It gives us a lot of happiness to watch our plants grow. The windowsill garden is lush now. I’m really surprised how fast everything came up – rocket, mustard, dill, coriander, and chives within days. The parsley hung about and took a week at least; still far quicker than I thought! Then again, the days are getting longer than I’ve ever experienced before. The sun is up around 4 and sets at about 10.30, with light still in the sky a while longer. Our plants are on our bedroom indoor windowsill, between the window and the curtain so they soak up all that light. They’re also advantageously placed over a radiator. In the first week of their little lives it was snowing and cold outside, we had the window open to get air into the room and I feared for them. But with some radiator heat and the overall warmth of our flat (permanently toasty) they did fine.
At first they all seemed quite leggy but they don’t look so bad now, maybe as we’ve had some actual sun lately. We are yet to eat them: I think this weekend I will start snipping the rocket. All this grew in three weeks. The basil and tomato we bought as plants, as I thought we wouldn’t be able to grow from seed and get them to fruit before winter sets in, given that we started this tiny plot at the end of April.
This is about food, yet these plants are worth so much more than just their nutritional value. In a city where the trees are straining to open their buds, still, in mid-May: I can see green leaves soon as I wake up. When I stand over them the basil releases its scent first, reminding me of warmth. Having something to look after is a balm for the soul too, telling me in small but profound ways, that my actions matter. The water I give them is gratefully received. I turn the pots sporadically so they grow straighter and stronger. I will learn to care for myself the way I care for others.
I love the way the chive seeds sprout, sending up one tall limb that holds its own seed aloft; look what I came from. We have so many of each plant that we can conduct experiments, which was half the purpose of growing things here, to learn. Some chives might make it outdoors where our landlady has, to my delight, given over a couple metres squared growing space to us. It’s tucked around the corner so I hadn’t seen it. There’s even two compost bays! I was so gleeful to find out. So, this weekend I hope to have a look at the patch, do some weeding and get things going.
When you’re staring at empty pots and full seed packets, when the garden is an idea not a touchable reality, it is so hard to imagine that anything really, truly, grows. And yet, it does. That is a thought I need to take to heart, for the times I fall into a gloom and can’t see past it. Day always follows night. Small seeds turn into plants with fruit and flowers to seeds again. I know this; I lose it, find it, lose it but I know it deep down. I will grow to know it always, I hope.
Typically, the week I spend completely immersed in food (not literally, or perhaps I wouldn’t still have the job) is the week I don’t manage to get fingers to keyboard to write about it. So here is a compensatory, quick little jotting of thoughts. It was my training week at my new job in the kitchen of a lovely cafe here in Reykjavik. I’ve been learning recipes, tasting, adjusting, tasting again. I’m used to cooking for just friends and family so it’s been cool to scale up and learn how to prepare large amounts of things. I’ve worked as a kitchen assistant before, in summer as a student, but this job’s a little different, it’s a one person kitchen – for two branches of the coffee shop! So it’s a really interesting challenge for me.
I’ve spent a couple of years growing food, first on a little allotment, then working at a herb farm, then as a long-term wwoof volunteer in the UK. When I came to Iceland, I considered finding work as a gardener: but after some pondering realised that I’d rather like to follow my passion for good food, rather than end up gardening commercially with only ornamental plants, and non-organically. I want to experience the other end of the food chain! To be in between producer and consumer. I have a feeling running the kitchen will inform my future food growing, and be a great opportunity to develop new skills.
As it turned out, I am super lucky to be working at a really great company. Everyone has been friendly and welcoming, and everything I learned to make was delicious. Fresh hummus, pesto, tuna salad…almond and coconut milk from scratch…toasted granola mixes…tip top spiced chai. I have enjoyed the variety of processes, and the focus of my week has really been getting my head around multi-tasking. Cooking dinner for me and Johann is a relaxed process, where I can usually just focus on one thing at a time. Preparing food at work means making the best use of time, which has often meant working on a couple of dishes at once. On quieter days I was able to plod through my to-do list one at a time – maybe four tuna, two hummus. Simple. But some days it’s necessary to get one thing going first, then hop in between various stages of the process, getting other things done too. That really taxes my mind and will be a skill to develop!
Often while I was stirring the chai and inhaling the spicy aroma, or zesting lemons, or getting a waft of toasted maple syrup as I took the granola out of the oven, I would catch myself and think happily, ‘hey! this is WORK!’ because it felt like play. I enjoy cooking. My learning curve next week will be being in charge of my time, having to decide what to make when, and co-ordinating everything. The time I spent in Calais co-ordinating the packing of food parcels has given me some confidence in organisation, and although undoubtedly it sometimes feels strange to be preparing gourmet breakfasts, not bags of tins for hungry people, I think to myself that this is part of my journey towards helping other people again sometime in the future. This is time that I am allowed to take for myself, to recover financially by working full-time, and also recover mentally, by doing something that I enjoy and that has a lower stress factor. Actually, in the past I’d have been a little furious ball of stress having to organise the volume of food needed for our busy cafes, now I feel it’s a do-able task – after all, there aren’t 10,000 customers. And I understand a little more the kind of attitude that gets things done: it’s not the hare-brained worrier! So I try to cultivate the confidence, and savour the enjoyment, and remember to be grateful.
So, just a small post to make up for missing Friday. My other challenge coming up is keeping up writing and posting here twice a week , which has been really easy whilst not working, but harder to stick to after an 8 hour shift! I’m going to have to accept that not every post can be a 1000 word opinion piece…actually, maybe that’s a good thing. Let’s see how it goes.
