31 March 2007

bare knees

Today was the first day I dared venture forward in a skirt without my wool tights on. It's a special feeling when the weather hits a temperature that also makes it possible to leave the gloves at home. Of course here at this time of year, a spring skirt still has to be paired with a sensible top like a cashmere turtleneck and high boots, but the frisky feeling of wind on those millimeters of knee-skin makes it finally feel like spring. The lawn outside the door has put on the palest of green hues in spots, and in the gardens all along the street, clusters of crocuses and tiny blue star-shaped flowers are making their way forth among the mossy rocks in the gardens. It's always like this- I forget that growing things ever existed and then all at once they're everywhere- fattening buds on trees, grass growing in the sidewalk cracks, and green shoots everywhere.

The season's still very tentative though- I was the only one baring knees on Laugavegur, and the visitors are all still be-hatted and hooded (of course, they often are in July too). It's not so cold though, really. I think almost 50 degrees f is splendid skirt weather, even if there is no sun. It's really almost as good as it gets here. Today the temperature was moderated by a zippy wind, keeping it from being too tropically balmyy. 35mph doesn't seem like much but it's enough to make wearing a gauzy skirt a bit thrilling. It was worth it though for that
feeling that maybe, just maybe there will be a few moments of bare-arm weather sometime in a few months.

30 March 2007

hot tub vignettes

So last night I was at my New Local Pool, where the lockers never cease to delight with their personal-changing-room ingenuity, the stylin wooden doors and shiny metal hardware, the white tiling, and the sassy rounded corners. They're so retro they're modern. Anyway, after another satisfyingly uncrowded swim (tip: 8pm or later is the best time to avoid crowds at Sundhöllin), I headed for the roof, where the hot tub crowd was all guys and me. Opposite me were two men in their forties, one with the neckless build of a former weightlifter who'd gone a little soft, the other scruffy and long-haired. Weighlifter man was talking about music- Joan Baez and the like, an unlikely pairing that had me listening in more carefully than usual, while the other guy performed his já-man functionalities (this guy in such a hot tub conversation just says "yes" and nods gravely). Then, weightlifter guy decided describing music was not quite enough, so he started singing softly, melancholy Irish tunes, while everyone else in the hot tub looked on in bemusement. He was obviously not disturbed by the onlookers, as he sang a few more tunes before the pair of them headed to the steam room. It's the first time I've had live performances while in a bathing suit.

This pool is a different flavor from where I used to go. This one's all about the individual bather, although the old guy pairs and trios are always a constant in any Icelandic pool. I've started to know some of the regulars, who even seem to be more conversational than the Vesturbær lot. There's the Ice-Pavarotti guy whom I had a nice chat with in the steam room, my former Icelandic teacher who was also a good 15 minutes of conversational practice, the bathing-cap lady who does her majestic laps in bright red lipstick. This is also the pool of tourists and foreigners. More than once when a conversation has started tub-wide, it's been one Icelander, an American (me), and a smattering of eastern Europeans and Thai. The foreigners are taking over Reykjavík, one hot tub at a time.

If there are other Americans, it's often because they're tourists, since this is the closest pool to most of the hotels and guesthouses, and thanks to its proximity to a can't-miss landmark, is easy to find. It seems that in the last week or two Tourist Season has begun, so I'm experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of people who don't realize that a pool is divided into lanes for a reason here, and all those people going backwards and forwards would like to keep going backwards and forwards. So here is my message to those who are coming to visit Iceland this year: If you're swimming and are participating in the clockwise lane-arrangement, we love you, especially if you're giving way to the faster people at the end of laps. You are the best kind of lane-companion. However, if you wanna do your deep-sea diving practice along the bottom of the pool, your water-pirouettes or express how hot you are for your girlfriend thanks to the trip to Iceland, do it in the open part where everyone else is messin' about and let me and bathing-cap lipstick lady have our lap lane. Otherwise, enjoy Iceland, try out lots of hot tubs, and don't forget to sing in a few of them. I've often had the urge but never been brave enough.

