Campaganza 2016: Hraunborgir

Midsummer is nigh here in Iceland and although our run of astoundingly sunshiney summer days seems to have finally caved to the status quo and gotten rainy again, Mark and I have finally gotten the Summer 2016 Campaganza (that is a camping-extravaganza…the portmanteau maybe didn’t work as well as I was hoping) underway. Having done an absurd amount of research on tents, collected a not inconsiderable amount of gear, and investigated a number of local campground options, we decided to take our inaugural outing this weekend—a sort of test run, if you will, for a longer two-week expedition we intend to take further afield in July.

Because we were leaving later in the day on Friday, we decided to find a campground relatively close to the city and settled on Hraunborgir, a campground/summer cabin community close to Selfoss which boasts a swimming pool, golf course, mini golf ‘course,’ and a rec center where it’s possible to order yourself a pizza and watch sporting events of note, such as Iceland’s just-fine-not-great Eurocup match against Hungary on Saturday.

The weather forecast was, in all honesty, not so spectacular for Friday and Saturday, but waiting for the right weather in Iceland is a distinctly futile exercise, and also, what is the point of finding yourselves a sweet, water- and windproof tent with a sheltered ‘living room’ if you only camp in the driest and sunshiney-ist of conditions? So off we went, getting rather lucky with our weather on the first afternoon and night, even if it did go from being super warm to super chilly quite quickly. Which is when I realized, a bit despairingly, that I’d forgotten both a coat and a scarf.

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By the Time the Sun Goes Down (A Short Short Story)

Harpa photo inspiration for Iceland Writers Retreat writing contest. Via Harpa.

Back in the spring, the Iceland Writers Retreat held a writing contest. Using a photo taken in the Harpa concert hall as inspiration (see above), participants were supposed to write an original short story or essay of no more than 500 words. The winner, chosen by Iceland Travel and a panel of judges, would receive free spot in the 2015 retreat.

Now, that was a pretty good prize and I thought it would be a good excuse to flex those creative writing muscles, so I gave it a shot. And I was pretty pleased with the result. I didn’t win the grand prize, but nicely enough, my story was chosen as one of the 10 runners-up. All ten of these stories, including my own, have been published now on the Harpa website and they even threw in a photo book and free tickets to a fall concert to boot. Not too shabby.

My story was called “By the Time the Sun Goes Down.” Here’s the beginning:

On an evening this clear—the soft pastel light leaping off the glass, bouncing, somehow musically, between the water as it softly plashes against the sides of the harbor boats and the honeycombed windows that I’m sitting here staring through like an idiot—I should really be outside. But while I’ve lived here long enough to know better than to take such a respite for granted, I haven’t lived here long enough to have mastered the art of last minute outdoor adventuring.

Not like my neighbors, for instance, who seem to be in a state of constant readiness. It takes them all of ten minutes to get six mountain bikes, a kayak, a dog, and four clamoring kids packed into their trusty, rusty SUV, anoraks and hiking boots and helmets, pallets of single-serving chocolate milk boxes and plastic-wrapped sandwiches tossed in every which way behind them. Ten minutes. I know—I’ve timed them. The minute the sky clears and the sun comes out, they’re off. I always wonder where they go.

If you’d like to read the rest, it’s the first story on this page. And, if you’re interested, you can read the other runners-up as well: here and here. Happy reading!

Summertime and Summer Time

We recently celebrated midsummer here, and I wrote about it, as well my general sense of the summertime spirit here in Iceland, for my most recent column in The Island Review. The full piece can be read on their website, but here’s an excerpt:

“Happy summer solstice,” I wished a southerly-dwelling friend of mine this weekend. “I had no idea,” she said, wishing me a happy day in return. “Do you have any local traditions to take part in?”

Now, if you’re talking about traditions along the lines of those our Nordic neighbors partake of during the midsummer season — dancing around maypoles, donning floral crowns, lighting bonfires, and consuming large quantities of fermented fish — the answer is no. (Bonfires are a popular New Year’s tradition here, but the opportunity to freak out a foreigner is generally excuse enough to bust out the fermented fish shark.)

