þriðjudagur, febrúar 28, 2006


Last night marked the second-ever American Happy Hour put on by the U.S. Embassy staff. This one was in Kaffi Kúlture, the bar underneath Alþjóðahús and a common hotspot for foreign gatherings in Iceland. When we got there at a little after 8 the crowd seemed to be mainly embassy staffers but soon grew. The relative punctuality of the American crowd was refreshing (if this event had been an Icelandic one advertised at 8, people would begin drifting in at 9) and after a short time the long table was completely full of yapping Americans. The din of American chatter, with all those wide-open vowels, has a completely different sound to it than Icelandic chatter, and it was a sound I realized I missed. The noise around the table made me forget I was in Iceland, and put me somewhere in an unidentifiable American suburban bar, maybe an after-work crowd in the old Olive Garden bar on Route 9 in Framingham. Hey, it's strange things you come to miss about your old homeland.

There were some interesting people there: foreign service staffers who had worked all around the world, an opera singer, a woman who ran an international school in Reykjavík, three Fulbright scholars (two studying the Icelandic sagas and one writing a dissertation on the Keflavík NATO base entitled "All Your Base Are Belong To Us"), and the American ambassador herself, Carol van Voorst.

But by far the most engaging conversationalist of the evening was the producer of Prairie Home Companion. The show is going to be broadcast from the National Theater here in May, and he was here on a scouting trip to set up sponsorships, scout out the venue, and choose musicians to include. He's got some great ideas for local favorite musicians, and we gave him a few more. He's a lover of Iceland (although unfortunately not famous enough to be dubbed "Íslandsvinur"; unlike Tarantino and Oprah this guy really is a friend of Iceland) and it was he who persuaded Garrison Keillor to do the show here. With the types of muscians he is talking about including, the show promises to be fantastic, and it'll be a sweet treat indeed to hear Garrison's deep voice booming across the Land.

mánudagur, febrúar 27, 2006

'twas my lucky bun day

Hard to believe that it's already my second Bun Day (Bolludagur) here in the Land. But so it is. In a few short minutes, the eating of giant cream-filled "buns" will commence in the company kitchen, with the requisite coffee accompaniment, and for just a few short minutes we'll all be like carefree kids again. Not that many people here don't seem fairly carefree most of the time, or at least by comparison to my old American workplace.

It's close to the start of Lent today, and Bun Day is the first in the "Holy Trinity" of Icelandic Lenten holdidays: Bolludagur - Sprengidagur - Öskudagur. That's bun day - explosion day (explosion day: Iceland's take on Mardi Gras when you eat until you explode) - ash day (Ash Wednesday). Bring on the buns!

sunnudagur, febrúar 26, 2006

new york week at iceland report

One new feature of writing about life in the Land seems to be people emailing me saying that they're gonna come visit and asking what they should see. This past week has been all about meeting up with New Yorkers, who seem to want to write me even though I dissed them. Then we meet up and have a great time. It turns out that if someone really wants to slog through your blog, you'll probably get along in person, too. Kind of a self-selecting deal.

A little over a week ago, E and I went to lunch with New Yorkers Cahmen and Scott, and it turned out that Cahmen was really from NJ and Scott really from historic Chelmsford, Mass., just inches from where I grew up in neighboring (and ahch-rivalrous) Billerica. So here we found ourselves in a Danish sandwich place in downtown Reykjavík, talking about the old Lums restaurant chain, the Towne Plaza on Route 3A (formerly home of Stuart's), and how in his childhood, Scott liked the Billerica Mall for its classy fountains and Fun Time arcade. This guy could also do a wicked good Massachusetts accent by imitating his "fathah" ("That's an un-cahmen name, Cahmen.") and culminating with "I sawr a gawkahblockah on my way in'a Peabuddy Cennah."

Then there was an email from a lady in Brooklyn, asking me for Reykjavík secrets that were off the tourist maps, although she hasn't yet contacted us Landside. I told her to avoid the Blue Lagoon and hit the city swimming pools instead.

Then on Friday night, I met up with a whole crazy posse of New Yorkers, including one who signed his first email to me "Johnny Damon", apparently so I would like him. It seemed to work anyway. He and his old Fiji buddies from college were meeting here in Reykjavík for a Classic Reykjavík Weekend: bars, booze, and bátar. I took them to Thorvaldsen, figuring it was a good match, and one of the buddies immediately started macking on a pair of Icelandic lawyer ladies. Meanwhile "Johnny Damon" grilled me about life in Iceland (what? the Iceland Report isn't enough?) as he plied me with free beers (in a land where nothing is free, free beers take on an almost mythical status). Then another blogger showed up (he had been two-timing me, this "Johnny Damon", but what do you expect from a Yankee fan?) and the night really got rolling. After a short, thoroughly uninteresting stop-in at Rex (where the lawyers had lured the other guys), the three of us headed up Bankastræti to Kaffibarinn and then Ölstofan. Finally, fed up with the poison cloud of smoke at Ölstofan, I headed homewards through the street chatter, occasional broken bottles, wobbly girls in heels, cars rolling by on pin-tires, and occasional misdirected catcalls that is the Reykjavík weekend night. I made the requisite stop-in at Hlölla-bátar, the world's finest sandwich shop, where a fried lamb and cabbage sub capped the evening, and then I was walking uphill into the quiet streets of Vesturbær and down towards the sea and home.