The last seven days has been so busy, my feet ache and I’m just about hanging on, but enjoying the ride. Here follows the week in brief:
Last Thursday was ‘Sumardagurinn fyrsti’, the offical first day of summer here in Iceland. It was snowing. Then the snow cleared and the sun came out. This happened approx every ten minutes throughout the day. Johann had the day off work and we made an expedition to Hveragerði, a village about 45 mins out of the city, where there’s a horticultural school. There was an open day, so we could wander round the glasshouses and buy plants raised organically there. One glasshouse contained Iceland’s largest (and now only, I believe) banana plantation. Yes, really! Warmed by geothermal heat, we walked past steaming pipes running from the ground outside. Indoors I was so excited to see the bananas actually fruiting, oranges hanging from trees, and tropical flowers, all under the shadow of a snowy mountain. I feel like a child at Disneyland going to gardens these days. Always going wow, wow, WOW!
We were inspired and on our way home stopped at a garden centre, where we bought seeds, soil, and seed trays to start our own windowsill garden. Watching the seeds sprouting and put down roots helps me grow my own roots here. To grow something in a place is to commit to it. And we are so lucky to be watching this game of nature already, the rocket sprouted in 48 hours, now 6 days on we have chives, dill, and mustard too. So exciting.
At the weekend I attended a course in Nonviolent Communication run by Jack Lehmann. You could also call it empathetic, or compassionate, communication. In brief it’s about learning a way of talking and listening that promotes harmony… In which we learn how to express our feelings and needs, and listen to other people’s feelings and needs, in a way that avoid conflict and allows them to be met. I couldn’t afford the fee and so bartered my skills as an illustrator to record the training visually, whilst also being a participant. It was exhausting. Illuminating. Emotional. Affecting. Funny. I’m going to take some time to process it and will hopefully share more details here soon. My drawings are currently with the course leader, I was gutted to get a migraine on the afternoon of the last day so I left them with him in a hurry. I’ll work on them when I get ’em back.
So that happened…then I started my new job on Monday! I’m working in the kitchen at Reykjavik Roasters, which is a super nice cafe here that’s very serious about coffee. So far I’ve been learning the ropes (and the recipes) from the guy who’s running it currently before he leaves on Friday. We’ve been toasting granola, making seedy crackers, pesto, fresh almond milk and coconut milk and other delicious things. I’m really enjoying working with food all day and it’s going to be a challenge next week with no-one to tell me what to do, but I’ll learn a lot! Everyone is really friendly and I feel like I’m really settling down in this city now I have a workplace and regular faces to chat to. Also, it’s the best place to learn about coffee. So serious. To a decimal point serious. And we also planted some chive seeds at the end of the day today so soon I’ll be able to raise plants at work too, hurrah!
Still I struggle with the discipline of doing yoga and meditation. Still I know what helps and I don’t do it as often as I should! Tonight I’ll try and practice patience and self-compassion for my mistakes. The perfectionist in me wants this post to say more, for me to delve deeper and try to express the settling feeling of this at last becoming home, but I’m tired and reaching my limit. There’s always next time. I’ll be pleased I even wrote at all.
I walk home down a hill with a view to Mount Esja, and though the foreground is taken up by a stack of humdrum office buildings and traffic, today I smiled and saw the beauty and the strangeness. Why here? Why now? How did I get here, working in a kitchen in Iceland, I who grew up in England thinking only of making words and pictures, scared of new places, scared of new food? Funny how a dream shifts, percolates* through and settles in the margins. As I grow older it becomes less important to me to forge a primary career as an artist. I find having another occupation is fertile ground for making art, telling stories. I was happy and surprised, once I wavered from the path of studying, practicing, teaching art to find other things I love: food and gardening. Things that fulfil me too. So I smile at the mountain and feel thankful for having got where I am today, standing at a busy crossroads waiting for the clickety-clack of the traffic lights to change and signal I can move forward once again.
My first intention for the Foodie Friday series of posts was to share only stories about local food, particular to place. Food that you really had to ‘be there’ for. Food that is shaped by the place in which its grown – by landscape, climate, culture, the French concept of ‘le terroir’. Food and culture seem to be a snake that’s eating itself, an ouroboros. I mean, the culture of a place shapes the food thats eaten; the food that’s eaten shapes the culture of a place.
So, Iceland. I thought of berries; foraged and pressed into service as juice, jam, sauce. Of fish, of course, in this nation with abundant seas. Of rich, fresh, organic butter, milk, cream, skyr. Rugged lambs raised on windy, verdant lands.
The uncomfortable truth I’m facing is that these foods are prohibitively expensive, to us at the moment. It is important to recognise my privilege here: Johann and I are not poor, in the global scale. We’re not even going to be poor on the Icelandic scale, once we have two salaries coming in next month. We have no disposable income by choice. We’re trying to save as much money as possible to enable us to spend next year travelling and learning, and get closer to our aim of buying land and starting our own small farm in some guise. When I talk about not being able to afford something now, it is in the full appreciation that that is a choice I have taken, and I want no sympathy. It is not the same as being without choice, truly having no access to good food. But lately I feel I am awakening to the existence of parallel food cultures. There is the Iceland of foraged berries, of geothermally baked rye bread, of whale steak: and there is also the Iceland I eat in most days which is closer in feel to the British supermarket chain. I feel that our current situation gives me a small and valuable insight into how it is to live and eat largely on a very restrictive budget.
In this nation of fishermen and sheep farmers, we eat most often vegetarian curry. We buy a fresh chicken occasionally: we get two meals from it and a stock if I can be bothered. We also buy bacon sometimes, little chunks, and tins of tuna. Fish, lamb, pork, beef: it’s all so expensive. Basically, most days we eat a combination of fresh, tinned and frozen veg, with eggs and beans for protein. Sometimes pasta. It’s all own brand, cheapest versions. We own a curry blend, a chicken spice blend, garam masala and oregano. From these few things we make food that nourishes, satisfies, pleases. Meals that I look forward to sitting and eating.
