30 May 2006

That's my name!

I've got an unusual name for an American, the kind of name people mispronounce 70% of the time when they first meet me, the kind of name that I've had to grow accustomed to correcting constantly. It was from my mother's side of the family, and I've always stuck up for it when people say, "but it sounds ALMOST like this other name, can't I just call you that instead?"

no, it's my name, and I like it.

Needless to say, it got pretty old to be arguing about my name all the time, so I was delighted when I came here and found that people had NO problem with it. Everyone here adds an accent where I never had one, but the pronounciation is no problem. They remember it, they use it, and last week I even saw it scrawled on the bottom of a lap lane I'd never used before in Laugardalslaug. If you look my name up in the phone book or Þjóðskrá (national registry) there are dozens of us. It's even the name of a major Finnish communications company, so I see it on cellphone coverage maps, on hits to my blog, and photos of Finnish phone booths.

Introducing myself in the US usually resulted in questions about where the odd name came from. Here, it's a surprised "that's an Icelandic name!" Yep, and it's also mine.

Ship sighting: Tomorrow this cute lil cruise ship named Funchal is coming just for the day, and according to this ship history website, she'll be carrying about 400 British holiday-makers. That's a lot of ladies in the Laugardalslaug locker room talking about bobbly tights.

29 May 2006

Wrap it up

A few weeks ago, I bought a small piece of remnant fabric that cost the equivalent of about $10. While I was paying for it, the saleslady took my scrap of fabric, folded it neatly, slipped it in a brightly colored wrapping-paper sleeve, and tucked it in a coordinating paper bag. I left with something that looked like a special gift instead of a little piece of fabric. Apparently, that's how it always is with this fabric store- anything you buy is wrapped in gift paper and nestled in a matching bag.

When you go to any other store, there's always wrapping paper, or they'll do it for you. Many larger stores will have a wrapping stand with large rolls of gift paper, ribbon to coordinate, tape, and scissors to curl the ends of the ribbons. The patterns are always changing, but there's usually something that's good for gifts to Grandma, with pink flowers and gold or something, and another more mod design. At the mall near where I work, there's a central gift-wrapping station with even more choices, always seasonally appropriate, always free. It's almost pointless to buy gift paper here, since you're always a few steps away from all the wrapping supplies you need. Even at the liquor store, there's crinkly plastic and huge rolls of ribbons, complete with tools to curl and strip them into a festive frenzy.

Of course, you ARE paying for it, since that book of photos you're eyeing is about $45, and as everyone here knows, liquor is ridiculously overpriced. Still it's hard to resist the temptation of adding a fat bow to that bottle of port before bringing it to the housewarming party. J and I are getting very good at curling ribbons now.

Ship sighting: A busy weekend of boat activity, plus, a Saturday storm that came from the right direction finally washed the crow-smear off the window. On Friday J and I saw the cruise ship Mona Lisa departing as we ate dinner, then several cargo ships arrived, and yesterday a boat that looked very much like a Steamship Authority ferry en route to Martha's Vineyard that had gone quite astray.

In other news, this trawler was on TV and in the newspapers over the weekend after a fire broke out on board while the ship was 75 nautical miles out at sea. Other boats in the area came to help, then a rescue helicopter that flew six of the other men on board to the hospital here in Reykjavík. Two of the fishermen died as a result of the smoke. As fascinated as I am by the sea, the thought of being out in the middle of the ocean when disaster strikes is incredibly frightening to me. I see why fishermen get paid so much here- when emergencies happen, help may come faster now thanks to better technology, but that boat is still so very alone for the crisis period.

25 May 2006

the wheels on the bus....

A few weeks ago I went on an óvissuferð (secret trip) at work, which means this: everyone you work with piles on a bus together that is well stocked with beer. The bus driver heads off into the wilds of the countryside, and inside the bus everyone gets silly drinking beer and taking pictures at angles that makes everyone appear have an enormous forehead. There are occasional pauses for team building activities that involve hula hoops, hole-punches, and holding hands with Snædís from Marketing while you close your eyes and she leads you around a basketball court. Eventually, there might be line-dancing, lots of food, and prizes for awful costumes. As the evening wears on and the beer stock dwindles, some guy will inevitably end up wearing the bunny ears that the receptionists brought for themselves, and the whole bus will stop a few times while the guys all get off and pee into the lava in a line on the side of the road.

