28 November 2008

What is the late November doing

November is the most difficult month for me here- the shrinking daylight, the chaos and lights of Christmas not yet begun, the drenchery, the wind, the interesting colds and flus brought from abroad. I've made an effort to only write when I'm on the more upbeat side so that's partly why I sometimes go stretches of time without saying much here.

Thing is though, when I really look at how daily life feels different, it's just in the prices. Everything's gone up, perhaps with the exception of Icelandic wool, but the things I'd normally buy are still all available. As for all that talk about anarchy settling in, chaos ruling, and people gone nuts rioting in the streets, it's kind of like the food crisis that hit the wires a few weeks ago-blown out of proportion for the sake of a juicier story. I've gotten several emails from would-be tourists asking if they'll be safe or if they should really just give up on the plans to visit altogether. Fact is, what's happening here is a big deal relative to how the population is in general, but the protests as they've been happening so far are not something that's caused massive general disruption citywide. If you're not downtown near the parliament building on Saturday afternoons, you'd never know it was happening, save for a few "out with Davið!" signs that remain leaning on buildings and statues after the fact. I'd honestly say I'd fear for my safety more at 3:30a.m. on weekend nights when the bar crowds have gotten extra rowdy and want their sandwiches and hotdogs.

And so life continues here, one day at a time. Given the prices of things, and given my amount of nervous energy that needs burning off, I've resorted to knitting and weaving all my Christmas gifts this year. I'm obviously not the only person who's doing this, as was evidenced by my last visit to Handprjónasambandið (the Icelandic knitting association) downtown. I'm used to it being full of tourists, caught up in the novelty of the weird materials here and stocking up on the sweaters and mittens. This time the supply corner was jammed and the language was all Icelandic. But, at about 200isk per "cheese" of the unspun lopi (enough for a hat), that's a bargain. So I'm supporting the "veljum Íslenskt" (choose Icelandic!) cause and my family and friends will all be cozy during our upcoming in-a-cold-place holiday gathering. Everybody wins!

10 November 2008


On Tuesday I went to the American Embassy's reception, where I stayed only long enough to see the state where I voted be the first to declare its tiny 3 votes for Obama, to see that of all the states in the union it had the highest percentage voting Obama. Then at home I watched more, as state after state went blue, then fell asleep and woke just in time for his speech in Chicago. It's an exciting moment and I am glad to see some hope, some inspiration, some new possibilities.

Here in Iceland I have only met 3 McCain supporters- the American Baptists from the church on the road to the airport. Everyone else is delighted, and on Wednesday evening at my choir rehearsal nearly my entire voice section congratulated me on "my new president". And then, as we dug into the Christmas songs that will be our holiday program, I thought of how the roles of my two countries have reversed. For so long it was easier, more convenient to say that I was coming from Iceland while abroad, since being American could bring trouble. Now, mentioning Iceland abroad seems to bring trouble while it's finally ok to be American.

Don't get me wrong, I've never pretended I were Canadian, or pretended I were Icelandic, or hidden my Americanness in any way, but I have been aware that in general we were not a popular nation, or rather our president was not a popular one. But now, somehow the hopes of America have become the hopes of the world. One president of one country cannot solve it all but a little inspiration does go a long way, and as a colleague said, the Americans now have something that I think Iceland needs right now- an inspiring leader with a totally different background that those that have been in charge for years.

I do fear that somehow the whole world is looking to this one man in one nation to fix the ills that have crippled countries everywhere. I know that can't happen, that we all have to work on it together. And yet somehow, having someone is already at work, is making even the most politically cynical people feel that he's talking directly to them, gives me hope that somehow we can all find our way out of this mess together.

Here in Iceland there definitely has been a greater rumbling of disgruntlement, but as one of my choir members said, Iceland has never been in the habit of complaining. In America, the break from colonial rule came by actually fighting for it. Here it was taken at a time when the ruling country was busy dealing with much greater, more immediate troubles. But now, in one person's words "Iceland is turning into France". The protests tend to be a bit disjointed, with a few hanger-on groups trying to push their own agendas, but at least there's something happening. It remains to be seen what will happen, whether it will really cause any sort of governmental change.

04 November 2008

new stuff

On Friday my office moved for the third time since I came to Iceland. I swear my destiny in this country is to put things into boxes and take them out again- six house moves and three office moves in three years is kind of a lot.

But this move is the best yet. My commute is less than half as long (and at 16 minutes it was hardly a stress before), my post-work trip to the pool now only a few blocks long. The office is an entire floor at the top of a building along what some call Reykjavík's "Wall Street", perhaps the reason why this space lingered empty for some time. It's a grand spot though, where I can watch the weather sweeping over Esja and the sea, or the pointed spires that top the skyline of downtown. The color scheme here is warm- wooden floors and rusty orange-red, the space full of air and light, exactly the place one wants to spend the darkening days of Icelandic winter.

I've also taken up running in the past month, and discovered that what S said is true- this country is surprisingly good for running with all these flat distances and excellent lighting at night. It's just a bit terrifying when the weather factor is added to the mix but this is a good time in Iceland to work on toughness and feeling fierce. Nothing like battling a windy snowstorm in the dark to really feel euphoric in the hot tubs afterwards (and that of course is yet another reason it's awesome to run here- the hot tub is massive drawing incentive to get the whole painful running part over with). Plus, it's a nicely inexpensive hobby to be investing in during these times, and reminds me of what is great about life here. The mountains haven't changed, the fresh air, the smell of the sea- they're all there and as exhilarating as ever.

But the fallout is indeed starting to happen- companies are folding with little advance notice, others are trimming staff, trimming salaries, trimming extras, doing whatever they can to stay just the slightest bit above water. Prices on things have increased, in some cases extremely, like medicine that was 5200isk in early October was 6200isk on Saturday. I'm hoping it was just because I was at a different store. In other cases the price change was less than rumored, like with the story about the alcohol prices going up 20-30% over the weekend. The information on the Vínbúð website says it was a 5.25% increase, but when S and I went for some bottles of wine on Friday evening, the shop was crammed with people and the shelves alarmingly picked over. Trust it that Icelanders don't panic about food shortage rumors being published internationally, but a whiff of trouble with the supply of booze and everyone's running to stock up.

In spite of it all I remain here, grateful for my job and all the strangely happy circumstances surrounding it, for my great coworkers and friends here, for my thrifty New England upbringing, for these opportunities to go all homemaker and make the good food at home instead of going out for it, for working on homemade Christmas gifts, for nice plans ahead with family and those I most want to spend time with. Sometimes I do wish I weren't on the frontlines of this terrifying moment in history but it has chosen me to somehow be part of it and I'm not ready to leave yet. Sometimes I do get discouraged too, but I remember that I'm among the most fortunate here- mobile and young enough to leave should the need arise, with a job here and a lifestyle that's well below my means so I can afford to choose my path.

And as I sat at the dinnertable at my choir's annual party on Saturday I thought of how much has happened in the years here, how the reasons for my moving here are so different from the reasons that keep me here now. I love that my own life surprises me, that I can have these moments of "wow" when I step outside of whatever I'm doing and look at how things are unfolding. Yeah, I'm posting a lot of Pollyana lately but what else can I do? I can't make the monetary policies here, all I can do is keep doing my best with where I am, and being grateful for all that I have, which is really quite a lot.

28 October 2008


Somewhere along the way since my last post, it became winter here, with well-below-freezing temperatures, several snowstorms last week, and the glorious chaos that is the Icelandic approach to winterizing the roads (basically it seems to be "it'll melt eventually so why worry?" resulting in some interesting skating effects on the way to work). It's a bit harder to love Iceland now compared to the golden and seemingly endless summer, but there is a certain majesty to the sprawl of Esja all covered in white, the clear blackness of these Arctic nights.

In the past weeks it's become clear that the worst of what's happening here is yet to come, the unemployment, the inflation, the wariness of Iceland on the world markets. So far it really doesn't seem like much is different in the small corner of the country that I occupy. My friends are still all working and doing most of the things they always did, the choir goes on, the shelves in the grocery stores still stocked with a few spot exceptions reported, the plans for Christmas parties and annual dinners are in progress. Life as usual.

