31 August 2007

daily bread

This morning I was in the bakery near work, and got to thinking of how endearing these places are. There's the crowd of old guys in the corner that obviously meet every morning for a long gas over coffee, watching the traffic of people arriving and departing. There's the little box of toys in the corner for the kids (as with almost every shop and restaurant), the steady stream of construction guys with their paint-dabbed steel toe boots.

Bakeries here are fortunately more in the European facet of Iceland, not the American one, so they are plentiful and very much a part of the routine. They sell all kinds of breads, from the light and fluffy to the most weighty seed-loaded varieties (I love the type with flax seeds!) plus the more interesting sweet and gooey stuff, like the vínarbrauð, a complicated confection of pastry, with almond paste, frosting, and a sprinkling of nuts. I prefer the pecan variety which just focuses on pecans without all the frosting and chocolate and so forth.

Then we have snúður, the old standby, a yeasty swirl of dough, glazed and drooled with a choice of frostings. I prefer the caramel one, but they come in chocolate or a mysterious pink one. These can be consumed all by yourself but I prefer when they're shared. These are nearly as big as my head so a quarter is plenty for me!

One thing you will not see is muffins though. Muffins have not established much of a beachhead here in this country, so it's going to have to be scones, crumpets, or something else borrowed from another land to the east of us. Sure, Iceland does have its unborrowed baked goods traditions, but they tend to be pretty simple, such as the soðbrauð, basically a fried bread studded with caraway seeds, or the holiday-essential laufabrauð. This one's kind of a fatty cracker made with fancy cutwork patterns. It's pretty evident that centuries of shortages didn't make for much ability for super creative pastry inventions. Still, I'm quite pleased that Icelanders were so willing to borrow the best of other lands and make them so freely here.

The only caveat is that the morning service can be astoundingly slow. Perhaps it's the early hour, maybe it's just the way bakeries work, but this morning I watched one woman buy half the store, including stacks of sandwich toppings (these boxes of "shrimp salad" and and "potato salad" almost require a post themselves), about a dozen loaves of bread (all having to be sliced, of course), five liter-boxes of juice, and when I left she was still adding on cakes and pastries. The other guy in front of me had a good 10 minutes to ponder his order thanks to miss buying-for-half-the-Icelandic-population but when he got to the counter he was all "bara... bara.... sko... bara..hérna" (just.. just... so...just..here). I have to confess that my American give-me-fast-service! kicked in and I was left shifting about impatiently while he decided that what he really needed was two croissants. Yep, borrowing from France too.

22 August 2007

airport whiplash

Back in KEF again, en route to Oslo. As far as airports go though, it's a pretty nice one to hang out at, thanks to the free wifi and clean n' shiny just-updated looks. With a sandwich from Kaffitár in hand and a Víking at my side, all's right in the world. It may seem like a rather tiresome life what with all this airporting, but I'm the sort of person who loves taking off, seeing places from above (always the window seat for me), having a chat with someone I'd never be next to otherwise (like the 12 year old girl next to me en route to Boston. G'ahead, ask me about what's the most for middle schoolers in Rhode Island), and always, the vivacity of a new city. I keep wondering if it's going to wear off and I'm going to be all "not again!" when I am packed off for the umpteenth time. I think if it were Cleveland I was going to all the time instead of a new country it might not be so interesting, and if the airport wasn't so shiny and scandi-mod it might be a different story.

I also had a nice long chat with my taxi driver on the 45 minute drive here. I love talking to cab drivers- they're almost always of a certain age that brings slower enunciation and lots of jájá-ing. Perfect for polishing the Icelandic, and since the conversations almost always start out the same ("hvaðan ertu?"), I sound way better at the language than I should.

It's kind of a requirement to talk to the cab drivers here, since the norm is to sit in the front if it's just you. The cab I took this time was so certain of this seating arrangement that both front seats had been pushed back as far as possible, leaving only a briefcase-wide space as "legroom".

Cabs are often Mercedes if you get the small ones, shiny on the outside and polished clean inside, never smelling of a strawberry tree-shaped air fresheners. It sort of feels like your granddad is driving you, what with the polite chit-chat with a grandpappy-aged man, the sitting in the front, the nicely tended car, and the minimal extras to indicate it's a cab (just that Euro-look tiny "Taxi" sign on the roof and a small fare meter). I'm hoping grandpa wouldn't charge you a hundred bucks to go to the airport like they do here though, but at least there's no tip to negotiate.

20 August 2007

continental divide

Back at work again, on too little sleep and with suitcases still standing stuffed in the hallway. I landed last night in a crisply clear light, dark enough for stars yet with enough peachy horizon glow to silhouette Snæfellsjökull. Welcome back indeed.

