Stay Tuned for the Icelandic Sex Education Video Premiere – “Get Some Yes!”

Given the often opaque, often misleading/criminally under-informing, and frequently just plain non-existent sex education classes and resources in the United States, I am quite interested in the forthcoming sexual education video which will be unveiled here in Iceland on Wednesday. This video will be notable for several reasons:

  • It is called “fádu já” which can be translated as “Get Some Yes!” (I’m pretty sure that this is a pun, combining sex positivity with a push for young people to be conscious of needing to obtain sexual consent. See below…)
  • It is directed by Icelandic pop singer and DJ Páll Óskar (written by authors Brynhildur Björnsdóttir and Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir).
  • As far as I can tell, the purpose of the film is not to convey your basic ‘birds and bees’ information, but rather, (this per The Reykjavík Grapevine): “…to explain the difference between sex and violence, examine the affects that porn has on human sexuality, dispel misconceptions about sex and encourage self-respect in relationships.”
  • The gist that I am getting from this article on is that the video was commissioned by both the Welfare Ministry and the Ministry of Education and Culture as part of awareness initiatives related to the sexual abuse of minors and sexual consent. (There is actually a 17 page manual related to the video already on the Ministry of Welfare’s website, here, in Icelandic.) It is also worth noting that this video is being created to complement the efforts of the non-profit group Blátt Áfram, a child sexual abuse (CSA) prevention organization in Iceland, which, in conjunction with the Icelandic Puppet Theater, has developed a puppetry-based program on child sexual abuse awareness, education, and visibility which it performs at schools around rural Iceland. It is also worth pointing out that all of this is happening in the wake of a very high profile child sex abuse case here in Iceland.
  • Fáðu já will be shown in every primary and secondary school in the whole country on January 30. Now, the age breakdown of schools in Iceland is different than in the U.S., but I still think this means that the video will be shown to a pretty wide age group. When they are all adults, every school kid from this generation will probably remember not “The Miracle of Life,” (or whatever the Icelandic equivalent is) but rather, a famous DJ’s sexual violence/consent awareness video.
  • On January 30, to coincide with the screenings in schools, the twenty minute video will also be broadcast in its entirety online, with subtitles available in English, Polish, Spanish, Danish, Tagalog, and Icelandic.

Okay. So I will clearly be watching this on January 30, and reporting back to those of you who do not get the chance/don’t want to watch this yourselves. But should you be interested, I’ll give you the link of the official website right now: There is a preview of the video available on that website now, but word to those who are either at work or take offense at/are squeamish about youthful sexuality: this may not be your cup of tea.

Please note, x2: the preview video makes a pretty abrupt shift from happy teen sexy stuff to pretty serious–albeit brief–representations of violence. So bear that in mind before watching. I think one of the most interesting things about seeing this video on Wednesday will be getting a sense of what kinds of images and subject matter state-sponsored educational programs share and discuss with children here in Iceland. No doubt it will be much different that what is generally shown to/discussed with kids in educational environments in the United States.

A Student By Any Other Name…

A couple weeks ago, midterm tests were handed back in one of my classes. You’d think this would be a relatively simple process, but it actually revealed some very interesting cultural confusion surrounding names. To start off, though, here’s a little background on Icelandic names and naming conventions, which many of you are no doubt familiar with:

  • Icelanders use patronymics (and, in rare cases, matronymics) instead of last names (family names). This means that someone’s second name is formed by combining their father’s first name and the ending -son or -dóttir depending on the individual’s gender. So Anna Björnsdóttir is Anna, daughter of Björn. Her brother is Karl Björnsson, or, Karl, son of Björn.
  • Patronymics don’t fill the same formal roles that last names do in places like the U.S. You will never hear an Icelander referred to as Mister or Miss (Ms.) Björnsson or Björnsdóttir. In formal situations, a full name or a title may be used, but in general, everyone is just referred to by their first name. This includes teachers, religious leaders, your best friend, famous people, the prime minister–everyone.
  • Alphabetization is then done by first name. This applies to everything, including phone book listings and government/formal records.
  • Although many Icelanders are not terribly religious, Iceland does have a national church. (Whether this should continue has been debated quite a bit over the years, but in October, when voting on whether or not to create a revised constitution, 57.5% of Icelandic voters said “yes” to the question “Would you like to see provisions in the new Constitution on an established (national) church in Iceland?” So the national church doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the time being.) On an official basis, Iceland has been a Christian country since somewhere around 1000 AD. This long Christian heritage cannot help but show up in the language from time to time.