There have been the occasional story from this person or that of being unable to find Cheerios, or green onions, or my trip to Krónan last week that yielded not a single lemon. These stories of shortages usually are followed up by walking into a competing store and being confronted with a literal wall of Cheerios, or six boxes of lemons, so it seems to me that it's more the typical shopping experience here rather than a sign that the shortages are upon us. To further test the stories on the international wires against the experience here, I asked my hair goddess N (seriously, if anyone is looking for that perfect person to cut your hair in rvk, she's the one) if she was having trouble acquiring supplies for her salon, she said that she'd been worried about running short on hair color during the holiday season when everyone's wanting to look their best, but she'd had no trouble at all. It was even a British company providing her products, and they'd been very agreeable to working with them however and whenever they could pay.

So life goes on here, admittedly more frigid outdoors than before, but it remains cozy inside as I've turned to a more domestic style of life- it's all about baking and cooking and movie nights with friends lately, which has not felt like any sort of compromise in fun at all. It's the time of year that is more about those kinds of activities naturally anyway, and when you throw in a bit of musical practice and some concerts, it's hard to argue that the quality of life is suffering.

The one thing I've thought about a lot recently is how as an Icelandic tax payer I will be paying for the failures of these banks, but then I realize that as a resident of America my taxes there were going to things I didn't personally agree with, and that people worldwide are having their taxes siphoned off to pay for their country's banks collapsing. I guess that's how it goes in any modern society- you pay for things you don't agree with, things you never will use, but you also pay for things that you get to enjoy and take advantage of every day. Somehow it all feels more immediate here since we're all so much closer to the people who're deciding things, exposed to the winds of international forces much more than I ever felt I was in America.

15 October 2008

carefully, carefully

so apparently I have to be extrasupercareful what I write here, as both the Guardian in the UK and several other sources have picked up excerpts of my entries in the past few days. This location seems to be disinclined to believe what I write, but in spite of the article going round a few days ago about Icelanders in a panic over food, I'd like to once again say that people are NOT. The shops I went to two days ago (grocery store, gardening store, wine store) were all stocked as expected, were not overcrowded, and those that were there were obviously buying dinner and not supplies for two months. Of course the availabilities will change but people in general seem to be just carrying on with the usual stuff, working on supporting each other, discussing things, and getting on with life.

One TV channel has started an ad campaign reminding people that the best things about life are free- spending time with family, little kids dancing, cheesy stuff like that. They've opened an office for people to call if they're having psychological problems- trouble sleeping and the like. So what comes next? The threatened 75% inflation that one Dane mentioned? I really don't know and I really don't want to predict. One day at a time is all I'm working on.

And to those who've come here looking for me to be apologising to the British savers or somesuch, I'd like to point out that this blog has never been political in nature- it's my personal experience of living in this foreign land where I never worked in a bank, and where I do not have the right to vote. Of course I'm feeling for all of the people tried to be sensible with their money, who didn't take out huge unreasonable loans, or expect to be paid the rumored salaries of some of these bankers, and have lost their hard-earned money. People are hurting worldwide and I don't think that the finger-pointing helps the process of everyone getting on with their lives.

11 October 2008

two sides of the story

This morning dawned perfectly October so I strapped on my rollerblades and went out along my favorite route by the sea. A bright blue windless day, it was the perfect time to enjoy the autumnal colors of landscape- the orange kelp thrown up on the beaches, the wheated grass, the mossy color of the seaweed, peppered with eider ducks. Across the bay, Esja slumbered stoically, unchanged in the chaos. The best bits of Iceland are still here. I didn't come to buy a no-money down Mercedes jeep with a loan in Euros, I didn't come so I could spend my weekends in shopping malls, and most of my friends are not that sort either. We're here, going about our daily business, having coffee, preparing for new babies, going to work, reading, talking, swimming, running. In the meantime, I've been collecting info from anywhere and everywhere about what to do now, reading everything I can, absorbing Icelandic financial terms, quizzing my dad (a voracious newspaper reader and all around clever guy).

A few say that heads will roll and are extremely depressed, predicting massive fuel shortages and a dark and gloomy time ahead, others say that there'll be some unemployment (inevitable when the such a major sector collapsed), a lot of restructuring and some discomfort but the future's bright. Time for fish, time for manufacturing, time for increasing the farming production, time for getting on with things, doing what Icelanders know how to do and get creative. Maybe the þetta reddast spirit will prevail. I think we all have to hope it does, since there really is so much to love about this place.

I had a long talk with HK, an economist friend today, and she said it was high time this happened. The foreign labor that came to work on the construction sites will go home, and no longer be sending their incomes out of the country, the economy will have to diversify, the people get creative. There's been an incredible pulling-together of people here, as the nudd-pottur in Laugardalslaug is full to bursting every day, people talking about what's happening, what should happen, what we can do. Most people I know are NOT going crazy buying as much food as they can, most are not storing their cash under their mattress. It's wait-and-see mode for now. The scale of activities at work now is such that we can only watch and keep doing our usual stuff, praying that the credit cards will still work when we go to pay the grocery bill (so far, so good).

Of course, everyone's got a story of someone who did something foolish, taking out a loan in foreign currency to buy stocks in one of the now-collapsed banks, only to then lose his job at said bank, someone else who invested their entire life-savings in a single bank, also to find themselves penniless. There's stories that the suicide rate over the weekend was alarmingly high too. But as HK pointed out, these are the things that every economist learns first off to not do- don't take out a loan in another currency than you're earning, don't put all your eggs in one basket. We may have all gotten by in the past by not being economists but maybe now it's time to start a bit more, be a bit more careful.

I would also like to point out that in spite of what it may have sounded like in my last post regarding the Iceland-for-Icelanders group, this was a small, much derided group, and not at all the general feeling of the populace. My experience with Icelanders continues to be a positive one. I've got some wonderful Icelandic friends here, and the people I work with are the sort to be truly proud to stand beside. The team spirit where I work is excellent, and after my boss spent an hour and a half yesterday explaining various economic ins and outs, the future of our company, and all the great ideas he had, I could only think, "this is worth sticking around for".

09 October 2008

october freeze

Yesterday morning was one of those beautiful magic-light and pink clouds that make me remember why I love it here. It's hard right now, since the chaos that has hit the international news is unfolding here around my ears. Just like with the earthquake a few months ago, I've been getting questions from people all over, asking me if we're bankrupt, if I'm ok, so here it is.

The thing is, for the time being, life has not changed so much in the daily activities. I am sure it will but the extent of the change is still totally unknown to us. It's pretty evident that the building boom was not sustainable as it was since there is not enough population to own and live in all of those apartments, and now that's the same problem that's going on with the banks that are simply far too large for the GDP of this country. There are just not enough people or money here. I knew it wouldn't last but didn't realize that they way it would collapse would take everyone down so severely.

A few months ago there was a big rumpus over a group called "Ísland fyrir Íslendingar" (Iceland for the Icelanders), an anti-immigration group that said Iceland should only be for the Icelanders. At the rate things are going here, they will get their wish. It started with the architects, most of whom are returning to their home countries or moving on to other places, and now others are going. The amount of savings and effort lost in the blink of an eye is phenomenal, and the blossoming exchange rate is pinching the budgets of the students to the extent that many will be unable to afford living here on their stipends if they are paying off loans in other currencies. One guy I know owns a house in his home country that he is paying off in ISK. If the exchange rate continues to spiral, he too will have to leave.

The whole thing has the effect of being in a movie- these events are so large scale and so unbelievable, the consequences so far-reaching and staggering. News all over the world has been picking up the story that the country is bankrupt, that people are panicking and stashing food and everything. I've sensed a certain schadenfreude, like "we may be dumb but at least not as dumb as those fool Icelanders." That may be true but the news I'm hearing all over the world is not really much more wonderful. Banks are collapsing everywhere, and as they do they take even more institutions down. Iceland's not alone in this and in some ways is the canary in the coal mine.

This country may be poorly located in terms of its remote location and dependencies on imports, but we do at least still have heat and electricity, fish and dairy and vegetables. Hopefully there will not be starvation and freezing this winter. If worst comes to worst (and what exactly that means remains to be seen), I will lose money, of course. Enough to hurt but nothing I can't recover. I'm lucky- I'm not on the verge of retirement and watching my savings dry up like a puddle on hot asphalt, and when I calm myself enough I remember I'm educated, healthy, I survived a move here, and I am not alone. Thanks to S and his practical positivity, thanks to my parents and their confidence, thanks to the few dollars I have squirreled away in the US, I'll get through this somehow.

