þriðjudagur, maí 30, 2006

uncertain trip

One of the things that I just didn't get when I first started work here was the starfsmannafélag, or the employee association. No matter how much coworkers tried to explain what it was, I just couldn't figure out the angles in those early weeks. (Of course, at the time I was also trying to import a car and a couch, find an apartment, and keep my head above water at work in a then-foreign land.) The gist of the starfsmannafélag is that employees can choose (and most do) to chip in 1500 krónur a month - about $20 - into a communal kitty, out of their paychecks. The employees elect a "fun committee" that plans employee events. Management stays out of it (there are separate "company" events) and the employees have a say in planning events with coworkers. This starfsmannafélag idea seems to be a pretty common structure here in the Land.

[I can just imagine my old Beantown coworkers at this point, eyeballs lolling cartoonishly around: "You pay money, voluntarily, out of your paycheck, so that you and your coworkers can have fun?!?" ... the same people who chose against taking a two-trips-to-Starbucks 2% pay cut to increase their annual vacation time from 3 to 4 weeks, saying they'd "rather have the money".]

We used some of this communal money last fall toward our all-company weekend trip to Warsaw, Poland. But most events are less exotic. I helped plan a barbecue out in the Heiðmörk nature preserve last summer. We had a BBQ-truck-on-wheels pull up and dish out a couple legs of lamb. We all ate in the mossy grass and played some frisbee and drank some beer. But at the time I didn't really realize all that was possible with the starfsmannafélag structure.

Last Saturday I got a real taste. We had an "óvissuferð", literally an "uncertain trip", but maybe better translated as a mystery trip. We all met up at work in the early afternoon. We had already been divided into teams and told to come up with a team song and to wear our team paraphernalia. But we didn't know anything else.

So we all climbed into a bus and the first stop was a strip mall (think Towne Plaza, former home of Stuart's, Billerickians) on the outskirts of Reykjavík where we had to do a team scavenger hunt to the bemusement of the employees of the local Hagkaup (think JC Penney, with a little more Scandinavian style). Then it was out of town, and within minutes we were far out in the wilds (I love that about this city) of Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord, guys, hval = whale, eh? eh? how 'bout it?). About this time the first beers were passed around, as was the first guitar. In Hvalfjörður we took a beer-drinking and duck-duck-goose-ish game-playing stop (a game that can turn potentially deadly when it involves high-speed running over lava hummocks) with a view over about 75 mountains and the bright blue water of the fjord.

Then it was off to tour the old whaling station that gives the fjord its name. Active until 1989, it was where whales were brought in to be butchered into steaks and rendered into oil. It was a haunted place, full of the ghosts of hectic endless shifts, blubbery riches from the sea, and blood-covered workmen. The mom of the tour guide had prepared a special feast of whale carpaccio, with melba toast crackers and homemade dipping sauce ("phenomenal finger food!"). It was my first taste of whale and I have to say it's quite delicious. I can understand now why whales were so prized back in the Ahab day.

After that we hit the tiny farm-school town of Hvanneyri for a tour of the church, the local teaching dairy, the local museum of (farming) transportation, and a team competition to determine the one with the most "country strength". This involved leaping over giant hay bales, pounding nails into a post, climbing ropes, and sorting potatoes. Our resident securities software team leader and lifetime farmer, Bjölli, did us proud.

About when hunger and fatigue were hitting, our bus took us to a farm restaurant in the middle of an empty valley, surrounded by steep peaks on all sides. We were the customers that night, and they had set out a banquet table for us that ran the length of the place. After dinner we sang our team songs, awarded prizes (my team, OMseXy, took first place, with our hula skirts and reinterpreted Bubbi lyrics), and then all sang more songs together outside on the restaurant porch. Finally, in the 11:30 p.m. sunset, we headed back to town, feeling happy and entertaining the bus driver with more singing and a whole string of politically incorrect jokes told over the bus intercom ("typical country weather" being my big contribution). Back in the metropolis, we converted ourselves into a house party in the 107 and then went on the inevitable 2 a.m. twilight trek to downtown Reykjavík, where we stayed until it was bright again.