Another thing that you must be prepared for, which always happens on a group outing here that's longer than an hour or two, is singing. This is a nation of choristers and musicians, and even if you aren't, you'll be singing along anyway. On this trip we even were given sheets with lyrics of the planned tunes. Someone had brought a guitar, and as we barreled along the road we went through the whole repertoire, which included the songs we'd performed for the company song contest (more here if you missed it) back in March. We ran through the programme, then the front of the bus started in on other Icelandic favorites, most of which I am far from knowing, although tunes like Ego's "fjöllin hafa vakað" are familiar enough by now. With a little work on Bubbi's lyrics page I'll be part of the singing soon enough. I already had some practice at the last group outing I was on in March, and I expect there will be more next month when I'll be on a bus from Bologna to Rome with a full Icelandic choir.

Although Icelanders generally don't like to be compared to Denmark, all this singing together does remind me of an evening some weeks ago when I was visiting a friend of mine who works in a hotel bar downtown. It was a slow evening so we were talking about the challenges being immigrants here when a troupe of elderly Danish gentlemen walked in. They ordered a few jolly rounds of Tubourg (why bother drinking Danish beer here if you're FROM Denmark?) and then after the second they all started singing gruffly. My friend glanced at them and said, "now you know for SURE they're Danish. The Danes that stay here are always singing like this when they're drunk"

I guess maybe we're not all that different after all.

signs of mystery

Recently I have noticed a series of signs along the road that look like traffic signs in shape and simple design, but are very non-traffic themed images. The first one I saw is a bright blue one near the domestic airport, showing the silhouette of a man holding a child above his head. There's also one in the center of the hringtorg (that's rotary for all you Mass residents) near my house, and I risked life and limb crossing the double lanes of traffic to take a dim photo of it earlier this evening. Must go back when the wind is not trying to lift me into the nearby Nóatún parking lot and the sky is not so dark and stormy.

I spotted a third sign last week down near the harbor walk that faces toward Esja. Again bright blue, the sign shows just the familiar outline of the mountain beyond. I love projects like this. I love public art when it's installed to be a treasure hunt like this, and makes me look more closely at my everyday surroundings. There has been plenty of art here lately thanks to the annual Listahátíð (art festival) going on right now, but these signs were around long before it started last week. Whatever the reason, I hope I find more of them.

Ship sighting: As promised on the schedule, the first cruise ship of the season arrived this afternoon, and is docked near the flour mill I wrote about in January. It's not the most exciting location to be docked in Reykjavik, down amid the flour towers, the Eimskip warehouses, and the customs office. Still it is lovely here now, as you can see for yourself in these recent installments of the daily Akrafjall photo project.

19 May 2006

Not this year, Eurovision nation

Last night was the semi-finals of Eurovision 2006. Like always, everyone here was sure that this was the year, but just like last year we weren't voted ahead, and Iceland will not be participating in the final on Saturday. Our great hope, Silvía Nótt, had not made herself popular with the crowds in Greece, so when she took the stage there was noticable booing in the crowd, but she still performed well enough to draw laughs all around at the Eurovision gathering I was watching from.

The general consensus here is that the whole competition is too much of a crony-based "vote for your neighbors" event, and that Iceland will probably never win. Since you can't vote for your own country, most people vote for adjacent countries, so it helps to have buddies with as much voting power as Russia. There are also huge variations in style, and what we think is cool here is of absolutely no interest to people in Croatia.

For example, last night we were all busy laughing at the Russian contestant, a scrawny mullet-haired guy with a chinstrap beard that had two classical ballet dancers to go with his pseudo-tuffguy singing. The high point of his performance was when he slid across a white piano, and called forth some kind of freaky sprite that dwelled inside. A woman's torso emerged, fully covered in white body paint, and she undulated to the music, surrounded by rose petals. We we all sure that this was the last time this song would be performed, but lo, it was voted ahead. How is that better than our Silvía? Ain't no accounting for taste.

