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!

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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…

 

 

Translation: Great-grandfather’s obituary

This summer, I spent some time poking around timarit.is, a searchable archive of hundreds of Icelandic, Faroese and Greenlandic publications. I found dozens of articles about or mentioning my ancestors, and unlike when I searched this website a couple years ago, this time I could actually read the article reasonably well. The best find was an obituary for my great-grandfather. I was sitting at the kitchen table one evening when I came across it. I called my mom over and showed her, then started roughly translating it aloud for her. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t look up for a while, but when I did, I saw that she had tears in her eyes. It was one of those beautiful little moments of affirmation when I know that I made the right choice to come here and study Icelandic, even if it doesn’t always make sense on paper.

Anyway, after I read through the article, I searched through our genealogy notebooks and found no English translation (although portions of the article were taken from almanacs and other publications, so paragraphs here and there were familiar), so I decided to try my hand at translating it.

The challenges were many – for instance, old-fashioned language and terminology specific to farming and church life – but the process was rewarding. Not only did I learn more about the Icelandic language, but I learned about the life of my remarkable great-grandfather, who unfortunately was gone more than twenty years before my birth.

I might write a bit more later about the process of translating this article and some of the specific questions and challenges I faced, but for now, I’ll just post my translation along with a link to the original text. I am absolutely an amateur, so if anyone has corrections or suggestions, by all means share them. Many thanks to Páll Baldursson for his assistance with some of the more difficult parts.

Original text (á íslensku): Merkur Íslendingur látinn

Distinguished Icelander has passed away

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, Thursday, July 20, 1961

As previously reported in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, the distinguished Sveinn Einarsson Westford passed away at a hospital in Bellingham, Washington on Friday, May 12, 1961, at the age of 86 years, five months and seven days. He was born December 5, 1874 at the farm Miðhlíð in Brjánslækur Parish and was christened the 25th of the same month. 

Sveinn’s parents were Einar Magnússon Vestfjörð from Skáleyjar in Breiðafjörður and Kristín Jónsdóttir Magnússonar from Tindar in Geiradal, both of good Icelandic stock.

In 1884, at the age of 10, Sveinn came to North America alongside his parents. They settled first in Gardar, North Dakota, then in 1892 moved to the Mouse River area.

It was written about Sveinn’s father, Einar Magnússon, that he was a diligent and practical worker, a great farmer, and a strong figure to behold. The couple quickly prospered, and their home was known as a place of help and benevolence for the less fortunate and a safe refuge for helpless new immigrants. Sveinn and his late brother Jakob grew up in this charitable home, alongside their foster sister Anna, now Mrs. Svanson, assistant housekeeper at Stafholt in Blaine, Washington. Many years ago, something to this effect was written about the brothers: Einar’s sons are Jakob and Sveinn, the most stately of men, of calm temperament, popular, and well-respected by all.

In 1907, Sveinn married the beautiful Helga Þórðardóttir Benediktsson from Dalhús. She passed away several years ago. The young couple settled in the northern part of the Mouse River area among people of another nationality, but when Sveinn got the opportunity, he sold that land and bought a great farm that encompassed forest, meadow and fields.

In those days, many could not imagine taking on a debt of many thousands of dollars, but Sveinn Westford was full of optimism and unwavering faith and was certain that he would have great success in this undertaking. And that’s exactly what happened. Sveinn immediately got down to business cultivating the land and plowing that vast meadow, and experience proved that the work yielded rich fruit. Sveinn became one of the first men to show others what this good, rich earth could produce. He also raised cattle, which proved to be profitable. After just a few years, he had paid for the great land, and the ranch was one of the most beautiful in the area and one of the most flourishing farms in the countryside.

Sveinn the good farmer lived on this land until the government decided to put a large portion of it under water. A number of farmers, including Sveinn Westford, were forced to give up their land. Sveinn showed outstanding diligence in his farming at the Mouse River settlement and earned a wonderful reputation among the residents there.

Sveinn and Helga had eleven children, seven boys and four girls. The sons are:

  1. Victor, a resident of Seattle, Washington
  2. Einar, New Port, Pennsylania
  3. Grímur, Oakland, California
  4. Oscar, Seattle, Washington
  5. Fredrick, San Lorenzo, California
  6. John, Ferndale, Washington
  7. Sveinn, Bellingham, Washington

Their daughters are:

  1. Mrs. Christine M. Turnipseed, Newton, Illinois
  2. Mrs. Jakobina Paulina Hillman, Mountain, North Dakota
  3. Mrs. Ellen Lunde, Upham, North Dakota
  4. Mrs. Lillian Cairns, Seattle, Washington

All the children survive their parents and they are, without exception, the most promising people, intelligent, cultured and highly regarded by all who know them. They are all good church folk, raised to be god-fearing and good-mannered.

