westfjords weekend

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One weekend in July, Jan and I headed to the Westfjords for a quick getaway. It was the first time I’d been there since road tripping with my mom last summer. We took the ferry from Stykkishólmur on Saturday morning, then drove across the mountains and stopped for coffee in Þingeyri before continuing on to Ísafjörður. The weather wasn’t great on the way, but the deluge of rain held off until we arrived in Ísafjörður, which was fine as our one and only plan there was to eat dinner at Tjöruhúsið.

Our AirBNB was a cozy little apartment with some entertaining decor. Decor might not even be the correct word. The owner has printed instructions and comments all over the walls themselves, instead of leaving them on paper or something. The wall clock in particular sent me into several undignified fits of laughter. “Darling, should we have dinner at half past horse?” “Yes, but we need to be in bed before slightly lewd panda.”


Sunday we retraced our path over the mountains, again stopping for coffee in Þingeyri, and stopping again at Dynjandi since the weather was much more photo-worthy than the day before.

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We continued west to Patreksfjörður, where I did my three-week homestay as part of the Snorri Program in 2012. I had called my host mother, Hrafnhildur, to ask if we could stop by, and of course when we arrived she kindly offered us coffee and cakes. I had seen Sæmundur last year when my mom and I visited, but Hrafnhildur had been away, so it was wonderful to see them both. Unfortunately we could only stay and visit for about an hour before we had to turn around to get back to the ferry. It was entirely too short a visit, but Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur have invited us back any time. I truly hope it will somehow work out to get back there soon. I would love to spend more time with them. It’s really a completely different experience being with them now that I can communicate effectively in Icelandic.

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escape to america, take 2

Last semester, my fourth in Iceland, was a challenging one in many ways. I started working a part-time job in January. The focus of classes shifted quite a bit and became, in my opinion, much less practical and much more academic, with research papers replacing conversational practice. And I was dealing with pain from a chronic injury that started bothering me in December. With finals approaching, I made a sudden-but-not-so-sudden decision: I returned to the States.

It was a scary decision, of course, not knowing exactly how things would shake out with my grant and with immigration if I up and left during finals. But at the same time, once I made the decision I knew it was the right one. I needed to take care of myself physically and emotionally and in order to do that I needed to leave for a while. I bought a one-way ticket on the last day of classes and flew to Portland the next day.

The purpose of this trip was very much to rest and to get some answers from my doctors about the pain I’d been dealing with for months. Jumping through health insurance hoops is a pain in any country, but it was a relief dealing with medical issues in English rather than in Icelandic (or choosing to use English but then feeling guilty about missing out on a learning and practice opportunity). In any case, everything worked out and I found out that all my pain could be traced back to two teeny tiny extra bones in my right foot which made me prone to tendonitis, which I developed last winter from a combination of slippery streets and poor footwear. I am now a 28-year-old woman who must wear supportive footwear like a grandma. Oh well, better to look dorky than to be in pain.

Because I made the decision last-minute and because I really was not in any condition to be social when I first arrived, I spent most of my time at home with my family. My mom and I spent a lot of evenings in good conversation. But easily the greatest unexpected gift of being home was getting to join my family at our summer home on Lopez Island.

Earlier this year, my mom told me they would most likely be selling our island home this summer. Since I had no plans to return home this summer, I had sort of reconciled myself to the fact that I would never again stay in the Lopez house. On the one hand, I was relieved that I would be away when the house was sold, because I wasn’t sure I could bear to actually say goodbye to it. On the other hand, of course I wanted the opportunity to do so.

It’s hard for me to put my feelings about Lopez into words, let alone condense them down into a blog post. It’s a place that’s always been a part of me, that’s shaped my identity and given me joy. My connection to the island deepened in 2010 when I moved there to live and work full time. Over the next two years, I not only saw the community in a new light, I became part of the community. And in a way, my time living on Lopez led me to Iceland. It gave me the longing for an even greater adventure, and the confidence to seek one.

Before this trip, my entire family hadn’t been together at Lopez in years. One of us was always in school, or working, or living in Texas or Iceland. For all five of us to be there together, even for just a couple days, was a small miracle. Mom and Dad and I arrived first. Scott came early the next morning and stopped at the bakery on the way to the house, so I woke up to find my brother and a fresh almond butterhorn waiting for me. Finally my sister arrived too. Over the past months, my brother has made several trips to the island and has been slowly cleaning out the house. If I would have gone to the house a year ago, it would have been filled with remnants of my AmeriCorps year – piles of books I got from the take it or leave it, shelves and lamps I brought from home when I moved up there, tutoring materials I used at the school, sticky notes with phone numbers of island friends new and old (four digits only, since all Lopez phone numbers begin with 468), approximately a dozen scarves I knitted or crocheted my first winter on the island. But all those things have gradually been boxed up and carted away, posters peeled off the walls, leaving behind little more than the house itself: the faded gold and green shag carpet, trampled by forty-something years of feet big and small; the dark wood paneling; the macramé decorations; the clock on the wall and other wedding gifts my parents received in 1975; the defective set of drinking glasses with the bottoms that don’t sit flat but rather spin like tops; the closet full of classy board games, like our perennial favorite, The Dukes of Hazard.

On my last night in the house, my sister and I shared our room like so many summers years ago. I thought about what it was like to share that room with her as kids, to share it with friends over the years, and I thought about the first night I spent in that room alone after moving to Lopez. My eyes filled with tears. Imagining another place ever meaning so much to me is almost impossible.


