þriðjudagur, nóvember 29, 2005

little white lights

I just got done outlining our sea-facing windows with little white Christmas lights. New lights are springing up by the day here in people's windows all over town, in all manner of colors. Christmas cheer, on the ramp-up for weeks now, is hitting its early-December level. But more will continue to be added in the next weeks. It's as if the amount of Christmas lights scale up to match the ever deepening darkness.

All the crazy colors in the apartment building windows on the Soviet-Bloc stretch of Kringlumýrabraut prompted E to say, "Wow, I love all these tacky Christmas decorations! It makes me feel like I'm in Malden!"

To which I said, "Well, it makes me feel like I'm in Maudlin."

But seriously, folks, I do love the little white lights.

dim days

It's that grey kinda feeling this week in Iceland. The sky above the Höfuðborgarsvæði here yesterday and today has been heavy with clouds and fog. Add to that a sun that is barely scraping itself above the southern horizon, and you get noontimes that look more like rainy-day dusk from my childhood.

"Time to come in now, boys, it's getting too dark to play out there!"

"But mom, it's only lunchtime!"

Sunrise was 10:40 this morning and sunset is a little over an hour away, at 3:51. After a month or so of darkness being the new black (lit'rally) I'm getting used to doing most things when there is no light. It's seemed like the norm recently. And it's impossible to imagine at this time of year that I once drove to work in the light, or exercised in the light, or that it's light anywhere else on the planet. It's kind of cozy, sometimes, and all of the time it's like I'm living in a parallel world, hidden behind a heavy stage curtain of darkness.

car inspection

It was time for RZ's first annual inspection and Big Brother was in full effect. I got two notices in the mail from different inspection companies (who knew my plate number, type of car, and address) offering me discounts if I used their service. I went with the one that in addition to the discount offered me the chance to win 20,000 krónur worth of Romantic Dinner. Also, it was close to work.

The shop is in Garðabær, a wealthy suburb I like to call the Wellesley of Iceland. I drove over from the office in the inky blackness of a 9:30 a.m. November morning. The inspection stations here seem to be dedicated for the purpose. The man behind the desk was Santa Clausian, if Santa were a car inspection man. He took down my information, offered me some coffee from the ubiquitous grubby service-station-carafe-G-mjólk setup, and then drove my car into the inspection area.

The first test old RZ had to pass was the tire-traction test: the wheels have to be able to spin a big steel drum without slipping. Front and back, in RZ's case. As the back wheels were spinning the drum, he locked the e-brake, shooting RZ backwards off the rollers. Guess the brake works.

After this he pulled the car forward over the pit and attached the emissions-test hose. Some kind of shaker from underneath rocked the whole of RZ, exciting all of the suspension modes. Finally the jumpsuited Santa went into the pit and looked at the steering, brakes, and drive shaft. Satisfied, he wiped some of the grime off of the 2005 sticker and affixed a yellow 2006 over it. Here's hoping I win the dinner, too.

föstudagur, nóvember 18, 2005

fish soup

Iceland has a lot of excellent food, and among the many things Icelandic cooks do really well are seafood and soups. Put them together, and you've got fish soup. I decided to take a break from the company cafeteria (where the company chef's food is often brilliant, but I've never been a big chicken man) today and walk across the parking lot to the nearby Fiskbúðin, or The Fish Store. I was the only one there when I arrived, but scarcity of customers is no indicator of shoddy product in Iceland. (This took some getting used to here, as in the States a crowded parking lot or a line out the door are the usual hallmarks of quality.)

The store was clean and spare in the manner of Icelandic stores, with products neatly arranged on one wire-rack shelf in the middle of the shop, and a glass counter holding all manner of fresh fish at the back. The owner came out from his little hideaway and we exchanged ritualized greetings and I ordered the soup (it's all they have) for 600 krónur.

