Perla and beer

The Pearl

The Pearl

The weather was particularly unsavoury this morning. As I left the apartment, the wind threatened to remove my cap for me and – not wanting any Indiana Jones-like near-escapes grabbing it from in front of an approaching truck – I gave up and took it off. Definitely the windiest and coldest I’d been since I arrived.

I’d not risen as early as I’d hoped, but had spent a good hour or so chatting to Roberto. My main target for the day was the Perla, or Pearl, located on a hill just on the outskirts of the city centre. Its primary function is as a set of water tanks, holding hot water which has been extracted from the springs underground. This water is used to help in electricity generation and also for the central heating of just about everyone in Reykjavik.

Rather than leave this as an eyesore, someone decided to build a glass dome on the top with a walkway around it. On the ground floor, there’s also an (expensive) museum of Reyjavikian history. The dome on top houses a moderately expensive restaurant, and buying an evening meal there is the only way up to the top floors.

I had a walk around the lower tier and took a few photos of the fog-shrouded city below. Atmospheric, but I’m sure the view would be even better in the summer. It still surprises me that when I see “smoke” rising, it’s not the embers of a campfire but steam escaping from some underground vent or other.

Inside the Pearl

Inside the Pearl

As I left the Perla, the lovely Elfa picked me up and we drove to the nearby graveyard. It sounds strange, but I like graveyards. They tell you a lot about a place – the society, the people, the history, the culture.

Iceland‘s are no different. The closest graveyard is quite big and well laid-out. It’s moderately well-tended, but the grave “stones” vary from carved horror-movie style to simple wooden crosses with a brass plate tacked on. Invariably, these have rotted and are propped up somehow.

One thing that struck me was the use of LED lights everywhere. Not in a huge Christmas-tree fashion, but within small fake candles or stuck inside semi-opaque white crosses. Apparently it is tradition to keep the dead company, or at least to provide them light. In past times, this was done by lighting an old-fashioned candle or oil lamp which required tending from day to day. In these modern times, a fake flickery electrical light counts as the same job but with less maintenance.

Up at the church itself there is a monument to dead seamen which is quite nice to look at. Wave-shaped plaques with their names carved on lead up towards a lighthouse on a plinth – with a working flashing light. It sounds cheesy, but it’s done well and it’s a fitting monument.

Our next stop was an older cemetery nearer the town which was a lot more traditional. Well, fewer LEDs anyway. It was a nice, varied cemetery with relatively new and very old graves mixed together. A rigid layout, but no rhyme or reason to the actual monuments on the plot. A lovely semi-archaic feel to it. My favourites had to be the solid blocks of rock – they looked naturally shaped – with names carved into them.

LEDs in a cemetery

LEDs in a cemetery

As well as the look of the place I got a lot of information about the way Iceland “works” from my ever-informative guide. We all know how people from Scandinavia have names ending in “son” or “sen”. In fact, a lot of common English surnames come from this tradition – “Johnson” is an obvious example: “John’s son”.

Where our historic paths divert, however, is in the way tradition changed. In the UK (and most of Europe), when a couple marry the woman takes her husband’s surname. OK, so in today’s society this is slightly less common. But on the whole, this is how things work.

In Iceland, people’s surnames still “change” from our point of view. If John has two children, then they could be Michael Johnson and Elaine Johnsdaughter. If Elaine marries, she will still – by Icelandic custom – be Elaine Johnsdaughter (or Johnsdóttir if I have the spelling right). She won’t take her husband’s name.

One interesting thing I found out was that only recently has it been possible to legally change your surname in Iceland to [mother’s-name]son/dóttir. By default at birth, your surname is based on your father’s forename (I assume, unless perhaps the mother decides otherwise) but you can change it easily later in life.

This caused problems for someone else I know, but I’ll get to that in a later post!

I am Viking, hear me roar!

I am Viking, hear me roar!

Our next stop, a short walk away was the National Museum. A note for the tourist – this is free on Wednesdays. It’s also well worth a visit with a great history of this small but vitally important nation. I don’t know what the usual charge is, but personally I’m not a fan of charging at all for museums. History and education should be free, but that’s a platform for another time (and blog).

It’s not a bad place. The history is arranged well and there are some good hands-on exhibits (the picture will prove this!). It focuses around the religious history, but I think this makes up a huge part of Iceland’s history. As a small island in the middle of the sea, it’s obviously been of huge importance to several nations. It seems it had one of the single most bloodshed-less religious changes in the history of the world. One king told them to change church… and they did. No riots, no overthrowing, no nothing.

Iceland’s a strange country – and I like strange.

Elfa had work in the evening, so she headed there and I walked back to the flat. Roberto had recommended a small shop that did burgers so I walked up there and had a decent little meal while I wrote out postcards. I then strolled down to the “best hot dog place in Reykjavk” to meet Tumi and we wandered off to a nearby bar to watch Man U get embarrassed by Derby.

Gulla joined us partway through, as did an unwanted guest who spent about 5 minutes railing about how the English shouldn’t have killed Mary Queen of Scots until the bar staff convinced him to bugger off. As the game ended, Elfa texted to say she was in another local bar so I walked up there to be greated by another small group of Couchsurfers. The count was 50/50 – 3 Icelanders, a Brit, a Turk and a Dane.

We drank until past midnight and then headed our respective ways. An enjoyable if mildly expensive evening. Well, cheap if you’re from London.

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