“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)

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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.

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.

“The smallest human acts of kindness…”

I recently re-listened to a great episode of This American Life, a program called “Americans in Paris,” which begins with Ira Glass following David Sedaris on an extremely esoteric tour of Paris not so long after David had relocated there. (He seems to have moved on to West Sussex, England since, as revealed by this humorous bit of recent news.)

Much like the France-related essays in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, this radio segment deals a lot with David’s struggles to learn and speak French. I think about these pieces a lot, actually, because they are tragic and embarrassing and funny and triumphant in a way that one only recognizes if one has spent a lot of time really fighting with a language in a foreign country. And they probably resonate with me all the more because although he is clearly adventurous enough to have picked up and moved to another country where he knew no one (except his boyfriend) at a high point in his own career, he doesn’t have the kind of personality which necessarily facilitates such adventure. For instance, Ira Glass asks him, “Is your experience here more of a feeling of adventure or more a feeling of humiliation?” And David’s reply is:

It’s more a feeling of humiliation. It would be a feeling of adventure if I were a different type of person, if I were a more adventurous person. But for me to get on a train and go to Switzerland, I don’t think, oh good, I get to have an adventure. I think, oh great, I get to make an ass out of myself in two different languages.

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Gleðileg Páska!

Happy Easter, everyone! We’re in the midst of Iceland’s five day spring holiday here, which is conveniently timed to allow for more dedicated study time, as my last two exams are at the end of the month. We also have a few friends in town who are celebrating their honeymoon amidst what can only be described as some extremely Icelandic weather: sun, immediately followed by hail, immediately followed by rain and black clouds, immediately followed by sun, and then back again.

It has been immensely gratifying to share our adopted town with such enthusiastic visitors, and it’s given me some nice chances to go to favorite spots (the lopapeysa stall at the back of Kólaportið which is always staffed by the same lovely old lady), and finally go to some new ones, too—like the top of Hallgrímskirkja for a great view over the city. (I’ve also had an incredible Icelandic track record this weekend—not one, not two, but three people have said to me, mid-conversation, in Icelandic, “Oh, you speak Icelandic” and not kept talking in English, but rather, switched back to Icelandic. The woman who sells the sweaters had a whole conversation with me, even. It was. The Best. So, thank you, Iceland: my confidence brimmeth over.)

Here are some shots of Reykjavík from the Hallgrímskirkja tower:

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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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Teachable Moments on the Bus

Mark and I were riding the bus to the mall the other day around 2:00 PM, which is basically prime time for school children going home. We happened to get on a bus that was absolutely packed with kids, and while standing near the teacher, I did a little bit of “educational eavesdropping,” i.e. trying to see if I could understand of what she was saying to them.

She was addressing, in particular, a group of boys who were sitting in the front seats which are intended, when needed, for the elderly or people who can’t stand or easily get to the back of the bus.

“Why do I have to stand up for people?” one boy asked her.

“You are a healthy young boy,” she explained. “Of course you should give your seat to an older woman who can’t stand very well.”

So the boy then comes over to Mark and I and says, in Icelandic, “Would you like to sit down?”

(I’ll admit that there was a bit of chatting in between the boy being told to cede his chair to the elderly and then coming over and offering me his seat, but isn’t it funnier this way?)

We were about to get off the bus at the next stop, but I didn’t want to impede her lesson in courtesy, so I said thank you and we sat down. As I was doing so, I heard a man who was escorting the class tell the boy that he could talk to me in English.

“That’s okay,” I said (in Icelandic). “I’m learning and need to practice.”

“Yeah,” the boy told the man, “like you.”

The man shrugged, but the teacher jumped right on this exchange and asked me where I was from. (This is all in Icelandic, btw.) I told her we were from the US. She asked where I was studying Icelandic. The university. In the three year program? Yes. Why are you studying the language? Because I want to be a translator and translate Icelandic books into English, I said. She nodded, sagely.

We had arrived at our stop, where apparently, the class was also getting out. As we got off the bus and the teacher started herding everyone out, I heard her say, “Did you hear that, boys? She came all the way to Iceland just to study the language.”

So my conversational practice was someone else’s teachable moment. Win-win.

Back to a Good Start

Well, halló again, internet. After a whirlwind couple of weeks—a whirlwind summer, when you get right down to it—Mark and I have made it back to Iceland. That Gortex rain slicker I acquired this summer came in handy immediately—it was rainy and a bit nippy when we left the airport. But, although I may seriously regret saying this later, I can tell you now that I am full up on sunshine for awhile (you can remind me that I said this in February). I got enough 100+ weather and more than my fair share of sunburns over the last few months and so cloudy weather, sweaters, and rain seem like just what I need right now.

We flew in Saturday night/Sunday morning (got in right around midnight), had a day to stock up on groceries, run errands, and unpack most of our stuff, and then bam: it all started today. But before I get to “It All,” let me just take a pause to share the epically awesome triumph I experienced at the airport.

Picture Mark and I at the very end of a long, but quickly moving line at Passport Control. It has been, of course, about three months since I have had a spoken conversation with anyone in Icelandic, and while I have been trying to practice as much as I have been able to, one worries that all one’s language skills have dribbled out of one’s ears. But, as King Henry Shakespeare my mother would say, “once more unto the breach!” And so, when it came our turn at the window, I presented our passports and documentation to the policeman and greeted him with a chipper “Góða kvölðið!”

And wouldn’t you know it? He answered me in Icelandic! And gee golly, I answered him back. And whoopitee doo, we had a whole blinking conversation.

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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:

IMG_20070620_200248

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.