23 December 2005

The Iceland Diaries IV -- Day 9

Föstudagur, 23 Desember 2005
þórláksmesse

I'm an idiot.

I can't keep the names of people I know straight which explains an awful lot of confusion that I only sorted out on waking up Saturday. Today's Friday though, and while the day started off slow enough, who'da thunk it?

As usual I woke up and fleshed out yesterday's notes. I took a smoke break outside and DarkMind walked outside. When we went back in he came downstairs with me and we talked as I went through the photos from yesterday, trying to piece together a panoramic mosaic of photos taken down on the bay and doing a stinker of a job. In a couple weeks I can do more with the photos but I can't even colour-correct right now as evidenced by yesterday's crappy excuse for a posted pic.

He wanted to see some of the other pictures I'd taken and I showed him, going through not only shots I'd taken in the past week here but also back home, including pictures of the siren, the Munich U-Bahn and S-Bahn (testing various camera functions and speed of continuous shots), a couple nice artsy-fartsy pictures and the English-speaking ex-pat's xmas party of December 15.

DarkMind said he's going back to Akranes today. No skata tonight? But didn't he call me just yesterday to say we're going? Fuck. Now I need to call other restaurants and try to get a seat. Or something.

We went to lunch next door at the Vitabar and had Gleym mér ei burgers. If the dark-haired woman is working in the kitchen, make sure to order "medium-steikt". We were presented with much food and Darkmind agreed it was a hell of a burger. He's twice my size and had trouble cleaning his plate. I was preparing for a dinner I wasn't going to like so filling up now on the blue-cheese-andx-garlicky Gleym mér ei goodness was my attempt to actually enjoy some food here as well as prepare myself for what was in store later.

Afterwards I went to 22 to pay some bills on-line and to post yesterday's entry. I'm an idiot and left the power supply at home so time was limited. I checked my mail and there was a reply from Addi, the guy from the band Skítamórall. I'm on the guest list! Better still, the band Í Svörtum Fötum is also playing. Hells yeah! The only thing that sucks is that I don't know if I have photo access or if I'll be stuck amidst the masses. This small difference has a huge bearing on the equipment I take.

I already scored another 1GB CF card for less than the cost in Krautland since I get a good chunk of the tax back. I still have to buy this little computerless USB storage/transfer/back-up box. Switch CF cards in the camera, pop the used into a card reader and that into the back-up box and let it fill up. I plan on taking a couple thousand photos of the bands in the hopes that I can get three or four nice ones.

Even better news from Addi was that I have no restrictions: no artist first rights to publish or rights of refusal, no contracts, nothing. Shoot away to my heart's content. All they ask is to see the good pics when I'm done which will take a few weeks. I will get a money shot. Maybe even two.

I sent an SMS to Cheerios asking her if she'd like to go have skata with me. No, came the reply, but a drink would be nice. Ah-hmm...

DarkMind left, I guess to do some shopping. Looking out the window I see the streets are kinda full. A couple hours he came back. His family are on their way to Reykjavík from Akranes to visit a sick relative here. H doesn't know what he's doing but might stay. I told him he's welcome to hang out with me but my night will include skata, drinking and could possibly culminate in going home with a Hottay, an admittedly unlikely scenario but one made likelier if it would cause me to have to make the decision to either turn down the best offer I've had here yet or fuck a friend over and leave him homeless for the evening. He agreed with the reasoning and we parted, agreeing to meet up later after I'd gone home for a rest.

Around 6 I went back out to get some vodka to keep me company tomorrow. First I went to Þriggja Frakka to see about getting a seat and although I was running out of Baldursgata, there was a smell in the air that could only be one of a very few things, of which none terribly pleasant. The place was small, cozy and half-empty. And fully booked. The woman told me that I could try back at around 9pm and should surely be able to get a seat by 9:30.

I decided to pick up a book after the vodka to keep me company at the restaurant until the Icelanders started talking to me which they'd be sure to do after they finished laughing at the faces I knew I was going to make. I'll probably eat the stuff incorrectly, too, leading to more entertainment for the locals.

