Sunday, August 5, 2007

Life at Sea

There’s a lot of free time on a ship – not necessarily in large chunks of time, but lots of little bits between sampling sites and in the evenings. Since the lounge has both the television system that receives satellite channels even when far out at sea and the kitchen (with coffee and snacks, and a regular flow of meals served in the lounge), everyone tends to congregate there during free time.

Not terribly good pictures, but here’s some of the crew sitting in the lounge (as you can see, reading the same newspaper that we’ve had for five days – there’s not really so much to keep occupied with):

And here’s the dining room side of the lounge, with some of the crew serving themselves dinner:

Over the course of the survey, I read about 500 pages of Icelandic sagas (some of the crew found the English translations of the names amusing – it’s too bad I can’t read in the original Icelandic), finished knitting my first pair of socks and a new hat, learned a modified version of the card game Casino my grandparents taught me years ago (apparently a regular favorite on this ship), watched quite a number of American movies, and still had a lot of free time to just to talk and wander around the ship.

A number of people have pulled out the atlas to have me show them where I’m from in the US (they nod when I say Pennsylvania, but I think it’s usually the “I think I’ve heard that name before…” nod). When I point out Amherst after showing them Pittsburgh, they inevitably notice Springfield to the south and say something about that being where the Simpsons are from. American television, for better or worse, really is everywhere. (Also American music – everything from Billie Holliday to Metallica to Paul Robeson to deep-south-style country.)

A lot of the American influence is also a result of sixty years of American presence in the country – there was a NATO base in Keflavik from World War II until just a few years ago (presumably when the US finally realized that the Cold War was over and there was no reason to have the army in Iceland). It was a pretty big subject of controversy while the base was here, since some people thought it was a good idea to keep it and others were very opposed, but the major legacy now seems to be a glut of bad American TV shows and movies, which I saw far more of here than I normally would have watched over the course of two weeks at home. One of the scientists jokingly asked me whether American housewives were anything like the women on Desperate Housewives – certainly he knew the answer was no, but it’s strange to realize that this sort of bad television, along with war in Iraq and the politics of George W. Bush, is what much of the world knows of the United States.

Separate from the American shows though, listening to or watching Icelandic news is very interesting, even though I can only understand small portions. Sometimes they interview someone who speaks English and then I can follow; the rest of the time I just listen for phrases or watch the picture to see what I can figure out. News about the release of Harry Potter, for instance, is easy to catch on to, and has been a common topic of conversation among the crew here too. One of the news stories was also a striking reminder of how small Iceland’s population really is: the news devoted a few minutes to an interview with an American man whose Icelandic wife had been expelled from America for some crime (I missed the details), and they wanted to know whether he would allow their children to go visit her in Iceland. It was a very pointed and somewhat awkward interview, and it seemed striking that this was significant news in Iceland while I’d doubt it made it past the crimelog of a local newspaper in the US.

Meals are also an important and frequent occurrence on the ship. Having discovered that I wasn’t eating meat, a number of members of the crew (particularly Skuli, the lead scientist) took it upon themselves to ensure that I got enough to eat. Since I wasn’t doing any significant physical work and there was a large amount of food available all the time, I wasn’t in much danger of being underfed, but it was very sweet of them to take care of me. Apparently the food served aboard the ship is typical of what Icelanders tended to eat forty years ago – considerably less healthy, they say, than what they tend to make at home now. Among the Icelandic dishes were homemade bread, chocolate soup, waffles and thin pancakes eaten with whipped cream and jam, rice pudding, and of course fresh fish from our catches cooked in all imaginable ways.

We were also very lucky to have mostly calm, sunny weather throughout the trip, a rarity even in the summer here, so I also was able to spend a lot of time on deck just watching the seagulls and the ocean. (Makes me realize how rough it must be to sail in Iceland in winter storms – one of the sailors said he once was out on a trip fishing where they were gone for 56 days in the middle of winter, with only a tiny amount of light each day for an hour at noon.) There’s no way to capture in a picture just how gorgeous it is to be out at sea, both along the coast watching the mountains in the distance and farther out with no land in sight and just ocean all the way to the horizon, but here’s an example:


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