29 March 2007

midweek music

Yesterday, thanks to a guy I know at the French Embassy, I ended up at yet another event that was put on as part of the Franskt Vor (French spring) festival. It was held in the same venue as the music video recording last fall, only this time we weren't squashed into the tiny room at the side. The crowd was mostly foreign and heavy on the French, with the local population attending appropriately Ice-hipster cool. I spotted all the cool-people varieties last night that come out in droves on the weekend and for concerts like this. One girl with loud-colored tights, check (last night's representative was in scorching red). One ironic lopapeysa, check (he had skulls craftily knit into the yoke pattern), one girl clad in Rokk og Rósir wares (the local hipstervintage shop), and of course, plenty of guys with That Hairdo. It's the one that looks like hipster #1 hops into a car and sticks his head out the window hound-style, but facing backwards. Hipster #2 takes a few spins down Hringbraut, and with a little gel,voila, the perfect brushed-forward-and-stir style with no dryer time required! There was also one exceptional fellow wearing blue tiedye sweatpants and an orange lopapeysa. I think there's extra points for a guy like that.

Anyway, we'd all turned out to hear a combination of groups. Starting off we had Monade, two girls with guitars plus a guy on keyboards and another on percussion, accompanied by Jóhann Jóhannsson and his trombonists. Their sound was Belle & Sebastian without the crazy lyrics, Múm without the wandering percussion and surreal voices, Benni Hemm Hemm without the tight orchestral quality to the performance, AMPOP without that Icelandic melancholoy. In short, it was pleasant, listenable, and with decent movement but didn't feel really WOW. The lyrics might have been interesting, sometimes French, sometimes English, but it was difficult to hear them so I only could pick out the occasional phrase here and there.

The crowd kind of added to the feeling that it hadn't all come together. Maybe it's because it was a Wednesday, or maybe it's because I didn't realize that clapping and enthusiasm is not cool these days, but I actually spotted a guy sleeping in the corner midway through the set. The rest of the audience seemed kind of dull-eyed, with the exception of one American girl in the corner who was in full head-bopping mode. Don't get me wrong, the music was pleasant enough but just not really blowing my hair back...er.. forward.

Next came Angil, who educated us on a French literary movement called Oulipo that was fond of writing with interesting constraints. For example these Angil guys like to write their lyrics without using the letter E. Sounds a bit pretentious but their sound was much more interesting than the first group, with a hypnotic base drone and a tighter performance in general than the first band. One of the guys in the group was also a staff member at the French Embassy here and achieved some fame and press coverage last fall in a well-received play. He was playing a clarinet which was a bit difficult to hear but it was interesting to see him rocking out on an instrument I don't associate with that kind of band.

Since it was a school night I didn't stay to hear the whole set, so I hit the silent streets soon after that. On my way home it started to snow, tactile evidence of how winter's still hanging on to us a bit up here. There were hints of spring on my quiet walk through the neighborhood though- tightly folded buds on the low bushes behind Hallgrímskirkja, and near my front gate, flower shoots are almost six inches tall there. When this French spring festival started a few weeks ago, it certainly felt like the wrong season, but Iceland is catching up.

23 March 2007

Hardware specifications

One of the perennial signs of not-in-Kansas-anymore (literally!) is the little widgets you deal with on a daily basis. I've already discussed the marvels of the bathroom some time ago, although I failed to mention the mini- or maxiflush option the toilets here offer, something that delighted my younger brother when he visited.

There's also all manner of house and office hardware that make for subtle shifts in all those little habits in life. The outlets here, for example, are large, round and deep set, with the grounding on the side instead of the little sad-faced third hole like American plugs. They're often slightly diagonally set on power strips, which is kind of clever if you have all those massive cell-phone-charger plugs that never line up well, but means I'm often fumbling madly trying to line everything up just so.

Switches too are all kinds of different. First of all, the love of dimmers has hit hard here, and many of the switches are a push-on-then-twist-for-romantic-dimness. Those that aren't are opposite style to me, where pressing down means on and up means off. Figure that one out in the dark when you're tired and forgot where you live, whydontcha?

