þriðjudagur, janúar 31, 2006


We interrupt this Iceland Report serial to offer up the following vocabulary trivia quiz. First one to guess correctly, without the aid of a dictionary (or search engine) of any kind, wins a miniature work of art by Iceland's own ERRÓ.

The following pair of obscure Icelandic words translate to an equally obscure pair of English words:


What are the translations? Leave your answers in the Comments. Wild guessing is strongly encouraged.

All judgements will be carried out by a semi-independent adjudication agency, J.B. Dómsdagur Hf., and are final.

the web cam pt. 2

So before I left for Iceland, I called up Flugfélag Íslands, the domestic airline, and ordered up a round-trip ticket to Ísafjörður. By this time I had figured out that Ísafjörður was the principal town in Iceland's remote West Fjords. Also that its name means "Ice Fjord". And also that by November what was a day's drive in the friendly light of summer could turn positively impossible. Sometimes the roads in the West Fjords were shut for weeks at a time.

But the reactions of my Reykjavík friends upon hearing where I planned to travel told me even more.

"Ísafjörður?" (puzzled face)

"Last time I was there, in the 80s, I was stuck for five days because of snow. They couldn't get an airplane out of there."

"Ísafjörður? Why do you want to go there?"

The thing was, I just had to see the place I had been looking on for so long, in person. So this is what I told them. But there was even more to the story. The part I didn't tell them was that I'd actually made a date with the webcam.

Before leaving the States, I told mom, brother, and girlfriend that at 15:00 GMT (10 a.m. EST, 7 a.m. PST) I would be standing there, down on the stones by the harbor, wearing my dopey bright red "I'm a tourist in Iceland" jacket.

The day came and my friend Heiða took me to the domestic terminal in Reykjavík. Within minutes I was aboard the twin-turboprop Fokker 50 and we were buzzing down the runway. The flight north was breathtaking, with sleepy little Reykjavík out of sight almost immediately, then views straight down the mountainous spine of Snæfellsnes, then the high plateaus and shrieking-steep cliffs of the West Fjords came into view.

Landing in Ísafjörður is something everyone should do once. In order to land the plane on a sea-level airstrip between the towering rock walls of the fjord requires a little maneuvering. We sliced through a mountain pass, the airplane wheels just a few feet above the rock. For a second, I was looking across at a small tree as though I was standing on the hillside next to it. Then we seemed to follow the slope of the mountain down steeply, until we were in the basin of the fjord and the little airstrip was beneath us.

When I came out of the Ísafjörður airport building, there was a ruddy-faced and stoic old man standing in front of a weather-beaten 1980s Toyota minivan. Taped in the window was a sign that said "Fly Bus".

(To be continued...)

mánudagur, janúar 30, 2006

the web cam pt. 1

It was November of 2002 and I hadn't had a vacation all year. I was working my fingers to the bone at my old job, plowing straight through weekends, working 18 days straight in places. (And for you Icelandic readers, no, not getting paid extra for this. Ég veit, ég veit, bara brjálað.) So I was tired, and I had been wanting to get back to Iceland all year. Now I finally had my chance for my week of vacation and it was already dark and wintry up there. But I kept to the Iceland plan, stubbornly refusing to let November get in the way.

One of the things that kept me going through all those days was that I had a series of webcam shots on my computer's background. I had set them up to refresh every five minutes and sometimes when coming in at 5 a.m. on another Saturday morning to face a weekend of work, I'd daydream and look at them. The top 3 on the screen were from Iceland, and the one in the top left corner was from Ísafjörður, a place I had never been. In the foreground were the still waters of a fjord, and in the background the gentle Icelandic slope of a mountain coming down to meet the water. And a little road where there was sometimes a bus going by, and a stretch of lights at the base of the mountain, reflected in the water.

I dreamed about this remote place, and wondered about it every day when I saw the picture. I watched the sky get light and dark again, and then stay light all summer. The mountainside became faintly green. Then the light faded again as fall came, and the mountainside became covered with snow. Ísafjörður, wherever it was, seemed far off and lonely and peaceful.

I had to go there.

(To be continued...)

sunnudagur, janúar 29, 2006

listasafn reykjavíkur

Today was a classic rainy Reykjavík Sunday, about the gloomiest weather R-town could put on in our advancing stage of brightening. I dropped E off to meet her friends, drove the loop down Laugavegur, and ended up at the city art museum, Listasafn Reykjavíkur. I hadn't ever been there, except for the time I snuck into and roadied for a Sigur Rós concert, and so this was the first time I had gone there in its usual capacity. The museum is housed in Hafnarhúsið, the old Harbor House for the city, built in the 1930s. Inside it's a slick renovation to rough-hewn art-museum style, with exposed concrete and welded-steel stairways and glassy balconies overlooking tall open spaces. At the end of the building, huge squares of glass frame the harbor view outside, which today was Iceland's giant fishing ship Engey. It's a little like Iceland's seafaring answer to Mass MoCA.

