Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Learning More Words for "Wind"

Það var hvass og regn beint í fimm dögum (There’s been wind and rain for five days straight)

And when I say wind, I mean knock-you-off-your-feet blasts. Last Thursday the Icelandic weather service apparently issued a gale warning telling people to stay indoors. I didn’t get that memo. I really wondered why I only saw a few people on the streets as I walked back from rehearsal! The usually 25-minute walk took almost twice as long because I was walking against the wind and occasionally it forced me into reverse despite my best efforts!

The thing about being in full-time classes is that it’s quite easy to spend the whole week with your nose in a book (especially when the weather is as dismal as it’s been lately) and never get out to do anything worth reporting on. However, I have two reasons to post this week.

First, I have an assignment from the foundation that gave me the scholarship to come here. I’ve been conscripted as a recruiter! I should perhaps explain how this happened. The Leifur Eiríksson Foundation board met last Friday with two current scholarship recipients (myself and an engineer), to discuss the program. We reported on our research (good thing I’d started thinking about my thesis already!), then told them how much we like Iceland and how much we appreciate the grant. Immediately, they said, “Great: now go forth and bring in more applicants!”

To seal the deal, they invited us to a swanky dinner at the Hótel Holt the next night. I had been fooled by the hideous pink neon sign over the building into assuming it was one of those cheap Vegas-y casino joints, but once I got past the glitz and went inside, it was an incredible black-tie sort of place. The food, by the bye, was fancy and artistic, but I think it says something about the Icelandic diet that in four courses the only vegetables to be had were two boiled baby carrots that accompanied the lamb like a garnish!

Now, to sing for my supper: the Leifur Eiríksson Foundation scholarship program is only a few years old, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to get over to Iceland and do research! Any graduate students out there who might benefit from spending a year in Iceland, no matter your discipline, please check it out and apply! They’ve had everything from medievalists to geologists to artists to writers. Let old Leif inspire you to spend some quality time in the land of the Vikings! Here’s the link to the organization’s web page: http://www.leifureirikssonfoundation.org/

The second reason I wanted to post this week is that I realized that among the people reading my blog (all two of you?), there may be some who have never heard a word of spoken Icelandic. So I recorded informally a cute little nursery rhyme from the 17th or 18th century. It doesn’t demonstrate any of the Icelandic peculiarities of orthography (þ and ð for ‘th,’ æ for the ‘i’ of bite, etc.), but nevertheless it gives you the feel of the language, which is really quite lovely. Just excuse my terrible American accent.

Here is the poem, and the recording follows:

Hani, krummi, hundur, svín,
Hestur, mús, tittlingur;
Galar, krunkar, geltir, hrín,
Gneggjar, tístir, syngur.

(Rooster, raven, dog, pig,
Horse, mouse, bunting;
Crows, caws, barks, squeals,
Neighs, squeaks, sings.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Semester Two, Week One

Glæsilegt! (Splendid!—but for the Firefly fans out there, etymologically it’s really more like “Shiny”!)

Having been back for a week and finally gotten over the jetlag (so much harder the second time!), I feel the time is ripe for a few more anecdotes about life in Reykjavík. Mostly because it’s been dark and rainy and I haven’t done anything actually exciting.

First, a story from before I left, right before Christmas: I was walking down Laugavegur (the main shopping street) when what to my wandering eye did appear but a sign outside a restaurant that proclaimed: “Christmas special: Reindeer soup!” I seem to have been the only one who thought that was terribly ironic. Which of Santa’s sleigh-pullers got the short straw, I wonder?

Next, a comment on what it’s like at the moment: New Year’s Eve in Reykjavík is famed to be an amazing party. Besides the plenteous alcohol (which even on an average weekend evening flows in staggering volume), the city shoots off fireworks with reckless abandon. I’ve seen pictures, and seriously, it looks like the city is exploding from the inside. Usually, the streets are vacuumed (literally—with a giant ride-on vacuum) every Saturday and Sunday morning, because there are no laws here against carrying alcohol in public, so the streets are littered with copious amounts of beer cans and broken glasses after each night’s parties. However, as the New Year’s celebrations seem to go on for several weeks (I still occasionally hear fireworks being set off), the city seems to have abandoned the whole vacuuming idea until the festivities taper off to their normal levels. Hence, the streets are littered with fireworks remnants like these. Not very tidy, but a testimony to one awesome party.

Now a note on cuisine: I’ve commented already on the traditional foods here, so we’ll let that rest until I actually get the courage to try some. But the Icelanders know their desserts, I’ll give them that. One of their particular concoctions is the combination of chocolate and black licorice. I thought this would be nasty, even though I like both chocolate and licorice (I also like ketchup and ice cream—doesn’t mean I want to put them together!), but it turns out to be quite a nice combination. I recommend it to anyone traveling in a Nordic country, where my Finnish friend tells me the idea is widespread. They also have salt-licorice flavored Extra chewing gum, which doesn't come quite as highly recommended, but like currant-flavored Starbursts in Ireland, it's just one of those local quirks you've got to try once.