Keeping the above in mind, here’s a replay of the episode with midterm returns:

The teacher asked for students whose names started with ‘A’ to come to the front of the room and pick up their papers. She meant students whose first names started with A, but didn’t specify, of course. A student who happens to be from Iran got up to collect her paper, but it is her last name that starts with A, not her first.

The teacher leafs through the stack of A name midterms and doesn’t find the Iranian student’s paper. “What is your name?” she asks. The student gives her last name.

“No–your name,” the teacher replies, a little vexed. “Your Christian name.”

At this point the student–who I am going to make a generalized, but educated guess is a) not Christian and b) has not heard the phrase “Christian name,” which is, honestly, a bit of an old fashioned and British-derived (?) term for “first name” or “given name”–stops short. She says something about not having a Christian name. This then completely flummoxes the teacher, who knows that the student standing in front of her must be called something. It takes about three students yelling various things at both teacher and student–“Well, it’s not a Christian name, is it?” and “She means your first name!”–to sort things out for both of them.

A reminder, perhaps that even things which seem totally straightforward and universal–such as one’s name–can be a big source of cultural confusion, and not just for foreigners in their adopted country. I don’t think it occurred to the teacher to explain that she was distributing papers by first name–it just seemed self-evident to her.




Oh, What a Little Nordic Light Can Do…

So, as has been well-established by now, I have become a big ‘ol nature-loving hippie here in Iceland, and having taken some time to tell you all about the wonders of waterfalls, shoreline birds, Icelandic sheepdog puppies, and farm animals, I would now like to expound on Icelandic light.

So guess what? It’s awesome. (Surprise!) Even when–or especially when–there isn’t much of it. You really come to value daylight when the sunrise doesn’t happen until nearly 10 AM and it starts getting dark at 4:00 PM. (And yes, this is only the beginning.)

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RUV 2012 Election Coverage

3:45: I have a class tomorrow morning, but while it’s luckily my later day, the class still doesn’t start late enough that I can stay up all night. I feel very strange going to be before the election has been called, but it looks like it is going to be a long night/morning of vote-counting. So I’m signing off for now–thanks for reading! When I wake up tomorrow, hopefully, we’ll have our president.

3:42: The stalwart analysts at RUV are still awake, and are now discussing money, in some respect. Another look at an election graphic, on which fewer states have been called than CBS has announced.

3:21: The analysts on RUV give a time update and, I think, are repeating the CBS statement that if Obama wins Florida, he could win everything now. We’re telecommuting in with someone in Boston now, with some radio feedback at first.

3:13: They finally gave the lady analyst a break over at RUV. Now two men–one in a red tie, and one in a blue tie, I might add–are talking about Florida and Claire McCaskill. “It’s not the same in the South,” I believe someone just said.

3:07: Another quick link from local news: via The Reykjavík Grapevine yesterday, “Icelandic Progressive Party Officially Supports Obama“:

Iceland’s centre-right Progressive Party have posted an official statement on their website, endorsing US president Barack Obama for another term in office.

In a statement on the party’s website, the Progressives say they will be following today’s elections, providing updates via their Twitter feed.

The Progressives said they consider the US Democratic Party their sister party; specifically through what is called the Alliance of Democrats, a loosely-held alliance of political parties from around the world that align themselves with the centre, centre-right and centre-left. America’s New Democrat Coalition – a moderate wing of the Democratic Party, to which Obama belongs – is a part of the Alliance of Democrats.

