The Northern Lights, Iceland and Elves

‘The moon had set by now, and the sky to the south was profoundly dark, though the billions of stars lay on it like diamonds on velvet. They were outshone, though by the Aurora, outshone a hundred times. Never had Lyra seen it so brilliant and dramatic; with every twitch and shiver, new miracles of light danced across the sky. And behind that ever-changing gauze of light that other world, that sunlit city, was clear and solid.’ Philip Pullman, Northern Lights, Scholastic, 1995, p 390

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Image by Philippa Edwards

‘My daughter’s gone to Iceland,’ my mother told a neighbour, also with a young child in tow. They were in a queue in the village shop. ‘So I’m looking after my grandson. Leo! Don’t touch.’

‘Mine has as well,’ the neighbour said.

‘Oh, that’s a coincidence. What’s she doing there? Lisa’s gone riding and to see the northern lights.’

‘Oh. That Iceland. Jen’s gone shopping.’

It seems bizarre that a country shares its name with a supermarket. But there are lots of bizarre things about Iceland. For instance, the fact that more than half the population believe in elves, and the horses (no bigger than ponies) have an extra gait, and one in ten of the population are writers. The first time I heard of anyone going there was in 1995 when I got my first job teaching at the University of East Anglia. I remember feeling a pang of envy. It seemed so far away, at the edge of the world. My colleague came back flustered talking of glaciers, geysers, green-rocked landscapes and horses. Even before reading Philip Pullman I vowed to go one day. No one I knew shared my dream. The general response to Iceland (the country) in Portugal is that you have to be mad to go somewhere so cold.

Almost twenty years later since I felt that pang I set off in the camper van with Leo and make our way to England. It takes six days. A few rainy days later, I board the three-hour flight to Keflavik airport. Sitting next to me are two young men who have hitched from the French Pyrenees to London to get the flight. It has taken them three days. They plan to camp in a lava field and watch the northern lights from their sleeping bags. It is okay, they tell me. Their sleeping bags can cope with -15. I am pleased I am not that mad. As we fly north the seas flatten out and the clouds slowly disperse. We scribble in notebooks and look out the window as Iceland comes into view. The tips of volcanoes and mountains look like they have been dipped in icing sugar and the lowlands draped in dark velvet. The afternoon light is pink.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

I am part of a group of (slightly mad) people from all over Europe who have come to Iceland on a three-day riding holiday in October. Many of us are on our own. Our first stop is the Blue Lagoon and soon I am moving slowly through the hot blue lake, lost in the steam, gazing at the dark jagged lava beyond. A bar in the middle of the lake sells cocktails, wine and beer. Many of the bathers are young and beautiful. It almost feels like a film set and, indeed, a famous actress (I am told) floats by with her family. The water hugs me and I drift to a shore where the rock has become white and smooth like a ceramic bath tub. I lie there watching the baby-coloured sky and the setting sun, the turquoise water and the white steam. I’m sure I see shadows dart into the rocks. I close my eyes and think of the long journey to get here. Already it is worth it.

I shiver as I get back on the bus.

‘Iceland very cold,’ the driver says. ‘Good that we have volcanoes. Or you would need to drive more cars so we get some global warming.’ Only the glint in his eye gives away his humour.

It is cold. When the bus gets a puncture we all troop outside to have a look.IMG_2029

‘It’s the tyre,’ the driver says and squats down to take a closer look. I think he is waiting for some elves to come and help him. Fortunately, one of the Danish women in our group is a truck driver and she is soon under the bus undoing the bolts and bang-bang-bang the tyre is off.

‘Will you marry me?’ the bus driver asks the Danish truck driver.

She thrusts the jack at him and we get on our way again.

The road is new and empty. There are only 320,000 Icelanders (excluding elves). Pockets of apartments, warehouses and shops glimmer in the dusk – as if they’ve been miraculously built during the night. There are no people. Strange stone sculptures scatter the rocky landscape and Icelandic horses graze. It is dark when we arrive at the farm. The smell of horses and lamb stew fills the warm dining room. After dinner we go out and look up into the sky but the sky is empty and cold. The cold bites my hands and nose and I can’t help worrying about the French men in their tent.

