norðurljós, tónlist og kjötsúpa: október/nóvember

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

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

October

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


 

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


 

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

 


November, part 1

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


 

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

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


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


 

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

IMG_7270


 

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

 

 

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menningarnótt 2015: rigning, vöfflur, tónlist og flugeldar

My return ticket brought me back to Iceland the morning of Menningarnótt, a city-wide festival that loosely serves as a farewell to summer, welcome to autumn, and a general celebration of the lively cultural life at the heart of this city (and this year happened to mark 20 years of Menningarnótt). I can’t remember whether this was intentional or not, but I was happy not to miss it, even though I knew I’d be tired.

After a few hours of not-so-deep sleep, I went with Ásta to meet the Snorri Plus group, who had just completed the 3 k fun run of the Reykjavík Marathon. We headed over to Bæjarins Beztu for post-race (or, for me, post-flight) pylsur. After the Snorris scurried away to have their own Menningarnótt fun, Ásta, Erin and I hung out near Bæjarins Beztu for a little bit. Within the span of about ten minutes, several friends walked by, including my Irish friend Kevin, who gives walking tours around the city, and my Seattle friend Mark, who just bought an apartment a stone’s throw away from our house. Being there with friends old and new and running into people I know really made me feel very quickly that I was home. It was a warm and fuzzy feeling that helped drown out the cold exhaustion.

I met up with my friend Steffi and we got in line for vöfflukaffi. Vöfflukaffi (literally “waffle coffee”) has become a tradition on Menningarnótt. Residents of a certain downtown area open their homes to friends and strangers for free waffles and coffee. While there were at least seven or eight homes to choose from, we of course went for vöfflukaffi at the home of Reykjavík’s most beautiful head of hair, Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson.

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This being the third time I’ve seen him at a public event this summer, and having chickened out on getting a photo with him the first two times, I was determined to get a photo this time around. But… I didn’t. It was insanely crowded and terribly hot and Dagur was busy cranking out waffle after waffle.

Steffi said something very poetic about her waffle, like,
Steffi said something very poetic about her waffle, like, “It looks like something died on my waffle.”
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kona með kaffi og regnhlíf

It should be noted that while the weather was fine in the morning, it got progressively worse throughout the afternoon. Having come from five weeks of hot, dry weather in Washington, though, I was actually thrilled to enjoy a legitimate downpour, especially because for once it was not windy, allowing Icelanders and visitors alike to make use of umbrellas – something very rarely seen in Iceland.

maður sér svona margar regnhlífar ekki á hverjum degi á Íslandi
maður sér svona margar regnhlífar ekki á hverjum degi á Íslandi

Steffi and I made our way down Laufásvegur to a backyard singer-songwriter concert. We stayed to hear Svavar Knútur and Hafdís Huld, but poor Steffi was not dressed for a downpour, and with her shoes soaked through, she wanted to get somewhere warm and dry. So we walked across town and camped out at Stofan for a few hours.

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One of the big attractions on Menningarnótt is Tónaflóð, a big outdoor concert at Arnórhóll. Since I wasn’t terribly excited about any of the performers this year, I opted to watch it from the comfort of the couch at home with Ásta’s pabbi. This not only meant that I didn’t have to be cold and wet, it also meant that I got a running commentary from a real live Icelander, which always makes these things more enjoyable. Watching just about any Icelandic show, be it a news program, documentary, sitcom, or a live stream from an event like Tónaflóð, with an Icelander means that you will get to find out all the details of who’s who and who did what and who was married to whom and who got arrested for this and who is famous for that.

Shortly before 11.00, I headed back out and made my way down toward Arnorhóll to meet up with friends and watch the fireworks show. Last year, tired and overwhelmed, I stayed home and watched them on TV, so this year I wanted to make an effort to go see them in person. The show was only about 10 minutes long, but it was spectacular, with fireworks shooting off near Harpa and from a couple other locations along the water. I read a horrible rumor recently that this may be the last year that fireworks are shot off for Menningarnótt, or at least so close to downtown. I hope that’s not true. There’s some kind of magic to watching fireworks burst in the night sky in the company of thousands of other spectators. (And, I have to admit, I much prefer this type of orchestrated show to the free-for-all madness of New Year’s Eve here, but I know I’m probably in the minority on that.)

