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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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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Fake Duck, and Pork Buns, and Thai Eggplants, oh my!

So, one of the things I continually say that I miss the most about living in the US is the food. Not all the high fructose corn syrup, no, but the general availability and variety of fresh vegetables and ingredients and the breadth of affordable and interesting cuisines. It’s not to say that interesting an unexpected foods can’t be found in Reykjavík. I keep seeing fresh turmeric at the Bónus, which blows my mind, for instance, and we just got our first Ramen shop—a coworker told me they had Udon noodles, which he had to Google because he’d never seen them before. But I’m not always sure of where to look for these things here, or when I find them, they can be rather decadent expenses (i.e. the Halloween pumpkin when we first arrived).

But I’m starting to discover that while food options might be limited here, they are not as limited as I thought.

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Books and Bacon

Chelsea and Darren were lovely guests this weekend and we did a lot of fun, albeit mostly low-key, things. These included sweater-hunting in thrift stores (per Mark and my’s usual, perhaps embarrassing, tradition, we took other people shopping and found something for ourselves—in this case, a delightfully ugly-but-awesome sweater with a mama polar bear and a baby polar bear which had been marked way down because apparently, no one else gets what Awesome is…), wandering around the Kolaportið, getting late night hot dogs, looking at the organ in Hallgrímskirka (I really need to go back and hear it being played finally), cooking a nice fish dinner, and watching movies. There are very few people with whom a first-weekend-back-in-town would go over well, particularly given that Mark and I had to spend a fair amount of time on Sunday doing work. But Chelsea and Darren are the Chill Visit All-Stars and I very much hope that they will come back for a longer visit in the future. We had a great time, you guys!

But on to the B&B… On our “town day” on Saturday, we all stopped by Little Free Library Reykjavík, since I hadn’t actually seen it since I arrived. This was extremely satisfying! Not only was the library still there and in good shape (no graffiti or vandalism to speak of, knock wood, and it appears to still be watertight after the rainy summer…knock wood x2), but it still had books in it. Books which I didn’t recognize and definitely did not put in there or collect myself. Which is really heartening–it looks like people are really using it! At this point, I am unconvinced that anyone has brought the books back after reading them, but baby steps. I am  glad that it is getting off to a strong start.

After visiting the library and adding a few more books to the box we had lunch (a waitress mistook my Icelandic accent for Faroese which was certainly a first and somehow heartening), and then…drum roll…went to the Bacon Festival!

Darren in particular was a very good sport about Bacon Fest, for which I thank him here on the Interweb. Chelsea and Mark chose not to partake, both for very good reasons (too full/legitimately a little grossed out by the grease-drowned bacon/not a bacon-eater), but it would have been, well, super sad for me to be eating free bacon all by myself.

Bacon Fest, for the uninitiated, is basically just an excuse to close down a major street for uber-specific gluttony. There was country band playing Icelandic covers of American honky tonk (“Stand by Your Man” is perfect bacon music, bt-dubs), an abundance of bouncy-castles for kids (like, three or four at least), and about seven stands and tents where bacon and sausage were being given out by the Ali Bacon company. Someone was even handing out flyers for a Bacon After Party, which was hilarious, but might have been pushing it.

I didn’t realize it when we arrived, but it would have technically been possible to start at the church and wend our way down toward the city center, eating bacon every few feet. I can’t say that I regret not doing this, because, you know, I want to live to see my golden years, but somehow, I was pleased with the option—and the fact that having so many stands spread out the crowd a little.

Photo Update: Seaside Sculptures

I’m in the process of organizing all the photos which haven’t yet made it onto the blog, and am almost done. When sorting the other day, I found some great shots of the sculptures outside the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum that I took a couple days before leaving Reykjavík. On that lovely May afternoon, Mark and I were hoping to see some sculpture outdoors, and since I remembered seeing what looked like a sculpture garden along Sæbraut, we took the bus over, only to find out that not only was the museum closed that day, but that the building that I had thought was an outdoor sculpture garden was actually a private home with tons of crazy, massive, amazing iron figures outside. (I would love to know the story with this house and the person who lives there.)

Anyhow, I’m looking forward to going back to the museum in the fall, but we got quite a nice little art infusion just walking around the perimeter of the neighbor’s house and checking out the tall wood and stone figures that the museum has installed on the grounds.

I’ve archived all of May’s photos on the photo blog here, but the sculpture ones are below.

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Old Ice Cream and the Ísbíltúr

The Vesturbæjar Ice Cream Shop. Photo via likealocal.com.

