Sunday, February 28, 2010

Six Months In

Orðin dagsins: hattur, úlpa, vettlingar, hanskar, trefill, stígvél (Words of the day: hat, coat, mittens, gloves, scarf, boots)

Imagine my surprise when I realized suddenly that I have been in Iceland for six months! If you don’t exclude the time I was at home for Christmas, of course. I am still loving my stay here and haven’t gotten bored with Reykjavík at all, even though it’s a small city. Practically every day I discover something new about the area, or the landscape changes in a way I haven’t noticed before, or the light is different. Only recently, I noticed that we’re finally getting honest-to-goodness daylight again; from November up until maybe a week or two ago, there’s been at best a late-afternoon cast to the sky, and the sun has been entirely in the south. Now it’s starting to swing up overhead again, east to west, just like it does at home. You’d be amazed how exciting we find that.

I’ve also started to venture to conduct business transactions in Icelandic, as long as I’m pretty certain I won’t encounter anything too unexpected. (I’ve bought stamps in Icelandic, and requested books from special collections, and even understood when they explained to me that their online catalogue wasn’t working. Just don’t ask me whether I want a side dish with my meal; I’ll just stare at you blankly because I don’t know the word for side dish. Or for meal, for that matter.) Let’s take it as evidence of the difficulty of the language and not of my dull wits that it’s taken me this long to make even that much progress!

As if to celebrate my six-month anniversary here, mother nature has dumped well over a foot of snow on Reykjavík in the past week, leaving the unplowed sidewalks a mess of either sludge or solid ice (depending on whether or not there are hot-water pipes running under them). It’s nothing to complain about in comparison to the weather that’s hammered the East Coast of the US this winter, but still, you can’t help but wish for spring as you slip and slide your way for a mile up and down steep hills to walk to school.

But we’ll let the pictures speak for themselves (oh how I wish I'd gotten a picture of the woman skiing down the street!). I’d rather report on a very interesting realization that I’ve had after a conversation with one of my friends here: this is a really old culture. That sounds patently obvious, perhaps, but in a very techno-savvy and thoroughly modern Reykjavík, it’s easy to forget that most of my neighbors can trace their families back to settlers almost a thousand years in the past—and every once in a while, the history of this culture shows through.

For instance, you need two witnesses to sign practically anything before it is legal. My friend discovered this when she had her family write a letter assuring the Directorate of Immigration that she had enough money to support herself—and the letter was rejected because it was not signed by witnesses. Now, you need witnesses in the US too, but usually they come in the form of a notary public with a fancy stamp and seal. Here, anybody will do: the lease to my apartment is witnessed by a waiter and a bartender who happened to be standing around when I met with my landlord at a café. It seems quaint, but you can trace this practice right back to the earliest laws almost a millennium old—nothing was considered legal (or even true) unless two or more local farmers would swear to it.

The tradition of hospitality is still very strong too—if you read the old law codes, or even poetry of advice like Hávamál (a great read, by the way), the first thing that always comes up (besides “never forget your sword”) is the sacred obligation to be a generous host. In fact, in the stories Odin had the habit of showing up at people’s doors dressed like a beggar, and if you didn’t show him the proper hospitality, woe to you! Nowadays, there are still networks in the countryside where farmers register cottages on their farms, or even rooms in their own homes, to be rented out to travelers and tourists. I can’t imagine this happening in paranoid America. Some of the farmers will cook for you and even let you help out with the chores around the farm before you leave! I haven’t gone on a “farm stay” yet, but if I ever do I shall report back on the experience.

Another charming remnant of this country’s heritage (and forgive me if I’ve mentioned this before) is that the bookstores are bigger and more numerous downtown than are the grocery stores. No one really knows how many medieval Icelanders could read and write, but there is no doubt that they had a higher literacy rate than other contemporary nations, and they produced and consumed books the way most Western cultures now produce and consume fast food. I love the fact that one can walk into Bónus (the cheap grocery store in town, if it can be called cheap) and take in the whole place at a glance, but walk into Eymundsson (one of the many chains of bookstores) and you have to explore four floors to see it all.

