31 December 2005

thar she blows

I think I might be a little bit frightened of the Icelandic new years. I heard it was big on fireworks but based on the build-up (and the video I saw of last years festivities), it is going to be far beyond anything I have ever seen before. Since Christmas finished, all the tree sales signs have been replaced with fireworks sale signs. From our balcony alone we can see four of them, and since they are legal during this period, people have been trying their goods out with great abandon. The instant it gets dark, fireworks spring from both ends of our view. First Seltjarnarnes, then the hardware store down the street, then Seltjarnarnes again, then was looked like the recycling center down the street. I have had to stop running to the window to see where it's coming from because it is literally every 10 minutes, and this is just the warmup!

Mind you, when I say fireworks, I am not talking about sparklers, roman candles, and black cats (a la growing up in Vermont where fireworks were illegal but we still shot them off in the yard). These are the big leagues- the cakes the dimension of two industrial food-service tomato cans, containing 8 or so colored "flower" fireworks. We're talking huge BOOM fireworks that rattle the doorknobs. These people are already shooting off so many fireworks I am starting to understand what it must have been like to be in a fort during the Revolutionary War. The smell of gunpowder is thick in the air, mixing with the clouds, and the flashes and whining of the shooting fireworks a constant presence.

After a gunpowder-scented pool experience yesterday, J and I stopped by one of the semi-shady looking fireworks shops that have sprung up around town. These things are all in old warehouses, set up in the corners of parking lots in shipping containers, or in the upstairs of car dealerships. They've put up inflatable fireworks, turned on neon signs, and added flashing lights. The signs even have candles flickering in front of them, and sometimes I think the displays we have been seeing the past few nights are further advertisement.

Anyway, this was like a fireworks grocery store, with the wares lined up on shelves around two sides of the room, big posters showing the package deals, and bins of rockets interspersed. All the fireworks have been packaged for the Icelandic market with Icelandic names, and all of them are bigger than anything I've ever seen up close and personal.

I can't help but wonder what kind of casualties happen during this period, since the only safety measure I have seen is a fairly graphic ad on TV showing a burned child that reminds you to follow the instructions. I commented on this to one of my coworkers after we had shot off our own cake of fireworks, saying either people are very safe or very reckless here, and he said, "I think it's a little bit of both". So there you have it.

Ship sighting: I saw the Danish arctic research ship moseying around in the harbor yesterday, and then last night it was alongside the whale watching boats with all its edges trimmed in white lights. I made J drive down alongside it so I could peek in the portholes and admire the lights. I love this lights-on-boats tradition. More places should do it.

29 December 2005

The inevitable upswing

The solstice was a week ago, and since then I have become a daily checker of the sunrise statistics. We have already added 10 minutes of daylight in the last week, and the minutes added per day is increasing rapidly. Just when I got used to doing just about everything in the dark, it goes and changes on me, at a clip of already more than 2 minutes a day. This stuff is almost more comforting than the difference between summer and winter weather. I remember a few times in Boston when we would all think that FINALLY it was proper springtime, only to have a surprise April snowstorm. Can’t ever count on the weather to behave itself, although here it does seem to be more predictably unpredictable. By this I mean the cold snaps never last for more than a few days, snow never stays on the ground more than a week, and even the best windstorms die down after a day or two.

Still, you can count on the darkness always being on the move. It may not be the most fun thing ever, but getting up in the dark has become the way it is, helped tremendously by the whizzbang body clock, but still uncomfortable. I swim in the dark, grocery shop in the dark, and eat most of my meals in the dark. Lunchtime is a special daily treat with the weak early-sunrise light filtering in the corner windows of the cafeteria (I can’t really call it “morning light” when it is 12:15pm).

The thought of an Iceland where I do all those things in the light, where swimming an hour daily is enough sun exposure to give you a fantastic summer-on-the-Cape tan seems like a crazy place. I try to remember the honey-gold glow of evening light and walking to Tjörnin to feed the birds at 9:30pm, and I feel like I must be imagining another country. Maybe it is- how can it be the same place as this Christmas light-decorated place where life swirls busily on the dark side of the Earth?

In spite of the strangeness of this all, I know that part of me will miss it when the darkness has been passed off to the Southern Hemisphere. As J said yesterday, we take the darkness for granted when it’s all we have, but there was an evening in the summer when the clouds were so low that the street lights turned on and the neon signs in Hafnarfjörður actually turned on. We were so excited by this display of dimness that we went for a midnight drive just to experience darkness for a while. It doesn’t obey our desires, and sometime in July, I will be thinking fondly of days like yesterday. There had been snowsqualls all day, so there was a fresh layer of white, and the temperature was appropriately winter-crisp. We went to a movie, and when we came out of the theater with an unusually large crowd (for Iceland, mind you, so downscale your imagination, American readers) to a patch of clear northern sky. The northern lights were jumping and shifting there, and I thought of how much I love the changing colors and eerie shapes of them. In a few months the swirling ribbons will be hidden, tucked away for another season, and the sun will start the pattern of lazy sideways sunsets once again.

Ship Sighting: Not much activity in the ol’ harbor lately. Engey is still front and center, and the expected arrivals only show Icelandic cargo ships. The vintage-style Víkingur is listed as departing from the drydock today though. I wonder if it gets to keep the styling Christmas lights when it goes.

27 December 2005

Immigrant Christmas

Yep, we’re the ones with the Ice-flags trimming our Icelandic grown Christmas tree. It’s strange to have a holiday that is so family-oriented in a place where you don’t have any, but some great things came out of being among the unattached. At times it did feel like we were borrowing atmosphere from other people’s celebrations, but it has really amazed me how generous people can be, even when they barely know you. We had coffee on Saturday with one family, dinner with another, and then spent Sunday afternoon through Monday at a cabin with Færoese A and her Danish friends, similarly family-less.

J and I had planned to open things American Style on Christmas morning, but with an absence of an actual morning (the sun is still not showing until round about noon) it seemed kind of pointless after we had opened our stockings on the evening of the 24th. So, like good immigrants, we adopted the custom of the country and opened everything in the inky darkness of Saturday night. Although the charm of coming downstairs in the morning to gifts magically appearing doesn’t happen with this method, the lights on the tree are more magical looking in the dark, and plus, everyone else is doing it.

It’s strange how when the holiday is completely different from what it has always been, it brings back memories of so many other permutations of the season from my childhood. I remember being in grade school when it always seemed to be crystalline-cold and full of snow, when we drove to the school holiday concert in the country darkness, then came home afterward and made trays and trays of sugar cookies. I remember going on tree-hunting trips with my brothers, finding the perfect tree by flashlight and then having to figure out how to fit it in the house, and going to the white-steepled church for Christmas eve services when we all lit candles together. There are so many things that have made Christmas Christmas my whole life, many of which don’t happen anymore, and some of which have managed to continue even to this new land.

Ship sighting: I did a little photo shoot on Friday of the boats in the harbor, since most of the big fishing ships that were planning to stay the weekend were decked out with holiday lights. In first berth is Engey (still NOT in skipaskra, ladies and gentlemen) and I am still astounded by the size of that thing. It towers over Hamborgara Bullan like some kind of skyscraper. It also had been trimmed in the three-yellow-three-red lights that seem to be de rigeur for Reykjavik fishing boats, but some of them were a little worse for the wear after the 60mph winds this morning.

19 December 2005

'tis the season for eating

I just had a discussion at lunch about the latest holiday delicacy, skate. This is a must-eat on December 23, and of course, like most traditional Icelandic food, it’s been preserved in a high-tech way. When I asked my co-workers about it, one said, “they just put it in a corner for a while.”

This is starting to sound good, isn’t it? Apparently you can prop it up outside for a few months or inside for a few weeks, and there is a chemical in the fish that doesn’t make it rot like most things (we think it's ammonia). If this isn’t enough, they add “hnoðmör”, which my dictionary failed to translate. Consultation with the coworkers explained that this is fat from a sheep that comes from the abdominal area. The rotten fish wasn’t enough on its own- gotta add stomach fat to that! I think I will eat some boiled lumberjack socks (post sweaty wearing) instead!

The majority of the most traditional foods here are really a reflection of the barely-squeaking-by history of the country, where anything edible, even the most wretched, was a cause for celebration. As one man-of-few-words coworker put it, “they served the really horrible stuff just before Christmas so whatever people got on Christmas day seemed delicious in comparison.”

Since I am still thinking about our trip, I thought about how the Czech holiday treats compared. The plentiful raw materials they have to work with combined with the historical prosperity of the country has expressed itself in the wealth of deliciously edible foods, such as hot mulled wine, meringues, fruit-filled buns, and creamy soups. Iceland is coming along though- we now have jólaöl, which is malt extract mixed with orange soda. Nothing says Yuletide like orange soda, don’t you think?

to the fatherland

J and I just got back to Iceland, which welcomed us in true fashion with a sideways-blown snowstorm. Our trip was tremendous in many ways (including the waistlines- J and I are both starting the laps today!) and I have to write before I forget.

One of the reasons we went to the CR was to see J's friends P&M. They live in a small town in southern Bohemia, almost to the Austrian border. I had been hearing about this area from him since I met him, and from my dad since I can remember. My great-great grandfather was born in southern Bohemia, then moved to America and ended up the mayor of a large town in Wisconsin in the 1800s. I'm always up for visiting the Ancestral Lands, so this trip south was a great chance.

We got an offer of a private flight from another friend F, a pilot with a Czech airline, but had to go train style due to the clouds on Wednesday. For anyone who hasn't been on a Czech train, they must be a part of your next trip there. These trains are how it might have been in the US, if cars and highways hadn't developed the way they did. The system criss-crosses the country with connecting trains arriving and departing with military punctuality. Most of the trains have compartments so if you're lucky and get the compartment to yourself, you ride in your own private room, complete with curtains, adjustable heat, and fold-up window tables.