A young woman, Philippa, is rereading Northern Lights. I was already teaching when I read it but the enchanting landscape of the arctic north, going closer to the end of one world and the beginning of another, propelled my dream to head north one day.

IMG_2041The morning dawns candy floss pink. We get our miniature horses, saddles and bridles and we set off at a walk crossing rivers and through a recently planted wood. The mud is covered with a thin layer of ice like a nightshirt. We crunch through it and then when we reach higher ground we sit back, heels down and legs slightly forward and trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr. This is the tölt, the magical fifth gear of the Icelandic horse which enables them to travel vast distances. When it clicks in the pony flies beneath you, the front legs curve like cresting waves, its seat as smooth as a sofa.

IMG_2152We pass a geyser, its hot steam spewing out of the ground. Tourists gather round taking photographs and gasping every time it explodes. Hot water runs down the road.

That evening we are eating dinner when another one of the Danish women (a ship’s mate) comes in and says casually, ‘You want to see the lights?’ We all rush out.

Sure enough a green band is draped across the northern sky. A spell has been cast. No one really speaks except for a few curses at cameras and iPhones that refuse to photograph the transformed sky. It is cold and yet the night envelopes and hugs. I feel as if I can almost touch the green ribbon but it is just out of reach.

I give up trying to capture the light and go for a walk on my own. The Aurora casts a hue over the land as if a magic coat has been thrown over the night. I imagine elves coming out and constructing cities and building roads. And bears in the mountains and witches flying on broomsticks. The band of light narrows and widens in places but it doesn’t dance. Tonight it is lazy like a snake slowly digesting. It fades slightly and the cold grabs me.

We walk to a pub on the edge of a lava field. The bar looks new as if it has only just been built. I have a sense of shifting landscapes. Buildings appearing and disappearing. I get lost walking back and find myself walking into the darkness. I feel like I’ve been tricked but I don’t feel scared. I’m almost waiting for someone to take my hand. By the time I get back to the farm the green light has gone.

The next day the sky is hungover and the wind is grumpy. We saddle up our horses and set off trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr. We pass a river of melted glacier that thunders down the valley. To fall in would mean death within seconds. We ride alongside the canyon of Hvítá. It is cold, very cold. The wind punches my face and my toes and fingers have long lost consciousness. My ‘all weather’ riding gloves do not include Iceland. I put my frozen fingers into the shaggy fur of Tyrfill, my warm chestnut horse and trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr-trr.

The wilderness and cold is paused by the cafe at Gullfoss waterfall. Tourists watch as we unsaddle and then rush to the warm and order soup and coffee. I buy some gloves.
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‘This is all new,’ Elka says, a woman from the Netherlands who has been coming to Iceland for twenty years, as we walk down walkways to the waterfall. The water crashes down the rocks and spray rises twenty metres into the air.

‘But it is still beautiful,’ she adds.

I can’t help being grateful for the warm cafe.

‘Iceland very cold,’ the driver reiterates as he drives us back to Reykjavik.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Portugal is much warmer. But we don’t have elves.’

‘Ach!’ He tuts. ‘They just cause trouble.’


lisa_iceland

Social Insecurity/Insegurança Social, Monchique, October 2013

I was just wondering what to blog about this month when my phone rang. It was Mario again. He was gasping each word as if someone had stabbed him in the stomach.

‘Did you pay your segurança social?’ he said.

‘You know I did,’ I replied, confused. ‘Why?’

‘They’ve frozen my account,’ he hissed.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Your name is still on my account and they’ve frozen over 1000 euros.’

‘It’s not possible. I paid it. You know that.’

I had gone to the Segurança Social (Social Security) with Leo in the beginning of September as – hands up – I hadn’t paid my National Insurance contributions since November 2012 as 124 euros a month when earning approximately 6,000 euros a year (500 a month) is, quite simply, outrageous. But I believe in a welfare system and I do live here so I decided I would pay out of my savings (rather than declare bankruptcy like most people in Portugal). Leo was in a somber mood that day and looked at the woman attending us with his dark-eyed saudades look. She fell for it.

