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!

 

 

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…

 

 

mæðgur á ferðalagi: ísafjörður og bolungarvík

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The drive from Patreksfjörður to Ísafjörður was the longest and gravel-iest of the trip. We backtracked east to Flókalundur and then took Route 60 over the mountains. The road is gravel, yes, and there are some mildly terrifying sheer drop-offs and sharp turns, but the weather was splendid and we only met a handful of cars along the way. The scenery was spectacular and had me constantly slowing down (even more, that is; I was already granny driving) and saying “wow!” repeatedly.

I took a few photos from the (stopped – safety first!) car, but none of them do the views justice.

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After a couple hours of dusty driving, we were rewarded by the sight of the Westfjords’ most spectacular waterfall: Dynjandi.

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Dynjandi

Dynjandi (“thundering”) is actually a series of waterfalls, the largest of which is called “Fjallfoss” (“Mountain Falls”). The smaller falls all have names too, but I am too lazy to look them up.

Here’s a charmingly shaky video I took (with my bright pink point-and-shoot camera) that shows what a marvelously beautiful (and windy) day it was:

 

We took a nice long break at Dynjandi, and we were far from alone. That’s the strange thing about driving in the Westfjords; you can drive across the mountains for hours and meet just a few cars along the way, and then all of a sudden at a place like Dynjandi there are dozens of cars that seem to have materialized out of nowhere.

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We continued on past Dynjandi and made it to Þingeyri, where the road is paved once again (my mother was thrilled). From there it was smooth sailing on to Ísafjörður. Well, almost. Just before Ísafjörður you have to drive through Vestfjarðargöng, a long tunnel (about 6 km, I think). After dozens of one-lane bridges, my mom, when she saw the upcoming tunnel, said, “well, as long as it isn’t a one-lane tunnel.” As the sign (which was in Icelandic, of course) came into view, my eyes alighted on the word “einbreið.” “Well, actually, Mom…”

I vaguely recalled having gone through this tunnel back in 2012. Thankfully, heading east, we had the right of way; westbound traffic has to use a series of pull-outs to yield to eastbound traffic.

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Ísafjörður

We arrived in Ísafjörður around dinner time and checked into our AirBNB accommodation (which was incredibly easy to find – such a welcome contrast to our experience in Stykkishólmur). I mentioned to our hosts that we were planning to go to Tjöruhúsið for dinner and they asked if we had a reservation. “Uh… no,” I said, realizing it had never even occurred to me to make a reservation. This is Iceland, after all.

Gurrý immediately offered to call the restaurant for us, and thanks to a last-minute cancelation, she was able to book us a reservation for about ten minutes later.

Dinner at Tjöruhúsið is an experience. Tjöruhúsið and the surrounding buildings are some of the oldest in the country, built by the Danes in the 1700s. The neighboring Turnhús is now home to a museum, and Tjöruhúsið is home to what I think I can safely say is the best seafood restaurant in the country.

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I hesitate to use the word buffet, since it carries such negative connotations, but that’s essentially how dinner was served. The line of people snaked around the long tables and benches that make up the dining room as we all waited our turn for seafood soup and bread. Then it was time for the main course – there were about ten side dishes, ranging from green salad to barley salad to plokkfiskur. And then the main attraction: a dozen gigantic iron skillets, each one filled with mouthwateringly delicious fish – cod, haddock, blue ling, wolffish, catfish, cod cheeks.

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The dining room at Tjöruhúsið consists of just a few long tables, so it’s a communal dining experience. Our nearest tablemates turned out to be a family from Arizona who had just arrived in Iceland that morning. We also sat across from a guy whose two friends’ unfortunate car trouble and subsequent delayed arrival was the reason my mom and I were able to get last-minute reservations. (We expressed our apologies and our hope that the car issue would be quickly resolved, which it was – the friends arrived in time for dinner.)

After a cup of strong coffee (never a good idea at that hour, but hey, when in Iceland) and some Nói Siríus chocolate, we walked back to the car, full and content.

To the several people who recommended Tjöruhúsið – I owe you. Mmm.

After dinner, Mom stayed at the guesthouse while I wandered around town. Peaceful, calm, quiet, illuminated by the late-night sun… the perfect way to explore a new place, if you ask me.

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Gamla Bakaríið

In the morning, we had treats at Gamla Bakaríið (“The Old Bakery”) and wandered around the town a bit. We wanted to go to (what we thought was) the Westfjords shop (where I got my beloved Westfjords t-shirt in 2012 and where we planned to buy souvenirs for family), but since it didn’t open until 1.00, I suggested we drive up to Bolungarvík.

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I had no idea what there was to do or see in Bolungarvík (if anything), but I knew it was just a short drive north of Ísafjörður, so I figured it would be a good way to kill a bit of time. It turned out to be the best little detour of our trip.