By far the best of the exhibits (and the first I saw) was a large spread on Iceland's own Guðmundur Guðmundsson, a.k.a. ERRÓ, a.k.a. FERRÓ. This particular exhibit was from his days of being called FERRÓ, apparently, which were his growing up in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, painting pontoon airplanes landing in the sea and nearby mountains, going all the way up through his time spent studying in Italy and Oslo. It was fascinating to watch the evolution of an artist for the first 25 years of his art, as he was learning and exploring, trying on different styles to see which fit best. Some of the best parts of the exhibit were the large quotes on the walls next to some of the works, his words on the rigors of study in letters sent back to his father in faraway Iceland.

There's nothing quite like having a vast exhibit space almost entirely to yourself. I found it peaceful there strolling among the white walls and stark works and hearing the chatter of the coffee-shop workers around the corner.

The second exhibit I saw was by photographer John Coplans. It was so disturbing as to leave me dashing for the next room. And that room had even more Coplans. Basically ole JC (and he was old!) became really enamored of the idea of taking photos of odd slices of his spotty old-man body, and then framing pairs of these body slices in odd combinations, to make fleshy black/white puppet-shapes out of say, a pair of hands joined with a pair of thighs, or a cropped half-in-frame old-man knee. It was artfully done, and really showed off the old body, but I pretty much get everything I saw on an average workaday visit to Laugardalslaug.

Rounding off the upstairs trio was a large room dedicated to work by Icelandic artist Kristín Halldórsdóttir Eyfells. She had spent many years painting blown-up closeup portraits of both famous people and anonymous women. But the catch was that the portraits were in psychedelic colors, and especially around the eyes took on an almost aural aspect. So you'd have Reagan, say, or Madeline Albright, and from far away they'd look pretty normal. But then close-up their faces would have deep texture rendered in crazy combos of rainbow colors.

The fourth thing I saw was really one of the most immersive pieces of art I have experienced, by artist Gabríela Friðriksdóttir. Going into the exhibit was like entering a dark brown cavern that smelled strongly earthy, and in the cavern-space four videos were playing in separate rooms, or walled-off areas. On the walls were drawings and on the floors around the video screens were pieces of art from the movies, so that it felt as though I was in the movie sets themselves. Music carried jarringly from each movie, and the musical pieces (composed in part by our very own Björk Guðmundsdóttir) intermixed in strange and atonal ways. One of the movies was a mummified creature struggling to escape its tattered bonds, and screaming occasionally. That was shown on a TV set in a haystack. Another showed an eyeless cave-creature who seemed to be partially made of mud passing strange chipmunk-shaped packages up to a top-hatted man by hanging them on the end of his cane. The most frightening of the movies, showing a kind of bizarro dinner party, was off in its own room in back. I couldn't watch it for long, the images of a one-eyed bass player and man bleeding from his mouth were especially haunting.

After the art on Iceland's bleeding edge, it was good to step back out into the rainy Sunday afternoon and catch the fresh wind blowing in off the harbor.

laugardagur, janúar 21, 2006

the cheese ladies

At the eastern end of Reykjavik, in a particularly unattractive section of white industrial buildings, car dealerships, candy companies, and the soft-drink bottler Egils, is the Reykjavík dairy. And at one end of this vast corrugated steel complex there is a bright neon sign advertising Ostabúðin and a little door in the side of a vast steel wall. Once through that door, an unlikely transformation takes place. Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of what is likely the best cheese shop in Iceland.

We went last night on the way back from the Árbær swimming pool. The shop is full of cheese-serving pottery, cheese serving tools, cheese serving vehicles, and cheese serving accompaniments. And of course, lots of cheese. There was the front waist-high fridge of cheese tilboð and the back fridge full of all kinds of packaged cheese. And then there was a glass counter the length of the store and behind it the selection was expertly tended by two classic cheese ladies. At least half of the enormous blocks and wheels under the glass were from Iceland. There was cheese from Selfoss, from Akureyri, from Húsavík. And intermingled were some classics from England, France, and Holland. As E and I made interested motions toward some English cheddar, one of the cheese ladies asked "Viltu smakka?" and when we said "Já" she sliced us each a little piece with her shiny cheese knife. And then she offered up another, milder English cheddar. She probably would have let us smakka all afternoon, but we decided on some Icelandic cheddar, some Icelandic getost (a brown caramel goat cheese), some French chevre (sense a goat theme here?) that was on tilboð, and a box of buttery British crackers. The cheese lady bade us farewell with a "Góða helgi! Bless!" But the caramel cheese and crackers didn't even last the weekend.

föstudagur, janúar 20, 2006


Today is Bóndadagur, or Man-of-the-House Day. It's the kickoff of the Þorrablót festival, the old Viking midwinter festival and the start of the month of Þorri on the Old Norse calendar. It's traditional during this time to eat the Icelandic foods that come from the days when making use of every part of the animal was necessary to stave off starvation. Some of the foods include sviðasulta (sheeps-head jelly), hrútspungar (pickled ram testicles in loaf form), sviðahaus (singed sheep head or half-head), hákarl (fermented shark meat in little cubes), the slátur (slaughter) category which includes blóðmör (blood pudding) and lifrapylsur (liver pudding), lundabaggar (literally, "puffin-bales", but closer to a fruit roll-up, except made of fatty meat), og fleira, og fleira. I expect there will be a small spread of samplings at lunch later today, and tonight I was invited to an all-male 800-person Viking dinner in Árbær that I turned down. I don't think I am up for 4-5 hours of Brennivín shots and plates of sour, grey meat. I was a vegetarian for seven years, after all.

