Showing posts from September, 2008

Let there be light

In Iceland, when one is designing an exhibition as I am doing here in Reykjanesbær, one must take into account that for half of the year, it will be dark until late in the morning and dark again early in the afternoon. Lighting affects take on a whole new level of importance, and I am just now wrapping my head around it.  In American museums, we usually have to worry about keeping the light out, rather than the other way around. 

Modern marketplace

This morning I used two products I bought here in Iceland that I had never purchased before, a hair conditioner and an odd type of granola cereal with whole hazelnuts in it. It's a bit unnerving to go outside of the familiar, and in the case of the conditioner, I may have compromised my principles because just now I noticed it contains animal products. But the granola I'm happy with, find that it suits my taste buds exactly. Though there is nothing wrong with Quaker Oats Granola, it is nice to find something better, especially just before the whole modern marketplace collapses. 

Public banks

Late last night, Glitnir, the largest bank in Iceland, was purchased by the government, well, 75% of it. This reverses the trend of privitization that has been rampant in Iceland for the last 10 to 15 years. But I can't help but wonder if the Icelanders weren't just looking to do the same thing the Americans and English are doing.

General dentistry

This summer when I was in California, I had to go to the dentist for an emergency fix of a bridge. The only place I could get an appointment in a reasonable amount of time was at a chain dentistry service, and the experience was not very pleasant: the office was old and a bit dirty, the clientele primarily poor. Today I went to a dental office in Reykjanesbær for the same problem, only this time I found myself walking into the single nicest dental office I have ever seen. The waiting room was an extremely stylish and comfortable living room, there was no paperwork to fill out ahead of time, and the dentist himself came out to get me. I can only hope this bodes well for the quality of the dental work itself.

Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live is such an institution in American, a pool of cultural characters and language we all draw from, and especially comforting during times of crisis and times of change. I really miss being able to watch it -- Will Farrell's imitation of the current Pres. Bush still sticks with me.  Even though Jay Leno is shown here in Iceland, it isn't quite the same.  

Recent memories

When American politicians talk about the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it sends a cold chill down people's spine. Because the Great Depression happened so long ago, the actual experiences of a large segment of the population, which may not have been so bad, have become generalized into a myth of catastrophe. Now it exists in the popular imagination and the national narrative as the scariest moment in U.S. history, an absolute crisis, which took years and a World War to rectify. No one can imagine reliving that. Here in Iceland, the banking crisis is at least as bad as it is in the U.S.; the kroner is in a free fall and loans have not been forthcoming for months, which can't be a good sign. But Icelanders take all of this in stride, see it as just the growing pains of a new nation, like the devaluation of the kroner of the mid-80s, which even I remember. Icelanders seem to be saying, "We survived that, we can handle another financial crisis no big deal.

Tracking the sun

I thought I had learned enough about planetary science in high-school and college to actually be able to understand the trajectory of the sun even when I moved up to northern latitudes.  But no, each morning here in Iceland I am surprised to see it where it is, and if I try to think where it will go in the course of the day, I have to constantly remind myself it will never be straight overhead. Yep, can't take anything for granted here, not even the rising and setting of the sun. 

Middle Eastern Perspectives

Last night the debate between Obama and McCain was shown here in Iceland. Both candidates prominently mentioned Israel, especially John McCain. Here in Iceland there is a rather strong pro-Palestinian feeling; recently 29 Palestinian refugees were welcomed into the town of Akranes, for instance. Perhaps this is because Icelanders like to help other small, disenfranchised nations. In America, we tend to think we are the ones that need help.

Coastal drives

I may be the only person to see it this way, but it seems to me that the drive south from Reykjavík into Keflavík is as beautiful as the drive south from Big Sur on Pacific Coast Highway. Especially on a day like today, just after a storm, when the swells were big and the whitecaps abundant, and the sun broke through the clouds in long shafts of light. Even the lava fields looked beautiful. 

Stirring up controversy

At my book club last night, we were considering reading something by Halldor Laxness, and the one Icelander in the group mentioned how hard he is to read in Icelandic, because he made up many words on his own, refused to adopt standard orthography. I would say he was but one in a long-line of Icelanders who had a penchant for stirring up controversy, or just for doing exactly what he liked without caring what others thought. To have this type of character in Icelandic society must be a necessary corrective, since most everyone else seems highly conformist.  

