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L’Aquarium de Paris

I’m behind on my Paris posts, but this is the last one! Toward the end of my visit, Isabelle, Olivier, and I took the bus and the metro to Trocadéro and crossed the plaza in the middle of the Palais de Chaillot, which was full of tourists milling about and taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine. We wended our way downhill within the Jardins du Trocadéro. Our destination was the Aquarium de Paris and, specifically, Hanami, the temporary outdoor Japanese street food café the aquarium had set up. The menu was pan-Asian but with a Japanese focus.

Hanami by the Aquarium de Paris (nobody wanted to sit in the sun!)

At the counter, we ordered takoyaki, three kinds of yakitori (one type was beef, actually), two kinds of dumplings (duck and veggie–in French, dumplings are called raviolis, although at Hanami they might’ve called them gyoza?), and sweet potato fries for good measure. It was sunny and very hot, but some of the (rustic) tables were under a wooden roof, so we were able to sit in the shade. The food was tasty!

Part of our lunch

Next, we went into the aquarium and followed the path through the various exhibits and sections. The Aquarium de Paris is focused on the sea life of France, but France in the sense of its global empire, including its overseas territories in more tropical climes. There were digital panels on the walls that asked True or False questions (aimed at children, judging by the color schemes), and one that struck me was about the largest lagoon in the world. After revealing whether the statement had been true or false, the text noted of the two lagoons (the largest and the second largest?) that “both are French.” That is, they belonged to France. I think one of them was in New Caledonia, and the other was also in the South Pacific. It was very…colonialist.

The kissing fish! They kept doing this; it was very cute.

That aside, the exhibits were pretty nice, with lots of colorful fish. No mammals, however, unlike at the Aquarium of the Pacific. The Aquarium de Paris is known for its Médusarium, which features many species of jellyfish. Somehow, they still seemed harder to photograph than the jellyfish in Long Beach.

Nemo!

Garden eels

A little pufferfish

This last picture of moon jellies comes with a good story. I thought it was one of my better aquarium photos but not intrinsically that amazing. Still, I tweeted it after our visit, and thanks to a few lucky retweets, this became possibly my most successful tweet ever (not that that’s saying much). I hadn’t tagged the aquarium, but somehow its Président Administrateur général found the tweet and replied to it, thanking me (in French) for the beautiful photo :O

Moon jellies

L’Hôtel de la Marine

In early July, while I was still in Meudon, Isabelle, Olivier, and I went to l’Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde in Paris to see the exhibit “Gulbenkian par lui-même” (“Gulbenkian through himself”). Calouste Gulbenkian was an Armenian born in the Ottoman Empire who became a fabulously wealthy oil magnate and an art collector with a dazzling collection. When Isabelle and I were in Lisbon, she (but not I) went to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and saw some of his treasures, which was what made her want to go to the Paris exhibit. (The Lisbon museum now houses most of Gulbenkian’s collection, but when he was alive, he kept his collection at his home in Paris.)

Qing Dynasty jar (famille noire) with 16th c. velvet hanging from Bursa in the background, both from Gulbenkian’s collection

L’Hôtel de la Marine is a very grand and imposing building, with a colonnade and pediments. It faces the Place de la Concorde, with its gold-tipped obelisk, and has views of the Eiffel Tower beyond. La Marine is the Navy, and the building housed the Ministry of the Navy from the French Revolution to 2015. (I didn’t know all of this when we actually visited; I looked it up for this blog post.) Before that, it housed the royal Garde-Meuble, the office in charge of the king’s furniture. It was first built in the third quarter of the 18th century. The fact that the building was for the Navy until 2015 probably explains why I hadn’t heard of it before this trip.

L’Hôtel de la Marine is now a multi-faceted museum. A relatively small part of it is long-term host to the Collection Al Thani, a different art collection assembling pieces from ancient civilizations. This was the collection of a Qatari sheik. The Gulbenkian exhibit was on display in one gallery inside the Collection Al Thani space, so on our visit, we first passed through two galleries with items from this collection.

The first room reminded me of photos I’ve seen of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. It was very dark, there was black all around, and it was hard to tell where the walls were. Hanging from the ceiling on black strings were hundreds, maybe thousands, of gold ornaments about the size of the palm of your hand. They looked like a cross between a snowflake and a chrysanthemum. They glittered in the lights shining from above, and the effect was kind of like moving through a very orderly swarm of mechanical butterflies. Evenly spaced throughout this small room were eight or so items from the Collection Al Thani. They were all fairly small and displayed inside tall narrow black and glass cases. There was a Mayan jadeite mask-pendant, the inscribed jade wine cup of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, a golden bronze bear from Han China, a 4,000-year-old gold rhyton in the shape of a deer…

Bear, China, Han Dynasty

The next gallery was long and narrow, leading from the first room to the temporary exhibition room, and it was dedicated to sculptures of human heads, from many different cultures and eras. It sounds weird when put that way, but it was actually very cool: all these individually rendered faces, produced long ago by people from around the world. One 4,000-year-old terracotta head was from Mesopotamia; the head of a princess carved from quartzite was from the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt. There was a 2,000-year-old Nok culture head from Nigeria, and the head of a statuette of Serapis, carved from lapis lazuli. There was a jade mask from Guatemala and a gold one from Gandhara. There was a 2nd century chalcedony head of the Roman emperor Hadrian and an 18th or 19th century Fang wooden reliquary head from Gabon. The diversity of features, expressions, and styles assembled in one gallery was quite compelling.