And finally, all the girls knit. Seriously. Some of the boys too. Even teenagers whip out their knitting needles and go at it during downtime in class. I thought for sure when I first heard about it that it had to be a stereotype left over from the 30s, but how wrong I was! Some things are just part of the national heritage and won’t be given up, and it looks like knitting (prjóna is the verb) remains one tradition that’s alive and well.

This coming week I’m off to Denmark (for the first time ever!), for a conference at the University of Aarhus and then a little jaunt in Copenhagen. It will throw off my nice, neat little schedule of posting regularly over the weekend, but hopefully I’ll have some good pictures at least when do I get back!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

All Things, Iceland-Style

Ái á Á á á á á – Great-grandpa from Á has a sheep in the river (Not kidding, it’s a legitimate Icelandic sentence! Spoken, it sounds like: Owie ow ow ow ow ow ow. Think about that next time you hit your thumb with a hammer.)

Lent has begun, in Iceland as much as anywhere else, and I have to say the first three days this week were most interesting. The Icelanders let other nations have their Mardi Gras and their Pancake Tuesdays—here, they do things their way.

The Monday before Ash Wednesday is called Bolludagur—Cream-Puff Day. (It’s even on the calendars the banks give out!) I assume this is very close to Pancake Day in other parts of the world, traditionally used to finish off the eggs and cream people weren’t allowed to eat during Lent. But Icelanders can have pancakes any day (now)—it’s not every day you have an excuse to eat a sweet pastry with a heap of whipped cream and berries on the inside and chocolate on the outside! They sell them everywhere, just this one day. Well, and the day after—you can’t waste leftovers. This, by the way, is a decided improvement over the other traditional Icelandic foods I’ve blogged about.
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is called Sprengidagur—Bursting Day. Apparently the tradition is to stuff yourself to bursting with meat and (for whatever reason) peas. I can’t figure the pea thing, but as the university cafeteria took a break from their usual mushroom or cauliflower soup for their version of split pea and ham, I’m not complaining.
Ash Wednesday itself is called Öskudagur—Ash Day, creatively enough. Only instead of a day of fasting, somehow it has morphed into an Icelandic Halloween, with kids dressing in costumes, trick-or-treating door-to-door, and generally getting into sugar-induced antics. I was most confused as I walked around town, but fortunately Google educated me.

A few more tidbits about life in Iceland, for the curious:
First, you can’t get Ziplock bags here. This may actually be a Europe-wide phenomenon, since after I complained to my French roommate about this sore gap in packaging provision, she asked me in a very confused voice what we use them for. Um…everything? I guess they don’t show that commercial here where the lady puts soup in a bag and turns it upside down to show how watertight it is.
Second, Iclanders love gas-guzzling monster cars—which is slightly ironic given that their city buses run on clean fuel whose only exhaust is water. The snow tires (which, naturally, I haven’t managed to take a picture of) make a certain amount of sense for driving outside of the city, but the sheer number of SUVs, pickups, and well-equipped jeeps makes me feel sometimes like I’m back in Nebraska.
Third, one of our professors here told us that the entire police force (Lögreglan) is unarmed—the Icelanders don’t have the right to bear arms, which doesn’t seem to bother them in the least—except for one patrol car that apparently has a single gun in it. This gun is not to protect against criminals, however: its sole purpose is to shoot livestock who have been hit by cars on the highway. Such is Iceland.
Now, wasn’t that just worth the read?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

News and Nothings

Þetta reddast (It’ll work out—Iceland’s unofficial national motto)

I graciously decided not to complain about the weather here this past week because Virginia, where practically everybody who would even consider reading this blog lives, has been buried under who knows how much snow. I’ve stopped tallying the inches—though perhaps the people who had to shovel it haven’t.

Instead, a report on a wonderful annual cultural event, and then an explanation for my Icelandic quote of the week (above).

This cultural event is called Safnanótt, or Museum Night, in which the city’s museums stay open late (most of them until midnight) and have free admission, plus many special events scheduled just for the occasion. With my friends, I took advantage of this Safnanótt to see the Settlement Exhibition (built around the excavated remains of the oldest manmade structure in Reykajvík, from about 871 AD), the National Museum, and the Saga Museum at the Perlan (that funky domed building I keep taking pictures of).

