21 September 2007


This week I've been thinking of things that now fill my brain that I wasted not a care on before, and realized that it has replaced some stuff that was front-and-center in my head in the old days. I started making a mental list of the remembering/forgetting items, and in the interest of freeing up that brainspace, it's going down on this site.

Things I don't have to think about anymore now that I live in Iceland:
  • Clothes dryers. I'm air-dry all the time, baby. Only problem is when I am finishing my chenille scarves I need to borrow a dryer, and I know a total of two people who actually have them.
  • Furnaces, and therefore waiting for the heat to be turned on in the fall. Makes the basements of apartment buildings look really weird and empty without the Great Beast lurking down there. Also, I've never been to someone's house that is just not quite warm enough, unlike the time when I visited my aunt in Paris in her lovely-yet-frigid Beaux Arts-era apartment building.
  • Hot water heaters. Consistent shower temperatures all the time, and no need to get up super early to beat out the guy downstairs for the hot water!
  • Antiperspirant/air conditioners. It's never warm enough to need either.
  • How to get OUT of the city. Unlike 5 hours of traffic to get to a bit of empty on a popular weekend, it's 20 minutes.
  • Will the tap water be drinkable at a restaurant or hotel? Whenever I am not in Iceland, I am very preoccupied with water quality and end up drinking far less water than when home.
  • Ants, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies. Yes, we have some up here (like silverfish) but for the most part it's but a memory. Means you can forget to wash a plate for a lot longer here. Nice!
  • Restrictive work hours/sick time. I have to be present for meetings and get my work done, but how and where that happens is my business. This was a big stress factor in the US that is totally gone.
things I do think about a lot now that I don't live in Boston/USA:
  • Sleeping with the window open, whatever the temperature or wind conditions may be outside
  • My passport. I have to carry it much more often now, and thanks to all the visas and stamps, have to get extra pages now.
  • How true or incorrect stereotypes about people from different countries are, since I meet so many people from so many places now.
  • Laundry planning. Euro machines seem to heat their own water and take their own sweet time washing your clothes ever so gently. A load can take up to 2 hours to complete, so it's a big planning session to make it happen. Add in the drying negotiations (see "no clothes dryers" above) which involve either picking a non-rainy day and hanging in the morning for sun exposure, or beating the other building residents to the inside lines, and laundry day gets exciting.
  • Bathing suits. I have about 8 of them and it's just never enough with all the pool and hot tub opportunities here. Must have variety.
  • Suitcases. Somewhere on some life-abroad list I read a comment that said being an expat means learning how to pack a suitcase really well and get all kinds of odd things packed together in a tiny space without breaking anything. I still hate packing to go on trips though, in spite of all my recent experience with it.
  • Food spoilage. Everything has a much shorter shelf life here. Bread & milk are only good for a couple of days before they get fuzzy or funny smelling. Therefore, I think more about my grocery shopping plans. I've gone all old-lady and bought a fold-up grocery trolley (like this only a more stylin stripes and mod flowers pattern), which is fun when trundling eggs home over the cobbled sidewalks.
  • Raincoats that don't look foreign-tourist or straight-from-the-mountain for all-the-time wear. Umbrellas just don't cut it, and the weather the past month has called for almost constant raincoat use.
  • Boots with low/no heels, for staying stylishly warm and being walkable on cobblestones and icy sidewalks. I realized just how much of a new thing this is when I tried to find footwear in Boston and found that only the Super Sensible (=really not fun to wear and rather ugly) boots had flat/low heels.
  • Apartments and housing. It's over 3 months until I have to move out but I am already planning where I will live in January. Gotta work the inside route if possible.
  • How to escape the darkness of December/January here for a bit of light somewhere else.
  • Running into people who are all "HEY!! How've you BEEN?? SO GREAT TO SEE YOU!!!" that I don't remember at all. This happened to me at a party a few weekends ago with a very bubbly Spanish lady that I thought was someone else. Turns out I met her two years ago at my first-weekend-in-Iceland party and have basically not seen her since. She has a new job with some people I sort of know and ended up at the party, where she recognized me and I didn't. That's how it goes in Iceland.