Head of an Amarna princess, Egypt, 1351-1334 BCE

Beyond the row of faces was the Gulbenkian exhibit. It occupied a single rectangular room, but there was an incredible number and variety of pieces on display. The information panels on the walls emphasized that Gulbenkian sought only the finest works of art, items of truly exceptional artistry and craftsmanship. And his interests were very broad: this selection from his collection included everything from a fragment of an Ancient Egyptian statuette to Safavid rugs and illuminated manuscripts, from Chinese porcelain to Japanese lacquerware, from 18th century French books to René Lalique jewels, and much more. The sheer breadth of his collection and the number of treasures assembled in one room was almost dizzying.

Ottoman and Ilkhanid ceramics, from present-day Turkey and Iran

Manuscript of a ballet by 18th c. French composer Pierre de La Garde

We left the temporary exhibit through a gallery parallel to the one with the heads. In this last room displaying items from the Collection Al Thani, we saw quite a few more small artifacts from antiquity, including a Sumerian lapis situla (bucket), an Ancient Egyptian obsidian cosmetics vial carved in the shape of a duck, a Sassanid silver rhyton shaped like an antelope’s head, a Tibetan banquet service made of gold and encursted with mosaic turquoise birds, a gold lunula (crescent-shaped necklace/collar) from Bronze Age Britain or Ireland, an Olmec pendant plaque made of jadeite and bearing a Mayan inscription, and plenty more. This gallery led back to the infinity room, and then we exited the Collection Al Thani.

Gold plaque, Tibet, 600-800 CE

Our tickets to the exhibit included much of the rest of l’Hôtel de la Marine (though there was a separate part–the intendant’s apartments–that required a different ticket). We got to wander through the reception rooms and also go out onto the loggia, with its collonade and view across the Place de la Concorde. The reception rooms were very ornate: high ceilings, tall, narrow doors, parquet floors, gigantic chandeliers, wood paneling, mirrors, elaborate molding, curtains drawn back with tasseled cords, classical imagery, and tons of gold.

The reception rooms

In a room just before the loggia, there was an interactive display about French maritime history. You could follow different historical figures, and the first one I was presented with was Marie-Louise Victoire Girardin, an 18th century Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a man and went to sea, joining an expedition to Australia and the South Pacific.

The loggia

After leaving l’Hôtel de la Marine, we took the metro to Batignolles and walked through the Square des Batignolles to go to Pastelaria Belem, a little Portuguese bakery and restaurant. We wanted to eat pastéis de nata, like we had in Lisbon (though in fact there’s a little Portuguese-accented supermarket right near Isabelle and Olivier’s apartment where we also bought frozen pastéis de nata twice). The bakery looked a little bit like Pastéis de Belém, home of the original pastéis in Portugal, insofar as there were azulejos on the walls and paper napkin and cinnamon dispensers on the tables. Before we went in, we noticed a big multi-colored cat dozing on a chair inside, next to the window. We ordered three pastéis to eat at the bakery and three to take home, plus Compal fruit juices, like we’d drunk in Portugal. The proprietress told us the name of the cat, which was something like Abada, but not that. He wasn’t as easy to photograph as we’d hoped, though he briefly approached our table before disappearing behind the counter. Ah, well. The pastéis were delicious.

An apartment building in Batignolles

2021 in Review

Oookay, well, I’m not sure there’s much purpose to evaluating how “good” a year was anymore because, from what I’ve seen, the consensus is that if 2020 was a dumpster fire, 2021 was…a bigger dumpster fire? It got off to a strong start in my country with an insurrection in our nation’s capital right after the new year. On a brighter note, I am immensely grateful for effective vaccines and my ability to have access to them. They have made the pandemic somewhat less nerve-wracking, even as it wears on.

I said 2020 felt long; 2021 has also felt very long. But here are the highlights of my year:

I wish all three of my readers (:P) a safe and healthy 2022! May it be a year of progress and hope!

Fjallsárlón, Iceland

San Francisco IV

In mid-November, before the latest twist in the pandemic, I traveled to northern California for a friend’s wedding. (The title of this post is a reference to my actually rather frequent trips to San Francisco. This was my second trip to the Bay Area since I graduated from UCLA in 2019; by comparison, I have not yet been back to Los Angeles, except for transferring at LAX on my way to Honolulu.) After teaching on Friday morning, I drove up to the Twin Cities and caught a flight to San Francisco. I arrived late in the evening and caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel. The next morning, I picked up the first car I’d ever rented by myself and headed south. (I would like to brag that I managed to drive everywhere I wanted to go the whole weekend without GPS and without getting lost!)

Retro charm in Aptos

My destination was Aptos, a little seaside town near Santa Cruz. I visited UC Santa Cruz as a prospective grad student years ago, and the road through the wooded mountains seemed familiar. When I arrived in Aptos, I left my rental car at the hotel and set out in search of lunch. After cutting through the parking lot, labyrinth, and cemetery of the adjacent Catholic church, I discovered, in the nearby strip mall, Companion Bakeshop. I could tell by sight that their viennoiseries were good, so I went in and bought a goat cheese-arugula-pickled onion on baguette sandwich. It was excellent. I resolved to return the next day for breakfast pastries. If you ever find yourself in Aptos (or Santa Cruz), I absolutely recommend this bakery.

Almond croissant from Companion Bakeshop

Happily, I was able to check into my room early and put on my wedding-appropriate clothes (my backup plan was to change outfits in the hotel’s public restrooms). The wedding was at Sand Rock Farm, a venue tucked up in the woods. We guests arrived by shuttle. It was the wedding of a high school friend of mine: Dustin and I both went to grad school in the LA area, and we also used to meet up around the holidays in Minnesota. I was 99% sure I would be the only person from high school in attendance, and I knew the odds were low I would know anyone else at the wedding besides Dustin’s mother. This turned out to be true, but I still had a good time. During the pre-ceremony mingling, I met some of Dustin’s grad school friends. While we were standing around chatting with glasses of lemonade or iced tea, one grad school friend opposite me said, “Dog,” and I looked down to see a wolfhound pressed against my red dress. His name was Pirate.