The reason for my family’s trip to the island was actually to honor my uncle’s memory. My dad’s oldest brother Lyle passed away last autumn after dealing with cancer for several years. Everyone in the Summers family is deeply connected to Lopez Island, but no one more so than Lyle was. Like my dad, he spent every summer at Camp Nor’Wester from a very young age, and when he was too old to be a camper, he joined the staff. Like my dad, he purchased a house on the island some forty-odd years ago. Unlike my dad, he never married or had kids, and he remained involved in camp the rest of his life. Conveniently, his career as a teacher allowed him to devote his summers to camp.

I was of course grieved to hear of his passing last fall, but I was not grieving so much for the relationship we had but rather for the one we didn’t. At least when it came to blood relatives, Lyle was an intensely private person, rather chilly and withdrawn. Many years ago, he chose to make Camp Nor’Wester his true home and its staff and campers his family. During his illness and after his passing I heard testimonies from many camp people about what a warm, funny, caring person Lyle was. Again, it made me unspeakably sad that I never knew that person, but it was also a comfort to know that so many people carry that memory of him.

When it comes to my dad’s side of the family, we are not close-knit and we don’t often get together. But the one thing we share is a love of Lopez Island. This place roots us and connects us in an indescribable way. Wherever else we may live, Lopez will always be home.

On a warm and shimmering Sunday afternoon in early May, we gathered at Lyle’s property, which overlooks the entrance to Fisherman Bay on the west side of the island, to sort through his belongings, discuss matters related to the sale of the estate, and scatter some of his ashes.

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the view from Lyle’s property, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca

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Summers family, except Scott’s wife Gloria

With Lyle’s property being sold and our house soon to follow, the Summers family will no longer own any property on Lopez. It makes my heart hurt to say goodbye to the home, but I try to remind myself that no one can take away my connection to the place. There may no longer be a physical house for me to return to, but I can still return home to the place where my heart feels most at peace.

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American summer (well, spring): roasting hot dogs and s’mores on the beach
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evening light at Odlin
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systkinin þrjú á svölunum
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tveir kattavinir og Zorro kötturinn

Páskafrí fyrir norðan

This year I was invited to spend the long Easter weekend at a cabin in the Skagafjörður region with my friends Victor and Jan and Victor’s Norwegian friend, confusingly also named Victor.

To reduce confusion it is perhaps best to introduce the cast of characters up front.

Victor, AKA My Victor, AKA German Victor:

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Jan:

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Victor, AKA Other Victor, AKA Norwegian Victor, AKA Jerry:

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I came down with a cold or flu a couple days before the trip, but decided in the end to go anyway. Lucky for me, the guys took care of all the preparations – finding and booking the cabin, planning meals and shopping, etc. After all the planning I did for our weekend at Króktún the month before, it was wonderful to have someone else do the work this time around!

The guys picked me up on Thursday and we headed out of Reykjavík, through the Hvalfjörður tunnel, to Borgarnes, and onward north to Varmahlíð, a tiny village near Skagafjörður. Along the way, we quizzed each other on state capitals and ate iconic German buildings in gummy form, because we are cool like that.

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We also made a couple sightseeing stops, including at this crater, where the wind was Icelandically strong:

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We found our cabin, which was quaint and cozy and perfect, with a tiny Icelandic “forest” nearby and a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains.

After we settled in, the guys went on a walk to explore the area, but I stayed back to rest as I still wasn’t feeling 100%. That evening, Jan and I taught the Victors to make guacamole, and Jan made Icelandic lamb burritos for dinner. For dessert we had a tiramisu that the guys prepared the night before, and I’m not sure if it was partly the atmosphere of the cabin or what, but it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Mmm. We were all in a bit of a food coma after that.


On Friday, we woke to magically warm sun streaming in through the windows. It was so magically warm, in fact, that the páskaegg we had left on the coffee table had melted a wee bit:

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After breakfast, we headed out for a road trip. We drove north and stopped in Hofsós, where we saw Vesturfarasetrið, the Icelandic Emigration Museum (sadly not yet open for the season) and where Jan fell into a snow hole and then tried to play it cool.

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Then we continued around the Skagafjörður peninsula. In Varmahlíð and Hofsós, it was sunny and almost warm, definitely springlike. But on the northern tip of the peninsula and the eastern side it was still winter. We stopped in Siglufjörður and wandered around a bit and I was positively frozen by the time we reached the car again. In Akureyri, we had coffee, Victor had ice cream (as per usual), and we ended up at a pizza place for dinner, where I had a language learning moment. I wanted to order some pizza sauce on the side, but I forgot that in Icelandic, “tómatsósa” (literally “tomato sauce”) means ketchup, whereas pizza or pasta sauce, which I would call tomato sauce in English, is “pítsusósa.” So I got a big tasty pizza with not-so-tasty ketchup on the side. Oops. Lesson learned.


On Saturday we got in to the Easter spirit by holding an Easter egg hunt, as all well-adjusted adults do. This was my idea, I think, while the trip was still in the planning stages, and to my delight the guys were totally on board. We had 12 plastic Easter eggs, I think, so we took turns and each hid 4, both inside and outside the cabin. Jan was crowned Easter egg hunt champion, having found 5-6 eggs if I remember correctly.

