Iceland – Visual literacy

I’m a big fan of visual literacy. During my life as a designer I must have made hundreds of unique icons all built to describe complicated processes at a glance. My icons didn’t always translate to all markets, especially overseas markets. I remember getting all offended when I got the critique that my icon for ‘print’ that had been applied to some F-key wasn’t playing well in Spain. Well…after a few of those I started really diving in and paying attention to international symbology that seemed to work in every situation. There aren’t a lot of these. So much of our cultural visual literacy is built from local experiences and local contexts…and just like language and reading, we teach our kids how to read symbols as well.

I love traveling and running across a high level informational symbol that I can’t figure out.

Corinthian columns with roofs?


Iceland – Signs of warning

I love these digital signs. They sit at the entrance to any road where the weather might kill you.

I like the heads-up that I’m about to casually drive into a possible shit show and I like that it gives a driver a way to factor your own odds rather than just saying, “No”.

Temp and wind speed information are transmitted from a little weather station at the point of greatest danger to the sign. The trouble spots seem to be at every mountain pass and at every finger tip of a fjord.

Yesterday I explored the road out of Isafjordur and hit one of these signs. 1 degree and a wind of 7. I assumed 7 was expressed in kilometers per hour, but after thinking about it wasn’t sure if maybe it wasn’t knots. Either way the math bored me after a few minutes and I drove on to discover to numerically expressed weather for myself. The signs have another box that I haven’t seen lit up with information. Without a label or any clues I can only assume that when weather gets bad it lights up with some percentage sign forecasting your survival rate.

The roads around the fjords are built pretty much at sea level with not much more than a few boulders keeping the sea back. If the winds were to pick up waves from the arctic sea would be breaking in the road. I noted that a wind speed of 7 meant that the road and the ocean were not in a mingling state.iceland-4640

Iceland – Isafjodur and the Westfjords

While Kaety was discovering that it will be GIS scientists that will save the world I spent time poking around Isafjodur.

It’s one of the largest towns on the northern side of Iceland, and it’s about the size of Depoe Bay. It looks like it was once a large fishing town that is going through a transition as its local fisheries change.

Net pens for aquaculture dot the mouths of the fjords to the east and west of Isafjordur and the tenders and processing plants are positioned just north of town.

Traditional trawl fisheries are also present but you can sense that the energy has gone elsewhere. One troubling thing we learned is that while Iceland fisheries implemented catch shares and have a quota system, they did not put accumulation limits in place. Eventually the large processors bought up the smaller guy’s quota – small towns like Isafjodur have very few independent vessel operators left. All over the hillsides are old drying houses for fish – very few of them look to be still in use.

Iceland – the jumping bladders

We can hear them from our VRBO window – from dawn to dusk the kids of Isafjodur are jumping and jumping and screaming and screaming.

Right next to city hall they have installed a big inflated bladder. It looks pretty fun and it’s always occupied. As I walked around town and noticed the trappings of family outside people’s houses I started realizing that these are folks that value the time they can have outside. Even in 1 degree Celsius weather kids are riding bikes, at the playgrounds and jumping on trampolines. There are a lot of trampolines in this town…and the next town over.

I can just hear the Icelandic parents panic over the weather turning and all the children being stuck inside, “Maybe if we jump them for two months the children will sit quietly for 6 months of winter”.iceland-4711

Iceland – Eating at Tjöruhúsið

We walked through town looking for ‘an old viking lodge’ which contained a restaurant named Tjöruhúsið. Neither of us knew what a viking lodge looked like, nor would ever be able to read whatever word our VRBO host had said to us as we launched out the door- but we were confident that our noses would win the day.

We found it and walked around the building twice before deciding the place might be closed. We ran into a man loading his van. We asked. He tapped on the tiny square of a viking window and the chef appeared, his head exactly the size of the window. He poked his head out and said, “How many?”. We held up two fingers. He barked, “Name?”, “Mark”. He shouted things to someone behind him and then said, “Come back at 7. You eat fish” and closed the window.

We came back at 7. It was obvious at that point where the opening was. The place was a beautiful low beam building filled with music, light and the smell of food.

It was a family style place. The meal was set out on counters and everyone picked up their plates and dished up.

Everyone of the 10 or so seafood dishes we had were mind-blowing! One of the top three food experiences we’ve ever had. Arctic char, Wolf eel, Cod, Halibut, Ling, Muscles, and other things we couldn’t identify were prepared in a collection of sauces that showed off the fish and transported us.


Iceland- Intertidal fjords

While there was a waterfall every 100 yards, I really never got tired of seeing them…and pointing every one of them out to Kaety.

