A walk through Blönduós

Blönduós is a small city in the northwest of Iceland. The name Blönduós translate  to “the mouth of the river Blanda” and aptly describe how the city encircled the meeting point between ocean and land.

Iceland as been known to be an architectural melting pot and Blönduós perfectly embodies this idea. I found this city to have interesting and varied architecture; very colourful and full of textures. I have found myself enjoying my walks through the city as much as those through the beautiful Icelandic landscapes.

A house by the sea © Annik St-Arnaud
A house by the sea (detail) © Annik St-Arnaud
A house by the sea (detail) © Annik St-Arnaud

Frugality and practicality has defined Icelandic architecture since the time of settlememt; both informed by what is available to them and also what will withstand the Icelandic temperamental weather. There is a mix of old and new; we can see the signs of time and repairs, as a chronological journal of the city.

© Annik St-Arnaud
© Annik St-Arnaud
© Annik St-Arnaud

 

© Annik St-Arnaud
© Annik St-Arnaud

 

The architecture has very clear and colourful influences of Scandinavian design. Personally, some of theses buildings remind me of the Quebec architecture from the 60’s and early 70’s, either because of their design or colors.

Community center © Annik St-Arnaud
© Annik St-Arnaud

I’ll keep walking and exploring … and writing and sharing this small town with you all !

Gestastofa Sútarans

While attending knitting festival in Blönduós last weekend, I was intrigued by the colourful leather I saw, which I believed to be snake skin. Later on, I spoke to Hjördís Þorfinnsdottir who made some colourful buttons from the leather and I found out the material was actually salmon skin. She showed me how to make a button from salmon skin step by step.

Draw a circle according to the button’s size template. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Cut it and place it in a button holder. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Put the fish skin into the button holder and press it together with the back of the button. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Beautiful yellow button. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

After that, we conversed and she informed me about a tannery centre in Sauðárkrókur, about 40 minutes bus ride from Blönduós, where she bought all the salmon skin displayed at the festival. After the festival ended, I decided to go to the only tannery visitor centre in Iceland, Gestastofa Sútarans in Sauðárkrókur with some Concordia students and Deborah, a residency artist/teacher from Scotland.

At the Gestastofa Sutarans, we were greeted by Marianna Margeirsdottir. She gave us a tour where the fish tanning process took place at the back of the visitor centre shop.  It is also a place where staff and workers process the skin of lamb, horse and sometimes seal and other skin, according to the customers’ order.

The tanning process for fish skin takes about a month, because every fish is different – different texture, oil content, etc. The fish skin that the Gestastofa Sutarans use are wolffish, perch, salmon and cod. None of these fish are on the endangered species list.

The fish skins are purchased from commercial fisheries and shipped in boxes. The combination of chemicals are used to remove all the fish oils so that there is no fish odor anymore. Through a month chemical and mechanical process, the skins are churned, soaked, fleshed, vacuum dried and dyed. The special tanning treatment prevents the fish leather from becoming stiff, once all the oil from the skin is taken out. Unfortunately, we could not see the earlier processes of tanning the skin. The following pictures are half of the processes of fish tanning that Marianna had shown us.

The fish skins are stapled onto a shelf to stretch them, in order to achieve the best possible result with an even surface. This has to be done one by one. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
The skins dry on a shelf between 1 to 2 weeks. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
The backs of the skins must be shaved properly to remove excess fibres. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
The skins are softened by spinning them in a tumbler. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
According to the customers’ orders some skins are treated with a finish, e.g. glitter paper is imprinted onto salmon skin. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Perch skin. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Salmon skin. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Cod skin. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018
Wolffish skin. Photo: Avy Loftus, 2018

The fashion world is in constant flux, always changing and innovating. Within the last couple of decades, one of the most exciting trends to have emerged is the use of fish skin as leather. Fish produce a variety of textures from the vast amount of species, which has astounded leather specialists around the world.

