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!

I, Alone

I just spent a lovely ten days with my parents and sister on their recent visit to Iceland. We got to do a fair amount of out-in-the-country-ing, a fair amount of just-normal-life-ing, a fair amount of errand-running, an awesome bit of horse riding, and I even got all three of them to go sea swimming with me, because they are heroes. (My dad in particular gets a shout out for swimming around the cove with me and making sure I didn’t have a panic attack when the Inferi seaweed started tickling my toes.) So as of today—National Day, as it happens—things are slowly returning back to normal here for me. Although ‘normal’ is actually not normal at all, as I now find myself in the midst of a real sumarfrí—summer vacation, that is—without a daily job or school assignments or any of that. (I’ll cope, I promise.)

Valdimar Thorlacius - Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

Valdimar Thorlacius – Photo by Vilhelm, Vísir

So I’m going through my email and catching up on news and things that happened while I was basically off the Internet, and I’ve been pleased to see that a book of photography by Icelandic photographer Valdimar Thorlacius has been getting a fair amount of attention since it was released at the start of the month. This pleasure is twofold. On one hand, it is a beautiful book of photography on a fascinating subject: the daily lives of hermits in Iceland. On the other, I’m also excited because I translated the accompanying text—excerpted interviews with the photographed individuals—and did so over the course of a weekend. I had editing help, of course, but truly, this is the most extensive (and fastest) translation project that I’ve yet undertaken, made all the more interesting/complicated by the fact that the interview subjects were often talking about the daily circumstances or details of their childhoods on rural farms in Iceland (not a milieu that I’m super well-versed in yet) and also generally had rather roundabout/old-timey colloquial ways of expressing themselves. They are hermits, after all. So I learned a lot doing this translation, not just linguistically, but culturally and historically, too.

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Throwback Touring: Trip to the Vestmannaeyjar (Feb. 2015)

As of Friday, I am officially done with work, done with school, and tots on summer vacation. Which means all sorts of free time…at least until I fill it. Until that happens, however, I’ve got time finally to share a little bit about the trip that Mark and I took to the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), right off of Iceland’s south coast, in February.

We had been wanting to visit the Vestmannaeyjar for quite some time, so when I was invited to write a travel piece for Icelandair’s in-flight magazine, I jumped at the opportunity. And even though it was the off-season and many of the island’s major tourist draws (such as boats out around the smaller, uninhabited islands to see puffins and other sealife) weren’t running, we really had a fabulous trip.

For one, we got to hold puffins, which was just as awesome as you’d expect. For two, we were escorted around by a photographer, Óskar, who is a lifetime resident of Heimaey (Home Island). Óskar (whose lovely photos you can see here) drove us all over the island, shared local stories and histories, arranged for us to get into museums after closing hours and to meet the curators, asked his friend to let us join an island tour (which included a delicious lunch at Einsi Kaldi, an upscale restaurant that uses a lot of local ingredients), and even had us over for dinner at his home. It was, as you can see, quite the royal treatment.

View of Heimaey from the top of Eldfell, the volcano that looms directly over the town.

View of Heimaey from the top of Eldfell, the volcano that looms directly over the town.

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Áfram 2015!

So, here we are, almost February. The year is well underway and I am happy to say that at least from our vantage point here, it seems to be getting off to a good start. Classes are several weeks in and I’m splitting my time between one rather challenging Translation Studies course (MA level, in Icelandic), an ÍSL (Íslenska sem annað mál, or Icelandic as a Second Language) course which focuses on learning how to write like an adult (thank the lord), and a couple literature classes (including one MA class on Scottish Women’s lit—great so far) which are really just for my own edification and allow me to enjoy the opportunity of like, being in college again and just studying for fun (whoo!). And full disclosure to this academic adventuring: the side benefit of the literature classes is that they are taught in English, thereby removing some of the second-language pressure and allowing me to focus the majority of my attention on the translation class.