That evening we feasted on German food – potatoes and sausage (well, Icelandic hot dog) in green sauce, a Hessian specialty (Hessen being the region of Germany from which my Germans come), and apple wine to drink.

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Around 1 AM, when we should have been going to sleep, Jan and I decided to finally make use of the hot pot out on the porch, and we were just in time to see the Northern Lights begin dancing. It was the perfect way to end the trip.


Sunday morning the weather was once again so stunningly beautiful that it was difficult to say goodbye to our happy little cabin world. But around midday we set out for the big city again. By the time we reached Reykjavík, I was truly sad to say goodbye to my boys. I arrived home to a house full of relatives, a stark and noisy contrast to the peace and quiet of Varmahlíð, but I joined Ásta’s family for a lovely Easter dinner.

The next night, the boys and I got together for a beer and a round of Sequence because we just missed each other that much already.

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Takk fyrir mig, strákar, og við sjáumst næst í Gurk, er það ekki?

Vetrarhelgi á Króktúni

At the end of February, I spent an all-too-short weekend in the country with eight friends. Erin and her friend Jen had been talking about taking a weekend trip, and I’d also been talking about it with a couple other friends, so Erin and I decided to combine forces and get a big group together for a trip at the end of our winter reading week.

The nine of us headed south out of Reykjavík on a Friday afternoon and after a short drive arrived at Króktún. It’s a charming cottage with views of Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull, and its charm is magnified by the fact that it’s clearly a family summer house, with all the collected flotsam and jetsam that accumulates in a second home (i.e. quality movies like Titanic on VHS, family photos, framed poems in honor of the family patriarch, a pair of sparkly plastic glasses shaped like champagne flutes leftover from a country New Year’s).

Our volunteer chef Mátyás got right to work in the kitchen Friday night and we had a lovely late (like, 11:30 PM late) dinner. Erin almost died waiting for food, as you can see in the picture above. Gary tried to support her in her hour of need, when she wasn’t trying on pairs of glasses and declaring, “These belong to someone who’s dead!” Saturday we ate breakfast while taking in the 360-degree view of the snow-covered landscape, including Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull in the distance.

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Miraculously, the weather was stunning – sunny and clear without a hint of wind – so we took an excursion to see Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. There were plans to soak in a hot spring as well, but time (and daylight) got away from us and we returned to the cabin. Katleen, Mátyás and I worked some dinner magic with all of our leftovers and random ingredients.

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Seljalandsfoss í sólbaði
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me and my Gary
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Skógafoss, regnbogi

Sunday morning came all too soon and we had to pack up and clean the cabin. We took a longer route home and stopped to see Skálholt, one of two episcopal sees established shortly after Iceland adopted Christianity in the year 1000. Jón Arason, Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, was beheaded at Skálholt in 1550.

After a weekend of perfect weather, we encountered pouring rain and high winds as we reentered the city.

It was wonderful to finally get out of Reykjavík, although not nearly as relaxing as I had hoped. As I probably should have known, cooking for and cleaning up after nine people is a lot of work, and 48 hours is simply not enough. Perhaps some day we will return to Króktún for a more leisurely getaway.

things that make the news in Iceland: cheeseburger soup and snow penises

Snjótyppi klýfur Gautaborg // Snow penis divides Gothenburg (Mbl.is)

A snow penis has reportedly caused division among the residents of Swedish city Gothenburg. An unknown prankster drew a penis on a frozen river and the city received a number of complaints from people asking it to be destroyed. This proved to be rather a challenge as the ice was too thin to allow city workers to walk on it, so they had to use some sort of long-handled tool to destroy the snow penis from a distance.

The destruction of the snow penis caused a backlash on social media, and of course someone founded a Facebook group called something like “Rebuild the snow penis” (I’d like to think that in English it would have been something like “the snow penis will rise again”).

A new snow penis was indeed created, reportedly so large that it can only be seen in its entirety from the air. The Icelandic article delightfully refers to it as “Hið nýja snjótyppi,” which will probably be amusing only to those who know Icelandic.

(Here’s an article in English for those who want to learn more about the snow penis phenomenon.)


 

Ostborgarasúpan gerði allt vitlaust upp í HÍ: Það var algjör örtröð í Hámu // Cheeseburger soup causes a ruckus at the University of Iceland: The cafeteria was crazy crowded! (Vísir)

Yes, the soup of the day at my school’s cafeteria made the news. Is cheeseburger soup an American thing? Probably. In any case, I feel like it’s something I’ve definitely heard of before, but apparently here it’s the soup equivalent to a unicorn. Everyone lined up to try it and deliver their verdict. Some hypothesized that the soup was an experiment of sorts, to measure the power of social media. It seems to have worked. One person went so far as to declare it akin to “Almar í kassanum,” the art student who spent a week naked in a glass box back in December. In other words, it was something everyone just had to see for themselves. It was the talk of the town.

It sparked a number of amusing tweets and the wonderful hashtag #súputíð, which literally means “soup time” but is a reference to the word gúrkutíð (“cucumber time”), used to describe a period of slow news. It’s always gúrkutíð around here, really.


 

Gæti skotið einhvern en samt unnið // Could shoot someone and still win (RÚV)

Ironically for someone who’s so into wall-building, the stupidity of Donald Trump knows no boundaries. While I am grateful to hear a lot less about him here than I would back in the States, I still hear way too much, as of course the world is following the campaign with an appropriate blend of amusement and horror.