Within the Icelandic community, Sveinn Westford was among the most pleasant individuals. Alongside his beloved wife, he was involved in anything related to the church. He was a faithful member and for a long time chairman of the Icelandic congregation in Upham, North Dakota.

Twenty-six years ago, Sveinn and his wife and most of their children moved west and settled in the Blaine area, just south of the town. They purchased a beautiful farm and lived there for several years. They immediately joined the Blaine congregation, as did all the children who had accompanied them west. Within the Blaine congregation, Sveinn and Helga proved themselves to be some of the most faithful congregants. In all efforts, Sveinn was encouraging and always willing to give of his time, money and energy.

Sveinn Westford was a strapping man and decided in all that he put his mind to. I, who am writing these few words in his memory, knew Sveinn Westford, his wife and their children very well. The entire family was involved in the church those seven years that I was their priest, and I had the honor of performing church rites for these pleasant folk.

I’ll give one example of Sveinn’s work ethic. In 1940, the church had fallen into disrepair and the interior needed to be painted as soon as possible. Sveinn was on the congregational board as he always was in those years. Sveinn was one of those who took on the most work. We did not have to wait long until the project was completed, because a few days after the repairs were approved at a congregational meeting, Sveinn came with a large group of church members and the work was completed within a few days.

In the parish council, Sveinn always had a lot to say. Everyone trusted him and appreciated his advice, which always proved to be wise.

The Westfords were known for their Icelandic hospitality, both in the Mouse River area and also after they moved to Blaine. The couple were extremely likeable and had many friends, and there were often many at their good and cheerful home. Young people also often gathered there together.

A few years ago, Sveinn sold his farm in Blaine and bought a modest home in Bellingham. It suited the couple well, until their health started to decline, and after a few years in Bellingham Sveinn lost his good wife. Shortly after her death, Sveinn began to lose his sight and eventually he became completely blind. After that point, he lived with several of his children, including his son Victor in Seattle. Sveinn’s daughter, the schoolteacher Mrs. Jakobina Hillman, moved to Seattle and supported her father with her presence, so he was as happy as could be expected. Sveinn was grateful to his children for graciously aiding their helpless father when he most needed it. The last two years of his life, Sveinn lived with his son John, who is married to an American woman. They live in Ferndale, not far from Blaine, and while living there with them, Sveinn’s condition deteriorated and he even became bedridden. His daughter-in-law was extremely kind to him, nursing him and doing all in her power to help him. Sveinn was later moved to the medical wing of Stafholt in Blaine, Washington. After a few days he was moved to the hospital in Bellingham, and there, after just a few hours, he passed away. Thus ended a long and prosperous life.

Sveinn was, in truth, a fortunate man. He was lucky to have such a wonderful wife, who was his anchor in life, and to have so many practical children, who honored their parents and will always honor their memory.

With many friends and family present, Sveinn was laid to rest in Bay View Cemetery on Friday, May 19. Arrangements were taken care of by the John Westford Funeral Home in Bellingham and Guðmundur P. Johnson presided over the funeral.

The death of Sveinn Einarsson Westford is the loss of a distinguished Icelander, who will long be remembered by those who knew him. 

May the Lord bless the memory of this good man.

G.P.J.

Original Icelandic text by Guðmundur P. Johnson, 20 July 1961

English translation by Julie Summers, October 2015

apríl: vinir, lokapróf, frídagar og margt fleira

April brought both more daylight hours and more stress as classes wrapped up and final exams began. Here are a few highlights:

Ættingjar frá Bandaríkjunum

At the beginning of the month, I had the chance to meet up with my cousin Sean and his girlfriend Amanda, who were enjoying their first trip to Reykjavík. Kelsey, Flor and I met up with them one day for lunch (we introduced them to the wonders of Mandi), and then I had them over to the house one afternoon for coffee and brownies. Sean and I had met briefly in 2013 at the Westford Family Reunion in North Dakota, but it was fun to have more time to chat with him and to meet Amanda. We all got along swimmingly and I know they had a wonderful first visit to Iceland and look forward to returning before too long.

