fimmtudagur, nóvember 30, 2006


I'm not a big fan of board games (in youth, I used to refer to them as "bored games") so when on Saturday night in Akureyri (at about the time I was expecting an imminent trip to Kaffi Karólína) Villi produced a big black cardboard box, something inside me groaned. The name of the game was Verðbréfaspilið, or The Stock Market Game. Villi described it as the Icelandic Monopoly (this game apparently also exists) but with shares instead of real estate.

Part of me was now intrigued, because even after more than two years here in the Land, I had not realized the existence of an Icelandic board game industry. Iceland: is there anything they don't have?

The game itself was a time capsule of early-90s Icelandic capitalism. One could buy shares in the usual suspects: Eimskip (literally, "Steamship", the biggest shipping company) and Flugleiðir (literally, "Airlines", now known universally by its English name, Icelandair) as well as a whole host of companies I had never heard of, like Stríkið, Max, and Frón. Even the world's worst-named travel agency, Úrval-Útsýn, was available. Apparently, the author of the game was from the Greater Akureyri area so the game also featured such local business luminaries as Crown Chicken and Höldur, in which players could buy a private equity stake.

Despite myself, and with a couple Zywiec under my belt, I found myself really enjoying Verðbréfaspilið. Through a series of lucky breaks, I amassed a fortune in the stock certificates of obsolete Icelandic firms. I had so much cash left over that I bought up all of the government bonds I could get my hands on. Poor Villi was bleeding cash; every time he landed on one of my companies he had to pay me a "dividend" and was forced to take 20% loans just to stay in the game. My combined stakes in Crown Chicken and several Icelandic cinema chains paid the big krónahs as well. After serveral hours, Kaffi Karólína had become a distant memory and I found myself instead a titan of Icelandic industry. At least on cardboard.

þriðjudagur, nóvember 28, 2006


A lot of readers (and other people, cause I know a few of them, too) have asked me about skiing in Iceland. And the truth was, I had no experience with it. That's mainly because I live in the south, and as everyone can tell you, all they know about in the south is pickups and Bud Light. Oh wait, that's the other South.

Anyway, these days we just don't get that much snow here in Reykjavík. As compared to the Old Days, I guess, when at least in pictures the city is fenced in by white piles of the stuff. But up in Akureyri*, on the other hand, they still do know a thing or two about snow. And this year so far they've had a bumper crop.

So my good friend Villi and I set out on Sunday morning (well really it was Sunday afternoon, but the light had just started) for the ski area that overlooks the town of Akureyri and Eyjarfjörður, or Island Fjord. We were accompanied by his good friends, the Deftones, and somehow Sacramento-based angry rock from the mid-90s was the perfect way to slip and slide our way up the unplowed mountain road.

The ski area itself is called Hlíðarfjall and is maintained by the town of Akureyri. So, just like the public swimming pools in the Land, it represents a phenomenal value. A weekend all-day lift ticket is just $27, weekdays $18. And even though the parking lot was full, there was hardly anyone to be seen on the mountain. Just like in my idyllic childhood weeks at the Balsams, there were no lift lines.

Unlike the Balsams, the facilities evinced a rough-and-readiness that probably wouldn't go over well with the average pampered New England skiier. The base lodge was a few rooms slapped together; in the largest a group of local high school girls dished out hot-from-the-friolator french fries and cocktail sauce. The remaining rooms were all business: bathrooms, ski rental, cashier. At the top of the chairlift there was a newer warm-up hut with more bathrooms. The "I'm here to ski" sensibility was refreshing.

Conditions were excellent: -2°C and no wind, diffuse grey light. There had been some new snowfall overnight and then later in the day they turned on the new snow machines and added more. Skiing down the slope presented an awesome view out over the town of Akureyri below and on the right to looming powdered-sugar mountains in the gloom of daylight. As it got dark the trail lights came on and we just kept skiing. We didn't stop until they stopped the lifts and we were the last car in the lot.

*Perlan Norðursins

mánudagur, nóvember 27, 2006

monday morning shuttle

I just flew in from Akureyri, and boy are my arms tired. But seriously, folks...