puffin feast

Last night my pal Dr. D and his wife threw their annual lundaveisla, or puffin feast. This one was partially in honor of their dope new home, in a new part of Reykjavík just in the shadow of the looming Esja. Every time I have gone to an Icelandic dinner party the food and atmosphere have been stellar, and this was no exception. For one thing, Icelandic guests take their guest obligations seriously, and in addition to bringing gifts for the host and hostess, they bring themselves clad in excellent clothes. Even our host Dr. D was in a shirt and tie, even though he was still manning the stoves, and his wife A looked fabulous in her dress. Having the hosts and guests all dolled up, which seems to happen here even for family-only occasions, really adds something to a get-together that is new for me and my Merrimack Valley roots. It sets a tone for the evening that sets it apart as a special time, a space away from the regular clothes of daily life. I felt underdressed in a jacket-and-jeans combo. A guy can never be overdressed at an Icelandic social event, a lesson I am still learning.

The new house was spectacular in a spare Scandinavian sort of way, with sliding doors between rooms, a ceiling that curved upwards to maybe 15 feet at the back of the house, kids' rooms with built-in bunk-bed lofts, and an open living area that took up one end of the house and felt spacious under the gentle curve of the ceiling.

We all had pre-dinner drinks in this space, chit-chatting in Icelandic, and then were ushered into the dining area. The Dr. D Puffin Co. had set up the open space next to the kitchen with a long dining table and the 12 of us took our places around it. There was an appetizer of toast and a fresh pile o' shrimp, brie, and grapes with homemade mustard sauce, and then I got up and watched as Dr. D, lundameistarinn (the Master of Puffins), fried up the puffin breasts. He flavored them only with God's seasonings (salt and pepper) and fried them in a small amount of red wine. They are small and fry for only a short time on each side. When cooked, they are very dark, almost black on the outsides.

Alongside the puffin meat, they served a fresh tomato salad and a potato casserole. The puffin meat itself was like nothing I have ever tried. It was red meat, almost the color of beef, but very tender with a gamey taste that was slightly fishy. The little clown-faced guys do eat a lot of fish. I ate a bunch of puffin breasts, drenched in homemade gravy, and got thoroughly stuffed.

The time I spent at the lundaveisla set a new personal record: 5 hours or so of nothing but Icelandic. And while I was quiet most of the time, listening and trying to understand as best I could, I did struggle through a half hour or so of being grilled by some other guests about my work here in the Land and what kinds of cultural differences I noticed here. Well, gentle readers, you know that cultural differences are perhaps the whole reason I write this blog, but trying to explain them in Icelandic, to a tableful of Icelanders is another matter entirely. I lack anything resembling sophistication in my Icelandic speech, but I think I got my points across nonetheless. It's a thrill to be able to express myself in a whole new way, and in the dignified language of the old Norsemen to boot. Eating puffin at the same time helps the feeling of Viking transformation.

After dinner it was back to the living room to talk some more, and then our hosts stuffed us yet again with homemade ice cream and Dr. D's sinful Mars Bar, Toblerone, and Icelandic cream sauce. At midnight I left with my head full of Icelandic language and my belly full of Iceland's best food, and drove home happy in the clear night air.

þriðjudagur, febrúar 21, 2006

the grand master of glower

Iceland's resident eccentric sat down at the next table while we were finishing up a Thai meal out the other night. Before that happened, the big excitement was that the order taker mistakenly rang up 22,100 krónur on E's debit card (around $300 too much) and then proceeded to pay her back in cash. But then Fischer loped over to the next table and sat down. ("I think that's Bobby Fischer," I thought, "and I've been searching for him for years!") He's a big man, over 6 feet tall with a shock of white hair and an ever-present baseball hat. I glanced at him a couple of times to see if it was him, but did this one too many times, as he caught my eye and glowered at me. And nobody's mastered the glower quite like Bobby!

skyr ain't yogurt

OK, all you Googlers searching for "skyr yogurt". Get this through your heads: skyr is skyr. Yogurt is yogurt. Two totally different things, and never the twain shall meet. If you want yogurt, go back to Stonyfield Farms, or wherever, and pick up some of their slop. If you want skyr, the stuff with the tang, the stuff that leaves chalk residue in your mouth, the real-man Icelandic take-no-prisoners made-since-the-year-1000 stuff, the food that built a nation, then that's just "skyr". That's all you need to write.

And for you British types with your effeminate yogurt-with-an-H spelling, well, don't even get me started...

föstudagur, febrúar 17, 2006

contest winners

Nobody correctly guessed all 5 of the top 5 countries in this week's contest, but a stunning 3 people got 4 of the 5. You guys are sharp. The top 5 Iceland Report reading countries, by pageload, are:

1. Bandaríkin (United States) 44%
2. Ísland (Iceland) 39%
3. Bretland (United Kingdom) 4%
4. Frakkland (France) 2%
5. Þýskaland (Germany) 2%

Of these three semi-finalists, the person to have the most countries in the right spot on the list (and even she only got 2 of them right!) was Sirrý, so she wins the ERRÓ grand prize, easily beating her brother Magnús who, though he also guessed 4 of 5, had no countries in the right rank on the list. Linguaphile came in second by this criteria.