Sean, Amanda, and I
Sean, Amanda, and I

Íslenskar kvikmyndir eru skrítnar

One chilly April evening Kelsey and I did the unthinkable: we did something spontaneous. It went something like this: at 8:00 we decided to see a movie. At 9:00 we arrived at the movie theater. If you know either of us, you will realize why this warrants mentioning. The film in question was Fúsi, an Icelandic film that has garnered acclaim at various international film festivals, including Tribeca. The film is in Icelandic and there were no subtitles at our screening, meaning that I caught only about 75% of the dialogue, but was generally able to follow the storyline just fine even without understanding every word. I haven’t seen many Icelandic films, but I would say this one was generally a bit warmer than most, while still maintaining that characteristic Nordic distance and avoiding the neat tied-with-a-bow ending people often complain is characteristic of American films. In other words, it was okay, but not my favorite. I would definitely be interested to see it again with either Icelandic or English subtitles, as that would help fill in some of the gaps where I didn’t understand the dialogue.

The English title for the film is "Virgin Mountain." Hmm.
The English title for the film is “Virgin Mountain.” Hmm.

Gleðilega Páska!

In Iceland, Easter isn’t so much a religious holiday as it is a chocolate holiday. And that chocolate takes exactly one form: the strange, famous, and usually immodestly large páskaegg. Easter eggs in Iceland are large, hollow chocolate eggs strangely decorated with plastic flowers and chicks and filled with more candy and a proverb printed on a tiny, rolled-up scroll. I don’t know how this tradition came to be, but tradition it is. Now, normally I’d be totally on board with the idea of giant chocolate eggs. But here’s the thing. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but Icelanders are crazy about milk chocolate. In fact, dark chocolate is generally relegated to the baking aisle at the grocery store, because Icelanders can’t fathom that someone might want to consume non-milk chocolate. In the mountains of páskaeggs at the store, I’m pretty sure I saw exactly one variety that was made of dark chocolate, and I think it was adulterated with licorice, like many of them are. Basically, if you love milk chocolate and licorice, you will probably love páskaeggs. If, like me, you think that licorice is an unforgivable smirch on the culinary landscape, and that dark chocolate is always and forever superior to milk, you will probably be a bit less thrilled with this tradition.

But in the interest of learning, of course I consumed the páskaegg that Ásta gave me.

Sendiráð Bandaríkjanna

In April I also had the opportunity to visit the US Embassy for the third time. This time around, the occasion was an open house for American citizens living in Iceland (and their partners) to meet the new ambassador, Rob Barber, who took up the post in January after a vacancy of over a year. A couple of my friends had planned to go but had to cancel at the last minute, so I wandered over to Laufásvegur by myself. As it turns out, I only knew about two people there, so I spent most of the time chatting with them and eating mini cupcakes to allay the awkwardness. These sorts of rather formal social situations are not my forté. At all.

Besides the aforementioned mini cupcakes (by far the best of the food offerings), the other major benefit of the event was this:

bara að chilla með forseta Bandaríkjanna
bara að chilla með forseta Bandaríkjanna

Last Fulbright Field Trip

We went on our last Fulbright field trip in April, this time to Hellisheiðarvirkjun, a geothermal power plant about 20 minutes from downtown. We had planned to go in March, but the weather put the kibosh on that. Scott and Sophie were busy, so it was just me and Alyssa, plus Randver (the new adviser) and Dan (one of the scholars) and his kids and parents, who happened to be visiting from the States.

Honestly, the tour itself was much shorter than I would have expected, consisting mainly of two short videos, plus an opportunity to peek at the inner workings of the plant from a viewing platform. All in all I think it was no more than 15 minutes. But if nothing else, it was nice to get out of the city. Sometimes I forget that the world extends beyond 101. And in typical Icelandic fashion, I ran into not one but two Icelandic acquaintances there within 2 minutes of each other. Ísland er lítið land.

blár himinn yfir Hellisheiðarvirkjuninni
blár himinn yfir Hellisheiðarvirkjuninni

Sumardagurinn Fyrsti

In Iceland, there are really only two seasons: cold, and less cold. April brought the official start of the supposedly “less cold” season, with the holiday “Sumardagurinn fyrsti,” the first day of summer. So how was the weather on the first day of summer? Well, it was sunny part of the day, but the temperature hovered right around freezing and it started to snow at least once. Svona er sumar á Íslandi.  Anyway, our first final exam was the next day, so I spent the morning studying, but then I took a break to wander around town and enjoy the festive atmosphere.

Reykjavík klædd í sumar
Reykjavík klædd í sumar

It is traditional for Icelanders to give each other gifts on Sumardagurinn fyrsti (apparently at one point this was the big gift-giving holiday, not Christmas), and I received a cute little gift from Ásta.

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IMG_4205

In the evening, sadly, it was back to studying, with our íslenskt mál exam looming the next day.