Rather, I’d say that summer is more of a state of mind in Iceland than it is a season, or a holiday, or a set of prescribed traditions. There’s a kind of urgency accompanies the sudden shift from near-constant darkness to near-constant daylight, a sense that while it may not exactly be warm, this is the time to go out and make the most of what several of my coworkers and acquaintances have referred to as “fallegt land okkar”—our beautiful country. Suffice to say, out of office auto-replies are quite commonplace from April to September.

There’s a snippet a little further on, too, which recalls a summer afternoon last year, and which can be nicely augmented by some throwback photos:

I distinctly remember a Saturday later that same summer, notable because it was the only day that season that I was able to sit outside in a sleeveless shirt for more than half an hour. I was out with a group of friends, and making our way to a park, we passed street musicians, people selling crafts, and even a giant inflatable swimming pool where kids zipped up into giant plastic balls could gambol about like bubble-encased sumo wrestlers. Arriving at the park, itself surrounded by cafés with outdoor seating, we plonked ourselves down on the grass, and (excepting a brief and enterprising run to a nearby Vínbuð for a few cans of beer), didn’t move for the next three hours.    

Around us, however, the air was almost literally buzzing with excitement. Every single café table and chair was filled. There were guys strumming guitars, their classic rock covers mingling with the sound of tinny pop music as teens tried to get as much volume as possible out of their phones. Not one, not two, but three bachelorette parties — each with increasingly antic displays of pre-marital liberty — trooped through the clusters of people lounging on the grass. A coworker on her way to a barbeque sat down with us for a bit and debated whether it might not be better to go straight to the beach instead, or maybe she could do both? A young girl walking a bunny on a leash skipped by. Children scrambled up to the tip top of a statue and whooped.

So, enjoy a little piece of summer in Iceland. And after, if you’re hankering for some more midsummer (and midsummer-adjacent) photos, I’ve posted a few on the new and improved photo blog, here.

Happy summer, everyone!

A good þumalputtaregla for traveling in Iceland

Image via the University of Iceland’s Vísindavefurinn, answering the question: “Hvaðan kemur orðið þumalputtaregla?” (‘Where does the word ‘þumalputtaregla’ come from?’)

I used to routinely get nervous when I’d travel to a new country—worried that I’d somehow inadvertently offend someone or do something wrong or misunderstand protocol and find myself publicly shamed or yelled at or generally embarassed by my own lack of worldliness. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded: I received a dressing down (in Danish) for turning off a water tap in a museum bathroom in Denmark (still not sure what went awry there), and I accidentally stole a woman’s seat in a theater in Amsterdam, to her shock and horrified displeasure (she yelled; I moved, trying lamely to explain that I didn’t know that while unassigned, the seating was, after the intermission, pretty much set in stone).

These occurrences aren’t the end of the world, though, and while I still find myself worried that I’ll make a fool of myself simply because I don’t know the unspoken system in a new country or city, a little more travel has gone a long way in alleviating some of my concern. Everyone, after all, is a tourist somewhere. And so, by and large, my go-to þumalputtaregla, or rule of thumb, is to just do my best to not be a jerk.

Don’t be a Jerk. Generally, this works out pretty well. But it’s still nice to have a bit of insight into cultural norms and practices before you go somewhere. To this end, the UK’s Business Insider recently tried to shed some light on common sources of irritation for locals when encountering visitors in their countries. Often, I feel like these sorts of lists are vague or stereotypical, but this time around, I found the Iceland advice pretty spot-on. There was only one rule of thumb mentioned for Iceland: Don’t be overly friendly.” This was drawn from advice given by two Icelandic Reddit users, and as summarized as follows:

“It’s not that Icelandic people aren’t courteous, or would respond unfriendly in the street. We’re just more used to everyone keeping to themselves in public.” – /u/KristinnK

“It’s usually not a good thing to start a conversation with us out of the blue at, say, a museum. […] Saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ would be the weirdest experience of the week for any Icelander.” – /u/KFJ943

This last one particularly made me giggle because I had just been trying to explain the general look of confusion that one (often an American, I might add) will get if she starts any kind of interaction in a shop (or cultural institution or coffee shop or restaurant) with chit-chat. Namely, “Hi, how are you?” Response: [Confused head tilt.]