Nobody playing guessed France, and our friends in Frakkland rank fourth. My "ringer" Nick didn't get any points for his lackluster guessing of territories and tiny nation-states. No, Nick, I don't get a lot of readers from the Holy See.

Stateside, we had a tie between New York reader Cahmen and Boston-based Britzy. They each got three of the five states right, correctly guessing the top two:

1. Massachusetts: the hometown boys come through for Iceland Report
2. New York: some 212 wanderlust, perhaps
3. Alaska: (!) maybe the powerful Connection of the Northern Peoples?
4. California: because it's a big place
5. Virginia: unexpected, I know, but there it is

I'm gonna come up with a special states prize, so will you three winners email me your addresses? And thanks for playing, everyone. Enjoy your collective weekend.

fimmtudagur, febrúar 16, 2006

law of the land

My coworker, and author of some excellent krapp, pointed out to me today that I may have been breaking Icelandic national flag-law (fánalög) by wearing the Icelandic flag-hat in my 15-minutes-of-fame concert photo in Moggun. It seemed there was a possibility that I was disrespecting the Icelandic flag by wearing it in hat form. American conservatives of a certain stripe would be happy to know that among the first laws passed upon Iceland's (second) independence on June 17, 1944, were several related to utmost respect for the Icelandic flag. In fact, maybe flag-loving Americans should take a page from the Icelandic law book, and copy the following straight into the American Constitution (in Icelandic):

12. gr. Enginn má óvirða þjóðfánann, hvorki í orði né verki.

No person may disrespect the national flag, neither in word nor deed.

Óheimilt er að nota þjóðfánann sem einkamerki einstaklinga, félaga eða stofnana eða auðkennismerki á aðgöngumiðum, samskotamerkjum eða öðru þess háttar.

In other words, it is not permitted to use the flag as a private logo. (I bet a lot of flag-waving Midwestern sewage-pumping companies wouldn't be too happy about the American version of this one.)

Heimilt er með leyfi forsætisráðuneytisins að nota fánann í vörumerki eða á söluvarning, umbúðir um eða auglýsingu á vöru eða þjónustu, enda sé starfsemi sú sem í hlut á að gæðum samkvæmt því sem ráðuneytið mælir fyrir með reglugerð og fánanum ekki óvirðing gerð. Óheimilt er að nota fánann í firmamerki.

You need government permission to use the flag for a trade mark or to mark goods for sale, in commercials etc. And no disrespecting of it when you do this, neither. (This is the part he thought I was breaking, but we're assuming the maker/seller of this flag-hat followed the proper permitting procedures. But I'm willing to bet that selling Icelandic-flag boxers would be off-limits, even in Bónus.)

Óheimilt er að selja eða bjóða til sölu vörur af erlendum uppruna ef á þær eða umbúðir þeirra hefur verið sett mynd af íslenska fánanum.

Or, it's forbidden to sell or offer for sale foreign-made products that show an image of the Icelandic flag! (This one I don't get, because there are lots of chintsy Chinese-origin-looking tourist flags and hats (like mine) and all kinds of other krapp for sale here. Maybe one of you lögfræðingar reading this can help me out on this one. Is the tourist-schlock industry somehow exempt from provision 3, by the precedent set in Eden vs. Oddsson, perhaps?)

You can get more ideas for future American Constitutional amendments here. Happy legislating!

miðvikudagur, febrúar 15, 2006

client meeting

For some reason, I am always very nervous before Icelandic client meetings. Well, I know the reason, actually, and that is the language. It's hard to be on top of your game when you feel like you're playing with less than a full deck, or whatever mixed metaphor you want to choose.

But if experience is any guide, I have nothing to fear from Icelandic client meetings. The hard-edged hard-hitting ways of my old New York clients would come off as painfully abrasive here. In Iceland when you come to a client site, the first thing they do is take your coat. Then they usher you into the kitchen and make you a fresh cup of coffee from the shiny coffee machine that every Icelandic company seems to possess. Then they show you into an office or conference room with a "gjörðu svo vel", holding the door so you can go first. Then and only then, cup of fresh coffee in hand and seated in a comfortable space, do people get down to business.

In today's case, things were even better because as soon as we stood up to meet our clients in the reception area, my coworker K and the client exchanged a startled/happy "Hæ!". It turns out they are old friends from elementary school in Akureyri in the north of Iceland, but hadn't seen each other for years until this very morning. It was like a reunion. Everything was fine from there: we were ushered into a comfortable office, coffees in hand, early-morning Icelandic sky peeping through the blinds, and the three of us talked through their problems and questions and ideas like old friends.

þriðjudagur, febrúar 14, 2006

new contest!

...or "samkeppni", for those of you learning Icelandic.