I didn’t take any pictures at the Settlement Exhibition because it was too dark, but at the National Museum they had a ballet troop dancing around the exhibits (how’d they get permission for that?!), and then an Icelandic couple sang folk songs in the foyer. What was really lovely about the folk music was that even the obscure ones were familiar to some people in the audience—an older woman behind me hummed the tunes the whole time. And then they had sing-along at the end, and every single Icelander, young and old, new every word to every song. Not only that, but they sang them out, loud, proud, and in tune. (Can you imagine that ever happening in the U.S. unless there was a campfire or heavy drinking involved?) Reykjavík is a bustling, modern city, but some spark of folk life still survives here, and that is charming.

The Saga Museum is the silicon answer to an old wax-works show; it uses characters from the sagas to tell the story of Iceland’s settlement and medieval history. Some people find it kitschy (especially the area by the gift shop where you’re invited to try on the chainmail and not-so-accurately-reproduced helmets and swords. But the artistry is really impressive—the figures all have eyelashes and individual hairs on their arms, and half of them were made from casts of the artist’s relatives. Even the artist himself modeled for the figure of Ingólfr Arnarson, Iceland’s first settler. (I know this because the artist was actually there, and he told us himself while chatting up my friend.) This picture is of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic Chaucer I wrote about after our trip to his homestead last semester. Decidedly more stout and Santa-Claus-y than the version in the statue at Reykholt!
Now, to allay the curiosity as to why “þetta reddast” was my lead-in for this week:

I am in a masters’ program here. Masters’ programs entail a thesis project. I wanted to study a particular manuscript for this project. This particular manuscript is in Denmark. (Is it just me, or is that ironic, after I trek to the edge of the Arctic Circle in quest of studying manuscripts in person?) After some negotiation, digital images of this manuscript were requested from the collection in Copenhagen, and then it was up to the archivists there and my advisors here to make sure the photos were taken. This was before Thanksgiving. “Oh, certainly,” they told me, “you’ll have them by Christmas—probably earlier.” Around Christmas: “Oh, yes,” they said, “by New Year’s at the latest.” Mid-January: “Soon, soon, we promise.” The first of February: “By the end of the week, you’ll have them.” Last Wednesday, I finally get an email with the subject line: “At last.”

I now have images of a very homely little manuscript of a law code, in whose margins some industrious doodler has written probably 20 or 30 proverbs and notes. Non-medievalists (actually, probably medievalists too) will wonder how on earth such a thing could be inflated into the subject of a thesis, but I’m very excited to start work on it…as soon as I figure out how to read the handwriting.

Either way, this whole odyssey just goes to prove that Icelanders (and apparently Danes as well) fully believe that “it’ll work out”—and usually they’re right. Now, if the same magic would only work to get me a lease for an apartment in Virginia next year….

Sunday, February 7, 2010

You Have To Try It Once

Réttu mér hákarlinn…og munnþurrku (Pass me the putrefied shark…and a napkin)

When I read my first guidebook about Iceland, the thing that stuck in my mind—as it sticks in every tourist’s mind—was Þorrablót (also written Thorrablot for those of you who want to google it). This is the (in)famous Icelandic festival-of-all-nasty-traditional-winter-foods, and it’s happening right now.

For some reason, every time you talk to an Icelander, or you tell someone you’ve been to Iceland, one of the first things they ask is, “Have you tried the rotten shark?” Well, thanks to the very obliging Erasmus Student Network that arranged a Þorrablót event on campus, I can now answer a very definitive “yes.” Oh, yes indeed.

I do not know what ever possessed a farmer to look at a tube of sausage and think, “You know what? I bet it would keep better if we put it in sour whey.” I further do not know why a fisherman would look at a dead shark, which is poisonous if eaten fresh, and think, “Let’s try burying it in the sand for six weeks and see if that helps.” But they did (the shark much more recently than the sausage, actually), and I have those brave souls to thank for all the truly unique palatal experiences I had this past Friday.

