Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020

Tuesday 3/10/2020 - Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe), Culture House, Cafe Loki

We were awakened by the 9 a.m. Hallgramskirkja chimes and realized that we better make it down to breakfast. The buffet closes at 9:30!

We threw on some clothes and headed downstairs. We sat in the sunken dining room this time. The orange Tang-like juice dispenser was empty, but we had coffee and water along with toast, ham, cheese, and veggies. Craig also had yogurt and granola.

One place we were eager to revisit was the Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe). After breakfast, we took showers then walked over there, arriving around noon. We love the way this business operates. It's just like any other cafe, but with cats. These cats need homes. They are well cared-for by the staff, and customers who grow attached to a particular cat can adopt it.

They just celebrated their second anniversary at the beginning of the month, and in two years they have placed over 50 cats in forever homes!

We were here almost exactly a year ago, and of course, there is now a whole new batch of cats. There are five females and one male. One of the owners of the cafe recognized us immediately from last year. Although the place was packed with people, she helped us to find a comfortable place to sit.

We were seated next to Roxie, a tortie who was asleep on a young woman's coat. When the woman got up to leave, we transferred Roxie to Craig's coat, and she promptly resumed her nap. Trixie, a tuxedo, was sleeping on a chair next to me. We talked to a mother and her adult daughter who were visiting from Minnesota.

One of the cats, Judy, who has been there a month, is all fur. Her frame is quite tiny. She had a hard time adjusting at first, and spent 2 weeks hiding from customers and cats alike in the back room. The daughter from MN and I dangled some toys in front of her, and she played. The owner said that this was the first time she had witnessed Judy playing, so that was great progress! In fact, we would later learn that Judy was adopted mere days after our visit! Congratulations, Judy!

Craig had a cappuccino and I had a swiss mocha. We shared a decadent fudgy brownie. It was so cute to see kids and adults walking by and waving to the cats in the window. Babies in their strollers would get the biggest heart-melting smiles!

As some people left, a young man who had been sitting in the corner (away from where the cats were currently located) came to sit next to us. His name is Yi Chuan; he is from Taiwan and he is currently finishing up his college studies in Virginia. He and friends had booked a spring break trip to Iceland, but the friends had all backed out due to the COVID-19 situation. Yi Chuan decided to go forward with his plans, and was finding that he was making lots of new friends while traveling alone. We had a very nice chat with this kind and friendly young man.

There's just something about animals that brings people together. We aren't normally the type of people to strike up conversations with strangers in restaurants, but the cats break down people's barriers.

We chatted with the co-owners of the cafe, and each enjoyed a local soda (ginger ale for Craig and carbonated rose lemonade for me).

Before we knew it, three hours had passed. We said our goodbyes, with a promise to visit again after returning to Reykjavik from Greenland.

At 3 o'clock, we walked to the Culture House. The building dates back to 1906, and was built to house the National Library and National Archives of Iceland. The National Museum and Museum of Natural History were also housed here before they moved into their own buildings.

Today, the Culture House is partnered with the National Museum. One ticket provides entrance to both. Last year, we had visited the National Museum but did not have time to visit the Culture House. Since we had walked by the building a million times and it was very convenient to visit, we thought that it would be a good way to spend the remainder of afternoon.

The exhibit which occupies the entire building is called Sjónarhorn (Points of View). It is made up of an eclectic assortment of items from the collections of the other Reykjavik museums and libraries which, when viewed together, give good insight into the culture and worldview of Icelanders.

The exhibit is organized by the perspectives from which Icelanders view their culture and environment, and it is recommended to start on the top floor and work your way back downstairs. Time management in museums is always difficult for Craig and me; we have the ability to linger for far too long on specific exhibits. The museum would close in 2 hours, so we had to keep an eye on the clock and keep moving.

Because of time constraints, I often take a lot of photographs of both exhibits and signage at museums, and synthesize the information afterwards. I don't have the attention span to read paragraphs about the exhibit in real time; so I do research after the fact to put things into context.