Still, it was slightly heartening to see that the Polish group that looked like their costumes had been made by a gaudy Miami upholstery shop didn't make it to the finals. At any rate, whatever theatrics happen on Eurovision, and however much everyone says it's a cheesy, pointless contest, you can be sure that almost the entire Icelandic nation was watching last night.

Ship sighting: Today is the first day that we will have absolutely no full darkness, only civil twilight, so I will be able to see lots of boats for the next few months. It's also coming up in skemmtiferðaskip time (fun-trip-ship, meaning cruise ship) The first one is coming next week, according to the harbor website. Spennandi!

18 May 2006

coming to you live from the National Theater in Iceland

It's art festival time here in Iceland again, and on Tuesday, J and I participated by going to the National Theater to hear the Prairie Home Companion recording that will be broadcast in the US this weekend. I grew up with this show on Saturday evenings, and Garrison Keillor's smooth voice is intertwined with memories of making supper with my family on Saturday evening, so I was curious to see what it would all be like in person.

For those of you who have never heard of this show, it's kind of an old-style radio program that's been on public radio for over 30 years now. They have skits, music, stories, and musical guests from wherever they record the show that week. The focus has always been local talent and specialty shows, like their annual (I think) recording where all the artists are from towns with a population under 2000 people. It's based in Minnesota, so the humor tends to be dry and Nordic, and the music is usually pretty down-home. The host is Garrison Keillor, a stoic giant of a fellow, often described as having a face made for radio. He spins an enthralling tale though, and his voice and delivery has been honed by his decades on the job.

J and I met the special projects producer of the show at an American Embassy event in February, back when he was scouting out the artists to have on the show and doing the groundwork, and his love of the country was evident then. It promised to be a good show.

So, like good Iceland residents, we got suited up on Tuesday and walked through the sprinkling rain to the theater downtown (ok, maybe the walking part isn't particularly Icelandic, but we like our neighborhood). It's a classic Deco theater with fancy glass chandeliers, lots of red carpeting, and a ceiling modelled on the hexagonal lava formations that also inspired Hallgrimskirkja.

The show had all the behind-the-scenes radio elements that made it feel like we were part of a secret as we watched the leader of the band send his cues to the other members, and sound guys scurried to correct microphone heights and untangle wires. I also got to see the guy who always fascinated me as a child- the sound effects man. During the skits, there were always the most amazing sound effects, all made by a human voice. He can make the sounds of different kinds birds, people talking in a bar, trolls in the mountains, or cows, and I always wondered how he did it and what he looked like. Now I know.

The stories and skits contained much more of an Icelandic element than I had expected. In addition to two Icelandic guests, Garrison (or his research team) had done his research well, and all the stories had an element of Iceland to them. Of course a lot of it was based on geysers and steambaths, hákarl, and dark winters, but he mentioned musical leanings, the sunny beauty of this time of year, and the language in a way that connected with the Icelandic members of the audience as well. I'm not sure what the ratio of the audience was, and if it was half and half (judging from the amount of English heard before the show started, it's possible) but it sounded like everyone enjoyed the show.

I kept imagining what it will be like for the people in the US to hear this show on Saturday, people that have never thought of Iceland before now trying to imagine this rocky place. Will they be curious and want to come visit now? I've told some of my friends about the show, and they'll be listening too. Even in this modern world where we have dozens of ways to communicate real-time, there's still something special about the connection of a radio program.

Ship sighting: it's all cargo ship action today, and most of them are ships I've seen or mentioned before. I always find it entertaining to do image searches on these boats. Sometimes I find exactly what I'm looking for, and other times, like when I did a search for the boat Wilson Humber that's coming today, I find vintage bicycle pictures.

15 May 2006

I wear my sunglasses at night

That time of year has arrived, when the darkness is almost entirely erased, and the sun's path is visible for almost the entire circling of the earth. They call the day "sólarhring" (sun-ring) here, and for good reason. Even after the sun has officially set, the glow lights up the clouds from behind the mountains until it comes up again.

