Just like in the movies
To walk through Reykjavik is as if walking through a parallel universe, surreal. Everything is exactly like home, the Netherlands, but not quite. The feeling being emphasized by the fact that I arrived during dusk and took a small tour of the city in the evening.
When landing, the buildings welcoming us more resembled pictures from the movie 'Ice Station Zebra' then an international airport. Additionally, when flying low past Iceland's coast, the only thing to see was a moonlike landscape, covered in snow.
Driving from the airport to the city center, I was constantly reminded of Murmansk, when I was there in the summer of 1999. The difference being that, here, the scenery was even more gloomy and the buildings were even more grey. The center of Murmansk, typically Scandinavian, is filled with pastel-colored houses. Many are not in good shape, but they are still pleasant to look at. The buildings of Reykjavik are just plain grey. However, it would probably have made a difference if I would have arrived during the day, in stead of in the evening.
Why did the city seem surrealistic? Reykjavik is no larger than the city of Albany, NY, but not only is the capital of a country, it also houses more than half of all people in Iceland. This also means that, when you do not live in Reykjavik, chances are your next door neighbor is living 10miles away. The language, Icelandic, is a Germanic language, like Dutch or German, but more resembles the ancient Norse language of a thousand years ago. One of the results is that in Icelandic, there are a number of letters that only occur in the Icelandic language. So when you try to read street signs you think you can, at least, read what it says. But time and again it turns out that you don't even know how to spell several of the letters in the words you are trying to say.
And you can pay with credit card everywhere. Really everywhere. When I arrived, I was scared for a minute (just after a dog sniffed my luggage at customs) that I wouldn't be able to get local currency to pay for my bus ride in to town. Not a luxury, since the Reykjavik city center is located about 50km from the airport. However, although I was carrying not one dollar or Icelandic Kroner, the airport not only had an ATM, I could also purchase my bus ticket by credit card. And not just my bus tickets. The hostel I could pay with my credit card, as the groceries at the supermarket, bakery or butcher, any drink in any cafe and the hot dogs at the street-corner hotdog vendors.
Icelandic prices are absurd. Much too high for comfort. Therefore, being able to pay with credit card is not only convenient, but also practical. The more you pay with plastic, the less you are aware of the prices you are paying. But what is expensive? Single fare airport-city center at $12, a Big Mac menu also for $12. One cup of tea in a cafe, $4. A simple pasta dish at a simple restaurant, just about $22. A Norwegian guy I had a short conversation with told me he was being paid in Norway, in Norwegian Kroner, but was living in Iceland. Norway is expensive, but this guy was complaining about Iceland's high prices.
A week earlier, when I was still in Portugal, everything was much, much cheaper. In fact, the relative difference between Dutch and Portuguese prices is about the same as the relative difference between Icelandic and Dutch prices. So where Holland is quite expensive for people from Portugal, Iceland must be way out of their league! No wonder Bjork decided to move to London. London may be expensive for me, for her, it's a bargain.
The city is supposedly the most swinging Scandinavian city. The city is boring. Within the city limits, there is, count 'em, one building worth taking a picture of; a church, shaped in the form of a mountain of lava. Besides that, there are only a couple of statues, some lawns and one or two small churches. On the town square, you can easily throw a brick from one corner to the opposite corner. It's that small!
In summer, the city is supposed to be more lively. For one, for a relative small amount by Icelandic standards, you can get an on-and-off bus ticket that takes you on a tour around the island. The tourist attractions should also be magnificent in summer. And, of course, really everyone speaks English, something that is emphasized by the fact that the supermarkets are drowning in British produce.
For the two days I was going to be there, I just had to do at least one excursion. There were two interesting ones, that were also just a little bit payable, meaning under $75. One would take me to the 'Blue Lagoon", a hot water outside pool, fed by surplus cooling water from a local power plant. The water supposedly possesses healing powers. The second trip takes you along the 'Golden circle', showing you a dead volcano, the location of the old Icelandic parliament, Geysir, the mother of all geysers and more. I decided to take the second tour.
Shortly after Ingolfr Arnarson moved to the island, he called his newfoundland 'Iceland', basically to scare away potential visitors from settling, whereas in summer, it can get as hot as 30degrees Celsius. He seems to have been reasonably successful with this approach, since now less then 300.000 people live in Iceland. In the year 1900 Reykjavik had less then 500 people living there. Funnily enough, when Erik the Red got banned from both Norway and Iceland and moved to what is now Greenland, he called it Greenland just to more easily convince people to settle there. Needless to say, with Greenland's current 60.000 people, he has been a bit less successful in his set up.