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Hólskirkja, Bolungarvík

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You see, when we drove into town, my mom noticed there was a church up on a hill. I drove up there so we could get a closer look and snap a few photos. There also happened to be a home right by the church, and a man outside in the garden. While I was taking photos of the surrounding mountains (and all the rocks that tumbled down the mountainsides last winter), my mom started chatting with the gardener. By the time I walked over there, he was inviting us in to see his house.

He spoke good English, but my Icelandic also helped a bit as he showed us around his house. We learned that he was a tæknifræðingur (which the dictionary defines as a “technologist,” whatever that means), born and raised in Bolungarvík. He lived and worked in Kópavogur for most of his adult life and had also lived in Sweden but moved back to Bolungarvík after retiring. He has a daughter who made the lovely quilt on his bed, and he has a son who lives in Hveragerði but was at Landspítali in Reykjavík after a recent heart attack.

Our new friend Siggi told us that he is 92 years old, and initially I thought have misunderstood him, because he is energetic and youthful and doesn’t look a day over 75 (Seriously, I didn’t believe it until I found this article confirming his age.) Despite his age, he still draws and paints, grows pears, and works in his woodshop. And, apparently, occasionally makes friends with tourists.

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Mamma og Siggi og gjöfin sem hann gaf henni – handsmiðaður diskur

After saying goodbye to Siggi, we drove around the town a bit more. Siggi had recommended that we check out the avalanche barriers. Most towns in the Westfjords are nestled next to incredibly steep mountains, putting them at high risk for avalanches. In fact, 169 people have been killed in snow avalanches in Iceland since the beginning of the 20th century. After avalanches in nearby Suðavík and Flateyri killed 34 people in 1995, the government created a risk assessment process to identify which residential areas were at highest risk. A large portion of Bolungarvík was determined to be a high-risk zone, which prompted the construction of avalanche defense structures between 2008 and 2012. The structures are intended to keep snow from reaching the town and to redirect the flow toward the sea.

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IMG_6184The most fascinating thing is that these structures, while serving a critical defense purpose, double as a recreational space: there are walkways across the dams that provide stunning panoramic views of the surroundings. Apparently the thought was that if the town’s landscape had to be significantly altered in order to impose these safety measures, the least they could do was turn them into something that can enrich people’s lives on a regular basis, not just potentially save their lives some day (not that this is a “just,” but you know).

Oh, and because the Icelanders are a people who greatly value language and names, it should come as no surprise that the town of Bolungarvík held a naming contest when the two dams were erected. The winning names? Vörður and Vaki (Guard and Watchman).

Besides the avalanche barriers, we also saw a woman out for a walk with her child and her cat. Seriously, she was pushing a stroller, and there was a little orange cat following her. We thought it was a coincidence at first, but then noticed that she kept turning around and waiting for the cat to catch up.

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I didn’t want to get too close and be too obvious that I was taking a stalker photo.

Back in Ísafjörður, we were disappointed to learn that the Westfjords shop closed a couple years ago. The woman we spoke to told us that the guy who ran the shop lives in Flateyri and we should just go talk to him, but we were not convinced (our decision may or may not have also had something to do with the fact that we didn’t want to have to drive westbound through the one-lane tunnel).

So we said goodbye to Ísafjörður and continued on our way toward our next destination: Heydalur.

janúar

Well, January was a blur of fireworks, snow, school, and friends. The days lengthened, mornings brightened, and all sorts of adventures kept me busy.

Without further adieu, here are some of the highlights from my first January in Iceland.

áramót

Having only arrived back in Iceland the morning of the 30th, I was pretty jet lagged on New Year’s Eve, but I still managed to enjoy the festivities. I walked up to Alyssa’s for an early dinner with my Fulbright family, then back home for another dinner with my Icelandic family. After we ate, we of course took part in the time-honored tradition of watching áramótaskaup, sort of an SNL-type comedy sketch show that pokes fun at the past year’s happenings. Since we arrived in August, Kelsey and I had been speculating about what might appear on áramótaskaup, and our predictions were pretty much right on. There was plenty about the crumbling health care system, the never-ending barrage of tourists, and of course Justin Timberlake made an appearance.

Shortly before midnight, Ásta, Kristján, Leon and I bundled up and walked up the street to Hallgrímskirkja to watch the ridiculously long and loud amateur fireworks show. It’s basically a free-for-all that somehow manages to seem almost like an organized show. It was festive and wonderful… that is, until it kept going and going and going and I couldn’t fall asleep until about 8 am. Yeah, that part was less than festive.

Janelle and Sophie telling New Year's Eve secrets in their sparkle-attire.
Janelle and Sophie telling New Year’s Eve secrets in their sparkle-attire.

