Þjóðræknisþing 2015 / INL Iceland Annual Convention

My second day back, after a full day celebrating Menningarnótt and nine hours of deep sleep, I joined Ásta Sól and the Snorri Plus group for the annual convention of Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga, AKA The Icelandic National League of Iceland. I attended part of the program last year with Ásta, and I must say, I experienced such a soaring joy and warm and fuzzy feeling of reward when I realized how much more I understood this year than last. I didn’t catch each and every word, but I was able to follow along well with each presentation.

A quick summary of the program:

US Ambassador Rob Barber showed up to address the attendees and make some remarks about the importance of strong relations between Iceland and North America.

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Unfortunately, Canadian Ambassador Stewart Wheeler was abroad, but a member of his staff came on his behalf.

Almar Grímsson gave a presentation on North Dakota poet K.N. Júlíus (AKA Káinn). Káinn was a gifted satirical poet, born in Akureyri, who lived most of his adult life in the Thingvalla area of North Dakota, where he worked as a laborer and grave digger. It has become a custom for visitors to his gravesite to toast his life and achievements with a shot of Brennivín poured over his headstone. You can read more about Káinn on my friend Sunna’s website Icelandic Roots.

The 2015 Snorri West participants shared about their four-week West Coast adventure. They visited the Icelandic settlement areas in Vancouver, Victoria, and Nanaimo, British Columbia.; and Blaine, Point Roberts, and Seattle, Washington. I’ve gotten to talk to a few Snorri West participants over the last couple years, and it’s always interesting to hear how it’s just as rewarding for them to visit Icelandic settlement areas in North America as it is for those of us of Icelandic descent to visit our homeland.

A researcher named Katelin Parsons discussed her work with the Árni Magnússon Institute cataloguing Icelandic heritage manuscripts from North America. This presentation really resonated with me, as the sort of work Katelin and her team are doing is something I could envision doing myself some day.

The Snorri Plus participants introduced themselves briefly. I have to say, they were troopers for sitting through the three-hour-long program. The speakers did make an effort to summarize things in English, but by and large the program was in Icelandic. Still, the Snorris seemed to take something away from the experience.

Genealogist, speaker, lover of all things Iceland, all-around wonder woman, and dear friend Sunna Pam Furstenau gave a presentation about the work she and her team at Icelandic Roots are doing – researching genealogy, helping people discover their family histories, providing scholarships to Snorris and others studying in Iceland, and so much more. Sunna’s love of her work is abundantly evident whenever she talks about it, so listening to her is always a joy.

For whatever reason, I took a photo of Rob Barber toward the beginning of the conference and then never took out my camera again, so words will have to suffice.

Takk fyrir daginn, vinir og félagar!

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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.

IMG_3392

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

fimmtudagskvöld

(thursday night)

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

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

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

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

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

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

föstudagur

(friday)

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

Amanda's handiwork
Amanda’s handiwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ég og Sigrid
Ég og Sigrid

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

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

Me, Steve, Amanda
Me, Steve, Amanda

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

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

makríll
makríll

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

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

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

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

Matthew og Julie 2
Matthew og ég

Sacha og Amöndu
Sacha og Amanda

góður hópur
góður hópur

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

Heima

An essay I wrote exploring my feelings of Iceland as home.

 Originally published 15 September 2012 in the Lögberg-Heimskringlaa Winnipeg-based newspaper serving the greater North American Icelandic community.

Is it possible to be homesick for a place you haven’t even left yet? I was walking down Aðalstræti in Patreksfjörður one July afternoon, watching the sun sparkling on the deep blue water of the fjord. Everything about my life in this little corner of the world was perfect, yet I felt a looming sense of restlessness, even sadness. Suddenly, I realized what I was feeling: homesickness – but not for Washington, for Iceland.

Home is a strange concept, really, and perhaps not as simple as we might think. Is home something innate, or is it made? Is it coincidence, choice, or some combination of both? Is home where we are or where we came from? I won’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know my recent trip to Iceland allowed me to explore these questions and ultimately to expand my definition of home.

One day in Patró, I was working at Oddi, a fish factory where I volunteered, with a 15-year-old girl named Edda. We stood side-by-side, packing boxes of cod in a constant rhythm, talking over the factory noise.

“So why did you want to come to Iceland?” she asked. I told her I’ve always wanted to see where my ancestors came from, to gain a fuller understanding of my own story.

“And how do you like it here?” she continued. I told her it was amazing; I love the country, the people, the language; if I could stay longer I absolutely would. She considered this, then said, “I never understand what people see in Iceland… I can’t wait to leave.

“Have you ever been to New York?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I answered, “just once. I actually went when I was your age.” Edda told me of an upcoming trip to New York to celebrate her confirmation, then explained that she hopes to become a film director. I asked if she’s considering college in the States, then, perhaps LA. “Maybe,” she said, “but I don’t want to be too far away from home.”

A couple days later, I had another interesting conversation, this time at the Stúkuhúsið, my favorite kaffihús (well, okay, the only one) in Patró. I was drinking a Swiss Mocha and working on my blog when a dreadlocked, 20-something Icelandic man sat down near me. I recognized him; he had been at a concert at the same coffee shop a couple nights before. He said something in Icelandic and I realized he was talking to me. “Ég tala bara smá íslensku” (“I speak only a little Icelandic”), I told him. That didn’t deter him; he sat across from me rolling cigarettes, asking me questions in Icelandic, and I did my best to keep up. When I had exhausted my limited vocabulary, he smoothly switched to English.

I explained the Snorri Program and told him that “langafi minn var frá Barðaströnd” (“my great-grandfather was from Barðaströnd). We talked about genealogy and Icelandic bloodlines and determined that we were likely related. He expressed outrage that I’m not allowed to access Íslendingabók, the Icelandic genealogical database – “But you have Icelandic blood! You are Icelandic!” he said. I shrugged.

“How does it feel?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“To be Icelandic, but grow up away from Iceland. To only be coming here for the first time now.” I tried to absorb this. He truly considered me a fellow Icelander. It was as if he was saying, welcome home.

As our conversation was winding down, he asked me a question I’ve been thinking about ever since. “Why are you going back to the US? Why would anyone ever leave Iceland?”

As I was talking with Edda and my dreadlocked frændi, I didn’t have the answers on the tip of my tongue, but time and distance have allowed me to explore their questions.

What do I see in Iceland? I see a country of otherworldly natural beauty, a people of incredible strength and heart. I see the roots of my family tree. I see a place that is part of my past, my present and hopefully my future.

So why would I ever leave? Because although Washington is a home that was chosen for me, it doesn’t mean I cherish it any less. And because I believe a true home is a place you’re always drawn back to. So even as I am drawn back to the States, I have faith that I will also be drawn back to Iceland again, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner. Until then, sjáumst, Ísland. Takk fyrir mig.