It seems obvious that to call curry an Icelandic food would be to deny its origins, and constitute cultural appropriation. Just because I eat it most here doesn’t make it of this place…it’s confusing though; when I look back at my time living here so far I smell the warmth of the spices of weeknight dinners. I have an inkling that when I leave Iceland and remember it, these cheaply made concoctions will come to mind as much as the isolated, few and far between times that I taste something of Iceland’s food heritage. So why do I tell half a story, writing only of heritage, organic foods, then go to the kitchen and eat something completely different? I want this blog to be honest and not one of the legion of glamorous travel accounts. By attempting to write every week about foods I can’t afford, I start to feel like I’m sharing a story that isn’t mine.
I feel guilty buying budget meat, knowing it’s welfare standards are likely low. I wonder if I can justify the end by the means: I can’t support organic producers now, but in five years I hope to be part of the revolution of small growers with an environmental and social conscience. We can’t see a way of getting to that stage without having money. Without independent wealth and high paying jobs – Johann’s doing building work, I start kitchen work next week – saving money means restrictions. Some days I’m full of the fire of the future, others I think: how can I pretend to be ethical while I hand over cash and support large-scale factory farming?
If only there was a kind of national gallery of food, where our most treasured tastes and culinary heritage would be saved and available to all free of charge. This is partly addressed by the Slow Food movement’s ‘Ark of Taste’ which aims to ‘preserve at-risk foods that are sustainably produced, unique in taste, and part of a distinct ecoregion’. I am all for saving them, though I would also like to see increased access to these foods. In my experience of English ‘ark of taste’ entrants, I’ve eaten Herdwick lamb on holiday and in the case of jersey royal potatoes, bought them in Marks and Spencers in times when I was being supported by my parents. But they cost a lot more than the average spud. Increased access – does it mean more people around the world get to taste that specific item, like the Chegworth Valley apple juice in my local farmers’ market here in Iceland? In my mind increased access to ark of food tastes means that people in the area where it is available are able to have it as part of their diet, even if they are not in the wealthiest sector of population. I guess in order to save it, any kind of increase in consumers is good. But wouldn’t it be great if the foods were accessible to the producers, locals, their families, not just wealthy people or tourists!
I don’t mean to highlight any negativity in my food experience here: only to remark on the existence of alternative experiences of Icelandic food, based on what’s available in the supermarkets, not only the boutiques. What truly constitutes ‘Icelandic food’? Is it a selection of items with the most established lineage, a traceable history? Or is it a snapshot of what the majority of inhabitants eat today? I am being a devil’s advocate to myself really, I believe wholeheartedly in the preservation of traditional food, but I also want to find a way to reconcile my experience as a food consumer in Iceland with the lichen, seaweed, crowberry, lamb of it’s heritage. My experience of food here is little islands of traditional Icelandic things in a sea of foods from elsewhere: produce grown abroad, recipes from far away jumbled up and adapted to here and now.
When we think of a country’s food culture, how useful is it to focus only on what was widely eaten in the past? How widely adopted and currently practiced does a certain food have to be, to be considered a mainstay of a place’s food culture? Is it important also to paint a picture of how people eat today, a picture shaped by container ships, globalisation, the polarity between consumers – the millions of tourists who come versus the 330,000 residents, and an increasing number of immigrants needed to support the growing volume of tourists.
I guess I think it is important to consider the whole, and to include the contemporary, the cheap, the mass experience, in accounts of a place’s culinary culture. I think if you tell a story, you have a responsibility to tell the whole story. But I’m in over my head really. I am just starting to think about these issues and share my thoughts as a means of starting a discussion, hopefully. And I have come to enjoy the discipline of writing this blog, so even if no one reads it, it has had the effect of crystallising my thoughts: giving a regular incentive to think deeply about things. I’m going to widen my remit of writing about Icelandic food; with the experimental definition of Icelandic food simply as anything and everything I’ve eaten in this land. As always, I would relish the thoughts of others: if anyone made it this far down the post, I salute you and would like to hear your take.
The ‘romance of maintenance’ comes to mind to describe the last week. The phrase was introduced to me on my permaculture design course, and used to describe what we don’t have in our society: a love of keeping things going once the initial excitement fades. I can’t remember who coined the phrase and a cursory Google reveals only that one episode of a TV series about architecture was titled as such. But the phrase really stuck in my mind. We need to develop a romance of maintenance in order to keep our gardens healthy and productive, and the same is true of our lives.
I am a person who has struggled very much with depression and anxiety in the past, and the present. Over winter, when old blues reared their heads again, I determined to focus on what helped me regain wholeness last time around. Yoga, meditation, eating healthily, exercise. Last time around I also took an extended trip through the world of pills and therapy, with variable results. I came out the other side and won’t deny that part of my journey, but this time I chose to try and regain my balance using the tools that I felt had helped me most to maintain it for a year.
The very fact that I had to start again at yoga, meditation, exercise and good food indicates why I was in the slump once more. I had stopped doing them. Over the spring and summer of 2016 I was a practising yogi, a smug blender of nut-based snacks, a gardener. I had already without noticing dropped meditation, which had been so helpful to me the year before when I recovered from major depression. Still, I was always active, working in a plant nursery, wwoofing in a vegetable garden. Things were good. I started going out to Calais and volunteering in the Help Refugees warehouse. I was full of fervour and energy and future.
