23 February 2007

where have you been all my life?

It's one of those days, where the sun drapes over Iceland, full of the golden promise of brighter days. It's six thirty in the evening and the sky is that just-setting cerulean blue color, striped in peach and pink. I came home this afternoon to a living room bursting with sun, rainbows bouncing off walls and turning my couch to a lazy, dozy place for an afternoon read with tea and biscuits. The difference of a week has brought out the summercolor of the light, and it's choked with yellow now.

One of the grand things about living here is discovering new things to love madly that you would never have known about if it weren't for living in this new place. This week it's the white bean and garlic veggie burgers from Grímur Kokkur, a company from Vestmannaeyjar that's lacking in website skills but makes a mean hvítlauks- og hvítbaunabuff. These little nuggets o' tasty are splendid chopped up, grilled with mushrooms, and tossed over pasta. I discovered these back in the J days, but forgot about them until I moved. Hurrah for rediscovery!

The other how'd-I-miss-it is Finnish music. Thanks to faithful commenter and now in-real-life friend DTW, I'm tuning into RinneRadio, Kaksio, and Giant Robot. Back in the pre-Iceland days, I was always looking for the foreign tunes as a cheap way to feel like I was traveling, so this is a continuation on an old theme. This time though, I'm getting it directly from the source. Hurrah for new tunes, and weekends that in typical Icelandic last-minute fashion, yawn empty on Thursday but then are suddenly populated with activity by Friday afternoon.

*Monday modification: This isn't enough to warrant a whole new post, but I have to say that another "where HAVE you been" recently is Ragnheiður Gröndal's album After The Rain. Although her website's all in Icelandic, she sings in English on this one, her voice is lovely, and plus, she's absolutely adorable. Probably impossible to find her albums elsewhere in the world, but for those of you who travel here, I highly recommend having a listen, particularly the second-to-last track, In Its Place. Makes Monday morning come in a little easier.

21 February 2007

so, do you like bruises?

While in Italy, I discovered the BEST way to get them, and it also happens to be a ton of fun. Here’s how to do it: Start in Ortisei, and head to the hills where a vintage chairlift from the 50’s creaks its way up a mountainside. A venerable gentleman there will rent you a one-person wooden toboggan with smooth metal runners. Climb aboard this single-chair lift after the thick plaid woolen blanket has been tucked on the seat, following your sled that’s been put on the previous chair.

Admire the view from the lift as it chugs the way up the hill. Meditate in the solitary silence as you progress majestically up the hill in your little individual seat and the mountains reveal themselves through the pines. Note the odd items traveling on the chairs going down the hill- stacks of blankets returning to the bottom, crates of bottles, bunches of trekking poles, sleds. At the top of the hill, clamber out and grab your sled. If desired, have a beer at the top and feast on the incredible view, the Alpensun, the fresh flavors of pine and moss. When you’re ready, head to the top of the groomed sledding track and settle into the sled.

Now, for maximum bruise potential, swollen ankles, and snow-up-the-trousers, this must be done with a largeish group, and everyone has to start down the hill at once, jockeying for positions. It’s even better if one person goes on a little ahead to the first turn to take action shots of the inevitable pileups and tip-overs.

This activity probably sounds totally idiotic but it was so hilariously fun that on the first trip when I hit a snowbank hard enough to shoot off the sled and end up on the far side, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t answer when asked if all my limbs were still in place. It’s a ridiculously dangerous idea to attempt to pull off hairpin downhill turns in a barely steerable sled with no safety features, but zipping down the straight parts with the mountains and sparkly sky above is glorious. With a total groomed sled-run of 4 miles, It’s the on-steroids version of sledding as a kid, without the work of hauling the sled back up the hill. We spent an entire day on the hillside.

I did this a week ago and am still bearing the wounds of having my ankle driven over, running into someone else so hard they ended up on the opposite side of snowbank, and various other spills that have resulted in bruises so florid that one looks like I’ve gotten a large tattoo of a purple cabbage on a certain body part. My right shin was so ravaged by the activity that I was even unable to downhill ski the last two days of the trip. In spite of the war wounds that have caused much amusement to those who were on the trip and those who only have seen the aftermath, I definitely would do it again!

