On the Street Where You Live…

My grammar lesson today had some very practical and useful information about the common suffixes used for street names in Icelandic. This is a good example of that “basic but new and helpful” kind of lesson that I have been getting lately, and I thought I’d share.

There are a number of typical suffixes that are used for street names, and besides often indicating whether a byway is a “road,” or “street,” or something basic like that, these suffixes also often indicate something about the general landscape. When giving a street name as a location, you use either the preposition á or the preposition í, but either way, the street name that follows is in the dative case.

So how do you know whether to use á or í, you ask? The suffix determines it!

Here’s a short list of common street suffixes, their meanings, and which preposition they take:

í +

  • -bær: town
  • -gerði: fence/hedge
  • -fell: (an isolated) hill
  • -heimur: world? (this one seems a bit broad to me)
  • -hlíð: slope
  • -holt: hillock
  • -leiti: hill
  • -múli: cape
  • -mýri: swamp, moorland
  • -stræti: street, road
  • -sund: channel, alley, lane
  • -tún: hayfield

á+

  • -braut: course, way
  • -gata: street, path
  • -grandi: isthmus
  • -hagi: pasture
  • -melur: gravel bed (?)
  • -nes: cape, peninsula
  • -stígur: path, sheep track
  • -teigur: piece of grassland
  • -vegur: road, way

So, okay: maybe you don’t think this is the most interesting grammatical lesson that I have ever tried to give here (if there have been any, I suppose), but when you start considering just how many place names in Iceland include these suffices, I think the value of knowing these becomes pretty clear.

I, for one, tend to take place names here a bit for granted. I see the street name “Sæbraut” and don’t actually think of it as meaning anything—I just see it as a somewhat meaningless word, a name that doesn’t actually designate anything beyond a familiar bus route. This is, of course, simply because I don’t recognize the words in Icelandic names all the time yet, because I certainly don’t miss the opportunity to point out the meanings of Spanish street names to Mark whenever we’re in Arizona (my childhood home was on Camino de Oeste–Street of the West.”) But perhaps if I am a little more attentive to these Icelandic suffices, I can be just as irritating about place names here. So:

  • Sæ-braut: Sea-Way
  • Snæ-fells-nes: Snow(y?)-Mountain-Peninsula
  • Kópa-vogur: Seal pup-Cove
  • Bauga-nes: Circular-Peninsula
  • Hverfis-gata: Neighborhood-Street
  • Tún-gata: Hayfield-Street

Five Things You Can’t Find in Iceland…Except When You Can

The good people over at the Expats Blog are holding a competition for expat bloggers. The topic was amazingly open ended: you had to write a list about pretty much anything that has to do with the city in which you live. The list was supposed to be creative and useful both, and there was no set limit on the number of things in said list.

Well, you know I love a good list. So my contribution to the contest (I’m the only list from someone in Iceland, btw) is “Five Things You Can’t Find in Iceland…Except When You Can.” I’m not leaking any of the details here, so hop on over and check it out. If you think I’ve been particularly witty or brilliant and say something to that effect in the comments, I might even win a prize of some sort. But mostly, I’ll just feel all warm and fuzzy knowing that you read the list and enjoyed it.

There are about 80 contributors to the contest, so if you’re wondering about why Hong Kong “is *almost* a Perfect Utopia,” or five German habits that you would probably “pick up against your will” if you lived there, then you’ll find ample sources of amusement other than my own small offering.

Enjoy!

Hitting the Books: Some Test Time Vocab

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind (that’s world wind to some of you readers–you know who you are) around here lately, what with American holiday celebrations, the super awesome fun of having friends in town (our first guests! yay!), some fascinating cultural outings, and…oh yeah, exam time. So I have a lot of catch up to do, blog-wise.

But I’m taking a ‘brain break’ tonight (yes, that’s my coinage–I’m very proud) so that tomorrow, when I have no exams to speak of, I can bury my face in many books and flashcards and diagrams and not glaze over within the first hour. And it seemed apropos to post some of the more interesting vocab that I’ve come across in the last week or so, while preparing for my exams. (Rereading passages in the online program, going through workbooks, randomly discovering idiosyncratic words in the dictionary, etc.)

