29 February 2012

outdoor essentials

One of the things that really surprised me about housing in Iceland when I first arrived was that balconies are considered a nearly essential feature of home life. In Boston, I never lived in an apartment with a balcony, and none of my friends had balconies either. What's the point when winter is so long and tedious, when you only get a few months of use out of it? And yet, when I first arrived, the balcony-free apartment was looked upon with a bit of pity despite being in a very charming old house.

The next apartment had a balcony but turned out to not be as useful as one might hope due to its northfacing seafront location. It was possible to do the occasional barbecue, well anchored with heavy stones, but wasn't really a comfortable place to sit and enjoy the day due to brisk breezes off the sea. Furthermore, it only received direct sunlight late on summer evenings when the rays were no longer particularly warming.

I've been through several other apartments since then, some with outdoor space, some frustratingly without, and I have to say that life in Iceland is definitely much better when viewed from a balcony. Where I live now, it may be a rather tiny space, a bit more than a meter square, but the southern exposure and genteel neighborhood views means it's actually almost useable. On sunny days when the breeze isn't too persistent, I tie open the door and let that marvelous Iceland air pour through the house, and on rainy days I press my nose to the windowpane and imagine the days when it'll be possible to sit out there again.

Plus, if you want to do one of the essential Scandinavian weekend chores when housecleaning, a balcony is a must. On dry days, the neighborhood blooms with duvets tossed over railings, and now I can do it too. For a while there was no railing on my tiny outdoor space, which resulted in a few mishaps where my duvet and drying rack ended up in the garden below, but I've mastered the technique now with a few well-placed clothespins. After a few hours in the sun and wind, the duvets take on the most marvelous lava-air scent that puts me to sleep instantly.

And on those winter nights when the darkness pins itself tight to the window, it's a ritual to step out into the frigid air while I brush my teeth, just to scan the sky in hopes of seeing northern lights. Somehow this is far nicer than looking through a window. Iceland's weather is always more interesting when you interact with it, and my tiny balcony is the perfect way to do that, in any season.

06 February 2012

for the love of knitting

One thing that people have probably noticed when visiting Iceland is that the lopapeysa really is taken quite seriously here. It was conceived as a very serviceable garment in thick unspun Icelandic yarn, only in natural sheep colors, and usable as a replacement for a coat, with the patterns on the yoke and openings serving a practical function as well as a decorative one. Adding a multi-thread pattern on the edges makes the design less stretchy so the cuffs and hem are more durable, and on the yoke, the double yarn adds warmth to the chest area.  In more recent years, the choice of color, pattern, and yarn weight has exploded, and now you can find these sweaters with all kinds of crazy designs- I've seen pink background with skulls, animals, flowers, and the traditional designs reinterpreted in all kinds of thrilling color combinations. With lighter weights of yarn, they're more versatile too. If you want, you can now even design your own on the web, and the measurements will all be taken care of for you.

I started in on my first pseudo-lopapeysa a few years ago, going with the free vórmorgun (spring morning) pattern off the web, designed by one of the biggest names in Icelandic sweater-design, Védis Jónsdóttir. I thought that having no sleeves and a relatively simple color pattern would make this a good starter project, plus, it really is just the thing for Icelandic spring, when you want to wear light colors but the weather really just doesn't cooperate. It didn't take long to make and although I messed up the decreases and found the white wool I chose rather unforgiving to variations in stitch consistency, I wore it a few times before deciding the style really wasn't flattering to my body type. It's now clothing my friend H, who looks fantastic in it.

Round two of the lopapeysa effort was another classic, but again I was overzealous in the measurements and the result ended up rather long, and with curiously lacy underarm stitching. A second vórmorgun vest I made as a Christmas gift finally came out exactly how I wanted, so I moved onto a more ambitious multi-color pattern, the blockbuster Riddari design. I once commented that in Iceland you're more likely to see someone wearing the same lopapeysa pattern than wearing the same skirt, and with this design it's really true. In my choir alone I can think of 5 people that have some variation of this pattern.

This sweater came out perfectly and still looks fresh despite nearly two years of daily winter wear. I'm now on my fifth lopapeysa, this time finally for me, and I'm looking forward to the day I can wear it. I wrote once about the magical warmth of the Icelandic blanket- this is that same coziness in portable form.

