Portlendingar: bjórdrykkjufólk, lesendur, hipsterar

My friend and fellow Northwesterner-at-heart Leana recently alerted me to an article about Portland published in the Icelandic magazine Stundin. It’s always nice to see the Northwest getting some press in Iceland, and the author certainly got a lot of things right, describing Portland as a charming city and “the hipster’s Mecca.”

This description also rings true:

“Strákarnir sem afgreiða þig hvort sem það er í raftækjaverslun, smá-brugghúsi eða bílaleigu eru með sítt skegg og kassalaga gleraugu.”

“The guys who work in electronics stores, microbreweries, and car rentals all have long beards and square glasses.”

The author touches on the oft-quoted statistic that Portland boasts (?) the highest number of strip clubs per capita of any US city:

“Út um allt eru klámbúllur og strippstaðir sem Portlendingar eru furðustoltir af.”

“There are strip clubs all over the place, a fact of which Portlandians are strangely proud.”

And of course I approve of this shimmering review of Powell’s:

“En helsta perlan downtown er ekki veitingastaður. Innan um smábrugghús og lífrænar búðir (og risavaxna Whole Foods nema hvað) stendur Powell´s city of books, 6.300 fermetra bókabúð með yfir einni og hálfri milljón eintaka af nýjum og notuðum bókum. Með öðrum orðum: Paradís. Portland er svo sjarmerandi að hún gæti næstum verið evrópsk.”

“The greatest downtown treasure is not a restaurant. Among the microbreweries and organic grocery stores stands Powell’s City of Books, a 6300-square meter book store with more than one and a half million new and used books. In other words: Paradise. Portland is so charming that it could almost be European.”

That last sentence is rather a backhanded compliment, but we’ll let it slide.

I find it fascinating that an Icelander of all people is complaining about the strength of Portlandian beer, but perhaps that’s because the dominant drinking culture in Iceland is all about getting drunk, not as much about the palate:

“Portlendingar þykjast vera listamenn en þeir eru fyrst og fremst bjórdrykkjufólk, og það reynir á magann því það er hvergi til venjulegur lager. Bjórarnir eru bragðsterkir og áfengir, og breyta maganum í lítið brauðbakarí.”

“Portlandians fancy themselves artists but they are first and foremost beer drinkers, and that is a bit hard on the stomach because there are hardly any regular lagers available. The beers are strongly flavored and strongly alcoholic, and turn the stomach into a little bakery.”

He also got a few things wrong, by my reckoning, most importantly his conclusion:

“Það eina sem vantar upp á til að gera þetta að vænlegu túristasvæði er eitthvað virkilega stórfenglegt. Það tekur hálfan dag að skoða Multnomah fossa og vilji maður tilbreytingu frá borgarlífinu daginn eftir er eiginlega bara St. Helen fjall eftir. Það er þó hægt að mæla með heimsókn til Portland sem hluta af stærra ferðalagi um Bandaríkin, til dæmis ef leiðin liggur til Seattle.”

“The one thing missing that would make this a promising tourist destination is something truly spectacular. It takes half a day to explore Multnomah Falls, but if you want a break from city life the next day, there’s really only Mt. St. Helens left to explore. I can certainly recommend a visit to Portland as part of a larger trip in the States, for instance if you continue north to Seattle.”

I am not entirely sure what map this guy was using, but I feel like he somehow missed the fact that the Pacific Ocean is less than two hours away from the city. Never mind how much more there is to do within city limits than eat, drink beer, and go to strip clubs. I mean, on my itinerary, Powell’s itself takes up the better part of a full day. With Portland as base camp, one can take a ridiculous number of day trips in any direction. This author commented on how friendly Portlandians are, but he must not have asked them for recommendations, because anyone could have given him a long list of things to do outside the city, starting with that big blue blob on the map, the glorious Pacific Ocean.

(Also, am I the only one who finds it strange that someone who takes time to discuss the strip clubs does not once mention the dirty doughnuts at Voodoo?)

In any case, thanks to Stundin for giving me the little joy of reading about familiar places á íslensku. And next time you’re in Portland, grab a waffle from the Waffle Window or a couple scoops at Salt and Straw on your way to the coast. You’ll thank me later.

 

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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.

Of snowstorms and Icelandic horses

In January, a friend from the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation contacted me to let me know an Icelandic film would be playing in Portland as part of the 37th Annual Portland International Film Festival.  SHF often sponsors Nordic films showing at the festival, and they were interested in doing so for this film if they could get a couple co-sponsors.  So I set about using my best persuasive writing skills, and soon found out that the Icelandic National League of North America had generously agreed to co-sponsor the film.