2:59: Somehow, the RUV visual feed bounded back to CBS while the analysts were still talking. So they are discussing the latino vote while we watch people fiddle around on the set at CBS.

2:58: Mark, who apparently secretly speaks Icelandic, just heard this fun fact: If Obama is elected, it will be the first time since Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe that there have been three consecutive presidents elected for two terms.

2:56: Back to the NPR graphic. I’d like to note that these are not terribly interactive graphics–the picture appears on the screen and then the analysts just discuss aspects over the picture. No weather-man style analysis with laser pointers here. I’m also wondering what happened to the correspondent in Maryland–it seems like it would be a good time to hear from him now.

2:44: Coming up on 3 AM, our valiant RUV analysts are now reviewing a voter map from The Associated Press. Everyone is tired, including me. I want to go to bed, but I also am curious to know what happens on RUV when the presidential winner is announced. Balloons, probably, right? Red, white, and blue balloons must pour from the ceiling.

2:28: Some English words that are popping up: “snow birds,” “Obamacare.”

2:14: Very involved graphic with very small text being disseminated by analysts. Maybe from NPR?

1:14: As it turns out, RUV is not only updating Icelanders on the presidential election, but elections in the senate as well. They not only just announced that Angus King has won the senate seat in Maine, but also explained where Maine is located (near Canada). The female analyst is still present, but the men have switched off, and we’ve returned to one of the former analysts.

1:09: Mbl coverage of the “Kosningavaka” (Election Watch) party hosted by the American Embassy at Hotel Nordica, with photos: Keep an eye out for the just-for-fun voting station (I’ll be interested, though probably not surprised, to find out the results of that vote), and note that American actor Matt Keeslar, who was cast as “The American” in the 2000 film Íslenski draumurinn (Icelandic Dream), is in attendance. In the photo, we think he’s standing next to Óttarr Proppé, a member of the Icelandic rock band HAM (among others) who was elected to Reykjavík’s city council in 2010.

0:59: Things are getting “mjög spennandi” (very exciting) over at RUV:

0:28: There are computer monitors positioned off-screen for the analysts to refer to. The effect is that when the coverage flips back to Iceland, it looks like both of them are looking off-screen, searching for anything more interesting that they might talk about. I don’t blame them.

0:26: There’s a title card now before the Icelandic coverage: American Presidential Election 2012 (with zooming sound effects). New vocab: Forseti (president).

0:25: I understand how this works now. When CBA goes to commercial, we get Icelandic coverage back.

0:19: It couldn’t last. CBS back again.

0:18: I believe they just said something was boring again. That can’t be right. (Or can it? We do have another what–seven hours of this? Time for a coffee break.)

0:17: Icelandic Coverage Returns! We’re down to 2 analysts, the woman and one of the men. They have inexplicably switched sides of the desk. We now have a bigger, brighter backdrop (with a waving American flag?).

0:13: Haha. Kidding, guys. Back to share some of Mark’s better live-tweets. While I was trying to hear words in Icelandic, he caught these key bits in English:

0:08: If Iceland’s coverage comes back, so will I. Otherwise, I’ll see you all tomorrow, when we have a newly elected president.

0:06: It made more sense when the “How the Electoral College Works” segment was geared toward Icelanders. Explaining the electoral college to American viewers is just sad.

0:04: (English) Vocab: “Battleground states!” “Ground game on early votes!” I think I was enjoying this more when I didn’t understand most of it.

0:00: At midnight exactly, the feed flipped over to CBS. This is already a busier screen, with more pomp and narrative tension-building. Kentucky and Indiana called for Romney, Vermont called for Obama.

23:59: A bit of a change from the US media outlets’ flashing pictures, tickers on the bottom of the screen, and many talking heads:

23:56: Discussion of Obama’s middle name: “Hussein, Hussein.”

23:55: They are talking about McCain. Everyone laughs quietly, nervously.

23:54: Vocab: endurtekning (repetition)

23:51: Snippet of understood commentary re: Sandra Day O’Connor.

