“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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Beware the Fearsome Icelandic Death Ice!

Years ago, in college, some friends of mine rented a movie called “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.” I wasn’t even around for this viewing—although the title has stuck with me for all these years—and honestly, The Death Bed (The Bed That Eats) is neither here nor there in terms of this post, except that I would like to draw a mostly-unrelated parallel to a fearsome blight sneaking up (and under) Reykjavíkurs all over our lovely city. Beware, all ye who walk here: Death Ice: The Ice That Sprains. Death Ice: The Ice That Bruises.

Death Ice: Do not be fooled by the attractive vista; this ice is merely lying in wait.

Death Ice: Do not be fooled by the attractive vista; The Death Ice is merely lying in wait for its next victim.

Death Ice:
The Ice That Maliciously Wants You to Fall, Embarrass Yourself In Front of Strangers,
and—If Fortune Smiles—Break An Ankle, A Wrist, A Tailbone…Or All Of The Above.

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Segðu Já!


Towards the end of September, when plane tickets, general living, and fun outings were starting to eat into my summer savings, I adopted a policy of “say yes!” whenever a work opportunity came my way. This wasn’t a bad policy, wallet-wise, and so I decided, when considering all of the new things that were on my horizon, that I would try to stick with this ethos when unusual life opportunities came my way.

Which is how, dear readers, Mark and I ended up standing on a glacier this weekend, in the rain, preparing ourselves to climb a vertical ice wall. Segðu já! (Full photos here.)

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There Were Awesome Northern Lights Last Night…Guess Who Missed Them?

Northern Lights over Nuuk, Greenland (photo by John Kjær)

So, word to the wise: when you receive word (via the handy Northern Lights forecast or other trusty news-sources) that there are going to be epically cool Northern Lights in the evening, do not assume that this is going to be an all-night show. Even if you’re feeling kinda sickly, and just want to curl up and finish your Noel Coward movie and eat the cookies you made (hypothetically, of course), get off your bum and get outside prior to midnight. Because by midnight, there will be nothing to see and the only proof you’ll have of the apparently brilliant spectacle caused by “clear and cold night, combined with the “coronal mass ejection” – a massive burst of solar wind” will be all of the photos that people posted on Facebook from about an hour or so earlier.

Teaching moment: taught. The next forecast for level 3 (“grade 3 (moderate) can be dazzling” says the forecast page) is this coming Thursday. Count on us wandering around the neighborhood much earlier this time.


Conversations I’m Not (Yet) Equipped to Have in Icelandic

Me: Ég skil meira og meira íslensku en er erfiður fyrir mig að tala.

(Translation of my probably very incorrect sentence: I understand more and more Icelandic, but it is hard for me to talk.)

Friendly Icelander: Já? [Icelandic, Icelandic, Icelandic]

Translation: Yeah? [Icelandic, Icelandic, Icelandic]

Me: Afsakið–ég skil ekki.

Translation: Excuse me/sorry–I don’t understand.

FI: Are you an earth-bound person? (Meaning: grounded.)

Me: Um, well–yes, I am.

FI: Hardworking?

Me: Yes.

FI: [Icelandic, Icelandic, Icelandic]

Me: Ha?

Translation: What?

FI: Not a dreamer?

Me: Nei, ekki meira.

Translation (of more bad Icelandic): No, not much (attempted meaning: Not really.)

FI: [Icelandic, Icelandic, Icelandic]

Me: …uh.

FI: Á íslensku.

Translation: In Icelandic.


FI: I said, “But it is important to have balance, right? Between being practical and a dreamer?”

Me: Oh! Já! Já! Einmitt!

Translation: Oh! Yes, yes–of course.

FI: Hvers vegna?

Translation: Why?

FI: Á íslensku, takk.

Translation: In Icelandic, please.

Me: Að hafa…(Makes lots of hand motions)…balance.

Translation: To have…hand motion back and forth…balance.

FI: [Icelandic, Icelandic, Icelandic]


FI: This is not an easy conversation to have in Icelandic.

Me: Nei.

Translation: No.

FI: You need words to match your thoughts.

Me: Ég hef tíu orð.

Translation (Of bad Icelandic): I have ten words.

FI: You need more.

Me: Já.

Translation: Yep.

A Confirmation, A Resolution, and a Move

Test results out today and for reals, I have official confirmation that I did not pass that test. Somehow, that was still disappointing, even though I knew it as soon as I left the testing room. I’m starting the Practical Certificate Program on Monday, which will hopefully help to put things all in perspective and strengthen my resolve on successfully coming from behind (i.e. No Icelandic) to ultimate and glorious triumph in the space of nine months (lots and lots of Icelandic). I won´t actually have many classes a week in the certificate program, though, so I’ll need to find some supplementary activities, I think, which can up my odds a bit. But I´ll figure that out as I go, I suppose.

And good news! We´re moved in! And the apartment is outfitted with all sorts of goodies that we weren´t expecting (an immersion blender!). There are still a few things we need to acquire (hangers, for one), so we´ll have an excuse to go to the IKEA this weekend. No internet in the apartment until next week, so it´s probable that my posts will be a little further between until we’re up and running at home.

In the meantime, have a great weekend, everyone! We’re going to an Iceland vs. Norway football (as in soccer) game tonight, and I have every belief that learning a few Icelandic football anthems will be a step in the right direction for me.

So That Happened.

