Moss and Moonscapes

Iceland has a lot of dramatic scenery. That’s kind of the point of Iceland. Glaciers, volcanoes, cliffs and waterfalls; all lovely.

But I actually found myself enjoying more some of the quieter, more subtle landscapes.

For example at one point driving through the hills near Möðrudalur we stopped for a breather in a relatively featureless, desolate spot.
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The view across the plains, in the direction of our accommodation for that night.

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Barely any life to be seen.

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A verdant moss haze filled nooks and crannies.

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Another favourite spot was Mýrdalssandur, on the south coast. Miles of flat plains; we had been warned by a friend that this was likely to be the most boring part of our tour. I loved it.

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Immense lava fields covered with sparse vegetation. Mossy hummocks as far as the eye could see.

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This was the bit of Iceland I’ll remember. Not so dramatic perhaps, but unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

More photos on flickr.

#senses, #travel, #weather

Water in Iceland

There’s a lot of water in Iceland and it comes in many shapes and forms. Not just the cold, hard kind implied by the country’s name.

For example, if you’re into waterfalls, you’ve come to the right place. Gullfoss, part of the Golden Circle series of natural attractions just east of Reykjavik, is a pretty spectacular double waterfall.

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There’s a very flimsy rope barrier keeping those people from plummeting to their doom.

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Sometimes it’s hard to decide which are more hypnotically compelling: the gushing torrents or the veils of drifting mist.

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Along the south coast you’ll find another couple of beauties. First, Skogafoss.

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And then Seljalandsfoss, which treated us to a rainbow. And you’ve probably worked out by now that “foss” means “falls”.

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Seljalandsfoss’ USP is that you can walk around and behind the falling water.

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Well that’s all very pretty and delicate, I hear you say, but I want a big, thunderous, Monster Truck style of waterfall. Where do I go for that? You go north, I reply. You go to Dettifoss.

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Dettimoss.

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You may remember this particular cascade from the opening scene of the movie Prometheus. It’s the largest waterfall in Europe in terms of “volume discharge”.

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So that’s the falling water, but what about water that shoots up into the air? Iceland’s got that covered too. Another stop in the Golden Circle tour is Geysir, home of the original geyser. Unfortunately the original geyser no longer works, allegedly because too many tourists threw stones into it over the years, blocking it up. But fear not, because just alongside it is Strokkur, which provides a satisfyingly big, loud, hot spurt every ten minutes or so.

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But of course, it’s called Iceland for a reason. So here’s some ice.

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These are fragments of glacier which have broken off and are floating in a lagoon called Jökulsárlón. Eventually they drift out to sea to be consumed by the waves.
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Black striations are caused by volcanic ash.

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Speaking of waves, we saw some dramatic ones on the Snaefellsnes peninsula over on the west coast.

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Loads more photos here.

#science, #travel, #weather

Foxes and Whales

I didn’t expect to see much wildlife in Iceland. In fact there’s only one indigenous mammal and a few bird species on the island itself, and I was pretty sure that the arctic fox was far too reclusive and man-fearing a creature to ever show its face to tourists. Imagine my surprise then when one evening, after enjoying a bowl of moss soup in the guesthouse where we were staying, I came outside to see what looked very much like a fox cub. We only saw it for a few seconds before it scurried away to hide, but it was there again the next morning at breakfast and it let us get surprisingly close.

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In fact that morning there were two of them. They’re obviously used to being around humans (and the guesthouse kitchen, hoping for scraps). And in case you’re wondering, yes their fur goes white in the winter, and turns grey in the summer.

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Hello.

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The main avian attraction is the puffin, but these were particularly hard to photograph as their nesting areas on the cliffs are fenced off, although that didn’t stop some idiots climbing over the fences and trying to get closer. In fact it amazed me how often people disregarded the signs and stomped across areas of delicate vegetation.

But we had better luck with the marine mammals. We stopped in the former whaling town of Húsavík from where it was possible to get on a boat and spend three hours off the northern coast of Iceland hoping to see cetaceans.

