Monday, June 14, 2010

Iceland Day 5: Recovering in Reykjavik

Super chill day that had only two musts on it: book a tour for Tuesday, which after several hours of scouring the web Sunday night, I found one that wasn't too long or expensive; make my Flybus reservation for Wednesday. Other than that it was a day to get some exercise walking around Reykjavik, read, blog, take pictures of stuff in the city that I hadn't seen and try a couple new restaurants.

Years ago as a newspaper reporter, I covered Frank Serpico's graduation speech at the Albany Academy. The legendary incorruptible cop dispensed some interesting wisdom, but what stands out to me practically 10 years later is don't go to Moscow to eat at McDonald's. I've taken that to heart since then trying to eschew chain restaurants whenever I can. The flip side isn't just to avoid chains, but to embrace the local. In a country like Iceland that means seafood. (Fun fact: 45 percent of Iceland's exports are seafood or seafood-related).

Iceland Must No 3: Fiskfelagid Fish Company. Literally one of the best lunches I have ever had. To start: more seafood soup. Even though *cured shark is the national food, it's seafood soup that seems ubiquitous to me. Every restaurant seems to have it. Fishsoup, bonito foam, boiled mussels & garlic roasted langoustine (mini lobster tails) with a coconut hint throughout. Rich and creamy and bursting with flavors only present in freshly caught ingredients. Once again, the fundamental rule I've learned from watching Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares and Food Network is that the best meals allow the ingredients' inherent flavours to shine.

The main course: salted cod in vanilla, mussels piripiri, carrots, garlic mashed potatoes and saffron foam. The cod is sooooooo perfectly prepared. The fish breaks apart into flaky, perfect bite-sized pieces. It's slightly sweet and salty that works great solo or mixed with the potatoes and carrots. The dish is also served with small cubes of chorizo that I mostly avoided (as a non pig eater) but when I had them they, of course, were great, too.

The best thing about this lunch, it costs only $40 and that included a beer, tax and tip. Yeah, that's an uncheap lunch for one, but I'm on vacation! And this sincerely felt as good as dinner at Craft (almost) so I can't complain in the least. I really felt like I got the better of the restaurant.

*Cured shark. Shark cannot be eaten immediately after catching, because it's toxic to humans. Sharks lack kidneys so they excrete their waste through their muscles and skin. To remove the biotoxins, eventually Icelanders discovered that if you buried a shark for four months before eating it, then it would be fine. Well, fine as in not kill you, but not fine to taste. Syli (sp?) our guide on the aborted-volcano tour, told us that though he likes it, Icelanders typically do not eat or even like cured shark. He also joked that it must have sucked trying to figure out the number of weeks required until the shark was ready. And how hungry must someone have been after four months to eat toxic, ass-tasting shark?

Before lunch I spent the morning at the Reykjavik Art Museum, which was OK save for one exhibit which I found fascinating. The description is from the curator's notes.

Vanitas, Still-life in Contemporary Icelandic Art
Curator: Hafþór Yngvason

The Latin word vanitas means vanity, something that is empty, vain or valueless. In art history, vanitas is used for the artistic genre of still-life paintings that are symbolic of the futility of earthly life. It is a sub-category of a larger class of artworks referred to as memento mori (literally, “remember that you must die”) and is mostly used for Dutch paintings of the sixteenth and seventieth centuries.

Here we use the term for contemporary paintings and sculptures that count as still-life, although many of them were not originally presented as such. They all function on different levels but by bringing them together under the heading of vanitas, the intent is to highlight certain aspects of the artists‟ approaches to materials and construction but also to bring attention to the reminder of transience and renewal that is found in most or all of the works.

The necessity of care is also the subject of a two-piece sculpture by Rósa Gísladóttir. The title, Verðandi … Skuld refers to the names of two norns in Norse mythology. Verðandi (literally, “to become”) stands for the present and Skuld (“debt”) for the future. We are reminded that we owe the future, for better or for worse. This is a classic warning of a memento mori. Considering the materials of the two pieces and the enormous amounts of plastic containers used in daily life, the debt that we are referred to is environmental in nature. But the title refers us also to the life giving activity of the norns, who live by the tree of life, Askur Yggdrasils, and water it daily. Considering the shapes of the two sculptures—a bottle and a bowl—we are reminded of the simple fundamentals of life and of our responsibility to nurture it for the future.

I spend the rest of the day just walking through town again, snapping pictures of buildings, ducks and soaking up my last full day in the city.

Ducks in the pond outside City Hall:

The National Theatre:

Another view of the Hallgrimskirkja:

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