miðvikudagur, maí 23, 2007

morning practice

Many mornings on my way to work, walking down the final cobblestoned hill to Ingólfstorg (the path that freezes over into a kind of ice-slide in the winter), I hear a brass player working his way up and down the scales, major and minor. It's usually very quiet in that area of town, and the smooth brassy tone carries its way on the wind, working a half-block radius among the corrugated-steel houses and old streets of that little quarter.

Just now, on the way to the post box to mail a letter, I took a slightly different route and ended up walking right past the player's house, past the open window. I heard the rich tones of what I think is a trombone or euphonium floating out. But today, instead of scales the player was working on a melody that is all to familiar to me (and to some IR regulars as well): Ravel's Bolero. It gave me goosebumps: it was beautifully and perfectly played, and all that was missing was the driving and incessant percussion.

mánudagur, maí 21, 2007


This morning both Esja and Akrafjall were powdered with snow. And now outside it is alternating between sunshine, flurries, and serious "wintry mix" type stuff, the kind of thing guaranteed to cause miles of backup on Route 128. But here people are just going about their business. After such a beautiful, sunny few days this weekend, a little May snowshower can't really get us down. The downtown café tables will probably be out by this afternoon.

föstudagur, maí 18, 2007

little mondays

The flipside of the "little Fridays" phenomenon is that of little Mondays. Yesterday was the last in this year's crop of obscure midweek Icelandic spring holidays (Uppstingingardagur, or Ascension Day: Áfram Kristur!) so Wednesday was a little Friday par excellence, with its full complement of nighttime mania downtown. And today feels like a little Monday, the beginning of a tiny one-day work week. As the day wears on, however, I have the suspicion it will start to feel more and more like the Friday it actually is.

miðvikudagur, maí 16, 2007

role reversal

This one has been sitting in my "future post ideas" box forever, back from the early days of the Iceland Report. And I guess its time has come. So the gist is, what if America's and Iceland's positions in the world were reversed? What would be some of the implications of that?
  • Tourists from Iceland expecting Americans to speak fluent Icelandic, Americans having been raised on a steady diet of sitcoms and movies from Iceland. Verðbréfaspilið: The Movie.
  • Americans have no idea why President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson so popular in Iceland, thinking Icelanders a bunch of idiots for electing him.
  • Icelandic Navy Base in Maine provided significant chunk of American employment until Icelanders closed it down last year.
  • Icelanders ask, "What language do Americans speak? Do they have their own language?"
  • Americans grow up with specific ideas of places they want to see in Iceland. "I've always wanted to see Egilsstaður."
  • Young Americans sprinkle their English with heavily-accented Icelandic idioms and phrases, older Americans frown on the practice. "I ran into her at the party. Það er ekki gott maður."
  • Icelanders think America just another one of their territories.
  • A young Icelandic professional moves to America and gets asked at least once a week, "Why did you come here?"
  • "Icelandic Style" restaurants in NYC and Boston serve up lamb and potatoes, salted cod.
  • Americans take regular shopping trips to Iceland, come back with suitcases laden down with wool and skyr.
  • Kids on the streets of NYC shamelessly wear KR hats, having never seen a single soccer game.
OK, kids, I'd like to see more of these in the comments section!

þriðjudagur, maí 15, 2007

opening day

Last night was the opening game for KR, my local soccer team in the Icelandic premier league (Landsbankadeildin). The opponent was red-shirted Keflavík, those airport-service mofoes from Reykjanes. They may know about changing a tire on a 757, but they don't know too much about kicking a soccer ball.

By comparison, my local team is the most hated (and historically the most skilled) in Icelandic soccer. It's the original Reykjavík football club, established just a few years before another famous Olde Towne Team. Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur inspires fierce and lifetime loyalty in the 'hood and has a collection of KR-themed merchandise on sale to slake the fans' thirst for all things KR.