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We weren’t the only ones out that day. In this shot there’s something lurking in the space between the two boats.

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Two humpbacked somethings, in fact.

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In this shot you might just be able to make out a light area at right. There’s something even more tantalising and evocative about seeing them through the water like this than when they break the surface.

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Deep breath.

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We saw them on and off over the course of about an hour. There wasn’t much else about other than the occasional puffin.

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And then finally we saw what we’d been waiting for: the iconic whale sight of tail flukes as they went for a deeper dive.

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#travel

The Book Of Memory

Sterling Books in Brussels (website, facebook) is one of my favourite places to acquire new books. They have a great selection and friendly, helpful staff, and are perfectly located in the centre of the city. The only thing that could make them any better is if they were to give me free books.

And then one day they did. They posted a photo on their Facebook page of a pile of new novels, with the caption:

“Do you like reviewing books? Do you have a blog dedicated to it?
Then we have just the thing for you!
Here at Sterling we get more review copies than we have time to read and it’s sad to leave them here unread, screaming for attention. (It’s really distracting.)
These review copies are free to a good home, under a few simple conditions:

  • Mention (and link to) our Facebook page in your review
  • Let us know when the review is up, so we can hear your thoughts and link to your review”

I took a look at the pile of books and after a little research made my choice, and went in to collect my freebie (plus one for my wife). I chose The Book Of Memory by Petina Gappah, a new writer from Zimbabwe, only a year older than myself. Her first book, a collection of short stories called “An Elegy For Easterly” won her much acclaim and several prizes including the Guardian First Book Award.

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The Book Of Memory tells the story of an Zimbabwean woman called Memory whose parents sold her to a white man when she was nine. She relates her tale in flashback as she sits in prison, having been convicted of the same white man’s murder. I won’t spoil any more of the story (personally I’m not interested in book reviews which discuss the plot in too much detail) other than to say that we do finally get some answers to the main mysteries: why did Memory’s parents give her away, and how did the white man, Lloyd, really die?

But this is not a murder mystery or a thriller. It’s a story about identity and belonging, and how various characters, for various reasons, are marginalised by society. Memory is an albino, meaning that rather than play out in the blistering heat of the sun all day she prefers to stay indoors and read books or retreat into her own imagination. She becomes educated and has little time for the witchcraft and superstition so fervently believed in by many of her compatriots. She’s witty and thoughtful, generally a fun and stimulating character with whom you’re happy to spend time. Her story splits almost equally between childhood memories and present day descriptions of life in the women’s prison where she’s being held. Both are described equally vividly, with telling details such as sounds and smells.

But finally this is a surprisingly mature story about acceptance, both of yourself and of your circumstances, and about the sometimes futile search for “meaning” in life. It’s a very impressive novel and I expect to hear a lot more about Petina Gappah in the future.

#books

Barcelona: Three restaurants

We recently spent a gastronomic weekend in Barcelona (big thanks to the grandparents who volunteered to keep the kids while we crossed the continent to stuff our faces). This was prompted by the fact that we managed to secure a table at Tickets (more on that later) and so we planned the whole weekend based around that. Now, I’ve mentioned before that, as much as I still enjoy these dining excursions, I’m losing interest in photographing and documenting them. Pointing my camera at my plate is starting to get in the way of my enjoyment of the meal and writing up a report about it afterwards feels like a chore. I wasn’t intending to do any of that on this trip. I did end up taking some shots but I think it’ll probably be the last time.

I’ve also, in order to save space, combined three restaurants in one post and just shown some highlights from each rather than an exhaustive list of everything we ate.

We arrived on Friday and had a spot of lunch in Barcelona’s amazing Boqueria market. Dinner that evening was at Pakta; one of a range of new bars and restaurants (known collectively as “El Barri“) owned and managed by the Adrià brothers of El Bulli fame. Pakta offers “Nikkei” cuisine which the website explains thus:

“The term Nikkei is used to refer to emigrants of Japanese origin and their descendants. Peru was the first South American country to have a diplomatic relationship with the Empire of Japan in 1873, and also the first to receive Japanese workers. In the mid 80’s the name was used as a reference for all Japanese cuisine that is prepared outside Japan using indigenous products, however, for most, the term has been accepted and defined as a mixture of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine, that combines the tastes and techniques of both cultures.”

