The arrival worked like clockwork. The passport controller knew exactly where Latvia was; the belt conveyor spat out our luggage within minutes; the Flybus airport transfer company accepted cards as payment; the bus itself was parked a mere step outside the terminal. At some point I even wondered if the president would be joining us on the bus ride to town, too. The euphoria continued at the hotel – wireless internet was free to all and coffee making facilities were duly parked in my room. Small things that matter a lot in life! I was back in the Nordics, the region I love and admire so much.
Golden Circle exploration
I got up at 7:30am the next morning, ready to hit the exploratory path with an 8.5-hour Golden Circle tour. Golden Circle is the name of a popular tourist route in southwest Iceland, offered by every major self-respecting local travel agency. Rather fortunately, the best known and most frequently visited natural wonders of Iceland are within a day tour driving distance (300 km overall) out of the capital, Reykjavik.
I am proud to confirm that I was the only Latvian on the bus. The first thing I noticed in addition to a couple of Americans and the same number of Germans was the overwhelming majority of Scandinavian people – probably about 15 out of 20. Nostalgic about my heavily Nordic past and having visited or lived in all of the other four Nordic countries, I welcomed seeing so many representatives of the region again.
Not far from me sat a particularly fine example of Danish handsomeness. Equipped with unforgettable blue eyes and a unique smile, he made me wish I was sitting next to him rather than on my own, and taking photos of his fantastic pair of eyes rather than Icelandic natural wonders. But time came to depart, and it was back to business for anjči.
We had a busy morning and afternoon (see Flickr photoset for Golden Circle here). Our first stop was Þingvallavatn Lake (the largest natural lake in Iceland) and Þingvellir National Park (where the world’s first parliament of Alþingi was established in 930). We were sat through an informative video demonstration about the area – Icelanders passionately love their country and won't miss an opportunity to educate foreigners about it – and enjoyed glorious views over the lake and the valley. The lake lies over the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. With the plates drifting apart by a few centimetres a year, Iceland is slowly growing in size. In 60 million years, it will apparently become the largest country in the world! Now that's what I call a quiet invasion. Sounds like Russia better watch out.
Our next stop was Gullfoss, Iceland's most famous waterfall. Having been warned lovingly by the driver not to fall into the water and "end up in the Atlantic Ocean" because it would cost him "a whole load of paperwork", we carefully edged towards the viewing points. Not forgetting beforehand to feast on a hearty local speciality of a traditional lamb soup, the kjötsúpa. I am not ashamed to admit I had two portions.
Gullfoss can literally be translated as “Golden falls” and results from Hvítá River plunging down a 32-meter crevice. The breath-taking view is best seen, not described. I am quite a waterfall virgin and had never seen such a mass of water streaming down so furiously towards the ocean. Given that my most marked waterfall experience to date had been the "longest waterfall in Europe", conveniently located in Kuldiga, Latvia – but, sadly, not even a meter in height – I was stunned. Iceland truly had something to offer.
Briefly stopping to stroke a few Icelandic ponies on the way, on we went to Haukadalur, an area of active geysers about 10 km away from Gullfoss. Geysers are natural hot springs that intermittently eject a column of water and vapour into the air and are characteristic to Iceland. Moreover, a “geyser” is one of the very few examples of global adoption of an originally Icelandic word. Sadly, the namesake Geysir has grown rather quiet these days, activating not more than a couple of times daily – and apparently making the Queen of Denmark once wait the whole day before breaking out. Iceland having been a Danish colony, this sounded rather cheeky. Laughing, I looked at the cute Dane. He was looking at me too, smiling with those sky-coloured Nordic eyes. Oh, the beauty of life.
My mission did not include chatting up cute Danish guys, however. I duly climbed the nearest hill, exposed myself to gusty Icelandic winds and stayed on guard for a geyser eruption. The most active one in the area, Strokkur, worked hard to please the audience. It is reported that it erupts every 5-7 minutes, often a couple of times in a row. I had great fun watching the ever-troubled water surface building up slowly towards the breakout. My only problem was coping with the overwhelming smell of sulphur – commonly associated with rotten eggs, it is an unalienable part of every geyser.