Today it's traditional for women to do something nice for their men. I am eager to see what E has cooked up for me. Probably a nice hangikjöt (smoked lamb) dinner, which would suit me just fine.


...is a big, glass-fronted cafe right on the main drag downtown. Before it became a McDonald's, it was known as Hressó. Thankfully, McDonald's just wasn't doing enough bidness downtown and had to close a couple years back. So now the cafe is back and the name Hressó is back as its nickname, since the long-form name (that means roughly "the refreshment lodge") is just too long. Like any self-respecting Reykjavík cafe, this one becomes a dance club around midnight on weekends and is open all night, jam-packed with the lost youth of Iceland. But as a Thursday night cafe, it has its real magic. There is always a musician or band, usually playing acoustic favorites at one end of the room. There are big black couches and tables along the wall of windows that look out onto the street. There are passersby looking in to see if they know anyone inside. There are pods of young Icelanders coming in the door, unwrapping scarves in that around-the-head way, walking purposefully toward their friends across the room. There are women reading women's magazines and men smoking and talking. There are phones lighting up and text messages to be sent. There are tables full of women leaning in to admire some detail together. And the lone guitarist's steel-string sounds carrying over the top of everything. Last night, Hressó was the heart of Iceland.

fimmtudagur, janúar 19, 2006

the hardest thing

...about living here is maybe the language. But not the language as a whole, because often I understand it quite well, and given time I can even plow my way through a newspaper article in Blaðið. And standing around in the kitchen at work shooting the breeze about weekend plans isn't all that hard either. Nor is bantering with the passport control guards on the way back into Iceland. Nor discussing work items in Icelandic, given a patient counterpart.

No, the hardest thing is coming late to a lunch table full of coworkers, all of whom are in hysterics at the rapid-fire story being told by the guy in the center of the table. And not having a clue what the story is about, being unable to find any vocabulary "hooks" into the meaning, and having to content myself with "understanding" the basic grammatical structure yet none of the funny content. Hey, I chose it, but it doesn't make it easy.

miðvikudagur, janúar 18, 2006

giving a little bit back pt. 2

We get a few English-language magazines delivered here, and for a while I was at a loss as to what to do with them when I was done reading. For a while I was just taking them down to the seaside Sorpa recycling center and dumping them in a huge corrugated steel container where they mingled with more traditional Icelandic fare such as Birta and Hús og hýbili. But then I hit on the idea of dropping them off at the swimming pool. Every pool here has some kind of space around the pool ladies' reception counter with chairs and tables, and sometimes free coffee. It's often full of husbands and boyfriends waiting for their wives and girlfriends. Perfect! I drop magazines off there on the way into the pool and it's always a game to see what's going to be gone by the time I get out. Copies of the Economist and Wired look downright exotic here next to Blaðið and Sjómaðurinn (the seaman's newspaper) and the Economist especially is fast gone. E has gotten into the act too, watching as teenage girls lurch for the UK-edition Marie Claire minutes after her subtle drop.

We took the show on the road, too. A copy of the English-language Reykjavík Grapevine found its way to the ramshackle train depot at Veseli nad lužnici in South Bohemia. We left it lying on a faded wooden bench under the train-schedule rollers behind scratched glass, across from the ticket windows. This free and ubiquitous newspaper from Iceland took on an almost mystical quality when transplanted to a waiting room in Eastern Europe. And days later the Czech weekly newsmagazine Týden made quite a splash back here at Grafarvogslaug.

þriðjudagur, janúar 17, 2006


I got an email recently asking who we employees would like to nominate as trúnaðarmaður. I was confused by what this meant, as I am with practically every new aspect of living in Iceland. Turns out that employees here often elect or nominate one of them to be a liason with management, serving in the capacity of an ombudsman. (Interestingly, the Icelandic word for ombudsman is umboðsmaður, and this Old Norse word, via Swedish, is the root of the English word.*) This liason communicates concerns or complaints (except about salary!) anonymously from people in the office to the management team. I think it's a great idea, but none of my American jobs ever featured anyone in this capacity. I am curious, readers of all international stripes, if you have someone like this where you work.

giving a little bit back pt. 1

I paid my rent to the Land last night... in blood. All new immigrants to Iceland are required to "donate" a unit of blood per month. Otherwise, they kick you out.