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On Independence, Or: Asking for help when pouring your milk

So, when it rains, it pours, eh? You don’t hear from me for over a month, Internet, and now you can’t get me to shut up. I suppose all I can say is that finals and the holiday season are approaching and who knows how good I’ll be about keeping up with you then. So I might as well bury you in posts now.

Anyway: a bit belatedly (all my own doing), my second (mostly) monthly column for The Island Review is now online. It’s called “Independent People” (totally original, I know) and delves into giving and receiving help in Iceland, as well as an amusing experience that Mark and I had while driving up to Akureyri at the end of the summer. Here’s a sample (from the middle, so: Spoilers, I guess?):

I have only received one direct reproof in two months at my new job looking after children at an afterschool center. This was for preemptively pouring a glass of milk for a five year old at snack time. “Larissa, we do not pour the milk unless they ask,” said my colleague. “We want them to become independent.” Keep in mind, I later mistakenly directed the same child to walk home by herself, leaving her stranded on her doorstep until her mother came home an hour later. Utterly distraught at this epic blunder, I apologized profusely, only to have the same colleague shrug and say, “Well, we all make mistakes.”

You can read the whole piece on The Island Review’s website, here.

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.

The Summer Project, Revised

“Jumping After Hildur”: Engraving from an 1864 edition of Icelandic legends, via Wikimedia Commons

So earlier this summer, I decided that I would set myself a project goal: finish a draft of a translation of a ten page short story. I thought this would be a modest goal, and yet fully expected that it would undergo some revisions (read: delays) over the course of the following months. And, guess what, guys: it totally did. Namely, here I find myself approaching the end of summer and I haven’t completed more than two or three pages of said translation.

Now. I could spend time raking myself over the coals about this since I haven’t, truth be told, done a whole lot of studying or general Icelandic-improvement in the last few months. That’s not to say I haven’t done anything, of course: I’ve been reading the daily free paper that gets shoved through the mail slot in the morning. I’ve watched a bit of television on RÚV, and listened to a bit of the state radio station. I’ve eavesdropped on my co-workers and people on the bus. And, biggest deal of all: I’ve had not one, but three, job interviews in Icelandic. One of these was triumphant, one was short [my schedule wasn’t compatible], and one was—best case scenario—kinda okay, but kind of embarrassing, due to a whole muddle of mix-ups which primarily stemmed from the fact that I am absolutely, swear-to-god, The Worst at speaking Icelandic on the phone. (Long story—I’ll tell you sometime, just as soon as it goes from being sort of shaming and sad-making to being funny.)

The point is, I’ve been in this country and in/around this language and although my conversational skills are still pretty shabby at best, I am trying and improving and getting less self-conscious about those moments in which I flub up and say/write something stupid (oh, like the time I gave an email the subject “Eftirfylgja um starf,” which my dictionary lead me to believe meant “Follow-up about job,” but which my co-worker informed me was kind of actually like saying “Afterbirth about job.”) Basically, it’s an uphill battle and embarrassment is par for the course, so developing a thicker skin is not nothing.

While my short story project has basically stalled, however, there is some good news on this front. I have actually done some translations work this summer—translations of the literary variety, even.

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Life Imitates Art: Meeting Ingimar Oddsson

Ingimar Oddsson. Photo courtesy of the author.

One of the really nice aspects of my time in Iceland thus far has been the opportunity to write freelance articles for The Reykjavík Grapevine. I’ve never considered myself a journalist, and never thought that I would be writing for a paper professionally, even though I’ve really enjoyed contributing book reviews and short culture pieces to various websites now and again. But as well as forcing me to really learn how to write on deadlines and produce new kinds of pieces (such as interviews), writing for the Grapevine has also been a really great opportunity for me to meet all sorts of interesting people who I would have not otherwise had the chance to meet.

One such person is Ingimar Oddsson, the author/musician/artist who created the fictional world of Bildalia, and recently self-published The Bildalian Chronicles about his experiences in this magical village on the edge of the Westfjords.