I just got back into the Big Town from the Northern Town, and that 45-minute flight to work reminded me of the good old days on the BOS-LGA Delta Shuttle. Well, maybe in length of flight only. In many other respects, the AEY-RKV flight is a lot easier on the soul. In that spirit, here are the top 10 advantages of the Air Iceland Akureyri-Reykjavík service over the Delta Shuttle:

10. When you arrive at the airport in Akureyri in the 8 a.m. blackness, there is a good chance you're the only one there.
9. Nobody ahead of you to check in.
8. Check-in done on a first-name basis.
7. Nobody yelling on mobile phones in the departure lounge. But a few old Icelandic souls chat about the weather.
6. Low-volume Rás 2 broadcast replaces yammering "CNN Airport Network".
5. No passenger seen sipping from huge white Starbucks cup, legs crossed, looking around importantly. In fact, no Starbucks to be had, period.
4. Zippy takeoff replaces "Well folks, we're going to be holding here for a few minutes for traffic."
3. Upon arrival, 1-minute walk to car in free lot replaces endless rainy "Where you goin', sir?" Marine Air Terminal taxi line.
2. No TSA. In fact, no metal detector or "secure area" whatsoever.
1. Pre-dawn views of glaciers and craggy mountains replace Queens.

miðvikudagur, nóvember 15, 2006

vestmannaeyjar 3

It was 6 and definitely dark when we were done. Stebbi Skór drove three of us to his comfortable house out on the west side of the island. We drank beers and watched TV and my friend the bus driver stopped by and I offered him a (Polish) beer and that seemed to finally make the peace. At 8, we got dressed in warm clothes (I was in a lopapeysa, following instructions to the letter and the spirit) and headed back to the harbor. In the places where trendier (and non-functional) harbor towns would have microbreweries, cafes, and souvenier shops, Heimaey has larger warehouses and smaller supply sheds for the fishing boats. It was in one of these old stone buildings that we had the post-concert feast. The ownership of the shed and the cooking of the dinner were all wrapped up with brothers, fathers, and uncles, but some combination of those three owned this place and renovated it and someone else was responsible for cooking up probably the best lamb I've had.

The building's interior was narrow, with enough room down one side for several picnic tables and then a sitting area with couches and armchairs directly along the other side. We came in with our plastic bags of booze and there was already a small crowd, hanging around at the chairs, a beer or two into friendly. After these "apertifs" the chef came out of the kitchen on the other side and announced that dinner was ready. He was slicing off thick slabs of lamb at a makeshift table up front. At another table was an enormous aluminum pot full of gravy and a bin of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, paper plates, a mix of plastic and beat-to-hell metal utensils, and paper Pepsi cups for the wine.

We grabbed big sagging plates of lamb and sat down around the big picnic tables and talked and ate and drank wine. There were a few "skál!" moments and then seconds on the lamb and then as we finished eating we migrated back to the adjoining couches and talked some more. After everyone was done with the food, the entertainment started. A couple guys with guitars singing Icelandic folksong classics took the stage at the end of the picnic tables. They were followed by a young guy (whose day job is as a priest on the mainland) telling seamy jokes, and then me telling a fairly clean one in English. The night went on like that, conversations starting and pausing and little groups of us mingling and re-forming, listening to the pouring rain outside the open door and enjoying the bright and the good times inside the old place.

After some hours there, the Alvinesque antsiness hit me and I made off on my own to Lundinn (The Puffin) where some of the crew had reportedly already gone. It was a longer walk than I thought and by the time I got there my wool sweater was soaked almost through. And there was only one guy there I recognized, and he also seemed kind of lost. But there were a few who recognized me, standing there at the bar, fresh beer in hand.

"You're that bass clarinet fellow," remarked one older lady as she came up next to me. Then an older local-businessman-looking dude came up and talked to me for a long time, having also recognized me from the concert. (The most amazing thing to me isn't that they recognized me. It's that they were both in their 60s and out drinking beer and carousing at what was probably 2 in the morning.) After I had talked to all the local elders who would have me, I went on down the hill to The Other Bar and found some of the crew. This place was far more crowded than Lundinn and had more of an epic feel to it. I ended up gettin' busy on the dancefloor like apparently Icelandic men can't or don't want to. The place was full of good vibes and smiles and steamy with wet clothes. It was 5 or so and raining like a Hollywood soundstage by the time I got a taxi and got home. Stebbi Skór was just arriving, himself.


As the ferry glided out again on a grey Sunday afternoon, I felt the same twinge of melancholy I've felt before when leaving that place. It's been hard before for me to leave: to glide out past the town, watching the streets and houses and twinkling streetlights, to see the cars parked along the shore watching the boat, to pass the vast high plug of new 1973 lava-land, to round the end of the lava-and-cliffs harbor, and then watch the sheer cliffs and their millions of flocking birds recede back into the fog. Getting whipped by the winter wind on the topdeck and then thrown around by the first waves, I finally went down into my cabin and dozed off, listening to the sharp clang of the massive waves shuddering the steel hull and letting the easy rocking of the boat under me put me to sleep.