Our destination was about 3 hours from Prague, with one train change in a somewhat dilapidated southern town that seems to be known only for changing trains and a large lumberyard. The route was absolute train-set perfect, with steep valleys lined with trees, ponds and streams, and tiny Czech towns shrouded in the bittersweet tang of coal smoke. Local roads edged with trees cut through the fields and disappeared under rail crossings, and on one of them I even saw a man with a pair of horses hauling wood. Definitely Old World.

We got to our destination and walked into town as dusk was falling to meet P at his office in town, a gorgeous turn-of-the-century building with a stair railing to rival Guimard's Paris Metro entrances. We all walked home with him through the cobbled streets to their newly finished house. It's in the center of the old town, mostly built at the very beginning of the 19th century, but with foundations back to the 14th or 15th century. There's a fantastic local restaurant downstairs, a tailor shop on the second floor, and the third and fourth floors are all theirs. They turned what was probably a pretty gloomy space into a marvel of skylit space, airy in a way I did not expect from a house in the center of so many ancient buildings. The original details of the place are still highlighted, such as the amazing doors, the hardware, and the stone staircases. Taking the trip to the basement was particularly interesting, although creepy- the top two stairs were made from tombstones!

P & M turned out to be the most extraordinary hosts I have ever met, offering us daily doses of all the best local flavors- locally produced yogurt, homemade tea, biscuits, homemade cherry cordial, and Christmas treats. They showed us around extensive portions of both Moravia and Bohemia, and had daily suggestions of interesting events in their own town. Among my favorites was a baroque music concert in the church next to their house. The music was all expertly performed by children from about age 10-14, and although we had to wear our coats and hats indoors (no cheap heat available there like here), the venue was tremendous. The church apparently has Roman foundations, and was rebuilt and modified over the centuries since then, so there are early Gothic paintings, a later roof that unfortunately cut the heads off the figures in said paintings, baroque painted flourishes, and more recently added pews. When we left, it was laden with souvenirs, wild hand-picked dried mushrooms, and tea.

I really enjoyed the organic nature of so much of the town- people added to it when they could or needed, so the layers of history are evident in every building. Before this, I was used to going to places where the buildings are perfect examples of a single period in time (such as many of the buildings in Paris) instead of a reflection of the whole history of an area and their fluctuations in prosperity and rulers.

This entry is becoming more of a novel than an entry.. if anyone is still with me, congratulations! I guess I wrote this one more for myself so I could remember than for an audience.

Ship sighting: Yep, back to the land of boats. I missed the sea while I was away, so I was happy to see the exuberance of Jól has continued in our abasence. More boats have been trimmed with lights, and even the ones in the drydock (Víkingur is still there, and this one has joined) are trimmed up. The arrival and departures show a LOT of activity on the ol' flutingaskip front (cargo ships)- lots of buying going on now maybe? One of them is called Polydefkis, which I hope is this monster of a boat, but google image search keeps giving me photos of this guy instead. Maybe he is coming too.

12 December 2005

live from Prague

J and I are in the Golden City, staying at a hipster hotel of cool, eating boiled bread dumplings, and drinking lots of beer straight from the country that invented it. This place is nothing like the Land with the coal smoke smell, the trollies, the huge variety of restaurants and shops that the rest of the world finds as normal life.

In predictable Icelanders-on-vacation style, we paid a visit to the Reykjavik restaurant in the Old Town to read some Icelandic signs, and we have been enjoying the crazy feeling of extreme wealth that happens anytime we leave the Skyr Zone. We are buying leather goods and my favorite in-a-foreign-land purchase, your basic pharmacy needs like face cream and toothpaste.

In other news, I hear we missed the ASTOUNDING crowning of Miss Iceland as Miss World. Icelanders certainly make their mark wherever they go.

Ship sighting: Nothing to report here.... have not seen the ocean since the dark morning driving to the airport on Saturday. We did go through Hafnarfjordur (I miss my Icelandic keyboard- this czech thing has weird letters) and I got to see all their shipyards. They are even closer to the road than the ones in Reykjavik. When the harbor in Reykjavik is changed around so those docks aren't there anymore, I might have to move to Hafnarfjordur so I can get my daily dose of boatwork.

09 December 2005

rerun season

I heading further to the east tomorrow for a weeklong trip, so any Harbor Watch addicts will have to find solace in the archives.

And this website. It's my favorite fashion-of-the-north site.

Ship sighting: Nothing new to report, but here's a nice painting of the harbor by a famous Icelandic artist, Lovísa Matthiasdóttir.

08 December 2005

Taking it to the streets

I have been here for a little more than three months as an official resident, and for two of those months I have been taking Icelandic classes. The last time I learned a new language was in high school when I spent a year and a half learning Latin, and I have been speaking French since age 4. Learning a language in the midst of a full work day and the confusion of a new living situation is intense, and as the classes progressed, the homework accumulated.

Still, lately I have been making the first tentative steps into actually using the language out on the town, and the results have been good so far. I’ve been able to order cake (“yes, I would like whipped cream”) and answer when someone asked for a light the other night, and mostly hope that nobody asks anything out of context. If someone were to ask me if I color my hair while I am ordering coffee, I’d be lost, but so far I have only had one switchover to English, and that was when a bored 17 year-old waitress asked if I wanted french fries with my burrito. That combination is so out of context to me, I was absolutely unable to process the word “franskar”.

So for anyone else who wants to pick up Icelandic Real Quick, here’s my advice:
-This online course is really awesome, and fun too. Try it, you’ll like it!
-classes at Háskola Íslands are good, but the first-level grammar class is really only designed for a person who stepped off the plane in the morning and starts class that same afternoon. A combination of the online class, general language curiosity, and a little workbook action put me in good shape for level 2.
-Language lab exercises make me feel like a parrot air-traffic controller, but have been very useful for my pronunciation. Just two weeks ago a kindly Icelandic couple congratulated me on my pronunciation that sounded “just like an Icelander”.
-Hér & Nú. This is a superb Icelandic tabloid magazine that has started showing up every week at a coworker’s house (he swears he didn’t pay for it). He has been kind enough to bring it in since the language level is about what I can handle. I also need to stay up on the latest gossip here. One of the unexpected entertainments of the magazine is watching which of my co-workers will slink by and grab it off my desk for a quick read, claiming they "never read the stuff". Right.
-Listen to Icelandic pop tunes. The lack of variation in the rhythm, and the many repetitions of the chorus make for plenty of chances to catch the lyrics.
-Radio ads, again repeated to the point of numbness, can actually result in comprehension. I know that some store is having a 20% discount on all towels this weekend. Brimborg takes this theory a little too far with their ads though (two times in a row? Not making me want to buy a car from them at all) so I have had to stop listening to the radio for a while.
-If you actually want to write in Icelandic, you will probably need help conjugating verbs. For a fun history-of-English exercise, look up "sækja", and note the second participle. This verb means "to seek", and illustrates the relationship between seek-sought beautifully.
-One of the hardest parts of Icelandic is their mad declension system. Nouns, adjectives, and all kinds of other helper words have to be declined depending on their placement in the sentence, so unless you are naturally gifted in this department, this site helps tremendously. If you know the root word, type it in the top box, and if you only know some strange declined form, try the bottom box.

Even with all these handy tools I am still almost perpetually confused, but as everyone here says kindly, það kemur (it comes). At the very least, I am happy to know that this language will never again just be a collection of funny sounds, as it seemed to me last year. Even if I move away tomorrow, in 20 years some of the sounds of Icelandic will still make sense to me. Furthermore, learning Icelandic has unlocked The Secrets of Scandinavian Languages. I can understand pieces of written Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish now. Up next, Finnish!

Ship sighting: The scramble of lights on the small coast-guard ship were straightened out this morning, so it looked just as nice as the big boat. Today has been one of those glad-I-am-not-at-sea days with furious winds throwing sheets of water (and is that hail just now?) at the windows. It's also been so dark that I wonder if the sun actually didn't come up today and it's still Wednesday night. Hey, it could happen here.

Killington, Iceland

Last week I spent two days at our northern office in Akureyri. It was my first time up to this gem of a city that lies between mountains and the longest fjord in Iceland. The town is known for the ski area located a short drive from town, and some people like to call it the Aspen of Iceland.

I left Reykjavík at 7:45 am, aboard a Flugfélag Íslands plane that had been decorated with Christmas nosegays on the overhead compartments. As we took off, I got a rare view of the lights of Reykjavík as our flight path took us out over the square-cut aquamarines of lighted pools.

One cup of excellent coffee later and we were landing between the mountains that create Eyjafjörður. The town is only five minutes from the airport, so the total trip from my kitchen here to the kitchen in the office was less than two hours- there is almost no processing time at the airport. In this miniature version of the office I normally work in, with the looming snow-glow of the mountain across the fjord, it was all very surreal.

Hours later when the sun rose, I saw what all the ski towns in Vermont wish they were. Akureyri is the ultimate ski-town-of-cuteness without the cheesy feeling that comes from fabricated atmosphere. They have the ski area minus the traffic, the cobbley pedestrian-only shopping street with antique buildings and browsable shops, just enough snow to be squeaky, clean, and scenic, the dress-code-Iceland of fleece, plus all the charms of the north wrapped in.