A fun fact about the name: “Menningarnótt” translates to “Culture Night,” and I’ve always wondered why an event that takes place all day long bore this name. Well, while watching the live broadcast of the Tónaflóð concert, I learned that twenty years ago, when Menninarnótt began, it was in fact an evening program, running from 10 PM – 3 AM or something like that. Over time, it has grown and evolved into a full day festival with events for people of all ages, but by that point the name had stuck, and so it will forevermore be Culture Night.

Takk fyrir frábæran dag, Reykjavík!

byrjun júní: tónleikar, kaffitími, vestur-íslendingar, og rob barber

There is no lack of daylight in June and there is also never a lack of things to do. The month so far has been full of friends, coffee dates, sunny (and not-so-sunny) city walks, travels, hiking, concerts, birthday and holiday celebrating, and Snorri events.

At the beginning of the month, I got to meet up with my Canadian Vestur-Íslendingur friend Lois. We met in Seattle in 2012 at the INL Convention and I hadn’t seen her since, but with Vestur-Íslendingar friends, that doesn’t matter at all. There is always plenty to talk about. She was on a trip with her 90-something-year-old mother, who traveled here about seven years ago for a “final trip to Iceland,” and then last year declared that she wanted to take another “final trip to Iceland.” So they did!

I also met up with Audrey, a classmate from Corban, who was on her way back from the UK with her husband and one-year-old son. Sadly, their Iceland stopover was tainted by unexpected illness and visits to the doctor, plus one trip to the ER for stitches, but we were at least able to meet up for an afternoon walk with the kiddos (I was watching Nói) on the windiest afternoon in recent history. Here’s hoping if her family is ever brave enough to return, their experience will be a bit less dramatic the next time around.

 

Svavar Knútur, take three

When I first met Svavar Knútur and he played for our Snorri group, I became an instant groupie. I’ve now seen him three times since moving here in August, and I have plans to see him at least once more before I leave for the rest of the summer. He always delivers beautiful music and incomparable humor, so I know that using my limited poor-student funds to buy a ticket will be worth it. This time around, Steffi, Hanna, Emil, and Flor joined me at Café Rosenberg to see Svavar on a Saturday night. It was a relaxed evening of beautifully played music and beautifully told stories, plus one (not so) beautifully drunk old man who was swaying and clapping along to every song by the end of the night.

Anyway, if you want to get a taste of what the evening was like, grab a beer (preferably an Icelandic one) and take a listen:

 

Og eitt lag á íslensku:

Sjómannadagur

Sunday June 7 was Sjómannadagur (Fishermen’s Day), which, as you can probably guess, is intended to honor fishermen and their families, who play such a significant role in this culture. My friend Hanna and I wandered down to Gamla Höfnin (The Old Harbour) to explore Hátíð Hafsins (Festival of the Sea). There were games for kids, live music, a pop-up market featuring local artists, and food. It was possible to wander around the docks and go on board a couple of big ships, including one of the Landhelgisgæslan (Icelandic Coast Guard) vessels. There were also big plastic tubs lined up, all filled with ice, each one displaying a different variety of (really dead) fish.

Anyway, all in all it was definitely a more kid-oriented event, but it was still nice to spend the afternoon wandering around by the harbour and taking it all in. That’s one wonderful thing about this city – it seems as if there is always another festival or concert or event going on.

Fulbright móttaka

One of the perks of being a Fulbrighter is you are regularly invited to events which you feel singularly unqualified to attend. This month, I was invited to attend a reception in honor of the 2015-2016 Icelandic grantees. It was held at Ráðherrabústaðurinn on Tjarnargata. Formerly the prime minister’s residence, the house is now used to host official receptions and other events. It’s a house I have walked past probably hundreds of times now, so it was fun to finally peek inside and learn a bit about its history.

The house was originally built in Öndunarfjörð by a Norwegian whaling magnate. It was given as a gift (purchased for a token 5 krónur) and moved to Reykjavík. A number of prime ministers called it home up until 1948. From that point on, it has been used for receptions and other official events.

Anyway, I should have learned this by now, but events hosted by Icelanders at Icelandic locations are almost guaranteed to be about 10 times more formal than what I would expect of a similar event in the Northwest. I never feel like I am poised or formal enough for events here, and I’m getting the feeling that that might not change no matter how long I live here.

In any case, this year’s Icelandic grantees were introduced, and they are certainly an impressive bunch, heading to schools like Columbia and Yale to study law, classical guitar performance, engineering, social entrepreneurship and more. Brian from the US Embassy said a few words on behalf of the US Ambassador, who was detained at a meeting. Minister of Education, Science and Culture Illugi Gunnarsson gave a short speech. And Belinda congratulated the grantees, acknowledged the outgoing American grantees, and encouraged us to chat amongst ourselves. Easier said than done.