Small miracles

My nails grow so much longer and stronger in Iceland than they do in California. Seriously, in California they chip and split and peal before ever cresting my finger, here I feel like I've gotten acrylics or something, I even have to type a whole different way, it is just amazing. I think it is something in the water. 

Election woes

It is odd enough being in a foreign country during the Olympics, but to be away from the U.S. right now, with an election going on, is really difficult. It is hard to get a handle on exactly what the mood swings are, which way things are going, and everyone here keeps asking me my opinion about the election, what will happen. I find myself often just explaining why McCain is appealing, since that completely evades Icelanders.  

Island of connoisseurs?

I was delighted to hear on the radio this morning "The Devil Went Down to Georgia", an absolute favorite song of mine and one the whole family used to relish hearing. What was perhaps most delightful about this was how unexpected it was -- this is an old song, and blue grass isn't on the radio much here. But there I was, driving in my car, singing along, keeping beat with my hands on the steering wheel, just as I used to back in California as a teenager.

Branching out

Everyone has heard about the flooding in New Orleans, whether they are American or not. But today, RUV, the public station here, showed a documentary about flooding along the Danube, particularly in Prague, in August 2002. I do not remember even hearing about this in the States, and I've always been interested in this part of the world: my great grandmother came from there and I'd like to visit it. Now even more so, since it seems I've neglected this interest for too long.   

Icelandic keyboards

Both my Mac and my PC have a function that allows me to switch back and forth between Icelandic and English characters, even though the keyboards are physically marked only with the English characters. It is therefore a matter of memorization whenever I use the Icelandic keyboard function to find the proper characters: the English semi-colon is the Icelandic æ for instance. I'm not sure, however, where several important characters are, like the question mark, quotation mark, and apostrophe. So I've taken to just not using a question mark when I'm writing in Icelandic, which seems a little extreme.

007's other personalities

It is a small point of pride for me that I can hang out on a Friday night with a group of native Icelanders and not only keep up with the conversation but actively join in it. Truthfully, this is usually a bit easier with family members, but last night I was with my cousin and one of her friends, whom I' ve met here and there, and then a bunch of that friend´s family members, whom I had not met before. We got around to talking about the movie Mama Mia!, in which Pierce Brosnan sings. I mentioned how much I liked him in his first T.V. show, Remington Steele. They all looked at me a little quizzically . I have a hunch that show might not have ever made it on Icelandic T.V., though it was a favorite of mine as a kid.   

Appropriate presents

Today is my mom's birthday, only she is in California and I am here in Iceland. I hadn't thought about it in time to send her anything from here, but yesterday I realized I could still order something online from the U.S. with one-day shipping. But what? I remembered how much my mom used to love to read on the weekends when I was a kid, and that she hasn't done that so much lately, so I decided to send her a book from Amazon. Icelanders consider books an appropriate gift for just about any occasion, birthdays, Christmas, birth of a child, anniversaries, whathaveyou. And since my mom is Icelandic, this seemed doubly appropriate.   

Proclivity for procreation

Icelanders are one of the few European nationalities that have consistently had a positive birthrate in the modern era. Most married couples have more than two children, and often those children have half-siblings, making Icelandic families usually rather large and complex. That I have only one child makes me very American, or practically German.  

Seems like one should be enough

As far as I can tell, there are three or four rotating anchors for the evening news, four different hosts of the nightly current events show Kastljos, three different sports reporters and four different weather people. It is a different group of people every night. I have to say I prefer the U.S. system, where there is just one person in each of these jobs. Their personalities become part of the identity of the show, you always know what to expect. 

Free buses

Late last night, in the midst of a horrible rain storm, someone came by to put something in my mailslot. Just now I picked it up to see what could have been so important to warrant all that. It is an announcement that there will be new bus service all around Reykjanesbær, and the bus will now be free for everyone. I think I have heard of some cities in the U.S. that do this too, but it certainly seems very un-capitalistic. And this coming from the mayor who is one of the leaders of the sjálfstæðis flokki, Iceland's version of Republicans. 


September is one of the nicest months in California, but here, winter has set in.

Sewing and Book Clubs

Almost every Icelandic female seems to belong to a sewing club, a group of friends formed during school days that meet once a month on average, and plan special events during the year together. Not having grown up here, I am not a part of such a group. However, several other "expats", acquainted through Facebook , have formed a book club, and I'm going to my first meeting of that next week. I started reading the book last night, and decided that not everything can be of the same quality as Drottningens Juvelsmycke . Or even Old Man and the Sea .

