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…

 

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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!

 

 

things that make the news in Iceland: baby names, sassy ladies, and Bieber

I’ve been buried in finals season for the past several weeks, so I’ve neglected my important duty of reporting the most amusing and puzzling of things that make the news in Iceland. So let’s start catching up, shall we?


 

Foreldrar eru farnir að skíra börnin sín eftir Instagram filterum

(Parents have begun naming their children after Instagram filters)

Okay, so this clearly isn’t news from Iceland, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that Icelandic news outlets would pick up this story. As you probably already know, Iceland has a so-called naming committee (Mannanafnanefnd) intended to ensure that Icelandic children are only given names which fit into the language’s declension patterns. There’s no such thing as a gender-neutral first name here, with the famous (infamous?) exception of Blær. Rather, the law actually states that names must be clearly gendered; boys must be given masculine names, girls must be given feminine names (you can search the list of approved names here).

Apparently parents in lands without such naming laws have been influenced by Instagram’s catchy filter names and have begun bestowing them upon babes in arms. Among the most popular? Lux, Ludwig, Amaro, Reyes, Hudson, and Kelvin for boys, and Valencia, Juno, and Willow for girls. The caption on the photo in the article reads: “This likely wouldn’t be approved here in Iceland.”


 

Drakk óvart malt frá síðustu öld: “Ég hélt ég væri bara svona léleg að blanda”

(Accidentally drank malt from the last century: “I thought I just wasn’t very good at mixing”)

An Icelandic woman accidentally drank a can of malt extract that expired in November 1997, about 18 years ago. Sara and her friends went to a summer house to study for final exams and along the way they stopped to pick up some groceries, including cans of malt and appelsín to blend Iceland’s strange but beloved Christmas ale. Sara made herself a glass and drank it despite noticing a slightly strange taste; she thought she just wasn’t good at finding the right proportion of malt to appelsín. But it later came to light that she had taken a can of malt from the fridge, whereas the new cans were out on the counter. Apparently Sara had a bit of a tummy ache but suffered no serious consequences. She has vowed to be less thrifty in the future and instead just buy the pre-blended jólaöl.


“Feitar” íslenskar stelpur svara fyrir sig: “Good luck getting laid in Iceland”

(“Fat” Icelandic girls fight back: “Good luck getting laid in Iceland”)

So a couple of chauvinistic Austrian guys were interviewed during Airwaves about their experience in Iceland. They took the opportunity to complain that Icelandic women are getting fatter and fatter because they can’t stop eating fast food. The greatest irony is that they were reportedly eating fast food during this interview. Anyway, as you can imagine, this didn’t go over too well. But instead of just denouncing them as sexist pigs (which they clearly are), Icelandic women took a slightly more dramatic, amusing, and effective approach, inundating social media with photos of themselves eating fast food. The whole notion of Iceland being a perfect paradise for women is blown out of proportion, but it is true without a doubt that Icelandic women as a whole stand up for themselves, and usually with quite a sense of humor.


Á von á því að deyja ef Bieber fer úr að ofan í Kórnum

(Expects she will die if Bieber takes his shirt off at Kórinn)

Last but not least, Justin Bieber continues to make headlines here in Iceland, especially since it was announced that he will kick off his next world tour here in Iceland next September. Beliebers around the country celebrated the announcement, which came five years after they marched through downtown Reykjavík, wearing purple (reportedly Bieber’s favorite color), chanting, and singing Bieber songs in a bid to convince the pop star to perform here (yes, this actually happened).

Anyway, Bieber will play at Kórinn in Kópavogur, the same venue where Justin Timberlake played last year.

In this article, die-hard Belieber Heiða Lind Ingólfsdóttir is interviewed. She of course expresses excitement about the concert, but admits she’s frustrated that liking Bieber has seemingly become cool (really? this is news to me). She’s been a “devoted Belieber” (her words) for years. She describes seeing Bieber in concert as the equivalent of someone of her mom’s generation seeing Elvis in concert.