As an introvert, social occasions such as this make me want to hide in a corner. I am not painfully shy, but I have a very hard time knowing how to begin conversations – a task made all the more difficult by having to slip in and out of a foreign language. But after spending too long in the huddle of Americans, wine glass in hand, I forced myself to approach one of the grantees and start a conversation – in Icelandic. And you know what? It wasn’t too bad. We chatted for quite awhile, all in Icelandic, and I survived.

Also in attendance were a number of Fulbright board members. I enjoyed chatting with a man named Albert who has lived in Iceland for 17 years, and I met a professor from the university who teaches in the Old Norse and Medieval Icelandic programs.

But the most exciting person I met?

US Ambassador Rob Barber. Or, as we call him, Rahb Bahbah! (He’s from Massachusetts.)

I and my fellow Fulbrighters have just been dying to meet him since he arrived here in January, and especially since we saw this great video put out by the US Embassy:

 

Ambassador Barber was finally released from his Important Meeting and got to stop by to meet the grantees before being whisked away to his next Important Event. It didn’t leave us with very long to get to know each other, but at least I can now say that I’ve met him and shaken his hand. He is, as expected, very tall and very American.

Sofar Sounds, take two

My wonderful fellow American Leana volunteers for Sofar Sounds, which puts on intimate, secret concerts every couple months somewhere around Reykjavík. You might recall that one of the highlights of my first weeks in Iceland last August was a Sofar show held at one of the HÍ dorms. Leana offered me a spot at last night’s show, and although I knew it would be a full day with babysitting and then the Fulbright reception, I said yes, because I am practicing saying yes more and no less.

The show was held in an old warehouse space at Grandi (down by the old harbour) which is now a workspace for several local artists. The first artist to play was Kyle Morton of Typhoon, an eleven-piece band from Portland, Oregon. Kyle is passing through Iceland on his way to backpack Europe, so he played a solo acoustic set. His music was very folksy and Northwesty. Exactly what I like. I talked to him afterward and he said he actually grew up in Salem, which is where I went to college. Small world.

The second act was Icelandic band VAR, which consists of solo artist Myrra Rós, her husband Júlíus, his brother Egill, and their two friends Arnór and Andri (yes, it’s really true that most Icelandic musicians seem to be in at least five different bands, and usually at least one involves a relative). There was an Italian girl sitting next to me who said they were one of her four favorite acts who played at Saga Fest. I had never heard them before so I had no idea what to expect, but I was blown away by their set.

One of the tenets of Sofar is that attendees should be 100% engaged in experiencing the music rather than in chatting and taking endless photos and videos. So I took zero photos at the concert, but you can find some on the Sofar Sounds Reykjavík Facebook page if you’re curious.

Did I mention that the weather that evening was fairly awful? Grey, drippy, bone-chilling wind. The walk down to Grandi was less than pleasant, but by the time the concert was over, the weather had calmed quite a bit. So I did the only logical thing: went to Valdís and bought a giant ice cream cone to eat on the walk home.

So, that was the first part of June, during which, as you may have noticed, I neglected to use my camera, because I was too lazy to delete the photos off my full memory card. There will be plenty of photos in the next post, however, which will cover such delightful occasions as my birthday and 17. júní (Iceland’s national holiday). Bless í bili!

febrúar, take one

Tíminn líður alltof hratt… Time has been flying by and February has already come and gone, and most of March as well. Too much happened in February for one blog post, so we’ll start by recapping the first half of the month.