During the week it can be disorienting, and sometimes annoying, bringing back memories of early bedtimes at dusk in the summer when I was a child. On the weekends though, it is a wonderful thing. Two hours at the pool seems like nothing when the sun hasn't sunk in the sky at all, and when I went out last Saturday, I brought my sunglasses for the idyllic walk downtown at 9:30 in the evening. People were still out trimming their lawns, touching up paint on fences, and enjoying the fragrance of summertime. After a few hours inside, I walked home in the darkest part of the night and came home to this spectacular view from the balcony.

It's hard-earned beauty after the noontime sunrises of December and January, but the transformation is so miraculous these past few weeks that it's easy to forget those times ever existed. I remember last year when I arrived J said I had no idea, and implied that I hadn't "earned" the splendid weather and brightness. Now, after spending the winter here, I understand what he means. People who come here without witnessing the progress and transformation think it's cool, interesting, and lovely, but have no idea of the days the residents of the country have logged in darkness before emerging into this golden illuminated landscape. I'm glad visitors like Iceland, but now I agree that until you've spent a winter here, you will not be able to appreciate the light as much.

Ship sighting: I watched a backlit Snorri Sturluson come in on time for its 9pm arrival as I was writing. There's also a new fishing ship in the slip for repairs, called Brettingur.

11 May 2006


Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the day I arrived here to find a job. From today on, it's overlap, and already I am remembering things about how it was last year. I didn't know what the pungent smell in the air was then, but one whiff of those black cottonwood leaves now is enough to remind me of that first day I walked downtown. I had to buy shampoo, and I remember doing my very best to not trip on the uneven paving stones on Aðalstræti, thinking it would for sure draw attention to me and my other-worldliness.

A year later, I'm much more settled here, and not worrying about whether I remember if the steam room door at Vesturbæjarlaug opens inward or outward as I go in. I still forget daily, but so does everyone else. However, I do think that when living in an unfamiliar place, it's easier to blame problems or a crappy day on the environment, rather than on fatigue or something personal. If ONLY I were in a place where I understood people, and I had some familiarity, life would be fun.

Yesterday evening was kind of like that. I was at my choir practice, and I love all the songs we're singing. Even though everyone around me knows the words to the songs by heart, and I'm firing all my foreign-singing skills at top speed, there are moments when the voices sound so shiveringly good I forget where I am or who I am and I just want to keep singing forever. Still, the instant the music stops, and the logistics of when our spring concert is, or the cost of the trip to Italy begin, I am lost in a roaring river of fizzing Icelandic. Jokes are flying across the tenor section, and I don't get any of it. At times like that I wonder why I'm there. They've got more people of my voice than any other, and I never say anything. What's the point?

Of course, I know that being somewhere different is keeping dullness at bay, since even those moments that feel humdrum are still humdrum in Iceland. My brother, who lived in Italy for a few years, once said, "Whenever I was having a crappy day, and the weather was gross, I remembered that it's still gross weather in ITALY!!" There's always someone who wishes to be where I am now. When I do fall into routine, there's still a touch of delight that this place that some people elsewhere in the world fall asleep thinking of, is my place, my routine.

I've read some websites for people seeking the expat life, and there are always quizzes with names like, "are you cut out for the expat life?" They always point to a need to be extroverted, ready and willing for new experiences at all times, and thrilled to meet new people. I'm not sure that's me entirely, although when I confess this, people are always surprised. I'm not one to break into conversations when I can only bumble along with the most basic of phrases. I like talking to people, but when all I can say is "I like it in the north" without really expanding on why, it's absolutely maddening. I love new experiences, but sometimes all I want is a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich from Dunkin' Donuts. Even when I'm feeling gloomiest though, I still don't want to move back. If I were back in Boston, I'd miss the pools, the silly little round shape of potatoes here, the smell of cottonwood trees, and the wild lava landscape. I knew this would happen- that by leaving I would perpetually be in the middle, loving both places,and always missing unexpected elements of somewhere else.

Whether I'm cut out for the expat life or not, I am here now, and it's definitely been a year I'll not forget. I'd rather have a memorable experience, both wonderfully and terribly memorable, than something that is just vaguely satisfying or dissatisfying. Iceland never just IS. Even on gray days, there will be moments like last night when the sun appeared blazing orange in a little tear in the clouds just before sunset. It hovered over Snæfellsnes briefly, outlining the mountains and sending sunset-glow into the furthest corner of the bedroom, before slipping below the horizon. I like that- you can't discount even the crappy days here entirely, because somehow The Land always exposes some impossibly beautiful moment just when you're ready to give up.

