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.

For this one I would like to thank Ásgeir of the DoMoreAsgeir fame.

I found Ásgeir’s site via Iceland Magazine, and started clicking around. Snæfellsnes was among my 500 links I saved in the MUST SEE folder, but it was his photos that convinced me we had to go. It was a trip of over two hours one way, and I had to convince Husby that it was worth driving there. The page I linked to at the beginning of this post was enough. We got in the car, and off we went.

Driving in Iceland is a pleasure in itself (said the person who doesn’t drive). You’re driving on scenic motorways. But we got more than we ever expected. We got a bonus waterfall.

This is Bjarnarfoss. According to the website I linked it’s “a moderately tall waterfall visible from Highway 54”. I didn’t see it, but Husby did, and started parking the car without even warning me. “What?” I asked, bewildered, worried something car-y broke. He just pointed at…this.

I have never seen a proper waterfall in my life, even a moderately tall one, unless you count the approx. 1 meter tall one at Guðrúnarlaug. It wasn’t windy, so we didn’t witness a sideways stream. But I had no complaints (and stayed dry). It was hard to tear me away from the bonus waterfall, but we knew the actual attractions awaited us further, at the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Ásgeir begins his description of the journey with Arch Rock, but I got stuck the second I saw Bárður Snæfellsás.

I won’t get into Bárður’s story, because I’d be retyping Regína Hrönn’s words (I have such a sis-crush on Regína Hrönn). I’m just going to say this – seeing him in person is a breathtaking experience, the first of many at this part of Snæfellsnes. I had to touch him and feel the energy myself. He is the work of Ragnar Kjartansson, and the most incredible thing is that the statue looks like a part of the landscape that always belonged there. It looks much more natural than the actual nature. Because this is what nature actually created for us to look at…

Once you get over the fact that a large part of this photo is, er, bird shit, you will notice the columns in bottom left part. I can’t come up with a reason for Mother Nature to make them so straight and angular other than simply that She can. In the top left corner you see some random person whom I got on the photo on purpose. For scale.

The water inside roars, as it stays there on the bottom. Then, without a warning, similarly to a geyser, it shoots up. Sometimes higher, sometimes not so much, as if the Gods found it amusing to ruin my attempts to capture it on film. I tried not to be That Person who hardly sees anything apart from their phone’s screen, and managed, because I kept on getting stuck in various spots where I just wanted to stay forever and watch. When I die, and I hope that will not be anytime soon, I would like my ashes to get scattered here:

The water took all colours. Steel grey, coldest blue you’ve ever seen, yellowish, sickly tint, but also deepest emerald – everything but the blue you’ve seen in my previous posts. And I just sat there on the cliff – that’s where I took this photo from – as the view went forever. The clear air, even on a somewhat rainy day, allows you to look for miles, and being here in April ensured that we wouldn’t see many tourists.

By the way, remember when I mentioned Iceland doesn’t fuck around when it comes to marking the dangerousestest spots? Here’s how they decided to mark a spot where you could kill yourself super fast:

I hope this thick fence makes you feel extremely safe, and it better would, because a few meters later it ends. The path you can see in bottom right corner continues, there are no “do not approach” or warning signs. Having seen what some tourists were doing (the longer we hung around, the more people arrived) I am seriously surprised that the bodycount isn’t measured in hundreds.

Hellnar (I think I’m identifying the spot correctly) doesn’t belong to people – very little in Iceland really does. It belongs to the birds. The kittiwakes (pictured above) make a lot of noise. So do the waves, and the wind. As with most things and places I love, I very quickly started feeling possessive, and tempted to accidentally throw the shrieking children off the cliffs. I had to forcibly remind myself that children are our future, and that they are actually also a natural phenomenon. And once the wind got stronger it became possible to find a spot where I could close my eyes and not hear any sound that was human-made.

We didn’t find the cafe Fjöruhúsið that Ásgeir mentioned. We went into a restaurant at the parking lot, ate caramel apple pie (possibly best apple pie I ever had), drank coffee, then returned into the car. We felt we gorged on the views enough, and skipped the rest of Snæfellsnes. We drove home mostly in silence, interrupted by Google Maps (you wouldn’t believe what the voice of Google Maps can do with words like “Hafnarfjörður”…), expecting nothing more…

…and then nature gave us one parting shot.

A little note. The only image in this entire post where I used Photoshop at all is the first one, the featured photo with a little house. All other photos are unretouched. This is what everything actually looked like…except the reality was not limited by a phone camera’s resolution.

This is my seventh post in the series. I have three more waiting – of the things we’ve witnessed in the meantime. I don’t know if we managed to see one percent of what Iceland has on offer, my bet would be no, as we’re still staying within three hour radius from Reykjavik. I came here hoping – not a joke – that I would become bored, that the weather would put me off, the rain and wind make me count the days until I can go home. It hasn’t worked. The more I see, the more greed I discover in myself.

In unrelated news, I need to find a way to quietly dispose of tourists’ bodies if they don’t stop making noise.