þriðjudagur, nóvember 14, 2006

vestmannaeyjar 2

The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) are a place of immense pride, a little Land unto themselves. It is said (by proud islanders) that Iceland itself is the largest island in the Westman Islands class. And that the southernmost island in the Westmans is in fact Grand Canaria. There are around 4,000 people living on the Westman Islands, but the plural name is a little misleading because in fact they all live on Heimaey ("Home Island") in a cozy little town that wraps itself around the fishing harbor. Fishing is the big deal, the center of all activity and commerce, and it seems that everyone in the Westman Islands is either a fisherman or married to one. The Westman Islands band, who we were joining, is made up of a rotating mix of whatever musicians whose boats happen to be in the harbor at the time.

In 1973 a volcano forced the overnight evacuation of everyone living on the island -- around 5,000 people -- and covered about a third of the town in lava over the next several months, creating a new mountain out of the sea. And creating National Geographic pictures that I would pore over as a little kid in suburban Massachusetts. Even though a lot of houses were buried under ash and solid lava rock, most of the islanders came back and rebuilt the place. And good thing, too: it's probably the friendliest town in the Land. Or next to it.

We arrived on the ferry at around 3 p.m. and the concert was promptly at 4. (Bad weather had caused us to miss the planned midnight rehearsal the night before.) Our bandmates met us at the docks and drove us up to the concert venue (a church) where we were advised that no booze was allowed inside. So we left our Vín Búð bags in the backs of the jeeps. Once inside, it was a mad rush to change into concert clothes and get out on the stage to rehearse the combined ensemble. We got through maybe a third of the song intros and then the townspeople started showing up early, so we had to get back off the stage. It was then that Stebbi Skór, the director of the Westman Islands band, handed me the remainder of my music. I had never seen about half of the parts I was playing, which let me feel like a real professional, sight-reading my way through a concert for the first time.

We filed onstage at 4 to a packed crowd and a lot of applause. The music, lots of pop tunes and Icelandic national songs, brightened up that dim and quiet place and brought a lot of smiles in the audience. In places it felt like that somewhat dingy church was being shaken to its steel-clad walls. Stebbi Skór introduced several of the pieces and had the packed audience in the palm of his hand with his droll delivery. The guest conductor and fisherman Ósvaldur (who shipped out the next morning and won't be home until Christmas) conducted his own arrangements of Simon and Garfunkel and sappy Chicago tunes. The people loved it so much that after the encore (Á Sprengisandi), we did the encore again. Then after that, Stebbi asked the crowd what else they wanted to hear, and they shouted out their favorites from the program. And so we blasted our way through Paul Simon again. It was a two-hour show and certainly the biggest happening in the town that rainy Saturday.


mánudagur, nóvember 13, 2006

vestmannaeyjar 1

It was dark and the wind was whistling out on the balcony on Saturday when I woke up and called our band director Lárus. "Yep, we're going," he confirmed, and so we met at his house and took a taxi out to the Esso station in Árbær where we met up with a bunch more stoic and sweater-clad Icelanders in a minibus. Coffees were passed around, as was Morgunblaðið, and my new friend Runólfur and I discussed etymology as we came over the heiði and down past Hveragerði and into Selfoss.

It was in Selfoss that we waited, at another Esso station and its companion video store, for the fly/sail decision. We sipped more coffee, talked some more, and I listened to a long diatribe from our driver about how immigrants were ruining the country. Then we were first in line, shivering outside the glass doors of Ríkið and watching as the old Selfosslandic woman inside painstakingly worked the keys to the treasure and unlocked the place promptly at 11 a.m. It was time to stock up on booze and we made quick work of it. Then the word came mysteriously through the pipe that Herjólfur the ferry was sailing, so no quick-hop flight for us. We drove across the endless tidal flats to Þorlákshöfn and after some wrangling over tickets, refunds, on-board cabins, and cars not going on the boat, we boarded.

I wolfed down a juicy Herjólfsborgari with the cronies in the cafeteria and then Lárus and I went down to our cabin. The ferry ride is close to 3 hours in length and the announcer had warned in Icelandic of seas that were a little brisk (though he mentioned nothing of this in the English that followed, presumably to keep up the image of Icelanders as so tough that they would never notice something like a choppy sea) so I was glad to get in the cozy bunk and let the boat rock me to sleep.