Finally, two little anecdotes about the birds on Tjörnin, the city’s pond. There are still a fair number of geese and a couple of ducks, but the main winter inhabitants are the swans. They’re beautiful birds, and one day I was walking past the pond on the way to school and I saw some dozen pairs of them standing on the ice with their heads under their wings, sleeping. “How lovely,” I thought. “Too bad I don’t have my camera.” It was dark anyway, so it wouldn’t have mattered. Two hours later, when it was lighter, I was walking back to my apartment to get my wallet, which I’d forgotten that morning—and the swans were still there. “Well,” I thought, “I’ll grab my camera while I’m at home and see if they’re still here when I get back.” Lo and behold, when I returned 45 minutes later, they were! “How lucky,” I thought, and reached in my bag to take out the camera. At that very moment—and I swear I’m not the one who scared them—they started honking in alarm and took off en masse, leaving me with just one blurred picture for my pains.

But I got a cute picture of the ducks, so I suppose it wasn’t an entire waste.
A few days later, I was walking back past the pond and saw a raven going at the body of a dead starling in the rushes. As I watched, he pulled the thing’s head off and flew to the field with it, where he proceeded to announce his conquest with a loud caw before he set about tearing it to pieces. Welcome to life in the wild. I was reminded of a song we sang in choir here about a raven inviting his friend to share with him a dead sheep he was very excited to have found….

Oh, and I did manage to get out of my Monday class—so I have classes only Tuesday through Thursday this semester. Those of you with real jobs, try not to hate me; try to live vicariously through my long weekends. That, and remember that I’ll be frantically trying to finish the work for the whole week over the weekend because I don’t have time Tuesday through Thursday!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Coming Back From the Holidays!

“Vor” í Reykjavík (“Spring” in Reykjavik)?

Well, as of 6:45 this morning (by the bye, that’s 1:45a.m. East Coast time—the time my body is currently running on), after some 14 hours of travel, I arrived back in Iceland for the next semester! It’s my theory that the “spring” semester was so named to give poor college students hope for better future weather while they slave away during the months that (in Iceland and the US alike) really must be properly called “winter.” Of course, it was about 20 degrees warmer in Keflavík when I landed than it was in the US when I flew out, so I can’t complain. But it was also dark for 4 and a half hours after that landing, so maybe that evens the score?

It’s exciting to be back in Iceland for another four months, even if they are the rather dreary ones weather-wise. But I’m looking forward very much to my classes—well, one in particular: Working with Manuscripts. Maybe they’ll go wild and crazy and let us look at real ones and not just facsimiles here! I’m also excited about upcoming visits from my family and several friends (possibly more than several!), and a planned class trip to the Westfjords at the end of the semester. Pictures and anecdotes to come!

In the meantime, may I reflect on a very lovely Christmas holiday? I happily realized that I had enacted all the forms of transportation suggested in “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays”: “Take a bus, take a train, go and hop an aero-plane, put the wife and kiddies in the family car….” Well, minus the wife and kiddies—but we did drive to my grandmother’s for New Year’s, so I’m counting it!

I flew from Reykjavík to New York because for some reason IcelandAir doesn’t deign to service any of the several fine international airports around DC. My sister, in her senior year at Sarah Lawrence, was kind enough to let me crash her study party during the last week of classes and final projects. I got to sit in on some terrific moments including a three-choir concert and a reading of (the whole) Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in this amazing little place on campus called the Teahaus. Tourguides tell prospies it looks like Hagrid's hut, and they're not lying.

My sister was very sweet to include me in all the merry madness that is the end of a semester. She didn’t even complain about my ridiculous insistence on keeping her heater turned on or getting more than a few hours of sleep each night! What a martyr, what a love.

After a train ride from Bronxville into the city, I took the good old Chinatown Express (still faster, cheaper, and more reliable than Greyhound!) to DC and was finally home for the holidays.

Everybody has their own traditions and favorite things at Christmastime, and I don’t expect reading about mine will be of particular interest to anybody but the people who take part in them—and they don’t need to read them anyway. Suffice it to say, there was baking, decorating, two feet of snow, gifting, baking, Christmas-carol-singing, Christmas-light-looking, baking, Christmas Eve Mass, and did I mention the baking?

I apologize to my whole family’s collective cholesterol levels and promise to be better next time I’m home! (No one keeps a record of these promises, do they?)

Classes start tomorrow, and I’m in the midst of a quest to get out of the 8:20a.m. class that’s the only thing on my schedule for Mondays. I know, all of my friends who have real jobs hate me right now.

I hope everybody (all two of you who read this!) had a wonderful holiday season, and here’s to a happy, healthy, and blessed 2010!