mæðgur á ferðalagi: heimsókn til ættingja á patró og tálknó

We arrived in Patreksfjörður with the hope of seeing relatives but with no actual plan. It is not really the Icelandic way to plan ahead. I’ve often heard the theory that Icelanders’ inability or unwillingness to plan ahead is tied to the uncertainty of the weather, and that even now, when modern technologies and conveniences can mitigate the harshness of weather to some extent, it’s still in their blood to wait until the last minute. But as the Icelanders say, “þetta reddast,” it will work itself out. And it did.

Our first morning in Patró, we had breakfast at the guesthouse and then set out for a little walking tour of town. We peeked in to Albína, the grocery store where I did the first week of my work experience, and I chatted with Inga, who I worked with in 2012. She was so kind and helpful and remarkably patient with me despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant at the time.

As we walked through town, I pointed out relatives’ homes, my favorite coffee shop, the place where this happened, the place where that happened. Eventually we ended up at our cousin Björg’s home for kaffitími.

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frænkur

Björg is the eldest of my host parents’ four children and she lives on the far end of town with a lovely view of the fjord and surrounding mountains. Coffee was poured, vínarbrauð and kleinur set out, and we started catching up in a blend of Icelandic and English. Names and places and family news swirled through our conversation like milk in our cups of strong Icelandic coffee.

My host mamma Hrafnhildur was out of town, but Sæmundur took a break from his work day to drop by and say hello. When I last saw him, in 2012, my Icelandic was so limited that we could barely communicate. There was definitely a solid language barrier between us. We would chip away at it steadily and eventually managed to make some cracks that let communication shine through, but it was labored. So I cannot adequately explain my joy at discovering that the barrier is all but gone now. From the moment he walked in and began speaking to me, I understood probably 90% of what he said (compared to maybe 10% three years ago), and, what’s more, I could express my own opinions, feelings, and questions with so much more clarity and detail than before.

My mother listened and waited with grace and patience as we chatted in Icelandic. To no one’s great surprise, Sæmundur insisted that she try his harðfiskur (Icelandic dried fish). And to no one’s great surprise, she was not a huge fan (the dog, however, loves it!).

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mamma ekki svo spennt að smakka harðfisk, hundurinn rosa spenntur

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Sæmundur headed back to work and Björg took us to see her sister Jenný on the other side of town (for the sake of perspective, please realize that this means a four-minute drive). Jenný’s daughter Auður was fearlessly friendly in 2012 but not so sure about me this time around. Still, we had a nice visit before Björg drove us back to our guesthouse to rest.

That evening, Björg took us to Tálknafjörður (one town over) to partake of the most beloved of Icelandic pastimes: hot pot sitting. If you follow the main road through Tálknafjörður and continue past the kernel of homes and the school and the swimming pool, you will soon come across a trio of hot pots nestled into the hillside overlooking the fjord. They are natural and rustic (which sometimes means they are rather slimy, but hey, it’s natural slime!) and two of them are painfully hot, but sitting in the not-too-hot pot and watching the sun sparkle on the fjord and dance on the mountains is glorious.

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mjööööög íslenskt að chilla í heitum pott

After a nice long soak, we met the family at a restaurant called Hópinn for a sort of family reunion dinner. We were quite a large group: Mom and I; Björg and her son Stefán; Björg’s daughter Sædís, her boyfriend Davíð, their toddler Sæmundur and newborn baby boy; Jenný and her husband and their daughter Auður; Guðmundur and Eygló and their two youngest daughters, Berglind and Dagbjört; and their second daughter Ástrós was working at the restaurant.

As I was perusing the menu, I noticed that one of the dinner offerings was hrefnusteik (minke whale steak) and I commented that I had never tasted whale. Before I knew it, Guðmundur had convinced Ástrós to bring a sample.

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Sorry, people who walk around Reykjavík in plastic whale suits trying to get people to promise not to eat whale meat – I tasted it, and I liked it. But it was mostly something I felt I had to do once; I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to order a meal of minke whale any time soon.

