Southern Spain, Sangria and Sunshine

In my search for more summer sun, I took advantage of a return flight voucher from Icelandexpress. I used it in October not only because it was expiring soon, but because there had been rumors of the airline going under. I had a week off school, a “reading” week, so I decided to justify the trip by reading on the beach in Alicante.

a perfect place to read

Alicante’s city center is a stones throw away from the beach. And its  a proper, sandy beach with chairs and umbrellas to rent, right beside the main bus stop. On the other side of Plaza del Mar is the harbour, parked full of yachts and sailboats, one of which was supposed to be my first couchsurfing host place. I had to meet the Spanish sailor at 9pm in the Regatta Club, but instead a strange fireman approached me and asked if I was Katrin. He had replaced the sailor, who was stuck on a boat in Amsterdam, and asked if I would like to join him for dinner and crash at his place. I accepted his dinner offer first.

We had red wine and tapas to our hearts content, eating course after course and I slowly decided he was couchsurfing material. But, this was before I found out he lived in an apartment undergoing construction. This is partly due to my Spanish not being fluent enough (he didn’t speak english) and partly due to me thinking he was joking when he said “my apartment’s kind of a mess, but atleast it has one light and one running water source.” The light was a spot light, and the water hose came out of a hole in the wall where the shower would eventually be built. There were no doors or finished floors, and one huge open space where a window was still missing, but because he lived on the top floor, he had 2 beautiful rooftop balconies. And, most importantly, he had an extra mattress and a pillow which I could get a good nights rest on.

sunset from the top of el Castillo

I spent my couple days in Alicante wandering around the beach and the old City Center, and finally made it up the massive fortress that looms over the city and sea. The Castillo de Santa Barbara is a castle that changed hands between the French, Spanish, Moroccans, and maybe even British, Im not sure, but I don’t know who figured out how to build a castle at the top of a cliff in those days, somehow get overtaken or invaded, and then add on even more castle to the cliff, before the overtakers were overtaken. I could barely get up there without guards or guns pointed at me, but luckily my next couchsurf host had a car and a free evening to catch the sunset from the top with me.

Villa Joiosa

I traveled north with the local tram, an above-ground subway-like transport that can’t quite be regarded as a train. It takes you along the coast all the way to Benidorm, where I was headed, and stopped half way at Villa Joiosa. Its a colourful little walled village, also on the beach, with only sleepy dogs and old ladies to be encountered on the staired and narrow streets.

In Benidorm, I barely saw anyone else but elderly, half-burned British people and a handful of European students. The beach was lined with highrises, and the streets were tourist shops and tapas bars followed by more tourist shops and cheap tapas and wine bars.

Benidorm

The beach, or beaches rather (there are 2 long stretches divided by a peninsula) were beautiful, packed with people. Apparently the hundreds of tourists sunbathing now didnt compare to the thousands normally packed like sardines on every square inch of sand from June – August.

the art palaces

I made it further north and a little away from the coast to Valencia, the second largest ERASMUS University student town in Europe (after Bologne). I couchsurfed at a very international house, with a Brasilian marine biologist, a Spanish architect student, and a Hungarian linguist. We hung out for 3 evenings (I stayed 2 extra nights) despite it being midweek, finding lots of other students to enjoy nights out and cheap wine. They gave me a bici card so I could use the public bicycles to get around (Valencia is so much bigger than I thought), and I rode along the river canal park that surrounds the old city, past the Art Palaces, all the way to the beach a few kilometres away, and even through the old city center, zig sagging through the pedestrian only streets that wind around old churches and cobble-stoned squares.

cats in Tabarca

My last night back in Alicante, I couchsurfed with an architect who lived on the 10th floor of a beachfront apartment, with a 180 degree view through floor to ceiling glass walls. He is also a diver, and had just spent 2 weekends in Tabarca, an island off the coast of Alicante that I took a 1 hour ferry to visit. The island has been overtaken by cats, and all the so called inhabitants leave when summer is over, so it was mostly me, some cats, and the seagulls braving the wind and some strange sort of African dust storm prematurely darkening the day.

