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!  ❤

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Birds and Red Sand: A Day at Látrabjarg og Rauðisandur

It’s a grey, cloudy, but surprisingly warm day on the fjord.  My host parents (and most of the rest of the town) are at a funeral, so I’m on my own for the afternoon, which means I’m at my beloved Stúkuhúsið ready to catch up on my blog.  Now that I’ve finished writing about Saturday’s trip to Flatey, it’s time to catch up on last Sunday, when we embarked upon another all-day excursion, this time to Látrabjarg and Rauðisandur.

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I was tired after a week of work and the all-day trip on Saturday, so I slept in on Sunday and we got a bit of a late start.  We picked up Brynjólfur, got some sandwiches (my host dad made Brynjólfur translate all the names, even though I definitely know the difference between rækja and skinka), and headed out.  We stopped at a museum somewhere along the way.  If I understood correctly, the entirety of the museum’s holdings were collected by one man.  If someone hoards junk and food purchased with coupons, we mock them on TV, but if someone hoards historical artifacts, we name museums after them.  Double standard, eh?

The museum had all sorts of stuff from the area dating back at least a couple hundred years: tools, furniture, kitchen equipment, knit work.  Everything was labeled in Icelandic, of course, and most things also had a label with English, French, German, and Swedish translations. Unfortunately many of the English translations were incredibly awkward (kroftré: to hang meat on to be smoked) or missing entirely.

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Awkward!

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There were so many things to look at that it was a bit overwhelming, but I took in as much as I could and it was interesting nonetheless.  I only took a few pictures, mostly of knit work to show Hannah.

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Just for you, Hannah.

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They also had a display of artifacts that belonged to the man the museum is named after.  I guess he was a hermit for most of his life, made all his clothes and furniture himself, and always wore a certain hat.  So everyone was eager for me to see the hat.  I guess I forgot to take a picture, but I promise, it really wasn’t all that exciting.  Green and grey, patched, tattered.  Well-loved.

I enjoyed looking at some Icelandic sheet music.  I may have only understood some of the words, but if I could have sat down at a piano and played through them, I think I would have understood the essence of the song just as well as any Icelander.  My host dad seemed a bit perplexed as to why I was spending so much time trying to read the music and some poems and books they had on display.  I had to ask Brynjólfur to explain to him that I am drawn to the written word, no matter what language it is.  If there is something to read, I’ll try to read it.  That’s just the way I am.

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Látrabjarg: A Bird Nerd’s Paradise

After the museum, we continued on until we got to Látrabjarg, a haven for bird enthusiasts and also the westernmost-point in Europe (my host dad really wanted to make sure I understood this).  There were some wonderful signs (er, pictograms, my Canadian friends!) in the parking area explaining the dangers of walking too close to the edge of the sheer cliffs.

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A helpful little pictogram depicting the fate of overenthusiastic bird nerds.

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I think people of any nationality can get the point.

We walked partway up the hill, found some rocks to sit on, and enjoyed our simple little samlokas.  Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur stayed behind while Brynjólfur and I walked up to the viewpoint.  It was a bit cloudy, but I guess on a clear day you can easily see Greenland in the distance.  What you can see – and hear – on any day are the thousands of birds that call Látrabjarg home.  The puffins are the cutest and most recognizable, of course, but there are also northern gannets, razorbills, and guillemots (at least according to Wikipedia – you didn’t actually think I would know this, did you?).  There were dozens of bird-crazy tourists with their gigantic cameras lying flat on their bellies at the edge of the cliff and taking photos, but I kept a safe distance.  Still, I got a couple good photos:

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Halló puffin! I promise I like you better like this than on my plate.

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See the tiny tiny specks atop the cliff? Those are people.

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It’s like a high-occupancy apartment building for birds.

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The sound was at least as impressive as the view.  I took a video and will post it on Facebook when I have time.  When I’d seen enough birds, I lied down in the grass (a safe distance from the edge, I promise) and watched the Icelandic clouds in the Icelandic sky.  I think I could have easily taken a nap right then and there.  But alas, we had another stop: Rauðasandur.