18 September 2007

the restless natives

A few months ago a friend and reader, partly in jest (I think) commented that I never say much in a positive light about the people who inhabit this island, just the landscape and the scenery. Since then I've been thinking about why exactly this is. First of all I am still interested in preserving some level of anonymity (not sure how effective this is for the Icelandic readership) so getting super specific about people I know would likely make that impossible. Second of all, the time I am most likely to think about things to write is when I am alone, contemplating some lonely expanse of landscape and making mental notes as to where this experience differs or compares to the years Before Iceland.
And finally, I am reluctant to go all sweeping generalization on the people I've met and gotten to know in the past two years. Still, it's thanks to all these people that I am still here, living the foreign land life that is not fun or perhaps even possible without the people that have helped me navigate through all the complexities.
There's the endless funnel of advice I've gotten on all the little things that make up the infrastructure of life- translating the Icelandic tax-form terminology, knowing what kind of salary range to ask for, understanding the health care system, the housing, the leasing, the visa process, cooking a Christmas ham properly, even the instructions on the all-Icelandic washing machine at the last apartment. It's a lot of life-bits to have to learn all over again, and these guides have been the difference between thinking giving up was the easiest answer and soldiering on in the face of words that are 20 letters long.
There are the rides I've gotten on so many mornings, so many frigid afternoons or late evenings that have made it possible to avoid the miserably inefficient bus system, and the trips I've been invited on as the spare rider. It's the chance to borrow a car when a friend comes to visit, a detail that made the difference between a pleasant visit and an amazing, memorable trip.
It's the people who have opened their houses to me and to my family and friends, the ones with the advice about places to visit, secret hot springs, and how it just might be possible to get an extra portion of the alcohol allotment past the guys in the airport. Some people say that people here are rather rude because they're not all napkins snapped into the lap, doors opened for the ladies, and holding coats. I say that after a shared cab ride from the edge of the world through Kópavogur and finally to Reykjavík, when you're the last out of the cab and find that the guy that got out just before you paid so much he covered your share and left you with 500 krónur extra, that's real chivalry.
There are quite a few foreigners who live here for the sake of the landscape, the air & water, the social benefits, and really don't care much for the locals, but I have to say I'm not one of them. Sure, some of the features of Icelandic society are still befuddling or a bit unappealing to my more straitlaced New England mentality, but for the most part I am overwhelmingly grateful to all the people who have made my life here so varied, so interesting, and so much easier than it would have otherwise been.

one common language

This evening I was taking a cab, and when trying to deal with directions and then again with payment, I realized from the few phrases we exchanged that the driver was not Icelandic. Last week at the bakery, I was served by a woman who was also newly arrived to Iceland, and a few days ago at the Asian grocery store I completed my transaction to the singsong sounds of a Thai-flavored "takk fyrir".

Some people might think that Icelandic is dying, since so small a country speaks the language, but the past week is only a sample of what seems to be happening with increasing frequency here. Reykjavik is turning Manhattan, all Yugoslavian taxi drivers and Philippine shopkeepers. There are Polish people cleaning the office, Thai groceries and restaurants all over town, and tiny populations of other cultures everywhere between. Most seem to be making at least some efforts to speak Icelandic, even if it's the most rudimentary Krua Thai versions of calling out order numbers (no "sixty five" for one person working there, but just "six five").

It's a weird feeling to have two people with our only common language being this obscure tongue, but somehow in the midst of all our other native accents, we're able to find enough common ground to get things done, to pay for the cab, find our way home, ask for a shopping bag, or where the wasabi peas are. Doesn't sound like a dying language to me.

14 September 2007

in which I discuss girly things

This post is one that the gents may want to tune out, as it discusses the topic of moisturizers.

Now that you've been warned, I have to mention a particular product that I noticed had become the scent of pool locker rooms to me, Elizabeth Arden's Green Tea Honey Drops lotion. The spicy sweet smell has been detected in every major locker room of the Reykjavík Capital Area, is probably hot up in Akureyri, and all the country pools between too. It's so common that the flavors are now inextricably mixed with that of sulphur, toasted hair from the hairdryers, and a hint of chlorine. Someone's always around the corner slathering the stuff on post-swim. It's so popular that I've seen women in the duty-free at KEF with an entire shopping basket full of tubs. Icelandic women are ADDICTED to this product, so much so that they came out with a special supersize duty-free package of it, available only in the airport. Women were going all rabid-dogs on those too.

So last time I went through on my way back from Norway, I picked up the small size tub to see what the big excitement was all about, and joined the crowd o' honey-scented sheep and scooped it on last time I was at Laugardalslaug.

I get it now. THIS is the secret to not being all miserably dry-n-itchy in the winter when swimming regularly. This moisturizer goes with Icelandic pool habits like cinnamon and cider (another one of those things that I am missing as fall closes in). Icelanders are pretty trend-susceptible though, so I am curious to see how long the product love lasts before some new potion's on the market and out in every single pool locker room.

12 September 2007


This morning I woke to the clatter of rain on the window, and gusts pulsating through the open window that made the shade squeak and the door bang fiercely. Snug in feathers I enjoyed this special breed of Icelandic storm, noisy and insistent. It drowns out all sounds of modernity, so for that moment it could be 100 years ago, even if you are in the middle of a city.

Those warm-up exercises I mentioned a week ago must have been effective, since I returned from Norway to find that the door on the landing had apparently been ripped off its hinges by another enthusiastic storm last week, leaving a spray of splinters across the carpet, and bending the curtain rod into uselessness. The door's now boarded into place with sturdy blocks of wood, and seems to be impervious to these newer blasts today.

Although it is hard to walk in sometimes, wind and storms like this are invigorating to me. High at my sixth floor desk, I watch the sheets of rain swirl across the nearly empty parking lot, listen to the whistling through the slight crack in the window, and observe the smoky clouds in their majestic course out to sea. I'm sure that, like most Icelandic storms, this one too will be a memory by afternoon, but for now I am relishing the insanity of it, and the odd calm that comes from everyone scurrying about so quickly to stay inside, tucked away from the fury of the sea's weather systems.

