30 April 2007

I come home on Saturday morning

So on Friday, in a continuation of the French Spring festival, I went to the Nouvelle Vague concert down at Hafnarhúsið (the harbor house, AKA Reykjavík Art Museum). It's a smallish venue with lots of lobby space and a well-organized ticketing process, so there was no standing around outside, no rushing the doors, or any of the usual concertgoing mania one gets when Not In Reykjavík. In fact, the only line I stood in was the line for my free beer. Although I'm sure the price was built into the ticket, it was so unexpected (FREE BOOZE! Are we still in Iceland?) that everyone started the evening off with that frisson of joy that free stuff gives you. Plus, when it's an audience of Icelanders, it does take a while to loosen them up for the clapping, the swaying, and sing-along, even when regaled with Latin American syncopation.

The crowd was Pretty People Reykjavík- lots of suits, lots of edgy and expensive glasses frames, lots of carefully styled disheveled hair on the women, and square jaws, dewy lips, and high cheekbones everywhere. Pleasant crowd-watching for sure. We situated ourselves at the perfect acoustic distance from the speakers, at a place where I could see through all the very tall people in the audience (even with heels making me about 5'11", I felt short there).

I'd only heard three songs by the group, and I don't know any of the band member's names, so like usual when I go to concerts here, I had no idea what I was in for. Adventures at every turn! Anyway, the group came out almost perfectly punctually (no opening act)- two female singers who I'll call by their dresses: sparkly and fringy, a guitarist, a bass player (the classical kind), keyboards, and percussion.

For the uninitiated, this is basically a cover band, playing songs by Blondie, Billy Idol, the Specials, the Clash, and a slew of others. They've Done Stuff to all of them, so for some people this is probably scandalous. However, when they're sung by a beguiling befringed babe with arm movements reminiscent of the illustrations of the famous 19th century singer Yvette Guilbert, it's hard to be angry.

They may have been borrowed tunes, but "Dancing with myself" done as a 30's jazz club ditty is actually pretty cool, and the two singers both had fascinating voices. Fringy had pipes like Janis Joplin crossed with a vintage singer that should have been draped across a piano, and Sparkly was husky, personal, and full of emotion. When they sang together it was another feeling altogether. They were fun to watch too, and actually looked like they were actually enjoying performing themselves (the glasses of what I am pretty sure was wine probably helped a bit too).

The rest of the group was equally entertaining. I couldn't see much of the keyboardist and his Mac thanks to Mr. Viking Banker in front of me, but the Brazilian flavors of the percussionist were catchy, and the bass player's one moment of glory was very moving. Plus, his red cowboy shirt was scorchingly awesome.

We managed to clap and stomp and "meira" our way to two encores, but the gig was up after only 2 hours, which caused another concertgoer to grumble that even concerts on Tuesdays didn't end so early. It did mean that the night was plenty young enough for a round of drinks up the hill at b5, where about half the place was carrying the bags from the CD sale table at the concert.

The other half was busy being beautiful or, in typical Reykavík fashion, watching or playing the chess game that was going on at the long table next to us. Yep, one of the style hound bars of Reykjavík, on a clear Friday evening, contains people playing games of strategy over beer. And there you have it. Friday to Saturday in our fair city.

29 April 2007

the small views

In the same spirit as my post last year, I've taken some photos of how things look around me today. Now you can see the lace curtained wooden door I open every evening, the curved wooden stair rail that runs smooth beneath my hands, and the little rusty front gate with the clusters of daffodils around it.

And of course, the back yard like the dozens of them in this town, one of the great things about living in Reykjavík. It may be a capitol city but it still has the heart of a village with all the clotheslines, the barbecues and sandboxes, the garages and sheds. It's the secret Reykjavík that is never on the tours but is part of why I like it here so much. There's nothing quite like sleeping in sheets that have blown fresh in the sea air here.

25 April 2007

flavors of everyday

It's the scent of dish soap when mixed with the sulphur-hot smell of the water here, the keening of the wind that howls in the vent somewhere in the bathroom. It's how I know that the ferocity of the weather by the pattern of raindrops on my windows. A storm's really exciting if both kitchen and living room are spattered with wet, and the wind makes the shade pull in my bedroom clack restlessly on the pane.