I'd say that's a pretty good deal for 20 bucks.

old icelandic p-lo

There is a guy who works in our IT infrastructure support company here, and he looks like a late-40s-ish version of my Bostonian friend P-Lo. Every time I see him, for example at lunch, I think, "Wow, that's how P-Lo is gonna look, when he is late-40s and Icelandic." I guess it just goes to prove the old adage that everyone in my old life has a doppleganger in Iceland.

In other news, today's word connection is board, which has its Icelandic equivalent in borð, pronounced almost the same. (The letter eth, ð, is pronounced like a softer d or a bit like the th in this. Of course Old English also had this letter, as does the modern phonetic alphabet.)

A table in Icelandic is called a borð. To eat is að borða, the same as the older English meaning of the verb "to board", as in room and board. Those of you flying Icelandair will hear velkomin um borð, or "welcome on board". See, it's not so different after all.

mánudagur, maí 29, 2006


In order to promote greater cross-cultural understanding, a new occasional (or maybe regular, we'll see) feature here on IR is gonna be a little online etymology smackdown/tutorial. A word of the day kinda gig. As some of you know, the language here in Iceland descends directly from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. Old Norse was itself descended from a proto-language that also spawned Old English late in the first millenium AD. And around that same time the Vikings went raiding and conquering and amassed a vast area of control that remained for a few centuries. This Viking world encompassed lots of Jolly Old England. And so through both of these mechanisms many words in English have counterparts in Old Norse, and thus Icelandic.

This fact always seems to surprise Icelanders (who like to think that their language is so difficult and obscure as to be unlearnable) and Americans/British (who think that Icelandic is some crazy language too strange to have any relationship to what they speak, and thus unimportant to learn). In fact, learning Icelandic is an excellent way to learn more about English, as the Icelandic language preserves a language very similar to the Old English that was spoken a thousand years ago. To kasta some ljós on the situation, I present you the very first word of the day:

window comes from a compound word in Old Norse: vindauga, with an Icelandic prounciation close to that of the English word (the end "auga" is very vowelicious and soft). In turn, vindur means wind and auga eye, so the next time mom yells at you to close the window, you can know that it's the wind's eye you're dealing with. (Now, back to Vindauga XP and my day job...)

sunnudagur, maí 28, 2006

on the automile

On Friday, I wrote about a new Iceland-Boston connection I found recently. Well, here's another: in the heyday of the weak dollar / strong króna of a year ago or so, it was possible to buy a new BMW in the States for about the price of a Toyota Yaris (an economy car so small it's not even offered in the US) in Iceland. Even with shipping costs and import duties it was still cheaper to buy there and import here. So Icelanders were buying cars about as fast as they could get them stuffed into Eimskip containers and shipped up through the cold North Atlantic. I imported a car when I moved here, and on that one ship leaving Everett, Mass. that day there were around 20 cars, mostly shiny new SUVs and pickups. My car shared a container with a giant silver Chevy pickup. A ship like that leaves Boston every two weeks, bound for the Land. A vast import lot down at the Reykjavík harbor was filled with cars waiting to clear customs.

The legacy of all this car importation is that the Reykjavík roadways carry a lot of cars with Massachusetts markings. Lahti's Jeep Leominster was just driving in front of me as we climbed Öskjuhlíð on the way to work the other day. A subsequently modified F350 from Ford of Hyannis (formerly the venerable Mid-Cape Ford, long-ago employer of my cousin; "It's a diamond, Bill!") sat in the parking lot at Kringlan shopping center. A green Mass RMV inspection sticker is plastered in the windshield of my coworker's black Mercedes. If we could only get some of those big made-only-in-Massachusetts ROTARY signs for the traffic circles here, it could staht to feel like I never left the place.

föstudagur, maí 26, 2006

íslendingar í hjólnöfinni

Thanks to one of my Icelandic readers I learned about a parallel universe, the yin to my Bostonian-living-in-Iceland yang, with all the topsy-turvy craziness of a familiar situation turned on its ear: the association of Icelanders living in Boston. Now, I knew that Carberry's excellent bakery was owned by Icelanders, and I have one friend in Boston who hails from the Land, but I didn't realize there was such a thriving Icelandic community in my hometown.