We arrived at 7pm, just as they opened.

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It’s pretty small but cosy.

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Here’s our full menu. There were only two menus offered and no à la carte option. We chose the shorter of the two because this one already looked like quite enough, and the other had basically the same stuff but with a few extra dishes like sea snail and t-bone steak.

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This is the first dish described above: the “honzen ryori”. The cherry in the centre, dipped in kimchi, was pretty good.

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Tuna tartare with crispy nori:

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These are mini “causas“, which are essentially mashed potato filled with meat or fish. Very moreish.

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Xiaolongbao, which is a kind of Chinese steamed dumpling. These were filled with suckling pig and once popped in the mouth they just dissolved/melted/exploded, filling your mouth with fatty porky deliciousness.

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Fried fish.

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Dessert selection. One of the sticks is edible. Can you guess which one?

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Everything was delicious, and although we were full by the end we did wonder whether we should have gone for the longer menu just so that we could have tried everything. It’s also made me keen to seek out some genuine Peruvian cuisine, especially if we can find some more traditional causas.

The next day we had lunch at Tickets, which is just around the corner from Pakta. Tickets is basically a tapas bar, albeit a fairly fancy one which you have to book months in advance, so you’re unlikely to just pop in for a glass of wine and some patatas bravas. The decor is fun and circus-themed.

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We had a seat at the bar facing the kitchen.

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Tickets tapas tongs. Available to buy for €12.

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We could have chosen individual dishes but ended up letting them choose a selection of 15 for us. First was a famous one previously served at El Bulli: gel spheres containing olive, cinnamon oil, black pepper and lemon.

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This one had probably the weirdest presentation. It’s basically a cherry with a foam “beard” of lime and kimchi powder. You had to use the little scissors hanging on the lower branch to snip the cherry off and eat it whole before the foam dripped everywhere. Nice, but maybe a little too fussy. At the base are watermelon sangria and Iranian pistachio with crispy rice.

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I came all this way from Brussels and what do they give me to eat? A waffle!
Ok, admittedly it’s a very nice basil-flavoured waffle filled with scamorza cheese and pine nuts.

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Pizza. Kind of. Wafer thin, dotted with olive oil jelly spheres and tomato powder.

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Shrimp, chicken skin, tarama fish eggs. This is the only one I saw which looks like the original “tapa”, which was a slice of bread used to cover your drink like a lid.

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Nordic landscape. Kobe beef, shallots, vinegar powder, dill. This one was amazing, at least in part due to the vinegar powder.

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Alaskan salmon, skin and wakame salad

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Spaghetti! Only not. Actually made from shredded mushroom instead of pasta.

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For dessert we moved into a separate area behind the bar. Over-sized plastic fruit hung from the ceiling and one wall was covered with screens showing scenes from foodie films like Ratatouille and Willy Wonka.

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Another tree, this time with spoons held on by hidden magnets. On the rose was a blob of some kind of sweet goo.

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This nice lady made us instant pineapple sorbet with liquid nitrogen and pink pepper.

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Served in half a pineapple, obviously.

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There I am, taking photos when I should have just been eating. I can take comfort in the fact that many other diners were more obsessively taking photos and notes than me.

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The bill was surprisingly reasonable considering the stature of the chefs, and I’d be keen to go back some day to try all the other stuff on the menu.

Finally, we added a restaurant we hadn’t planned to visit. I knew that there was a Michelin-starred restaurant connected to our hotel, but we only asked about a table on the day we arrived. Fortunately they were able to squeeze us in on Saturday night. Here are the kitchen staff resting outside earlier in the day.

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The restaurant is called Dos Palillos and we didn’t know anything about it before going in. It’s run by a guy who was head chef at El Bulli for six years, which was a pretty good sign.