It's the smell of air-dried linens and duvet, forcibly infused with Outdoor after an afternoon snapping on the line, and the green taste of a crisp hothouse cucumber grown just across the mountain pass.

It's the color of the tomatoes that squat on the folding Swiss trivet and ripen in morning sun, the taste of local potatoes roasted with plaice from the fish market near work- the one where they're impossibly jolly and pleasant, even just before closing and the store's full. It's the scratch of Icelandic wool on my arms from my lopapeysa, the color snippet of a tea towel that steams gently dry on the radiator in the kitchen. It's the red glow reflected off the sheds outside that glosses the ceilings on the north side.

Sure, Iceland's all about grand vistas for many people, but I suspect that these everydaynesses are the ones I'm going to remember again someday, triggered by ripening tomatoes, the smell of outside in the blanket fibers, or the swish of a dishcloth on yet another dirty dish.

24 April 2007

party time!

Over the weekend I went to my first Real Icelandic afternoon birthday party, held at the function hall of the church where I sing. One of the guys in the choir was having a stórafmæli (big birthday), the special word for those birthdays when you reach a decade mark. The event was Pure Iceland, down to the birthday boy's attire- the traditional Icelandic getup with the paired line of silver buttons marching down his vest (very dashing!).

This was an afternoon cakes'ncoffee party, with psychedelic green tablecloths, flowered napkins, and proper cups and saucers (this is genteel living, people!). For warmups, there were the traditional flatkökur wedges topped with closely overlapped slices of hangikjöt or smoked salmon. When sufficiently limber from these appetizers, there were cakes, oh so many cakes to attack, cakes looking like they were created by the family of princess and the pea fame if they had gone into the confectionery business instead of being all boring and royal. These were sturdy layers of cake interlaced with mixed fruit, gobs of whipped cream (the real stuff- no rediwhip, coolwhip, or any other sorry goo), topped with more fruit and possibly a layer of marzipan. This was eaten with a sea of coffee or appelsín for the kids. The really seasoned professionals ate the hangikjöt at the same time as the cake, intermixing the smoked flavor with the dripping sweetness.

After we were all half comatose from the sugar, there were speeches, reminiscing, and then since the choir was almost fully present, we sang a few songs. By then the champagne had been busted out, and although our tunefulness might have suffered as a result, the spirit was certainly jolly. By then it was getting on towards suppertime, so people began to rattle off the "takk fyrir mig"s and disperse into the tempestuous spring day soon after that.

Birthdays are serious stuff here- as the birthday child it's your responsibility to provide your people at work with an afternoon cake-break, and failing to do so remains fixed in their minds. I was away in Holland on my birthday last year, and some folks are still keeping tabs on my sugar-provision failure. So, my advice to all you would-be residents of Iceland- don't forget the cake!

19 April 2007


My iPod was stolen a few weeks ago, so on my walks to rehearsal I've had to rely on what I can extract from the scene around me for entertainment for the 20 minutes. On my way past the hospital, I noted that the resounding *ping* from the left railing was not the same as the right one on a staircase. I played remember-the-lightpost-tone game that my brother used to do in college, and listened to the geese that lay like decoys on the lawns, gossiping there on the far side of Tjörnin.

There are also so many nestled secrets of crocus and snowdrop now to see- Iceland's own Easter Egg hunt. The light at seven in the evening was just right to spot them- blue sprinkled delicately across black lava sand, the palest of purple nestled on the sheltered side of some tree roots, the mist of green on the soggy lawns. There's still snow lacing Esja opposite but there will be for months still.

The smell of spring is there too- rich, sea-filled, and unexpectedly wild in the middle of town. Last night though, there was another odor- charred wet wood, a lot of it. I thought I must be confusing the scent, that it was some as-yet unknown seaborne flavor, but it persisted the whole stretch of the southern side of Tjörnin until the buildings started up near the university.