First Families of Iceland

On Sunday I went to a lecture in honor of Sigurður Nordal, one of the foremost Icelandic literary scholars, after whom an institute is named. In attendance were many of his descendants, and my friend filled me in on each of their accomplishments. I was impressed. Then in walked Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former President of Iceland. I was clearly under-dressed for the occassion. It still surprises me the extent to which families of intellectuals are superstars here in Iceland, the extent to which each family member's public identity is tied up with being part of that whole. My mom often tells me about my near relatives here, what they have done, and I try to understand that this should be a source of pride for me, but it just confuses me. To be an Icelander is to accept your family identity as part of your own, something which I have not, as of yet, done. After the talk was over, some of the Nordals were getting their coats at the same time as me, and I mistook one lady's coat for

Dressing to the place

So as to avoid carrying suitcases back and forth between Iceland and California, I have separated my wardrobe into two, and keep appropriate clothes in each place. The last time I was home, I decided to ship a few sweaters, shoes, and longer skirts here, in preparation for the winter, things I knew I didn't really need in California. Problem is, they are so "American" in style, bulky, loose, very practical and comfortable, I can't really wear them here either. I guess I'd have to move to Colorado before I'd be able to use my entire wardrobe in one place.   

The BIG news

In the midst of a world-wide financial crisis, the renewed specter of the cold-war, and an impending global climate disaster, the lead story today on was that a group of guys who dress up on the weekends as Vikings have decided not to just do so during the summer, but all year long. I find myself torn between my professional-self, who feels any interest in the Vikings is very well justified, and my citizen-self, who wonders if there might be slightly more important things to talk about.

Teeth talk

My cousins and I tonight had a delightful and indepth conversation about the dental problems inherent in our family. I remember having a similar conversation with my family back when I was a teenager. Only that time, my dad was looking at my sister and I compare teeth in the rearview mirror whilst driving, and was so shocked by the similarity that he almost crashed the car. I'm happy to report that my cousins and I were safely indoors, around a table, having coffee. I skipped the biscuits, not good for my teeth.


There are rainbows everyday in Iceland, sometimes large, sometimes small, but always surprising. Especially for a Californian.

Last names

The Icelandic naming convention of giving a child a first name and then a last name comprised of the father's first name plus the suffix -son or -dóttir, depending on gender, is fairly well known. But it presents a problem for foreigners living here. I recently met a Canadian lady who married an Icelander and decided on a unique compromise solution: she took her husband's exact same last name, making her Karen Sturlaugsson. Not only is this pronounceable for Icelanders, but it also lets them know instantly what the situation is. And in a country where everyone likes to fancy they know everyone else, this is a plus.

On your toes

The wind changes direction here in a moment. It really keeps you on your toes. Though one is more likely not to get blown over by it if one keeps both feet firmly on the ground. 

Grapes in my salad

When we were digging in Skagafjörður, we ate dinner most nights at the Holar bishopric. They always put grapes in everything, including in the soup. We couldn't get over the Icelandic over-use of this fruit, as if they weren't sure what they were for. Today I had lunch at Þjoðminjasafn, and my salad consisted of lettuce, olives, and grapes. Oh, and a few shreds of carrot. Definitely not a salad by California standards.  

Very un-Icelandic

I was awake at 6am this morning, after having a perfectly sober evening working and going to bed early. While there may be Icelanders who did not party all night long last night, all evidence around me this morning indicated not a soul was awake until 10am. Sleeping in on Sunday mornings is a national ritual. 


Although I suppose this is not astronomically possible, it seems like nighttime gets longer by an hour a day during this time of the year. In the U.S., the switch from day-light savings time masks this illusion, by making it sudden and stronger. Or at least it makes it explicable.

Head Coach

Last night the Adam Sandler flick "The Longest Yard" was on television here, an odd choice considering the Icelandic prison system is nothing like the U.S. system, and they don't play American football here. I found myself explaining to my aunt and uncle what was going on during the "game" sequences, what the big deal was with going for 2 points at the end (sorry to ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen it...). But in fact it is not the rules of the game that need explaining, it is the entire metaphorical framework upon which American football rests that evades Europeans. Because football is not a display of athletic prowess, like a dance without music. Rather, American football is war. The battle lines are drawn on either side of the ball, from play to play neither side knows what the other side is going to do. Secrecy, surprise attacks, strategies, brilliant responses, outthinking your opponent. The only two people really competing are the head coaches, who n

For í skoðun

A car inspection in Iceland is a very painless process, quick and efficient. They also have a rule, unlike in California, that the place that does it absolutely cannot do any work on your car. All they do all year long is car inspections. Though some laws have been passed in California limiting what sort of establishments can do car inspections, they are always garages that also offer other services, and a tacit implication one could get any needed work done there. I found the experience gratifying, even if it cost 7000 kroner.   