20 February 2007

lather, rinse, repeat

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year once again, except this time, I ate the salad, rebel foreigner that I am. It's given me a weird fake I'm-so-local feeling to be seeing these routines and traditions again for the second time. This time I know how to cut everything up, I know that one ladleful of soup is the right amount to give you space for everything, and the smoky thick flavor reminds me of things a year ago. Soup for rememberance!

Meanwhile, outside things have become rather un-wintry during my time away. It's balmy and springlike, with bright skies late into the evening and the fresh smell of things growing on the breezes that sneak in my open window at night. Iceland's doing all it can to woo me away from the charms and memories of other lands!

19 February 2007


I spent the last week in South Tirol, the bit that’s in Italy amid the Dolomites. The day after my last post, we woke early to drive out of Innsbruck and up through the Brenner Pass to Bolzano, Italy. Stuffed with the excellent Tyrolean breakfast, the mountains scraping to the crystalline blue sky, and the towers and turrets of the city had me gurgling with glee from the back seat of our minivan. Í commented gravely from further forward in the car that I had apparently come down with a case of the Alp Giggles, for which there was not much of a cure. The view continued that way for the whole trip through Austria and down into Italy, and then we turned off to the left to follow a narrow, winding road through a string of Tyrolean villages, all painted houses, beautiful sculptures, and skiers everywhere.

Our destination was the village of Selva-Wolkenstein, about a two-hour drive from Innsbruck. Although technically Italy, the place was a mishmash of languages and influences. Some signs were in three languages- Tyrolean, German, and Italian, and in most places the greetings were in German in shops and restaurants. For the most part though, it was all Tirol- leather trousers, frilly blouses, lots of silver buttons, and houses with long overhangs, gently sloping roofs, and plenty of deep balconies to enjoy the blazing Alpine sun.

The mountains there were even more astounding than the Alps in Innsbruck were, with sheer vertical cliffs stretching improbably high, topped with scalloped peaks, and everywhere the surface leveled off even slightly, pines had taken root. It’s all been formed into a skiing paradise, so ribbons of trails and chairlifts streamed down the hill, zig-zagged by skiers plunging back to the narrow valleys. Interestingly though, in spite of the vast skiiable area (500 km of downhill trails, plus x-c skiing and toboggan runs), the lift tickets were about half the price of one in the US, and due to the challenges in getting there, I met not a single other American. It was all Germans, Italians, some English, other Icelanders, and a smattering of people from other European locations.

We’d rented an apartment for the week in the center of the town, a spacious and airy full- floor of a chalet, complete with views of the ski slopes and blanketing morning sun on the balcony. We bought our own breakfast at the grocery around the corner- fresh bread, thinly sliced Italian ham and salami, chunks of cheese, and Tirolean yogurt. From the house we could walk to one of the large chairlifts in our ski boots, and then ski all day, exploring the mountains and valleys, stopping at one of the little huts for a sit in the sun, a sip of mulled wine, or lunch, your choice of Italian, Tyrolean, or German food.

More later... I also have photos but I have apparently hit the limit on my free flickr account and cannot currently upload! You’ll be stuck imagining for now.

09 February 2007

Tyrolean transit

I am writing from Innsbruck this evening, after a very long day of travel that went through Germany as well as an unexpected stop in Vienna that added six hours to our trip. We arrived too late to see any of the landscape, although the sudden and stunning presence of the shadowed Alps were still visible during the descent. I can't wait to see it during the day. Everything about the town so far seems to be classic European- narrow streets, the gas line signs high on the corners of the buildings, and the pastel buildings crowding close to each other. Our hotel though, is pure Austrian, with dark carved wood panels, curvy gilt mirrors and lots of pink rosebud chinz.

The keyboard here is just strange enough that typing is a peculiar challenge, which, combined with 19 hours of traveling and four airports, makes for some uncreative writing. They've blended together a bit, although the Vienna airport's sex shop made for a rather entertaining half hour of browsing, and I am still wondering about the double hotdogs that came belted together in Frankfurt.

