28 June 2005

crossing the stones in Icestyle

today J and I go to Boston for L & A's wedding. I'm several belt-holes thinner, laden with fleece, hair sliced Iceland-style (thanks J!), and not wanting to leave the weather here. The neighbor's tiger lilies have just started to bloom, and the rain has been plinking against the window this morning as I scurry around, finishing the last-minute errands.

My haircut yesterday was an interesting new experience- My stylist, Steinunn, was a little orange-haired elf in baggy jeans with a scissors-holster slung over her shoulder, full of stories of her six-month stay in Seattle. She slapped a weighted collar on my shoulders ("makes it easier to cut the hair on your back, and keeps your shoulders straight!") and went to work. She pulled and fluffed, then whipped out her comb, clips, and thinning scissors and went to work, spouting stories of the horror of grasshoppers and telling me when I get to the States, I should pretend that I've completely forgotten how to speak anything but Icelandic.

An hour later, after cutting both wet and dry, I left, looking very much like and Icelandair flight attendant, complete with the asymmetrical bangs. To me, this haircut is more reflective of this country than a tax-free lopapeysa, although I didn't do the one thing that apparently ALL Icelandic women do- the color. When I was making this appointment, I encountered a surprising number of people who asked, "you want JUST a cut? No color?" Maybe next time I'll come out carrot-headed....

Anyway, I'm going to miss The Land while I'm gone, but it's nice to know that my bathrobe will be hanging in the bathroom waiting for me when I get back in 6 weeks. Until then, I've always got my haircut and the Hildur Vala CD I loaded on to my laptop to keep the memories fresh.

Takk fyrir!

21 June 2005

more on ships

I know this is my third post about boats, but it's hard to ignore them when the harbor is such a presence! My new favorite thing is to check out whatever boat's got the prime parking spot on the wharf, then come home and google it to see why it gets first berth.

Last week we had Paloma, a German cruise ship (well, more of a vintage ocean-going jalopy), and yesterday heralded the arrival of Beautemps-Beaupré, a French oceanographic research ship, complete with decked-out French Navy crew members zipping around town. Last week there was what looked like the pride of the Icelandic Coast Guard on display, and a few weeks back there was a Ukranian school ship. This marine traffice has made me miss the Cape less, since I'm getting all the fun of WHOI, but with different paramaters and source countries.

J and I also saw a huge cruise ship being hauled in to the harbor on Sunday by a purposeful tugboat, just in time to get the really soggy downpours, complete with the clouds that obscured all of Esja. We saw it departing on the horizon yesterday just as the clouds lifted, as gleaming and enormously white at the distant Snæfellsjökull. Wonder what all those cruisers thought of Iceland after that welcome weather!

it's all downhill from here

This morning they announced on the radio that today is the summer solstice, and we're going to experience a total day of 21 hours and 8 minutes before the freight train of darkness descends, accelerating to the peak of gloom in December. It doesn't look much different lightwise than it did a month ago, but somehow being here is making me more aware of the cosmic machinations. I can see the sun on its sidways glide into the sea on clear evenings, and in the car, one is very aware of how much time the sun spends hanging low in the sky. It's got an uncanny ability to be just below the edge of the windshield, necessitating much innovative use of the sunshields.

The past few weeks have revealed an Iceland I never knew existed, where buttercups, columbine, and dandelions crowd the edges of the sidewalks, where tulips and unfamiliar space-alien plants fill the yards, and mysterious trailing yellow flowers drop from trees. The trees are in bloom, buzzing of lawmowers and sprinklers is a daily sound, and people spend the endless afternoon in the sunshine, reading and making desultory conversation with the neighbors through the fences.

I'm also more tan than I've ever been, even after summers spent rollerblading on Martha's Vineyard. On Friday I was even wearing a tank top and grumbling about my lack of sandals, all of which are packed in boxes in Vermont.

This weather also seemed to disturb some of those who are more familiar with the country though- yesterday we ran into friends at the pool who commented on how odd it was to wake up in their tent this weekend, barbecued by the early sun. When the clouds descended again yesterday, everyone (J and I included) breathed a collective sigh of relief at having the familiar weather back. Now it's 45f, gray and windy, and the people in the neighborhood are back in their coats. Guess there's no such thing as putting winter things away for the summer here.

