30 January 2007


On an almost-daily basis, I talk to people with five or six different native languages, none of which are English. So, since I don't speak Finnish and German and Spanish and Swedish and Dutch, and my Icelandic is a bit weak, it's usually my native language that we all end up speaking. I've realized that I have altered the way I use my own language- I enunciate more and select different words. Given the mixed influences on my accent already, I hadn't noticed it myself, but it's enough that a sharp-eared friend from my Boston days noted it a few months ago.

One of the things I love about speaking with people who may not have all the words they want to describe things is all the other ways to get the point across, from miming, to using the words in their own language (context and a little linguistic knowledge makes decent guesses often possible) to poetic, and sometimes roundabout ways of describing what they mean. Some of these frills are so lovely that I want to always use them now. For example, wouldn't you rather have a "movement package" when moving flats than just a regular old box? On some occasions, even brand-new words surface.

The ultimate goal of language is to communicate and these people all do so admirably, but the twist of unexpected input has added new flavor to the way I think about the world and the way I use and perceive my own words. Each one of these other languages have their own rules and spelling that spills over into the use of English- v's and w's are exchanged, pre-aspiration floats into words like "not" (this is the little breathy exhale that happens when pronouncing double-consonants in Icelandic and exists in very few languages worldwide), and the Germans and the Icelanders both have the same sprightly way of saying "I think.." Dutch people always sound far too enthusiastic early in the morning with the rising tones at the end of words like "hoiiiii!!" (a Dutchman saying "hi"), and there is definitely something similar about how the pronuciation of Finns and Icelanders appear in English.

This feast of phonemes has been a real treat, showing in real-time just how related the languages are. I studied linguistics in college but it's nothing like actually hearing these words in a way that lays the connections so bare. I'm always scurrying to the dictionary to inspect the roots of an English word, comparing notes with these other languages for where the usages diverged. For example, a few weeks ago I had a very involved discussion about the Icelandic word lóð (pronounced like "loathe"), which means a weight or a building lot. The trail wound through loathe and load and lode and lot and lade, proving unresolved in the end, but left me feeling moreso than ever that we're all not so different after all. Aren't we practically speaking the same language?

29 January 2007

downtown girl

This week I'm going to be changing my perspective on Reykjavik with a new apartment. After living for six months in a situation that I thought was going to be temporary, I'm going to finally have all my stuff in one place. The new apartment is a style that appears often in the area where I will be living. Built in the 1930s, it's kind of ordinary looking on the outside, but comfortable and cozy inside, and contains several of the odd original details like the super-short woodn railing in the stair hall, the wavy glass in the door to the kitchen, and bedroom cupboards with original handles. It's so typical of the area that I realized that it's the mirrored floor plan of a friend's place three streets away, and is even reminiscent of where I've been staying for the past six months. I guess it's a layout they like in Iceland.

I'm going to have a new local pool, new grocery stores, new church bells to listen to, and new views, and although it's downtown, I still have a front yard and back yard complete with clothesline. This is what I love about Reykjavík. I'm in the center of the capitol city and I can still have air-dried sheets.

Other than that, things have been rather Januaryish. I was in the country over the weekend, in a location that must be spectacular in clear weather, but yesterday was mostly just soggy. Still, there's magic in the mist, and the nice thing is that when the weather's warm like that, the air exudes that ultra-fresh smell that I have only experienced here. It's one of the things I miss most when I'm away- that alive, things-are-always-growing kind of fragrance that hits you the instant you step out the door at the airport. It's something people here seem to take for granted sometimes, knowing you can open the window and have the kind of air that, if it could be bottled and sold, would be on the shelves in stores next to the most exclusive designer-style imported waters. Drink up!

17 January 2007

cucumber time

It's been a string of days that are starting to merge into each other, each one a sky thinly washed with clouds, full of wind that sends plumes and mini-tornados of snow off the roofs of the buildings outside my work window. The ravens are soaring past the windows on the air currents, and AMPOP's "3 hours of daylight" seems to come up on my iPod's shuffle with alarming frequency. How does this little machine "know" how well this song fits right now? Although we are now up to a dazzling five and a half hours, I am still going to work and coming home from work in the dark, and the sun only appears and shines when there's a large enough tear in the cloud cover. On the weekends I wake to that flat winter light, completely devoid of gold, purified and filtered by the snowcover. It's indeed a frigid color but I love the way it diffuses through a room and makes the palest blue of the sky on those occasional clear days seem so vivid.