So, now that the Iceland Report is an international phenomenon, I am curious if you can guess the top 5 countries in terms of Iceland Report readership, as measured in pageloads. U.S.-based readers, if you feel uncomfortable with this level of geographic knowledge of areas outside the good ole US of A, you may instead say what you think are the top 5 reading states.

The contest will remain open until Friday at noon Iceland time (GMT), when whoever is closest will receive a small reproduction artwork by renowned Icelandic painter ERRÓ. The winner of the last contest, A. Rossini, of New York, NY, was quite happy with his prize. Leave your answers in the Comments below.

springtime comes to the land

Yesterday and today have both been sunny and beautiful, with temps yesterday in the mid-40s. It was light last night as I swam laps and then stayed light until almost 7 pm. Then it was light again this morning starting at around 8 am, and the Iceland smell is back in small snatches here and there. The dark days of winter seem solidly behind us, and it finally seems sensible to look forward to the summer and make plans. It's pretty hard to think about summertime when it feels like you're behind a black curtain. But now the curtain has been pulled back, and the sunshine is streaming in.

mánudagur, febrúar 13, 2006

a tale of two babies

Congratulations to my good Boston friends the Shoons for giving birth to their first baby, a little Shoon named Colin. And a big "til hamingju" also to my coworker Katrín whose sister just gave birth this morning to her first child, a girl named _____.

Yep, that's right, the name is a mystery. In Iceland babies' names usually remain under wraps until the child is christened in church. That's when the name becomes public for the first time. It's a big unveiling, akin to when Rod Roddy used to yell "a new car!" on The Price is Right. Before the baby has her "day in church", the parents use a nickname between each other and with their friends and family. This nickname will be something like "kríle" (small thing) or "stubbur" (stumpy). Last year I made the mistake of asking some friends what was the name of their new baby, and they glowered at me. (She's since been christened Júlía Jökulrós, or Julia Glacier's-Rose.) But to new parents the innocent "What's the name of your baby?" is a question best left unasked in the Land.

sunnudagur, febrúar 12, 2006

weather happens

Now that I've waxed all glorious about the crafty arts of Boston driving, it's time to talk about one of the downsides of living in Boston: the crazed way people handle the weather.

Sometimes I listen to WBUR, a fine Boston news station, while I am working. And for the last 4 or 5 days the station has been talking about a weekend snowstorm, due tomorrow. And this Five Days of Worry is coming from a fairly balanced and un-cuckoo news organization. Which I know means that the workingman's Boston media has been talking snowstorm/blizzard/moving-up-the-coast/meteorologist-Bruce-Schweigler nonstop for the better part of those five days. Other news always takes a backseat to any kind of storm-talk. The storm becomes the Thing.

I don't know why. Here you have a city that gets a sizable snowstorm at least once a year, and sometimes even weekly. They have the trucks, the plows, the sanders, the piles of road salt at the ready. They've seen it before. The work crews are burly men with experience and New England pride, and they do a good job. Unlike in Iceland, snowstorms in Boston get cleaned up even as they happen.

So why is it that every Bostonian (and their "nannah") feels the need to go out and shell out a couple hundred bucks on storm provisions? The day before a storm is due, the supermarkets resemble Tunisian bazaars minus the sunshine. The parking lots are jammed with cars, the aisles jammed with carts, the people's heads jammed with storm worries and worst case scenarios, their bodies jostling for position in interminable checkout lines.

Here in Iceland, sure, we have weather. But weather just happens. One day, you wake up, it's rainy and blowing 60 mph? Hey, get in the car and go to work. The next day, a foot of snow on the ground? Hey, get in the car and go to work. Giant salt sprays blowing hundreds of feet in from the sea wall freezing and covering the roadway with thick black ice? Keep driving, buddy. I'll see a 6-year-old walking himself to school on a pitch black winter morning on an ice-covered sidewalk with unkempt piles of snow on all sides of him. Crossing guards? Nah. Delayed openings? Nah. The kids get to school. Nobody panics or freaks out or spends hours glued to the TV StormCenter. Weather here is always interesting, but it's what happens, and we have no choice but to just roll with it.

laugardagur, febrúar 11, 2006

one year later in ísafjörður

Almost a year after my first trip to chilly Ísafjörður, and through a near-miraculous chain of events, I was a newly-minted resident of the Land, typing away furiously at work and then going home to cram as much Icelandic language and skyr into my head as I could. Around this time, the now-famous E visited Iceland (and me) for the first time. So where did I decide to take her? How about an 8-hour drive, half of it over dirt roads, sweetie?

Yep, Ísafjörður. It was a long way up there, and not the kind of driving I had done in a long time, maybe since crossing desolate stretches of Wyoming with my brother. The kind of driving where gasoline stops are so far-between that gas-purchasing becomes a scheduled activity. The kind of driving where seeing an actual car coming the other way is cause for cheer, interest, and a little steering-wheel wave. The kind of driving where a friend from Reykjavík calls to check on your progress every few hours. Unlike Wyoming, though, Iceland has nothing the size and heft of an Interstate highway. Often, especially in the West Fjords, numbered roads that look major on a map end up being gravel and chock-full of potholes. (What looks like a town on the same map turns out to be a farm, often abandoned. And what looks like an airport turns out to be a larger, plowed flat of gravel with a windsock.)