‘I would wait until November,’ the very kind woman advised me. ‘Bring in your tax returns. It may be that you won’t need to pay if you haven’t worked much since having the baby,’ she said.

‘But I won’t be fined for not paying?’ She looked again on the computer and shook her head.

I went back a couple of weeks later with my tax returns. She wasn’t there and Leo was being less dark-eyed and more wriggly and punchy. The man who attended us told me the tax returns wouldn’t make any difference. He advised me to pay. I did. 1295 euros. Ouch. But at least I didn’t feel guilty about the plants Leo had uprooted from during the hour we were there.

‘It’s possible,’ gasped Mario. ‘I can’t get the money out. Check your …’

At that moment I lost him. My phone’s not the same since Leo posted it into the water tank. But Mario has a tendency towards drama. How could they have frozen money in his account?

But they had. And in mine. Apparently my case had gone to court. Without my knowledge. Without a letter, a phone call, an email… This happened last Friday. I had no time to sort it out before the weekend. Fortunately, I had a little more than 1000 euros in my account so I was able to go shopping.

And it cost me 40 euros to unfreeze it. Pure theft. Outrageous.

I want to complain but I can’t see a way of making a complaint on the Segurança Social website – there is a phone line but that doesn’t help me with my phone – so I will write a letter to the president. It will go something like this:

Caro Primeiro Ministro Coelho,

Sou residente de Monchique e tenho um filho com 15 meses. Vivo numa aldeia antiga que era um aldeia viva mas quase todos foram para outros paises ou sitios para ganhar uma vida. Nos ultimos anos vieram mais pessoas que querem fazer agricultura e viver uma vida mais simples conjuncto com a natureza – então não estamos completamente sozinhos. Mesmo assim a nossa aldeia ainda nao tem agua de rede – só o penico de deus, como dizem. Eu ensino cursos online para universidades na Inglaterra part-time e faço workshops e vendo alguns livros – mas não muitos porque nos ultimos anos todas as livrarias pequenas cairam a falencia e os grandes não nos deixam entrar.

Mas nao é isso que quero dizer. Eu quero dizer que não está certo que o custo de Segurança Social é tão alto – quatro vezes mais do que na Inglaterra por exemplo. Parece que voçe não compreende que as pessoas não podem trabalhar quando eles ganham 500-600 euros por mês e pagam 124 euros por mês. Não pensou que está a causar as pessoas ou trabalhar ilegalmente ou simplesmente não trabalhar?

Quanto a levar os cidadões para o tribunal sem informa-los (e quando eles já tinham pago tudo) acho, para dizer a verdade, uma vergonha. E o facto que voçes tem o poder congelar o dinheiro nas contas das pessoas sem avisa-las, acho, francamente, criminal. E que eles tem de pagar para descongelar o dinheiro é escandaloso.

Gosto muito de viver em Portugal, Senhor Primeiro Ministro, mas isso faz me zangada. Com troika ou sem troika isso não é uma maneira para tratar dos cidadões – senão quer que eles vão a procura outros paises onde eles podem trabalhar. E isso seria uma pena – quando, finalmente, temos alguns vizinhos.

Melhores cumprimentos,

Lisa Selvidge

Which very roughly translates as:

Dear Prime Minister Rabbit,

I am a resident of Monchique and I have a 15 month-old son. We live in what used to be a thriving mountain village before it was abandoned by people who scurried off to other lands to seek their fortunes. Recently, more people have settled here –in search of a more simple life – so we’re not completely alone. But our village has no mains water – just God’s gussunder, as the locals say. I teach online courses for universities in the UK and run occasional workshops and sell a few books but not many as most of the book shops have closed down in recent years and the big ones aren’t interested in selling from independent writers.

