desember

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


 

Final Exams

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

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

ís í snjónum
ís í snjónum

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

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

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

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


A gentle Christmas breeze

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

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


End-of-semester celebrations

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

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

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


And yet more merry-making

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

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

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

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


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

 

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norðurljós, tónlist og kjötsúpa: október/nóvember

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

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

October

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


 

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


 

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

 


November, part 1

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


 

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

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


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


 

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

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

 

 

tvennir tónleikar í portland

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

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Árstíðir

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

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

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

 

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

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

Kaleo

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

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

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

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awkward stuck-out-tongue shot

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

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

mars

March was characterized by predictably unpredictable Icelandic weather (we officially marked our 38th storm of the winter) and the worst sinus infection I’ve had in years, which left me thinking I might never regain my ability to smell and taste, so I have neither tons of exciting stories nor tons of lovely photos to share for this month’s recap. But still, there were bright spots, and I’ll share a few of those…

reykjavík folk festival at KEX

In early March, I was already starting to get sick, but after some encouragement from my friend Leana, I decided to check out the Reykjavík Folk Festival, an annual event held at KEX Hostel. It’s a three-evening event, but I just went for one. The musicians performing were Kólga, Klassart, Lindy Vopnfjord, and Lay Low. There were musicians I would have enjoyed seeing on the other two evenings, but I was particularly keen to see Lindy, as I have met some of his relatives in Canada but had never heard him perform, and Lay Low, who I had also never seen live before.

For the most part, “music festival” is a phrase of which I am not terribly fond, as it stirs up nightmares of stifling hot, overcrowded, crazy loud rooms full of tipsy people. But the Reykjavík Folk Festival is my kind of music festival – small, intimate, quiet, focused on the music and the experience of listening together, rather than talking over it in drunken-loud whispers (well, okay, there were definitely a few people doing that, but they were in the minority).

I went by myself, but, as happens so often in this town, I ended up seeing some people I knew there. Leana was volunteering, and I also saw a German guy I had met just the day before at the “Stefnumót við tungumál” event at Stúdentakjallarinn.

Lindy is, like me, descended from so-called Western Icelanders. I met his parents in Seattle at the INL Convention in 2012, then stayed with some of his relatives in Winnipeg on my Canada trip in 2013. When his cousin Cara took me to Gimli, we listened to Lindy’s music in the car. So it felt right that somehow this had come full circle and I was able to see him perform here in Iceland. He’s a talented singer-songwriter with a great sense of humor, and he is also ridiculously tall. I mean, really, really tall.

Lay Low was, as expected, marvelous, mesmerizing, magnificent, and a lot of other positive adjectives, some of which don’t even begin with “m.”

I chose just to watch and listen instead of snapping photos, so words will have to suffice.

postcrossing

After hearing about it from friends, I decided to sign up for Postcrossing. It’s an online project where you send postcards to strangers around the world and receive postcards from strangers in return. I’m not a postcard collector or anything, but there’s something appealing about connecting to people through snail mail. So far I have sent cards to Germany, Finland, Malaysia, Japan, Russia, Czech Republic, China, France, the UK, the Netherlands, and the US. I’ve received cards from Germany, China, Russia, Taiwan, the US, Finland, and the UK.

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first few cards on their way out into the big wide world

 

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my wall is quickly filling up with postcards

 

I’ve received dozens of direct swap requests from people all over the world and quickly realized there’s no way I can keep up with them all. Iceland is súper popular these days, and there are fewer than 200 Postcrossing members here. Sadly it’s too expensive and time-consuming to say yes to everyone, but I will spread as much Icelandic postcard cheer as I can.

college day

In late March, the other Fulbrighters and I helped out with a college fair held at Háskólinn í Reykjavík (Reykjavík University). Several universities from the States and a few from Europe had representatives in attendance, and there was information about Fulbright grant opportunities for Icelandic students as well. I was still feeling pretty terrible, but did my best to be friendly and helpful and not sneeze on people. Plus, I wore a cherry dress, which I purchased at Gyllti Kötturinn, home of Baktus the Cat, AKA my best friend in this city.

