föstudagur, apríl 28, 2006

endless days

This is the time of year when Iceland begins to feel timeless. Every day stretches and stretches, light lasting late into the night, fading out only slowly and reluctantly long after the 10 o'clock news. In the late afternoons, the sunlight flooding across the land seems like it'll never end, and even after a long day of work it might as well be the morning again because the evening is just another whole glorious day.

We sat in the swimming pool yesterday after work, and the clock just froze there in the warm water. All sense of time was gone, like an endless summer afternoon on the grass next to the big white house of my early childhood. After all, what does time really mean when it is always light? Does anyone really care what time it is?

fimmtudagur, apríl 27, 2006


Yesterday I had to get some blood tests (all the hip 101ers are doing it) and so before work headed up to Landsspítalinn, the Land's Hospital. Landsspítalinn sits on a hill overlooking the Reykjavík airport and looking across at Öskjuhlíð, the forested hill with the Perlan rotating-restaurant-water-tanks complex on top. The original building of the hospital is a beautiful piece of architecture, a facade that faces old Hringbraut with the tentacles of dozens of newer buildings outgrown from it.

Driving in there at 8 in the morning, the energy was palpable. That hustle and bustle of a university hospital could have been anywhere, and reminded me of my few visits to Boston's great hospitals, places like MGH and the Beth Israel Deaconness. Med students were chattering and walking fast on the pathways, doctors and patients alike streaming in from their parked cars. Inside white-uniformed nurses walked purposefully in the Icelandic med-standard sandals and socks. There were corridors and elevators and wards, curved hallways and little gardens and big windows.

My tests were over in a matter of minutes, Russian and Latvian nurses handling the whole thing quickly and pleasantly in Slavic-accented Icelandic. I was kind of disappointed at things being over, and then I realized why I didn't want to leave. That energy, that buzz of purposeful people, is such a rare thing here in sparsely peopled Iceland. It was nice to be a part of it for just a few minutes, even if it was at a hospital.

miðvikudagur, apríl 26, 2006

your questions

I get a lot of blog hits through Google searches, and a lot of those hits seem to be the same questions over and over again. To answer all of your common questions about Iceland (and other wacky topics previously covered on IR), here is the very first Iceland Report FAQ (and not-so-FAQ):

"Can you show me the absolute location of Iceland?"

Right in the middle of the map, where it belongs.

"How's Iceland being formed and changed?"

It's all down to geology, baby. And lots of it.

Tell me more about Dave Grohl and Zach DeLarocha.

I think they started a band together.

When does Seltjarnarneslaug reopen?

Word on the street is May 1st.

"Are there 52 states?"

No, not unless you count Iraq and Afghanistan. (I get this one maybe twice a day, and mostly from IP addresses located in the United States.)

What are the competitors of Starbucks in Iceland?

Iceland serves only quality coffee, even at the smallest Esso station. So Starbucks really has no competition here.

Is Garrison Keillor coming to Iceland?

Yes. Prairie Home Companion is being recorded here in the National Theater on May 16th. I'm in the 5th row, too.

Finally, the most common question of recent months, What do people wear in Iceland?

Well, I can tell you what they don't wear, and that's 13 layers of Gore-Tex and mountain fleece. Well OK, we might wear a couple layers of outdoor gear (preferably from Cintamani or 66° North) when we plan to be active in the out-of-doors, such as when hiking up a glacier, camping in a lava field, or fishing in a salmon stream. But walking around on the city streets of Reykjavík, you're better off pretending you're visiting Paris: dress to look good. For God's sake, don't walk around downtown with your parka hood up as though you're expecting a bucketfull of ice to fall on your head at any second.

Feel free to leave me more questions in the comments, or in an email to me, and if I get some good ones, I'll do a slightly more serious FAQ.

þriðjudagur, apríl 25, 2006

high school principal man

Duglegir lesarar may recall my earlier mention of High School Principal Man, one of the colorful regulars. I have since begun to think of HSPM as the regular's regular, so much does he seem to own the late-afternoon conversations at Laugardalslaug. Well, there's another installment, because today was really a red letter day for me and the Meistari himself.