PIFF has featured a number of Icelandic films over the years, including Nóí Albinóí, Reykjavík-Rotterdam, and Jar City.  This year’s selection was Benedikt Erlingsson’s Hróss í oss (Of Horses and Men), Iceland’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award.

I worked with SHF to plan and promote a reception to be held before the film’s first showing on Saturday, February 8.  There was going to be vínarterta and kleinur and good fellowship.  Alas, it was not meant to be; Snowpocalypse* paralyzed the metro area and we were forced to cancel the reception.  Sadly, we were unable to reschedule.  However, the snow melted and I made it out to Portland to see the second showing of the film the next week.  I met my new Icelandic friend Edda and her daughter-in-law Vanessa at CineMagic, a historic single-screen theater on Hawthorne.  I admit I was a little surprised to see that the showing was sold out. Every single extremely uncomfortable vintage chair was filled.

The film is in Icelandic with English subtitles.  There is so little dialogue, though, and the images are so striking, that I think the effect would be almost the same with no subtitles or even as a silent film.

Anyway, what did I think of the film?  Consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

The Icelandic landscape?  Just as beautiful as I expected.

The body count? Much higher than I expected.

I know it is typical of non-American films to have a more ambiguous tone and defy easy labels such as “comedy” and “drama.”  And I know the official description of Hross í oss says, “Love and death become interlaced and with immense consequences.”  But I didn’t expect quite so much death.  I didn’t expect to go from laughter at a scene of ridiculous comedy one minute to horror at the sudden murder of a horse the next.  I didn’t go to the theater expecting to see someone’s eyes bloodied by a barbed wire fence.  And I definitely didn’t expect to see a man (who for no apparent reason became separated from a group of riders) get stuck in a snowstorm and forced to kill his horse, pull out its intestines by the fistful onto the snowy ground, and crawl inside the warm body cavity to survive.

I was telling a friend about the film’s bewildering tonal shifts and he remarked, “well, isn’t that more like real life?”  Perhaps it is.  I realize comedy and tragedy coexist in real life, and it’s not that I don’t think they should in art as well.  Maybe if my expectations aligned more closely with the reality of the film, I would not have been so disappointed.  But unfortunately, the film left a sour taste in my mouth.

I think I will stick with Brúðguminn.

Really, though, I am glad an Icelandic film was featured at the festival this year, and I am very thankful for the INL’s generous support.  I wish Snowpocalypse hadn’t interfered with our reception plans, but I suppose that is just real life (minus the equine innards, thank goodness).

If you’re interested in judging the film for yourself, you can start by watching the trailer here.  I believe the film is slated for wider release outside of Iceland this spring, but I’m guessing it will still be limited to major cities.  Check Fandango or your local listings to see if it’s playing near you.

*Snowpocalypse (noun) – an occurrence of snow and/or other forms of frozen precipitation in the greater Portland area that results in widespread panic, closed schools, cessation of everyday activities, and near paralysis of local infrastructure.  Alternate definition: Something that makes Canadians laugh.

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.

febrúar: rugby and cream puffs

Just a couple Iceland-related adventures I had during my absence from the blog earlier this year…

 

Icelandic Exiles Rugby

Back in February, I somehow learned that an Icelandic rugby club was heading to a tournament in Vegas and was playing friendly games in several cities along the way.  One of those cities happened to be Portland.  I know absolutely nothing about rugby.  Neither does my sister.  But we decided if our kinsfolk were coming all this way from the homeland, they should probably have a couple fans rooting for them.

So one evening in February, we bundled up and went to watch the Icelandic Exiles play the Oregon Sports Union Rugby Club.  It was cold.  It was dark.  We didn’t know anyone and really had no clue what was going on.  We felt a little silly standing there with our chattering teeth and our Icelandic flag.  I wanted to be brave and strike up a conversation with someone from the team but I guess my bravery was frozen by the winter weather.  But it was an experience.  And the ref’s Michael Bolton hair and teeny short shorts just about made it all worthwhile (unfortunately I have no clear photographic evidence; it was dark and he ran very, very fast). It was interesting to note that a great number of the Icelandic players/coaches/entourage were not in fact Icelandic at all, but British or Irish, which makes sense when you consider the origins of rugby.