But the drive was spectacular: azure ocean, black-and-white mountain passes, faded-green hillsides, and a clear and chilly blue sky. Driving in the fjords takes a long time to get anywhere, because every fjord we came to required driving from the mouth all the way to the tail of the fjord, and then back out. And these things can be miles from front-to-back. So one fjord could eat up a half-hour or more of driving, and when we got to the end, we could see where we had been a half-hour before, seemingly a just few feet away across the water at the fjord's mouth.

The next day, walking around the little town of Ísafjörður, I decided to stop in at the church and look for my friend Jón. We walked up to the same door, and there was the same window next to it, and there he was inside, reading the paper. I knocked, and he looked up with the same initial puzzlement. But then, he remembered me and leaped up to come around and open the door for us.

It was like a homecoming. The first thing he did was to take us into his newspaper-reading room (which doubled as an office) and show me that there, above the newspaper-reading desk, among a few church-related postings and protected in a plastic sleeve, was the thank you post card I had sent him from Boston. From this tiny, chilly place huddled so deep in a fjord that the mountains block the sun two months a year, the pictures of Boston seemed distant and surreal.

Jón carefully replaced the postcard in its sleeve and took us into the kitchen, where we shared another excellent pot of coffee, and E got to listen to me struggle through my handful of newly learned Icelandic words. But Jón was patient with me, speaking very slowly and deliberately himself, and we had a good talk there in the corner kitchen, lit by the fading October light from the fjord.

föstudagur, febrúar 10, 2006

"use yih indicaytahs"

In order to stave off criticism at the pass, I'll admit that I'm a Boston-area driver, by training and practice. And while many of you will think that disqualifies me from any discussion of what follows, I'll beg to differ.

Because in my experience, drivers in Boston (and likewise New York) drive with a purpose. They may not always be the most courteous: they may, say, cut into a lane in front of you, but they know precisely what they're doing and aren't cutting you off because they hold any ill will towards you. Their behavior comes from a sense of mission, a get-where-you're-going sensibility that is shared by everyone on the road in Greater Boston. Everyone's on the same page, and it's only the uninitiated slowpokes from other, less advanced areas of the country who complain about Boston drivers. Boston drivers have to always be thinking, and thinking fast, because the very infrastructure of Boston roadways - lanes that drop without notice, mile-deep potholes, two-ways that become one-ways, and meandering old streets - wouldn't allow it any other way.

Not so in Iceland. Iceland drivers, much like California drivers, are woefully clueless. If you get cut off in Iceland, it's because the other driver didn't know you were there in the first place. Even native Icelanders agree: drivers here are terrible.

The most egregious abuse by Icelandic drivers has to involve turn signal use, or lack thereof. A Boston driver does consider turn signal use optional, but this comes from a clear conscious (or bred-in subconscious) decision on the part of the driver: maybe she's changing lanes but there's enough clearance that a signal isn't warranted, for example.

In Iceland, on the other hand, drivers don't seem to even know about the existence of the turn signal stalk. It's completely foreign. I'll be driving along a busy road like, say, Kringlumýrabraut, going maybe 50-60 km/h, when suddenly the car in front of me will slow. And keep slowing. He'll slow to a crawl. I'll jam on the brakes behind him, thinking maybe the Greenland Sea has frozen over and a rogue polar bear has made it over to Iceland for the first time in 100 years and that bear is right now crossing Kringlumýrabraut in front of this red Hyundai. Wow! Can't wait to see the bear! Maybe I'll make Fréttablaðið! I'll be thinking. And then, when the clown in the Hyundai is going maybe 5 km/h (translation, for American readers = very slow) he'll make a right turn into a neighborhood street. No signal, nothing.

Even better is when an Icelandic driver slows to a crawl in front of you, and then as he's rounding the corner, puts on the turn signal. It's like, thanks, guy, but I could have used that information just a little soonah.

So, for the benefit of my 40% Icelandic readership, here is the correct step-by-step process for making a turn:

1. Say to yourself, "Hérna, ég ætla að fara Bræðraborgarstíg í dag, sko."
2. At the exact moment that your intention to turn crystallizes, put on the relevant turn signal.
3. Only once the turn signal is blinking (you'll hear a clicking sound) apply the brake pedal, slowing down to turn speed.
4. Make the turn.
5. When you have completed the turn, the turn signal will actually shut itself off and the clicking will stop. It's automatic: no need to do anything more!
6. Resume driving normally.

Hope that helps. Forward this to your friends here in Iceland, and maybe it'll even make the Icelandic driver's ed curriculum eventually. We'll watch all our commute times halve, and traffic will flow smooth as a jökulhlaup. It's gonna be lovely. (Now here's hoping I still have that 40% Icelandic readership...!)

fimmtudagur, febrúar 09, 2006

jón from ísafjörður

The morning after my web cam appearance, I awoke in the sleepy town of Ísafjörður*, far in the north of Iceland's West Fjords. It was pitch black out, even though almost 8 a.m. and the streets were quiet outside.

