18 March 2011

Prjón Pr0n

Prjón is Icelandic for knitting, and what kind of woolhead would I be if I didn't do a bit of stash enhancement in the Land of Lopi? Incidentally, I had never really given it any thought, but the correct pronunciation of lopi isn't LOW-pee (insert urination joke here). Neither the o nor the i are accented, which means they're both short vowels - LOH-pih.

Language lesson aside, I mentioned that there were lopapeysur everywhere. Seriously, it was knitterly inspiration everywhere we looked. I also mentioned that Ragga threw together a half day tour for us. Knowing that David is a designer, she took us to the studio/showroom for one of the labels we saw quite a lot of in Reykjavík and which we were really impressed by - Farmers Market. As it turns out, the owners are friends of hers, and it was great to get to look at some of their designs up close.



(Yes, I know they're on hangers, but it's a tiny showroom and the most efficient way to display samples.)

And not only had we been seeing and loving their sweater designs all over town, we also saw a CD for sale at the symphony the night before that was the latest by the husband, Jóel Pálsson, who's an award-winning jazz saxophonist. So having met him, of course, we had to buy it. If you like jazz, I'd recommend it.


Ragga also arranged for us to meet and see the studio of hot ticket designer Sruli Recht. Not as much of a ready-to-wear aesthetic there, but his work is still just beautiful and wonderfully artistic. Proving the Reykjavík-is-a-small-town argument, we also just happened to bump into him and his wife the following evening in another part of town as we were looking for a bus.

Anyway, after visiting those studios, it was off to the Ístex spinning mill to see the lopi being made. Ístex is the only spinning mill in the country, and they sell the lopi under their own label as well as producing for the Reynolds label. Same yarn, different ball bands. I didn't take any photos inside the mill, but David took some video footage that I'll try to share if either of us ever gets around to editing it. Or, you could just buy Ragga's DVD, where she gives a tour of both the spinning mill and the scouring mill up north in Blönduós.


After the spinning mill was where things got really, really fun.


Álafoss was the company that used to process the wool until they went belly up in '91 and Ístex stepped in and bought up the remains. The old Álafoss mill is now a yarn shop and a cluster of other artisans' shops, and the name still lives on in the name of the chunky lopi yarn, of which we bought a fair bit of. I got some to make a design in one of the Reynolds pattern books that I've always liked.


The navy blue is an extra pattern color I'm working into the original design just for a little pop against the neutral base palette. I'm also taking inspiration from Ragga and working it top down. David picked out yarn for himself to work Ragga's Óðinn pattern, which is a free pattern written for traditional bottom up construction and is featured on the DVD.


I also got a one kilo bale of plötulopi - aka, Icelandic unspun - plus a couple of contrast colors to make myself one or two more sweaters. I'm thinking seamless construction based on some of the Japanese sweater patterns I have, and I'm really excited to play with this wool. The sock yarn, which is Danish, isn't particularly great, but it was something to work on during the flight home.


I also got buttons!


Altogether, our wool purchases added up to roughly $135 US - that's for 3 to 4 sweaters' worth of lopi! Plus, Iceland has a tax refund scheme to encourage tourists to buy stuff. On any purchase over 4,000ISK that you will be taking out of the country, participating retailers give you a form to fill out which you can then cash in at the airport before you leave to get 15% of the total purchase back. Single purchases with a refund amount over 5,000ISK (i.e., purchases over 33,333ISK) require an extra step of obtaining a customs stamp EXCEPT for woolen products, which are exempt. You can buy all the wool you want. So what that meant for us was that the final tally on our wool purchase, which is a significant stash enhancement, came to about $120. Plus they put it in a nice, and very large bag for us.


As a little aside, the old Álafoss factory also had a swimming pool complex, because the waterfall that used to power the mill also has geothermal springs, and local children used to learn to swim there. More recently, though, the building was used by the band Sigur Rós to record their first album.


On our way back into Reykjavík, we stopped at one more LYS. It was otherwise a fairly typical shop, but it was where I made my most treasured find of the trip. It's a collection of traditional Icelandic textile designs, compiled over the course of 3 years from old manuscripts and containing over 700 designs, plus a history in Icelandic and English of the patterns and discussion of the rules of symmetry and mathematics of how the patterns were developed. And it's only available in Iceland.




At the end of our afternoon with her, Ragga gave us four discount cards good for 15,000ISK off on of her Knitting Iceland tours through 2012, to use ourselves or to give away.

That morning she had been on the phone trying to reach her younger brother, who lives in Tokyo, as it was just hours after the earthquake there. And between that, and the New Zealand quake, and all the conflicts in the Arab world recently, I thought that the best thing to do with them would be to hold a drawing to try to raise funds for Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, who have been responding to both natural and manmade situations like this for forty years.

