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!

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A good þumalputtaregla for traveling in Iceland

Image via the University of Iceland’s Vísindavefurinn, answering the question: “Hvaðan kemur orðið þumalputtaregla?” (‘Where does the word ‘þumalputtaregla’ come from?’)

I used to routinely get nervous when I’d travel to a new country—worried that I’d somehow inadvertently offend someone or do something wrong or misunderstand protocol and find myself publicly shamed or yelled at or generally embarassed by my own lack of worldliness. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded: I received a dressing down (in Danish) for turning off a water tap in a museum bathroom in Denmark (still not sure what went awry there), and I accidentally stole a woman’s seat in a theater in Amsterdam, to her shock and horrified displeasure (she yelled; I moved, trying lamely to explain that I didn’t know that while unassigned, the seating was, after the intermission, pretty much set in stone).

These occurrences aren’t the end of the world, though, and while I still find myself worried that I’ll make a fool of myself simply because I don’t know the unspoken system in a new country or city, a little more travel has gone a long way in alleviating some of my concern. Everyone, after all, is a tourist somewhere. And so, by and large, my go-to þumalputtaregla, or rule of thumb, is to just do my best to not be a jerk.

Don’t be a Jerk. Generally, this works out pretty well. But it’s still nice to have a bit of insight into cultural norms and practices before you go somewhere. To this end, the UK’s Business Insider recently tried to shed some light on common sources of irritation for locals when encountering visitors in their countries. Often, I feel like these sorts of lists are vague or stereotypical, but this time around, I found the Iceland advice pretty spot-on. There was only one rule of thumb mentioned for Iceland: Don’t be overly friendly.” This was drawn from advice given by two Icelandic Reddit users, and as summarized as follows:

“It’s not that Icelandic people aren’t courteous, or would respond unfriendly in the street. We’re just more used to everyone keeping to themselves in public.” – /u/KristinnK

“It’s usually not a good thing to start a conversation with us out of the blue at, say, a museum. […] Saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ would be the weirdest experience of the week for any Icelander.” – /u/KFJ943

This last one particularly made me giggle because I had just been trying to explain the general look of confusion that one (often an American, I might add) will get if she starts any kind of interaction in a shop (or cultural institution or coffee shop or restaurant) with chit-chat. Namely, “Hi, how are you?” Response: [Confused head tilt.]

As an interesting point of comparison, check out one of the answers given by someone in Norway:

Don’t ask people how they’re doing unless you’re ready to get deep. “We will give an actual answer.” – /u/maiset


Back to this issue of friendliness, however, I would probably suggest that the opposite advice should be given to travelers to the US: always start your interactions with a little chit chat. How are you today? Hi, there, how you doing? Unlike Norwegians, we will probably not respond to a stranger or acquaintance with a full-blown narrative of all of our ills (that would be weird), but we will appreciate that you’ve made the attempt to connect with us on a basic—and most importantly, friendly—level. Of course, this depends on where you are in the country, but boy, howdy, we Americans do (generally) love our pleasantries.


This suggestions didn’t come up for American advisors, however. Rather, they suggested that visitors don’t smoke weed in public, even in places where it is legal (seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again, similar to advice was given by Dutch people to travelers in Amsterdam), don’t stand too close while waiting in line (a distance of an arm’s length was advised), don’t imitate a Southern accent, and don’t assume the whole country is the same. Maybe not the specific collection of advice I would have given someone, but probably not bad places to start. (That not standing too close thing rang true for me—I didn’t realize I had a thing about being crowded until I moved out of the States.)



And that is your friendly Traveling-In-Iceland PSA for today. The More You Know, guys.

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.

Gleðileg Hinsegin Dagur!

Reykjavík Pride‘s signature event—the gleðiganga, or Pride Parade, took place this afternoon (a most perfect sunny day, as you can see). This was our first time in the city for Pride, which is actually a six day event called “Hinsegin Dagar,” or Queer Days (“hinsegin” actually just means “different,” but is the general word used to refer to queer people), and after a little “Diving and Divas” (a concert/diving exhibition at the indoor swimming pool downtown) earlier in the week, I was really looking forward to the parade. (Fun Fact: the Pride Parade is, I’m told, the only parade on the city’s calendar.)