And then we have doors and windows, two bastions of interesting hardware. I'm from doorknob-land and I have landed directly in a handle territory, which has created all kinds of hilarity when I'm walking around my house with a wide-sleeved bathrobe. I keep getting stuck on the handles, especially, for some reason, in the kitchen. In the most complex permutations, there are some doors that have a lock that can only be operated if you rotate the handle upwards and then turn the lock. This still is a confounder for me. The windows are also new, since I grew up with windows that slide up and down, sometimes with rope-suspended weights you could hear rattling in the frames to keep the lower part up in the summer. The closest I got to hardwared windows was in college when the leaded glass panes of my senior dorm room opened outwards like a proper Romeo-wherefore-art-thou-Romeo window should. Then I get here and it's a majestic trio of locks and a latch that also holds the window ajar or fully open even in a 60mph breeze (like last night's non-stop wailing wind). Cool stuff once you figure out how to work it.

Of course these days I am not thinking about this stuff so much anymore, but every now and then I'll be absent-mindedly washing the dishes or something, and I'll look over to the right at the outlet on the kitchen counter and think "oh yeah, I'm living in Iceland. Weird stuff, this is". And then I go back to swabbing the soup pot in the sulphurous hot water.

22 March 2007

steaming, like krýsuvík

I know that a bunch of readers are now Baggalútur fans, so this one goes out to you. They've recorded a brandspanking new song, currently only available via their website. It was cooked up just in the past two weeks when a Swedish guy that plays with them (also a member of Hjálmar, the Swedish-Icelandic reggae band) came to perform in Akureyri. The guys decided to do a song in response to the ongoing environmental debate as Iceland continues to build aluminum smelters, disregarding the most valuable resource we do have here, the famous and inspiring landscape.

So, they wrote a song just like so (for those of you who can read Icelandic), and roped in the Gamlir Fóstbræður to add the sauce that only a bunch of older Icelandic dudes can supply. It's a choir composed of the former members of the famous and venerable Fóstbræður mens' choir (whom I last heard on Garrison Keillor's show here last May), and one of the members also happens to be the dad of a Baggalútur member, handily. They threw it all together last night and then posted it on their site.

Now that's a fresh song.

20 March 2007


Today is the vernal equinox, the day when we up here get to start appreciating our extreme position on the curve of the globe. We get 12 hours and 12 minutes of light today, finally surpassing my previous East-Coast home, and from here it's a bonanza of illumination until all darkness is erased by May. This constant shifting means that it's easier to remind myself to appreciate exactly the light we get now since it's going to already be different tomorrow.

The weather today's a little harder to love with the special thunderous wind that screams against the rafters and makes the raindrops on the windowpanes shimmy in some kind of Deco jive. They call extremely cold, crystal clear sunny weather here "gluggaveður" (window-weather, best enjoyed from the inside of a window) but I think this is the true gluggaveður, that makes the feather pillows and Álafoss blanket on the sofa seem like the best-ever idea for an evening. It may be spring according to the sun, but Iceland says it's winter for another few months.

In other beatcha news, yesterday I decided to not let my still slightly busted ankle (post sledding adventures) stop me from new activities, so I joined T at the all-woman's gym near my house for an evening class. It's an otherworldy man-free existance that reminds me of the days at my single-sex college, but unlike other similar gyms I've been to in the US, it was refreshingly uncrowded. The class had plenty of space for everyone and their mats, and no elbow-bumping or creative limb interweaving was requited. The Icelandic candle-love manifested itself here too, with a line of tea lights along the front of the room. My US firecode autoprogramming kicked in with this one- Shocking to have OPEN FLAMES in a public space!

The instuctor, reminiscent of an 80's music vid dancer with her sideways ponytail and multicolored tank top straps protruding from a wide-necked top, led us through various yoga-tastic poses for the next hour. It was a workout for both mind and body as my brain worked overtime to remember my vinstris and hægris and all the Icelandic words for elbows, ankles, toes, twisting, and breathing.

