29 December 2011

Icelandic new year flavor

A few months ago one of the members of my choir announced that she had a plan to make a disc of musical favorites related to New Year celebrations, and she wanted us to be part of the effort. The director whipped up a new arrangement of one of the Icelandic classics, and during our annual weekend retreat rehearsal, we performed it along with several other favorites to an attentive recording crew.

She was recently interviewed on the national radio program, and it included a snippet of the best one as the intro. This song's tune and lyrics make me think of Vikings stamping around a bonfire in the deepest dark of an Icelandic winter night, and even though this is only a clip, I hope you can feel it too.

The rest of the program is an interview with my choir member for anyone who wants to exercise their listening skills, and it closes out with another recording of another New Year favorite, as performed by a very enthusiastic choir comprised of several generations of Icelanders. I can't wait to get the CD and hear the rest of our contributions, and hear what else is included.

13 December 2011

musical magic

Last week my choir held the usual Christmas concert that I've mentioned here before, and the event turned out to be one of those classic Icelandic evenings. This year's program was Bach's Magnificat, a glorious piece of baroque frivolousness, paired with a piece newly written over the past few months. The choir director has been in a composing program at school here, and decided to write a chorale as his final thesis. As he finished the chapters over the fall, we rehearsed them along with the Bach piece, re-learning as he re-wrote, trying to grasp his new sound and do justice to his creation as we brought it to light.

The rehearsals with the baroque orchestra began a week before the concert, and at the last rehearsal on the Sunday before our concert, things were sounding a bit iffy. Soloists were getting lost, the timing of the instruments was off, the choir anxious and uncertain of entrances, notes that had been changed at the last minute, unable to hear each other, shuffling the risers in the back rows.  Too late to do anything but hope at that point though, so the on the evening of the performance, as I watched from the side chapel as the  church fill with concertgoers, I hoped we'd do justice to this new piece, and to all these people who were paying to hear our efforts.

As always though, once the overture began, nothing else mattered but the Bach that we'd been practicing for nearly a year. It's a piece I hope I sing again, although as each movement whizzed by I found myself wondering if or where that might ever happen again. There wasn't much time to ponder this since we filed offstage the instant the last chord was over to mill about in the church's cellar.

Finally, time for the director's piece. Somehow, despite the frustrating performance, it all came together just how it was supposed to- the girls' choir came in right on cue, the soloists remembered their pieces, we found our places and our voices in the choir, and at the end, the director's look of gratitude directed at us said it all. The audience seemed to agree, and one standing ovation and several encores later, I marveled at all the only-in-Iceland features that came together to make this evening possible. There we were, an amateur choir composed of a very motley crew of people, representing all ages, many different professions, a sprinkling of nationalities, along with the elite from Iceland's symphony orchestra, some of the best soloists the country has to offer, all performing a piece that had been written just in a few months by the guy who's guided our choir through four countries now. Doesn't happen every night in a girl's life.

We rounded out the evening with a champagne toast and a hilariously cheesy cake featuring a full-color photograph of the director, as ordered by his wife (she ate the piece with his face on it). The elation of the well-performed concert combined with the liberal champagne made for a joyful and conversational after-party. As it began to wind down, I slipped off my fancy-yet-uncomfortable concert shoes, and back in my boots, I walked the few blocks home in the crisply starry night, arpeggios still trilling in my ears.

01 December 2011

midnight memories

It's past midnight and in my little corner of Reykjavik, I just spent 10 minutes with my chin leaning on the edge of my bedroom skylight, propped slightly ajar. It's quiet below, the sidewalks glazed with a crust of ice, and above me curves a smudge of northern lights. Christmas decorations have gone up, so although the inhabitants are mostly asleep, the houses along my street glow with fairy lights. The mysteriously mild November has now descended into deep negative numbers, so I'm wrapped in wool from the neck down.