Ship sighting: There's a fishing ship called Atlantic Peace due to depart today. I like that photo because it shows the callsign prominently, and with that information I found its recent locations along the coast of Greenland.

09 May 2006

The heat is on

When April became May and it was still bald and bare here, I started to wonder if there were ever leaves on the trees here, and if the grass is just perpetually that ashen color of dead. I remember in theory that it was leafy and green last summer but after the darkness, the sogginess, the snow and freezing on a weekly basis, it was easy to forget.

And then, last week happened. Suddenly it was warm, with just the right amount of rain in the evenings, and everything opened at once. The trees became a haze of pale green, daffodils and tulips opened everywhere, and the tang of black cottonwood leaves has filled the air. I feel like I'm in a different place, especially since the weather these past four days has been the kind of weather you get in Boston in July. Everything is obscured by a pale haze that has erased the mountains outside our window at home, and makes commuting in the morning feel like I imagine driving in LA would be. The air is so still that this morning Seltjarnarnes was almost perfectly reflected in the slack sea, and the smell of fish permeated even as far as our subterranean garage.

Fortunately, the temperatures do not match the appearance, so although from the inside it looks pantingly hot, it's still the kind of weather where you're going to want an extra layer. It's brought out a whole new side of Iceland I missed last year in my fretting over having no money. Apparently, the correct way to appreciate the weather (all five days of it annually, says everyone) is to go downtown and drink wine at the cafés on the square, so last Saturday the place was jammed. I was there again yesterday, and in the still, drowsy late-afternoon sun, Iceland trotted out all its European influences. Sunglasses on, my wining companions and I watched as people paraded by in their best outfits, lazy cigarette smoke wafting skywards, lapdogs tucked in arms.

There's also a more redneck way to appreciate the weather as well, involving noisy cars, motorcycles, and dirt bikes. Those guys are out in full force too, and many an un-muffled car can be heard revving in the distance, probably kicking up a good cloud of dust in the process. Sometimes I wonder if I haven't moved to rural New Hampshire when J and I pass clusters of trailer-pulling Jeeps disgorging four-wheelers on the road to Hveragerði.

Ship sighting: Pretty quiet on the dock today- Sóley is out of the drydock and scooping dirt again, the Danish research boat is in the prime spot, and a few fishing boats are unloading along one side. Over the weekend I saw something new though- a tugboat came from the Reykjavík harbor side of the view, tugging a platform with two posts on it, that contained an earth-mover and a short delivery-type truck. They continued across the view until they disappeared behind the Seltjarnarnes lighthouse.

04 May 2006

Cuisine from the inside

Everyone's always going on about hákarl and skata, harðfiskur and sviðasulta in the guide books and trip reports, but the fact of the matter is, we're not all sitting around up here eating it on a daily basis. Just to give you an idea of the daily experience, here are a few tips:

  • Jam goes with meat. Not just the lamb-and-mint jelly of my childhood, but thick, smooth rhubarb jam with lamb, berry jam with meatloaf (also not the kind of meatloaf I once knew, but a peculiarly smooth, bouncy type), and of course, the Swedish meatballs with jelly we just had for lunch today, smothered in brown gravy.
  • Peppercorns are a major feature. This week alone, I have had three meals that featured peppercorns- a green peppercorn sauce with lamb on Monday, ocean catfish with pepper sauce on Tuesday, and the gravy today had whole peppercorns punctuating the flavor. It's on pizza too.
  • Eggs are fancy. They're to be sprinkled in soup, and on sandwich day in the cafeteria at work, you're the odd one out if you're not layering your sandwich with egg slices.
  • Which brings me to sandwiches. These are not your slab o-cheese, tomatoes and mayo between two bread sandwiches I had in school. Sandwiches here are single slices of bread, feature red and yellow peppers, lots of mayo-based "salads" (that's another issue... salads are not what I thought they would be) and are to be consumed with a fork and knife. Pick up that silverware folks, and dig in!
  • "and then it was time for coffee", wrote Halldór Laxness in Independent People, after a brief description of a wedding ceremony. The coffee description was many pages longer. This is still true. When there is a pause in conversation, it is probably time for coffee. After any event you go to, there will also be coffee. This is a well-caffeinated nation.
  • Vegetables and fruit ARE part of meals here, although a lot of the produce comes from somewhere else, especially Holland and the US. We've got a bag of carrots from California in the fridge right now. The stuff that is grown in Iceland is proudly emblazoned with a flag, and is better than the average produce from an American grocery store. Seriously, great tomatoes here. I eat tons of them.
  • Cheese where I grew up was always cheddar, if you didn't specify otherwise. Here, it's gouda, the un-aged variety, and it comes in any fat percentage you want. For the extra-chubby variety (30%), try the Gotti. J and I love the rolypoly schoolkid mascot on it. If you really love him, go to the pool at Selfoss, where they have a larger-than-life statue of him in the kiddie pool.
  • However, this is not the ONLY kind of cheese we have. Want Norwegian brown goat cheese? There's a locally produced variety of it, along with dozens of other cheeses- feta, cheddar, spiced havarti, mozzarella? Got it, and it's made right here.
  • There are no sausages here, other than a universally-disliked type with a smoky flavor that resembles hangikjöt. There is salami and pepperoni too, but I cannot find a good hot italian sausage, the kind that they grill on Lansdowne street at 2am, and serve up with fried onions and peppers in a big soft bun. I miss those.
  • With the exception of the sad sausage issue, I haven't missed anything else. All those cargo ships are doing their job well, and the stores have the fixings for all manner of crazy things. We do have taco shells, Indian spices, soy sauce, lots of Italian stuff (I loove me some tortellinis), even sauces from Africa. It may not all be available in every grocery store, but it's still here, on the Land somewhere. Icelandic recipes 60 years ago may have always been the same five ingredients assembled in different ways, but it's not the case here anymore.
  • Finally, since this has become an issue in J's blog, let me re-iterate that skyr is NOT yogurt. It is, however, excellent in the plain variety with a drizzle of maple syrup. Especially on pancakes.
And now, time for coffee.

Ship sighting: A Faroese ship called Lómur is coming today. The name means "loon", which I like, because there is a special kind of loon that lives here, and is different from the type I've seen in New England. Someone else thought it was a cool ship too- here's a Faroese website of someone that's built a model of it. Click the image of the boat for more under-construction photos.

02 May 2006

Toasting the summer

Yesterday was Labor Day here in Iceland, another day of café sitting with the added excitement of a parade. Unlike the US Labor Day, this one was really about labor, so the parade was a procession of Icelandic union flags and the usual trail of people following behind. After a stormy mid-day, the sun broke out so I took a walk along the beach, and then J and I set up the barbecue on the porch and grilled lamb steaks. After supper, the fire was still glowing, and like good America-raised kids, we thought of marshmallows. J headed over to Nóatún 10 minutes before it closed and found a bag in the candy section. It was sadly squashed from an ocean voyage from Pennsylvania, its packaging a blaze of American tricolor patriotism.

We peeled them apart carefully, skewering them on metal chopsticks, since the fetch-a-stick-from-the-woods option of my childhood is so very unavailable in our treeless area. Stirring the coals with a fork, we each hunkered down on an end of the grill and toasted patiently. This is one activity that has definitely gotten better since childhood, when I remember impatience ruining many a marshmallow as they went up in flames from overzealous heat application. This time it was toast after toast of perfect golden crispy caramelized outside, the insides gooey and liquid. We ate them gleefully in the blazing sunset, huddled over our tiny barbecue as the seagulls sailed past the balcony.

Ship Sighting: Eldborg is finally back at sea, and Sóley the sand-dredger is back in the drydock. She was there almost three months ago too- did they forget to screw down a bolt properly? We also had the same mysterious drifting boat-of-the-four-yellow-cranes yesterday afternoon. Two weeks ago it was there as well, and spent the same long time hovering below Esja on a Monday. Must find out what this is about...