The trip I eventually did, going along the Golden circle was expensive but worth it. The 350km through the uninhabitable Icelandic landscape alone was already quite impressive. The massive cascades, to some more beautiful than the Niagara were simply stunning. Being able to stand on both the American and European tectonic plates was a blast and watching Geysir sprout water was highly entertaining. In the evening, when back in Reykjavik, the day was topped off by two long green snakes of Northern light hanging in the night sky. Two girls on the tour had seen the Northern Light the previous evening, after driving to some mountain top, two hours away.
Last year, Iceland got 300.000 tourists. It is expected that, by 2010, the number will have reached one million. Remarkable, since all the foreigners I met in Iceland were only taking advantage of a stopover they had, when flying between the US and Europe. As were the other twelve passengers on today's tour. The unlucky number of 13 passengers not having a negative result on the tour itself: One of the Scottish passengers warned the driver when a car, right in front of us, without warning decided to stop in the middle of the road. We pretty narrowly escaped from a nasty accident. Almost no-one, including the driver was strapped in.
The unbelievably big apple
Taking the bus, from Reykjavik to the airport, got me talking to a constantly babbling Bostonian woman with facial hair enough to make braids with. On the plane, an Italian guy, studying in New York kept on talking about why Italy was better than the US and was still talking to me when I woke up.
Already before landing on JFK airport in New York City, the smile on my face was taking on epic proportions. Flying towards JFK took us over the whole length of Long Island, on a relatively low altitude. The sight, the island covered in lights from one side to the other, was magnificent. My heart just stopped short from throbbing in my throat, but it was exciting!
After seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of movies on the US and New York, this was finally going to be the first time I was actually going to be in the US of A. After visiting almost all European countries, generally after reading quite a bit about them and generally having a favorable attitude towards them, I realized that I actually did not have a very favorable attitude towards the USA. I don't know if this was because, for a large part, my image of the US had been formed by movies, the everyday news and American people I had met over the course of my life, but the feeling was there.
And now it was just about to happen. I was going to come ashore in the country with which you're confronted from the day you are born, like it or not. The country whose slang creeps in to your English. The apex of all countries, truly the country of endless opportunity. The country were modern history, present and future come together in one mix of energy that, until today, I had only seen from afar. I was going to land in the Capital of the World!
But what a less than regular experience it was going to be. The airport terminal was older then the one at the international airport of Moscow, employees were trying to direct the flow of people more strictly than in any Scandinavian country and a large part of the American people I encountered seemed either fat or sick. Or both.
Something that I hadn't expected was my smooth flow through customs and immigrations. With my Iranian name, my Dutch passport and the face of a terrorist, something that I am not really used to. And I have to admit that the first real contact I had with a local was pretty good too. This American girl that also tried to get from the airport to Manhattan, where I had made reservations at a hostel, not only was very interesting to talk to, but also really listened to what I had to say. Although, eventually, she did fall asleep on my shoulder, she did not fit the classical American stereotype at all. Although, later in the week, this stereotype of the fat American who can only talk without saying anything did turn out to be reasonably correct.
It is remarkable to see how much, at least as far as I can see, Moscow and New York resemble each other. The 'seven sisters' from Moscow, seven gothic skyscrapers scattered around town, with an eigth stranded in Warsaw, without a problem could grace the New York skyline without falling out of step. Sure, the suburbs of Moscow are less wel kept than those of New York, but surely, they are also safer.
In true Babak-fashion did I race around town the first two days, to see as much of the city as possible. Strangely enough, already after two days had I seen most of the important sites in New York. One of two American girls that staid in the same hostel in Reykjavik asked me a couple of times what I was going to see in New York. After I read up on what there actually is to see, I told her where I was going to go. "I'm going to see the basic stuff, I guess", I said. She replied: "The basic stuff is all there is, really." Right.
My first view of the Statue of Liberty was from the top of the Twin Towers of the WTC. And what a meazly little statuette it is! 'Lady Liberty' was nothing but a small pin sticking out above the water at the under belly of Manhattan. Untill then, I was in doubt whether to visit her or not, but now, in addition to the fact that having to wait several hours to be allowed to get a ticket is no exception, I decided not to dive into this woman. You would almost think that the $100million that was spent in the 80s to renovate the statue was a waste of money.