I expect most of you already know this, if for no other reason than for the Yarn Harlot's support of the organization over the last several years. They're an organization that gets the idea that we're all one human family and that we should take care of each other, and for that reason alone they deserve support.

So this is how the raffle will work: Make a donation to MSF between now and April 1 and send confirmation of your donation to me at mel(dot)vassey(at)gmail(dot)com with the subject line "raffle". For every $5 US (or equivalent in your own currency) that you donate to MSF, you will get one entry into the raffle. Donate $100 and you'll get 20 entries, but don't feel like a $5 donation is too little. It could buy enough medication to save a life.

On April 2 (my birthday!), I will use a random number generator to pick four winning entries. If you have multiple entries, you will have an opportunity to win more than one of the cards. As I said, the face value of each card is 15,000ISK, which is roughly $129 US at current exchange rates. Having seen what Ragga can throw together literally at the last minute, I expect these tours are going to be nothing short of phenomenal, especially with teachers like Ysolda Teague and Franklin Habit on board.

So go forth and donate, then let me know all about it. Then go to Iceland and have the time of your life.

16 March 2011

Iceland Travelogue

This is long and picture-heavy, but it only begins to touch on everything we saw and did on our too-short visit. I hope you enjoy it, and people who want to see more photos can go to my Flickr photo set here.

Day One

Our flight from Boston was a 4.5 hour redeye that landed us in Reykjavík at 6:40AM GMT, which means that to us it was still 1:40AM. On top of that, Iceland is at the far western edge of the GMT zone, so sunrise wasn't until about 8AM. This is what it looked like when we got on the shuttle bus to the hotel.


We planned ahead for this, though, and decided to spend our first day at the Blue Lagoon spa. We stayed at Icelandair's Hotel Loftleiðir, which is a bit out of the way by the municipal airport. This was the view from our window when we checked in:


We didn't have to wait too long to catch the bus out to the Blue Lagoon, though, where this was the view:


Despite the snow and temperatures around 24F/4.4C, the water was blissfully warm. There's a geothermal power plant next to the spa, and it's water from there that's piped in to keep the lagoon at a constant temperature. Then there are the steam baths and the sauna and the waterfall. Ah, the waterfall! Hot water crashing down as a sort of natural (well, semi-natural) neck and shoulder massage.

After we were properly wrung out and relaxed, we headed back to the hotel, then into the city for a bit of a wander and to find some dinner. The hotel put on an excellent breakfast buffet, so we generally filled up on that in the morning, which helped keep our meal expenses down. That evening, we went to Grænn Kostur, which is a small vegetarian restaurant tucked away off one of the main shopping streets. Very tasty and not too bad for Reykjavík pricewise.

Day Two

Even though we booked a "build your own" package, Icelandair included a horse ride on the lava fields. David's allergic and has always recoiled in horror at the thought of getting on a horse, but he said this time that he wouldn't pass it up if it was already included. I hadn't been on a horse in over 20 years myself, but I got a nice older gelding named Hrafn (Raven).


Hrafn new his job well, so I could pretty much give him his head and let him do his thing. David's horse, Raggi, on the other hand, was the laggard of the bunch, so I got behind them after we stopped for a brief break to help make sure they kept up. The ride was beautiful, but the wind was biting as all hell, so I was glad to have my new mittens and my qiviuk cowl.


After we got back to the hotel, we headed downtown to one of the municipal pools, which are all geothermal with hottur peittur (hot "pots", or tubs) and steam baths, to freshen up a bit before going to the inaugural open house for Knitting Iceland. If you have even the slightest interest in visiting Iceland, I highly recommend checking out Ragga's tours. More about that later, but she's phenomenal.

Afterward, we grabbed a bit of food at a local supermarket (Did I mention how expensive stuff is?) and headed back to the hotel to eat a quick bite and get changed. I had told David I planned a surprise for that evening and had managed to keep him from figuring out until we got there that I'd gotten us tickets to that evening's symphony performance. It was nice to see the mix of ages attending, plus lots of people in gorgeous lopapeysa, and the performance was just perfect - a very nice cap to a great day.

Day Three

While David slept in, I found Ragga on Facebook. We had talked a bit the day before about doing a half-day knitting tour with her. In practically no time at all, she threw us together a really nice afternoon outing. I'll save details for the next post, but I can't say enough about what a nice day she made of it.

At the end of the afternoon, she dropped us off in town at Nuðluskálin (Noodle Bowl), which we'd seen looking for Grænn Kostur a couple days earlier and which happens to belong to friends of hers. Again, it was a really good meal at a relatively cheap price, though this was where I got my first hint that Icelanders don't really do spicy food.

Day Four

Saturday was the day we signed for an all-day Golden Circle tour, which makes a loop through some important areas in Icelandic history, as well as to some of the major natural features within ready driving distance of Reykjavík. The sun had just come up as we left the city, and Esja looked lovely.