I ate the soup staring out the window at the parking lot of our little wacky Kópavogur office park, and flipping through today's Blaðið newspaper. As I ate, more customers came in to take soup with them. The soup was excellent: creamy, hearty, and full of big chunks of fish. The fresh bread was excellent, too, spread with delectable Icelandic butter. Life can be mighty good in the Land.

fimmtudagur, nóvember 17, 2005

body clock update

I take back anything questionable I ever said about the new alarm clock. We figured out its wily ways this morning and the thing is pure genius. It eases you into wakefulness using increasing light over a period of a half hour, then a few minutes before the targeted wakeup time, it fades out to black again. Then, right on the nose, it goes fully bright, snapping you out of bed like a spring twig. While still tired from not enough sleep, we both found it easy to get out of bed and get going, and remembered lots of dreams as well. (I had one about a virtual world where all of the Web was represented in a city grid. My friend Fellas had been "living" there for over a year and making a fortune in the virtual real estate market.)

Meanwhile, at 8:40 a.m., it's pitch black outside.

miðvikudagur, nóvember 16, 2005


One of the things I missed most about my old job in Boston was the foosball table. It was a nice Tornado model that sat in its own special room, and behind that closed door the thwack! of shots-on-goal could be heard most of the afternoon. When I got to my new job here in another software company, I looked around for the standard-issue foos table but there was none to be found. When I asked, people shrugged as though I was asking if they had seen today's Fréttablaðið. Clearly, foosball was a little lower on the recreational rungs in the Land.

About a month ago, two coworkers and I realized we had some extra profits left over from running the company concession stand (kitchen-based sales of soda and licorice-derived Icelandic candies). There was a concurrent grassroots movement building in the company to buy a foosball table. Apparently all those old Friends reruns on DVD were paying off. Turns out our profits from an extra 30 krónur per Pepsi Max really came to something, and the foos table was within reach.

I did some research and found out that Tornado had been sold to a larger company, but that the former head of Tornado, David Shelti, had gone into business for himself, making tables under his own name. We settled on a Shelti Foos 200, and ordered it up from a drawling and helpful Florida vendor. Just hours before the Florida foosball office was deluged with Hurricane Wilma tsunamis, a truck loaded up our table and headed to the Iceland trans-shipment point in Virginia.

After a couple weeks at sea and a couple days down at Vöruhótelið, we picked up the table today. I stayed long after work, sliding plastic players onto rods and tapping steel pins into their foos-man hearts. The Michigan-made table is sturdy and hearty, and quintessentially American. It has boxy steel legs and woodgrain sides and weighs over 200 pounds. It's beautiful. I'm looking forward to hearing those closed-door back-of-goal thwacks again tomorrow.

can't rock the body without the body clock

It's been getting darker and darker here over the past month or so, and because Iceland's chosen time zone is well east of us, most of the darkness is shifted to the morning hours. (We're on year-round Greenwich Mean Time, but Greenwich is a ways east of here, so it's like being on year round Daylight Saving Time. More light in the evenings, less in the mornings.) I was prepared for this descent into darkness from going through it last fall, or so I thought, but that first morning of a pitch-black 7 a.m. can still feel pretty bone-wearying.

Today the sunrise happened just now, at 9:59 a.m. and it didn't even start to look the least bit light until well after 8 a.m. Civil twilight began around 9. All of these numbers mean basically that we're always driving to work in the dark this time of year, and watching the sky get light from behind our desks as we're on our second or third cup of coffee. It can be awfully hard to get out of bed to face hours more darkness.

Enter technology to solve the fara-á-fætur issue. A whole year ago, one faithful and proxy-filtering Iceland Report reader suggested to me that I get "one of those sun-clocks". I dismissed it as a load of Hammacher-Schlemmer hocus pocus. But after a particularly gruelling morning a few weeks back, E and I decided to look into it. Thousands of krónur and one Royal Air U.K. parcel later, we have a Lumie body clock. The clock theoretically works by starting a sunrise 15-90 minutes before your alarm time, thus waking you up by tricking you into thinking it's not hellishly black just outside the window. We unpacked the clock last night, played with all of its zany settings, figured out the alarm, and went to bed using the artificial sunset to lull us to sleep.