Redwood (?) illuminated by the late afternoon sun at Sand Rock Farm

The ceremony was unique and lovely, and the rest of the evening was enjoyable. I met Dustin’s now-wife, Jiejing, for the first time. Some of the speeches over dinner made me realize just how poor my Mandarin comprehension has become. Dustin and Jiejing were very gracious hosts. I hadn’t expected to have much time to talk to Dustin, seeing as it was his wedding day and he had all sorts of family and friends in attendance, but we actually did get to talk. I enjoyed meeting some of the other guests too (did everyone work in machine learning except the veterinarian specializing in exotics?).

Flying pelican off the pier at Seacliff State Beach

The next morning, I returned to Companion Bakeshop for an almond croissant, a ham and cheese croissant, and a kouign amann. Then I walked down to Seacliff State Beach. Jiejing had recommended it, though I probably would have gone anyway. I walked out onto the pier, the end of which was closed off by a chicken-wire fence, presumably to keep humans away from the flocks of roosting cormorants and pelicans. I left the pier and walked across the sand toward the water. I watched the waves for a while; I was especially amused by the train of waterfowl swimming parallel to shore that would go bobbing over the incoming breakers like so many rubber duckies. Before leaving the beach, I ate my almond croissant for breakfast; it was scrumptious.

Over they go!

I left Aptos and drove back up to San Francisco, where I ditched my rental car and took BART to Chinatown. In St. Mary’s Square, I ate my ham and cheese croissant for lunch. It was also scrumptious. I checked out the memorial plaque to Chinese American soldiers who died in the World Wars, the Korean comfort women memorial, and the huge statue of Sun Yat-Sen.

“Comfort Women” Column of Strength, by Steven Whyte, in St. Mary’s Square

I walked up Grant Avenue, keeping an eye out for Chinese bakeries where I fully intended to buy egg tarts. After a little bit of reconnaissance, I went on to City Lights Booksellers and skulked around the basement between the children’s/YA and SFF sections until I finally settled on P. Djèlí Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums.

Justice for Vicha Ratanapakdee mural in Chinatown

After buying my book, I turned the corner back into Chinatown, ready for egg tarts. I also checked out a number of holes in the wall selling dim sum items out of huge steamers, but some of them had lines out the door, and I also didn’t want dumplings right then, and I wasn’t sure hot food would keep till my next hotel. So I just went back to Eastern Bakery for egg tarts.

Eastern Bakery in Chinatown

The bakery wasn’t open to the public; there was a man taking orders behind a plastic table set up on the sidewalk, blocking the entrance to the shop. I was a little worried when I got in line because something I heard made me think there might not be any egg tarts left, but that wasn’t the case. I asked for three, and the man told me it was four for $9, so without thinking very hard I said sure. Then he asked whether I could wait ten minutes or so for them, and I said yes. I also ordered a baked pork bun. The man told me I could sit on a nearby bench to wait for the egg tarts, so I did. While I waited, a Chinatown tour led by a white man came by; he told his group that Eastern Bakery made the best mooncakes in the world. Eventually, my egg tarts were ready; I took the paper bag with the fresh tarts hot out of the oven and went back to the bench to eat one right away. Before I was finished, the man approached me from behind and asked me if it was good. I was so startled I said something incoherent and ungrammatical. I meant to say it was good.

Waiting for egg tarts in Chinatown

I left Chinatown for Glen Park, to meet up with my friend Katherine and her toddler son Walter. We went on a walk around the neighborhood in search of interesting vehicles and then returned to their backyard to ferry pinecones from bench to flowerbed. Walter warmed up to me and even said my name, which was very cute. I had bought several egg tarts thinking I’d offer a couple to them, knowing that they might not like or want them (pandemic times being what they are). Indeed, Katherine turned them down, which meant I still had three egg tarts all for me. This was not really a problem.

Passionflower in Glen Park

After sundown, I headed further north, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Rohnert Park, where I’d booked my last hotel. I ate the pork bun for dinner. The next morning, I ate my last pastry from Aptos, the kouign amann, which I think had gotten a bit stale. Then I went to Dhammadharini Monastery in nearby Penngrove to visit my friend Kaccāyana, who as of this fall is a fully ordained bhikkhunī. We walked over to the campus of Sonoma State University and wandered back into the woods, where we sat on a fallen tree across a dry streambed and talked.

When it was getting toward lunchtime for the monastics, we returned to the monastery, and I left to go back to San Francisco. After returning my rental car, I went to investigate whether there was a food truck outside the terminal, and indeed there was! It had an extremely generic, non-descript name, but it turned out to serve Filipino and Mexican food. The cook seemed to be Filipino, and the more Filipino-oriented dishes sounded appealing, so I ordered the teriyaki chicken plate with garlic rice and lumpia. I ate it on the sidewalk; it was delicious.

My teriyaki chicken plate with garlic rice and lumpia

All in all, it was a very successful trip. I got to see one high school friend, one college friend, and one grad school friend (in order!). I feel lucky to have made it out there to see all those people. Now I expect to hunker down for the winter, and I hope that as the year comes to a close you are also safe, healthy, and warm.

Iceland, Part II

Read Part I first!

Sunday was the midpoint of our Icelandic vacation, and we kicked off the day by heading into Reykjavík for the COVID tests we needed in order to fly back to the U.S. The Primary Health Care of the Capital Area proved to be very efficient, and after our swabs, we went into the city center to shop and poke around. It was cool and gray, but there was only an occasional slight drizzle. Parking was free on Sundays, and there may have been fewer tourists on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street, because many of the stores were closed.