1) I was walking down the hill toward Smáralind at lunchtime and coming up the hill, attractive lunchmate in chatty tow, was street-clothes HSPM in a red suit jacket. From this I craftily deduced that he likely works somewhere in our little industrial park. He certainly looked comfortable in the 201 surroundings. Holy moly! Maybe he's not a high school principal after all. Or maybe he is an HSP (ret.) and now he's dabbling in a service-sector job in the Kópavogur wilds. Or maybe he's the president of Avion Group.

2) And then I saw him later at the pool, at the usual time. But today, for the first time ever, from across a semi-vast expanse of pockmarked poolside concrete, he gave me a gruff "Góðan daginn". We had been building up to this for months, with the occasional mid-conversational nod of recognition. But today the whole thing broke wide open. I see a bright conversational future ahead for me and this quintessential regular.

relative confusion

The Icelandic language has only one word to embody what is in English two and a half wholly different relationships: uncle, nephew, and cousin (male). That word is "frændi". (The "æ" sound is pronounced like the word "eye" in English.) Similarly, for aunts, nieces, and female cousins Icelandic uses just "frænka". And Icelanders tend to put of all their aunts and nieces, female cousins, and other assorted female relatives in the same "frænka" basket. There doesn't seem to be the same notion of "give a kiss to your auntie", with the sometimes dreadful obligation that implies, here. In the Icelandic spirit of human equality, even spanning vastly different ages, aunts and nieces seem to be on the same level playing field: they're all just "frænka" to each other, with a concomitant reduction in obligatory kisses.

This view on the family can make it quite funny when Icelanders describe their relatives in English, because they're never quite clear on which English word is the right one to differentiate the various branches of a family tree. You often get something like, "When my little uncle was born last month, he had the cutest chubby cheeks."

mánudagur, apríl 24, 2006

paradise at hveragerði

One of the most magical places in Iceland has to be the Laugaskarð swimming pool in Hveragerði. The colorful little town of Hveragerði is 40-minute hop over a mountain pass from Reykjavík, but always a different world. The weather, for example, is often completely different: sometimes in the summer it's drizzly and cold in Reykjavík but then balmy sunshine blankets Hveragerði.

The town takes its name from the hot springs ("hver") that steam and bubble right under the ground of the whole valley. In many places, such as at the sidewalk going into tourist trap Eden (Iceland's answer to Wall Drug, South Dakota) the hot water and steam just bubbles right up through cracks in the concrete. Unstoppable.

All this energy means free heat for a lot of greenhouses, and it seems that every second building in town is a greenhouse, well-stocked with grow-lights for the dark days of winter. We get a lot of perfect red tomatoes and shrink-wrapped cucumbers from the Hveragerði greenhouses, all winter long. And most of our houseplants come from the humid greenhouse at the back of Eden, a green and leafy sanctuary in the middle of chilly and slate-grey winter afternoons.

But back to the pool. It's one of the oldest in the Land, and the hot water comes straight out of the ground nearby, filled with effervescent bubbles. It's a small-town pool without the crowds of the city pools in the Vík. It's got a 50-meter lap pool with a deep end that kids can do belly flops into. It's got a neck-deep hot pot with a take-no-prisoners massage machine. It's got a shallow hot pool that's the right temperature for hours of sky-gazing lounging. And, it's got the steam room to end all steam rooms: a concrete box, fronted with glass block, that is built directly on top of the roaring hot spring that feeds it. There is no temperature control, so entry is at your own risk. It's so steamy that visibility is only a couple of feet. And the smell is powerfully sulphuric: sulphur and other minerals from the steam condense on the soggy wooden seats. That steam is a cure for what ails ya, from head colds to hangovers. There's nothing it can't fix.

