Saturday, November 22, 2008

Meeting Fríða and ghosts of Iceland past

As promised (a month ago!), here is another Iceland trip posting - my second to last. It seemed that as our trip wound into its final days we tried to pack more than ever into each one! After a week together, climbing rocky mountain roads and crawling through cloud-cover and fog, we bade farewell to our trusty Škoda Octavia at the airport drop-off before being picked up by a shuttle bus which took us to the Íshestar riding stables on the outskirts of the city.

We had booked a half-day of horseback riding to experience beautiful Icelandic horses up close and personal. They are an internationally recognized breed known for their smaller stature, stamina, friendly nature, and their unique tölt gait. To protect the health of the breed, no other horses can be imported into Iceland – although Icelandic horses can be exported and are bred around the world.

The stable staff got us each properly seated and stirrups adjusted before we set off single-file, heading out beyond the suburban edges of the city. Soon we were looking out across a rocky, scrubby landscape surrounded by hills – the weather was alternately sunny, drizzly, and breezy (pretty typical!). After about an hour we stopped in a grassy clearing to stretch our legs and let the horses graze. On our way back to the stables, we got in some cantering which was exhilarating and surprising for a beginner tour!

Back at the stables, we had lunch with the staff and then wandered out to the corral with some carrots and apples we had brought for the horses. We were immediately surrounded by dozens of velvety, inquisitive faces – supple, muscular lips quickly lapping up juicy treats and greedily pushing their noses into pockets and hands searching for more. We also met Fríða, the lovely but shy Springer Spaniel who lives at the stables – she seemed quite smitten with Mark!

To pamper our now sore buttocks and stiff legs, we spent the afternoon soaking up the decadent and soothing mineral waters of the world famous Blue Lagoon. The spa is a hidden other-worldly gem surrounded by an angry, blackened volcanic landscape. It’s a naturally occurring lagoon which has been developed into a state-of-the-art geothermal spa and power plant! The milky blue mineral-rich waters are high in sulphur and silica and are considered very therapeutic.

Before getting to the main spa building, guests walk down a craggy corridor cut through the volcanic rock. We hadn’t seen a glimpse of anything but black, jagged rock and then suddenly – this beautiful building suddenly rose up in front of us and through the windows the wondrous vision of steaming blue water. We ignored the shops and restaurants, heading directly for the check-in where we received our blue snap-on bracelets which served as our locker keys and tokens of admission – very cool system.

Boys and Girls went their separate ways here and entered the worlds of unabashed European nudity! I’m no prude but when you grow up in North America, your sensibilities are in for a shock when you hit the Blue Lagoon locker rooms! BTW the locker rooms are very nice – forget your memories of high school phys-ed, this is a world-class spa. We had been forewarned about the strict hygiene standards enforced at Icelandic pools and spas – they don’t use chemicals to purify the water and expect everyone to scrub down thoroughly before using the facilities. I wasn’t going to be the one to catch the attention of the stern-looking older woman patrolling the shower area ensuring that everyone upheld these standards.

When you step out onto the wooden deck surrounding the Lagoon, you realize how bloody chilly you are and then you step into the steaming milky blue water… mmmm, ahhhhh. The water is quite hot (40 °C / 104 °F) and it feels sooo good, like a wonderful hot bath. We wandered about in the shoulder-deep water with white silica mud slathered on our faces, peering through the sun-streaked steam to the bizarre landscape of volcanic rock and geothermal power plant towers. The waterfall feature gives a fantastic shoulder massage but make sure those shoulder straps don’t slip ladies! We heard languages from all over – I met a couple and their daughter from Paris who had been to the Saguenay region – the world really is strangely small!

After three superbly relaxing hours lolling in the spa waters we showered and hopped the shuttle bus back to Reykjavik. A surprise awaited us in town – unbeknownst to us, a huge celebration rally had been organized to welcome home the silver Olympic medal winning Icelandic handball team. (To give a sense of the importance of this event, Iceland has won a grand total of four Olympic medals – summer and winter – in its entire history. This was a BIG deal.) Tens of thousands of Icelanders had gathered downtown where a stage had been set up with giant screens. There was music and dignitaries – including the Prime Minister – the entire handball team was on stage, the crowd was euphoric, cheering and clapping. We celebrated by lining up with hundreds of Icelanders to indulge in the national favourite: pylsur and Coke!