Anyway, wonderful food and good company. Mom especially enjoyed bright-eyed little Sæmundur, who is two years old and incredibly vocal. He kept pointing to his mamma (Sædís) and saying, “Þetta er mamma mín!” (“That’s my mom!”) I pointed to Sædís and said, “Þetta er mamma þín,” then pointed to my mom and told him, “Og þetta er mamma mín!” “Nei!” he exclaimed emphatically. “Mamma mín!” By the end of the night, I’m pretty sure my mother had learned the word “nei.”

smá ættingjamót
smá ættarmót

After dinner, Björg drove us back to Patreksfjörður and we dropped by to say goodbye to Sæmundur and thank him for dinner (it was his very generous treat, even though he was working late and couldn’t come). He asked me which way my mom and I were driving to Ísafjörður the following day and pointed out the route with the shortest distance of gravel roads, cautioning me to drive slowly and carefully. And he insisted on paying to fill up our gas tank before we left, despite my protests that it was unnecessary. Sæmundur hasn’t changed much in the past three years as far as I can tell; he still works nonstop (his children say he can never retire because if he does he will die), and he still has a generous spirit.

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The next morning, after we checked out of our guesthouse, we drove over to Björg’s house again. She had offered to drive us to Rauðasandur, one of my absolute favorite places in Iceland. But first we stopped at the pharmacy so I could pick up some earplugs, anticipating another battle against my mother’s snoring that evening. There was exactly one person working at the pharmacy, and about three people ahead of me, so it was a bit of a wait. When it was my turn, I had to ask for earplugs, because I hadn’t seen them anywhere. I didn’t remember the Icelandic word for earplugs, though, which means I outed myself as a foreigner immediately. “Hvaðan ertu?” asked the pharmacist. I told him I was from the States and the conversational floodgates opened. Turns out Ramón (as I should have known when I saw his name tag, not to mention when he started making conversation with a stranger – definitely not an Icelandic trait) is a fellow útlendingur, having moved to Iceland from Spain a number of years ago. We chatted about learning Icelandic and adjusting to life on this weird and beautiful rock. He told me he’d been learning Icelandic for however many years but “byrjaði að lifa á íslensku” (began living in Icelandic) a few years ago. Að lifa á íslensku… what a lovely turn of phrase.

Anyway, eventually I realized that Björg and my mom had been waiting for at least 10 or 15 minutes by now, so I excused myself from the conversation. When I got back in the car, I apologized and explained what had happened. Björg must have assumed that I was flirting with this guy (which I wasn’t, truly) because she immediately said something like, “Því miður er hann hommi… he’s a gay.”

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Rauðasandur single photo

The road to Rauðasandur is one of the more terrifying in the region and I was very happy that I was not driving. We parked by the camping area and took our time meandering over the expansive stretches of sand. Words can’t capture the magic of this place, so I will stop forcing them together and instead let the photos speak for themselves.

approach to Rauðasandur
approach to Rauðasandur

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Back in town, we had lunch at Stúkuhúsið, the café where I spent entirely too much time and money in 2012. To my surprise, the owner, Steina, remembered me.

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And sadly it was then time to say goodbye to Patreksfjörður, as we had quite a long stretch of (not always paved) road ahead of us to Ísafjörður.

Our time in Patreksfjörður was filled with family, just as I hoped it would be, and it was filled with little moments of affirmation that I made the right decision in choosing to move to Iceland and study Icelandic.

Language learning can feel like an uphill battle and all it takes is one difficult conversation to make you question your progress. At home, speaking with Ásta and the family, I can tell I’ve improved, but it’s less dramatic because I see them and speak with them every day. Seeing Sæmundur (and my other relatives in Patró and Tálknó) gave me the opportunity to see clearly how far I’ve come. It was a joyful and encouraging discovery.

Before I left Patró three years ago, I told Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur that I hoped to return to Iceland to study the language. Sæmundur was fully supportive of this, and as a parting gift gave me the money to buy the Icelandic-English dictionary I wanted. I hope that seeing how far I’ve come helped him understand how much their investment of time and hospitality has meant to me.