Judging by their website, it seems Icelanders in Boston are quite busy meeting up for (much cheaper) beers, holding a big annual jólaball (do they have to import Egils orange soda and Malt Extract for the occasion?), eating lots of greyish-white fare on Þorrablót, and publishing Icelandic-language guides to Beantown. It's really something to read about places that I've known all my life described in a thousand-year old language that I began learning less than two years ago. ("Newbury Street er skemmtileg verslunargata...")

Even more interesting, there is an entire B&B operation in "Wellesleybær" that's run by Icelanders for Icelanders. Looking at the website, it's hard to believe this place isn't somewhere on Snæfellsnes; the text and layout are so familiar from every inland guesthouse booking I've done here (buttons for "Verðskrá", "Herbergin", "Vegakort"). But then, in a surreal juxtaposition of worlds, there's a reference to Ming Tsai's "mjög góður veitingastaður" Blue Ginger restaurant, smack in Wellesley center. And the owner even advertises that he'll drive his guests to the nearby Natick Mall so they can jam-pack their suitcases to the breaking point, Icelandic-style, before he takes them back to Logan.

an icelandic perspective

My whole company is going on a mystery trip tomorrow, starting in the afternoon. Finnur, who works at the company, is having a housewarming party at his new place tonight. When I asked another work buddy Óli if he was planning on going to the housewarming tonight he said, "No way, I can't get blindfullur [blind drunk] two nights in a row." This is illustrative of the Icelandic perspective: here people make the tacit assumption that the end result of just about any social gathering is blind drunkenness. This goes for grannies on down to teenagers. Drinking just a little less doesn't seem to be an option.

miðvikudagur, maí 24, 2006

form 1040-IS

One way that the good ole US of A keeps itself in the hearts and minds of its citizens living abroad is with the annual ritual of filing taxes. For us the date is June 15th, not April 15th, but the forms have that same heartwarming block-print 8.5 x 11 Paperwork Reduction Act IRS cachet. It kind of makes a guy miss the old place. Or not.

I just got my packet of paperwork in the mail from the Tax Guy. My return this year runs to 14 pages. And, in lieu of a W-2 form, I have to staple onto that return copies of each of my 12 monthly paycheck stubs. That will bring the whole return to almost 30 pages. To prepare the materials on this end (including converting each monthly salary and tax payment into dollars) took me 2-3 hours. Then the (excellent and mildly insane) Tax Guy and I exchanged a string of emails and phone calls. Then he spent a while working everything up. Now I owe him $150.

Keep in mind that I made absolutely zero income in the United States in all of tax year 2005. And that I had to file the same information under the (thankfully beautifully simple) Icelandic tax process (wherein the forms are already filled out for you and government-paid accountants hold office hours at the tax bureau to help you with any questions). And that I paid a tidy sum in taxes to Iceland already.

At least I don't owe the war machine any money this year. But that could change after a couple more years here, according to the Tax Guy. The long road to Icelandic citizenship seems more and more worth the trip these days.

miðvikudagur, maí 17, 2006

lake wobegon, iceland

Last night we went to see the live taping of A Prairie Home Companion at Iceland's National Theater, a fortress of a deco building in downtown Reykjavík. The lobby inside was abuzz pre-show in a mix of American and Icelandic voices. I was playing a little game to myself of "guess who's American/Icelandic". Most of the time I was right on (dress is a big clue) but a couple people stumped me completely and I had to perk up my ears to discern a "já já" or a "ya shure". I couldn't help wondering which one I looked more like.

The show started promptly at 8 p.m., perhaps setting an Icelandic record for "first ever on-time performance", to the surprise of some seat-tripping stragglers. Garrison Keillor came onstage, looking like a giant bullfrog wearing a dark suit with a red tie and red sneakers. He immediately connected with the audience, rumbling in his soothing baritone, by saying how springtime was special, for both Icelanders and Minnesotans, because it was such a fleeting time in both lands and came on the heels of such long, tough winters. The crowd was his. A few jokes and stories, and a pause for the beginning of the local radio broadcast (where we all watched G.K. alternately stare out into space and look down, eyes closed), and the show was off and running.