The group I am with is all Icelandic, so it's been a bit of overload after a whole day of the language, but I am sure that with sleep my outlook on everything will improve. Until then, good night!

08 February 2007

on the way to rehearsal

Last Saturday, I brought my camera with me on my way to rehearsal in my old neighborhood. There had been snow the night before, and at 10 a.m., Reykjavík was almost completely silent as I stepped through my front gate. I took the long way, passing Hallgrímskirkja just as the sun was cracking through the clouds behind me. From there I turned down the southwestern side of the hill, an area where the tiny houses are crowded together and it's easy to forget what era you're in.

The streets were almost completely empty of others as I descended down the opposite side of the hill and out across Tjörnin. They were finally taking down the spectacularly tacky candle-shaped covers from the streetlights, a sure sign that somewhere, somehow, summer is coming.

Since that morning, the days have hit that time when it's impossible to keep up with the rate of light gain. I'm arriving home in pink sunset dusk, and Snæfellsjökull has been crisply visible at work several times this week. I know I write about weather all the time here but it is truly jaw-droppingly spectacular to see such huge skies radiating pink and purple for hours at a time, while the mountains trimming the edge of the view shimmer cleanly white. It's norðurljós weather too, and last night as it swirled overhead (once again on my way to rehearsal), I thought of how accustomed I've grown to their presence. It's as magical as it was the first time but now it's part of the expected landscape and routine. It's become as common as the freshness of the air, the undernote of sulphur, the topnotes of moss and lava.

05 February 2007

so you want to live in Reykjavík?

I know there are a few people who read this blog with serious intentions to move here, and since I have had emails about this a bunch of times, this is the summary of what I know about renting in Reykjavík after working on this for several months. First of all, I should explain that unlike in Boston, the cost of owning a place is equal or less to the cost of renting, so anyone who possibly can own, does. As an immigrant still on a temporary visa, I can not yet, so I'm stuck with what is often the dregs of the housing market.

If you're looking for your own place (as opposed to renting a room in a shared place), they generally fall into two categories. First, there's the perennially for-rent places, usually owned by an Icelander abroad, or as some kind of second property for income. I saw one of these that was in a fantastic location, but was tiny, on the ground floor (people walking by directly outside your window feels not-so-safe, even in small-town Iceland), and contained dingy carpeting that looked like leftovers from a seventies-era warehouse (burnt orange! More awakening than coffee). There was also no way to to do laundry, which in Boston was not an issue with all the laundromats usually available in neighborhoods. Here, everyone's got laundry in the house or in the building, so laundromats pretty much do not exist. When I asked about it, the owner said, "well, the last guy just went to his mom's to do it". Not so easy when my mom's laundry room is a day's trip by plane from here. This place was also 75000isk/month, pretty expensive, even if you did get a back yard. I've since heard of another place almost exactly the same a few streets over.

The second category is the going-abroad-to-study category. These are nice places but only available for a limited duration of anywhere from six months to two years. They're also a person renting their home directly to you, so in many cases it comes down to a sort of popularity contest, or a who-knows-whom issue. Large management companies with a plethora of almost-identical apartments available (as my last place in Boston was) do not exist here.

There are exceptions to this, like the last place I lived, which was owned by a fisherman who was never in town but bought it since it was a great location and newly built. I know a few other people who have gotten lucky with this kind of thing- a family that moved to New Zealand thinking they would come back in a year or two and then just decided to not come back, leaving their house with all furnishings behind.

So, how to find these places? There are a few websites, like Morgunblaðið's classifieds, where the apartments for rent in Reykjavík are intermixed with summer rentals in Spain, houses in Húsavík, and flats in Akureyri. There is also leigulistinn, which you must pay 3500 krónur a month to have access to, and the places go fast there. After being in Craigslist-land the thought of having to pay so much makes me cringe, but they do have the most comprehensive listings there. A few other sites have tried to get into the business but remain kind of paltry on the rentable places, unless you want a two-floor penthouse or a basement in Árbær (=really far from downtown). Then, the better way (and where I found mine) is internal distribution lists and friends-of-friends. Since most of the places for rent are owned by individuals, they want to know they're having someone trustworthy in their home while they're away, so personal recommendations count for a lot.