His latest assertion that he could stand on Wall Street and indiscriminately shoot someone walking past without losing a single voter basically encompasses everything that is wrong with Trump: he is stupid, he is crass, he is disgustingly confident, and he is disgustingly popular.

Reading about him in Icelandic somehow creates a bit of distance, but sadly I know he will continue making headlines, and the truth behind those headlines, regardless of the language, will be alarming and depressing.


Until the next batch of news, friends.

 

Portlendingar: bjórdrykkjufólk, lesendur, hipsterar

My friend and fellow Northwesterner-at-heart Leana recently alerted me to an article about Portland published in the Icelandic magazine Stundin. It’s always nice to see the Northwest getting some press in Iceland, and the author certainly got a lot of things right, describing Portland as a charming city and “the hipster’s Mecca.”

This description also rings true:

“Strákarnir sem afgreiða þig hvort sem það er í raftækjaverslun, smá-brugghúsi eða bílaleigu eru með sítt skegg og kassalaga gleraugu.”

“The guys who work in electronics stores, microbreweries, and car rentals all have long beards and square glasses.”

The author touches on the oft-quoted statistic that Portland boasts (?) the highest number of strip clubs per capita of any US city:

“Út um allt eru klámbúllur og strippstaðir sem Portlendingar eru furðustoltir af.”

“There are strip clubs all over the place, a fact of which Portlandians are strangely proud.”

And of course I approve of this shimmering review of Powell’s:

“En helsta perlan downtown er ekki veitingastaður. Innan um smábrugghús og lífrænar búðir (og risavaxna Whole Foods nema hvað) stendur Powell´s city of books, 6.300 fermetra bókabúð með yfir einni og hálfri milljón eintaka af nýjum og notuðum bókum. Með öðrum orðum: Paradís. Portland er svo sjarmerandi að hún gæti næstum verið evrópsk.”

“The greatest downtown treasure is not a restaurant. Among the microbreweries and organic grocery stores stands Powell’s City of Books, a 6300-square meter book store with more than one and a half million new and used books. In other words: Paradise. Portland is so charming that it could almost be European.”

That last sentence is rather a backhanded compliment, but we’ll let it slide.

I find it fascinating that an Icelander of all people is complaining about the strength of Portlandian beer, but perhaps that’s because the dominant drinking culture in Iceland is all about getting drunk, not as much about the palate:

“Portlendingar þykjast vera listamenn en þeir eru fyrst og fremst bjórdrykkjufólk, og það reynir á magann því það er hvergi til venjulegur lager. Bjórarnir eru bragðsterkir og áfengir, og breyta maganum í lítið brauðbakarí.”

“Portlandians fancy themselves artists but they are first and foremost beer drinkers, and that is a bit hard on the stomach because there are hardly any regular lagers available. The beers are strongly flavored and strongly alcoholic, and turn the stomach into a little bakery.”

He also got a few things wrong, by my reckoning, most importantly his conclusion:

“Það eina sem vantar upp á til að gera þetta að vænlegu túristasvæði er eitthvað virkilega stórfenglegt. Það tekur hálfan dag að skoða Multnomah fossa og vilji maður tilbreytingu frá borgarlífinu daginn eftir er eiginlega bara St. Helen fjall eftir. Það er þó hægt að mæla með heimsókn til Portland sem hluta af stærra ferðalagi um Bandaríkin, til dæmis ef leiðin liggur til Seattle.”

“The one thing missing that would make this a promising tourist destination is something truly spectacular. It takes half a day to explore Multnomah Falls, but if you want a break from city life the next day, there’s really only Mt. St. Helens left to explore. I can certainly recommend a visit to Portland as part of a larger trip in the States, for instance if you continue north to Seattle.”

I am not entirely sure what map this guy was using, but I feel like he somehow missed the fact that the Pacific Ocean is less than two hours away from the city. Never mind how much more there is to do within city limits than eat, drink beer, and go to strip clubs. I mean, on my itinerary, Powell’s itself takes up the better part of a full day. With Portland as base camp, one can take a ridiculous number of day trips in any direction. This author commented on how friendly Portlandians are, but he must not have asked them for recommendations, because anyone could have given him a long list of things to do outside the city, starting with that big blue blob on the map, the glorious Pacific Ocean.

(Also, am I the only one who finds it strange that someone who takes time to discuss the strip clubs does not once mention the dirty doughnuts at Voodoo?)

In any case, thanks to Stundin for giving me the little joy of reading about familiar places á íslensku. And next time you’re in Portland, grab a waffle from the Waffle Window or a couple scoops at Salt and Straw on your way to the coast. You’ll thank me later.

 

áramótablogg: ringing in 2016 in reykjavík

It’s 2016 and I have now rung in the past two years here in Reykjavík. Last year, I arrived back in Iceland the morning of the 30th, which means I spent the day severely jet-lagged and did not so much appreciate the constant barrage of fireworks that kept me awake until 8 AM. This year, thankfully, was a very different story. I celebrated the old year and rang in the new alongside my Icelandic family and friends new and old.

In the morning I carefully assembled and decorated the champagne cake I had made the night before and helped Ásta clean up the house. Then I headed out to Vínbúðin (the state-run liquor store) to grab some last-minute libations. The store was only open until 2.00 and we arrived around 1.45 to find a line out the door. I have to say, I’ve never waited in line at the liquor store before, but hey, there’s a first time for everything. On the way out, I heard a tourist arguing with the security guard that it was only two minutes past two and he should really let her in and I commented to my friend that we should have bought extra wine to sell to desperate tourists. Business idea for next year, I suppose.

