Seasons

We have come full circle. Though we haven’t been in Iceland for a whole year, during our time here we’ve been through all four seasons. At the start of March we arrived in snow and next week, the end of November, we will leave in snow again. I have a lot of stories and pictures I’d love to share, to put a beautiful bookend to this icy sojourn, but I am going to be realistic – it’s unlikely I’ll get them written this weekend when packing is yet to begin. So, here is the place I would most like to share now as it forms a review of sorts of the whole year. The botanical gardens in their spring, summer, autumn and winter clothes.

Winter

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I saw the gardens first stripped of their own colour and lent blue by the sky. They seemed smaller than the name suggested: when I think botanical gardens I think Kew. Acres of glasshouse and border and collection. Reykjavik Botanical Gardens sit within Laugardalur, a park which also includes a swimming pool, the sports stadium and a concert hall. You won’t get exhausted walking from one end to the other. But their size didn’t matter. As I scanned the ground for labels I found many familiar names: Sorbus, Larix, Betula, Hellebore, Hosta, Hebe, Camassia, Crocus, Papaver… the trees were bare and to my rusty plant-identifying mind pretty indistinguishable. Some of the plants and bulbs named showed no trace, just a small white plaque in icy ground. So in winter the ponds sung the most, doubling everything, bringing the sky to my feet.

Spring

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There is not much to spring in Iceland, not in the city at least. It’s possible that my foreign gaze failed to pick up the subtler signs. I missed the progression of home enormously. The snowdrops giving way to crocuses making space for daffodils by which time pink and white blossom is festooned across cherries and hawthorns. The white flowers that bloom on Magnolia stellata, first of the Magnolias. It is slightly unfair to say I missed all these because to give Reykjavik credit there were snowdrops lining the paths through the park, then there were a few crocuses in decorative array, and daffodils finally. But it all took so goddamned long. Perhaps six weeks longer. And no blossom. When we left London at the beginning of March the snowdrops were fading and crocuses in full swing and even the very first few daffodils in bud. It was like being plunged back in time. Winter reigned here until mid-May. In my impatience to settle in I mourned the flowers I couldn’t wait for. And yet there were some gems in the gardens that I was grateful for. The Camassias in the photo above, which I love and have never seen a pale blue version of. And then this Daphne with the amazing strong scent, reminding me of Daphne the family dog (she smells quite nice but not as good as the plant).IMG_20170415_111217981

The rhododendron buds that survived the winter – you can see a picture of them as they are now in my last post – hunkering down for the long cold. The slivers of hot pink. Delightful.IMG_20170415_111038570

In the small glasshouse which houses a cafe in the summer months, a selection of favourites thrive against all the odds. As if by magic you can step in from the snow and smell immediately the Mexican orange blossom of the Choisya below. Plus wisteria and clematis, all flowering all powerfully bringing me home. Proustian plants.

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Summer

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The path is typical of the exuberance shown by all who make their lives here when summer finally comes. Months of dark and cold turn fairly rapidly to light, so much light, people race to the swimming pool to bask every hour they can and crowd the sunniest spots. Buttercups bloom abundantly across fields. The lupins, kept very definitely out of the botanical gardens (here they are an invasive species), turn the roadsides blue. Pots of pansies on windowsills produce more flowers then I’ve ever seen outside of an intensively-farmed bedding nursery. The botanical gardens are glorious and my pictures of this special season don’t do it justice.IMG_20170624_103544600