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Bolludagur

Seven weeks before Easter, on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, Icelanders celebrate Bolludagur (Bun Day).  “Bun” refers to cream puffs topped with chocolate.  Traditionally, the morning of Bolludagur, children would wake early and creep into their parents’ room armed with a wand.  They’d yell “Bolla!” and spank their parents with the wand, and the number of spanks delivered before the parents got out of bed determined the number of cream puffs the child would get to eat.

The good news for parents is that the tradition these days is to skip the spanking and get right to the cream puff eating.  This year, I decided Bolludagur sounded like quite a delicious holiday and I wanted to celebrate.  I used a combination of recipes for my attempt at bolludagsbollur – a couple from the Internet and one from our Icelandic cookbook.  The dough I made was very similar to a French choux pastry – mixed up in a pot on the stove, then dropped by spoonfuls onto a baking sheet and split in half when cool.  I filled mine with freshly whipped cream, although some people also put jam in theirs.  And of course I topped mine with melted dark chocolate.  The verdict?  There’s room for improvement, but they were quite delicious and I intend to use this holiday as an excuse to eat copious amounts of cream puffs for years to come.

 

bolludagsbollur
bolludagsbollur

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Interview: Les Swanson, Iceland’s Honorary Consul in PDX

Back in January, I had the privilege of meeting Les Swanson, a Portland lawyer who serves as Iceland’s honorary consul for Oregon and Southwest Washington.  He and his wife Kris generously invited me into their beautiful home and served up delicious food and enjoyable conversation.  After a long delay (which was entirely my fault), my interview was published in the most recent edition of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  I am reprinting it here for those who may not have access to the L-H.  Enjoy!

Les Swanson: Iceland’s Honorary Consul in Portland

How does a lawyer of Swedish descent become a representative of Iceland on U.S. soil? It was something of an accident, said Les Swanson, the man in question who has served as Iceland’s honorary consul in Portland for the past twelve years. He was initially approached about serving as Sweden’s honorary consul, but when it turned out that position wasn’t available, he was offered the Icelandic position, which had been vacant for several years. Swanson took some time to consider and talk it over with his wife Kris, also a lawyer who just happens to love Icelandic horses, and said yes.

After a year-long process including extensive background checks and approval by both the Icelandic Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department, Swanson was officially appointed.

An honorary consul, Swanson explained, is an unpaid diplomat representing a foreign country in the U.S. Iceland has about 25 honorary consuls in the States. Swanson’s duties include issuing emergency passports, helping Icelanders in the area participate in Icelandic elections, assisting Icelanders who run into trouble with the law (although Swanson said he’s never had to do this), and generally representing Iceland with regard to culture, trade, politics and education.

Based in Portland, Swanson’s jurisdiction extends to all of Oregon as well as Southwest Washington. The most recent Oregon census shows around 1000 Icelanders or people with Icelandic ancestry living in the state, but Swanson estimates he has only met between 50 and 75 Icelanders during his tenure. His consul duties tend to be sporadic. “I might get three calls in a week about extending passports, [then] I might go for several weeks and not hear from anyone,” he said.

Swanson is often called upon to represent Iceland at Nordic seminars or present lectures on Icelandic history, literature, and politics for local organizations.

“I don’t claim expertise in any of these areas,” said Swanson, “but I’m widely read in literature and politics and political theory and history,” adding that his knowledge of Iceland has developed over the years and he continues to learn.

Since accepting the consul position, Swanson has traveled to Iceland several times. He remembers being struck by the “lonely, stark beauty” of the landscape on his first trip in September 2001. “It seemed magical to me,” he said. On the same trip, he met Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, who was mayor of Reykjavík at the time. Sólrún expressed interest in Portland’s progressive city government and later contacted Swanson to arrange a visit. The Swansons became good friends with Sólrún and spent time with her on subsequent trips to Iceland.

Swanson holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Literature, a Master’s in Philosophy, and a law degree. In his law career, he has primarily focused on trial work, particularly product liability and medical malpractice cases. Recently, he has been splitting his time between practicing law and teaching law classes at the University of Oregon and philosophy classes at Portland State University.

About eight years ago, Swanson began a scholarship program on behalf of the Oregon Consular Corps, of which he is a member. The Corps awards eight scholarships annually to junior and senior international affairs majors at four Oregon colleges. Swanson intends to continue supporting this program.

When Swanson turns 75, he must contact the Foreign Office and they will decide whether to extend his term or accept his resignation. In the meantime, Swanson said, he intends to visit Iceland a couple more times and continue discovering the magic of the land and culture he has grown to love.

Les Swanson and his three sons.
Les Swanson and his three sons.

Originally published in the June 1 edition of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  Text is mine.  Photo courtesy of Les Swanson.