Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rediscovering "Harriet the Spy"

One of the great pleasures of visiting Pender Island is going to the Nu to Yu store (yes, it's spelled like that), which is full of islanders' used clothing, books, games, kitchen ware and furniture, and which can be yours for a pittance. All the money they earn goes back into the community - it is one of those fantastic "win-wins." 

So while I was there the other day I came across a copy of "Harriet the Spy," sitting on the shelf.
I loved this book when I was a kid. I read it when I was around ten. I loved it so much that, written on the inside cover of the first diary I ever kept (at age eleven) is written, "Susan Nielsen The Spy." (And no, I'm not going to talk about that darned "a" in Susan!). But, I wondered, would I still love it? Would it hold up? I remembered Ole Golly, and The Boy With the Purple Socks, and Harriet riding in the dumbwaiter ... So I bought it - for the low low price of ten cents. 

And boy, did it hold up. Not only did it hold up, it made me realize that Harriet has been lurking deep in my brain pan with every book I've written, and that I owe Louise Fitzhugh a debt of gratitude. I always cite Judy Blume as a big influence, and she is. But so is Louise. And the sad part is, I'll never be able to send her a fan e mail, because she died years ago, at the young age of 46, of an aneurism - all things I only discovered after re-reading the book. 

"Harriet" was published in 1964, the year I was born. How funny that I rediscovered it as I turned half a century old (I can't believe I just admitted that on my blog, but what the hell). I probably read it ten years after it was published. It is insanely good and original. It was a controversial book because Harriet was not always a likeable protagonist, far from it sometimes, and she was not at all a girly-girl. Which is why, of course, legions of girls like me fell in love with her. And she wanted to be a writer. 

I'd forgotten that her best friend Sport's dad was a writer. Poor Sport has to single handedly run their household because his dad is such a mess, either working or sleeping or depressed because his novels aren't selling. They have great observations about writers, like: "Writers don't care what they eat. They just care what you think about them." 

Fitzhugh's observations about adults, seen through a child's prism, are hilarious and real. And nestled beneath the humor is an aching poignancy. I felt for Harriet all over again, as I did her friends whose parents were dysfunctional, or divorced, or had a father who'd just skipped out. And then there's Harrison Withers, one of the people she spies on. I'd forgotten the humanity wrapped inside this book. And I sincerely hope kids are still reading it today. When I go into schools and show them my diary, and ask kids if they've read "Harriet the Spy," I'm always surprised by how few hands go up. More of them have seen one of the movies - I haven't, but I can guarantee none of them would hold a candle to the book. 

So, from here on in I will definitely cite Louise Fitzhugh as a major influence - there is so much Harriet in Violet, and Ambrose, and Henry - and I didn't even know it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Iceland, Part 7, Where I Do The Scariest Thing Ever: Ride A Horse

But first, a word on bread.

Iceland has amazing bread, pretty much wherever you go.  I swear they are all bakers. Almost every place we've stayed has homemade bread out at breakfast, and whenever you order fish soup at a restaurant they bring you homemade bread. My favourite bread of all has been the geysir bread - a kind of rye bread, baked in the earth by the geothermal heat.
 Doesn't look like much but DANG, I could eat it all day! And with what, you ask? Why, with Icelandic butter, of course! Which is as good as the bread. Seriously - it is fantastic butter. A good breakfast has been when you get these two items, plus if they have Skyr, you are set.
Okay, so ... we left Siglufjordur on the 10th, Son's birthday, and had our longest day of driving yet. We don't love spending the day in a car, so fortunately this was the only day of a good five hours of driving, with a couple of stops along the way, as we made our way west and south to the Snaefellsnes Penninsula. I finally got a shot of the sheep we see constantly by the side of the road. One face and one butt.
We came to a village called Rif on the penninsula, to our ugliest-looking (on the outside anyway) accommodation yet. As son said, it looked like a Korean mini-mart.
But in fact, the rooms were very comfy and clean, and we were surrounded - SURROUNDED - by fields full of arctic terns and their young. This meant that every time we went outside, we were dive-bombed by the males, protecting the females who were protecting the babies. This was the best shot I could get. 
That evening we went to the only restaurant in town, Gamla Rif, which has one meal: Fish soup and bread, made by two fishermen's wives, from the fish their husbands catch. Simple, but oh so delicious. And they made great cakes, which was a good way to celebrate Son's 18th birthday.
In the morning we started the day by taking a "Crash Course" in Icelandic at The Freezer, this hostel-slash-theatre space in our tiny village of Rif. Yet another thing I love about Iceland: Culture is everywhere, and often where you would least expect it. We were the only three there and it was just a half hour "lecture," but very funny - we learned all the different ways to say "ja" and "nei" (there are many), and in the end we got certificates that said we could now speak Icelandic on the level of an infant. 

