He’s Not a Communist: Adventures in Conversation

Well, dear readers, I’ve made it. My final exam was yesterday (it went quite well, thank you) and I am officially on jólafrí (Christmas break) until January. (I actually just found out that there is one more week in January that we have off than I thought. Win!) I am thrilled at the prospect of this long brain break–the better for some around-town excursions that we’ve been waiting to have some free time for, and the better for some reading/writing/and jelly impressions (that’s me, doing my best physical approximation of jelly, most likely while in ankle-length flannel PJs and watching (the BBC mini-series version of) Pride and Prejudice over and over and over). But I am also hoping that the long break doesn’t push me into total regression and allow me to forget all of the grammar and Icelandic that I have been working so hard to acquire over the last three some-odd months.

Which is why, among other worthy reasons, I will be visiting a local nursing home once a week to talk with at least one, and maybe more, residents there. I had a conversation with the woman who directs my grant organization a few weeks ago and it came up that I had not made tons and tons of Icelandic friends who were just thrilled to talk to me in Icelandic yet. So she wrote to a colleague of hers who happens to be a pastor/activity organizer at a large nursing home in Reykjavík and arranged for me to come and talk to someone who lives at the home. Ideally, this is good for both me, the learner of Icelandic, and the resident, who perhaps would enjoy having some regular company.

I had my first visit this week, sandwiched in between two test days. I would say it was successful on most levels, save maybe the linguistic one, but never fear–I shall trouble through!

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A Little Bit of Brooklyn in Reykjavík: Iceland Airwaves, Day 4

I’m going to admit that by the last day of Iceland Airwaves, I was pretty spent. Festivals are great, but it’s exhausting being that culturally engaged and well-dressed for four days straight. (I kid, but I don’t…) Nevertheless, though I groused and was generally not fun as we got ready to go see our last round of shows on Sunday, I was very glad that we did venture out for Day 4. Our plan for the last day of shows was two-fold: see Ásgeir Trausti at the Kex Hostel and then head over to Laundromat Café early to stake out seats, have a late lunch/early dinner, and see Samaris.

If you haven’t heard of Ásgeir Trausti yet–and I mean that ‘yet’–it’s because you haven’t been in Iceland lately. Twenty years old, and sure to spend the better portion of the next decade being compared to Bon Iver and Sufian Stevens, Ásgeir’s music is everywhere here–when I first arrived, his song “Leyendarmál” (‘Secrets’) basically followed me, catchily driving me crazy until someone finally told me what it was. This song, as well as a few other of the tracks off of his debut album “Dýrð í dauðaþögn” (“Glory in the Silence of Death”), is played in buses, at the gym, in restaurants, in shops. We ended up buying his CD in our local Bónus grocery store. This album and this musician is ubiquitous in Iceland right now. So it’s very lucky that he’s very good.

Ásgeir played about a kazillion official and off-venue shows during Airwaves, all of which, we were told, were packed to the gills. We decided to wait until his last show at Kex both because we thought it might be less crowded if visitors were spending their last hours in Iceland at the Blue Lagoon instead of at concerts (it still ended up being crowded with probably more Icelanders than visitors), and also because we had been wanting to check out Kex itself for quite a long time.

In classic Brooklyn fashion, Kex is a shabby-chic, super hip hostel/venue/bar/restaurant which is housed in a former biscuit factory on the Reykjavík waterfront, hence the name: “kex” means “biscuit” in Icelandic. (How ’bout that Brooklyn? Doesn’t that sound like a familiar institutional set-up?) The stage area is located in the restaurant and bar on the 2nd floor (there’s actually outdoor seating as well)–it’s a lovely open and airy room with a bar in the middle and large ocean-and-mountain facing windows all along one wall. There’s an semi-open kitchen in the back corner and long beer-garden style tables and benches throughout the room. The brunch and snack menu seems to be going for an upscale Icelandic comfort food vibe–sides of roasted root vegetables, open-face sandwiches with ample horseradish sauce, and dried fish with butter sauce as a snack (for those of you are unfamiliar, that’s harðfiskur–follow that link for the most stylish, most informative music video you’ve probably ever seen about a dehydrated snack product)–but overall, the menu wasn’t too expensive. To complete the ambiance, most of the light fixtures–those which aren’t large industrial lamps left over from the factory days–are Edison bulbs encased in mason jars. I’m not trying to diminish the “Icelandic-ness” of this place, but it seriously felt like we had teleported to Brooklyn for a few hours–we even struck up a conversation with a woman from Williamsburg who made our day when, after finding out that we were Americans, stated as fact: “You’re from New York.”

