Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Heading Home for the Holidays!

Gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár (Merry Christmas and a happy New Year)!

The time has come: exams are over, papers are turned in, Christmas shopping is complete, the sun is rising at 11:06 and setting at 3:34, and I’m flying out tomorrow! It’s a ridiculous commonplace, but I can’t believe a whole semester has already gone by. I still can’t even order a hotdog in Icelandic if I want them to leave off the onions!

Reykjavík is lovely at Christmastime—though not as impressively decorated as I’d expected given that everybody kept telling me how “they do Christmas right in this town.” But then, they did have a complete economic meltdown last year, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see one or two fewer strings of lights on the shops these days. I did think, though, that the city Christmas tree, an annual gift from Norway since the 50s, was amusingly little. I’d been expecting something like the titan they put up in Times Square, but it turns out it’s only about two stories high and rather on the scraggly side. Of course, last year the poor tree got burned during the protests over the economic crisis (the kreppa, as they call it), so perhaps the Norwegians were asked to supply a little less fuel this year in case the same thing happened again. This morning, though, I did see a group of school children standing around the tree, holding hands and singing, and they looked so very much like the Hoos down in Hooville I really wish I’d had my camera!

Iceland has some intriguing Christmas traditions that they seem to be rather proud of. First off one should mention the unique (some would say ghastly) concoctions they came up with a thousand years ago in their turf kitchens—or imported from Norway. One of those is kæst skata—fermented stingray. Traditionally it’s eaten two days before Christmas, during Þorláksmessa—the Feast of St. Thorlak, patron saint of Iceland. But my Icelandic instructor confided that she doesn’t particularly like it herself. They also sell great big jars of pickled herring with cranberries (jólasíld—actually quite good!), a special brew of Christmas beer, and brennivín—liquor flavored with caraway, which apparently you either really like or really don’t. There are other, more palatable traditions like lamb stew and laufabrauð (“leaf bread”—a thin, intricately decorated pastry), but somehow I don’t actually see those around that often….

Though they don’t get the whole time off (I think Icelanders have been found to work the longest hours of any European nation), the Christmas holiday is not just the 25th of December. Oh no, you start the festivities with Þorláksmessa on the 23rd, continue partying on Christmas Eve (Aðfangadagur), then you have Christmas Day itself (Jóladagur), followed by “The Second Day of Christmas”—Annar í Jólum! And if you keep to the tradition of the Yule Lads, you can manage to stretch Christmas out for 26 days!

The Yule Lads (Jólasveinar) are something in between Halloween goblins and Santa Claus. Lately they’ve been much incorporated into the Santa-and-elves tradition (for over a hundred years, for example, they’ve been leaving oranges in children’s shoes the way nineteenth-century Santa did), but they are still said to be the sons of the mountain ogress Grýla. (Some report she lives on Esja, in fact!) Grýla herself eats badly-behaved children—coal in the stockings is for sissies—and her cat, the Jólaköturinn, likewise eats the poor kids who don’t have new clothes for Christmas! In fact, I’ve heard from multiple printed sources (that makes it true, right?) that in the 18th century the parliament actually passed a law forbidding parents from threatening their badly-behaved children with a visit from Grýla and her sons!

Now, however, the Jólasveinar are much more mischievous than frightening. With names like Þvörusleikir (Stick-Licker), Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler), and Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Grabber), they’re supposed to come down from the mountains one per night the 13 nights before Christmas. While in town, they’re always looking for something to eat—or steal first and eat later, preferably. But they leave gifts now too, and I doubt anybody misses the scrapings leftover on the bowls these days. After Christmas, they head back to the mountains, one each night. It’s not Santa Claus, but it’s a pretty nifty tradition anyway.

So much for Christmas in Reykjavík. Tomorrow I’m flying out to New York City to spend a few days with my sister at Sarah Lawrence (where even the squirrels wear black) before heading home to Virginia for the holidays. If you know me, you know what a family girl I am, and I’m beside myself with anticipation! I hear the firework display during a Reykjavík New Year is unbeatable, but I’ll trade it for a quiet holiday at home.

I’ll report back, of course, either after my New York adventure, or after my return to Reykjavík for the spring semester! Until then, bestu óskir um gleðileg jól og gott og farsælt komandi ár með þokk fyrir það liðna! (Best wishes for a merry Christmas, and a good and happy New Year, with thanks for the year past!)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Time for Exams and Papers

Ég á að vera að lesa (I ought to be reading)

December has begun, and classes have ended! And it’s probably fair to say winter has begun in earnest too, considering we got a heap of snow over the weekend. With the end of classes came the completion of three papers but also the beginning of exams—so I can’t yet say that the semester has successfully finished. I’ve taken one final so far and have three more to go, and I can say it’s a very different system from what I’m used to!

First, exams are a very official affair here—they’re proctored by people hired specifically for that purpose, and they’re held in rooms specially set up with desks placed at large distances from each other. They even go so far as to assign each person a numbered desk at which you are required to sit! I can see the system working for a huge math class, or for taking the Boards or the Bar exam, but for ten people translating half a dozen paragraphs of Old Icelandic? It seemed like overkill. But they tried to make it look more efficient by scattering us around a room shared with students taking an exam for another class.

