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!

Áfram 2015!

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.

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On Independence, Or: Asking for help when pouring your milk

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.

Variations on a Theme

Awhile back, I was looking for interviews with author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir to read in preparation for a book review I was writing about her recently-translated-into-English novel Butterflies in November. I ran across an interesting one on a website called The Island Review and was intrigued by its simple but flexible premise:

The Island Review is an online magazine dedicated to great writing and visual art that comes from, is inspired by, celebrates or seeks to understand the extraordinary appeal of islands, as places and as metaphors.

It seemed like it would be an interesting outlet to write for, and so I took a look at their submissions page, pleased to find that they were seeking regular, island-based contributors. One thing lead to another and I am now a regular columnist. My first “introduction” post went up today and picked up where my last blog post here left off, actually. Here’s a little excerpt from the mid-beginning:

No matter how open and adventurous you are when you move to a new country, no matter how much prior knowledge you have about the place, no matter how intentional and premeditated your arrival: integration in a new culture is a journey. And kind of a long one, at that. I’ve been here in Iceland for just over two years now and I’m starting my third year studying Icelandic as a Second Language at the university-level (that’s the whole reason I came, actually). And although it’s often been something of an uphill battle, my partner and I have been very happy here. We’ve made lives for ourselves in Reykjavík—the nation’s single urban hub, home to more than two thirds of the total population—and have had opportunities that would have been completely and utterly impossible in the crush of in New York City, where we previously lived for ten years.

Moreover, in my time here, I’ve picked up a fair amount of local habits. I drink squeeze boxes of kókó mjólk (chocolate milk) with frankly alarming frequency, despite the fact that when I arrived, I couldn’t stand milk and wasn’t really a fan of chocolate, either. I wear a traditional Icelandic lopapeysa sweater. I get antsy if there is no intermission during a film at the movie theater. Swimming outdoors during a snow storm doesn’t faze me (the pools are geothermally-heated, after all, and anyway, I’ve started winter sea swimming, too). And, like any born-and-bread Icelander, I now understand that umbrellas are not only futile in the country’s gale force winds, they are also symbolic of man’s inability to cope with slightly inconvenient weather patterns.

And yet, although I’ve adopted a variety of Icelandic tendencies and adapted in other, perhaps more significant, ways as well, I still experience a sense of distance and remove here in Iceland, a sense of being outside.

(Don’t worry, there’s an upside: it’s not all ‘woe is me.’)

I’ll be contributing a post at least once monthly from here on out. You can find me on The Island Review website (here, with two other columnists based in Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego) and I’ll post excerpts on this blog, too, of course.

A Little Montreal in Iceland?

After my first day back to classes on Monday, Mark and I went out to the pool at Seltjarnarnes, which is officially one of my favorite places in the Reykjavík area, and certainly my favorite pool. This being the case—and having discovered that it really isn’t that difficult to get to the pool from downtown or school—I decided I would by a ten-ticket punchcard. In Icelandic, obv, because I’m old hat at this particular conversation now.

So I go up to the counter and ask the nice-looking teenage girl working there to buy ten tickets. The exchange I then had quite surprised me:

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Just a Day at the Beach

Well, hello, Internet. How was your day?


Good. How’s mine? So nice of you to ask.

Because my day was awesome, Internet. Because I went sea bathing in the North Atlantic, after dark (5:30 PM), in November, and I not only didn’t pass out, freak out, or die, I actually enjoyed it.

How do you like them apples?!

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Hvaða er stjörnumerkið þítt? (What’s Your Sign?)

“Fortune Teller,” McCall’s Magazine, Style and Beauty Cover, 1940, via George Eastman House Photography Collection (found in Flickr Commons)


Having just completed my first two weeks of classes in the Icelandic as a Second Language BA program, it’s interesting to reflect back on this same time last year. My, how things have changed!

At the start of last year, we had no kennitala, and no place to live, which resulted in a great deal of money spent, and a great deal of hair falling out. I also failed my entrance test to the Icelandic BA program which was an epic blow to my ego and not a little soul-crushing. Eventually, of course, this all worked out. We found an apartment, I made my peace with the fact that I was entering the Icelandic-for-Super-Beginners program, and life continued anew.

This year makes for an interesting point of comparison, however, when you consider that when we arrived, we returned to an apartment—and our landlady had made the bed for us and left the light on, even. And we may have jumped right into the thick of it, but I came back with a job, and moreover, suddenly had an amazingly confidence-inspiring run of Winning Icelandic.

And oh, as it turns out, having that first year of preparation for the BA program was a really good thing in the long run. Because as it stands, I am ahead of the curve in my classes—my professors speak in Icelandic and I understand. I actually skipped a grammar lecture because I am already familiar enough with the concepts the teacher was discussing. It’s really great, not least because these first weeks at work have required a lot of my time and attention, and if we were jumping into concepts I had no familiarity with, I’d be a wreck right now. It’s a lot more fun, I think, to not be a wreck.

The thing with these first year classes is that we are starting from the very beginning in a lot of ways—we’re talking about the fact that nouns have genders in Icelandic, and thus far, we’re only dealing with them in the nominative form. But these basic concepts are being combined with a number of others (new and/or additional rules for vowel shifts, matching adjectives/pronouns in gender/number/case) which are more advanced. The text books are all in Icelandic and the explanations are often rather cursory. It’s like a crash course in the language leading up to more complex study (I think, at least), and really—I would have been a mess last year trying to navigate this all from scratch. Instead, I am now simply reinforcing what I already know and adding to it here and there. And even better, I’m listening to people speak in Icelandic at least 7+ hours a week.

