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.

champagne cake before
champagne cake before
champagne cake after
champagne cake after
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!

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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.

timinn 3 january 1991 - 1

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”):

Bretar

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!

 

 

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…

 

 

tvennir tónleikar í portland

While in my Northwest home, I got to experience a bit of my Iceland home in the form of seeing two Icelandic bands in concert. I had known about one for months, and the other was a serendipitous happening.

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Árstíðir

The band Árstíðir has been on their first US tour, and several months ago I found out they’d be playing a show at the new Nordia House cultural center while I’d be stateside. The new home of the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation (SHF), Nordia House is a beautiful 10,000 square-foot building that includes office space, an outpost of the Swedish Broder restaurant (which has two Portland locations), and of course a large multipurpose auditorium.

I went by myself but almost immediately ran into my Icelandic friend Edda. She introduced me to the only other Icelandic person there, a woman name Kristrún, and with the two of them I enjoyed my only opportunity in five weeks to speak Icelandic.

Anyway, the band played a long set, and even indulged the crowd with an a cappella version of the hymn “Heyr himna smiður,” popularly known as “that song everyone on the internet has seen them perform in a German train station” (I must admit that I prefer Eivør’s version).

 

I feel like listening to Árstíðir’s music takes a bit more focus and attention than a lot of popular music, which is certainly not a bad thing, it just makes for a different sort of listening experience. In any case, the Portland audience, despite the fact that I think many were hearing the band for the first time, was completely attentive, seemed to be absolutely smitten and insisted on an encore.

Shortly after my Snorri trip in 2012, I got connected to SHF and quickly learned than while it purports to be a pan-Nordic organization, there really has been very little Icelandic representation, the primary reason being that Portland boasts much larger populations of Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Finns. But I would of course love to see more Icelandic participation in SHF, and it was absolutely encouraging to see that one of their first big events at Nordia House was this concert – and, moreover, that it was so well received.

Kaleo

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Kaleo is a four-piece bluesy rock band formed in Mosfellsbær but now based in the great state of Texas. I actually started listening to them fairly recently and wanted to attend one of their two Reykjavík shows this summer, but the first was while my mom was visiting and ticket prices were quite steep, and the second was while I’d be in Washington. I’d been home for a week or so when my sister told me that she’d heard something on the radio about a Kaleo concert, but she couldn’t find any information about it online. After some sleuthing, I figured out that they were playing a free show in collaboration with Portland radio station KINK.FM. Tickets were free, but in order to get them, you had to download the radio station’s app, listen at certain times for the Magic Word, and then enter the Magic Word into the app. In other words, you had to jump through some ridiculous hoops. But I decided to try it once, and that’s all it took – I won two tickets!

So on a ridiculously hot Saturday, after a long day at my high school reunion, I forced myself to get back in my car and drive down to Portland. The show was at Mississippi Studios, a cozy venue on Mississippi Avenue and coincidentally the place where I saw Ólafur Arnalds a couple years ago.

There was a good crowd, but not so many that I felt in danger of suffocating. The band played a fairly short (maybe an hour?) but great set. Their style really lends itself well to live performance. They were full of energy and I think they definitely won over some new fans in the audience.

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awkward stuck-out-tongue shot

Jökull, the lead singer (whose name literally translates to Glacier, Son of Júlíus, a fact which endlessly entertains me), mentioned that the band had just briefly returned to Iceland to shoot a music video inside a volcano for their new single “Way Down We Go.” About a week after the concert, the single and video were released. They filmed inside Þríhnúkagígur, a dormant volcano in the south less than thirty minutes from Reykjavík. (Anyone willing to part with 39.000 ISK/302 USD/399 CAD can enjoy the Inside a Volcano experience, although it is limited to the summer months.)

It’s always a strange and wonderful experience to experience a melding of my Northwest and Iceland worlds, and I’m especially thrilled to see more of Iceland popping up in Portland. Here’s hoping that trend continues.

febrúar, take one

Tíminn líður alltof hratt… Time has been flying by and February has already come and gone, and most of March as well. Too much happened in February for one blog post, so we’ll start by recapping the first half of the month.