In August I moved to Calais full-time and threw myself into work. There is so much to say about this time – precious and brilliant and joyful and terrible and sad. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on what I wasn’t doing while I was busy falling in love and working six days a week managing a team of people packing thousands of food parcels a week.
I wasn’t doing yoga, that’s for sure. I most definitely was not meditating. I wasn’t taking breaks in a day that started at 8 and finished at 7. I was living in a caravan on the warehouse site and for days at a time I wasn’t leaving the compound as I semi-affectionately called it. I was eating delicious food, to give credit to Johann who cooked some magic from tins every night on a little camping stove. But I was also shovelling sweets and chocolate down all day, as a substitute for rest, a short term energy boost that needed pepping up every other hour. Things I hadn’t eaten in months and had come to regard as toxic were being merrily consumed for the tiny bubble of well-being the brain received on first taste.
I was taking on more and more and not only taking on but taking in, taking the responsibility of the need in to my heart and feeling it crack under the weight. When I made mistakes I lacked the ability to stand back from them. The presence that meditation and yoga had brought me had slipped away, without maintenance, and my mistakes became burdens. Old thought patterns snaked up like roots that had just lain dormant. Lack of confidence, lack of belief, blaming myself for not being good enough, strong enough, tough enough.
I was working myself into a hole, in a routine that couldn’t be sustained. People around me told me to take breaks, buoyed me up when I felt down, but I’d gone too far and couldn’t claw myself back in that environment. In the aftermath of the eviction and destruction of the camp, I left.
I’m sharing this with anyone who’ll listen, with some trepidation, because it hurts to admit how I crumbled, when many of the people I worked with stayed strong, stayed there, stayed helping. But what I have learned in retrospect is the utmost importance of maintaining the things that keep you well, even when you feel well. Especially when you feel well! Because those times when I felt on top of the world: when I met and bonded and worked with the most incredible people, every day, when every part of my being was looking forward, looking outward, looking to save the world one Aldi bag at a time: that was when I neglected to look after myself.
It’s not that my self is more important than the other people I was trying to help; it’s that I worked myself into a state in which I could no longer help others. I took my eye off the ball. What I should have learned from this is to find what works and stick to it through thick and thin. Treat it not as a cure but as a preventative measure. Make what keeps me sane an immovable part of my daily life.
But guess what? It’s still so darn tempting when I’m having a good day to say, I’ll just do the yoga tomorrow. I’ll let myself fall asleep without using the Headspace app for meditation first. After all, I’m good. I’m fine!
Some days later, after my routine slips, my composure slips too. This week I’ve had a wonderful time, walking and exploring and swimming and drawing and meeting people. But there have also been some deep dark moods, as if out of the blue, and it’s only when I wail ‘what’s wrong with me!? I’m doing everything right!’ and look back that I twig. Yes, for the first two weeks of moving here I did yoga and meditation every single day. Then I guess I skipped some days of one or the other. The past week, I did yoga twice and meditation twice. I completely forget to stop several times a day in my thoughts and find presence. And just like that, my protective routine is no longer study enough to keep out the black holes.
So this week, my focus is to appreciate how good my life situation is right now, without losing sight of the healing routine that keeps me calm. I think the difficulty is in accepting at the peak of your happiness that you have within you the capacity for such darkness. It’s more comfortable to pretend that things are good and will always be that way. Much harder to accept that things are good, but they haven’t been in the past, and they might not be in the future without facing your truth and accepting the work you need to do to be ok.
So I need the lesson more than once, that’s okay. I have hope that eventually I’ll learn once and for all that to keep myself well, some things are non-negotiable. I need to find in myself the romance of maintenance, the every-single-day dedication to the yoga and mindfulness that I believe can bring me balance.
The door to the house in Hafnarfjörður opens and I’m welcomed in by Mira’s husband Boby. The smell of fresh bread wraps around me like a comfort blanket. Coffee is made, introductions given, and smiles all round.
Mira is the master of this ship, her kitchen is small and kept spotlessly shipshape despite the heavy load of baking she has to do. It’s Good Friday today. There’s páskabrauð in various stages around the room. One turning golden in the oven, next to which I am perched with my sketchbook. One out and resting under a white cloth. One is just a glimmer in Mira’s eye, so far, and I am here to watch it come into being.
Looking at the proving dough, the baking bread, the flour and egg and milk yet to be combined I wonder how Mira can hold the threads in her mind, remember what needs to be done next for each of them. I relax any idea of trying to record a recipe in linear form – this magic is beyond my ken – and anyway, we agree that every cook has their secrets.
Everything made here is baked to order for local people: Mira is a home baker who recently posted in a facebook group (‘away from home: living in iceland’, I have a lot to thank you for) that she can produce homemade bread to order. Photos of complex patterns in plump dough, twists and folds and symmetry: this was bread but not as I knew it. Nosy as ever, I sent her a message asking if I could come and draw while she baked. She accepted, agreed to be on the blog, and here we are.
Milk, warmed slightly, is added to fresh yeast, to activate it. There is no water in this easter bread; lard is used in place of butter, if the customer has no objection. While I ask questions the yeast balloons in size, and Mira knows just when it is right. How could I hope simply to record her recipe in an afternoon and pass it on? There is a deftness to the way she holds the bowls and folds the dough. Movements learned over years, her own lifetime but there’s also the generations before her that made these shapes with their hands too. Family. Mira is Bulgarian, and though I am hitherto completely ignorant of Bulgaria and its culture, I start to learn this afternoon.
