fimmtudagur, ágúst 31, 2006


The other day, and without any explanation, I taped a sign to our company coffee machine that says simply, "Coffee is for closers." Nobody has moved or touched the sign. And since then I've gotten a lot of questions on what exactly is a "closer" and, without going into the baseball end of things (because that would just be asking for trouble), I end up saying "maður sem getur selt", a person who can sell. You sell! Now I could use a coffee...

miðvikudagur, ágúst 30, 2006


Here's something you American readers will find unbelievable, but that at the same time doesn't seem to faze the Icelanders: the company is flying every Icelandic employee (and American tagalongs, too) to Stockholm, Sweden for a weekend of team-building, dinner-eating, and campfire songs. That's around 25 people boarding a bus together at 5 a.m. on a Friday morning, riding to the airport, checking in, and taking up a chunky block of seats on the Icelandair morning KEF-ARN run. Then staying Friday night on an island in the Stockholm archipelago with our Swedish counterparts and Saturday night in a phat downtown hotel in Stockholm. We return on Sunday night, after the inevitable Icelandic suitcase-busting shopping trips and/or trips to the Stockholm in-city amusement park and/or lots of ice-cream-cone consumption. (Swedes eat ice cream on an almost continual basis throughout the day; it seems to be like a source of fuel to them.)

Kinda cool, I think. I never worked for an American company that would do this sort of thing, even when I consulted for one of the richest, even at the successful conclusion of a hellish 2.5-year project, even when the number of people to be flown somewhere was 5, even when the flight was a $200 Boston to New York shuttle ... to provide a purely hypothetical example. Here though, people are acting as though it's normal. Icelanders: I say this a lot in person to you and now I'll make it official on the IR: you don't know how good you have it.

þriðjudagur, ágúst 29, 2006


The fall is definitely here, with clear sunny skies and a bit of a chill in the air. The clouds are high and have a certain sidelit pink-yellow light in the evenings. And last night the first windstorm came pounding on my windows, slamming the bedroom window shut with some authority as I was drifting off to sleep. The whistling wind continued all through the night and this morning there were whitecaps on the bay and the water was greenish and churned.

In some ways it's nice to be free of the Icelandic summer. The "nice days" are so few that when one does happen there is immense social and internal pressure to drop everything, including work, and get outside and to a café downtown and sit there until 10 or 11 at night, soaking up just as much 60-degree warmth and sunshine as one can. Now that there are no more of those days for the next 9 or 10 months, I can rest easy and enjoy the shuddering wind, the pounding waves, and the first northern lights of autumn in the Land.

the turning point

There comes a point in the lifecycle of every downtown Reykjavík weekend night when the night just turns. What had been fun and funny and full of possibility suddenly snaps the other way, turning dark and exhausted and ominous. The turn happens fast, like a light switch getting flicked, like whiplash.

Last Saturday I was in Ölstofan when the turn happened. It was around 3 a.m. and three things happened in rapid succession: someone stumbled and stepped on my foot, a very drunk and fairly large girl fell on the floor and into me, and someone in the corner dropped his beer glass by accident but then furthered the cause by stepping on the remains of the glass with his boot. It was the turn.

Once I feel the turning point, it's hard to stay excited about the night. "It's time to say goodnight..." were the singsong childhood words of my mom, and they remain just as true for a sidewalk full of tipsy Icelandic revelers as they did for "the kid in me" when I was tired but didn't want to stop playing flashlight-tag. Nothing good can really happen after the turn; the Heart of Saturday Night will once more remain elusive.

When I realized the turning point had come this past Saturday, I removed myself from Ölstofan to the fresh air outside and made the amble back down Laugavegur, down the hill at Bankastræti, and popped in at Hlölli's for a Pinnabátur that I ate walking home through the quiet streets of Vesturbær.

mánudagur, ágúst 28, 2006

changing phones

I had to get a new phone recently because the old white standby was well, white, and also because it had developed a buzz in the speaker. Trying to have a conversation on it became a bit like trying to have a conversation while riding in a certain green 1978 Plymouth Volaré around the pothole-infested streets of Pinehurst, Mass.