A little history on Þorrablót before I launch into the gastronomic excursus: it’s actually a very modern festival, started in Reykjavík in 1958 by a restaurant called Naustið. It therefore has nothing to do with Thor (Þorr) or pagan sacrifice (blót), which some tourists find disappointing. Why you’d sacrifice soured whale fat to a god anyway is also beyond me, unless it’s to avoid having to eat it yourself. In the words of an Englishman who’s been a professor here for some 30 years (he gave a lecture on Icelanders before the food was wheeled out), Þorrablót is a festival in which modern, wealthy, urban Icelanders can celebrate what they don’t have to eat all winter. The younger generation doesn’t seem to appreciate the value of this celebration very much, but their parents find it very patriotic.
On to the food itself. I’m just going to list each thing that was given to us in its Icelandic name (or the best I can do), along with its translation, and then I’ll reflect a little on what it’s like to put this stuff in your mouth. I apologize in advance to vegetarians. I am an animal lover myself and hardly eat meat at all, but this I did in the name of cultural exploration; I hope you'll excuse me. You may not want to read this if you’re eating (and that goes for carnivores too).

- Hangikjöt með flatbrauði og smjöri (lamb smoked over manure fires, served on flatbread with butter): This is actually palatable. It tastes like mild ham without any salt. Nothing eaten at Þorrablót has any salt in it. The addition of said spice (or any spice!) might help immensely.

- Blóðmör (blood pudding): Lacking the spices of the delightful Irish blood pudding, this stuff is served cold and is practically tasteless. It has the consistency of polenta and is almost black in color.

- Lifrarpylsa (liver sausage): Tastes just like the blood pudding, only it’s white.

- Lundabaggi (sour fat pudding): I have been told this is made from whale fat, but I could have sworn the girl serving it up said it was sheep fat. It probably doesn’t make a great different in taste, but I object to it more if it’s from a whale. It both looks and tastes about as you would expect from the name.

- Súr lifrarpylsa (sour liver sausage): Perhaps I’m a philistine, but to me all of the soured puddings and sausages tasted pretty much the same—like sour cream with the consistency of meat. It is really only possible to get a small amount down at one go.

- Sviðasulta (sheep's head pâté, a.k.a. head cheese): This is another soured concoction, tasting just like all the other soured concoctions. It’s the name that makes it stand out.

- Súr blóðmör (sour blood pudding): Why must every dish have a soured equivalent? This stuff truly is black in color.

- Hrútspungur (pickled ram's testicles): Another Icelandic culinary gem. Sweet meats, they call them—jellied and cut like sausage, but you can still see the borders between the…organs. Again, tastes just like the soured sausages, only it’s worse because you know what it is.

- Hákarl (putrefied shark): Small, rubbery yellow-white bits that smell like urine and taste, as you might imagine, like rotten fish. Actually not as strong as I thought it would be, and I had to try a second piece to remember what it tasted like. I needn’t have bothered; the flavor came back even after brushing my teeth and stayed in my mouth for more than 24 hours.

- Brennivín (“burning wine” also called Black Death): Clear schnapps, they call it, though it has about the flavor and aroma of rubbing alcohol. Used as a chaser for the hákarl. It’s 37.5% pure alcohol, made of fermented potato pulp and flavored with caraway seeds, they say. Prove it, say I. The only reasons I can think for drinking this noxious beverage is to rid one’s mouth of the shark flavor, and to kill any bacteria that might have made it through the putrefaction process.

- Svið (jellied sheep's head): Actually I’m not sure whether what we had was the jellied variety or the boiled. I’m not sure it would make a difference. The head is served cut in half down the middle, which is really the most barbaric and disturbing thing about it. The meat is rather flavorless and therefore quite a relief to the taste buds, but it’s the thing’s eyes that get you! As if it wasn’t bad enough to have your food looking at you in the first place, the Icelanders serve up the eyes as the best part. And this is the worst of all: I ended up with a sheep’s eye on my plate and didn’t realize what it was. (How can that be? you say—It’s an eye for heaven’s sake! But having been jellied or boiled or otherwise abused, it just looked like a rather fatty chunk of meat.) I should say, I didn’t realize what it was until I bit into the thing—and the casing around the pupil shot out into my mouth as I bit down! I realize many cultures eat the eyes of animals, but I just have to say, from my squeamish, girly perspective, the whole pupil-projectile thing entirely trumps the putrefied shark for disgustingness.

