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!