Reykjavik: Whale Watching

I woke up feeling nervous and excited, so I guess it was just nervous excitement. Oh my God, I’ve been dreaming about doing this and now the day has arrived! Out on a boat! In open waters! With WHALES swimming around there somewhere! How will I even deal? Will I get sick on board? When was the last time I’d been on a boat other than on a river? Will I be cold? Are those overalls they say you get uncomfortable? Will I be able to hold my camera steady? How will I FEEL if I see a whale? How close will it get? Perhaps I will just sit down on the floor of the boat and cry?

My practical inner voice overrules all these questions and barks to put on some warm tights. A little while later I’m standing outside my hotel. It’s an 8:15 AM pick-up and a quick drive to the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. It’s entirely possible to get there on your own, but since it’s only my second full day here and I’m not yet well versed in local buses, I booked a shuttle. Once at the harbour, all my nerves immediately quiet down. The water is calm, the air smells of seawater, everything is clean and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I’m also not cold, so I’m definitely dressed right! It’s immediately obvious that you can take your pick of whale watching excursions and companies, all of their small ticket houses lining one side, colorful posters, fantastic promises and Whale, hello there! included. My boat is easy to spot.

In no time at all I board the boat, and I see that our passenger crowd is split mainly in two groups: a laughing, chattering gathering of middle-aged Chinese women who exhibit levels of selfie taking obsession I have never seen before, everywhere on the boat, and a few quiet Japanese couples who carefully snap their own selfies, before sitting down and calmly waiting until we disembark. In addition, there’s a smattering of British and German tourists who stick to their own little groups. One poor English guy promptly gets grabbed by one of the Chinese ladies for a selfie and receives no answer to his “Why me?”, except giggles and imperious pointing. We’re going to be a merry party.

The overalls are hanging on the lower deck, lined up by size.

Step one, check the pockets of the suit you picked aren’t torn. Step two, check that all the zippers work. Step 3, read the instructions on how to put on the overalls. Unzip the front and leg zippers, undo the velcro cuffs, take your shoes off, and then one by one, obviously starting with the legs, stick all your limbs in. Whether you take off your coat is up to you, my suit fit comfortably over everything I was already wearing. But, caution! It might be hard to slide your shoes back on and especially to tie them up if you’re wearing sneakers or lace-up ones when you’re all…puffy.

We set sail and it’s wonderful as the boat gets further and further away from the city. Our guide; Diana, reveals that there are sea sickness pills on board, but I didn’t know that they take half an hour to work, so bummer for whoever didn’t think to take one at the beginning of the trip. By the way, there are clearly labeled SICK BAGS all over the boat, and the instructions for the overalls included a request to give it to the crew member “if vomited on” by the point of return. I don’t want to be that person. However, Diana assures us that shouldn’t be a problem as conditions are good. Also, in the 18 years of the company history no one has fallen overboard. I’m feeling fine. Oh, to be at sea.

South Iceland and the waters around Reykjavik are home to porpoises, dolphins, orcas and whales. All of these together are referred to as cetaceans when talking about sightings, so thanks to Diana, who explains this, I learn a new word. Other tips on identifying the possible proximity of a whale: water blowing up (guessed) and a certain smell – fish breath!

About an hour in to our trip we have our very first sighting of a group of white-beaked dolphins at a distance from the boat, but still close enough to see one of them jump out of the water in that fast, graceful arc before it dives again. A collective, quiet “Wow” escapes us and everyone falls silent, now in full-on sighting mode. For picture taking or filming it’s advised to hold on to something with one hand and hold the camera or your phone with the other. Preferably not extending your arm too far out beyond the railing, but that might just be me. The dolphins pop up from time to time as we sail along.

We spot some peaceful porpoises during the next half hour as well – you could say they are the smaller, plumper cousins of the dolphins, and they are adorable, although in length they can reach two meters, which is bigger than my tall dad.