Vetrarhátíð og Háríð á Degi B. Eggertssyni

At the beginning of February was Vetrarhátíð (The Reykjavík Winter Lights Festival), an attempt to make the long, dreary winter days more enjoyable and coax people off their couches by filling the city with free events. The festival opened with a ceremony in front of Hallgrímskirkja, which I happened to stumble upon on my way home that evening. Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson officially opened the festival with Canadian Ambassador Stewart Wheeler and two Canadian Mounties at his side. Every year, there’s a partner city for the festival, and this year it was Edmonton. The collaboration was evident in several of the festival’s events; for instance, musicians from Edmonton came to play a show with Icelandic musicians, and I believe some Edmontonian authors/poets took part as well. The Mounties were out and about on Laugavegur for a couple days, taking photos with locals and tourists alike. But anyway, back to Dagur B. Eggertsson. He’s a doctor-turned-politician who took over the position of mayor after Jón Gnarr left last year. More importantly, he has the most incredible hair in all of Reykjavík, probably in all of Iceland. Really, it’s indescribable. Take a look: dagur b eggertsson I don’t know anything about the man’s politics, but I know that I would vote for his hair any day. In fact, I love his hair so much that I actually created a Facebook fan page for it. Really. You too can become a fan of Dagur’s hair here. Anyway, as part of Vetrarhátíð, there’s one evening where admission to museums in the downtown area is free from 8 pm to midnight, or something like that. Kelsey and I took advantage of this to attend a Draugagangur (“Ghost Walk”) at Þjóðminjasafnið (The National Museum). We walked around the museum, listening to ghost tales (á íslensku!), and at the end of the evening I shyly asked some of the museum employees who were in costume if we could take a photo with them. Thank goodness I did, because we got this gem:

Icelandic Gothic, minus the pitchfork and plus a couple ghosts
Icelandic Gothic, minus the pitchfork and plus a couple ghosts

Svavar Knútur at Café Rosenberg

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Svavar Knútur ever since he played for our Snorri group and his music became part of the soundtrack of my 2012 Iceland experience. So when I found out he was playing at Café Rosenberg (a five-minute walk from home), I decided to go, and I dragged Kelsey with me. (She’s not normally much into live music, but she was won over by his irreverent humor and obvious love for all things German.) Rosenberg is a cozy coffee house / bar with live music nearly every night, and it was the perfect venue to enjoy Svavar’s songs and storytelling. He played quite a long set, with old favorites and some I hadn’t heard before, and during the intermission I got to chat with Elliott (former Fulbrighter and all-around swell human being), who had come in a bit late. All in all, a perfect way to spend a chilly winter evening in 101. IMG_3925

Snorri West

I had the opportunity to attend a sort of open house for the Snorri West Program. Ambassador Stewart Wheeler kindly opened the doors of the Canadian Embassy for the event. All four participants from Snorri West 2014 were in attendance, as well as at least one from 2013. Snorri West, for those who don’t know, is sort of the inverse of the Snorri Program. It’s an opportunity for Icelandic young adults (ages 18-28) to visit Icelandic settlement areas in North America and learn about American and Canadian nature and culture as well as the Icelandic history in those areas and traditions that people of Icelandic descent have kept alive. A 2014 participant, Kristján Sævald, put together a great video to introduce people to the program, which you can check out here. Kristján also shared about his experience last summer, and it was actually quite uncanny how so much of what he said resonated with me and perfectly described my own Snorri trip, even though our experiences were sort of mirror images, with him traveling to the Eastern Seaboard and me traveling to Iceland. It made me rather homesick for my Snorri family. It sounds strange to say, since I live here now and am getting to know the language and country better every day, but there’s something poignant about my first time discovering Iceland, something that I will never quite get to experience in the same way ever again, even if I end up living here for 5 or 10 or 20 years. It’s bittersweet. Anyway, this summer’s Snorri West group will travel along a west coast corridor, visiting Seattle, Blaine, Point Roberts, Vancouver BC, Victoria, and Nanaimo. I have to say, I’m a bit jealous. I’m a native Washingtonian, and I’ve spent plenty of time in Seattle, but I’ve never been to Vancouver, went to Victoria only once as a kid, and haven’t really explored the Icelandic settlement history in the area beyond visits to the Nordic Heritage Museum. I know this year’s Snorri Westers will have a great experience, and I know my friends in the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle and other west coast clubs will take great care of them.