On the way into town I walked by the German Embassy which, based on the signs at the door, either shares the premises with the UK or get a lot of UKians coming in. Further down I didn't even think about the concrete barriers in front of some building until I'd walked all the way past (between them and the building) before noticing an American flag. Shit. I got my hands out of my pockets and stretched out my arms unnaturally while preparing to scream "Don't shoot! I'm American and unarmed!" WTF? Concrete barriers in front of the American embassy? Why? Could it be all the terraristas running around Iceland? You can't get one minibar bottle of vodka over the limit through the airport without getting busted much less fifty pounds of Semtex.

I got back to the main road and was fighting a tide of people intent on heading up Bankastræti and Laugarvegur. Some had candles. They were all coming from the square. I found out later that it was some sort of peace march (in a country with no military whatsoever). The stores were packed full. I got my bottle of ELDURÍS Iceladic vodka (highly recommended) for the low, low price of only 4200kr or so. That's about €45. Wotta bargain. The bookstore was much worse and it was a challenge to get through there. I found a decent child's book which appears aimed toward 8-12-year-olds and is some sort of horror story. While inside, Sandra called and not-so-subtlely gave me the chance to invite her to eat skata with me which I failed to take.

The streets of Reykjavík just before Christmas

On the way up Laugarveg the streets were packed. The shops were packed, most having doormen blocking people going in. And across from Prikið was some big set-up. Someone was speaking from a balcony, the TV crews were there and people were all trying to get a better position. Then someone started singing Silent Night. In Icelandic. An operatic voice, and as Atli later told me, one of a famous Icelandic opera singer. Atli thinks it's pretty stupid since opera's not too big in this country and I have to agree with him, but at the same time Icelanders are a terribly proud people and if one of theirs makes it in the world in damned near any capacity he comes home a hero and that's a pretty neat thing.

The streets of Reykjavík just before Christmas

DarkMind rang and said he was going soon. I told him I was on my way to 22 and would be there in about 10 minutes. As I got off with him Atli called. Where was I? I told him. We have reservations for Tveir Fiskur at 8pm for skata. Haa... Didn't I remember? Umm... no. I thought that was, erm...

I'll be in 22 in five minutes.

I slowly pushed and shoved my way through the next two blocks and arrived at 22. DarkMind was standing outside on the corner. We walked in and there was Atli who was a bit annoyed that I was checking out some restaurant when he'd gone to the trouble of getting us a table at another. DarkMind's girlfriend was coming to pick him up and we said goodbye. Atli took my bag to the back and two Hottays at the table by the bar started talking to me. I was, unfortunately, sober and rather confused. I recognised them but couldn't place them. They clearly knew me and continued talking in Icelandic despite my clear trouble in speaking either Icelandic or English at that moment.

They asked me if I'd been so drunk last night that I didn't remember anything. Noooo... except I was taking pictures and wasn't drunk. And then before it could hit me they said something about the after-hours time at Kaffihusið. Yeah, they were the girls Cheerios was with. And they wanted to talk to me. And I was trying to let them knew I remembered them and said where we sat and what happened after Kaffihusið and after Stefán's party and it was time to split with Atli. Fuck. Hottays or no, Atli's done me a big fucking favour here and I'm not ditching him and the only day in the year to get skata at a restaurant in favour of some skirt-chasing, tempting as it may be.

We tried to get through the crowd back down Laugarvegur on the way to the harbour and finally took side streets. Atli asked me if I'd forgotten about this already since he called me yesterday to tell me about going for skata. I told him I got his call and another confused, thinking he was DarkMind who'd today told me that skata was off. I'm an idiot.

The restaurant is off the main areas and not so easy to see. I expect they miss out on a lot of tourist traffic; it's supposed to be one of the better restaurants here but it takes a bit of effort to find. We were seated right away and noticed that it was a buffet. On the way Atli had told me that he'd order kjæst skata (or "ready skata") for himself and the more traditional and saltier meira kjæst skata (or "more ready skata") for me and we could split them. This was now moot.

Service was... n't. I'd ordered a beer and was waiting for it for more than ten minutes. Tables weren't being bussed. There were three chefs standing around the buffet and two servers taking their time between the tables of a half-full restaurant that might need three or four competent servers at most when full. Welcome to Iceland. People aren't terribly productive; they're underpaid. But paying them more would mean raising prices even higher and they'd still be underpaid. So they're not terribly motivated, with a few exceptions.

If you open any service industry in Iceland, hire foreigners to do as much of the work as possible, ideally the ones who at least attempt to learn the language.