Corban reunion

Thanks to Facebook and the watchfulness of my favorite Corban professor, I found out that a fellow Corban alumna was traveling to Reykjavík. We got in touch on Facebook and ended up meeting for ice cream and pylsur (very Icelandic). Kate graduated a few years after me, so we figured out we probably overlapped one year at Corban, although we never met there. She lives in Colorado now and decided to travel to Iceland for a solo adventure. Always fun to connect with people from my Northwest home.

Corban alumnae in Reykjavík
Corban alumnae in Reykjavík
I was privileged to bear witness to the consumption of Kate's first Icelandic pylsa
I was privileged to bear witness to the consumption of Kate’s first Icelandic pylsa

First exams and a little bit of insanity

The first two (of four total) exams were taken in April, first íslenskt mál and then málfræði (grammar). Our exam schedule this semester was in many ways a lot nicer than last, because we had one exam, and then five days’ break, and then the next, and then a week’s break, so I felt like I could tackle them one at a time instead of trying to study for three or four simultaneously. Grammar, while not necessarily the most difficult exam, is always plenty stressful, as it counts for 100% of our final class grade. The exam went well, but afterward I was drained. Several of us sat at Háskólatorg in a bit of a daze, wondering what had just happened and what the purpose of our lives would be without a grammar final hanging over our heads like the sharp blade of a grammatically correct guillotine. That evening, we ended up having an impromptu dinner party at my house. Homemade macaroni and cheese and salad were consumed, banana cake was baked, Vietnamese hats were donned, cameras were pulled out, and insanity ensued. I think we all needed to blow off some steam.

It was without a doubt one of the stranger and more memorable nights of my life in Iceland.

And so April gave way to May, and final exams gave way to more final exams, which shall be discussed in our next installment.

febrúar, take one

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

Vetrarhátíð og Háríð á Degi B. Eggertssyni

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

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

Svavar Knútur at Café Rosenberg

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

Snorri West

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

Valentínusárdagur á Gamla Garði

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

Bolludagur

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

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

Sjálfsætt Fólk

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

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

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

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

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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selssjálfsmynd

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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 3

It’s a grey but mild day in Reykjavík and I am planning to enjoy a low-key weekend of homework and coffee drinking. I’m already a few weeks behind in my blogging, and more blog-worthy things just keep happening, so I better start getting caught up.  And I don’t actually have any coffee at home right now, so I think I will bribe myself into being productive by saying that I will allow myself to go out and get coffee after I finish this blog post and perhaps read a chapter from my grammar text.

So, my caffeination (and therefore my overall well-being and sanity) depends upon this.

Let’s get going and try to recap August 25 – 29.

mánudagur / monday (25. ágúst)

On Monday morning, there was an orientation at the university for all Icelandic as a Second Language students.  We all gathered in a classroom in Háskólatorg and were given an overview of the placement testing and the two programs – the one-year practical diploma program (for students who don’t pass the placement test or just want to do a shorter, slower-paced, more practically-focused program) and the three-year BA program (for students who pass the placement test and are interested in studying the language in a theoretical as well as practical manner).  This meeting was the first time I got any idea of the variety of students in the Icelandic language programs.  There were students from all over the world with a wide variety of backgrounds and reasons for learning Icelandic.

At the end of the orientation, we were each asked to fill out a sheet with our contact information; information about previous studies in Icelandic and/or other languages; self-assessment of our current skill level in reading, writing, speaking, and understanding Icelandic; and our goals for learning Icelandic.  They never told us, however, exactly how that information would be used.

I had already gotten some tips regarding the placement test from Elliott (last year’s Fulbright-Árni Magnússon grant recipient) and other friends who’ve taken it in the past, but after the orientation, I was feeling more confident than ever about not wanting to fail the test and place into the practical program, and less confident than ever that I actually could pass the test.  So I spent the rest of the day studying and studying and studying some more.  It was difficult to know what to focus on, but I tried to review verb conjugations, case declension, etc., and I spent a fair amount of time pushing through Icelandic Online, level 2.  And while perusing Icelandic Online, level 2, I happened upon this photo:

Heima
Heima

That is, in fact, the house where I now live, and the woman in the middle is my cousin.  Did you know that Iceland is a pretty small place?

þriðjudagur / tuesday (26. ágúst)

Útlendingastofnun, or, the joys of being a foreigner

I hoped to spend Tuesday morning studying as much as possible before the 2:00 stöðupróf (placement test), but I got an email in the morning that the photo-taking contraption at Útlendingastofnun (The Directorate of Immigration) was finally back in working order and I really needed to get over there as soon as possible so as not to delay the process of establishing legal residence any further.  So I gave my brain a rest from studying and walked over across Hringbraut (and this time, I managed not to get lost or defeated by a door).  There were probably 12-15 people in the waiting area when I arrived, and I was nervous about getting done and over to the university in time.  No, I didn’t want to be deported, but there was no way I could miss the placement test either.