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kirsuberjakjóll! don’t mind the wrinkles…

 

vinir mínir

Alwin, Vitalina, Kelsey, and Florencia came over one evening for dinner and afterward we attempted to play Orðabelgur, an Icelandic game where all the questions are about the Icelandic language. I think the game box states that it is for players ages 10 and up, so it was somewhat demoralizing to realize that despite our advanced ages, it was a bit much for us as Icelandic learners, and eventually the game devolved into a game of “Smilebags.” There was also a stuffed panda named Aloysius. The greatest thing about my friends? They are at least as weird as I am, if not more so.

gubbuhesturinn

I somehow happened upon this masterful piece of Icelandic-language music magic. The tune is called “Gubbuhesturinn,” which basically translates to “the vomit horse” and is a play on the word “gubbePestur,” which is like a stomach flu. Maybe you have to be an Icelandic language student with a twisted sense of humor to appreciate it (in other words, maybe you have to be me), but just in case anyone else might also find it amusing, here you go:

göngutúrar

As the evenings have grown longer and the weather milder, I’ve been enjoying lots of rambling walks, often with Florencia and Kelsey.

On one such walk, we explored Seltjarnarnes, the peninsula to the west of downtown Reykjavík.

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And with this lovely view of Esjan, I will say bless í bili.

 

 

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.

of homesickness and other realities of life abroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tvö kvöld í hörpu

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

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

Fulbrighters

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

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

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

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Monkfish, salmon, and some sort of wonderful potato cake

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIFF

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

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

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

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

Snorri meetup

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

Patró reunion

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

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

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

tíu dagar á íslandi, part 2

addendum to friday

I forgot to mention in my previous post that on Friday evening, I went with Ásta Sól to a reception for the current Snorri Plus group.  Relatives of each participant were invited, plus supporters of the Snorri programs, and it was a very full house (well, office).  I got to see Kent, tour guide and bus driver extraordinaire, who informed me that I get to be an honourary Canuck for Canadian Thanksgiving this year; Halldór, who I first met while on the Snorri Program; and Rúnar, a professor, author and translator I met at Þorrablót in Seattle earlier this year.  The crowd was rather overwhelming, but watching people connect with their long-lost relatives, hugging and taking photos and poring over genealogy together, was an impressive and moving sight to behold.

laugardagur / saturday

Saturday was Menningarnótt, or Reykjavík Culture Night. Officially, Menningarnótt is intended to celebrate the start of a new year of cultural events, or something like that.  Unofficially, it’s a good excuse for a city-wide party, including free events and food!

Before I partook in any Menningarnótt festivities, however, I went to Café Babalú to meet Kelsey, a fellow Icelandic as a Second Language student and Árni Magnússon grant recipient.  Kelsey had found me on Facebook somehow and we thought it would be fun to meet each other and postulate about what to expect on the looming stöðupróf, the placement test we had to take to determine if we could begin the BA program.  Kelsey is from California via British Columbia and if she wasn’t so great, she would be incredibly intimidating, on account of being fluent or near-fluent in at least 3 (?) non-native languages.  We sat chatting over cups of coffee long enough that we were kindly asked to leave due to the encroaching Menningarnótt hordes.

So back to that whole Menningarnótt thing. There were events going on all around the city throughout the day. I studied the schedule and saw a few events I would have liked to go to (including “Free Hugs” on Laugavegur from 2:00-3:00), but ultimately decided to meet up with a couple new friends and just wander around and see what we found.  I met up with Daniela and Harry in the afternoon (see: fimmtudagur here) at KEX and we set out to see what Menningarnótt might hold for us.  Before long, we found our first stop: vöfflukaffi!  There were several places around the city that were offering free waffles and coffee to visitors. We happened to stop at a little house that is a resource/community center for people living with HIV.  We sat and enjoyed some fresh vöfflur með sultu og rjóma, then continued on our merry way.

For lunch, we went to a little pizza place tucked away on Hverfisgata, and I was introduced to the phenomenon of pizza that comes with a salad on top.  Apparently this is considered normal by many people who are not Americans.

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I went home to escape the crowd for a few hours, then set out again to meet up with Kimberly.  She was with her frændi Helgi and his girlfriend Sóley, and they were bouncing back and forth to different venues to watch friends playing in bands (because, Iceland).  I followed them around like a little duckling for an hour or so, and then decided I had to escape the crowds again.

