Thursday, April 22, 2010

Summer Comes to Iceland?

Gleðilegt sumar. Njótið snjósins og öskunnar (Happy summer—the traditional greeting on the first official day of summer—Enjoy the snow and ash.)

It seems that every time Iceland makes international news it’s for something bad—either because the country owes more than it can count to the UK and Holland, or because its volcanoes are causing travel chaos all over Europe. Best joke I’ve heard about the volcano at Eyjafjallajökull: There’s no C in the Icelandic alphabet, so instead of paying back the Brits in cash, they’re paying them back in ash. For all that, Reykjavík hasn’t seen any ash fall because the winds tend to blow it east instead of west, and Keflavík airport is still running just fine—the flights are getting cancelled on the continental end, not the Icelandic one.

We have, however, had plenty of snow leading up to Iceland’s first official day of summer, which is today. (Iceland doesn’t have spring: until today, it’s been winter.) Today it’s trying to get above freezing and we have a little sun, but two days ago we had a snowstorm, though fortunately it melted right away. They tell you in the guidebooks that Iceland has winters pretty much like Virginian winters. This is true. What they don’t tell you is that these winters last from September through April. But as we’re now getting daylight from 5a.m. to 10p.m., I suppose we do have a few advantages over home!

Last week I was delighted to have my Californian friend visit me along with two of her friends, and we had a lovely time, though unfortunately I had to beg off on a lot of the fun because it was the last week of classes for us. Still, I got to see the Golden Circle with them again (Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall)—and it’s different every time you go—and on Saturday, after our other two guests had left (one of them even making it safely to England, right before the eruption!), my Californian friend and I braved the cold to go on a tour of Snæfellsnes peninsula.

I’ve written about this place before, back in October when I went on a day trip with my friends, but it was much better weather this time and we saw things we wouldn’t have seen without a guide. We stopped at the Gerðuberg basalt column cliffs, the Djúpalónssandur black pebble beach, and Arnarstapi harbor.

I actually liked the black pebble beach we visited in October better, but this place was lovely as well. It was the site of a shipwreck in the mid-20th century, and the rusted metal remains on the beach as a memorial, but the beach itself is full of dramatic rock formations and pebbles so smoothe they seem like they can hardly be real.
In October, Snæfellsjökull (the glacier where Jules Verne set the beginning of Journey to the Center of the Earth) was being shy and hid its head in the clouds. But for this trip, we got amazing views of this most famous of Icelandic glaciers. The entire peninsula is too beautiful and dramatic for words, but the glacier itself stands like a king over the mountains around it.
Last time I was on Snæfellsnes we couldn’t spare the hour it takes to walk the sea trail between Arnarstapi harbor and Hellnar (which, to the best of my knowledge, is little more than a collection of summer homes for wealthy Icelanders), but this time we were able to do that, and what a walk it was! The shore is piled with cliffs, crags, and outcroppings of lava and basalt, some of them forming incredible arches and walls with huge holes in them. Birds that I was told were oyster catchers (my take: seagulls) are already nesting there, and when they were disturbed by our walking too close, their cries and calls echoed on the cliffs like sound effects from a pirate movie.

We drove right through the Berserkjahraun lava field (the story goes that two berserkers fell for a Snæfellsnes farmer’s daughter, and in order to earn her they built a road through the lava field, only to be killed by the farmer as they relaxed in a sauna after finishing the job), and we ended our day with a trip to the Bjarnahöfn shark museum.

Yes, there is a museum dedicated entirely to the hunting and putrefaction of Greenland sharks. The old fellow who runs it, Ólafur, was a shark hunter in his youth, as was his father, and he gave us a personal tour (translated by our guide) and favored us with samples of his famous “delicacy.” I learned a great deal, actually, but I felt that my first taste of hákarl in February didn’t particularly need an encore.

It was truly wonderful having my friends visit me, and I’m very grateful to the volcano and the Gulf Stream for allowing their flights to go out safely, but now my little vacation is over, and it’s back to work on finals and the thesis. Such is the life of a student!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Random Fun Facts

Ég heiti Krístin áttaviti (My name is Christine the Compass).