After my intense but productive workday, I went to the pool, and although the push-button showers were powerful enough to remove a layer of skin, the pool was sparkling clean and the air deliciously fresh. I took a detour on my way downtown to find dinner and came down a walking path that led straight to the main square. Two kids were sledding down it in the darkness, but the sled shot out from under them and went skittering across the pavement. I passed the movie theater and a few clothing shops on my way to the suggested "grill", which turned out to be strangely fusion. A bubbly Icelandic woman greeted me with exhortations to sit where the draft wouldn't get me, then brought me a pitcher of water, a menu, and some Icelandic tabloids for company. Everything on the menu was Indian, and from the looks of it, cooked by Indian people. Not quite the same as my favorite Indian place in Boston, but after a k in the pool, the work, and the traveling it was a happy substitute.

After dinner, I wandered back to the hotel, past the movie theater where the 9pm showing of Harry Potter was big excitement, past the sparkling displays of the clothing stores, the makeup stores, and the still-open bookshop. I stayed at a hotel built in the 40s, one of the only hotel rooms I've been in with wooden floors.

I didn't have much of a chance to look at much in the dark and being at work the whole time, but the after-work hours on Thursday were some of the happiest I have spent by myself in recent memory. Being there reminded me of why I love it here so much, and how fortunate I am to get to be a part of this world. I also am now part of the lovers-of-Akureyri crowd, and all the people I know here that are from there were anxious to know how I liked it there, and if I wanted to go back. The answers are, love it and absolutely.

Ship sighting: Atlas has FINALLY left the drydock, and now we have Víkingur. When J and I first spotted it, he said, "wow, that looks like a totally vintage hull design"
Gentle readers, check out the skipaskrá data. He may be amused at my peculiar interest in boats, but he can identify a vintage boat behind several buildings, while driving 30km/hr in the dark. Who's the boat fan now? :-)
In other news, the coast guard boats in the harbor have been the next to succumb to the Christmas mania. One of them is rigged out with white lights like some kind of pleasure yacht, and the little 5-person boat next to it has a little scramble of lights on it too.

05 December 2005

Open flames

It is now 11:40 and the sun has juuust peeked over the hillside outside the window. I can remember when it rose out of view to the left of the window frame, and now it is rising in the rightmost third of the pane. This Christmas light mania REALLY makes sense now, and it has been getting better and better the past few days. This morning Hamborgara Búllan was sporting a tree on the roof, as well as a light-outline of Santa on a bicycle (Santa in Iceland is of a fitter sort than the US one) and then at the bus corral near Laugardalslaug, the illuminated bus Jared had promised would appear was there. They had outlined every seam and corner of the thing in red lights, including the rear-view mirrors, and added some internal multicolored lights as well.

There were a few under-construction buildings we passed on the way to work, and those also were outlined in lights. I was the first one in the office this morning, so all the lights were off, but I found that while I was away last week (more on that later) my co-workers had been busy. I now have two gold wire trees next to me, and the columns of the office are trimmed in red lights (these seem to be a popular color here) and blue and white lights, christmas balls, and light-up stars finish the look. Before everyone else got in, I had turned all the decorations on but left the flourescent off- quite a cozy look. The view from the kitchen window here is a sea of apartment buildings with trimmed balconies (they are all so organized in the apartment buildings here! The lights alternate colors on each floor the whole way up most of the time) and illuminated trees.

Not all of the lights are of the plug-in kind though. Candles and fireworks are also making a regular appearance. For example, yesterday evening I heard booming, which we figured was our neighbor redoing his bathroom until we went to the window. For the second night in a row, Seltjarnarnes was celebrating something with a 20-minute fireworks display. Candles are also a new essential part of many meetings at work. On Friday I was in an office full of male programmers, and when we had our weekly meeting, someone had lit the two candles in the corner of the room. On Saturday at the Árbær pool, there were candles at the counter where they sell sandwiches. I keep thinking of how the firecode business we have in US offices must not apply at all here.

Finally, when I was flying in over Öskuhlið on Friday, I passed over a cemetary on the water, and in the dusk I could see that most of the graves had lights on them. Apparently cemeteries are popular destinations on December 24, and you can pay the cemetary groundskeeper to put a light on the grave of a loved one. Christmas comes to everyone here, I guess.

Ship sighting: While I was flying in, I went over the home of the sand-dredging boats that are always hovering around the mouth of the harbor. One of the signature yellow boats was tied up along the side, and I could see several huge piles of sand next to all kinds of sand-moving equipment. Maybe they’re putting all that sand to good use somewhere else.

30 November 2005

Ég flýg til Akureyrar á morgun

Aren’t you amazed by my newly acquired Icelandic talent?

Tomorrow I will be going on my first Ice-business trip to our office in Akureyri. It’s a 45-minute plane ride away to the Great City of the North, where I will meet all the guys I have been writing emails to for the past two and a half months. It’s a town that inspires fierce loyalty among its inhabitants, and the people living in Reykjavík that are from there were full of stories of places I had to see and experience. Although I am staying overnight, I am not sure there will be much time to try out the ski mountain or climb the other Favorite Mountain that all schoolchildren from Akureyri have had to climb.

Ship Sighting: Atlas is still in the shipyard after three weeks, and I am not sure what they are working on there. They finished the hull paintjob and redid the lettering of the name, but it’s still there. Another ship, Vestmannaey, came and went last week for its own touch up, the first time I have seen two boats of that size in the yard together. It’s always exciting to stop at the light by Hamborgara Búllan and see a new set of radar and antennae rising above the building- it reminds me of the seafaring history of this country on a daily basis. I hear that when the harbor development plans begin, the harbor will lose most of the gritty working character. I am sure it will be an improvement of sorts, but I will be sad to not see fish unloading and boat scraping as part of my regular routine.

28 November 2005

The meat table

Saturday was my company Jólahlaðborð, which technically translates as “Christmas buffet” but I discovered it really means “50 kinds of meat”. It was at Perlan, Reykjavík’s answer to the Top of the Hub with panoramic views of the whole city in all directions. Reykjavík is so short that it doesn't need to be 52 floors high, so we were able to see all the way to Keflavík, and if there had been towns any further away we could have seen those too. This place even does it one better than the Hub with a rotating component, which moved just fast enough to be illness-inducing if you tried to look at one spot for very long (or maybe it was all that meat).

The menu was divided into appetizer meat and main course meat choices, and I tried to sample some of everything. Here’s some of the more unusual appetizers I tried:

Smoked puffin: strange color, tastes like fish with the texture of chicken.
Reindeer pate: another strange color, but tasted like juniper berries. Quite good.
Thinly sliced beef tongue: this one was thrown down on the table in a challenge from co-worker P, who said he’d grown up on the stuff but his mother made it better. It wasn’t much of a flavor, but the texture was creepy.
Smoked goose: kind of like a less flavorful version of proscuitto.
Herring in spicy sauce: Not something I plan to have in the fridge on a daily basis, but I’d eat it again.
Caviar: my first time having caviar that wasn’t on sushi. This time it was with the blini, the minced onion, and the sour cream. Tasty enough but I’m not sure what the big hype is all about.

On to the main meat course:

Deer steak: I think this is what it was... at any rate, quite good and tender.
Reindeer meatballs: very rich, again with the juniper flavor, and bathed in mushroom sauce. Tasty but only edible in small amounts.
Hamborgarhryggur: this is pretty much your standard Christmas ham with a dressed-up name. Worth eating lots and lots.
Hangkjöt: smokier than the Krónan variety, but a known flavor by now.

The extras for the meal were also good, like the laufabrauð, a Christmas tradition that tastes like a good fried tortilla. There was also a whole table of extra things to sprinkle and dribble on other food, like toasted onions (I LOVE these), marinated fruit, pecans in syrup, jam, and tandoori sauce. There was also tandoori chicken, which I guess was for the people that got sick of all that other meat and needed chicken too.

Tthere were also some well-cooked vegetable selections, mostly in the cabbage/carrot/potato theme, and a few things called “salad” which meant mayonnaise on something (apples or seafood). There were plenty of other fish and meat options if you felt something was missing from the first list, like both graflax and smoked salmon, two other flavors of herring, turkey cooked two ways, duck paté, and some other kind of slicing meat. If you still had space at the end of all this meat-eating, there was an equally layered table of desserts, with ice cream, bonbons, tarts, cakes, pudding, and an enormous bowl of whipped cream. Made me glad I had intentionally worn something formfitting so I couldn’t overeat. One guy had consumed so much he was swaying drunkenly by the end of the meal.

Ship sighting: Was down at the Eimskip docks on Friday, where I got to see Brúarfoss loading up, and the machines that pick up entire shipping crates (able to contain two large vehicles plus) and wheel them around the docks suspended 15 feet in the air. It’s nerve-wracking to watch one of those sway by over the car, even if it was empty.

24 November 2005


That is the word for "Thanksgiving Day Parade". I love it so much I had to post it. You're on your own pronouncing it though.

22 November 2005

Stylist to the Stars

I was starting to go all hippy-style shaggy last week so I decided it was time to book an appointment with my favorite stylist, Steinunn. As always, a big part of the haircut is hearing the Latest, and this time was no exception. She told me she had been very busy lately styling for the Christmas issue of Nýtt Líf, Iceland's answer to Vogue. They have a woman of the year issue at the end of the year, and one of the people she styled for it was the former president of Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. Up next on Thursday is the Herra Ísland (Mr. Iceland) competition coming this Thursday. You can inspect the contestants and choose your favorite here.

Later, as I was flipping through the pages of British Elle and drinking a cup of their excellent cappuccino, Steinunn pointed to a full-page photo of a willowy brunette (isn't everyone in fashion magazines willowy?) and mentioned that the model was Icelandic. Of course she'd done her hair too. No wonder I've been getting such great haircuts here. She's had lots of practice apparently.