Iceland Field School Day 14 | June 14, 2015

The basics of weaving for newcomers to the artform. Photo: Kathleen Vaughan

Working with demonstrations from master weaver and teacher Ragnheiður Björk Þórsdóttir (centre), Concordia University students learn tapestry weaving at the Icelandic Textile Center. This was just the beginning of creative adventures to come!

Epic Wool

Sitting in the fantastic weaving studio at the Textílsetur Íslands in Blönduós, enjoying the vast panoramic view of Northwestern Iceland, I think about the wilderness, the roughness and the isolation of this small town.

Northwestern Iceland midnight sunset, Photo: Ryth Kesselring 2018

I start to wonder about times before the roads and modern heating systems. The times where there was no road no. 1 connecting the north to the south and the villages to towns. How did the first settlers of Iceland adapt to the fresh, blowing wind that is still so chilly, even in mid-june?

Wool, Iceland

Jóhanna Pálmadóttir farm, Icelandic sheep, Photo: Ryth Kesselring 2018

Looking at the scenic seaside my thoughts start wandering and I imagine myself here in a different century. Even if I know that Blönduós was founded during the 19th century, I imagine myself here at the times of the Vikings, arriving after an epic journey on the cold and rough Norwegian sea somewhere between the 9th to the 11th century. Trying to adapt to the isolated cold winter season on an Island surrounded by ice and and snow.

Textile center Iceland, weaving

Weaving studio at Textílsetur Íslands, Photo: Ryth Kesselring 2018

Looking at the old-fashioned floor looms around me, I am imagining the weavers of the past creating soft and warm fabrics out of wool to keep their loved ones warm. The very same wool I have been learning to tame since the day I arrived in Iceland. The wool that seems to contain the beautiful wilderness of this Nordic country, and that materializes the rawness of its surroundings. The wool that comes from the northern Europe short tail sheep, brought by the Vikings from Norway and isolated on this island so that it became one of the purest breeds of sheep in the world. The wool that I am learning to spin, that I have dyed with different Icelandic plants and that will be my chosen material for this month of artistic research and exploration.

Icelandic wool
Black Tog and light hand dyed wool, Photo: Ryth Kesselring 2018
First hand spun wool sample, Photo: Ryth Kesselring 2018

Continue reading “Epic Wool”

Living in Light

The beautiful view of the lake from Jóhanna’s farm. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

As Jóhanna Pálmadóttir, director of the Textílsetur, drove us to her sheep farm, she told us about the fishers who rent out her lake. When we asked if she gets some fish from the lake as well, she jokingly added, “there is no darkness here, so I can’t go in the night and steal the fish when they aren’t looking”. Although this was a jest, it did get me thinking about our relationship with the dark. Night is the time for loud parties, movie nights, and theatre. As a puppeteer and performer, I quickly became interested in the interpersonal relationship one has to the sun and its patterns. How does living half of the year in sunlight and the other in darkness affect people’s lives?

A quick chat with a Blönduós local in the hot pools on Friday evening gave me some insight. He told me that kids were often taught about bedtimes with blackout screens in their rooms, and bedtime/rules changed depending on the family. This seems to hint at the necessity of a sort of separation between the internal habits and the external world.

That being said, some research on blogs documenting human experiences living in 24-hour-sunlight has also revealed the amazing flexibility of humans to adapt to their environment.  Trausti Thor Johannsson, an Icelander living in Scandinavia, wrote that the light and dark of the summer and winter months never bothered him growing up since it was all he had ever known. It was only later on when he had moved away and would return to visit that he felt some negative consequences during the dark winter months such as grogginess and irritability[1].

The purple sky on second night in Blönduós. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

Since arriving in Iceland, I have had many different emotions in response to the brightness outside my window. I’ve woken from a nap and even though I had slept three hours, the sun would make it feel as if no time had passed. It can be disruptive for certain activities, like watching a movie on a computer screen. It has also proven a new challenge in designing a puppetry show, as the focus light needed in theatre is very difficult to achieve.