Propping one's chin on a windowsill is rather akin to leaning on a pasture gate- it's the right place for a good ponder. After reading through a few years of my blog archives, I thought about all the things I once marveled at that have become so ordinary I don't even think about them anymore. I've learned to rip open milk boxes and how to fold them securely closed, I learned to stab juice boxes with a knife to allow smooth pouring, I'm no longer lost when it comes to figuring out what frozen goods to buy, even if the labels are all in Danish, and the plugs and switches I thought were so fascinating are forgotten in the midst of everything else on my mind.

When I go to the same gym I once visited with my friend T, it's the classes in English that feel wrong, not the Icelandic ones. I've learned all the body part words I need to know, and adjust my hands, my hips, my shoulders without a second thought to the language. This happened again earlier this week when I once again met H (still editing after all these years!). Our conversation began in Icelandic, shifted to English, flowed through Icelandic again, and continued this pattern as we worked through texts in both languages. As the wine bottle emptied we tried a few moments in German as well but abandoned that as the Icelandic crept in again.

My body's adjusted to the place too- recently as I exited the bakery on a particularly windy day, my grip automatically adjusted on the cake box so it wouldn't go sailing across the parking lot. Not so when I first arrived and an enthusiastic gust of wind ripped friend K's car door from my hand and bent it so badly that the door never shut properly after that. I think about the wind still, of course, but more as a practical concern. Which windows need closing, which direction is best for the run today, or should I just do inside-yoga instead?

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be integrated somewhere, and I've realized how differently I think about this place compared to those first months. I remember being so aware of how isolated this little island is, imagining the vast black oceans beyond, the empty frigid mountains that ringed the city. Now, when I think about Iceland this night, I think of H across the street in her green-wallpapered bedroom, J nested amid her handmade felt-crafts a few streets away, M still in the apartment where I first met her in 2007, only now with tiny S sleeping at her side, K's family in their rambling home smelling of delicious cooking. Further afield, there's M in his cozy house with the crazily hand-tiled bathroom, V in his neat village on the edge of Eyjafjörður. In between lies a string of familiar places that I've visited and stopped at during the dozens of trips I've taken. This island is no longer a remote, forgotten piece of lava, it's a place crisscrossed with memories and people and experiences.

28 November 2011

nammi number one

One of the things I love about being able to speak Icelandic is that it's given me access to the mysterious world of small talk, Iceland style. As you might expect, a lot of it is pretty much the same as it is anywhere else in the world. For example, a few weeks ago I was waiting for the bus and an elderly gentleman ambled up to wait at the same stop. During the few minutes we stood together, we discussed the changes in bus policy and how the mild weather was pleasant and would hopefully last until Christmas (naturally, it didn't). During the subsequent bus ride, I complimented a fellow passenger on her fabulous boots and she returned with an admiration for my red patent-leather pumps. Pretty standard.

It gets more interesting at certain places, like the downtown post office. This isn't the easiest post office to choose, since it requires paying for parking, but one woman behind the counter makes it worth the visit. She's apparently a legend in at Pósturinn according to a friend who works in another branch office, and it's easy to see why. First of all, she must be the fastest stamp-canceler in the West, but she's also perennially cheerful. Last time I was there, I was mailing packages containing Icelandic wool and slabs of suðusúkkulaði to friends in America, and as she weighed and stamped my packages we discussed the contents. I said that this pairing was popular for almost everyone in America, but when I was going to visit my parents, I had to include that classic Icelandic fish jerky, harðfiskur, in the mix since my mom's such a fan. "ahh yes", said she, "those are nammi* number one, two and three in life."

Interactions like this make me think about the reputation that Icelanders sometimes get of being unfriendly on tourist websites and in guidebooks. I've never really felt that way, and the more I can communicate on their level, the less I feel the reputation of unfriendliness is warranted. I always thought small talk and striking up conversations with people you don't really know was a typically American thing, but the more I see of this island, the more I realize that it's just the way humans are. Particularly when you're in these remote areas where people can be few and far between, those small conversations with an unusually charming gas station attendant, or over the merits of harðfiskur add a little sparkle of human connection to life.