Vetrarhátíð og Háríð á Degi B. Eggertssyni

At the beginning of February was Vetrarhátíð (The Reykjavík Winter Lights Festival), an attempt to make the long, dreary winter days more enjoyable and coax people off their couches by filling the city with free events. The festival opened with a ceremony in front of Hallgrímskirkja, which I happened to stumble upon on my way home that evening. Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson officially opened the festival with Canadian Ambassador Stewart Wheeler and two Canadian Mounties at his side. Every year, there’s a partner city for the festival, and this year it was Edmonton. The collaboration was evident in several of the festival’s events; for instance, musicians from Edmonton came to play a show with Icelandic musicians, and I believe some Edmontonian authors/poets took part as well. The Mounties were out and about on Laugavegur for a couple days, taking photos with locals and tourists alike. But anyway, back to Dagur B. Eggertsson. He’s a doctor-turned-politician who took over the position of mayor after Jón Gnarr left last year. More importantly, he has the most incredible hair in all of Reykjavík, probably in all of Iceland. Really, it’s indescribable. Take a look: dagur b eggertsson I don’t know anything about the man’s politics, but I know that I would vote for his hair any day. In fact, I love his hair so much that I actually created a Facebook fan page for it. Really. You too can become a fan of Dagur’s hair here. Anyway, as part of Vetrarhátíð, there’s one evening where admission to museums in the downtown area is free from 8 pm to midnight, or something like that. Kelsey and I took advantage of this to attend a Draugagangur (“Ghost Walk”) at Þjóðminjasafnið (The National Museum). We walked around the museum, listening to ghost tales (á íslensku!), and at the end of the evening I shyly asked some of the museum employees who were in costume if we could take a photo with them. Thank goodness I did, because we got this gem:

Icelandic Gothic, minus the pitchfork and plus a couple ghosts
Icelandic Gothic, minus the pitchfork and plus a couple ghosts

Svavar Knútur at Café Rosenberg

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Svavar Knútur ever since he played for our Snorri group and his music became part of the soundtrack of my 2012 Iceland experience. So when I found out he was playing at Café Rosenberg (a five-minute walk from home), I decided to go, and I dragged Kelsey with me. (She’s not normally much into live music, but she was won over by his irreverent humor and obvious love for all things German.) Rosenberg is a cozy coffee house / bar with live music nearly every night, and it was the perfect venue to enjoy Svavar’s songs and storytelling. He played quite a long set, with old favorites and some I hadn’t heard before, and during the intermission I got to chat with Elliott (former Fulbrighter and all-around swell human being), who had come in a bit late. All in all, a perfect way to spend a chilly winter evening in 101. IMG_3925

Snorri West

I had the opportunity to attend a sort of open house for the Snorri West Program. Ambassador Stewart Wheeler kindly opened the doors of the Canadian Embassy for the event. All four participants from Snorri West 2014 were in attendance, as well as at least one from 2013. Snorri West, for those who don’t know, is sort of the inverse of the Snorri Program. It’s an opportunity for Icelandic young adults (ages 18-28) to visit Icelandic settlement areas in North America and learn about American and Canadian nature and culture as well as the Icelandic history in those areas and traditions that people of Icelandic descent have kept alive. A 2014 participant, Kristján Sævald, put together a great video to introduce people to the program, which you can check out here. Kristján also shared about his experience last summer, and it was actually quite uncanny how so much of what he said resonated with me and perfectly described my own Snorri trip, even though our experiences were sort of mirror images, with him traveling to the Eastern Seaboard and me traveling to Iceland. It made me rather homesick for my Snorri family. It sounds strange to say, since I live here now and am getting to know the language and country better every day, but there’s something poignant about my first time discovering Iceland, something that I will never quite get to experience in the same way ever again, even if I end up living here for 5 or 10 or 20 years. It’s bittersweet. Anyway, this summer’s Snorri West group will travel along a west coast corridor, visiting Seattle, Blaine, Point Roberts, Vancouver BC, Victoria, and Nanaimo. I have to say, I’m a bit jealous. I’m a native Washingtonian, and I’ve spent plenty of time in Seattle, but I’ve never been to Vancouver, went to Victoria only once as a kid, and haven’t really explored the Icelandic settlement history in the area beyond visits to the Nordic Heritage Museum. I know this year’s Snorri Westers will have a great experience, and I know my friends in the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle and other west coast clubs will take great care of them.

Valentínusárdagur á Gamla Garði

Valentine’s Day is not a tradition in Iceland, but like many North American traditions, it has made headway here in recent years. In the States, I’m not terribly fond of Valentine’s Day, but I generally consider it a great excuse to bake sugar cookies, so I decided to do that here this year too. I invited myself over to the Gamli kitchen and several friends joined for a leisurely evening of consuming sugar and celebrating singledom. When I invited Florencia, she asked if she should come with ice cream and loneliness, and she did not disappoint – on the ice cream front, anyway. I certainly did not feel lonely surrounded by friends from around the world.

Bolludagur

Our February Fulbright event was to celebrate Bolludagur at Belinda’s. Bolludagur is one of three holidays celebrated before Lent begins. The goal of the day is to stuff oneself with cream puffs. (There’s also a whole deal about waking your parents up early and spanking them with a special wand, but I digress.) We enjoyed several varieties of bollur from Mosfellsbakarí – chocolate, caramel, strawberry, Bailey’s. They were quite delightful. Takk fyrir okkur, Belinda!

