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					Issue no. 7                                                                                                        September 2011

Lobster Soup                                                                                by toxic volcanic fumes while plundering
                                                                                            the town pharmacy in search of drugs.
The first thing to say about my recent                                                           I met a couple of displaced Heimaey
summer-solstice visit to Iceland is that                                                    people while in Iceland. One of them
I really like the Icelandic language.                                                       was our guide on a trip to the chill waters
Íslenzka has a liquid tunefulness that                                                      of Silfra gorge. Born some years after
reminds me of the sound of water running                                                    the eruption, he was raised on the volcano
over rocks. While largely                                                                   island but had to move to Reykjavik to
incomprehensible to me, the language is                                                     attend university. There are no prospects
recognisably European (of the                                                               for him on Heimaey (which is largely
Germanic/Old Norse branch). That means                                                      devoted to fishing) so he dreams of going
there are sometimes words whose                                                             to New Zealand to get a degree in
meaning I can guess, so we’re not talking    Mad about maps.                                adventure tourism management. This
Chinese here.                                                                               branch of academia is new to me but it
     But íslenzka does have a bigger         volcanic island that popped up from the        makes sense that he would study this
alphabet than my native enska. Thirty        Mid-Atlantic Ridge in November 1963            subject in a far-away land of islands and
two symbols that include lovely letters      to form Iceland’s most southerly point.        intense geological activity that is also
like eth and thorn (which I’ve employed           Eldfell means Fire Mountain in            the homeland of commercial bungee
to decorate these pages). The alphabet       Icelandic but at a mere 200 metres in          jumping. And if Mount Taranaki blows
used to have 33 letters but the ‘z’ was      elevation it would be more precise to          its top he’ll know what to do.
abolished in 1974 when, for some reason,     call it The Hill That Roared. Nonetheless,
it was deemed redundant. Despite this        a volcano is a volcano and this still active   I’m mad about maps so I had to visit a
redundancy, Icelandic keyboards still        cone was steep enough and rugged               shop in Reykjavik that specialised in the
have a zed key for those Icelanders who      enough that we could enjoy our Jules           hard-to-find Landmælingar Íslands
want to write about Zorro or ZZ Top, or      Verne moment. At the summit steam              (National Land Survey of Iceland)
spell the word íslenzka.                     wisped from cracks and the lava stones         1:100,000 maps. The government map-
                                             were warm to the touch. We didn’t find         making department was privatised as
When in Ísland it is important to visit a    the front door to the earth’s core.            part of the response to Iceland’s banking
volcano. The country has quite a few of           Heimaey is billed as the ‘Pompeii         debacle. The maps are very pretty but it
them: Esjufjöll, Kverkfjöll, Öræfajökull,    of the North’ due to the destruction           seems that when the last of the old
Eldgjá, Fremrinámur, Hrómundartindur,        wrought by Eldfell’s eruption in 1973.         government stock is gone there won’t be
Kollóttadygja, Thordarhyrna, to list just    This turns out to be a bit of woolly           any more. Shame. Aside from the maps’
some with the funkiest names.                marketing talk. Vesuvius obliterated           intrinsic charm, I find the idea of a
Snæfellsjökull on the Snæfellsnes            Pompeii in AD 79 with a VEI (Volcanic          country of just under 320,000 souls
peninsula became world famous when           Explosivity Index) of 5 (a ranking             having its own fully-fledged cartographic
Jules Verne made it the doorway to the       described as “paroxysmal”) that was 100        service adorable.
underworld in A Journey to the Centre        times more powerful than Eldfell’s                  They certainly have a fascinating
of the Earth. And who can forget the         detonation which was only “severe”.            landscape to survey. The fact that
mighty explosion at Eyjafjallajökull last    Admittedly, the damage to Heimaey town         Icelanders know this is borne out by the
year that was such a terror for              was considerable, and the lava flow came       presence of an enormous raised-relief
transatlantic travellers?                    within metres of rendering the island          map of the entire country that is on view
    For our close encounter with lava,       uninhabitable. But, unlike Pompeii,            to the public in Reykjavik’s radhús (city
my partner and I selected the volcanic       Heimaey’s population made it to safety.        hall). Every peak, every range, every
cone of Eldfell on the island of Heimaey,    Except for one man who, while looking          glacier and lake lovingly modelled. And
which is the largest of the Westman          for medication in the the town pharmacy,       there’s Reykjavik, a little orange splodge
Islands off Iceland’s south coast. This is   had a fatal heart attack. Or, according to     in a desert of grey and white paint.
the group that includes Surtsey, the         another version of events, was overcome             The lady in the map shop was a
Heimaey refugee. She was 13 when her           with puddles and lakes of cappucino-           to a professional football player before.
island blew up and she vividly remembers       coloured water. And a misty wetting rain.      He looked impressively fit. He was home
her departure that night. How she was          Mars might look like this if it rained         for the summer before returning for the
woken by the light of the sky on fire.         there.                                         winter season. He is perfectly suited for
Within an hour she was aboard one of                On the glacier the ancient ice was        the English winter. Icelanders have three
the island’s fishing boats and headed for      strange and beautiful. Not least because       hundred different words for rain.