The coming back this time was harder than last trip to the States, and it's taken until lunchtime to feel like I am here again, even without the jetlag factor. It's been a week of familiar in a way that Iceland will never be, mixed with the newness of rapidly growing nephews.

I spent the week on Martha's Vineyard, where my family has been going every year for over twenty years. The house there is one of my earliest memories, built on a scale and fancifulness that that suits children perfectly- windows low to the ground, gingerbread trim, and a little bedroom painted in an unsensible shade of bright yellow. It's set in a specially American summer place, a neighborhood of 300+ original Victorian summerhouses, trimmed in wooden lace in bright colors and skirted by porches, standing elbow-to-elbow on barely drivable roads amid a swath of ancient oak trees. In August there are all sorts of activities- agricultural fairs, fireworks displays over the wide oceanside park, lots of oom-pah band concerts, plenty of ice cream and sand in your hair, sunburned shoulders, parties on the porch, and an evening where all the little houses are decorated in Japanese lanterns and parasols.

Combine this with lovely New England seaside weather and it's not hard to see why it was hard to leave. In my many hours of transit though, I kept thinking of what my friend C said when we caught up at the Boston classic Oak Bar last week. She's back in Boston after a year in Paris, and my exclamations over prices and the ease of communicating in your native language were both familiar to her. However, after two weeks, the price delight wore off, and she started tuning into Portuguese radio stations as a way to recapture that perennial out-of-the-loop feeling that comes from being adrift in a new language. I remember doing this myself, back before I heard handfuls of languages as a regular tune to my life and travels.

Writing so often about living here has made me hyper aware of the feelings of familiarity and belonging, or the alien and new- which are comforting, when it's stifling, how much is enough of one or the other. Maybe it's also the lowness of a gray Icelandic day, the sudden solitude of my apartment after days in a small house with lots of people, or how it feels when the flight attendant says "velkomin heim" at touchdown in Keflavík. Is there ever a perfect balance?

09 August 2007

eggs before leaving

I have realized that it's become a bit of a tradition for me to have scrambled eggs for lunch on the days I have afternoon flights. It's the perfect air travel meal, since it sticks with you for a good long time, and better yet, is a great excuse for using up that last rind of cheese, the one forlorn tomato, the remains of the spinach leaves. It's becoming the flavor of anticipation, these pre-boarding eggs.

And now, so that nobody misses Iceland too much, a few views of Classic Iceland, including peculiar water colors, lonely mountain-ringed churches, rock-stack cities in the middle of nowhere, and statues that watch over travelers.

08 August 2007

the great Assembly

Last year I missed the family assemblage while in Holland, and I swore it wasn't gonna happen to me again this year, so to Massachusetts go I. As is usual with the expat life, visits to The Homeland involve lots of scheduling, much conferencing beforehand, a lot of "what's your plan for _insert date_". It's also the Time for Stocking Up, so thank you USD for being in a particularly fortunate position for Those from Iceland (all twelve of us). Of course, others here have put in requests for cheap stuff so I will return with an assortment of products that people here are wanting (crocs for the boss's kids anyone?).

And going the other way, my parents have managed to become great enough fans of Iceland that my mom has not once, but twice requested baggies of that dried fish-jerky specialty, harðfiskur. The rest of the space will be jammed with wooly things, chocolatey things, and licouricey things. Fun times ahead as I descend on the customs dudes at Logan with a bag smelling suspiciously of a stale tidal pool.

02 August 2007

Summertime slowdown

Well, just as promised, summer in Iceland has brought about an almost complete change in the office atmosphere. Unlike the US, this time of year is holy and for Not Working, so although there are people in the office, the most busy looking thing is the table fan oscillating gently, ruffling the paper stacks on the empty desks. People will take 3-4 weeks off, traveling a little, and often just hanging out at home. The REAL vacation feeling doesn't properly begin until the second week of being away from the office anyway, everyone says here. There are plenty of package trips to sunny places in Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands, but many people will do that and then spend a week of fixing the summer house and hanging out at home on one end.

Outside the office, the mania generated by the summery weather continues. I had visitors in my house most of July, and the weekends and the non-work hours have been full of excursions, trips to the pool, or just sitting around outside, anywhere that's not in the shade. The country is sun-drunk, lying in all sorts of odd places just to catch a ray or three to store up for the long winter ahead. I've seen people sprawled against the warm stones of a building foundation, lying on the unused steps of the old Landspítali building, their lab coats hanging from the door handles. Any chance to toast your shins to a crisp.

On the days when rain clouds sweep across the city, I stay inside and weave, watching the tourists traipse up the hill below the window, shrouded in slickers and hoods. The bouclé I'm working with slides off the shuttle too quickly, the rattling of the bobbin mirroring the clatter of rain on the window, but soon enough the tangles are smoothed out and the project comes off the loom. I put another warp on to weave some more, measuring out the rainy afternoons in weft picks.