And finally, what do you get with an apartment here? In addition to the living space, you'll get laundry room space in the basement if it's not in the apartment already. This is a fairly common arrangement, particularly in buildings from the fifties or earlier. Each resident has a designated hookup for their own washing machine in a shared space in the basement. In the larger buildings, there might even a separate drying room near the steam pipes. Dryers are not so common here as in the US in these places. You'll also often get a storage cupboard or room somewhere, the much desired geymsla, for your boxes and suitcases. In cases where someone's going abroad for a few years, they might be using this entirely for themselves or you'll be sharing with them. Appliances are not a given (except the stove), which is part of why renting from the second category is often easier, since the people going abroad don't usually take their fridge along.

The prices are high here, but after being in Boston I definitely don't feel like I'm getting a bad deal. I'm paying less for a bigger place with more accessories, in about the same type of neighborhood. I could have chosen to live further out of town, where the prices are usually able to get a larger place, but the difference is not significant, and I personally prefer the old details and the immediate by-foot access to all manner of downtown experiences.

So there you have it. You now know everything I do.

02 February 2007


I have a "science trivia daily" calendar here at work, and today's was about groundhog day. We got to talking about it here, and P suddenly sprouted forth a poem:

Ef í heiði sólin sést
á sjálfa kyndilmessu
snjóa vænta máttu mest
maður upp frá þessu.

It's all very archaic and flowery in phrasing, but translation is approximately, "if you see the sun set on Candlemass, you can surely expect snow". So, the traditions are not all that different, since a sunny day is necessary for the groundhog to see his shadow anyway. If today's weather holds, it means we're gonna have an early summer then, since the clouds are so low they're practically around my ears.

My calendar went further to explain that the US tradition came from German immigrants and their belief that a badger would see his shadow and retreat, thinking it was a predator. Since they had no badgers in Pennsylvania, they swapped in a groundhog, a much less interesting animal.

P dug a little further and found that part of the significance of the day is that it's forty days after Christmas. According to Catholics a while back, women were considered unclean for the forty days* after childbirth. So, if Mary gave birth on the 25th, today's the first day Joseph could enjoy a bit of slap and tickle. Party time!

* and now I am wondering how this relates to another Famous Forty Days. Is there some kind of fertility issue in the story of the flood? Might as well have a flood since the wife's not touchable? I hope there aren't any extremely religious readers who are impossibly offended by this, but I do think it's a really interesting connection.

01 February 2007

time warp

This morning I woke up in my new place for the first time, and since I hadn't seen the view yet (all my previous visits had been after dark), I lingered over my strong coffee to watch the sun illuminate what lay outside the kitchen window. With the window open, I could hear the bells chiming the hour and the half up the hill at Hallgrímskirkja, and the flurry of Reykjavík starting the day. The town surrounds me where I live, and although I'm close to a busy street, the buildings in the area create a cocoon of quiet. The contour of the hill has also been kind to me, allowing a glimpse of Esja's spine and a spread of buildings off to the northeast.

Outside, Fréttablaðið tucked under my arm, I took the shortcut through the back yard and out onto the street, where I discovered that the new 'hood is full of little artisan studios and shops. I passed a window with pulled shades, the sill cluttered with paintbrushes, rags, and some slightly forgotten lemons that must have once been a still life. On the next corner, walls of yarn made the backdrop for a knitting and seamstress shop.

Later in the day, I went to what is now My Local Pool, where the vintage 30's styling charmed me the first time I saw it when I had newly arrived. I was thinking it was going to be a sad swim since the pool is uniquely indoors, but the high windows, the frightening deep end, and two empty lanes for the picking were perfect conditions for a rousing swim, and I do so love the rooftop hot-tubs with panoramic city views. On the way back to my new home along an empty street, I marveled at how I could hear the activity of the city but it all seemed to be happening somewhere else. In the midst of these 1930s-era short apartments, behind the vintage curvature of Hallgrímskirkja's apse, and in the rain-gleaming fresh darkness, it was Iceland 70 years ago, and I live in the middle of it.