Acts included Icelandic singer Diddú, who also joined in as an actor on a skit featuring the glacier Snæfellsjökull and a visiting George Bush. Filling the air with beautiful deep-voiced magic on a number of Icelandic classics was the Fóstbræður male choir. Robert Altman's favorite actor John C. Reilly played guitar and sang a number of tunes. And the guys in the All-Star Shoe Band were amazing to watch; they are one of those musical groups that just knows exactly what to play and when, how to pick up any song, and how to sound good with nobody asking. Garrison himself was a treat to watch: waxing poetic about the majestic beauty of Iceland, remembering a childhood of house-deep blizzards in Minnesota, singing a somnolent Danish tune, and keeping the whole loose jangle of performers and skits and transitions together onstage with a mastery that can only come with years of practice.

The thing that stuck with me most after watching the whole production was that it wasn't really being staged for us, the in-theater audience. The true audience is really the millions of radio listeners, with the theater audience looking on and providing laughter and reactions. But we in the theater got to peek through that fourth wall and see all the backstage machinations of a radio show in live production: the cue-card guy walking across the stage, the piano player signalling his fellow Shoe Band musicians that an impromptu song is wrapping up, Garrison moving a music stand in the middle of a duet so his fellow singer can see the words. These glimpses into what made the show hang together were perhaps the most entertaining of all.

The show goes out across America this Saturday, May 20th, so you American readers can tune in to a little slice of Minnesota in Iceland.

þriðjudagur, maí 16, 2006


Here is a little Icelandic samhverfa (palindrome) I learned last week:

Amma sá Afa káfa af ákafa á Samma.

So, what does it mean? First one to get it wins a prize. (And for my 50% Icelandic readership, you have to teach me a better Icelandic palindrome to win the prize. Or maybe I'll make two prizes. We'll see.)

"the island"

Here's a good way to really piss off both Icelanders and me: refer to Iceland as an "island". Sorry, boys, that's a no-go. For one thing, Iceland is a nation all its own, with an 1100-year history, a unique language, and home to the world's oldest Parliament and Europe's oldest prose: a place that's certainly deserving of the moniker "country". But for another, Iceland is just plain big. I had some friends come up last fall and they had charted out an early itinerary that would have them bouncing around the country like a crazy ball: taking a 10-hour drive into the West Fjords the first day before lunch before dashing 8 hours over to Akureyri for dinner. Clearly they hadn't figured on the size of the place: it's an 832-mile drive around the Ring Road of Iceland, for example, and that doesn't even take in the remote West Fjords.

One of E's friends keeps bringing up the fact that we live on a "tiny island", as though we're stranded on a north-sea version of Martha's Vineyard. I don't think she really gets it. In reality, Iceland is around 20% bigger than Ireland (a place I've never heard called an island) and unlike Ireland, with its placid horse-grazing green interior, Iceland's vast interior packs a wallop: uninhabited and uninhabitable, crossable only with plenty of supplies and planning, and only two months in the year. Throw in some towering craggy mountains capped with glaciers, endless plains of lava, hundreds of miles of black sand beaches, and lonely fjords stretching up to the Arctic Circle, and you have a place best referred to as the Land.

þriðjudagur, maí 09, 2006

life in a northern town

...is a song I always associated with Iceland, particularly Ísafjörður. And then there it was on Bylgjan on Sunday night as I was driving home. "Heya ma ma ma!" At the end the DJ came on and said, "Life in a northern town. Og það er lífið við búum - norðarlega." Yep, it's the northern life we live up here for sure.

mánudagur, maí 08, 2006


Last Friday, E and I were (the only ones in Iceland) celebrating Cinco de Mayo ("Gleðilega hátið!") at the new Red Chili place downtown, a place with a good just-inside-the-781-beltway vibe, and a hell of a lot better food than the shamed and now closed Mama's Tacos nearby, when toward the end of the meal we heard the lilt of what I thought was a North Shore accent, something like "Oh my gawd! Are you American?" The lady with the accent was questioning Frank, the manager of Red Chili, who is indeed from Brooklyn.