Or we think we figured out the alarm. I had a vague dream this morning about a sunrise coming through the window. But when I woke up at the designated time, the room was pitch-black. Over breakfast, I played with the clock some more and got it to work as expected. But then it started acting like a possessed demon, chirping its backup chirp, switching the light on and off arbitrarily, snoozing, and lighting itself up again. Maybe the goal is to use utter luminal and sonic confusion to trick us awake. If so, it works. The jury's still out.

mánudagur, nóvember 14, 2005

long shadows

One of the things that really struck me in Boston last week was just how high the sun was in the sky, compared to here in Iceland. Just now as I was walking down to lunch at noontime, my shadow seemed unbelievably long, a loping stick-man that stretched down the hill in front of me. When I got to the employee lot, the shadow covered the widths of 4 or 5 parked cars. So I paced it out using the old FB shoe-measuring method, and came up with the scientific estimate of 25 feet. That's a low sun.

american style

...is the name of a mini-chain of burger places here in Iceland. E and I decided to go for Saturday dinner, after a hike in Heiðmörk and a dip in the K2 swimming pool. I stepped up to the counter and in my best booming broad American accent said, "I'm here for the 'style' please." It didn't go over so well with the teenage order-taker, but the other ladies scooping fries got a chuckle. The place is set up to feel like an American restaurant, with all the tables as booths, pictures of stars on the walls, and low comfy lighting. It feels a bit like the old Lums restaurant on Route 3A in Billerica, but much, much cleaner. The burgers were decent, too.

But there are many things there that are definitely not "American Style", and we chronicled them as we ate:

  • The odd combination of ordering at a counter and then servers bringing out the food to the table on nice plates confused and bewildered us.
  • Free soda refills were American-style, but 6-oz. juice glasses were not.
  • Nor was the pasta-spoon to scoop single ice cubes out of a bin anything we had ever seen in the States. (True "American style" would be an ice machine capable of cranking out a square foot of ice per second into a huge disposable cup.)
  • People all around us ate their burgers with a knife and fork.
  • We were convinced, as always, to pay more for the ever-present Icelandic cocktail-sauce fry-dipping option.
  • Cucumbers and red peppers come as standard burger toppings.
  • $32 for two burgers and sodas is considered a "good deal".
  • Last but not least, "Andskotinn, er ekki fuckin sæti!" is not something the local burger-shack rednecks are wont to say in the US of A.

working for the swedes

OMX, a big Scandinavian financial-industry powerhouse, bought up our tiny Icelandic company as part of a deal with Kaupþing, the biggest bank in Iceland. Here's hoping this is a good thing for me and my coworkers. It's hard not to feel like a pawn in the hands of a Nordic Gordon Gekko at times like this, but part of the agreement keeps us eating lunch with our former company and its excellent company chef, so at least there'll be still be plokkfiskur on Mondays.

föstudagur, nóvember 04, 2005

til hjólnafarinnar alheimsins

Iceland Report will be down for maintenance over the next week or so, as I am off to Boston. That is, unless I can think of any striking Iceland-New England parallels while there. I'll be taking a training class for my company next week, and seeing my family and friends over the weekend. My suitcase is loaded with Icelandic goodies for transport out of the Skyr Zone. I have a double-wrapped Krónan bag in my suitcase filled with skyr, butter, and þykkmjólk. I have a separate bag filled with all kinds of licorice-derived candies, and a box of Florida candies, too. Icelandic newspapers and gossip magazines for a certain Icelandic Boston-based friend. And of course I have myriad wrapped packages for the family Christmas. Here comes the Hub!

þriðjudagur, nóvember 01, 2005

pizza nemesis

E and I live almost directly above one of the few (but immensely popular) Domino's Pizza franchises in Iceland. This Domino's store has a fleet of three annoyingly small Toyota Yarises painted in Domino's colors. These cars buzz around our apartment block like a swarm of gnats. Every time we're going in or out of our place, one of these cars zips blithely around the corner, almost splatting into us each time. Take the normal barging obtuseness of the average Icelandic driver ("a large part of the population appears to think that the roads [and parking spaces] are there solely to accommodate their vehicles and nobody else's" says a fellow blogger) and double it, and you begin to get an idea of the sense of road manners of the Domino's Pizza delivery fleet. Compounding this is the fact that our corner is one of the few 100-foot stretches of roadway in the Reykjavík capital area without at least three child-high speedbumps. Maybe it's time for Reykjavík Public Works to fire one up there, as well.