By parade standards, Reykjavík Pride is, admittedly, pretty small. But you wouldn’t know it from the size of the crowds that gather. I’m told that somewhere around 120,000 people came out to see the parade and the following concert this afternoon. Just think about that: 120,000 people. That is just short of the city’s total population which is, at last estimate, 121,230. And that is amazing.

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Iceland, Through Old-Timey British Eyes (And Accents)

Image above from the 1961 Pathé newsreel “Hot Springs in Iceland.” Per the narrator: “Certainly nature has been very kind to a country where you can grow exotic flowers merely by building a glass house and running a pipe to the nearest boiling spring. No wonder the friendly, hardworking people who live here tell you that the coldest thing about Iceland is its name.”

Last week, a number of archival videos of Iceland started making the rounds, after the former British newsreel production company, Pathé, uploaded all 3,500 hours of its historic footage to its YouTube channel. A number of the videos included were of Iceland, and they were hilarious. One of the Grapevine’s interns combed through the many videos and transcribed some of the better quotes (For a nice change of pace, I actually got to help with “translating” these, as, being a non-native English speaker, the narrator’s nasally accent and old-timey Britishisms were occasionally unintelligible to her [and to me for that matter]).

See the full post (totally worth it) here. But for just a quick taste, here’s one to start with. (If anyone can decipher what the narrator says in the run of slangy terms which includes “mod cons,” I’d love to know what he’s rattling on about.)

“The constant supply of hot water on the island is a washer woman’s dream come true.”

“Conveyed by pipes, the naturally heated water serves the hot houses, in which are grown a wonderful variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Cripes! Grapes! And tomatoes like the pictures on seed paintings. According to our cameraman, these other things are bananas.”

You just called your kid what?

In keeping with Saturday’s post

We were learning body vocab in class recently, which included pretty general words, like “læri” (thigh), “olnbogi” (elbow), and “brjost” (breast), as well as words like “rass” (basically, “butt,” but literally, I think, “ass.”) Because opinions and sensitivities vary about such things, I asked my teacher if “rass” was a polite word, like something you might say to a young child or your grama. She said yes, a little confusedly, since I wasn’t able to effectively explain that I was asking because we have a whole gradation of words, varying in politeness, for this particular body part in English. But while I was pondering how to explain myself, she added this little tidbit:

The word “rassgat” (a combination of “rass” and “gat,” which means hole/opening…you get it) can be used in two totally different colloquial manners.  If you tell someone to “farðu í rassgat” or to “go to rassgat” you are telling someone, in no uncertain and pretty salty terms, to leave you alone and remove themselves from your presence, possibly to relocate to a dark and not terribly clean or cozy place.

If, however, you are seeing a young relative, or perhaps greeting your friend’s adorable child, you can say, “Hvað þú ert mikið rassgat!” (Basically, “What a little rassgat you are!”) In this context, you mean “rassgat” as something really small and cute, something adorable and cuddly. But you’re also calling a child a rassgat, which for those of us who aren’t familiar with this sort of diminutive, can seem rather surprising. One of my classmates actually had a story about hearing someone refer to her friend’s child in this way and getting very offended on the kid’s behalf until it was explained to her.

So, fun fact. You can call a child a rassgat in Iceland, and not get punched in the face by an angry parent. Vocab!

Irreverent Icelandic Lessons

Or, Icelandic the fun way.

Icelandic language studies at the university may be characterized by a good deal of national pride in Icelanders’ great literary heritage, the nation’s veritable slew of firsts and per-capita records, it’s unique nature and uniquely bonkers weather patterns, but there is also a fair amount of irreverence mixed in, a willingness to poke fun at certain aspects of Icelandic life or the (stereotypical) Icelandic character, as well as slightly more scandalous (depending on your leanings) mix of study materials and subjects. This has been particularly, delightfully, evident to me in the last month or so.

As many of you might know, the pagan festival of Þorri begins at the end of January and lasts for a month. Þorri feasts, or Þorrablót, have been very popular in Iceland for several decades (the tradition sort of died out and then was revived by an industrious restaurant owner in the late 50s) and, due to the let’s say…exotic…nature of much of the food, have been the subject of a number of televised, gross-out food adventure programs, such as  Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (he goes to a Þorrablót during his extremely irritating Iceland episode).