Hannah hops islands

My Lopez friend Hannah officially became the first person to visit me in Iceland when she stopped over on this icy rock on her way to England. She arrived dark and early on the seventh and stayed for about a week. We stayed in the city while she was here, as it was too expensive to do a tour or rent a car (not to mention driving conditions weren’t exactly ideal, especially for someone not used to driving in snow). But we managed to find plenty to do. We visited Baktus at Gyllti Kötturinn, sent postcards, bought tourist gifts. Hannah fell in love with Nói. We went to Harpa to see Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands (The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra) perform Austrian music. Afterward, we walked over to Bæjarins Beztu for hot dogs. It was a very Icelandic evening, and a perfect combination of high culture and not-so-high culture. All in all, it was a lovely week. It’s always a bit strange when one of my worlds collides with another world, but Hannah-world and Iceland-world got along quite swimmingly (although we never went swimming).

Dinner with Sophie and Kelsey at Glo
Dinner with Sophie and Kelsey at Glo

Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands í Hörpu
Sinfóníuhljómsveit Íslands í Hörpu

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Ég á líf… og líka ost

By some miracle, Bónus started stocking halloumi, a delicious grilling cheese from Cyprus. Our family friends the Panayiotides stayed with us in Washington several years ago and introduced us to halloumi one night, serving it with a simple but tasty Cypriot dish called moujendra – basically just rice, lentils, caramelized onions, and plenty of olive oil. It is so delicious that it is definitely worth documenting the occasion of its consumption. Also worth noting – while we ate, we watched American Idol (“Henry Connick’s Legs!”) and talked about Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina steaming habits.

Kelsey was eagerly watching the cheese grill to a chewy, crispy, salty perfection.
Kelsey was eagerly watching the cheese grill to a chewy, crispy, salty perfection.

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I may have also intermittently been playing and singing (badly) "Ég á líf" whilst we cooked. Possibly.
I may have also intermittently been playing and singing (badly) “Ég á líf” whilst we cooked. Possibly.

Ég þekki Sjón í sjón

In the fall, I read a book by Sjón. In January, I saw him three times in the span of maybe ten days. The first time, he was heading into Brynja, the hardware store on Laugavegur, while I stood outside chatting with Elliott (whom I had just happened to run into, because Iceland). The second time, he was at the post office getting some packages ready to send with a woman who I would venture to guess is his wife. The third time, he was just walking down Austurstræti heading the opposite direction as I was. I haven’t seem him in a couple weeks now, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. Maybe I will always have Sjón sightings in threes. Only time will tell.

I suppose in such a tiny city in such a tiny country, this shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise, but it was still fairly amusing.

Danish fish dish

It absolutely warrants mentioning that January saw the return of the best Háma meal ever, the Danish Fish Dish (also known as rauðspretta with potatoes and remoulade, but that doesn’t rhyme). The glory of the Danish Fish Dish cannot adequately be described; it must be experienced. Crunchy, fried, Danish… with an ungodly amount of remoulade (seriously, I think they use an extra-large ice cream scoop to dish it up).

Danish Fish Dish elicits feelings of pure joy
Danish Fish Dish elicits feelings of pure joy

Seriously, who can eat that much remoulade in one sitting?
Seriously, who can eat that much remoulade in one sitting?

Skammdegi brightening

At the beginning of January, I was walking to school in the dark four days a week. By the end of the month, my morning commute was only dark half the time. On Mondays and Wednesdays, when my first class starts at 10:00, I now walk to school in broad daylight. It was a little strange at first, but I can’t say I’m complaining.

9:40 and light out? Vor er á leiðinni!
9:40 and light out? Vor er á leiðinni!

January Fulbright event: Alþingishúsið

The Fulbright event for January was a visit to Alþingishúsið, Iceland’s parliamentary building. I visited with the Snorris in 2012 but I figured why not go again? It was a small group – just me, Alyssa, one of the new visiting scholars and his three boys, and María, our temporary Fulbright adviser. The experience of visiting Alþingishúsið is the polar opposite of visiting any US government building – you walk right up to the door, through a single metal detector (which María said is relatively new), up a narrow spiral staircase, and voilá, welcome to the center of Iceland’s national government. A kind lady whose name I don’t remember gave us a tour and told us all sorts of interesting and educational things that I promptly forgot because history and dates are not my forté. A few things I do remember:

-There’s a hallway with two long paintings on opposite walls, one a landscape by Jóhannes Kjarval and the other a depiction of Þjóðfundurinn 1851 (The National Assembly of 1851), a meeting intended to determine the relationship between Iceland and Denmark. The Danes wanted to make the Danish Constitution valid in Iceland and give Iceland representation in the Danish Parliament. The Icelanders put forth an alternative plan which would have afforded Iceland more independence. Not exactly pleased with this idea, the Danish representative ended the meeting prematurely in the name of the King. Jón Sigurðsson, hero of the Icelandic independence movement, then said:

„Og ég mótmæli í nafni konungs og þjóðarinnar þessari aðferð, og ég áskil þinginu rétt til, að klaga til konungs vors yfir lögleysu þeirri, sem hér er höfð í frammi.“

“And I protest in the name of the King and the people against this procedure, and I reserve for the Assembly the right to complain to the King about this act of illegality.”