Easter bread is being made today, sweet knots of sugar encrusted dough. In Iceland, Mira says, there are three or four special holidays a year, with special foods ascribed to them. In Bulgaria, there are five or six a month. A month! And all with significant things to eat. Some of Mira’s customers are Bulgarians living in Iceland; others are from other European nations that have similar traditions of eating sweet breads at certain holidays: Mira’s recipes, adapted to customers’ requests, fill a gap for many a transplanted and homesick foreigner. Icelanders too, they’re notoriously sweet toothed. Though Mira makes savoury bread and pastries too, showing me photos of filo parcels filled with spinach and cheese, something I’ve eaten in Greece and we all agree is delicious.
There is in fact such an appetite for bread that this past week, as well as working full-time at a hotel, Mira has had only two or three hours of sleep some nights, baking, always baking. This Easter bread is a special case: I’m told because it has sugar in the dough it takes a long time to prove, or rise. Each one proves twice. The dough is kneaded – Mira has a friend round today and she takes over for a while, slapping it down on the counter and pushing it about expertly. This bread is hard work, but Mira’s grandmother is still making it at 82.
Food seems embedded in Bulgarian culture in a way that I feel we have slightly lost in my own British culture. Mira tells me of a facebook group in which Bulgarians post photographs of what they make for dinner each night. We have this act, of course, in the form of an endless ‘look at my bowl of colour and health and cleverness’, but my grandma would never do it. Posting what we eat online seems to be a vehicle for propagandising our view on food, or inflating our self-esteem and social standing, look what I did, look what a good person I am. Of course, I am guilty of it! But it wasn’t til we scrolled through the Bulgarian group that I became aware of the way in which I’m accustomed to doing things, without thought. In this group are normal dinners, these are people who wouldn’t define themselves as ‘foodies’, or make it part of their identity in a constructed way, like I do. it’s just what they do. They share what they eat every day, and perhaps I’ve got my rose-tinted glasses on again but it seemed less contrived, and more an honest celebration and intense interest in food.
She’s not taking any more orders for Easter and tomorrow will be spent instead painting eggs. It is Bulgarian tradition to boil eggs then paint the shells (with food-grade paint), then the children fight with them, then eat the eggs. Of course it makes sense to eat the insides! I only ever remember painting eggs after emptying the egg of its contents, what a waste. And there’s one more tradition of spring that I would like to adopt next year. Mira and Boby had red and white plaited bracelets, worn from the first of March. When the wearer sees the first stork, or the first blossom on a fruit tree, the bracelet is taken off and put on that tree. Boby wistfully pointed out that since there are no storks and no fruit trees in Iceland, they’d be wearing their bracelets a long time.
After a couple of hours bustling round the kitchen, we have a break. Boby shows me his Bulgarian-English phrasebook from which he is teaching himself English. He has naturally made more progress in that time than many English people would in a lifetime of learning, or not, other languages. We’re a lazy bunch. I flick through and find the word for bread, say it again and again, struggling with the harsh sound. Then we get ambitious and he teaches me to say ‘You make good bread’. Mira gets back and I test out my new phrase. They collapse in laughter. She gets out her phone and starts live streaming, talking about what she’s been making today, me grinning uncomprehendingly by her side, waiting for my star role:
‘направите добър хляб’
You make good bread!
I’m fairly certain what I just wrote isn’t what I said but the unfamiliar words have swirled out of my head since this afternoon, with all I was trying to remember of the tales I was told and the laughs we shared. What sticks, more than process, more than weights and measures of ingredients, is the warmth. The openness and generosity of Mira for welcoming me into her home. The pride and love they all have for the traditions of their home country. And the taste of the sweet, moist curl of paskabraud I’m given before I leave.
I’d like to encourage any locals to order some bread from Mira, which you can do via her facebook page. I’d also like to impress upon any body who reads this, anywhere in the world, how amazing it is to meet and connect with people from other places and cultures. I confess, drawing is a blooming easy way of inviting yourself to a new place, but maybe there are other ways. Community events that you can go to. Conversations you can start. Neighbours you can have a cup of tea with. I find the joy of learning and laughing with people that were once strangers is one of the best joys of all.
Last Monday morning Johann went to work and I began my first week in Reykjavik. It was quiet in the house, and I faced five days on my own. Free time. I recognise my privilege, knowing that so many of my friends are perpetually busy and working, that five days in a new city with no agenda is a dream.
And yet, it felt like an uphill journey from where I sat. Because when I unpick ‘no agenda’ it turns out there is quite a pressing one: make this place home. Make friends. Find a job that will fulfill me, or at least not make me completely miserable, for a year. While on the surface, I could wake up and do exactly what I feel – stay in bed longer, have a coffee and read some blogs, whatever – it turned out this big agenda, this rather imposing to do list kept intruding. And me without a road map of how to achieve any of it.
For once my overactive mind had some positive effect, because the fear of failing dragged me out of the door in sheer desperation to be doing something proactive that might lead to success. This push led to some heartening encounters.
So it was that I came to Hlutverkasetur. Our landlady told me about a place that anyone could go to and do activities for free, from drawing to singing to knitting to just being there. Their website describes their intended service users as ‘individuals that have lost important roles for various reasons’, and it is intended that they ‘gain or find valuable roles again by staying active’. I think this is a beautifully inclusive way to describe the need and the solution. The majority of users have a history of mental health problems, others may be unemployed. Our landlady stressed that this was not exclusive, that anyone would be welcomed.
So, I turned up on Wednesday morning hoping to join a yoga class. After assuring the ladies at the door that I wasn’t looking for the language lessons downstairs and I had actually intended to be at Hlutverkasetur, I was welcomed in and shown round. Our Instagram followers have had a digested version of what happened next – sorry to repeat myself! The yoga teacher, who hadn’t had any participants for a few days, hadn’t come in that day. I was asked if I knew anything about yoga. I admitted with trepidation that I did know a little bit. Problem solved, they said, if Anna’s not in, you’re the yoga teacher!