Anyway, the show sold out in half an hour and there are rumors that a second show might be added. In any case, the good news for me is that there will inevitably be a steady stream of Bieber-related headlines to give me something to write about! What a deal!

 

allt er jólalegt: jólahefðir á Íslandi

Jólin eru að koma!

In Icelandic, there are some words that exist only in the plural, even though there’s no plurality implied in the meaning of the word. For example, balcony, concert, and award are all plural words (svalir, tónleikar, verðlaun). Another such word is jól, Christmas (a cognate of yule, of course). So if I translated the sentence above literally, it would be “The Christmases are coming!”

In fact, the Christmases have already arrived. The holiday season is in full swing here in Reykjavík. The jólatré (Christmas tree) was raised at Austurvöllur (and then removed prior to the snow hurricane, and then returned). There are jólaljós (Christmas lights) in every window, bringing a warm glow and cheer to the long, dark days. The jólasveinar (yule lads) can be found throughout the city, projected onto various buildings. And it seems that anything and everything now comes in a jóla- (Christmas) variety.

There’s jólasíld (Christmas herring), jólajógurt (Christmas yogurt), and jólaöl (Christmas ale, a strange and inexplicably popular blend of orange soda and malt extract). You can basically make anything Christmasy by adding “jóla-” to the front of the word (which makes it a samsett orð, an eignarfallssamsetning to be precise, in case you cared).

We have the adjective jólalegur, which means “Christmasy.” But we also have the verb að jólast, which in English would be something like “to Christmasify” or “to make Christmasy.” And someone who adores Christmas is called a jólabarn, a “Christmas child.”

Here are a few more interesting jóla-things:

Jólabjór – Many breweries, both here in Iceland and abroad, produce special Christmas beer. It’s like bubbling, fermented Christmas cheer, or something like that. I’ve had my fair share of Christmas beer already, but there are always more to sample. Another alcoholic Christmas option is jólaglögg, red wine mulled with sugar and spices.

Jóladagatal – Apparently in Scandinavia, an advent calendar is not a piece of cardboard with cheap chocolates behind each little window. The concept of an advent calendar is a lot broader here. There are “advent calendar” TV shows for kids, where one episode is shown each day in December. Apparently the Nordic countries recycle each other’s jóladagatal shows. There is currently a Norwegian show (Jól í Snædal) dubbed into Icelandic being shown daily, as well as a Danish show (Tímaflakkið). The Danish show stirred up some controversy as it is not dubbed but rather subtitled, which makes not a whole lot of sense for a show aimed at young children who neither understand Danish nor have the reading skills to keep up with Icelandic subtitles. I’ve watched some of the Norwegian show and it’s quite amusing. Perhaps it will warrant its own post one of these days.

Then there’s the living “advent calendar” at Norræna Húsið (Nordic House), where people are invited every day from December 1-24 at 12.34 to enjoy jólaglöggpiparkökur, and whatever entertainment is revealed that day. I went with a few friends after our oral exam last Friday and behind the little advent window was stand-up comedian Snjólaug Lúðvíksdóttir. I love the idea of a living advent calendar, because you get to experience the excitement of peeking behind the window with other people, and there’s a certain joy in the unexpected, in hearing a comedian or a musician who you otherwise may not choose to go see.

Jólalest – A few days ago I learned that there is a twenty-year-old tradition called the “Christmas train,” which involves a parade of Coca-Cola trucks decked out in holiday lights and decorations parading all around the greater Reykjavík area. Apparently up to 15,000 people now make this a part of their holiday tradition, lining up along the parade route to witness this odd blend of commercialism and Christmas cheer. Santa himself rides in the first truck, Christmas music is blasted from the truck speakers, and members of the björgunarsveit (Iceland’s beloved volunteer search and rescue squad) lead the way to help keep everyone safe.

And of course there are the jólasveinar (yule lads), their mother Grýla, father Leppalúði, and the jólaköttur (Christmas cat), but I think I will save that dysfunctional family for another post.