And the delegates began chanting, “Vér mótmælum allir!” (“We all protest!”), a phrase that is now known by every Icelander. The fun fact about the painting is that Jón Sigurðsson is depicted as the tallest, most imposing figure in the room, and the representative of the oppressive Danish government is depicted as very small. In reality, Jón Sigurðsson was a very slight man. A little bit of artistic bias, perhaps?

Þjóðfundur 1851 - málverk eftir Gunnlaug Blöndal
Þjóðfundur 1851 – málverk eftir Gunnlaug Blöndal

-We got to peek into the meeting room of Sjálfstæðisflokurinn (The Independence Party) because Alþingismaður (MP) Vilhjálmur Bjarnason was with our group. He also spoke with us later and answered questions (which other people, much smarter than me, asked, because I have absolutely no brain for politics, economics, etc.).

-One of the most interesting places in the building is Kringlan, a circular area added on to the house in 1908 as a place to receive foreign guests (not to be confused with the shopping mall of the same name). It is one of the most decorative places in the house, with a gilded rosette in the domed ceiling, tall windows, and more. There are also a number of small round tables on which stand the names of Alþingismenn (Parliamentary representatives) from certain years throughout Iceland’s history.

Kringlan - from althingi.is
Kringlan – from althingi.is

Ég tala ekki færeysku

Kelsey and I are so cool that sometimes our Friday or Saturday nights look like this: Eating round “graham crackers” (they’re sort of a lie) with heaps of whipped cream whilst watching Faroese news broadcasts and exclaiming, in between mouthfuls of sugar, how strange the Faroese language is. This particularl occasion may also have included some Facebook-stalking of someone (or someones) we saw on the news. Potentially.

Anyway, Faroese really is intriguing. It’s Icelandic’s closest living relative, and in written form, the two languages are incredibly similar. But Faroese pronunciation is a whole other animal. The thing is, there are still enough words that are similar that I feel like I should be able to understand when I hear it, but I don’t. So close, yet so far.

Eitt kvöld á Seltjarnarnesi

I sent a belated Christmas card to my frænka Jóhanna who lives in Seltjarnarnes (just west of Reykjavík) and she kindly responded with a dinner invitation. I took the bus and battled some intense Icelandic wind and arrived at their house windblown but happy to see my relatives that I first met in 2012. Back then, I could barely manage a few sentences in Icelandic, and I distinctly remember sitting at the breakfast table looking at Morgunblaðið or some other paper, unable to make sense of anything more than a word here and there. This time, I spoke Icelandic the entire evening, give or take maybe 5 English words. Jóhanna, her husband Sigmar, their daughter Mæja, her boyfriend Arnar, and their two kiddos Sara and Sindri were lovely company for a chilly, blustery winter evening. After dinner, I even got to play the piano, which made my heart (and pianist’s fingers) so happy. Takk fyrir mig, Jóhanna og Sigmar!

As if all of that wasn’t enough, school started up again in early January and has of course been keeping me busy. I will have to write more about that another time, though. For now, I leave you with a few more pictures, taken on a couple of the calmer days we enjoyed in January.

náttúrufegurð Íslands
náttúrufegurð Íslands

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.

 —

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!

tíu dagar á íslandi, part 1

Jæja, ég flutti til Íslands.  It really happened.  I moved to Iceland!

I have been here for 10 days (well, I had been when I started writing this; now it’s been more like 12 days) and I apologize for not writing sooner, but the weather was fantastic last week so I felt obligated to be out and about and not sitting in front of a computer.  Plus, life has been busy even though classes have yet to start.  I’ll try to recap the highlights of the last 10 days, but a lot has happened, so I may need to split the account into multiple entries.  But of course we should start with…

the trip

There isn’t much to say about this, really.  I stuffed two huge suitcases and a third smaller one to the 50-lb limit and you’d never even know from looking at my room at home that I’d taken anything.  Packing was not a terribly fun task for several reasons, including 1) I suck at it; 2) it is very difficult to pack bulky winter clothes well; and 3) I have been dealing with a thyroid infection, had to have a biopsy a few days before I left, and was feeling generally icky.  I made several last-minute shopping trips, but somehow I got everything together.

On Sunday morning (the 17th), I had to say goodbye to my kitty:

IMG_3356

I was laughing here but it was really quite terribly sad to say goodbye to kitty since she is 17 and the best kitty in the world 😦

Anyway, I went to Old Town Battle Grounds for breakfast and coffee with my parents and sister.  Mmm Stumptown.  I miss it already.  My parents drove me up to Sea-Tac and we parted ways.  I got though security quickly and spent a couple hours wandering around the airport, buying a few gifts, eating overpriced food, and wondering about the adventures of the people all around me.

The flight was very smooth and went fairly quickly.  I am not at all good at sleeping on planes, but I rested a bit and watched some good ol’ American sitcoms.  Before I knew it, we were flying over Greenland, and that soon gave way to the barren lava field wasteland of the Keflavík peninsula.