Everything involving cell phones in Iceland is just so many light years ahead of any telecommunications-related experience I ever had in the States, and this was no exception. I walked into the store (not the phone company store but another dealer with better prices and selection), picked out a phone from the rack, and pointed it out to the sales guy. At his sales guy computer station, he magically produced a new, boxed phone through some Dai Vernon sleight of hand, and asked me for my phone. I handed over Old Whitey, he popped out the tiny card in the back and slapped it into the new phone. Turned it on, and it was charged and ready to roll, with my contact list fully armed and operational. The new phone lit up with a text message minutes later and I felt like Biggie Smalls in "Going Back to Cali" ... 818s, 213s, B.I.Gs. At the drop of a hat, I was rock and roll.

föstudagur, ágúst 25, 2006


I have known for some time that Iceland has a lottery. But what I didn't know is that it's run by the hundreds of sporting associations in the Land and directly benefits them. And, unlike in Massachusetts, when you win, you win the entire chunk of money. None of this 50-cents-a-year-for-20-years business. Here they just transfer the lump sum right into your bank account. Boom! And not only that, but winning the Icelandic lottery is the only thing in Iceland that happens absolutely tax-free. You don't owe a dime of income tax on your Lottó winnings. Sweet! Sign me up! I'm always up for some regressive taxation without representation.

Tomorrow night's weekly pot is 20 million ISK, or about 285 lahge, or about enough to buy a decent apartment in the heart of R-town. So I decided to buy some tickets today, you know, for research purposes. I picked up 10 quick-picks (sjálfval, in the local lingo) for 1000 ISK via the Lottó website, which also lets you direct your "contribution" to the sports association of your choice. Anyone can play online! Well, anyone with a kennitala, that is. Wish me luck ... in my research.


Iceland has one of everything, and that includes a water polo club. Invited by a couple of friends, I went on Wednesday night to my first practice. It's held at the indoor pool at Laugardalslaug three times a week. Normally, I'm told, the practice opens with swimming warmups and then a water polo game at the end. But this time there was a crew from RÚV (the state broadcaster) taking B-roll for a news story that night, and so the coach had us jump straight into a game. A game for which I was woefully unprepared.

Even swimming lots of laps daily, most days of the week for the better part of two years, had not prepared me for the physical drain of water polo. As it was, I spent the better part of the gametime playing goalie (the most "relaxing" as it only involves constant treading water and not constant sprints) but not very well, letting potshots through my hands like a big floating block of Swiss cheese. When I joined the fray, I was surprised at the physicality of the game. It's a little bit like ice hockey done in a swimming pool: you're always getting bumped, jostled, and when you have the ball, dragged under.

But the international crew of players (Russia, Estonia, Iceland, Brazil, USA) was friendly and a few reassured me that it does get easier. Afterwards, we of course sat in the hot tub outdoors, talking and trash-talking in three or four languages. Two days later, I'm still sore.

föstudagur, ágúst 18, 2006

taco hell

My Einarsenesque coworker Árni today asked me how I felt about Taco Bell coming to Iceland. I hadn't heard this news, but apparently the KFC in Hafnarfjörður is gonna be split into one of the standard-issue joint-KFC-Taco-Bell joints so commonplace in America.

To a person, every Icelander around the lunch table expressed broad agreement and even some small excitement about this lucky break. This launched me into a Kingesque ("it's not Mexican!") tirade against the invasion of crappy American fast food places and their eager acceptance by Icelanders. Here are some sample places Icelanders think are spennandi and glæsibær (exciting and stylish):
  • Subway: the "sophisticated" choice for late-night weekend grub downtown
  • T.G.I. Friday's: fancy eating in the Smáralind mall
  • McDonald's: drive-in always backed up at Skeifan
  • KFC: frequent lunch trips by my coworkers
  • Ruby Tuesday: Slick TV ads dubbed into Icelandic
  • Domino's: store near my house jammed day and night
  • Burger King: flame broiled!
Granted, the quality of food at the Icelandic establishments is much superior to their Stateside counterparts, probably because the service jobs pay (a lot) better, are more desirable, and a Whopper meal costs $14 at today's rates. But still. There are plenty of local joints serving up pizza, sandwiches, and hamburgers. From my perspective, there's no reason to "run for the Border" or "sit on the Colonel's lap" here in the Land.