There were fireworks by Harpa starting at eleven, but after I fought my way home through the crowd and settled in on the couch, I wasn’t terribly excited about venturing back out into the insanity.  So I joined Ásta Sól’s family in watching the festivities on TV, which was kind of strange during the fireworks as we could see flashes out the window and hear the explosions.

To summarize: Menningarnótt is quite a spectacle to behold.  There are endless options for how to spend the day, and the city is buzzing with energy wherever you go.  But the crowds definitely got to me after a while.  If I am here for Menningarnótt next year, I might try to plan out my day a bit more and compare that sort of experience to the wandering experience.  I’m sure both are enjoyable in their own way.

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sunnudagur / sunday

After a lazy Sunday morning, I went with Ásta Sól in the afternoon to Þjóðræknisþing – the annual convention of Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga, the sister organization to the Icelandic National League of North America.  We arrived a bit late (Iceland may be a rather large island, but I think “island time” still applies) but still got to see most of the program, which was, no surprise, almost entirely in Icelandic.  I understood a very teeny tiny fraction of what was going on, but it was still interesting.

I think my favorite presentation was from a University of Iceland researcher who has been studying so-called “Western Icelandic,” the distinct dialect of Icelandic that developed among Icelandic settlers in North America and in some cases has been passed down several generations now.  From what I understood, part of her project was that when she met with speakers of Western Icelandic, she brought an illustrated, wordless book.  The pictures clearly tell a story, but the experiment was in hearing how these people chose to tell the story.  Because there were pictures, and because it was a children’s story, it was much easier for me to follow.

There was another Icelandic-language presentation of which I understood very little, but Ásta Sól explained it to me a bit later on.  It was about the concepts of “blóðtaka” and “blóðgjöf.”  The words don’t translate directly into English very well, but “blóðtaka” would be something like bloodletting and “blóðgjöf” is like a gift of blood of gift by blood.  Since I couldn’t understand the presentation, I don’t remember the details of the story very well, but it was something about an Icelandic woman who emigrated to Canada, had one child and then died, and her family in Iceland completely lost track of her.  As it turns out, her child has many descendants, including a very prominent family in the Winnipeg area.  I think the overall idea is that the emigration of so many Icelanders to North America was a painful loss, a hugely significant event that tore families apart, but had that blood not been taken from the body of Icelanders, fewer would have survived overall (due to a stark lack of resources), and people would never have known the joy of reconnecting with long-lost relatives from across the ocean.

That is a very inarticulate summary, but I have to say that the presentation struck a chord even with as little of it as I could understand.

Other presentations included:

  • A recap of the 2014 Snorri West experience (which made me homesick for my own Snorri experience, especially since none other than fellow 2012 Snorri and overall fabulous human being Sacha made an appearance in the video)
  • A brief speech about Icelandic settlers in Utah by Dr. Fred Woods, a BYU professor and researcher who gave a wonderful presentation at the INL Convention in Seattle last year
  • A beautiful presentation by the always-sunny Sunna Furstenau about her Icelandic Roots organization
  • A presentation by Egill Helgason, whose TV show Veturfarar finds him traveling to North America to explore the areas of settlement, stories of immigrants, and the Icelandic heritage in North America today (it’s a 10-part series that will run on RÚV on Sunday evenings; you can watch the first episode here but note that it’s all in Icelandic).

After the program, I got to chat with a few people I know and meet some of this year’s Snorri Plus participants, including one with the fabulous name of Julie.

I also got to give a quick hug and hello to Sunna mín.  Sunna has been a tremendous example and encouragement to me and was kind enough to write me a recommendation for my Fulbright grant, so I literally would not be where I am today without her.

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Áfram Jóð Té!

You may have heard that Justin Timberlake was in Iceland last weekend.  It was a Big Deal.  He had never performed in Iceland before, and although Iceland has an incredible amount of talented musicians, many of whom are internationally known, they do not often attract útlendingar with names as big as Justin Timberlake.  Earlier in the week, there was a two-page guide in Fréttatíminn with information about the JT concert, including the ridiculously complicated parking/carpooling/public transportation rules.  Apparently people who live in the neighborhood of the venue had to have special passes to even get to their own homes.  So not everyone was thrilled about JT’s presence here.

