By the Time the Sun Goes Down (A Short Short Story)

Harpa photo inspiration for Iceland Writers Retreat writing contest. Via Harpa.

Back in the spring, the Iceland Writers Retreat held a writing contest. Using a photo taken in the Harpa concert hall as inspiration (see above), participants were supposed to write an original short story or essay of no more than 500 words. The winner, chosen by Iceland Travel and a panel of judges, would receive free spot in the 2015 retreat.

Now, that was a pretty good prize and I thought it would be a good excuse to flex those creative writing muscles, so I gave it a shot. And I was pretty pleased with the result. I didn’t win the grand prize, but nicely enough, my story was chosen as one of the 10 runners-up. All ten of these stories, including my own, have been published now on the Harpa website and they even threw in a photo book and free tickets to a fall concert to boot. Not too shabby.

My story was called “By the Time the Sun Goes Down.” Here’s the beginning:

On an evening this clear—the soft pastel light leaping off the glass, bouncing, somehow musically, between the water as it softly plashes against the sides of the harbor boats and the honeycombed windows that I’m sitting here staring through like an idiot—I should really be outside. But while I’ve lived here long enough to know better than to take such a respite for granted, I haven’t lived here long enough to have mastered the art of last minute outdoor adventuring.

Not like my neighbors, for instance, who seem to be in a state of constant readiness. It takes them all of ten minutes to get six mountain bikes, a kayak, a dog, and four clamoring kids packed into their trusty, rusty SUV, anoraks and hiking boots and helmets, pallets of single-serving chocolate milk boxes and plastic-wrapped sandwiches tossed in every which way behind them. Ten minutes. I know—I’ve timed them. The minute the sky clears and the sun comes out, they’re off. I always wonder where they go.

If you’d like to read the rest, it’s the first story on this page. And, if you’re interested, you can read the other runners-up as well: here and here. Happy reading!

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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!

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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Takk fyrir það gamla!

Hæ, hæ, everyone! Gleðilegt nýt ár og takk fyrir það gamla! (Happy New Year and thanks for the old one!…the old year, that is.)

Last New Year’s Eve, Mark, our friend Graham, and I went for a really nice dinner at Skólabrú, which now seems to be our go-to fancy restaurant around the holidays, and then made our way up to Hallgrímskirkja watch the fireworks from the liftoff zone. We had a very good night with all the other foreigners (Icelanders don’t really go out-out on New Year’s, more anon) and had somewhat similar plans this year—mainly that we were going to watch the fireworks from the church. But our plans ended up diverging quite a bit, to unexpectedly good effect.

We ended up celebrating New Year’s Eve with our landlady, her daughter, and sister-in-law, and had what I believe was a rather traditional—that is to say, family-style—celebration. While in many cities (New York, for instance) New Year’s Eve is a rather crrrrazzy holiday for going out  with friends and drinking a lot, in Iceland, it is a really home-based, family-oriented one. That doesn’t mean that people don’t still drink a lot, for the record—just that they do it with their gramas.

On New Year’s Eve, people here tend to have big, fancy parties with their whole family and perhaps a few close friends (or boyfriends/girlfriends). Walking around our neighborhood we noticed (because people turn on all the lights, light all the candles, and leave the windows open) that most people weren’t just dressed up for the occasion: they were in full formal wear. Men in tuxes—or at least suits—and women in evening gowns and cocktail dresses. (A good rule of thumb for going to Icelandic parties and events: always dress up more. Whatever you are wearing is probably not as dressy as what most other people will be wearing. So don’t be afraid to throw on the pearls, or add the sequins or, at the very least, a tie.)

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A Very Reykjavík Film Festival

Backyard autumn foliage

Backyard autumn foliage

Well, hello there October—it’s so nice to see you. Fall—such as it is in Iceland—definitely seems to have arrived. There’s a deeper sort of chill that seems to be sneaking its way under my scarves and sweaters, and there’s a pleasant wet-leaf smell everywhere you go. The wind has calmed down a little (although it got a little rough there for a bit…see here, if you are in possession of a slightly bawdy sense of humor) and although the days are getting darker, it feels like we’re in a nice sort of calm now, pre-winter. I remember liking October here last year, and I like October again.

One of the highlights of the last week or so has been RIFF, or the Reykjavík International Film Festival. (If you want to get a broader overview of the festival and the films featured, you can see Mark’s very extensive coverage.) Besides being a nice opportunity to see some interesting/funny/unusual/dramatic/vampire films, RIFF has also just felt very Icelandic in its way, which not having been back for very long, is especially enjoyable. I know it sounds strange to say that an International Film Festival can “feel very Icelandic,” so let me share an opening weekend anecdote to give this some context.

A great headline on a review of a festival movie ("We Are the Best") that ran in Vísir earlier this week

A great headline on a review of a festival movie (“We Are the Best!”) which ran in Vísir earlier this week.

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On the Street Where You Live…

My grammar lesson today had some very practical and useful information about the common suffixes used for street names in Icelandic. This is a good example of that “basic but new and helpful” kind of lesson that I have been getting lately, and I thought I’d share.