By the end of the hour, the Shakespearean porous absorption of the language had finally kicked in, so during the lie-down-and-relax I could actually think of what she was saying instead of "what does that word mean again?". I've found that just like watching Shakespeare theater, when you give up and stop trying so hard to understand, the switch flips and you're "in", the language pouring straight into the processing center instead of going via the English-filter.

Anyway, I suppose part of the point of this post is to demonstrate that not everything about life here is incredibly thrilling. Sometimes it's just about the gym, the rattling rain, and lots and lots of gray clouds.

19 March 2007

nerdtunes in austerity

I am a semi-big fan of 16th century choral music. When I was in college, I heard Victoria's Requiem on the radio the first time as I was supposed to be headed out the door for work. 20 minutes later I was still listening, my work forgotten, as I sat on the windowseat in my sunsplashed room.

Yesterday I got to relive the feeling with live music at a concert of this loved piece at Reykjavík's Catholic church-on-a-hill. Unlike the rest of the ecclesiastical architecture here, this church is almost old-world looking, with frilly multicolored floor tiles, an organ loft with elaborate woodwork, marbled balustrades, and a full complement of stained-glass windows that yesterday streamed with the blazingly frigid sun. The whole building is rather miniature compared to the Great Churches of Europe and still maintains the Scandinavian austerity by keeping the gold trimming down to a few framed paintings and only a saintly statue or two. The windows are also just colors- nary a crucifix or Ascent to Heaven in sight.

The Catholic consistency carries to the seats as well, which are properly wooden, properly uncomfortable, and pitched ever so slightly forward so you get a nice thigh workout the whole time or you end up giving in and genuflecting on the kneelers, the only padded surface in the place. It was even not really warm enough in the building, although not quite as bad as the completely unheated concert I went to in a tiny southern Czech town where everyone huddled in full outdoor gear, our breath steaming up towards the multi-story headless saints painted on the walls.

But I digress.. this was about music originally. The performers were a blend of English and Icelandic singers, only two or three voices per part, and even a man singing alto in proper Renaissance fashion. The crowd was more mixed than I would have expected from a concert of this type, were it to have been held in the US. Such a concert in the States would have been more gray hair than hipster-scarves, but here it's an all-types interest group, from the usual older Classical Music Lover couple, the politician-style guy with the enormously coiffed hair in front of me to the just-stepped-from-his-garage-band-practice guy in the sixth row. Something for everyone, apparently.

The performace was beautifully executed, and my kórstjóri S (who also attended, and apparently once played the organ there) was right in saying that the acoustics of this church are among the best in Iceland. I suspect it's partly because of that unpadded, uncarpeted aesthetic that creates just the right amount of resonance without adding too much of its own commentary. The voices were clear, the execution well-timed, and although I could argue with the pronunciation of some of the French lyrics, the mood took me straight back to that morning in college when Iceland was nowhere in my thoughts and I forgot about everything in the wandering voices.

16 March 2007

sjúdúp- sjúpídú

Well, it's that time of year again, and this year for the song portion of the evening, we're doing acapella do-wop, or sjúpidúwop if you want to be Icelandic about it. My division of the company is a font of tuneful talent, so all us choristers have been roped together with The Famous K as the rhythm-driving finger-snapper.

It's very surreal to be standing next to your manager while he sjúdúps away, and after an hour of singing nothing but that this afternoon, I dissolved into giggles, still holding the mike while everyone else kept on sjúdúping. Such is life in Iceland.

10 March 2007


I wake to white- white clouded light reflecting off white walls, white sheet spreading towards the bed edge, white duvet, with just the corner of the navy starburst embroidery cresting near my eye. The bells are ringing at Hallgrímskirkja, this time not the usual Big Ben borrowing, but something more local. The crisp triplets remind me of an Icelandic psalm my choir is probably singing across town right now, without me, my voice hoarse from the flu that's been snuggling up to me these past days.

Coffee first, simmering in the now beat-up $15 espresso maker my brother customized for me over 10 years ago, the curlicues etched in the aluminum spelling my initials, our family name. The yellow Italian cup and saucer awaits, but for now I'll take up my spot at the kitchen window, resting my chin on the edge of the open window so I can inhale the frigid clean air and look out over the place where I live.