So I went over. The woman perched on the barstool turned out to have grown up in Roslindale, so all my Saugus-Danvers-Beverly suspicions were off-base. "And where'ah you from?" she asked. When I said Billerica, her B-cap wearing friend at the next stool said she was, too. And smiles broke out all around. Class of '86, BMHS. And a cheerleader to boot. They were with two other women, one of them from Tewksbury, and had just gotten into town that morning for a weekend in Reykjavík. They were exhibiting the enthused delirium of many a first-day Iceland visitor.

So E and I stayed and chatted for a long while, advising them them on tourist sights (thumbs-up on Adventure Golden Circle with snowmobile twist, thumbs-down on Bláa lonið) but the conversation kept turning back to Billerica. The East Billerica fire station was mentioned, as was the old red CCD house in the center. And Almy's, of course. Also Lums, site of many a Billerica kid's dreams of an occasional meal out. Thanksgiving Day games against Chelmsford made their appearance as did the Shahkstah, Dr. Sharkey. And a mutual appreciation of the "street smahts" that the Billerica Public Schools had bestowed on us.

It was a great happy conversation. Afterward, I came out into the street and heard a passing "er það ekki?" and had no idea where I was.

föstudagur, maí 05, 2006

immigrant song

I've been following the immigration debate in America over the last month or so, and I have to say after some thought that my sentiments on this one are more closely aligned with the loopy far-right wing of the Republican party than they are on any other issue. I am an immigrant, and I see how hard it is, even with a well-paying job, to be an immigrant. It's hard to come face-to-face with people's personal prejudices, to deal with sour-faced bureaucrats for permission to reside, to be expected to understand a new language, to try to make a life in a brand-new society. So from that perspective I have sympathy with immigrants to the United States.

But, just like immigrants to the U.S., this is the path that I chose. All the challenges that come with being a foreigner in a new land are challenges that I accepted when I got off the airplane at Keflavík and presented my "tilkynning" letter to the immigration officer there.

It was a bit complicated getting permission to live and work in Iceland. Once I found the job, there were a large number of application materials to fill out, and nobody answered the phone or my emails at the Immigration Office (Útlendingastofnun). Finally, exasperated, I flew myself to Iceland for a long weekend and sat down with my employer to go through all of the materials. We had to fill out pages and pages on several application forms, and the rules for what had to be submitted weren't presented anywhere clearly. I had to get a criminal record (or lack thereof) statement from my home state of Massachusetts. I had to get a signed letter showing proof of residence, even though I hadn't moved here yet. And approval from a trade union. And justification for why my skills were special. And a medical insurance letter. And on and on. Then I had to leave the country (no problem for me as I was only here a weekend) and wait an unspecified amount of time (8 or 10 weeks in the end) for approval. Then I had to get a visa to enter Iceland again as a non-tourist, and once here I went through a whole new series of hoops. The process is even more complicated today, as the Icelandic government has added more regulations since I came in.

I have to submit almost the entire application again every year, to extend my stay by another year. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. But no problem, if this is what it takes to live here, where I want to live.

All of which makes me more than a little annoyed when I hear about other immigrants in Iceland trying to "finesse" the system, skipping some steps and crossing their fingers. I know that's their perogative, but it increases the burden on the rest of us who are trying to be good citizens in our new land. It's because of people finessing that the application burden steadily increases every year.

Which brings me back to the U.S. There are many in the world who would like to immigrate legally to the United States, and wait on endless lists, many never getting the chance to enter. Meanwhile, the country is jam-packed with illegal immigrants, who through historical neglect of employment law, are tacitly allowed to stay and work. This is inherently unfair. The United States should welcome immigrants, as it always has done, but only those immigrants who enter through legal channels. The presence of illegal immigrants leads to societal distrust of immigrants of all stripes, even the legal ones, the guys like me, the ones who came in on the up-and-up and strive to be upstanding members of the community. Illegal immigrants chose the illegal path to entry, and they have already shown that they don't respect the laws of their chosen land; why should they have the right to continue to live and work in a country they entered this way?

fimmtudagur, maí 04, 2006

the big world

Back in the heyday of post-Y2K exuberance, I worked with a company that was making a web system for American 401(k) (pension) plans. I remember a conversation where we decided to restrict all participants to addresses in the United States, because there was no "country" field built into the underlying database. At the time it didn't seem like a big deal; how many 401(k) holders would live outside of the US, really?