It wasn’t just that the system was strange, though—it’s that it has at its heart the assumption that students are cheaters and must be monitored and prevented at every turn from engaging in their duplicitous, natural behaviors. The system isn’t Icelandic, of course; I know many American schools work the same way. But coming as I do from not one but two universities ruled by an honor code that assumes a student’s word is good and that he can restrain himself from cheating if he pledges not to, I find it profoundly insulting not to be trusted.

An example: all semester, several of us in the program have been using a PDF or online dictionary to translate from Old Icelandic to English—first because a PDF won’t put you overweight when you’re lugging your bags back home on the plane and second because the dang paper dictionaries are so expensive! Then, lo and behold, the last day of class the prof informs us, as if we should have known all along, that we would not be permitted to bring our computers to the exam. Obviously. We must be prevented from looking up the translations online, as we undoubtedly would if we had our laptops! I was flabbergasted: if I tell you I’m not going to cheat, what makes you think you can’t you believe me? (And, secondarily, could we not have been told about our criminal tendencies early enough to track down a printed dictionary in time for the exam? This second objection was allayed by the prof scrounging up some borrowed dictionaries for our use, but my first and prime objection stands!)

Beyond this saddening mentality that students are not trustworthy—the one big beef I have with this otherwise lovely university—life goes on here in Reykjavík, despite the five hours of daylight (not kidding—I just looked up the statistics) and the snow and ice on the ground. The place is getting decked out for Christmas, and I’ll put some seasonal pictures up next week before I come home—to put us all in the spirit! I’ve been requested (how seriously, I’m not certain) for some fun “that’s-how-they-do-it-in-Iceland” tidbits. Be careful what you wish for!
1. When I wrote months ago that Icelanders keep their windows open when it’s 40 degrees, I thought this was remarkable. I have since realized that Icelanders keep their windows open no matter how cold it gets! We had a high of about 23 degrees yesterday, it was breezy and blowing snow, and did that induce the locals to shut their windows? Never! The best I can figure it is that here, warm = stuffy. They’d positively melt into puddles in a Virginia summer.

2. Iceland has multiple Independence Days. They gained their freedom and sovereignty in stages instead of in a war (what a civilized way to go about it!), so they celebrate each stage on its anniversary. Yesterday was one of those days, but I didn’t even understand the explanation when someone told me what exactly it was they were celebrating.

3. Celebrities have a different status in a country this small. Actually, I’m told celebrities have a different (here read more human) status everywhere but America, but I’ve recently seen this in Iceland for myself. Háskólakórinn had a concert yesterday of patriotic Icelandic music, for the holiday. It was just a small thing, in the entryway of the main building on campus. Afterwards, one of the Icelandic members of the choir came up to me and asked, “Did you see that older woman in the front row?” Yes. “Do you know who she is?” No. “She’s the former president of Iceland. The first woman president in the world.” And nobody had even blinked an eye seeing her there! Boy am I glad I didn’t goof up too badly!

4. We may be destined to see the sun only four hours out of every day in January, but the sunrises and sunsets make up for it. Where at home the sky turns pink and orange for maybe ten minutes before twilight, here you get those wonderful colors for an hour or more! Sure, you see them at 11 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon, but that doesn’t make them less amazing.

5. The hot water pipes in the city frequently run directly under the sidewalks and main roads, meaning that the pavement is too warm for the snow and ice to stick. I may have mentioned this before when we got our first snow, but it’s much more noticeable after a snowfall of several inches. So you’ll have long swaths while you’re walking where, even after a snow or a hail storm, the way is perfectly clear. Of course, these swaths will be followed by others which no one has bothered to shovel at all, so you alternate between walking comfortably and ice-skating downhill. Farðu varlega: go carefully.

6. Retro is in here. Everything you can buy at the Kringlan (the biggest mall in the country) is black, puffy, and layered, and the asymmetrical hairstyle is totally hot right now. Even (heaven help us!) mullets are coming back! When I was in Dublin I found that fashion there came to the US about a year later. Please don’t tell me I’ll come home in May to a resurgence of American mullets.

7. You can buy pre-boiled potatoes and canned coconut milk in the grocery stores here, but their peanut butter doesn’t have enough sugar (give me Jiff!) and you have to go to a different store to buy alcohol and yet another store to buy medicines. Not just prescription meds—Tylenol and Nyquil too! And you have to request them, you can't just browse the shelves. Chalk it up to an American sense of privacy, but why does the dispensing chemist need to know I have a stuffy nose?

8. Iceland is a banana republic, as a friend of mine likes to say. No, seriously: they grow bananas here! In greenhouses. I decided after I found out my friend wasn’t joking about this fact that I wasn’t going to be surprised by anything else that happens here. I’m sure it’s a resolution I won’t be able to keep.

9. It is much more fun to blog than to study Old Icelandic noun paradigms. But I don’t get class credit for blogging so to work with me!