Below me the last of yesterday evening's snowstorm is still nestled in the dips on the red corrugated roof of the sheds, a smocked spot of color surrounded by the gray of the apartment walls nearby. The clotheslines sway in some kind of private courtship dance, a pair of clothespins adding unexpected twitches to the movement. In the distance, the backside of Esja is covered with snow, and I imagine I can taste the wet snowbreeze that is sweeping down the sides. Later, after coffee, there will be the pool, where I will soak in the steam and the hot water, leaning against the turquoise tub-edges and looking out over the other side of Reykjavik, to the paired towers of Háteigskirkja and into my friend T's living room window just across from the pool.

Last week I heard that yet another of my friends is moving abroad. This will be the fourth since I have left Boston to abandon the United States, for China, for Dubai, for Canada. The people I know here are a constantly shifting mass as well- in the past seven months many of the friends I have met here have come and gone, mostly to return to the country where they came from, but others to new adventures in other foreign places. It's like my ex-boyfriend once was told- "you're one of Them", the people who need to, want to, have to wander the world.

Thing is, I'm not sure that's me. When I stand with my nose in the breeze and wait for the sizz of coffee's-done, I'd rather not go anywhere else. How do people who go back to their home countries know when It's Time To Go? Must it always be so? I know more than one person views my living here as one of those things people of my generation and education level are bound to do, but there's that knowledge that they will always Come Home. Do we have to? How do we ever know when we've found the place where we belong, that belongs to us? This is a question even if we never go within more than a day's drive from the place where we were born, but given the relative isolation from familiarity that moving abroad can bring, it's on my mind often these days.

I remember my grandparents, early pioneering expats, who lived in two countries and dozens of foreign cities before ultimately returning to an all-American New England ranch house upon retiring. They didn't want to grow old in a place where they would always have to remember what language to speak. The house, though ordinary on the outside, was crammed with the remnants and memories of the places they lived, some of which are still here with me now- the rug from who-knows-where, the gallery exhibit posters from all over France, the Brazilian wood and stone carvings, the Murano millefiori glass bowl I had always loved.

The decision of where my life will take place does not have to be made all at once, I know, but the more intertwined with Iceland I become, the less this feels like a temporary choice. I've never been the kind of person who had a 10-year plan, or even a 2-year plan, for that matter, so I've never put a timeline on this current adventure. As long as it still feels sometimes so disbelievably fantasyland, I think I'm going to stay a while yet.

09 March 2007

new norms (the dark side)

So it's not all a paradise of be-looped towels and licorice up here. Some of the things I've had to get used to are frustrating or stupid, particularly when it comes to packaging. For example, the milk here comes in a square cardboardy box, except unlike the US boxes it's damn near impossible to open. It took me months to perfect the "rífið alla leið" (tear the whole length) instructions on the box. Sure, there are perforations to help you along, but they require a just-so grasping technique that I was not raised doing.

And then, once you've managed to get the darn thing open, you have to fold the opening precisely or else it's milk everywhere, since the "spout" you've created is just too narrow. Finally, when you throw it back in the fridge, there's no convenient way to re-fold this gaping hole, so your milk inevitably ends up tasting a smidge like yesterday's Chinese takeout. Awesome.

While we're on the topic of cartons, the juice cartons here are even more maddening. They're often a similar flat-topped box as the milk comes in, with the addition of a pouring spout. Sounds great, doesn't it? However, the spouts are located in such a way that insufficient air makes its way in, causing a hiccupy pour that flings juice kitchenwide. Just how I like to start my day.

And finally, in the non-beverage category, I miss proper wooden floors terribly. I grew up in the land of maple trees, where solid hardwood flooring is abundant and used everywhere. Even my college dorm rooms, all four years, had solid proper wooden floors. Here, it's the land o' parquet. Looks nice and shiny and wooden and solid but beware! Drop your house keys once and this fragile material is all dented. Don't dare give the sofa just a little nudge into place, or massive scratches will ensue. All the chairs have to have these little sticky furrythings on the bottom of all the legs so they don't scratch, but these sticky things never stay put. A few months in, there's sticky goo all over the floor and the felt tip on the chair has traveled sideways. Time for a new set already.

