föstudagur, september 29, 2006

smákökur í eldhúsinu

I came back from lunch yesterday to find a bunch of my coworkers standing around in the kitchen, totally mystified. There was a Ziploc bag of cookies, a plate of cookies, and a plate of fresh cake all sitting out on the kitchen table. Everyone was eyeing them, nobody was making a move. A couple people were carefully examining the "birthday calendar" on the kitchen wall to try to determine the root cause of the goodies.

I, meanwhile, had already helped myself to a couple cookies this morning (they had been sitting there since 8 a.m.!) and I told my coworker Árni to "watch me" as I opened the bag and ate a third cookie post-lunch. He and the others standing around gasped and called me donalegur (rude). I was sure that the treats had come from our new American coworker (and IR reader) Erika, who I knew loves to bake. And in the U.S., as I explained to my Icelandic friends, stuff left out on a common table at work disappears fairly rapidly by design.

Well, it turned out I was right, as I found out when I stopped by Erika's desk. She had been wondering why nobody was touching the treats, so around lunchtime she had put half the cookies on a plate in an attempt to make them look more attractive. I told her the coworkers were expecting some form of invitation, so she and I composed an email.

Within one minute of her sending out the company gjörið þið svo vel email, a good third of the Milky Way bar cake was gone and the smákökur were disappearing in a Cookie-Monsteresque feeding frenzy, crumbs flying in the air and landing in the middle of the foosball game.

So next time you find yourself in Iceland and jonesing to dish out baked treats to your fellow men, just make sure you put up a sign and make your intentions clear.

fimmtudagur, september 28, 2006

lights out

In a half hour, at 22:00 GMT (cause we're always on GMT in the Land, yo) the City of Reykjavík and its minion suburbs will shut down all of the streetlights, for a half hour. It's to kick off the Reykjavík International Film Festival tonight, and the very first movie is called "The Sky", showing now. It's listed in the film festival program book as an Icelandic film from 2006, with the director Reykvíkingar (the People of R-town). It's a clearish night so hopefully Mother Nature will serve as the real director, bringing us some eerie, 50-mile-high northern lights. IMAX has nothing on the sky, after all.


As the Icelandic nation celebrates the filling of the massive lagoon at the Kárahnjúkur dam in the east of the coutry today (15000 Man March in Reykjavík the other night notwithstanding) I find myself unable to watch the live coverage. It saddens me tremendously to see such a vast swath of unspoiled nature lost underwater forever. Sure, I understand the need for industry and for aluminum and for economic growth. I'm a free marketeer; that is, I believe that markets are able to solve many problems with a minimum of government intervention. I also accept that in some cases we decide to sacrifice nature for the greater human good.

But what steams me about this project is that it was only realizable and only made economic sense with heavy helpings of Icelandic government largesse; left to its own it would not have been affordable for Alcoa to build a smelter of this size in Iceland. So through a disregard for both free market pricing and the future value of its unspoiled nature, the Icelandic government went ahead on their merry and boneheaded way. There are far better ways to grow the economy of a well-educated wealthy nation than by heavy subsidies of heavy industry.

Hopefully the furore over this dam in at least a segment of Icelandic society will give pause to future selling out of the greatest natural resource Iceland has. I don't think I'm alone when I imagine a future world where being outside in unspoiled nature will likely constitute the ultimate luxury; already today the richest Americans, people like GHWB 41, fly in to Iceland by private jet to fly-fish on virgin streams. And they ain't coming for just the fish, boys.

So if you want to feel some of what I feel today, check out this video of some of the nature that will be lost. (Advance apologies for the maudlin music choice, but the images are spectacular.)

mánudagur, september 25, 2006

mountain, nd

Back in the latter half of the 19th century, tired of eating sviðasulta and otherwise starving under the cruel thumb of the Danish, lots of Icelanders migrated to communities in the Upper Midwest in the United States and also to Manitoba, Canada. These Icelanders made their way in the (much colder) New World and formed Icelandic-speaking communities that persist to this day.