Bolludagur
Bolludagsbollur
Fulbright ladies on Bolludagur (Sophie, me, Alyssa)
Fulbright ladies on Bolludagur (Sophie, me, Alyssa)

Sjálfsætt Fólk

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The not-at-all-scary theater seat upholstery.

Kelsey and I had the opportunity to go to Þjóðleikhúsið (The National Theater) to see Sjálfstætt Fólk. It was… indescribable. It was certainly not a traditional interpretation of Laxness’ most famous work; on the contrary, it was quite experimental, which actually served to make it much more palatable, at least in most instances. I certainly couldn’t understand all the dialogue, but I was able at least to follow along quite well, which I will go ahead and declare a victory. A few highlights/weirdlights (not because anyone else will understand them, but mostly so that I can remember this strange experience in the future): the coffee thermos and plastic cups from which coffee was continually drunk; “mig langar í kú, ég vil fá kú,” the dead (fake, stuffed) sheep, the naked rass, the beer cans thrown at the walls, the drunk rapist teacher, the singing and dancing, the guy who might have been Halldór Laxness awakened from his eternal slumber, the frozen dinners. Ah yes. A night at the theater. The only thing possibly better? Going home and watching The Bachelor with Ásta and Addi. High culture meets low culture. A perfect evening.

Kelsey and I after the show, trying to figure out what just happened during the last 2-3 hours of our lives.
Kelsey and I after the show, trying to figure out what just happened during the last 2-3 hours of our lives.

Well, that gets us more than halfway through February. Coming up in my next post: seeing Eivør in concert, unknowingly chatting with Daniel Tammet, experiencing my first movie theater intermission, surviving more terrible weather, teaching grammar, and more.

tíu dagar á íslandi, part 1

Jæja, ég flutti til Íslands.  It really happened.  I moved to Iceland!

I have been here for 10 days (well, I had been when I started writing this; now it’s been more like 12 days) and I apologize for not writing sooner, but the weather was fantastic last week so I felt obligated to be out and about and not sitting in front of a computer.  Plus, life has been busy even though classes have yet to start.  I’ll try to recap the highlights of the last 10 days, but a lot has happened, so I may need to split the account into multiple entries.  But of course we should start with…

the trip

There isn’t much to say about this, really.  I stuffed two huge suitcases and a third smaller one to the 50-lb limit and you’d never even know from looking at my room at home that I’d taken anything.  Packing was not a terribly fun task for several reasons, including 1) I suck at it; 2) it is very difficult to pack bulky winter clothes well; and 3) I have been dealing with a thyroid infection, had to have a biopsy a few days before I left, and was feeling generally icky.  I made several last-minute shopping trips, but somehow I got everything together.

On Sunday morning (the 17th), I had to say goodbye to my kitty:

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I was laughing here but it was really quite terribly sad to say goodbye to kitty since she is 17 and the best kitty in the world 😦

Anyway, I went to Old Town Battle Grounds for breakfast and coffee with my parents and sister.  Mmm Stumptown.  I miss it already.  My parents drove me up to Sea-Tac and we parted ways.  I got though security quickly and spent a couple hours wandering around the airport, buying a few gifts, eating overpriced food, and wondering about the adventures of the people all around me.

The flight was very smooth and went fairly quickly.  I am not at all good at sleeping on planes, but I rested a bit and watched some good ol’ American sitcoms.  Before I knew it, we were flying over Greenland, and that soon gave way to the barren lava field wasteland of the Keflavík peninsula.

I went through passport control and they didn’t even ask why I was here, just stamped my passport and sent me on my way.  It was almost a bit of a letdown.  After collecting my 150 plus pounds of stuff, I met Ásta Sól outside in the brisk Icelandic morning air, which felt wonderful after the stuffy plane air.

I bought an inaugural cup of bananasplitti skyr, then we were off to Reykjavík and my new home on Grettisgata.  It was more difficult to adjust to the time change than when I was here two years ago, I am sure because it is later in the summer and there is no energizing perpetual daylight.  Also, with the Snorri Program, we had a very busy schedule from day one, so there was really no choice but to adapt immediately.

mánudagur / monday

After a long nap, I walked around the city a bit and caffeinated at Kaffitár.  I honestly don’t remember what else I did that day, except enjoy a lovely dinner with Ásta Sól’s family and sleep.

