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Friday, 18 October 2013

An extraordinary week of change

This time last week I was emerging from the Green Channel at Gatwick airport into the arms of my beloved to be whisked back home following five wonderful days in the equally wonderful country of Iceland. This was my seventh visit to Iceland, the first being made in 1984 at the tender age of nineteen (the first time indeed that I left the country), and the most recent before this being in the summer of 2010.

As the date for my October holiday approached I wondered where I could go - back to the West Country perhaps, or to the Channel Islands, but then I hit upon the idea of Iceland, and once the idea had entered into my thoughts I found I could not let it go. All of my previous visits have been during the short summer season, so for me this was a little bit different, yet familiar at the same time. The main reason of course for travelling at this time of year is the Northern Lights, which are said to be at their peak of activity during this year. The trip though also coincided with the annual lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower.

I landed then at Keflavik airport on a chilly Monday afternoon, stepping out of the terminus into temperatures of 4 degrees, a sharp contrast to the 16 or so degrees I had left behind at home. Once I had found the bus that was to transfer me to the hotel were I was booked to stay (really more of a hostel - for £8 a night you can't complain), I was whisked away to Reykjavik city centre. The first thing I did after bagging a bed in the shared dorm that was to be my home for the next four nights was to find the nearest supermarket, where I shopped for essentials for the next four days.

That same evening, a mere five hours after landing, I was due to go on the Northern Lights tour, but sadly the conditions were considered unfavourable, and it was cancelled for that night, so I went for a walk around the city instead, with my trusty tripod, taking pictures of the Viking Ship sculpture down at the shoreline and the lake, among other things.

I awoke to a blanket of snow - the first snow of this winter, which was a surprise and so I set off with a spring in my step, wrapped in all the warm clothing I possessed to explore the city. I found a lovely raw food vegetarian restaurant in which to have lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the city's excellent outdoor swimming pool, moving backwards and forwards between the various hot pots and the steam room.

The Northern Lights I was informed was very much on for that night, and so it was that I was picked up from outside of my hotel, filled with anticipation. Once the bus was full and we drove off, the guide informed us that the forecast was indeed looking very good, and they were to take us down to the south coast. As we drove along, a message came through from a different bus some 200 kms away to say that at 8.30pm they were already seeing Lights, which is most unusual, so I was hopeful indeed. Then as we got closer to our destination still, we started to see signs of flickerings through the window from the right hand side of the bus.

We ended up at a café down at the seafront near a small town called Selfoss in the south. It was completely pitch black but my eyes soon adjusted to the dark. Tripod and camera at the ready, I and about 200 other people emerged from a convoy of 4 buses to be greeted by the most eerie yet spectacular sight which was truly awe inspiring. It certainly helps you put your own place in the universe into perspective. The lights continued to glow with all their different colours for a whole 2 hours, which is very rare indeed. I really did then feel extremely privileged to be out on this particular night. It was cold but so very worth it.

When it got to around 11.30 it was though time to get back on the bus. We were still seeing more Lights as we drove back with various private cars in laybys watching the spectacle. I was back at my hotel by around 12.30am for a very good nights sleep.

On Wednesday it was a visit to the Blue Lagoon followed by lunch at one of my favourite restaurants - Icelandic Fish and Chips in downtown Reykjavik. Since this was close to the harbour I decided to walk the coastal path around the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula and I was so glad that I did. It was a perfect afternoon to be out, sunny with a slight chill in the air, with excellent views of Videy island out to the east, and the Imagine Peace Tower which was to be lit that night.

After a quick sandwich back at the hostel, I made my way to Hlemmur bus station intending to catch the first of the free buses which was laid on by Yoko Ono for those wishing to attend the ceremony. I was accompanied by Thomas, a German man who was staying in the same dorm as myself, with whom I shared many interesting philosophical conversations. When the bus came it was packed to capacity with people speaking in many different languages. When we got to the quayside for the equally free ferries we were dismayed to find that the queue was already round the block, but with convoys of ferries brought into service for this very special evening, the queue moved quickly and we were soon on our way.

While Thomas opted to sit inside the tent, I made my way to the monument itself to find a space in which to sit and watch the proceedings. I had taken the tripod with me once again, but found it too cumbersome and soon gave up, opting instead to use the night time photography mode, which worked reasonably well.

The weather may have been chilly, but there was real warmth in the hearts of all those who attended, including the wonderful team of stewards and other staff, not forgetting the bus and ferry operators. To see those beams shooting up into the night sky and again the following evening back in the city was an experience I am not likely to forget. The crowds, the choir and of course Yoko Ono herself all made for a most memorable evening. It took over an hour to wait in line and get back on the boat for the return journey, and I was chilled to the bone after several hours in what felt like sub zero temperatures, but the hotel was just a short walk from the bus station and I was very soon tucked back up in bed. It was for me then a very special evening and something that I am not likely to forget. It was made all the more special by the knowledge that Coran was sitting at home watching the proceedings via a live webcam.

Thursday then was the last day, and time for the almost obligatory Golden Circle tour - I chose Netbus for all of my excursions this time around, being a smaller operator with a much smaller fleet of mini buses, which made for a more personal experience with much more time at the sights of importance. I don't think though that any amount of time at Thingvellir would be enough for me. By the time we got to this, my favourite place in Iceland, it was drizzling with rain and dull and overcast, a real shame as I had hoped to see the autumn colours in all their glory. I guess though this provides me with another excuse to go back at this time of year, as if I needed one.

Thursday evening was then a brief stroll around the city to see the lights of the Peace Tower shooting up into the sky, followed by one last visit to the swimming pool on Friday morning, before being collected and whisked back once again to Keflavik for a delicious vegetarian pizza.

The flight was on time, and went very quickly, and as I stated at the beginning of this post, by 8.30pm I was back in the arms of my beloved.

I had the following day off work, but it was back to work on Sunday and straight back into the fray. Some things had evidently not changed, as it took me a full 45 minutes in the laundry before I was able to sort out the heaps of mess - red bags thrown untied all over the place their stinking contents pervading the air, with piles of damp sheets screwed up and thrown on the ironing board. As a result, it was 8.45am before I even started to clean any rooms, but my boss decided that she wanted me to do both cleaning and laundry, so she has to live with the consequences of that, and one of those consequences is that I was and will be for every weekend that this continues, be unable to clean the house properly. That is their choice to make.

Since then things have continued pretty much along that vein - I will not be there for much longer now anyway, as on Tuesday I had an interview for another job, as housekeeper in a new, much more modern home, a little further from home, and I am delighted to say that they offered me the job. The salary is just 15 pence per hour short of a proper living wage and so represents a significant increase on what I get here, with I sincerely hope, a significant decrease on stress levels. My friend from work, who works in the laundry and has an ongoing grievance to do with health and safety is also to go and work there - initially only at the weekends, as the Union feel they have a better chance of winning her case if she remains working there, at least for the time being. She was told off again this week for supposedly recruiting people into the Union, but if our employer had not acted with such heavy handedness in the first place, this would not have been necessary.

It is upsetting to see her being treated in this way, and it offers much sustenance for my pain body, which feeds off  both hers and my own negativity, so I am hoping that this will be a new start for both of us, where we can finally be seen as the people that we are and be treated with the dignity and respect that they say the residents deserve, but does not seem to transfer itself to the treatment  of their own staff. This is nothing less than both of us deserve. I can but hope, but the signs are very good..

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