Afterward we explored some of the beautiful penninsula. A highlight was taking a tour down a lava cave with Thor, below, who had a very dry sense of humour.
 The cave itself was very cool. We walked down a total of 140 steps. I know because I counted.
 But the only scary part was when I saw that darned troll again.
The scenery in Snaefellsnes is, like everywhere else we've been, stunning. We did some hikes along the ocean.

Then, when the weather took a turn for the wetter in the afternoon, we went to the local pool in Olafsvik and swam laps. This is something else I love about Iceland - every town seems to have a pool. I don't think you could ever be more than about ten km away from a pool! Oh yeah, and this day was MY birthday ... But I really got my present this morning, on the 12th, because as we started our drive slowly back toward Reykjavik, we went horseback riding. 

Now - understand - I don't think I've been on a horse in my life. Once on a donkey, in Mexico (yup). Once on an elephant in Nepal. But horses kind of freak me out. They're beautiful, but big. You are far off the ground. Of course the good thing about Icelandic horses is that you AREN'T so far off the ground. And I really wanted to ride an Icelandic horse, so the boys went along with it. We went to a wonderful place called Stori Kambur and two people took us out for a beautiful ride along the water. This was my horse.
He was such a sweetheart! Very good tempered and just happily followed the others. I was told he was "an older horse" and I said "well I'm an older human so we're perfect for each other." When we started out, I was terrified.
But then we actually galloped along the beach! Galloping was easier to take than trotting - I felt every bone in my body during trotting. Here's Son, at a gallop on the beach, then all of us riding down the beach.
I felt so brave and fearless once I got the hang of it - then I saw the photos our guide took, and realized my horse was ... um ... pretty much mule-sized.
At the end of our ride our guide asked what I did. No one has asked me that on the entire trip, which I like - it's just not a "thing" here, I guess. When I told him I was a writer he was so impressed! He said he was going to look me up. I mention it because I think they love their authors here, and their culture. Anyway it was just rather sweet.

And now we are back in Reykjavik for one last evening ... Husband has booked us the #1 rated restaurant to celebrate my and Son's birthdays with more than a bowl of fish soup. Tomorrow, we go home ... very sad ... BUT, we will go to the Blue Lagoon on our way to the airport!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Iceland, Part 6: Where I Meet My Icelandic Sister and a Troll, and Go Off the Beaten Path

Have I mentioned that the majority of Icelanders believe in elves and trolls? More than believe in God? Being here, I can kind of see why. Also, I am sure I have seen somewhere that they read more books per capita than any other people in the world. Certainly it is a nation that still believes in BOOKSTORES!!! They have fantastic bookstores and it gives me a good feeling to wander in them, as I did today in Akureyri.

So yesterday as we left Lake Myvatn we saw this:
We have decided this is what one calls a sunny day in Iceland.  We drove north, and spent a few hours in Akureyri, the northern town - second biggest "city" in Iceland with a population of about 17,000. A really lovely little town - it would be kind of awesome to be there in winter because you can ski in the area. 
 We didn't eat at the Indian Curry House below:

But we did eat at this beautiful blue building, which had great soups and sandwiches and baked goods, and a gorgeous interior. I can't remember what it was called.

Clearly in the 20th century Iceland had one architect, who was hired to design all of the churches in bigger towns, because this is by the same guy who designed the big church (and a pile of other buildings) in Reykjavik.
After lunch we got really excited because we saw this:
Our shadows!!!! SUN!!!!! Then I ran into my Icelandic sister.
The resemblance is uncanny.

We continued our drive toward the northern-most town in Iceland, Siglufjordur. The drive was - again - mind-blowingly beautiful.
We arrived in Siglufjordur and checked into probably our best accommodation so far, The Herring House, run by the ex-mayor of the town. We have a whole little house to ourselves, and the town is just spectacularly gorgeous. Here is the view from our bedroom window.
And our house!
I wish we could stay here for longer. It's a sleepy little town, and there aren't a lot of tourists here (which is nice. Though I must say, even in the heavily touristed areas of Iceland, it is never a problem getting around, or getting parking, or getting a table - not once have we wound up behind a slow-moving tour bus or RV as happens in Canada all the time). We went for a short walk along the avalanche barriers above town last night (yes, you read that right). And that's when I had my troll sighting. I took this photo of the town:

Then suddenly I saw a flash and caught this on camera.
Then we went for dinner at the yellow place below (tonight we will go to the red place!). The food was fantastic. Confession: I figured Icelandic food would be about as good as Scottish food (no offense to my Scottish friends). We had a few good meals when we were in Scotland, but a lot of the food was pretty mediocre, and not a lot of fresh produce, and some of it pretty typical overcooked British pub food. I've been pleasantly surprised here. Really, I think we had one crap meal, and that was a burger at a roadside joint. Some food has been decent, but most of it has been excellent. They really know how to be self-sustaining, and take advantage of what they have locally.
 In this case, FISH. Like the ones caught by the fishermen feet away from the restaurant, below.
 I had the red fish, which I've finally decoded to be ocean perch in English. Oh god, it was delicious!
This morning, after a lovely breakfast with our hosts (in their other house) we went on our hardest yet most rewarding hike of the trip so far. We'd been told "there's a path - sort of" up and into the valley between some of the mountains. So Husband, with his bloodhound sense of direction, took us up a very steep non-trail - really, NO TRAIL - into this valley. About 45 minutes straight uphill, grabbing onto lupin roots to pull myself up in spots. This is where we wound up, in this valley. But it wasn't over yet.
We then continued to hike up to the top of the mountain - where you can see the snow patches, above - another hour and fifteen minutes, for a total of 2 hours straight uphill with basically no trail, and very, very steep for the last half hour. I wanted to kill Husband for a while because it was somewhat terrifying for me (not for them - I think this was payback for the whale watching) - but then we reached the top, and these views: 
 That's them, by the way, those two little dots in the distance.
We looked down into the next valley, and to the ocean beyond. It was magnificent. And you can see the town, way way down below. You can also see the sweat stain between my boobs. We were all sweating like pigs by the time we made it up there.
We had fun sliding down the snow patches on the way back.  Then, after showers back at the Herring House (which was metres from the start of the trail) we wandered around town and came upon this adorable little grass-roofed house.
 Then it was down to the water ...
Followed by a truly terrific visit to The Herring Era Museum. No wonder this place has won awards; you feel like you've stepped back in time, to a time when the herring industry was booming in Iceland, and especially in Siglufjordur.
Then, for the first time in a long while, we actually had a rest back at our wonderful guest house. The days have been so packed! The difference here is that we didn't have to take the car anywhere. For dinner we did, indeed, go to the "red house" - again, magnificent food. And we had our first al fresco meal in Iceland - rather bundled up as you can see!
Siglufjordur is an amazing little town (population around 1000). It's going to get busier, though - they are building a hotel as we speak. Right now there are very few places to stay. But even with the hotel, it will still be a great place to visit. Probably one of my favourite places in a trip full of favourites. Tomorrow is Son's birthday - we will have our longest driving day so far, about 5 hours, to the Snaefelsness Peninsula. I heart Iceland!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Searching for Bjork and Puking on the High Seas

Today was like a line from a Dickens novel - the best of times, the worst of times. Mostly best. I started the day by trying to find Iceland's most famous person, but it was a dead end. 
After breakfast - which included some milk straight from the cows - we drove to Husavik, a charming little town in the north (just 45 minutes away) famous for its whale watching tours.  We booked a four hour trip on this lovely old boat (the black one) below.
We were all outfitted in one-piece suits to keep warm and dry, and off we headed into the North Atlantic.  It was fantastic - well, mostly. (by the way, that's me in my new 66 North toque - windproof and awesome - it's an Icelandic company, and their stores are all over the country). And that's the boat with its sail up. Beautifully restored old boat.
As you can see, we were all very chipper and happy for the first 20 minutes or so. And the views were spectacular.

First stop was an island full of puffins. I don't have a good enough camera to get puffin shots, so you'll have to take my word for it that those little black dots in the Atlantic are in fact puffins. It was our first puffin viewing so we were all very excited!
But then the swells began in earnest. Even writing the word makes me feel queasy. Soon a lot of people on the boat were very, very quiet - picking a spot on the horizon and just staring at it and not saying a word. The three of us all felt seasick. After a while longer though, we had our whale sightings! Humpbacks. I got so excited I forgot about feeling sick, and started snapping a zillion photos. I won't bore you with all of my half-assed shots - I'll just bore you with one. 
It was so fantastic, watching them up close like this. Apparently they wind up in West Africa in the winter - which is pretty mind-blowing. 

And speaking of blowing ... Well, one of us got rather violently seasick. Like, hanging his head over the side of the boat with rather spectacular sound effects (at first I thought we'd come upon some barking seals). I won't name names. But when we finally made it back to shore (the way back was easier going), The Person Who Got Seasick had to have a nap in the back seat of the car, while the rest of us tried to get our land legs back by walking around town.  Once we had any sort of appetite we did, discover an excellent food to consume post-seasickness:
That's right - Gatorade and bugles. 

Was it worth it? Well, I would say "yes." Just knowing we were out in the North Atlantic, close to the Greenland Sea, was pretty cool. I'm not sure the other members of my household would agree. Since I somehow managed to be the least scathed, I do believe it was subconscious payback when we got home, and The Person Who Got Seasick "accidentally" used my toothbrush ... 

Yeah. I know. GROSS!!!!!!!

But here's the amazing thing about my boys.  Even though they'd both been plagued with seasickness, one violently, by the time we got back to Lake Myvatn they were ready to climb, and hike the circumference of Hverfjall, an old volcano. 

 It was very cool. Below is the view from the top, over part of Lake Myvatn. A nice way to end the day before heading to supper.
This is that lamb shank I was raving about in my last post, and lastly, the sign outside our wonderful farm. It's been a lovely three nights here, but tomorrow we move on to the northernmost town in Iceland, Siglufjordur.