We’re very far out at sea now, and I can’t see Reykjavik’s shoreline anymore. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, Diana is quiet for a while, but I notice the boat is gradually slowing down. Two other small whale watching boats, with passengers wearing life vests and sitting much closer to the water than we are, are sailing at a distance alongside us, and they do the same. Eventually we stop completely. The only sounds I hear now  is the lapping of the water and the occasional seagull. Of course, the shadows playing on the water between tiny waves make you jump a few times. And then…

Diana reports the first whale sighting, and I see it, a long, streamlined dark back just grazing the silvery surface, moving along parallel to the boat, followed by another! The excitement in Diana’s voice can be heard as she explains that is the minke whale, and it’s not often you see more than one at the same time. The two whales follow each other, then disappear beneath the surface and appear again a few minutes later. This YouTube clip gives a good view of what they look like:

I don’t cry, because I simply can’t. The first moment it was clear that something so much larger than any of us, yet so graceful, so quiet, was swimming out there, I became speechless. Seeing a whale strips you of whatever you might have imagined the encounter to be like beforehand and leaves a humbling sense of respect. We were just visitors in this environment that didn’t belong to us, among these beautiful, breath-taking creatures who are still being hunted (don’t support, 100%).

Diana sensibly reminded us during the tour that as with all wildlife, we had to be patient and there is never a fixed guarantee when and where you will see an animal. The company follows a code that is printed and taped up inside the boat. Basically, respect the whales, or the cetaceans, boats can only come closer up to a certain limit, otherwise we wait for them to come to us, not the other way around. Like I said, we are the visitors here.

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Reykjavik: Along the Water

After spending some time in the church and losing myself in various streets and shops, I check my phone and then an actual paper map (it’s nice to switch). It looks like I can easily walk to the Harpa concert hall from where I am and make it in time for the next guided tour. It’s an architectural landmark visible from any point of Saebraut and another useful orientation point for walking around. Cloudy skies greet me when I arrive, but every pane of glass of the box fitted atop the staircases inside still reflects and catches the light differently.

The building is still young and our guide tells us of the massive amounts of attention and effort that went in to the acoustic design of the various halls of the Harpa. Wood, felt, moving panels – everything has a role. Each hall has a name inspired by Icelandic nature and while our guide talks, it strikes me once again how patriotic and protective locals are about the unique landscapes and natural wonders in the country. At the end of the tour the meaning behind the name is disclosed. Also based on votes from citizens,  Harpa means “harp” in Icelandic, and it’s also a common female name or surname. Finally, harpa is a month in the old Nordic calendar, and the first day of that month meant the beginning of summer, a time of brightness and awakening. A poetic combination.

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After glimpsing the rocky coastline and the water from one of the Harpa’s many windows, I can’t wait to get there myself. Taking a closer look once I reach the walk, masses and masses of small stones piled straight up meet the eye, each resting in the middle of an enormous rock. The effect is both amusing and impressive. While I do see some tourists attempting to carefully clamber further out and leave some art of their own, I know that most of these must have been left by local trolls in the night.

Walking further down along the water, I eventually catch my first glimpse of The Sun Voyager. I’d guess that most people recognize or have seen the image even before they knew what it was. The sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason is arresting from any angle and it’s fascinating to see it change depending on the light and time of day. What I like most about the concept is that it’s open to interpretation and that there is no single answer to the question about what it actually is.

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On another day I take a peaceful stroll around the Old Harbour area – there’s just something about water that I can’t resist. I’m lucky to catch the harbour in different light and spend some time joyfully snapping, then stop for a delicious meal in the Höfnin restaurant not far away. It’s been a good day.

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Reykjavik: Downtown

Hamburg is two hours ahead of Reykjavik, so I wake up very early and then legitimately laze around. Eventually the smell of bacon starts wafting in from downstairs and I go to breakfast. The City Park Hotel is a busy one. Everyone is tucking in to their food, clearly with a plan for the day, either preparing to leave or close to catching a bus for their next tour.