Prices in New York aren't much lower as compared to Iceland. At Starbucks, you can easily spend $5 on a coffee, but at the same time you can get up to more than 3hours of websurfing for $1 at the EasyEverything on 42nd street. The totally skewed price scale is, at least for me, as incomprehensible as in Eastern Europe. Very cheap hardware and books, but almost unpayable housing and groceries.
I already mentioned earlier how easy it is to pay with credit card in Iceland. New York is not much different. Prices are high and many places, although no hot dog stands, accept plastic. I truly believe that this makes it easier to charge people higher prices, since people less easily realize how much they are charged. Then you have a second thing, where you are almost never sure how much you are paying until you have paid. Because in some places sales tax is included and in some places it isn't, it's always very difficult to tell whether you will have enough cash to pay for what you want. And then you sometimes also have to deal with tipping. The amount you tip, generally somewhere between 10% and 20% is up to you. The amount of sales tax isn't. Although it's totally unclear to me how it is calculated. When you buy $1 worth at EasyEverything, you have to pay $1.10. If you want $5 worth, you pay $5.40.
Here and there
On my first day in New York, I went to the NYSE, the New York Stock Exchange, and arrived just in time to hear the opening bell ring. According to the tour guide, one of the two most seen moments on television. The other is the ringing of the closing bell. Actually watching the people move on the trading floor made me realize why casinos are so very popular. In effect, they are no more than a simplified version of the stock exchange.
And I also went to Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, giving me really an unsurpassed view from the 'roof of the world'. Although, when I went to the Empire State Building in the evening, the view at night was even better. If you ever wandered, the long antenna on the top of the building was made for Blimps to 'land'.
Quite a number of museums in New York are also very worthwhile visiting. Sadly, they had closed one floor of the 'MoMA', the Museum of Modern Art. TheMetropolitan museum of art, the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Libary are really wonder full to visit. The Guggenheim museum has a fantastic building, but the exposition on Armani clothing was a bit of a bummer, although they had great Jazz on Saturday. And the five minute show in the Museum of Natural history was, unfortunately enough, presented by Jodie Foster.
As far as typically American food goes, the street corner hot dog was much better as I anticipated, but the more than a foot long pastrami sandwich was a bit too much. The thin was filled with, at least that was what it seemed like, a pound of roast beef!
The hostel where I was staying was a bit of a dump, although I should have guessed that from its $20 price tag. By far, this hostel on W 88th street easily was the worst hostel I have ever encountered. You had to share one bathroom with 15 others, whom with you also shared a room. You weren't allowed to take your bag up to your room and the drizzle that was the shower only ran on one temperature, beyond your control. Besides one girl from New Zealand, staff was almost rude. No wonder this hotel focussed on Foreign people below 30. If you ever had been there once, you would never return. After my first night I searched a bit for other hostels in the area, but the cheapest alternative I came up with would have costed an interesting $35 per night. Just a little bit above my budget.
One thing that is really fun to do in New York is just to walk around. It is amazing to see how much people look like as if they just walked right of a movie. Not that they resemble actors, it's more like they resemble roles that actors played. One of the receptionists from the hostel is Rollergirl from Boogie Nights; the man sitting next to me in a Chinese take away was Richard Attenborough from Miracle on 31st street; A neighbor of the hostel is Tom Hanks from Philadelphia and I bought a compact flash card reader at CompUSA from Lester Burnham from American Beauty. You could play a game just guessing who is which character from what movie.
The second thing is that people talk as if they are still right inside a movie. Every conversation seems to be straight from a movie. People also need to be very expressive, move a lot with their hands, make emotional faces, and so on.
On Friday night I literally walked into a movie. I was looking for a bar where they would have some stand up comedians but in one back room of some bar, seating about 50, a video projector showed a movie of two talking old guys, sitting on some bench, somewhere in New York city. After each short, which lasted 10 to 15 minutes, the two guys from the movie, who were also part of the audience, would comment on what we just had seen on the screen. Both them speaking on the screen and in the room was totally inaudible. I obligingly laughed when the crowd laughed.
According to the Lonely Planet, about 15% of population of New York is black. Remarkably, that is absolutely not what you would suspect when walking around town, taking the subway or entering any store. Based on these places, you would think a more accurate assumption would be somewhere between 50% and 90%. Where are all the whites?
I walked, for half an hour or so, through a part of Harlem, on my way to Yankee stadium and the streets looked exactly like in the movies. The poor kids dressed in caps, hat, sports clothes, sneakers, ghetto blaster were everywhere, making their moves. To fit in as much as possible, I tried to be as cool as I could.