Yesterday after swimming laps, doing diving-board face plants, shooting baskets, and steaming myself silly, I ended up in the neck-deep hot pot, where a pending conversation with two fellow soakers bubbled under the surface like the subterranean energy. It was just waiting to happen, and then it got rolling. It was a classic Icelandic conversation, involving people, places, and connections between the two. We covered living in Boston, being a sailor for Eimskip, living in Reykjavík versus Hveragerði, my understanding of Icelandic, the defense of Iceland, and American foreign policy. It was great to feel a part of the Sunday afternoon society at the timeless sanctuary of the swimming pool at Hveragerði.

föstudagur, apríl 21, 2006

the first day of summer

Thursday was the first day of summer here in Iceland. This is an old holiday that goes back to Viking times, and was yet another day off nationwide, coming hot on the heels of the 5-day national Easter break. Sumardagurinn fyrsti is a low-key holiday, the first roll-out of the summer holiday package that encompasses Seaman's Day, the 17th of June (the Day of the Republic), the August bank holiday, and Gay Pride day. In Reykjavík, the main event at all of these holidays seems to be lazy strolling about downtown, soaking up the clear air and endless sunshine. There may be a parade, or rumors of a parade, but (with the exception of Gay Pride) a parade is something much more loosely defined here than it was in my American childhood. Maybe it's just a single marching band followed by a horde of kids, parents, strollers, and balloons.

The first day of summer was Iceland at its laid-back best. There was a dodge-ball game for kids with a lively announcer and surrounding crowd of ice-cream-eating onlookers. A handful of hardy souls were braving the slightly chill air outdoors at Thorvaldsen. Laugavegur's sidewalks were full of ambling pedestrians, and in between them a slow-moving crawl of cars was on the cruise. There were the Reykjavík stylemoms, decked out in amazing combinations of designer wear and large sunglasses, simultaneously pushing high-tech baby carriages. Most every shop was closed, but every eatery open, and the insides of cafes and restaurants were jammed with beer-sipping chatting parents and pink-cheeked Icelandic toddlers roaming free. The hanging-out continued well past 10 p.m. when it was finally getting dark. And all day long shopkeepers, waitresses, and friends meeting friends exchanged "Gleðilegt sumar!"*

*"Happy Summer!" This is often followed by "Takk fyrir veturinn.", "Thanks for the winter."

miðvikudagur, apríl 19, 2006

behind the hillocks

On our way to the Promised Lands of northern Iceland (alltaf flottast!) last week we stopped for an overnight at the farm of my friend and coworker Bjölli. The farm is nestled in the shadow of towering mountains to the east with a vast frozen lake to the north, and there was snow covering everything and a chill wind to boot. When we pulled up in the rented Land Cruiser (alltaf töffast), a friendly Icelandic sheep dog named Tina came running over toward us across the snow. It was the beginning of a magical visit.

Behind the farmhouse and between that and the mountains is a vast section of mounds of earth, big enough to hide a horse or a house. They are the remnants of an ancient rockslide, and there are so many and they go on so endlessly that they form one of the three "uncountable" natural artifacts in Iceland.

The farm is a dairy farm, with 27 cows giving milk and some little calves besides. In the fields around the farm are dozens of horses. Horse-raising is a pastime for Bjölli's family but the real nuts and bolts is the milk operation. Bjölli and his brother were there alone, taking care of the place while their parents were on a vacation.

Dairy farming is an endless cycle of hard work, as I learned. The cows get milked at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day, and the milking takes between 2 and 3 hours. There is the preparation of the milking equipment, the lining up of the animals, the testing of the milk from each cow, the milking pump hookup, the re-hookup after cows kick off their pumps, the release of three cows at a time, and the poking and prodding of the next three to get them lined up by the milking pit. Afterwards there is the barn-cleaning and feeding of the animals. This goes on every day, twice a day, with no stops for holidays or vacations or sick time. The milk truck comes three times a week to take milk off to the dairy.

I brought a big slab of Icelandic lamb, and during the evening milking went inside and fired up the oven. We cooked a big lamb feast, with all the Icelandic trimmings: green beans, pickled red cabbage, and caramelized potatoes. Fresh bread and salad besides. We ate until after 10 p.m., telling stories and feeling the darkness deepening outside.

