The first waterfall we encountered was accidental. We went to Guðrúnarlaug, and as we were bathing in the hot tub, Husby pointed something out.

We had no idea if this six-year-old sized beauty had a name, but it was just a bonus to being able to be completely alone, bathing in a hot tub surrounded by snow. It gave us something to listen to.

The second one you have already seen – it was a little bonus that came with our trip to Snæfellsnes. Because why not? Iceland is generous like that. This one has a name: Bjarnarfoss.

But why settle for two when you can have four and are greedy AF?

I am all scientific and shit, researchy and hermity (and authorsy and writersy). But there were touristic places even I had to visit. When we came here last year, we’ve walked through a large chunk of Þingvellir, but didn’t quite get to the end of one of the paths. This year I found what was at the end of that path, and it just so happened to be a waterfall: Öxarárfoss.

In order to get there, we had to walk through a path made largely of snow, ice, and black ice. Very little sunshine and warmth gets that deep between the rock walls. (As you might know, Þingvellir served to film The Wall for Game of Thrones series. It really is that size.) By the way, the green water really was green, and I didn’t know why, but all I wanted was to sit there and be. And I got my wish. We got there early, ehmm… for our standards, and were lucky enough to avoid most tourists.

This is the end part of the path, and I mostly took this photo to prove we survived.

On our way back to the car we found out how lucky we were to go early, because we bumped into the content (i.e. tourists) of two buses. I helped an old lady not to fall on one of the icy rocks, and she smiled, and so did I. But then we had to stop, because we encountered two girls…

“Ermagerd Kareeeeen it’s slipperyyyy!!!”
“Noooo Janet I can’t, I am staying here!!!”

(I barely resisted the urge to say “that’s fine, humans die quite fast without food and water”.)

“But Kareeeeen!! Help meeeee!!!”
“I caaaaan’t!!! OMG!!!”

If they could speak in emojis, they would. But finally they managed to balance themselves a meter further, thus allowing everyone else to move at least a bit. And this was when I realised I was a bloody hypocrite. Because Karen and Janet were tourists, but so were we. We paid to be in Iceland, but so did Karen and Janet (and when you know the prices of those tourist trips, I bet you they paid much, much more). It is not illegal to act like a twatwaffle just because you are surrounded by a place that is holy to many people. It is not illegal to squee and be drunk, offensive, obnoxious in front of statues, waterfalls, or mountains. But I didn’t want Karen, Janet, and all other people to be there. I wanted to be able to sit in front of Öxarárfoss and listen to nothing but its roar. This is not how tourism works. (I have a certain idea what I’m going to do next time, though. It’s based on the fact that in the summer it never gets dark in Iceland.)

Iceland is currently so popular, their unemployment rate is 2.2%. Anything below 4% is generally considered people who don’t want to work for various reasons (not: can’t, but don’t want). In other words, Iceland has practically minus unemployment. This is caused by the amounts of tourists. The repairs of the roads, the attempts to create public transport more refined than a bus network in Reykjavik – all for the tourists. But the tourists also damage the country. They yell “Kareeeeen!!!” in it. And the fact that I am judging them like the Harry Potter hat doesn’t change the fact that they kept the economy not just afloat, but booming in the recent years.

When we went to Gullfoss I expected the worst, people-wise. But most of the people, even kids, kept quiet. Although there was a chance they were yelling. I was busy. Because Gullfoss is enormous, and it sounds the way it looks.

This is probably the most touristic place we’ve seen. This photo might not look so impressive. But look on the left. That’s the road. Then look at the blue dot. That’s a full-sized human person.

Gullfoss has an official site, which states:

The water plummets down 32 meters in two stages into a rugged canyon which walls reach up to 70 meters in height.

I can absolutely believe that. Although at some point I lost the ability to say how tall the canyon was. It was just…gigantic.

One of the things that draw me to Iceland so much is that the nature doesn’t give a shit about you. You’re just a bit of it. In so many places (I live in Amsterdam, enough said) the nature seems to have been conquered, at least until a hurricane starts tearing trees out of the ground, throwing them at cars, killing people. Not so in Iceland. This waterfall’s safety measures again extended to miserable rope hanging a few inches over the ground. If you want to die, the waterfall seemed to say, suit yourself. Just don’t expect me to care.