To all our relatives in Patreksfjörður and Tálknafjörður – takk kærlega fyrir okkur!  ❤

Heima

An essay I wrote exploring my feelings of Iceland as home.

 Originally published 15 September 2012 in the Lögberg-Heimskringlaa Winnipeg-based newspaper serving the greater North American Icelandic community.

Is it possible to be homesick for a place you haven’t even left yet? I was walking down Aðalstræti in Patreksfjörður one July afternoon, watching the sun sparkling on the deep blue water of the fjord. Everything about my life in this little corner of the world was perfect, yet I felt a looming sense of restlessness, even sadness. Suddenly, I realized what I was feeling: homesickness – but not for Washington, for Iceland.

Home is a strange concept, really, and perhaps not as simple as we might think. Is home something innate, or is it made? Is it coincidence, choice, or some combination of both? Is home where we are or where we came from? I won’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know my recent trip to Iceland allowed me to explore these questions and ultimately to expand my definition of home.

One day in Patró, I was working at Oddi, a fish factory where I volunteered, with a 15-year-old girl named Edda. We stood side-by-side, packing boxes of cod in a constant rhythm, talking over the factory noise.

“So why did you want to come to Iceland?” she asked. I told her I’ve always wanted to see where my ancestors came from, to gain a fuller understanding of my own story.

“And how do you like it here?” she continued. I told her it was amazing; I love the country, the people, the language; if I could stay longer I absolutely would. She considered this, then said, “I never understand what people see in Iceland… I can’t wait to leave.

“Have you ever been to New York?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I answered, “just once. I actually went when I was your age.” Edda told me of an upcoming trip to New York to celebrate her confirmation, then explained that she hopes to become a film director. I asked if she’s considering college in the States, then, perhaps LA. “Maybe,” she said, “but I don’t want to be too far away from home.”

A couple days later, I had another interesting conversation, this time at the Stúkuhúsið, my favorite kaffihús (well, okay, the only one) in Patró. I was drinking a Swiss Mocha and working on my blog when a dreadlocked, 20-something Icelandic man sat down near me. I recognized him; he had been at a concert at the same coffee shop a couple nights before. He said something in Icelandic and I realized he was talking to me. “Ég tala bara smá íslensku” (“I speak only a little Icelandic”), I told him. That didn’t deter him; he sat across from me rolling cigarettes, asking me questions in Icelandic, and I did my best to keep up. When I had exhausted my limited vocabulary, he smoothly switched to English.

I explained the Snorri Program and told him that “langafi minn var frá Barðaströnd” (“my great-grandfather was from Barðaströnd). We talked about genealogy and Icelandic bloodlines and determined that we were likely related. He expressed outrage that I’m not allowed to access Íslendingabók, the Icelandic genealogical database – “But you have Icelandic blood! You are Icelandic!” he said. I shrugged.

“How does it feel?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“To be Icelandic, but grow up away from Iceland. To only be coming here for the first time now.” I tried to absorb this. He truly considered me a fellow Icelander. It was as if he was saying, welcome home.

As our conversation was winding down, he asked me a question I’ve been thinking about ever since. “Why are you going back to the US? Why would anyone ever leave Iceland?”

As I was talking with Edda and my dreadlocked frændi, I didn’t have the answers on the tip of my tongue, but time and distance have allowed me to explore their questions.

What do I see in Iceland? I see a country of otherworldly natural beauty, a people of incredible strength and heart. I see the roots of my family tree. I see a place that is part of my past, my present and hopefully my future.

So why would I ever leave? Because although Washington is a home that was chosen for me, it doesn’t mean I cherish it any less. And because I believe a true home is a place you’re always drawn back to. So even as I am drawn back to the States, I have faith that I will also be drawn back to Iceland again, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner. Until then, sjáumst, Ísland. Takk fyrir mig.