It's part of the magic of the Westman Islands for me that every time I have gone there it's been a solid sea-sleep on the way and when the "10 minutes to docking" announcement wakes me it's with the sheer cliffs of the harbor gliding by outside the ferry's windows. It comes with a little bit of disorientation, a feeling of waking up in a never-never land.


föstudagur, nóvember 10, 2006


So I am supposed to go to the Westman Islands tonight for the weekend, to play a concert there tomorrow. But looking out the window here I am already feeling seasick. It's a 3-hour ferry ride out to the islands and currently the Land is being blown sideways by the second gale in as many weeks. Wind right now is steady at 40-50 mph and gusting up into the 60s. It's supposed to get worse, too, all the way into bad radio station slogan territory. ("From the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond!") All those building-shuddering gusts make for some big waves, and stormy journeys on the Herjólfur ferry are notorious puke-a-thons. Testament to this are the Chinese-takeaway-style vomit cups stacked neatly in all areas of the ship: entrances, stairways, canteen, bedrooms, and bunk cabins. I have been on two round trips on that ferry but both have been blessedly calm so the stacks of square waxed-paper receptacles have been nothing more than a curiosity. But every Icelander seems to have a story about them.

Anyway it looks like I might not be able to go at all. This morning's sailing has already been delayed and might be canceled. And the storm is supposed to continue through the day and overnight, so there may not be any trips today. And flying on a day like this is right out of the question. That tunnel to the islands is looking like a better and better idea. It's too bad we can't import a couple of spendthrift Republicans to the Alþing and make that happen. I heard they were looking for work.

fimmtudagur, nóvember 09, 2006


The band that put Icelandic music on the map, Sykurmolarnir (the Sugarcubes), have Tap-ishly "re-formed" after a 14-year hiatus to play a single reunion concert a week from tomorrow at Reykjavík's answer to the Hynes Convention Center, Laugardalshöll. The band was on the front cover of last Sunday's Morgunblaðið, sitting around a table at Sægrefinn, my recommended neighborhood fishmonger. They had been rehearsing in one of the fishing-gear-storage buildings near there and were taking a break for some lobster soup. The reunion concert is to celebrate the release of their first hit single "Ammæli" ("Birthday") a whole 20 years back. So one could say, if one tended towards Casey Casimisms, that they're celebrating the birthday of "Birthday". But you'd never catch me saying that.

miðvikudagur, nóvember 08, 2006

wahm tonic

You'd think in a country whose name conjures up images of an actual Land of Ice that you'd be able to get a cold soda. Not so. In fact, Icelanders seem to prefer their soda at nearly room temperature. When I pop into 10-11 (or competitor 11-11) for a guilty-pleasure weekend Pepsi Max, I find myself moving aside 3 or 4 rows of soda containers, reaching to the very back of the refrigerator case to find the one bottle that's been sitting directly in the blower. That one is sometimes almost cold enough, although even then it's the kind of cold that is suddenly warm back in the car, not the bone-jangling I-don't-want-to-hold-the-can-too-long I-need-gloves cold of an American-retailed soda. Of course anything forward of that back row is absolutely piss-warm. Isn't at least half of the point of soda that it's cold? Even at the semi-ubiquitous American Style hamburger chain, there is no cold soda to be had. There is a soda fountain, yes, but despite the promise implied in the name there is no "American-style" ice machine. In its place is a watery bowl of a few sad ice cubes and a pasta spoon. Come on, Iceland, I know you can do "cold" better than that.

þriðjudagur, nóvember 07, 2006


I was sitting in Te og Kaffi on Laugavegur last Friday afternoon. It was sunny and cold and I was sipping a cappuccino and reading Morgunblaðið, glancing occasionally out the big glass front window at passersby, when suddenly I heard a tremendous hissing sound. If a hiss could be a roar, this would be it. The sound was millions of tiny white hailstones tearing out of the sky and sandblasting the street, the sidewalk, the cars, the pedestrians, and the baby carriages.