My analysis below has been augmented with research; at the time, we mostly inspected the items on display.

The architecture of the museum seemed Escher-like, with a central stairwell of marble staircases with iron balustrades and wooden handrails. There were full storeys and half-storeys, and nooks where certain art pieces were tucked. It was not a linear exhibit, and the physical space of the museum reflected that.

We walked up to the top floor, from which the only point of view was "Down." This part of the exhibit was focused on the land beneath Icelanders' feet.

"Image of the country" was a sub-exhibit which consisted of different representations of Iceland's geography, whether landscape paintings (which were hung in a staggered formation so that there was one continuous horizon line), an abstract looking collage made of lava fragments from Mount Hekla, dioramas in small wooden crates, or a grid of glacier photographs.

"Force of nature" focused on volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, as recorded in seismograph readings, illustrations, photographs, newspapers, postage stamps, postcards, and album covers.

"Beautiful country" contained photographs and paintings which romanticize the Icelandic landscape, illustrating the relatively recent historic phenomenon of being able to enjoy nature for its own inherent beauty, separated from its utilitarian role.

"Prosperous country" focused on the ways in which the Icelandic landscape has provided for its people. The fishing industry was represented in photos of saltfish fillets drying outdoors as far as the eye can see. There were photos of men catching puffins using what resembled butterfly nets. We hadn't known how people went about hunting puffins, but we had never imagined this method. Farming work was depicted in a large elaborate piece of embroidery. We also saw legal documents and plans around the mining industry, and artistic representations of the geothermal power industry.

One particularly intriguing photograph is "Mountain" by Sigurður Guðmundsson. It is a self-portrait where the artist is laying on a layer of rock and turf, and books, bread, and shoes are piled on top of him.

Sigurður Guðmundsson's Mountain can be called a living sculpture, captured in a photograph. The artist himself is central in the piece and is placed as a point of intersection between nature and culture. The layering of vertical and horizontal lines depicts a certain process from a natural foundation to the man who has created his cultural products: rocks, turf, man, shoes, bread and books. The composition is reminiscent of the construction of a turf farm. With stone and turf walls, people's houses became a part of the landscape and people's daily lives were similarly interwoven with the land. The sculpture itself, Mountain, is both figurative and non-figurative in this piece. As a form it rests on the intersection of nature, man and culture and it also exists as an idea, expressed through the text that reveals the title. The man is at once a reason and basis for the mountain to exist as an idea and as a form. It is the man's creation and without him, the mountain would not exist. Just like art itself. - Culture House Webguide
The top floor of the museum also housed a children's room. It was one of those little rooms that only old houses contain, a cozy little room perfect for youngsters. There were padded mats on the floor, and fabric draped from the ceiling to resemble a tent. The walls were covered with drawings of or inspired by items in the museum. It was the perfect place for kids to relax and draw while their parents continue to explore the museum, or for kids to take a breather during field trips. There were no kids here today, and very few adults. We had the place largely to ourselves.

The next Point of View was "From the Cradle to the Grave," which focuses on various aspects of the human lifespan: childhood, love, courtship, daily life, careers, death, burial, and memory.

There were paintings and sculptures of mothers and children. A calendar of 48 illustrations dating back to the early 1800's depicts the chores around the farm that are performed during each month. Colorful paintings depicted the making of blood pudding and commuters returning from work. Pop art included a vintage advertisement from the Rafskinna ad agency, and 1958 collages warning of the dangers of consumerism by Erró whose "Silver Sabler, 1999-2017" mural we had seen at Keflavik Airport.

Then things took a dark turn.

One of the more repulsively intriguing pieces of art here was a gray/green canvas on which was printed white text. Called "Corpse Washed Ashore No. 1" , this is a florid description of a dead body ravaged by the sea. We didn't really know what to make of it.