I know no place is irritation free, and I'm happy to swap crappy milk boxes for other things like always having a drain in the bathroom floor, having plenty of hot water and twenty kinds of fish to choose from on a weekly basis, but it doesn't mean I can't be annoyed when I yet again discover the side of my fridge has become polka-dotted in multivitamin juice.

07 March 2007

new norms

Living in any new place, even if it's just a different city in the same country, brings up all kinds of weird differences in the little details of the normal lifestyles. For example, the other day on my second foray to IKEA for new-house stocking up, I marveled that every single towel, washcloth, dishrag, and teatowel had a little loop or strap for hanging. The ones that didn't had the product label sewn in such a way to make it hook-friendly. All this time I've been folding my towels and hanging them on a bar, or just hanging without the benefit of this feature, these people up north have been throwing loops on their stuff and hanging like mad. My Icelandic friend K said it was an "of course" here, that towels and washcloths come with loops. Personally, I'm not fond of this storage technique since the soggy towel gets all bunchy and doesn't dry properly, but maybe there's some Swedish invention that takes care of that too.

Another new norm is the shift in what default flavors are. If someone offers you a breath mint here, chances are it's going to be licorice, and even more likely, salt licorice. This flavor reigns supreme, and is available in toothpaste as well as gum, creepy schnapps that someone always brings on a camping or hiking trip, and the ubiquitous pastilles. I was put in Intensive Licorice Training last year when I arrived so that I would appreciate this feature of living in the north, and while the pastilles are pleasing, that schnapps stuff (a la Tópas) is always a little iffy going down.

Also, when it comes to your default meat, it's not what I'd grown accustomed to. In the States, land of big cattle ranches, chances are if the type of meat is not specified, you're getting beef. Here, expect lamb. It's in the hotdogs, it's thin-sliced and grilled for sandwiches, it's what the meatballs are made of. Just today I had ítalskar kjötbollur (Italian meatballs) that were lamb. Don't think they're making that variety down in Rome.

And finally, in another one of those from minority-to-majority experiences (like my name that is so common here but rare in the US), my blue eyes have given me that special Cloak of Seemingly Local Obscurity. After coming from a place where I was often questioned on whether those contact lenses I wear are colored (of course that's the only explanation for blue eyes, right?) I'm in the midst of calm acceptance of the ordinariness of blue eyes. Sure, it's a recessive trait everywhere else in the world but here in my office of twenty or so people, almost everyone has eyes in shades of gray, green, or blue, even those with the dark hair. When I went on that trip to Italy a few weeks ago, it was 100% blue/green in the Icelandic group I traveled with. It seems that there ARE brown-eyed folks here, but when questioned, they always have some kind of external influence- a smidgen of French or some other marauding seafaring fellow that spiced up the all-Icelandic family line.

So folks, if you want to blend in up here, buy yourself a be-looped towel, acquire blue eyes if you don't already have them, and get to those licorice candies!

02 March 2007

a cheer for beer!

This afternoon in the midst of various other conversations, co-worker K (of music video fame) informed me that yesterday was the anniversary of the legalization of beer in Iceland. The stuff was illegal here until 1989 when everyone got slightly more sensible and stopped thinking it was the poison of the divvil. Since then, they've come up with various potions, none of which compare to the beverage you can find even in the airport in Germany, although things are moving in the right direction now that Iceland's first microbrewery opened up north last year. These people seem to be so focused on the beer that they've forgotten to make a website, but if you're ever up north, order a Kaldi.

K said that back when beer was illegal, it was still allowed on the opposite side of the airport check-in, so once you'd gone through passport control, you could pick up a cold one to enjoy pre-flight (perhaps this is why Icelandair still trumpets about the business class passengers enjoying their pre-flight drink?). I think this habit dies hard, since every time I've been flying out of KEF on an early morning flight (read: 7 am) the bar has always been well-attended by Icelanders. Not my idea of a morning beverage, but apparently it's just their cuppa tea.