It seems only appropriate today, as the temperature creeps over 110 F (bouncing between that and 114 F this weekend—the longest it has been this hot in Arizona for consecutive days since 1989, lucky us…) to reminisce about a particularly fun Icelandic ice cream ritual, as well as a particularly awesome ice cream that Mark and I shared on our last day in Iceland.

The ice cream in question, called gamli ísinn, or “old (style) ice cream,” was brought to my attention during my first semester, but we didn’t manage to make it over to the beloved Ísbúð Vesturbæjar where it’s sold, until our last day for some reason. I’m not sure why this is, since it is right around the corner from the westside pool, but there you have it. Now that we have sampled the offerings, however, I imagine we will be much more frequent customers next year.

So: why is this “old” ice cream so-called, you ask? Honestly, I have no idea. But it is thicker than your usual soft serve, and at least to my palette, tastes a lot more of water. (I think Mark found this a strange taste assessment at the time, but this article in The Grapevine seems to confirm my suspicions.) If this doesn’t sound particularly great to you, let me just say, for the record, that it is. Particularly when you ask for the old ice cream, blended (there’s a name for this, but I forget it…), with a bunch of ingredients mixed in, much like a Dairy Queen Blizzard.

Oh, and the small size, which the nice girl at the counter, warned us came in a very deceiving cup size? It’s the size of a small pine tree. Or a baby’s head. Or a gigantic Icelandic Easter egg. However you like to hyperbolize, it’s huge.

Observe:

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Til hamingju með daginn! Birthday 29 in Iceland

I turned 29 on Wednesday (I share a birthday with Saul Bass, I just found out, which is neat) and to commemorate this solemn occasion, Iceland gifted me one of the most lovely days I’ve seen since arriving here in August. It was sunny and mild and clear and even a bit warm at times. It was a perfect day for a walk along the shore, a visit to the “zoo” (explanation of the quotes to follow), a light lunch in a greenhouse, another walk around a botanical garden, a dinner by the harbor, and yet another walk along the shore to cap off the evening. Which is convenient, because that is exactly what we did.

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Pub?

With a nod to the Best Movie Ever Made.

It probably isn’t hard to guess that social life in Reykjavík varies somewhat from social life in New York. I’m not saying this just because I don’t know as many people here (and that’s changing, anyway), it really has to do with differences in people’s social expectations in both cities. And never are these differences more apparent than when considering the bar scene in both places.

New York is a drinking city. I knew this when I lived there, sure, but I didn’t realize the extent to which bars play a role in dominate social life until I got to Reykjavík. There are a lot of reasons for the significance of bar culture in New York, but if I were going to give a guess at the primary one (besides the fact that New Yorkers just really like to drink), I’d say that people just tend to spend a lot of their free time (often the majority of their free time) outside of their frequently tiny, often shared apartments in New York. So social life gets kicked to the bars. And there’s not really a cafe scene in New York the same as I’m told there is in Seattle or Paris (or like there is in Reykjavík, for that matter). So bars become the main forum for socializing.

Here in Reykjavík, by contrast, people spend a lot more time at home, both in the personal/family context and in the social context. As evidence of this, I might point to the fact that happy hour–an almost holy institution in New York–is still relatively new here. If you go out on a weeknight after work hours to one of the bars offering happy hour specials in Reykjavík, you will yes, run into Icelanders. But my experience thus far is that weeknight/after work drinking is still primarily the practice of foreigners and tourists.

But I digress. Again. The point of all this is that at the end of January, Mark and I had two rather different, but quite enjoyable bar experiences, and ones which I think will inevitably enhance our pub-going in the future. Firstly, we decided to give a try to the Red Lion, a pub in Seltjanarnes which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, located on the ground floor of the mall under the post office (same mall as the library, matter of fact). We headed out on a Sunday afternoon to catch a soccer match (Manchester United-Liverpool, if that’s of interest) and were rather surprised when we arrived that not only was this place huge, but it was also crammed to the gills with very enthusiastic supporters. We clammored to a back room which was relatively empty and had some extra arm chairs and couches which could be turned to face either of the large tvs and enjoyed a very nice afternoon–good pizza, too.

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The best part, I think, (if not the posters for a match between the local team KR and the Greek squad from the city of…Larissa) was that at half-time, a bunch of kids went out into the mall atrium and started playing their own game. Occasionally, the ball would batter the pub windows or small children would slam up against the glass (either on accident or to see what the current score was once play resumed), and I think that really added to the atmosphere.