23:47: I will take this opportunity to note that I may not have all quotes exactly, precisely, fact-checker-standard right. I am using the quotes so that you know that someone else is talking (you know, what quotation marks are used for), but this is my first live-blogging experience and apparently, my typing skills are rusty.

23:44: A professor whose name I didn’t catch is interviewed (in English) at the University of Iceland. Explains candidates’ views, with some good soundbites. “We have a very open debate [in the US]–no one is trying to hide anything. The American media wouldn’t allow it.” “We have a Sandy–like the hurricane–on the horizon…we are going to see a great conflict between these important issues in the days after the election.” Says that he is “comfortable” guessing that Obama will be reelected.

23:42: Bob Carpenter, the analyst linked to before, explains that the American economy will be a major issue for Americans in thinking about this election. Also says that the debates might have an effect on voters’ perception of candidates. Says that first debate was a show for Americans that Romney was “qualified to lead the country.”

23:39: Vocab: kosning (election). The female analyst just remarked that something was “leiðinlegt,” or boring. Not sure what.

23:36: Back to the analyst via Skype. It’s possible that he said that he’s in Maryland.

23: 34: Skyping now with Icelandic political analyst or journalist wearing headset. From the little of the background you can see in the frame, it looks like he might be in a small supply closet. Not sure where he was.

23:28: Vocab: spænsku (Spanish), latino

23:26: Vocab: Bandaríkjunum (American), þusand (thousand), Republican.

23:24: Analyst in cardigan discusses, I think, polls showing possibilities for candidates to take Ohio.

23:22: American political analysts–including this guy–interviewed to explain the American electoral college. (English with Icelandic subtitles.) General discussion of polarization of voters and parties, and the potential for this polarization to worsen in future years.

23:19: The scene: Four calm political analysts sit at a desk with laptops before them, discussing various aspects of the election and the candidates. I’m getting this from the few snippets I can understand which relate to “white people,” “taking Ohio,” and “much money.”

23:18: Turned on our TV to the only channel that we have, RUV, which luckily is the channel with the US Election Coverage. First article of note: coverage is in Icelandic, no subtitles.

Tollbooths on the Border with Seltjarnarnes!

Election coverage starts in just under half an hour here–that’s 11:15 PM Iceland time. While many American expats in Reykjavík pose with the candidates (so obliging of Mister Romney and President Obama to fly to Reykjavík to share this special day with constituents here) at the American embassy’s fancy dress ball election night party, me and mine are camped out at home, in our comfy clothes, waiting to bring you, dear reader, moment by moment coverage of Iceland’s coverage of the United States’ 2012 Election Results. In the meantime, I give you the music video for the 2010 campaign song of Reykjavík’s Besti flokkurinn, or Best Party (renamed the Bright Future party in January 2012): “Simply the Best.” If you’re thinking, “hey–that’s a Tina Turner song,” you are right. But the lyrics were re-written in Icelandic, in celebration of some of the Best Party’s most cherished political platforms, including:

  • Free towels at all the swimming pools! (Ed. Note: Sadly, nothing has come of this promise so far…)
  • A polar bear at the Reykjavík Zoo!
  • Tollbooths on the border with Seltjarnarnes (Ed. Note: This is really funny, but I didn’t know that until I lived here. Seltjarnarnes is a neighboring township that is to the West of Reykjavík. The residential neighborhoods of Reykjavík’s Vesturbær and the start of Seltjarnarnes just bleed right into one another. It bears noting, however, that while you can use your Reykjavík City Library card to check things out of the Seltjarnarnes City Library, you cannot use your Reykjavík Swimming Pool Card to pay for entrance at the Seltjarnarnes pool. Or so I was told by an acquaintance who was told skeptically at the pool entrance: “That’s a city card–you’re in the country now.”)

So, without further ado, I give you 2010’s Best Party anthem (with English subtitles!). Let’s all get our priorities straight on election day!