One of our lessons this week was about star signs. It was a similar lesson to one we had last year, but with much more vocab. I had to go through and translate all of the descriptions for each star sign, and then explain whether I thought the adjectives fit my personality or not. This, nicely enough, involved some explanations of the nuances of certain adjectives and slight differences between synonyms, which I appreciated.

I’m a Taurus, or naut. My personality description was as follows:

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Getting Settled in the Summer Homestead

Not Iceland.

Hello again, dear readers—this time from Arizona! Having left Iceland in a flurry, landed in New York just in time for a Memorial Day BBQ, and departed in yet another flash, we’ve now settled half way around the world (and a seven hour time difference) and will actually be here long enough to unpack. Thrilling stuff!

It is amazing to me how quickly you can adapt to changing surroundings, once you get in the swing of doing so. When we first uprooted and moved to Iceland from Brooklyn, it was incredibly stressful, and felt, at times, downright impossible. Nine months later, we’re blasting through time zones and weather patterns like it’s nothing. Well, not exactly nothing: for the first few days here in AZ, I was falling asleep before 9:00 PM and in something of a daze—possibly because it is now regularly above 108 degrees outside (that’s above 42 C, for reference), and (to my immense satisfaction) very dry. But I’m adjusting much better now, six days in, and am looking forward to early mornings, massive quantities of Mexican food, family time, friend BBQs and trips to the zoo, swimming in cool water for a change (although probably not all the chlorine), long-distance Icelandic practice (see below), and the incredibly soothing summer smell of sunscreen.

My day job this summer is full-time, and full-time away from the internet at that. This is probably not a bad thing, but it does mean that I’ll need to be more creative about when I do my promised post catch-ups and the occasional news-from-Iceland note.

For the time being, however, how about a few good vocab words that I just learned this morning in my pre-work Icelandic lesson? Já? Frábært!

smám saman adv

Orsök og afleiðing
cause and effect

Still to come:

  • Old ice cream
  • VIP movie screenings
  • Hvalfjörður 2.0 (the whale bone edition)
  • Mexican food in Iceland
  • My very first literary translation (and very first basic translation flub up)

Stay tuned!

Why I Want to Go to Housewife School

A picture of Hússtjórnarskólinn í Reykjavík, via their website.

With my compliments to all the women in my family and life who know how to do stuff (“stuff” encompasses a lot, I know, but purposefully), I give you my most recent foray into long-form blogging: “Why I Want to Go to Housewife School.”

Housewife School” (that’s not the official name, but a nickname that has stuck over the years) is a Reykjavík institution which has been teaching women (and occasionally men) how to do all sorts of useful things—from crafting and (clothing) construction to cooking and cleaning—for 71 years. It was brought to my attention by another Fulbrighter who knows someone who attended the school, but as I’ve been discovering, a lot of Icelandic women have attended through the years.

Photo (I think) of former students at Hússtjórnarskólinn, via their website.

I think it is a fabulous concept and would love to attend myself one day, when my Icelandic is up to par. (Another goal!) In the meantime, I’ve written about it for BlogHer. You can read the full article via the link above, but here’s a snippet:

My great-gram knew how to raise and wring chickens’ necks because she had to. But I’d guess that learning wasn’t much fun (for many reasons), and I’m almost positive that her mom would have been frustrated with Gram’s technique and made some off-hand comments which sparked an argument, and they probably stood in the front yard arguing about correct neck-wringing strategies until they were both blue in the face.

When learning how to do anything, it helps to have an objective teacher.

Cheers to you, great-grama, and grama, and mom and all the rest of you talented ladies who have learned handcrafts and domestic skills without the benefit of a school. And to the women in my life, an extra ‘thanks’ for trying to teach me how to “do stuff” even if it didn’t always pan out. And, lastly, a hearty cheers to my little sister who already knows how to do a lot of cool stuff that I myself probably never will.

57 Days and Counting

Happy April, everyone—I can hardly believe we’re here already. This means not only the start of a lovely, sunny spring here in Reykjavík (one of the sunniest in years, I’m told) but it is also, not to get all doom-and-gloom sounding, the beginning of our last two months here in Iceland. Until we come back in late August, that is. But in 57 days, there is a lot to be done. Shall we list? (List! list!)

  • Six finals, including two oral exams my Speech & Pronunciation class (one 5 minute group presentation—about cats—which we will be giving next week; one conversational group test in which three students have to speak together on one of a few general topics which is randomly selected on test day), two written tests for my Vocab and Self Study classes, and a paper—on vampires—for the undergraduate English class on vampires which I enrolled in for fun.
  • Two pending articles for The Reykjavík Grapevine
  • One book review of an Icelandic book for a literature website
  • File for a tax extension!
  • Presentation about this year’s experience for the Fulbright Commission, which I would really like to do at least part of in Icelandic
  • And oh yeah, that whole Little Free Library Reykjavík thing, which is well-underway, and yet has a lot further to go before it will be done…
    • Permits still pending for installation
    • Unit has been painted, but still needs to be put together (this week!)
    • Final book selection needs to be culled (this is going to be the really time-consuming part)
    • Extra books need to be distributed to people in Reykjavík to hold over the summer for restocking purposes
    • Gifts need to be sent out to contributors

And really, I can’t take any more listing, so I’m just going to leave it at that. A lot of the above will be enjoyable, and there are all sorts of enjoyable things that we’ll tuck in the midst of all these activities (more friends visiting! yay!), but still. Deep breaths, calm spirit, good attitude: þetta reddast.