A Conference in Reykjavik (2013-07-20/07-27)

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A Conference in Reykjavik, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

I spent a week at a very well-organised conference on Reykjavik, from which I learnt a lot about the country, its inhabitants and their way of doing things, Largely through various talks and excursions.

The principal location was the new concert hall Harpa, which sits on the coast looking across the bay to the ridge of Esja trans la golfo. Harpa was opened two years ago after serious difficulties due to the financial collapse of 2008. The glass walls are double skinned with panes of irregular shapes, which gives it the appearance of openness, and also keeps the inside warm enough.

The main hall can contain 1800, and there are also several other smaller rooms. We used all of them at some time or other, but the main hall was where they put on theatrical sketches, concerts and some talks, and seemed fairly full when all the 1000 delegates were present.

Among the highlights for me was a violin recital by Sara Su playing pieces by, among others, Glück, Mozart, and Pärt on a violin made by a local Icelander, who was present in the audience. Another excellent piece was a  short play R.U.R by Karel Čapek put on by a Czech group about an imagined future of robots and why it would not happen.

The national evening presented various sketches, musical pieces, and a demonstration of Icelandic wrestling. Althought the island supports only 300,000 inhabitants, they clearly have a lot of talented individuals among them.

On the last evening, there was an international entertainment by people from all over the world. Among them was a boy of 12 or 13 who played  the piano brilliantly. Unfortunately I didn't catch his name. Finally when all the players were on stage together, he played without preparation a blues number with a violinist also there.

I also went on several excursions. The first took me to Skálholt a very important place for the Icelanders, where the bishopric had its main church for 750 years, before it was moved to Reykjavik about 1800. It also acted as a political centre and school. The modern church is light and with interesting paintings behind the altar, and abstract stained glass windows. They were digging on the site to discover more on how they used to live there.

The smaller building beside it with a grass roof is an example of churches across Iceland. You will note that it was constructed out of wood. But there aren't any usable forests en Iceland for historical reasons. It is estimated that when the first arrivals built their houses about 30% of the island was covered by trees. But when they started to farm, they needed fuel for heating, but more importantly to smelt iron for tools. Within a century the forests had gone. In recent years the government has supported the planting of new ones where it can be done.

The next stop was at the well-known water of Gullfoss, which falls 30 metres in two steps. No one knows for sure why it is called the golden (or yellow) falls. according to one story a rich farmer Gýgur did not want anyone else to own his golden treasure, so he put it a chest and threw it into the falls. More probably the name is from the golden colour one often sees in the evening as the sun sets.

Tourists started to come around 1875, and the road was very difficult with river crossings and rocky terrain. Nearby, in Brattholt, a girl was born in 1871, and soon she and her sisters were guiding visitors, making the first path down to the falls, and now there is a monument to Sigríður Tómasdóttir.

The average flow is 109 cubic metres of water each second carried into the canyon. On several occasions during the spring floods the water flow has reached more than 2,000 cubic meters per second, and a very few times even overflowed the canyon.

Although these falls do not generate electricity, it is true that 98% of all the electricity on the island is generated from hydro.

Then we went to region of Geyser, to see the geysers. The lasrge geyser no longer works, not after the seismic activity has died down. They are waiting for more earthquakes. Instead one sees its little brother Strokkur, which is not so consistent. The ground is full of hot pools of boiling water, making the air humid and hot.

Almost everywhere in Iceland there are public statues and artworks. This one at Geyser shows more Icelandic wrestling.

Our final halt on the outing was at Þingvellir, the place where the Icelandic parliament used to convene, which lies on a seven kilometre wide plain between two continental plates. On the eastern side the European plate starts to the right of the picture of the extensive crack. Among all the other cracks it does not seem remarkable. But the American plate has a cliff (left in the picture). The distant flagpole indicates the Law Rock, where laws and trials were discussed and decided. The name Þingvellir (pronounced: Thingvetlir) means the field of the parliament.

Historically the Parliament in Iceland started in 930, when a group of chiefs decided that the country would not have a king, but the people themselves would define the laws. From that time on they met at Þingvellir until about 1800 when the parliament transferred  Reykjavik. Remarkably, no policemen were visible; in fact I heard that any Icelander may enter the parliamentary debating chamber at any time. From time to time the island was rul;ed from Denmark or Norway, but the parliament continued.

Another trip I took was to see the so-called Ring of Fire, places where the geothermal heat is collected and used. First we got off the bus among several other groups at the geothermal station at Hellisheiði, which provides both hot water and electricity to Reykjavik. It stands on the side of the volcano Hengill, which last erupted 2000 years ago. Inside the building there is an exhibition of the actual seismic activity among other interesting things. We saw a short film about the station, the magma chamber beneath it, how the Icelanders extracted energy from it, and where else in the world they could use similar techniques. It was clear that in Iceland living over a volcano is a tolerable risk, when they say that for a 100 square metre flat fresh water, geothermal heating, electricity and sewerage costs on average € 65 a month. Also after the water has warmed the houses, it is carried in pipes under the streets and footpaths to keep them cl;ear of ice in the winter. The first time they used it to heat a building was about 80 years ago, and now reaches 95% of all inhabitants. The remainder use electricity for heating and the government pays the difference in cost.