There’s multiple bus stops nearby, but I’m itching for a long walk, so I set off. At first glance the hotel seems further away from the city center, but in reality it’s extremely easy to go downtown from here. Either walk down to the water and mountains you see on your right and then along the shore on Saebraut, it’s easy to pick a turning point to the left, basically any of them takes you to central Reykjavik. The other way, which I opt for, is to go the short distance down Hallarmúli, then turn left on Suðurlandsbraut, which eventually seamlessly gives way to Laugavegur, one of Reykjavik’s main streets. It’s easy to branch out from there.

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I’m not very different from many others as I make my way to the Hallgrimskirkja. It’s visible from my hotel as well and I take the elevator up to the observation deck. It’s just under the roof, a circular space with barred windows slightly above my head. Underneath each window there’s a sturdy wooden box with discreet foot markings. I grasp two window bars and pull myself up a bit to stand on the box. Then I carefully angle my phone between the bars and snap the views I want to capture from up here. Needless to say, they are breathtaking.

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Getting lost in the surrounding streets afterwards is easy, then it starts to rain and I get hungry. Le Bistro catches my eye – clearly French inspiration in terms of food, but with an Icelandic twist, and inside it’s cluttered and decorated with all sorts of things that make you think of a Parisian cafe with history, albeit slightly exaggerated. Every inch of space is taken up by pictures, plaques, bowls, baskets, postcards, bottles, and there are even postcards in the bathroom – my kind of place! It’s amusing to find this slice of France on my first day in Reykjavik, but my cheese platter is local and so is the melt-in-your-mouth salmon.

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Getting to Reykjavik

“What about dimensions?” – “Dimensions are INSANE.”

I’m standing in line to check in my suitcase (this hasn’t happened in ages, I’m a determined hand luggage girl every chance I get) for my first ever trip to Iceland and experiencing my very own little slice of The Big Bang Theory, only these dudes are showing off more. “I work in intel, so I can’t talk about what I specialize in,” one of the guys says in response to a question, then repeats “I work in intel” three more times during the conversation. But otherwise, they are right, dimensions can be TOTALLY insane and somehow the statement cloaks the images of Iceland swirling around my brain after all the reading I’ve done.

Time passes quickly and before I know it, the plane starts to descend in Keflavik Airport. Brown and green mountainous terrain embroidered by silver-white river threads is visible below, followed by what looks like splashes of mirrors reflecting the clouds I see from the plane.

Shortly before landing our captain says it’s very windy on the ground and to please be careful when we go down the stairs to the airport buses. As soon as I take the first step outside the cabin, I realize that this wind means business. Airport staff around us is wearing gloves, hats, and sweaters. I’m thankful for my layers and promptly feel just ever so slightly smug about being prepared.

Making my way through the airport on the way to baggage claim I basically start learning the language from reading signs, as you do, and two important words enter my vocabulary: komur (arrivals) and  snyrting (toilet). There’s enough going on, but everything seems to be ticking like clockwork, and thankfully I arrive early at the Airport Direct desk (reassuringly orange and impossible to miss) in the arrivals terminal. There are still seats on an earlier bus and within minutes I board one, then off I go.

The transfer industry is extremely well developed in Reykjavik, and while renting a car is definitely an option, for those who don’t drive or just want to sit back for a while after their flight, there’s a wide range of transfer types to choose from, all of them listed on the Keflavik Airport website.

The wind is so strong that I can see the long grass on the ground being flattened by it. I also hear it whipping against the bus. But the road is as smooth as can be and I find myself thinking that if I did drive, I’d love to drive here. And having Russian roots, the feel of the motorway from a passenger perspective is definitely something I’m attuned to. It’s also one of the first indicators that this country is doing well. The landscape outside changes, going from mixed mounds of rock, earth, grass and moss, to mountains in the distance and then blue water, neat houses and apartment buildings along the shoreline.

Our somewhat taciturn, weather-beaten driver suddenly becomes more talkative right towards the end of my journey, by which point there are only two passengers left on the bus. I say thank you and wish him a nice day when I disembark at my hotel, to which I get a “Thank you, lady!” He sounded like Fezzik in The Princess Bride.