I headed home to bake another dessert and help Ásta with other last-minute preparations. Around six, guests started to arrive for dinner. We had a full house – an interesting blend of family, Snorris, and a couple friends.

It was practically a Snorri alumni New Year’s party, as there were five of us former Snorris: Erin (2013), Stefán (2011) and I, who all live here, and Other Erin (2013) and Mallory (2011) who were visiting from the States.

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Of course Ásta’s family was in attendance, including her father Kristján, stepdaughter Elena and Elena’s boyfriend Ketill. My friend Victor and Stefán’s friend Sam rounded out the guest list.

classy black and white new year's eve
classy black and white new year’s eve
less classy new year's eve
less classy new year’s eve

Ásta and the other Snorri girls cooked dinner, I provided dessert, and there was no shortage of wine.

My second-ever attempt at champagne cake, inspired by my favorite cake from Konditorei in Salem, was an undeniable success, at least according to the tiniest critic. Nói was the first one to sneak a taste and he seemed to enjoy it.

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champagne cake before
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You're looking at about $4 worth of California raspberries. I sincerely wish I was kidding.
You’re looking at about $4 worth of California raspberries. I sincerely wish I was kidding.

After dinner and dessert, we gathered around the TV to watch áramótaskaup, an annual comedy show that pokes fun at the year’s happenings. It was quite rewarding to see that I understood almost all the dialogue this year, although a few of the cultural references still went past me. Most of the things I expected to see were included, such as Justin Bieber, Naked Almar in a box, and IceHot1.

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gathered around the TV to watch áramótaskaupið

Áramótaskaup airs from 10.30-11.30, and this hour is practically a holy time. The sound of fireworks all but ceases, and the only people out and about are tourists, as all the locals have tucked in somewhere to watch the show. At 11.30, though, the noise picks up again, culminating, of course, at midnight. Although to be honest, it’s kind of hard to tell when the clock strikes twelve, because there are pretty much constant fireworks from 11.40-12.15. I actually think it makes midnight rather anticlimactic. In any case, we all wandered up to Hallgrímskirkja to experience the insanity. Victor and I found Katleen and her friend and the four of us went back to my house and hung out for a couple hours, finally succumbing to exhaustion around 3.00. The greatest gift of the new year was that I was actually able to sleep that night.

I have a bright pink point-and-shoot camera, so no fireworks photos from me, I’m afraid. Perhaps I will borrow some from Addi to add to this post later though.

All in all, it was a lovely way to say goodbye to 2015 and welcome 2016 in a beautiful place and in good company.

Gleðilegt nýtt ár og takk fyrir það gamla!

news from januarys past

I’ve been spending some time diving into history and practicing my reading by exploring old articles through the fantastic searchable periodical database timarit.is. I thought it would be interesting to see what has made the front page of the first edition in Januarys past. The general themes? Pretty photos of fireworks, stories about the occasional fireworks mishap or other New Year’s incident, and of course the first Icelandic baby born each year.

They also seem to have a penchant for tallying up how many Icelanders passed away in accidents in any given year.

timinn 3 january 1990

In 1989, 49 individuals, including three foreign citizens, passed away in accidents in Iceland. Seven died from drowning or accidents at sea, thirty in traffic accidents, one in a plane crash, and eleven from other fatal accidents that don’t fit into any of the aforementioned categories.

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The next year, 1990, 57 Icelanders died in accidents, including seven who passed away abroad.

Is this sort of tally a normal thing for tiny countries? Or is this a uniquely Icelandic tradition? Someone please shed light on this.


On a less depressing note, I found this tiny gem from the front page of Tíminn, 3 January 1986, in a section titled “í stuttu máli” (“news in short”):

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It reads: “Britons were greatly surprised to discover yesterday that they are a very happy nation. According to a public poll that was shared yesterday, nine out of ten Britons are content with their position, 98% of homes have a television, 78% have a telephone, 68% have central heating, and there’s a cat or dog in every other home.”

I don’t know why this amuses me so much. Perhaps it’s the fact that it was actually printed on the front page of an Icelandic newspaper. Perhaps it’s the claim, completely unsupported, that Britons were terribly surprised by these findings. Or maybe I just have a strange sense of humor.


It seems January 1978 was an exciting time for ABBA fans, as Vísir announced that it would run a sort of comic strip about the band’s history and career. It was created by two Swedish artists and apparently Iceland was the last of the Nordic countries to translate and publish it. It was pointed out that readers could clip each edition and glue them onto size A4 paper, therefore creating a tremendous keepsake and a way to relive the glory of ABBA over and over. Who wouldn’t want that?

ABBA myndasaga


On a more serious note, I thought it would be interesting to read some of the old presidential new year’s addresses, as President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson just delivered his new year’s address, remarkable because he announced that he will not seek reelection in June. After twenty years as president, he will finally make room for someone else to take over at Bessastaðir.

Those who understand Icelandic can read his full address here. The economy (and specifically the nation’s remarkable recovery from the 2008 crash) is a major theme, as is Iceland’s relationship to Europe and within the Nordic nations. The country’s abundant natural resources, particularly rich fishing grounds and other marine resources, are emphasized, as well as the beauty of nature in general and Iceland’s increasing popularity among tourists. In fact, there’s more than a little smack of “Ísland best í heimi!”