So what to do? For the time being, I am still with job and home and at least one other compelling reason to stay here. My job has most of the customers abroad, paying in other currencies, and we just pulled off a not insignificant job in Norway with good success. We're moving to a brighter, nicer, more conveniently located office that I could take the bus to or even rollerblade or bike should it come to that.

I'm going to weather the storm for now, but if Iceland has now become so poisonous that nobody will trade or do business with it (based on the ratings of the country being so severely downgraded, and some people comparing the country to Zimbabwe, I can't help but wonder), I may have to update that plan. Hopefully should it come to that, I'll still have enough money to escape.

16 September 2008

Irish interlude

writing to you from a tiny village in Donegal now, where I have come for a week to visit with my friend M and learn a bit about Ireland. Along the way we've had a bit of help from various people pointing us to the proper pubs, a certain friendly feeling that's caused impromptu song and conversation, and a studious dog that just this afternoon led us on the walk we ought to have along the Inishcoole Strand. We've stumbled upon exactly the right guesthouse, so as I type I am watching the sun set behind the placidly clustered islands that spread out into the Atlantic, ending a rare and sunny day here.

Donegal's exactly the right bit of Ireland for me, and I go the full experience yesterday with a trip to a wool factory. We started ordinarily enough with the shop where they sold the scarves, the coats, the hats, the knitting yarn, then went upstairs where about 8 vast built-in looms lay mostly idle but threaded with gloriously tweedy wools. One was being operated by the rare sort of Irishman, one of few words, who churned through his pattern with a fly shuttle loaded with 5 different colors.

Back downstairs we asked about how to acquire weaving wool since I'd much rather weave than knit this kind of stuff, and we were directed to go round the back, told to ask for Tristan and be careful to not trip on anything. So round we went and straight into the real bones of the operation- two levels of bins full of every shade of tweeded wool, a huge warp preparing machine where another guy rolled dozens of meters of white boucle, spinning and carding machines, and then Tristan himself, also as tweedy as his surroundings with a brown vest, a shock of dark hair peppered with white, and a gift for long conversation.

He took us through the intricacies of wool selection, the history of sheep in Ireland, the challenges of purchasing local, how dye takes to New Zealand wool, and then how the staple fiber length affects the spinability. Detailed stuff. And then, on to the carding machine and making rovings, and then the spinning frame, apparently his big love of the operation. Built in 1953, the design hasn't changed much since the turn of the century, and had just been reconstructed a few years ago. He oiled the machine up and demonstrated how it worked, then took us through every step of the operation, down to the accelleration rate of the spinning frame, the calculations he had to make to set everything up and get the right twist rate, and the modifications he was looking forward to doing in order to spin more. He even told us all about the latest in Italian spinning frame design, ending with "but they're just not as beautiful as this machine here".

And then, the most glorious part of the afternoon, he pointed me to the levels of yarn and said, "now just go ahead and find what you want, then I'll give you a bag and we can weigh it up". He knew every thread intimately, the thickness, the best sett for weaving, the dye lot, just by giving it an eye and perhaps just a bit of a pat, so everything I asked resulted in about 15 minutes of information on that particular thread. I learned how he made bouclé, how this one was with a bit of olive but that one was with a bit of limey green, how this bin was the things that they'd been weaving two weeks ago but hadn't sorted back yet.

I ended up with a large bag of delicious tweeds in all the colors of the landscape here that I will somehow have to figure out how to get back to Iceland, but when I am there I am sure that the color will remind me of all the things I've seen so far.

(pictures are on the photostream and will be updating as I get a chance for internet here n there)

15 August 2008

baking bread

I'm at home in my new house, baking tea bread just like my mama taught me when I was a kid. The bananas from the last rousing highland trip didn't all get eaten and were too brown for museli consumption so I did the merciful thing and mashed them for baking. It's the recipe from the New York Times cookbook my mom got as a newlywed in 1968. I found the same edition for 3 dollars at a used bookstore in an alley in Boston, and she went through hers and copied in every single handwritten note she'd added over the years of use.

Her book is no longer really a book- the spine went years ago, and it's jammed with bookmarks made of drawings one of us made. Me and my three brothers, the baking helpers sifting flour in our vintage flour sifter that makes a wonderful swishing sound or measuring the walnuts to make this bread that was always the fate of forgotten bananas.

I've added notes to my book since she wrote hers in, converting temperatures to celsius, adding notes on Icelandic substitutes for the ingredients, made comments on friends who used a certain recipe themselves and liked it. This particular bread was made by my Norwegian friend T, who hand mashed the bananas so they came out with a new kind of texture, now noted in the crammed margin around this simple recipe, pressed up against my mom's handwriting.

But tonight I made mine straight, just like my mama always made, and as I did I heard her voice teaching me all the steps that I do now so involuntarily- lining the bottom of the bread pans with greased brown paper so the bottoms didn't stick, smoothing the batter off the sides of the pan so it didn't burn.

It's like this when I do the things my dad taught me too- remembering when he taught me to sharpen my kitchen knives properly (long smooth strokes, watch the angle, and check your progress against the light), sitting together around the kitchen table that once was pink, now white, and still always referred to as "the pink table". The lesson was repeated at the summerhouse on the vast table there so that I'd take it with me wherever I go.

Living here means I'm geographically distant from my family, and no matter how many ways of communicating there are, this fact remains. And yet, as the smell of the baking rises from the oven in my little tree house of a home, I realize that I'm never so very far away because these pieces of them are so embedded in me.

08 July 2008

for those who asked

I finally uploaded photos of my recent trips to the US (starting here, scrolling forward) and to Estonia/Finland, and finally a bit of more locally available highland charm (scroll forward).

Hopefully that saying about a picture being worth a thousand words will hold in this case since my time is currently devoted to putting things in various satchels and portmanteaus as I prepare for a trio of trips. More on those thrills as they unfold.

04 July 2008

northern summer

Once again in my second home in Norway, it's been a week of the most perfect weather I could imagine. A balmy 75f/25c has made everyone relaxed with positivity, from the security and check-in people at the airport to the waitresses at all the restaurants I ate at this week. There may not be a lot of incredibly hot weather here but it does seem that everyone enjoys it tremendously. The sidewalks have bloomed with women in colorful dresses and little open sandals, while men go bold and shorten their trousers to knee-length.

It made working inside very difficult, but every chance I had after hours, I was outside. I walked along the river in the village where I'm staying, following a bike path that twined through the carefully mown riverbank and ended in one of the tidiest neighborhoods I have seen. Norwegians seem to know how to do organized quite well.

For dinner, my options for exploration were slightly more restricted, as I was staying in the in-between town of Lilleström, known for two things: being at the halfway point between Oslo and the Gardermoen airport, and for the largest conference center in Norway. The latter reason has generated a cluster of gassy conference-goer steakhouse type restaurants, but just beyond that, amidst the ubiquitous kebab and hamburger shops that crowd Norway, there's a delightful little restaurant that I first went to at coworker M's suggestion to try the moose steak. The Swedish waiter was incredibly friendly during that first visit, and since the restaurant was nearly completely empty I got extra-nice service. I went back on Wednesday for a leisurely dinner where the same waiter greeted me and remembered the strange toasted vegetable that I loved so much at my last meal there three months ago. When he brought my salad he brought a bowlful of the peculiar specialty as an extra side. The food at this place is not complicated and the menu is short, but when it's enjoyed with crisp white wine in a haze of sunshine, what more in life does one need?

And now I am at the airport, with my usual pre-flight pasta salad lunch, experience a new kind of sensation- being in a large public building that appears to have no air conditioning. Sure, it's a bit hot, but in the euro-traveler appropriate summer dress, I feel perfectly comfortable. It's summer. There's no need to freeze us all with overefficient AC.

Norway does not feel like it will ever be my home, but at least it's a place where I'm finding some element of happiness and balance. I do feel privileged that it's been part of my working life, that I've basically experienced this place for free, as a requirement of my job. Up next week, Leeds, England!

(does anyone know about Leeds?)

26 June 2008

cat town

France has its dogs, Iceland has its cats. People aren't dressing them up in little jackets and bringing them to cafés here, but walk down any side street and you'll see them shadowing into cracked-open windows, crouching under cars, curled on windowsills inside, and skulking through the gardens on nearly every street. At night the yowls of their battles drift through the windows.