Iceland Will Turn You (Or At Least, Me) Into a Nature-Loving Hippie

I have generally understood myself to be a person for whom nature was both important and affecting. This manifests itself in different ways, depending on the environment. For instance, when I visit my family in Arizona, I always experience this moment of unexpected physical relief–a sort-of full-body sigh–when I step out of the airport and into the sharp (completely dry!) oven-like heat, when I drive through a cactus forest, when I smell damp creosote after it rains. Conversely, I find that although I am incredibly drawn to the ocean, I am actually still very frightened of it (or at least, of being *in* it). Standing knee-deep in the tide, I usually feel like I’m making eye-contact with a tiger: it’s a beautiful experience, but I need to both keep my distance and my guard up.

Having lived in New York City for ten years, my relationship with nature became both more acute and more abstracted. Like most New Yorkers, I relished any and all time that could be spent outdoors (in nice weather), but in general, the “outdoors” aspect was actually secondary to whatever activity was being done, which was usually very social, and mostly stationary. (The drink at a bar with a backyard is a real staple of the Brooklyn summer, as is wresting a tiny spot of grass away for yourself from the two or three soccer games, birthday picnic, co-ed sunbathers, and office workers on their lunch breaks who are also all vying for their own place in the sun.

In New York, there’s also a sense that being able to get out into nature (i.e. taking the train two hours north or out to Long Island) is a privilege that you have to either earn (save those vacation days!), gain through close association with the right people (i.e. friends who(se parents) have summer houses/leave their own homes upstate to go elsewhere for the warmer months), or are otherwise gifted by some other benevolent means (i.e. the Fresh Air Fund for urban school kids). Nature, and time in nature, is not something that you just have unfettered access to–it’s always nature within an urban context (a community garden in a vacant lot; a family BBQ held on the sidewalk in front of an apartment building), and it’s rarely, if ever, a solitary experience.

I often love the communal aspect of outdoor moments in New York–the almost revelatory fact of so many people coexisting together and so diligently carving out personal space for themselves within the public. But there’s something to be said for being alone in nature–or perhaps better put, being alone *with* nature, and also just having it so close at hand. Both of those things are pretty easily attained in Iceland, even when in Reykjavík.

Yesterday (the first day of winter, btw, when everyone except for me was enjoying Free Meat Soup Day) was an overcast day, chilly and misty. But one thing about being a child of the desert is that it is really hard for me to get tired of cloudy days; the light is just so nice. (I do get tired of being rained on, I’ll admit. And I love myself some sunshine. But nevertheless…) Since it looked reasonably dry out, I decided to take a morning walk along the path behind our house. I’ve been saying that I’d do this since we moved in, but thus far haven’t actually done much morning walking with a mug of coffee. I blame this on classes that start before the sun rises, but I digress.

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I decided I’d walk in a different direction than I usually do, down toward the beach at Nauthólsvík and the (very) near-by city of Kopavogur. I didn’t make it very far, though, because I got distracted by these lovely birds down by/on the water. There were two groups: a trio of taller, sleeker black birds with long beaks which were searching for food along the shoreline, and a larger group of “ducks” (probably not ducks, but that’s the closest species I can think of*) swimming together in the ocean. The “ducks” received most of my attention, primarily because they were making this dove-like cooing noise, which is what made me stop in the first place. The flock included several black and white birds (presumably males) which were shepherding around their brown lady companions. At first, I stood on the path watching the ducks in the distance, but ended up being so fascinated by their almost mechanical, coordinated movements that I started squelching my way through the frosted-over seaweed and the mud to get closer to the shoreline. (It was a good thing I was wearing clogs–I had a good inch or two of  sole to squish down into the muck with so that I didn’t to worry about getting wet.)

These birds really were fascinating: three or four of them would swim along and then suddenly would simultaneously dip down to catch a fish, duck-bums in the air all at the same time, only to then turn over an swim along all together again. Every so often one of the males would rear up on his tail, stick out his little duck-chest, and flap his wings behind him, which I found suitably impressive, but didn’t seem to gain him much traction with the lady-birds, who obviously had seen all of this posturing before.

