Icelandic Interlude

I’D NEVER GUESSED THAT ICELAND would’ve been a country I’d be visiting thirty years ago almost to the day back in April 1988.

As the Managing Director of NGCSA – a national non-profit arts organization in the U.S. formally known as the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts –  I had planned on making an official visit to Germany and meet up with my counterpart, Diethard Wucher, at the Verband deutscher Musikschulen (VdM) (Association of German Music Schools) –  in Bonn to discuss cultural and educational collaborations.

But when I received an invitation to visit Reykjavík from Stefán Edelstein (alongside), director of the Icelandic Community Music Schools, I decided to stopover there for a couple of days en route to then West Germany.

I left JFK International Airport on April the 18th night as planned: I flew by IcelandAir to the world’s most northerly capital and one of its most striking. Actually, the Douglas jet touched down at 6.30 am on the 19th (Tuesday) at Keflavik, 20 miles away at the tip of the Reykjanes (peninsula at the southwestern tip of the huge island in he North Atlantic), and we were bused into the metropolitan bustle created by more than half of the population of the country – yes, of the 244,000 people inhabiting Iceland (1986 census) 149,000 live in the Reykjavik/Reykjanes urban area!

On the trip into the capital no trees were in sight as all of the island is volcanic country – an anarchic pattern of mountains can be seen around the horizon, some of them venting steam and sulfurous fumes. But once in town, prosperity is in evidence everywhere plus its source, namely, an all pervading smell of fish (depending on which way the stiff sea breeze is blowing) betrays the massive industry that fuels the economy.

Due to the long periods of darkness most of the year, all vehicles must have their lights on day and night. In the States, only cars taking part in a funeral cortege put on their headlights so, not surprisingly, my first reaction at seeing oncoming traffic ablaze with lights was to imagine the funeral of a very important personage right before my eyes. The bus driver was convinced I was “loco” when I commented on the size of the “funeral!”

My stopover was at the Loftleidir (Airlines Hotel) located on the fringe of the smaller airport, which itself was tucked away in part of the capital. The room was acceptable, but the “loo” was not – the plumbing reminded me of India (!) – and after that first day I was able to get something better. On the other hand, the seafood cuisine was exceptional and, after recovering from my flight, I was regaled by the luncheon buffet spread out on a “viking-ship shaped” table groaning with goodies from the Atlantic.

The only item I balked at, and couldn’t get myself to eat, was the “whale-meat”, which I was told tasted somewhat like game: perhaps, the fact that Iceland is one of two countries (the other being Japan) that still kills whale on a large commercial scale despite the rest of the world’s objection, might have had something to do with my aversion. Immediately after lunch, Stefán picked me up for a trip to the interior with his wife, Johanna (known familiarly as Hanna), and stepdaughter, Olga.

In his 4-wheel drive Suburu with a steel-net guard in front of the headlights – essential when touring the largely unpaved, pebble-strewn roads of the hinterland – we drove southeastwards to Hveragerdi just over 20 miles away in brilliant, sunny weather with enormous vistas spreading concentrically outwards of at least 60 miles into serried ranks of snow-peaked mountains, each with its own distinctive outline. (In a short while, any visitor to Iceland becomes an amateur volcanologist, i.e., one able to distinguish between the various kinds of volcanoes based on their origin.) The road to Hveragerdi, Garden of Hot Springs, was the very first paved one built in the 1890’s – wide and smooth, cutting straight between hills and lava fields, quite unlike the rest of the motorways we were to encounter: narrow dirt roads, onetime pony rails following the line of least resistance, at the mercy of rain and frost.

From the massive volcanic debris of the mountains outside Reykjavík we descended into a flat plain with bare steep mountains hanging over it on three sides; on the fourth side lies the light green water of Eyrarbakkabugur, Bay of the Gravel Banks. The plain is so lush against its gray and brown backdrop, and the steam of hot springs drifts upward and hangs in the still air. All around the town of Hveragerdi are huge greenhouses, kept warm by the hot springs, wherein I was amazed to find croutons, orchids and bananas(!) in profusion, not to mention tomatoes and roses.