Turns out it was a fire, a large one, that destroyed a section of the most downtown part of Reykjavík. The club Pravda is totally gone, and there was severe damage to several adjacent buildings. The fire was probably just barely out when I walked by, although a later inspection still revealed a haze of smoke and char. I don't know what will happen to the section of town, but I'm sure it will not be the same at all.

17 April 2007


Summer creeps up on Iceland in tiny steps that are almost un-noticeable unless you're feeling particularly sharp-eyed. This past few days have been almost-so, allowing for open coats at mid-day but keep the tights on, and the branches of the bushes starting to get barely fuzzy with green. Everything's still so tightly folded though that sometimes it seems like a trick of the eyes- a green halo that's but a trick of light.

The sun has also ratcheted high enough in the sky to fill the northeastern windows in my apartment with morning light, so I awoke this morning to a sunsplashed bedroom and drank orange juice in a glowing kitchen. The evenings are starting to get that endless glow that I associate more with summer now than hot weather, since temperatures are almost equally tempestuous year-round. Soon the shrinking darkness will be gone altogether

Little changes are happening elsewhere, like the new hot tub that just opened at Laugardalslaug, filled with heated seawater pumped from a borehole nearby. Of course it's the hot new activity so we were all stuffed in there like a bunch of simmering lobsters, but it was still worth the sit. The frothed seawater is a different look and feel from the regular tubs- foamy and fizzy, softer feeling, and definitely salty on the lips. They never make the new tubs big enough or with enough massage jets, but when it's a sunny blue-arc-of-sky day and I'm sitting in heated salt water, I'm not complaining, even if I have to negotiate with flowered-bathing-cap lady on my exit.

After the sample-sit, I did my usual swim, where once again I appreciated the individual flavors of every pool. The personalities are as distinct as with people- each locker room has a slightly different smell of soap and sulphur and the materials of the lockers and floors. The water in each pool looks and feels different too, and the people you see there are as distinct and individual by pool as they are by time of day. Mornings are usually the aquatic aerobics time at my local pool, so I can find myself with an entire lap pool all to myself while the bathing caps bob to light pop in the kiddie pool at the end. Afternoons are all about foreigners and seal-pup kids that flop across the lane markers, and the evenings are for the weight-lifting hnakki guys and the old men that like to chat in pairs and trios.

The pool fixes everything like a good friend does- when you're stressed, the visit re-balances. Sick? The steamroom makes your breathing easier. Have a problem to work out? A few laps of sensory isolation and it doesn't seem so difficult after all. It's all about taking it down incrementally. Make the sounds you hear only rushing water and the hum of pool machinery, the things you see only blue tiles and water with snippets of sky, the only motion the smooth pulling through water and everything outside the water will rebalance itself. The Reykjavík Spa City propaganda sounded kind of silly to me at first but when I walk home glowing with warm-water evening peace, I absolutely agree with all of it.

There are some things here that aren't about sneaky-slow changes though. In the matter of less than an hour, that sunny day has become a swirling thick snowsquall. Winter does not give up easily here but slowly, slowly things will grow again.

10 April 2007

that girl he knows

I decided to take an evening stroll tonight to connect with The Town after the nice fat 5-day Easter weekend we all enjoyed up here. With my forgot-it-behind-the-flour-jar slices of stale bread, I headed down to Tjörnin for a bit of bread-flinging for the birds. On the way home I took the Laugavegur route to enjoy the full effect of sprintime mid-week evenings in Reykjavík. Ladies and gentlemen, it's rúntur time. This special Iceland-and-other-small-towns experience was once mis-defined in some guidebook as a pub-crawl, but really it's just driving around town so you can see who else is driving around town. I've watched the procession in Ísafjörður with all the kids that were suspended from school driving around on a Friday morning, the Akureyri Easter rúntur last year, and so very many trips here in my hometown.