After I had stood there watching these birds for a long while–all the time alone, I might add, there wasn’t anyone to be seen on the walking path–I started picking my way back from the shoreline, which meant a lot of tip-toeing around pools of water, frozen seaweed, and the like. That took me another twenty minutes–not because it was such a long distance or all that difficult to move, but because I got distracted by the beautiful frosted red seaweed, and the way it contrasted with the yellow grass and green algae.

So there you have it: I’m not only emotionally overwhelmed by waterfalls and glaciers now, I’m fascinated by “ducks” and distracted by beautiful algae. Iceland has officially converted me into a full-blown hippie-type, and I think it’s just splendid.

*I did actually try to find out what species of bird this was, but thus far, I’ve just found a lot of similar-looking black and white sea birds that either are said to live in different parts of Iceland or don’t exactly look right. If you know what these birds are, though, please get a newbie birder off to a solid start and let me know!

A Few Days á Suðurlandi: Roadtrip Day 2 (Part 1)

I’m breaking Day 2 of our trip recap into two posts, otherwise you’ll surely grow tired of reading all this before I finish writing it and my hands will claw up for nothing. Anyway, it’ll help me draw out the anticipation, and spread out the photos…

When last we left off in our travels, Mark and I were driving out of Stokkseyri on a bright, crisp fall morning, headed toward Vík. (We got absurdly lucky with the weather, for reals.) Day 2 of our adventure took us, briefly, off the beaten (read: paved) path (read: Route 1) and along meandering routes that lead through some truly beautiful farmland. The driving itself was a little nervous-making for a time, mainly in that the posted speed limit was frequently set at 60 km/hr, but although I had been assured by the woman at the rental agency that “it’s just so common” for cars to get dinged up by small stones on unpaved roads and “not to worry about it,” there were still those damage fees to pay if we kicked up a larger rock. That and the fact that the roadway often alternated between paved and unpaved sections–you’d be flying along at 90 km/hr, only to hit a gravel stretch for 40 feet, hit the brakes and then almost immediately run back up onto a paved section for 20 feet, then hit a gravel section…But honestly, for those of us who aren’t completely jaded by the Icelandic countryside (and that would be most tourists), a nice leisurely pace is all the better to appreciate the scenery. (As long as you don’t end up with an impatient local driver behind you, but more on that anon.)

I’m convinced that Icelanders have some sort of sixth sense when it comes to choosing a place to live. Once you get out in the Icelandic countryside, it appears that each house or farm is situated in the most perfect place–perhaps nestled up against a mountain (or glacier) with a waterfall right there in the “backyard,” or looking out on the ocean, or up on a ridge facing a river, or some combination of the above. Each time we drove by a new farm, I’d think, “Yeah–that guy got the best spot. His neighbors must have be really miffed that he (or his ancestors) got there first.” But then you drive about 10 feet further and as it turns out, there’s another amazing waterfall, another perfect spot tucked up under a mountain, another ridge overlooking a vast, grassy valley. Americans may be spoiled for choice when it comes to a lot of things–mostly things that don’t matter in the least, like having 30 different kinds of shampoo to pick from. But Icelanders are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a beautiful place to live. Every spot is basically the best spot. I actually don’t know if I’d be able to choose from so many perfect locations, were I in the position to just drop a house anywhere in the country. (Ah, to have such problems.)

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Icelanders Don’t Say Please

And it’s not because they’re impolite–there’s actually just no word for “please” in Icelandic. This discovery has flummoxed many an ISL student other than myself, I think–it seems to be one of the go-to “can you believe this crazy language we’re learning?!” conversational touch-points which people new to Icelandic can all giggle about together.

There are, of course, ways in which you can be polite in Icelandic without having to say “please.” It has a lot to do with tone, for one–whether or not you sound like a jerk when you’re asking for something–but there are also a number of Icelandic phrases which correspond to more polite, conditional English phrasing. For example:

Viltu rétt mér saltið?” — “Will you pass me the salt?”

“Fyrirgefðu, getur þú nokkuð sagt mér hvað klukkan er?” — “Excuse me, can you [maybe, sort of, perhaps be bothered to] tell me what time it is?”