Since this day is pretty boring to read about, here are some pretty pictures of Reykjavík dressed up in sunshine:

þriðjudagur / tuesday

On Tuesday, I made my way over to the Fulbright office (a couple blocks away, on Laugavegur above Bónus) and met the director and advisor.  The director had a 4-week-old puppy and a not-entirely-hairless sphinx cat in her office, and apparently has written a children’s book about her former sphinx.

Then I walked down to Lækjartorg to meet up with Carina and Sigrún.  Sigrún is a frænka of my Seattle friend David, and Carina is her German friend who has lived in Iceland for many years.  We met in Seattle last year.  Carina and Sigrún were on an epic road trip across the States and were spending a couple days in Seattle and visiting David.

I arrived at Lækjartorg early, so I sat on a bench and read for a few minutes.  Sigrún came up to me with her mother and said, “Julie?” I confirmed that it was me and she said she had pointed me out to her mom from across the square and her mom said, “Are you sure that’s her? She looks so Icelandic!”  I am not sure I believe that, but I guess I will take it!

Carina arrived and we decided to go to Café Babalú, a colorful (literally) little spot on Skólavörðustígur.  Everything seems quite overpriced (but everything here is expensive) and the coffee is just okay, but the súkkulaðikaka (chocolate cake)… mmm.  It is like a beautiful, overpriced, unhealthy little slice of heaven.  The three of us chatted for quite a while and I eavesdropped a bit on the conversations around us.  The café attracts so many tourists that there are probably at least 7 languages being spoken in there at any given time.  It is also not a great place to practice your Icelandic with the staff, as I discovered the next day; they seem to employ quite a few expats who do not speak Icelandic.

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miðvikudagur / wednesday

My number one to-do item on Wednesday was to go to Útlendingastofnun (the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration) to have my photo taken so I can receive my dvalarleyfi (residence permit).  I looked up the directions and set out for what should have been a 15-minute walk.  I may have gotten a bit turned around and taken twice that long to arrive; I will never tell.  Speaking of things I will not admit, I will never admit that when I got there and pulled on the door and it didn’t open, I turned around and walked outside and had to give myself a pep talk and ask myself if I had tried pushing on the door, and then felt very sheepish and had to give myself another pep talk to convince myself to go back and try pushing the door open.

I pushed the door and it opened.  The place was suspiciously empty and I soon discovered why; the immigrant-photographing machine was broken, so that was that.  The employee told me to call the next day and find out if it had been fixed before actually going there.  After all that drama, my plans were thwarted.  Oh well.  Þetta reddast.

I went back to Café Babalú to have lunch and (theoretically) get some writing done.  I got up the courage to speak to the staff in Icelandic (“Hvað er súpa dagsins?”) and was answered with, “It’s tomato soup.”  Apparently I chose one of the non-Icelandic-speaking employees to ask.  But there was an Icelandic guy working as well and he overheard, so he humored me and finished the transaction with me in Icelandic.  Thanks, dude at Café Babalú.  I appreciate that.

fimmtudagur / thursday

On Thursday morning, I walked a block up the street to Reykjavík Roasters to meet Elliott for kaffi.  Elliott received the joint Fulbright-Árni Magnússon grant last year, so he kindly agreed to meet up with me and give me some information on the BA program and the placement test.  Elliott is from Texas and has been interested in Iceland for years.  He helped me feel a bit more confident about the placement test, I think, and simultaneously more nervous and more excited about the program itself as he explained that we would be reading novels and writing reports all in Icelandic the first semester.

By the way, I am about 95% certain that I spotted Borko in a corner of the coffee shop.

I held Elliott hostage for a solid two hours, then meandered back down the street and spent a bit of time sitting in the garden, moving my chair to follow the little sliver of sunlight and trying to study.  While I was out, Kimberly, my fellow Snorri and the Canadian recipient of the Árni Magnússon grant, stopped by with her cousin Bjarni.  Bjarni asked me why Americans make fun of Canadians.  Why not, Bjarni?  They make it so easy with their ketchup chips and their “eh’s” and their politeness.  (I actually made up a more diplomatic answer than that, I promise.)

For dinner, Ásta Sól took me to a little place just down the street for a “hamborgaratilboð” (“hamburger special”).  Yes, people at home who have never seen me eat beef, you read that correctly: I ate a hamburger.  When in Rome.  Or rather, when in Reykjavík.