Arrived well ahead of Ásgeir’s set, we took up a spot leaning on the bar for the country-fresh Danish trio My Bubba and Mi who were playing a melodic, old-timey, and ironically saccharine cover of a decidedly un-sweet Peaches song. (I’ll let those Peaches fans among you guess the song–the title is not exactly mom-friendly, so I’ll just have to be vague here.) We were able to move up a little and lock down one bar stool between us before Ásgeir’s set, but by the time he started, the room was shoulder-to-shoulder, tip-toe room only, with lots of people standing on chairs and tables to get a better view. (In a very savvy bit of local product promotion, the bartender started making his way around the bar, handing out free vodka tonics made with Reykja vodka just after the first couple of songs, when everyone was just getting amped up.) Ásgeir has a pretty quiet stage demeanor, but he–and his seven or eight band members–really do fill a room with sound. His falsetto, which is excellent when recorded (fact: I’m a big sucker for men singing falsetto), holds up quite well live, and he sticks pretty closely to the recorded versions of his songs when playing live. So even though we were sardined in with half of Iceland and the goodly number of foreigners who were waiting for the Sigur Rós show that afternoon, it was really good show, and a really good cap to Airwaves.

I linked to “Leyendarmál” above, and below you can see a live performance of “Dýrð í dauðaþögn.” Since there is an English-language version of this album in the works now, I recommend that you all start phonetically learning the lyrics to these two songs so that when Ásgeir really hits big in the U.S. (or elsewhere, if he hasn’t already) that you can say that you knew about him back in the day.

The Samaris set at Laundromat that afternoon was also very crowded and very good–we would have bought an EP if either of us had any cash, but Iceland has broken us of that lousy paying-with-cash habit. But having written so much about Samaris and its sister project (haha! I joke!), Pascal Pinion, I think that I will now bring the Iceland Airwaves 2012 saga to an end. It’s been a very full four days here in Reykjavík!

Staycation in Reykjavík: Iceland Airwaves Day 3

As many of you are sure to remember, “staycationing”–vacationing in your home town–became a big vogue when the recession hit and people had less money to travel. It’s also just a really good way to get to know the city that you live in, particularly if you are still relatively new there. And so what has been really nice about Iceland Airwaves–besides the (free) music–is that it has given Mark and I an excuse to be out in downtown Reykjavík, discovering new, interesting, and often inexpensive places that hadn’t yet popped up in our daily ramblings and routines.

So much of getting settled in a new place–with new responsibilities, limited funds, and a small social circle (comprised mostly of people who are also new in said place)–comes down to figuring out the basics (where the grocery store is, how to recycle your bottles and cans, how to use the transit system, getting a library card) and creating a daily routine (vocabulary flash cards, grammar study, trips to the swimming pool). So it can be difficult to get out and be a vacationer again, in the best sense. For me, at least, part of getting settled in a new city is establishing enough familiarity that you aren’t always feeling like a tourist, and that can mean going back to the same places over and over, if only because you know how things work there (do I order at the counter? do I bus my own table?) and can be comfortable. But I’m pleased to say that the last few days have taken Mark and I out of our regular orbit and introduced some great new places throughout Reykjavík which we can now happily integrate into our lives.

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“We’re Crashing This Party!” Iceland Airwaves, Day 1

As many of you music/Icelandic-culture-savvy readers will no doubt be aware, yesterday was the kick-off of Iceland Airwaves, “one of the premier annual showcases for new music – Icelandic and otherwise – in the world,” (according to their website). Badges for the concert sold out months in advance–and months before we got to Iceland–so Mark and I will only be experiencing this festival via off-venue shows. But as far as we can tell from the “gargantuan” off-venue program schedule, that will still leave us with a very robust set of options for the next few days of music madness. It seems that pretty much every scheduled act is playing both official (badge-only) shows, as well as three or four off-venue ones, and it also appears that pretty much everywhere–Hlemmur bus station, a clothing store specializing in outdoor wear, a tourist bureau–is being converted into a makeshift venue for the next three days. So we should have plenty of shows to choose from.

Mark scoped out an interesting line-up for us last night at Hemmi og Valdi, namely Nova Heart, a trio fronted by Helen Feng, “the Blondie of China.” We made it to the venue early–and actually, accidentally. We thought we were just dipping into a bar with a good beer special to escape the howling wind-monster while we figured out where the venue was, and it turned out that we had just conveniently made it to the right place. (The location descriptions in the various festival programs are not always as specific as they might be for people who are unfamiliar say, with the former location of notable bygone club Sirkus.) It was already a bit crowded when we got there–cozy bar, few seats–so we listened to a DJ set from behind a pillar by the bar. There was a little crowd turn-over after that, though, so we got seats front and center–just in time for an excellent, unplanned set by Tanya & Marlon, “cousins and best friends since birth.” (Apparently, they used to go by a different name, but ran into some sort of copyright problem with that so they are now using their own.) Jumping up to the “stage” area in the corner of the bar, Tanya, dressed in a Star Trek jumpsuit and Spock ears, gleefully announced “We’re crashing this party!” This seems to have actually been the case–the sound guy kind of shrugged when questioned by Nova Heart’s manager (?) about the line-up change: “They just told me about this–it shouldn’t be long. Just a few songs.”