We did some research afterwards, and learned this about the artist Birgir Andrésson
Birgir Andrésson (1956–2007), one of Iceland’s most renowned artists, has an extensive exhibition history including representing Iceland at the 1995 Venice Biennale. While most Icelandic artists of international stature have actively sought distance from the enmeshments of a small society, Birgir began early in his career to tackle not distance but problems of nearness. He is particularly interested in exploring those rhetorical structures and material practices integral to Icelandic history and folklore. Flags, postage stamps, lettering, cabinetry, ancient rhyme schemes, and archeological drawings are among the forms explored in his work. - Icelandic Art Center
Raised in a home for the blind as the sighted child of blind parents, he was accustomed to describing things and ideas in the absence of visual imagery; thus, he grew to be particularly attuned to the relationship between language and perception. -
Now it made sense. This was sort of the flip side of a picture being worth a thousand words. Though the "visual" component was rather minimalistic, white letters on a gray background, the letters spell out a morbid sight in grotesque detail. The background color of the canvas can easily be interpreted as the color of the cadaver's skin.

This unflinching look at the mechanics of death and decomposition has parallels in Nordic Noir literature, which tends to be more gory and gritty than other genres of thriller.

Other exhibits related to death included a dark impressionistic painting of a funeral, a back and white photo of a young girl at her mother's grave, and a carved wooden epitaph plaque from 1688 painted in cheerful colors. A beautifully carved gravestone from 1569 looked like it would fit beautifully in an Edward Gorey illustration, with angel and skull motifs and a Puritanical looking image of the deceased woman.

The "Inside" Point of View explored imagination, dreams, home, and abstract forms. This was an interesting exhibit, as there was a stark contrast between the cozy safety of home and the dark inner world of folklore and nightmares.

From the cozy hearth and home (i.e. "inside" the home) realm were still life paintings of food, embroidery patterns, a brochure of textile samples, and a modern sculpture consisting of a porcelain soup tureen containing a bouquet of forks adorned with colorful wool embroidery floss. There was a pile of blond wood "used furniture", which looked like it all came straight from Ikea. A taxidermied salmon hung on the wall.

From the dark realm of imagination (i.e. "inside" the mind), creepy paintings depicted people screaming as demons descend on them, and night trolls peering into windows. Icelandic folktales were reflected in a deck of elaborately illustrated playing cards by Ásta Sigurðardóttir from the early 1960's. The Elf Woman's Cloth is an altar cloth which is said to have been made by an elf woman during the 17th century.

An official 16th century cartographer's map of Iceland was decorated with sea monsters, including their names and descriptions. Other art objects depict mermaids, and the Katanes monster which was first reported in the 19th century.

One very interesting item was the Book of Witchcraft: Defences against natural and supernatural evils, which dates back to 1670.

It is mostly written in Icelandic but includes texts in Latin, Greek and even Hebrew.

The book details various defence measures against evil, both natural and supernatural. The manuscript includes various magical symbols that had to be drawn up in a particular way to fend off various spirits as well as exorcisms and prayers to help with all kinds of problems, himnabréf (heavenly letters) that people believed had fallen from heaven and would help them protect themselves from various evils as well as blóðstemmna (bloodstoppers), special stanzas that would prevent loss of blood and were frequently used in the old days.

The best known of the magical symbols is without out a doubt the Ægishjálmur (Helm of awe) but this manuscript has what is likely the oldest extant image of this magical symbol.The book however describes no runic magic since it only handles with white magic but the runes were usually considered to have derived from the devil and therefore only used in black magic. - Culture House Webguide
The "Outside" Point of View explores perceptions of reality. An understanding of natural history throughout the ages in Iceland is traced through a succession of books. "A Visual Account of Earthly Creatures" is a book written by Einar Magnussen in 1689. The text is written in beautiful calligraphy, and the book is open to an illustration of a unicorn (an Eartly creature??). Late 16th century manuscripts depict drawings and descriptions of whales and walrus. Ornithology watercolors from the 1950's depict adorable chicks.

Surveyors' infographics depict the comparative heights of mountains and lengths of rivers. It was interesting to be able to see the measurements of these geographical elements relative to one another.

One very interesting exhibit is the census log from 1703. Iceland was the first country to compile a comprehensive census of all of its inhabitants .

