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?"


Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

This is beautiful, it makes me remember when I was in Ísafjörður ten years ago for the funeral of my grandfather during the winter. It took place in the same church as you visited. There is another graveyard however where I participated in lowering the coffin into the snowy ground.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

What a brilliant story. I do remember you telling me in person your visit to the churhc.

I am still puzzled, WHY you EVER moved to Iceland of all places :D
I can't wait for a story for that on.

I'm also now wondering in excitment who the third Jón will be?

Now, did you know JB that the old people in the western fjords had a dialect with the emphasis on hv sounds.
The people up north have even yet another pronounciation.

And people like me that grew up in the city have yet another dialect, which is very soft spoken and relatively rapid speach compared to the northerners.

I love your stories, and I'd LOVE to see some pics with them :D

Blogger JB said...

Wait... there's a *third* Jón? Who is it?

Yes, Sirrý, us poor slobs who are trying to learn Icelandic are quite familiar with the (superior) pronunication and diction of the West Fjords and Norðurmenn. We're unfortunately all too familiar with the Reykjavík mumbled-sentence dialogue. When I travel to the north, it's like an epiphany. Suddenly I understand people! Like, everything they say. But then I come back here to rainy RVK and everything is damp and soggy, even the phrases. Trying to get people in the Höfuðborgarsvæði to speak a little slower (and more clearly) so I can understand is like asking Egill to stop going off on raids... seemingly impossible.

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...

LOL - It's like listening to the thick accent from Southie, or discovering the oddities of a true Rhode Island accent. And how about that New Jersey one.
Initially I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I'd hear people speak from those areas.
Now I have quite a few good friends, with those super thick accents, and my got today I love em all!
So, I'm sure next time you see me (the city chick) and I get a chance to speak my Icelandic, and yes I do talk super fast and soft. I'm sure you'll enjoy it too ;)

Love your stories JB, and I can't say it enough :D

Anonymous Nafnlaus said...


great story. have you been back to the church?

also, loved the little translation at the bottom.
-p to the lo.

Blogger JB said...

Stay tuned for the followup installment!


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