 

ég sakna Íslands á hverjum degi

It’s been four weeks since I left my Icelandic home.  Twenty-eight days without my fellow Snorris, twenty-eight days without a sip of kókómjólk, twenty-eight days without a glimpse of the Reykjavík skyline or the sparkling waters of Patreksfjörður.  In some ways it’s hard to believe so much time has passed, and in other ways it seems like it was another lifetime.  What I know for sure is that I have missed Iceland every single one of those 28 days, and here, in no particular order, are…

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28 reasons why

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1. Ásta Sól and my Snorri family.  I think a certain amount of loneliness is inevitable when you’ve spent 6 weeks with a group of people, but there’s also a sense of loneliness because I’m no longer surrounded by people who understand (and share) my Iceland obsession.

2012 Snorris

2. Skyr.  Apparently they import Skyr.is to a number of Whole Foods stores across the country, but they don’t carry it at my local store (although they do carry Nói Síríus chocolate!).

3. The starkly beautiful landscape.  As a lifelong Northwest girl, I was skeptical when an Icelandic friend told me that tall trees make him feel claustrophobic, but now I understand.  I suppose I’ve gotten used to the trees again, but I understand the longing for open spaces and far-away views.

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4. Being surrounded by the beautiful rhythms of the Icelandic language, and being able to practice and learn more every day.
5. Stúkuhúsið – My home away from home in Patró.  A quaint, cosy, kaffihús with delicious Swiss mochas and a beautiful view of the fjord.  The lovely owner, Steina, spoke to me in Icelandic to help me learn.

Stúkuhúsið view

6. Learning Canadianisms from my fellow Snorris.  What can I say, I’m such a keener!
7. My host families, and their incredible kindness and generosity in accepting me as family and taking good care of me.

host mamma and pabbi #1

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Host mamma and pabbi #2

8. Listening to Of Monsters and Men on my iPod while packing cod at the fish factory (seriously, I do kind of miss this, although I don’t miss being yelled at by the Polish lady…).

Mmm I can smell it now…

9. Watching American and English TV shows with Icelandic subtitles (I do not, however, miss watching Danish TV shows with Icelandic subtitles… too much brain hurt there!)
10. Guesthouse Óðinn – Our very beloved first home in Iceland.  I miss our little closet of a room, the midnight sun streaming in the window, the sulfurous hot water, the comfortingly predictable (and yummy) breakfast. 

guesthouse breakfast

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11. Háskóli Íslands.  Learning new words like Leðurblökumaðurinn, following Sigurborg to Háma like little ducklings during kaffi time, buying lunch from the mean lady who absolutely refused to speak English.

nananananananananananananananana Leðurblökumaðurinn!

12. Nature.  Whales and puffins, purple lupine, fjords, waterfalls around every bend.  The color palette of Icelandic nature is magical… shades of blue and green I’ve never seen in the Northwest.

lúpína

13. The water.  I used to think the tap water here was great, but it tastes stale and mucky compared to Icelandic glacial water.
14. The midnight sun.  The first night I was home, the darkness really freaked me out.  I’ve gotten used to it again, but it still makes me feel a bit trapped.

midnight sunset

15. Bónus – Oh, that dorky little pig logo!  Oh, the wall of skinka and pepperoni!  Oh, the entire shelf of sósa!

the wall of ham and pepperoni at Bónus

16. C is for Cookie.  I only went there a couple times, but so far it’s my favorite kaffihús in the city.  Mmm gulrótarkaka…

C is for Cookie

17. Sitting around the dinner table with Hrafnhildur and Sæmundur and making conversation with the help of the ever-present orðabók.

our constant companion

18. The weather.  I know we were blessed with unusually warm and dry weather, but I’ll take 60 degrees (or even 50) over 90 any day.
19. Sjóræningjahúsið – I never got to spend much time there, but I love the cozy atmosphere and the book exchange, and besides, it was always fun to say, hey I’m going to the Pirate House, see you later!

