Showing posts from October, 2008


I have a feeling when next I come to Iceland, my family and friends may well ask me to bring back all sorts of products from the United States. I was a bit relieved last summer, when the kroner was so strong, no one asked me to bring anything. But one of my cousins has always asked me to bring her Secret deodorant, which I used to think was really strange. That is until I bought deodorant here in Iceland last week. Yikes! 

What a Treat!

Four kids just knocked on my door, dressed up in Halloween outfits! And just yesterday some Icelander was explaining to me why that tradition would never catch on here. "We are already have Bollur Dagur" he said. True, but Icelandic kids are smart enough to know another chance to get free candy isn't so bad. Occasionally, we Americans get things right. 

Social Solidarity

These last weeks here in Iceland have reminded me of being in Washington D.C. after 9/11. Icelanders are a bit in shock, people are genuinely concerned about job loss and food shortages. But signs have gone up telling people to "stick together", and today I was listening to the mayor of Reykjanesbær discuss ways city employees could bring a sense of hope and optimism to the townspeople, to imagine a brighter future despite the very real problems that must be overcome in the next few years.  I find this a very good strategy, to pull on the internal strengths within Icelandic society, rather than to seek fault and blame. At moments of crisis, there is often the tendency to support social solidarity through emphasizing the enemy without, the "other" who poses a threat, as was done in the United States against Muslims. Appropriately so, Icelanders seem to be using the crutch of an imagined other, an exterior responsible party "who did this to them," (namely th

Pickle preference

When I am in the States, I always pick all the pickle slices off of hamburgers and sandwiches, and I have never gotten up the nerve to bite into a Vlasic Classic.  But for some reason I cannot explain, I absolutely adore the "marinated cucumber slices" Icelanders put on their open-faced sandwiches and hamburgers. Maybe they are little less crunchy than American pickles, maybe a little more sweet, but basically, they are still pickles, and my pickle phobia ought to have transfered across the Atlantic with me. It did not. Nope, now I've started putting them on my hotdogs.  

Scariest outfit contest

The Inter-Cultural Center has an open house every Friday night for foreigners living here in Iceland. This Friday night, October 31st, they are going to have a Halloween party. They did not say whether people were supposed to go in costume or not, but if there was a "scariest costume" contest, I think I might win if I just went as myself, the Happy American. People would probably mistake me for Sarah Palin. 

Icelandic jewelry

Today I bought myself an "Icelandic" ring. Although it is made out of silver imported from Denmark, the man that made it is from Iceland, the Vestmann Islands to be exact, and his design aesthetic is definitely Icelandic. Some of his rings were fine and simple, others rather rough, many with strange elements like horse hair sticking out of the top.  I picked the one that looked the best on my finger, nothing too crazy about, just a bit unusual, wide and of various textures. But still nothing like what I could get in California. 

Gift for understatement

The American sense of humor tends towards parody, I would say, Saturday Night Live and Michael Moore as examples, whereas British towards some sort of broad physical humor. Icelanders have a real gift for understatement, that is their sense of humor, they find real delight in watching the irony of a comment dawn on the listener. I therefore think it is highly likely that Geir Haarde was basically making a joke when he said, "it is not wise for a small country to take a lead in international banking."

My two cents

At the book club a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I felt Iceland was far more male chauvinistic than the United States. The Icelander in the room was really offended, suggested that this is just because I work with Sjalfstaedi flokk types over 50. Perhaps that is true. I tried to remind myself of that today as the 60 plus gentleman in charge of the building told me that my questions would just have to wait 2 months. I did not, however, remind myself of that sufficiently to resist explaining to him, in no uncertain terms, that that was unacceptable. 

Afraid of heights

Today again some man I just met got extremely concerned about my well being, as I stood right on the edge of the second floor of our exhibition hall, overlooking a 4 meter drop, with no hand railing of any sort. Of course the railing will get installed before we open to the public, but as it is now, I mount stairs consisting of a loose wooden frame to access the 2nd floor, which is covered with thick plastic, in my high-healed boots usually, and stand on this edge, looking down. All the men I work with hover next to the wall, as far away from this edge as they can get, and occasionally one of them says something to me, asks me to step away from the edge or whether or not I'm afraid of heights. Usually I just say, "Nope" very calmly, but today I thought to add that I was a diver. That is maybe a small exaggeration, but diving is really big in California, certainly I dove into our pool every time I went in, and us kids usually jumped off the roof into the pool when our pare

Walking in the snow

Though I am far from any Smilla, I have started to develop a tiny sense of snow. Knowing where is best to step, where best not to step, how fast or how slow to walk to avoid slipping, and indeed have found the right shoes for the job, which was really key. Sort of sad that just as this skill set is getting a work out, I'll be off to California. But I suppose when I get back, there will still be plenty of snow.  

Rising with the sun

There are few things worse in my mind than waking up to the sound of an alarm clock; I really dislike them and have never found the least need for them. My body naturally wakes up with the sun rise, always has. Of course, with winter settling in here in Iceland, and the days getting shorter and shorter, this begins to present a problem. I don't wake up until 8:30, 9am, when everyone else is already at work. I have tried to use this excuse before with my Icelandic co-workers, but they were not very impressed.