This was not what I had in mind when I convinced myself to get out of the house and go and try a yoga class. I was feeling nervous, alone and worrying about not understanding Icelandic – not finding the building on time – any number of vague misgivings. The last thing I expected to do was waltz in to an unknown place with unknown people and teach yoga. And thankfully, this prospect did not come to pass. I was saved by the rather dubious alternative: I could instead join the sea swimming outing.
Just to be clear, this is Iceland in April. Spring is something I experience vicariously through the Instagram accounts of people in other places. On the day in question, snow partially covered the sand on Nauthólsvík. The water was estimated to be a balmy 2 degrees. I had seen sea swimming on the activity timetable beforehand and thought, no way. But, in the moment, with the kind staff offering to drive past my flat on the way to pick up my swimming stuff, and promising that I could just stay in the hot tub if I wanted, I decided to go with the flow. Sea swimming it was.
It was quite glorious. A long soak in the hot pot which, contrary to the usual small circular ones in swimming pools, was a long, narrow trough at the top of the beach. Lined with hardy sun and sea worshipers, with unlikely tans from their every day swims all year round. A hubbub of Icelandic language which I listened to intently at first, but couldn’t hold the threads for long and drifted off into my own world, watching sea and sky. There were five of us from Hlutverkasetur, some more intrepid than others when we heaved ourselves out of the warm comfort and made a break for the sea. There’s a small, protected area of water at Nauthólsvík, geothermally heated in summer but sadly not in winter when most needed. I broke my cool and ran down the beach, arms flailing, squealing into the water. Shockingly cold, I waded as deep as my knees, whole body working to deal with the signal my lower legs were sending to the brain, roughly: ‘get out get out get out’. But it was exhilarating. I lasted less than a minute before speeding up to the hot pot once more, and steeping with relief in the heat. Then the steambath, scalding hot, one seasoned sea swimmer spraying lavender essential oil so the steam lost its sweat smell and became an aromatic cloud.
Afterwards, walking to the car, my companions asked ‘do you feel good?’, and it’s true, I did feel extremely good. Alive; brave. I tried to remember the feeling the rest of the week when my desire to stay in my little bubble was strong. The reward for leaving it is bigger.
With that spirit, I applied for jobs. I will not jinx it by talking about it, but I have an interview this afternoon for one I would really like. I went back to Hlutverkasetur and did some drawing in the craft room. I roamed my new neighbourhood, walking for hours, delighting in finding botanical gardens so close. I went to draw my local farmers market and talk to the staff, rather than research something online and write from the comfort of my room. That in particular had great results, for I wrote that I’d like to visit geothermally heated greenhouses, and then next day had a lovely message from a person with a homestead growing tomatoes and keeping chickens and bees outside Reykjavik, and an invitation to visit this summer.
I will try to remember that old adage that you only regret what you don’t try. In particular, I try to keep in mind that whenever I reach out, through drawing out in the world, I make connections that are wonderful. It’s always happened that way. I find that people are happy to talk about what they love: that drawing opens a dialogue. After a week I feel like I’ve found my road map, and what I need to do is simple. Get out. Try things. Approach people and places earnestly. It takes effort and is not without worry, but connections are made, small ones, slowly, and that web is what makes a place a home.
PS. I’d love to hear from any readers, whether you’re a nomad or you’ve lived in the same place for decades – what makes where you live into your ‘home’?
PPS. If you’re reading this in the hope of practical, Iceland visiting information, fear not! Here it is, better late than never…right?
Nauthólsvík is open in winter the following hours: Mondays 11:00 to 14:00 and17:00 to 8:00 p.m. Wednesdays 11:00 to 14:00 and 17:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Fridays 11:00 to 14:00
Saturdays 11:00 to 16:00
In the summer it’s open every day from 10:00 to 19:00 GMT.
Summer time is from May 15 to August 15.
In winter it costs 600 kronur I believe, in summer it’s free. The beach itself is always free and open for a walk, the opening times apply to the changing rooms, showers and hot pot.
Hlutverkasetur is at Borgatuni 1, above the language school, entrance by the sea side. The weekly timetable is posted on their facebook page.
We have the good fortune of living round the corner from Frú Lauga. It is described as a farmers’ market, which intrigued me as I’ve never heard the term used for a permanent shop before. But it seems to be the best word for it, or at least the most concise, otherwise you’d be calling this petite place ‘grocer – deli – bakery – butcher’, and you’d come expecting a supermarket sized affair.
It is the kind of shop that, despite it’s size, you could lose an hour in, pacing the three aisles and outer shelves, inspecting all the pots, jars, boxes, and bottles. My attention goes first to the fruit and vegetables piled in their cardboard boxes. I love snooping in grocers away from my home and seeing the difference in produce. Here there is lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, even sweet peppers from Iceland. The sweet peppers are red and small and along with the toms and cucs will have been grown in a greenhouse heated geothermally. Oh how I wish to go and visit one of them! In fact, I could gleefully visit each and every producer of the food in Frú Lauga, to observe, explore and draw. I might have to make some enquiries.
There are yellow tulips just opening, nestled in a bucket between pots of mint and basil-purple, green and greek it looked like! – and the crates of carrots. Purple-tinged fat bulbs of garlic. Compact hands of ginger from Peru that make your average piece look like it’s on steroids. Handwritten cardboard labels standing everywhere. It’s no surprise that the prices are more expensive here than in my usual supermarket. I don’t begrudge them that. You pay to know where your food has come from, to know in some cases that it hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, that it has supported local people with jobs, and kept local crafts and traditions alive. I am so happy that these shops exist, I only wish more people could access their offerings. But I am fairly sure the small enterprise shopkeeper can’t shoulder the burden of lowering their prices to meet the behemoth supermarkets. Whose shoulders, then, does the responsibility of increasing access to quality food fall on? I have no answers but this question is on my mind a lot.