Ship Sighting: On Saturday night we were all out until 4 am showing my bro the Icelandic nightlife, so when we got home it was just the right time to see the oil tanker Oktavius coming in to the tanker dock. This dock is on the outer edge of the harbor and closest to where I live so I could actually see a lot of the docking manoevers.

18 November 2005

Broðir minn

My youngest brother arrived this morning from the States. He's my first family member to visit, actually the first person that has come to visit me (not J) in Iceland. We are going to do the old Golden Circle tomorrow and hopefully see something through the forecast rain. It's pretty exciting to have family here and I can't wait to open the suitcase he brought that's loaded with Christmas gifts and other cheer from my parents. Things from the Old Land take on mythical specialness when they have to come so far to be with you.

Ship Sighting. The paint job on Atlas looks like it's done today. The name has been repainted and it was on the scheduled-to-depart list this morning. Right now I am at home, and I can see the Morraborg on the horizon. It's scheduled to arrive at Grundartangi, the port at the aluminum smelter in Hvalfjörður at 3:30, so I guess it is making good time.

16 November 2005

bright lights.... big city?

not so here, but we have had spooooky effects from the moonlight these past few days. The moon is at the peak of the cycle, and last night the glow off the sea was very lustre-of-midday-to-objects-below. I could see Akrafjall glowing across the bay with a dusting of fresh snow, and even the horizon line was visible in the distance, dotted with boat lights. I also was thinking of when I first came to Iceland last year and saw bright glowing lights on the horizon, I marvelled at the hugeness of Reykjavík since it seemed able to throw light that far into the atmosphere. Then I realized it was the northern lights.

The descending darkness lately has forced me to appreciate light in all the wan variations we get here, from the leaping green and purple of the northern lights to the pale wash of noontime sunshine. When the workday starts hours before the light has touched the sky, sunrise is more exciting than a coffee break. The windows on my side of the office offer a great view of the northern sky, and on the other side I can watch the light illuminate the mountains. This morning the sky was peach and turquoise, and on the other side the glow from the sunrise turned the distant mountains into white pastel sketches on a teal background. I remember loving sunrise in my old place in Boston when I awoke, but instead of these huge horizontal expanses of color it was little peeks of it above the buildings and between the trees. This uninterrupted wash of intricate color is sometimes too much for me to handle.

Ship Sighting: I've been keeping an eye on a ship called Atlas that's been getting painted over the past week. It's not in Skipaskrá (no Icelandic ID number- where is it from?), but I saw it last month in the outer reaches of gamlahöfn. I remember it because the hull was shaggy with peeeling paint so I'm glad to see it is getting a makeover. In other ship news, J and I went to the Eimskip offices to get the paperwork for my load o' stuff. While we were down there I saw lots of crate moving and Reykjafoss blazing with lights in the midst of unloading. Soon I will have my loom, and a way to process all this sky-beauty in scarf form!

14 November 2005

Is your pool experience lacking a certain something?

Well fear no more, literature has come to Laugardalslaug. In much the same fashion as the previously reported bus improvements, the pool has added smásögur (literally "small sagas" or short stories) to the heitir pottar and nuddpottur. The stories are all in Icelandic so my current grasp of the language only got as far as the beginning of one that was describing something about the largest company in mid-town. Not enough comprehension to really get thrilled about it, but I love the idea of stories while you soak. The series is all written on plastic laminated cards, strung together on carabiners and tied to the railings with plastic strings. It's part of the marketing for unglist, the youth art festival. I'm not sure what the youth art-Reykjavik pool connection is, but if it brings us books in the pool, I am all for it.

Ship sighting: This morning I saw the lights of Arina Arctica coming in at 7 am. It was due at 8 so I guess it made good time. This ship is registered in Denmark, and if you're needing to know if the load line certificate is current and whether it's up to date on propeller shaft arrangement oil lubricant, you can check it out here. You were curious about those things, weren't you?

11 November 2005

my ship has come in

The ship carrying my loom and other treats from the Boston life has arrived today. I haven't seen this stuff since April 26, when Ed & Ed took it away. Now I'll be able to do something with the awesome wool from the Faroe Islands I was given as a housewarming present.

Of course, it's going to be several days before I actually see the stuff, but it's still comforting to know that it's in The Land finally.

Ship Sighting:Skógafoss brought my goods here so it is my ship for today. Note that this is the photo referenced in the comment on my April posting linked above, and also happens to be the ship that brought J his whole house and car. I'm going to develop a soft spot for this ship. I already liked the waterfall it is named after.

10 November 2005

alone in the stones

I have not forgotten The Blog, readers! I have been sick these past few days so my inspiration to write has been minimal. However, it has been a noteworthy week in that it is my first time in Iceland without J around, and it's been an interesting new experience. I am coming to terms with the Land as a place I moved, not just a place I moved to be with him.

I am still in between feeling like it's totally bizarre to be here and feeling kind of comfortable. This morning I took the bus to work, and through the mud-spattered, rain-misted windows, the drive to Kópavogur took on some kind of universal appearance. The neon lights filtered dimly through the windows and the smattering of people on the bus seemed as mixed (although much sparser) than anything one would encounter in any other city anywhere in the world. Busses all have the same kinds of hissing door sounds, and the engines hum in a similar fashion, wherever you are.

Still, I am constantly being reminded of the otherworldiness of this place- I started another round of Icelandic classes last week, and nothing cements the strangeness of my new life more than wandering in the Icelandic darkness trying to find a classroom with a group consisting of someone from Poland, a Canadian, a Guatemalan, and a guy from Nepal. Who would have thought such an odd crowd of people would find themeselves in Iceland together? It's one of the best things about taking classes here. Although most of the people moved here to be with a loved one, they come from all over the world to carve out their little world in this rocky place.

Ship sighting: Haven't been going to work the usual way (or much lately) so all I can report is Engey RE1 departed yesterday. I saw her moving out strangely slowly (no real visible wake, odd in the outer harbor) yesterday afternoon. Also, although this is primarly a ship spotting commentary, I had to mention a rare plane spotting moment I had on Sunday. I was on my way downtown and a huge plane flew right over me on the way to the Innanlandsflugstöð (city airport). This airport normally handles small planes to Akureyri, turboprops and the odd jet or two, so it was pretty incredible to see a 757 flying over so close I could read all the information on the side. There's not much on Blue Line Holidays on the net but I am guessing it's some secret Icelandair dóttirfélag. Anyone know more info?

03 November 2005

It's all in the little things

There are a few things here that make life simpler that I can’t believe haven’t caught on in the States. For those gentle readers that live here already, maybe this will make you realize what marvels surround you.

The bathroom is probably my favorite room o’tricks. First of all, drain IN the floor. How brilliant is that? No standing puddles of water near the shower, and cleaning the floor means dishroom-style water sloshing is the best way to do it. Next, how about those pre-set temperature shower faucets? You set the temperature you like your shower to be with one knob, then just turn the water on and off with the other knob. None of those scary (but awakening) cold blasts in the morning, or leaping out as the water turns scorching hot. The only problem is if you live with someone who doesn’t like the same temperature. You’re on your own for that one.

I also marvel at the efficient heating systems. Maybe this isn’t possible without the massive volume of water roaring through the pipes of Reykjavík, but the heating systems here never clang, bang, or urinate on the floors. Maybe it’s the brilliant Danfoss engineering. You crank those babies up and they really get the job done. I think it’s a large part of why the upcoming descending darkness and windy weather doesn’t frighten me as much as it might. It’s a rare house that isn’t cozy and warm here. Oh, and jólin koma. That’s always good for some cheer.

On to the roads... Granted they seem extremely fond of tearing the roads up here (we have had to drive to work a different way for about 2 weeks while the holes the depth of a man get filled in) but they also get the job done once they do. I am not sure how they do it, but paving does not seem to be restricted to only the hottest, mirage-on-the-road days I am used to experiencing in New England. Maybe the volcanic rock in the pavement makes it easier? Don’t know. Also, how about the traffic lights that go from red to yellow before green? This one might not be so great in the States, but here where most cars are standards, it works well.

Appliances are another incredible category of delights. The washing machines may take two hours but they heat all their own water for precisely-targeted temperatures, and our current one comes with a dizzying array of spin-speed selections, prewashing, and delicate cycles for different types of fabrics. I think I mentioned our dryer already but it also is a marvel of condensing technology. No external hose, no overbaking your clothes- this machine senses when your clothes are dry and stops on its own after extracting the water into an easy-to-empty bottle. These dryers are pretty standard here too. When we went to buy appliances, more than half the available models were this type.

The only problem with all these wonders is the cost. I am intentionally not converting them into dollars in my head because this stuff doesn’t come cheap. My logic is that I don’t have to pay in dollars so I don’t need to know anyway!

Ship sighting: Yesterday there were some foreign, and large fishing ships (one called Polaris- couldn’t find a country so no photo) tied up in the prime spots. Some of the regular residents of the inner harbor were tied up outside breakwater, like the coast guard ship. I guess it’s like sleeping on the couch so the guests can have the bed when guests come stay. Everyone was back to normal today, and the log shows a pretty light day today with only 4 ships coming or going. One of them is this bad boy, whose photo is so nice I had to mention it. The website of its home harbor is pretty neat too, with good eductional ship-sighting information on the difference between the profile of a containership and a roll on-roll off. These are some SERIOUS freight boats!