 

 

Jólakveðjur (Christmas greetings) from Reykjavík!

Turkeys, snow, and other frozen things: An American Thanksgiving in Iceland

or, How many grown-ass women does it take to extract giblets from a semi-frozen turkey?

I’ve only lived abroad for a year and a half, and only in one country, so I’m hardly an expert on expat matters. But I’ve been here long enough to form the opinion that it is important to find a balance between experiencing the culture in which you’re living and preserving that which is most important to you from your home culture. I love experiencing Icelandic holidays and traditions, but there are also some American traditions that are harder to miss than others. One such tradition is Thanksgiving, which I think might be my favorite American holiday (food-wise, anyway!). It just doesn’t feel like you can properly enter the Christmas season without first enjoying a Thanksgiving feast.

This year, Erin (fellow American, Snorri alum, and Icelandic as a Second Language student) and I hosted a semi-authentic American Thanksgiving at my place for an international bunch of friends.

Thanksgiving is not too difficult to pull off here, because Iceland is quite Americanized and Thanksgiving products roll into several stores here mid-November. It’s not too hard to get your hands on a turkey, or canned pumpkin, or evaporated milk, if you know where to look (but it is certainly more expensive than it would be in the US of A).

Thanksgiving preparations always take more time and effort than you expect, but that was especially true for us because 1) we’d never cooked Thanksgiving dinner before, 2) we have no access to a vehicle, and the grocery store that was selling whole turkeys is a half-hour walk away, over snow and death ice, and 3) we had to prepare this feast in a rather tiny kitchen.

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a blurry photo that shows the risk we took upon ourselves, trekking across death ice with a 10.5-pound turkey and a literal sack of potatoes

But with the help of Google and a couple Skype-calls to my mamma, it all worked out.

Did you know that you’re never supposed to thaw a turkey at room temperature? That there are two primary methods for thawing a turkey, one being in the fridge, which can take a few days, depending on the turkey’s girth, and the other being the “cold-water method”? Well, Erin and I know all these things now. Because we bought our turkey on Friday and had to serve him on Saturday, we had to thaw him quickly, which meant bath time for Kári (yes, we named him – Kári Kalkún).

So we traipsed down to the basement, found a cooler, brought it up to the bathroom, filled it with cold water, and slowly lowered Kári down. We baptized him repeatedly, and eventually made enough progress that I felt okay sticking him in the fridge for the night.

The next day came the súper fun part: removing the giblet bag. Remember that neither Erin nor I had ever done this before, but it seemed fairly common-sense: there’s a big hole in the turkey, and there’s some gooey stuff you have to remove from the hole. No big deal, right? Well, the only problem was that Kári was still a bit frozen on the inside. So our first attempt resulted in a torn giblet bag (the good people at the far-away turkey factory had already squished the giblets into a paper bag). But eventually we got it figured out, with the help of a flashlight and the “help” of Ásta taking mocking photos of us.

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disrobing Kári
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how many grown-ass women does it take to remove giblets from a turkey?

After Kári’s frosty beginning, we were worried he wouldn’t be done in time, but in fact he cooked so quickly that he was done early and actually got a bit (okay, a lot) dried out. Oops.

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Well, at least no one got food poisoning?

Also on the menu, in case you were wondering: garlic mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green salad, roasted peppers, bakery bread, two varieties of gravy, plenty of wine. It was truly a team effort, and as is fitting for a Thanksgiving feast, there was an overabundance of things tasty and good. We forgot to buy a stuffing mix at the store, but thankfully Ásta stepped in to save the day with her stuffing-making skills. It simply wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without stuffing!

And for dessert, two of the most quintessentially autumnal American desserts I could think of: apple crisp and sweet potato pie.

It was a bit chaotic, and I certainly developed a new appreciation for my mom and her ability to get everything on the table, hot, at the same time. But overall it was a lovely joyful evening, a small respite between the end of classes and the beginning of finals, tucking into a feast inside, the outside world covered with freshly fallen snow (we got our first big snowfall of the winter a couple days earlier).