I did restrain myself a bit and only stopped to photograph the ones that didn’t involve a death defying hike, or take us off our course too far. During a stop at one of the nameless, anonymous stunningly beautiful falls we noticed steam rising from below the high tide line on the shore of the fjord.

One thing we noticed is the the intertidal zone of a fjord is pretty unique to everything we know of bays. It was really a trip to find a hot spring bubbling up into a ‘tide pool’.

The water was too hot too touch and didn’t smell like sulfur – the algae and various creatures must have been getting cooked but seemed to be thriving. The real advantageous action for all the organisms must have been when the tide was high and the whole area was underwater.


Iceland – Driving to the Westjords

The conference Kaety was attending in Iceland had some awkward travel constraints around it. We pushed and pulled and finally figured out something that worked and get us there on time. That ‘figuring out’ ended up sounding like this, “The flight to Reykjavík leaves Portland at 3 pm and is only a 7 hour flight…and the cool thing is we arrive at 6 am Iceland time so then making a 7 hour drive in a roller skate across the country shouldn’t be a problem at all.”

Military folks say no battle plan survives its first contact with the enemy. I’d borrow that adage and morph it to the best laid travel plans fall apart when the travelers meet their fatigue.

We were trashed after our flight. Neither of us could sleep even with the super cool Iceland Air Aurora Borealis mood lighting beckoning us to sleep. Even if the mood lighting had done the trick the guy reclining his chair into my wind pipe would have made all the beckoning pretty much moot.

We got off and through customs in record breaking time and got our rental car, which was indeed a roller skate but with a manual transmission. It took me a bit to get my manual mojo back.

The drive was amazing! Iceland is ridiculously stunning. Every 100 yards or so a waterfall double the size of Multnomah Falls gushes down into someone’s back field. It’s such a mundane and common thing that they are given no names or turnouts from which to photograph them. The ones they name? Double the size of Niagara falls!

When all the Earth Maker’s were spinning up the random landscape generator for Iceland they hit a freak run of aces in the numeric model for waterfalls.

By hour five of the stunning drive we were exhausted. We pulled off at a very friendly, but institutionally named, N1 which is Iceland’s version of a gas station minimart…but way better.

We crammed ourselves full of cheese, water and lamb products and parked the car near a pasture of Icelandic horses and slept for an hour. I had dreams that my neck was cramping terribly only to awake and realize that dreams really can come true! All discomfort aside, the food and an hour of sleep brought us back to life!

We continue on our way to the very very distant Isafjordur. It’s located in the northern section of the country called the WestFjords which is the glove shape piece of land sticking off the top left of the island. The ‘fingers’ of the huge glove are all narrow fjords about 40 miles long.

As we drove and marveled at the change in beauty around literally every corner, we noticed a dismaying side effect of driving a fjord. As you make your way down the finger to make your way up the side of the next finger you get to see where you will be and where you’ve been. While stunning, it became depressingly maddening as our paralyzed butts really wanted to build some sense of progress.

We finally arrived a mere 9 hours after our plane landed. As we rounded the tip of our last finger we were treated to a stunning view of the snow scattered mountains surrounding Isafjordur. Breath taking!

We found our VRBO and stumbled into bed like dead people.

Iceland – On our way


20 years ago when someone said something about going to Iceland you’d assume they were military personnel…and had done something wrong.

10 years ago people who went to Iceland were world travelers who had run out of the normal stuff to do and were ‘adventure touring’. They also tended to be people who owned more than one ice axe and ‘telecommuted’ to their jobs.

Today you can throw a rock and hit at least three people who have been to Iceland in the last month.

Why is everyone going to Iceland? Well…Iceland has done a brilliant job capturing up tourists on their way to other places. Iceland Air allows a free 5 day layover to anyone traveling to and from Europe. So many people took advantage of the arrangement that it built a lot of popular buzz. What was the content of the buzz? That Iceland was stunningly beautiful! …reports also state that after visiting Iceland you’ll disdain all US based waterfalls forever.

So we have joined the herd and are on our way!

Kaety is participating in a coastal spacial planning conference focused on climate change issues and I’m spousing along with her.

Increasing my Icelandic cultural competency

In two days we leave for Iceland. I downloaded an iTunes play list of popular Icelandic music in hopes of increasing my cultural competency.

With a greater sense of cultural appreciation I am hopeful that when I see a craggy escarpment I will appreciate its unique cragginess through the eyes of a guy who’s listened to an hour of Icelandic music.

What I did notice after my hour of listening is that the moody tunes range from folk to synth and lyrics hat included a lot of ice metaphors. I was delighted. “I never saw the black ice in your heart – until it was too late”

Pounding rain, icy shards, lazy rain, drifting snow, fractures in the ice around your heart, and ‘the melt’ all found their way into my Iceland bucket of wisdom via my short foray into the music.