Valentínusárdagur á Gamla Garði

Valentine’s Day is not a tradition in Iceland, but like many North American traditions, it has made headway here in recent years. In the States, I’m not terribly fond of Valentine’s Day, but I generally consider it a great excuse to bake sugar cookies, so I decided to do that here this year too. I invited myself over to the Gamli kitchen and several friends joined for a leisurely evening of consuming sugar and celebrating singledom. When I invited Florencia, she asked if she should come with ice cream and loneliness, and she did not disappoint – on the ice cream front, anyway. I certainly did not feel lonely surrounded by friends from around the world.

Bolludagur

Our February Fulbright event was to celebrate Bolludagur at Belinda’s. Bolludagur is one of three holidays celebrated before Lent begins. The goal of the day is to stuff oneself with cream puffs. (There’s also a whole deal about waking your parents up early and spanking them with a special wand, but I digress.) We enjoyed several varieties of bollur from Mosfellsbakarí – chocolate, caramel, strawberry, Bailey’s. They were quite delightful. Takk fyrir okkur, Belinda!

Bolludagur
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Fulbright ladies on Bolludagur (Sophie, me, Alyssa)
Fulbright ladies on Bolludagur (Sophie, me, Alyssa)

Sjálfsætt Fólk

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The not-at-all-scary theater seat upholstery.

Kelsey and I had the opportunity to go to Þjóðleikhúsið (The National Theater) to see Sjálfstætt Fólk. It was… indescribable. It was certainly not a traditional interpretation of Laxness’ most famous work; on the contrary, it was quite experimental, which actually served to make it much more palatable, at least in most instances. I certainly couldn’t understand all the dialogue, but I was able at least to follow along quite well, which I will go ahead and declare a victory. A few highlights/weirdlights (not because anyone else will understand them, but mostly so that I can remember this strange experience in the future): the coffee thermos and plastic cups from which coffee was continually drunk; “mig langar í kú, ég vil fá kú,” the dead (fake, stuffed) sheep, the naked rass, the beer cans thrown at the walls, the drunk rapist teacher, the singing and dancing, the guy who might have been Halldór Laxness awakened from his eternal slumber, the frozen dinners. Ah yes. A night at the theater. The only thing possibly better? Going home and watching The Bachelor with Ásta and Addi. High culture meets low culture. A perfect evening.

Kelsey and I after the show, trying to figure out what just happened during the last 2-3 hours of our lives.
Kelsey and I after the show, trying to figure out what just happened during the last 2-3 hours of our lives.

Well, that gets us more than halfway through February. Coming up in my next post: seeing Eivør in concert, unknowingly chatting with Daniel Tammet, experiencing my first movie theater intermission, surviving more terrible weather, teaching grammar, and more.

of homesickness and other realities of life abroad

When I had been here maybe three or four weeks, a couple people asked me how it felt to finally be living in Iceland and to know that I will be here at least through the school year.  I answered that it probably wouldn’t hit me until about the six-week mark, because when I came in 2012 for the Snorri Program, I was here for six weeks, so somehow I figured it would only be after that time frame that the reality of living here would sink in. Whether it was coincidence, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or something else entirely, I was right. The first couple weeks of October have been hard.  I don’t think it was any one thing, really, but a combination of factors. The first month or so after I arrived was sort of like the honeymoon period. There was this energy and momentum that kept me going, the excitement of finally being here, the fun of making new friends and exploring the city, and the good weather didn’t hurt either. But about the beginning of October, that energy wore off and my exhaustion started to catch up with me; the weather turned grey and wet and stormy; the days started getting shorter; the homework piled up; and I felt overwhelmed. Then, on top of that, I got sick.