The game was an experience in local sportswatching color. Fans packed the KR side of the stands, with a small drumming contingent in the very front. Throughout the game there was almost always a team chant going on, or sustained singing of one of the KR team songs. Down at the Gestir (visitor) end of the stands, Keflavík seemed to have brought an entire DCI drumline that at times cranked out phat beats for the lava-field peeps. Packs of little kids wove their way through standing adults and gum-chewing high school girls followed each other around the stands in little linear cliques.

And then next to me there were a couple of guys yelling angrily at their own KR boys. One was so passionate that his spittle, lit up by the low nine-o'clock sun, was repeatedly launched into the hair of the guys standing in front of and below us. I didn't catch all of it, but some of his one-liners had me laughing away to myself, trying not to let the guy see me. H-bombs were flying liberally, and then at one point he extolled, "Þetta er ekki kerlingabolti!" - "This is not old-woman-ball!"

Maybe his anger wasn't misplaced. Last night wasn't a very promising start for the opening of the 18-game season. Despite ferocious fan support, the Yankees of the North lost 2-1 to the baggage handlers from KEF.

miðvikudagur, maí 09, 2007

taxes and shipping extra

My sister-in-law sent me a book as a birthday gift from Amazon. When it arrived the mailman wanted me to pay VAT on it. I told him I didn't know what it was and I hadn't ordered anything. I told him it was probably a gift. Sure enough, it was marked "gift" on the customs form. He told me I must have ordered it. So I opened it in front of him and took out the invoice. It was marked clearly with a billing address in the States and there was even a "happy birthday!" note on the invoice as well.

He said, well, you still have to pay the VAT. I said, this is clearly a gift from her. He shrugged and said, well, if she had sent you the same brand-new book in a hand-addressed box, then no VAT. The fact that the box was professionally packed by Amazon made it eligible for taxes. I ended up paying about as much VAT as the book had cost her in the first place.

Now Iceland Report regular and freelance writer Ian Watson has published his own take on Iceland's schizophrenic personal-importation policy. He points out that changing the law in this regard would have profound effects on the high prices we pay for all goods in Iceland. It's well worth a read.

þriðjudagur, maí 08, 2007

in-line hates

Icelanders can't wait in line. It sounds like a vicious stereotype, I know. And really most of them probably can quite well. To my knowledge, deCODE hasn't found any gene in the mixed Nordic-Celtic pool that explicitly makes orderly line-standing impossible. But there is still something subtly Mendelian going on: if there's a sleazy way around a line, many an Icelander will try to finesse his way. Checking in at Keflavík the other day, someone came right up next to us and just raced ahead to the open checkout counter. When my colleague called them out on it (a rare occurrence) the woman turned around with a "who me?" look. The way Icelanders cut the line is with a sort of practiced bumbling plausible-deniability, a shuffle and a slide, a gradual inching. The baggage check at KEF isn't the only place this happens. The main post office downtown used to be a hotbed of eye-contact-free cutting, a free-for-all of package mailers, stamp buyers, and PO-Box-retrievers. (Now they have put in two small Tensa-Barriers for a semblance of order, but even still the PO-Box-retrievers always slide their greedy way around this system.)

Unfortunately, this practice extends to driving. Up in Kópavogur on the way to the new "IKEA Highway" the other day, the road was narrowed to one lane for some construction. To be fair, 90% of drivers were doing the right thing, getting into the single lane and waiting their turn for the light. But there were a few (and there are these jokers in every town) going as far as they possibly could in the left lane and then trying to eel their way in, evincing a rare Icelandic show of the knowledge of turn signals. I decided on a little FB vigilante traffic enforcement and so straddled the two lanes, forcing the schemers to stay behind me. Spying his chance, some punk in a red VW roared up the dirt shoulder, to the right of our entire row of cars, thinking he was going to ease in next to me in the space I had left to my right. He was half off the road and in the parlance of Mass staties, "driving to endanger".