Still, the cycle of the day has moments of alarming color, when the reflection from the rising sun turns the cloudbank behind Esja lavender, and the mountains further to the north appear and disappear like white ghosts as the day passes and the clouds move. When the sun does appear, I let it burn my eyes as I squint at my computer screen, reluctant to close off those few rays when they are so rare. Such is winter in Iceland.

12 January 2007

the result

Back in November I wrote about being at a New Years party a little too early as part of a video shooting... well here's the result of that evening. Readers, it's up to you to decide if I'm visible in the final party scene shots at the end. I discovered there are a few other videos on Youtube from the group, including this one called "Two Friends" and this very jolly song. The lyrics of the third one are saying "smile, it's free", and at the end includes some shots of various Well-Known Icelanders telling us to smile in the newsroom and while on a motorbike, among other locations. I love this one. I had to watch it three times already and I'm going in for a fourth.

Also, because everyone's all talented like that here, this guy I work with is in ANOTHER group, shown here singing the Icelandic version of O Holy Night in a male acapella chorus. Awesome.


it's snowed some every day for the past three days, and the view outside now is completely white, with snow billowing off the roofs and low clouds to the south attesting to more on the way. It's properly Arctic, and yet still I was out in it barefoot and in a bathing suit last night. I adore the pools here.

As I did my laps beneath the gently falling snow yesterday evening, each turn of my head for air gave me a snatch of orange nighttime snow-sky, and occasionally my intake of breath was accompanied by the tang of a caught snowflake before I plunged under the velvet water surface. Swimming in snow was prickly on the arms and my exposed shoulder, encouraging me to swim more quickly so I could keep rotating through the warmth in the water. I don't know if it's the temperature or the low chlorine here but the water last night felt especially delicious and smooth as it flowed over my face and along my legs.

Last night the pool was very empty of others, with only about six pairs of shoes lined up in the locker room, but that's what I liked best about the evening. After the chaos and full-capacity seating in the eimbað during the short hours at holiday time, it was nice to have the peace of evening pooltime back. Sitting in the heitur pottur after my swim, I lay with my face towards the sky, watching where the steam from the pool mixed with the falling flakes, and listened to the chortles from the old men in the next tub. Somewhere, maybe in the guard tower on the opposite side of the pool, a tinny radio played just loud enough to hear above the snowbound landscape. Beyond the protective berm near the lap lanes, the roads of the neighborhood were muffled and quiet, and these few sounds within the pool enclosure stayed low, trapped by the clouds. It was quiet and cozy there, watching the flakes and the occasional errant firecracker that sparkled in the sky. Will I ever not find snow enchanting? The freshness, the mystery and muffling, and the unexpected swirling are still remarkably distracting.

It's also so fascinating how snowstorms here change their mind so quickly. In spite of the recent stormy weather I've also seen spectactular sunrises and blue sky since the storms don't ever sit over us like the weather we had in Boston. Currently it's become sunny again in half my view, while the other still swirls with falling snow. It's hard to stay focused on work when I never know quite what I'll see when I look out the window, and I never want to miss a single glorious sun-edged cloud highlight. There is just so much to see.

09 January 2007

educational video

I just got this video link from co-worker K after hearing him snickering from his desk. It's painfully humorous to watch, and based on the Icelandic comments, we here aren't the only ones who think so.

Also, in spite of the awkwardness of the scene near the end, it's cool to see that area "in film", since it's the beach where my family and I walked on Christmas Day as the sun was setting, and where I have taken many photos (except in my photo you can actually SEE the church they are "filming" at the very end).

bright sky in the morning

This morning when I got to work, a couple of people were on my side of the office with their noses pressed to the wall of south-facing windows. It's one of those magical clear mornings where the glow of the sun fades up from the horizon in that special only-in-the-north way, and there, just above the horizon hung a bright glimmering light. Almost like an airplane, but more steady and shimmering slightly, it's the comet McNaught, due to be visible for the next few days here at both sunrise and sunset. The forecast is for more of this sub-freezing clear weather, so I hope to see it again! I'm not sure how far its range of visibility goes, but these photos show it from several locations in the northern hemisphere, so have a look and maybe you'll see it too.

07 January 2007

Ist das ein Eisberg?

