Another Icelandic summer comes to an end

The definition of summer in Iceland isn’t very defined. Summer is when its not winter. Its when the grass is greenish, the moss turns neon, and the leaves are alive. It’s a time when the temperature can go higher than 10 degrees (but not necessarily). The sun shines and its rays actually give off heat (and a tan!). The average temperature in June is only 11 degrees. Anything over 18 degrees is kind of a heat wave, and Icelanders lose their clothes as easily as we lose the nights. This year, summer came in May, when the countryside dethawed and it stopped getting dark.

Hiking Fimmvörðuháls with my best friend Moli

This is a time when Icelanders seem to come out of hibernation. After 8 months of winter, holed up in that thing called ‘real life,’ then people come out to play. Then the days revolve around hiking, horsebackriding, summerhouses, camping, fishing, barbeques and no need for much sleep. And much more than that, summer means festivals.

on horse tour in Mývatnssveit

Now that summer is gone, we start looking forward to those holidays and festivals next summer. Iceland is probably the only country I know of that actually has a national public holiday for the first day of summer, and this year it was April 20th. For some reason other than religious ones, Ascension day (May 25) is the first long weekend where traffic jams to get north out of town can build up from the Hvalfjordur tunnel all the way to Mosfellsbaer.

Menningarnótt with my sister and oldest friend from Canada

Downtown Reykjavik is a family friendly party ground, with tens of thousands of people flooding the streets and Arnarholl, on only a few days a year. June 17th, Independence day, is the first major summer event. Ironically, the Gay Pride parade has higher attendance, and rainbow coloured balloons and confused gender identities make people of all ages happy. Menningarnott in mid August is the most drunken and dancy festival, and at this time of summer, short nights have started to reappear and it’s the first time that lighting fire works makes sense. Its also around then that the first northern lights show up, making tourists very happy that they don’t have to return to Iceland in midwinter to check that off their bucket list.

Herjólfsdalur filling up for Þjóðhátíð

The most defining part of summer for me, and many other Icelanders, is unquestionably Þjóðhátíð. Literally translated, this just means ´the nations holiday,´ and is held all around Iceland around the end of July/beginning of August, but the biggest one is always in Vestammanaeyjar. My father is from Vestmannaeyjar, which makes about 24% of the population my aunts, uncles and second or third cousins. This sleepy island on the south coast has a year-round population of around 4,000, but during Þjóðhátíð, it can swell to 16,000, perhaps even as many as 20,000 this year.

seaswimming beach days in Reykjavik… not as warm as they look but still an important part of every good summer

You know summer is coming to an end when the next festival people are gearing up for is Airwaves, which happens annually at the end of October. Airwaves is even bigger than Þjóðhátíð, but doesnt quite have the same ´Icelandicness´ to it with all those tourists and international bands… and lack of lopapeysas (hand knit sweaters with Grandma´s typical patterns and barn colours). The countdown to summer 2018 has officially begun.

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Chasing leaves and Sunshine in the Balkans

I’ve been traveling for over a month in the Balkans, and I wish I could point on a map or scribble a line across google maps to show you where. I landed in Zadar, Croatia, where fall had hit hard with rain and wind, but the temperature was still above 20`c. Then I went inland to Sarajevo in Bosnia, where the temperature dropped down to the low tens, and I’ve been chasing autumn ever since. Next stop was Mostar, where it was slightly warmer, and then I crossed into Montenegro where the leaves had started to turn. Between Kotor on the coast and Podgorica the capital and south to Lake Skadar, the days were getting cooler but pomegranate was in full bloom and grew like wildflowers. The streets even smelled like pomegranate. The wind in Podgorica reminded me of bad days in Iceland, but the sun made up for it. I alo noticed people were all of a sudden much taller, with an average height 20 or 30 cm taller than their Balkan neighbours, rivaling even Icelanders.

sun set in Prishtina, with the unfinished Mother Theresa cathedral in the background (apparently the biggest cathedral in the balkans, started 2007)

sun set in Prishtina, with the unfinished Mother Theresa cathedral in the background (apparently the biggest cathedral in the balkans, started 2007)

I went further inland to Kosovo next, across a mountain pass where the first snow fall had just arrived. Prishtina was colder than Sarajevo, and the night I arrived daylight savings had kicked in so it started getting dark before 5. The whole city was under construction, with roads ripped up and half-finished churches and old mosques under constant reconstruction. It seemed that absolutely everyone in Prishtina was young and beautiful, especially the men who all had better hair than should be possible. I learned later that they all own a blowdryer (and an assortment of hair products) and spend more time infront of the mirror fixing their hair than the average woman, and then I understood. I’ve never been shown so many glamour pics or selfies of men trying to be sexy or emo, but they loved to share them, as well as an instructional video on how to do your hair if you’ve got a crew cut.