Street art on Laugavegur in Reykjavík

I didn’t buy any souvenirs (Icelandic sweaters and wool blankets feature prominently in the gift shops), but I did buy several postcards, as well as Icelandic stamps. The stamp for Europe was Christmas-themed, for some reason, but the stamp for outside of Europe featured an Icelandic gyrfalcon. I later dropped my postcards in fire engine red Pósturinn boxes, one in a Krónan grocery store in Selfoss and one at the Skaftafell visitor center.

A house in Reykjavík

I liked the Reykjavík city center. There was street art painted on the asphalt of Laugavegur (a big maroon bird, a yellow eel), there were murals, there were corrugated metal houses in bright colors with wooden window frames and trim. There were a couple of excellent-looking bakeries with lines out the door, at times; we bought sandwiches and pastries from Sandholt, on Laugavegur, which had fantastic French-style viennoiseries, among other goodies. Also on Laugavegur, we saw a Bengal cat that might belong to one of the shops.

Hallgrímskirkja

Before leaving Reykjavík, we went up to Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church and the largest church in Iceland. Its architecture was inspired by the basalt lava columns we later saw in several places. In the square in front of the church is a statue of Leifr Eiricsson (as spelled on the pedestal) given to Iceland by the U.S. in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the Alþingi (which according to Wikipedia is the oldest surviving parliament in the world!). After the service let out, we could venture inside the church. The soaring nave is unadorned but full of light, and there’s a huge pipe organ at the back.

In the afternoon, we drove southeast on the Ring Road (Route 1, which follows the country’s perimeter) to Seljalandsfoss, another of Iceland’s big waterfalls. The water falls from a cliff in sheets and thunders into the pool below. There’s a path that climbs up to a hollow behind the waterfall, allowing you to walk all the way around the falls. Behind the water the rock face is mossy. There’s a somewhat rocky climb out again.

Seljalandsfoss

Walking beyond Seljalandsfoss, there are a couple of other small waterfalls coming down the cliffside, and then there’s Gljúfrabúi, the hidden waterfall, which is tucked away inside a rock chamber a bit like the Baðstofa sea cave in Hellnar (see Part I). We walked alongside the stream that came out of the cleft in the rock, against the current, and into the chamber, where the waterfall came pouring down. Again, there was an opening onto the sky above.

Gljúfrabúi

On Monday, we left the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse for the last time and drove toward Seljalandsfoss again, but we turned off at the town of Hvolsvöllur to join up with our Midgard Adventure tour at Midgard Base Camp, the company’s headquarters. Our group consisted of fifteen people led by two guides. We were with a father and son from Scarsdale in a 10-person van driven by our guide Vala. The rest of the group, including a couple of French families, was in a super jeep. Both vehicles were suited for the unpaved mountain roads in Iceland’s interior, as well as fording streams.

Brief digression about Icelandic: when I visit a new country, I often make some effort to learn something of the language (e.g. Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese) before I go, even if that effort isn’t terribly successful. This time around, I did way less advance study than in the past. I tried to learn how to pronounce Icelandic words and was a bit daunted (apparently these days <ð> is mostly lenited…?). The only time during our vacation when I actually felt like I made some progress was during our tour with Vala because I could listen to her pronounce Icelandic words, like Landmannalaugur, our destination, or hraun, which means lava field (and is also the name of a rough-exteriored Icelandic chocolate bar). I realized that <au> is not pronounced [au] (but <á>, which means river, really is) and that <hv> is indeed [kv]. I could also hear pre-aspiration in Vala’s English! And later that evening, someone else at Midgard Base Camp said Eyjafjallajökull slowly for my mother, and I noted that <ll> really is [tl]. So, my Icelandic sounding out is a little better now!

Sigöldugljúfur

Vala drove us back northwest on Route 1 and then turned inland. On the way, she told us a bit about the ongoing Fagradalsfjall eruptions near the airport, immigration in Iceland, and the catastrophic eruptions of Lakagígar in 1783, which caused huge loss of human and animal life, wreaked havoc globally, and may have helped spark the French Revolution. We made a pit stop at the Hrauneyjar lodge and then drove on to Sigöldugljúfur, an out-of-the-way canyon mostly drained by a hydroelectric dam project. Vala said it was known as the Canyon of Tears or the Crying Canyon, and it was one of the most striking and beautiful sights of our trip. Turquoise water ran through the canyon bottom while numerous waterfalls dotted its rock walls. It was a highlight for me, and we couldn’t have seen it on our own.

Hiking around Landmannalaugar

From Sigöldugljúfur, we headed through the mountains to our ultimate destination, Landmannalaugur, in the Highlands. There’s a camp there with huts and a tent area, near the hot spring pool (laugar = pools) and below the colorful rhyolite mountains. We first set off on a loop hike which took us along a mountain stream, past some greenish rock faces, and through a lava field (with shiny obsidian!) formed in 1477.  We reached the windy scree slope of a mountain (which people were climbing), where there was a big and extremely sulfurous fumarole belching steam. The smell was almost corrosive. On some greener, craggier adjacent slopes there were more plumes of steam, as well as some intrepid sheep.

The mountains at Landmannalaugar

The hike led downwards after that point, towards a meadow in a valley surrounded by the painted mountains. We circled back to the camp, where we ate the bagged lunches provided by Midgard Adventure. Then we had a short window in which to bathe in the hot spring pool. A boardwalk led through the marshy grasses to a platform where you could stash your stuff. A wooden staircase descended into the water, which was quite shallow and, of course, warm. There was some algae floating around. As I walked on the sharp stony bottom towards these little steaming falls, the heat of the water intensified. It was a fun experience; I hadn’t been in any hot springs since a trip to Switzerland years ago. There was a trio of cute black sheep (a ewe and two lambs, judging by their relative sizes) grazing near the hot spring pool.