Anyway, the powers that be decided that the Official Hashtag for this magnificent event should be #JTKorinn (Kórinn being the name of the venue).  Before the concert started, one of the Icelandic TV channels was showing a feed of Twitter posts and photos with the #JTKorinn hashtag.  Iceland being Iceland, Ásta Sól and Addi kept pointing out people they knew in the photos.  Something went wrong with the licensing or the technology, though, because the channel just kept cycling through the same 12 or so Tweets, which was awkward.

At the appointed hour, The Event began, and because it was live streamed on Yahoo, we got to experience it almost as if we were actually there with the rest of the country.  JT got himself in a bit of trouble, arguably, by addressing the crowd as “Reykjavík,” when in fact Kórinn is in neighboring Kópavogur.  Úbs.  But Kópavogur not exactly being a booming metropolis, and Reykjavík being home to two-thirds of Iceland’s population, it is entirely likely that the majority of the crowd was from Reykjavík.

The media coverage of #JTKorinn was quite a sight to behold.  I say “media” rather than “news,” because it very quickly devolved from things that are actually news (the occurrence of the concert itself, the traffic jam it caused) to things that could only loosely be considered news (an interview with the first two people in line for the concert, two women who traveled from Denmark just to see JT) to things that might as well be BuzzFeed articles, so little do they resemble actual news (e.g., an article about the long bathroom lines at the concert; although I will say that this one was educational as it taught me the Icelandic phrase “að kasta af sér vatni,” which means “to make water” or more colloquially, “to take a leak”).

I think the volcano could have erupted and the media might not have noticed, so focused were they on JT.  And the obsession did not end with the concert.  The next day there were articles dissecting the show, making fun of JT’s Reykjavík mistake, predicting that other big international stars will come to Iceland soon, telling the story of a girl who fainted at the concert and a bartender who gave JT’s drummer a cigarette and got drumsticks from the show in return, etc.  It was nonstop, it was ridiculous, and it was entertaining.

 —

Well, I have finally recapped one full week, which only leaves one more week to go until I am caught up.  Writing about JT was exhausting, though, so I shall stop here for now.  Until my next post is up, you can entertain yourself by reading Vísir articles about JT or perhaps listening to N*Sync’s new hit album (yes, you read that correctly, and no, it is not 2001).

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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

Þorrablót 2014

Well hello there, blog!  Long time no see.  We have a lot to catch up on, but I figured I would start with the most recent happenings and work my way backward.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend my first Þorrablót celebration.  Þorrablót, for the uninitiated, is not just a really odd-sounding word, but also an Icelandic mid-winter feast usually celebrated with large quantities of traditional (and mostly disgusting) Icelandic foods, drink, dancing, and general merriment.  The Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle hosted this year’s event at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard.

I drove up to Seattle on Saturday afternoon, and despite my GPS system’s best efforts to thwart me, safely arrived at the museum with plenty of time to spare.  I sat at a table you could call “Snorris and Friends,” if you felt the need to give the table a dorky name (which I kind of do).  Our company included myself; my fellow 2012 Snorri Amanda and her mom, who was visiting from Hawaii; my Snorri Plus friend David; Greg, an Iceland Airwaves enthusiast/addict and KEXP volunteer; Crys, aspiring 2014 Snorri, and her friend Annea; and Rúnar and Guðrún, an Icelandic couple visiting Seattle for the first time.  Greg and I chatted about Icelandic music and discovered we had been at a couple of the same concerts last year (Sigur Rós in Bend and Ólafur Arnalds in PDX).  I also spent a lot of time talking to Rúnar, who is an author, translator, and professor of creative writing at the University of Iceland.  He and Guðrún are both from the Westfjords.  Áfram Vestfirðir!

As mentioned previously, the vast Þorramatur spread included a number of foods that are really best described as disgusting, many of which I tried in Iceland, including hrútspungar (those tasty soured ram’s testicles), hákarl (the infamous fermented shark), and sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam).  Having tried these foods once, and having a distinct memory of walking up and down Óðinsgata after our Taste of Iceland dinner feeling extremely unwell, I felt no inclination to partake in the soured-meat-eating portion of the evening.  I maintained a vegetarian (read: safe and non-stinky) plate, including salad, veggies, potatoes, mashed rutabagas, rúgbrauð með smjör, and pickled red cabbage.