I went through passport control and they didn’t even ask why I was here, just stamped my passport and sent me on my way.  It was almost a bit of a letdown.  After collecting my 150 plus pounds of stuff, I met Ásta Sól outside in the brisk Icelandic morning air, which felt wonderful after the stuffy plane air.

I bought an inaugural cup of bananasplitti skyr, then we were off to Reykjavík and my new home on Grettisgata.  It was more difficult to adjust to the time change than when I was here two years ago, I am sure because it is later in the summer and there is no energizing perpetual daylight.  Also, with the Snorri Program, we had a very busy schedule from day one, so there was really no choice but to adapt immediately.

mánudagur / monday

After a long nap, I walked around the city a bit and caffeinated at Kaffitár.  I honestly don’t remember what else I did that day, except enjoy a lovely dinner with Ásta Sól’s family and sleep.

Since this day is pretty boring to read about, here are some pretty pictures of Reykjavík dressed up in sunshine:

þriðjudagur / tuesday

On Tuesday, I made my way over to the Fulbright office (a couple blocks away, on Laugavegur above Bónus) and met the director and advisor.  The director had a 4-week-old puppy and a not-entirely-hairless sphinx cat in her office, and apparently has written a children’s book about her former sphinx.

Then I walked down to Lækjartorg to meet up with Carina and Sigrún.  Sigrún is a frænka of my Seattle friend David, and Carina is her German friend who has lived in Iceland for many years.  We met in Seattle last year.  Carina and Sigrún were on an epic road trip across the States and were spending a couple days in Seattle and visiting David.

I arrived at Lækjartorg early, so I sat on a bench and read for a few minutes.  Sigrún came up to me with her mother and said, “Julie?” I confirmed that it was me and she said she had pointed me out to her mom from across the square and her mom said, “Are you sure that’s her? She looks so Icelandic!”  I am not sure I believe that, but I guess I will take it!

Carina arrived and we decided to go to Café Babalú, a colorful (literally) little spot on Skólavörðustígur.  Everything seems quite overpriced (but everything here is expensive) and the coffee is just okay, but the súkkulaðikaka (chocolate cake)… mmm.  It is like a beautiful, overpriced, unhealthy little slice of heaven.  The three of us chatted for quite a while and I eavesdropped a bit on the conversations around us.  The café attracts so many tourists that there are probably at least 7 languages being spoken in there at any given time.  It is also not a great place to practice your Icelandic with the staff, as I discovered the next day; they seem to employ quite a few expats who do not speak Icelandic.

 —

miðvikudagur / wednesday

My number one to-do item on Wednesday was to go to Útlendingastofnun (the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration) to have my photo taken so I can receive my dvalarleyfi (residence permit).  I looked up the directions and set out for what should have been a 15-minute walk.  I may have gotten a bit turned around and taken twice that long to arrive; I will never tell.  Speaking of things I will not admit, I will never admit that when I got there and pulled on the door and it didn’t open, I turned around and walked outside and had to give myself a pep talk and ask myself if I had tried pushing on the door, and then felt very sheepish and had to give myself another pep talk to convince myself to go back and try pushing the door open.

I pushed the door and it opened.  The place was suspiciously empty and I soon discovered why; the immigrant-photographing machine was broken, so that was that.  The employee told me to call the next day and find out if it had been fixed before actually going there.  After all that drama, my plans were thwarted.  Oh well.  Þetta reddast.

I went back to Café Babalú to have lunch and (theoretically) get some writing done.  I got up the courage to speak to the staff in Icelandic (“Hvað er súpa dagsins?”) and was answered with, “It’s tomato soup.”  Apparently I chose one of the non-Icelandic-speaking employees to ask.  But there was an Icelandic guy working as well and he overheard, so he humored me and finished the transaction with me in Icelandic.  Thanks, dude at Café Babalú.  I appreciate that.

fimmtudagur / thursday

On Thursday morning, I walked a block up the street to Reykjavík Roasters to meet Elliott for kaffi.  Elliott received the joint Fulbright-Árni Magnússon grant last year, so he kindly agreed to meet up with me and give me some information on the BA program and the placement test.  Elliott is from Texas and has been interested in Iceland for years.  He helped me feel a bit more confident about the placement test, I think, and simultaneously more nervous and more excited about the program itself as he explained that we would be reading novels and writing reports all in Icelandic the first semester.

By the way, I am about 95% certain that I spotted Borko in a corner of the coffee shop.

I held Elliott hostage for a solid two hours, then meandered back down the street and spent a bit of time sitting in the garden, moving my chair to follow the little sliver of sunlight and trying to study.  While I was out, Kimberly, my fellow Snorri and the Canadian recipient of the Árni Magnússon grant, stopped by with her cousin Bjarni.  Bjarni asked me why Americans make fun of Canadians.  Why not, Bjarni?  They make it so easy with their ketchup chips and their “eh’s” and their politeness.  (I actually made up a more diplomatic answer than that, I promise.)

