Sunday, 21 March 2010

Eruption in Iceland

Icelanders rarely forget they live on a groaning, fiery land-mass astride two of the earth's giant plates, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (pictured above, the plain caused by the plates pulling apart). But in case they do, a volcano erupts to remind them.

Last night's eruption happened not from a snow-capped crater but from a crack in the earth about 1.5km long, near the Eyjafallajoekull glacier. If it erupts again – and a relatively small eruption like this often precedes a bigger one – the glacier could melt, causing devastating floods. Worse, nearby is Katla, one of the country's largest, most dangerous volcanoes. When there is activity nearby, it often starts to move.

Even in a country used to volcanic activity, it's exciting. When they heard the news, young men left their Saturday night beers to jump into 4x4s and head off for a closer look. All the roads were blocked by police cordons.

How do Icelanders feel about their volcanoes? Greipur Gíslason, one of the organisers of Iceland's second design festival, HönnunarMarsthe reason I am here – says volcanic eruptions, unless they are life-threatening, are reassuring. "It's really good," he said this morning, wearing the smile of a secretly proud father whose naughty child has just come top of the class. "It reminds us our little island is working properly."

"The earth has reminded us that its creation is still going on, and that we are not its creators," Iceland's president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, told us today, as we sipped white wine at his home outside Reykjavik. "These ever-present, but unexpected events have a strong influence on the mindset of the country."

"We're excited," a young woman told me. "Katla has been sleeping for too long. Her last eruption was nearly 50 years ago so she is behind schedule." (Volcanoes, by the way, are gender neutral, but the most powerful have female names).

I experienced some of Iceland's awesome energy yesterday on a trip to see Geysir, the hot bubbling spring that erupts every 15 minutes or so (below).

It was awe-inspiring. But I fell in love with the tiny bubbling spring nearby...

I swam in an outdoor pool heated by geothermal energy. And I've showered every morning in piping hot water from the ground. On my flight from London, I sat beside a man who sits on the board of an Icelandic renewable energy company. The country produces more energy than it needs, he told me, but it doesn't know what to do with it. I hope they find a solution: if they do, Iceland will become very rich again.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Brief Encounters: swimmer

In the last few years I've swum in an inky black lake in upstate New York (where I dared not put my feet down for fear of monsters); in a Scottish loch so cold I thought I would have a heart-attack (but didn't fear monsters – whoever heard of a monster in a Scottish loch?); and in too many bathtub-warm Indian seas to mention. It soothes, strengthens and regenerates.

But my most memorable outdoor swim was two springs ago. I extended a flying visit to Munich by one day and jumped on a train bound for Starnberger See – a glorious lake 40 minutes from the city. I found a patch of grass among the trees lining the shore, stepped gingerly down the slippery wooden steps into the water and kicked off.

In a heartbeat, the tension in my shoulders lifted and the heart-ache engulfing me at the time subsided. I felt nourished. "Swimmers often feel that in water they are truly 'in their element'," writes Kate Rew, author of Wild Swim, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society and friend, "and in lakes this is somehow enhanced. They offer the chance for muscles to stretch out and glide for miles, but they also nurture a different kind of wellbeing – that of the heart, soul or psyche."

Back on the bank, as I lay there drying off, a woman in a tiny towel approached the steps. She let the towel fall away revealing a white bikini, dipped an elegant toe into the water and jumped in. She had the figure of a race horse – tall, lean and toned – and her skin was deeply etched in soft, honey-coloured wrinkles. It was the most wrinkled body I'd ever seen. She must have been at least 70.

Yet she looked remarkable. She seemed comfortable in her skin the way so many older women aren't. I bet she swam every day. "When I'm that age..." I promised myself. And I turned my face toward the sun.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Brief Encounters: Pick-up

I’d never been to the US before, so I’d never met anyone from Alabama – I don’t think they give them passports. “You girls ever been in a pick-up truck?” he asked. We giggled.
His name was Chip. I still don’t know whether that’s short for anything.
He took us fly fishing, me and Caroline, my oldest friend. I never really got the hang of it. Besides, I was too fascinated with Chip: he had everything a man needed for a day’s fishing: rod, bait, book, cool beers and a padded thermal sleeve to go round them. I've always envied that sort of simple self-sufficiency.
Caroline and I were visiting a friend on the coast in Maine. That night, with no catch, the four of us ate at Mable’s Lobster Claw. Talk turned to women. Apparently, the girls of Maine weren’t up to scratch. What about Internet dating, we suggested. “I’d be lettin’ maself down.”
A few days later, we drove round to say goodbye. The pick-up was outside, a pair of trousers draped over the back. It was dark, the deep black you get in the country, and the hiss of crickets filled the air. We banged on the veranda door, and eventually he appeared, a beer in his hand snug in the thermal sleeve. “I’m goin’ to Portland, gonna get me a girl,” he winked. “Ya’ll have a naace trip home.”