We left Haukadalur safely behind and continued to Skálholt church, one of the largest churches in Iceland and an important historic and religious centre. Some concert preparations were ongoing there. I enjoyed listening to truly angelic singing (who'd tell Icelandic men were such softies at heart!) and a glimpse at Iceland's most famous volcano (in normal circumstances, at least), Hekla, in the distance. Strangely enough, a former Danish ambassador to Iceland was buried on the church grounds. I wonder what the poor fellow had done – or not done – in his, no doubt, eventful life.
We then visited the Hveragerði village famous for its greenhouses naturally heated by volcanic hot springs. Local kids were passing the time boiling eggs in steaming springs and telling stories of people falling into the so-called "Killer Hole" in the ground. The hole looked scary and smelt of sulphur more than sulphur itself. We unanimously voted to retreat.
The finishing point of our tour was the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant. Back in my days as an investment banker, I once had to prepare a brief on the Icelandic power market and was therefore keenly interested. Around 80% of Iceland's energy sources are renewable and composed of geothermal and hydro. Iceland is among the most geothermally active countries in the world; in fact, the entire city of Reykjavik is heated solely by geothermal springs. Seeing a functioning geothermal plant lost in the steamy haze in the middle of nowhere was truly spectacular. I promised myself to build at least one in a geothermally active area under my employer's coverage – say, Kamchatka – when I would get back to London.
Eyjafjallajökull, here I come!
Back in Reykjavik, emotionally heart-broken after parting with my platonic Danish love – and his blue eyes – I desperately needed a distraction. Suddenly I felt inspiration filling up my every vein. What if I tried to approach Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland’s famously erupting volcano? I heard some companies were offering evening jeep tours. I rushed back to the hotel and got them to call around. Indeed, one place for the night was available. Yippie! After week-long volcano-inflicted aggression – and my utterly Eyjafjallajökull-ed holiday in Hong Kong – I was finally going to face the naughty boy in person. The driver had arrived, and off we went.
We had been driving along the ring road circling Iceland (in-between mostly lie the aforementioned glaciers and volcanoes) for a couple of hours, in a rather civilised fashion – when the jeep driver suddenly seemed to have lost the plot. “Seatbelts on!” – he yelled and wheeled off-road onto the blend of hardened lava and water streams. My fellow passengers and I were bouncing up and down, left and right, unsure to what extent such experience could be considered enjoyable. But it was. We made several stops on the way before settling at the point from which there was no way further for safety reasons. The weather was absolutely perfect, with close to clear skies (for Iceland, anyway). I photographed one of the best sunsets on my modest memory (view more photos here). Iceland seemed like a true wonder.
Within a 4-km distance from the volcano, Eyjafjallajökull’s mixed cloud of steam and ashes seemed every bit as imagined. We had been told, however, to wait till dark for the full effect. And so we did. I took hundreds of photos while waiting. It was getting extremely cold, and other tour members were starting to dance around the jeep in an attempt to get some blood running. At some point, I had lost the sense of my limbs and was seriously thinking of retiring to the car…
...And then I finally saw the promised red glow. Intensifying with every minute, it lit up the night skies with a kind of a wild beauty. The view, soon reinforced by the exploding lava, was simply beyond this world. Needless to say that it was worth every penny I had paid for the tour, and lots more. I forgot everything in the world and photographed away (view the full Flickr photo set here).
Finally all of us were too frozen to move. The clocks were approaching midnight, and it was time to return to Reykjavik. I collapsed into a coma sleep as soon as I reached the car. With over 16 hours spent on the road, it was a rough day – and one of the best on my memory, too. My final recollection that night was driving through Reykjavik on a jeep at around 2am and getting entertained looks from the partying locals. Surely it was difficult for them to understand why someone would prefer to spend a Saturday night by the side of an active volcano – the country is full of them, anyway – rather than out in a cool bar. Oh well, each to their own.
Soaking in Blue Lagoon
...I was still rather unstable as I got up at 8am the next morning – but the Blue Lagoon visit I had previously planned had to be honoured. The Blue Lagoon (Bláa lónið) is a geothermal spa located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwestern Iceland. It was officially opened in 1999 and is today firmly written into every tourist’s Icelandic itinerary.