Thankfully, before too long, the employee (I swear she was the only person working there) asked if anyone was there just to have their photo taken for a residence permit.  Several of us raised our hands, and she directed us to form a line.  She said nothing about forming a line based on the numbers we had already taken to determine our order of service, so, feeling fully like an entitled American, I scurried right up to the front of the line.  Within 15 minutes, I was done and on my way over to the university to determine my fate.

Stöðupróf, or, the determination of my fate in two hours and ten pages

I had been warned to expect zero English in either the written or oral instructions for the placement exam.  For better or worse, this was not the case.  The instructions were written in both Icelandic and English, and the proctors were willing to answer questions in both languages.

Apparently the exam has changed just since last year, because Elliott said there was no listening component, but our exam began with a short listening portion.  We were given the opportunity to read through the first ten questions, then we listened to a brief (and, thankfully, very slow) dialogue.  We had a couple minutes to think and try to answer the questions, then they played the dialogue a second time.

After that, there were maybe 40-50 multiple choice questions that tested our knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and overall comprehension skills.

Finally, as I had been warned, there was a short writing section.  We were asked to write 8-10 sentences about what we’d like to do in Iceland this winter.  My writing was extremely simplistic, and I tried to write simply enough that I could control my grammar, but also to throw out a few more difficult words and sentence constructions that, while grammatically imperfect, hopefully showed a slightly wider range of knowledge than I would have otherwise.

Anyway, when all was said and done, I felt fairly good about the exam.  I was certain about probably 80% of the multiple choice questions.  The listening section, to my utmost surprise, was actually the easiest component of the exam.  The most difficult thing was not knowing exactly how the exams would be scored.  We were told at the orientation that there are no grades; you either pass or you fail.  But they gave next to no information as to how the exams would be scored.  They also didn’t explain if/how our written self-assessment/statement of goals (see Monday, above) would be taken into consideration.

I left feeling like I had done the best I could given my current level of knowledge.  I did wish that I had not been sidetracked by health problems in the months before I moved, though, because that kept me from having more time and energy to study.

Kaffitími

After the placement exam, all of the new 2014-2015 Árni Magnússon Institute grantees met up at Háskólatorg.  We had been emailing each other over the past couple months, but this was the first time we had all met face-to-face.

I already knew Kimberly, a fellow Snorri alum from Canada, and I had met Kelsey a couple days earlier.  The other grantees we met that day are Giedre from Lithuania, Matyas from Hungary, Piotr from Poland, John from the UK, and Aurora from Italy.  (There are two other new grantees, Lucie from the Czech Republic and Franzi from Germany, but they were busy that week taking exams to pass directly into the second year of the BA program.)  It’s always a little bit strange meeting people for the first time and knowing they will be a part of your lives for the next however many months and perhaps beyond.  And it’s difficult now, just a few weeks later, to remember that first conversation and those first impressions.  There’s something about moving to a new place and embarking on an adventure like this that turns acquaintances into friends very quickly, and perhaps not even friendship in quite the same manner as I would normally describe, but camaraderie, familiarity, ease.  It’s difficult to explain, but I’m sure others have experienced this and understand what I’m trying to say.  In any case, it was great to finally put faces to names, to start getting to know one another, to speculate about the placement test results and to meet other people going through the same challenges (and fun bureaucratic rigmarole) of assimilating into a new culture.

Kvöldmatur, bjór, og Captain Planet

After kaffitími, I walked over to Daniela’s and we decided to make dinner in her dorm’s IKEA showroom kitchen.  Dylan, famous founder of Sofar Sounds Reykjavík and fellow inhabitant of Daniela’s dorm, joined us to talk and sample Daniela’s stores of Icelandic beer.  And at one point Dylan and I sang the Captain Planet theme song.  It was a good night.

miðvikudagur / wednesday (27. ágúst)

On Wednesday morning, there was an orientation for all international students held at Háskólabíó (the interesting public movie theater / university classroom hybrid on campus).  I recognized the building from Icelandic Online, Level 1, when Daniel and Ewa go there on a super awkward is-it-or-is-it-not-a-date?

Anyway, there are a LOT of international students at HÍ.

I was talking to someone and mentioned that I am from the States, and this guy sitting in front of me overheard and turned around.  “You’re from the States?!” he asked exuberantly.  I confirmed.  “Me too!” he exclaimed.  I asked him which state he’s from and I believe it was Virginia or another state along that other coast.  Then this guy got out of his seat and came to sit right next to me.  “Is this your first time living away from home?” he asked.  “Uhhhh, no, not exactly,” I answered.  “Oh.  It is for me,” he stated, clearly both thrilled and terrified by this fact.  It was a rather amusing exchange.  We did not become best friends.