16 June 2005

The Ultimate Hátið

Tomorrow is the hátið to end all hátiðs, Iceland's independence day, so the town is decking itself out in every way possible. A stroll down Laugarvegar is a festival of red, white and blue bunting hanging from lampposts, draped on the mannequins in shop windows, and wound around jewelry in displays. The male suit-wearing mannequins are sporting Iceland ties and carrying flags, and the leather shop has all their displays swathed in red, white, and blue ribbon. One display even has full-sized portraits of the president, wearing all manner of medals and awards.

Tents are going up near the harbor, and stores and restaurants are stocking up for the weekend ahead. I've seen kegs rolling in to the bars in plentiful numbers, tempting bouquets of pinwheels are appearing in toystore windows, and an oddly high number of bananawagons are zipping through the streets. Didn't know that was one of the things people run out of on festive weekends.

one thing I am curious about is how they celebrate this properly without fireworks, or will they shoot them off into the milky sunrise/sunset light of the post-midnight hour? What is an independence day without fireworks?

for all your ship registry questions

Didn´t want to break up the mood of the last post by mentioning this, but the website where I found the photos of the ships is the ultimate source for all your Ice-boat questions. Look up your favorite ship, learn about where it was built, admire the photo of them in full sail, even send an email! It's cross-referenced by owner, includes selections by harbor, and even allows you to find all the other boats built the same year. What more could a ship-registry lover want? Get on over there!

evening walk

I just went on a walk through the neighborhood, in the golden slanting light of the 10 o´clock hour. People were still up, and I could hear quiet conversations, dishes being washed, and an uncanny number of pianos for so small a neighborhood. Someone was practicing "Für Elise" on Vesturgata, and the tune followed me as I headed towards the harbor. I passed newly mown lawns, the edges a flurry of buttercups and phlox, the familiar smells of the flowers and grass blending with that mysterious, as-yet unidentified tang of Iceland.

I continued down to the sea, pausing to scratch behind the ears of a friendly orange cat, who appeared from behind a railing to greet me. Down at the harbor, Hamborgara Búllan was closed, the stools up on the counter, and I encountered a couple with a snorty pug on their evening stroll. He was smoking, so the smell wafted down the path to the ocean with me, mixing with the smell of seaweed, the fuel from the boats, and the last wisps of grilled hamburger smoke.

People were still stirring at the harbor, some coming in from catching fish, some tidying up the boats for the evening, the ripples in the water from their motion on the boat undulating lazily to the breakwater. On the opposite side, sounds of industry emanated from the drydock, where the now-familiar ship Magni had been joined by a much larger ship named Suðurey, in from the Westmann Islands for repairs.

On my way home, I took a different path that was aromatic with the scent of the fresh paint on fences. I meet a few different cats, and a magnificent Irish Setter, who seemed a bit befuddled by my silent arrival. We greeted each other, and I passed through the passage and back home, my footfalls echoing on the silent street.

09 June 2005

Little people in da house

J and I have recently admitted to each other that we've been seeing things in the house- we'll be sitting in one room and we'll see something darting in the other room, or a movement dashing around the corner. It's always small, and we definitely don't have mice or other creepy crawlies, so both of us just kept quiet about it until yesterday. I finally mentioned that sometimes I think I'm seeing things in the house but there's never anything there, and he said he'd been seeing the same thing since he moved in.

We've decided it's the Little People. Everyone here believes that they exist anyway, and we live in an old neighborhood, so why not here in the house? I hope they like watering plants- I keep forgetting to do it!

the Naked Republic of Iceland

In the past 3 days I've become a swimming phenomenon, charting a total of 4 k at three different pools. I've never been much of a swimmer, so I'm pretty proud of myself.