One of these communities is the town of Mountain, North Dakota (which with a population of 133 is on the same scale of many Icelandic towns, such as Vík í Mýrdal on the south coast). Iceland Report regular and American Icelander Mindy hails from Mountain and recently told me about the big summer town party, called "August the Deuce". It's the big event of the year and Icelandic themed: August 2nd is the traditional date for American Icelanders to celebrate the Land. So looks like we just missed it for 2006, but maybe next year? Pönnukökur, anyone?

föstudagur, september 22, 2006

the chef

I've been lucky to have some excellent visitors recently. A few weekends back, it was former roomie and legendary chef Adam Ross (veteran of Blue Ginger, Rialto, and Salt's in Boston, now head chef at Cocotte in Brooklyn) and his lovely girlfriend Abigail. They were on a tear through Europe and Reykjavík was their last stop before heading back to the 2-1-2. But not before the Culinary Master invented his own take on fiskibollur (fish balls) right here in my kitchen, using fresh salted cod drizzled with roe sauce and served over a base of savory potatoes. It was far and away the best meal I have enjoyed all year. Adam is the kind of guy who cooks by touch, and I got to watch him in action at the Hagkaup supermarket in Seltjarnarnes, where he spent about 40 minutes surveying all of the available ingredients (lamb hearts, anyone?) while he invented the meal in his head, plate-to-garnish.

Yesterday I got word from Abigail that she's rolled out a video of the Iceland portion of their trip. Fire it up, Iceland dreamers. And how about a guest chef stint next spring in the 1-0-1, Rossini?

fimmtudagur, september 21, 2006


Today is the big day, or roughly the big day*, when we in Iceland have just the same amount of daylight as all y'all reading everywhere else in the world. That's right, it's the equinox, when the Land and all the other lands, north and south, have just about exactly 12 hours between sunrise and sunset.

Here in the north we actually get a little more light than all the poor saps in the Lower 48, owing to all the extra civil twilight we get year-round. So really we get about 14 hours of light today.

Be that as it may, the autumnal equinox always makes me a little gloomy when I realize that it won't again be this light until the 21st of March, a full 6 months away. From here until the 21st of December, it's going to get darker and darker here, losing daylight at the rate of around an hour every 10 days until sometime in November when we stabilize at "pretty damn dark".

Well, well. At least there will be baseball. Oh, wait.

Now back to the word-of-the-day feature: the Icelandic word for equinox is jafndægur, which comes from the word jafn or even and the word dagur for day. Pretty straightforward. I mean, what the hell is an equinox?

*It's actually Friday or Saturday, depending on where you are in the world. I couldn't help jumping the gun when I realized it was the 21st today.

miðvikudagur, september 20, 2006

yosh to my people in the emba-ssay!

I went to a reception thrown by the U.S. Embassy last night celebrating their new Political and Economic counselors, who happen to be married to each other, temporary downstairs neighbors of mine, and longtime IR regulars. I got a hand-delivered invitation in my mailbox last week that began, "The Ambassador of the United States requests the pleasure of your company..." and it's not every day that happens to me. (You mean that Ambassador? The plenipotentiary one?) I was honored to be invited and knew I had to go.

The reception was at the newish Red Chili place that's kitty-corner from the Alþing, and as expected featured free drinks, light food, and lots of people in suits. But what wasn't expected was that as soon as I would shake hands with the very first Embassy staffer I met he would say, "Jared! Nice to finally meet you! How was Akureyri?" Shocked at how he had come across this information, freshly road-weary from the 5-hour-drive back from the north, and thinking something Big-Brotherly ("Wow, they are watching me even here. We've always been at war with Eastasia.") I must have looked a little like a deer in the headlights. But then this gentleman quickly explained to me that he was in fact a big fan of the Iceland Report and reads it religiously.