One of my friends here joked that I’m the navigator for our group (not always an accurate or efficient one, true, but I usually find the way eventually), so I decided that that was going to be my Viking name. I think it’s a lot better than Ketill Trout or Thorolf Twist-Foot (no kidding, these are people’s historical names)! So, souvenirs I’ll bring back from Iceland: a taste for chocolate and licorice combinations, a new sweater, and a Viking nickname. What more could you ask from a year abroad?

Having spent all last week on work for my classes and my thesis, I have nothing important to write about this time around, so I’ll blog up some more “notes on life in Iceland”—which, let’s face it, are probably more interesting to folks than my vacation pictures.

About the sweaters: I don’t know if I’ve really mentioned them before, but they are a hallmark of Icelandic daily life. Every Icelander (guy or girl) seems to own at least one, usually made by their mothers, and they wear them like jackets, even when it’s in the depth of winter. Icelandic wool has more lanolin in it than most other sheep’s wool (if you can believe what they tell you), so it’s more water-resistant and warm—serious pluses in this country as you might surmise. Tourists who don’t have the benefit of having Icelandic mothers buy them from the Hand-Knitting Association in such quantities that sweater production probably single-handedly keeps the Icelandic economy from dissolving into anarchy.

The Icelandic sweater typically has pretty patterns around the yoke and is called a lopapeysa. Lopi is the kind of wool, and peysa means “sweater.” Funny folk etymology of the term “peysa” that my Icelandic instructor shared: when French merchants started trading in Iceland, they would see the farmers coming down to the harbor in these lovely warm sweaters. Freezing their little French derrieres off in the Icelandic spring, they naturally wanted to buy some of these sweaters from the locals. So, not speaking the language, they would go up to folks in town in hopes of buying a sweater, asking the person if he was a farmer by saying, “Paysan?” Naturally, the Icelanders assumed this was the French word for “sweater” and somehow it stuck.

Another folk etymology, this one for the word appelsína, which means “orange”: when the first oranges were imported from some more tropical exotic clime, the Icelanders looked at them and said, “Oh, they’re apples from China”—appel, sína. I don’t know if either of these etymologies is true; I’m particularly dubious of the appelsína explanation, given that the Icelandic word for apple is “epli” and the word for China is “Kína”—but good stories are more interesting than facts either way.

What I do know is true, though (cue awkward segue) is that Icelanders have a strange affinity for pear flavor. Now, pear is a nice flavor, but who ever thought it would be a good idea to combine it with dairy? Yet here you can get pear-flavored skýr (Icelandic yogurt), pear-flavored smoothies, and pear-flavored “thick milk”—an rather interesting drink that’s about the consistency of melted ice cream and almost as sweet. (I think this may be a Scandinavian invention, if not pan-European, but I’d never seen it before I came here.) None of these are bad, by the way; I quite like pear-flavored skýr especially. But still, it’s unique.

What’s not so unique (I’m all about the corny transitions today) is that Icelandic, like all the other Scandinavian and Germanic languages with the exception of English, does not have a W sound, just a V. This leads to perpetual confusion between the two letters when people learn English. Last semester I had a very hard time determining whether my Icelandic teacher was saying “word” or “verb” because she always switched the initial sounds. But it’s rarely confusing and instead leads to fun little Engrish errors like this sign I found on the main shopping street, advertizing “Owen-baked pizza.” My question: Who’s Owen?

And a final absolutely random note: people leave their babies outside stores here when they go inside. They tend to have these hermetically-sealed baby strollers that zip up like luggage with the baby inside (to protect them from the wind and rain—but can the poor things breathe?!), and when people are out with their babies and the door to the store isn’t wide enough to accommodate the stroller, or they’re not planning on being inside for long, they just park the stroller outside—baby and all—and go on with their shopping! It certainly speaks to how safe a place this is. Apparently they do it in Denmark too; I heard a story about a Danish lady who parked her baby outside a café in New York and was arrested for child neglect. Some customs just don’t travel well.

This coming week is the last week of classes, to be followed by some hectic weeks of choir concerts, finals, friends’ visits, and class trips (and supposedly thesis research?), but I hope everybody Stateside is having a nice spring! It might, MIGHT have decided to stop snowing here….

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Up North

Gleðilega Páska! Hann er upprisinn líka á Íslandi. (Happy Easter! He is risen in Iceland too.)

