29 December 2006

Multiculti Holidays

Having my family here has been a special kind of special this year, the cross-pollination of my two worlds in a new way. They've taken to the traditions here with gusto, from the candlelit midnight mass on Christmas eve to the must-have stack of books I received as gifts. My mom added her own special twist to the Icelandic traditions herself, with a glaze on our hryggur that's made a few Icelanders wrinkle their noses when I described it but was to-die-for delicious. We're swimming all the time, exploring Þingvallavatn in the murky gray of a December Day in Iceland, and exploring power stations where I've had to figure out how to eplain things like "turbine efficiency" in Icelandic for a stoic hydro engineer.

Christmas day was a three-country meeting of my family, K's family, and my German friend F over the most Icelandic of meals, all the trimmings included- hangikjöt, potatoes in cream sauce, Ora beans*, malt og appelsín, laufabrauð, red cabbage, carrots. I was rather uncertain about many of these things last year, particularly the malt/orange soda blend and the beans, but they've grown on me, rather like my high-school's traditional and initially frightening combination of stewed tomatoes and peanut butter on toasted bread. These things take a little time but then you're wedded to them for life, it seems.

After a fantastic evening of swapped stories, great wine and too much food, my family and I took a detour up to the church that overlooks Mossfellsbær and the entire city of Reykjavík. I'd explained the tradition of illuminating the graves for this time of year so we went to see it for ourselves. It was nearly midnight but there was still another visitor, paying respects to his ancestors in one corner of the cemetery. We wandered slowly through the rows of graves in the crunchy dusting of snow, many stacked with flowers, plants, and garlands, the smell of the flaming paraffin candles wafting on the breeze off the not-too-distant sea. It's a strange way to end a Christmas celebration, there on a ridge of illuminated graves but it seemed like the right thing to do that night.

*I just learned that if anyone's either curious enough about these, or living abroad and missing them enough, it's possible to buy them here. These products are the most authentic flavor of Iceland I can imagine!

24 December 2006

Gleðileg Jól!

I went to the pool this morning, and the place rang with people wishing Merry Christmas to each other. One woman even said it to the crowd of unknowns as she left, receiving a chorus in return. Iceland's fun at Christmas, and this year I get to share it with family. The members who already have seen Iceland once have come again (parents and one brother) and are staying here through New Years. We've experienced the mall crowds, joined half the country as they paraded down Laugavegur last night, and today we're going to cook the traditional hamborgarhryggur thanks to the able help of B who offered emergency boiling (or not boiling) advice. I'm singing in the welcome-to-Christmas mass this evening, then tomorrow it's hangikjöt and cream sauce. Thanks to all the wonderful people here who have opened their homes to us, and I wish you all a fantastic holiday, whenever you celebrate it!

19 December 2006

northern winds

Am reporting today from the almost-Arctic town of Akureyri. I arrived yesterday with a plane full of co-workers, and although half had intended to fly back yesterday, everyone got stuck here overnight due to high winds. The airport here is on a little flat of land that juts out into the massive fjord where the town is located, so the combination of cross-winds and tiny planes meant we were all isolated. I'm told that this can happen often, and we discovered several others in the same hotel that had been similarly grounded by the weather.

Sadly, it was also very warm and cloudy, so the famous snow was dingy and gray, and the roads full of ice. Everyone had good times sliding up the hill to swim after work though, then back down again afterwards. We dined at Strikið, the top-floor location offering views across to the tiny lights on the opposite side of the fjord in one direction, and the illuminated facade of Akureyri's iconic church the other direction. The wind continued to howl as we ate, bending the windowpanes, jangling the christmas lights strung along the stairs to the church and making the stars suspended over the streets below sway crazily.

Later we had coffee at M's house, full of wood trim and red-checked curtains. We had freshly-baked Icelandic Christmas cookies, the rare and special kind with the chocolate top, the buttercream filling, and the almonded bottom. Everyone keeps telling me about how annoying and difficult they are to make, and yet everyone keeps on making them. My Icelandic speaking abilities are still to the level that makes me mostly a spectator but after a day of only-Icelandic meetings I was saturated enough to be keeping up with almost everything, jokes included.