Being sick is no fun when you’re in familiar surroundings, but it is so unbelievably not fun when you are in a new place. Everything becomes more difficult: making yourself comfortable at home, trying to find what you need at the pharmacy, deciding if/when to go to the doctor. Navigating a new health care system just plain sucks, especially when you are the uninsured foreigner who forces everyone to speak a different language. I won’t go into detail about my experiences with the Icelandic health care system here, but suffice it to say that I dearly miss my clinic and my physicians in Washington and the ease of knowing when, where and how to get the help you need.

While my health concern from a couple weeks ago has thankfully been resolved, I have still been far from 100%. I’m tired pretty much all the time, which I think is likely related to my ongoing thyroid problems. And for the past couple weeks, I’ve woken every day with a sore throat and had an intermittent cough. There has been a nasty cold bug going around, so it could just be something like that, but it also started right around the time that the Holuhraun volcano smog wafted toward Reykjavík, so it could also be that my overly sensitive body is reacting to the heightened SO2 levels. Whatever it is, I’m tired of it, and I would really like to be well again.

The bottom line is that yes, it is joyful and rewarding and wonderful to experience life abroad, but sometimes it is also just plain hard and exhausting, especially when you’re trying to learn a foreign language, and especially when you’re not feeling at your best.

Yesterday Sophie and I enjoyed some fiskisúpa and kaffi at Café Haiti and we were talking about, among other things, how much easier it is to feel centered and alive when you’re regularly reading and writing. I know that I feel better in almost every aspect of my life when I make the time to write, and yet I have never figured out how to build that into my regular routine, how to make it as natural a part of my day as washing my hair or drinking coffee.

I feel like my constant refrain on this blog is “sorry I haven’t written much lately, but I’ll try to do better.” Maybe someday I will finally be able to move beyond that, but that day is not today.

There is, as always, so much to catch up on, but for now, in no particular order, here are a few of the happier things that have been going on:

tvö kvöld í hörpu

In September, I had the good fortune to saunter down the street to Harpa for two great events two nights in a row. First, I saw Ólafur Arnalds in concert. My friend Matyas (a fellow Árni Magnússon Institute grantee here to study Icelandic) planned to go with his boyfriend, but since his boyfriend had to return home to Hungary for a while, he had an extra ticket, which I gladly snatched up. I’ve seen Ólafur Arnalds once before, last May in Portland, so I knew I was in for a treat. The set list was very similar to the Portland show, but it was still more than worth going. Ólafur addressed the crowd solely in Icelandic, and I am proud to say that I understood the vast majority of what he said (although it certainly helped that he told some of the same stories in Portland). Arnór Dan showed up for a surprise guest appearance to sing “For Now I Am Winter” and “Old Skin.” And because this is Iceland, Arnór Dan was standing around right after the concert talking to someone on his cell phone about where they were going to meet to go út að djamma that night.

The next night, Ásta and I went to hear American author Amy Tan speak. The lecture was part of the annual Art in Translation conference, and I was lucky enough to receive free tickets courtesy of the US Embassy (thanks again, Brian!). Sometimes being a Fulbrighter really has its perks! I am by no means a knowledgeable Amy Tan fanatic or anything, but I read The Joy Luck Club in college and enjoyed it. Amy was, as expected, an engaging speaker, and I walked away inspired to start writing again (clearly that didn’t quite work out, though…).

Fulbrighters

Speaking of Fulbright, I am happy to say that we have an incredible, if small, group of Fulbrighters in Iceland this year. There are only four others besides myself – Sophie, Alyssa, Scott, and Janelle – and they are all wonderful, talented, energetic and inspiring people. We are all working on very different projects for the year and are of course all quite busy, so I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like, but we’re trying to do a weekly happy hour so we can catch up on each other’s news.