Can you believe in 1907 there was serious danger that this incredible, terrible beauty would have been turned into a power plant by an English businessman? Read more here, but I would like to thank Sigriður for almost single-handedly ensuring that this wouldn’t happen. A sculpture of her likeness can be seen at the entrance, and Sigriður fits the place.

I left with enormous respect. For Sigriður, for force of nature, for the fact that all those places just…exist. And when we dispose of mankind by pressing Larger Red Buttons That Actually Work, or just drown in emojis, Gullfoss will still be there, roaring, impatient, angry, and not interested in any of us, whether it’s Karen, Janet, Chad, Husby, or me.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Stjarna (my new girlfriend, pictured) is not a pony. Icelandic horses are small, compact, strong, have incredible endurance, lots of patience, and ability to cross very rough terrain. Which I experienced.

In my novel, Gunnar the blacksmith is an owner of a horse called Karl. Karl is – guess what – small, compact, strong, patient, and very strong-willed. Karl is also kind of self-driving, which allows Gunnar to get in the saddle, sort of doze off, then wake up when they arrived in town. This was a part of in-person research that really worried me, because reading about horses while never having been on one didn’t fill me with confidence that I will be able to accurately describe the experience. Therefore I made a decision which was, no joke, very difficult. Because I suffered two spine injuries almost three years ago. I spent most of 2016 in so much pain I could barely move, building piles of pillows to keep me at this one exact angle where the pain was least excruciating. Towards the end of 2016 I gave up on the idea that I would ever have a pain-free life, and decided to end it. I didn’t. Instead, on January 1, 2017 I started work on the novel.

Getting on a horse, for me, brought risks different to those it had for others. While the injuries are as “fixed” as possible, I still occasionally require heavy painkillers, and some parts of my back have most probably degraded due to the fact it took way too long to diagnose the actual problems. I knew what I was getting into. I knew there would be price. I hoped it wouldn’t be too high. But at the same time, you only live twice, and I felt my previous life ended in 2016. Having considered all this, I decided I would take a ride, and booked one with Laxnes Horse Farm. I had no interest in their day tours, I only wanted to experience the Icelandic horse.

On our way I started getting somewhat anxious. Like, “I wish I brought a diaper” anxious.

“Are you OK?” asked me one of the guides, handing me a helmet.

“I’m terrified, ma’am,” I answered truthfully.

“Why?”

“Because I just realised horses are living creatures.”

I am a child of the city, trying to make sense of living in nature. There’s nowhere I would rather live than a log cabin far away from people, but I still shriek when a spider finds its way towards me. And the problem with a horse is that it doesn’t have a steering wheel, set of pedals, or buttons.

I had the steering sort of explained, and tried to do it. Stjarna gave me approximately 10% of her attention. Yes, she reluctantly turned left or right when I pulled at the reins, but that was about it. I could sort-of-kind-of make her stop, but there was no way she would start moving when I wanted her to. (This, by the way, is incredibly useful research for my book, because obviously Gunnar’s horse is going to be exactly like this.) At one point, the guide’s horse was ready at the gate, and Stjarna – again, unprompted – positioned herself right behind. Then the gate opened, and we started moving. “I guess I decided to go first,” I announced into thin air, hearing some shrieks behind me. Husby was nowhere to be found, and later told me his horse (uhhh… Indiana Jones) decided to go last.

(This is Stjarna thinking “I am SO over this, can we go home yet, because I hear Netflix calling my name”.)

Without a warning, we started moving faster, going from the “pffft this is so easy” gait to “OMG I MIGHT DIE” gait. (I think that’s called “trot” which is somehow mure humiliating.) More shrieks followed, and some of them might or might not have come from me. But that was still OK. Even when we were going downhill and I was as relaxed as an average statue. Until we got to a nice stream.

“How funny,” I thought, looking around. “We can’t go either left or right from h–”

Stjarna LOVED water. She loved it so much that while most horses picked the shallowest spot, she decided to get herself thoroughly cleaned. Well, herself and my boots. The inside of my boots. (The farm offers riding boots, but you have to ask for them. I was kind of expecting to be babysat like an American that I’m not, so I didn’t ask.) I could feel her horseshoes slipping in the water, and I prayed for my life.