As is often the case, parked outside of the café were three or four baby carriages, babies snoozing snuggled in their fleece-lined cradles in the cold air while their moms sipped coffee inside (such is the life here). Anyway, the tremendous roar of the hail sent the women scurrying outside to look after their little ones. Each mom first peeked in on the baby, but then instead of bringing the kids in, each woman unfolded some manner of heavy-duty Gore-Tex covering (the old mechanical designer in me admired the different ways to accomplish the same goal: one was like a tent fly, one like an accordion, and one like a convertible top) that rendered the carriages completely hailproof. Then they came back inside and resumed their coffees.

mánudagur, nóvember 06, 2006

driving to work

Today's post is a tribute to my good friend over at Driving to Work:

Departure time: 8:11
Arrival time: 8:23
Weather as I call it: Pitch-black and drizzly.
Paper Guy: Probably not a good career choice given low traffic volume.
Shell Gas Price: 113.7 kr/liter*
Yelled at other drivers: Uttered a Robin-Woo-esque (but involuntary) "eh!" when forced to stop unexpectedly in middle of the University rotary.
Feared for my life: Aside from the normal fear of Icelandic clueless driving, no.


I hit a couple of unlucky lights today and that can make or break the commuting time. One is the light at the top of Bústaðavegur (Öskjuhlíð) where I missed the opportunity to run the yellow by fractions of a second and sat idling next to a fellow commuter in her black Jetta. Then I hit the red light at the top of the off-ramp in Kópavogur, which is probably a 1 in 3 shot.

In general, the poor sequencing of two lights going east on Hringbraut adds probably at least a minute a day to the drive. How about it Reykjavík? How about some traffic studies with all those tax dollars I give you?


sunnudagur, nóvember 05, 2006

big wind

I just got back from an early Sunday morning drive around the neighborhood. We're in the midst of a classic Reykjavík windstorm, with sustained winds in the 40s and gusts in the neighborhood of 60-80 m.p.h. That's some wind. It's pushing giant walls of ocean water over the seawall below my house and there are patches of flooded roadway all along the sea road. Seaweed and pieces of the wall (read: large rocks) are strewn all over, sometimes hundreds of feet in from the ocean. I got out of the car at Grótta (the lighthouse at the end of Seltjarnarnes) and was able to walk only a few feet: the wind was so strong that getting back to the car was a struggle. This is the biggest wind I've experienced and I had it all to myself as Iceland is basically 99% asleep at 8 a.m. on a dark and stormy Sunday. I saw only a handful of cars and a big orange street cleaning truck that was making loops around the flooded traffic circle, unplugging the drains.

During weather like this I often think of the Icelandic settlers who lived on the heath in earth-roofed houses, smoky on account of the open fire in the middle of the room. Those were some tough dudes. I'm glad I'm not living in a sod house today.

föstudagur, nóvember 03, 2006

happy go-lucky

The Icelandic word for luck is heppi and for lucky is heppinn. That latter word always sounded a lot like "happy" to me, so I did some research the other day. Indeed, the English word happy comes out of the older word hap, which means luck or fortune (think haphazard). So happy used to mean lucky in English, and still does in Icelandic.

Which brings us to silly. Silly comes out of the Old English gesælig, which did mean happy. Its Old Norse brother, sæll, also meant happy back in the day. But today in Icelandic it means sainted or blessed and it's the greeting of choice among the old men who congregate every day in the outdoor hot tubs. I guess the geothermal hot water makes us both happy and lucky.

fimmtudagur, nóvember 02, 2006

the dark

It's finally here, for real. It's still light for much of the workday but this is the week when most non-work activities begin to take place in the darkness. Today the 8 a.m. drive to work was pitch black and the sun's rise at 9:13 was into a cottony cover of drizzle clouds. By the time I left work at 4:30 the sky above the Smáralind mall was a Gibsonish dead-TV dark grey again. And then by 6 as I was swimming laps in the rain it was black again. November, December, and January are the months when the Land tests the faith of its newest residents. And the time when our minds, for all of their supposed rationality, begin to wonder: will it really ever be light again?

miðvikudagur, nóvember 01, 2006


Historically, the biggest reader comment/complaint/criticism has been about Iceland Report's lack of photos. "Show me the photos!" they say. ("Show me the photos on your own blog," I think to myself.) Well, the truth is, my own photographic muses just haven't been singing for a little while now. Maybe I've traded visual inspiration for written. Or maybe it was just another price to be paid for the historical 2004 win of the Boston Red Sox.

In any event, the photomuses are thankfully almost always singing for my coworker and good friend Ói. Not only does he take photos all around the Land, but he has mapped the location of most of them on their Flickr pages. Sweet times. And man oh man, can this guy take pictures. Have a look for yourself. And stop hassling me about photos, at least until after the Sox win again.