We also got to see a good bit of the Icelandic countryside.



And we eventually worked our way out to Gullfoss.


Before backtracking a bit to Haukadalur to see the geysers. Geysir himself, the one all the others are named for, is currently a steaming hillock, but Strokkur still erupts every few minutes, and I was able to get this shot of the steam bubble just before it erupted.


From there it was on to Þingvellir, where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are slowly pulling away from one another and where the Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, used to convene. Along the way, we passed by the first first permanent school building in the country, built alongside the small basin lake Laugarvatn.


Þingvellir is at the edge of a large lake, Þingvallavatn.


If you look at the far side of the lake in that photo, you can see a black band where the valley is literally sinking as the two tectonic plates pull apart. The only other place on earth where this can be seen is in the Rift Valley in Africa. This is what the rift looks like at Þingvellir:


Way down below this huge crack in the earth, at the site where the Alþingi used to convene, is the Icelandic president's summer cottage, along with a small chapel and cemetery.




That I could walk right up to it and not be locked up and shipped off somewhere to be tortured speaks volumes.

Day Five

Our penultimate day was on Sunday, so most shops were closed. The weather was warming up, but we decided to venture out into the rain showers and do a bit of wandering to see some parts of the city we hadn't really explored. We started by climbing Öskjuhlið, which was right across the street from our hotel, to see Perlan up close.


As the highest point in the city proper, it was a good vantage point to get views of the entire city, including Hallgrímskirkja, which towers over the downtown area.


Then we hopped on the bus to downtown and wandered over to the Kirkjugarður, or old cemetery, to take some photos, because I love the look of grave markers in the snow. I took this photo just because it was a beautiful stone and looked nice with the snow mounded on top. Turns out Teitur Finnbogason was Iceland's first ever veterinarian (dýralæknir)!


After that we walked over to Hallgrímskirkja and headed up to take some photos from the top of the bell tower, after I talked with the woman in the church gift shop about the baby blanket she was crocheting. This shot is of the area we'd just come from. The patch of trees in the upper left is Kirkjugarður. The clear spot just below that is Tjörnin, at the right side of which is the Raðhús, or City Hall.


From there, we headed back to the bus station and caught a bus out into the eastern suburbs. I mentioned before that our hotel gave us free passes on request to visit local geothermal swimming pool complexes (sundlaugar), since their own pool area is under renovation at the moment. We took advantage of them and tried out a few different pools. Our Sunday choice was Árbæjarlaug. The water slide was closed and it was anything but sunny, but sitting in an outdoor hot tub while snow squalls blew through was nothing short of heavenly.

After we were sufficiently blissed out, and as the pool was nearing closing time, we hopped the bus back to downtown and had dinner at a Nepalese restaurant, Kitchen-Eldhús, which was phenomenal. As I often do at Indian restaurants, though, I asked for some chili sauce on the side and they didn't have any. This prompted a conversation with the owner about Icelandic palates and the difficulties he went through when they first opened in understanding that when an Icelander said "hot", they really meant slightly hotter than mild.

They did scare up some lime-chili pickle mix for me, though, and David and I practically had to roll ourselves out the door, we were so stuffed. They were one of the pricier places we ate, but importing foods common to the Indian subcontinent is not cheap, and for the area they were pretty reasonable. They were also very much worth it, and I'd absolutely recommend them for a nice evening out.

Day Six

For our final day, we decided once again to head to the Blue Lagoon. Unlike the first day, the winds had shifted around and it was blowing a proper gale. Half the time we were there, the pounding waterfall was actually blowing backward. Still, the steam rooms were nice and hot and the lagoon itself still warm, and we made the most of it. Of course, after days of snow and biting cold, Iceland all of a sudden looked like this:



I didn't feel cheated, though, because I decided long before then that I was definitely going to go back. And if I ever win the lottery, moving there (or at least buying a nice pièd-a-terre in Reykjavík) is high on my list of things to do now. So steamed out one final time, we hopped the bus back to the airport and, reluctantly, headed home.


14 March 2011

Iceland Observations

We’re on the plane home from Iceland as I’m writing this, and I’ve been thinking about how best to tell y’all about our little vacation. I may have mentioned that this was the first time David and I have ever taken a vacation that wasn’t tagged onto either one of my conferences or a family visit. It most definitely did not disappoint. In fact, if someone were to offer me a good enough job in Reykjavík right now, I’d jump at the chance to live there, at least for a while.

I think that the best way to break this down for blogging purposes is to do it as three separate posts. For this one, I’m going to make some general observations about Reykjavík and Iceland more generally in bullet format. Then I’ll do more of a travelogue, and then finally the yarn pr0n - best for last, of course.

  • · The Reykjavík capital area is comparable in size to the Portland (Maine, of course) metro area, so it’s a small enough city that it’s really easy to keep bumping into the same people over and over. More on that later.