So here you have an entirely mixed list of interesting Icelandic words:

  • séríslenskur: uniquely, specifically Icelandic (I love this one)
  • snoppunga: to slap someone’s face (I also love this one: so specific)
  • yrkja: to write, compose poetry
  • mállýska: dialect
  • eftirsóttur: in demand, popular (I like this one because it looks like a flipped version of “sought-after,” which will make it easier to remember)
  • ánægður: pleased, satisfied, content
  • yfirgefa: to abandon, foresake
  • eyðibýli: deserted or abandoned farm
  • nýyerði: neologism (an example of a word I looked up in the Icelandic dictionary, only to then have to look it up in an English one)
  • dægrastytting: pastime, amusement
  • : to get, obtain, catch (as in ‘catch the bus’)
  • pínulítill: very small, little, miniscule (as in, ‘Ég tala bara pínulítið íslensku’: I speak just a tiny bit of Icelandic.)
  • áhríf: influence
  • sólarhringur: 24 hours
  • útivist: outdoor life, camping, hiking
  • sennilega: probably
  • stunda: to pursue, to cultivate
  • líkamsrækt: fitness training
  • jólafrí: Christmas vacation (this is a combo word, so I can’t prove it to you with a dictionary link–you just have to believe me)

Ameriskir Dagur!

Just in time for Thanksgiving…

Perhaps you remember Hagkaup, dear readers, as the grocery store which featured an exceptional Halloween display with pumpkins. Based on further observation, however, I am now going to make the guess that this grocery store chain has an (un)official corner on the American holidays market in Iceland, to the point of possibly even creating new American holidays for wistful expats. I give you:

America Days!

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The Skyr Power Rankings

It seems likely that many of you are in some way familiar with Iceland’s dairy product extraordinaire, skyr, but for those of you who aren’t, skyr is a creamy, cultured dairy product which, with its thick consistency and delightful tartness, may remind you much of greek yogurt. According to Wikipedia (above) skyr is actually a type of cheese, but I don’t think that any non-Icelander who ran across it in a grocery store would think of it that way.

Skyr is ubiquitous in Iceland, and there are seemingly endless varieties and flavors. There are a couple main brands and when you buy a small cup in the grocery store or at a shop, they come with these adorable little folding plastic spoons, the better to eat on the go.

Now, many of you may have tried skyr in the US via the company Siggi’s. Siggi’s skyr was developed by and Icelander living in New York but while it is pretty tasty, I have to say that not only is it rather expensive, it just isn’t the same as what you get here (it seems a lot more sour, and some of the flavors are a little random.) But if you’re looking to get the gist of skyr and have a healthy pro-biotic morning infusion, then I wouldn’t dissuade you from splurging on a Siggi’s, which nicely enough, has a recyclable label so you can feel good about that too. But back to skyr in Iceland…

Mark and I have probably eaten our weight in skyr in the last month and have sampled a lot of flavors in the process. And so for fun, I suggested (in the spirit of the neighborhood rankings published annually by Mark’s former publication) that we come up with Skyr Power Rankings. If I had planned this ahead better, I would have come up with all sorts of qualities on which to judge the various skyrs, and perhaps would have set up a side by side taste test, but alas, I did not. We’re basically just rating these on flavor for the time being, irrespective of differences that you might find between brands. Even as I write this, though, I regret the lack of scientific accuracy here, so rest assured that one day very soon I will compare these instinctual and not at all scientifically qualified rankings with results obtained a more robust experiment involving control groups, brand comparisons, and the like. (Keep in mind that there are some flavors which will never be reviewed in my power rankings–banana, for instance–because I dislike the flavor and the idea of eating bananas still gives me a bit of the willies. I’m sure that for a banana lover, however, that the banana skyr is exceptional.)