I keep coming back to these sweaters because they are so fun to knit, especially in the winter during choir practice. While the sectional rehearsals are going, the altos and sopranos always have several projects going. There's K with her endless and unbelievably rapid sock knitting, A with her beautiful baby sweater, and in the back row of the sopranos before Christmas, smaller projects blossomed left and right. Silent interludes are often punctuated by the ping of a dropped sock needle, and whenever I need help I always know where I can get it. These ladies are endlessly helpful when it comes to sewing up the underarms, figuring out how to unroll a curling hem, or how to interpret some of the pattern abbreviations that are cryptic in any language.

Another reason I like making these is because the value gained by making them yourself is so great. You can see from the link above that in finished form, these sweaters aren't cheap. However, one visit to the Icelandic knitting association downtown and you can walk away with the material to make your own for about 3000isk. Although they might look terribly complicated, the design is really very simple, just three tubes that are merged to form one tube. All you need is familiarity with multi-color knitting, basic increase and decrease skills, and some practice with double-pointed needles. Much easier than lace knitting, and one of the most rewarding kind of sweaters you can make since there's barely any sewing-up that has to be done at the end.

A book came out before the holidays, a sort of Icelandic pattern book greatest hits in hardcover form, and I've been drooling over it at every visit to my local Hagkaup. Like most Icelandic books, it's a bit more than I can justify spending on a whim, but with the beautiful new photographs and the possibility to own all the best patterns in one book has me thinking it won't be long before it's on my bookshelf. I probably don't have long to decide though- these kinds of books are generally only published for one or two runs, so it's likely not going to be available for much longer.

Fortunately, whether or not I have the book, the Icelandic wool sweaters are a warmth that keeps on giving, and identifies Iceland-lovers the world over. Whenever I've just landed somewhere on an Icelandair plane, I can almost always identify a passenger or two who's likely to be Iceland-bound on the return flight. This is definitely one (unofficial) national costume appreciated by both tourists and natives.

03 February 2012

chapter new

The past three months have been an abrupt shift in quite a lot of my life parameters, and although late November was a rather rough phase, the outcome so far has been far better than I could have imagined. I'm working for a new company now, with people I've known almost as long as my time in Iceland, and I'm pretty sure a better group of colleagues can't possibly exist. They're smart, reliable, funny, interesting people whom I've seen through many thrilling years are completely trustworthy as well. I feel extremely lucky to be part of this group and doing such interesting projects.

 New job also means new office, and also more frequent trips to Akureyri to sync with the team up there. The office in Akureyri was previously occupied by an investment firm, and although the entire building is now empty, it feels more like they're just out at lunch than they moved out. The company letterhead and official stamps are still in the supply closet, the firm's name is on the wall, and the ladies room is better stocked than at a fancy hotel. Perfume, makeup remover, hand cream, hair pins, and hairspray are all neatly lined up on a glass table beside a fancy lamp. I'm the only woman who occasions the place so it's a very luxurious experience.

The building is a lovely old one with thick walls, a huge brick chimney in the center, and an elegant pre-2008 renovation inside with frosted glass walls etched with the names of the now-disappeared banking divisions. From the windows the view is pure Akureyri- a vast sweep of fjord and in the darkness, the pulsing heart of lights someone put on the opposite side of the water. Mornings there have been my favorite, especially the day I arrived this week. The fjord was hung about with clouds, but as the sun rose, the undersides shown rosily, and a beatific light poured in the windows and shone on our development manager.

Lunch there is rather fun, since there are only a few frequented spots among the working crowd of the north. The daily menu at Strikið is usually good value, and I'm sure to run into a few of my former colleagues who've found work at other nearby places. After lunch we can stop by and visit some others who set up shop together and inherited the famous foosball table.

The post-work time's also as cozy as I've come to expect from visits to Akureyri. My new boss's wife works in tourism, so she recommended a guesthouse as a possible home-away-from-home, and she didn't steer me wrong. The place feels like being at home, with a dining room stocked with all the necessary crockery, free use of the kitchen, tea supplies, and even candles and a lighter so your room is properly home-like. With the wooden floors and furnishings typical of Icelandic homes, it's no hardship to spend a night or two here.

In the mornings I can just cross through the center of town to get to work, along a route where people leave their cars unlocked, idling, and empty while they pop into the bank, or dash into the bakery for their morning cinnamon bun. It's that kind of town, Akureyri is, and visiting it always reminds me of why it's so good to live in Iceland- the views, the air, the cozy feeling, the people I've been so fortunate to have in my life.