At the edge of town, I was taken by the Edelsteins to a square stone with a hole 8-10 inches in diameter in the middle of it. Stefán then handed me a packet of green soap and told me to open it and throw in into the hole. The jelly-like detergent covers the water in the hole and creates pressure. Since the water bubbles heavily, looking like a washer in the laundry room that has been overfed with detergent. After a minute or two it begins to shoot up, exploding again and again like wet fireworks for about 10 minutes. Now I know what a geyser looks like – and does when provoked!

By contrast, our next stop was the dairy town of Selfoss, Cow-Shed Falls, 10 miles towards the coast. The biggest center of milk production in Scandinavia, it lies in the valley of Floi, Marshy Fen, Iceland’s richest dairy country. With its gently rolling farmland dotted with cows and horses and sheep, it could be Pennsylvania instead of Earth’s youngest country.

The last stop for the day lay directly north, some 30 miles of rough-riding terrain: Thingvellir is Iceland’s most historic site and one of its most scenic landscapes.

It’s known for the Althing (alongside) the site of Iceland’s 1000-year old parliamentary system. On the site are also the Thingvellir Church and the ruins of old stone shelters. The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of two tectonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fissures like the huge Almannagjá, Rift Rock of the People.

The wide middle fissure filled with water is the elongated lake Thingvallavatn: this rift valley lake in southwestern Iceland has a surface area of 32 sq. mi. and a mean depth of 112 feet,  it’s the largest natural lake in Iceland.

It was frozen stiff when I visited and Stefán and I walked along its periphery for a while to take in the awesome surroundings, The Edelsteins and I later trudged up the road from the valley floor to the  Rift Rock of the People, 120 feet high and 4 1/2 miles long. Near the top there is an opening, and the plain is spread out below, rippled green, with the lake an intense, burning sapphire beyond.

Back in Reykjavik 30m miles away, my hosts had me over to a splendid salmon dinner at their 4-bedroom home – the fish was fresh from the sea and beautifully prepared whole. The next day, I spent in town with Stefán, who showed me around the harbor, his school, sundry museums and churches and the shopping district. Hanna and Olga joined us at my hotel for a farewell dinner which Stefán insisted on hosting.

We must have finished at 10 pm, but it was still light outside with a most unusual combination of a new moon and the evening star that appeared to be the Islamic emblem over Mt. Esja – the ever present backdrop to Reykjavik across the Whale Fjord.

I was up at 3.15 am on the 21st in order to catch the 6.15 am onward flight of IcelandAir to Luxembourg, its port of entry into Europe. Thence by coach and train via Düsseldorf I journeyed to Braunschweig near Hanover in the north to attend the annual meeting of the VdM (April 22 & 23) before returning to the States via Bonn on Sunday the 24th night. What happened during those momentous two days is the subject of another personal report, another blog – stay tuned!

Afterword: Stefán was proud of the fact that the collaboration of state and local authorities between them cover all tuition costs of what are now known as Reykjavík University Music Schools in Iceland. And in spite of his country’s small population scattered over a wide and largely rural area, they have succeeded in developing an extensive and exciting infrastructure of music education through a large number of local committed institutions.

10 years later, May 16, 1998, Stefán wrote “In this country, there are more than 70 music schools, including 9 in Reykjavík (plus 6 in support) and 15 in total in the Reykjavík area. In total, more than 12 thousand students study in the country’s music schools, of which approx. 3,200 in Reykjavík. They are governed by the law of 1985. The essence of this act is that municipalities pay the wage costs of music schools subject to certain conditions. Payments for Reykjavík University Music Schools in 1997 amounted to over 300 million.”

References: My 1988 Diary; Wikipedia; Cambridge University Press

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