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!


Mai said...

Know exactly what you mean LOL! During my Canadian days I struggled hard to comprehend the concept of The Dishwashing Sponge. A thing we do not have here in Scandihyvia. Somehow I never really felt comfortable around that thing. Why would you want to get your hands that close to the dishes you are doing? Beats me...
And oh, just Licorice Reminiscing: Remenber how our Licorice-Marzipan Christmas treats made your eyebrows rise in Christmas of 2006?

M of CPH

Pétur said...

I ate so much of those salty pastilles as a child that I haven't been able to eat any for the past 10 years!
However, after a few drinks downtown, somehow I can't resist having a shot or two of Opal/Topas schnapps. The distinct flavor seems to bring my childhood feel-good memories rushing back. I have a feeling I'm not the only Icelander to feel this way. It's definitely an acquired taste ;-)

The producer of Tópas is Nói-Síríus hf. Check out the link: http://www.noi.is/vorur.php?pageNo=4&idcat=4

cK said...

Well, I've got loads of IKEA items--I should own stock, sadly--including about eight towels with loops for hanging (because I prefer the feel of kitchen towels for bathroom hand towels too).

And I've got the blue eyes naturally, though they stray towards green-grey during the protracted winter.

But I can't really foresee adopting a licorice platform, especially in alcoholic beverages and toothpaste. I can fool the Danes into believing I'm Danish or the Germans into believing I'm Swedish, but the Icelanders would peg me from the start for an American. I'm sure of it.

I wouldn't mind trying to fool them, though.

steffán said...

Hi there, it's been a long time since i last commented one of your posts... anyway... it's nice to see that even after several months (how many exactly? 10? 12?) in iceland, you're still surprised by those small differences you're describing so well. And you're right, that's what makes travelling and living abroad so exciting.
As for eyes, mine are blue and yet i'm french! ;-)
take care and thanks for the great stories you tell us,

ECS said...

mai: I loathe dishwashing sponges. They are the bane of my youth, so I am happy living in a place with other washing options. As for the licorice-marzipan contraptions, it's just that there are always new ways to do up licorice that never cease to surprise me. Like the licorice bits embedded in the chocolate crust of a vanilla ice-cream cone. That one still has not reached adoration level on my palate.

Pétur: You are sounding truly Icelandic now! I am quite sure you're not the only one to love the flavor of that ...interesting product, based on my field experience. It does have a time and a place but for me that is very restricted, specific, and rare.

cK: well come on up then, and bring your towel! You've got to try the licorice toothpaste before you dis it though. The stuff's pretty damn refreshing. As for the blending in, I'm told that part of my confusion of nationality is due to the blue eyes, so maybe if you do something a little more hnakki-spiky to the hair you'll wander Laugavegur un-noticed, the pack of Tópas peeking from your shirtpocket. It could happen..

steffán: thanks for commenting! At this point it's coming on 17 months, belive it or not. I think that because I've been writing the whole time I'm still working on noticing these things. Actually, the licorice-lamb thing was something I thought about almost a year ago, but I needed more different things to go with those, which is why this post was so long in coming!

Professor Batty said...

... I actually learned to enjoy the salt licorice, but the Opal Liquor is just too close to cough syrup for any serious consideration on my part...

Visionary & Medium Extraordinaire said...

I've never had that Schnapps stuff, and I don't think it'd be my favorite. I was never into the Opal/Tópas but I miss the chocolate a lot.
Yeah, everyone in Iceland has blue eyes almost. I sometimes called them boring blue, as that is what I knew all my life. Here in the states people usually roll their eyes, not understanding what I meant by boring blue.
No I think you'd get my point.
Someone once said to me, that mine were icy blue, where as in my family they'd be greenblue as the rest of my family REALLY has blue.
Shades of blue can be an interesting thing.
In regards to the oddities, I always like to pick and choose my favorites from all the places I've lived in. I think I favour the loops, as they save space.

SOe said...

I always love your posts. Very good written. I like your look at Iceland, its landscape, people and the little things in the daily life here.
But by the way, in Germany we have also always this loops on our towels. So the towels don´t need much place in a little bathroom.

Lisa said...

This comment's not about your blog entry (though it was, as all of yours are, very interesting), but I just thought I'd pass along the fact that last night, when my husband got home from work, he informed me that he'd done nothing but hum Baggalutur's songs all day. They're catchy ... even to those of us in the American Midwest who don't know a word of Icelandic. :)

tsduff said...

I like the Topas licoricey drink. A little thick perhaps, but I really like it. One kind (similar) I DID NOT like, but I forget now which is which. Guess it was the Opal I didn't care for. As for the lamb... slice it any way you want to, I'll devour it :-D

ECS said...

Batty: the cough syrup resemblance is part of the fun, I think. I've been offered it before with very serious commands to drink up because it will prevent illness.

SB: on the blue eyes thing, I've heard that from others here, who say that it's just the dull ordinary Icelandic blue. It's still rare elsewhere in the world.

soe: how do you manage to dry your towels when they're hung like that? I've never figured that one out, because when I lived in a place with no towel bars, the towels that were hung on the hooks never seemed to dry totally and ended up being kind of swampy smelling very quickly. I've got a small bathroom now, but it's got the Ultimate Towel Storage Method- the serpentine radiator! Hot, dry towels and no extra space taken up!

lisa: Spreading the word! That's awesome :) I just heard that K and the group will be in the US for a recording session, but unfortunately not near Chicago.

Terry: I agree that the lamb definitely goes down easier than the schnapps, but I think if you've tried it after crossing a glacier overnight and the sun is just cresting the misted mountains, either Opal or Topas will taste pretty fine.