*nammi is one of those fabulous Icelandic words that doesn't have an exact direct translation into English. It means candy most often, but also refers to any sort of yummy treat.

21 November 2011

open curtain policy

on Saturday after a successful holiday shopping trip followed by coffee with a friend near downtown, I walked the long way home via Bræðraborgarstígur. The weather was starting to grow chill after a mild day, and a light drizzle had fallen during my coffee hours, so the dark pavement gleamed under the streetlights. This neighborhood is the postcode of so many parts of my life here, particularly along Öldugata, my first Icelandic address. It's a great street for walking, as is Bræðraborgarstígur, particularly just after dark when everyone's home and cozy, preparing dinner or just hanging out.

It's also a neighborhood that's not much inclined towards curtains, and just like old houses in Vermont, the oldest ones are built closest to the road, so a pedestrian feels almost part of the tableau within. There's that studenty looking kjallaríbúð at knee level, the sink piled with dirty dishes in the 80s-style kitchen. Next, the warmly lit living room lined with books, a bright red toddler-sized dress hanging on a door beam. I glance into one on the corner where my head's level with the bottom of the window, a girl on her laptop behind a lacy paper window decoration.

The views into windows here is a theme I've mentioned a few other times, like when I first moved here and was living in the same neighborhood, and again some months later when I was walking through the area where I live now. Compared to some other nations, like Germany, where curtain-drawing is an essential dusk routine, I wonder why it is that the people I live among don't seem to bother pulling the curtains. Do they like the virtual participation of the passersby? Are they proud of their nice decor, do they simply feel like there's no point in closing the curtains when everyone knows your business anyway? Maybe they're just trying to keep track of what the latest incarnation is of the ever changing weather.

This is my own reason for not wanting to pull the shades, at least. I'm always popping out to the balcony to see if perhaps it's clear enough for northern lights, to admire the moon or the stars, to smell the night air or listen to the clatter of people on the street below. During the dusk and dawn hours, I want to have full sky visibility for maximum cloud and sun-effect enjoyment. It helps to live on the top floor with strategically placed windows so I'm not sharing quite as much as those houses I passed on Saturday, but I have added something in case anyone does glance heavenward and see my tiny window. I've set a millefiori bowl there, illuminated from within on occasional nights, my small contribution to the patchwork of color that is downtown Reykjavik.

18 November 2011

Christmas crowd

I'm lying awake in the eerie silence of a still Icelandic night, wondering why when the wind howls I can't sleep, yet when it's still, I miss its busy lullaby. Why is it that when I most need it, sleep eludes? It's that time of year when everything is crowding together, trying to jumble in the decreasing gap between now and Christmas.

There are those handcrafted gifts to finish, packages to post, and the massive editing project I took on a few weeks ago looming in my after-work hours. My head's full of superplasticizers and adsorption rates, my fingers nimble from all the tri-color knitting, but chaos has descended at home where the music bags, knitting bags, gym bags, and sheafs of paper are in an ever-rotating cycle by the door. Bach is also coloring the month as fevered preparations continue for a dual Magnificat performance. It's a world premiere, no less, since the choir director's foray into choral music has become more ambitious with a full length chorale.

It's the season for special foods and special traditions, perfumed with clementines and cinnamon. I was in the office of my car's garage and when that telltale scent wafted from behind the desk, the two off-duty mechanics offered me a clementine, and the scent theme followed me to the office and then to choir rehearsal. Everyone's eating them, the boxes stacked high at the grocery stores an easy temptation.

Any business that can joins in on the holiday frenzy. Flyers for holiday cleaning deals clog the mail slot, the radio blares with ads for pre-holiday carpet shampooing, hairstyle bargains, and Christmas outfit sales. A new shop opened last weekend in one of the malls, and the stock that was expected to last five weeks sold out so quickly the store had to close after only being open a few days. Shopping at this time of year is a serious business.