Black sheep near the hot spring pool

We drove back a different way, through a lot of fairly barren landscapes. Apparently a lot of the Highlands are considered volcanic desert, and it does look like a desert, or maybe the surface of Mars or the moon. Practically everyone in our van started dozing off, but we did make one more stop at Fossbrekkur, a pretty waterfall in a sort of canyon below the snow-capped volcano Hekla, which is overdue for an eruption. Vala told us that legend has it that witches meet on Hekla on Easter.

Fossbrekkur

After our tour, we decided to eat dinner in the Midgard Base Camp restaurant, which had excellent food. I had more Arctic char, served with rich mashed potatoes, and we shared the rhubarb dessert with basil ice cream. Then we had to drive around the southern belly of Iceland to our new lodgings at the Hörgsland Guesthouse, just beyond Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Luckily, since the sun still sets quite late in Iceland in August and it’s still light out at 10:00pm, we arrived before dark.

My Arctic char at the Midgard Base Camp restaurant

On Tuesday, our last full day in Iceland, we kept driving east on the Ring Road. Our plan was to go all the way to the glacial lagoon called Jökulsárlón and then stop at some other sights on the way back. Most of our route was in the metaphorical shadow of the massive glacier Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland, which has many offshoot glaciers whose tendrils we glimpsed from the highway. It was quite a spectacular drive, both the way there and the way back. We drove through the glacial outwash plain called Skeiðarársandur (which looks kind of like a dark gravel wasteland shot through with brown rivers) and around the tip of a glacier to reach Jökulsárlón.

Jökulsárlón

This glacial lagoon was formed by the receding of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull. A short river leads from the lagoon under a suspension bridge to the ocean. Jökulsárlón has glacial blue water and is dotted with miniature icebergs with blue undertones, some streaked with black. Close to the parking lot, there were a lot of gulls flying around or perched on the ice chunks, and there were big seals (probably harbor seals?) swimming in the lagoon! During our visit, it was overcast, and the clouds were very low, obscuring the mountains and glacier that were presumably at the back of the lagoon. But we walked along the water as Zodiacs, amphibious tour boats, and a group of kayaks moved among the icebergs. 

Seabirds and seals!

At Jökulsárlón, we bought one Icelandic hotdog to share (Icelanders are apparently into hotdogs). The sausage is supposed to be made from lamb, beef, and pork, but it tasted like any other hotdog to me. It came with mustard, mayonnaise, and raw and crispy fried onions. It wasn’t bad! 

The Icelandic hotdog

After more seal watching (I saw as many as six at a time), we crossed over to the other side of the Ring Road to see the black sand beach studded with chunks of ice. I think the ice washes ashore after exiting Jökulsárlón via the river. We could see small icebergs floating out of the lagoon, down river, and out to sea. The wet black sand makes a striking contrast with the white or transparent ice chunks as well as the foam of the crashing waves. We spotted a seal swimming a little ways offshore. As we were leaving, some larger icebergs were floating out of the mouth of the river.

The black sand beach adjacent to Jökulsárlón

From Jökulsárlón, we backtracked on Route 1. First we went back 10km to another glacial lagoon (or lake, since it doesn’t connect to the sea) called Fjallsárlón. It was less crowded than Jökulsárlón, and though it was just a few kilometers to the west, the clouds had lifted somewhat and there was a bit of sunlight. This meant that we could see the cliff face and ridged surface of the glacier behind the water, and in fact it and the snowy peaks beyond were partially illuminated by the sun. Occasionally we heard the glacier cracking, but we never glimpsed any movement. I loved seeing the blue cast of some of the glaciers. Fjallsárlón was in some ways more picturesque than Jökulsárlón because there was a collection of sculpted mini icebergs quite close to shore, but I agree with the Lonely Planet guidebook that it’s worth visiting both.

Fjallsárlón

We could have taken a 5km (one-way) hike from Fjallsárlón to a third glacial lake called Breiðárlón, even less frequented by tourists, but we opted not to. Instead, we backtracked further along the Ring Road to Skaftafell, a popular area that’s part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park. We took the 1.8km path toward Svartifoss (Black Waterfall), which was almost entirely uphill and in full sun. At Jökulsárlón, I’d had four layers on; during this hike, I shed all but one. We trekked up through scrub and grassy meadows dotted with angelica, with views of mountains and glaciers in the distance.

Hiking in Skaftafell

There was a last descent to approach Svartifoss from the bottom. The waterfall is narrow and fork-tongued but with a fairly high drop. The big attraction is the hexagonal basalt lava columns that frame it. It creates a sort of solid, layered stone honeycomb effect.

Svartifoss

After the hike back, we ate the salmon or lamb sandwiches we’d bought at the Skaftafell cafeteria, as well as the creamy lobster soup from the Glacier Goodies food truck next to the campground. We’d also gotten some passionfruit skyr cake and berry tart from the cafeteria, which we shared back at the Hörgsland Guesthouse.

Wednesday was the day of our departure, and we had a fairly long drive back to Reykjavík. We did make one stop, just past the town of Vík, driving around the mountain Reynisfjall to the black sand beach called Reynisfjara. There were many warning signs, as the beach is considered the most dangerous in Iceland due to the sneaker waves. The tip of the mountain had more basalt columns, shallow caves, and flocks of seabirds, including many puffins perched on grassy clifftops! Puffins look kind of comical when they fly. It was the flying puffins that first caught my notice, actually, since they move very differently than seagulls, and then I realized there were puffins lining the cliff far above us.

The cliffs at Reynisfjara

From Reynisfjara, we could see some of the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, and looking east, we could see the promontory of Dyrhólaey, with its rock arch.