I subsequently met a few more gott fólk from the Embassy, and apparently the IR has quite the following over there on Laufásvegur. So here's a big shout-out to my peeps at the U.S.E. Keep representin'!

sundlaug akureyrar

It's been a while since I reviewed any Icelandic swimming pools here on the Iceland Report. The pools have become such a part of my daily life that I almost take them for granted at this point. But having just had a trip to the Akureyri swimming pool, I feel it's time to give this excellent pool its due. Overall, it's one of the best in the Land. (If you're reading this from Akureyri now, ummm, well, it's no question the best in the Land!)

What makes it great:
  • Overall: Nice new facilities. Friendly slow-speaking staff. Rock'em shock'em layout.
  • Locker rooms: High-tech automated shower system. Easy-operate soap dispensers. Plenty of changing room by the lockers.
  • Lap pool: Was mostly jammed with the Akureyri swim team when we were there. But a good solid 25-meter pool. I couldn't tell if there was salt water mixed in or not. But something about the hot water in Akureyri makes it more slippery than the Reykjavík hot water. So I swam faster.
  • Small lap pool: In a brilliant innovation, the Akureyrians have added a second lap pool for the dads'n grads. Well, really just probably for slower swimmers. I saw a grandpa in there, doing the breast stroke, unmolested by the fast-splashing water-crashing swim team in the main pool.
  • Socializing hot tub: Right outside the doors, this tub had various seating levels and some kind of low-power massaging bubble system that the locals were seen to activate by means of a hidden button.
  • Serious hot tub: The 40° tub has neck-deep seating and the classic push-button back massager that's found in so many non-Reykjavík pools. The kind with the "awesome power" and the chest strap that keeps you from getting jetted out across the pool, into the air, and out into Eyjafjörður.
  • Water slide: Back-snappingly awesome, and in a tip of the hat to Akureyri's lush greenery, it's integrated into a mini forest garden. It's a solid tube with two "skylight" sections, lots of vertical drop, plenty of twists and turns, utter blackness, and a surprise ending. Not for the easily confused.
Area for improvement:
  • The steam room: Just not hot enough. Not steamy enough, either. No sound of blasting steam.
The Akureyri city pool: probably the best swimming experience to be had a few miles south of the Arctic Circle. Check it out when you're next in the lovely Icelandic town of botanical gardens and parking clocks.

mánudagur, september 18, 2006

the parking clock

Hello from Akureyri, the capital of Iceland's north and one of the few world cities of 15,000 to show up on your globe. It's a beautiful town and a beautiful fall day. The trees downtown are turning color and the air is clear and with the edge of a chill. The skies are blue and the fjord is still, with the mountain across from town still green with the remnants of summer.

Akureyri has a beautiful and cozy downtown and that's where I am working now. Today I learned about the Akureyri solution to parking here in town and that's the parking clock. There are plenty of municipal parking lots and lots of street parking besides, but no parking meters or other payment mechanisms. So the parking appears to be completely free at first blush. It is free, but not unlimited. It's actually limited by time to 15/30/60/120 minutes, and this is enforced by means of an ingenious system: a little sticky clock that goes in the windshield. Gas stations give these clocks out for free, as do banks and other places of business as promotional items. When you park, you set the clock hand to the current time. As long as you're not there in the spot for 15/30/60/120 minutes past that time, you're cool. But the moment you go over, boom! You get a ticket. And if you don't know about the clocks and blithely leave your car somewhere with an empty windshield, also boom! Ticket. I saw the Akureyri Parking Patrol roving around just now at lunch, blue-suited with ticket books at the ready, strolling with that street-owning confidence that only meter maids can display.

So instead of "feeding the meter", you need to run outside and "change the clock" when your parking time runs out. I intend to keep my windshield clock on proud display when I get back to the Big Town, just to display my allegiance to the real deal and "Iceland's Iceland": this glittering northern bær of Akureyri.

föstudagur, september 15, 2006

personal recognizance

Something that happened maybe once a millennium in my Boston days seems to happen just about twice a week in Iceland. That thing is: I see someone I recognize but can't place. Because even living in Reykjavík, center of Icelandic life that it is, I keep seeing the same people. But often in a totally different context. Most likely, they're just someone I've seen walking towards me in Kringlan, then again at Háskólabíó, and am now seeing for the third time downtown at the Te & Kaffi months later. Which would be all well and good, because I am not expected to know them.

