Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Akureyri, City of the North

I’ve been in Akureyri for a week now, and it’s starting to feel like home – I’m getting used to nights where it doesn’t actually get dark and showers that smell of sulfur. Some background about Akureyri: it’s the second-largest city in Iceland (after Reykjavík), but with only 16,700 residents, it’s still pretty small as cities go (about half the population of Amherst, MA). It’s situated at the end of the longest fjord on the island, Eyjafjörður, sandwiched between the fjord and the mountains, and is in an absolutely gorgeous location.

I took this picture from the small boat I’ve been going out on for the past two days (more on that later) while pulling out of the harbor, but it doesn’t really do the town justice.

When I go to town, I’ve been spending time in the Paris Café (which, though it looked recent and touristy to me was actually first opened in 1913 and sold textiles and groceries) and in the bookstore across the street. Both are good places to read and write – I’ve finished reading through my first batch of papers on cod and started on the Icelandic sagas. They’re also good places to find extra copies of Icelandic newspapers, which I’ve been perusing because the fishing quotas for next year were just announced and I’ve been looking for stories in the paper (not that I can read Icelandic, but among the words I know are “cod” and “fish” and “Marine Research Institute”).

I’m living slightly outside the center of town – about a 45 minute walk along the bike path, although only 5 minutes by car – in student housing for the University of Akureyri. It’s also on the other side of the river Glerá, so on my walk to the university (also where the Marine Research Institute branch here has its offices) or to town, I also cross the river. The bridge is right at the dam built in the early 20th century to generate hydroelectric power.

I took this picture from the bridge.

I spent most of last week getting my bearings – finding the MRI offices, finding the grocery stores, finding new paths to town – but I also tried to learn as much as I could about the area. Among the interesting things I found:

The most northerly botanical garden in the world, which had both Arctic and Icelandic flora among the more familiar species.

A very large soccer tournament, with one section for the younger children close to town and another for adults right across from where I live (there were a few women’s teams with the adults; I couldn’t tell whether there were any younger girls playing). It was a big event (even written up in some of the national newspapers), and everyone seemed to be having a good time both playing and cheering, although I don’t think anyone other than me was excited by how pretty a location for a tournament they had chosen.

I’ve wanted to learn more about Icelandic folk music for the past year, so I went to a concert/historical singing tour of Icelandic music, held in the Akureyri Museum Church (which, incidentally, was only moved to Akureyri from farther up the fjord in 1970, but is on the site of Akureyri’s oldest church, which was built in 1862). The performance was by an Icelandic couple, who sang music from early skaldic poetry and ballads through to songs from the 20th century.

Icelandic music was traditionally mostly vocal, since there wasn’t much wood to use to make instruments, and they maintained the parallel-fifths style of singing (think Gregorian chants) throughout their history, which gives it a distinctive sound. Unfortunately, there turns out not to be any Icelandic folk dancing – they still perform dance music, but they stopped doing the dances in the 1800s and now you have to go to the Faroe Islands to learn Icelandic folk dances. They also don’t seem to have a tradition of sea chanties in particular, although since almost everyone lived by the sea and many spent at least part of the year fishing, there are lots of songs about the sea and some sailor’s songs. And although they don’t have work songs, they did know one rowing song (Viking ships relied heavily on oarsmen) and said that rímur (rhymed poetry used to tell and retell long stories, performed in half-singing chant style that is somewhat reminiscent of chanties) were used to time rhythmic work both such as on a ship or even for sewing.

This Sunday was a special day on which Icelandic museums didn’t charge admission, so I particularly went to a lot of museums.

Both the Museum of Industry and the Akureyri Museum reminded me of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh – probably the combination of local specificity and the display of retail products (including lots and lots of fish products, advertised in Icelandic, Russian, English, and French). Akureyri didn’t become a major city until the mid-nineteenth century, when it grew as an industrial center due its location near productive agricultural areas. Industries in the area include everything from textiles (mainly wool) to dairy processing to ship building to (of course) fishing. Many of the companies and locations described I had already discovered in town, including Samherji, a fishing company I had learned about during the week by talking with the director of fishfarming at the company’s offices in town, and Netto, one of the grocery stores I’ve shopped at, which was opened in 1989 by the Eyjafjörður Cooperative Society, originally founded in 1886 by farmers who wanted to facilitate the sale of Icelandic sheep to England.

I also visited the homes of two Icelandic poets, Davíð Stefánsson and Rev. Matthías Jochumsson – admittedly, only partly because I was interested in seeing their homes and learning about their poetry and also partly because I had read that they were providing coffee and cakes to the public in honor of this special free-entrance day. At Davíð’s house (Davíðshús), they played a cassette of him reading his own poetry which, although I couldn’t understand, had an entrancing rhythm and rhyme pattern, and I spent a while standing in his living room (historical preservation in Iceland apparently allows for using the house, which although I find unusual, is kind of nice – makes the house feel more like a house that real people once lived in) drinking coffee and eating kringla (an Icelandic pastry) and listening. Matthías wrote, among many things (he was Iceland’s most prolific poet), many of the psalms included in the church services here – enough to merit immortalizing him on the stained-glass in the Akureyri Church.

The highlight of visiting his house, though, were the waffles, served with jam and whipped cream.

Last stop of the museum round was at the Akureyri Church, the architectural centerpiece of the town, for an organ concert in an every-Sunday series for the month of July and – which I found much more interesting – an Icelandic church service.

I find Iceland’s religious history particularly fascinating because I think it is the only country where they officially recognized that converting was a matter of political convenience and all decided to convert en masse on those grounds – first to Christianity, and then to Protestantism – and today over 85% of the country belongs to the official Church of Iceland (although apparently most do not attend church regularly). The service was all in Icelandic, and I haven’t even quite mastered enough to catch the page numbers to follow along for the psalms everyone sang, but the soprano and the acoustic guitar player who lead the singing were worth listening to even without understanding (simpler and more my taste than organ music), and I could at least identify major parts of the service. At the end, the priest invited everyone to come up and be blessed and even made a point of repeating the invitation in English for the non-Icelanders (there were a few of us, and since it was a small crowd and he obviously knew everyone, we were easy to pick out), so I was blessed in Icelandic by a Lutheran priest.

This week I’ve been going out on the Marine Research Institute’s small research boat, helping with a study of jellyfish populations in Iceland. Although initially this doesn’t sound terribly cod-related, the funding for the study comes from aquaculture companies who grow cod in sea pens that are being clogged by jellyfish, killing the fish in the pens. So, like everything in Iceland, it all comes back to the cod.

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