On the other hand, the midnight sun can be extremely liberating. Morning walks can be taken at any time during the day or night. Yoga on the lawn is equally possible at 9 am or 12 am. Suddenly, the patterns and habits I make aren’t connected to the sun going down.

As an anonymous Northerner wrote humorously on the blog mentioned above, “If you are out on a sunny evening, you tend to forget time, and you end up coming back from a hike at 3am. or 6am. Who cares. As for meals, who cares if it is breakfast or dinner. Or 2nd dinner.”[2]

The midnight sunset. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

There is definitely a balance that needs to be achieved when living in 24-hour sunlight. It has wreaked havoc on my sleep schedule. Many of our group commented on how the sunlight has altered their internal clocks during our class. Dave mentioned, “Everyone I’ve talked to is having some weird experience with sleep”. It does become necessary to regulate your habits and activities regardless of what the sun is doing, oftentimes leading to the external and internal being extremely separate. There we are, tucking ourselves in for a goodnight’s sleep while the birds chirp loudly as if it was already 6am.

The sky and the sea meet on the coast of Sauðárkrókur. Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

This can also be true with emotions and feelings. During our class yesterday, Kathleen spoke of the 24-hour-sunlight stating, “You really notice what is going on inside of you…if I’m feeling anxious it’s not an external cause, but something going on in my own mind”.

I wrote a poem about this experience of 24-hour-sunlight; the separation between internal emotions and habits and the outside world.

Light/Dark

written on June 12, 2018

Without dark there is no you
only seas of blue
blue being what my eye lets in
when it lets in everything

without dark there is no day
no way to take the pain away
it cycles in and out like waves
a painful memory

without day there is no dawn
no way to justify a yawn
no up, no down, its all around
the birds just stay awake

without change the sky just makes
the colours of a mood
it’s sometimes bright, it’s mostly light
it’s occasionally rude

it ebbs and flows as the ocean goes,
it’s rough, it rows
it moves and throws
it can throw me all around
but without dark
there’s no way to mark
I’ve even hit the ground
without day there is no way
the birds can make a sound

and so it goes, it spins and throws,
everything to keep me on my toes
and no one know where the dark goes
until it shows its face
perhaps it grows straight from my woes
the darkness out of place

 

Photo: Elise Timm-Bottos

[1] https://www.quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-live-in-places-with-24-hours-of-full-daylight-or-darkness-How-is-life-affected-due-to-these-extremities-Is-there-visible-impact-on-business-governance-and-essential-activities

[2] ibid.

Iceland Up Close

Iceland boasts a landscape unlike any other. A glance outside a window of the Icelandic Textile Center, previously the Kvennaskólinn in Blönduós, offers a view of black-sand beaches, green vegetation, snow-capped mountains, and infinite sea. This vast beauty is something which many travellers to Iceland eagerly anticipate, myself included. It was my intention, however, to explore the more intimate aspects of the majestic natural landscape, stopping to smell the proverbial flowers as I attempted to absorb as much of my surroundings as possible to ground myself in this new environment.

Armed with my iPhone and a 15x macro lens, I gingerly crept around the coastal area of the Textile Center on my first weekend in Blönduós. The following photos capture some of the fascinating objects I came across on my walks, for which the macro lens provided a novel, almost microscopic perspective. Online research and conversations with the centre’s director, Jóhanna Pálmadóttir, provided further insight into their significance.

Lichen (macro). Photo: Hannah Grabowecky
Lichen. Photo: Hannah Grabowecky

Lichens, or skófir, are among the most recognizable natural life in Iceland, with over 700 species across the country. These can be categorized into three groups, based on appearance: fruticose, foliose, or crustose lichens. The lichen pictured most likely belongs to the latter category as it grows as a crust on textured surfaces such as rocks, soil, or tree bark. Although leafy lichens are habitually confused for mosses, they are in fact comprised of multiple organisms which can be more easily appreciated at this close range.