While I was in the locker room yesterday, I got to thinking about how many people I see naked on a daily basis here, versus what it was like back in Boston. Every day I go to the pool, there's a new crop of 20-50 naked people when I change into my suit, and another new bunch when I'm changing out. On a busy day at Laugardalslaug, that's 100 naked people a day. Multiply that by 27 times (about how many pool visits I've done since getting here) and that's a lot of naked. Of course, I've also been here long enough to start recognizing a few of the regulars at certain pools, so that number drops a little. Still, it's more nakedness than I've seen in my entire life before I arrived here.

Showering without a suit is an absolute requirement before swimming here, and they don't have separated shower stalls. After the swim, nobody scuttles into their towels, then doing the secret shimmy into their undies beneath the towel. It's limbs akimbo everywhere, and these bodies are all ages. Moms bring their kids with them (both boys and girls) and people here keep swimming well into their 80s. Friends stand naked in the shower, continuing the conversation they started outside, and women nurse their babies wearing nothing other than a towel wrapped around their head.

After getting over the initial strangeness of it, I started to enjoy it. When else do you get to spend that much time in your own skin in a nice warm place? Everyone else is occupied with their own business, and it's fascinating to see the different shapes people come in.

In fact, it has become so comfortable to be clothing-free, that I'm just waiting for the day that I forget I haven't put my suit on, and I'll stroll out to the pool area in the buff.

08 June 2005


On Sunday J and I woke up with a need and desire for a good big brunch. This is not as easy as you might think. We started by inspecting a new place, the seaman's favorite, Kaffivagninn. It turned out to be a Luby's style cafeteria, complete with the ancient mariners in the corner, enjoying their post-breakfast smoke. Not quite the atmosphere we were looking for, so we headed to a more upscale joint downtown.

Brunch is a relatively new concept here, and it's obviously not caught on as a fun weekend activity. The place we went is one of the ubiquitous cafe/bar/restaurant places, so it was quite empty at so early an hour. 11 am on a weekend seems to be considered indecently early here (if you went to bed at 5, it is pretty early) so our only company was the guy next to us who downing his first beer of the day.

We ordered coffee to start with, which is a do-it-yourself pot here. There's no peroxide blonde waitress with blue eyeshadow that swings around with her coffeepot, calling you honey and asking if you want your cup topped off. The cups have saucers and proper teaspoons to stir with, the sugar is all in cube form, and the milk is in a tiny pitcher. If you want water, you'll have to ask, since the only other beverage you get at this place is a tiny glass of club soda. Maybe it's to aid digestion? It's definitely not enough to quench thirst.

As for the meal, we both ordered the Stór Brunch (big brunch) which was not misnamed. It came on a square trencher of a plate, and included every brunch food you can imagine. There were pancakes (complete with Aunt-Jemima style maple syrup), a swarm of bacon, toast, potatoes, eggs fried or scrambled, sauteed mushrooms, and a grilled half tomato.

Altogether, the content was excellent- the pancakes were fluffy and nicely cooked, the bacon was superb but in excessive amounts, the fried eggs were just right, with the runny yolk and firm white, the mushrooms were a nice addition. The toast was ok, but I missed the jam, and the potatoes needed work. They weren´t sinfully fried enough, and they lacked secret seasoning like all good brunch homefries must have. Both of us were also befuddled by the tomato- I know it's an English thing, but it's nothing I've felt was missing from other breakfasts.

All in all, it was worthwhile, and calmed some of the yearnings for a good brunch, although it still cannot touch the majesty that is the Deluxe Town Diner breakfast. J and I were actually talking about how we could buy a dilapidated diner and import it, set it up here, and teach these people how to make a proper homefry.

now there's a plan.

07 June 2005

a tale of two embassies

Yesterday I went to the American embassy here to drop off an application, thinking I could just walk in the door and they'd welcome me back into the fold. Not so.

The embassy is in a residential section about a 10 minute walk from here, and unlike many of the embassies, which are unobtrusively tucked among houses and other offices, the US embassy has commandeered half of the street in front of it. What was a normal 2-lane street a few months ago is now one lane, and a holding area in front of the building blocked off by traffic barriers. As I approached the door, the squat Icelandic security guard materialized from beside the door to block my progress, saying that I coudn't enter without an appointment.