My entry into the bus was met by those familiar blue eyes. The cute Dane was going to Blue Lagoon, too? Just as I had managed to get some quality distraction? Madame Destiny was acting a little unfair there, and was best not taken seriously. We exchanged semi-dry "hellos" and left it at that.
Barely alive from the previous day's discovery extravaganza, I spent over five hours soaking around, half-awake, in steaming hot water (see the Flickr photo set here). The experience was blissful beyond words – and beat my previous open-air bath affair at Budapest’s Szechenyi by a long shot. Finally I have found a country which shares my standards for water temperature. The likes of the UK – and especially Greece – have a long way to go.
As the spa started filling up with awakening Brits (and the air with their beer-inspired lingo), I decided to return to Reykjavik and dedicate some time to the city itself. With the population of around 120,000 people in the city and 200,000 in the greater area, Reykjavik wasn't exactly London. Many tourists often choose to overlook it and head straight to the country's indisputably magnificent natural wonders instead.
Nevertheless, fascinated by the idea of a capital city on a northern island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, I thought I’d give Reykjavik a chance – and spent about four hours pacing its little streets (Flickr photoset is here). On Sunday evening, the place looked quite empty. Despite an occasional car whooshing by, I couldn't help thinking I was one of the very few people in Reykjavik that evening. Still, I found the City of "Smokey Bay" (exact translation of Reykjavik, named after the steam rising from its geothermal springs) very charming – and my admiration for the people having chosen to settle there years ago, against all odds, absolutely soared.
Finally, I got back to the hotel. My final day in Iceland was coming up – starting early with some morning whale watching.
Whale (dolphin?) watching
As I tried to buy some hot breakfast the morning after, I came to realise, once again, that Reykjavik was no London. On a Monday morning, no shop seemed to open before 10am. I eventually settled for a chewy chocolate bar from the tiny café on the whale watching boat itself.
Reykjavik being an extremely rainy affair, I had been extremely lucky with the weather during the two previous days, with not a slightest sign of rain. On my third day though, the average statistics had been duly confirmed, as it started to drizzle. It did not prevent me from boarding one of the whale watching boats in Reykjavik’s Old Harbour and setting off for a sea adventure, however. The blood was warming up in my veins as we sailed into the ocean. I truly felt the daughter of my father – a vocational sailor of over thirty years.
We managed to spot a few smaller whales indigenous to Icelandic waters – and plenty of white dolphins. The dolphins turned out rather playful and curious; some emerged very close to our boat, inducing major excitement among the passengers. Despite not being quick enough for a decent photographic capture, I had a great time (view the Flickr photo set here).
Back on the shore, I headed for the airport bus – not forgetting to stop at “Bæjarins beztu pylsur” (“The town’s best hot dog”) – the nation’s most popular hot dog stand and indeed the most frequented local eatery. In 2006, it was titled the best hot dog stand in Europe by the British newspaper The Guardian. The hot dog melted in my mouth. Over my three days in Iceland, I had eaten more hot dogs than during the entire preceding year – and failed to try any of the much appraised Icelandic fish. After all, it is the hot dog that is locally considered to be Iceland’s unofficial “national food”.
Time to say goodbye
As much as I hated the idea of leaving, the work back in London wouldn’t wait. With a heavy heart, I watched the proud little island disappearing in the clouds below. I had a fantastic time exploring its amazing wonders during the short three days, and will need to arrange a comeback soon to discover other parts of Iceland and its people.
Next time, however, I know what I will do differently. When I am in Iceland next time and come to face a sweet blue-eyed Dane, whether publicly or in private – I will ignore all the geysers, volcanoes and geothermal springs. I will look right through all the waterfalls, greenhouses and glaciers. I won’t stir a limb if the rarest whale in Iceland emerges right in front of my nose and starts singing “Hallelujah”. No, I won’t even care for an offer of ten free hot dogs from “Bæjarins beztu pylsur”. I know what I will do next time.
I will aim my camera at those blue Nordic eyes. And I will shoot for victory.