Just kidding. But seriously, folks. We did go down to Blóðbankinn (the blood bank) last night after work. They had summoned me via their high-tech email network because they needed type A blood plasma. They're very warm and friendly and nurse-ly there. They give you a form to fill out about your health, which is made extra-tricky because Icelandic has all of its own very literal names for diseases. Sykursýki (sugar-sickness) is diabetes, for example.

So I filled out the health form and E filled out a longer one on account of it being her first time. We admired the poster on the wall showing the Blóðdropabörn, the blood-drop kids, and their parents. Then a nurse whisked me into a little office and took my blood pressure, asked me some things about being out of the country, and then we were off to the 1970s-era green donation couches. Giving blood is nice here because the processing is so fast and because the nurse:donor ratio is 1:1. So the nurse stays right by you and asks you things like what it's like to give blood in Boston.

After that it's off to the snack room in the back. But unlike in the States where a couple bags of Goldfish and drink boxes of juice were the norm, here it's an actual spread of food. There are urns of coffee, plates full of cheese, tomatoes, and cucumbers, fresh bread, cakes, cookies, and juice. The nurses take turns manning the snack room, and the 6 places around the table are always freshly set with the requisite coffee cup, plate, and silverware. One of the other donors asked about soup, eyeing the big pot, and the nurse said, "Only at lunchtime! You'll just have to come back at noon next time!" I think I will.

mánudagur, janúar 16, 2006

adventures in the snow

Iceland has been living up to its name this past week, with near-hourly snow squalls intermixed with occasional periods of lucidity and Arctic sun. Normally this snow would melt away the next day with the next rain shower, but it's been sticking around and accumulating, and Reykjavík is as snow-covered as I have seen it in my 16 months here.

Yesterday we decided to take advantage of the snow and clear air and go for a hike. At the edge of Reykjavík lies a vast lava plain punctuated by scrubby pines, lava towers, and the city reservoir. At the back of it is a range of not-insubstantial mountains. It's called Heiðmörk, and yesterday was packed (in a relative sense) with SUVs: locals were out in force riding horses, cross-country skiing, and hiking in the vast nature preserve. And also driving. We drove in the entrance on the Route 1 end of the operation and decided to drive through to the Garðabær side and hike over there, with a little 4-wheeling in between.

Well, 4-wheeling it was. In a country that doesn't even believe in plowing city streets and parking lots, plowing the one road in the nature preserve was out of the question. We were most of the time following a single-car snow track through a foot or more of snow. Passing oncoming jeeps could be precarious and necessitated slowing to a crawl. At one point, idiot driver #1 (someone tourist-looking who had stopped her car in the middle of the road) almost slid sideways into us as she passed. But she paled in comparison to the idiocy of native-look idiot driver #2. As we came within car-lengths of the top of a tall, steep hill, this idiot Icelander decided not to wait at the top for us. He started straight down the hill at us, I pulled out of the way, and then could not get going up the hill again. So we reversed to the bottom and started all over again. This time the kindly gentleman driver at the top waited. It got the blood going.

Through all this Rz the nearly 10-year-old RAV4 was a champion. The super-low first gear is just the thing to hold the car back on a snowy hill-descent, and the 4-wheel-drive kept us rolling where lesser vehicles would have easily bogged down. But it was nice to finally get to the other end of the park and stop driving for a while.

We left the car at the side of the road and hiked up a fairly steep service road between snow-covered pine trees. It was an Ansel Adams winter landscape, like walking in a black and white photograph. Tree boughs, lava, and distant mountainsides were monochromatic, making even our pasty winter skin look tropical. At the top of the hill we could see out to the ocean, over the towns of Hafnarfjörður and Garðabær, across the end of Seltjarnarnes, and to the vast walls of Akrafjall and Esja. Tiny Icelandic domestic flights landed in the distance, and the snow cover all around left us in silence.

laugardagur, janúar 14, 2006

a good number

The old-timey regulars who come every day to the swimming pool are partial to certain routines, like always using the same shower and putting their towel in the same cubby. My friend who worked in the Akureyri swimming pool as a teenager said she had to memorize which locker numbers went with which old timer, so that as they trickled in each afternoon, she'd hand each one the right locker key.

I witnessed a flavor of this the other day. As I was returning to my locker from the showers, I heard a gravelly voice behind me, talking to nobody but himself. "Níutíu og átta," he said, satisfied. "Þetta er gott númer." ("Ninety-eight. That's a good number.") And he opened the locker door to hang his coat inside.

I was chuckling away to myself about this, until I remembered that I am partial to #74.

föstudagur, janúar 13, 2006

flass flass flass

When I moved here in 2004, one of my favorite stations was the tempermental Radio Reykjavík, 104.5. It was a rock radio station that was a little more off the beaten path than the others. But reception was spotty. Sometimes it would come in on one block and fade out on the next, only to fade back in again. The music mix was eclectic, but always held my interest. They wouldn't shy away from playing Rush's 2112 concept album in its kooky entirety, for example.

