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)

 

IMG_3424
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!

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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.