Here is the rock garden. Healthy spreads of alpine plants show that conditions here are ideal for them and a far cry from the anaemic rock gardens, mostly rock with spots of plant, of England.That might be a bit unfair but still I’ve never seen so many flowers and so much colour sandwiched in great slabs of stone. It is my favourite part of the garden, a world in miniature with a new discovery behind every rock, varieties and species I’ve never seen before from familiar groups – here this neon geum and campanula are shining stars. IMG_20170624_104151099IMG_20170624_102826319Beyond the rock garden is an understated zone where herbaceous perennials are shown off. It’s hard to believe they make it here. Each bed contains a variety of examples from a couple of species. Surprises – irises, thalictrums, delphiniums. It feels like the gardeners are desperately saying, look what we can do here! I don’t see many of these plants outside the confines of this garden. But perhaps it takes an awful lot of nurturing or perhaps Icelanders are not inclined to primp their front gardens or maybe they’re sick of seeing a prize hollyhock shredded by wind. Anyway, this tucked away place reminds me of visiting nurseries in the West of Scotland that produce sub-tropical beauties you don’t expect; it’s the same lush delight to find it here. IMG_20170624_110853757IMG_20170624_111206202IMG_20170624_111057916

Autumn

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We were treated with a longer-than-usual autumn this year, I’m told. IMG_20170930_111635504IMG_20171004_152834820IMG_20171004_153018153IMG_20171004_153038120

 Sorbus (Rowans) were the first trees beyond oaks, birches, chestnuts and beeches that I learned to identify (top tip: most branches end in one single leaf after pairs of opposite leaves along). There are many of them in the park and in autumn they come into their own. Berries yellow to red, leaves going up in flames, in succession because of the great number of varieties here. Rowans go unnoticed in summer but appear everywhere when the berries ripen and signal the beginning of the end. 

Autumn is not getting its full dues here because I’m now rushing to get this post posted. We fly to London in four hours time to start a new adventure. One that was not our original plan, but an opportunity that fell into our laps and gives us something we thought might take a few years to find: the chance to settle somewhere with meaningful work on a smallholding, time to work other garden and diy jobs and make things, and space for a few fruit trees of our own. It doesn’t look exactly how we pictured it- we will be working for someone else rather than owning a house or land- but we are hoping it fulfils the spirit of what we were looking for. It is not a dry acre in Portugal but a house in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England and a job at an amazing self-sufficiency, permaculture, nature reserve that we wwoofed at last December. More on that later. Over and out Iceland, you’ve been a pleasure and a pain, a learning experience that I am so fortunate to have had. I’ve had the joy of meeting Joi’s family and seeing the land he grew up in. I’ve missed my own family and friends deeply and look forward to reconnecting. So long for now! 

A true winter wonderland

SONY DSCIt seems appropriate that before that last of the snow is trodden into slush, I will share these photos I took on Friday, the first fresh morning of carpeted white. Though several of these pictures have a decidedly blue shadow cast over them. I could really do with some photo editing skills, I should get Johann to teach me some tricks. I dallied with altered the levels and saturation but I can’t do a good job so for now they come to you as raw and blue as I took them.

We are taking a walk to and through the botanical gardens. They are just twenty minutes walk from our flat and have been a source of pleasure since we moved here in April. Soon I’m going to put together a review of the gardens through the seasons, as I have more photos of them than anything else here in Iceland (brace yourselves). For now we will stay in one snowy morning. The path I take sneaks along the side of the hostel and into the park. It’s an arched tunnel of joy through which it’s possible to glimpse the spire of Hallgrimskirkja. If I were a better photographer you would be glimpsing it in focus and not over-exposed. Just imagine it sharp through the maze of frosted branches. It was a glorious sight. To have the familiar transformed, that is the wonder of snow.

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The sun begins to shift onto the tops of trees and through narrow passageways. It rises later than I have ever experienced, on this particular day at 9.37 to be precise. The sun is above the horizon by then but the gloaming persists and it’s later still before it really feels like daytime.

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We reach the gardens now. We are greeted by this first in the series of ponds, frozen solid, reflecting pink dawn. The edges seem unclear and I stay away fearing I’ll slip in. There is no-one else here at this hour who would hear my screams. The only sound the creaking of compacting snow beneath my boots.

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The church picked out in the glow is a stairway to heaven, or perhaps a steep slide from grace.

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For once there is no wind and the snow is free to cling in thick layers on the littlest of twigs.

