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:


Image from Dóri Litli verður útlenskur by Þórarin Leifsson


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.

Skyr is Here!

Not long ago, I passed along the thrilling information that Icelandic skyr was going to start being exported to Whole Foods in the US. I checked on this when we got to Arizona, but unfortunately, no skyr (at least no Iceland-made skyr) was in stock. And then, last night: Ta Da! Feast your eyes, America: Skyr is here!

Found in a Whole Foods in Portland, Maine.

Just imagine that you are hearing a (my) goofy, child-like giggle on loop as you look at this.

Mark and I essentially cleared out the full stock, at least of the flavored varieties. We agreed that without the rhubarb jam, the plain skyr just was not going to transport us as much. We were rhapsodizing so intensely about our skyr triumph at the register that the girl checking us out took one out of the bag and checked the ingredients: “16 grams of protein?” She was impressed. “19 grams of sugar?” She was less so. (But it’s fat free! And so much protein! And it’s skyr!)

I will admit that the imported skyr is not a cheap deal: it set us back about $2.39 a piece. But it’s so filling and thick and creamy! And so heart-warming. Totally worth the splurge.

The Icelandic VIP Movie Experience (in Space!) and Tacos Án Kjöt

We had last week off from our summer jobs and so Mark and got to enjoy all sorts of desert-y things in our free time, culminating in a trip to the movies (nothing more desert-y than avoiding the heat in a movie theater) and a minor league baseball game (Yay, Toros! Padres!). Well, that’s great, Larissa, you say, but what does this have to do with Iceland(ic)? Not a whole lot, really, but both of the above-mentioned outings did give rise to semi-related Icelandic experiences which I will now relate to you.

For one, I have been somewhat remiss in not sharing with you all a delightful experience that we had in Reykjavík just before we left: the VIP movie theater. Perhaps I just take great amounts of delight from small things, but I am going to go ahead and say that going to the VIP theater in Mjödd (to see CUMBERBATCH IN SPACE, no less) was a real treat. What does a VIP Movie Experience in Iceland amount to, you ask? Well, for 2,200ISK (roughly 17.75USD) you get:

  • Entrance to a small theater (40 seats) with elevated seating so that no one’s head is in your face
  • Your very own individual stuffed recliner with a foot rest and cup holder and individual side table. As my friend was very quick to point out when we arrived, you can fully recline in your chair, with your feet up, and people can still walk in front of you. This is important because of the…
  • Unlimited self-serve popcorn and soda (!!!!). At the front of the theater, as you enter, there is a little heated truck ‘o popcorn and a soda dispenser with cups and bags. You just help yourself, as much as you want.
  • Unlimited self-serve popcorn and soda (!!!). This is worth mentioning twice because I love popcorn immensely and always hate how expensive it is in theaters. Popcorn is actually pretty affordable in Iceland, I am pleased to say, but it is served in reasonable portion sizes, and so the unlimited option feels like a particularly decadent treat.

The only thing that wasn’t utterly awesome about this experience was that they skipped the intermission, to which I have grown accustomed, and which would have served as a good time to refill on popcorn and soda. This omission caught everyone by surprise; very few people got up for refills because they too were waiting for the break. Never fear, though, I was emboldened enough by my excitement to get up (I was on the aisle, thankfully), duck my head, and dash to the popcorn for a mid-movie refill.

It is hard to take photos in a darkened VIP movie theater, but I did my best:


As for the baseball anecdote:

Long time readers may remember my Epic Fail at Speaking Icelandic when I first arrived in Iceland. The pervasive irony of this particular experience was that while I could not think of a single Icelandic word outside of “nei,” my long-lost Spanish suddenly thrust itself aggressively forward in my brain. Now, some ten-ish months later, at a minor league baseball game in Tucson, Arizona, I found myself (naturally) standing in front of a taco truck attempting to explain (on behalf of Mark) that I wanted one combo platter without meat. That is, “án kjöt.”

Suffice it to say that the very nice Mexican guys working the truck did not understand what in god’s name I was talking about, but they bore with me, and eventually clarified, that (as is often the case in Iceland) meatless was not so much an option. No problem–takk, I said gratefully, once I had placed my order–I got my platter there and Mark got a bean burrito from another stand. But this did inspire the guys there to give me a makeshift Spanish lesson in how to correctly say things like “gracias” and “muy bueno.”

I spent the rest of the game sitting in the stands and repeating various taco-related phrases in both Spanish and Icelandic:

  • My boyfriend does not eat meat.
    • Mi novio no come carne.
    • Kærastinn minn borðar ekki kjöt.
  • Is it possible to order the tacos without meat?
    • Es posible pedir tacos sín carne?
    • Er hægt að panta tacos án kjöt?
Baseball Night in Tucson.

Baseball Night in Tucson.


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!

The Saga of Carl Carlsson: Upcoming Iceland-Themed Simpson’s Episode

Scene from “The Bob Next Door,” which aired in May 2010. Still via News of Iceland

I sure hope I can catch this when I am back in the US (or maybe RÚV wil air it?): The Simpson’s is set to close its current season with an Iceland-themed episode called “The Saga of Carl Carlsson.” Per The Reykjavík Grapevine:

Fans of the show will get a double-dose on May 19 as two back-to-back episodes will end the season. One episode will be entitled ‘The Saga of Carl Carlsson’, named for Homer Simpson’s colleague at the nuclear power plant and drinking buddy, who also happens to be an African-Icelander.

In this episode, Homer, Carl, Lenny and bartender Moe win a lottery jackpot together and plan on splitting it, but Carl decides to make off with the money and heads to Iceland. The other three won’t let him get away with it though, and will embark on a journey up north.

And as a double incentive for those of you who are Sigur Rós fans, apparently, the episode will also feature one of the band’s songs which was composed especially for the episode. Per another Grapevine article:

…the original piece by Sigur Rós weighs heavily into the episode, which also features the band’s members drawn as characters. A Sigur Rós cover of the Simpsons theme song by Danny Elfman is also in the cards.

The episode–which is not the first Iceland-related Simpson’s episode, by the by–is set to air on May 19th. So mark your calendars and set the VCR TiVo, and someone invite me over for a viewing in June!

(Re)Viewing from Afar: Sergio Leone and America (Days)

Mark has been diligently lining up all sorts of freelance writing assignments for himself these days, and not only ones about local film festivals and art exhibitions in Reykjavík. Being the well-viewed fellow he is, he’s also keeping up with the critical dialog stateside, starting with his recent piece for Fanzine that discusses Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. It’s a very good piece even if you haven’t seen the movie, which, full disclosure, I haven’t. (I was re-reading an Icelandic novel for a review in the back room while Mark re-watched the movie in the living room for his review–both activities took us about the same amount of time; it is a long movie–and he was nice enough to even watch the last hour and a half or so wearing headphones when all the second-hand sex-and-violence sound effects got to be a little too distracting for me. Because he is just a nice guy that way.)

Anyway, in an unexpected, but totally relevant moment of confluence, Mark brings up Reykjavík’s “America Days” in the course of his discussion (you remember America Days, right?), which I’ll just quote briefly here:

But still, iconography is a funny thing. A grocery store here in Reykjavik recently held its “America Days,” featuring red-white-and-blue bunting and cardboard cutouts of Elvis, John Wayne and Obama surrounding displays of Twizzlers—this sort of mockably transparent enthusiasm to participate in what you and I take for granted is everywhere in Leone. Who but a foreigner would begin a movie called Once Upon a Time in America with Kate Smith?

So if you are interested in such things as film, garbled national iconography, and “dubious depictions of the flesh,” I recommend popping over to Fanzine and checking his piece out.




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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