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.