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trying to look vaguely normal
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letting our true selves shine
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Kaetlyn, Erin, and Vita

After dinner, we were so stuffed that we could only muster the energy to remain seated and socialize. As is fitting for language students, we had international story time, in which Vita, Alwin and Katleen told stories in their native languages (Russian, Afrikaans, Flemish) and the rest of us tried to guess what the stories were about. Yes, we are dorks, and yes, I love that.

The next morning I ate leftover pie for breakfast. That’s when it truly felt like an authentic Thanksgiving.


Bónus Language Lesson!

The Actual Icelandic Word for “Thanksgiving” is Þakkargjörðarhátíð (“thanksgiving holiday” or something like that) but as is the case with many Actual Icelandic Words, no one ever says it. Which is good, because it’s a mouthful.

norðurljós, tónlist og kjötsúpa: október/nóvember

Suddenly it is mid-December, I just wrote my last final, I’ve finished my third semester studying in Iceland, and I’ve barely written anything since the school year started. The rhythm of life is different every semester here, every season, with the coming and going of both people and daylight hours. Compared to last fall, life has been fuller and happier, the health problems that followed me to Iceland finally behind me as well as the stress of adapting to life in a new place. Along with the stress and anxiety go some of the joy and surprise of new discoveries, but they’ve been replaced with richer experiences and deeper friendships. Another thing that’s disappeared? My desire to document everything in photographs. My words will have to carry more weight this time around, with fewer photos to support them.

So, what have I been up to the last few months? Here are a few snapshots from October and the first half of November.

October

I got the house to myself. My Icelandic family was in Greece for three weeks, from mid-September to early October, so I took advantage of having the house to myself to do more cooking than usual and invite friends over. One such lovely occasion was taco night with KSF friends Anna, Samúel, Colin and Hulda, which ended with northern lights hunting in the first snowfall of the season. We didn’t find them, but it was a lovely evening nonetheless.


 

I went to a concert. I went with Anna, my dearest KSF friend, to see Tina Dico and Helgi Hrafn Jónsson in concert. Tina Dico is a Danish singer-songwriter who married an Icelandic musician a few years ago. They live in Seltjarnarnes, the town just west of Reykjavík on the peninsula of the same name, and tour regularly in Europe, but have hardly played in Iceland since she moved here. In September, they announced two shows at a community center in their current town, and Anna was kind enough to tag along with me, having never heard their music. It was a small, beautiful show and lovely to enjoy it in good company.


 

I celebrated winter with free soup. While many major holidays are the same in the US and Iceland, there are several uniquely Icelandic holidays, and some are tied to the old Icelandic calendar. One such holiday is Vetrardagurinn fyrsti, the first day of winter according to the old calendar. On this day, several restaurants set up booths outside on Skólavörðustígur and offer free íslenskt kjötsúpa (Icelandic lamb stew) to locals and visitors alike. Last year, I arrived to the party too late and all the soup was gone, so this year I made sure to arrive nice and early. A few friends and I met and got our first bowl of kjötsúpa, enjoying it in the appropriately chilly winter air.

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Adela, Alasdair and Katleen excited for free soup!
1st soup
1st soup

Then some more friends appeared, and more, and we got second helpings, this time from the booth in front of the prison (did you know there’s an actual working prison on Skólavörðustígur? Well, there is). The prison soup was a bit too salty, but hey, free food!

hungry throng queuing for prison soup
hungry throng queuing for prison soup
Apparently no one else knew this photo was being taken
Apparently no one else knew this photo was being taken

Eventually we were 8 or 10 people and ended up back at my house for board games and conversation, and, later that night, a pile of frozen pizzas. It was the kind of impromptu get-together that gives me the warm and fuzzies, not to mention makes me incredibly grateful for Ásta Sól and Addi and their willingness to let me spontaneously invite 8 friends home.  ❤


 