Then one day it faded out for good. It was just gone, dead air. I kept the preset alive, just in case, and indeed it did make a comeback for a couple days or so a few weeks afterward. And then they switched to an all-standup (comedy) format, not even stopping for commercials, for a few weeks. After the umpteenth goddamn Jeff Foxworthy session, I finally gave up.

Then I was flipping stations in the car a few weeks back and 104.5 is fired up again. But now in an all-new guise. Now it's called flass and they have the catchy/annoying habit of mixing "flass flass flass" in with their music. This kind of radio gimmickry is reminiscent of the old guilty-pleasure WZLX days in Boston, Chopper Man and all. But flass tends toward poppy/dancy but with an oldies edge: they wouldn't shy away from Ton Loc, if the time were right. ("You gonna make the call on them Porsches or what?") They'll even play Guns'n'Roses from time to time. This mix of styles is somehow intriguing to me.

You can listen to them online for yourself. Sometimes the music's pretty crappy, but it's better than dead air in a radio market that could really use some variety.

miðvikudagur, janúar 11, 2006

snow on my feet

One nice feature of living here is the almost-free heat. So the house is always toasty and when we go to bed we often leave the window open a crack to get some fresh sea-breezes coming in. (But sometimes the fresh traffic noises put a kybosh in that plan.) Anyway so last night we had the window open and were sleeping peacefully, dozing to the booming of waves on the seawall, and suddenly I jumped awake. Something was very wrong, and I couldn't at first figure out what it was. ("Wha's happening?") The bedroom window looks out on a balcony that is enclosed by an overhang, and that's enough to keep precipitation from coming in. Until last night. The wind off of the sea was blowing snowflakes completely horizontally and with such force that they were being propelled through the inch-wide opening in the bottom of the window, zooming straight across the bedroom, and then sprinkling gently onto my exposed feet.

So I closed the window.

so you want to learn icelandic?

Seems a lot of you are curious about the best way to learn the language of the Vikings, the brother language to Old English, the language of Europe's oldest prose, and the language that's your best ticket to talking your way into a crowded 101 bar on a Saturday night. I'm talking of course about Icelandic, okkar tungumál. Well, the good folks over at the language department at the University of Iceland have put together this excellent, free, and interactive online course. Just 20 minutes a day and you'll be ready to engage in meaningful banter with the old men in the hot pots in no time.

Íslenska er tungumál framtíðarinnar!

þriðjudagur, janúar 10, 2006

coming out of the blogset

When I started Iceland Report back in the halcyon days of 2004, I decided to keep my name off of it. I wanted to remain anonymous, but I think that had to do more with not trusting the quality of what I was writing than anything else. But recently I was inspired by my friend PLo over at Paul-ossities to drop the carefully preserved anonymity. Who needs it? Many of you regulars already know who I am anyway. And now you Icelandic readers who don't already know me can look me up in Þjóðskrá and get my kennitala. Woo-hoo!

One thing I would love more of is comments. So, how about this: if you're a repeat visitor and reading this now, drop in a quick "hi" (or "hæ" if you're Icelandic) below and let me know you're out there, where you're reading from, and, if you're really feeling creative, what is it about reading about life in Iceland that you find so appealing. I am especially curious about this last one. And thanks for reading! -Jared

mánudagur, janúar 09, 2006

thanks to the hat

Today on page 6 of Iceland's newspaper of record, the veritable Morgunblaðið, is a full-color picture of me, E, and some of our friends at the "big concert" on Saturday night. It's the main picture for the article about the concert. This now marks the second time that the two of us have appeared in a national newspaper photo here, and this one is a big step up from the tabloid DV where we last appeared. It must have been my giant Iceland-pride stocking cap that swayed the layout editors.

A guest appearance on Kastljósið can't be far away at this rate. We can answer every question with "Gaman að sjá ykkur! Takk fyrir síðast!"

sham quentin

Forget anything positive I implied about Tarantino being here in Iceland on New Year's Eve. After his first visit here last fall, the nation fell into a brief spell of Tarantino-mania. But no more. The guy sold out his Icelandic hosts and new friends for the sake of a couple of cheap laughs on Conan O'Brien. What a jerk. Alda over at the Iceland Weather Report rounds up the local quotes and Conan video, too. Shame on you, Quentin. Hope you're not planning on coming back.

the 300,000th icelander

...was born this morning at 7:20, according to Morgunblaðið. That kid wins a jacked-up Land Cruiser and a lifetime supply of skyr. Actually, no parents are laying claim to the actual 300,000th Icelander; the estimate is based on statistical averages. Iceland is adding infant Bubbi fans at the rate of around one every two hours, and losing about five people a day to old age.

sunnudagur, janúar 08, 2006


Last night was the stórtónleikar, or "big concert", and it sure lived up to its billing. It was 6 hours from the time we set foot in Laugardalshöllin until the last amplified guitar buzz hummed out in the stacks. The concert was a benefit for the Icelandic environmental movement, a new development here in response to a variety of proposed and actual colossal-scale aluminum smelting projects. The concert roster was a who's-who of Icelandic musicians.