The majority of people living in Kosovo, which is still considered by many as a part of Serbia, are Albanians and there were a lot of similarities between Kosovars and Albanians. The men are super affectionate (also with eachother) yet slightly homophobic. I met mostly self-proclaimed ‘unpracticing’ muslims, and the orthodox monasteries and churches were often guarded by Serbians or Austrian KFOR soldiers. It was a bit scarier to walk around Prishtina and Tirana since drivers rarely stop at pedestrian cross walks, something I missed about Montenegro where a car will always yield to you jaywalking.

the UNESCO town of Berat falls into the shadows before 2pm

the UNESCO town of Berat falls into the shadows before 2pm

In Tirana, Albania, it got slightly warmer again, and I finally started to recognize the Albanian language. Its absolutely nothing like anything else in the Balkans, and it sounds like a confusing mix of Romantic, Slavic and far-east languages. Atleast they don’t write anything in Cyrillic, so it was a lot easier to read. Albanians may live a slightly better life than Kosovars, but even with salaries around €300 or €400 most  people have iphones and impeccable fashion. The biggest difference is their ability to travel, with Albania already an EU candidate with free movement within Schengen and visa-free access to around 90 countries. Kosovo, which isn’t even recognized as a country but its passport is treated differently than Serbias and highly scrutinized against, can only travel visa free to a handful of countries. Every tourist agency in Kosovo focuses its tourist market on getting people out, instead of helping tourists who are visiting. Strangely, Germany was some kind of dream land (or Austria or Switzerland would do), the ultimate destination for a better job or better life or better car. If people couldn’t speak English, they often knew German, and many German or Austrian soldiers work with KFOR.

full-blown autumn trees in Skopje

full-blown autumn trees in Skopje

In Albania, the second language was often Italian or Greek, and both were just a couple of hours away, but soon it was time to head inland again, to a full-blown fall in Macedonia. The windy road to Skopje was nestled in mountains of golden yellow, burnt orange, blood red, rosy pinks and fluorescent greens.  The sun was always partly behind some mountain, so the lit tops seemed to glow in the sunshine while the shaded valleys still screamed in colour. Now there’s frost every night, the frozen dew slowly melting after 6 am when the sun starts to shine an hour earlier than it used to. I’m not a morning person so I must admit I’m looking forward to Bulgaria, where the eastern time zone will bring the days back to 7-6 instead of 6-5 or 4:30, but they’re getting shorter everywhere so Ill just keep chasing the falling leaves and hope for some sunshine.

Autumn in Iceland

fall colours and snow-topped mountains

fall colours and snow-topped mountains

It’s always a little bit sad when summer ends. You first start to notice the nights getting dark in the beginning of August, and by the end of August, some mountain tops will already have had their first snow fall. By the middle of September, the valleys have started to bronze and the trees have become fiery shades of red and gold. By the end of September, the leaves have blown all over the place, but bits of green still scream for sun as a few summery days still pop up here and there. It starts to rain more, and every day is literally 9 minutes shorter than the one before, so the nights come noticeably quicker and stay longer every morning. The strange thing about autumn is that it’s probably the most beautiful season, but one can hardly call it a season since its over as soon as it begins; after 4 months of summer come 8 months of looming winter and noone really knows where the fall went or remembers anything about it until next fall. You can’t really pinpoint when summer and winter meet to make the autumn, but at some point it feels like you fell asleep on a summer night and woke up on a winter morning.

herding sheep through the snow

herding sheep through the snow

After the horse season ended, I went back to the east to chase sheep in the annual round up ´réttir´. However, after an early snow storm and some other uncooperative weather, it became more like a hide-and-seek sheep-search instead of a chase; they were much harder to see in the melting snow, and a bunch of sheep were dug up from their soon-to-be snow-graves. We couldn’t even do the sheep round up on horse back, as is custom because Fljótsdalshérað is such a huge area, but instead of taking 3-4 riding days, we had to use snowmobiles, 6-wheelers, a bunch of dogs, our own feet and some walking sticks to cover the area. There are still some hundreds of sheep missing, so the round up goes on, weather permitting.