Fish bone (macro). Photo: Hannah Grabowecky
Fish bone. Photo: Hannah Grabowecky

This fish bone likely came from an Atlantic cod, a noteworthy fish in Iceland. Historically, it has been the most important marine resource in the country, appearing on the Icelandic coat of arms between the 16th and 20th centuries. The cod is a fast-growing fish and can develop to a length of one meter with few predators, humans aside. This cod was not so lucky as indicated by its bones.

Blue mussels (macro). Photo: Hannah Grabowecky
Blue mussels. Photo: Hannah Grabowecky

Blue mussels are commonly found in shallow Icelandic waters. They attach themselves to hard surfaces and will remain there as the tide recedes, ultimately drying out and perishing. As a food source gaining popularity with humans, one must be aware of the potential toxicity when the mussels ingest a certain algae bloom. These blue mussels appear to have provided a tasty treat for some aquatic resident.

Brown algae (macro). Photo: Hannah Grabowecky
Brown algae. Photo: Hannah Grabowecky

Usually referred to as kelp or þang, brown algae comprise most of the large algae found in shallow waters and on the Icelandic seashore. Although the dominant species of seaweed on the northern shore has been identified as knotted wrack, the algae pictured looks more similar to a variety of sea belt which tends to live in saltier conditions. They grow in large, underwater forests, acting as protection for small or young animals and food for others.

For the above images, careful posing and Photoshop were not needed nor wanted, as I wished to digitally preserve, as best I could, exactly what was offered. With each encounter, a new wave of excitement surged through me, a hidden treasure concealed in plain sight, waiting to be discovered by a wandering and wondering visitor. How many people had taken this same path and seen this same landscape before me? How many had stopped to enjoy its intimacy as well as its grandeur? These photos serve as a reminder to remain aware of the many wonders on display, for those who are willing to take a closer look.

“So does my horoscope even apply here or like, what?”: On Missing the Moon

 

Total number of days it took to realize the moon is missing: 13 

 

I didn’t quite make note of the gesture when saying goodbye to the moon—she who is the major catalyst for the form of solitude I enjoy most, in which my own energy is reflected back to me, othering me. The moon splits me so that me and I may reconnect. She, Mother, instigates a playdate. It is Gemini season, a time defined by twins of the self. I have felt intellectually stunted and out of place, off my feet, in the air (literally, as the wind has situated itself as the primary weather condition on my radar visually, audibly and materially, not to mention the regular experience of shifting altitudes so rapidly yet subtly that I’m hardly conscious of it.) Does the moon, like anything, truly exist when beyond my registry? What does it mean to be castrated sensationally from an element so basic, especially when it flies beneath one’s nose for nearly two weeks’ time in the shadow of “minor”[1]? 

Gemini also belongs to the element of air, which rules abstraction, zippy thinking, problem solving and communication, extracting balance from an environment’s Ups and Downs. Perhaps its role, in the absence of the world’s most prominent environmental up and down, is to challenge me to make and fill crevices beyond those which have tactile presence—to use and live within the parts of my mind rooted elsewhere rather than replacing them with all things Iceland.

 

I have decided it is a good time

to hone my French.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] In reference to Anne Carson’s “On Major and Minor”, from the collection Plainwater. “Major things are wind. Evil, a good fighting horse, prepositions, inexhaustible love, the way people choose their king. Minor things include dirt, the names of schools of philosophy, mood and not having a mood, the correct time” (33-34).  

Góð Matarlyst!

Part of exploring a new country is enjoying and embracing their culinary traditions. These are some of my favourite Icelandic foodie finds, where to find them, and how to best enjoy them.

Góð Matarlyst! (Bon Appétit)     

 

Rúgbrauð — also known as hot spring bread or geyser bread — is an Icelandic rye bread which is cooked in pots or square baking pans that have been buried in the ground. How do you cook something in the ground you may ask? Iceland is home to many volcanoes, which in turn leads to a consistent flow of lava in many areas, heating the ground. This is also the reason for the many hot springs found in Iceland. The bread is placed in a hole in the ground, then covered with the steaming hot dirt. It cooks in the ground for up to 24 hours. This bread is very dense, is crustless, and has a sticky quality to it, mostlikely due to the sugar content. I found it to have a sweet, fig like flavour. Icelanders enjoy their Rúgbrauð with thick slabs of butter or mutton pate. It can also be found on menus across Iceland served with cheese platters or soup. I particularly enjoy eating it with gouda cheese and strawberry jam, or from time to time, with some Icelandic Skyr! 