Sofar, so very very good

After dinner, I walked over to the university campus.  David, a dear friend from Seattle, had “introduced” me over Facebook to his friend Leana, who has lived in Reykjavík with her Icelandic other half for over a year now and is studying Icelandic as a Second Language at the university.  She is involved with something called Sofar Sounds, which puts on small, intimate concerts with locations announced the day of the show.  Who is performing?  Well, it could be anyone; the lineup is not announced, so it’s a surprise when you arrive.  Leana sent me a message soon after I arrived in Iceland and told me there was room on the guest list for an upcoming show and she could add my name if I was interested.  I am not a terribly outgoing person, and the thought of being in a room full of strangers listening to mystery musicians who could have turned out to be awful did not sound 100% appealing… but I said yes, because I need to push myself to get out and try new things.  I did not regret that decision.

I received an email that day with directions for finding the location: one of the new dorms at the University of Iceland.  It was so exclusive and clandestine.  I finally found what I thought was the correct hall, but I wasn’t sure – until I turned around and saw Svavar Knútur walking toward me, guitar and ukulele in tow.  Svavar is a friend of Ásta Sól’s and an incredibly talented singer-songwriter who performed for our Snorri group two years ago.  I was so happy to know that I had found the right place and that he was performing that I think I freaked him out a bit.  I think I actually said something like, “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are and now I know I’m in the right place!”  Awkward.

Anyway, I followed him into the dorm and up to the second floor communal kitchen and was swept up into a magical evening.  I finally got to meet Leana in person.  There was free ice cream, courtesy of Ísgerðin, a soft-serve ice cream place in 107 Reykjavík run by an American-Icelandic couple.  The American half used to be an investment banker in New York and met his Icelandic other half on a ski trip.  The American gave up his fast-paced NYC lifestyle and moved here to be with his love and now they make ice cream together. Sounds like a heartwarming film, doesn’t it?  Anyway, I enjoyed a little dish of pistasíu ís and eavesdropped on an English-language conversation while I waited for the show to begin.  I ended up inviting myself to join the aforementioned conversation, which was a good decision since I then met Daniela, a German exchange student, and Harry, an English sound engineer currently working in Sigur Rós’ studio in Mosfellsbær.

(Overheard outside my window, while writing this at 1:20 AM:

Person the first: “…that’s because Denmark used to rule Iceland.”

Person the second, in a shocked tone, “What?!?”)

Part of the fun of the evening was that aside from Svavar, I had no idea what to expect from the performers.  Their names were all written on posters in the kitchen, but I had never hear of the other three bands: Þausk, Del Water Gap, and Una Stef. And because there was no “backstage” area, the performers were all just sitting in the audience with the rest of us, so you never quite knew who was going to stand up and walk to the front to play next.

The first band was Þausk, a trio of Icelanders whose songs featured catchy bass lines and husky vocals (see: “Suave Shaker“).  Second was Holden, one-third of the American band Del Water Gap.  He played several earnest, Ryan Adams-esque tunes on his guitar and endearingly mispronounced several Icelandic words.

Third was Una Stef, a young Icelandic powerhouse usually backed by a brassy band.  She said she felt rather uncomfortable playing an acoustic set, but the stripped-down accompaniment (just an acoustic guitar and bass, a djembe, and a couple backup singers) allowed her marvelous voice to shine.  The highlight of the set was a cover of the Destiny’s Child classic “Survivor.”  No, really; trust me, it was fantastic.  She made all of us feel pretty unaccomplished when she said that she wrote most of the songs on her album when she was thirteen.

Last up was everyone’s favorite (well, mine, anyway) Icelandic troubadour, Svavar Knútur.  Svavar finished up the night with his trademark blend of dark but sweetly sung lyrics and hilariously inappropriate humor.  I appreciated that Svavar sang a couple of his Icelandic-language songs because, as he said, he loves his language and he loves singing in it.

After the show, I hung out for quite a while, chatted with Daniela and the Sofar team a bit, got a tour of Daniela’s room and her hilariously tiny balcony (for smoking, presumably, although as she is not a smoker I suggested she might consider decorating it seasonally), and then had a lovely little chat with Leana as we walked home in the late evening (early morning, actually) darkness.

Part of the Sofar philosophy is to enjoy the show in the moment, so they do not allow photography or filming at their shows.  As such, I have no photos of the evening to share with you, but I hope you can tell from my words alone that it was a magical experience.