After getting something to eat (it turns out the hotel serves a comforting dinner buffet, clearly geared towards strengthening its guests against a windy climate), I pop outside and make my way to the clearly visible Hilton Hotel nearby. Because it’s just what I do. Everyone I see walking outside is dressed in practical outdoor clothes and not one single woman is wearing heels. The Hilton is immediately warm and almost festive inside, and that’s all very nice, but I have a purpose. Here you can buy the Reykjavik City Card, and I get mine so I can g0 to all those museums with a discount and not have to think about tickets on the bus.

 

Hamburg Heat Wave Decoded

Today is once again the hottest day of the year and since the evening shows no signs of cooling down thus far, there seems nothing better to do than blog in the peaceful sanctuary of my darkened apartment, with my small fan plugged in, reliably churning the air, and in an outfit I wouldn’t show myself in outside. Could this bliss be more introverted? In-between typing I’m switching to watching WIRED YouTube Videos in which various celebrities answer the Internet’s most searched questions about themselves and laughing my head off.

The combination of being a list-making redhead who is voluntarily influenced by the German way of life means I’ve got this particular summer’s routine all figured out. And may I just point out that in my almost ten years living here, this is the FIRST summer in Hamburg which has lasted way, way more than two weeks in a row (someone was telling me ferverntly just this morning it’s been going on since April, that’s what’s happening to our minds now). So I actually had data for developing said routine.

You wake up in the morning and peel off whatever stuck to your skin during the night (get your minds out of the gutter right now). You open some windows in a hurried attempt to take advantage of the morning coolness, which you know won’t last long. You make a mental note to DEFINITELY shut the window before you leave for work, because the last time you forgot, and you came back to the predictable oven. You get yourself ready for the day and try to make breakfast consist of more than chugging water. Then you slap on sunscreen and walk to work, and you know exactly where all the shady spots are during your route, so you feel a sense of accomplishment, and when you reach your destination, your sense of accomplishment changes to feeling smug, because really, this was quite pleasant.

The day goes on and by lunchtime you’re seriously debating whether you’ll go outside. Again. Ever. The heat is snaking its way in. You’re not even thinking about the trip home, because it’s so far away in the future and there are more pressing concerns. You drink the amount of water you subsequently sweat out, and so the cycle continues. You also shower the same amount of times as the water bottles you emptied during the day. Unsticking your skirt or dress when you get up with a dainty grasp (not) of material between thumb and forefinger becomes second nature. Sleep is a gamble and then…see the beginning of this paragraph.

There were, of course, other things I could have decided to do after my supervisor told the department we could leave earlier as it was 36 degrees Celcius outside. Beach bar around the Port of Hamburg? Nah, based on experience all the spots in the shade would be taken, and I’ve become such a pro at avoiding generous sunlight that I don’t want to break my winning streak. Steal the office picnic blanket for an evening and stretch out in the shade of Planten un Blomen park? Nein, I went out earlier in the afternoon for a break and being in the shade felt like walking in to a wall of chicken soup. Go to the pool? Again, good luck finding a spot in the shade to lay down my stuff and I’m sure every pool in the city is bursting at the seams. It’s too hot to traipse around packing up to go somewhere out of town and clearly if one thing is obvious, it’s that I AM good at saying no (to myself), which the Internet says is an important survival skill.

Fragments of what I read in the local paper online between productive bouts of work in an office which hasn’t seen the light beyond our window blinds for what feels like months flit through my mind. Fish are, sadly, dying in the Alster river and the Alster swans were moved all the way to their WINTER quarters in what is still AUGUST by Hamburg’s very own swan father Olaf. I don’t know which of these two bits of information was more convincing, but in stealthy survival mode I crept along the shaded side of the street on my way home, stopping only to satisfy one wish in an air-conditioned shop. Because chocolate, like revenge, is also a dish best served cold, so in the fridge it goes. I’m once again experiencing a sense of accomplishment.

Smashing Used Cars for Fun

One of my colleagues picked up the sledgehammer that was almost as long as my leg (I’m 5’9) and started swinging it around a little. The rest of us had gone quiet and then discovered that we were already standing back at a sensible distance. The hammer left his hand and flew towards the cars, landing with a resounding thud on the hood. Cheers and laughter filled the air.