  • · If you don’t believe me about how small a city it is, just look at this:

  • 031311Toy_Harbor

  • · Despite the fact that Icelandic delicacies are heavy on such wonders as svið, sviðasulta, hákarl, puffin, and whale, it actually wasn’t too terribly hard to find vegetarian fare, at least of the ovolacto variety.

  • · Food is pretty expensive there. So are clothes. Wool, on the other hand, is not.

  • The lopapeysa (lopi sweater) is probably the closest thing to a national costume that's currently and commonly used in any developed country these days. Seriously, people were wearing them everywhere. It's a beautiful thing to behold.

  • · Whenever I told Icelanders how much snow we got this winter and how cold winters typically get where we live, they always looked slightly horrified.

  • · Icelanders are so used to the snow melting within a day or two that they seem never to have gotten the concept of shoveling sidewalks. So naturally, we happen to get there just in time for a cold snap after a snowstorm.

  • · Icelanders, in our experience, are really nice people.

  • · They do not, however, know from spicy food. I asked for “Thai hot” at a noodle restaurant and got mildly piquant. At the Nepalese restaurant where we ate last night, they told us that they stopped keeping chili sauce on hand because nobody ever asked for it, and that they had really had to adjust their spice levels during their first few months open. They did come up with a good lime-chili pickle mix, though.

  • · Icelanders do, however, love to spend time in the municipal swimming pools, which are geothermally heated, have steam baths and saunas and wonderful “hot pots”, and are relatively inexpensive (We got free passes from our hotel).

  • · One Icelandic woman I spoke to told me they have a saying that all the problems of life are solved in a hot tub. I told her I couldn’t think of a better place for it.

  • Sitting in a hot tub during a snow squall is also pretty damned special.

  • · I’m kind of sorry that Maine doesn’t have any volcanic activity, because I would totally put a geothermal hot tub in my back yard.

  • · This is one that really surprised me: Iceland is every bit as much a car culture as the US. I think this is part of what made it feel really familiar. I told David at one point, “It’s like a weird alternate version of the US, where everyone speaks elvish.”

  • · Reykjavík’s bus service is actually a semi-decent way to get around if you don’t have a car or a tight schedule, but the drivers don’t stop if you don’t flag them down. Even if you’re clearly waiting in the bus shelter and they’re the only line that goes past that particular stop.

  • · The Icelandic language is really lovely – trilling and wispy at the same time – and I could listen to it all day long. I expect it probably helps to speak it if you pretend you’re Orlando Bloom and/or Cate Blanchett. Or Björk, of course.

  • · I am pretty firmly in the No camp when it comes to licorice, but I tried the Icelandic version and, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’d ever truly convert, I’m at least likely to try it again.

  • · After skyr, I think caramel buttermilk may just be one of Iceland’s best contributions to the culinary world.

  • · In the 6 days we were there, Iceland gained about 22 minutes of daylight.

  • · It’s possible to wander around outside the Icelandic president’s summer cottage and not be shot, shooed away, or questioned.

  • 031211Presidential_Cottage

  • · I already miss it.


03 March 2011

March Hare

Tuesday night a young guy showed up with this wrapped up in a hoodie.


It's a snowshoe hare, which is the predominant leporid species around these parts, though still not seen very frequently. This one is already starting to transition from winter to summer coat. She (He? I didn't really look) had apparently been hit by car and was a bit dazed but had no obvious major injuries. The trouble with bunnies is that they often don't do well in captive situations, even when they're being well cared for.

Still, this one seemed well enough to warrant trying to save, so I made a stop by the Center for Wildlife on my way home. As I've said many times over, they're good folks and if anyone can get this little hare hopping again, they're the ones to do it.

And as I've also said before, it does cost them money to take care of all the critters, so if you do happen to have $5 or $10 to spare, click the donation button on their site. Think of it as giving up a visit or two to Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. Donating to the animals is good for your health!

Stash Sale for Lee Ann

And if you're looking for an option for fattening something that won't be bad for your health, Norma is helping dear friend Lee Ann sell off her stash. Details are over on Norma's blog, but I will say this: Lee Ann has excellent taste in fiber. Even though I really, really don't need any of it, I've put in a couple of bids. It's lovely stuff, and I can't think of a better reason to plump up my stash.


I found out this morning that the hare was euthanized after he took a sudden turn for the worse and started showing neurological signs. Their suspicion is that he most likely had a parasitic infection that spread to his brain.

I found out in the course of dropping off this barred owl that had been hit by car last night and had a broken wing. Hopefully this one will fare better, but I'm told they have had considerably more owls than normal this season because of the unusually deep snowpack. Rodents are only surfacing where there has been signicant melting of the snow, which is primarily along roads. So if you are on the fence about donating something to them, they still really, really need it.