Somehow, we survived. One of the guys’ horse was in a mood to, eh, horse around a bit. The guy would sometimes shout “I guess this is goodbye!” or “I see I decided to take a break”, as his horse – just as self-driving as Stjarna – did whatever it felt like doing.

I said to one of the guides that I was doing research, and this was the most exciting research I have ever done in my entire life. I felt fantastic. Grin hadn’t left my face for a second. We got to a spot where we took a break, I got off the horse, back on, then again, and I was super pleased that it was actually something I could do – I was half-expecting that I would need two bodybuilders and a wooden box to get on a horse, then end up sitting with my face towards the horse’s back.

(I think both Stjarna and me blinked at the same time.)

The way back was exactly the same, except faster. The tour takes 1.5 hours during the winter period, and 2 hours outside winter period. I’m a greedy bastard, so I was all like “I want two hours! Give me my extra half an hour!” and oh yes, I got that half an hour alright. Except both Husby and me ended up looking greedily towards the direction we expected the farm to be. Trust me, two hours is enough.

When we arrived back, I thought, well – now that I am a super-experienced rider, I’m going to park Stjarna WHERE I WANT. Hella no. She picked a spot next to another horse, and decided to stay there. “I guess you’re staying there,” I said in a resigned voice.

We went inside for a coffee. As our hands, bums, legs, and other parts continued to shake, we were invited to grab some coffee. When I asked who shoes the horses, I found out it was the guy helping us recaffeinate, Haukur. Immediate BFFing followed. And this is where I’m going to go on a tangent, which always irritated me in books. A lot of authors don’t bother researching blacksmithing in the slightest. Sharpening swords with hammers. Hitting the iron and making sparks fly around. FYI, that means the iron is burnt, and you can throw it away, unless you’re forge-welding, which is not what one does with swords. Because in books blacksmiths always make swords. Unless they are making gleaming horseshoes.

This is what actual horseshoes look like.

I suppose this…could be called gleaming in some sort of light? I asked Haukur whether he was using any finishing at all, but no, this was just standard low-carbon steel. A horseshoe lasts between 6-8 weeks, at which point it generally gets replaced. Similarly as with tires, all shoes need to be more or less at the same degree of being worn out, so you don’t replace a worn out with a new one. Therefore the shoes generally get used twice, giving them a useful life of 12-16 weeks. The funny thing is that once they are actually being worn by the horse they become somewhat gleaming, because the soil and rocks tear off the rust.

I’ll stop now.

I am not a t-shirt buying sort of person, but I bought one before you could as much as blink. I SURVIVED THIS.

The day after every single bit of my back hurt so bad I had difficulties breathing. As if my ribs became too tight, and stopped the lungs from properly expanding. It had been very different to say “yes, I am ready to suffer”, rather than, you know, actually suffer. The second day I could breathe again, as long as I spent most of the time sitting. Today is day three, and it’s getting much better. Knowing the amount of pain I would go through later, I would have done it again in a flash. In fact, had it not been for the (uhem… TMI coming) fact my bum is bruised, I would be doing it today.

I ran… er. I crawled towards the sofa to quickly make notes about the ride. I will still need an actual rider to take a look at this part of the novel so I don’t end up with the equestrian equivalent of “the blacksmith making gleaming horseshoes”, but the biggest problem is that I am completely in love with Stjarna, even though it doesn’t seem reciprocated at all.

To finish it off… they look very authentic, but I think I should clean them a bit, whaddayathink…?

I love doing research, even if it hurts for days.

My brother came over to spend the weekend, and one of his wishes was to see a Viking museum. Of course so was mine, and this is how we ended visiting the Saga Museum.

Don’t expect to spend a lot of time there. The guided tour (audio in various languages via headphones and a little player) takes 30 minutes. The museum is, in my opinion, aimed at teenagers rather than history nerds. Having said that, I had a blast. There is a section where you can try on (real) chainmail, play with (fake) weapons, and take photos. I happen to have tons of chainmail at home because of Husby, so I skipped that bit. But one of the props is a very, very surprised Viking, whose facial expression reminded me a lot of how I must have looked when on a bad hair day I bumped into an ex.