No, this wasn’t vandalism, it was a completely legal event. We arrived at an enormous scrapyard for recycling old cars outside of town and I listened as the man behind the counter we’d approached made a phone call asking to bring over three cars for smashing, like it was an everyday request. A few minutes later my eyes popped as he carted over a shopping trolley containing several sets of gloves, protective goggles and a few very long sledgehammers.

With the same nonchalant air we were given instructions on where to go next. Did we need to speak to someone once we got there? No. Did we need to pay attention to anything specific? No, not really, except when we smashed glass. Did we have a time limit? Nah, we could keep going until closing time. OK…Did we perhaps need to sign something, I was dying to ask, but we felt like we should just go.

Walking past layer upon layer of crumpled cars with missing windows and plenty of dents, piled high like walls on either side of us, I was immediately reminded, somewhat unsettlingly, of that scene in Disney’s The Lion King when Simba and Nala sneak off to the elephant graveyard. But hey, the sun was shining and I had a badass sledgehammer at my disposal.

We actually saw our three booked cars being dropped off in the area we were to remain in. Standing under the summer sun, everyone seemed a bit hesitant at first. We busied ourselves with dividing gloves, goggles and discovering how heavy those sledgehammers actually were. Then after a while we got in to the swing of things (no pun intended) and seamlessly knew what to do. The freedom of not having to clean up afterwards helped a lot as well.

We started with this:

And ended with this:

Propelled by a desire to have a moment for myself first and test out my grip on the impressive sledgehammer in my hands slightly further away from the group, I circled to the back of one of the cars and positioned myself to the side of the rear window. I knew the protective goggles were placed securely over my glasses, that the thick gloves weren’t slipping off my hands, and I was just going to try this thing out that were doing as a work outing.

I got a comfortable grip on the sledgehammer’s handles, raised it to waist level, swung back and then forward. It was a bit like that time I slid down a wet slide from a wooden platform straight in to the Baltic Sea. When I slid forward, accelerating rapidly, everything around me seemed to disappear, except the sensation of speeding without control, the brief image of the blue sky above me and then the split-second knowledge that I wasn’t holding on to anything before I plumetted in the water.

The sun was bright, my feet were planted firmly on the ground, the hammer swung forward and entered the window smack in the middle. The whole glass erupted in miniscule cracks and then shattered with what sounded almost like a kind of music to me. Shards rained down on the ground, and it was only then that I heard my co-workers reacting to what I had done. Because before then, alongside the soundtrack of the shattering glass, I’d heard the remains of every single dark or sad thing that had lodged itself in my brain, that I thought I had gotten rid of, shattering with it.

Yep, who would have known I’d find poetry in a car recycling yard. I took a break, and returned a couple of more times to make some obligatory dents, but I’d had my moment, and the evidence glittered in the sunshine on the pavement.

Ballet Workout Number 12

Yes, it’s once again been a while, because I was traveling. I walked in to the class slightly apprehensive, but then, oh joyful miracle. The trainer from ballet workout number 1 walked in, put on some classical music…and I would have wept tears of pure joy, had I not needed to concentrate on my plié and breathing. Because make no mistake, the dedicated extremely amateur ballerina is still there.

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I’ve enjoyed all the other workouts and obviously they’ve provided a lot of fun material for this blog, but as soon as that music started playing and the trainer had us raise our hands in the positions that make me feel regal, then do all those lovely stretches, I knew that these were the classes I truly wanted to attend. I wouldn’t be contributing anything to the other ones with my underlying discomfort and attempts to do something I wasn’t yet ready for. The epiphany filled my chest with peace and I didn’t mind at all when the trainer gently repeated to me that I needed to stretch out my other leg from my half lying position on the mat.

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It’s a good feeling to know what you want and what suits you to make sure you do your best, or what feels right in the moment.

It also helps when your abs and thighs ache the next morning and you try to remember why.