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.


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.

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.



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…



INL Convention, Days 3 & 4



Saturday morning opened with a beautiful vignette from our fearless organizer himself, David Johnson, then a fascinating lecture by Dr. Fred Woods of BYU.  I was looking forward to this talk but it far exceeded my expectations.  Dr. Woods told the story of Icelandic converts to the Mormon faith who left their families and homeland and emigrated to Utah.  I had no idea there was any connection between Iceland and Mormonism until early last year.  While I was waiting to find out if I had been accepted to the program, I came across the blog of a 2011 participant, a girl from Utah who is descended from some of those Mormon Icelandic pioneers.  The topic was of particular interest to me since many of my close high school friends were LDS.

Dr. Woods was swarmed by a crowd after his talk, but later that day I finally caught him and thanked him for sharing with us.  He recognized me from my presentation the day before and told me to “never lose my spark.”

After a short break, we enjoyed what was hands-down the most entertaining presentation all weekend.  Dr. Donald Gislason, a Canadian musicologist, shared his impressions of Iceland Airwaves, which he dubbed “the hippest event on the planet.”  His dry sense of humor and his proper, articulate speech had the audience captivated and amused.  One of the most interesting points he made is that because music education is available to all students in Iceland (lessons are subsidized by the government), Icelandic kids feel freer to experiment and don’t particularly fear failure, resulting in a richly creative and prolific music culture.  I can’t even begin to do justice to Dr. Gislason’s presentation, but thankfully you can watch it in its entirety here.

Saturday afternoon was wide open free time.  My mom, aunt, and cousin Holly met me and our relatives Lyle and Audrey, who were also attending the Convention, at the hotel restaurant for lunch, then we walked downtown for a couple hours and did some shopping.  After we parted ways, I explored the library some more, admiring its neon green elevator and eerie red hallway.

Saturday evening was the formal gala dinner.  Amanda stayed home, but Sacha, Nonni and I sat together (that is, after Nonni finally convinced the hotel staff to add another place setting to our table).  Dinner was quite tasty – fish, potatoes, salad, veggies, chocolate cake of some particularly rich and mousse-y variety.  I’d give the entertainment mixed reviews – singer-songwriter Kevin Brown was just okay.  Soprano Guðrun Ingimarsdóttir was fantastic, performing a medley of traditional Icelandic tunes, operatic arias, and American standards.  She also led the crowd in singing a couple Icelandic folk songs, including “Á Sprengisandi,” which we learned at our kvöldvaka in Hofsós last year.

Raffle winners were announced, and the woman who won the grand prize of two tickets to Iceland actually fell down when she heard her name (she was fine!).

When the festivities in the meeting room subsided, the party moved upstairs to the bar, where people from all over North American and Iceland of all ages and life experience reveled in each other’s company until the wee hours of the morning.

Ég og Nonni
Ég og Nonni



By the time I made it downstairs for breakfast, all the food was gone (due to some sort of miscommunication, I think), but thankfully there was still coffee.  There wasn’t much on the agenda for Sunday as people needed to start heading home and many had already left.  Everett mayor Ray Stephanson said a few words, David said some thank yous, then opened it up for people to share their thoughts about the weekend.  Many people were emotional, all were grateful for a memorable weekend.

After many a farewell, Sacha and I headed to Amanda’s apartment on Capitol Hill to meet up with her and Sean.  The four of us had coffee at Liberty while we waited for a table at Coastal Kitchen, then tucked in for a cozy brunch.  It was bittersweet – wonderful to be reunited, sad to know we had to part ways again.  And of course it felt like something was missing – not only the rest of our group, but the land where we met and lived together and forged memories that will forever connect us.

“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

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