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 ! jamiecullum.com 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 email@example.com
landscape. Black rocks and gravel slushy player in England. I’d never been close Back issues: www.learyworks.com