But for now, I give you a ranking–from lowest to highest–of the skyr flavors we’ve tried thus far in Iceland:

  • Caramel — This one was interesting, but a little underwhelming. More like dessert than something you’d eat for breakfast, the caramel is mixed in instead of being added in as a swirl or bottom layer. So the whole cup of skyr is a sort of toasted brown color, and is not unlike eating cold flan. I like flan, but maybe not for breakfast.
  • Melon & Fig — Mark had this one and I just tasted it a little. The melon flavor was definitely subtle and I wouldn’t normally pick anything flavored with figs, but it was actually pretty good. Like Fig Newton cookies, you take a bite and think, ‘Oh yeah–figs are not bad,” but that realization doesn’t really encourage you to go out and buy more Fig Newtons or fig skyr in the future.
  • Peach/Pear — Two separate flavors, tied in rankings. Both had a very good, very pear-y/peach-y flavor, but neither had that special something to take them over the top. For instance, like the…
  • Raspberry and Peach — With the berry flavor to take plain peach to the next level, this one is quite tasty–you can taste both elements really well and there are little raspberry bits sprinkled throughout.
  • Blueberry/Raspberry — These are two different flavors, again, not one combined. (Actually, I can’t say I’ve seen a ‘mixed berry’ skyr, which is a little odd–that seems like it would be a natural choice.) Really, whether you like blueberry or raspberry best entirely depends on well, whether you like blueberry or raspberry best. Being in Iceland, which has delicious home-grown blueberries, I tend to opt for that one, but Mark prefers the raspberry.
  • Plain (Unflavored) — You wouldn’t think that plain skyr would be toward the top of the list, but really–this guy has a multifaceted personality, and that puts him very close to the best in the rankings. Sometimes you just want the classic, and plain skyr, like plain greek yogurt, can also function as sour cream, so it has a sort of double identity when you’re cooking. It is also a fantastic base for the yogurt sauces that you might make with middle eastern dishes or fish (garlic-cilantro-cayenne yogurt sauce, for instance). It is also absolutely delicious in the morning when drizzled with a little rhubarb jam, which is one of my favorite things in Iceland thus far.

But at the end of the day, the Best Skyr We’ve Had in Iceland so far is…

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I Say Tomato, They Say Þðöqqxædn

Well, actually, they say “tómatur” in Icelandic, which isn’t all that hard. However, there are a whole host of interesting and interestingly difficult notes on Icelandic pronunciation which I have been picking up over the last couple of weeks which I thought I’d share, this ostensibly being a blog which deals not only with my wild and crazy adventures on The Rock (not this one; not this one; this one, and yes, they really call it that sometimes), but also the process of learning Icelandic.

So here is a list (another one! I love lists) of…

Things I’ve Learned,

or Learned that I haven’t Learned,

About Icelandic Pronunciation:

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Áfram Ísland! A Very Late and Not Totally Sports-Related Recap of Iceland’s First World Cup Qualifier Match

Photos of fans during the Iceland v. Norway World Cup Qualifier Game

A few Fridays ago–the day after we moved into our awesome apartment–Mark and I went to the Icelandic national soccer team’s first World Cup Qualifier match against Norway. This was pretty cool for a handful of reasons. For one, it was a professional soccer game (henceforth known, in Rest-of-the-world-ese, as ‘football’), and harkened the gathering of momentum toward World Cup 2014. I know that you might not believe me when I say that I love the World Cup, but guys, I love the World Cup.

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Just Because You Aren’t In Class Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t Learning

After a week and a half in classes, I’ve made a schedule adjustment: I dropped my only non-language related course, my “Icelandic Culture” survey. I hemmed and hawed about this a rather lot–I wasn’t wild about the generality of the syllabus (or, goodness me, group presentations), but I did want to be exposed to aspects of Icelandic culture and history that I was not familiar with on a regular basis. At the end of the mental debating, however, I came to a conclusion: the class met twice a week and was going to involve more work than I was entirely prepared to invest. I literally have nothing to lose by dropping it–it didn’t cost any tuition, and it isn’t required for the Practical Certificate program. And the assumption that ‘cultural literacy’ was something that I should primarily be acquiring in a classroom–when I have been afforded this amazing opportunity to actually interact with said culture on a daily basis, in person–seemed a bit flawed. I had wanted to prove, in some respect, that I was taking this experience seriously, and at first, the idea that I would only have one class each morning and then loads of unstructured time in which to study and gallivant around town seemed almost too decadent. But isn’t that the point, really?!