In my broadly American English, I said all I wanted to do was drop off an application, and I had it all ready in an addressed envelope. He said he'd have to consult on that, so he disappeared into the glass foyer where I could see a full metal detector and x-ray for bags set up. He spoke to the guard presiding over that area, also Icelandic, who then went through the next level of security to talk to a third guy, barely visible behind his own safety partition.

After much deliberation, they must have determined that an envelope was innocuous enough, so door guard took it to metal detector guard who gave it to partition guard.

This experience is in total contrast to a similar visit I made to the Canadian Embassy, located about 5 minutes down the street from where I live. There, the embassy is tucked away with the Nordic Film office and a number of other agencies, their presence only indicated by the flying flag out front. I walked into that embassy without a single security-guard obstruction, and was welcomed all the way into the innermost sanctum of the place, behind the two locked doors. The Canadian website invites you to come visit and check the place out, and they really meant it. There were brochures available to pick up in two languages, comfy seats, and friendly staff.

I know that the US embassies in other countries have been the target of various attacks in recent years, but we are in a place where the most dangerous thing you will encounter on a regular basis is empty beer bottles being flung from cars as people cruise down Laugavegur. Women leave their babies in the prams outside while they go in to the shops and 10 year old kids go to the pool by themselves. It's hardly the kind of place to require such incredibly tight security measures, and I'd imagine that the embassy is not endearing itself to the neighbors when they take over half the street like that.

03 June 2005

rrring, rrrrring

Icelandic offices and homes do not ever have voicemail or answering machines, so I have been spending a lot of time either listening to the phone ring, or speaking to receptionists. It's a rare call that actually results in me speaking to my target successfully, which has required me to shift the way I do things and the amount of time I spend on unsuccessful attempts to reach people. These people who transfer my calls must also be wondering why I am calling so often, or maybe they're just used to it by now.

Back to the phones!

01 June 2005

American Opiate of the Icelandic Masses

I thought that being in a new country would give me all sorts of new cultural experiences, including TV and movies, but I've discovered that American shows and movies still reign supreme.

There are about 5 stations here, only one of which we get, and it's just called "the TV" It plays a dazzling medley of English, British, Danish, and Icelandic shows, all of which are shown in their entirety (no ad breaks halfway through) and conveniently subtitled in Icelandic if they're not a locally produced show. We get Desperate Housewives, we get crappy movies ("3 Men and a Baby" on a Saturday night? Can't think of anything grander) and we get "I Einum Grænum", a locally produced gardening show. Initially, it just looks like your average show talking about how much to water daisies and the like, but last time we saw it, the president of Iceland was on, talking about something (trees perhaps?) Guess he's a garden lover.

At times I miss having 147 channel choices, but the nice thing is that you can see very quickly if there really is nothing on TV worth watching and not spend hours in front of the TV guide channel. Strangely though, there still is the "TV Guide" magazine, most of which does not actually contain listings of what's on TV. There are ads for mattresses and dishwashers, articles about fish catching, and about half a page of TV listings.

On those big nights out, there's also a selection of movie theaters, again playing mostly American films. For example, J and I went to see Star Wars on Saturday night (you'd think a big movie-going night, right?) at 10:30 pm. The theater was right downtown, but when we arrived 10 minutes before the show, we had our pick of seats, and the audience didn't get much bigger before the show started.

The movies are all subtitled in Icelandic, so it's a good way to learn some new words, although the name translations are sometimes creative- "Darth Vader" was translated as "Black Head" for example. The audience was remarkably un-rambunctious too, with no cheering or clapping at the Big moments, like the very beginning when the intro story disappears into the stars, or when Vader's helmet is lowered.

Another thing that takes getting used to is the intermission. Just at the moment when the fighting is the most exciting, the lovers are reunited, or somebody dies, the screen goes blank and the lights come on. Time for Coke, a smoke, and a joke! They play ads, people file out, leaving behind coats and scarves for 10 minutes, then the movie picks up exactly where it left off. When I mentioned it to friends here, they said it was a carryover from the days when films were on reels, and they just continued to have the pause, as a boost for the snack bar.

Next frontier will be the video store. We have no DVD player so it's off-limits for the time being, but there are some exciting prospects there!