The next morning I was up at 7:30 and I joined the brothers for a pre-milking bowl of Cheerios. They keep a little milk for themselves in a pail in the fridge and it has a freshness that I had never before experienced. We all put on rubber boots and went out to the barn. Bjölli showed me the start-to-finish of milking one cow, and I carried her through the process, doing the pre-wash, the milk-test, the machine hookup, and the post-milking lube. It was a lot of small, tricky steps that looked easy when Bjölli did 'em, but I fumbled through with my suburban-boy hands.

But then they handed me a shovel and told me to go muck out the manure in the empty part of the barn. And it was there that I found my stride. I was a manure-mucking machine, scraping the floors down and letting the muck slide into the holes in between, digging out forgotten corners and clumped pieces of old hay. I lost myself in the work, the smell of cows around me, and the bright cold light coming in the windows. Later they told me it was the cleanest the barn had been in three years. When we were done we all went in for morning coffee, bread, and cheese.

þriðjudagur, apríl 18, 2006

runnin' on empty

A combo of the highest-ever tab for a barrel of sweet light crude and the plummeting króna has led to a stupendous hike in gas prices here in the last week or so. Just recently, a liter of gas fetched just over 100 krónur. Today it cost me 122.6 krónur for a liter of the sweet-smelling spirits, or $6.05 for a gallon. A fill-up can easily top $70 at that rate. And I've become European enough in my gas-buying thinking by this point that my Boston commuting buddy complaining about a $35 tank seems completely unbelievable.

miðvikudagur, apríl 12, 2006


Tomorrow, Thursday, begins Iceland's national 5-day Easter break. Nothing's open, or not much is open: banks, stores, and even eateries mostly closed, sidewalks and fishing piers rolled up, and even old Iceland Report is taping up a handwritten "Lokað" sign in the window. Spring fervor hits the Land in full force this time of year, a kind of "Opening Day" for the brilliant green lava fields, and the whole editorial staff here at IR intend to enjoy it to the fullest. Gleðilega páska!

þriðjudagur, apríl 11, 2006

shortcut debut

Today marks my debut on Shortcut, a blog featuring writers from a wide spectrum of European cities. I'll be submitting some articles from Iceland Report, as well as some original material. I am honored, and a little embarrassed, that Shortcut site editor Vanessa chose a picture of my musical idols Sigur Rós to accompany a story on the clunky Reykjavík City Band that I play in. But hey, all Icelandic music must be avant-garde, right?

föstudagur, apríl 07, 2006

wash 'n' wear?

Growing up in the mean streets of the Marshall Middle School in Billerica, Mass., one of the things I learned right off the bat was that wearing the same shirt two days in a row was grounds for a pummeling. Or at least a lot of whispering, cackling, or name-calling. You learned quickly not to do it.

This belief served me well in adult life, too. If I wore a shirt to work, I wore it home and put it in the laundry bag. On the first wearing. A one-shot deal. Nobody at work was gonna pummel me in the Bose manufacturing staff meeting, that was for sure.

But then I came to Iceland, and that rule seems to have flown out the window. People think nothing of wearing the same shirt, the same sweater, the same pants. Two, three, sometimes even four days in a row, in some cases. When I first started work and kept seeing the same people in the same clothes, day in, day out, I was shocked. But also accepting; it did help with personal recognition in those early, confusing days. I started envisioning those clothes as their wearer's personal uniform.

But how do they do it? Because the clothes always look neat and well-pressed here, this remains a mystery. Do they take the clothes home and slave over the þvottapottur every night, completing a full wash/dry/press cycle every 24 hours? Do they maybe have 5 or 6 copies of the same shirt? Or a team of red-hatted clothes-care gnomes? Or, through centuries of repeat clothes-wearing, have Icelanders evolved special smell-suppressing and permanent-press genes that enable multiple neatly pressed wearings? Or do they just walk into the shower fully clothed every night, subscribing to the same two-birds-one-stone theory as a guy I knew in college?

