23 October, 2010

Human geographies

This post is brought to you by the letter "þ" (th).

About sixty kilometers from Reykjavik lies Alþingi. After hearing it referred to as "the Icelandic parliament" more than once, i had rather naively expected Alþingi to be a built structure. It is, in fact, a place in the rift valley of Þingvellir National Park, where the American and European plates meet, a place where from CE 930-1290 Iceland's chiefs met around the Law Rock. Interpretive signs around it - a UNESCO World Heritage site - explain the tenth-century goings on, and also display photographs of the 1944 declaration of Independence (from then-Nazi-occupied Denmark) at this same location.

From Þingvellir we head past Reykjavik to Grindavik and the famous Blue Lagoon. It's another case of "wish i had a guidebook": the Blue Lagoon is, unlike the public thermal pools all around Reykjavik, an expensive spa. Award for taking the effluent from geothermal energy production and charging people lots of money to swim in it. Without debate we decide 28 euros is too much to pay for admission to something resembling blue gatorade, whatever its benefits to the integument. Instead, we find the indoor pool in downtown Reykjavik. That's what locals call Sundhöllin - the indoor pool - since the others are all outdoors. Admission is a much more affordable 350kr.

Standing waist-deep in 42C water, Felicia and i look out over red Reykjavik rooftops and steeples. The last trees were losing their leaves; mountain ash still had some berries. Four days in Iceland, and this is the first thing that feels real, that feels like i've actually touched one of the unique things about this place. Geysir is a showpiece, but to Icelanders, the swimming pools are a way of life. Friends meet and socialize in the hot tubs - at the indoor pool, on this second-story balcony - as steam rises into the October air.

Relaxed and at long last warmed, we go in search of other needs. Where in Reykjavik can one find coffee, wi-fi, and an affordable bowl of soup? We asked tourist information people and passersby to no avail - until, after settling for falafel and the Reykjavik City Library wifi, we found exactly what we had wanted at friendly (and recently opened) Caffe Rót.

After a ramblesome two days together, i parted ways with Devon and Felicia and headed uptown to meet another couchsurfer - this time, a native. Over an Icelandic microbrew at Ölstofan, Thor shared his experiences of family and place. A student of geography, he finds himself drawn most strongly to the emerging discipline of human geography, to narratives of migration and the reasons people choose particular places. As we walk through Reykjavik together, we see a brilliant beam of light rising vertically from nearby Viðey Island. Dedicated to her late husband, Yoko Ono's peace tower is another one of those things the tourist economy packages and sells - as "Imagine Peace" tours to the tower's base, complete with Lennon's music and foods made from his favorite ingredients. Really, it's better seen as the locals see it, a distant beam shining to the sky. The luminous "tower" rises from Lennon's birthdate in October to December 8, his death date. "They shut it off just before Christmas," Thor tells me, "which is sad, because that's when you need it."

It's a fairly long cold walk to the HI City Hostel, but that's the cheapest place around. The night-shift worker, a Peruvian named Marcelita, checks me in to a mostly-empty dorm room and asks if i'm hungry. "There was a misunderstanding this morning," she says, handing me two sandwiches. "We made too many lunch bags." Once again, i feel led, i feel blessed.