We went to the buffet and the first section looked positively harmless. There were three different sorts of herring (plain, marinated with wine/onion and plain on a bed of potato salad) and two sorts of lox (smoked salmon), one regular (birch-smoked by the taste) and one gravlad. And three breads: Laufabrauð or "leaf-bread" a cracker-y sort of simple bread which was fried, a heavy, dark bread and flatkökkur, a sort of pita bread. I skipped the latter; I eat enough of it at home. Atli suggested taking just this to start with and then return for the rest which was waiting for us ominously. I did grab a couple pieces of salted mackerel figuring that couldn't be too bad and would go well with the herring. It did.

Herring

birch.smoked salmon

'gravad lax'

Bread

saltfish

in preparation for skata
The easy plate

We ate and talked and my defenses came down. We discussed tourists, noting that while Icelanders are proud, Italians are downright arrogant, worse then Germans and French. Americans vary. Then we went back for the fun. There were the two types of skata and also some sort of mash made of skata and potato and Oðin-knows-what-else called skatastappa. I took small portions of each. After that were potatoes, carrots and parsnips. Then there was a gas grill with two pots, the contents of which were light and dark, in that order.

kjært skata

meira kjært skata
"It's lamb fat", the chef standing over it told me. It's called hamsatólg. He spooned some of the light stuff over my plate. I asked for some of the dark, too. "I don't think you want that," he said.
"I don't want this either," I replied, "but I'm here." In for a penny, in for a pound.

"It's preserved fat, like, old and sort of looks like bleu cheese. You probably won't like it."

"Look, I already know I won't like this. How about we compromise? Could you give me some of that in one of those little dishes over there so I can at least try it?"

He agreed, and warned me that the fat was about 100°C. As if I'd planned on drinking it like a shooter. It's called tólgur.

skata is served
The hard plate


Back at the table the ammonia smell was overwhelming. Atli showed me how to peel the fish from the bone and this did require a bit of technique since the somewhat rotted skate was more slimy than flaky. The waiter came over with a bottle of Brennevín and I took two shots.

I took a deep breath and sampled the first bit. Atli told me to stop breathing through my nose. Nice try, bub. I know the "Let's Fuck with the Tourists" games and wasn't falling for it this time. There's no way in hell I'm inhaling a load of ammonia. It was bad enough having it on my tongue.


GAAAHHHH!!! This shit's horrible! I'd read about skata and most people have written that once you get past the ammonia it tastes pretty good.

They lie! The ammonia never goes away! I sat there with this crap on my tongue, breathing in through my nose, out through my mouth, chewing a bit between breaths and it never went away. I downed the first shot of Brennevín to try and clear my palate. At least I didn't convulse when I swallowed as I did with the hákarl. Next up was the "traditional" version.

It was almost as bad, but not quite. Atli figures the salt helped. I don't get it though. How would the traditional be saltier when the Icelanders couldn't get salt back in the day. The next shot of Brennevín helped but didn't fix my mouth which was screaming at my brain to stop moving my hands until the plate was removed from the table.

History lesson
When the Danish had this place under their boot, they withheld salt. If the Icelanders had had salt they could have preserved the fish they caught themselves and sell it for a lot more money. Why the hell they never figured out getting it themselves from the seawater and the free heat from the geysers neither I nor Atli knew, but no one ever came up wth the idea. So salt was scarce, hence the disgusting preservation methods of sour milk and putrefaction.

Why skata? There's a site which explains the history of skata. Basically the origin is the 18th century Western fiords upper society (such as it was) gave the peasant help skata on Þorláksmessa to ensure that anything else they ate over the next year would taste better. Of course, they didn't eat this crap themselves, preferring to stuff themselves with hangikjöt which I'll essplain tomorrow.

On to the mashed version. This was almost edible, it having been made more tolerable with the potato and other stuff. But the ammonia was there.

You can't really fuck up potatoes, parsnips and carrots. Strike that. You can if you pour a bunch of lamb fat on them and put them on the same plate as a load of putrefied, ammonia-laced skate. The lamb fat on my plate was pretty mild. How bad could the other stuff be?

I forked a small potato and dipped it into the tólgur.