“Fegurð landsins, samspil elds og ísa, litadýrð náttúrunnar, tign og víðerni öræfanna laða svo sífellt fleiri hingað; ferðaþjónustan komin í fremstu röð tækjulinda. Ísland er í vitund milljóna víða um heim áfangastaður sveipaður dulúð og ljóma, landið þar sem sérhver gengur frjáls um götur og stíga, lýðræðislegt samfélag sem byggir á öryggi og jöfnum rétti, andrúmsloftið laust við þá mengun sem hrjáir erlendar borgir.”

The beauty of our land, the interplay of fire and ice, the rich colors of nature, the glory and openness of the highlands attract more and more here; tourism is now a leading source of income. Iceland is known to many around the world as a mystical and glamorous destination, the land where each and every man walks free, a democratic society built on safety and equal rights, the atmosphere free of the pollution that plagues foreign cities.

 

I’ve been reading some old addresses from former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and the similarity of their content is striking.

In her 1989 address, she touches on economic concerns, remarks on the importance of a shared national identity and cultural heritage, praises Iceland’s abundant natural resources and warns agains misusing them. There’s even an almost identical statement about Iceland’s pollution-free air: “Þetta land er laust við mengun. Við erum ein fárra þjóða sem andar að sér hreinu lofti” (“This land is free of pollution. We are one of few nations that breathes clean air”). She also warns about the difficulty of seeing the big picture when we demand constant news, something that seems remarkably applicable to the present day:

En má það ekki vera augljóst að erfitt er á stundum að öðlast heildarsýn yfir málefni lands og lýðs þegar setið er hverja stund um þá stjórnmálamenn sem þjóðin hefur kjörið og þeir fulltrúar eru krafðir sagna um hugsanir sínar frá andartaki til andartaks. Er svo komið að mörgum ofbýður atgangurinn í harðri samkeppni um tíðindi sem helst þurfa að vera æsifréttir. Gæti ekki svo farið að við hættum að taka mark á þó hrópað væri, “Úlfur, úlfur.”

 

As one would expect from Madame Vigdís, she also takes the opportunity to address the Icelandic language, describing it as the nation’s greatest collective possession and most valuable treasure.

And she seemed to make a habit of quoting poetry in her New Year’s addresses, if I can extrapolate from two. Can you imagine anything more Icelandic?

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Jæja, that concludes today’s trip into history, but I think there will be more in the future. This sort of nerdery is right up my alley.

 

 

desember

Christmas has already come and gone, and I’ve recounted my first Icelandic Christmas, but now I’m going to backtrack and quickly recap the first three weeks of December.


 

Final Exams

Of course the biggest event of early December was final exams, which this time around were spread out over nearly two weeks. That meant that we generally had a decent amount of time to study between exams, but it also meant that it was really tiring and got more and more difficult to maintain focus toward the end of exams.

By far the easiest and most enjoyable exam, both in terms of studying for it and taking it, was our oral exam for Málnotkun (“Language usage”). For these exams, we form groups of 3-4 students, practice discussing certain topics within our groups, and then each group has about 10 minutes to hold a discussion in front of our teachers and a prófdómari (a proctor, I guess). My group met up at Katleen’s to practice on one of the snowiest days of the winter, and when we’d had enough practice, we decided to wander out in the snowstorm for ice cream, because why not?  We trudged through snowdrifts down to Valdís, perhaps the best ice cream parlor in Reykjavík, and of course we took a selfie to commemorate the occasion:

ís í snjónum
ís í snjónum

After our oral exam, a few of us wandered down to Norræna Húsið (Nordic House), where we (tried to) read some children’s books in various Scandinavian languages and enjoyed the jóladagatal (which I described in this blog post).

This sort of started a tradition of communal eating or drinking to both celebrate the end of each exam and dull the pain of knowing there were more coming…

After our third exam, several of us enjoyed a jólabjór in Stúdentakjallarinn. After our fourth exam, a few of us had a pönnukökur and jólaglögg party at Gamli.

The night before our last exam, Erin, Katleen and I decided to hold a taco party, because why not? Erin was already done with finals, so she kindly offered to make tacos while Katleen and I studied together. So we munched on homemade guacamole and tasty tacos and in between discussed fascinating theories of second language acquisition and word formation. I think it was quite an effective combination, really. Every finals season should involve a taco party.


A gentle Christmas breeze

In between two of our final exams came a “snow hurricane,” a nasty winter storm that swept over the entire country and brought hurricane-force winds to Reykjavík (although the weather was much more severe in other parts of the country, including the Westman Islands, where several houses lost their roofs, and the Westfjords, where an entire abandoned house blew away). Residents of the capital area were warned to stay inside after 5 pm and not venture out until midday the following day. So I traipsed to Bónus to stock up on food, then hunkered down inside and studied while I listened to the wind howl outside. It was really quite convenient timing, in a way, as it essentially made me housebound at a time when I had to study anyway.

The other great thing about the storm was the flurry of headlines including variations of my favorite Icelandic verb, að fjúka, which means to be blown by the wind.


End-of-semester celebrations

We had jólabjór with a few of our professors at Stúdentakjallarinn after our very last final exam. Sadly we won’t have these professors next semester, but we decided that we’ll have to organize regular Stúdentakjallarinn get-togethers. I’ve been fortunate that the instructors at both my universities have been warm and approachable and have taken an active interest in students outside of class time.