Yankee stadium, according to some the most famous arena after the colosseum in Rome, is a real cow. Just like Flushing Meadows, it's nothing but a grey slab of concrete in the middle of nowhere. Close to Harlem, some more interesting sights are a very large gothic cathedral, Colombia university and America's biggest mausoleum. The mausoleum, of course, is for some long forgotten war hero and alive with almost irritating patriotism.
When I returned from Yankee stadium, I was waiting at one of the metro stops. A mother with two kids came and sat next to me. One of the two kids, a boy of about 8 years, sat right next to me and immediately asked where I was from.
At first, I figured the little fellow had a very good nose for tourists, but only later did I understand that what he meant was, where I was from before I lived in New York. Since his nephew was getting French in school, he assumed I must have been French too and not, like him, Colombian.
The kid had come to the US three years ago, after his father had came here earlier and was now working in Boston, after having started in New York. When I mentioned I was going to Massachusetts the next day, the guy almost radiated when it became clear that that was the same state as where Boston was. It was funny to see how much the little guy had to tell, each time, when struggling with his English, rubbing his nose with his left index finger, as if to magically rub the words to the surface, under the chanting of the magic words 'ehm… ehm…'.
Something that really surprised me was the water level in American toilets. The first time I noticed this, I figured the toilet I wanted to use must have been broken, but when I noticed all toilets suffered the same fate I understood this was standard practice. The only reason for this that I could think of, is that this way, a cleaning lady does not have to scrub shit of the inside from a toilet bowl. Still, it is not very convenient that, if you don't watch out when you shit, the water jumps up, splashing at your ass and, what is even worse, your dick hangs in the water. I was unable to verify if toilets in places more frequented by blacks have a lower water level.
To take the train to Albany, NY, from where I would be picked up to go to North Adams, the location of the Geekcorps office, I had to get a ticket from Penn Station. I went there in the afternoon to buy my ticket, to make sure I would have no problem getting there in time in the evening. When I entered the train station, it felt like walking into either 1984 or THX 1183. Subtly hidden microphones were constantly blurting out messages for the general public: "Please, help us recycle waste.", "We are constantly on the lookout for…", "If you would like…" It was almost scary, since it suggested a totalitarian state, trying to keep everything under control. However, when I tried to go to the public bathroom at Penn Station, an older man entering one of the stalls just in front of me started making heavy vomiting noises, without anyone seeming to notice. I decided to try my luck elsewhere.
Something that positively surprised me was the physical size of Americans. Sure, Americans are fat, but they were a lot less fat as to what I expected. Not once did I encounter anyone in the subway, who needed three seats to sit down. It seems like fifty years of thigh master is finally paying off.
One thing that is nice, though, is the large number of performing artists hanging around in the subway stations. Some are really, really good. I bumped into an Italian singer and a Middle Eastern boy playing the xylophone. Both were very good, but the boy was much more, simply magnificent. He played like a madman, but with so much feeling it was
unbelievable. You can listen to recordings from both artists.
Although Americans are much less fat than I expected, they are highly individualistic, superficial, noisy and emotional. And most look like they're sick. Almost half of all Americans in New York wears a walk man, excluding themselves from the outside world. This not only goes for youngsters, but also for older people. And then, everyone is also moving and swinging to the silent noise coming from their head phones, totally oblivious from what's going on around them. And Americans keep on talking, without saying anything or listening. I talked to several people while in New York, but I only had conversations with foreigners. The girl I talked with just after arriving in New York was from Australia.
It also came almost as a shock to me that 'service' was far more difficult to find as expected. This country that, as I assumed, was almost all about service, is a mess in that sense. Most shopkeepers are just plain rude. When I talked to an English couple at a jazz performance at the Guggenheim, we concluded that currently Western Europe has a clear edge over the US.
And then it became sunday evening, time to go on. At Penn station, it wasn't very difficult to find my fellow geeks, although in stead of three, we turned out to be four. Myself, Thomas from Denmark, Tim, an American living in Amsterdam and Jean from Oregon. Getting to know each other went reasonably smoothly and it soon became clear that the group was going to consist of like minded people. Never a bad thing. From Albany, we were driving to North Adams by Stephany, where we met the other volunteers, Francois from France, living in Louisiana, Jean-Luc the Canadian, Peter from Vermont and Jason from New York. Let the training begin.