In order to produce electricity they bore holes down about 3000 metres almost reaching the magma, to where the temperature is between 350 and 400 C. Then they pump cold water through the boreholes to make steam for turbines. The superheated steam is also used to heat more cold water which is sent on to Reykjavik at over 83 C. The cold water in the area is not suitable for drinking due to too much sulphur, and gives the Reykjavik hot water a special perfume.

Then on to Hveragerði to see the hot springs and to eat lunch. One of the springs had the name Mannsdrápshver (Killer spring), because in 1906 a traveller in thick fog fell in. Although his companions managed to pull him out, he later died. The water in it is at about 88 C. The hot water is used to heat greenhouses to grow tomatoes and other fruit, even bananas. The islanders are proud that they produce more bananas than any other country in Europe.

The organsiers also arranged for a trip to Greenland on Wednesday. I tried to reserve a place too late, but instead I managed to get on a normal tourist trip to Kulusuk on Thursday, together with three other delegates. It felt like moving back in time.

After an hour and a half we could see from the plane the pack ice as we approached the coast. The aiport cosists of only a single building and single gravel runway. The Americans built it during the cold war to establish a radar station. There was no transport apart from our feet, so we set off to the village along the 3 kilometre long road. Vegetation was rare, but a few flowers struggled to survive, like these Arctic harebells (Campanula uniflora). Soon we saw the village in the distance.

We passed a cemetery, where one can see that there are no names on the crosses. Historically, before the missionaries arrived, the Inuit buried their bodies without any sign, or threw them into the sea. During their lives they acquired several names, each for a different reason. For example, maybe they became a good hunter or singer, etc. But the most important name was the soul-name. They imagined that the soul-name would pass after death to a newborn child. Consequently they did not want to put a name on the cross, because it might interfere with the transfer to the new soul.

They mostly eat seals and other sea animals. In the centre of this picture you can see the few seal carcases in or near the sea to keep them cold and preserve them. Of course they eat other things bought from the only shop where there was available everything from milk to clothing to rifles and ammunition. Rifles are not registered, and anyone over the age of 12 can buy them, because they are necessary to protect oneself from polar bears.

Also in the village is a tiny museum where you can find a collection of items he Inuit used to keep warm, hunt, etc. It was started by one of the villagers from their own family's old clothes, needles, pelts, ornaments, etc. They use and re-use everything, so nothing there is over 100 years old.

Of course everywhere there is always a church. This one dating from the 1920s. Close to the entrance a snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) is happy easting rice scattered after a recent wedding ceremony.

The villagers had not seen non-Inuit people until 1886, when the first missionaries arrived and forced Christianity on them. The grandfather of the local entertainer and story teller was among the first to meet the Danes who arrived then. He sang us two short songs beating a little drum made from bear gut stretched over a piece of drift wood brought in on the current. The instrument is hit only on the edge as the membrane is so thinly and tightly stretched it is fragile.

Since no trees can grow in Greenland, everything made of wood which the Inuit use comes from the sea, most often from Canada across the arctic ocean and down the eastern coast. He is also a sort of chief of  the locals, and his mother is the subject of the only piece of sculpture. Such artwork usually show people who died a long time ago, but not here, there history is too short.

The famous Inuit kayak has been replaced by motor boats, but one example remains. It's a marvel of the stone age. By means of a very long leather thing the detachable point of a harpoon would be secured to the kayak. The harpoon was then thrown with a throwing stick, and if it missed its mark the point wold not be lost. The stem of the harpoon floats, so if luckily it hit the target, the point would break away from the stem and remain embedded in the animal, which would then pull the kayak until it was so tired that the hunter could catch it.

The name Kulusuk means the breast bone of a bird. The mountain behind has its upper ridge in the shape of such a bone. When the hunters were away from the home village, they navigate by the appearance of well-known hilltops. They cannot trust anything else, as the snow and ice are always changing; what is sea today may be ice tomorrow and the coastline will disappear.

Although the distance between Iceland and Greenland is short, they feel like two different worlds. Earlier in the week I heard a talk on the attempt by the Icelanders to set up a colony on Greenland, but after a few hundred years nothing remained of it. They were shepherds and farmers, and they located it in the south-west and west of the large island, the eastern side is much too difficult due to such cold sea and lack of rain in the summer. 

Eirik the Red discovered the country in 985 or 986, kaj baldaŭ a few hundred people went from Iceland to start up there. At most perhaps there were between 4000 and 5000 Icelanders there, but they always depended strongly on Europe for provisions and wood. They chiefly traded in ivory from walruses, but when cheaper ivory from African elephants became available, they could no longer compete. Contact stopped around 1400, and by 1500 everyone had died. It's not clear why. Whether hostile contact with the Inuit, or illness, or too many bad harvests due to increased cold, no one knows. The Inuit survived by the kayak; The Icelanders tried European farming methods and failed.

A good holiday and pause.

Andy Pepperdine


Creative Commons License
A Conference in Reykjavik, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.