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It is a thrill (maybe only to the botanically minded) to see the buds of rhododendrons already. They hold the promise of spring within them and it seems incredible that they can withstand this winter to bloom their vivid red, months and months away. Just hold on, they whisper to me, this too shall pass. But today I am not eager for the season to pass because it is beautiful and calm and strange.

In the garden already intricate scenes crystallise and edges multiply. It reminds me of a visit to the silver vaults in London: curlicue and flourish on filigree limbs packed close and bearing down on you. Here the bite of cold air and views through rescue you from the discomfort of a small space crammed with detail.

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The rock garden is my favourite part of the garden and it is transformed by the soft drifting curves. A jagged mountainscape becoming pillowy, undulating, soft. The skeletons of the alpine plants persist here and there supporting an impossible weight of snow. How can it be so beautiful!?

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It’s time to go home, I haven’t worn these boots since last winter and the heels are rubbing painfully. As a parting shot the sun hauls itself over the far side of the park and lights up whole bodies of trees. This snow was a gift I didn’t expect. It rarely settles here before Christmas, so I’m told. It’s good to feel this rush of affection and to look with fresh eyes on the same old sights because we are leaving soon; a story for another day.

 

 

Seeking patience and the whole truth

So, living in Iceland, four months in. A watched pot never boils. Waiting to feel settled and at ease feels like waiting for your hair to grow, tugging expectantly at the ends everyday: for a long time, things don’t seem to change at all. Then sometime later you look up into a mirror, brushing your teeth, scrambling to be ready in time for whatever it is next: and notice that your hair has somehow shot past your shoulders and reaches down your back. Wasn’t it just yesterday barely long enough to tie back? So it is, here.

At first I had acres of time to fill up, with wandering and drawing and writing and thinking. Nowhere particular to be; no threads. My feet didn’t know my way home. Still a stranger in a strange land. I was on the outside looking in to this city with so much going on. Yet I was so eager to build a life here, I wanted everything at once: friends, a job, a favourite café, the whole tapestry. But I have had to weather my haste.

It took four weeks to find a place to live in the city. It took six weeks to find my job. Oh it sounds so little time now, in retrospect! But days stretched with uncertainty, with ‘maybe I’ll never make friends’, with ‘what if I can’t find a job’, with the creeping underlying worst doubt of all ‘maybe I’m too old, too sad and too tired to start from scratch’. Over the top, but there you go. That’s worrying for you.

A treat when delivering things from one cafe to the other branch

Then, after two months, I found I had enough threads to begin to weave together. I go to wonderful, challenging, nurturing yoga classes three times a week (which started as a perfect birthday present from Jóhann). I navigate the city enough to get where I need to go without checking my phone every thirty seconds. I go to work, I stumble over the same Icelandic phrases everyday, I know the recipes by heart and the quirks of the equipment: the sieve that leaks from the handle at a certain angle, food processor with lid that needs a little help to close. I know where tea and skyr and pesto are in the supermarket. I rack up library fines like always (bad habits don’t get left at the airport, unfortunately). I sleepwalk through the changing rooms at the swimming pool and am in my favourite hot pot before I know it. These routines, the paths I tread everyday grow like a cocoon around me. I am home, now.

And it seems that when I got busy working full-time, and going to yoga after work, and taking a trip out of the city at weekends to see nature, and so on, I stopped thinking so much about whether I would ever feel at home. And I just did.

On the road to Akranes

Acceptance of what is. Patience. Letting go of worrying. Lessons I learn and forget over and over again. Sometimes I rage at myself for making the same mistakes repeatedly, but my wise one reminded me once that when I learned to ride a bike, I most likely fell a lot of times. So every time I fall I get back on the saddle and one day, without even noticing it, I will just keep on going.
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In a perfect example of the tyranny of perfection, I wrote this post six weeks ago aiming to post it as a four months on review. But I thought I needed a drawing to go with it and I never got around to doing one, so the words were left by the wayside. I think that I will try and take my own advice: I will accept that to keep this blog going, I cannot wait around for the time and inclination to write the best words and make the best pictures I can. Because the expectations I have of myself get bigger and bigger in the meantime and then I can never meet them, and so another project is left in the dust.