But once I moved to Iceland, I got a new perspective. In fact, of the handful of former employees of my old employer, two of us had chosen to live out of the country. And because our retirement provider also didn't support foreign addresses, our employer had to hand-mail our 401(k) statements to us each quarter.

It's not just retirement systems: almost every time I try to place an order for something on the Web from an American firm, I get fouled up on the billing page. (With the exception of Amazon, who seem by comparison incredibly savvy about the existence of other lands.) On many sites, non-US residents are forever trying to jam address information into fields they weren't meant to hold. And half the time it ends in frustration, an order not placed, and lost business for the merchant.

In the most recent example, we tried to order licenses for an expensive piece of software yesterday at work. The maker of the software, Adobe, is an established large vendor yet is not set up to process orders outside of the US. After I was done telling the sales rep that we were an Icelandic company, he asked me, "But don't you have a U.S. shipping address?" When I told him I didn't, he put me on hold while he talked to his boss. When he came back, he said, "Well, do you at least have a Canadian address?"

When I couldn't provide him with an address in either of these two countries, he said, "Well, I can't sell you the license." I had to spend another hour calling American Adobe resellers, none of whom could sell anything overseas. Then I found a really helpful guy who said he'd put a quote right together for me. In Switzerland.

This foreign-address problem seems endemic to US businesses. Here we are a customer who has decided we want to make a purchase, credit card in hand, and it just can't be had. For many US businesses, the rest of the world might as well be a big greyed-out area on the map. I can hear the conversations among the database designers, because I was once part of a similar conversation: "Ah, nobody lives there, we don't need a 'country' field." "Well, everyone has a 'ZIP' code, don't they?" "Phone numbers are always 10 digits!" And so on.

Turning your back on a customer because he comes from somewhere "over the sea" strikes me as provincial, especially in light of the rapid globalization of the world. American readers, imagine for a second how it would feel if you called to order something from a Michigan company, only to be told, "Well, we only sell to Michigan. Where are you calling from again?"

miðvikudagur, maí 03, 2006


Over the weekend I took a trip up to the little fishing town of Stykkishólmur for a little peace and quiet in the country. The town is located on the north side of Snæfellsnes, a giant peninsula that sticks far into the Atlantic Ocean from the west coast of Iceland. The giant glacier Snæfellsjökull caps the end of the peninsula like the dot on an exclamation point. But I wasn't out that far; Stykkishólmur is just over two hours' drive north of Reykjavík and at 1200 people it's the largest settlement on the ghostly peninsula.

On the way north, driving along, humming tunes and watching the jagged lava unfurl before me like a frozen flag, I found myself annoyed, at first mildly, and then with rising Calabrian anger, at a silver Skoda wagon that passed me two times, only to slow down in front of me and make me pass him again. He was driving like an idiot, and about to confirm all of my worst prejudices about Icelandic driving when I realized that it was none other than my good friend Styrmir behind the wheel. He and his wife Anna and the intrepid Baby Styrmir were also making the trip to old Styrmishólmur, and had been frantically waving at me / calling me / slowing in front of me. So after they caught a glimpse of the "dark side" they followed me on the turn at Vegamót and we headed over the mountain pass and came into Stykkishólmur together.

(In Iceland, you are never alone. There is always someone you know somewhere nearby. This takes a while to fully appreciate.)

Stykkishólmur was indeed the kind of quiet place I was looking for. The village is small and easy to walk around in. The harbor is the ferry port for Baldur, a ferry that runs up to the West Fjords, and for fishing boats. Opposite the harbor is an island that's connected to the town by a causeway. Up on top of the island is a lighthouse, and the location for the famous "brother picture". I had to climb up there and revisit the site of that magic day. And it's still got the magic, the old place.