My favorite thing to do when I'm in Searchlight, Nevada is to go out on the patio at the crack of dawn and have coffee with my dad. The air is always cool and still, and the dim light affects how everything looks. Iceland offers very few opportunities for mornings like that, although this morning was one of them. Too bad my dad wasn't here. 

Doesn't hurt to wait

I realized a few weeks ago that my car is due for an inspection, but I' ve been procrastinating actually taking the car in. Today I received a 10% off coupon for exactly this sort of inspection. At first I was thinking how fortuitous that was, and then I noticed that the coupon had my name and my vehicle number on it. That level of big-brother systematic sharing of information is a little worrisome, but also comforting. I think in the U.S. they just figure that if they send out thousands of such-like coupons, the odds are it is bound to be of use to someone.  

Not everyday

It isn't everyday one gets to watch a Viking Ship being lifted up by four straps and a big crane, and then inched into a building. It was both extremely exciting, slightly frightening, and then a bit dull as all the particulars were worked out. But needless to say, it was nothing I'd ever seen in California.

"Love, Lissy"

Yesterday I sent my Danish house guest an email, and signed it "Love, Lissy." I have always liked that this same word in English can have a huge range of meanings, all very context dependent and open to interpretation. Icelandic, on the other hand, like Greek, has three specific verbs that are used in codified contexts. The one I thought was the closest equivalent to English love is " elska ", but in fact this has the most selected use, and is only for the deepest relationships. I eventually realized this, and stopped telling my female first cousins " Ég elska þig ."

Walk to work

I have never lived anywhere that seemed close enough to my work place to consider walking there, and in fact I stopped walking to school as soon as I got a driver´s license. Today I walked to my new office up at the Old Nato Base. It took less than 5 minutes. Now it occurs to me I probably could have also walked to Royal Donut and Burgers, my first job, at the bottom of the hill from my house in Southern California. It was a big hill, though.

Out to lunch

In my (albeit limited) experience of the typical American cubicle-land office, a major structuring element of the day is deciding with whom and where one is going to eat lunch. Though one might occasionally bring a lunch, this is an emergency measure when one has so much work to do they are just going to eat at their desk. Because there is no shared kitchenette for everyone to eat at in most American offices, and sometimes there isn't even a coffee machine hooked up on some counter. I have yet to walk into a single work place in Iceland that does not have a kitchenette with a table large enough for all staff members to sit around. What is perhaps more surprising is this table gets used every day, sometimes more than once a day. I only wish my office weren't quite so close to it.   

Coke light

My husband, who comes from the home of the Coca Cola Company, and I were discussing how coke taste different here than in the U.S. Indeed this is the case everywhere around the world, since the Coca Cola Company only exports the syrup, and it is up to each country to mix it themselves, with their own water. I therefore consider Coke Light as 50/50 as I am, and am going to start drinking it more often.

Fantasy vs. Reality

I started idealizing Iceland from the moment I first came here, when I was 7 years old. The reality of living here has not always matched up to what I imagined, since it is sometimes worse, and sometimes better but in a different way than I´d thought. The funny thing is the Iceland of my fantasy is still there somewhere, waiting for me to visit if I like. Especially on a rainy day like today.

60 children

National Public Radio's hourly news-update today ends with a short segment confirming that American bombers hit a village in Afghanistan, killing 60 children. I am hoping this will not make the news here in Iceland; it is already hard enough being an American abroad.  

Aches and pains

In California, there are three chiropractor offices within walking distance of our apartment. I could really use one of them around here in Reykjanesbær, since my right shoulder has been aching for days now. Driving into Reykjavík just to get a message seems far too decadent. 

White jacket

I have a really cute white jacket with a hood that I bought in California (on sale!) that I am rather fond of. But tonight I wore it while running some errands, and it got wet and dirty in no time. Perhaps not the best choice for the Icelandic winters, even though I did not get truly cold. 