So I return to this post. What I wrote for four months stays true for six months. I will add a little more. I have my moments of wailing ‘I want to go home!’ but more often than not I find my heartbeat slowed, and a calm feeling of familiarity here. I start to feel fond of Reykjavik. Fond; it feels almost like a sense of nostalgia for something that is still in existence. Perhaps in my heart I anticipate that I will leave in the not too far future, so I guard myself from a fatal head-over-heels tumble for the city. I feel affection for Reykjavik, not the zealous crush of a tourist, not love at first sight, but an amicable balance. I rather enjoy my walks to Sandholt bakery to pick up bread for work, I enjoy them even more when I go first thing and the streets are mine. I like hearing the relentless creak of the neighbourhood trampolines and the distant squeaks of children making the most of the summer sun. I like having a library card and wandering round the fleamarket on a Sunday and the routines of the swimming pool: card beeping at the turnstile, yellow rubber wristband opening locker with a click. I even like the showers where washing naked in the company of women of all ages and shapes and colours has become for me an unexpectedly affirming, relaxing and positive act. To undress and shower in a communal space is to say silently, I have nothing to hide, my body is acceptable, I am valid and the more I say it with actions, the more I believe it. Practice.

But let us be brutally honest, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the veneer effect of sharing things via social media and this blog and even in conversation too. Life seems all very wonderful on Instagram and I have had some time off sharing things on it because I became aware of a growing disconnect between what I posted and the totality of my experience. Not to negate what I have posted there, the coffees and sunsets and rhubarb and waterfalls, that all happened and is true, but I am guilty of editing. I tell the truth but it is not the whole truth. I make rhubarb tarts and custard-based ice cream and dandelion green pesto at work and then I plod home and I cannot face cooking anymore, cannot even face being in the kitchen where I might have to interact with other humans. Johann picks up the slack, all the time, makes dinner and washes up and brings me tea and porridge in the morning. Maybe we get a pizza. Maybe I spend all evening pondering the meaning of life and work myself up into a black hole and feel utterly despondent and lost and hopeless – and then, hey, I get up in the morning, feel a little silly for being so catastrophic the night before, go to work, and take a picture of the swirls I make on my latte. Who am I cheating with this narrative? EVERYONE. Myself, because I am hiding the sad and bad and mad aspects of my life and in doing so I am unwittingly telling myself and everyone else that it is unacceptable to feel sad and bad and mad. But it is okay. This practice of hiding the negative aspects of my life and showing only the sunny side of myself is not in keeping with my swimming pool shower revelations. It seems that as in yoga, I learn first with my body and it provides the gateway to learn with my mind. Or do away with the thinking mind altogether, perhaps.

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Normal me

Moving to another country does not mean leaving your issues behind, though it might feel that way at first. They are written over with novelty and might take a few months to appear. Then the same old patterns emerge. I have struggled with my mental health, wellbeing, equilibrium, whatever you like to call it, this whole year, since Calais broke my running streak of ‘good times’. In fact, I would consider that this year marks the second round (ding ding ding) of depression for me. It’s something that I could have expected, I think it’s commonly held that people who have one major depressive episode (2014-2015, holla) in their lives will be likely to have another one. To cut a long story short last time around I dropped everything and thanks to the incredibly loving and generous support of my family and large dollop of luck I was able to concentrate only on getting better- figuring out what that meant for me. There was swathes of time to simply learn to ‘be’ without the usual pressures of everyday life: work, a social life, a relationship.