So, yeah. I took that entrance exam yesterday. And guys?

Photo from the University of the Westfjords website

Ég tala ekki íslensku.

I do not speak Icelandic. Which I knew. Because that’s why I’m here, right? To learn Icelandic. It would be a big heaping waste of two governments’ money if I already knew how to do this. And yet. I thought I knew enough Icelandic to be taught Icelandic at the B.A. level. Turns out, this is probably not true.

When I arrived at the test room yesterday, there were a variety of fidgety foreign-looking types like myself milling around and sadly trying to read the sign that was on the door of the test room. (Moment of triumph! I knew what the sign said! “Test in progress–don’t open the door please.” Or, “Test in progress–mind your own business.” Something involving a test being taken and staying outside.) Finally, someone comes over, opens the door, and tells us all to come in. In Icelandic, but with gestures, you know? So we followed.

We come into a room that has test sheets spread out along a bunch of long tables and are directed–in Icelandic–to put all of our stuff along the wall, hang our coasts up, and sit down at a test with an ID in hand. No, I didn’t understand this set of directions. I followed the rest of the people and the gestures and sort of worked it out. At this point, the woman closest to me asked me–in Icelandic–if this was the room for the year one Icelandic exam. I was pretty sure I understood that right, so I nodded, all the while thinking that this is an awful lot of Icelandic being spoken in a room where people are testing into an entry-level Icelandic program. (Cue sweating.)

We are all given a test number and have to show the proctor our IDs to prove that we are who we say we are and not some undercover Icelander looking to score amazing marks on this multiple choice test. We’re told (gestured at) that we can look at our test booklets.

The written instructions are in Icelandic. The rest of the spoken instructions are in Icelandic. The two women behind me ask a few questions of the proctor. In Icelandic.


The proctor throws a few of us a bone and repeats one or two things in English, and then tells us to start. And it is hard. Super duper hard. Like, I know what some of the questions want you to show that you understand (how to decline a noun in a sentence according to the dative tense), but that doesn’t mean that I know the correct answer off the top of my head, and there aren’t any partial points for knowing what you don’t know here. I recognize about 40% 35% of the vocab, if I’m being generous. I do awesome on the question where you are asked to determine if a group of nouns (all fruit) are all examples of fruit (win!), vegetables, meat, or animals. There’s a long paragraph that you have to read which I understand a not inconsiderable amount of: Annette and Snorri moved to Reykjavik with their two young children; Snorri’s parents have lived in Reykjavik for ten years. Annette got a job at the hospital. But then I can’t make heads or tails of the following questions about the passage.

And then: The Written Section. This is the part I had practiced for. A lot. I had practically memorized a not unimpressive paragraph about myself, which I was fully prepared to write out and knock the socks off of all of my future professors. Good thing the question had nothing to do with that, eh? Instead, we were asked to write 10 lines about…um…what we want to do this winter? And maybe what we like to do during the day and at night? And if we traveled? Maybe? I’m really not sure. I was able to write about seven sentences. About how I like to read and look for an apartment in Reykjavik during the day and write in my blog (holla!) and cook with my boyfriend at night and how I came to Iceland to learn Icelandic and I like to needlepoint (really–I learned that word: ‘handvinna’) and oops grammar-is-wrong and oops don’t-remember-any-words and oops have-no-more-sentences. And abort.

There was no point in sitting there for another twenty-five minutes not knowing how to say anything in Icelandic. So I waited until an appropriate number of Icelandic-speaking achiever-types turned in their test and then submitted my own. Went to the cafe, bought a coffee and a Twix bar, spilled some coffee by the register which I lamely tried to clean up with a tissue, misunderstood the question I was asked about whether or not I have a ‘coffee card,’ sat down, and reassessed.

In all honesty, if I can’t pass that test, I should start in the Practical Certificate Program. And had I not been told that the program was kinda weak (by one of the people who designed it, no less), I wouldn’t have thought twice about starting there in the first place (the students who knew they were taking the practical course didn’t have to take any test!). It’s just rather humbling to think that I’ve been preparing all this time, in the manner in which I was told to prepare, and there was basically no way I was going to be up to snuff for that test. I’m left wondering who the target demographic for that BA program is if everyone trying to test into it can already converse in Icelandic. Perhaps it’s a shining endorsement of the Practical Certificate Program, or perhaps it’s meant for people who have immigrated to Iceland and live here already and have already learned to speak some. Or maybe it’s for people who have miraculously been able to take Icelandic at their home universities.

Whatever the case, I just want to get started. I want someone–in whatever program–to teach me to say something (many somethings) in Icelandic. I want to be able to read that sign in the bus about Speed and Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock (really–it bugs me every time). I want to be able to get through an exchange at a cash register. I want to read those adorable picture books I bought the last time I was here, and the translation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches that I found at the flea market.

Whatever the test results, I start on Monday. And that’s a good thing. Áfram með smjörið!

In Pursuit of the Elusive Kennitala: Part Two

Dalvegur Bus Stop, Kopavogur

As I explained in great, painful detail in a previous post, in order to live–and do basically anything–in Iceland, you need a kennitala (government-provided ID number). In order to get this magic number, you are supposed to present yourself at the Directorate of Immigration (the Útlendingarstofnun, which we’ve figured out literally means “foreigner office”) and have your picture taken. No picture and the process is indefinitely stalled. Continue reading