It’s fascinating to experience the holiday celebrations of another culture, and I’m glad that Easter came after I’d been in Iceland long enough to have some (tenuous!) handle on the language—at least enough to appreciate some of the subtleties of the season.

First of all, Easter is a pretty big deal here—much more so than in the US. Not that people are particularly religious (though everybody seems to acquire some religion for themselves around the big holidays, out of nostalgia if nothing else), but because Lutheranism is the state religion, it was law until fairly recently that all businesses had to be closed on Good Friday, East Sunday, and Easter Monday. It’s no longer law, but it’s more or less still part of the culture. Grocery stores, bookstores, many restaurants—all closed those three days, and many of them closed on Saturday too. The library and university take this to an extreme and are closed from Holy Thursday all the way through Easter Monday—which was a serious problem given that this is our spring break and all of us in the masters program were counting on spending the whole week holed up in the library working madly on projects and papers. But for the people who work in these institutions, it really is a nice enforced vacation to spend with their families…sitting around home doing nothing because nothing is open.

Like Easter in America, though, Easter in Iceland has been candified. Principal exhibit: the Páskaegg tradition. Apparently this “Easter Egg” is customary all over northern Europe, but I’d never seen it before I came here. Big (sometimes giant) chocolate eggs, filled with all sorts of candies like a piñata. You can get small ones, but I’ve seen them bigger than soccer balls, and I just imagine the visions of sugar plums that dance in the heads of children when they see those at the grocery store.
I’d like to throw in a side note that the palms they use here in church for Palm Sunday are unlike any other palm I’ve ever seen. They look more like hedge trimmings that someone picked up from the yard. But then, this is ICEland—what do they know from palms?

I had the opportunity to sing with the choir at a Lutheran service on Holy Thursday (Skírdagur here—which to the best of my understanding means something like Cleansing Day, related to the word for baptism but probably a reference to the washing of the feet at the Last Supper). I’d never been to a Lutheran service before and was so touched to see that it was strikingly similar to a Catholic one—I felt right at home, in fact, even though it was all in Icelandic.
Then on Good Friday (Föstudagurinn langi—Long Friday, because you’re traditionally not supposed to eat or do anything fun!), we experienced another Icelandic tradition: Páskasnjór—Easter snow. It came in a heavy wave right around 3 o’clock, darkening the sky like a reference to the Gospel and dropping at least half an inch of snow on the poor crocuses and budding bushes. I think it’s indicative of the climate that the Icelanders have a special term for snow that falls right at Easter time. (I think it’s also indicative of the environment that they have a special term for a flash flood caused by a volcano erupting under a glacier—jökullhlaup—but that’s another story.)

In the Middle Ages they called Holy Saturday “Páska aptann”—Easter Eve—but I haven’t heard the term used in a modern context. Just like in the US, poor Holy Saturday gets rather overshadowed by the two momentous days on either side of it. We spent it navigating around the icy patches and snowdrifts.
But Easter Sunday itself was magnificent. Icelandic weather threw a party to celebrate, giving us bright sun and 40-degree temperatures that had the Icelanders turning out in droves to sport their spring fashions (open-toed shoes! Here!) and to let their children play outside. The funny thing was, I felt that it was warm too—so warm that I took a walk into Laugardalur, a lovely park area in a suburb to the east of downtown.

It was lovely to see the churches all decked out for Easter, ringing their bells like mad and garnering the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen at services. Funnily enough, around here they don’t decorate with lilies, they decorate with daffodils. I suppose this is because lilies probably need a warmer climate to grow, but then again, maybe the Icelanders (and, I’m told, all of Scandinavia) don’t know what they’re missing, because their term for daffodil is, in fact, “Páskalilja”—Easter lily.

And today is Annar í Páskum—the second day of Easter, when everything remains closed and parents try to keep their children contained as they recover from the effects of those giant chocolate Páskaeggjar. By the way, is it just me, or is it kind of odd that in Icelandic, the terms for both Christmas and Easter are plural? I can’t figure out how that happened.
So this was my experience of Easter in Iceland. It was really a lovely celebration and not at all diminished for having conducted in a language I can’t actually claim to speak. Such is the power of the holiday. I hope you all had a very beautiful and blessed Easter, however you celebrated it!