Not bad. Good, in fact, but then again, in comparison with the skata, my dirty socs would've seemed a gourmet treat. However, the stench of everything else on my plate was getting in the way. Atli didn't seem too thrilled with his dinner, either, though he made it through a bit more than I did. I went at it again and noticed as the staff and some guests would throw glances over at the foreigner tucking into something clearly not meant for outsiders. Hell, it ain't meant for insiders, either.

I finally gave up after finishing my potatoes and the old lamb fat, put my plate on the window ledge and went back for a fresh plate of herring, salmon and salt cod. Or salt mackerel. Whatever the hell it was it was at least edible. I'm paying a lot of money for this and I'll be damned if I don't get some decent fish in this place. We talked about various things and I felt bad about his attempts to tell me things about Iceland that I already knew , often more than he did. But he picked up a lot of this stuff ten years ago and I've been studying intensely for the past year. Still, I did pick up new things from him.

I had another shot, this time of Aquavít. It only helped a little. The ammonia was on my tongue and breath. My stomach was grumbling. And I felt guilty having taken food I wasn't eating, never mind the fact that I'll be paying dearly for it both in cash tonight and with my lower GI tract tomorrow.

I got the check and told Atli to forget it. The only reason he went was because of me; I'm buying. It turned out to be quite reasonable and nothing like the amount I was actually expecting. Two "dinners", a beer and three shots came to less than 8000kr. I drink more than that in a night here. As we were leaving, I decided I had to go back to talk to the guy who looked like the main chef.

"So tell me honestly, how did I do?"
"That was very good."
"No, seriously, just how bad was I?"
"We have a lot of foreigners who call to make Þórláksmess reservations and we have to explain what it is we serve. They don't come. It's nice that you tried it."
"I have to tell you, I actually liked the dark fat. What were you saying about bleu cheese?"

And with that, he took me into the kitchen. If you don't do fine dining, being invited into the kitchen is an honour (unless, of course, you're the delivery guy or plumber) and Tveir Fiskur can certainly be considered a "fine" restaurant, though maybe not tonight.

Chef Gissur pulled out a block of the fat. It did indeed look like bleu cheese. They take regular fat and bury it until it goes mouldy. I don't understand the Icelandic obsession of burying food until it rots, especially since there's so little dirt here to bury anything under. He gave me his card.

Tólgur, ready to cook down

Oh yum, mouldy fat.

Along with being the owner and chef of this place, Chef Gissur Guðmundsson (C.M.C.) is the European Continental Director of the World Association of Cooks Societies, President of the Icelandic and Nordic Chefs Association and the Promotion Manager for Bocuse d'Or Iceland. The type on his business card is very small.

Chef Gissur Guðmundsson
We talked shop for a few minutes. As a teenager I spent two years at the ***** Culinary Institue. We talked about tradition, Iceland style. He was both surprised and gladdened that I'd been to a Þórablót and understood a little about Icelandic tradition. As much as I'd wanted to stay and talk some more, Atli was waiting for me.

On the way back Atli wanted to stop and an "antiques" store. He'd lived in England as was really impressed with being able to go to shops and buy things which were 500 years old. He'd found a 300-year-old coin in his back yard there when he was eight... and lost it on the way to a shop to sell it. He seemed equally disappointed that there was little in Iceland that was more than a century old. The reason for this is that supplies were so scarce that damned near everything was recycled or re-used.

The shop had more tschochkes than antiques though a couple things caught my eye, including a set of triangular, stackable candle holders from the '70s that my parents had had (only 3000kr) and an old Remington typewriter in almost perfect condition, Only the tab stops didn't work (easy to fix), but the tab and backspace keys were on opposite sides of the keyboard. The thing only cost 7500 and if I can figure out a way to pack it, it's mine. I'll fit it with a load of sensors, get a Web host with some serious power for a couple months, slap on tons of AdSense links and hope the page survives a slashdotting.

Anyway, Atli couldn't find anything appropriate save for a large anchor (too heavy to carry) and a large ironwork gate with the Virgin Mary or something (too heavy and too expensive). As we got back to town around 9:00p.m., the streets were even more packed than before, as were the shops. Everyone was still looking for gifts. Icelanders are some seriously procrastinating mofos.
We went into the bookstore . He ran into a friend and was trying to figure out what to get. I left for 22.