I ate breakfast at the guesthouse, surrounded by some Icelandic men there on some business. Outside the window next to my table it was still inky black. I couldn't believe it. I knew that it would be dark at that time on a November morning, from having done the research before the trip. But nothing prepared me for the actuality of pitch blackness so late in the morning, with sunrise almost two hours in the future.

I had a plane to catch in the late morning, but a few hours before Old Man Fly Van was due to pick me up, so I put on some warm clothes and went outside to see the little town one last time. I walked down the main street, said "Góðan daginn" proudly (and probably incorrectly) to a surprised older lady I passed, and headed to the center of town. On my right was the Hotel Ísafjörður, ground zero for the webcam saga, and where the Ice-Ross had the night before cooked me an amazing saltfiskur (salted cod) dinner, which I had enjoyed looking out the restaurant window at my favorite view.

On my left as I got into town were a few shops and among them a cozy-looking bakery. I stopped in and picked up a snuður, a twisted piece of white bread with drizzled frosting, for the airplane ride back. I went to the post office and mailed some postcards (and a famous package for FB) and then really didn't know what to do. I had more than an hour before I had to leave.

So I wandered some more and decided to check out the church. Ísafjörður, like every self-respecting Icelandic town, village, and hamlet, has an ultramodern church. I have heard Ísafjörður's church described as a flashcube. I think it looks more like a few yellow kids' blocks put together in the rough approximation of a building.

Churches in Iceland are often left unlocked, and it's often possible to just walk in and have a peek around. On one side of the church was a small fenced graveyard, but the gate was locked, so I walked around to the other side of the church where there was a door and a little window next to it.

In the window was a man flipping through a newspaper, empty cup of coffee off to the side. The sky was just hinting at getting light. He looked up when he saw me, quizzically, then got up and came around to the church door.

Now if I had been JB Model 2K6, I would have just said, "Má ég kíkja inn í kirkjunni?" But I had no idea how to say this then. ("Góðan daginn" was my big accomplishment that day.) So I tried to explain in English that I wanted to look in the church. The man still looked at me, puzzled. I explained a bit more, with some hand gestures, and he got it, and opened the door wide, motioning me in with a sweeping gesture.

I followed him into the entry hall, and he obviously wanted to show me the place, as he kept walking ahead of me. I followed him into the large main room, which was quite airy and striking, and then over to the window where he showed me the cemetery. His tourguide dialogue consisted of single Icelandic words ("kirkjugarður") followed by an occasional English translation ("cemetery"). The English words sounded rusty, and half-remembered, as though they were coming from a long time back. It was an earnest tour of his caretaker's domain, and he had a fondness for everything in his immaculate church.

After he showed me everything of interest, we walked out to the exit together, and I told him "Takk fyrir" and was smiling and making to leave, when he said the first (and most magical) Icelandic words I ever learned in Boston: "Viltu kaffi?"**

"Já, takk," was out of my mouth, reflexively. I was surprised at knowing just what to say, and, still sort of gleeful about this whole turn of events, I followed him into the tidy church kitchen. He set about making a pot of fresh coffee, and then I remembered the snuður pastry. When I presented it to him, his face lit up. Now we were all set for what I now know to be a traditional Icelandic pow-wow (or a "já-já"?). He set the table with coffee cups and a plate and knife for the pastry.

For the next 40 minutes, we drank down a pot of coffee and cobbled together a conversation from half-remembered words and a loveworn Icelandic-English dictionary. Outside, it was finally getting light behind the sharp mountains of the fjord.

* pronunciation is roughly "EES-a-fyorth-er".
** "Would you like coffee?"

þriðjudagur, febrúar 07, 2006

jón from nesdekk

When RZ needed his first oil change, I took him down the road to the lovely peninsula of Seltjarnarnes. There, near the town center, stands the vast tire-covered facade of Nesdekk. Nesdekk (English translation: Peninsula Tire!) had been recommended to me as a good place for the basics: oil changes, tires, brakes, that kind of thing. They did the oil and I felt much better, and so did RZ.

When I went for a second oil change, months later, the owner Jón remembered all about me. He remembered my name, that I had come from Boston, and that I liked the Red Sox, a team most Icelanders have never even heard of. This surprised me. I chalked it up to my superstar Boston-immigrant status.

But no, turns out I am in no way special. This Jón character remembers each of his hundreds of customers by name, and knows the details of their lives like they were his friends. I know a few people who go there, and they all say the same thing. The man is a walking encyclopedia of human knowledge.

So it was great to go there today to get a headlight bulb installed. Jón greeted me with a smile, said hello to E, and had me pull right into bay #2. No matter that the mechanics were all busy on bigger jobs. They had the headlight changed out in less than 10 minutes. And the bill, 690 krónur ($11), was less than a hamburger-tilboð at the local burger shack. It's good to have a friend at Peninsula Tire.

sunnudagur, febrúar 05, 2006

listasafn íslands

Today I spent some time at the National Gallery, tucked in a modern white building along one side of the Pond in the middle of town. The most striking exhibit was one by Ragnar Helgi Ólofsson, situated in a large room a half-flight of stairs down from the entrance. The first thing I noticed when I entered the space was that I was reflected on the white wall in front of me, as though I was looking at a giant mirror of the room. As I walked toward the wall, my double walked toward me. An image of the whole empty room was mirrored on the wall. There was nothing in the room except a place for people to stand. A camera was capturing what was going on in the room and a projector recreating it exactly on one wall.

