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.

Advertisements

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

The French and German Way of Life

Germany is where I live and France is where I go regularly. True, I don’t know all of Germany, I know a certain part of Northern Germany best, and there is still so much to discover. I don’t know all of France either, as I mostly travel in one particular direction when I do go, though I have been to a few different cities. But in the last decade, through this combination, I have been fortunate to experience for myself parts of the French and German way of life. And for me one of the most telling bases of comparison for the two is the impression I’ve gotten from both nations in their approach to managing time.

I think those last two words, the choice of them, is already indicative enough of the strength of the German influence on me, which joyfully melds with my own character set-up. It seems Germans see time as something to be treasured, respected, a luxury to strive for, a tool to plan with, a sought-after component of leisure, an opportunity not to be wasted. For there is nothing more frustrating than time that is wasted. The French, meanwhile, always seem to be sure that whatever happens, there will be more time, becase la vie est belle and so is France, and why don’t you sit down, have a glass of wine and some cheese while you wait, you uptight German person.

In my French class we recently started a new lesson built around the subject of le train. Much was said while we collected the vocabulary we already knew. Our teacher explained the one marked difference between the German Deutsche Bahn and the French SNCF. Punctuality? Non. Plus, plenty of people in Germany complain about Deutsche Bahn. Non, it is le ticket! If you have your German train ticket, your platform is printed on it, and usually c’est vrai! Meanwhile, in a French gare you have to go stare at some information screens to find out where you board your train. It is not unusual to not have these details even 15 minuts before departure (being German). This was precisely my first experience taking the train from Paris-Est station to Strasbourg and the memory still makes me snort like an impatient horse.

I had to ask my teacher one burning question. Are the French relaxed about this fact and all Oui, c’est ça, or are there actually people in the country who are irritated by this? My teacher shrugged with that characteristically elegant, but nonchalant air, her eyebrows going up and her lips puckering in sync with the movement of her shoulders. Certain circumstances allow you to get a refund for your train ticket, she said. But what about your destination, the plan to be somewhere at a certain time, I sputtered. Another shrug.

I was recounting this story to a German friend, after we had made lunch plans, which we neatly laid down like we always do, despite knowing each other for ten years. We had included the possibility of being SPONTANEOUS in deciding where to go if it rained, because we planned to walk. But in case we didn’t get to, we were prepared!

Being a middle child, maybe this is what it’s about for me, a constant melding and co-existence of the stable and the new, the tried and tested injected with occasional joie de vivre, the satisfaction and gratitude of something working our as planned (or better) against arriving somewhere two hours later, but your favourite cafe is still open, and you get dessert on the house because your group is friendly and happy about seeing each other.

I know that the French and German way of life will both stay as they are. I know that I will continue feeling as if a bus or a subway train arriving on time as per my prior checking online is a present just for me. I know that (sometimes) it’s OK to stop thinking about time as such and live in the moment. And occasionally I will prepare dinner as a three-course meal. After that I will memorize the platform number printed on my train ticket AND check it on the information screen in the station.

Learning French and Going to France

When you’re learning French and traveling to France, you naturally feel like you should try speaking French once you arrive on French soil, right? Wait, try? “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” You are not simply a tourist or a visitor anymore. You basically have an obligation.

Oui, Yoda certainly knew what he was talking about. I know the process of this particular trip to Paris and it automatically divides itself in to tasks in my head in reference to opportunities to parler français. With decisively German precision I follow my plan of producing short, but appropriate sentences.

I enter the plane and say “Bonjour, Madame”, “Bonjour, Monsieur” to the crew as I make my way to my seat, on the same volume level that I use in other languages, because, you know, je parle un petit peu français. I am rewarded with a “Bonjour, Madame” or sometimes still with a “Bonjour, Mademoiselle.” I like being called Mademoiselle. I don’t find it derogatory and it reminds me of when I started flying to France as a student, after first moving to Germany. The German Fräulein has said farewell and disappeared in to the mist of times past, but Mademoiselle isn’t quite ready to leave just yet.