The Icelandic population was 50,366 at the time, 22,874 men and 27,492 women. According to the census there were 670 district officers, 245 priests, 76 school boys, 38 nurses, 7 executioners and 6 falcon hunters. A total of 725 first names were registered, 387 male names and 338 female names. Jón and Guðrún were the most common names.

The 1703 Census is the oldest extant census in the world that covers an entire nation and includes registration of name, age, address (in most cases) and social or professional status (in all cases). No other nation in the world has such detailed demographic information about the population at that time. - Culture House Webguide

Next we entered a reading room, the embodiment of the "Mirror" Point of View. Large wooden tables and heavy chairs beckon patrons to immerse themselves in research materials relating to cultural heritage, memoir, and reflection. Many memoirs were available here. We also learned that historically Icelanders have loved to chronicle their lives in writing - kind of like Craig and myself!

One end of the reading room is dominated by a majestic old wooden card catalogue. It used to belong to the National Library, but now it is used as the Culture House guest book! You write your name on a card and file it in the appropriate drawer. We did so - what a cool idea.

Glass cases house artifacts which reflect on various aspects of Icelandic identity. Examples of popular modern Icelandic literature included noir detective novels by Ysra Siggurðadottir and Arnaldur Indriðason (personally I thought that Ragnar Jonasson should have been included as well!) Examples of Icelandic popular music included CD's by Bjork. There were vintage Iceland travel brochures, as well as designs submitted by the public for the national flag in 1914.

Historic books included the sagas. Craig was interested in one book in particular, and he scanned the shelves until he found the thick volume: Heimskrimla, The History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturleson. This book is known to us through Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth album. Craig joked that we should look through the book for a parchment.
The story begins on the 24th of May 1863 in Hamburg When Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel discover an Old parchment in a 12th century book called 'Heims Kringla' A chronicle of the Norwegian princes who ruled over Iceland This parchment, when decoded into Latin and translated by Axel Proved to be written by an alchemist of the 16th century and read as follows: "Descend into the crater of Sneffels Yokul, over which the shadow of Scataris falls Before the calends of July bold traveller, and you will reach the centre of the Earth I have done this. - Árni Signússon" Sneffels is a five-thousand foot-high mountain in Iceland An extinct volcano, its last eruption having been in 1229 And so the journey from Hamburg to Iceland Begins - Rick Wakeman, "The Preface" Journey to the Centre of the Earth
There was another children's room on this level. It provided specimens that children could touch and inspect, including seashells, a whale vertebrae, and minerals. There were rulers and magnifying glasses. There are questions posted for children to consider when inspecting the specimens. It is nice that they provide activities to stimulate children's minds about cultural and natural history.

The "Again and Again" Point of View explores repitition within art throughout generations. The most prevalent motif in the visual arts throughout the history of Iceland is the bine. (Bine is a botanical term for a climbing plant which climbs by its shoots growing in a helix around a support). Throughout history, herbal coils and knots have adorned Icelandic decorative arts.

Articles in this exhibit which contain the bine motif include an 11th century carved wooden board, illuminations in manuscripts, a carved drinking (bull's) horn dating back to 1625, 18th and 19th century carved wooden bed sideboards, and the national costume for women dating back to 1911.

Finally, the "Up" Point of View, housed in the basement level, examines powers both religious and secular. Most of the religious artifacts are Christian in nature, given that Christianity took over Iceland around the year 1000 A.D. But there are a few pagan artifacts on display, such as a manuscript depicting a drawing of Odin.

Other items on display included a 17th century linen tapestry depicting New Testament scenes in stem stitch and cross stitch using wool thread. A beautiful baroque pulpit was carved and painted by a clergyman in the early 1700's.

By now, we had been here for two hours and the museum was closing. We had to rush a little bit at the end to make sure we got to see everything. Allowing ourselves two and a half hours would probably have been perfect.

We walked back toward the hotel. There is a T-shirt shop called Reykjavik T-shirts which sells (among other designs) shirts with a "The cats of downtown Reykjavik" design. They had a sign out on the sidewalk advertising that design, and I saw a cat walking right by the sign. I couldn't resist taking a photo: how meta!