On sunny days like the past week, their expansive mood can make for slow going, since I always have to stop and greet them all, and like Icelandic people, they get foolish and slightly sun-drunk when the weather's benevolent. In some of the older neighborhoods, they will lie in wait on the wide concrete walls, and follow your progress down the street, Give them one scratch on the cheek and they will follow you along the wall for blocks, hopping between fences and yards, looking hopeful.

Some are more aloof and will only watch warily from beneath cars or up in trees, but there's always one somewhere. Each stretch of sidewalk I have lived along in the past 2 years has had its own particular cat staking out the territory- the sprightly orange tabby that did the midnight rounds last year, the enormous black and white one that hefted its bulk through the fence to inspect your ankles this spring, and now my new place is loaded with them. There's the small white one that suns on the stump in the back yard, the tuxedo cat that lurks in the grass in the front yard, and all of them seem to be more than willing to twine around my legs and welcome me to their little corner of summertime Iceland.

22 June 2008


It's been a busy month, as you might have guessed from the lack of posting. Since last I wrote, I've been back to the US once, and moved to a new home. And now, the only thing that must be pondered is the incredible weather and the impossible green that is summertime Iceland. The transformation still alarms and enchants, and this year I get to enjoy it from the comfort of my very own miniature terrace, high above one of my favorite neighborhoods. It's close to everything, yet the view from the balcony is layered with trees and the pyramid rooftops. A garden choked with buttercups and rimmed with a wall that the cats are fond of tiptoeing along lies 3 stories below where I sit typing, bathed in sun as my white sheets sway on the drying rack next to me.

This is what makes life in Iceland so great- I'm in the midst of the capital city, able to walk to all the places that are touted as the hippest of hip to the tourists, but I have real neighbors that I actually know, that I talk with on the street. Friends are sprinkled among the blocks in all directions, close enough to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar.

The noises I hear right now on this drowsy Sunday evening are the shouts of kids bicycling one street over, the buzz of a lawnmower, and the conversation of a garden party on the next corner. This is how I love to live, part of the fabric of a place, enfolded in greenery and surrounded by the peaks of mountains as my coffee bubbles up on the stove.

On Friday my friend H said these apartments in the tops of buildings are the unwanted ones, too complicated for people to want to bother figuring out, with unforgiving nooks and more skylights than vertical walls. The stairs to get here are narrow, but the rewards are worth it. It's like living in a tree house, all breezes and light.

Life continues to swirl along around this move and settling- more trips to foreign lands, more parties than there is time for, and as always with Icelandic summer, that burning need to spend as much time outside as possible. Coworkers are crispy with the aftermath of golden weekends, and the parking lot at the office is suddenly sparse.

And I am struggling with what the point of writing here is for now. I've gotten beyond the weird of living here, and feel like I spend a lot of time repeating myself, about the weather, about the scale of life, about the people I know and the frequent stops in the airport. What do those of you who are still reading actually want to read about? What keeps you coming back here anyway?

29 May 2008

yeah, I felt it

Apparently both the BBC and CNN thought our lil afternoon delight was newsworthy enough to report worldwide, so I figured I'd just mention to all my worried email-writers that yep, we felt it plenty well here in my office building, and a thing or two fell over, but otherwise nobody did a thing, and it's business as usual here in the capital area.

Reports from further east are still arriving so I still don't know the extent of what happened there, but the only picture Morgunblaðið has posted yet doesn't show much damage. Hopefully this is a properly representative photo and nothing horrible has happened.

This was not the first earthquake I've experienced here, but the one two years ago was only a 4.2, and the latest reports from the USGS have upgraded the one today to a 6.2.

23 May 2008

look, don't touch

This morning was so fragrant and gently sunny that I really had no choice but to do a morning swim. It was predictably good, full of honey-colored sunrays filtering through my outstretched fingers. On one side-breath to the left though, I noticed a cluster of people in the stands above the pool, their clothes marking them as a crowd of not-from-these-parts. They dutifully gathered around a tour guide who seemed to be explaining the magic of the Icelandic pool.

They stood there for probably about 20 minutes, during which I finished my laps and headed to the steam room. When I came out they were gone but another group was corralled in the roped-off corner near the former entrance to the pool. I heard that the first cruise ship of the season arrived yesterday, so I'm wondering if this is one of the new activities they're offering to ship visitors. Go, look at Icelandic People in their NATIVE HABITAT! Take photos of flowered bathing caps and early morning calisthenics!

I just don't understand why someone would want to just have a look at such a pool when for a few hundred krónur you could be sitting IN the pool. I hope this is not a summer trend, because no matter how comfortable one is in one's skin and bathing suit, it's a bit creepy to be stared at by a bunch of puffy-coat tourists with cameras.

22 May 2008

proof of presence

One thing that Icelanders absolutely love that has taken a bit of getting used to for me is the Signing of the Guestbook. Sure, there are guestbooks in the US, at weddings, at art openings, at other kinds of important receptions, but here they are at spots both large and small. In order to commemorate your presence there, it is essential to leave your name in the book, with or without comment. This happens in tiny summerhouses, this happens in mountain huts, this happens at the top of Esja.

It's not just an Icelandic thing though, it seems to be a habit of the northern countries. When I was in the wilderness of Norway I signed the guestbook at the top of the mountain when I skied, and when we were in Finland, we got the special permission to sign the Awesome guestbook at the home of the famous Finnish composer, Sibelius. The names of our Icelandic choir members were on the same pages as foreign dignitaries of all stripes, preserved for the next decades.

Is it because the populations are so small up here that people want to know where others have been, that the stamp of human presence is significant wherever you are? Is it in hopes that you will one day return to that same place and be able to find that record of years ago when you were at the same location once before, and remember all the time that spans between? Whatever the reason, I hope to sometime find my name again years from now in one of these books, sprinkled across the landscape.

21 May 2008

so, Helsinki

We returned from the days in Tallinn to the mayday celebrations in Helsinki, a town that had not impressed at first view but grew on me quickly in the subsequent days. It's a bit like if you exploded lower Manhattan into a whole city, and sprinkled it with many more parks and better sea access. The buildings are heavy on the teens to Deco, and the bricks haven't gotten the coal-infused hue of London, so the overall impression was a gently colorful one. The clothing aesthetic, made somewhat notorious by a longtime favorite website, hel-looks, reminds me of my artist-nerdy high school taken on citywide. In general, there's this impression that everyone's very busy FEELING lots of intense feelings, but since Finns are notoriously stoic, they can't talk about them. Instead, they invest all this intensity into assembling interesting outfits and designing things, and more things, and a few more things.

Once again, we stumbled upon the most glorious of weather, so our trips outside the city were alight with arcing blue skies and the neon green of freshly unfolded birch leaves. We went to the home of Sibelius, Finlands most famous composer. The wood frame house was set among a stand of birches, and all around the lawn had grown velvety and rich, a tempting place to take a sunbath. The visit was followed by a private concert of some of the composer's pieces, then a delectable lunch at a nearby restaurant. We returned drunk from sun and brightness, full of music.

But the best experience from the trip was actually nothing to do with the choir group, but rather my friend DTW, a Finn who'd come to Iceland as an exchange student, and started reading my blog before he came to get a taste of life here before he came. He came to the concert we had in the rock church in Helsinki, and then on Saturday evening, another day drenched in sun, he assembled all the proper goods for a picnic and we headed towards a park on the sea. The route we walked took us through prosperous and well-groomed neighborhoods of Deco homes, all painted in Klimt colors of sage green, aged rose, and palest coffee. At the park we settled in a glade that offered a glimpse of the sea, boats, and the people strolling slowly along the esplanade, and DTW unpacked the treats. He'd bought all sorts of his favorite cheeses, the squeaky kind, the spready kind, and bread and fruit to go with. I'd also found some early-season strawberries at a street stand, and with a bottle of organic white wine, we had all we needed for a proper talknhangout.

It was that time of year that is impossibly magical, when the green on the trees and lawns is so fresh it almost aches, so optimistic and eye-searingly bright, a color forgotten in the long months of winter. This park was exactly where I wanted to be that night, and it seemed as if everything conspired to make it just so- the just-busy-enough vibe, the scads of people sprinkled about drinking in the sun, even the peach-colored hot air balloons that materialized further along the shore and drifted over the city.