Years of Boston dues-paying and East Coast road rage welled up within me and I decided to let him have it. I closed the distance to the car in front of me and I leaned on the horn. I leaned again on the horn again. Mixing it up, I beeped patterns and little rhythms. The woman in front of me looked around curiously and saw what was going on. The VW punk looked over at me with his practiced "what did I do?" line-cutting face. I kept at the horn. He finally got disgusted and accelerated hard forward, tires screeching, to try a few cars up the line. But then, miracle of miracles. Solidarity! He tried in 2 or 3 spots and nobody would let him in. He finally limped off up the shoulder, driving his new car in the dirt, forced to turn off at the Nings exit and double back around. It was small, but but for once the queueing public prevailed in Iceland.

mánudagur, maí 07, 2007

illegal in iceland?

So, my last work and residence permit ran out on April 30th. I applied for the latest one-year extension two months ago, but the opaque and impenetrable one-two punch of Útlendingastofnun-Vinnumálastofnun still hasn't issued an extension or indeed any acknowledgement of receipt of the application. And there's not much I can do besides hassle my HR department to in turn hassle the weary workers at these government agencies. It's always like this and then one day a magical letter appears and my permit gets extended. Up until this cycle, the letter has always appeared before the old one ran out.

I was a little worried about this situation, given that I was leaving the country and would have to re-enter yesterday, permitless. I was ready to be segregated and hot-boxed at Keflavík in a tiny room with some empty styrofoam cups, bright fluorescents, and folding chairs, then shipped out on the next US-bound flight. Instead it happened like this:

Me: (handing over U.S. passport) "Góðan daginn."
Lögreglumaður: "Þú talar íslensku!"
Me: "Já, ég bý á Íslandi."
Hann: (flipping through passport, stopping on expired residence permit) "Þetta rennir út."
Me: "Já, ég veit það, er búinn að sækja um framlenging."
Hann: "Já, já, ég er bara að segja..." (Ka-Chunk!)


For the non-Icelandic readers:

Me: "Good day."
Immigration guy: "You speak Icelandic!"
Me: "Yes, I live in Iceland."
Him: "This has run out."
Me: "Yeah, I know, I have applied for an extension."
Him: "Yeah, yeah, I'm just saying..." (Ka-Chunk!)

...and I was in.

sunnudagur, maí 06, 2007

going home

I am still not entirely sure what it is about the Land, but once it got under my skin (something that took all of a half hour on a sunny spring afternoon five years ago), I couldn't keep myself from going back. I went to Iceland as a tourist three times in 2002, and by the end of yet another trip in 2003 I had a tentative job offer. I moved "over the stones" at the beginning of autumn 2004.

I thought the love affair might change once I moved there. "You'll get sick of it and be out in two years," my dad predicted. I stuck up for my decision (I had to) but at the time I wasn't sure either. And once I got to Iceland to live, life was tough for a while. I had a new job to navigate, an apartment to find, a car and furniture weaving its way through Iceland's Customs machine, and 4-5 hours of Icelandic language homework a night. But the cultural changes were the hardest: the shock of the sound of the morning news on Rás 2, the totally different selection of foods, the stomach-churning price levels, the lovely officemate who rarely spoke to me at work yet was my long-lost friend the first Friday night I saw her in the line outside Rex, and heated workplace debates I could barely follow over whether to pay for spouses at the Christmas party.

But after just a few months, I was beginning to settle in and when I went back to Boston that first Thanksgiving it was with a feeling of pride at having made it in the new country, and also a little difficulty leaving the place. I remember sitting in my parents' place near Boston, feeling like I was missing something, texting my friends in Reykjavík, and checking Morgunblaðið online to see what was happening in the Icelandic news. (Not much, you might think, but that was when I missed the great Tire Fire of '04.)

Then last summer after a gorgeous sun-drenched week on the Black Sea, when our charter flight full of Icelanders touched down back in rainy and foggy Keflavík (and despite having to work the next day), I found myself joining in the hearty applause that erupted throughout the cabin. Whenever I travel now, even back to where I was born, I put myself to sleep thinking of the sea and mountains outside my bedroom window. And now, high over France on my way back from sunny Athens, I just can't wait to get back to that rainy windblown place, to say "Góðan daginn" to the taxi driver, to be home.