Those who tried the hákarl reported that it really wasn’t bad at all.  This leads me to conclude that all rotten sharks are not rotted alike, because I am still a bit haunted by the sheer strength of the smell that emanated from our little container of hákarl cubes in Iceland.

Dessert was much safer – pönnukökur með rjóma and skyr with blueberries.  And coffee – of course, coffee.

But the part of the evening I was most excited about was the music.  Several months ago, I got an email from David telling me about some of the plans for Þorrablót.  I was reading this email in my car (I was at a red light, promise!) and I just barely glanced at a sentence that said something about a hip Icelandic band coming to play at Þorrablót.  The thought immediately flashed into my mind – wouldn’t that be crazy if it was Ylja coming to Seattle?  Ylja is the band I saw play at my beloved kaffihús in Patreksfjörður.  After I returned from Iceland, they released an album and rapidly gained popularity.  Well, what do you know, when I had safely parked my car and could finish reading the email, I was surprised and excited to see that it really was Ylja coming to play at Þorrablót!

The first song Ylja played was my very favorite song (Á Rauðum Sandi) about one of my very favorite places in Iceland (Rauðasandur).  It took me right back to July 2012 and made me so incredibly homesick for that time and place.

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Ylja played a great (if a bit short) set of songs from their album, plus a cover and one or two new tunes.  Then they led the crowd in a singalong of a few traditional Icelandic songs (only one of which I vaguely knew – Ó María, Mig Langar Heim, which one of the locals sang at our kvöldvaka in Hofsós).

After that, the DJ started spinning some classic dance tunes (Billie Jean, Love Shack, Dancing Queen – you get the picture) and a couple dozen attendees, inhibitions loosened by the Brennivín, perhaps, took the action to the dance floor.  What surprised and entertained me the most was that the dancing crowd was not exactly composed of the younger adults in attendance.  Hey, more power to them!

Anyway, it is always a joy to spend time with my Icelandic family, friends new and old who love Iceland as much as I do.  Big thanks to the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle for throwing a great event, to my tablemates for the great conversation, to Chef Kristín Ósk Gestsdóttir for the food, and to Ylja for a beautiful glimpse back at a time and place I miss so much and cherish so dearly.

Iceland/Germany, Mississippi/PDX

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Ólafur Arnalds live at Mississippi Studios in Portland.  If you’re not in the Northwest, you might not be aware that autumn came in with a gusting, rain-soaked roar this weekend.  There were downed power lines across the Portland metro area and lakes of standing water on many a road, and to be honest I seriously considered staying home in cozy pajamas and forfeiting my ticket.  I had to ford a few small lakes over the roadway, and I drove like a granny, irritating many drivers who seemed not to notice the less than ideal weather conditions, but I made it there and back safely, and as it turns out, I am so glad I went.

Mississippi Studios

Mississippi Studios is a small, cozy, intimate venue, with what my untrained ears would consider pretty great acoustics; in other words, perfect for artists like Ólafur Arnalds.  Back in the day, the space was home to a Baptist church.  Today, half of the place is a bar, the other half is used for shows.  The ceilings are high and the lighting is soft, two small chandeliers and a few shaded floor lamps in addition to the stage lights.  The major downsides?  Heat and seating.  It got stuffy really quickly with people packed into such a small space, and although there was a pretty powerful A/C unit on the ceiling, Ólafur disliked the noise it made and repeatedly pointed up at it and asked The Powers That Be to turn it off.  If I’m not mistaken, TPTB took every chance they could when the music got louder to turn it on.  Anyway, I’ll try not to hold it against you too much, Ólafur, but I was feeling a little ill from the heat by the end of the night.

As the name suggests, Mississippi Studios is also a recording studio, which means there is no fixed seating, just rows of straight-backed metal chairs (well, cushioned metal chairs, but does that really make a difference?), a few barstools, a small balcony, and some standing room for the unfortunate late arrivals.  Overall, though, a venue with great sound and atmosphere.

Nils Frahm

The opener was Ólafur’s Erased Tapes labelmate Nils Frahm.  Nils is a German pianist and composer who, despite this only being his second visit to Portland, already has the Northwest casual style down – he was sporting jeans rolled up to reveal striped socks, a t-shirt, and a grey hoodie.  I really have no idea how to describe his music.  Within the same piece, it ranges from minimalistic (as in, the same note struck over and over and over again) to complexly layered.  What I can describe is what a joy it was to watch him at the piano, which he clearly plays as if it is an extension of himself.