Of course, we're still talking about northern lands in spring, so when the sun dropped behind the Baltic, chill set in and was time to move on. We took the coastline route home, watching as the sky became lavender and then navy. A perfect evening.

16 May 2008

apparently it's hard-coded

Today I did my swim in the morning, and afterwards joined the crew in the steam room. If you're after 8:30 but not quite to noon, the crowd is notably vintage, so I was the only person under 80 in the whole place. So I'm sittin there enjoying the heat when the entire steam room population of about 12 people suddenly erupts into song. The voices were a bit quavery and only one dude ventured into the harmony line, but the zest and enjoyment was undeniable. I'd have joined in if I knew the songs, but they were some kind of traipsing-in-the-mountains tunes that I'd never heard before.

Their enthusiasm waned when they realized they didn't know very many verses, but it was obviously entertaining enough that later when I was in the salt pot, some others that hadn't been there wanted the full rundown of the day's steam-room singing program. Later on in the locker room I heard yet more talk of who'd been there and what they'd sung. I guess it's a regular thing!

The group singing phenomenon seems to be unique to only a few of these northern countries- I'm told it happens in the Faeroe Islands, and I've witnessed drunken Danes in Reykjavík going at it, but the Finns and the Norwegians barely speak above a whisper so singing seems to be out. What is it about these places that make people feel the need to sing when in a large enough group, even when no booze is involved? It's actually part of what made the choir trip so wonderfully (and I'll admit nerdily) fun. I've always loved singing, and when you're in a group that also loves to do it and can do it in several parts, what better way to say you're happy with the trip and happy with your companions than to stop and sing a song on the street? We sang overlooking Tallinn, we sang in a restaurant, we sang on the street, we sang on the ship as we sailed. It's just one of those things that everyone really ought to try sometime.

(apologies to those waiting to hear about Finland.. I couldn't resist writing about this!)

15 May 2008

final rewards

I've mentioned that in the deepest winter there's that time that happens here in the summer that makes it all worth it, and yesterday was one of those days. Since I returned from Oslo, the days were solidly and nearly unrelentingly all about the cloud, so yesterday when it was warm enough for t-shirts and with only the slightest of breeze, the entire Icelandic nation went outside. I arrived at choir practice early and spent the 15 minutes I had lying in the fresh grass outside the church, eyes squinted in the sun.

This is my fourth May here and it's just as magical as the first time, except now I know that the spicy scent in the air comes from the newly unfolded black cottonwood leaves, and the rich scent of the plants in shade reminds me of camping trips and hikes, bonfires and endless days of Icelandic summer. It all happens so quickly too- in the 2 weeks that I was away, Iceland went to the ordinary gray most-of-the-year look to blossoming with green and perfumed air, and night became eternal sunrise/sunset. The birds returned, leaving evidence on the top of my car every morning, but bringing songs that, in the still of early morning make it easy to forget I live almost in the center of town.

In spite of what I've written here that generally exudes positivity, my life in Iceland hasn't always been easy or overflowing with awesomeness. I miss family, I miss times of guilt-free native language speaking, I sometimes swear at the impossible weather, the ongoing paperwork that allows me to stay here, and the tiny size of the community can be claustrophobic. But when it all comes together there really is no better place. When I'm swimming in the sun and the timing is just so on each lap, the turns a smooth ripple of interruption with a view to my toes, when I'm learning a new song with this choir that's become so much a part of my experience here, finally able to laugh at the jokes and when the weekend's full of plans with friends, it all does seem worthwhile. I know nobody's life can be great all the time, but here the moments of down are more extreme, and the ups equally or more so. For one thing, the past three years certainly have not been boring.

(we will return to Finland in next post, I promise!)

07 May 2008

if it's Tuesday...

Returned to Iceland yesterday from Helsinki, and this morning I was yet again in the airport on my way to Oslo. When I grumbled about this to my wise friend J, he pointed out that you can't have the jet-setting without the jet, so off we go again.

The trip to Estonia and Finland was all the things a choir trip ought to be- lots of singing, so much that we got thrown out of a bar in Helsinki for singing in four-part harmony and got almost thrown out of a restaurant in Tallinn for singing about how great Iceland was to a partial audience of Norwegians. That singing when happy and/or drunk thing that Icelanders do so frequently is apparently Not Done in all these other places. A shame really, though, because the impromptu, fully blended singing was the best we did on the trip.

What to say about these places... Tallinn was enchanting but seems to be like many large cities former Soviet countries, where there's a lovely old walled portion, a strange wasteland beyond where something once was, and then many modern and impersonally shiny skyscrapers off to one side. Still, the medieval town is among the best preserved in the world, with the Easter-marshmallow colored buildings all leaning upon each other, plenty of cobblestones, and a snarl of tourist shops selling amber, linen, nesting dolls, and folk-knitted items.

I'd forgotten about the aesthetic of dress in these areas, the women for whom purple hair and maximum sparkle are the goals, who must break the heels on their stilettos with frightening regularity. I was actually puzzling over how they managed to maintain the impractical shoes in the heel-gobbling streets until I went past a cobbler. Inside the window were ranged a forest of heel shapes, in every height and slenderness. Must be a good business there.

After 3 days in Tallinn, the Icelanders were all pinkly sunburned from hours spent outside, soaking up sun and beer, wandering the dark passageways and twisted streets, and doing the crazy shopping thing that Icelanders always do when abroad. Estonia proved to be an unexpected surprise, and an excellent contrast to what came next, the Finland component of the trip.

28 April 2008

Baltic direct

I have just arrived in Tallinn this evening, where the music is tinny and cheesy, and the keyboard is constructed with curious trapezoidal keys. To get here, I flew with my choir (on yet another of those famous Icelandic Choir Tours) to Helsinki this morning. Upon arrival we were deposited at the massive ferry terminal in the center of town to while away a few hours drinking Lapin Kulta and absorbing the lack of atmosphere in the low-ceilinged building.

Then to the ferry, a massive passenger ship holding nearly three thousand people, most of whom seemed to be on board for the delirious variety of activites on offer for the four hour sail. There was muzak dancing and gambling, there was a full Duty-Free style perfume shop, a vast liquor shop, and a stuff-yourself-silly buffet with chardonnay on tap like it was a keg of beer.

The ferry was so large that the effect of being on ship was almost unnoticeable until I stepped out onto the one deck on the 10 levels of ship, where the pewter sea stretched out to the unmarked horizon, and below me, the water foamed away from the huge hull in deep shades of bottle green. This will no doubt be an interesting week.

22 April 2008

beyond the groove

I'm about to come up on my third anniversary since I came to Iceland to try to find a job. At the time, the reasons I came were quite different than the reasons I'm here now. It's been nearly three years of all kinds of unexpected, and every time I'm in the airport, a place of unlimited possibilities, I think again about what it is that keeps me in Iceland versus the thousands of other places I now feel I could choose to live.

Moving here and working so much in other countries where I meet people from all over the world making their own little communities has made me feel like there's no place I can't go, can't find a job, and make a little world of my own. So why Iceland? What is it about this place that made me grin so huge as I was flying home on Friday two weeks ago from yet another week in Norway? Sure, it was partly that after a week of unrelenting rain in Norway, seeing clear sunshine and freshly-laundered mountains was food for the soul, but even the Icelandair flight attendants reminding us to fold up our tray tables in Icelandic was comforting.

At the airport the Monday after, the weekend was as refreshing as a trip to the spa, all sun, hot tubs and good company. My skin settled down, my body relaxed into the sunshine and the irresistible combination of rollerblading by the sea while surrounded by the solidity of white-shrouded mountains. I've been away from Reykjavík so much that every weekend is a mania of visiting and parties and lunches out, but it's made Iceland feel more special than ever before. It's my home that I never seem to quite get enough of. So for now, maybe that's my answer. It's not game over here just yet, and if the place feels right, do I have to question why it does?

14 April 2008

you've adapted when

Back in Oslo for yet another sojourn, I've realized that there are a few things that are marking my passage into really being an Iceland dweller, moreso than any work/residence permit status.

