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.