More frightening, though, is the second, sinister possibility: they could be someone I am supposed to know and can't place. Someone's sister who I met a year and a half ago at a birthday party and who is now in line next to me at Landsbankinn, til dæmis. Because I am the foreigner and because I don't look Icelandic, I am (I think) more memorable and thus at a disadvantage to the locals when it comes to these situations. It makes sense: everybody here is gonna remember the guy from Boston who moved here for reasons they can't quite figure out, whereas I have spent the last 24 months scrambling to assimilate tens or hundreds of new people and thousands of new faces into my overloaded memory banks. At this point it's all one big jumble of Sigrúns and Gunnars up there and the identity of that girl browsing the sale table at Skífan is a rabbit I'm never going to pull out of the ole Sox hat.

Sometimes, late on a weekend night on Laugavegur, I have a conversation eerily reminiscent of the party-in-the-Hills scene from Swingers:

[approaching person]: "Hey Jared how are you doing man? Great to see you!"

me (pidgin Icelandic): "Yeah, hey man, great times, what have you been up to?"

[a.p.]: "Great days, great to see you, we should hang out."

me: "Yeah, endilega! OK, bye captain."

[friend walking alongside me]: "Who was that?"

me: "I don't know, man."

free money!

It's just like the dot-com heyday here in Iceland, as today is the first trading day in the IPO of Exista. Every man, woman, and child in the Land was eligible to bid for shares in the offering, and it seems like most of them did. This IPO worked a little differently than the one I got in on back in the dotconomy heyday (thanks Shoon!) as in this one the price to the public was prix-fixed at the same 21.50 the institutional bidders set a week ago. Also, the fact that the IPO was open to every Icelandic Tom, Dick, and Harry was nice and egalitarian, just the way we like it up here.

And Exista actually seems like a reasonable company. It's a holding company that owns one of the big insurance companies here (VÍS) as well as a leasing company named, well, Lýsing. And then it's got slices of KB, one of the big banks, and Síminn, the Ma Bell of the Land. It's a bit like owning a mutual fund of blue-chip Icelandic bidness. Or maybe those respectable business holdings are just fronts for an Enron-style trading operation. Who can say?

As I write this the shares are up 6.5% in the first 45 minutes of trading. Pop the champagne and take me back to 2000, baby. It's feeling mighty bubbly in the Land.

þriðjudagur, september 05, 2006

lög og regla

I've deleted a couple of reader comments recently, something I never feel good about. I deleted them not because they were full of Færoese cuss words, but because they were direct requests/questions to me that were unrelated to the posts they followed. The user profile page helpfully includes an email address for me, right below the töffari beach picture. I feel that email is a better medium for personal questions and requests for employment.

Which brings me to email. I love getting your emails and I answer 100% of them. It is reader comments and emails that keep me inspired to write the IR. The best emails come either from long-time readers who have decided at long last to introduce themselves or from new hyper-enthusiastic readers who have sat down one unproductive Friday at work and read the whole blog front-to-back. My heart goes out to you guys. Then lower on the reader-email totem pole comes a variation on the classic:

Hey, found your blog yesterday and skimmed 2-1/2 entries. Good stuff. I'll be in Iceland next week for a 1-day weekend and really want to know what's the best stuff to do on that tiny island! Can you send me a bulleted list of all your secret favorite spots? Or, better yet, book them as meetings in my Outlook Calendar?

Believe it or not, I answer them too. But I never spell the secret-spots beans. And I usually recommend buying a guidebook. Fodor's Uptight Reyjavik in 20 Gore-Texed Hours.