Through this whole time, the weather's been peculiarly warm, the kind of weather that's just at home in an Icelandic spring or summer as it is in descending winter. Days may be short on light, but they're crammed with cloud varieties, and just the kind of dramatic light I so love about this place.  This afternoon, after a rather dour morning of heavy clouds, the sun pierced through with marvelous island-illuminating side-light, so the harbor islands shone like gold coins, the white departing boats freshly starched dinner napkins spread on a navy table. It may not be a particularly Christmassy effect, but in the middle of such a crowd of activities, moments like that always remind me to breathe in the view and appreciate in every way exactly where I am right now, jumbled thoughts and all.

14 November 2011

moment of silence

One of the recent news items has had me thinking a lot about this country, the people who live here and the people who visit. Late Wednesday, a young man called the emergency number to say he'd lost his way out on one of the glaciers in the south, and needed help. Teams from the volunteer rescue squads were immediately on the job, despite the call going out in the middle of the night. Over the next few days, hundreds of people volunteered their time to search for this lost visitor. When I called some friends on Saturday, they were all still busy helping out, cleaning the vehicles that came back from search efforts and restocking for the next trip out.

Sadly, they found the young man later that day, his body in a crevice where he'd probably died from exposure. I suppose it's a better ending than the last time such an event happened when two German tourists went hiking and were never found again.

This story made me think again of how powerful the nature is here. It's a country where the wind can blow entire ship containers into the sea from a dock, a country where people can go missing and never be found, where the weather can change instantly, and where you can never be too prepared when you venture out into the wilderness. Most people are smart and sensible but for the thousands who are, there's always the one horrible sad story. There are plenty of sites reminding people of the dangers here but I'd just like to reiterate it because the consequences can be so awful- don't go into the Icelandic highlands alone, tell people where you're going and when you intend to return, and most of all, go prepared. You always need more clothes than expected here, and climbing on glaciers is not something someone should do unless they're experienced and properly equipped, especially this time of year. Glaciers in the autumn have had all summer to melt and are full of crevices that can be hard to see. The nature here is amazing partly because it's so powerful, but it's not the kind of power that's worth toying with lightly.

The other thing this week made me think of was how incredible Icelanders are in emergency situations. It's a nation that knows how to get on the job swiftly and seems to be quickly innovative when the need arises. During the search, local hotels and associations pitched in with food and accommodation for the tired search parties, and all the rescue team people who weren't sufficiently trained for highland search missions were helping to support in dozens of ways. I've seen this kind of quick and flexible response to other unexpected situations here many times over the years, from volcanoes to floods, and even in the case of the Haitian earthquake, when Icelandic search and rescue teams were among the first to respond.

So thank you to all the searchers, and for anyone who goes out to enjoy Iceland at its best (and sometimes at its worst), please come back safely.

12 November 2011

saturday morning

eating my yogurt with bananas and toasted pecans, looking at the promise of today from three windows. To the south, the red berries still cling to the trees in the yard, although the chatter of starlings makes me wonder how long that will last. In the north, the rain-striped skylight looks to lowering clouds huddled over Esja. It's that time of year when Iceland spends more time shrouded in rain than anything else, but when I look to the east, the clouds are punctuated with hints of palest blue. Promise for later. It's been months since I wrote since as always I think it's always the same things that I write, of the purity of the lively air here, the simplicity of the tiny town, the coziness of community rituals.

And yet sometimes I still want to remember a certain moment, often the quiet ones when it's just me, my thoughts, and the Icelandic sky. Today's full of plans for holiday shopping, visiting friends, and delicious new dinner recipes to test, but for now I'll sit here, chin in hand, and watch the bird-ballet in the rowan tree beyond the balcony.