Þorramatur, via Wikimedia Commons. The jellied slice with white orbs is, you guessed it, the rams testicles, and the hákarl is in the dish. The sheep’s head is called svið.

I had heard a lot about Þorrablót and þorramatur (Þorri food), but didn’t have the opportunity to go to a celebration last year. This year, however, I got to go to one held by Reykjavík’s Ásatrú association—you know, “on assignment.” A sample of the experience, from my article (full text here):

Filling my plate, I ended up with a veritable rainbow of sausages and pressed meats: pink, red, brown, grey, and a queasy marbled white. Not wanting to look greedy—and honestly, a little unsure that I would make it through the full plate—I skipped the svið the first time out. By accident, I also missed the slices of pressed ram’s testicles. (Full disclosure: I did end up trying the former—it’s…chewy—but skipped the latter. No regrets there.)

Back at the table, my dinner companion gustily carved into her sheep head and explained to me the best method of eating ear cartilage. I took her word for it and tried to show my sympathy when she discovered that her svið was, in fact, missing its most delicious eye. We swapped various unidentified meats. Feeling appropriately decadent, I made a return circuit of the buffet, filling up again on some of my familiar favourites—smoked lamb, salted lamb, and a dark red sausage of a jerky-like consistency. If the woman on my right had not caught me mid-bite and summarily informed me, while daintily cutting up her headcheese, that she did not eat horse “on principal,” I’d have never known the difference.

Well, it just so happened that as I was writing this article, we were also reading about Þorri in one of my classes (I quoted one of my class readings in the piece, actually). It’s one thing to read about þorramatur, however, and a whole ‘nother thing to eat it. So for those of us who had not yet had the opportunity to attend a Þorrablót, our teachers decided to bring the partý to us. So instead of a coffee break, we had a þorra-break, with big tupperware containers of hrútspungar (pressed rams’ testicles) and hákarl (that fermented shark that you’ve heard so much about) for us to sample (much to the dismay of our olfactorily-sensitive vegetarian). “Sure, but did you bring any brennevín?” one of my classmates laughed. “Oh yes,” said my teacher very seriously, placing a full bottle of the “black death” on a desk and asking the student sitting there to start pouring shots.

Which is certainly one way to get students to participate a little more freely. Fun discovery, though: I suddenly didn’t hate brennevín. I’ve had it before and it made me want to die, but third time ’round, standing in class, munching on rotten shark? Yeah, it was pretty good.

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The Great Vanilja Mystery

It’s the little things that really surprise me living in Iceland. The things that I take for granted as being the same anywhere, and then come to find are really just not. These are often the things, I might add, which Icelanders take for granted, too.

Take, for instance, The Mystery of the Missing Vanilla Extract. Last year, when I unexpectedly took to baking, I found myself, naturally enough, needing a lot of vanilla extract. (Seriously, vanilla is the sauteed onion of baking: it is nigh on impossible to find a baking recipe without it.) I had sent my spice collection to us in Iceland but hadn’t thought to send extract because they would totally have that there, right? Well, yes. Kind of. When you go to the grocery store and check the baking aisle, you will invariably find several kinds of extracts: lemon, almond, and rum are pretty standard, and then depending on the time of year and how well stocked your store is, there will also be cardamom extract and peppermint extract etc. What you won’t ever find on the shelf is vanilla extract. Vials of vanilla beans, definitely. But no vanilla extract.

Back at home, vanilla beans are particularly pricey compared to extract—I actually got a vial of nice vanilla beans for Christmas one year—and so I found the ubiquitousness of the vanilla bean in Iceland to be pretty strange. Also, why wasn’t there any vanilla extract when they had all these other types? I asked the ladies in my saumaklubbur (sewing club), and they assured me that there was, in fact, vanilla extract in Iceland, but sometimes, it was placed in weird parts of the grocery store. So I started checking spice aisles and around the candy, but still—never any vanilla extract. I checked online how to make your own and discovered that it requires a fair amount of vodka to make. Vodka costs a pinky finger here, so that was right out. And yeah, I had other things to be thinking about besides vanilla extract, so I just gave up and started using vanilla bean.

(You totally didn’t expect me to go on this long about vanilla extract, did you? Now you know.)

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