Here’s an excerpt of the profile I wrote of Ingimar, which you can read in full on the Grapevine website here:

Verisimilitude is key to Ingimar’s project: Bildalia has its own currency (called hlunkar, meaning “fat,” with one hlunkar being roughly equivalent to 10 ISK), its own newspaper (The Bildalian Post), crest, and even its own king (Peter) and royal heir (Lady Gu›run Louisa Ernst). Moreover, Ingimar himself is the story’s central character, a role that he finds easy to integrate into his daily life.

“The character is not that exaggerated from myself, so I don’t have to act a lot. I have been on stage several times and that is a harder thing—you have to put yourself into a different character,” he says. But when Ingimar puts on his “costume,” he’s not just doing so for the sake of his fictional alter ego. He’s just getting dressed for the day.

“When I discovered steam-punk, I thought: ‘so this is what I’m called—so there is a name for me.’ Twenty years ago, I had long hair and a long tail jacket and I walked about in a cloak. This is like coming home.”

Also, if you get interested, you can purchase e-book copies of Ingimar’s book (in English) here.

Regarding that “Anti-Incest” App…

Exterior of deCODE Genetics, via mbl.is

You probably remember the anti-incest app that was garnering so much attention a few weeks ago–I briefly posted about it here, and then there were a kazillion more articles and news items of varying substance, humor, and factuality, posted all over the interweb about it. But the thing is, it’s not really an anti-incest app. Or at the very least, that’s not the whole story.

I had been planning to write a short article for The Reykjavík Grapevine about the student competition that deCODE Genetics was co-sponsoring with the University of Iceland to design an app for the Íslendingabók website. And then this incest app thing gained traction and suddenly, my little piece on student engineers and genealogy and quirky app designs grew in scope. I started by interviewing the three student engineers who designed the winning app (they work under the company name Sad Engineers, which I just love), and then also had a number of email exchanges with the students who designed the second place app as well. I spoke to one of the competition organizers at the university and thought that my piece was done, until I discovered that the people at deCODE knew I was writing a piece and wanted to contribute their own thoughts. Which I certainly had not been expecting.

By the time everything was said and done, I was invited to visit deCODE in person, have a quick tour, get a demonstration from one the main Íslendingabók website/program designers, and have a one-on-one meeting with Kári Stefansson…which is not something I would have ever dreamed that I’d be doing when I came to Iceland.

(If you are not familiar with who Kári Stefansson is, let me clarify that this is (super intimidating and) a Big Deal: see here, here, here…)

Let me state for the record that I am not remotely qualified to have a conversation about genetics with a world-famous neurologist and entrepreneur and that this whole experience was, metaphorically, characterized by me doggy paddling in the rapids. But I’m told that freelance journalism is often about learning to think quickly and trying to write successful articles about topics in which you may definitely do not have a previous expertise. I think I managed this time, but wow.

Now, without further ado, the article itself, which is published in the current issue of The Reykjavík GrapevineHere’s the beginning, to get you started:

What do any two random Icelanders have in common, genetically? If this sounds like the beginning of a bad knock-knock joke (or Jimmy Kimmel sketch), that’s probably because by now you’ve read at least some of the pun-heavy headlines popping up everywhere from Bloomberg Businessweek and NBC to the BBC, The Huffington Post and The Independent. A quick sampling if you haven’t: “App Aims to Keep Cousins from Kissing,” or “Icelanders Avoid Inbreeding Through Online Database.”

So then let’s get this out of the way early: two random Icelanders have about as much in common as second cousins, once removed, according to Dr. Kári Stefansson, CEO and co-founder of deCODE Genetics. That might sound like a lot, but accounting for the vast possibilities for genetic recombination in each generation, it really isn’t. Breaking it down in very, very simple terms—call it ‘genetics for literature students in five minutes’— Kári says, two Icelanders share a lot of DNA, but only in tiny bits and pieces.

If it seems strange that one of the world’s more prominent neurologists would be taking the time to parse basic genetics for a freelance journalist with a high school level understanding of DNA, then well, you can see just how far the joke has really gone.