  • I was at the pool here the other day and couldn't figure out why my pre-swim shower n' scrub was being observed with perplexity, then I realized that there was no sign instructing you to scrub all your naughty bits with soap before donning the suit. After the swim, I then carefully carried my shoes out into the corridor where they unhelpfully did not have a bench, at which point it occurred to me that there were no signs demanding shoe removal before entering the locker room. The Icelandic pool habits are so automatic now that I apparently cannot fathom that anyone would do it any other way.
  • So here I am in Norway, land of fishing boats, gnarly fishermen, and a fish preservation technique that's almost more terrifying than hákarl, and yet still, I'm thinkin "no, best not order the fish since it's never going to be good as the fish back home in Iceland." Best í heimi it is in Iceland, and even going to another country where they're fishing from almost the same territory is not enough to convince me otherwise (although I did order fish eventually and it was quite good).
  • Then this afternoon I was walking down Main Street Oslo (Karl Johan) and I saw a Land Rover, the type Icelanders are always driving on glaciers, and I thought, "something's wrong with this car's proportions". These vehicles now don't look proper unless they've got the fat daddy Dick Cepek tires and a couplea antennas sprouting from the top. Don't forget a winch and shovel for proper Full Glacier Attire.

04 April 2008

welcome, April

Iceland has rewarded our suffering through the soggy autumn with a stretch of lovely days in the past month, so this week I have begun the search for the perfect morning swim-in-the-sun. A few mornings ago I tried the early shift at my new obsession-pool in Seltjarnarnes.

The pool staff was still cleaning the pool, sucking the black sand that had blown in during the winds the night before, so the water reverberated with the rat-a-tat of the vacuum clicking over the tiles in the bottom. At every lap, a little more of the pool bottom was swept clean, leaving behind a faintly iridescent sheen to the tiles.

This pool's the salt water one, which makes the water have a faintly sour taste on the lips, and the corrosion around the metal drains leaves fan-shaped rust trails on the blue tiles below. The smooth velvet texture of the water is as comfortable as being tucked into a warm bed with a book and a cuppa, but the extra buoyancy makes swimming feel like the only motion your body was meant to do. Shoulders rotate smoothly, and even the breathing is not a conscious hold-and-inhale. I always lose count in this pool as the sensations take over, and this morning was no exception.

Wednesday morning I tried Árbær, where again the crowd was almost all at least 40 years older than me, and the angle of the pool proved to be less than optimal for the early riser crowd. Still, the morning people are all about the swimming so the experience is far more serene than the afternoon. Same for this morning in Laugardalslaug where the frigidity combined with sun masked just how many others were swimming. Once again I was the youngest by far, and the only one doing more than a genteel breast stroke.

This crowd wants me to be an old person in Iceland so I can swim in the morning in a flowered bathing cap and then join the crowds of 3 and 5 bobbing about in the shallow end. I almost never see grouchy people in these morning crews, like this morning when I was enjoying the tiny triangle of sun that had splashed across the salt pot. A sprightly pair in their seventies came up, and one said, "nice in there, isn't it", to which I replied, "well, it'd be nice if there were just a liiitle more sun", and he answered, "well, this guy'll help brighten it, since his name's Bjartur" (which means bright). We all had a nice chat about the plans for a hotel next to the pool, the temperature of the salt pot that day (note: this is always an acceptable conversation topic at the pool once the weather's been discussed), and then it was time for showers and work.

No matter what else happens here in Iceland, from the sinking currency to the nearly daily truck driver protests that have created the first real traffic jams I've experienced here, there's always the pool. There's too much to do at the office and your hummus gets mold before you expect it to, but a swim in the peach-colored morning sun plus a nice long soak make it all not important anymore. It's the way to start the day properly.

16 March 2008

why the silence

Since I returned from Norway, I've spent nearly all my time in Akureyri, while my new life and room in Reykjavík lie empty and unused, cellophane-wrapped like a fresh pound cake. It's been 2 weeks of nearly daily snow squalls, the gentle kind that fall freshly yet fail to actually accumulate, the snow of movie sets and Nutcracker dance sequences.

While in the north, I've had plenty of offers to move there, from M offering flat options, to G suggesting one of M's wife's brother's as excellent dateable material, to V asking if the paperwork I held one day was the papers that declared my intention to give up on the southern life. The first week I was there, my planned 2-day trip somehow stretched out one day at a time until it was five, as I checked out every day and sheepishly returned to the hotel every evening, receiving a different room every night.

Thankfully, Akureyri's got a nice hotel and a variety of restaurant options. It never ceases to amaze me that a town on the edge of nowhere, nearly to the Arctic Circle can be so relatively bustling. There's the curry hut where I order in Icelandic from a square Indian man, the best Arctic curry to be had. Then we have the vegetarian place, where turnip burgers are served among a palette of carefully chosen earth tones, from the twig-colored velveteen curtains to the leafy wallpaper behind the silverware table.

During my nearly-nightly swim I certainly did think of whether I would like to live there. In some ways it is "öll lífsins gæði" (the best of everything in life, the Akureyri motto), with its enchanting scale and dramatic setting. It is a safe feeling to be living among what feels like a big family, and to feel like evening is properly a time of rest and repose, so empty are the streets of any sort of bustle or activity. The architecture is low and unobtrusive against the sculpted mountain landscape, just fanciful enough in detail to feel as if you're in an invented place.

However, everyone my age seems to be busy at one thing: family or the making thereof. The guys I work with are busy with wives, children, houses, and laird-o-the-manor guesthouse operations. They are busy installing lights, tiling bathrooms, connecting stoves and redoing the downstairs den. All of these activities are perfectly nice things to do but are not the sorts of things I think about in my vagabond lifestyle, so foreign to the Icelanders I know here.

Still, they are a rather nice lot, these northern Icelanders, which was enforced by my most gracious welcome in the form of a free taxi ride from the airport. I've always had a splendid time in the north, so spending more time there has been no great source of pain or discomfort. However, I think I am still one for the southern life, with its nearly constant traffic of people from other land stopping by, for a night or three, or for several years. I'm not ready for an even smaller scale of life, but I'll be happy to go again, flying over the landscape between here and there, so open and empty, ridges of mountains sprawling free and clean, empty of human activity.

24 February 2008

finding the soul

I have been coming to Norway now for several months and have felt that I never quite "got it". The Norwegians I work with are all quite pleasant and polite but keep their distance, and the explorations of Oslo have been pleasant but not astounding or recommend-to-others fascinating.

However, this time my trip has involved spending a weekend here, and one of the Norwegians I work with, B, invited me to her house last week. Over a reindeer Stroganoff laced with juniper berries, we discussed my desire to ski while here, and since our snow-scouting in the area had shown nothing but thin icy cover to the fields, I decided to go to Lillehammer.

B headed to the basement to dig up the skis, the wax kit, the coat and ski pants, the gloves and boots. Everything fit me perfectly, so after an evening spent swapping stories of lacemaking, the Norwegian traditional costume, and old movies, B sent me off with her gear and wishes for a properly good time skiing.

On Saturday morning I woke early, and walked to the train station with my skis over my shoulder, the low morning sun streaming through the cross streets on the way. On the platform, I knew I had the right train when I spotted another man with skis and a big bag of gear, who turned out to be on his way for a multi-day ski trek. The train itself had a special cupboard for skiing equipment, so I set mine in and settled in for the 2 hour train ride with a cup of tea from the dining car.

The ride goes along a long narrow lake, past farmhouses and very little else, but soon I was deposited at the Lillehammer train station with all the other people carrying snowboards, skis, and snowshoes. After being informed that I probably did not want to ski the 900 meters of altitude gain on icy tracks to the x-c ski area, I decided to wait for the bus that goes to the skiing areas of Sjusjøen (a lovely sibilant word that sounds like swishing skis when Norwegians say it) and Nordseter.

In the meantime, I abandoned my skis at the train station and went to explore the downtown. There was a Saturday market in one square where I sampled reindeer salami, cheese curd, and traditional cheese, then wandered the icy streets, admiring the old buildings and the tremendously beautiful weaving in the classic shop, Husfliden. Then, time for skiing.

The bus went straight up the hill from the train station, a 20 minute ride along hairpin turn roads edged with colorful slate-roof houses. I made friends with two Dutchmen who were heading for a multi-day tenting adventure on skis, then talked to a woman and her husband, both in their 70s, who made the 22 kilometer ski from the mountains down to Lillehammer once a week. She gave me advice to ski up to the top of Nevelfjell, and when we arrived, he crumbled a bit of snow with a practiced hand and said it was a day for blue wax.