And so, I give you a short, spontaneous manifesto for the rest of my time here in Iceland:

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A Handful of Random Observations

We’ve now been in Iceland for just over two weeks. Some brief, and mostly unrelated, observations:

-Coffee breaks are like a religious ritual here. Each class I have is about an hour and a half and each one has a ten minute coffee break in the middle. From the Icelandic Online lessons I took early on, I’m led to believe that coffee breaks are a big–and scheduled–part of the work day, too. Also, with alcohol being less readily available (since it’s only sold in the state-run liquor stores, which all close between 6 – 8 PM), it sort of becomes the default drink at home/in the cafeteria etc. I thought I used to drink a lot of coffee. This was less true then that it is now.

-Your cash makes you seem foreign. Seriously, people charge coffees here, and n’er do you hear the person at the counter say, “sorry, there’s a minimum for cards.”

-Bikes are primarily a sidewalk vehicle here. There are some paths on the roadways, and some divided paved paths meant for bikes and pedestrians, but even when there are bike paths, riders generally opt for the sidewalk. This drives Mark–a city cyclist and urban biker-kamikaze himself–crazy. I’ll admit that it is particularly unsettling when a bike sneaks up behind you without you realizing it, or someone weaves in and out of walkers while on their bike. Someone once told me that it just isn’t safe to ride on the streets, though, because “drivers aren’t used to it.”

-Icelandic women (or at least young Icelandic women) seem collectively enamored of the (black) tights under jean shorts look. I see about a dozen people wearing this every day.

-While there is a fair amount of Icelandic produce being sold (see below), there’s obviously a lot of food/domestic products being imported. (One of the more prevalent brands seems to be “European Shopper,” a sweetly generic/nationless brand which appears to really be distributed in all the far corners of Europe.) From these imports, I’m gathering that European food packaging is a lot more minimal than what you find in the U.S., which doesn’t really surprise me. But two examples: 1) Most milk comes in small, square-shaped recyclable cardboard cartons that you have to unfold the top of and cut open at the corner. (We’ve started keeping our milk in a small glass pitcher in the fridge because the boxes don’t re-close so well.) 2) Rolls of tin foil don’t necessarily have the piece of serrated metal which helps you cut a clean piece–you just have to pull against the cardboard edge and make it work.

-Icelandic produce (íslenskt grænmeti) is a big deal. The slogan you see on all the ads is “Þú veist hvaðan það kemur!”, which I’m pretty sure means “You know where it comes from.” And actually, it’s pretty varied and pretty good. We’ve had Icelandic lettuces and greens, Icelandic cucumbers, and Icelandic tomatoes, among other things, and quite enjoyed it. I’m not sure whether the greenhouse-grown selection is going to be maintained at this variety in the heart of the winter, but I have not been disappointed with out vegetable selection thus far.

-It is extremely difficult to find face wash in this country. Maybe they all just have perfect skin? Maybe it’s the great water. Whatever the reason, I went to three or four grocery stores and pharmacies until I finally found some Clean & Clear face scrub that smells like Old Spice in a pharmacy in a strip mall about 25 minutes outside of Reykjavik. (We stopped in while we were waiting for a bus to take us back from seeing an apartment in the ‘burbs.)

-Additionally, over the counter medication also doesn’t seem to exist here. Like Advil? Not really available, unless I’m missing something. (More on my recent trip to the pharmacy anon…)

-The weekly market, Kolaportið, has a great (as in extensive and interesting) selection of food. Not only is there a wide variety of seafood (as you may expect) there is also a whole Thai/south Asian corner (which you probably wouldn’t). I ran across this corner when visiting with my mom in April and was heartened to find a whole shelf of fresh bok choy, which at the time, was the only fresh green vegetable I had seen in Iceland. (I had missed all the íslenskt grænmeti somehow.) Thus far, Mark and I have made good use of the Thai food offerings, finding a delicious basil chili sauce that’s great for stir fry, and such delectables as (frozen) shitake mushrooms, lemongrass, and edamame, canned bamboo shoots, and, of course, bok choy. It looks like living in Iceland may help us develop our Asian cuisine.

(Should you want to buy frozen sheep hearts, those can also be found at the Kolaportið, but so far, we’ve given those a miss.)