But that’s not what I want to tell you. I want to tell you that it is wrong that the cost of Social Security is so high – at least four times more than in the UK. Do you not realise that it is putting off so many people from working (at least legally)? How realistic is it to ask people who earn 500-600 euros a month to pay 124 euros in Social Security? Have you not thought that perhaps people might sign off and work illegally when they can, and not work at all when they can’t?

As for taking people to court without their knowledge (and when they have already paid their dues) and freezing sums of money in their accounts is, to be perfectly honest, criminal. And then to make them pay to unfreeze their accounts which have been frozen for no fault of their own is downright theft.

I don’t get angry very often, Mr Prime Minister, and I love Portugal but this makes me angry. Troika or no troika, this is no way to treat your citizens – unless you want them to seek their fortunes elsewhere. And that would be a shame – just when I’ve got some neighbours.

Best wishes,

Lisa Selvidge

Writers in the Algarve, Monchique, May 2013

writers1 I thought I knew most of the writers in the Algarve. I once scoured both the mountains and the beaches for writers who would be prepared to write a short story for the anthology, Summer Times in the Algarve, and finally excavated eighteen – writers tend to be well hidden. Very well hidden in fact.  At the Algarve writers’ lunch and general get-together at Parque das Minas organised by Nuno Campos Inácio from Arandis Editora, out of the thirty odd writers present, I knew no one – other than my German friend, fellow writer and cultural entrepreneur to the Algarve, Catrin George, and Uwe Heitkampf, editor of the new Eco 123.

Language is partly to blame. This was a Portuguese affair and I was the only English person there. I speak the language almost fluently and yet still that barrier is there. Language is another country.

The idea of the meeting was to get all the writers together, show off our wares, moan about the state of publishing and have (in true Portuguese style) a big lunch. I’m not big on lunches and certainly not big lunches as I’m a vegetarian and the Algarve – particularly Monchique – doesn’t do vegetarian. Other than omelettes and salads, the only other vaguely vegetarian food is migas. Migas is a type of bread crumbs, which sounds vegetarian except it is usually cooked in ‘banha’ – pork fat. I ate it once in the Alentejo, thinking it was vegetarian and I was sick for the next twenty-four hours. But an omelette a week is fine and Catrin and I wanted to be social and meet all the other writers. So after a couple of minutes of showing off books, moaning about the fact that Amazon has no amazon.pt and ebooks are almost unheard of (a Portuguese moan) and the difficulties of distribution and general dishonesty amongst certain English book sellers who have packed up, pleaded bankruptcy and not paid for books sold (my moan) and an hour’s tour around Parque da Mina (an old private and house that used to belong to a wealthy Monchique family), we were bused up to the restaurant Luar de Fóia, one of the many restaurants on the road up the mountain to Fóia (the highest point in the Algarve) and seated at the three long tables reserved for us. The three male writers to the left were not interested in talking so I began a conversation with a delightful woman called Fatima Peres, a presenter for Radio Fóia, who is described as ‘the highest voice in the south of Portugal’ Rádio Fóia (97.1 FM). Opposite her was the founder of Radio Fóia, Antonia Ventura, who also had an electrical shop in Monchique. It turns out that Fatima is almost a vegetarian and began telling me how to make the most delicious smoothies – using celery, ginger… A waiter interrupted to tell me that there would be a vegetarian lunch for me. Excited, I asked what it would be.  ‘Vegetable migas,’ the waiter said, but assured me it would be cooked in olive oil and not ‘banha’.

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Meanwhile, Fatima was still rolling out the vegetarian recipes with a passion for vegetarian food that I could only dream of. She began talking about soya milk smoothies and, at that, Antonio protested that soya could not be milk and drew a little design on a napkin that read – animal – milk, plant – vegetable. The male writers on the left were becoming more animated after guzzling the carafes of red wine. Antonio was making a joke about how if God had found the perfect woman he would only have created one (not sure where that came from). And so, the lunch went on and on. Needless to say by the time we got back on the bus I began to feel queasy and so I missed the President of Monchique’s speech and failed miserably to meet any of the writers. But I had met some enchanting people from Radio Fóia, and learned a lot about vegetarian food and I now know that there are many more writers in the Algarve – see Arandis Editora