So on with the wax and on to the skis I went, stepping out into perfectly groomed triple-wide trails. This is the kind of skiing that you'd expect to have to pay for somewhere else. Sure, x-c skiing is the cheaper choice when compared to alpine, but you still usually have to pay. Not here- this is the one free thing to be found in this land of $20 hamburgers.

And everyone was out taking advantage of it- majestic old men in handknit cabled socks and knee britches, whole families with the infants in sleds with ski tracks on the bottom, and everyone in between. There were fast skiers and slow skiers, but the trail manner so courteous that there was space for everyone on this highway network of ski trails. For the first time since I've been here, people I didn't know at all were beaming wide grins at me, saying hello, and offering all the advice I could want. This is their place, these Norwegians.

Most people had a backpack from which they'd produce coffee, snacks, and seat cushions, so at every crossroad there would be clusters of people, their skis stuck in the snow like a forest of slender birches, the fat snowsuited kids rolling about in the snow while everyone ate sandwiches. I'd also packed open faced salami and cheese sandwiches, and in my borrowed authentically Norwegian clothes, I appeared so much "one of them" that people were trying to start conversations with me about the weather and the day. When I reacted with perplexity to one pair, the response I got was "ah, we didn't expect foreign people so far up in the mountains."

The landscape there was made for skiing (or more accurately perhaps, skiing was made for terrain like that), with just enough contour to keep things interesting, but no hills impossibly high. I'd also unintentionally chosen the area high enough that the trees were sparse- pinetrees sprinkled sporadically, like a teenaged boy's first attempt at a beard, so the views were quite dramatic.

My destination was fully above the treeline though, where the wind had scraped the snow into fantastical shapes around the boulders, and the trail ceased to really exist. So I alternately trekked and stopped, trekked and stopped, pausing only long enough to avoid getting cold, but wanting so very much to do nothing but stare at the huge view of nearly the entire lake I'd come past by train, and mountains spread in every direction.

The wind got so strong that by the time I'd finished the scramble up the hill it was good to see the small ice-encrusted hut at the top. Inside were sleeping platforms, a wood stove with a stack of logs nearby, and a guest book. I signed the book, had a sandwich, and tried to see if I was indeed spotting glaciers as well as Norway's highest mountain. The sun was so dazzling that I was a bit sun-blind and the wind so peppy I couldn't stay long, so I followed the scratchings of a trail down the opposite side and into gentler terrain.

I skied until the clouds rolled in and it began to grow dark, then returned to the bus stop area for the proper post-skiing drink, steaming hot chocolate, which I accessorized with some kind of cinnamon-wheat-raisin bun, still oven-warm. Then it was bus and then train, where I was whisked back south in the deepening gloom, my limbs lazy with contentment and exertion.

17 February 2008


After a week of work in Norway, I returned to Iceland for the annual pre-season training trip for the choir, the vocal equivalent of the early spring rowing training in college, where we'd go south and row ourselves silly for a few days.

The choir trips are a bit shorter, a bit less strenuous, and for some reason always seems to take place on weekends of exceptionally bad weather, like the first time when I spent an entire weekend enshrouded in fog. This year it was that special kind of rainy weather that comes after lots of snow and results in skating rink parking lots everywhere, and lots of mysterious fog wisps. Our destination this time was the complex at Sólheimar, a place that's made a name for itself by creating a safe space for people with mental disabilities to live together. The complex is situated in a valley about an hour's drive from Reykjavík, and contains houses for the people, craft studios where they have woodworking, weaving, candle making, and other activities, a small store where they sell these items, a hotel, several guesthouses, a pool and a church. Most of the food is both organic and vegetarian there, and the buildings have been built with an eye toward recycling, renewable resources, and maximum efficiency.

The choir has grown so large that we occupied two houses, each with a large kitchen/living area and wings of double guestrooms spreading outward along the ridges above the central valley. Rather than singing in the living room as we did before, we got use of the lovely church at the highest point of the little community. The low walls of the building were snug in turf, and the vaulted ceiling of pale wood adorned with a chandelier of winged lightbulbs. With the trapezoidal windows looking over the foggy landscape it was a serene and perfectly isolated place for a day and a half of musical focus.

We sang all Friday evening, and most of Saturday in the church, then stuffed ourselves into cars and drove through the swirled mist to practice some more at Skálholt, the seat of the Icelandic bishops. Like most places in Iceland, this place is steeped in fierce history and has been significant in the story of Iceland since the 11th century, but little human-generated evidence still remains of all this activity. The church built over ruins of previous constructions is only from the middle of the 20th century, and while quite large by Icelandic standards, is still a rather cozy and non-awe-inspiring scale. Despite the size, the acoustics, so sorely lacking in many Icelandic churches, are superb there. The songs that sounded decent elsewhere sounded exceptional in this special place, ringing against the dark stone floors and spreading around us.

We sang until evensong, when a few people filtered in the door of the church, and we then all lined up on opposite sides of the church for a short call-and-response service. At the end we shared a moment of silence that was remarkable in its perfect quiet. 40 people ranged along the walls of this stone building in the middle of the open countryside, so perfectly still that the only sound was the rushing of the geothermally heated water through the radiators. No cars, no horns or city hum, just the exhalation of the earth through the pipes and the breathing of the people standing beside me.

After that, it was time for some noise at dinnertime and afterwards. We ate at the restaurant in Sólheimar at two large tables, and by the end of the dinner everyone was swapping chairs, and the conversation volume rose as the wine glasses emptied. We finished by singing a favorite song, then headed back up the hill for more singing, more conversation, and more eating. Unlike last time when my Icelandic comprehension abilities shut down as the trip progressed, this time they blossomed. Although the choir now does have several other non-Icelandic members, none of them were actually on the trip, so I was alone in the sea of pre-aspiration and lilting cadence, hearing of my choir director's California exchange student experience, talking of the deliciousness of Boston beer.

This group has been a constant over my years here, and it's nice to see how things have changed over the course of these group getaways. We've been to a bunch of places in Iceland and outside of Iceland and each time there' s a new word learned, a new person I talk to, the feeling for a new song.

06 February 2008

what's in a day?

Morning in Reykjavík. It's the blue gray light from which Esja emerges from the kitchen window in my new flat, the thunk of the heavy outside door with its counterintuitive lock (turn towards the door to unlock, not away).

It's the scraping of tires getting out of the parking space, onto the narrow road that's never plowed, two tracks of glassy ice with a hump of solid snow in the center. Right, then left then right at the Salvation Army guesthouse, then it's to the roundabout and down Hringbraut. Páll Óskar's danceclub tunes on Bylgjan, a string of neon lights past Mjódd, then out into the countryside where my office now is located.

It smells of coffee and new there. Puddles on the floor from snowy feet, glass doors unable to withstand the rousing winds are still boarded over, and my gray tweed skirt matches the nubbed carpet on the stairs. In office, it's the sound of yet more construction behind the meetings, work, meetings, pondering, conversation, the punctuation of saltjkjöt og baunir, since today's sprengidagur again.

After work, pool. I do my kilometer, sharing the lane with a guy in flippers who's slower than I expect. Each time I somersault, I look for the bubbles trailing from his leading hand, and they're not there. Arms, arms, arms, breathe, arms, arms, arms, breathe, and repeat until the next flip. I always lose count but does it really matter that much after all? My only competition is myself and flippers-man who takes long breaks after each length.

Salt pot, then steam, then salt again, and it's time's-up. Shower, spin the suit in the dryer, and then on with the boots and along the dark sea route home. There's only time to check email before I'm out again, to eat blueberry-vodka marinated lamb topped with papadum, and talk economics and the intricacies of the English language with H, my erstwhile flatmate.

Home now, a whisper of breeze swirls through the crack in the window, and the rooftops I see from my new home are edged with snow. A few lights remain on, extinguished one by one as the neighborhood goes to sleep, and a solitary car grinds up the hill nearby.

What's in this day that might justify the reports that this is one of the happiest nations in the world? It does seem odd that a time spent so much in the dark can seem so cozy and lovable. Is it the food traditions that I am so happy to see for my third year, the level of constant intellectual stimulation, the socializing of such variety, the freshness of wind and the water in my glass close at hand? Of course, there are plenty of other, more practical arguments that one could make for why things are nice here, like healthcare, work conditions, short commute times, and general tidiness. I think these those are more the features of life that help you have the space to be happy about other things, rather than the reasons for happiness themselves. There's time for music, for thinking about interesting ideas, for drinking lots and lots of coffee (perhaps another reason for the happiness?), for swimming and for just dreaming in a pool of hot sea water. These are what makes it great for me here.