01 November 2005

Brilliant banking

Yesterday I was fully introduced to the brilliance of the Icelandic banking system. The online stuff here is so much more integrated than anything I’ve ever seen in the States. Since everything here operates by kennitala (the all-important number) your bills are automatically linked to your bank account with it. Even if someone messes up the address, if they have your kennitala correct, you will see it on your banking website when you log in. From there it’s a two-second procedure to actually pay the thing. Your salary is also deposited straight in there, with your payslip appearing as an e-document should you wish to see how everything is broken down. Need to pay someone back for any reason? That’s also a cinch if you know their kennitala and their bank account number. Type those in, put the amount you want to send and a comment if you like, and it’s done. The system even remembers the last 10 people you transferred to. They also receive the money instantly.

If you do actually want to interface with a person, that is also far superior to the American system, with helpful, efficient staff right down the hill from where we work. I keep thinking of the hoo-ra banks in the States are making of how easy it is to pay your bills online. They don’t know nuthin’ about nuthin’ when it comes to that- I continued to pay several of my bills with actual paper checks after trying to set some of them up and discovering that I had to go through strange-o online brokering and had to send checks as verification of my bank account number. Given the ease and efficiency of the systems here, I find it particularly ironic that this summer J was unable to make a purchase on Hotwire with his Icelandic credit card. When he complained to the customer service, they said they couldn’t verify the security and quality of the Icelandic network. How little they know.

Ship sighting: A busy day ahead here. Although I won’t be able to see most of them arriving and departing, I learned a little about two of the cargo ships leaving this evening, one called Flinterzijl and the other called Onego Runner. Both are owned by Dutch companies operating in Rotterdam, which I guess does a lot of business with Iceland, since I know I’ve seen the Onego Runner on the list before (and here I thought it was all Eimskip/Samskip all the time). The websites of these companies are a great place to learn the different terms for cargo ship classifications, like apparently the Runner is a Multipurpose Singledecker/Tweendecker with MacGregor folding type hatch covers. There are also ice classifications, as can be seen in the Flinterzijl write-up. I guess the Finnish-Swedish 1A class is good for the northern seas. I have no idea when this information will come in handy, but I figure sometime I’ll run into some sea captain and I can impress him with all my cargo ship lingo.

27 October 2005

Pool ladies

Part of the experience of going to the pool is seeing the regular crop of pool ladies that work there. There are the desk ladies and the locker room ladies, and it seems that there is rarely a cross-pollination of the two groups. You know you are part of the society here when the desk ladies at your favorite pool know you have the Árskort and queue up your token before you’ve even opened your wallet. Inside the locker room, the pool ladies sit behind glass or somewhere up on high where they can see when the tourists don’t follow the “wash yourself!” signs and chase them back into the showers. In Laugardalslaug they sit in their little room full of bins of forgotten goggles, towels, and jewelry. They’ve got stacks of magazines in there and a radio, and the instant the weather turned crisp and autumnal, they pulled out their knitting projects. Now, almost every time I go to the pool, someone is working on a mitten, a baby sweater, or a hat. Sometimes they even sharing the project, passing it back and forth between rows as they talk about whatever pool ladies talk about in their long day full of puddles and steamy water.

Every now and then they pull on the rubber boots and go slosh around some water, hosing down the floors, mopping up the wet footprints from the visitors that don’t follow the “towel yourself off before going into locker room” sign (they will chase you down for disobeying that one too). They also spend a lot of time showing people how to use their lockers, or shining flashlights into the lockers when people have lost their keys and don’t know where they left everything. I’ve even seen them turn on the shower for a confused 8-year old, and for this they even have a special extendo-grip pole so they can turn it on without getting wet themselves. These women are a diligent lot. They are hosting buckets of industrial-strength soap to fill the reservoirs, collecting forgotten shampoo bottles, and dealing with backpackers that try to hide their backpacks in the bathroom stalls, and they still manage to knit in three colors during their moments off.

I wonder if there is a hierarchy of pool ladies, if the ones that work at Laugardalslaug get major respect from the ones that work at Vesturbær for their ability to deal with the high traffic and higher percentage of tourists. The Vesturbær pool lady (only one in that locker room) doesn’t have to deal with scenes like last time at Laugardalslaug when there were about 50 English schoolgirls saying things like “Fiona, these aren’t my tights, they have bobbly bits all over them” and leaving eye makeup pencils everywhere. These women are the reason the locker rooms here are so tidy, and maintains the Icelandic pool status as “best í heimi”.

Ship report: Þerney RE-101 is in the slippur for a scrapedown and paint job. This boat is in the right place with an ID number like that, since the shipyard is also in the 101. We also witnessed the transfer of a fully loaded cargo ship on the way to the port in Hvalfjörður. It had to come almost out to Akranes, do a full 180 degree turn, and head back in to get around Kjalarnes.

25 October 2005

Áfram Stelpur!

Yesterday I did participate in the Kvennafrídagur festivities as I had planned. The day was crisp and clear (good Snæfellsjökull viewing from the living room!) and on my way downtown I enjoyed scufffing in teh last remaining leaves on the sidewalk. I stopped to say hello to one of the tabbies that lives around the corner, and looked for signs that a Big Gathering was happening in town. The most excitement I saw on the way down was an old fellow out painstakingly painting his front windowsill with the company of a black tuxedo cat curled at his toes.

When I came to Hlölli, the stage was set up there, and a few women stood around, but for the most part it seemed only slightly more crowded than normal, just minus the skateboarders. I continued up Austurstræti, past a few road blocks and once again, just normal-looking foot traffic for a Monday afternoon. By now I was starting to wonder if I'd come on the wrong day, but as I climbed the hill on Bankastræti, the wave started to surge down the hill. Suddenly the street was choked with women, pouring from both Laugarvegur and Skólavörðustígur and compressing together around me. Some carried signs, some pushed prams, some banged pot lids together, and a lot of them looked old enough to have been flag-waving members of the first movement 30 years ago. I turned and followed the crowd, listening to the hum of conversation, watching the befuddled tourists taking pictures, their duty-free woolshop bags in hand.

I made it back down to Hlölli to snag a prime spot in front of the stage, where I saw my co-worker G and her choir singing. Every one of the 100 something women in the choir was decked out in lopapeysa with pink accessories. On either side of them swarmed film crews, cameramen, and guys hooking up speakers for the later events. In front of us on the Tryggingamiðstöðin roof, more cameramen staked out the view from above. Inside the building I could also see the faces of the men still at work inside pressed up against the windows.

After the music there were speeches, more music, curious theatrics, and more speeches. I had heard the crowd was supposed to be big, so I did a tour around the immediate downtown area, and it was like I was back at (my single-sex) university. Every café was crammed with women, every shop was full of browsing women. There were women everywhere, and the few guys that turned out looked self-conscious, like they knew they were being observed. I completed the circle with coffee that was being passed out in front of the insurance office, but by then the growing shade was starting to have an effect on me.

Due to my prime location, I was probably in background shots for all kinds of tv news, but scanning the headlines didn't turn up anything. It was hard to really get an idea of the scale of the crowd, packed in as we were, so I had to turn to the morgunblaðið website to find out the real statistics. Turns out it was as big as the independence day crowd of around 50 thousand, and what I didn't know was that it happened in towns all over the country, like Ísafjörður, Akureyri, and a previously unknown-to-me town called Siglufjörður.

Overall, although I only understood the parts of the speeches that were newly-learned grammatical constructions like "Núna, ætla ég...." (now, I intend...) it was still really cool to be part of the huge crowd, and I was able to understand the main message of the event, áfram stelpur!

Ship sighting: When I went to take my daily photo of Akrafjall yesterday afternoon, there was a huge cargo ship perfectly centered in a sunsplash at the base of the mountain. It's not often I see one of those actually in motion, so it was an impressive addition to the photo with the two cranes folded in like insect legs against the low-riding body.

24 October 2005


Today is the 30th celebration of Kvennafrídagur (women's free day), and there is going to be a re-enactment downtown this afternoon.

In 1975, all the women in the city got up from their desks and left their jobs in the early afternoon, to indicate the difference in salaries for men and women. Their reasoning was they were being paid only a percentage of what the men were earning, so they should only work for that percentage of the day. I found a website that lists the activities of the original day, complete with speech transcripts. I am told that today there will be 30-50 thousand women downtown, and just like the original day, there will be song singing, a parade, and speeches. Kind of like sautján júni (independence day) in scale, but only women.

This website has an English explanation of the event, as well as more photos of the size of the crowd at the first one (for those of you that have not seen the scale of this place, this kind of crowd is a Big Deal). They've covered the bases linguistically- there's even an Arabic version, the first time I've seen that for an Icelandic website.

Ship sighting: Yesterday as we were eating breakfast, we saw the Pride of Iceland, Engey RE-1 (still not in skipaskra) sailing out to sea for her 40 days. I also spent the entire length of the choral movement of Beethoven's 9th watching boats, birds, and cloud patterns on Saturday morning. It's a great combination.

20 October 2005

Wish you were here

Tomorrow is an exciting day for my loom. After being packed away months ago, it is being loaded onto a ship in Massachusetts, and making a leisurely trip to Iceland. I think it will stop in Virginia and Nova Scotia before it comes this way. It's the first sea voyage for this most-loved of objects, and I am excited to think of having this way to express my inspiration again. Never did I think I'd be weaving with a view of icy Reykjavík waters outside the window. I am sure it will be quite inspiring.

In other wishing-you-were-here news, I discovered a brand of skin cream (or should I say "skyn" cream?) that thinks living here means never being stressed. Glad they think so. It seems to have been developed by someone with sage stress-busting advice such as, "don't skimp on sleep"(fall 2005 newsletter) that has no visible connection to the Land whatsoever. At the very least, the pictures are nice, and they have a handy-dandy screensaver for those days when your eye cream isn't working well enough and you have to look at soothing images of waterfalls "in their natural habitat." Yes, the site talks about the natural habitat of waterfalls... I suppose un-natural waterfall habitats would be corporate lobbies or something.

