As you may well be aware, this morning there was a pretty spectacular solar eclipse (sólmyrkvi) visible throughout Northern (and Northern-ish) Europe. Word has it that this eclipse was, in fact, “the best in years” and lucky for us here in Iceland (including the thousands of tourists who apparently made a special journey here just to see the eclipse first-hand), the weather was wonderful: bright, windless, and super sunny.
In between various projects the other night, Mark and I fortified ourselves with a soothing dose of British television, this time, an episode of Stephen Fry’s panel show QI. And wouldn’t you know it, but he had some very interesting historical trivia about the letter Þ—or this blog’s eponymous ‘Thorn,’ in English. Now, perhaps the linguists, book historians, typography buffs, and and Old English enthusiasts among you already knew this, but news to me: in Old English, the word “Ye,” as in ‘Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe above’ (not, for the record, ‘ye’ as in “Hear Ye, Hear Ye!”) was not pronounced with a ‘y’ sound, but rather as ‘th.’ This is because in the early years of the printing press, the letter Y was substituted for the letter Þ, which was part of English orthography at the time. Apparently, printing presses didn’t have Þ, so plucky printers simply substituted Y instead. But people understood that it was still pronounced with the ‘th’ sound.
You can watch Stephen Fry explain this rather eruditely, with humorous commentary, in the video below (the clip should be cued up, but if it isn’t for some reason, the ‘Ye’ clip starts at 36:53).
Although I don’t have time (yet!) to regale you all with our most recent adventure to Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, I cannot fully contain my excitement at the moment. I simply must share these few photos from our weekend jaunt and tell you, dear readers, that holding a puffin is truly delightful. Pretty much as awesome (okay, almost) as holding a baby goat. This likely surprises absolutely no one, but what might surprise you is that holding a puffin is a lot like holding a puppy. A puffin—at least Tóti, one of the resident lord and masters at Sæheimar (the aquarium/natural history museum on Heimaey)—is rather warm and rather cuddly. When it gets excited, it nibbles at your hands (or, okay, just bites—but totally worth it). When it wants to be set down, it follows you around or waddles out in front of you. It is surprisingly small (Mark says “like one too many tomatoes to hold in one hand”) and it has surprisingly warm little feet.
One of the women who was visiting at the same time as we were (an American travel agent visiting for a big convention who took a short daytrip to the Westmans) exclaimed as she was leaving: “Oh my god, that made the whole flight over here worth it!” I think a lot of things made the trip ‘worth it,’ actually—there were many amazing things about our visit which I will share (with photos!) shortly—but Holding a Puffin definitely ranks pretty high on the list of Awesome Things I’ve Done in Iceland.
So, here we are, almost February. The year is well underway and I am happy to say that at least from our vantage point here, it seems to be getting off to a good start. Classes are several weeks in and I’m splitting my time between one rather challenging Translation Studies course (MA level, in Icelandic), an ÍSL (Íslenska sem annað mál, or Icelandic as a Second Language) course which focuses on learning how to write like an adult (thank the lord), and a couple literature classes (including one MA class on Scottish Women’s lit—great so far) which are really just for my own edification and allow me to enjoy the opportunity of like, being in college again and just studying for fun (whoo!). And full disclosure to this academic adventuring: the side benefit of the literature classes is that they are taught in English, thereby removing some of the second-language pressure and allowing me to focus the majority of my attention on the translation class.
Exams are over and it’s almost time for us to fly back to the US for what promises to be an absurdly (but not at all unexpectedly) warm Christmas. Like, 70F and sunny, guys. It’s going to be great. In the meantime, here is your weekly moment of Icelandic Christmas zen.
“Svona eru jólin”
Björgvin Halldórsson, Eyjólfur Kristjánsson, and the Öldutún School Choir
To set the scene as you’re listening, I refer to the description posted by YouTuber Strange-o-Rama on the video above:
I remember hearing this song as a little kid, sitting down on the Living room sofa and staring at the tree with all the presents under it and looking into the kitchen, where my dad was hard at work, preparing the Christmas Turkey. I looked out the window and all I saw was black. It was pitch black outside even though It was only about 17:20 in the evening. As I looked out the window…It suddenly began to snow. Little puffs of white slowly drifted down to the ground behind the window. What I felt at that moment, I can only describe as the spirit of Christmas itself. The complete and utter happiness, calmness and all around love I felt was overwhelming. I felt incredible. I hope you will find this feeling this year too. Have a merry christmas everyone.
Well, December has begun and we’re all in full Christmas-mode here in Iceland. That is, when those of us who are at university aren’t studying for exams (I know, poor us).