For dinner, Ásta Sól took me to a little place just down the street for a “hamborgaratilboð” (“hamburger special”).  Yes, people at home who have never seen me eat beef, you read that correctly: I ate a hamburger.  When in Rome.  Or rather, when in Reykjavík.

Sofar, so very very good

After dinner, I walked over to the university campus.  David, a dear friend from Seattle, had “introduced” me over Facebook to his friend Leana, who has lived in Reykjavík with her Icelandic other half for over a year now and is studying Icelandic as a Second Language at the university.  She is involved with something called Sofar Sounds, which puts on small, intimate concerts with locations announced the day of the show.  Who is performing?  Well, it could be anyone; the lineup is not announced, so it’s a surprise when you arrive.  Leana sent me a message soon after I arrived in Iceland and told me there was room on the guest list for an upcoming show and she could add my name if I was interested.  I am not a terribly outgoing person, and the thought of being in a room full of strangers listening to mystery musicians who could have turned out to be awful did not sound 100% appealing… but I said yes, because I need to push myself to get out and try new things.  I did not regret that decision.

I received an email that day with directions for finding the location: one of the new dorms at the University of Iceland.  It was so exclusive and clandestine.  I finally found what I thought was the correct hall, but I wasn’t sure – until I turned around and saw Svavar Knútur walking toward me, guitar and ukulele in tow.  Svavar is a friend of Ásta Sól’s and an incredibly talented singer-songwriter who performed for our Snorri group two years ago.  I was so happy to know that I had found the right place and that he was performing that I think I freaked him out a bit.  I think I actually said something like, “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are and now I know I’m in the right place!”  Awkward.

Anyway, I followed him into the dorm and up to the second floor communal kitchen and was swept up into a magical evening.  I finally got to meet Leana in person.  There was free ice cream, courtesy of Ísgerðin, a soft-serve ice cream place in 107 Reykjavík run by an American-Icelandic couple.  The American half used to be an investment banker in New York and met his Icelandic other half on a ski trip.  The American gave up his fast-paced NYC lifestyle and moved here to be with his love and now they make ice cream together. Sounds like a heartwarming film, doesn’t it?  Anyway, I enjoyed a little dish of pistasíu ís and eavesdropped on an English-language conversation while I waited for the show to begin.  I ended up inviting myself to join the aforementioned conversation, which was a good decision since I then met Daniela, a German exchange student, and Harry, an English sound engineer currently working in Sigur Rós’ studio in Mosfellsbær.

(Overheard outside my window, while writing this at 1:20 AM:

Person the first: “…that’s because Denmark used to rule Iceland.”

Person the second, in a shocked tone, “What?!?”)

Part of the fun of the evening was that aside from Svavar, I had no idea what to expect from the performers.  Their names were all written on posters in the kitchen, but I had never hear of the other three bands: Þausk, Del Water Gap, and Una Stef. And because there was no “backstage” area, the performers were all just sitting in the audience with the rest of us, so you never quite knew who was going to stand up and walk to the front to play next.

The first band was Þausk, a trio of Icelanders whose songs featured catchy bass lines and husky vocals (see: “Suave Shaker“).  Second was Holden, one-third of the American band Del Water Gap.  He played several earnest, Ryan Adams-esque tunes on his guitar and endearingly mispronounced several Icelandic words.

Third was Una Stef, a young Icelandic powerhouse usually backed by a brassy band.  She said she felt rather uncomfortable playing an acoustic set, but the stripped-down accompaniment (just an acoustic guitar and bass, a djembe, and a couple backup singers) allowed her marvelous voice to shine.  The highlight of the set was a cover of the Destiny’s Child classic “Survivor.”  No, really; trust me, it was fantastic.  She made all of us feel pretty unaccomplished when she said that she wrote most of the songs on her album when she was thirteen.

Last up was everyone’s favorite (well, mine, anyway) Icelandic troubadour, Svavar Knútur.  Svavar finished up the night with his trademark blend of dark but sweetly sung lyrics and hilariously inappropriate humor.  I appreciated that Svavar sang a couple of his Icelandic-language songs because, as he said, he loves his language and he loves singing in it.

After the show, I hung out for quite a while, chatted with Daniela and the Sofar team a bit, got a tour of Daniela’s room and her hilariously tiny balcony (for smoking, presumably, although as she is not a smoker I suggested she might consider decorating it seasonally), and then had a lovely little chat with Leana as we walked home in the late evening (early morning, actually) darkness.

Part of the Sofar philosophy is to enjoy the show in the moment, so they do not allow photography or filming at their shows.  As such, I have no photos of the evening to share with you, but I hope you can tell from my words alone that it was a magical experience.

 —

föstudagur / friday

On Friday, I met up with my new friend Daniela and we went to the Laundromat Café for lunch (expensive and touristy, but a huge amount of tasty food, plus they have a color-organized bookshelf and an actual laundromat), then ventured to the penis museum, more properly known as the Icelandic Phallological Museum.  (I am sure everyone reading this is now more determined than ever to come visit me. You may even have stopped reading this blog because you are busy looking up flights.)  Anyway, as you can imagine, the museum is overpriced, gimmicky, and hilarious.  What is especially hilarious is how people sort of act like it is just another respectable museum and walk around speaking in hushed, almost reverent tones – punctuated, of course, by frequent giggles.