I played the piano. I made new friends and got an opportunity to play the piano when I got involved with KSF (Kristilegt Stúdentafélag). I went to a couple meetings last year but didn’t really get into the groove before they stopped meeting for the summer. Besides my family and friends, I think the thing I’ve always missed the most when I move away from home is my piano. When I saw the beautiful baby grand piano at our meeting place, I commented to my friend Anna that I would be happy to play some time if they ever needed another pianist. As it turns out, they only had one pianist playing regularly, and he didn’t want to play every week, so my offer was immediately accepted. I only played a few times this semester, and it was a bit stressful; I haven’t played in quite some time, let alone with others, and beyond that, there’s the language factor. My brain kept getting confused, hearing the melody to a song I know but with lyrics in a different language, plus I hadn’t ever built up a music-related vocabulary in Icelandic before. But my fellow musicians were gracious and my hands and heart were happy to play again.

 


November, part 1

I off-venued at Iceland Airwaves. Of course the biggest musical event of the year here is Iceland Airwaves, which takes over downtown Reykjavík for about a week at the end of October / beginning of November. Last year, I did my best to avoid the long lines and crowds, but this year, I decided to embrace the opportunity to see some free off-venue shows (which make up more and more of the schedule every year). On Friday, I saw Svavar Knútur at the Laundromat, Morning Bear (a Denver-based duo) at Bókakaffi, Myrra Rós and Johnny and the Rest at Icewear, Rebekka Sif at IÐA, and Ylja at Slippbarinn. On Saturday, I tried to see some more shows, but with locals off work for the weekend, the crowds and long lines destroyed my positive attitude and I gave up for the day. I did make an effort to see one more artist on Sunday, though – Axel Flóvent at Landsbanki. I heard his song “Forest Fires” in a TV show that I had to watch for class, fell in love with it, listened obsessively to it on YouTube, and then discovered that he was playing a free off-venue show a few days later. Only in Iceland.


 

I met some wonderful tourists. One Friday during our regular language meet-up at Bókakaffi, a woman who was sitting by herself at a nearby table turned around, apologized for eavesdropping, and asked us what it’s like to learn Icelandic. She introduced herself as Adela from Germany, and we struck up a conversation and got along swimmingly, so the next day I met up with her for an adventure at Kolaportið and then she joined us for kjötsúpa. It was the kind of meeting I like to have when traveling, if I’m brave enough to strike up a conversation with a stranger. (This was actually in October, which is why Adela appears in the soup day photos, but oh well.)

I also met Brendan, a fellow Washingtonian who came here for Airwaves. We have a mutual acquaintance, an Icelandic woman who teaches Icelandic in Seattle. She put us in touch and encouraged us to meet up if we could, so Brendan and I met up for coffee and talked about Iceland and our beloved evergreen state and all sorts of things. He ended up coming to a couple language meetups and we did some off-venuing before he left to return to Seattle after far too short a visit. I also did my best to help ensure that his visit was complete by accompanying him for his first trip to Bæjarins Beztu.


I’ve seen the northern lights. There have been times that the aurora forecast was high but I was too busy or lazy to go out, but other times I’ve lucked out. I went out one night to wander in search of northern lights with my friend Katleen, and we found them dancing over the university. They disappeared for a while, but my friend Victor and I kept wandering for a bit, and just when we reached Hallgrímskirkja, the lights returned, green and shimmery. We laid on the frozen grass and watched and for a while I forgot the bad and the scary and the uncertain and just marveled.


 

I went to Bókamessa, a sort of book fair celebrating new releases for the Christmas season, at City Hall. Vita, Katleen and I stopped at a table of children’s books and I commented about the cute cat on the cover of one (Hulda Vala dýravinur: TöfrahálsmenniðAmy Wild, Animal Talker: The Secret Necklace). We started chatting with the woman at the booth and told her we’re learning Icelandic, and before I knew it, she’d pressed a copy of the book into each of our hands. I started reading it, and it’s pretty riveting. I can’t wait to finish it over Christmas break.

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November and the first half of December have brought all sorts of other adventures but I will save them for a separate post. To be continued…