Concert in Plaza des Toros in Murcia

My last night in Spain, me and Dani the architect packed his car full of friends and roadtripped to Murcia, where we watched an open-air concert in a bull fighting ring. The headliner was Wilco, an American band, and a ridiculously good rock n roll Spanish sensation I still don’t know what his name was. I kept day dreaming about how days and centuries before, this ring was used for a matador to death dance with bulls, and now we stood there under umbrellas in the dark jumping around  to great music. Imagine trying to predict that kind of future to a Spaniard 300 years ago…

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Icelandic Studies

When I didn’t get funding granted for doing my Phd in forest ecotourism, I pulled a 360`turn and decided to enroll at the University of Iceland to study Icelandic History and Literature. It’s a program officially called “Medieval Icelandic Studies” and focuses on the sagas and manuscripts orally transmitted and eventually written in the 10th-13th centuries, but we spend almost all our time reading the secondary literature written on it by Medieval Icelandic specialists from all over the world. Some of the most highly regarded academics in this field come from the UK, the US, and even Australia, and have no connection to Iceland except their obsessive fascination, so it seems an honour to be able to study these topics in the homeland, as a native Icelander.

the codex regius

The classes are held at the Árni Magnússon Institute, a building on campus that holds manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. They have, what some consider to be the single most important man-made item in Icelandic history and culture (see http://www.sagenhaftes-island.is/en/book-of-the-month/nr/2582), the Codex Regius, a book that tells of Kings Sagas, Nordic Mythology and epic poetry. We got to meet the book, a small, wooden-bound book of thin, fragile pages, and I remember wondering if or when I would ever get to touch something so hold ever again. The text was still legible, in beautiful script, and many words still comprehensible to the speaker of modern Icelandic. Some letters and words were strange, but familiar names like Loki and Freya had their names written their some 900 years ago for me to read today.

The courses we take are based on the Icelandic Medieval manuscripts, discussing all the stories therein and wondering how fact or fictional some of these records can be to represent the daily life and culture of Icelanders in those times. We dissect the poetry and kennings, all the foreign words and heitis used to rhyme, and compare different transcriptions of the same story. We read  secondary literature on how the laws were used, first in oral tradition, and then how written law changed the administration and legistlation of courts. We discuss the Christianization of Iceland, and how the Christianized scribes may have altered manuscripts they copied. We look at archeological evidence of Paganism and Christianity, and the influence of latin on our written culture and diction.

We take a mandatory course in Old Icelandic, which feels somehow like a course in Proto-Old-Norse, and may be what Italian or Spanish speakers feel like learning Latin… I dunno. I worry I´ll be better at reading, writing and even speaking Old Icelandic by the time I finish this program, since its an extremely strict, regimented and dense way of teaching students to be able to read and translate the sagas from the original sources.

Then you can take courses on Modern Icelandic literature, divulge in some Laxness and Sjón, modern Icelandic language, Icelandic Culture, and the history of Medieval Scandinavia. Whenever I´m sitting in class, I look around at the other students – males and females, age 20-50, from Hungary, Poland, Germany, England, Colombia, the States, and very few from Iceland or other Scandinavian countries – and wonder what the initial appeal is to start such a program. Is it the glorified viking? Is it the Old-Norse-Icelandic literary corpus that rivals all other historical literary works in Europe? Is it the sagas and Nordic mythology of Thor’s hammer and Sif’s golden hair? I’m not sure, but I somehow felt obligated to take the program and learn this for the sake of being Icelandic, but now I’m realizing that this may be one of the most interesting fields of academic study any linguist or historian could ever take, and I’m glad I fell into it without knowing what a pleasant surprise it could be.

Now, if only I’d stop blogging and be able to keep up with my readings, papers and exams… I had no idea it could be this much work to become a Master in Icelandic studies, especially since I thought I somehow had an advantage by being Icelandic (which isn’t the case, since I know much less than the Danish guy sitting beside me describing why Odin is depicted with 2 dragons in a 14th century manuscript I’d never heard of til now).