Sea stacks at Reynisfjara

We drove the rest of the way to Reykjavík, where we had a delicious lunch at the home of Valur and Guðrún, the former proprietors of the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse and the current proprietors of the car we’d been driving. We learned a bit about the September sheep roundup (Valur showed us some videos on YouTube, complete with sheep roundup singing–one of the songs had the same tune as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). Apparently there are now opportunities for tourists to take part in rounding up the sheep. Then we headed to the airport.

On the flight back to Minneapolis, we flew over the fjords of southeastern Greenland while there were broad openings in the clouds. Sitting by the window, I had spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains, the deep blue water dotted with icebergs, and the sweeping glaciers.

Mountains and glaciers of Greenland

Iceland, Part I

When I was in 7th grade, our social studies teacher, Mrs. Weller, assigned each student in the class a country in the Western hemisphere. Naturally, most of my classmates had Latin American countries, but my assigned country was Iceland. We each had to research our country (remember the CIA World Factbook?), and we did various in-class activities like lining up in order of GDP per capita (Iceland was something of an outlier). The project culminated in a proposal for a business located in our assigned country. It had to make sense in the context of our country, and I think we had to research the local infrastructure and figure out how we were going to get our company off the ground. I recall a lot of ice cream shops in Central America, but I decided to found a whale and bird watching boat tour company. Ever since that middle school project, I had wanted to visit Iceland, though that ambition faded into the background as the years went by.

Ten years ago, my friend Dustin introduced me to the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, of which I’ve been a casual fan ever since. I saw Árstíðir’s viral video of their singing the 13th-century Icelandic hymn “Heyr himna smiður” in a German train station, and I quite like their music too. In grad school, I’m sure I had to read at least one syntax paper by an Icelandic linguist, but I remember basically nothing about it. And a year or so ago I heard Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s choral composition “Heyr þu oss himnum a” on Minnesota Public Radio and thought it was gorgeous. But I wasn’t expecting to visit Iceland anytime soon until, earlier this year, my parents invited my brother and me to go with them in August.

The trip was planned before the Delta variant surge, and I’m not sure I would recommend international travel right now. But we went on our vacation, and we were fortunate, and the trip was amazing.

Approaching Iceland from the air

We flew out of Minneapolis on a Wednesday evening and landed at Keflavík International Airport at 6:30am on Thursday, flying in over the lacy Icelandic coastline. We took a bus to a bus terminal in Reykjavík, where we met Valur, a friend of a friend and one of the former proprietors of the guesthouse where we would be staying (my parents had stayed there on a previous trip to Iceland). Valur was renting us his car, since rental cars proved to be a very hot commodity in Iceland this summer. We made the short drive to the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse, in the valley called Mosfellsdalur.

Social Icelandic sheep at the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse

After a nap and a light lunch, we drove to Þingvellir National Park, on the lake Þingvallavatn (vatn = lake). The park lies in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of 2.5cm a year. There is a fault or ridge called Almannagjá (also described as a canyon or ravine) that actually makes it feel like the earth is cleft here.

The rift at Þingvellir

Icelandic law proclaims Þingvellir “a protected national shrine of all Icelanders,” as it was here that the Alþingi, Iceland’s ancient parliament (and indeed the name of its current parliament), met. 

Þingvallakirkja

We walked down and across the meadow through which streams of the Öxará river snaked, toward the 19th-century church Þingvallakirkja and the nearby farmhouse, two of whose five gables constitute the summer residence of the Prime Minister. Both buildings are white with green trim.

Þingvellir

We wandered among some further pools with clear blue water and then headed back up toward the Lögberg, or Law Rock, now marked with an Icelandic flag. This was where the Alþingi met and where the Lawspeaker recited the law from memory, one third of it each summer.

Drekkingarhylur

We continued along the path past the Drekkingarhylur, or Drowning Pool, where over the centuries 18 women were drowned for various crimes. Further on, we climbed up to see Öxarárfoss, a waterfall where the Öxará river flows over the Almannagjá.

From Þingvellir, we drove to Laugarvatn, a little town on the eponymous lake. We were going to have dinner at Lindin, a restaurant there, but we arrived early, so we walked from the lakeside restaurant’s deck toward the water. Here we stumbled upon Vígðalaug, the Blessed Pool, a hot spring-fed pool used for baptisms when Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000 (people didn’t want to be baptized in cold water!). The six bier stones (Líkasteinar) nearby are associated with the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Arason, and his sons, who were beheaded when Lutheranism was being imposed by Denmark and whose bodies were washed in the pool.

Vígðalaug

Although the sun was shining, it certainly wasn’t hot, so I was surprised to see a windsurfer on the lake, as well as some swimmers farther off. But then I dipped my hand in the water on the beach and realized it was warm; Laugarvatn has hot springs.

Our first dinner in Iceland, and every subsequent meal we ate a restaurant, was delicious. Fish and lamb dishes (including fish and meat soup) dominate menus, and potatoes abound too.

My Arctic char at Lindin

The next morning, we went on a short walk from the guesthouse, greeting the sheep and horses on our way out. (Driving around Iceland, you see many, many horses and sheep, though the latter are usually only in trios or small groups, never flocks, as they roam free in the summer. Cows are rarer but do appear on occasion.) We walked over to Mosfellskirkja, the local church. As we were leaving, a raven was perched on its roof cawing.

Steaming mudpots in the Geysir area

We drove past Þingvallavatn again and on to the Geysir complex, which is well-outfitted for the plentiful tourists like us. We ate excellent sandwiches and cake in the cafeteria and then crossed the road to see the geothermal sights. A thin stream trickled along the path, with periodic signs indicating that the water’s temperature was between 80° and 100° Celsius. Plumes of steam emanated from mudpots, some of which were actually bubbling like cauldrons over the fire.