the mainland. Permanently, as it turned        it was covered in the dark ash of the               I also ran into a famous musician.
out. Although now resident in Reykjavik        Grimsvötn eruption of a few weeks              Except that I didn’t know he was famous
she goes back regularly to her volcano         previously. This is the view that is not       or a musician. He and I were alone in
to visit the old friends who did return. I     shown in tourist brochures. Those              the outdoor section of a Reykjavik fish
made sure to include a 1:50,000 map of         glaciers are white and gleaming in the         restaurant when I noticed him making
her Heimaey Heimat in my purchases.            sunshine. I preferred the dark and dirty       facial expressions at his lobster soup that
                                               version however. It gave a fuller picture      suggested he thought very highly of it.
Fish are a very important part of the story    of the local ecosystem, where volcanic         I liked his evident enthusiasm for his
of Iceland. Fishing is to Iceland as sheep     activity is a fact of life. I drank the melt   food and so, as one enthusiast to another,
farming is to New Zealand; one of the          water from the glacier streams and             I asked him if it was good. I don’t
pillars of national identity. Iceland’s        chewed on glacial ice. Both were the           remember his precise response but it was
coins have fish on them, with the              freshest and best tasting H2O I have ever      to the effect: Awesome. We got chatting
exception of the 50 krónur piece which         sampled but you do have to watch out           and when a waitress came out and got
has a crab. Iceland’s hero of the              for lava grit. I wished I’d brought a          excited at finding a famous musician,
independence movement is Jón,                  tumbler and some whisky with me.               and promptly asked for his autograph, I
son of Sigureth, but Jón’s most popular        Thousand-year-old frozen water and a           realized I was chatting with a star.
book was not a treatise on the merits of       12-year-old single cask. That would have            Nice guy. Witty and down to earth.
autonomy from Denmark but rather the           been a scotch on the rocks for the ages.       Only drinks water before a concert I can
Lítil Fiskíbók (The Little Fishing Book).                                                     tell you that. I thought he resembled a
This treasured volume, published in 1859,      Iceland has an unusually high proportion       certain infamous musician who is
contained guidelines for Icelandic             of good-looking young women. Many              famously less than abstemious. He told
fishermen about the best ways to catch         of the young men wear beards which             me he got this all the time. I asked him
and process the produce from the               made it hard to say much about their           to jot his name down for me in my
“everlasting wellspring” of the island’s       looks except, Hairy. Studies of the            notebook. He wrote: “Jamie Cullum
fisheries.                                     Icelandic genome have shown that while         MUSICIAN ! NOT
     I talked to a lass from the Faroe         a large amount of the males’ genetic           Pete Doherty…”
Islands who asserted that it was the           content is of Scandinavian origin, the              Jamie recommends the lemon sole
Faroese who showed the Icelanders “how         female of the species has a similar            at the Saegreifinn. I tried it too. It was
to fish properly”. I tested this claim on      percentage of Irish and British markers.       delicious and so was the cod. Skip the
a couple of Icelanders who said it was a       This supports the historical record which      whale.
lot of fish bollocks. An Icelandic friend,     tells us that the Norsemen regularly went           Wikipedia later told me that Jamie
dóttir of a fisherman, just rolled her eyes.   woman hunting in Britain and Ireland.          is married to Sophie Dahl, a famous
     There are less than 50,000 Faroese        (This was in the days before mail-order        cooking expert. I’m willing to bet that
(of whom half want independence from           brides.) Based on the evidence I saw in        when Jamie got home from his gig in the
their rulers in Copenhagen) but they seem      Reykjavik, my theory is that the Vikings       North Atlantic he told Sophie all about
very sure of themselves. I have identified     were picky. It is probable they held           that Icelandic lobster soup. I know this
a demographic phenomenen: The tinier           beauty contests in the areas they visited.     because since my visit to the land of grit
the nation, the cockier it gets.               Hairy judges sat around drinking mead          and ice I’ve been telling anybody who’ll
                                               while local damsels in bikinis paraded         listen about the cod.
We took a walk on Skaftafell, a glacial        before them and babbled earnestly about
tongue of the enormous Vatnajökull ice-        the importance of world peace. The
cap. As the tour party hiked up the valley     winner always cried. Beauty pageants
to the ice face, our guide pointed out the     haven’t changed much over the years.
ridge on the horizon where the glacier’s
edge had stood just 20 years before. It        Iceland is a place to meet people you
was some ways off. A vast raw groove           might otherwise never meet. One day I                 Issue no.7: 09/2011
in the ground in front of us was what          found myself sharing a lunch table with         Published by Christopher Leary
remained. There’s something distinctly         a member of Iceland’s national football        Overbeckstraße 23, 50823 Cologne
triste about a recently-exposed moraine        team, currently working as a professional   
landscape. Black rocks and gravel slushy       player in England. I’d never been close        Back issues:

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