We were among the first in the building, and bypassed the activist tables, heading straight into the main hall. Laugardalshöll is a combination sports arena and concert venue, and has that nice gritty dual-purpose Worcester Centrum feel, but without chairs at all on the main floor. There were a few spots left along the barricade right at the stage and we grabbed 'em. I had never been this close to the stage in probably 50 rock shows, and it was quite a thrill. We peeked under the scrim at the roadies lifting cases and hauling amps. Directly between us and the stage, in a narrow aisle, was the photographers' pen. The men-with-compensatory-cameras paced back and forth in front of us the whole night like deranged animals, light sticks glowing next to their all-access passes. I was wearing my new cross-of-Iceland stocking cap and this was apparently interesting enough to warrant 10-20 pictures from each media jackal. (I'm still waiting on the Séð og heyrt 2-page special.)

We met some friends and waited there by the barricade as the hall filled up to the bass thrumming of a giant waterfall projected on the scrim. Then the music started, with some acoustic folky numbers by KK, to get the audience's blood flowing (at least weakly). The show was a rollicking, flashing, tumbling roller coaster. There was so much to see and remember. Some of my personal highlights:

Björk played second in the show, and came onstage in a brilliant green dress and eye makeup almost as big as the dress. She was accompanied by just one harp, and sang some a capella. The photographers quickly forgot about my hat and rushed in to the center en masse to cover her. Her stage presence was electric and seeing her from so close by was the treat of a lifetime. I don't remember a peep from the vast sea of people behind us while she sang, and the air around her was charged. She held the entire 5000-person crowd in the palm of her quivering, clenching little hand. In characteristic mischievous fashion, she switched from an Icelandic song to an English song by telling the audience the next one would be in "útlenska". She ended her last song just feet away from us, and shot me a "nice hat" look before she danced off the stage.

In the "too cool to play that much" department was Sigur Rós, the only band to play just one song. It was Heysátan, the last track on Takk... and of course it was tremendous. They sang in a tight circle with Jónsi on a tiny keyboard and a few brass players accompanying. I watched Kjartan tap his foot and Jónsi look across and saw firsthand how closely these guys work when they play together. When the music started it was a wall of beautiful, sad sound. This band has some kind of goosebump machine that they turn on halfway through each song, the way lesser bands use fog machines. The simple song was executed with the emotion and precision of a group of musicians from a top-flite symphony orchestra, not a scruffy bunch of twentysomething Icelanders. Then it was over, a quiet "takk fyrir okkur" and they dashed from the stage.

Damien Rice, one of the few non-Icelandic artists, hit the stage sometime after Sigur Rós. He's got a helluva voice, that cat, and really blew me away on the first song, "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You". Lisa Hannigan sang beautifully along with him, and that song made for one of the most emotional moments of the evening. Unfortunately, he shattered the mood with his second song where he went all nouveau-Fleetwood-Mac and pawed at his guitar crazily, trying to fill the hall with as much British-folk-and-tea-flavored noise as possible. It didn't work out so well. But the first song was a keepah.

Playing runner-up to Björk in the stage-presence department was Mugison. He danced and sang and grimaced and got completely carried away in his music. The teenage girls behind us squealed. He did two or three numbers, and then introduced Icelandic reggae superstars Hjálmar, who surrounded him onstage and backed him up with their 16-foot-wide groove while he sang and danced in front. Hjálmar kept going after Mugi left, playing several from their new album. They were tight and serious and happy and all infected by their own groove. Their art-school-girl clarinetist kept shooting the bass player admiring looks while he soloed and spun around slowly and tried to keep his dredlock-cap on.

Metal-rockers Rass ("Ass") came out each dressed in a wife-beater and kicked the metal-heads in the crowd into high gear. Their waif-thin lead singer introduced each song with a slowed-down Maslinesque growl as he hid behind silver-rimmed sunglasses. For their third song, they brought out a middle-school marching band from the side of the stage. Prepubescent trombone, sax, and clarinet kids in oversized red marching band jackets clustered together right above us. The kids were led by my old upstairs neighbor (and perennial party guest) Lárus who was himself dressed in a matching red marching-band jacket. When Rass fired up their dark-metal riffs, the kids all joined in, reading off their sheet music and trying to keep up with the drummer's steadily increasing tempo. It was the kind of collaboration that seems almost expected in Icelandic music, but one I can't imagine happening back in Massachusetts. At the end of the song, the kids lined up along the front of the stage and took a big bow and looked really happy. The audience roared with approval.

After Rass came another band again featuring the lead singer of Rass, this time singing backup, and this time dressed in nothing but shiny pink stretch pants and high heels. And this time the lead singer was a beefcake of a man who came out in a ski mask and threw yellow dish gloves out of a bag into the crowd. He then tore off his ski mask and barked out his song, himself wearing yellow dish gloves, and once exposing his vast rock'n'roll gut for the pleasure of the crowd. These guys were good. I have no idea who they were.