I had dinner at Fimm Fiskar, the Stykkishólmur answer to Rick's Chung King. Well, minus the Chinese food. Well, minus everything. It's actually more like S-hólmur's answer to the Rec Hall at Camp Quinebarge, with it's barn-like ambiance and rough wooden floors and tables. Right after me a 15-man detachment from the Keflavík NATO Base came in the door and took up a big long table in the center of the room. They were on some kinda last tour of Iceland, apparently. They talked loudly and shouted close-cropped stories peppered with acronyms like "MRE" up and down the table. I hid behind my Icelandic and ate by myself. The food wasn't special but the service so friendly that I wanted to like the food more than I did.

"But how is the swimming pool?" you might ask. Well, it's really pretty great. It's a 25-meter with a decent rennibraut (water slide) and it's got the laid-back energy of a Grafarvogslaug, but with even a couple more clicks on the chill-meter. It's got a shallow kids' pool and a couple of deep hot tubs. When I asked an older lady if they had a steam room, she sniffed (something like), "We don't need that. Ours is good water, from the ground." Seeing as how that is the case in all of Iceland, I didn't get the distinction, except maybe that the hot spring is right there next to the pool, like in Hveragerði. It was true that the water smelled even more strongly of sulphur than normal. Anyway when she asked me if I wasn't from there and I told her I lived in Reykjavík but was from Boston, her jaw dropped. Apparently she had assumed she was talking to a native. (Cha-ching!) Then she said, "Well my mom always told me not to stay too long in the hot water," and with that she dashed inside. (Is this the Icelandic equivalent to the old, "No swimming until a half hour after eating"?)

At 11:30 or so on Saturday night, I searched in vain for the Stykkishólmur nightlife. (As Vík í Mýrdal [pop. 170] once showed me, even the tiniest Icelandic towns can occasionally serve up a rollicking time.) Fimm Fiskar, which seemed the most likely to become a trashy Fowler-approved bar, was open with music playing but not a soul inside, even behind the bar. The hotel up on the hill was also open and empty. Someone was having an apartment party on the main street. And some of the Keflavík soldiers were on a similar reconnaissance as I. "Hey buddy," one called out, "you know where the bar is?" There wasn't a bar, it seemed, but there was a mini version of the Icelandic runtur, with the same six cars driving in circles around the tiny streets, their occupants staring at me every time they passed. I was back in bed after not too long.

I stayed at the guesthouse of María Bæringsdóttir. And it wasn't just a guesthouse, it was her house. There was a comfy living room with giant windows that looked out on the church and bay beyond. There was an immaculate kitchen and breakfast nook room with green 1970s counters. And there was a cozy bedroom with a window open onto the quiet street above. My hostess was perhaps the sweetest guesthouse-operator of all time. She's been running the place for 18 years and says she has many of the same guests over and over. And I can see why: the place is so comfortable (and the breakfast so lovingly prepared) that I'll definitely be a repeat visitor. But it'll have to be in the fall at the earliest: she is already booked for the whole summer.

mánudagur, maí 01, 2006

slow-cooked lamb

Today, Labor Day, makes the latest in Iceland's spring suite of multi-day weekends. There was a parade down Laugavegur earlier, followed by speeches, followed by a cold rain, followed by some serious cafe time for all of the downtown population.

But now we are back here by the oceanside and the smell of barbecue was around before I even fired up our little charcoal grill for the maiden voyage of the season, out on our balcony that overlooks the harbor islands and Seltjarnarnes and incoming cargo ships. And now that the charcoals are nice and grey, tinged with red, we have a coupla Krónan ("20% afsláttur við kassann"!) lamb pieces on there (framhryggjasneiðar) sitting on top of a little aluminum tin of water for some slow-cooking action. (I just followed the directions on the ole Kingsford package. Thanks, Oaktown!) Listening to Jackson Browne's tales of rock band tour bus trips across the Midwest almost completes the little Icelando-Americana we have going here. Too bad the Sox don't get playing until 11:05 tonight. That's the missing piece.