Also, there was a magical snow storm last week, which added to the general atmosphere:
But in between the snow-storming, the studying, and the examing, we’ve managed to get in a lot of seasonal candle-burning, cookie-baking, and Christmas music-listening.
Það eru bara tvö tungumál: íslenska og útlenska. Og útlenska er enska.
There are only two languages: Icelandic and ‘Foreign Language.’ And ‘Foreign Language’ is English.
This from a professor of mine during a class discussion about our experiences as foreigners in Iceland, and whether we had ever gotten a particularly excited reaction from an Icelander when they found out we were from another country. I said that as an American, I don’t really qualify as an ‘exciting foreigner.’ Rather, because of Iceland’s long history with the US—beginning with the US base at Keflavík during WWII and extending into the ubiquitous presence of American popular culture pretty much everywhere—being an American in Iceland seems about as exciting as being a New Jersian (is that the right term?) in New York. Which is to say, not.
(I’ll digress here to add to this another anecdote: I went to the Red Cross last year to try and sign up for a program in which Icelandic women were paired up with foreign women who had similar interests in a sort of cultural exchange. When I explained that I was from the US, the woman filling out the paperwork looked up, concerned. “Well,” she said, “that might be a problem. The idea is that the Icelandic woman gets to learn about a culture, you see. And so it would be difficult in your case. Especially because Icelanders already know everything about America.” And so, lacking as I did in a real ‘culture,’ I couldn’t get myself an Icelandic friend.)
Anyway, during this class discussion my professor went on to explain that since English is ubiquitous in Iceland, it starts to feel to many Icelanders as though it is the foreign language, spoken by everyone everywhere outside of Iceland. Like ‘a Band-Aid’ becoming a stand-in for ‘a bandage,’ I suppose.
This discussion, I should add, arose after went to see a play as part of my contemporary literature class, a production called „Útlenski Drengurinn,” or ‘The Foreign Boy,’ which was based on Þórarin Leifsson’s Dóri Litli verður útlenskur (‘Little Dóri becomes a foreigner’). The basic premise of the story is that one day (under to a variety of strange circumstances that differ from book to play) a popular Icelandic boy, nicknamed Little Dóri (Dóri short for Halldór, and he’s actually quite big), suddenly becomes foreign. That is to say, everyone around him suddenly believes that he’s foreign, that he can’t speak Icelandic and that he now needs to apply for permission to live in Iceland.
A page excerpt from the book:
The principal cleared his throat and said:
“It has become clear that Little Dóri is foreign.”
“That’s impossible,” said Dóri’s mother. “We’re Halldór’s parents.”
“Of course! But foreigners have parents like everyone else.”
Little Dóri’s mother thought to herself. The principal was right, of course.
Icelandic child: Where are you from again?
Me: The United States.
Child [looking a bit surprised]: Oh.
Me: Where did you think I was from?
Child: Frá útlöndum. [‘From abroad.’ Or, literally, ‘from outland.’]
So, when it rains, it pours, eh? You don’t hear from me for over a month, Internet, and now you can’t get me to shut up. I suppose all I can say is that finals and the holiday season are approaching and who knows how good I’ll be about keeping up with you then. So I might as well bury you in posts now.
Anyway: a bit belatedly (all my own doing), my second (mostly) monthly column for The Island Review is now online. It’s called “Independent People” (totally original, I know) and delves into giving and receiving help in Iceland, as well as an amusing experience that Mark and I had while driving up to Akureyri at the end of the summer. Here’s a sample (from the middle, so: Spoilers, I guess?):
I have only received one direct reproof in two months at my new job looking after children at an afterschool center. This was for preemptively pouring a glass of milk for a five year old at snack time. “Larissa, we do not pour the milk unless they ask,” said my colleague. “We want them to become independent.” Keep in mind, I later mistakenly directed the same child to walk home by herself, leaving her stranded on her doorstep until her mother came home an hour later. Utterly distraught at this epic blunder, I apologized profusely, only to have the same colleague shrug and say, “Well, we all make mistakes.”
You can read the whole piece on The Island Review’s website, here.
It’s a little belated now, but upon mentioning it in my ‘hi, I’m still here’ post a few days ago, I happened to realize that back at the end of September, I actually published my first cover story with The Grapevine. The story—a profile of two women who have worked really hard to build an authentic street dance culture here in Iceland—was a long time in the making and I was not only proud of how it came out, but also just really interested in the subjects themselves. So I think it’s worth sharing, even if it isn’t hot off the presses at this point.