I was hoping the gift shop would sell the documentary The Final Member, which I have been wanting to see for quite some time.  It follows two men, one Icelandic and one American, who are both determined to donate the first human specimen to the museum.  Alas, the documentary was nowhere to be found, although there was information about both men on display.

There was also a penis phone:

IMG_3385

 —

Jæja… that seems like a pretty good place to pause for now.  I will be back soon to recap the rest of my first 10 days in Iceland.

Manitoba Musings: Winnipeg and Gimli

When I wrote my last post, I was enjoying the last restful afternoon of my trip.  From that point forward, it was pretty much go-go-go, which is why I am just now, after coming home Sunday night and working all week, sitting down to write about my time in Manitoba and North Dakota.

Tuesday

I flew from Edmonton to Winnipeg on Tuesday afternoon.  My hosts in the Peg were Lindsey and Cara, first cousins and best friends who were born four days apart and are a few years older than I am.  They were both working Tuesday, so Lindsey’s father Scott picked me up from the airport and drove me back to the house he and his wife Debbie share with Lindsey (oh, and with their two dogs – Molly the rescued golden retriever and Bailey the adorably decrepit black lab).  I had a few hours to enjoy some peace and quiet in their beautiful backyard before Cara and Lindsey got home from work.  Then we went to the Forks, a big walking/shopping/dining/outdoor space located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.  This was a must not only because it is one of Winnipeg’s most well-known attractions, but because Len, who was partially responsible for my being in Winnipeg and entirely responsible for my being with Cara and Lindsey, was a city planner in Winnipeg when the Forks was constructed and helped make it happen.  Unfortunately I neglected to get any photos.  We walked through the marketplace, which was pretty quiet since it was getting late, and I resisted buying every overpriced Iceland-themed souvenir I saw, then we went up to a viewpoint where you could see the river and the city, then enjoyed an outdoor dinner (well, Cara and I enjoyed ours, anyway, but Lindsey’s turned out to be poisoned with evil mushrooms, so that was a bummer).

Wednesday

A few months ago, Cara and I were emailing back and forth and she gave me a bunch of options for things we could do on Wednesday.  The one that stood out to me was visiting Gimli, a small town on the shores of Lake Winnipeg known for hosting Íslendingadagurinn (the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba) every year.  Sadly, I had to miss the festival because it runs the same weekend as August the Deuce, but I was eager to see the town anyway.  Before we left the Peg, though, we had a couple stops to make.  First, we found the Lögberg-Heimskringla office.

Ég og Cara
Ég og Cara
L-H ladies
L-H ladies

I’ve been writing for L-H since I got back from Iceland, and I’ve officially been an associate editor since June, so I was excited to have the chance to finally see the office and meet some of the staff I’ve been emailing for months now.  There are two entrances to the office and we didn’t realize this, so after some staring and some pounding on windows, we got in and enjoyed a lovely visit with Audrey and Linda.  The office is quite a large, open space, and there are a couple beautiful collections of Icelandic books as well as scrapbooks with photos and mementos related to the paper over the years.  We happened to be there on publication day, so I got a copy of the 1 August edition, which happened to contain my introduction as an associate editor as well as a book review I wrote.  I would have loved to spend more time there, but we had to get on the road.  Before we left, though, Audrey insisted that we try some Brennivín.  Now, I never did try Brennivín in Iceland, partly because it smelled rather awful (although clearly that didn’t stop me from trying several putrid edibles) and partly because I didn’t want to spend money on alcohol.  But here was someone holding out a shot glass and telling me I had to try it, so I gave in and downed it.  It was pretty terrible.  It’s a super strong schnapps made from potatoes and nicknamed “black death” for good reason.  I know it’s traditional to take a shot of Brennivín after eating hákarl, but honestly, having tasted Brennivín now, I think chasing the shark with the liquor would just make things worse.  The shark is much more potent.

Bottoms up!
Bottoms up!

Skál!
Skál!

The other stop we had to make before heading north was at Parlour Coffee.  I was lamenting the seeming lack of independent coffee shops in Edmonton and Winnipeg (the ubiquitous coffee options were Tim Hortons, Starbucks, and Second Cup), so Cara wanted me to try Parlour.  It was definitely not Tim Hortons or Starbucks.  There were about eight drinks to choose from and only one size and I got the feeling that if you were to ask for a flavour you’d be kicked out.  So in that sense it was really somewhat Portland-esque.  In any case, it was definitely tasty coffee.