I’d feel confident saying that generally, the kind of high quality produce on offer at Frú Lauga costs more to produce than mass market fare. There is less economy of scale, the ingredients are higher quality, the staff must be more skilled -and most definitely higher paid if it’s made in Iceland! – to produce it. I feel a bit embarrassed to admit this, in this post about the world’s dreamiest deli, but as an illustration, I bought honey yesterday in Bonus for 298 kr (£2.15). It’s labelled ‘a blend of EU and non-EU honey’. My mind boggles at that indication of the scale of production. In contrast, I remembered tasting a honey made in Iceland at the Harpa food fair a few weeks ago. It was creamy, strong and delicious, and Johann pointed out that it reminded him of the honey we ate in Shropshire over winter staying at Pam’s Pools, a wonderful permaculture site. Fierce tastes, particular to place. There were only a few jars left of a small yield, the maker (whose name I woefully forget) said. Winters are long in Iceland and the summers not so hot, affecting the hives. It is a challenging place to keep bees, but also a rewarding one, because of diverse wild flora and lack of disease. The bees that made my Bonus honey were more than likely plied with copious antibiotics. You can read a bit more about beekeeping in Iceland here, but I’ve digressed. I could talk about bees a lot but that will be another day. What I mean to say is; food has a real cost, and I respect the small makers needing to support themselves. At this stage in our travels -for which read, trying to save as much money as possible so that we can travel and learn for a significant time without working – we have to be content with looking and perhaps treating ourselves occasionally.
Stacks and stacks of jams, chutneys, sauces, preserves of all kinds line the shelves around the edges of the shop. I notice several brands I tasted at the Harpa food fair, so if you’re visiting and it’s not on, here is great place to come to explore artisan, local food. Sadly you can’t taste everything! There’s also a surprising range of foods from around Europe, that look like the best version of each thing. Italian flour in beautiful bags. Sicilian olive oil in a metal urn, I guess you can fill your own bottle, wonderful. Even if you aren’t that bothered about your food, you could merrily spend time admiring the packaging designs from all over. There’s bread, a large fridge of meat and fish, dairy products…the list goes on.
The shop is still owned by the same owners as before, but since one month ago is now being run by some friendly new people, who were happy to let me draw and have a chat. Thanks, Guðny! Frú Lauga is really close to the Laugardalur pool, so if you’re on holiday in Reykjavik and going for a swim and steam, you should pop in after and buy some treats for your friends and family and yourself. For remote admirers of nice food shops, you can have a taste of their vibe at the website frulaugu.is, and for regular updates with sweet pictures of produce follow them on facebook.
PS. I’ve just noticed it looks like there’s a cow through the window in my drawing. It is, in fact, a vinyl illustration looking out onto a car park.
I have reached a small milestone today, four weeks exactly since I boarded the plane swallowing my nerves. I would like to hold a small review, more so I can look back and see how my perceptions change over the year than for anything these.
I have moved from a mildly northern European country to a very northern European country, and as such the culture is not vastly different. It’s not a big deal. I tell myself this in attempts to shake myself out of wallowing in embarrassment when I get something ‘wrong’. Not knowing I have to take a ticket with a number at the post office, so cutting the queue inadvertently (cheap to revert to national stereotypes, but surely this is every British person’s nightmare). Focusing so hard on trying to decipher a question in Icelandic that I miss the fact that I’m being spoken to in English. Getting into the hottest hot tub at the swimming pool by mistake and slowly boiling for a noble two minutes rather than losing face in an instant retreat. These are small things.
Over time, you get used to how things work around you, wherever you are. Thinking is not necessary. A visit to the post office is a chore, not an experiment. I am far from attaining this stage here, and everything takes up space in my brain. It’s a very interesting state to be in, most of the time fascinating, but sometimes tiring. I go between these states.
I have felt so alive when walking along the cliffs in Keflavik, poring over porous rocks, studying how the plants of last season straggle on as skeletons. Sitting in bubbling, warm water with snow falling on my face. Tasting smoked lamb in the Harpa centre. Eating skyr and berries for pink princess breakfast. Going on evening walks with Johann and seeing the pale green wisps of Northern Lights dance briefly over the sea. Swimming outdoors, in wind, rain and sun.
On the other hand.
I have felt fatigue when sitting for hours scrolling ‘housing to rent’ facebook groups in a tongue I barely know, keeping a lookout for the few words I know to signal that it’s worth running the whole thing through Google Translate. The same experience, looking for jobs. Sometimes the uncertainty that makes things so exciting becomes too much and bursts its shell, becoming fear. I worry endlessly that we won’t find either of the above, but we have. Well, we have a place to live, and I just mangled my first job application, so it is a work in progress.
Yesterday I was feeling a bit anxious, waking up in our new place, not having met anyone else who lived there, feeling hungry, Johann at work. I got up the courage and set off for the shops. I walked a mile from our new home to Bonus, the cheapest supermarket. The way there required some effort, hood pulled close to my face against the cold, wet, windy weather, checking Google maps repeatedly to find the way, even though it was mostly main roads. Trying not to let too much rain get into the phone. I found it okay and enjoyed pushing my trolley round the supermarket putting in all the basics we wanted for the store cupboard. Choosing a trolley, not a basket, is a rookie mistake when you’re carrying the stuff home yourself. No surprise, my eyes were bigger than my muscles, and the journey back was a small farce. Walking into the wind, a rucksack full of tins and bulk quantities of things, two bags for life threatening to split with the weight of the shopping. Rain becoming sleet and I suspect hail. Soaked to the skin, though still warm in my coat; in fact, extremely warm. Too warm! Glasses showing not much through them, falling down my wet nose. Walking down the main road half fearing, half praying that a car would stop and offer me a lift, thinking – at what age does ‘don’t get into cars with strangers’ expire? Is it ever? This conundrum occupied my brain so much I failed to stick to the inner edge of the pavement and was a few times splashed with gritty water as cars passed. But at least I wasn’t forced to make a moral judgment on whether I should get in any of them.