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föstudagur / friday

On Friday, I met up with my new friend Daniela and we went to the Laundromat Café for lunch (expensive and touristy, but a huge amount of tasty food, plus they have a color-organized bookshelf and an actual laundromat), then ventured to the penis museum, more properly known as the Icelandic Phallological Museum.  (I am sure everyone reading this is now more determined than ever to come visit me. You may even have stopped reading this blog because you are busy looking up flights.)  Anyway, as you can imagine, the museum is overpriced, gimmicky, and hilarious.  What is especially hilarious is how people sort of act like it is just another respectable museum and walk around speaking in hushed, almost reverent tones – punctuated, of course, by frequent giggles.

I was hoping the gift shop would sell the documentary The Final Member, which I have been wanting to see for quite some time.  It follows two men, one Icelandic and one American, who are both determined to donate the first human specimen to the museum.  Alas, the documentary was nowhere to be found, although there was information about both men on display.

There was also a penis phone:

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Jæja… that seems like a pretty good place to pause for now.  I will be back soon to recap the rest of my first 10 days in Iceland.

Íslenk Tónlist: Day of Icelandic Music

The powers that be (AKA a slew of Facebook posts by similarly Iceland-obsessed friends) inform me that today is Icelandic Music Day.  I have no idea who began this tradition or for what purpose, but apparently the national radio stations played three songs simultaneously  at 11:15 local time and Icelanders were encouraged to sing along (to one, or two, or all three?  I don’t know).  The three songs were:

I learned (er, attempted to mumble-sing) Á Sprengisandi during our kvöldvaka at Hofsós this summer.  Anyway, Icelandic Music Day seems like a good excuse to celebrate some of my favorite Icelandic artists.  Some are well-known and predictable choices, others (at least I hope) are lesser-known gems:

Of Monsters and Men

We might as well start it off with something highly predictable.  If you haven’t heard about Of Monsters and Men, you have probably been living under a rock (or you are an amenities-shunning, turtle-catching hermit who lives in a shack in the Kentucky backcountry and showers in a barrel of rainwater).  Arguably Iceland’s biggest crossover success since Sigur Rós.  They sing almost entirely in English, but watch or listen to an interview and you’ll know without a doubt that they are Icelandic.  Incidentally, lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir is my ninth cousin, a fact of which I’m sure she is acutely aware.

Favorite songs: Mountain Sound, Dirty Paws

Links:

Official site

Facebook

Twitter

Ásgeir Trausti

A young, up-and-coming singer-songwriter.  I first heard about him because he performed at A Taste of Iceland in Seattle back in October.  I didn’t get to see him then, but I’ve spent hours listening to his music on YouTube.

Favorite song: Dýrð í dauðaþögn (translates roughly to “Glory in Stillness” or something like that).

Links:

Facebook

Twitter

YouTube

Ylja

A folksy band that I had the pleasure of seeing in concert at the Stúkuhúsið in Patreksfjörður this summer (at least one of the members is from Patró).  Just saw that their single Út is #11 on the RÁS 2 charts.  Til hamingju!

Favorite songs: Dúmdaralara, Á Rauðum Sandi (this one is about Rauðisandur, a beautiful red sand beach near Patró and one of my favorite places in Iceland)

Links:

Facebook

YouTube

Svavar Knútur

A wonderfully friendly and talented fellow who writes his own songs and also brings old Icelandic folk songs to life with new musical settings – basically a troubadour in a lopapeysa.  He played a few songs for the Snorri group and taught us a little about Icelandic music history.

Favorite songs: Yfir hóla og yfir hæðir, While the World Burns (both of which he played for us); Baby Will You Marry Me (a duet with Marketa Irglova, of “Once” fame).

Links:

Official Site

Facebook

Twitter

SoundCloud

Bandcamp

YouTube

Sigur Rós

Goes without saying.

Favorite songs: Inni Mér Syngur Vitleysingur, Hoppipolla

Links:

Official Site

Facebook

Twitter

YouTube

Jónsi

The frontman of Sigur Rós is also a splendid solo artist.

Favorite Songs: Go Do, Sinking Friendships

Links:

Official Site

Facebook

Twitter

There are, of course, many more Icelandic artists of varying fame, but these are my favorites at the moment.  I wrote about Lay Low, Without Gravity, Sykur, and others in this blog post from long ago.

So, reader who may or may not actually exist, did you celebrate Icelandic Music Day?  Do you have a favorite Icelandic artist or song?