So, coffee in hand to give me energy and drown out the remnants of the Brennivín flavour, we hit the road.  Gimli is only about an hour up the road, and the scenery got more rural and lovely as we drove north.  Around Gimli, there’s sign after sign for various camps and there are also a lot of little summer cabin communities.  When we arrived, we stopped by Cara’s family’s summer cabin first, then went to Camp Veselka to try and meet up with the Icelandic Camp group (I know a couple of the counselors).  We happened to catch them just as they were heading out for a little Icelandic history lesson, so we accompanied them to the nearby monument dedicated to arctic explorer Vilhjálmur Stefánsson.

"I know what I have experienced and I know what it has meant to me."
“I know what I have experienced and I know what it has meant to me.”
Vilhjálmur Stefánsson monument
Vilhjálmur Stefánsson monument

It would have been fun to spend more time with the group and to see the camp itself, but we had more to see, so we said bless bless and headed into the town of Gimli.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but Gimli is larger than I thought it would be, and it reminded me very much of Seaside or other little towns on the Oregon coast – just on a lake instead of the ocean.  Oh, and much more Icelandic.  Seriously.  This town is all about Iceland.  There are roads and local farms in the area with Icelandic names, there’s a Reykjavík Bakery, there are Icelandic flags everywhere (although most of them are just put up for the festival, I’ve been told), and there’s a restaurant called Amma’s Kitchen.  We went to Amma’s Kitchen for lunch (Lake Winnipeg pickerel) and vínarterta (not bad, but mine is better!), then explored the town.

Vínarterta at Amma's Kitchen.  Notice there is frosting.  Also, the pieces are not cut correctly.
Vínarterta at Amma’s Kitchen. Notice there is frosting. Also, the pieces are not cut correctly.

We visited Tergesen’s, which is kind of like an old-fashioned general store, except they sell an interesting mix of expensive surfer and skater brand clothing, Iceland-themed items, and souvenirs.  They also have the largest collection of Iceland-related books I’ve seen anywhere outside Iceland.  It’s like 20 times the size of Powell’s pathetic Icelandic section.

Cara showed me Gimli Unitarian Church, where her uncle is the minister, we visited the Gimli Viking statue, we saw the beginnings of the Viking encampment for the festival, we walked down to the lake and enjoyed the gallery of paintings by local artists on the seawall, and I learned about fish flies.  Fish flies hatch on the water, then swarm the town but only live for about a week.  When they die, they smell like rotting fish.  It’s bizarre.  They’re completely harmless as far as I know, but they are everywhere.  The live ones land all over walls and benches and trees and people and the dead ones form these crunchy, stinky cakes on the ground.  As disgusting as that sounds, they’re actually kind of cute:

Meet Mr. Fish Fly
Meet Mr. Fish Fly
Gimli Seawall Gallery.  This painting depicts the húldufólk!
Gimli Seawall Gallery. This painting depicts the húldufólk!
The "Gimli Glider," an Air Canada Boeing 767 traveling from Ottawa to Edmonton in 1983 that ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing at an old RCAF Air Force base in Gimli.
The “Gimli Glider,” an Air Canada Boeing 767 traveling from Ottawa to Edmonton in 1983 that ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing at an old RCAF base in Gimli.

All in all, it was a fantastic day in Gimli.  I definitely want to spend more time there, and I plan to attend Íslendingadagurinn in the next couple years.

When we got back to the Peg, we decided to take it easy for the rest of the evening.  We snacked on cheese and crackers and veggies and talked and sort of watched TV and Lindsey brought out some leftover Macedonian treats from her engagement party and they were amazingly delicious and I met Lindsey’s fiancée and I gave Cara and Lindsey some Northwest gifts to thank them for being such kind hosts.

I decided not to rent a car, so I was at the mercy of my cousin from North Dakota to come pick me up from Winnipeg and take me back to North Dakota for the family reunion, which started Friday.  I called him Wednesday night to find out when it would work for him to come pick me up, expecting Thursday afternoon.  As it turns out, my cousin is a morning person and said he would be there between 9 and 10 Thursday morning, so I figured I wouldn’t get a chance to do the last thing I really wanted to do in Winnipeg, which was meet up with Kimberly.  Kimberly is a Snorri alum from 2005 who I had never met before in person, but we’ve chatted via Skype and email a lot the past few months as we worked together to revive the Snorri Alumni Association newsletter.  She’s from BC and had actually been out west visiting her family and was just returning to the Peg late that night, so I figured we would just miss each other.  I sent her a message to let her know, threw my things back in my suitcase, and went to sleep.

I happened to wake up around 6:00 or so, which is ridiculously early for me, and I glanced at my phone to see a message from Kim.  She wanted to meet up for breakfast.  So I dragged myself out of bed, got dressed, and waited for Kim to come pick me up.  We went and got some Timmy’s for breakfast, brought it back to the house, and sat outside in the backyard chatting until my cousin arrived.  Kim and I did the program seven years apart, but it almost feels like we went together, we were such fast and easy friends.

Ég og Kimberly
Ég og Kimberly

And thus ended my first visit to the Peg.

Next time: Family, festivals, and very flat fields south of the border