We had seats at the bar, and we could see the staff prepping and plating dishes all evening, which was fascinating to watch, not only for the technical aspects of putting the food together but also to see how the staff worked together (one guy was obviously new and inexperienced, and was being shown the ropes by a colleague).

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Here’s the menu we chose. It turned out to be primarily Japanese-style food, which was fine by us. I didn’t take any photos but my wife took a few with her phone.

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The first one looks a mess but was actually one of the highlights. Small fried fish “trapped in a fishnet” made of dried seaweed.

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This is the “crispy canapé of bone marrow”

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Laughably phallic asparagus.

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I actually don’t remember what this one is. They were slightly gloopy ravioli-type things.

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Chicken sashimi and some kind of fish roe. Yes, that’s right. Raw chicken. One of the other dishes was nare-sushi, which is basically old, fermented sushi. This is not food for the faint-hearted.

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Red mullet sashimi.

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One of the desserts was covered in shaved ice, which was perfect for a hot summer evening.

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Overall a very nice surprise. Recommended.

The next day we took it easy foodwise but we did stop in a tapas bar in the centre of town.

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If you fancy a foodie weekend away Barcelona’s a very good choice, as far as I’m concerned, even if you don’t fancy arty Japanese fusion stuff. The tapas alone would keep you happy for a week. There’s something for everyone, and I think we should come back soon with the kids.

#gastronaut, #travel

The myth of the monstrous teacher

Recently we took the kids to see the stage musical Matilda in London’s West End. We’d all read the book and seen the movie but this was something different. It’s a great show with memorable tunes, entertaining performances (especially the ten year old girl in the title role) and lots of parent-pleasing stuff about how much cooler books are than TV. But towards the end one thing about the story struck me as being perhaps a little bit dated, albeit in an interesting way.

The main thrust of the plot has Matilda (and other characters) standing up to a vile, cruel, child-hating teacher called Miss Trunchbull, and one of the repeated musical refrains has Matilda asserting her right to stand up to bullying adults, “be a little bit naughty” and defy authority. What I wondered whilee listening to this was that the archetype of the monstrous teacher may have a long and popular history, but does it really have any basis in reality any more? When (spoilers, although it shouldn’t come as a surprise) the whole class rises up in noisy defiance, I found myself thinking that maybe contemporary teachers would view this scene rather differently. I don’t think kids any longer have the kind of cowering fear faced with adults in positions of authority, and they probably no longer need such encouragement to rebel and talk back. Might not a teacher these days think “Actually we could do with a little more classroom discipline, and some of the kids I teach need to sit down and shut up and listen a bit more”?

Now the novel was written by Roald Dahl in 1988, which to my mind already puts it into an era when this kind of monstrously cruel teacher was already probably a thing of the past, more or less. And I don’t recall anything in the other versions of the story about it being a period piece. But compare this portrayal of teachers with what you can see nowadays on children’s TV drama on channels like CBBC. You see very few scary, authoritarian teachers and a lot more weak, comically ineffectual ones trying in vain to control a rowdy, aggressive bunch of kids.

This is maybe a small complaint, as the rest of the story is very much about using your intelligence, self-respect and fighting anti-intellectualism. But it might be nice to see more stories which present teachers as heroes, rather than villains.

By the way, this was probably my favourite song from the show.

#children, #fear

Fine

Most Italian words are recognisable as such, but occasionally you’ll come across one which could be confused with an English word. This one, for example.
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Of course this means “end”, and is pronounced “fee-neh”. It’s not warning you that you’ll have to pay a fine, or happily asserting that everything’s just dandy.
The example which most amuses me is the one which can sometimes be seen at the entrance to road tunnels. If there’s a motorway exit immediately after the end of the tunnel, there’ll be a sign for the exit, followed by the words “a fine tunnel” (at the end of the tunnel). Which leads me to imagine a whole series of similar signs adorning other types of Italian transport infrastructure saying things like “A fantastic bridge”, or “A wonderful bypass”.

#italy