After the orientation, we were treated to complementary appelsín (an orange-flavored soda), lakkrís (licorice) straws, and Hraun bars.  Mmm.  Hraun bars might just be my very favorite Icelandic nammi.  I am sure I will end up discussing them multiple times in my blog this year.

I had lunch at Háma with some friends, then went home to decompress from the overly social morning (As an undeniable introvert, I can only be around other people – especially huge groups of other people – for so long before I feel the need to enjoy some solitude).  I spent the afternoon resting and learning some new vocabulary from the IKEA catalogue.  I also learned a great word from Ásta’s father: grallaraspói.  It’s a combination of grallari (clown) and spói (a type of bird).  I can’t remember exactly how he explained it, but I think it conveys a notion of frivolity and ridiculousness.  When I googled the term, the first thing I came across was an article about Justin Bieber.  Grallaraspói.

fimmtudagur / thursday (28. ágúst)

Thursday was a pretty low-key day because I woke up with a sore throat.  I think I was just exhausted from everything.  In the afternoon, I went to meet Kelsey at Ingólfstorg, but that didn’t actually happen due to miscommunication and the lack of established cell phone communication at that point (we all had to go get Icelandic sim cards).  I ended up wandering around the square for a while, buying some olives from a guy who was selling Mediterranean food, and going home to make pasta salad.  In the evening, I met up with some friends at Loft Hostel, was schooled by Daniela in how to pour a proper German beer, and realized once again that I don’t understand the point of going somewhere loud and crowded to talk.  Not my favorite thing.

föstudagur / friday (29. ágúst)

On Friday morning, I was surprised and very happy to find a piece of mail from Útlendingastofnun addressed to me delivered to the house.  Finally, I had my dvalarleyfi (residence permit/ID card) and kennitala (my national identification number).  I was finally a legitimate, Iceland-dwelling person!

Results from the placement test were supposed to be posted on campus and online in the afternoon, so I met some of my friends on campus and we all wandered around waiting and worrying together.  I was simultaneously trying to figure out why my registration for the university hadn’t been finalized.  The institute that awarded my scholarship was supposed to pay the registration fee on my behalf, but the day before I had gotten an email stating that I needed to pay as soon as possible.  I was standing at the student service desk trying to sort this all out when my friends noticed the results had been posted.  So I was trying to focus on figuring out the money problem, while sort of watching out of the corner of my eye to gauge what the results were.

Finally, I was able to walk over to the lists and discover that my name was on the lists for the BA program courses!  It was a relief, but unfortunately I couldn’t fully enjoy the moment since I still had to figure out the money issue.  Thankfully, with help from a very kind and patient woman at the Árni Magnússon Institute, we got it all sorted.

A bunch of the other international students were going out that night to experience Reykjavík nightlife, and while I didn’t want to go with them, I did join them for a “pre-party” in what has been dubbed the Gamli Garður party attic.  When I had had my fill of socializing, I walked home and enjoyed a quiet evening with the house to myself as Ásta Sól and her family were gone overnight.  I happened upon “Austenland” on TV and learned some good words from the Icelandic subtitles while eating a box (not a whole box – not quite, anyway) of mini Hraun bars.  That evening was my first introduction to the legendary Icelandic wind.  It was so noisy all night that I kept waking up and was quite tired in the morning.

Well, that might not be the most thrilling note on which to end, and I apologize for the lack of photos in this post.  Bear with me; I promise there are some beautiful Iceland photos coming soon!

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.

margir Íslendingar í Seattle: INL Convention, Days 1 & 2

This April, the annual convention of the Icelandic National League of North America was held in Seattle.  It was the first time Seattle has ever hosted and only the second time the convention has been in a U.S. city in 94 years of conventions.  Ninety-four years!

Each convention has a theme, and this year’s was “There’s No Place Like Heima,” playing off the Seattle/Emerald City/Wizard of Oz connection and the Icelandic word for home.

Program photos/design by Amanda Allen
Program photos/design by Amanda Allen

Many months ago, my friend David, a member of the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle and head of the Convention planning committee, asked me to help with some writing, editing, promotion, name-tag-making, music-mix-burning and other miscellaneous tasks in preparation for the big weekend, and I was more than happy to help out.  Most of the time, that is.  Perhaps I was a little less than happy when I spent the greater part of an entire weekend trying to get the name tags to print out with the proper margins and color.  Þetta reddast.

