laugardagur, júlí 29, 2006

low profile

Last night was a bit of a strange one here in town, as I am learning Friday nights can be. (Iceland really pulls out the stops for Saturday nights in all of their Tom-Waitsian glory, with Friday truly playing second fiddle.) My friend Þórir and I hit the "in" spot first (Oliver) before making our way inevitably to Ölstófan, the best spot I've found for running into and talking to people without a lot of seeing, being seen, posing, or attitude. Of course, there is still a fair bit of these, even there. It's Reykjavík after all.

We were settled in comfortably, standing at the bar near the door and watching the comings and goings of the always-unfolding scene. A good-looking woman in a shimmery dress slid by us and stopped to talk. First it was a rapid-fire Icelandic exchange with Þórir and then she turned to me. We started speaking Icelandic, much less rapid-fire, and she switched immediately to English, displaying unfortunately common bad form. And then about two sentences later, she found out I was American and her face clouded over. "You'd better keep a low profile here," she said. I couldn't believe the quickness of her judgment and, utterly disgusted, I turned away from her and back to the bar. Þórir said something appeasing to her as she walked away. It was then that I learned that she was famous in Iceland as a newscaster and broadcast journalist. But skiptir ekki máli, I would never treat an immigrant in the United States that way. Even if I was Tom Brokaw.

To her credit, she came back over a few minutes later and apologized to me. But the damage was done. I've been feeling a little more of the anti-American sentiment here in the Land of late and it's not becoming. I love Iceland because Icelandic society seems to hold up every Icelander as an important individual. It hurts when the same sentiment isn't extended to those of us who chose to be a part of the society.

föstudagur, júlí 28, 2006

hotel ísafjörður

...with apologies to the Eagles (not that they deserve any):

On a dark northern roadway
Cold wind in my hair
Strong smell of fish gear
Rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy, and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night
There she stood in the doorway
I heard the cube-church bell
And I was thinking to myself
This could be Heaven or this could be Hell
Then she lit up a candle
And she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor
I thought I heard them say

Welcome to the Hotel Ísafjörður
Such a lovely place
Such a lovely place (background)
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel Ísafjörður
Any time of year
Any time of year (background)
You can find it here
You can find it here

Her mind is long-winter-twisted
She's got the 4-by-4 Benz
She's got a lot of bundled pretty boys
That she calls friends
How they dance in their peysur
Cold winter sweat
Some dance to remember
Some dance to forget
So I called the skipstjóri
Please bring Brennivín
He said
We haven't had that spirit here since 1918
And still those voices are calling from fjords away
Wake you up at the pitch-black noon
Just to hear them say

Welcome to the Hotel Ísafjörður
Such a lovely place
Such a lovely place (background)
Such a lovely face
They're livin' it up at the Hotel Ísafjörður
What a nice surprise
What a nice surprise (background)
Bring your alibies

Puffins on the ceiling
Pink hákarl on ice
And she said
We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device
And in the boat supply-house
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can't kill the beast
Last thing I remember
I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
Relax said the desk clerk
We are programed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave

miðvikudagur, júlí 26, 2006


Readers, you may have noticed a slackening recently in the normal pace of Iceland reports. Well, it's summer here in the Land and while most of the place has been shut up tight as a drum, those of us not on vacation have been left holding the bag for all those off in Spain, Bulgaria, or in summerhouses in the Icelandic countryside.

I have a vacation of my own coming up next week so the slow pace is going to continue. I do appreciate your continued readership. Stay tuned to Iceland Report on your RSS channel and keep the IR in your hearts and minds. Think of it as getting a little personal taste of the Iceland summer slowdown!