I guess I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We all met for the first time at our Fulbright orientation, back at the beginning of September. We met at the Fulbright office on Laugavegur for kaffi, Icelandic nammi, and an informative program about the history of the Fulbright Program and the Commission here in Iceland, resources of which we should be aware, and practicalities of our grants (e.g., monthly stipends, health insurance benefits, etc.). Elliott, a Fulbrighter from last year who is still living and working in Iceland, shared about his Fulbright experience; Marcy from the US Embassy gave us an introduction to the history and workings of the embassy here in Iceland; and Tanya gave us a crash-course in Icelandic language tips.

After the practicalities were out of the way, we walked down to Steikhúsið and enjoyed a wonderful meal, which included a variety of tasty seafood, wine, an incredibly rich skyr dessert, and of course kaffi.

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Monkfish, salmon, and some sort of wonderful potato cake

Alyssa ('14-'15) and Elliott ('13-'14)
Alyssa (’14-’15) and Elliott (’13-’14)

 

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An incredibly rich dessert… some sort of skyr mousse with licorice pieces, mango sauce, berries, and a crumb topping

Sophie, who is from The Other Washington, works on campus, so we’ve met up several times for lunch or coffee. She also holds the distinct honor of being the first Fulbrighter in front of whom I have completely fallen apart, so big love to her for letting me show up on her doorstep unannounced and tearful.

Scott might just be the most positive, energetic person I’ve ever met. He is working on cultivating a new music and arts festival called Saga Fest. It’s all about community, collaboration, and sustainability. Although the festival won’t be held until next May, Scott has been hosting monthly backyard concerts at the home he shares with a few roommates, just up the street from me. Kelsey, Sophie, Leana and I went to the last concert and enjoyed the sounds of slowsteps, the incredible carrot cake that Scott’s multitalented roommate Ilmur made, and the little community that knit itself together in a little backyard in downtown Reykjavík on a chilly autumn evening. Most of all, though, it was fun to see Scott in his element – cultivating an atmosphere of authenticity and community and then sitting back and watching the magic happen.

Enjoying the sounds of slowsteps at a backyard concert with Scott, Sophie, Leana, Kelsey, and a bunch of beautiful strangers
Enjoying the sounds of slowsteps at a backyard concert with Scott, Sophie, Leana, Kelsey, and a bunch of beautiful strangers

Elliott, who received the joint Fulbright-Árni Magnússon grant last year, is still living in Iceland and is part of our little Fulbright family. Once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter, right? His schedule is so insane that it makes me dizzy just thinking about it, but whenever I see him he always asks how my classes are going and is always ready to listen to my worries and dispense sage advice. Being able to talk to someone who’s been there, done that is invaluable, and the fact that he is just a super cool human being is a bonus.

I have had fewer opportunities to get to know Alyssa thus far, partly because she had to return to the States for a couple weeks, but hopefully I’ll get to spend more time with her soon. She is here with her boyfriend, and her son will be joining us in Iceland after Christmas. I think we already think of him as our collective Fulbright kid, and I know I’m looking forward to finally meeting him!

Janelle is conducting research and teaching a class at the university. She is way more adventurous than I can ever hope to be, I think, having already joined Scott and a few others for a serious hike along the Laugavegur trail. And even though she is not here to learn Icelandic, she is a font of great advice about language learning. For instance, in response to my statement that it is difficult for me to get over my shyness and practice my Icelandic, she prescribed this simple solution: drink more alcohol. (She immediately added that it should be just enough to make me a bit less uptight and self-conscious. She is not proposing anything irresponsible, obviously. Just to clarify that.)  🙂