I have so much to say about this incredible weekend that I think I may need a couple posts to cover everything.  We begin with…

fimmtudagskvöld

(thursday night)

I left work early Thursday afternoon, finished packing, then headed north.  Did you know procrastination is an Icelandic trait?  Way back in January, David explained to me his idea of having a few people give very brief speeches, little vignettes almost, ruminating on the theme of heima/home, and he asked me to do one of them.  I had more than enough time to plan and practice it, but I am not a fan of public speaking and I didn’t know how to condense my thoughts down to just 5 minutes so as of Thursday afternoon I still hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to say.  I had a general outline, and as I drove north on I-5 I practiced and tried to work out the kinks.  Eventually I got to a point where the speech was more or less coherent and I was feeling more confident.  The problem was, every time I got to a certain part, a lump would form in my throat and I’d have to stop to fight off tears.  It was an emotional topic magnified by my absolute exhaustion (I had been working extra hours to make up for the day and a half I took off, as I couldn’t yet use my vacation time).

As I neared Seattle, I decided to rest my voice and my emotions for awhile.  After I conquered the maze of one-way streets downtown and finally found the Crowne Plaza, I went to check in.  As I was standing at the desk, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye, a guy about my age, long hair, orange sweatshirt.  “Julie?” he called.  I turned to face him and discovered it was Johnathan, or Nonni as he is known by many, a 2009 Snorri I had chatted with on Facebook but never met before.  “Hi!” I said.  He gave me a big hug and we started talking like we were old friends.  And that was the first of many moments that combined to create a remarkably warm, moving, joyous weekend that I will not soon forget.

After I lugged my bags up to my room, I joined the crowd mulling about in the hospitality suite.  And I do mean crowd.  Those who know me well undoubtedly know that I am not much for crowds.  I get overwhelmed rather easily.  And this crowd was definitely overwhelming, but in the best way imaginable.  First I saw Helgi, a former Snorri who was actually in Iceland during my trip last year and had dinner with our group one night at KEX Hostel.  That was the only time we’d ever met, but of course he too gave me a big, warm, lopapeysa-wooly hug.  Within a couple minutes, I had spotted David, Amanda, Sacha, Ásta Sól, Halldór, Kent, Sunna, and so many more.  It felt like a homecoming.  These are my people.  This is where I belong.

Helgi introduced me to his girlfriend Friðný and another friend, Signý, and I chatted with them for a little bit.  We spoke a little Icelandic together and I was encouraged by Friðný’s kind and generous assertion that my pronunciation is very good.

I stepped out to escape the crowd for a bit and ran into Judy, an associate editor for the Lögberg-Heimskringla with whom I have exchanged many an email over the past several months.  She was heading up to the bar and Signý and I decided to join her.  The three of us took a small round table, sat back, and, away from the happy chaos downstairs, realized we were starving.  Before we had even ordered dinner, we were joined by a couple more Icelanders, then a few more.  One by one more tables were added until there were probably 20 people, 6 tables, four people sharing two extra chairs.  The non-Icelandic people in the bar grew more bewildered as our group grew larger and more boisterous.

Eventually, dizzy and exhausted, I said goodbye to the (still quite large) bar crowd and went back to my room.  I spent a half hour or so staring at my speech, made a few minor changes, then decided it would have to take care of itself in the morning.

föstudagur

(friday)

Breakfast and a couple cups of good strong kaffi, then welcoming remarks from our fearless organizer David, Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, the Executive Director of the Nordic Heritage Museum, and a representative of the Seattle-Reykjavík Sister City Association.  While listening to these speakers, I was also thumbing through the beautiful program that Amanda designed.

Amanda's handiwork
Amanda’s handiwork

She sprinkled a few quotes throughout, all relating to the theme of home, and I was struck by this one, which was overlaid on a photo she took while our group was at Hofsós:

“Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.”
– Christian Morgenstern

In that instant, my nerves were calmed and I knew I would make it through my speech.  I was surrounded by people who understood me, and they would understand what I was trying to convey even if I wasn’t the most eloquent or engaging speaker.

David introduced me and I gave my speech, which I called “Home as a Place of Belonging.”  It went so much better than I could have hoped.  I didn’t trip over my words too much, I remembered to make eye contact, the audience laughed when they were supposed to.  Someone even came up to me afterward and said, “You’re such a natural speaker!” (ha!) [You can watch it here, if you’re so inclined.]

