Thursday, August 30, 2007

Nordnatur Day 1: In which I meet the group and pick a lot of blueberries

The group from the Nordnatur course arrived from Finland on Friday, and I met everyone on Saturday morning at the University of Akureyri (shlepping all my stuff, of course, since I officially moved out of my room when I left to join them). We spent the morning hearing some background about the oceanography of Iceland from Steingrímur Jónsson, who is one of the few (he said three) oceanographers in the country. It continually astounds me that there could really be so few oceanographers in Iceland – there are plenty of fisheries biologists, and everyone seems to know that studying the oceans is important, but apparently everyone wants to study the fish and nobody wants to study the water. As an intended future oceanographer (or at least as far as I know right now), I can’t quite understand.

We then headed off for the afternoon to the Akureyri to relax, which meant buying my first Icelandic beer at a café in town and then going swimming – a good way for me to start to get to know everyone.

After we were all clean and dry, we headed off to Hreiðar’s summerhouse in the valley of Barkáradalur about an hour outside Akureyri.

The last wooden bridge to the house is too rickety to cross with a full 14-passenger van, so we walked the last bit of the way to the house.

And here’s the house itself:

The valley is known as the home of Iceland’s most famous ghost, the Hidden People*, and lots of sheep and wild blueberries. I didn’t see any ghosts or hidden people, but I did see some sheep and a lot of blueberries.

A whole crew of us went out blueberry-picking out on the slope above the house, collecting as many as we could before it started to get cold and our fingers got numb.

You can eat the black berries too, but the seeds are bitter, and there were plenty of blueberries to last us not just that night but the next couple days too.

Here are Raisa, Teemo, and Laura, three of the Finns, picking berries against the backdrop of the mountains:

And container (an old ice cream container) filled with all the blueberries I didn’t eat while picking:

We made a barbeque dinner outside the house – roasted lamb, with salmon for me and the other non-meat-eater, along with baked potatoes and onions (I’d never seen onions baked like that before) and fresh-picked wild blueberries with sugar and cream for desert. Although I didn’t try it, the lamb was very popular. It seemed to bring out some of Esko’s caveman instincts as he gnawed on his bone....

And, though we didn’t cook it ourselves, Hreiðar brought out a salted sheep’s head so everyone could try “strange Icelandic food.”

Of course, the group finished it completely, even down to the eyes (and then, of course, asked whether Iceland has any real strange food…I’m not sure whether anyone actually got a hold of hakarl, the shark that has to rot to rid it of a toxin before being safe to eat and smells strongly of ammonia, but they didn’t think the minke whale meat was that strange either…crazy Nordic people). Some of them expected me to be grossed out by it (I guess vegetarians are assumed to find meat disgusting?) but I mostly find it ingenious that the Icelanders found ways to use all parts of their animals. Being so poor for most of the country’s history, they really had little choice.

*I first heard the story of the Hidden People (also known as elves) when I was in Iceland with the 5-college geology group last year, and like it too much to not retell it here:
When the world was young and Adam and Eve’s family was still the only family on earth, God would occasionally come to visit. This was, of course, a special occasion and the family was expected to look their best, freshly washed and wearing their nicest clothes. This was quite a task, for there were many children (they had, after all, been charged with population the whole world) and it generally fell to Eve to make sure they were all washed and presentable when God arrived. On one of these visits, try as she might, Eve wasn’t able to get the children ready in time and some were still in the bath when God arrived.
Eve hurried the rest outside and hoped that God wouldn’t notice that the rest were absent, telling them to stay inside where they were. But, being an omniscient God of course, the missing children did not go unnoticed. “Where are your other children?” God asked her.
“What other children?” Eve asked, panicking. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
God was not pleased with Eve’s dishonesty and thought to punish her, but not harshly, as – being omniscient and all – God knew that she had not meant any harm. “I know,” God said, “that the rest of your children are still in the bath, and that you meant to hide them from me. As you have tried to keep them hidden, so now shall they and all their descendents be hidden from the world.”
And so the children of Adam and Eve who had been hidden in the bath when God came to visit and all their children and children’s children have been hidden from the rest of the world, only to be seen when they choose to show themselves.

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