Ship Sighting: more fish unloading, as usual. Steinunn was there again, listing horribly away from the docks. I think someone forgot to take the cod out of her starboard hold. I think this blog may start to become a saga of codfish unloading, proof of the continued truth of the proverb, "lífið er saltfiskur" (life is salt-fish). Bloggið er saltfiskur.

18 October 2005

Jólin Koma

Iceland doesn't have any major holidays between now and Christmas, so Christmas gets fired up early here. We are starting to see the Jólahlaðborð (restaurant christmas buffet) ads on the backs of all the busses and even special Jólaöl (christmas ale) is now available at the grocery store. People are also planning and taking their shopping trips to other countries to stock up on cheaper goods. It's Christmas mania!

It's going to be strange to have this much build-up, but I guess with Christmas lasting for the whole 12 days until Advent, you can spend a few more months getting excited about it. In preparation I have been working on singing in Icelandic at Hallgrímskirkja and J and I are doing our own Trip to Cheaper Lands in the beginning of December.

From what I hear, you really need the cheer and bright lights of the holiday more than in a lot of places. I can imagine that as the darkness pinches away the light, the idea of Jólasveinarnir peeking in at the window starts to seem more logical.

Ship sighting: Lots of activity at the harbor this morning unloading fish, but I couldn't see any of the names. Apparently I missed an opportunity to get a tour of the Flagship ship of Iceland, Engey RE1, this weekend. It's due to sail this evening so I won't see it for another 40 days (how Biblical of them to be on a 40-day sailing schedule). Still, I take comfort in the strange yellow looks-like-a-cargo-ship that is always hanging out on the edge of the view. I haven't been able to figure out what it's doing but I see it lounging in various corners of the harbor, and at all times of day. Definitely a bit of a shady character.

17 October 2005

New features

The boat thing seems to be taking over the blog and I have developed a daily obsession with finding out what's new at the harbor, so I've decided to give in and change the name of my blog.

J and I spent the day in the house reorganizing and moving furniture (diagonal couch! Crazy times) which meant that we could see the ponderous progress of all the boats in and out of the city today. There's a lot to be seen on a Sunday, with the whale-watching boats, tugboats, and of course, the fishing ships.

We saw Vigri on the way in and then later in the day we were driving around the docks and saw the ship tied up and unloading. Families had driven down to pick up their seafaring members, and the boat was disgorging strapping fellows lugging bags and suitcases. This boat was beautiful, definitely reflecting its relatively young age, showing almost no rust and a fresh, creamy paint job. Clustered around it was the lineup of other ships, groaning with nets, and the unloading cranes and forklifts hummed around to pull down the freshly-caught load of fish.

Later in the day I discovered that the Associated Icelandic Ports website lists all the ships due to arrive or depart the harbor today. It showed Vigri had arrived much earlier than the anticipated 18:20, and listed the Flutingaskip Reykjafoss (cargo ship Reykjafoss) due in at 22:00.

About 10 minutes ago I went to the window, and against the meager lights of the farms at the base of Akrafjall, I could make out a stretch of moving lights. There she was, Reykjafoss in all her illuminated glory, bound for the docks at Kleppsbaka. I am going to have to check this site daily now, just to make sure I don't miss anything exciting. Who needs TV with all these goings-on outside the window?

Ship report: I think you've had enough boat talk for today :-)

16 October 2005

Food mysteries

One of the things that has always mystified me is the unusual selection of food products in the grocery stores here. There's plenty of national pride in the dairy section, and the Sláuturfélag Suðurlands can always be relied on for a good meat product, but what about the canned goods, the shampoo, and the laundry soap? When I started to look at things, the variety was astounding. I've seen drinking straws from Greece, our favorite spicy bottled sauce, Nando's, is from South Africa (this one always makes us hum "Fernando" as we cook). The green peas are from Kenya, the canned tomatoes all have English prices printed on the labels, we buy Italian cornflakes, and panty liners have Arabic instructions. When I started to see Eastern European packaging for the shampoo, I had to find out what the deal was.

Most of the people I had asked had never thought about it. Much like I didn't spend much time thinking about what was available at the local Stah Mahket, these are the products they grew up seeing so they hadn't thought of it as much of a burning question. I finally found the answer last week, and it's not too unexpected. Turns out the deal is that most countries require that products sold in the stores there be labled in the local language. Iceland's market is so tiny that they don't have similar requirements, just stating that there be labels in either English or another Scandinavian language. This has meant that occasionally we've had to cross-reference certain products in an attempt to figure out if it is exactly what we want. Laundry products are one of those challenges, since there are so many similarly-packaged liquids that perform different functions. After learning the Danish words for "fabric softener" and "hand washing soap" I am starting to understand why so many Icelanders can read so many other languages. It's the only way they can keep their clothes in order.

Actually, it takes me back to my first trip here a year ago, when I bought some tempting looking spinach balls at the store. When I turned the package over when I brought it home, J and I were lost in the sea of crossed o's and a's with circles on the top. I found a phrase with numbers in it, so I figured it must be the time they had to cook and followed the "instructions" for dinner. When I asked an Icelandic friend about it a few days later, turns out I was reading how many months they could be kept in the freezer, and the cooking instructions didn't have any numbers in it. The meal turned out great anyway, so I guess it wasn't much of a liability after all.

Ship report: Guðmundur is getting scraped down, and there's been a lot of fishing boat activity in and out of the harbor today. I've also got to get down to inspect the boats at the shipyard next to where Guðmundur is- these are all much smaller boats that make much slower progress. They're also not so conveniently close to the road, so a quick drive-by isn't enough to be able to see the names.

15 October 2005

Linguistic lessons

I am still quite new to Iceland, so the language is still mostly a mystery to me, but I cannot help absorbing words and wanting to know as much as I can as fast as possible. I have been absorbing vocabulary rapidly, but it is frustrating to know words but not know how to put them together.

Still, I am surprised how much I can read, in spite of my currently missing grammar knowledge. For example, I am watching a movie right now that is all in Spanish. It's subtitled in Icelandic (there's a combination I never thought I'd be trying to process...) but I am actually understanding what's happening and able to read the subtitles. Context makes such a difference, or maybe it's just the wine. Now, if only I could transfer this comprehension to on-the-spot processing when people talk to me, I'd be doing marvellously. Currently it's a bit deer-in-the-headlights with that.

I have also learned one of my most favorite ever word connections. The word Víking is everywhere in Iceland (inevitable, right?) so I started to wonder where it was from this summer after seeing the Víking beer ad on TV so many times. When it occurred to me that the word for "bay" is the same, such as Reykjavík (smoky bay) or Vík (you're on your own with that one) I figured there had to be a connection. I wasn't able to confirm this until Monday, when I talked to G, a local authority on the language, and J's first teacher. She's written the books that most people learning Icelandic will have to go through, and Icelandic language roots and construction is one of her favorite topics. When I asked her, she said that the two words were absolutely related.

How cool is that?


The past week here has been quite cold for October (yes, even by Icelandic standards, I'm told) which has meant snow in the morning, slippery streets, and hats and coats making an early appearance.

It also means that the weather is generally clearer, so we have been able to appreciate one of the joys of living near the Arctic Circle- the Northern Lights. I thought I'd seen good ones before but nothing has quite compared to the recent shows. I know the people who live here are somewhat accustomed to it but I am still not used to the sky glowing luminous ghost-green. The sheets of color leap upwards, disappear, then reappear to loop back on themselves, and with our expansive north-westerly view, we are able to see the whole show perfectly. It stretches the full expanse of our windows, and we have set up our bedroom so we don't even have to get out of bed to see it.

This is the ultimate in laziness, to have the explosion of eerie beauty there above the dark sea, and be able to experience it in the dark, secure comfort of our own bed. Ensconced in a feather duvet, it's a great place to be.

Ship report: Stefnir is out of the shipyard at work again on the seas, and Guðmundur has arrived. This ship looks to be the biggest one yet, although this is an informal assessment since I have not yet figured out which numbers are the length on Skipaskrá. Otherwise the docks seem quiet, although I have seen plenty of ships on the horizon at all times of day. I think I actually saw the Danish coast guard ship as it was leaving, and then fishing boats in the early morning or evening, when it is dark. I am getting quite good at identifying the configuration of lights on a fishing boat now.

10 October 2005

Insufficient processing time

This weekend was so full of activity that I don’t think it has caught up with my mind yet. It was full of colors, massive amounts of Icelandic input, and the gritty Icelandic landscape.

Yesterday we spent the day on Snæfellsnes with a friend (S) whose family has been in the area for generations. His grandfather (the oldest man alive in Iceland, over a hundred years old) bought the land in the 1920s and it has been part of the family since then. The land lies on the edge of Breiðafjörður, a hammer-shaped fjord that separates Snæfellsnes from the lower portion of the West Fjords. It is dotted with islands of various sizes and was apparently a pretty great place to live hundreds of years ago, since it was one of the few places you could always find something to eat and didn’t starve.

The intention of our mission was to catch fish, but this late in the year we weren’t sure there were going to be any. This plot of land is well-suited for it, with two rivers of different temperatures joining together before flowing into the fjord. We suited up in all the warm clothes we had, plus some borrowed shin-high rubber boots, and set out across the hummocky grass to the sheep fence. S said, “here is your first obstacle” as we toed our way over the barbed wire.