This could definitely be one for the I-Files.

fimmtudagur, apríl 06, 2006

great danes

I was at the pool yesterday, getting dressed in the locker room, and next to me were three out-of-towners. As they walked out past me, one of them said something to me in a bizarro form of Icelandic. I realized he was asking me where to leave his locker key. So I answered, in non-bizarro Icelandic, "uppi" (upstairs) and he mumbled some kind of thanks in his strange language and went up the stairs.

When I got out to the front desk, the three foreigners were quizzing the confused counter ladies in the same guttural brogue. I realized then that they were Danish tourists, and that they were speaking Danish with every expectation of being understood. I had heard of this phenomenon before, but this was my first encounter with it.

The Danish-tourist logic is apparently, "We used to own you guys, so you should all speak our language." Yet Iceland became fully independent from Denmark in 1944, but obtained home rule even longer before, in Our Year of the Babe, 1918. Today marks almost 90 years since home rule began, and three generations since full independence.

Now granted, Icelanders do learn Danish in school, even these days, although I'm not sure it's compulsory any longer. But, like American high schoolers learning Spanish, they may study it for a year or two, but they forget it right after the 6th-period bell rings. Danish is in about as much circulation in the Land as Latin is these days.

So next time you come to Iceland, Danes, better study up on the original Old Norse that begat your throaty tongue. Or just try English.

miðvikudagur, apríl 05, 2006

from the almanak

For bondadagur E picked me up a copy of Almanak fyrir Ísland 2006. It makes engrossing reading, jam-packed as it is with tide tables and sunrise-sunset times. Both of those are interesting to us, as the lengthening of the days in early January is practically a matter of obsession, and the tides affect how much water comes spraying over the sea-wall below our windows on a windy day. But there's a lot in there besides.

This morning I was thumbing through the trusty green tome when I found at the end a table of the world's countries, capitals, and time zones. Pretty standard stuff. But in addition, the table tells country sizes (both land area and population) relative to the Land itself. (That's Iceland, for you new readers.)

For example, we have Holland (Netherlands) at 0.4 the size, but 56 times the population. And Tékkland (Czech Republic) at 0.8 the size but 35 times the population. Suður-Kórea (South Korea) is the same size but has 166 times the people. Then the Big Gorilla, Bandaríkin (the United States) is around 94 times bigger, but with 1001 times as many people. I guess when the vast interior of your country is actually habitable you can pack in a lot more dudes.

sunnudagur, apríl 02, 2006

back to boston

My brother, who returned to Boston from the Land last week, wrote this little ditty about his experience upon return to General Edward Lawrence Logan Int'l Airport:

...I had a typical (for me) "welcome to Boston!" experience which all began when I decided not to take a cab. Just missed the first 33 bus to the Blue Line, the second bus blew by without stopping. Then I see Silver Line Bendy Bus driving down a different road, headed to South Station. Great, I think, a bus to the Red Line. I run to catch it. It is $1.25. I have 1 dollar and I have a $20 bill and I have credit cards. Yet there is no way for me to pay, or get change or do anything except curse as I haul my shit back off the bus.

Back to 33 land. The blue line now has "Charlie Tickets" which I guess is the T making fun of itself (via the old Charlie On The MTA song). Wow, the new machines take credit cards and make change with dollar coins! Yet these tickets only work on the Blue Line thus far. And the machine cannot accept my credit card until the guy "with the trick" comes over and helps me.

On the BL: elder gentleman in "Norwood Cadillac" black sweatshirt (I kid you not) screams "Where you comin' from, Africa?" at 2 German tourists getting on in front of me. He keeps looking over at me and saying "Geez, you've come a long way. Fuck." And then just "Fuck."

From there it was just like another 18 hours back to Sully Road.

It's always something with this place. They try to get organized and it ends up being worse than the old way.

Ahh, Boston. But I do miss the old place. I'm addicted to Boston Legal and Fever Pitch just for the B-roll city shots. Go Sox! (But I'll be back in June. Boston in June, corn be heavy soon...)