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.

10 September 2005

when culture shock hits

I've been happily wading through the culture here, gleefully rediscovering gastrinomical delights like Hrismjólk and enjoying the clean architecture and tidy pools for the past 10 days. Just now though, it made sense to me that I am NOT going to be going back, and that plane that might have had me on it will leave on Monday while I am still at my desk in Kópavogur.

Suddenly all I want to do is hide from it all, bake something familiar and listen to my music from home, except even doing something like that requires translating everything from avoirdupois on the cake mix box. In the kitchen, the daily free newspapers are strewn across the corner table, all that news I can't read, and the houses outside suddenly look alien, even though I stared at them every day for two months.

The difficult thing about it is that I don't really want to go home, because I am certain to feel just as out of place there now. I don't know where I fit in anymore, and I knew this feeling would happen at some point. As I have learned this past year though, knowing something in advance like this does not diminish the effects whatsoever.

09 September 2005

New office

Now that I am coming to the end of my first week on the job after 5 months, I am starting to feel a little more settled. Even without the new country component, starting a new job is stressful, so this has been quite a week. My job is starting to seem more interesting now that I can actually understand what the point of it is, and I am settling in to the new routine.

Everything about the job experience is different though. I am on the 6th floor of an office building that houses several other branches of the company, plus a kitchen where lunch is made daily by a chef, resplendent in ice-flag trimmed coat. Everywhere you look it is white walls, company logos, and pale scandinavian wood, and the view outside goes for miles in both directions. From my desk I can see out to a hill that is mostly an equestrian subdivision- bright modular stables with their own individual paddocks. Maybe this is Iceland’s answer to urban sprawl- the horses have to head for the hills of Kópavogur, since they don’t do elevators well.

On the other side of the office is our floor kitchen, my new favorite room. It has a balcony offering a view of go-karts, Iceland’s biggest mall, and beyond it, the center of Reykjavík and the mountains. On very clear days Snæfellsnes and Snæfellsjökull are visible across the water. Said kitchen is also equipped with the latest in coffee-dispensing technology, with customizations for cup size, sugar preferences, and strength, plus chocolate add-in options. I’m told that the fridge also contains wine and beer, for when Friday seems extra long. The glass wall to the “fun room” beyond is scrawled with the office scores for darts, a popular office-break activity. I guess drinking coffee is such an assumed part of the daily routine, like going to the bathroom, that it doesn’t get a dedicated break of its own and people have to come up with a new Other Thing To Do.

Things are looking good- I am happy to have a variety of coworkers, work that is developing into something I will really enjoy doing, and a nice space to spend most of the hours of my weekdays.

07 September 2005

heading north

Why is it that going north as far as I can is so appealing to me? I love that I'm living in the northernmost capitol city, and the first trip I ever took in Iceland was north as far as I could go in 3 days. I was given the choice of the action-packed South Coast, full of waterfalls and farms or the much more grueling and stark West Fjords, and I took the latter so I could go further north. Even before Iceland was part of my world, I wanted to go north into Canada, to go past the reaches of cities into empty hillsides that surely were somewhere up there in the Frozen North.

Lately I have been forgetting just how far up on the world I sit, surrounded by all this polished real estate (my new home!) and high-tech gear at work. There are plenty of familiar products that you see in the States, but somehow they seem more hard-won when they're at 66 degrees north. Of course, nothing reminds me better than looking at the auroral activity and seeing the amoeba of Iceland right in the middle of the band where it happens. Since this effect is only available in the Mystical Northern Reaches, it seems wrong to have it screaming across the sky in green splendor, huge arcs waving in the corners and disappearing into the teal blue of the fading sky-light above this city that in plenty of ways is just like any other city. Don't these colors belong over the darkened silhouettes of pine trees, only visible after much effort is expended in getting to that location?

Why does it make me so happy to see it? Why is north so much more alluring than going really far south?

05 September 2005

new home

J and I have been looking for a new place to live when we have to move in October, and we've chosen one. It's on an Ice-sounding street (important for getting people in the States to write) and it has the MOST amazing view. I will be taking pictures of Snæfellsjökull every day from the fifth floor, watching boats bringing goods to Iceland, and keeping an eye on Akranes from afar.

Today was also my first day of work, which ironically brought a flurry of letters and emails from places I had applied months ago. By far the best was the letter from the US Embassy here. I had applied to a position there in March, and received a much-mangled letter, sent from 10 blocks away, routed through my old postcode in Boston, and sent back here (turnaround time: 2 weeks exactly) It was a sad piece of letter craftsmanship, and it made me quite happy that I wasn't working with them as they drop the periods from sentences and insert extra words. Makes me wonder at the usefulness of their services in any sort of emergency with a turn-around time this extended and the lack of editing by the "second secretary" (name withheld to protect privacy).

It's nice to know I won't be homeless in October, and the relief of starting work is allowing me to start to enjoy some of the rewards of finally being here. It's going to be good!

02 September 2005

jet-lag rewards

I'm still jet-lagged, which has been frustrating for most of the week but rewarding for about 2 seconds just now. As I lay trying to sleep, facing the living room window, I caught my first glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights. Although I've spent a total of almost 3 months in Iceland since my first arrival, only two of those weeks have been dark enough for potential sightings, and I had bad luck with the weather during most of those visits.

The only other time I have seen it was on my first descent in to KEF last October. When they turned off the lights for landing, I marvelled that the glow thrown up by Reykjavík was visible that far away. As the light formed into a double white arc that extended beyond my line of sight, I realized it was something else entirely.

Those of you who live here are probably tired of us foreigners the marvelling over the phenomenon, but it's so eerie and unexpected to see a bright green flash in the sky that I am still feeling shivery about it. Being here starts to feel so regular that I forget my new location relative to the world as a whole until something like that happens, something that would almost never happen in Boston.

I've been waiting to post this in hopes I'll see it again tonight, but so far the only thing I am seeing is the reflection on the window of the light from the kitchen.