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Rauðasandur

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The road down to Rauðisandur is better described by the Icelandic word óvegur (un-road).  It is dry and gravelly, with windy switchbacks and no guardrail.  In other words, it’s a bit terrifying, and I wonder if it’s even open in the winter.  As you drive down into what I would best describe as a valley, you can see two spits of reddish orange sand reaching out toward each other from opposite sides of the bay.  We happened to be there at high tide, which means there was much less sand than usual, but it was still impressive.

We stopped at a little kaffihús along the waterfront, sat on the deck and ate flatbrauð with some sort of smoked fish, súkkulaðikaka (chocolate cake), and kaffi.

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‘kaffi’ might just be the best meal of the day

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The view was incredible, and photos absolutely do not do it justice.

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Icelandic pastoral

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Behind us was the sheer, rocky cliff of the mountain, and situated in the mountain’s shadow was a little village with a farm and of course a kirkja (church).  In front of us, the rocky shoreline gave way to an expanse of red sand, and beyond it the open water.  To the left, a waterfall trickled down from the mountains, and in the distance you could see Snæfellsness glacier.

Elisabet, the daughter of my boss at Albína, was working at the kaffihús, and the two other people there are siblings of another lady who works at Albína.  Even if you drive a couple towns over, you still run into the same families.

On the deck they had jars of sand from places around the world.  The sand from Rauðisandur was very coarse compared to, say, Florida sand.

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Sadly, they didn’t have any Washington sand.  Perhaps I’ll have to collect some and bring it back next time I come to Iceland.

After we ate, we drove down toward the sand.  Hrafnhildur and Sæmundur once again stayed behind, but Brynjólfur and I forged a little stream, walked through the grass, and started trekking across the sand.

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It felt looser than the sand at home and was kind of difficult to walk across, but I was determined to walk all the way to the water.  Even at high tide, though, the sand just keeps going and going.  If you blocked out the ocean and the mountains around it, it could easily pass as a desert, I think.

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Close up, the sand really does look reddish-orange (from a distance it’s more peachy), and it is very coarse compared to the sand in Washington and Oregon.

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The sand mounds a bit and then slopes down to the water, so you have to walk quite a distance before you can even see the ocean.  It finally came into view, and I pulled off my shoes and socks and went for a little arctic wade.

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It was surprisingly warm, really.  Well, not exactly warm, but no colder than the Pacific around the San Juans, I would say.

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Brynja says Rauðisandur is her favorite place in Iceland and she insists it’s much more impressive at low tide.  There’s actually a music festival there this weekend, featuring dozens of Icelandic artists (the only ones I recognized were Snorri Helgason and Lay Low), but unfortunately the tickets were sold out.  Too bad.  That might have made up for missing the free Of Monsters and Men concert in Reykjavík today.

On the way back to the car, I had to stop and write a little shout-out to my fellow Snorris in the sand.

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I didn’t grow up on the water, but we visited Lopez every year when I was a kid, and I’ve called it home for nearly two years, so I felt right at home being at the beach.  Grind the sand a little finer, exchange Snæfellsnes for Mt. Rainier, and it would pretty much be Washington.  Really, though, I think I can easily say that Rauðisandur is one of my favorite places I’ve been in Iceland.

Covered in sand, legs sore from the walk, we finally made it back to the car.  We had been gone for quite awhile, but thankfully, Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur didn’t seem to mind.  I made sure Brynjólfur told them it was one of my favorite places, so I think that helped!

Before we headed back up the mountain, we stopped by a little glacial stream and Sæmundur showed me the salmon swimming.

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Another long day, but I had enough energy left to go for a short walk.  The evening light turned the fjord beautiful colors.  Unfortunately, the air was filled with these nasty little bugs that seem to enjoy flying directly into one’s face, so I had to give up on my original idea of sitting by the water.  Still, I snapped a few lovely photos.

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Have I mentioned that this is a beautiful little corner of the world?