(The “nokkað” adds the extra double layer of politeness here. As it was explained to me, using this word is sort of like telling someone in advance that it’s totally okay with you if they can’t/won’t do the thing that you are asking, such as telling you the time.)

You can also just say “takk,” a lot, inserting this “thank you” as though you were saying “please.”

“Ég ætla að fa einn bjór, takk.” — “I’m going to get [I’d like] one beer, thanks.”

(This is a good default, I think. Just say thank you, all the time, for everything.)

It’s interesting though, isn’t it? Because you don’t really think about it (or at least I haven’t thought about it until recently), but the way in which you convey politeness and courtesy has an awful lot to do with the way the language you speak structures gratitude. I can speak to this with some authority as far as English goes, and I think that any of you who have worked in service jobs or with The Public will agree: just because someone says “please” when he/she asks for (demands) something, does not mean that that person is treating you with respect.

This issue of being polite when asking for something came up in class last week when we were supposed to prepare phrases and sentences to use on a visit to a local swimming pool. These Íslenskuþorpið or “Icelandic Village” exercises require us (the students) to first go to a place (coffee shop, swimming pool, bakery) and just observe things–write down vocab, eavesdrop on conversations, etc. Then, we go to class and prepare ourselves to go to the same place again, except the second time, we have to actually talk to a staff member in Icelandic. It’s a great idea, really–both in that it forces students to go out and try to speak in Icelandic, and also because it prepares a handful of Icelanders for the experience of speaking to someone who has a wonky accent or falters on vocab for a second or two, but can still probably have the conversation in Icelandic, if allowed to muddle through.

As it turned out, on my first recon mission to the pool last week, I had forgotten to bring a towel. No fear, though–they rent towels there and I was pretty sure that I knew all the words I needed to go ahead and get one. (“To rent” was a verb Mark and I learned in our first few weeks here, whilst frantically Google-translating rental ads). So up I went to the counter, all eagerness and trying to be my most polite. “Má ég leiga hanðklæði?” I asked. “May I rent a towel?”

Now, let me just say that I still consider this interaction to have been a success, because guys: I got the towel. Did the whole thing–the asking, the payment, the denial of receipt, etc.–in Icelandic. But when I told my teacher about this later and parroted my awesome, super-polite sentence, she tilted her head a little confusedly and then told me that the phrasing “Má ég…” just doesn’t sound right. She said that this sort of implies that I want something for free, except then, strangely, I asked to rent the towel. So it’s lucky, I suppose, that the lady at the pool was prepared for ISL students to come in and say all sorts of wacky things in Icelandic. Because otherwise, I guess, my efforts at being polite would have just made it hard for me to be understood.

Instead, my teacher suggested that I simply say “Ég vil leiga handklæði, takk.” — “I want to rent a towel, thank you.” Or, if that didn’t feel right, I could ask “Er hægt að leiga handklæði?” — “Is it possible to rent a towel?” And either of these work, really–if I heard these phrases in English, I would think the speaker was being polite, for sure. But it’s just ever so slightly different, just different enough to give me a little moment of pause when I go to start a conversation with someone. Because no one wants to not only butcher a language while practicing, but also insult someone in the process.

Branding in Translation

There’s something particularly compelling about product design and advertisements in another country. We’re all obviously familiar with being-sold-to, but how that’s actually gone about in other places feels very different somehow. The approach is recognizable, but just slightly skewed, and at least to me, in Iceland, feels slightly more innocuous for its novelty.

My favorite example of novel branding in Iceland thus far is Lambi: the distant adorable cousin of Snuggle and the Charmin Bears, Lambi sells a wide variety of paper products. (Although, full disclosure, Lambi is not an Icelandic brand–I believe it is based somewhere in Scandinavia and is sold throughout Northern Europe). Lambi sells several types of toilet paper, but the one which features the mascot–“an ambassador for a softer world“–in diving goggles and a snorkel, ready to jump in the ocean and tool around with the blue and green whales which are printed on the toilet paper itself, is obviously the best.

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