It's hard to explain the surreal feeling of being there in that house, knowing that outside the massive snow-covered mountains loom all around, the wind sweeping down their dark and uninhabited slopes. This was ordinary life for the others at the table but for me I couldn't stop mentally comparing to the other life I could have had, and did have, in a place where the weather doesn't hold such sway over daily life, where I'm not infused with this ancient language. Two years ago I didn't know a word of Icelandic, and now some element of it will never not be a part of me. Soon I might even be able to participate in the conversations, but for now I'm happy to at least be able to follow along.

It's 11 am now, and the rising sun is just turning the clouds above the mountain out the window to golden peach. The wind's still sending the clouds surging across the fjord, and I can see the water churning angrily, even though we're miles away from the open ocean here. In only three hours, the light will again be fading, and a few hours later, if the wind releases its grip on us, I will return to the chaos of Reykjavík.

14 December 2006

það aldin út er sprungið*

yesterday evening's choir rehearsal gave me much food for thought. Since it's That Time of year, we were firing up the Christmas tunes, and of course they've all got Icelandic versions. We sang "joy to the world", "silent night", and a few other favorites that I know absolutely by heart already in at least one, if not two languages. I love Christmas music so it's been a special treat to learn these versions that only a handful of people know internationally, even if singing them does make me laugh a little at the unfamiliar feel of the Icelandic syllables.

We also went over Iceland's national anthem that we'll sing for the new years festivities, my first time hearing and singing this one! It was originally written before Iceland's independence as a hymn, so it's got full four-part harmony and an extended range that makes it hard to sing. However, it's definitely got that Icelandic Song Feel I now associate with the practice room and all these weeks of walking to rehearsal as the sky darkened and the weather grew crisp.

This song is interesting though, because several people I've asked about it have been hesitant to say they definitely know all the lyrics and would be able to sing it right away. Unlike the American anthem, which is trotted out before most sports games and everyone seems to know, this one doesn't seem to be as participatory. Seems that people know it and love it but just don't sing it, even though it's in the church psalm book (is the US anthem in the average church book?).

So if all y'all want to join the craze and spread the word of the Ice-anthem, have a listen here (I suggest the "Blandaður kór a capella" mp3), and read more about it in your language of choice here.

*a favorite carol of mine, also known to my English-speaking readers as "lo, how a rose e'er blooming"

12 December 2006

'tis the season

I came back from Holland to find that Iceland’s inexorable flurry towards Christmas was in full swing. The office is trimmed with silver balls and lights, garlands string down Laugavegur, and Icelandic carols stream from all corners. It may be the darkest time of year but this country knows how to put on a show. This morning I went for a swim at the pool where the white light garlands bedecked the panel of windows along the back, and on the notice board it’s crammed with notices of Christmas concerts. Walking home, I passed the grocery store that had set out the advent candles near the door, and a cart full of pine branches that exuded yuletide evergreen fragrance.

Today at lunch we had the special Christmas eve dinner- ham, potatoes, carrots, and brussel sprouts, accessorized with jam and of course, purple cabbage. Almond pudding with cherry sauce followed, and then, as the rising sun brightened the massive white expanse of Esja to the north, we listened to Christmas carols sung by co-workers. Nothing like the Icelandic rendition of “We wish you a merry Christmas” to put one in the mood and remind me that although some things are familiar, this still ain’t quite home.

Still, things do fit better than last year. I know when the hangikjöt’s coming, I know to expect candles and ginger cookies, and while there are and will continue to be some new flavors and experiences, those things I remember from last year are already welcome in their reappearance. Also, I remember jealously watching last year as our daylight slipped away, mourning each minute’s disappearance. This year I’m looking at the numbers only when someone outside of Iceland asks how the light is, but it hasn’t been a preoccupation like before. It’s dark, it’s light, but it’s always changing. The hour and a half of pre-sunrise is a special electric time anyway, when the hillsides are still dark but the promise of sun burns flourescent on the horizon in the form of shocking pink clouds and blazing rays that light up the sky. I sit on the southern side of the office, so the sun’s short arc is now all in my view, from the prolonged sunrise to the lazy progress at sunset. It may not be gorgeous weather all the time, but these transitional times are three times longer than in Boston, so when it is clear, there's plenty of time to enjoy it.

06 December 2006

front-row seat

I am posting now from inside a houseboat on the Amstel canal in Amsterdam. I came north yesterday to meet friends who had rented the boat for the week, and it was a wrothy trip. The boat is exactly everything it should be- built in 1890, owned for some years by an artist, and all rustic wood and interesting cupboards. It's tied next to a grand-looking crown-topped bridge and even has its own garden-raft, complete with a resident pair of swans.