I made apple crisp to celebrate our last Hitt Húsið meetup of the year. Hitt Húsið is a multifaceted community center for young people located downtown on Austurstræti. One of their newest programs is a Tuesday night meetup for young people learning Icelandic (which is actually a continuation of a group that my friend Siggi started last year). I’ve been going regularly since September, and it’s a great opportunity to practice Icelandic with actual Icelanders (and an every-changing group of fellow learners) in a cozy and supportive environment.

A few friends and I held a pönnukökur (Icelandic pancake) party to celebrate the end of final exams. We invited ourselves to Katleen’s cozy apartment, Erin showed off her pancake mastery, we drank jólaglögg, ate way too much sugar, and watched the jóladagatal and way too many Norwegian YouTube videos. In other words, it was a warm and cozy evening with friends, the perfect way to bid adieu to finals.


And yet more merry-making

We celebrated Vita’s birthday with a lovely dinner party at her dorm, which was interrupted by some fairly drunk language students a couple hours in.

I accidentally left my purse at Vita’s, which turned out to be a good thing, because it gave Vita and me an excuse to meet at Bókakaffi the next day, where we did what all respectable young ladies do: color!

By the weekend before Christmas, most of my friends who were going home for Christmas had left. Thankfully, a few delightful friends remain. Last week, I invited myself to my friend Vita’s dorm for my annual vínarterta making endeavor. Erin came along too, and we also made dinner, enjoyed a serendipitous bottle of wine leftover from Vita’s birthday, and watched Snjókríli, an adorable documentary about baby animals in the snow.

Erin, Vita and I met up for a dose of Christmas cheer at the university choir’s Christmas concert at Neskirkja. Choirs are incredibly popular here, and joining a choir is a great way to meet people and pass the time during the long dark days of winter. Somehow in the year and a half I’ve been here, I had never made it to a choir concert, but this free Christmas concert seemed like a good opportunity to change that. Afterward we went to Stúdentakjallarinn for cheap beer and fried food. It was less depressing than it sounds. Kind of.


Other than that, there’s been a lot of reading, coffee shop sitting, city wandering, and knitting since the start of Christmas break. The first couple days after finals I always find it a bit difficult to wind down and shift gears, but since I settled in to a rhythm of cozy and quiet days and no more exhausting study sessions, it’s been lovely. There are still almost two weeks of break left, which means more cozy days, but the new year will also bring new adventures, as I’m starting a new job next week and then classes resume on the 11th. That means I should have plenty to blog about in the near future. But first I have to go make a champagne cake for New Year’s…

 

jól í Reykjavík

Last week I experienced my first Christmas away from my family. It was a Very Reykjavík Christmas, filled with traditional foods, good music, Christmas cheer and a healthy dose of chaos, as every good holiday should include. Here’s a little glimpse into an Icelandic Christmas as experienced by an American.


Þórláksmessa (23. desember)

December 23rd is called Þórláksmessa here, named after Saint Þórlákur Þórhallsson, bishop of Skálholt. (You can read more about the history of the day here thanks to my friend Sunna.) I woke in the early-morning darkness on Þórláksmessa and walked to Vesturbær for a job interview, then walked to campus as the sun was slowly rising. I met Erin and Leana at Norræna Húsið for the last day of the jóladagatal, because we knew the band Árstíðir would be playing.

On Þórláksmessa, many Icelanders eat skata, fermented skate fish. They say a lot of people cook this in their garages, because if you cook it in your kitchen, the smell might never escape. Apparently a recent poll suggests that just under 40% of Icelanders eat skata, and many of those are out in the countryside outside of Reykjavík. However, it is readily available at many restaurants in the city, including at the bistro inside Norræna Húsið. The smell that greeted us when we opened the heavy front door was just about as acrid and potent as I expected, and it kept getting worse. It permeated the entire top floor of the building. Thankfully, the jóladagatal is in the basement, so when we took the elevator down, we were greeted by the much more pleasant Christmasy smells of piparkökur and jólaglögg. Still, whenever someone would ride the elevator down, the doors would open and a tiny puff of fermented stink would emerge.

I don’t have a photo of the cooked skata, but here’s what it looks like before it’s cooked, when the stink is blessedly contained within plastic tubs:

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appetizing, isn’t it?

In any case, Árstíðir put on a lovely short show in the Black Box theater.

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I think Erin and I did some last-minute shopping and gift wrapping that afternoon. In the evening we headed to a free concert at Reykjavík Roasters and enjoyed a cozy hour or so of music from Axel Flóvent and Myrra Rós.

We strolled back home along Laugavegur, along with hundreds of other people. I’m not sure where this tradition comes from, but on the evening of Þórláksmessa, people in the city stroll Laugavegur, doing last-minute shopping and enjoying free treats from some of the local merchants (Erin and I took cups of what we thought would probably be wine or jólaglögg, but it turned out to be some sort of sweet, sticky lamb gravy…). Iceland being Iceland, everyone sees people they know, and it’s almost like some sort of warm community reunion.


 

Aðfangadagur // Christmas Eve

In Iceland, Christmas begins at 6.00 PM on the 24th. Christmas Day is almost more of an afterthought; the twenty-fourth IS Christmas. This is not terribly different for me, as my family has always celebrated on the twenty-fourth as well. We go to the Christmas Eve service at church, eat lasagna (no one knows how that became our tradition, it just is) and then open gifts.