04 September 2011

daily poetry

Walking home from a cozy evening with an international group of women, Danish jazz from a colleague in my ears, I just looked northwards and caught the first glimpse of the northern lights this year. The air was still balmy and full of the smell of green, and the breeze stirred it gently across my face as I walked.

It got me to thinking about the strings of moments over the past months where I felt like I was exactly where I wanted to be, where nothing else mattered but being in that place right then. The sunny pause on a rock in the east fjords to listen to the awakening spring with A over Easter, singing Icelandic anthems in the total dark of a dripping cave on Snaefellsnes in June, the summer afternoon trekking through the northern pine forest with J & D.

It's those moments abroad, cycling beside the Pegnitz with S on a humid German Sunday, part of the fabric of activity along the river banks- rhythmic gymnasts, families barbecuing, the shouts of joy from the nearby swimming pool, the conviviality of the cafes by the path. Or, late afternoon at Katama, drowsy from the chill of the Atlantic juxtaposed with the still-warm sun. There's a book that could be read but for that moment all that matters is the sound of the surf, the sand between my toes. It's a long lunch beneath the trees in a Bavarian village, just the right amount of town square activity bustling by, the huge ancient trees above shading the tables coolly. It's meeting a friend's new son for the first time, skipping from air conditioned lobby to air conditioned lobby on a sweltering Boston afternoon. It's the run through the wonders of Regents Park in torrential rain.

I'm not sure where this is all headed, but for now I'm stringing these beaded memories together, a year of change and snapshots I hope I never forget.

15 April 2011

spring, but not

today's the day that officially we are all supposed to have removed our winter nail-tires. It's appropriately ironic that today I woke up to a white world, and since then it's been snowing on and off. The view outside my office is one of those classic Icelandic days, the sky aswirl with clouds and pierced by gentle shafts of sunlight. A crowd of seabirds has just taken off and are reeling against a dark portion of the sky. As the sun hits their wings they glint like silver glitter. The sun's warm though, and the days are already light well past 9pm. It's inevitable that the snow will have to capitulate, one of these days.

18 March 2011

So, you want to work in Iceland?

Ever since about a year into this blog, I've been getting emails from people asking me about ways to move here. They stopped abruptly at the beginning of October 2008 but always reappear in a spike during the first few months of the new year. I can't quite figure why, given how idle this blog is, but since it doesn't seem to be disappearing, this post is for all of you frustrated would-be expats. I've found that I am answering the same questions over and over again, which means it's time to make it into a post. I should preface this by saying that when I moved to Iceland it was when the banks were all hiring aggressively and when the general unemployment was extremely low. The current situation is very different. The jobless Icelanders and EU residents I know here are having trouble making ends meet, and most of the expats that made up the vibrant community that made the mood her festive are mostly gone. Every month a new friend shares the news of his or her departure, and now even the half-Icelandic couples are beginning to leave.

With that said, if you're still gung-ho about moving here, this is the advice and information I can offer. Keep in mind that this is based on my own experience moving here several years ago. Since then the visa situation has changed quite a bit, and the job market has changed even more so.

First of all, if you're coming from the US or some other non-EEA country, as most of my would-be Iceland residents seem to be, you'll need residence/work permits. As with most countries, this means you either need to be a student (with a verified income source), in a relationship with an Icelander, or with a job here. I'm going to address the third category mostly, since that's what I did and what most people ask me about. These visas are easy enough to get if you have a willing sponsor, although the lay of the land is a bit different now than it was when I arrived some years ago. They used to be free, now are not, they used to be one-size-fits-all but now are divided between skilled and unskilled types. Of course, there's the issue of the kreppa which has the employment situation for everyone here in a bit of a question. I keep hearing about all the foreigners leaving, that the hiring fairs for jobs in other countries are jammed, that everyone's running for the ferries to Europe. I know some of these people personally, who've found jobs and are packing their things up as I type.