Sjóræningjahúsið

20. The colors and textures of Reykjavík.  Brightly-colored roofs, cobblestone streets, artwork on the sides of buildings, that one neon green house on Frakkastigur.

the ever-popular view from Hallgrímskirkja

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21. The ever-present steeple of Hallgrímskirkja in the skyline.

Hallgrímskirkja

22. Going for a walk and seeing where the city might take me.  Knowing that even a directionally-challenged person like myself can’t really get lost.
23. Strong kaffi, always.

C is for Cookie latté

24. Kókómjólk, Prince Polo bars, Daim, those weirdly delicious chocolate-covered rice cakes, waffles from the cart in Austurvöllur, and other tasty foodstuffs.

Okay, it’s actually Polish, but Icelanders love these things.

25. Working at Albína.  Learning the Icelandic words for all the bakery goods, meeting tourists from all over the place, chatting with my German friend every day, talking to the locals, becoming an expert at saying, ‘Ég veit ekki, en ég má að spyrja.’

Albína is on the right

26. Going for walks in the late-night sun.

11 PM walk in Patró

27. My future husband, Helgi.  I will return to be with you soon, my love!  😉

Helgi

28. A sense of belonging. Knowing I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment.  A feeling of being completely at home.

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catching up on ye old blog: return to reykjavík

Góðan daginn, friends, family, and random readers!  I’m writing to you stateside after a week-long adventure tour and a 24-hour trip home.  It’s hard to believe I’m back and that I’ve really been away for 6 weeks.  I’m jet-lagged and a bit cranky and definitely not ready to process my trip as a whole, but I want to start catching up on some of the daily happenings before I forget what they were.  The last time I posted I was about to leave Patró, so that’s where I’ll pick up.

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Bless, bless, Patró!

Thursday I had my last day of work at Oddi, and we finished early!  Ekki meira fiskar!!!  In the afternoon I spent some time at my beloved Stúkuhúsið studying, reflecting, and writing some thank-you cards.

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Stúkuhúsið study time

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After dinner, Sædís and I drove over to Tálknafjörður, picked up Ástrós and Berglind, and went to the hot pot.  I didn’t take any photos for fear of destroying my camera in the water, but it was on a hill overlooking the fjord, and in the evening sunlight it was perfect.  There’s this naturally occurring green slime that coats the pools, so Berglind and I had fun attacking each other with it.  We also enjoyed watching a crazy German tourist lower himself inch-by-inch into the hottest pot until he was submerged up to his neck.  He must have felt some sense of triumph, but he was clearly in some pain.  We stuck with the safer, cooler pots.

We dropped off Ástrós and Berglind and I said goodbye to their family, then Sædís and I hurried back to Patró so we could stop and get ice cream at Albína before they closed.  Back at the house, we ate ice cream and I gave my host family a Washington photo book and some Theo chocolate (I found the lightest bars I brought and kept the really dark ones for myself!).  Then we played a little game.  I wrote down some Washington place/ferry names (Puyallup, Chehalis, Kaleetan) and Sædís and Hrafnhildur tried to pronounce them.  They did pretty well!  Then Sædís countered with Icelandic words like lögreglumaðurinn and Kirkjubæjarklaustur.  I know my pronunciation was far from perfect, but it must have been passable, because Sæmundur seemed incredibly impressed and once again told me that I must study Icelandic at the university.  Trust me, I don’t need any more convincing.  If I could start tomorrow, I would.

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Sædís og ég

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Friday morning I made the rounds in Patró, saying goodbye to my friends at Albína, Oddi, and the Stúkuhúsið.

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Góða ferð, Brynja! Gaman að kynnast þér!

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Last Swiss Mocha from the Stúkuhúsið… for now. Takk fyrir mig, Steina!

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Then Hrafnhildur and I set out for Bíldudalsflugvöllur (Bíldudalur airport).  We got there quite early and it was crazy windy outside so we sat in the car visiting for awhile.  Eventually we went inside and waited waited waited some more.  A guy about my age sat down across from us and Hrafnhildur started talking to him, then explained to me that he’s her daughter’s ex-husband’s son.  Or something like that.  Well of course he is!  Everyone knows everyone in those parts.