þriðjudagur, júlí 18, 2006


For those of you diligent readers following the saga of High School Principal Man, what was perhaps the most exciting chapter occurred this last Saturday. After swimming my laps, lying on the plastic benches in the steam room, and then chatting for an extended period with some French tourists in the massaging hot tub, I was feeling a bit like I needed to cool off. (Sometimes these extended spells in hot water and steam can make a guy feel pretty light-headed, as the good folks at the Reykjavík emergency room can attest.) But as I stood up to go, I noticed that, rapt as I was in the broken-English conversation I had been having to my right, someone locally famous had taken the seat immediately to my left.

"Blessaður!" said HSPM, as I turned and then something like, "I've seen you a few times here before." And then we were off to a roaring conversation. He's actually not a high school principal at all, but rather a news reporter for the print mouthpiece of Iceland's controlling political party. (Diligent readers: does this discovery of true occupation warrant a name change?) And he does indeed work near me in the forgotten wastelands on the Kópavogur-Garðabær border. But just as soon as the conversation had fired up, HSPM decided that he too had had enough of the nuddpottur and went wandering on into the steam room. Nevertheless, I feel like great things are in store for me at Laugardalslaug. My career as a hot-tub regular at Reykjavík's esteemed pool is at last poised for takeoff.

OK, so let's talk about that word saga. It came back into English in the 1700s, from Icelandic saga, to describe the medieval literature of the Land, which is incidentally Europe's oldest prose. Interestingly, the word sagu had previously been used in Old English to mean a "saying". The root of these words is the proto-Germanic word meaning "say" and it's also tied in with the English idea of an "old saw" being a proverb.

But since all you etymology-lovahs probably knew all this, I'll throw in one more. HSPM exclaimed blessaður! when he saw me, which is an old-school Icelandic greeting. It translates as blessed in English (but, nah, these languages aren't related). To a woman you would say blessuð because of the different adjective endings for masculine and feminine in Icelandic. Bye bye in Icelandic is bless bless and even these aren't that far off from each other, as "bye" comes from "God be with ye". Bye now!

fimmtudagur, júlí 13, 2006

blog days

Today my Landsbankinn desk calendar tells me that "Hundadagar byrja". This translates as "Dog Days Begin". Remembering some terrible dog days from my own childhood summers in New England, I checked into the issue, and it turns out to be pretty interesting. The tradition of naming dog days comes to us originally from the ancient Greeks, who observed that the star Sirius rose and set with the sun during this time in the summer. They thought that Sirius, also called the Dog Star and the brightest star in the sky, added to the sun's heat during this time. Later the Romans, always better at branding, came along and slapped on the famous "Dog Days" label and the concept took off. All that extra thermal juice did seem to make for a lot of sticky, humid, hot weather - one might even say hundleiðinlegt veður*.

Because of differences in latitude and custom, dog days begin at different times in different locations. Here in Iceland they begin on the 13th of July and last until the 23rd of August. An English-language source that is presumably more southerly has them occurring from the 3rd of July until the 11th of August.

The Icelandic word for dog is hundur which sure seems a lot like "hound". In fact, they share the same proto-Germanic root khundas. The word "dog" didn't take over in English until the 1500s and its origins are apparently mysterious. OK, there's your etymology lesson for the day. Now please don't hound me any more!

*dog-dreary weather

miðvikudagur, júlí 12, 2006

two families

Yesterday at Laugardalslaug (and despite being neither) I found myself sitting in the tourists 'n' families hot pot. That's the hot pot right outside the locker room doors, for you Iceland Dreamers (and for you too, HSPM, if you're reading this). It's a big curvy hot pot with inlets and bays and various levels of shelves and seats. Anyway there was a family of Americans there. And a smattering of Icelandic moms, dads, and kids. It was all brilliant sunshine and still air and midafternoon summer calm.

A minute later, a cloud went over the sun and suddenly there were big raindrop-plops hitting the water everywhere. So sudden was the rainfall that one of the Icelandic fathers remarked to his kid playing in the sprinkler that, "Það er rigning." And simulataneously the American mom said, "Emily, look! Emily! It's raining! It's raining!" She was pointing and gesticulating at the sky, looking not a little ashen-facedly worried and sort of simulataneously amazed. The Icelandic kid kept playing in the sprinkler while his dad watched him. Meanwhile young Emily said, "Mom, I wanna go to the inside pool now."