That said, there still has to be space for foreign workers, particularly ones who are handy writing in English. Given that the consumer base within Iceland is so shaky, the companies that want to stay afloat are searching for business in foreign parts if they can. If you're looking for jobs in construction, I recommend looking elsewhere, since the Icelandic construction companies are even sending their people abroad, mostly to Norway.

How to find that job is a bit of the tricky thing. The best way, given the scale of this society and how much it thrives on those personal relationships, is to actually be here in Iceland. Americans can stay as a tourist for up to three months in the Schengen territory, which would definitely give you enough time to build contacts. Although there is a Craigslist Reykjavik, nobody uses it, so finding those job leads when you're not here will probably be best attained through a website. I'm a bit rusty on the search methods lately but in my day I found a lot of information on mbl.is, in the "atvinna" section, as well as the available government jobs at this site. It's a good way to start learning some of the words in the language anyway. Now that there's google translate and plenty of handy apps to deal with this, it's much easier than it was when I was searching.

There are a few English postings on the Reykjavík Grapevine's website, but none of these are hte kinds of jobs that are likely to sponsor a visa for a non-EU/EEA employee, and then there's a nice comprehensive English-language list of companies operating in Iceland at this chamber of commerce website. I used this as a base list to look at which companies had English-language websites and would therefore be amenable to the idea of having a non-Icelandic employee. From there I actually walked into quite a few companies, introduced myself, and said I was looking for work. Although none of those panned out, I only had one experience where I wasn't welcomed and at least offered coffee and a tour. Company bureaucracy is very minor here, so it's frequently possible to talk to the main decision makers in such an informal fashion.

Should your job hunting meet with success, the next step would be to get that paperwork squared away. It's all explained on the immigration office's website, and my experience was that the Icelandic HR people (if you are lucky enough to work for a company that has one) have little to no experience filling the papers out, so it's best if you're willing and able to do it yourself. I recommend reading through before you try to move and get those bits of paper together that you need from your home country, such as the criminal record. Makes it that much easier when application time arrives.

If you're interested in starting language studies before you arrive, the online Icelandic course offered by the University of Iceland was a great start for me. I used it once a week for a few minutes and found that I'd learned enough to skip the intro level classes once I got here. It helps to get accustomed to the sounds of the language so you're at least familiar with pre-aspiration and the staccato rhythm of Icelandic before you arrive.

One thing I am also often asked in these emails I get is, "how difficult is it to move to Iceland? Is the winter hard?" I can't tell you that. Difficult depends on you and your concept of what is complicated. The winter's harshness depends on you too, as does your interest and ability to deal with what is definitely an island lifestyle. I still always advise coming to visit Iceland for more than a whirlwind summer tour. Come in the winter if you can and see if you still like it in the dark, in the snowsqualls, when you're stuck in Reykjavik and can't see beyond the end of your nose.

The other thing to consider is that if you're not marrying an Icelander or with an Icelandic significant other, this is a complicated place to be long-term. It's extremely family oriented, so every holiday will find you smooshing your way into a local family, cobbling together your own expat mixture, or fleeing the island. With that said, the Icelanders I have become friends with are wonderful, vibrant, interesting, intelligent and well-traveled people, and the non-Icelanders I've met are a great mix too. It's an interesting place to live and I don't regret having come here at all. It's just not for everyone.

03 February 2011

lay low in the snow

The snow is just warm enough to slide down the window in lazy ribbons, accumulating in fractals along the lower sill, and my trustily unreliable streetlamp winks and flickers as always. The air is unusually still, so the snow billows beneath the illumination in ways remembered from childhood. Across the street one tiny tree on a doorstep still twinkles with ice-blue fairy lights, left from Christmas a little longer than the rest, and inside, my feet steaming gently on the radiator, the solitude of a single song repeated.

The weather's shifting now, clattering in occasional ice pellets on the panes, and the houses across the street go dark as night falls deeper. Time for sleep, just once this song finishes one more time. My secret so small, I forget it's there.