Ghostdigital was a strange amalgam: ex-Sugarcube Einar Örn, a 10-year-old kid on piccolo-trumpet, Bibbi Curver on some Futureman-esque electronic instrument of his own design, and a turntablist. The beats and sounds coming out of Bibbi and the DJ were big, booming things and that carried the day. But Einar looked and acted like a Robin Williams portrayal of a sad and clinically insane man. One song had him rabidly flinging himself around in front of us while endlessly chanting "Nei! Nei nei nei! Nei nei nei nei!" in his all-white getup. Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur, was sitting back where he thought nobody could see him behind the DJ during this mania. But then he joined the strange crew for one last song, something he had cooked up about the evils of aluminum smelting. British chap that he is, the word aluminum had five syllables, and good thing too, cause he needed those five to fit the meter.

Last up was Bubbi Morthens, fronting his band Egó, a bunch of guys who haven't played together in probably 10 years or more. The crowd, having just been revved to frothiness by the preceding death-metal-in-pinstripe-business-suit crew (Ham), was ready. Behind us teenage boys in braces were chanting "Bubbi Konungurinn" (Bubbi the King) and Bubbi didn't disappoint. He had the stage energy of a guest host on Latibær, doing plyometric straight-jumps during solos and leaping around the stage like a 250-lb. Baryshnikov. He commanded the crowd like no other musician had done the whole night. He is a giant of a man, and his shaved head makes him all the more frightening. He sang like he loved it, like he was the Icelandic Elvis that he is. And the sweaty, manic, exuberant crowd wanted more. Finally it was all over in a shot of stage-front pyrotechnics and confetti. And we walked out into the cold night together and thought that we had just seen something tremendous.

laugardagur, janúar 07, 2006

extra pages

All of the Icelandic residence permits in my passport (three at latest count, plus a Danish Schengen entry visa) means that the pages were running down pretty fast. I was nearly out of room and in a couple months have to apply for another page-filling Icelandic residence permit. So I got me on down to the good ole Embassy of the United States of America. It's the only building in quiet downtown Reykjavík completely surrounded by one-ton blocks of concrete. It's also the only embassy I've seen here with a metal detector right inside the doorway.

Unlike the last time I went there (when I registered myself as a US citizen living abroad as a newly minted arrival) this time I spoke enough Icelandic to make for a smooth interaction with the friendly Icelandic door guard. I passed the passport, metal detector, bag search, and bomb-swipe tests with flying colors. This let me get as far as the next little room, where a bulletproof glass window separated me from the Consular Section receptionist. I explained that I needed a few new pages in my passport and passed in the application. While she looked it over I glanced at the rack of Xeroxed "Camp America" and "Enroll in the US Navy as a Non Citizen" flyers and the faded posters for vacationing in America. It seemed odd to be advertising these things in a room that hardly anyone can get into.

Today I went back to pick up the passport. This time thankfully I didn't have to pass any security checks. They had me wait in the vestibule while the guard fetched it inside for me. As I was checking it over to see that everything was in order, another guard came out and made me move along. But I was relieved to leave there. It's the frostiest place I've been in Iceland.

föstudagur, janúar 06, 2006

the 13th day of christmas

...is today. I've heard that it's a public holiday in Sweden, with everything shut down and people eagerly unwrapping their Thirteen Pipers Piping. But here in Iceland, it's not much more than the last day for legal fireworks use and the last day of Christmas lights and decoration. The fireworks shanties were all open this afternoon, hawking their marked-down wares to rain-soaked passersby. But I think the rain is going to hamper the traditional second round of fireworks that happens tonight. It's blowing and gusty out there. Our remaining sparklers and Glitter-Twitter fountains are going to have to find a safe place in the basement storage area, biding their time for 2007.

coming out of the hole

I have to admit that this year the darkness is getting to me. Sun-alarm-clock or not, the first several hours at work are as pitch black outside as the background of this page. I have to console myself with the realization that things are indeed getting better. Yesterday was exactly two weeks out from the solstice and already we have 30 minutes more daylight than we did on that day (up to about 4 hours and 40 minutes). And in the next two weeks we will add almost another hour of daylight. So the train is coming. It just seems to move awfully slow in the 6 weeks surrounding December 21st. For Icelanders, this is the wintertime norm, so many don't even notice the absolute insanity of a darkness that lasts until noon.

fimmtudagur, janúar 05, 2006

shameless plug

With the exception of some early-on transgressions, I have tried pretty hard to keep The Iceland Report on the topic of Everyman's experience in Iceland. Well, that is Everyman who grew up in Boston and has a strong allegiance to the Red Sox organization. Given these restrictions, it's been hard to write about or link to other things of interest in my life that are non-Iceland-related. (Believe it or not, I don't spend 24 hours a day exclaiming, "Wow! I'm in Iceland!" Even though E does some days. But we're both doing and thinking about other things than mainlining glacier runoff and eating puffins.)