The geyser Strokkur, in between eruptions

We reached Strokkur, a geyser that’s currently like the Old Faithful of Iceland because it erupts, fountaining water and steam, every 6-8 minutes or so (at least while we were there). Tourists lined up along a rope barrier, phones held at the ready for the next blast. At least once we saw Strokkur erupt twice in quick succession, with the second eruption like an extra hiccup.

A pool

We climbed further up toward other pools. This area feels a lot like parts of Yellowstone, with pools of clear water, blue at their deepest points and rust and white around their lichenous edges. The ground underwater seems to open up into caverns. There was one milky blue steaming pot, though. Up the slope, Alaskan lupines (not a native plant) lined the path, and there were a few purple flowers still in bloom.

A lupine

We walked downhill to reach Geysir, the original geyser, whose pool has a larger surface area than Strokkur’s. Geysir was steaming, but nowadays it’s dormant, so no eruption. The landscape of this whole geothermal area is a little bit unearthly, especially with white steam drifting eerily out of holes in the ground. It’s beautiful and fascinating.

Geysir, the original geyser

Next, we drove to Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, on the Hvítá (White River). From the parking lot, we got our first glimpse of a glacier in the distance. It’s hard for me to identify which one because Iceland has a number of huge glaciers which have named offshoots. We took the path toward the waterfall. It was a sunny day again, the blue sky strewn with fluffy clouds, and in the distance, we could see a patch of rainbow. Then we drew closer and saw the massive waterfall in its deep canyon. The rainbows were spectacular. A gravel path led alongside the canyon toward the upper falls, and part of it was dampened by the heavy mist sprayed up by the huge lower falls.

Gullfoss

From Gullfoss, we drove to Eyrarbakki, a fishing village on the southern coast of Iceland, where we had an early dinner at Rauða Húsið (The Red House–most of the restaurants we ate in looked like houses from the outside, in fact). The restaurant specializes in humar, translated as lobster, but more precisely the Norway lobster (or langoustine). We almost all had the “uplifted” lobster tails, where they prise the meat out of the shell and serve it on top.

My uplifted lobster tails at Rauða Húsið

After dinner, we checked out the “beach,” which was not very beachy, but we saw some washed-up seaweed and a small black crab (dead) on the asphalt.

The next day was Saturday, and we spent it driving to and around the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. We took the tunnel under the Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) and the bridge over Borgarfjörður, in the mist. We headed first for Stykkishólmur to eat lunch at Narfeyrarstofa, a restaurant which serves local seafood including scallops and blue mussels. It was here that we first encountered Iceland’s unexpected enthusiasm for Doritos; my brother’s fish and chips breading included finely crushed Doritos.

Me and my local scallops with sweet potato and Icelandic barley at Narfeyrarstofa (notice the sheepskin behind me)

After lunch, we walked around the Stykkishólmur harbor and along the causeway to the basalt island Súgandisey. We climbed a steep staircase to the grassy top of the island, where there was an old windlass (I think) once used for hauling kerosene up for the lighthouse. From Súgandisey, we could take in the views of Breiðafjörður and its islands. We could also walk up to the short red lighthouse.

Stykkishólmur harbor with Súgandisey in the background

From Stykkishólmur, we followed the road along the Snæfellsnes coast, passing through tiny towns. We stopped to see Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, near the town of Grundarfjörður. Kirkjufell is a dramatic, horizontally striated mountain that juts up at the edge of the sea (apparently it was a filming location for Game of Thrones). 

Kirkjufell

Further down the highway, we got out to look at Snæfellsjökull (jökull = glacier), the volcano and glacier at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. There was a flock of elegant Arctic terns flying and screeching on the side of the road. I think I can guess why their name in Icelandic is kría.

Arctic terns in flight

Apparently some people consider Snæfellsjökull one of the world’s spiritual or energy centers. I can’t really speak to that, but our guide on our inland trip a couple of days later told us she feels a very strange energy there.

We curved around the tip of the peninsula and began heading south and southeast. I was paging through the Lonely Planet guidebook, and I noticed the entry on Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach with rock formations just 2km off the road we were on. I asked if we could go there, and we did! The road toward the coast wasn’t really wide enough for two cars, but at the end of it was a packed parking lot, tour busses, and bathrooms. It was a short walk past a lava field, a blue pool, and a rock arch, with views of Snæfellsjökull to the north, to the stony beach strewn with rusted debris from the 1948 wreck of a British fishing trawler. The guidebook stated that the rock formations here included an elf church and a Kerling, or troll woman, but I never figured out where the elf church was. Djúpalónssandur was pebblier than I expected for a black “sand” beach, but it was picturesque, and it was fun watching the small waves crash on the smoothed rocks that reached the shore.

Djúpalónssandur

Our next stop was Hellnar, on the coast, where there was a hillside café serving cake, among other things. We walked downhill and clambered across rounded stones in shades from pale gray to black toward the Baðstofa sea cave. The cliffs on either side of the open-topped chamber featured incredible rock formations made up of layers or plates of gray stone in different thicknesses that collectively swooped and curved like ocean waves. The sea cave was filled with nesting seagulls and rang with their cries. There was water at the bottom of it, and a hole in the ceiling opened onto the sky and let in the light. It was an amazing spot.

The Baðstofa sea cave at Hellnar

We started up the trail that led from Hellnar to Arnarstapi, the next coastal fishing village. The path led through another lava field; all the Icelandic lava fields we saw consisted of a rubble of dark rocks covered with gray-green moss. There were views of Snæfellsjökull and the knob-topped mountain Stapafell, as well as of sea cliffs and rocky islands dotted with birds. On one of these, my brother and I spotted two birds whose black backs and white stomachs immediately made me think of penguins, but of course they couldn’t be penguins. We thought they were puffins, but on our last day in Iceland, we saw actual puffins, and these birds had looked much larger. Now I wonder if they might’ve been lesser auks, also known as razorbills. In Arnarstapi, we saw the statue of Barður the troll (who was actually half human, one quarter giant, and one quarter troll), who has his own saga.