Now, aren’t you glad you can go have a salad for lunch instead?

Monday, February 1, 2010


Ég hef gengið á milli hrauna og lóna (I have walked among lava fields and lagoons)

This weekend my friends and I went on the first of this semester’s day-tours, to the remarkable peninsula called Reykjanes (Smoking Ness), about 45 minutes south of Reykajvík. At the end of this peninsula is the Keflavík international airport, so anyone taking the shuttle from the airport to the city has seen the eerie moonscape lava fields, but how often do you get to spend a whole day there? Saturday was our chance—and a perfect day we had for it, too, given that it was the first and only sunny day since the start of the term!

Our first stop as we drove down the peninsula was a little wooden church, built right on the shore in 1888 by a group of sailors who, during a terrible storm, pledged their word to found a church wherever they made landfall. They say a bright light guided them miraculously to this sheltered bay (thereafter called Engilsvík—Angel’s Bay), and they kept their word. In fact, despite its tiny size it is one of the wealthiest churches in Iceland because sailors continuously donate money to it. The caretaker, who had to have our guide translate for her, told us that they have a spotlight that they shine on the church at night, and if it goes out or they forget to turn it on, sailors actually radio in from the sea and complain that they can’t see their church. In a nation as lukewarmly religious as Iceland, I think that’s a lovely statement.

We continued a long way over Reykjanes, along the southern coastline, gaping at the lava formations all the way, and even though my camera doesn’t like taking pictures from a moving vehicle, I convinced it to give me a few shots that are more or less clear. The road, for part of the way, isn’t paved, and I actually got the best shots on those parts of the drive because it forced the bus to slow down. The fields that look like bizarre scenes from the ocean floor, covered with some 600 species of moss, are older than the rocky, jagged moonscape ones, but none of them are older than 10,000 years. If they were, they would have been smoothed and flattened by the glaciers of the last Ice Age.

The tour stopped at a geothermal area called Seltún too, a place similar to Geysir Park but without the spouting springs. It does, however, have all the Martian-looking red and white clay, plus bubbling mud pots and boiling rivers. Steam puffs from every crevice, even pits in the trail itself, and the chemicals turn the water a shade of denim-dye blue. At one point scientists had drilled an experimental hole into the surface, from which steam rose for years. Then one day, it stopped. And a few years ago, without any warning, it exploded, destroying the concrete facility around the hole and flattening the hut of the caretaker. Fortunately, no one was around when this happened.

Our last stop of the day was a much less hazardous geothermal area, the famed Blue Lagoon. The formation of the spring was actually a manmade accident, our guide told us: in building a power plant to harness the natural geothermal energy, water was diverted from a hot spring, and the designers assumed it would be absorbed into the porous lava field—but they were wrong. There is so much clay-like sediment in the water that it soon coated the lava and the water pooled into a huge natural hot tub. Well, it didn’t take long for this hot tub (plus the skin-friendly silt it collects) to attract a large tourist following, and after a couple of people drowned in the 70s, they evened out the bottom and built up a fancy state-of-the-art spa in the past decade or so. I expected the whole place to be quite tamed and organized, but even though the building itself is very sophisticated, the pool itself remains more or less in its natural state—some spots hotter than others, one spot even freezing over where the water runs out into the lava field.

I should note that I didn’t go swimming because spas are rather pricey and I know I’ll be going again on other occasions, but I’m told that it was a lovely time, even though the air was only 25 degrees! For my own part, I explored the area outside the building with a couple other friends who weren’t feeling aquatic. Now, when I hear the word “lagoon,” I start thinking of parrots and pirates and Kokomo. I was not prepared to find this area a breathtaking Arctic wonderland of milky blue water the exact same color as the sky, surrounded by vast lava fields coated in sparkling frost!

The lava field surrounding the Blue Lagoon is called Illahraun—the Evil Lava Field, undoubtedly because it would be impassable had the road not been leveled out and paved by an inconceivable amount of work. (The sagas tell stories of berserkers being roped into clearing paths through lava fields because they were the only ones hearty enough to manage it!) But standing there, in the dead quiet of a winter afternoon, it did not feel evil. It was magic.