Just shortly after our afternoon at the Red Lion, we stopped by the brand new Stúdentakjallarinn, or student (basement) pub in the…basement of the central building on campus. This pub has been under construction since before we got to Iceland, and it definitely fills a niche on/around campus. (Before this, if you wanted to get a drink in the vicinity and didn’t want to walk into town, you could go to the expensive bar at the Radisson Blú Saga Hotel or for a cheap, but kinda weird, bottle at the domestic airport. Obviously, the walk into town is not that far and well, you’d have to be in an interesting place in life to elect to go have a beer at the airport just for kicks, but, nevertheless, that was the landscape.)

Interior of the student pub, HI.

Interior of the student pub, HI.

The student pub offers very reasonably priced café drinks and snacks (the quesadilla wasn’t half bad), the beer is extremely cheap for students, and although the whole place was super dark atmospherically-lit when we arrived, there were lots of people sipping coffee and working on their laptops while Saturday Night Fever played on a large screen on the back wall. The decor is comfy-chic, there’s a whole wall that is made of plants, and there are also regular events scheduled there like poetry readings and, excitingly, a popular (English) language pub quiz which Mark and I plan to attend with some friends later this month.

So, nice additions both. (If you’d like to see more admittedly dark photos of the student pub and, for that matter, other shots from the whole month of January, check out the photo blog.)

Icelanders Make Their Own Fun: Amateur Pyrotechnics Win New Year’s Eve

Farsælt nýtt ár, everyone! I hope that 2013 is off to a splendid start for all of you. Our Christmas guest, our friend Graham, headed back to New York yesterday, so Mark and I are on our own again, having enjoyed some more country exploring and holiday relaxation over the last week or so. I’ll fill you in on all the exciting bits over the next few days, but for now–in defiance of narrative chronology!–I want to jump into the *really* exciting stuff. Namely: fireworks. 500 tons of fireworks (no joke) gleefully exploded by fun-loving amateur anarchists all over Iceland on New Year’s Eve.

(Although I’ve embedded a few below, if that baiting lede makes you want to skip the commentary and go straight to the full array of visuals: photos are here, and–whoa there, I’ve gone techie in 2013–videos of the occasion, which are much more reflective of the full spirit (and sound) of the evening, have been posted on my shiny new Vimeo account, here. I recommend the videos, although I will warn you that even with all the firework noise you can hear me laughing like a hysterical child throughout. Also, I’m new to shooting videos–and to editing them–so there are some dizzying turns of the frame. But I think that adds to the effect, maybe?)

Anyway, let’s get to it:

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48 Hours in Iceland: Georgia and Lance Come to Visit, Part One

Just after Thanksgiving and just before most of the test-taking madness began, my very good friend (and former co-worker) Georgia and her husband Lance came to visit us in Iceland. Georgia and Lance had just been to Paris to visit another friend (very cosmopolitan, they are) and were able to tack on a few days in Iceland, courtesy of Icelandair’s very clever free-stopover-in-Iceland business strategy opportunity. As our first visitors since we arrived in August, we definitely wanted to show G&L a good time, and show off Iceland to its best advantage, but we had some time constraints: they arrived on Thursday afternoon/early evening, I had my first test on Friday at 12:30, and their flight home was at 5:00 PM on Saturday. All things considered, though, I think we produced a pretty great Iceland Experience, and it was just super nice to have old friends around, if even for a short time.

I remember when I received my first visitors in New York, just a few months after I had settled in there for college. I felt an immense sense of pressure–I wanted to not only show off the best, most interesting, most unique and un-touristy New York, I also wanted to be able to do that like born-and-bred local–no guide books! Instead, I got lost taking my aunt to a famous hot dog joint which was a less than 10 minute walk from my dorm (I walked us in the exact opposite direction…for about 20 minutes) and also managed to lead her and my mother on an unexpected tour of the sketchier side of Times Square and the freeway after leaving a Broadway show. (“Let’s just pick a direction and walk,” I said. “There’s got to be about 50 restaurants we can choose from in any direction!” This was not at all true of the direction I picked.)

Lesson learned, Mark and I decided that still being pretty new to Reykjavík ourselves, we’d certainly try and share some of our favorite spots, but would also take advantage of the excuse to get out and try new things while G&L were visiting. Another little Staycation, if you will.

So, here’s Part One of the 48-Hour Iceland Experience–one, very particular version of it; there could be so many, of course.

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