As if the day hadn’t been full enough, we then went on the Reykjavík Haunted Walk tour which led us through the city centre telling tales of murder and ghosts and mysterious events. Coincidentally, the tour route passed directly in front of our apartment building leaving us to wonder if there was some gruesome history our landlords had omitted from the listing! The tour ended after dark, deep in the heart of the old cemetery where we saw mystifying and strange sites… you’ll have to take the tour to see for yourself.

To cap off the day we dropped by a nearby club which was one of the sites for the Reykjavík Jazz Festival taking place in the city that week. I quite enjoyed the music of Tepokinn (Teabag) – a young, up-an-coming Icelandic jazz band. The boys were very patient – they lasted a good hour or so before they couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to leave! Although I could have stayed for several more hours to enjoy the music, I was bone tired after a very full day and it was a good thing they dragged me home!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lest we forget

I never used to cry at Remembrance Day ceremonies.

But now, I see my parents reflected in the craggy faces of an ever-dwindling number of elderly WWII veterans who proudly pin on their medals and don their faded armed forces caps on November 11th each year.

Part of the Greatest Generation, they and their contemporaries grew up during the hardship of the Great Depression and then, as young adults, they flocked to conscription offices across the Commonwealth to join up. Their reasons were as varied as they were: to serve King and Country; to find adventure; to escape the boredom of rural farm life; to prove themselves; to see something of the world; and so on and so on.

My dad joined the Alouette Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force and shipped off to England from historic Pier 21 in Halifax. He served in the UK and in North Africa and, yes, he found adventure along the way, he saw something of the world, he was awarded several medals, he served King and Country, and he learned to enjoy a good cigar.

My mom joined the Barbados Volunteer Force and, after a whirlwind week in New York City where they joined up with other units, set sail for England on the Queen Mary with Glen Miller and his orchestra. She served in the Royal Corps of Signals at various locations throughout England and, yes, she found adventure along the way, saw something of the world, and locked her Sergeant Major in the washroom on VE Day to go out and celebrate.

Soon there will be no more WWII veterans – most are in their mid to late 80’s if not older. For many years, it was difficult for me to identify with ageing seniors until I realized that – like me – they too had been young once, they had loved and laughed, danced and had fun adventures with friends. Suddenly I understood that their youth had not been lived in a stiff, black & white world – that was just the lens through which we saw them.

In turn, our children and grandchildren will probably not see us as we see ourselves until they’re grown adults with children of their own. That is the way of the world. When we’re young we’re busy finding adventure; escaping the boredom of rural life; proving ourselves; seeing something of the world; etc.

But hopefully we can take a little time to listen to stories of adventure and hardship, to look at photos of faraway cities and battlefields, to learn the difficult lessons from past discriminations and hatred, and respect those who have – and continue – to risk their lives for any number of various reasons.

Lest we forget.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The promised land

I first heard the name Barack Obama several years ago. Chris had been reading about the eloquent and stirring keynote speech he delivered at the 2004 Democratic Convention which sent ripples of excitement through the party and far beyond. He said to me "Watch this guy, he could be President one day."

Today is that day - one that we will look back on as a defining moment in our modern history.

When Barack Obama was born in 1961, most blacks in America were effectively barred from voting. In the short span of his - and my - life time, all that has changed. If you're as moved as I am by today's momentous election results, imagine how it must seem to those of previous generations who never thought that this day would come.

I was born a few months before JFK was assassinated and I was just an unaware child during the turbulent US civil rights movement and subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy that sent shock waves around the world. I grew up a wary Gen-Xer in the shadow of the seemingly shattered hopes and dreams of the 1960s. But those were not my burdens to carry. Those were not my lost ideals.

But after witnessing the appalling intellectual vacuum and embarrassing hyuck-hyuck comportment worn with pride by the Bush administration, I watched tonight's election returns with a heart full of hope and inspiration. I'm not American and I'm not black but, like millions of others, I feel drawn to this vision of a new era that President-Elect Obama offers. The promise of what we can be, what we can achieve, if we come together instead of circling the wagons.

Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk.
Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run.
Obama's running so we can all fly.
[Singer Jay-Z at a rally in Philadelphia]