10 September 2007

swampy times

It's no coincidence that the word for mushroom in Icelandic, sveppir, resembles the word "swamp". They know a thing or two about wet weather and the fungi who love it! The past two weeks of almost non-stop rain has created the perfect breeding ground for the most luxurious mushrooms I've seen in quite a while. Their variety looks like the kind of thing that a mushroom gourmand would get all rhapsodical about- long cylinder ones, tiny sprinklings of black ones, fairy parasols, seats for the toads that don't live in Iceland, and everything. They're creeping across the lawn of my house, inching towards the door, they're in the swath of land on the far side of Tjörnin, they're cropping up in the shrubbery around laugardalslaug. A few weeks ago in Heiðmörk, the woods were rustley with people collecting them. I'm no shroom expert so I quake at picking the wrong kind, so I celebrated in my own way on Saturday with a homemade mushroom soup, using store varieties, of course. It's just the kind of weather for it what with all the rain, after all.

07 September 2007

all the tortoises in Athens

My oldest brother lived in Athens for some time, and he once wrote me a postcard telling me that there are lots of tortoises living there. This was to be my Fun Factoid Insider Information about the place for future cocktail party conversation. That's how I feel about all these random things I've learned so far about Norway. I've sampled from both rival sushi restaurants here, and my personal jury is still undecided as to whether Nippon Art or Alex Sushi comes away with the Best Ever prize for this city. I've learned that Norwegian floor drains are more thriftily designed than the Icelandic counterparts (why have two floor drains when you can have just one?) which sometimes causes inconvenience. In the first hotel I stayed at, the shower water flowed through a hole in the side of the shower stall, streamed halfway across the bathroom and through the only drain in the floor. Don't leave your socks on that floor!

I've learned about why shrimp from different shrimp boats can taste so different, what makes Telemark notable (other than the skiing technique) and where the Norwegian summer went this year. This information is stashed in some corner of my brain with Useless Things I Know, along with the location of the go-go club and related colorful characters down the street from where I last stayed, in the middle of downtown Oslo.

I've been there four times now and for some reason I just don't have a ton to say about it. Maybe it's the nature of work travel that limits your knowledge of a place to the flag that snaps outside the window being a different color. Maybe it's the odd mixture in the areas where I have been, the drug addicts mixed with the enchanting sorbet-colored 17th century buildings, the people walking the streets that resemble stretched-out versions of Icelanders (facial features are similar but everyone seems taller here) speaking Another Language, the "late night commercial activity" going on along these immaculate streets, the enchanting looking villages I've whizzed by so many times on the trains.

I just came back yesterday from yet another trip, again having seen almost nothing of the place. Maybe next time I'll make it north to visit my friend, but until then my experience will probably be more about the people I travel with and the work I do, rather than rambling through those temptingly rolling fields that spread below as I fly in and out.

02 September 2007

sea change

this past week autumn has arrived emphatically, with rain for a solid five days, the wind playing do-mi-so-do-so-mi-do warmup exercises for winter in my bathroom vent, yellow leaves already strewn on the black concrete sidewalk. Along with that comes the earnest recommencement of all the Real Activities. Projects at work are back in action, the choir's started up, and friendships renewed after weeks spent in foreign lands soaking up sun and idleness. It's a nice consolation prize in exchange for the summer being over, for the nights closing in.

This wet weather and the looming darkness means that I've already finished my 50-pack of tea lights, and the cooking has fired up again- spiced carrot soups with toasted pumpkin seeds and a dollop of skyr atop, the all-American Toll House chocolate chip cookies, which have gone over tremendously well with everyone. I'm not sure if they taste better here because I had to make them entirely by hand (beating brick-hard brown sugar with butter is no mean feat) or if it's the meltingly delicious Icelandic butter, but they have disappeared quickly, these brown saucers of American patriotism. I know these cookies are one of those things that American expats often moan about not being able to make properly in their foreign lands, but I am happy to say that Iceland comes out top in this category. Excellent chocolate, rich brown sugar, and some of the best butter in the world combines to make the American super-cookie up here. These will not last long.

Now that I've given into fall and stopped bemoaning the loss of endless summer light, I'm remembering the delights in store ahead. I'm already busy making autumn berry bouquets in the bowls at home, flaming red bits of fall sitting on my living room table. I'm pulling out the woolies, buying Sangiovese instead of Chablis, cozying up to the feather duvet in my windswept bedroom (it's best to just leave the window open, no matter what the season). It's time to unearth my fantastic collection of tall boots, shake out the coats, air out the scarves, and prepare the bathing suits in earnest. Cold weather's also the best time for enjoying the steam room, the hot tub, and the sensory thrill of swimming in warm water while the winter swirls above. Yes, the darkness and the frigid weather are coming but the wind carries hidden thrills, the treats in store for those of us who are willing to wait until after the sun sets on summer.