Mjölnir

Mjölnir

I went east this weekend to collect a horse. Not just any horse, but my horse, my first and only Icelandic horse I can call my own. It was given to me over a drunken conversation on the last night of the sheep round up by a nice farmer named Magnus. We didn´t discuss many details, but he held true to his word and I showed up with a horse trailer and took him without any further questions. I only recently found out he´s a 6 year old, 5 gaited horse from Kollaleira, which has some very good horses and I can´t believe the luck I stumbled upon to just have him. If I had searched far and wide across Iceland for my perfect horse, and could spend a pretty penny on one, this is probably the exact horse I would have chosen.

The wedding couple and my mom

The wedding couple and my mom

My aunty got remarried in September, and my mother came for the wedding since she´s her sister. My Aunty Myrtle has lived in Iceland for more than 30 years and blends in alot better than my mom who showed up with her dark skin and Chinese features wearing a sparkling Indian sari to the ceremony in Laugafellskirkja. It was a wonderful wedding, probably the happiest wedding I´ve ever been to, but every wedding you go to seems to be a perfect day so its hard to say if it was really the best  wedding ever… but still, close.

an autumn sunset

an autumn sunset

The sunsets seem to get brighter and more beautiful as fall draws to a close, with red and purple skies flaring up earlier each evening. I´ve spotted my first northern lights already and look forward to seeing more and more in the star-studded sky I had almost forgotten about. This fall has gone by particularly quickly. The days of smelling like horse and spending more days in the mountains than civilization just ended abruptly, and I was thrown back to the life’s reality in Reykjavik where reverse culture shock and my unfinished masters thesis awaited. I escaped back to the countryside a few times in September, once to chase sheep, once to collect Mj0lnir, and the other time to ride horses and eat reindeer lasagne in Hvanneyri. There I was reminded yet again why autumn is such a beautiful time of year, since the dark skies and falling rain can create so many, spectacular rainbows and I probably saw twelve in one day that weekend.

so many rainbows

so many rainbows

Autumn in Berkeley

Berkeley Clock Tower in AutumnToday is the first day of rain I’ve seen since moving to California in August. And boy is it raining; 4 inches in just one day, with lots of wind and grey clouds to complete the miserable day. The leaves are starting to turn auburn, the days are getting slightly shorter, and the air is begining to cool, but I still have nothing to complain about since the coolest day here is still substantially warmer than the hottest day in Reykjvaik. I just find my wardrobe unprepared for the cool, since I ignorantly expected sunny California weather until December, and walking around in my flip flops and tank tops hasn’t proven viable for the last couple weeks.

The houses here seem to expect the same thing, since lack of insulation and the delayed arrival of fall means that overnight, my room gets so cold and getting out of bed in the morning is one of the most difficult things I have to do. Once I get out of bed, there really isnt any relief til noon or so, since it takes the whole morning for the house and outside to warm up. Then it will get deceivingly warm for a few hours and sunbathing on the lawn would be totally acceptable, until the sun starts to set and dusk brings a cool front over you again.

It is beautiful to see the greenery on campus right now. There are mixed forests sporadically dispersed between school buildings, palm trees, evergreens and deciduous trees happily coexisting. The melange almost stays as green as it always is, except for the oaks and maples slowly turning into hughs of gold and copper. No leaves have actually started falling, but soon the ground will be speckled in orange, red and yellow, and seeing the bare trees among the palms and evergreens will also be a sight, especially if the sun keeps coming out.

With fall comes more pressure in school, so students are too busy and too stressed to really enjoy their days or nights. For some reason I find myself doing just the opposite – wasting my time trying to maximize playtime in the shortening days outside and avoiding staying at home in the evening in fear of being too cold. However, there is actually lots to be done, so hopefully the blissful, romantic days of fall can pass, not to be forgotten, but just to stop tempting me with their distracting appeal.