Tomorrow would be the start of our grand adventure in Greenland. We were a bit apprehensive. There was a strict weight limit on luggage, since one leg of the journey is via helicopter. We would need to pack carefully, and leave anything unnecessary at the hotel for the next week.

We needed time to plan and pack tonight, and we wanted to make sure to get a good night's sleep. We wanted to eat dinner early, and close to the hotel. One restaurant that we have heard great things about through friends such as Nick and Marie is Cafe Loki. It is literally right next door to our hotel, and they specialize in Icelandic cuisine. We decided to go there. It wasn't very busy yet as Icelanders tend to eat dinner around 7 p.m. or so. This was technically still happy hour.

We chose to sit upstairs, at a window table with a gorgeous view of Hallgramskirkja. Craig had his beloved Einstok Toasted Porter, and I had a glass of red wine. We were both intriguied by the "Gratinated Plokkfiskur": mashed fish with potato and cheese. We ordered it and were not disappointed. Think mashed potatoes mixed with fish and smothered with cheese sauce, baked until the cheese browns and the whole thing is so molten that you have to let some heat escape before tasting a bite. Absolutely delicious! It was served with steamed rye bread and salad. It was delicious comfort food!

We couldn't help but get drawn into conversation with the four young adults at the neighboring table. They had gotten up the courage to try fermented shark and Brennivin. Brennivin is the caroway flavored national schnapps of Iceland. The fermented shark is a famously acquired taste. The three men and one woman at the table were all going to eat a bite of shark from a toothpick and chase it with a shot of Brennivin.

They wanted to record the moment for posterity so I filmed it for them on one of their phones. They made the mistake of smelling the shark first, and it made them gag. But they all ate it and followed it up with a Brennivin chaser. None of them liked the experience, though they seemed to blame the Brennivin more than the shark. Craig and I actually like Brennivin, but we prefer our seafood non-fermented.

We chatted for quite a while with them. Joki from Maine and Jesse from St. Louis are friends who have traveled together to Iceland during the spring break from college, and Stephanie and Ryan from Connecticut are a married couple on vacation. The two pairs met one another last night at the newly opened Ice Bar on Laugavegur. They hit it off and decided to get together for shark shots tonight.

We had so much fun that we were actually shushed by a neighboring table...oops! Sorry! It was a great evening! We would have loved to have joined those guys for a nightcap at the Ice Bar afterwards, but we have to get up early for our flight to Greenland tomorrow!

As we left the restaurant we apologized to the table that had shushed us. They accepted our apology for having gotten carried away in a rowdy conversation.

We walked next door to the hotel. We packed as much as we could tonight, knowing that we would have some time in the morning to pack our last minute items.
Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Craig and Yi Chuan, Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Kattakaffihúsið (Cat Cafe)

Culture House

Culture House

Colorful paintings depicting daily life in Iceland, Culture House

Colorful paintings depicting daily life in Iceland, Culture House

1569 gravestone, night troll painting, folkloric playing cards, The Shadow, Culture House

1569 gravestone, night troll painting, folkloric playing cards, The Shadow, Culture House

A Visual Account of Earthly Creatures (Einar Magnussen, 1689), Odin, magical symbols circa 1820, 16th century natural history manuscript

A Visual Account of Earthly Creatures (Einar Magnussen, 1689), Odin,
magical symbols circa 1820, 16th century natural history manuscript

Meta: The cats of downtown Reykjavik

Meta: The cats of downtown Reykjavik

Cafe Loki

Cafe Loki

Dinner with a view, Cafe Loki

Dinner with a view, Cafe Loki

Gratinated Plokkfiskur, Cafe Loki

Gratinated Plokkfiskur, Cafe Loki

Jesse, Joki, Craig, Steph, Stephanie, and Ryan at Cafe Loki

Jesse, Joki, Craig, Steph, Stephanie, and Ryan at Cafe Loki

See all photos from March 10

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