Of course, a minute or two later it was bright and sunny again.

Let's talk about rain today. In Icelandic it's rigning or regn, the latter word having a pronunciation very close to the English word. In fact, the Old English word was also spelled regn. The watery words come into both languages from granddaddy proto-Germanic. Rainbow is regnbogi in Icelandic, and is also the name of a classic popcorn-and-dirty-carpets downtown cinema here.

book your tickets

Sigur Rós, oft-hailed (at least here on the IR) as "the finest band north of anywhere", is performing a free outdoor summer concert here in the Smoky Bay on July 30th. I've never met a Sigur Rós show that didn't have me in some combo of goosebumps, misty eyes, and jubilation. Come on up to the Land and see it for yourself.

Iceland Report regulars qualify for a special one-time 10% discount on the price of admission. Sigurrós, an Icelandic woman's name, translates as Victory Rose. Some restrictions apply. See your local Iceland Report representative for details.

þriðjudagur, júlí 11, 2006

barbecues and ballgames

'Tis the season of summer here in Iceland. And even though that often means temperatures in the low-50s and lots of blowing rain here in the south, it doesn't make it any less of a grillin' season for us hér á klakanum. Icelanders embrace grilling as thoroughly as they embrace loud motorcycles, summerhouses set in lava fields, and package vacations to Mallorca. Of course, the grilling here takes on an Icelandic twist, as there are varieties of meat here simply unavailable to Joe Sixpack back in Attleboro, Mass.

On my way to a cookout a few weeks back, I picked up a package in the Krónan walk-in fridge that advertised itself as being ready-to-grill meat, some kind called "hrefnukjöt". So I took that over to my pal Bent's place and he looked at the package and laughed. It was a Minke whale steak. So we threw that on the charcoals - it was bag-marinaded already - and it cooked up just great. Red and juicy and like a good steak. The steak of the sea, you might say.

Then on Sunday I went over to Dr. Draupnir's Esja-side retreat in Grafarvogur. This is another Icelander with the celebrity-cooking abilities of an Emeril Lagasse, married to his very own Julia Child. He's famous for his annual puffin feast, and this Sunday he was, he told me, experimenting with grilling puffin breasts outside. He had marinaded them in beer, olive oil, and rosemary all day, and they grilled up great. This was my second time eating puffin and it was even better this time. The meat is also red, and tastes vaguely fishy. The marinade had imparted some new flavors to an old poultry fave and it was spectacular dipped in the ubiquitous Iceland garlic sauce.

The Iceland Report: bringing you carnivorous updates from the Land since 2004. From a guy who was a vegetarian since 1997.

Since Iceland is a big-sky country, and in summer has even more sky to go around on account of the endless light, today's word of the day is sky. When I first learned the Icelandic word for cloud (ský) I thought it was an odd coincidence. Of course, it's not a coincidence at all. The English word sky entered English from the Old Norse around the year 1220, when the Old Norsemen in Iceland had already been holding big-sky big-grillin' midsummer parliamentary assemblies for around 300 years. It first meant "cloud" in English, but then it subsequently morphed into meaning the whole sky, not just the clouds in it.

sunnudagur, júlí 09, 2006

scared straight

When I first moved to Iceland in the summer of 2004, this commerical was in heavy rotation and it shocked the hell out of me. (Even now it's hard to watch and it's two years later.) The commercial, which features a Sigur Rós remake of Iceland state radio's obituary music, is part of a series of ads sponsored by Umferðastofan, the rough equivalent of the "Registry" in Massachusetts and the DMV everywhere else. The current ad, released to coincide with the high-traffic summer months, is almost as graphic.