The second obstacle came soon after as we started wading across various bends in the river, the mud sucking at our boots. At one point the water was too deep for our boots, so S, fully suited in waders, had to piggy-back both of us across. Our destination was a bend in the river where apparently the fish like to sleep behind the rocks. We baited with mackerel and gave it a try, but no success was to be had. The point of the trip seemed mostly about the location though, as we stood below the snow-covered spine of Snæfellsnes with the sun filtering through the clouds. I realized that it was the first time in months, if not years, that I had been somewhere that it was impossible to hear a single car. We were far enough from the road that the once-hourly (if that) car was inaudible, and there are no distant highways in Iceland that can be heard from miles away. The most amazing thing about this is that it is only 2 hours away from where J and I live.

We then adjourned for lunch in the family summerhouse that had been built a few decades ago from the wood used to build car shipping crates. After lunch we tried a different location for the fish, and I decided to go for a hike out to the waterfall S had said was nearby. I had to first climb the hill up to the sheep pasture, through the wild blueberries, the red berries S said were called “mouseberries” and the waist-high grass the color of wheat. I climbed a few more fences and happened upon a pair of suprised sheep as I wallowed through the hummocks. The land oozed with water, so between some of the mounds of land I could hear the gurgling of narrow brooks (sprækur eins og lækur) that came straight from the ground.

I followed the sound of the waterfall across more pasture, before I came to the edge of the gorge. There was a separate fish-ladder on one side, and the cliffs were covered with more red blueberry bushes and tiny birches whose leaves were turning orange. Birds swooped across the gap and in the distance I could see the snow-covered mountains and the sprinkled islands in the fjord. When I returned from my walk, S and J had still caught no fish, so we walked down along the river to where the rocks were covered in seaweed and mussel shells and the high-tide mark was visible on the rocks.

The tide was fully out, so the three of us set out across the muddy tidal flats, strewn with kelp and snail trails. S told us stories of the islands in the fjord, but his words were snatched from his mouth by the fierce wind that had been blowing straight from the north all day. We skirted one island and caught a glimpse of our goal, a haphazardly tilted shipwreck the next island over. It had been abandoned there some decades ago by the owner, since the boat was worthless even as scrap metal by then. The ravages of the saltwater were evident on the hull, which must have once been as tidy as some of the ships I’ve been seeing in the shipyard in Reykjavík. Now it was deep rust-red, and flaking apart in sheets off the surface of the boat.

A rope was hung over the side so we hoisted ourselves up onto the deck, which was pitched at more than a 45 degree angle. By this time the sun was below the horizon so the wind felt even more chill as we leaned on this abandoned boat, unprotected in the middle of an enormous fjord. As we walked back across the tide-drained landscape, I had a newfound respect for the people that had lived here for so many centuries before. I had spent a whole day out fighting the wind, and I had had the benefit of modern clothing technology with my Goretex, my polypropylene, my (borrowed) well-sealed rubber boots. I also could look forward to a well-sealed, well-heated, bright house, plentiful food, and a hot shower. How must it have been to be out in this weather wearing clothing that probably never dried fully in the unpredictable weather of this land? What was it like to spend the whole day outside fighting to find food, only to look forward to a dark sod house at night? It’s no wonder people here are so unfazed by the weather and strangely proud of the peculiar national delicacies like hákarl. I have to also say that in a field test (yesterday) I also have concluded that the Icelandic wool was one of the other secrets of their success. The hat I made last year in Boston from wool I had bought here served me proudly.

Ship report: The wreck of the Orn was my boat for yesterday. I also see this morning that Helga Maria is out of the shipyard and back on the job. One other interesting boat fact I learned yesterday is that the school ship J and I were on in June was once the ferry that went to Akranes from Reykjavík. When the tunnel under Hvalfjörður was built the services of the ship were no longer needed and it became a school ship. That explains why it was so well-equipped to serve waffles though... Every good ferry seems to need a snack counter!

06 October 2005

Don't bother with the weather report

I like to know the weather. When I lived in Boston I was always looking at weather forecasts and satellite images, and religiously checked the temperature on my indoor/outdoor thermometer before I went out. I have tried to carry that habit over to living here, but have discovered it is pointless. The weather forecast for Iceland is almost exactly the same every day, and never really encompasses the variety of weather we get on a daily basis. Weather reports in June looked very much like weather reports in October as well. For example, the last five days have been "partly cloudy" but we have had near-downpours, high winds, perfectly clear, still weather, and rainbow-making half-and-half weather. The morning radio doesn’t even offer predictions beyond some general temperature suggestions for that day. With weather like this, it's no wonder I can never answer visitors when they ask what kind of weather they'll get when they come here. Just pack one of everything, and you'll be fine.

The kitchen at work offers an excellent view of where the action most often is going down- right over Esja and at the edge of the sea coast. Earlier this morning Kópavogur was bathed in gentle warm light, and the mountains of Snæfellsnes were erased from view by clouds. Now it is completely opposite, with the clouds lining up along the edge of Esja and the coast, and the snow-covered Snæfellsnes range to the north in crisp light along the horizon. The most remarkable thing about the clouds here is that there can often be no visible transition in or out of the clouds, so it sometimes seems like geographical features have been completely erased from the landscape.

Most people in the office make little notice of the changes though, except for one day when it went from sunny and still to window-shaking downpour in a half hour. That got a "finnt veður" from one person, but no clustering at the window to see the sights. The only weather that got people out of their seats was the first brief snowstorm a few weeks ago. I guess it is not worth noticing since it doesn’t really change anyone’s plans for the day or weekend. The pool is still open, kids still go to school, and people still go to work, regardless of the weather. The only time people take weather reports very seriously is if you are going to go driving somewhere remote and it’s late enough in the year for snow. Then people urge you to check the road conditions, make sure you have their phone number in case of emergency, and call to check up on you along the way. You’ve got to look out for each other in the highlands, I guess.

Boat report: Stefnir has joined Helga Maria in the shipyard, and is in the beginning stages of hull scraping. Other than that it seems to be fish unloading business as usual there, but not quite as busy yesterday.

05 October 2005

First filters

Every morning, J and I awake to the sounds of Rás 2, one of the national radio stations. It’s a curious blend of NPR-style reporting by a grave-voiced reader, mixed with music, some of which seems to be chosen solely for the low royalty costs. We have unknown songs by better-known singers, as well as music that sounds like it might be American but has never been played on any radio station I’ve heard in the States. They also, of course, play Icelandic selections as well, but those are more main stream and not worthy of as much comment as the eclectic American choices.

This musical medley is enriched by a few daily traditions, such as the 7 o’clock bell-ringing that makes it sound like you have your very own churchbells in the bedroom. Nothing shakes you awake better! After the bells, it’s time for Pálmi Jónasson to read the news. I often have the greatest Icelandic-language clarity during my pre-conscious fuzzy moments in the morning, so individual words will often glow clearly in the rattle of news-delivery speech. Sometimes they even read headlines from other newspapers around the world, so I will hear a “Boston Globe” or “New York Times”, and whenever they report on what the American president is up to, they will use clips of his speech with a convenient Icelandic voice-over masking some of his twang.

Some days though, when being here seems like a constant struggle of confusion, those first filters of Icelandic before I am awake are a slap of a reminder that I am somewhere that I don’t fully belong. On days like that I remember the WGBH guys, the “nine minutes past the hour” and the ease of processing what they are saying. I think of making cappuccinos in my Boston apartment as I caught the first rays of sun in my kitchen window and how early morning rugby practices in the Fenway fields sounded, and I miss it terribly.

For the most part though, hearing Icelandic first thing (or little-known American music) reminds me that I am here and why I wanted to move. My brain is actively absorbing information every day, and I delight in being able to understand just one more word than yesterday. Everything I see is that much more vibrant because it is still so new to me. I love that feeling and if I pay for it with a few moments of nostalgia or frustration, I am willing to do it.

Boat report: Helga Maria looks like she’s ready to go now- her paint job is done, and her name has been repainted. During one of the intermediate stages, it was actually possible to see that she had another name, a male name that had been applied in relief. I thought it was bad luck to change boat names but I guess it is ok with Icelandic fishing vessels, since her skipaskra photo shows she’s handling rough seas pretty well. The docks were also quite busy this morning with the unloading- there were fish boxes stacked 6 high in one place and trawler doors opening and closing as we passed. Another boat, Steinunn, has been around for a few days, but was riding higher in the water so I guess her load has been taken off too.

03 October 2005

What Sundays are for

It's all about the shopping. J and I spent a good portion of today stocking up on home appliances and other essentials, like milk whisking gagets. We started at Elko and picked up a marvel of German dryer engineering, the condensing dryer. This thing is full of bells and whistles, and instead of sending the steam out a hose to the outer world, it condenses into a bottle. These appliances are apparently quite commonplace here, and we had our pick of about 10 different styles. We went with the one that had settings for "cupboard dry" and "iron dry" since they were cryptic enough to go with our washing machine that is labeled entirely in Icelandic (and takes over 2 hours to complete a standard wash cycle)

Next stop was IKEA, where the locals were gobbling up shelves, dishes, rugs, and of course, the Swedish meatballs. That place is really effective at turning you around so many times, you forget where you are, and what you came intending to buy. Things like daybeds that have no place in your house start to look really cool and appealing, and you are struck with the desire to redo the kitchen and install those cool sliding appliance-hiding wall units. We managed to come out with only a few extra items, thanks to J's diligent list-maintenance, though we will have to take a few more trips to really finish off the house refitting.

Now we are in a frenzy of clothes-washiing after Mount Washmore in the laundry room started to topple this morning. It's still such a new luxury to have a fully equipped room dedicated solely to washing that laundry and mopping still seems kind of fun. We'll see how I feel about that in a few months...