As I moved around in the room, watching myself, other people also appeared on the wall. They were other exhibit guests from the past. Some were dancing, some were strolling around like me, some were jumping at the camera. They faded in for a few seconds at a time, then faded out. There was a huge crowd, with a woman being pushed in a wheelchair, that would blink into existence at the back of the room. After spending a few minutes in there, I saw an image of myself entering the room, pausing, then walking up to the screen. I could see two of me, and sometimes three of me.

After seeing the rest of the installations, I came back to play with the room again. I did some hip-hop dancing, some walking in circles, and succumbed to the seemingly universal compulsion to run straight at the camera and become huge on the screen. I learned that if I stayed very still, the wall would stop showing other people. It was movement that triggered movement. By walking or moving, and then standing stationary for 30 seconds or so, I could get a copy of myself to walk in the same way and join me in my body. As I moved around, the wall would show others dancing, running, standing in place, adults and kids alike. I had no idea how long ago they had been there, or who they were, but after seeing the same people a few times I felt like I knew them just a little bit.

laugardagur, febrúar 04, 2006


"Jeppi" is Icelandic for "Jeep" and it's used in the generic WWII sense of the word, not the Grand Cherokee sense of the word. So a lot of things qualify as a jeppi here. I drive a jeppi. And this qualifies me as someone who drives something a just a little bit special.

When I gave two coworkers a ride down the hill to lunch the other day, the first thing one said when he got in the car was: "Oooh, jeppi!"

A good friend of mine remarked, "Well, I'm not the kind of guy who drives a jeppi," when explaining why he was having such a hard time with the ladies here.

"Oooh, jeppi!"

"Well, I'm not the kind of guy who drives a jeppi."

Meanwhile the car in question is a 1997 Toyota RAV4 with close to 100,000 miles. It's almost 10 years old. It used to be my mom's car. It needs to be vacuumed. It has dings and scratches (as a good jeppi should) and trouble starting when it's been sitting for more than a night. It has a headlight out, and burns a fair amount of oil.


föstudagur, febrúar 03, 2006

the web cam finis

I spent the next hour or so talking to the chef. He knew all kinds of things about all kinds of things, not least of them food.* He promised that he cooked a mean salted cod. He was originally from the next fjord over, and before there had been a tunnel between them, the only way there was over a mountain pass. In a bad winter, they could be isolated in their fjord for a week or more, and his family often made snowmobile runs over the pass to bring back milk and newspapers.

When the cook went back to the kitchen, I spent the final half hour wandering around the tidy downtown. Almost everything was closed up tight, on account of Sunday, and there were almost no people anywhere.

Finally it was close to 3 p.m. I walked back across the town plaza and behind the Hotel Ísafjörður to the water's edge. Figuring to give my viewers a good chance to see me, I hit the stones at five minutes to 3. Because it was darkening, and to make sure they saw me, I climbed on top of the stone wall next to the lamppost.

I felt pretty silly. All I had to do was stand there. Waving was pointless as the webcam refreshes only every couple of minutes and any attempted wave would have involved a sustained arm-in-air rictus. So I stood there in my red ferðamaður jacket, a couple feet above the road, on top of a rock, watching the minutes go by and watching the little black webcam eye looking down at me. Every minute or two a lonely car would pass by, and slow a little. The townspeople inside would look out at me quizzically as they drove past in the fading light. It was a desolate Sunday in this town on the edge of the world, and I was about the most interesting thing happening. Just standing there.

At five minutes past 3, I got down from the rock and went back into the hotel to talk to my new friends some more.

fimmtudagur, febrúar 02, 2006

the web cam pt. 4

I walked around to the front of the blocky hotel building, and there was the view, spread out before me. I was beaming. It was so much more tremendous than anything I could see on a screen. On the other side of the hotel was a lawn, then the road I would see buses on, then a rock wall, and then the still waters of the fjord. I crossed the road and stood on top of one of the rocks. Scanning the windows of the hotel, I found the camera. It was a tiny eye in the topmost window on the left of the building. It was kind of cozy to see it there.

But now there was a problem. I wasn't sure where to stand for my big premiere. I was planning to stand between the streetlights I knew so well, but there were several possible pairs of streetlights. I didn't want my big day in the wan sun to end up with me standing off to the wrong side.

I decided I needed a webcam cinematographer. So I went back around the hotel and inside. The place was silent as a winter barn. Even the front desk was unmanned. I poked my head into the restaurant area and a waiter-looking guy came out. He was also the front-desk guy, as it turned out. I explained what I was trying to do. After some chuckles, he loaded up the webpage and we both studied the picture carefully.

"I think this is the end of the driveway here."

"Yeah, that would make sense. No wait, is it this light or that light?"

It was hard to tell. Finally, he said, "OK, you go stand out next to this light and wait a few minutes and then come back inside." Apparently he didn't have much in the way of "official duties" that day, what with an empty hotel.