When I finished, I introduced Sunna from North Dakota, who shared a presentation she gave all around Iceland last fall as part of the International Visits Program titled “The Love of Iceland in America.”  As you can likely deduce from the title, it’s about how people of Icelandic descent in America have kept Iceland in their hearts over the years.  It was an emotional presentation for many.  Some in attendance were born in Iceland, some, like me, were born in North America, descendants of those who left their homeland and their families behind in search of a better life.  In many cases, their departure left a rift of bitterness behind.  And in a sense, it’s only in relatively recent history that there’s been a fuller reconciliation between the families of those who stayed and the families of those who left.  But there we were, a group of people diverse in many ways but tied together by this obscure, out-of-the-way island in the North Atlantic and touched by the stories Sunna shared.  Eyes watery, hearts full, we broke for a brief intermission.

A lady I had never met before, several inches shorter than me, her pale blonde hair pulled up to one side in an elegant braided chignon, came up to me, introduced herself as Sigrid, and thanked me for sharing my story.  I don’t remember our exact conversation, except that at one point she said something about how it’s people like me who are keeping the Icelandic heritage alive in North America.

Ég og Sigrid
Ég og Sigrid

How do you follow all that emotion?  With sugar, of course.  The crowd meandered back upstairs to the hospitality suite for kleinur (a traditional Icelandic doughnut) and some kind of layered cake that looked like it’s related to vínarterta.

Reinforced by sugar, the tremendous energy of that morning continued throughout the rest of the day.  The afternoon brought a brief presentation by Amöndu about her family’s tradition of making vínarterta every year, and a presentation by Ásta Sól about the Snorri Program.  Dr. Steve Guttormsson, a retired Minnesota doctor who started a nonprofit foundation to support American Snorri participants, presented Ásta with a check to cover $2000 for each of three 2013 participants.  Amanda and I were the recipients of the first two Guttormsson Family Foundation scholarships last year, and we finally got to meet Dr. Guttormsson and thank him for his part in getting us to Iceland last year.

Me, Steve, Amanda
Me, Steve, Amanda

The main event of the afternoon was a lecture by Alene Moris entitled “Women in Iceland are Unusual and Happy.”  Moris co-founded the Women’s Center at the University of Washington and is an outspoken advocate for male/female balance, especially in the workplace.  She’s an absolute powerhouse and it was a privilege to hear her.

Friday afternoon brought some much-needed free time.  I think I did some more visiting, wandered over to the Seattle Public Library, then met up with Sacha and Amanda.  We walked to Pike Place Market, watched a little fish throwing, then headed downstairs to Pike Brewing for dinner.  Sacha ordered a pitcher of Naughty Nellie Ale to share, mostly, I think, because she just wanted to say “Naughty Nellie Ale,” but it turned out to be delicious, as were the fish and chips.  When our waiter checked our IDs, he noticed Amanda had just had a birthday, so he brought her a little molten chocolate birthday cake treat.  After a bite, Amanda realized it contained walnuts, to which she is mildly allergic.  She ate more of it but said her mouth felt rather itchy.  We helped her out by removing some of the temptation.

makríll
makríll

We lingered over our beers a little too long and missed the first part of Friday night’s program, but made it in time for remarks by Halldór Árnasson of Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga (INL – Iceland) and the keynote speech by Ambassador Þórður Ægir Óskarsson of Canada.

[Speaking of ambassadors, I can’t recall when exactly this happened, and this won’t make sense unless you’ve listened to my presentation, but some time after I gave my speech, the Icelandic Ambassador from D.C., Guðmundur Stefánsson, came up to me and said, “So that guy you were talking about, at the coffee shop, was he hitting on you?”  It was hilarious and embarrassing and I had to explain that actually, the guy was with his girlfriend but I hadn’t mentioned her in the interest of keeping the story short and simple.  I got the feeling Mr. Ambassador didn’t entirely believe me, and then I made the huge mistake of saying that his hometown of Hafnarfjörður is basically a big suburb of Reykjavík, but anyway.]

Friday evening, former Snorris (and friends of Snorris) gathered together for a casual time of conversation and reminiscing.  Many different years were represented, ranging from 1999 (the very first year!) to 2012.  Ásta Sól said a few words and told us about a documentary she made telling the story of three Snorris from several years ago.  She was going to show it but we couldn’t find a projector, so instead we talked.  And drank.  And laughed.  And talked and talked and talked.  Oh and at one point some people started singing Icelandic folk songs.

I spent most of the evening chatting with Matthew, an alum from the Seattle area.  He participated in the program 12 years before me, but we had so many of the same experiences and feelings.  I don’t think anyone but a fellow Snorri can truly understand the joy and fear and awe and magic of the trip and the way you feel like a little piece of your heart has been ruined forever and nothing else will ever satisfy it and you have to go back, you just have to.

Matthew og Julie 2
Matthew og ég

Sacha og Amöndu
Sacha og Amanda

góður hópur
góður hópur

Most presentations from the 2013 INL Convention can be viewed here.