Ship sighting: It's been a productive few days in the maritime department- I saw a dredger on the horizon this morning, Helga Maria is still in the shipyard but looks spiffy in a new Iceland blue paint job, and there's a big Danish Coast Guard ship in the prime slot. Today was probably a pretty rough day to be on the sea though. Our apartment is set back from the sea about 50 meters (60 yards) and the windows were covered in seaspray for most of the day. Even now as I write with the window open, I can hear the surf roaring against the seawall outside.

28 September 2005

the march of cakes

This office is more food-oriented than any workplace I have ever seen (well, except for the bakery I worked at one summer, whose raison d'etre was food) We have two waffle irons in the kitchen, and there seems to be no reason required to fire those babies up. We had a study break last Friday with waffles slathered in rhubarb jam and whipped cream, and more are planned for this Friday. I opened a cupboard in the kitchen yesterday afternoon and discovered about 20 boxes of waffle mix. We are always prepared.

Furthermore, it is an unspoken requirement that you bring cake on your birthday, and those are coming fast and furious this week. Mine is tomorrow, so I decided to team up with another woman whose birthday was yesterday so we don't all become comatose from the daily doses of sugar.

This is all in addition to the joys of the cafeteria upstairs. It's no wonder that one of my co-workers has a little lunchtime food-song. Right around 11:45, he starts humming, "matur, matur, maaaatur", and then at 11:55, the stampede begins and the office clears out. If you get to the lunchline at 12:30, the goodies are all gone. The whole 8-floor building is a punctual bunch, but when there is creamy asparagus soup, grilled salmon with onion sauce, and fresh salad to be had, it makes sense.

Daily boat sighting: Yesterday J and I got some great container ship loading views when we were at the washing-machine repair shop in search of a door hinge. This morning it was the usual suspects- the teaching ship Sæbjörn, the sea rescue boats, and Magni, always Magni.

27 September 2005

creating atmosphere

We moved in on Saturday to our new place, the sterile-but-great-view apartment. As soon as we’d started setting furniture up, the place took on a new charm we hadn’t expected possible. The only major problem though, is that the view is so distracting we’ve oriented all our activities toward the window. Sunday we started our first morning there with breakfast on the couch, using two cloth-covered boxes as our table. After a morning of sorting and organizing, we did the standard Sunday pool visit, and then for dinner we took advantage of our new balcony with barbecued lamb steaks. Of course, the joys of the new place are not only restricted to food consumption- the sound from the stereo works wonderfully in the open space, and concrete floors and solid walls make it easier to appreciate without worrying about disturbing the neighbors.

Speaking of neighbors, we have run into a few of them, most notably an older woman who came in when we were moving on Saturday. Her clothing and appearance was the tidy, well-groomed look of one who is a Patron of the Arts or at least on some kind of committee. She gave us a long tale of how she couldn’t keep straight who was moving in and who was moving out and she had thought a different unit was for sale and now here we were moving in to a different one. She also said it looked like she would have to walk to her fourth floor apartment since we were tying up the elevator. Moments later when J and I got to the fifth floor with the elevator load and were moving it in the door, J caught a glimpse of her face peeking from the stairwell window. She had walked up the extra floor just to see the same boxes she’d already seen downstairs on their way in our door.

The move itself was remarkably easy, thanks to the expertise of J’s friend and co-worker Þ and the moving truck guy. They managed to manouver the enormous couch out of the old place with the grace of dancers, and when S joined us at the new joint we completed in record time (thanks to both of you!) We passed beer around and stood amid the upended couch and the towers of boxes, listening to S recite poems about the people from the various points of our new view, Seltjarnarnes and Akranes.

We are still trying to drag the last bits out of the old place and into the new one, but we are getting used to sleeping with the wind from the harbor whistling through the open window, and waking to something new in the view every day. I am going to try to take a picture of Our Mountain every day this year, although the winter months will be challenging. I wonder how memorable 4 months of dark pictures will be.

I’ve also decided to introduce a new feature to this blog, the daily boat sighting. Today I have two: Helga Maria, a robust fishing boat, has joined Magni in the shipyard next to the hamburger joint, and yesterday’s sighting is still there. This one is a Chinese fishing boat, and it was riding much lower in the water today so I couldn’t read the translation of the name. It was something that sounded like you could order it in a restaurant though, like Chung Mai No 5.

23 September 2005

December smell

Last night J and I took a late load over to the new place, and the air outside smelled just like December in Vermont. The snow this morning was all the way down onto the flat land below Esja, after previously being only on the very tops, up among the clouds. It's much easier to ignore when it looks like a movie set backdrop that hangs above the city, but now it is just across the bay. There is even snow in the mountains to the south that was not there last week.

I have never seen the approach of winter so clearly, as the sun dips lower in the sky, the snow creeps towards us, and the waves reach higher over the seawalls. J and I will be having a front-seat view from our couch in a few days, where we can see it from the well-insulated comfort of our new apartment.

22 September 2005

Progress and integration

Yesterday was a banner day. I got my debit card, printed with my kennitala and photo, giving me non-stop access to the cashless society that is Iceland. Up next, the credit card, for which my HR guy has to sign, since all the work I did on my credit in the States means nothing here. Credit cards here also have to be paid off every month, so there’s none of that carrying balances of thousands of dollars.

I also started Icelandic class yesterday. It was a one-two punch of back-to-back grammar and oral classes, stacks of handouts, and a lot of intense looks from the teachers. The class is filled with strapping Norwegians, an oddly large population of Italian architects, and a smattering of South Americans and people from countries. I think I am the only American there. We started off the grammar class with a whole saga of the importance of Icelandic to the people and nation, including the standard here to always use first names and not use titles like “Mister”. One of the South Americans had a huge problem with this, and launched into a lisped tale of a mass he had gone to that had also been attended by the President of Iceland. He could not understand why everyone didn’t stand up when he arrived, and why he wasn’t called “Mr President”. I wonder if he will continue in the class... The oral class, on the other hand, was much less cluttered with superfluous conversation about the 15 different words for type of horse (again, the lisping South American) and our Liam Neeson look-alike had us reciting the alphabet and practicing greetings in the first 20 minutes (gaman að sjá þig!)

During the days, I am also watching autumn develop in another land. Much of it is similar, with touches of bright leaves spotting the hills, a noticeable shift in the sunlight (our days are now shorter than my East Coast readers after the Equinox today) and a new snap to the air. Here, though, the view of trees is framed by the daily dusting of snow on the mountains ringing the city, and the bright colors on trees do not last as they are snatched away by the ever-present wind. Rain still brings out the smell of decaying leaves (my favorite) and this morning there was a skin of frost on the windshield of the car.

The days this month are long, full of packing, confusion on the job, and constant mental stimulation, but I am carving myself a place here, and it feels good.

19 September 2005

what's behind door number three

Last week was a busy week in podtown, which is why there haven't been many updates lately. First of all, I got the final three unknown digits of my National ID number, or Kennitala. This magic number, the access code for all things Icelandic, is constructed from your birth date, followed by three check numbers, and a 9 if you were born in the 20th century. J and I went to Þjóðskrá a week ago Friday, hoping their 10-day processing time was accurate, only to leave án kennitölu after watching someone shuffle through stacks of applications from Chinese dam-builders. They said maybe better luck next time if I brought the fax my employer had sent proving I had work

Last Monday I went up to the HR office at work, hoping to get a copy of said fax, only to meet the HR guy bearing a sketchily printed fax from Þjóðskrá, dated Friday at 8:54 am, not ten minutes after we'd left the place. Now that I'm in the system, I have been able to register properly for classes (they had lost my previous application) get a bank account (required all of 10 minutes plus a photo) and a yearly swim-card (also 10 minutes and a photo). I'm now also in the final stages of the res permit application after paying 6700 kronur to have a fatherly doctor listen to my lungs and pronounce that he believed the Massachusetts healthcare system to be trustworthy.

I also went to Warsaw for 4 days last week, a trip I am still processing information from. We went on a charter plane, one of two direct Icelandair flights from Keflavik to the airport in in Warsaw. I'd never been on a flight like this before, where you know most of the people on the plane, at least by face, and the announcements are entirely in a language you don't quite understand.

We stayed in the city center in Warsaw, and spent the days eating pierogis and pancakes, drinking beer, buying cheap Polish clothing, and remembering what it is like to be in a city with enough people to sustain three types of public transportation (subway, tram, and bus). We took refuge from the rain in a gilded Catholic church where we experienced a Friday afternoon Mass, we stumbled upon a modern jazz concert in a 19th century vodka distillery, and found remains of communism and the threads of Warsaw's future.

I had never been to a city like that, where the remainder of severely oppressive government and the extreme ravages of war are interspersed with incomplete, shiny hi-rise buildings. The city has had so many reincarnations and the layers are as thick as the graffitti on a New York subway tunnel. Each successive layer is added haphazardly, with Soviet-style (can it be called a style when it is so soulless?) apartment blocks shunted up against the remaining 18th and 19th century churches.

While we were there, I realized that thanks to my new experiences here in Iceland, I look at travel differently. Instead of thinking of the places I see as movie sets, or places only existing for the pleasure of the tourist, I try to imagine how I would live in the place. What neighborhood would I live in? Which grocery items would I try and prefer, where would I make my friends? Would we sit in cafes on Sundays or go out to the country? I always was more interested in what the people living in a city were doing than seeing the great monuments of a place, but now it is something I feel I can contemplate on a more personal level.

I won't be moving to Poland anytime soon though. After four days of bathing in extremely chlorinated water and eating sausages, my body was begging for fish and sulphured shower water. Living anywhere these days requires a lot of personal infrastructure, and when it has to all be set up at once, it is astounding how much time, money, and planning it takes.