As an interesting point of comparison, check out one of the answers given by someone in Norway:

Don’t ask people how they’re doing unless you’re ready to get deep. “We will give an actual answer.” – /u/maiset


Back to this issue of friendliness, however, I would probably suggest that the opposite advice should be given to travelers to the US: always start your interactions with a little chit chat. How are you today? Hi, there, how you doing? Unlike Norwegians, we will probably not respond to a stranger or acquaintance with a full-blown narrative of all of our ills (that would be weird), but we will appreciate that you’ve made the attempt to connect with us on a basic—and most importantly, friendly—level. Of course, this depends on where you are in the country, but boy, howdy, we Americans do (generally) love our pleasantries.


This suggestions didn’t come up for American advisors, however. Rather, they suggested that visitors don’t smoke weed in public, even in places where it is legal (seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again, similar to advice was given by Dutch people to travelers in Amsterdam), don’t stand too close while waiting in line (a distance of an arm’s length was advised), don’t imitate a Southern accent, and don’t assume the whole country is the same. Maybe not the specific collection of advice I would have given someone, but probably not bad places to start. (That not standing too close thing rang true for me—I didn’t realize I had a thing about being crowded until I moved out of the States.)



And that is your friendly Traveling-In-Iceland PSA for today. The More You Know, guys.

“I am Icelandic because I speak Icelandic.”

Back in February—a lot happening that month—I was contacted by Patrick Cox, a journalist who, among other things, runs “The World in Words” podcast for Public Radio International. For those of you with nerdy linguistic leanings (or totally hip linguistic leanings, as the case may be), I encourage you to check it out. It’s a fascinating podcast that looks at language from a socio-cultural-historical perspective and since subscribing myself, I’ve learned about the popularity of hesitation words ‘um’ and ‘uh’ around the world (as well as which genders tend to prefer which word), the origin of the game Mafia, C.K. Moncrieff, the fascinating man who translated Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (and gave it its famous English title), and more.

All of this would be interesting enough to merit a shout-out, but the reason I bring this podcast to your attention now is that based on his visit in February, Patrick has now put together two podcasts about the Icelandic language. And—whoot, whoot—I am (briefly) quoted in one of these. Full disclosure: mine are not the most brilliant contributions on the state of the Icelandic language. But nevertheless, Patrick and I had a lovely chat about Icelandic—a rather invigorating one, I might add, at a point when I was feeling a bit down about the language and my handle on it in general— and I’m delighted to have been a part of his investigations.

I really encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes (or whatever the kids are using these days), but you can also listen to each episode (17 and 15 minutes respectively) on the World in Words website. There are also written transcripts of both (although they’re abridged, actually—more of me in the podcast version!), but as Patrick says, its preferable to listen to these, as they were all conducted as spoken interviews.

Here’s part one (which I’m included in):

Will Icelanders one day ditch their language for English? (17 min)

Here’s part two:

The future of the Icelandic language may lie in its past (15 min)

Sólmyrkvi madness á Íslandi

Solar eclipse photo via Mbl newspaper photographer Eggert.

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.

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Puffins: A Lot Like Puppies

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.

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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 This is Christmas

Björgvín and Eyjólfur performing at a Christmas concert together. (Image via http://www.tatukantomaa.net.)

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.

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Merry Christmas (If I Feel Like It)

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:

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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.

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Two Languages

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:

Útlenskur

Image from Dóri Litli verður útlenskur by Þórarin Leifsson

Foreign!

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.