There are a number of typical suffixes that are used for street names, and besides often indicating whether a byway is a “road,” or “street,” or something basic like that, these suffixes also often indicate something about the general landscape. When giving a street name as a location, you use either the preposition á or the preposition í, but either way, the street name that follows is in the dative case.

So how do you know whether to use á or í, you ask? The suffix determines it!

Here’s a short list of common street suffixes, their meanings, and which preposition they take:

í +

  • -bær: town
  • -gerði: fence/hedge
  • -fell: (an isolated) hill
  • -heimur: world? (this one seems a bit broad to me)
  • -hlíð: slope
  • -holt: hillock
  • -leiti: hill
  • -múli: cape
  • -mýri: swamp, moorland
  • -stræti: street, road
  • -sund: channel, alley, lane
  • -tún: hayfield

á+

  • -braut: course, way
  • -gata: street, path
  • -grandi: isthmus
  • -hagi: pasture
  • -melur: gravel bed (?)
  • -nes: cape, peninsula
  • -stígur: path, sheep track
  • -teigur: piece of grassland
  • -vegur: road, way

So, okay: maybe you don’t think this is the most interesting grammatical lesson that I have ever tried to give here (if there have been any, I suppose), but when you start considering just how many place names in Iceland include these suffices, I think the value of knowing these becomes pretty clear.

I, for one, tend to take place names here a bit for granted. I see the street name “Sæbraut” and don’t actually think of it as meaning anything—I just see it as a somewhat meaningless word, a name that doesn’t actually designate anything beyond a familiar bus route. This is, of course, simply because I don’t recognize the words in Icelandic names all the time yet, because I certainly don’t miss the opportunity to point out the meanings of Spanish street names to Mark whenever we’re in Arizona (my childhood home was on Camino de Oeste–Street of the West.”) But perhaps if I am a little more attentive to these Icelandic suffices, I can be just as irritating about place names here. So:

  • Sæ-braut: Sea-Way
  • Snæ-fells-nes: Snow(y?)-Mountain-Peninsula
  • Kópa-vogur: Seal pup-Cove
  • Bauga-nes: Circular-Peninsula
  • Hverfis-gata: Neighborhood-Street
  • Tún-gata: Hayfield-Street

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.

Five Things You Can’t Find in Iceland…Except When You Can

The good people over at the Expats Blog are holding a competition for expat bloggers. The topic was amazingly open ended: you had to write a list about pretty much anything that has to do with the city in which you live. The list was supposed to be creative and useful both, and there was no set limit on the number of things in said list.

Well, you know I love a good list. So my contribution to the contest (I’m the only list from someone in Iceland, btw) is “Five Things You Can’t Find in Iceland…Except When You Can.” I’m not leaking any of the details here, so hop on over and check it out. If you think I’ve been particularly witty or brilliant and say something to that effect in the comments, I might even win a prize of some sort. But mostly, I’ll just feel all warm and fuzzy knowing that you read the list and enjoyed it.

There are about 80 contributors to the contest, so if you’re wondering about why Hong Kong “is *almost* a Perfect Utopia,” or five German habits that you would probably “pick up against your will” if you lived there, then you’ll find ample sources of amusement other than my own small offering.

Enjoy!

Nammið er búið!

This is somewhat behind schedule, but fun enough to post late, I thought. I just got a chance to put up the few pictures I had lingering from February, two of which were from Öskudagur, or Ash (Wednes)day. As mentioned before, Ash Day is part of Iceland’s three day Carnival proceeding Lent, and is basically their version of Halloween. Kids get the day off from school, dress up in costume, and go around singing to shop keepers in the hope of receiving candy. I didn’t realize, however, quite how involved this is.

Kids in costume on Öskudagur, singing for candy (actually in this case, hot dogs) at the famous “Bæjarins beztu” hot dog stand. According to a kid I heard yelling about it on the street, the stand was giving out not only a free dog, but a free soda, to any kid in costume who sang for them.

Kids in costume on Öskudagur, singing for candy (actually in this case, hot dogs) at the famous “Bæjarins beztu” hot dog stand. According to a kid I heard yelling about it on the street, the stand was giving out not only a free dog, but a free soda, to any kid in costume who sang for them.

According to this delightful video made a few years ago by Iceland Review, kids not only work quite hard on their costumes, they also strategically divide themselves into teams for the day, and work out a whole catalog of songs to sing which correspond to the shops they plan to visit. So, as the video says, if they are going to visit a dairy, they should prepare a song about cows. Bank-robbing tunes are apparently preferred at banks. The better the song fits the location, the more candy can be had.

I don’t remember having to jump through quite so many hoops on Halloween myself…

“All the candy is gone!” (Sign on the door of a hair salon, afternoon of Ash Wednesday, or Öskudagur, which is basically Iceland’s Halloween. Kids go around to shops in costume, sing a song for the proprietors, and are rewarded with candy. That is, until the candy runs out…)

“All the candy is gone!” (Sign on the door of a hair salon, afternoon of Ash Wednesday, or Öskudagur, which is basically Iceland’s Halloween. Kids go around to shops in costume, sing a song for the proprietors, and are rewarded with candy. That is, until the candy runs out…)