This experience, though it wouldn’t kill me, is on paper vaguely miserable. But for some reason – perhaps the norse gods shone above the hail – at the time, it was okay. Funny, even. Infinitely better to be battling the elements on a busy road with my shopping perilously close to falling through the bottom of the bag, than to be curled up in my bedroom, worrying about what happens next. And it felt kind of like a small victory, and a sign that everything will be fine.
I shivered my key into the lock on our front door, shuffling in and shrugging off my sodden coat into a puddle on the floor, greeted by the raucous sounds of bingo. Our landlady had a friend and their grandchildren over, and she was instantly friendly and welcoming. We chatted over some white wine, in English and some attempts at the odd Icelandic phrase from me, she handed over the kitchen to us as she doesn’t cook (hooray! a kitchen!). When Johann got home from work it was quickly discovered that she is friends with one of his uncles, producing a model boat he made from tin. This kind of thing happens all the time. So often, there are reminders of how small Iceland’s population is (roughly the same size as that of Croydon). We made afghan eggs – I think I’m going to write a whole post about afghan eggs, but suffice to say it’s a warming, comforting food perfect for sharing with new friends in new places.
So, in conclusion, though I’m just living in another affluent Western country, and as such the culture shock is minimal, there’s so many little different things to take in every day that I feel like an explorer still. And there’s the knowing that we’re here for a relatively long time, after moving around a lot the past 7 months, that tinges everything with a weight. The desire to make connections, to work out how to be happy here, to learn. It’s exciting, daunting, interesting, and it’s fine. After moving around France, Wales, England; caravans, parents’ places, farms, friends: we have a place to settle for a while. I hope I can keep the spirit of exploring with me over the next few months.
Today is the first in what I hope will be an interesting series on local food. While we’re in Iceland, we will be looking at Icelandic food and drink, from traditional, artisan, niche tastes to contemporary food culture. When we set off on the next chapter of our travels across Europe, it will be nice for the focus to shift to wherever we are that week.
We’re starting with the humble goat. Háafell Goat Farm had a stand at the food market we went to a couple of weeks ago in Harpa, and wrote about in this post. We wander up to their stand, beady eyes looking for bits to taste, and are introduced to their stock, which starts with boiled goat and gets progressively more interesting. I feign interest in the boiled goat because my English sensibilities forbid me from ever being honest and saying: hmm, i don’t really fancy that. It was ok, surprisingly tender. Next up, goat salami. Full of flavour, now I’m intrigued. Beyond the meats are two types of cheese made from goats’ milk, one is feta swimming in oil, herbs and tomatoes. There is even ice cream, vanilla and chocolate, made from goats’ milk too, with none of the harshness I expect. There are lotions and hand creams made from tallow. Many yields from one source.
It feels to me that there is a respect for the animal when all parts are used, not just the most profitable cuts extracted and the rest dumped. It seems far from factory farming. I was surprised to read on the Grapevine that most meat produced in Iceland is produced under factory conditions. My surprise is, I think, due to two things. First, my rosy tinted new-country glasses, through which everything is wonderful. Second, Johann’s stories. His memories of sheep farming and horse-training tell of rugged animals, tough enough to survive the winter in the mountain. Of sheep that lamb without help. I think I will have to quiz him further on the matter. I guess things have changed.
But in other ways, they haven’t. Iceland has just one breed of each farm animal, directly descended from those the Vikings brought over on ships at the time of Settlement. One cow, smaller than usual, with much lower production of milk than British cows. One sheep; and of course one horse, the iconic, petite but strong Icelandic horse. The Icelandic goat is an endangered breed, the smallest in Europe. It’s very rare outside of Iceland, and pretty rare in Iceland too: it’s the only farm animal sponsored by the government to ensure its survival ($36 a goat as of 2014). When we were wwoofing in West Sussex, we walked past a neighbour’s smallholding. What are they? asks Johann, looking at the scattered animals grazing. Goats, obviously, I laugh. They are the most enormous goats I’ve ever seen! he says. To me, they just looked like your average goat. I hope I get a chance to go and visit Háafell sometime, to see what he means.
You can visit Háafell Goat Farm year round by agreement; though it’s main opening hours are in the tourist season, June 1st – August 31st, 1pm to 6pm. They say that most of their products are seasonal, handmade in small amounts and with no guarantee they’re always in stock. Háafell Goat Farm (Geitfjársetur Íslands, Háafelli) is north-east of Reykjavik: Háafell, 311 Borgarbyggð. You can follow their facebook page (in Icelandic, but cute pictures of goats that transcend language barriers). Website is geitur.is . There’s also a great, more-in detail, history of the goat farm here, which tells the story of their near collapse, and being saved by a crowdfunding campaign and a little help from Game of Thrones.
There we go, short and sweet like the goats themselves, our first Foodie Friday. I’d love to hear about any food tips for Iceland that I should investigate. What have you eaten here that’s special, or different to anywhere else? I’m thinking both traditional delicacies, and food you can get elsewhere that has its own particular customs here: ice cream, I’m looking at you.