The bar was full, too, and two drunks were singing crappily as Helga tried to stop them. I managed to get a 2-top table, grabbing a bunch of glasses on them and bringing them into the kitchen. Atli got in as I was doing a sudoku puzzle to kill time. He's not into them. Or wasn't, but watched me and soon joined in, pointing out squares I'd overlooked. Sorry, dude; you're hooked now. All the papers here run the damned puzzles and Blaðið has four on Saturdays.

I went to toilet. Now I don't write too much scatological information because it's just not that interesting but I'm not done with the Tale of the Skata. Not quite yet. This was a lot worse than what happens with asparagus. The ammonia was overpowering, as if my bladder had been filled with industrial-strength cleaner. Despite not having eaten more than 50g of the skata, I was peeing ammonia for most of the night. Maybe the ability to get past the ammonia genetically on par with not noticing methanethiol.

Atli realised he'd forgotten a gift and went back to the bookstore. While he was out, Gulli came in smiling and declaring, "I'm rich!" He sold about as many shirts tonight as he normally does in a week, and each one is 400kr more expensive than it was a couple months ago. He's too happy right now to kick himself for not raising the price again now instead of next April. Demand is apparently fairly inelastic.

Atli returned The end of a large table cleared off and we grabbed that and played a game of chess. Some drunks kept trying to help both of us. One of them was at least right that we'd set the board sideways. I told him to take a flying leap. OK, I actually just told him we were both left-handed.

As we finished some friends of his came in. We were all talking for a while and then I got an SMS from Cheerios. She was in Sírkus. Right. Time to cut out. I said goodbye and joined the apparently small queue.

The loser queue.

The girl on the door was being particularly evil that night and a lot of my co-losers were complaining about her, by name. Three Indian tourists were being particular dicks and I was screwed by some sort of guilt-by-association even though no one's ever going to mix me up for someone from the subcontinent.

Honey, you need to let me in. I drop 2000-6000kr every hour in this place. Two rather drunk girls started talking to me, one who was talking about how we had to get married. Her friend wasn't even bothering to cock-block. They finally got in but were so drunk they forgot to insist on bringing me in with.

I saw Sigga leave but she was busy leading a friend off. The worst was when Pink showed up. He got immediate entrance and though he saw me, left me standing. When I get in there he's getting the repayment from last summer he so richly deserves, having stranded me with no place to stay for 10 days.

After almost 45 minutes I finally got in. I'd been a real good boy at the door and was granted entry. My future non-wife and her friend saw me, asked if I'd only just got in and apologised before disappearing again. I got a fast drink at the bar and found a seat. Heyðar was there and we talked for a couple minutes.

And there she was. Cheerios was in a slinky black top and polka-dot pants. She didn't say much and went back off dancing.

I went for another drink and met some girl at the bar. She wasn't happy. I was wiping some tears. Who was she? Pink's girl. Except she lets him walk all over her, he ignores her, and and and...

I really wanted to hit Pink but I'm just not a violent guy. I'm seriously non-violent, really. I can count the number of fights I've been in on one hand, including the schoolyard. But taking his Hottay...

I had another drink, talked with the Hottay and the lights came up. It was 3:00a.m. and all the bars were closing. It's Jebusmas. But not every place was closing. There were after-hours places and a place not 100m away not only one of them but the one everyone was planning on heading to. I was invited and went with.

And I drank. And talked with the Hottay. Some other skinny, Sooper-Hottay from Sírkus was there, too, but she only wanted to dance, such "dancing" consisting of shaking her hips in almost unimaginale and fantasy-inducing ways. Think "Shakira" without the grandstanding. And sexier. And much prettier.

And then... I disappeared. Somewhere in my head, and for a good hour. And when I was back in the world, the place was half empty. I wasn't drunk, I hadn't smoked anything illegal. This is becoming a serious concern. The Hottays I was into were gone, the place was winding down, and I got ready to go. Downstairs Pink was sitting there and with a look I let him know my anger. He saw me and said he had a good excuse. Strangely enough I'd really like to hear it. The idea of stranding someone is so outside my realm of reality that I just have to know what the fuck he was thinking.

I walked up the hill, along the sidewalks covered in ice and snow, thankful I was wearing the hiking boots despite my aching feet. I fucking hate snow and a it more was coming down. It wasn't as bad as the wind which was kicking up.

I was alone again. Passing out was effortless, unlike disrobing.

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