This time around I am trying to do things differently. For the past six months I have been finding a home in a new country, attempting to make new friends, working full-time in a different job, and building a strong relationship with the one I intend on sticking with (aforementioned porridge-bringer). I have simultaneously been attempting to find my way out of depression and anxiety and back to full health again. Progress is slower and at many times seems non-existent. However, I have an inkling that recovering this way will give me even greater resilience;  I will have learnt how to nurture myself whilst keeping a foot in the maelstrom of everyday life, rather than needing to drop everything and hibernate.

A moment of beauty at the sea near our house. May I always have eyes for them.

So now I have aired all my laundry (metaphorically only, of course it’s all in a heap on the floor) I will sign off. I am intending to post some photos and words soon about some nice things that have happened this summer – funny that acknowledging the rubbish times makes me feel happier and more ready to share the good too. Honesty is the best policy. It’s hard to find the right words to talk about these things but I feel that it’s important to try so I will keep trying. Thanks for reading if any eyes make it this far 🙂

 

Foodie Friday: exploring priorities

I’ve been thinking about priorities a lot this week, as it has become apparent that I don’t really make any. This came to light after writing last Sunday’s belated Foodie Friday post. I sat down for dinner with Johann, chef of the day, and he asked how the writing was going. I grumbled that it was almost finished, but I was feeling frustrated that I’d spent a couple of hours on it and so didn’t get other things done that I wanted to. As I explained this, it dawned on me how ridiculous a thought that is. I had just achieved a task I wasn’t sure I’d manage, and all I could think of, instantly, was everything else I hadn’t yet done. Change is needed.

Johann explained the radical idea of priorities to me. That you can set yourself the single, most important goal, and then work out if everything else you want to do works towards it or not. And prioritise the activities that lead to the goal. Crucially, the second step is to get rid of the guilt over not doing anything or doing the ‘wrong’ things.

Musing on this is helpful to me, and the concept has overlapped with our thoughts about food this week too. We went to see a brilliant documentary called A Quest For Meaning last week, in which two French men go on a journey to find out how to live. Ok, that summation makes it sound a bit terrible, but it covered some really cool ground, they spoke to some very inspirational figures and it had an impact on us.

One super cool amazing person I need to research more is Vandana Shiva. She said something that’s rattled round my mind ever since: that we can buy cheap food, but we are not paying the true cost. I take this to mean: the true cost of industrial agriculture is paid by the earth, and by workers, and with our health. Someone, or something, else is paying for our choices while we save money.

This made us revisit what I vowed in a previous post: that we are saving money by buying cheap low quality food now, in order to make a difference later. Reconsidering this means deciding to begin to stop shifting the cost and responsibility, and start prioritising organic, local food. I begin to think we have a responsibility to accept nothing less than good quality organic food, and to see cheap meat, cheap dairy, cheap, processed anything as unacceptable. Surely we can find other areas to economise in (I think of my trips to the ice cream shop and gulp in fear).

So, this week we have bought some dried organic kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, some organic versions of things we already buy. It’s by no means a total transformation, we are rather dipping our toes in and changing a few products at a time. But it feels good to decide that good food is a priority now, not later.

In the spirit of priorities I am also writing this in my lunch break at work, which accounts for any dodgy sentences I haven’t had time to proof. I’ve worked all week, we have family and friends visiting today – hooray! So I know this is my only time, and I want to stick writing, so I am trying to take little snippets of time.

Priorities also means today making fresh pizzas for all the staff at work. Such a good Friday tradition, that stretches my ability to coordinate all my other jobs but is so worth the effort.

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Time to go back and roll out some dough. Maybe next week I’ll have time for some drawing and a proper review of something food related! Happy weekend.

Foodie Fridays: okay, it’s Sunday, but here’s a catch up anyway

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.

 

 

 

Settling

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.
 

*Coffee on the brain, clearly

What makes a place home?

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.

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Art room at Hlutverkasetur

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.

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Jói in our room, after some dweeb did all the washing when there was no space on the drying line.

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 and 17:00 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.

 

Foodie Fridays – Frú Lauga, shop of dreams

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.