Here in Iceland, just about everything shuts down on the afternoon of the 24th (if not before) and is closed for at least a couple days, whereas in the States, there’s always at least one store open somewhere within an easy distance. So there was a lot of pressure to make sure you got all your errands taken care of. It’s a similar atmosphere to when people stock up on groceries before a storm, except a bit more festive. I went out on the 24th to buy one last Christmas present and do one last Bónus grocery run. Erin came over in the afternoon and we finished wrapping presents and tried to help Ásta a bit with some cooking and cleaning. The relatives started arriving in the afternoon (Ásta’s parents and Addi’s mom were here) and it was soon a full and noisy house – a truly authentic Christmas experience, I think.

Erin and I monopolized the TV to watch the last episode of the Danish jóladagatal. We were unreasonably excited:

Ásta and Ólöf were furiously cooking away in the kitchen. Traditionally, people sit down to eat when the clock strikes 6.00, but we are a bit less traditional in this household. When the clock struck 6.00, everyone exchanged hugs and kisses and said gleðileg jól (Erin and I learned that you’re not supposed to say this before 6.00 – oops!). And then we continued cooking and hanging out. Eventually we sat down to eat a wonderful Christmas meal: hamborgarhryggur (smoked pork), brúnar kartöflur (caramelized potatoes), rauðkál (red cabbage), grænar baunir (green peas), green salad, asparagus, and of course sósa (sauce). The sauce Ásta made might have been the most Icelandic thing on the table – not only was it sósa (which is like a holy part of any True Icelandic Meal), it was made with Coca-Cola (which is like the Holy Soft Drink in Iceland). We had some Danish hvítöl (non-alcoholic Christmas ale) to accompany the meal.

jólamatur
jólamatur
Mía begged for Christmas scraps from Amma Ólöf all night
Mía begged for Christmas scraps from Amma Ólöf all night

After dinner, we gathered around the pink Christmas tree and opened gifts.

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tiny pink Christmas tree

Erin and I were truly well taken care of and had plenty of gifts to open, including a number of matching gifts – matching panda sleep masks, matching coffee mugs, matching wool socks. Leon and Nói were of course the most excited members of the family. Christmas seems much more festive when you get to watch little ones open gifts.

Jólasveinninn sjálfur mætti!
Jólasveinninn sjálfur mætti!

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the most beautiful and unexpected gift - knitted wool socks from Amma Ólöf!
the most beautiful and unexpected gift – knitted wool socks from Amma Ólöf!

By the time we finished opening gifts, I think it was nearly midnight, but we still had to eat dessert. Ásta and Ólöf prepared a special creamy orange dessert, and it was the perfect opportunity for the Scandinavian tradition of the möndlugjöf. The möndlugjöf, or almond gift, is a small gift given to the person who finds an almond hidden in his or her bowl. Erin and I were entrusted with the solemn duty of securing this year’s möndlugjöf, and we took it seriously, deliberating for quite some time and finally settling on a kaleidoscope from Tiger. Somehow there was a little almond mishap and both Leon and Addi found almonds, but amma had brought another möndlugjöf, so it all worked out.

the almond gift, ready for the finder of the almond
the almond gift, ready for the finder of the almond

 

Jóladagur // Christmas Day

Erin and I woke late on Christmas Day and lazed around for a while. We had planned to hold a Christmas brunch with some friends at Vita’s dorm, but we ended up canceling since a couple people couldn’t come and since I injured my foot and didn’t want to make it worse by walking too much. So we had our own little brunch of bacon and eggs, then Erin headed out for Christmas dinner with her Icelandic relatives. I joined the family for Christmas dinner at Amma Ólöf’s house.

Amma Ólöf cooked up another very classic Icelandic Christmas meal: hangikjöt (smoked lamb), boiled potatoes in cream sauce, peas, corn, roast veggies, and of course Icelandic jólaöl, a fascinating blend of malt extract and appelsín (orange soda). Oh, and also laufabrauð – intricately carved rounds of deep-fried dough. So fried, so tasty.

I walked home a bit early so I could Skype with my family in Washington, who were holding their Christmas on Christmas Day since my brother and sister both had to work on Christmas Eve. It was of course lovely to see all their faces.

I didn’t take any photos on Christmas Day, it seems, so you’ll have to imagine.


Several people asked me whether I was homesick this Christmas, and I am thankful that I can truthfully answer no. Would I have loved to be with my family in Washington? Of course. But I was excited to experience something new, and grateful to be surrounded by loving family and friends here as well. Spending Christmas in Iceland was the plan last year, but that didn’t happen. I’m not sure if I ever wrote about it here, but basically what happened is that I had a pretty rough first semester. When finals were done and the reality and loneliness of Christmas break set in, combined with health issues I was dealing with at the time, I just had to go home. I bought a ticket on a Tuesday night and left Wednesday afternoon, I think.

I am indescribably grateful to be in a much better place this year than I was at this time last year. I’m thankful for Ásta and her family being so welcoming, and thankful for Erin being here as well. It was nice to experience Icelandic Christmas with someone else in my shoes.

Christmas may have passed, but the holidays are far from over. New Year’s is a huge deal here, and we’re going to have another big family and friends dinner at the house, watch áramótaskaupið (an annual TV sketch show that pokes fun at the year’s happenings), and wander up to Hallgrímskirkja to ring in the New Year with a never-ending volley of fireworks.

Gleðileg jól!