Check out this video for more details on the preparation and cooking of Rúgbrauð:

Skyr is an Icelandic dairy product much like strained yogurt. It is one of the most popular food choices in our communal fridge at the Icelandic Textile Centre. It is extremely high in protein and low in fat. Skyr comes in many flavours, including but not limited to vanilla, mixed berry and crème brûlée! I really enjoy its decadent whipped texture and sweet and sour flavour. 

 

 

If you ever get the chance to visit Iceland, then you must try an Icelandic hotdog from one of the street vendors. Their hotdogs are made from lamb meat, are served on a steamed bun and come with the following toppings; ketchup, brown mustard, raw onions, remoulade sauce and my personal favourite, crispy friend onions! I don’t think I will ever be able to eat a hotdog without crispy onions again. The crunch from the onions in juxtaposition with the soft bread and salty sausage makes for a really good afternoon snack after walking the streets of Reykjavik. If you are willing to wait in line for a good 30 minutes, I suggest trying the hotdogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, they are definitely worth the wait! Just make sure not to eat too many, because you should leave some space for dessert!

Have you ever wanted to make your own ice cream? At Joylato in Reykjavik you can make your wildest ice cream dreams come true! You can design your own ice cream which they then freeze using liquid nitrogen. You select your preferred milk (cow or coconut), then the flavour (chocolate, vanilla, chocolate hazelnut, raspberry etc.) followed by a wide selection of toppings like fresh strawberries, brownies, nuts, sprinkles and sauces. My personal favourite combination is chocolate hazelnut ice cream topped with fresh strawberries, coconut chips and chocolate sauce. Each ice-cream is topped with a homemade vegan wafer cookie. Honestly, I can say that this s by far the best ice cream I have ever had, so much so that I went two days in a row!

         

Looking for a salty snack? Harðfiskur or dried fish is an Icelandic delicacy. Most often cod or haddock, it is hung to dry and cure through the natural bacteria of the Atlantic air. It is then broken apart with a hammer or meat cleaver. There are some Harðfiskur that are fishier then others. My favourite so far is the Harðfiskur ýsubitar, which has a subtle fishy smell and taste, and has a crispy wafer or chip like texture. Icelanders are known for eating Harðfiskur with butter, but I find it quite tasty on its own. It is widely available and can be found in all grocery stores and gas stations. 

 

 

Last but definitely not least, if you’re planning a trip to Iceland, you must be sure to try Fiskisúp or Icelandic fish soup. It is said that Icelanders all have their own recipe, but for the most part they all consist of a cream and tomato base with fresh white fish and vegetables. All you can eat soup and bread, and sometimes pizza, buffets are very common in Icelandic restaurants at lunch hour. Ömmukaffi – which means Grandma’s coffee house — located just a few minutes away from the Icelandic Textile Centre in Blönduós — is where you can find the best local Fiskisúp. It has big chunks of tender fresh fish and subtle notes of curry flavour. They serve it alongside homemade bread, butter, pesto and tomato pesto. It has been one of my favourite meals here in Iceland so far. 

Want to know when Ömmukaffi is serving their famous Fiskisúp? Check out their Facebook page here:

https://www.facebook.com/ommukaffi/

No mosquitoes!! Yet another reason to love Iceland!

Icelandic midges from Kathleen Vaughan on Vimeo.

 
While Iceland does have midges (that don’t seem to bite humans), there are no mosquitoes — sheer bliss to those of us who are extra delicious to the whining pest. This article from Iceland Magazine explains why Iceland is exempt when nearby Greenland and the British Isles are definitely afflicted. It’s all to do with the climate here.

http://icelandmag.is/article/reason-non-existence-mosquitoes-iceland