Ready with their laptop and DJ equipment (sorry, I’m not that savvy–there was a soundboard of some kind) Tanya and Marlon started their first song and almost immediately started hopping and waving along to it. They seemed to have a sense of humor about the whole thing, and understand (as the previous act didn’t) that there is nothing inherently interesting about watching people play music on a computer. So they definitely rose to the occasion and made a delightfully happy, extremely fun spectacle of themselves while their parents and family in the audience took videos and snapped pictures.

Here’s a video (replete with mild to less mild skateboarding hooliganism) of the song they ended with–“our hit single! Like 5,000 views! It’s better on a good system, though–just imagine you’re in a stadium!”

After the cousins ended their short set, it was time for Nova Heart. They played a great set–energetic, loud, super catchy, engaging–but while I don’t disagree with Helen Feng (the lead singer) being likened to Blondie, and think that she is certainly a great (often focus-pulling) performer, I have to admit that the drumming and the drummer was what really made this band for me. The drummer was rather diminutive, and had a pretty simple set, but boy did she get a lot out of it. Nova Heart also makes plenty of room for percussion in their songs, which I appreciate–the guitarist moved back to share the drumming at a couple points during the set, and Ms. Feng also joined her band-mates and played the cymbal (so that’s three drummers, one set), while crouched under said cymbal, during the last song. Amidst all this watching the drummer shake an egg while playing the drums one-handed was a definite highlight for me. It bears noting that based on videos on the interweb, it looks like Nova Heart often plays with additional members (or guest members, I suppose) and Helen Feng seems to play the keyboard, too, which she didn’t during this set (although she was very enthusiastic tambourine player). Here’s a live video of Nova Heart performing “Good Ideas” (not at Airwaves–somewhere else):

So that was Day 1. Tonight has a pretty huge list of scheduled shows, so it should be a long and fun Day 2.

I Heart the Reykjavík City Library

Photo of Interior of Reykjavík City Library, showing the stain glass installation “Beautiful World” by artist Leifur Breidfjord. Image from the artist’s website: http://www.breidfjord.com/reykjavik-city-library

Yesterday, I told someone that the main branch of the Reykjavík City Library was my favorite place in the city, and they laughed. (‘Oh, you silly librarian.’) But I’m not being facetious: the Reykjavík City Library is, thus far, my favorite place in this city, and if I manage to learn to speak/understand any small amount of Icelandic this year, copious amounts of credit will necessarily be paid to the collection and the librarians at the Aðalsafn.

Just a few stats about the Reykjavík City Library system, for the library-philes among you (I know I’m not the only one). The system is comprised of about five branches and a bookmobile, which I am delighted to say parks in my neighborhood for an hour on Mondays every week. (I haven’t had a chance to visit it yet, but that’s my goal for next week, because, guys: bookmobile!) Patrons/members/card-holders of/in the Reykjavík library system are also able to borrow and request books from the libraries in the nearby towns of Seltjarnarnes and Mosfellsbær. All of the library collections in Iceland–including the collections in the public libraries, university libraries, the national library, and the art, law, government libraries–are collectively cataloged in one online catalog, Gegnir, which also links to the online catalog of electronic journals and databases, Leitir.

Holdings in the public library system are varied and extensive. At the main branch, you can not only find typical materials like adult novels and nonfiction texts (in Icelandic, English, and a multitude of other languages), CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, periodicals, etc–they also lend vinyl records (if only I had my record player here!), VHS tapes, multimedia language-learning materials, and a huge amount of graphic novels and comics.

Anyway, I’ve been enamored with the public library here since I arrived (my first act as a for-real permanent resident was to get my library card, remember?) but yesterday took my already overflowing goodwill toward the library to 11.

A few weeks ago, I noticed this ad on the library’s upcoming events page:

This seemed like a great outreach program for immigrants/newcomers in Reykjavík, and one which was geared toward people for whom reading in Icelandic would be a difficult thing. For me, it promised an opportunity to expand my vocabulary, practice reading in Icelandic, and also to meet and interact with some Icelanders in a pressure-free setting. (Because they are librarians and therefore awesome, and in this program are also are actually intending to interact with non-Icelanders in Icelandic.) I had missed the program for a few Thursdays running, but was bound and determined to make it this week.

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Áfram Ísland! A Very Late and Not Totally Sports-Related Recap of Iceland’s First World Cup Qualifier Match

Photos of fans during the Iceland v. Norway World Cup Qualifier Game

A few Fridays ago–the day after we moved into our awesome apartment–Mark and I went to the Icelandic national soccer team’s first World Cup Qualifier match against Norway. This was pretty cool for a handful of reasons. For one, it was a professional soccer game (henceforth known, in Rest-of-the-world-ese, as ‘football’), and harkened the gathering of momentum toward World Cup 2014. I know that you might not believe me when I say that I love the World Cup, but guys, I love the World Cup.

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