In order to fill this need to write about non-Iceland stuff, I am pleased to announce the publication of a parallel blog, the JB Report. Add it to your Google Reader today!

miðvikudagur, janúar 04, 2006


Temperatures in south Iceland in the winter are often right around freezing. We also get a lot of precipitation thanks to the Gulf Stream. Add those two together, and you get a near-constant precipitory mix of rain, sleet, snow, freezing rain, and rain again. It can even be sunny and snowing and raining all at the same time.

All that slippery stuff coming out of the sky makes for some slippery roads, and Icelanders compensate in two ways. The first is that the highway department (Vegagerðin) almost continually salts the roads. I'm used to this from my New England roots.

But the second, and the thing I'm not used to, is that Icelanders usually install special nagladekk (nail-studded tires) on their cars in the winter. These have the advantages of 1) making a neat snap-crackle-pop on the pavement when you drive down Laugavegur, 2) helping the car stick a little better, and 3) tearing the asphalt to shreds. Iceland is always repaving its main roads because after just one winter, the nail-tires have carved deep grooves in the road.

In fact, these nail-tires are so good at rippin' up the asphalt that they actually atomize it, making tiny highway-particles that float in the air and stick to cars like glue. Add in the ubiquitous road salt, and you get a gritty air- and car-borne paint-stripping mix that the Mass Pike road crews would die for.

mánudagur, janúar 02, 2006

new year's wrapup

We had a busy and festive New Year's celebration here in the Land. Among the highlights:

A giant neighborhood bonfire on the seashore: The stack of pallets was a good 50 feet high, piled by city machinery. We went down at 8:30 on New Year's Eve as the pile was being lit. We watched it go from cute barbecue-sized fire to towering inferno in just minutes. A light snowfall mixed with the blowing sparks, and people were lighting small fireworks cakes at the periphery. The fire was so hot that the puddles at its base were evaporating rapidly, and steam from them was blowing from the ground to mix with the smoke above. The fire at times smelled a bit fishy, as no doubt many of the burning pallets had been used in the Biz. By the time we left there were hundreds of adults and kids gathered in a big circle, talking and staring enchanted at the massive blaze.

Áramótaskaup: This TV show is played to the nation at a little after 10 pm on Gamlárskvöld. (See the vocab lesson below.) It's a series of skits making fun of various Icelandic happenings and celebrities over the past year. We watched it at our friends' house, and unlike last year, I actually got a lot of it this time around and found myself laughing a lot more. Many Icelandic musicians were lampooned, including Mugison and Eivor Pálsdóttir, the Færoese songstress. They had Eivor singing in a bathroom stall and Mugison hounding a woman in an elevator. There was no obvious Bush-bashing this year (last year he was portrayed as a smiling mannequin who sat still while Iceland's Prime Minister made polite conversation with him) but I guess that ground is too well-trod by now. The worst skits involved an old couple's Threestoogian antics at Smáralind, the Ugly Mall. I could have done without those.

Fireworks at Öskjuhlíð: Close to midnight on New Year's Eve we drove to the top of the most prominent hill near downtown, Öskjuhlíð. This is the hill with the hot water tanks and overhyped Perlan restaurant. It was crammed with cars and people, mostly there to watch the spectacle, but some (like us) there to add to the fireworks mania. From the hilltop we could see the eastern part of Reykjavík plus the suburbs of Kópavogur and Garðabær. And it was all lit up and booming with constant fireworks that started getting thick around 11:45 and then really got nuts at midnight.

The fireworks sales guys had given me a little PVC tube for rocket launching so I tapped that into the ground with a mallet. The stable launching pad attracted a guy and his son who shared it with us. They had 3 big bombs and we had 4, plus another 10 or so smaller rockets. When the fuse kicks the propellant over, those things really hiss and sizzle as they streak skywards, massive wooden dowels in tow. People in the crowd on the hill's edge would gasp and turn around and cheer at the sound. The big ones climbed for maybe 5 seconds, straight up, and then exploded into huge flowers. All of this was against a backdrop of constant explosions from the city all around us. Fireworks were sailing up out of every backyard and street corner, and the light and gunsmoke blanketed the whole town.

Nýárskvöld: Last night, E and I went to a dinner party in the shadow of Hallgrímskírkja. Her friend from work was a co-hostess, and the party was held at the home of an Icelandic fashion designer who just moved back from Paris. E was marveling both at her fashion-designer kit and her collection of French books. The nine of us sat around her fabric-cutting table, which made for a pretty good banquet. The food was delicious, all homemade pasta, and we had good wine, and good conversation. Afterwards we did a few inevitable SongStar rounds that found me crooning out several hits of the 80s through thick Cuban cigar smoke.

Vocab Lesson: Gamlárskvöld is New Year's Eve in Icelandic, but literally "Old Year's Evening". The evening of the first of January is referred to as Nýárskvöld, literally "New Year's Evening".