Step two of my exciting journey en français is putting to the test our extensive lesson on ordering in a restaurant. Are you ready for it? Here goes. “Je voudrais un chocolat chaud, s’il vous plaît.” The stewardess doesn’t politely ask me to repeat my request (parfait!) and gracefully hands me my little cup of hot chocolate, following the action with a sentence I can’t repeat, but I know she’s saying I should stir the liquid. She also asks, and I’m pretty sure I am typing this correctly (confidence is everything), “Vous desirez de l’eau avec votre chocolat chaud?” And because I’m an experienced traveler en France and prepared to invest my German powers of concentration in this drink before me, I answer elegantly, “Non, merci.”

I gratefully sip my hot chocolate, because I need to fortify myself for what comes next after these linguistic achievements. Step three of my interactions en français will be to put money on my Navigo pass so I can take the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. I spend the remainder of the flight painstakingly composing various versions of what I want to say. “Bonjour, j’ai mon Navigo…non, bonjour, j’ai un Navigo…is it un or une Navigo? Wait, they don’t need to know it’s my Navigo, too much information, and I have it in my hand anyway, it’s not like I just picked it up off the floor, my picture is on it. OK, how about, bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours? Or is it de cinq jours? Or just cinq jours? Bonjour (smoothly slide Navigo towards SNCF employee behind the glass), je suis ici pour (maybe I can ask them, with that little laugh as if we’re sharing an inside joke, if pour is correct, haha, hmmm, oui, le français) cinq jours et je voudrais…what do I use for “to” or “until” when I’m talking about a stop? We recently had a few lessons where we repeated how to use en, au and aux, depending on whether you were talking about a country, city or region, and what gender they were. But we didn’t cover stops of the Parisian metro!

But my feverish race of thoughts is stopped quickly after I enter the SNCF ticket office in the airport. I only manage to get out “Bonjour, je suis ici pour cinq jours”, but something about it must have been convincing, because the lady at the counter released what sounded to my ears like a torrent of rapid French and the only word I understood was “dimanche”. I apologized in English and she reeled off the information I needed in the same language, but she clearly didn’t wish to pursue any longer interactions, so all my carefully constructed sentence parts will have to be saved for next time.

I redeemed myself the next morning by loudly and decisively telling a man blocking my path in the metro “Excusez-moi!”, only to see that he was a ticket controller.

 

Discover Northern Germany: Husum

Husum is a beautiful historic town in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein worth checking out if you want to discover Northern Germany. Lovely walks along streets lined with old brick houses typical of the area and everything being reachable on foot make for easy planning while you’re there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Cold winds blow in January from the North Sea nearby, brilliant sunshine might be expected and there are lots of places to stop by for a cup of tea – popular beverage here. The traditional Brauhaus Husum in the Neustadt street is a recommended stop if you’re interested in the local beer culture, and there’s even a proudly sold local brand of mineral water, Unser Gutes Husumer.

The local castle is a good place to start if you want to get a town history fix and the park around it fills with crocuses in the springtime. Even now in this cold winter weather tiny ones are sprouting up from the earth. The Schlosscafe, located right in the castle courtyard, serves tasty (and cheap) dishes, as well as delicious, generously sliced cake. It’s a good way to finish the visit to the castle (which follows a route noble guests were expected to take in the olden days – you might get a guide from the stern lady at the entrance and don’t even think of saying no). I didn’t know Czar Peter the Great visited Husum during the Great Northern War (dim memories of history lessons in school), or that the town used to belong to Denmark. Many signs in the castle and other places are written both in German and Danish.

Husum is also the birthplace of Theodor Storm, an important influencer of the country’s 19th century literary scene and connected to the development of realism in German literature. After walking through all the rooms of his house, which has stayed largely unchanged since his death, through two world wars and despite other owners, it’s amusing to find out that Storm collected and penned ghost stories (Spukgeschichten), which had been unpublished for a long time before being discovered. The receptionist tells me about children huddling around a fireplace in kitchens during dark evenings, while that cold wind raged outside in streets that weren’t yet lit the same as nowadays. They would tell each other these stories, both drawing from what they had heard elsewhere and making things up as they went along. This certainly creates quite an image in my head!

Just like in Hamburg, people say Moin in Husum. Another gem in Northern Germany.