A few Icelanders have even complained to me that, when they went to America and tried food at one of these fine eateries, they were surprised by the rude service and fecal quality of the offerings. Well, go figure. But even with those who have experienced the greasy horror of mainland bandarískur fast food, I somehow just can't seem to convey the low esteem in which I and my American friends hold these places.

miðvikudagur, ágúst 16, 2006

"my teeth, dripping at my gums"

Just got back from the dentist's office here and so I thought a good topic today would be comparing and contrasting the Dentist Experience hér á klakanum with that in the US. In a well-written essay, of course. Or a well-written series of bullet points:

Things that are the same:
  • The same tray of scary picks and axes, laid out with color-coded handles.
  • Easy-listening music on the intercom. Apparently, this is necessary for good dental hygeine the world over. In Boston, it used to be WSSH, turned down to barely-audible volumes. Here it's Létt Bylgjan (the Light Wave) 96.9 FM. Smooth...
Things that are different:
  • Like all medical facilities (and homes too, visitors!) in Iceland you have to take off your shoes at the dentist's door. Or cover them with blue plastic bags, which are piled in a big bin. Under no circumstances can you walk directly on the pristine floors of the dental facility in your street shoes.
  • Everything is computerized. All patient records, observations, future appointments, and billing info are in a seat-side computer. Even the X-rays go straight into the computer as JPEGs, real-time.
  • Everyone who works in my Icelandic dentist office is female. This encompasses 3 or 4 dentists and countless hygeinists. Furthermore, they mostly seem to be under 30 and cute as hell.
  • They never let you rinse in Iceland. Rinsing is a luxury to be indulged only at the very end of 45 minutes of scraping, polishing, and flossing. Sometimes they use the vacuum to keep things from getting completely sloshy in there.
  • American dentists never seemed to compliment me on how good my Icelandic was. But I guess it wasn't all that good back then anyway.

mánudagur, ágúst 14, 2006

"áfengi er áfengi"

Coming back from Bulgaria last Thursday night, I got a little greedy. I had three bottles of fine Bulgarian wine, which is right up against the 2.25-liter legal limit for bringing vín across the stones. But while waiting for my luggage, and while buying the required bag-'o'-candy for my coworkers in the arrival Duty Free, I saw a great bottle of sherry. "Eh, 3 bottles, 4 bottles, what's the difference?" I thought.

So I picked it up, picked up my suitcase, and rolled the whole mess out through customs on the "Velkomin heim" four-wheel carriage. A little voice was nagging at me, but I ignored it. My A-Separate-Peace schoolboy looks had always kept me from the dreaded Customs X-Ray Machine.

But not this time. A sweet-looking customs officer locked eyes with me, and I knew it was ovah. O-V-A. She motioned me over to the X-ray and I tried to look nonchalant. But inside I was 100% chalant. One by one, I lowered my bag-lady bundles onto the conveyor. "Clang, clunk," went the bags with the wine bottles. No good could come of this.

It was all over so fast. "Do you not have four bottles?" she asked sweetly in Icelandic.

"Umm, yes," I managed.

"Well which one do you want to give up?" she asked.

I sorted through the bundles and came out with a bottle of Bulgarian red that had cost me 2 leva (or 93 ISK or a buck-thirty) and handed it over to her.

"Now you're also going to have to pay a fine," she said, smiling up at me with her blue eyes. (Icelanders, I had never heard the word sekt before, but I could guess its awful meaning. I was thinking something on the order of 20,000 ISK.)

She took my passport and told me to wait and then disappeared before motioning me into a side office. There was a grandfatherly customs man in there and I explained, halfheartedly, that because the bottle was so cheap I thought it would be OK to bring it in. I showed him the 2-leva price tag.

"Áfengi er áfengi," ["Alcohol is alcohol"] he answered, with a stern look over the top of his glasses. "It doesn't matter how much it costs." But then he warmed up and chatted a bit. I got the sense that I wasn't the first nor the last that day to be caught with a surplus of Bulgarian booze.

Finally he processed and printed a whole official legal document for me, which I signed. There was a copy in Icelandic and a copy in English. I admitted to bringing in the extra booze and agreed to its confiscation. He swiped my credit card and charged me 1500 ISK, or about $21. Or about the cost of a regular bottle of wine here in the Land.

Using dollar-cost-averaging, in fact, my cost for the remaining bottles, including the fee, came out to just about what they would have set me back here. So I'm about even. But I learned that just like the SEC, Icelandic Customs always gets their man.

Today's word of the day is vín, which translates to wine. Not too tricky. They both come out of Latin for "vine". And I won't even make you pay a sekt for that libation-information.