The Sagas are an incredibly vast collection of stories. A lot of people are aware of Ragnar Loðbrok (although most people don’t know that while Ragnar might have existed or not, his sons definitely had, and their stories outnumber daddy’s by roughly a factor of ten). From what I saw at the museum I was most fascinated by the story of a nun called sister Katrín. I am very tempted to try my hand at turning her story into a novella. I will keep you posted on how that goes.

Perhaps this proves my real mental age is 14, but I would absolutely recommend a visit. While visually the museum was a bit less exciting than I would like it to be – a commentary of two minutes accompanies one wax statue – it managed to expose the listener to quite a lot of knowledge without becoming boring. However, it is not a Viking museum that my brother expected, even if the website is the first hit I get on Google. It is a Saga museum. Don’t expect shirtless Ragnar and Rollo to appear, and you’ll have a great time. Pro-tip: I took pictures of all plaques with written explanations, and greatly regretted they offered maybe ten percent of the text in the headphones. As we were departing, I found out that it was possible to buy a programme with full transcript. I consider it one of the best purchases I made during this visit.

The National Museum was, of course, a very different beast. First of all, it is enormous, the way a National Museum should be. It spans the period from 9th century when Ingólfur Arnarson decided Reykjavik would be a nice place to live at until more or less 2010. Yes, you will see something related to Björk. Strangely, from the technical point of view this museum offered a rather difficult visual experience. The text boxes placed next to many artifacts were illuminated so brightly I would have needed to cover the text and give my eyes a minute to accomodate in order to see anything.

(The black part on the left is the wood the display is embedded in. The black part on the right is a glass cabinet with tools listed. I think. It’s kind of hard to say.)

This is a minor complaint, just surprising for a museum so meticulously arranged. There are pieces of silver jewellery which look new hundreds of years after they had been made. A woollen glove from centuries ago which looks as if it was just bought five minutes ago, then accidentally ripped in one spot. Blacksmithing equipment from Viking times. Costumes. Embroideries. Stories of chieftains, bishops, politicians. Photographs. Paintings. And agenda.

It is, of course, very difficult to create a truly agenda-free presentation of history, because history is not made of facts. Had Hitler won the second World War, we would now be learning very different “facts” from very different books. But I left the National Museum with a strange feeling that the Saga Museum was more objective in its presentation. One man’s “torturing and executing those who did not ‘accept the Faith'” is another’s “extensively increasing the acceptance of Christianity”. Executions had indeed proven to be a very successful way of converting those who enjoyed being alive, but they were somewhat glossed over by the museum.

I was also somewhat surprised at the amount of times the museum’s curators found it apt to repeat phrases such as “Icelandic men…and also some women”. Bear in mind, however, that I have my own agenda that makes me mention those things, and not others. One of the motifs running throughout my novel in progress is that the same story told by two people will be at best similar. I believe the most objective non-topical museum I have visited in my life had been the Amsterdam Museum, but then…do I know enough to be certain of that?

The fishing team of Captain Magnus most probably used a similar boat.

Why, yes. I might have a slight bias towards everything related to metalwork.

The reason why I wanted to visit the National Museum was to immerse myself in Iceland throughout the ages, and my wish was one hundred percent fulfilled. In fact, having spent three hours in there (we only left because it was announced through the loudspeakers that we had to), I started feeling oddly…responsible. As if I have taken too much upon my tattooed shoulders. I needed coffee, cake (the museum cafe = AWESOME), and a lot of rest afterwards to digest everything I saw, read, heard. Not once in my life have I devoted so much attention to history. When we arrived at the museum’s store, I got a tiny bit nuts. Unfortunately, unlike the Saga Museum, Þjóðminjasafn Íslands does not offer a full catalogue of everything (which is because one would need a truck to take it home), but I spent an awful lot of time staring at an awful lot of books. I reminded myself over and over again that I have a backlog of 200 or so books that I need to read, and that I already bought twelve new ones here in Iceland. But my heart exploded when I got to a full collection of Icelandic Sagas. How lucky, I thought, that they’re in Icelandic. I don’t need them! And then I saw the English edition. Five hardcover books in a box. If you click this link, look at the prices.

 

I will find a way to somehow make the purchase of this boxed set count as research. But not this time, because my credit card is in process of getting a restraining order against me.