After a dinner of Indonesian rice dishes together last night, I took a solitary walk through the streets of the city. Something about being in this city always makes my life feel like such an otherworldly adventure- these crooked buildings, these canals, bicycles, and boats, the humped bridges trimmed with lights that couldn't be more scenic if they tried.

When I returned to the boat, I found everyone sitting round the wood stove in the main room of the boat, where the dark wood and huge skylight created a cozy and restful place in the windy night. A was in the process of knitting mittens, but abandoned it in favor of staring into the fire, and M was reading the Dutch translation of a houseboat book that I remember reading in the library in high school. In the section about Holland, there was even a picture of this boat that I must have looked at almost 10 years ago. Outside, the trams rumbled over the bridge, and passing canal traffic created wakes that made the ropes creak and the shadows from the lights swing with the motion.

The boat is relatively spacious and things are not tied down or behind railings like other boats I have been in, since it does not appear to have moved in decades. It does have a mast but never had engines, so it has spent most of its life tied up in this small section of canal. Still, its boat-y tendencies are undeniable, with the narrow stairs, the hatches and short doors that latch down in several ways, and the gangplank that brings you back to shore. The motion from the wind and water is just slight enough that one can forget you're in a boat until you see the swing of the lantern or hear the mysterious water-sounds that gurgle somewhere along the hull.

We're at the juncture of another canal with a drawbridge over it, so I just interrupted my writing to watch a barge of sorts churn through and swing down the Amstel. Lots of traffic out there this morning, including lots of glass-windowed tourboats, in spite of the rain that sweeps past hastily. I see blue sky out there though, so perhaps the day will clear. Still, there's nothing quite like waking up in a houseboat with rain spattering the skylight, the remains of last night's fire still keeping the room cozy. I'm reminded of my parent's summerhouse- the lovely sleepy quiet of rainy mornings, the odd accumulation of things that don't quite go together but mean something and somehow belong in the place, the tiny rooms, and the smell of summer cottages and water.

I could stay in this boat all day but the whole of Amsterdam awaits across the gangplank so it's time to finish the coffee and go make plans now!

04 December 2006

what does it feel like?

I have an older brother who spent a lot of time living abroad before I ever had a passport, and he was the first real flavor I got of what life might be like living and travelling outside of the US. I remember him telling me that the days never could seem as crappy because at least you were living in this much-desired place, and that there were lots of tortoises in Athens. He told me this because it's always those little things that make the difference between being somewhere and reading about it in a book. There's always something that makes it personal for you.

Here in Holland, those things are accumulating for me- I can find the shops that sell marzipan shaped like partly gutted fish and school satchels, and I've tasted the bottlecap-sized ginger cookies available at every reception desk and shop at this time of year. I now know that some people still DO wear the iconic wooden Dutch shoes, and that carrying an umbrella while cycling must be a somewhat effective method for staying dry in the rain. I've learned that a side dish of potatoes must come with every meal, even if the main plate already has mashed potatoes, and that Dutch men like a lot more hair gel than the average Icelander.

I always wanted to see the minutiae of everyday life in new places- what is sold in grocery shops, what the advertisements on TV are like, what people do on a Monday evening in a village. This evening I watched that unfold as I ate dinner alone at a brasserie around the corner from my hotel. The butter yellow windowframe at the front looked out over a carless street full of activity. The rain that started an hour before had glossed the road and made the people coming from shops across the square hurry past, their parcels clutched close. Just outside, under the restarant's awning, a single candle flickered in blue glass on the wicker cafe tables, and across the way, people ducked into a glowing pub. There were pool tables in play inside- I could see the flash of cue ball as it rolled across the felt, and outside a man leaned against the doorframe in the middle of an involved conversation.

Monday evening was in that winding down stage: to my right, the waiter from the adjacent restaurant set out the trash barrels, a lit cigarette illuminating his face slightly, as couples paired beneath umbrellas passed. There was a bit of wind that made the awning trimming flutter and set the white Christmas lights swinging along the length of the street, and inside I could hear the sound of scrubbing in the kitchen, a extra rhythm section for the tacky French Christmas tunes that played in the nearly empty restaurant.

The bells of the church struck ten as I settled the bill, then I went from being observer to participant as I too stepped outside into the street and joined the dispersion of people, everyone headed home to a warm, dry place somewhere in this short Dutch town.