After Nils’ first piece, Ólafur sauntered up to the stage to join him on the piano.  I have no idea what the piece was called, but the guys’ hands were a blur as they pounded the piano keys.  It was clear that Nils and Ólafur are genuinely friends and, more than that, respect each other as musicians (although, perhaps they don’t respect each other’s property quite so much – Ólafur was appalled to see that Nils had left his cup of whiskey on the piano, so he got “rewenge,” as he pronounces it, by leaving his drink on Nils’ computer). Ólafur retreated while Nils played several more pieces.  I have to say, Nils was probably the most engaging opening act I’ve seen in recent days, and the audience seemed to agree.  There was a hush throughout his entire performance that was really remarkable for someone billed as an opening act.

Óli

When Ólafur reappeared and took his seat at the piano, he announced that this was his first time in Portland, although he has seen a certain show about Portland hipsters, and he is sure it is completely real (actually, not that far off the mark, from the looks of the audience last night).  I must say, I did not expect Ólafur to be so chatty and so funny.  He explained that he has been touring all around the world since April, and the highlight of the whole tour was meeting a koala bear in Australia.  Before he performed “Poland,” he talked about the inspiration for the song: a few years ago, he was on tour in Poland, where the roads are apparently not so good, and because no one could sleep on the tour bus, they decided to drink instead.  This turned out to backfire greatly the next day, when everyone felt understandably terrible.  It was then that he wrote “Poland.”  As he said, “not all sad songs are about heartbreak.”

Ólafur also said he was happy to be back on the road with Nils, who I gather has been a good friend and collaborator for quite some time.  The last time he and Nils were together, said Ólafur, was in Iceland, when the pair got lost on a mountain and ran out of food.  “No, really,” he said, ” we ran out of food, and we found an old man and he gave us crackers.”

I’m really not all that familiar with Ólafur’s music, but I’ve heard enough to expect simple but sweeping melodies and plenty of piano with a healthy dose of electronic toys.  In this I was not disappointed.  Ólafur was joined on stage only by a violinist and a cellist. As Ólafur explained, his latest album was recorded with a symphony of about 90 instrumentalists, so performing those songs in concert with just three musicians requires some creativity.  Enter Mr. Jobs, Ólafur’s name for his iPad, which he uses to loop and layer sound.  The result?  If your eyes were closed, you would never guess such a full, complex sound was coming from three musicians and one Mr. Jobs.

It’s a small, small, small, small world

The world of Icelandic music is a remarkably interconnected one, and that was on full display last night. Singer Arnór Dan joined the band for the title track from “For Now I Am Winter.”  Arnór also happens to be the lead singer of Agent Fresco, an Icelandic band that won the Músíktilraunir contest in 2008.  Ólafur’s violinist, Viktor Orri Árnason, is a member of the band Hjaltalín.

Encore

Ólafur, Arnór, Viktor, Ruben (the cellist), and Nils came out for an encore and whatever song they may or may not have had planned was scrapped when Ólafur suddenly looked at Nils and exclaimed, “Let’s do that F minor thing!”  Nils looked a bit bewildered, so Ólafur clarified, “You know, the YouTube thing!”  Still confused, Nils sat down at the piano anyway.  “We have no idea what’s about to happen,” said Ólafur.  What happened was a beautiful improvisation that was a testament to the caliber of musicianship on stage and was simply a joy to watch.

In summary

Seeing Ólafur Arnalds is an experience I will not soon forget.  Mississippi Studios is small and cozy enough that it almost felt as if Ólafur were playing for us in his living room.  I was not only struck by the intimacy of the venue, though, but also by the connection Ólafur clearly has to his music.  He seems to have incredible integrity as a musician – I cannot imagine him writing or performing anything with which he does not feel a deep connection.  Yes, his music is mostly quiet, mostly mellow, often meandering.  This is not music for the impatient.  You have to give it time, time to see where the song goes and time to enjoy how it gets there.

Takk fyrir tónlistina, Ólafur!

Attention pianists, violinists, cellists: I just discovered that Ólafur has sheet music for a number of pieces available for free download from his website.  Check it out here.