Adventures in Public Transportation: The Strætó

We’ve been making good and frequent use of the Reykjavik bus system (called the Strætó), so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe Icelandic public transportation in action. The Strætó has a lot going for it: the buses are clean (coming from New York City subways, this is a big one, and not to be taken for granted), and while they don’t run all night (the last bus on most routes is just before midnight), they do run reasonably frequently during the week–particularly in the morning/after work hours. Almost all the buses have easy-to-read digital signs above the driver which indicate the next stop, and these stops are also generally announced clearly over a speaker system (also a big change from the NYC subways). The route map is very easy to decipher. The system runs buses from Reykjavik into three or four surrounding suburbs. There is an extensive and easy-to-use website (available in English!) that you can use to plan your trip to/from precise addresses and/or local points of interest (schools, cinemas, swimming pools, etc.). All very good things. But there are, of course, some idiosyncrasies and pointers for future Strætó commuters worth sharing, too:

(If you want to get into the spirit of things, you might check out this song, “Strætó 14,” by the Icelandic singer Þórir Georg. I’m not sure what the song is about exactly, but it is at least titularly about a bus line, so that’s a good start.)

 
-Many of the routes start or begin in neighborhoods where there are just not a lot of bus commuters. Take our own line, the number 12 (holla!): this bus runs from a hub well out outside of Reykjavík, through the city center, past the university, and ends right on the ocean, not 30 feet from our door. Two of the last three stops are within spitting distance from one another, and I’ve definitely ridden with people who make use of both stops, 20 feet apart, instead of just getting off at the same time. But usually, once it’s past the university stops, the bus is empty, save Mark and I. Twice now, the bus driver has turned around and yelled back to me to double check that I was on the right bus, and that being the case, to check which stop I wanted so that he could blow by the other ones without pause. The number 12 is basically the bus that the city of Reykjavík operates in order to give us a ride home. (Mark’s observation, not mine.) Many of you remember the way I anthropomorphized the G train. The number 12 promises to occupy a similar place in my heart.

-Most of these buses are driven fast. Like, super duper fast. On highways and through residential areas alike. (They may actually be faster in the residential areas.) And they take off pretty much as soon as you get in, even if you’re still paying your fare. Even if you think that you have great surf board/subway/train/bus balance, you really should hold on. You’re not expecting the driver to take the roundabout at 80mph (or whatever the km/hr equivalent is), but he’s going to.

-Buses run pretty much on schedule (yay!), but occasionally–because of the speedy driving, no doubt–they will run a bit fast. If, hypothetically, your bus is arriving at the stop earlier than scheduled and you start running for it (G train style, for you Brooklynites), neither will the bus driver wait nor will the individuals standing at the bus stop make any effort to get the bus driver to wait. Rather, you will arrive at the bus stop, probably swearing, just as it blasts away (very possibly empty), and the other commuters at the stop will just sort of shrug at you, or not look at you at all.

-Should you catch your bus and sit safely down before blast off, stay vigilant. When you arrive at your stop, exit through the middle or back door, and do so expeditiously. The doors are automatic, and if you get caught, it might take longer than you’d hope to get them open again. (Iceland isn’t generally big on safety measures like railings along sheer cliff faces or doors that open back up if something/someone gets in the way.) Point of fact: I watched a young mother get caught in the back door this weekend with her very little girl on the other side of the door, and even with her yelling, and me yelling (in English), and finally someone else yelling (in Icelandic), it took quite awhile for her to get pried loose, and it looked like it hurt. The bus driver eventually saw fit  to get off and see what the fuss was about, but basically just gave the characteristic shrug when she said she’d been caught in the door, pointed her in another direction (towards what I don’t know), got back on the bus, and kept going, at mach 3.

-Another note on the doors: they don’t always close before the bus continues moving. One of the reasonably friendly drivers on the number 12 (holla!) has a particular tendency to floor the gas after dropping people off, and usually does so well before the middle and back doors are closed. I imagine that this will make for some very chilly rides in the winter time. There’s also a lot of alarms and buzzers that go off each time the bus starts moving with the doors open, which is really off-putting until it becomes really amusing.

-And lastly, as a student, you are entitled to a discounted nine month bus pass, but only once your kennitala has been activated in The System, and these can only be purchased online, via the Icelandic version of the website. If you go to the window of one of the larger bus stations and try to explain that the website is not allowing you to purchase a student card because it doesn’t yet recognize your kennitala, you will receive a shrug, and, if you’re lucky, be directed to email someone who will then just tell you that you need to wait some more.

So there’s the Strætó, in a nutshell.