Saturday I found myself in the company of a posse of exploratory Germans, heading northwest to Snæfellsnes on a day trip. We started in the dark, braved the swirling snows north of Borgarnes, and were out on Snæfellsnes by the time it was bright enough to see the ghost of the mountain spine down the center. The moon hung overhead, still fat and nearly full, and the air had that fresh Icelandic country flavor I adore so much.

By the time we reached Arnarstapi at the south of the tip, the sun was properly up, creating window-glow and turning the clouds above the mountains pink. There´s a tiny harbor there, among improbable turrents of moss-topped basalt. On that quiet Saturday morning, the only other activity was a trio of fishermen at work on their little boat. The faint sounds of the radio announcer drifted out from the open car door on the dock, and there were muffled clunks and engine noises coming from inside the ship. Down there at the edge of the country the rocks contort themselves into fantastic curves, cliffs, and parapets, the castle walls that protect Iceland. It's a place I want to visit more, wander on those little paths that disappear over the undulations of the landscape. It's always been just a day trip though, and the plans of the day snatch me away before I'm able to go around that next corner.

We stopped for lunch at the turf-roofed kaffistofa there, where the low wood-framed room inside was cozy and the coffee was plentiful. The lone attendant there, a woman d'un certain age, was resolutely non-English speaking in spite of the foreign crowd, but pressed the coffee refills on us, and brought us our fish-flavored french fries quickly. By the time we departed, the weather was looking a bit lower but we continued on to the famous rock formations at the end. These frozen lava-splashes look like sentinels keeping watch at the end of the peninsula, and are accompanied by a wide beach composed entirely of black lava pebbles that have been tumbled and smoothed by the busy sea there. It's the perfect place to find a pocket-rock, a smooth hand-held memory of other places that you find when you tuck your hand into your winter coat pocket. I selected a promising one and tucked it into my mitten, where it grew warm as the seawater dried off.

There's an old shed near the beach there that's gradually being consumed by the landscape that surrounds it. The windows and doors are missing, the bolts holding it together are rusting brilliantly, and detritus from fishermen clutter the more solid corners. It's the kind of place that's crowded with ghosts of other times, and I always wonder if those who constructed it enjoyed the astounding location, or was it just a nuisance to be there in that relentless wind, with waves the height of two men roaring against the coastline? I see these places after arriving comfortably in a car, full of hot coffee and sandwiches, knowing that I don't rely on this tormented sea beyond for my very life.

By then the light was beginning to look murky and we'd planned to get a bit closer to Snæfellsjökull before going, so we all got back in the cars and headed for the road that goes into the mountains. After assessing the experience and the vehicles, we decided to change the plan, and instead hiked the kilometer up to Sönghellir, the singing cave. It had started to snow in earnest by then, so we followed the tire tracks up into almost complete whiteness, the snowflakes plastering our backs and the wind swirling around our heads.

The cave is a very tiny entrance that opens into a dry ante-chamber, and beyond that I don't really know, since nobody had planned to come here, and we were flashlightless. I managed a few dazzling looks at the tiny area we were in by taking flash pictures, which illuminated the walls briefly, but brilliantly enough that I could make out the scrawled initials from the centuries of visitors in the past. Must come back with better light!

When we came out, the snow had blown away, displaying the view below, a wide arc of seacoast and mountains, so monochromatically perfect and cloud-swathed that they looked painted. How can I ever doubt that this is the place I should live when the views are like this? Still, the darkness was closing in, as was another snow squall, so we traipsed back down the hill and made our way into the gloom back to Borgarnes.

In Borgarnes, the flames from the elf-fire were swirling brightly on the opposite side of the causeway, and the tail-lights there indicated something exciting was going to happen, so we pulled in just in time to witness a dazzling fireworks display and the last burning of sparklers and little rockets. We stayed by the warmth of the fire for a few minutes, watching as the last sparklers were lit and the final New Year greetings were exchanged. By the time we also departed, only one vigilant fire-watcher remained.

The trip back was dominated by the distant city-glow of Reykjavik behind the mountains, and by the time we rounded the edge of Esja, we could see the fireworks blooming over the spread-out stretch of city like tropical flowers, their jagged explosions a testament to the wind coming off the sea. Somehow, returning to the city here is always one of the most surreal parts of journeys here. Is this really my home, and what is this apparently huge city doing here so close to empty mountain passes?