RIFF

The Reykjavík International Film Festival was held from September 25 to October 5. I had high hopes of attending several films but ended up only making it to two. Scott, Sophie, Janelle and I had a little Fulbright date and went to see Boyhood (Uppvöxtur á íslensku) at Háskólabío. I’m always a bit nervous about seeing a film that has such a buzz about it, but this one did not disappoint. It did run a bit long, but the writing, acting, and of course the method of filmmaking were just incredible. For those who have been living under a rock, Boyhood was filmed over the course of twelve years, so that instead of having multiple actors play the same kid at various ages, and instead of using makeup to age the adult actors, you actually get to watch the characters age over time. It’s an incredibly risky concept that, thankfully for the filmmakers and for the audience, definitely paid off.

After the movie, as we walked toward home, we ran into Elliott at the bus stop, and then a Fulbrighter from the year before walked by as well, because this is Iceland and these things happen regularly. After Janelle and Sophie went their separate ways, Scott and I had an impromptu visit to Vöffluvagninn (The Waffle Wagon), a little food cart that sets up shop in Lækjartorg on the weekends. It might not be quite as good as Portland’s Waffle Window, but it’s pretty close. Mmm.

I also went to see Before I Disappear (Ádur en ég hverf) at Bío Paradís with Janelle and Steffi, a woman from Germany who I met through a foreigners-living-in-Iceland Facebook group. The movie was definitely not what I expected, and it was quite dark, but still pretty good.

I planned to go see Land Ho (Land fyrir stafni) with Kelsey, but I had too much homework and wasn’t feeling well so I couldn’t go. Unfortunately, I had bought my ticket ahead of time, so there went 1400 ISK down the drain (that’s four bus tickets, approximately 25 Icelandic strawberries, or two iced vanilla lattés at Stofan). So sad. Kelsey assured me that I didn’t miss much and it was pretty much just a tourism propaganda film, so there’s that anyway.

Snorri meetup

Once a Snorri, always a Snorri… a couple weeks ago I got to meet up with a Snorri Plus alum and two Snorri West alumna. Gail Einarsson-McCleery is Iceland’s honorary consul in Toronto and helps run the Snorri West Program. She was in Iceland for a consular conference, which attracted over 130 of Iceland’s honorary consuls from around the world. While she was here, she met up with two girls who did the Snorri West Program this past summer, and she invited me to tag along as well, and I invited Kelsey to tag along. The five of us met up at Stofan, which has quickly become one of my favorite little spots in the city – cozy and inviting, with one of the best lattés I’ve had in Reykjavík.  Anyway, it was fun to chat with Gail and to meet Signý and Anna.  It sounds cheesy, but there is something beautiful about knowing that having had this Snorri Program experience means I have an automatic connection with others who have had the Snorri experience – or, in the case of Snorri West, a different but sort of parallel experience.

Patró reunion

When I was staying in Patreksfjörður in 2012, I met a guy named Brynjólfur who was working at the Sýslumaðurinn in Patró for the summer. We’ve kept in touch here and there, but I hadn’t seen him since I moved here until last night. He’s a mentor for a few exchange students at HÍ, and he decided to put on a dinner party for his mentees and invite me as well. Two of the three exchange students couldn’t come, so it ended up being just four of us: me, Brynjólfur, his girlfriend Ragna, and a law student from China who goes by Nina. Brynjólfur was kind enough to act as chauffeur so Nina and I didn’t have to spend an hour on the bus trying to get to Garðabær.

Brynjólfur likes to cook fancy-schmancy food, so we enjoyed quite the sophisticated menu of escargot and melon and cured ham appetizers; salted cod stew for the main course; and chocolate-dipped strawberries and pain au chocolat for dessert. Besides the yummy food, it was lovely to see an old friend, meet new people, practice my Icelandic an itty-bit with Brynjólfur’s (very sweet and patient) mother, and be reminded that there’s life outside of 101. Also, there was a super cute dog wearing a lopapeysa.

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More to come, but for now I need to go hole up at the library and study for a couple hours. Svo gaman að vera nemandi!