Andrews Theater

When Vallaheidi was the home of the U.S. Airforce/Naval Airforce here in Iceland, it had all the fixings of a good old American town, like an A&W hamburger joint and a mini-mall. It also had a perfectly standard American movie theater named Andrews Theater, after the famous military aviator. Now that Reykjanesbaer has taken over most of the buildings, the movie theater has been turned into a special-events venue, mostly musical. But they have kept the name the same, I guess as a nod towards Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, where Airforce One awaits the President.

Eight? or Eitt? or Einn?

One of the first, tiny little baby step towards learning Icelandic is the realization that the English word for the numeral 8 and the Icelandic word for the numeral 1 are pronounced exactly the same. This is not only in the case of the neuter form of the Icelandic word (eitt) but also in the less obvious masculine form einn, because of the truncation modern Icelandic pronunciation gives to a final nn combination (well, it sounds not quite like eitt, but for an English speaker they are virtually identical). After 30 years of familiarity with these homophones, I can still occasionally get confused. I wonder if Icelanders get similarly confused when an English speaker says they "ate".

Concert going

I would not say I am the most prolific concert goer, but I've been to some in the U.S. and some in Iceland. Tonight Bubbi Mortensen played a rousing set as part of the outdoor Ljosanott celebration here in Reykjanesbaer. Two things struck me as a bit unusual about this, first of all that there were a great number of very small children at the concert (but then I took my son to it last year when he was only 2) and second of all that the person I ended up randomly standing next to said to me after a few minutes, "Aren't you Elisabeth?" and I was perplexed, never having seen him before. Turns out he was related to my aunt's husband. I have decided Icelanders have an amazing proclivity for face recognition. I've often felt I was pretty talented in this regard, but tonight I was humbled.

The last bit

My family and friends here have all unanimously declared that it was extremely Californian of me to organize a trip all the way to Lake Myvatn and back in less than 72 hours. But I was thinking last night that the only really long part of the drive seemed to me to be the last 2 kilometers, after we turned off the main road and wound our way to the hotel. 

Þetta Franklín, heimsækja þig

My cousin gave me a CD of a Canadian kids cartoon called Franklin (about a turtle, a bear, a goose, and a beaver that are all friends) that has been dubbed over into Icelandic. The last two weeks my son was here, it was all he wanted to watch, even first thing in the morning. Now that he's gone, the tune keeps going through my head.

Ghost towns

For about the last 50 years, the small fishing villages scattered around Iceland have been slowly abandoned, as more and more people move to Reykjavík. The situation is particularly drastic in the North Fjords, where my Danish and German friends just spent a week. They returned this morning with reports of efforts by the few remaining locals to keep the now-empty houses in good repair, hanging curtains, cutting the grass, and painting the outsides. I cannot imagine similar care being given to ghost towns in the U.S., even if, as the skeptic among us maintained, they are doing it just for the tourist value.   

Northern Lights

Last night I could see the first shimmering of the Northern Lights. It was beautiful. I think tonight will be even clearer.

Joking around, Icelandic style

One of the national papers (24 Stundir) ran an article today about an archaeologist who is in charge of excavating an important trade site in Eyjafjorður. He recently decided to play a joke on his team, by burying 2,200 year old ceramic figures he had purchased in China within the context of his site. I guess this counts as a joke in Iceland, but in the U.S. we tend to be a little more serious about things like this.  

Matters of health

I've had a persistent cough for over two weeks now that has not improved, so it seemed sensible to perhaps go to the doctor. I called today to find out how one goes about getting a doctor's appointment; none were available until next week. But the nurse encouraged me instead to come to the emergency room between 4 and 8 p.m. No nurse in her right mind in the United States would ever suggest such a course of action, particularly not at those hours. One of the perks of living in a country of only 300,000 I guess.  


One problem with being from the "O.C." is the expectation that everything in life should be as perfectly clean, neat, and new as things are Southern California. I was, however, very happy with my choice of hotel for our trip, to the surprise of my husband. It was not exactly Newport.  

Buggy windshields

Lake Myvatn is named after the small biting insects that love the mineral-rich water of the lake. As we drove around the lake yesterday, quite a few of these ended up on our windshield, which reminded me of every drive I have ever taken through the desert of California. But in fact in Iceland this is very rare; a normal drive to Reykjavík produces no insect carnage. I considered this an important discovery.