So I went back outside across the road and stood next to one of the lights and waited a few minutes, to make sure we got a page refresh in. It was cold. When I got back inside, another guy, dressed in full chef's regalia, had joined him behind the desk, and they were both watching me on the webcam. They both smiled and gave me thumbs up. Now there was just an hour and a half until showtime.

(To be continued...)

miðvikudagur, febrúar 01, 2006

how to make hangikjöt

Hangikjöt, or hanging-meat, is an Icelandic specialty that's served as a Sunday meal and often makes an appearance as the special meal served on the second day of Christmas (the 26th). Hangikjöt is lamb that's been smokehouse-cured, and the word on the street is that the stuff that makes the best smoky-smoke is dried sheep's dung. Sheep's dung or no, h-kjöt is some tasty meat eatin'. I cooked some for E last Friday. Here's how to make your own:

1. Pick out a hangikjöt at your neighborhood Nóatún, or on your way through the Keflavík international airport on your next budget hop to Paris. It comes in a plastic bag and is clearly marked with "Hangikjöt" - Iceland doesn't much go in for brand names. Ours was about 800 grams, which was enough for 2 people, plus leftovers for pressed-cheese sandwiches and a planned future omelet.
2. Go home. If you have to go through U.S. Customs to get there, make sure they gave you a special "Pure Iceland Meat, Trust Me, Customs Guy" veterinary certificate at the Duty Free.
3. Fill up a big stock pot with cold cold water.
4. Cut up some carrots, onions, and garlic, and throw them in the pot.
5. Take the meat out of its plastic wrapper, but leave the mesh netting on. The netting will help the whole thing stay together in the tumultuous times ahead.
6. Toss the meat in the cold cold water with the veggies and cover.
7. Put some medium heat under the pot.
8. Let the water come to simmering very slowly, over the course of an hour.
9. After simmering is attained, let the meat simmer for a while. I did ours for 40 minutes, but a more traditional larger piece would take 60 minutes. You know, give or take. I don't want to stifle any creativity.
10. So, simmer that baby away.
11. After the simmering time is up, cut the heat. Let the whole pot cool for another hour or two. You can use that time to prepare a fresh salad.
12. Kidding. (But some frozen pizza boxes actually say this. I can't believe it. What a nanny culture the world has become.) So let it cool. The longer this takes, the more flavor lock-in from the veggies you'll get. So be patient.
13. Toward the end of the cool-down period, fire up some white sauce. Just like mom once taught you: flour, butter and milk. Salt, pepper, and a bit of nutmeg, too. Hey, why not.
14. Heat up some green peas, too. Even if you don't like them and refused to eat them as a kid, like someone I know, just do it. They must be served with hangikjöt. No two ways around it.
15. Remove the meat from Carrot Jones' Locker, cut off the surrounding mesh, and carve. Carve across the grain so you get round pieces.
16. Plate the meat with white sauce on top and the peas on top of that. Some nice pickled red cabbage (rauðkál) is good on the side.
17. Serve, to the surprised delight of your girlfriend, who will say "Wow, I kinda had my doubts about this meal. But this is good! You done good, babe."
18. Awake the next morning to the strong smell of smoked food pervading every nook and cranny of the house. If you have regrets, just remember that this is the smell of Christmas in Iceland.

the web cam pt. 3

I rode in the middle seat of the Toyota van with the stoic man driving. We first stopped around the side of the terminal building, where the driver got out and picked up a plastic-wrapped bundle that was handed to him over the airport fence. It was the day's shipment of the Morgunblaðið newspaper, enough for the whole town.

We drove around the end of the calm, ice-skimmed waters of the fjord and into the town. Even though it was close to noon, the sun hadn't cleared the towering mountains to the south and the light was diffuse. The steepest mountains I had seen surrounded the town on three sides, making me feel tiny and fenced in by a nature that was much bigger and more powerful. The driver dropped me off at my guesthouse, an old two-story house with a cozy sign. The name, Gamla Gistihúsið, just means "The Old Guesthouse" and even in these early days my nascent Icelandic knowledge was enough for me to appreciate the name.

After checking in at the wainscoated desk and leaving my luggage on a quilt-covered bed, I had just one goal in mind, and that was to find the web cam. The time was ticking down, and I had to be in the appointed place or the legions of fans back in the States would be staring at an empty screen.

I set off down the main road and within five minutes was in the heart of the town. Even though it was mid-day, the place was deserted save for one kid bouncing a ball by himself on a side street. It was cold, too, somewhere decently under freezing, and my breath showed in the quiet, still air. I found myself humming, "Hey Ah Ma Ma Ma" (Life in a Northern Town) to myself, unconscious at first of its appropriateness.

From the heart of the town, I was able to finally see the view I had been looking on for so long. The mountains were coming down at just the right angle, and I could see the water reflecting them up at the slate-grey sky. But instead of being a few square pixels on a laptop screen, the view was now everything, the mountains towering, the sky giant, and the sharp cold lending it authenticity that it never had in the comfort of a Boston cubicle.

There was only one building between me and the full view, the blocky grey Hotel Ísafjörður.

(To be continued...)