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Bíldudalsflugvöllur

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This is an airport. There’s a runway hiding behind the buildings.

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View of the fjord from the airport

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Anyway, we said our goodbyes and I once again boarded a tiny tiny plane.  I think that Swiss Mocha was a bad idea because I was rather jittery.  When you fly out of Bíldudalur, you have to taxi down the runway, make a u-turn, then take off in the other direction and quickly circle back in the air to clear the mountains and head south.  It’s a bit dizzying and nerve-wracking.  For the most part the flight was smooth, but about 10 minutes outside of Reykjavík a shrill alarm sounded from the cockpit and I swear I saw the pilot reach over and turn it off.  We were tipping to the side quite a bit because we were turning quite sharply, and it happened again.  The pilot seemed unconcerned, but I’m telling you, it did not seem like a happy sound.  Landing in Reykjavík requires some more dizzying turns, but the upside is that I got a lovely view of Bessastaðir (the president’s home) and Hallgrímskirkja in the distance.  In any case, I was incredibly happy to be back on solid ground.

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Gaman að sjáðu aftur, Reykjavík!

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Ásta Sól picked me up and we headed back to the guesthouse.  Most of the group had already arrived, so I settled into my room and then spent some time catching up with people in the back house.  Then I headed out to wander the city on my own.  If I felt reunited with the group, I felt even more reunited with this beautiful, vibrant city.  Of course I had to return to the bookstores, check out the tourist shops one last time, and enjoy lunch at Durum.  I also went to Te og Kaffi for the first time, ordered some sort of tea slushie drink, and can proudly say that I understood the barista when she told me (in Icelandic) they were out of oolong tea and would white tea be okay instead?

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That night, we met up at Ásta Sól’s house and walked to Kex Hostel for dinner.  Kex seems like a true hipster hangout.  They served us dinner family-style: French chicken in a red wine sauce, dill roasted potatoes, rolls with smjör, and skyr brulée for dessert.  We were joined by a couple of Snorri alums as well: Stefan, who did the program last year and just moved to Reykjavík; and Helgi, Katie and Breanna’s cousin who did the program in 2001 (I think) and has since lived in Iceland and is completely fluent in Icelandic.  Great food, great conversation, but I don’t do transitions well so I was still trying to adjust to the idea of being back with everyone.

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Most of the group went out for one last night of partying, and although I’m not into that scene, Jolene convinced me to go with her to the Dubliner to see her cousin play. He didn’t go onstage until 12:30, so we took our time walking and stopped near Austurvöllur for some  midnight snacks – a pylsa for Jolene and a waffle for me.  The Dubliner was actually pretty tame and we listened to Pálmey for 45 minutes or so.  He even sang ‘Jolene’ for his frænka.  On the way back we stopped near Austurvöllur again and decided to have 4th meal.  While we were eating, most of our group walked by on their way to Kaffibarinn, but we decided to sit that one out (crowds + drunkenness = grumpy Julie).  We made our way back to the guesthouse, did some packing, and finally got some sleep.

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The next morning we were supposed to be outside, packed, ready to board the bus at 9 AM, so naturally, my alarm failed to go off and I didn’t wake up until 8:45.  It was okay, though, because as it turns out we weren’t anywhere near ready to leave until maybe 10.  Something to know about the Snorri itinerary: 9 AM means 9:30 or 9:45 – except for when it really does mean 9.

Our ‘bus’ was really more of a van, and there were just enough seats for the 16 of us plus Ásta Sól and our driver, Kent.  It was a bit of a tight squeeze, but somehow we fit all of our luggage into the tiny trailer, settled in, and set off.  We didn’t get very far, though – just across town to Ásta’s to pick up our food provisions for the trip.  After that we were even cozier, but we were finally ready to once again say goodbye to Reykjavík and really, truly hit the road.

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…to be continued…