This evening was a decent showing, offering up the following tasty sightings:
  • 2 girls with emo hair in a minivan, the passenger trailing a cigarette out the open windows, cruising to Britney Spears "baby one more time". Don't you adore all the irony? So clever.
  • Crappy 80s sedan with a flashing multicolor neon display on the front bumper. Don't run into anything, boys!
  • 4x4 with a loudspeaker broadcasting sound effects of farting and barn animals. I bet the ladies go hottt for this one.
  • Someone who missed their turn down towards Hverfisgata and ended up backing up an entire block. Main Street Reykjavík is that unpopulated on a Tuesday that you can just change your mind mid-cruise.
  • And finally, someone in a car I didn't recognize who gave me the honk-n-wave. I didn't recognize the driver but counted on a possible second pass to give me another chance to figure out the deal. A few blocks of walking later, the car went by again and this time I waved them down (see previous entry... this is acceptable behavior during the rúntur on Laugavegur. Nobody is in a hurry). The guy was all "hey, weren't you at Dubliners last weekend?". I assured him I hadn't been and he said that I must have an Icelandic twin out there, so identical was this Dubliners attender. He then said, "well, you're pretty all the same. Want to join us?" I'm happy my Icelandic is at a level that I can have bizarre conversations like this but I had to refuse the offer, tempting though it was.
And so goes romance in Reykjavík on a Tuesday evening.

03 April 2007


Today at lunch, a guy I've seen in the cafeteria but don't know by name was next to me dishing up soup. He turned to me mid-ladle to ask how I liked the skiing in Selva back in February, because he'd seen me and some others coming out of a ski goods shop wearing the (really nice) jackets the company gave us that are emblazoned with an arm-logo. It's pretty incredible that even foreign vacations are Observed here, and somehow word always gets back to you.

The population here is small enough that whatever you did last week was not anonymous, whether it was a road trip or a night out at a bar. The network of relatives, friends, and co-workers somehow manages to spread across the globe, so wherever you go, you'll meet someone you know, or at least their cousin or former schoolmate. For people who grew up here, it means that the witnesses of their youthful indiscretions, the relationship that may not have worked out as they wanted, or a different version of their personality once attempted are all still around you. You'll have to figure out how to reconcile your past since it's going to be part of your future. Even those who move away are still remembered years after they left, since the rest of their family is here and the reports continue to filter back.

Anytime I meet a new person, a friend's already got stories lined up about how they went fishing with them four years ago, or how he's the friend of someone else's boyfriend, or they met in Scouts. Sometimes it's all three. I think in the past six months I have not met a single person here that doesn't have some filament of a story already woven through my own corner of the society.

There are advantages and disadvantages to a society like this. In the US, most people have several chances at total reinvention- going to university, moving to a new city, starting a different job. The chances that there will be people from your past in the new place are slim, so you can claim to be whomever you want, and nobody needs question what you say. Whatever pieces of your past you are unhappy with can be conveniently forgotten in favor of your newly invented self.

I'm told that there is a certain feeling of that for those who come from a small town in the north to come to Reykjavík, but there's still going to be some cousin or sainted aunt that remembers something about your mom or what have you. It seems that this makes some people feel a bit trapped at times, but it also makes people more forgiving of those moments when you might have slipped up. Had a festive evening with co-workers? Everyone will still be in on Monday morning and working away as if nothing happened. Saw that guy you shouldn't have had the evening with three years ago downtown? Smile and nod and move on.

I do feel that this gives a greater understanding for the complexities of being human, and the multifaceted nature of everyone. I've seen more sides to most of my friends and coworkers here than I ever knew about in the US. I know about their children, the pet turtles, met grandparents and stayed in the apartments belonging to unknown relatives.

Of course, incorrect stories do circulate and there is such a thing as a bad reputation, but for the most part there is a more forgiving approach to the things people do that aren't always the smartest. I do feel like it's made me really think about the implications of many decisions, you really have to own your actions and take personal responsiblity in a way that's not so necessary when living among many thousands of others who are moving in and out quickly.

It also means when someone needs help, it's much harder to brush it off as someone else's responsibility. Icelanders often seem very proud of their independence, and it can be no coincidence that the most internationally famous novel from Iceland is entitled Independent People, but I don't think we are so independent here. It seems to be almost impossible to be truly, completely alone here, for better or for worse. Someone's always looking out.