Walking from Hellnar to Arnarstapi

Continued in Part II!

The Boundary Waters 2021

Almost exactly a year after last year’s trip, my family returned to the Boundary Waters this summer, although this time it was just my parents and me, since my brother was working a show. It’s been ten years since our first family expedition to the BWCA in 2011, and fittingly, we returned to the same entry point we used on that trip, on Lake One. We drove up on a Friday, through the Iron Range, and had dinner in Ely before spending the night in a very nice bunkhouse at the Kawishiwi Lodge & Outfitters. The next day, we paddled out in our rented three-person canoe. We soon claimed a lovely campsite on a peninsula in the northern part of the lake.

View from our campsite

It was home to some pretty vocal red squirrels and adorable chipmunks in several sizes who chowed down on beaked hazelnuts and birch catkins throughout our stay. They weren’t camera-shy either.

Chipmunk

Red squirrel

On Sunday, we set out on a day trip, taking the heavily trafficked (in midmorning) portages to Lake Two. There we paddled around for a bit and then stashed our canoe on the rock in order to walk the portage to Rifle Lake. The trail featured bluebead lilies, bunchberry, and wild blueberries, though we found only a couple of ripe berries to pick and eat.

Water lily near a portage

As we canoed back toward Lake One, we spotted a mammalian head rising out of the water. We got closer, and I saw the head again before it ducked underwater. A smooth brown back appeared above the surface, then a round, furred tail, before it was gone. An otter! I was excited because 1) I’d never seen an otter in the wild before and 2) I didn’t even known there were otters in the Boundary Waters (Minnesota’s Otter Tail County notwithstanding). We drifted in our canoe, looking back and watching, and we saw two heads in the water. The otters approached each other, and I wondered if they’d do that adorable handholding the sea otters do, but no. They did hop onto the rocky shore of a small island, though, and we could see their lithe forms and thin tails as they gamboled briefly before returning to the water. We weren’t that close to them, but they were definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

An evening paddle

In the evening, we went for another paddle to try to watch the sunset (they weren’t that spectacular on this trip, though). We went around our peninsula and found a beaver lodge in the inlet, but we’d never before spotted a beaver near a lodge, or, in fact, at all. We came out again. But then, as we paddled southwest alongside our peninsula, past the landing for our campsite, I was looking at the shoreline on my right, and I saw a creature on the rock, at the edge of the water. It was large and brown and stocky and roundish, and I pointed and exclaimed, already sure it was a beaver, and it slipped into the water. I think I saw a big, black, flat tail. We drifted again, watching, and again there were two of them! One in particular we watched swim around a lot, its head and back visible above the surface of the water. It looked like a capybara (as if I’ve ever seen one of those).

Looking back toward Lake One along the passage to Confusion Lake

On Monday, we explored Lake One further and checked out the so-called Lake One Dam, at the mouth of the passage into Confusion Lake to the north. The passage contains some rapids, and the “dam” was possibly an attempt to direct the flow of water a certain way by piling up rocks. We ditched our canoe again and walked the portage to Confusion Lake, where we saw a group of five diving ducks. Were they some kind of merganser, or buffleheads, or goldeneyes? We hiked back and, on the advice of some women we’d met, paddled around into an inlet, found a patch of sand where we left our canoe, and clambered onto some rocks with a view of the rapids.

The sun on our last morning

Over the course of our short camping trip, it grew hazier. When we’d left the Twin Cities, the haze and air quality were actually worse down there than up in Ely, with smoke blown down from Canadian wildfires. But the haze thickened in the Boundary Waters while we were there. On Monday evening, the setting sun glowed an intense red behind the trees, and on Tuesday morning, it was orange and cast a reddish light on the ground. We packed up and headed back to the outfitters.

Another view from our campsite

In addition to the otters, beavers, red squirrels, and chipmunks, we saw bald eagles, loons, cedar waxwings, and blue and gray (Canada) jays, among other birds. I also saw at least two garter snakes. The otters and beavers really made this trip memorable, though; I haven’t seen anything as exciting since the moose in 2005! But I’ll be perfectly happy if I never meet a bear in the Boundary Waters.

Trip to Meudon

Given that we are still in a global pandemic, I didn’t think I would get to visit Isabelle this year, but then the stars aligned, and I spent last week with Isabelle, Olivier, and my godcat Æncre in Meudon, France. It was a pretty quiet trip, but here are a few highlights:

Flowers on the way to the Forêt de Meudon: cornflowers, California poppies, love-in-a-mist, and more

A heron and some large turtles on a log in one of the lakes in the Forêt de Meudon

Walking in the Forêt de Meudon (a reprise of 2020)

Æncre the adorable

Goodbye, France!

A Visit to Des Moines

Last week, my mother came down to visit me in Iowa, and we spent a morning under a changeable sky at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Despite having lived in Iowa for a year and three quarters (minus a big chunk of the pandemic), I’ve spent next to no time in Des Moines. That’s still mostly true, but at least I’ve seen a little bit more of the capital. Here are a few of my favorite plants from the botanical garden:

Baptisias (false indigos) in many colors!

Borage, or starflower, which my phone camera unfortunately made too purple and not blue enough

I think this is Taylor’s Sunburst lodgepole pine

Then there was this adorable baby rabbit I stalked!

There was a spectacular collection of columbines that my photos did not do justice to

Quite the peony

After seeing the botanical garden, we got takeout bún from Á Đông. Then my mother left for the return leg of her Iowa peony tour while I went down the road to check out the Chinese pavilion on the Des Moines River. The structure is in the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, named for a former governor of Iowa who worked to resettle Southeast Asian refugees in the state in the 1970s.