01 February 2008

concentrated sunrise

After hearing about them about 3 years ago for the first time, I finally saw glitský this morning. These peculiar high atmosphere clouds are a rare phenomenon in far northern places, and are one of the other rewards of the extended sunrise period in the wintertime.

My commute this morning had me heading straight towards them, so for once I wanted the stop lights to last for as long as they liked, since at every look the clouds contained different colors. First palest cobalt was surrounded by feathers of pink, then the center morphed into electric lavender with swirls of green as the edges deepened to red.

Like a concentrated sunrise, these veil-thin clouds eventually manifested all the colors of the rainbow in muted shades on my 15-minute drive, swirling and pulsating like the pre-dawn cousin of northern lights. I apparently got the best of the show, since now they've dissolved like a figment of my imagination, and the space they just occupied is now being consumed by the clouds of steam from Nesjavellir that rise from the horizon to the east.

28 January 2008

how to get through January

I know that many people who consider moving north fear the darkest months, when it can seem like you never see day, so here's a list of the things that have made this January manageable and even entertaining.
  • the car. Sad to say that this has made the biggest difference, but when you're talking snow being blown into interestingly sculptural drifts by hurricane force winds, it matters to not be waiting for a bus in it.
  • Just like my mama said, you have to get outside and do something active. It's why we grew up skiing and why I've been swimming regularly. Lying in a hot tub while the snow flails around you is grand, not to mention that perfection of warmth. Plus, the sting of cold snowflakes on your arms will make you swim faster. The perfect training motivation!
  • Dinner parties. Candles, cabernet, and conversation help make those hours and hours of darkness rather cozy.
  • Lots of coffee. My most recent round of place-to-live negotiations have involved more socializing over coffee than actual details-of-apartments discussions. When the weather's neither ski-able nor hike-able, nor mow-the-lawn-able, everyone's much more willing to while away the hours of a gray afternoon over pots and pots of coffee.
  • Big windows. My new office has a vast view across Esja and the mountains to the northeast, so the scraps of daylight are captured and appreciated to their maximum.
  • Escape. Sure, it was only Norway where it gets darker earlier in the day (and lighter earlier) but at least it's a change and a new perspective.
Really though, I think it's just having spent more time here and being used to the rhythm. Plus, by January the sun's on the upswing, so you know that brighter days are ahead.

24 January 2008

everyone's laughing

about this recent report from the Daily Show on Iceland's troop in Iraq. Unlike some skits I've seen about the one Icelandic soldier, this one was actually filmed here.

Part one was from the 22nd, part two from yesterday.

21 January 2008

selected from among thousands!

Last week I got a letter in the mail from the Icelandic Statistics Office, saying I'd been randomly selected from the national registry along with about two thousand other people to research technology and internet habits of the Icelandic population. It was accompanied by a little pamphlet showing the results from previous surveys, with that oft-quoted statistic that Iceland is the most wired country in Europe.

Since then I missed two phone calls that ja.is showed to be the statistics office number, and then finally yesterday I got the call, a most determined woman with a long list of questions. She quizzed me about whether I had a TV, a projector, a PalmPilot, a blog, and what I'd done in the last three months with respect to downloading music, playing internet video games, buying stuff on the internet, or filling out web-based forms. It was a lot of new vocabulary but for once, she did not break the Icelandic and throw me an English bone.

At the conclusion of what was about half an hour of questions my head started to hurt with her practiced speed of questioning, but I think I understood everything, and now next time you read the Icelandic technology statistics, you'll know at least in part where those numbers come from.

20 January 2008


while I was away, Iceland got busy covering things up more than they'd already been covered, so K and I landed in a mini-blizzard yesterday and had to shove the car out of the drift it had gotten nicely tucked into while we were away. It's a rather sporty thing with open wheels so the packed snow caused peculiar effects on the vehicular balance, so we tried to pull over to do something about it but ended up more in a snowdrift than we'd been in the parking lot.

Within seconds, a youngun with a highland-worthy diesel truck had pulled over, followed by a minivan full of enthusiastic kids and a father. The youngun looked hopefully at the car for a place he could hook a winch but when that proved unlikely, he pulled out a sizeable shovel and went about flinging snow energetically while K and I looked on. Then, with a synchronized push, the two guys popped us out of the snowbank and disappeared into the fading day with a cheery wave.

This encounter was so very Icelandic to me in several ways. First of all, when I saw the truck and the type of fellow in it, I knew he'd want to try some kind of winch action. The guys with cars like that seem to always want to make the most use of their equipment, and revel in being The Guys Who Fix Things. Second, he didn't just hand the shovel to me or K, but dug us out completely by himself, and third, in spite of the youngun there, the minivan guy stopped to help too.

As I've said before, there's this way that people go about helping each other here that make me glad to be here. I do think it's not uniquely Icelandic, but more the shape of life in any rural place that is prey to the elements. Growing up in Vermont usually meant helping people in the same way, although I remember more mud-related rescues on the spring pre-season crew team jogs than winter dig-outs. We'd be out for a run together on the narrow dirt roads that wound through the area, and would come upon someone mired in a fresh patch of springtime. Nothing's quite so nice to someone like that than 10 or 15 high-school athletes, ready to push and dirty enough as it is that a little more mud doesn't matter.

16 January 2008


back in Norway again, where the weather is less scandi-wonderland than the country I left on Tuesday.

K and I drove to the airport in a sprightly snowstorm, and true to his Viking roots, K was more confident and optimistic about things than the car could deliver. we ended up shoveling ourselves into the parking space before departing, so the weather had better warm up a bit before we return or we need to make friends with a shovel owner.

Anyway, here I am in Norway, sampling Norwegian TV properly for the first time, and amid the old Friends episodes, the 1930s Norwegian movies subtitled in Swedish and full of treacherous looks across the dinner table, I find that sulky races are some kind of big deal. I'm talking about that specific and obscure sport where specially trained horses perform restricted gaits while pulling a tiny two-wheeled cart. Who knew that it had such a northern audience, but after seeing two consecutive nights of races being broadcast, once in a genteel snowfall, I have to believe it's some kind of cultural element here.

It may not sound like a great international learning, but I love it.

11 January 2008

talking about nothing

one of the things I've learned while spending time driving this past week is that the radio in the commute-time evening contains 2 things: news, and people calling in and talking about random stuff. They have idle quizzes about certain bands and then after 20 minutes of slow Icelandic talking, will play a song or two, and then repeat.

None of the stuff is particularly controversial or full of hot debate, as this clip K just sent me illustrates. The hosts are asking the caller what the English word for "kjúkling" is. Given the prevalence of KFC here it's kind of surprising that he doesn't know.

January shifting

I'm sitting in my new office space, watching the sunrise pink fade over the new huge view I have, encompassing most of Esja, Akrafjall, and the spine of Snæfellsness. In spite of the late sunrise, it's hard to be too unhappy in a place that offers this much sky-space, all trimmed with mountains.

For it's January in Iceland, and time for changes and remembering that the light is indeed returning. For the first time, I'm approaching Reykjavík by car. After my rant about carless living in Reykjavík, which got featured in a public project somehow, I caved. My new office is in a location that would require taking the entire length of what I call the tour-of-obscure-neighborhoods bus line, plus a lengthy and brisk walk to the edge of nowhere, so I had to stop being stubborn and become like everyone else here, solitarily zipping to work in a little car.

In spite of having lived here for over 2 years, I've ended up in the wrong place a few times these past days as I relearn the lay of the landscape from a new perspective. There are really no highways here, so it's a pretty close-to-the-people experience to be driving in Reykjavík, with lots of lights, roundabouts, and ramps. Add textless signs in bright colors while driving almost only in the dark, and it's almost too surreal to describe.

After nearly a year and a half of taking the bus, it's more of a joy than I care to admit to be with car. The wind is something to relish, not consider as an impediment to wearing scarf, the cold can be enjoyed from the proper perspective, shoulder deep in hot water. 15 minutes to get to work versus 1 hour is also a thrill. So many more minutes per day to be swimming and watching the light on the mountains.