The storm doth rage

The first winter storm has hit, strong winds, lots of snow, and advisories for everyone to stay inside, only travel when necessary. Two of my friends called me to warn me about it. This demonstrates they still very much think of me as a Californian, are worried I won't understand what a raging storm really means here in Iceland. In a way they are right, since my reaction is just to be exhilarated , which I don't think is really what the average Icelander feels. P.S. Having just heard that it is 95 degrees and sunny in California, my exhilaration is a bit ameliorated.

Stitch in time

Metaphors are wondrous in their ability to mean so many things at once. The cliche "A stitch in time saves nine" is of course built on a sewing metaphor, and I was reminded of it this morning, looking through my sock drawer, trying to find a pair without a threadbare spot or hole. I go through socks MUCH faster here in Iceland than in California, where I never wear any, and my purchase of socks has not kept pace with increased need. So I thought to myself, maybe these wouldn't have gotten so bad if I had sewed them up sooner.  This same applies absolutely to the Icelandic banking meltdown, the global banking meltdown. And probably a lot of other things. The non-metaphorical, non-cliched way to say this would be that it is wise to take action as soon as a small error becomes apparent, rather than to wait and see just how bad it can get. But I think many of us are far too curious to see the extent of the damage, and therefore delay action, or we are waiting for someone else

Listen up everyone!

Because of the collapse of the banking system, which was insured by the government, Icelanders now owe millions and millions of dollars to overseas investors, and many of them are down right mad about it, crying out that not only them but their children's children will still be paying taxes to fulfill this debt. I just heard a guy on the radio say he is going to move to America to avoid loading his children down with this debt which he had no part in accumulating. It seems he has not heard this simple but perhaps critical piece of information: AMERICANS ARE HUGELY IN DEBT TOO!! We have a 10 trillion dollar debt, and absolutely, the taxes my children's children's children will be paying are still going to be partially going to fulfill that long-standing obligation. Such is life in a capitalist system. Debt is par for the course, nothing to fear. The story goes that with debt comes untold prosperity. 

Fright night

Last year was my first year here in Iceland during Halloween, where October 31st passes like any other day. No doorbells ringing straight from 6pm until 10pm, no neighborhood kids you didn't know existed stopping by in crazy outfits, no bowls full of candy and carved out pumpkins, caving in under the heat of the candles inside, no spooky decorations on everyone's doors and windows. This year again, I'll be here, and I'm really sad to be missing all the fun. The truth is I usually dress up for it myself, even went trick o' treating off and on into my early 20s, and have come to realize this is my favorite holiday. At least last year I vicariously participated by buying Palmer his outfit (he was Bob the Builder, Bubbi Byggir in Icelandic); this year I haven't even done that. But I did tell my husband that the scariest outfit we could get for Palmer would be to put him in a suit and tell everyone he is a banker.

Non-monetary society

I often lament that one of my favorite television shows, Star Trek the Next Generation, never seems to have made it here to Iceland. I cannot therefore make references to it with any hope that people will know what I am talking about. This is particularly a shame right now, because I think Star Trek is one of the few shows to simply take it for granted that in the future, we will not have money. We will not pay for anything, no discussion of banks or budgets or affording this or that. People just walk into a place and get what they need, everybody does the same, no grand socialist state controlling the whole thing. All services and products are just provided free to everyone. Though with how loose the credit was, perhaps this fantasy had more of a reality here in Iceland than elsewhere, thus negating the need for the show.

Tonsil removal

According to my aunt, every child in Iceland has their tonsils removed at a very young age, after their first throat infection as a matter of fact. I have had terrible throat infections my whole life, loosing my voice plenty of times, and no doctor in the States has ever suggested removing my tonsils. My aunt thinks this is barbaric. I remain neutral on the subject, and merely note the discrepancy in medical practice. 

Iceland favored on AVEN

I have just finally finished the index for the book "Images of the North," which includes a number of discussions on how foreigners perceive Iceland: wild, empty, natural, supernatural. The scholars generally avoided one of the most prevalent stereotypes I have heard about Iceland, that it is a very sexually-open society. My own experience has not confirmed this stereotype, just as my experiences in Berkeley did not meet any preconceived notions of a free-love hippy town. On neither count was I the least bit disappointed. This could be a bold new tourism add campaign for Iceland, "Come here to be left entirely alone!".  Worth a shot, since certainly the British aren't likely to be coming around next summer.

Wrong number

For the fourth time in recent memory, my cell phone rang only for me to be greeted by an unfamiliar number and voice telling me something totally incomprehensible. 'Sebastian told me to call', 'The shipment has come in' (in Icelandic mind you), and I sit there on the other end baffled, trying to figure out what they are talking about. Invariably it turns out they are looking for a Polish woman, I guess also named Elisabeth (only she spells it Elizabet), who lives in Sandgerði. This is not to say that I never get calls by mistake in California. But if a Californian looks up a number in the phone book, their sense of security that they have the right person, and not just someone with the same or similar name, is much lower. Lower than 50/50 I would say.

Stars on earth

The air is so clear here in Iceland that the lights I see outside my window twinkle just like stars in the desert sky. In California, the smog usually made the city lights seem more like the milky way.

Seems normal enough

Everything here in Iceland seems normal enough, cars are going back and forth just like they always do, my family members and I are going about our normal routines, the stores are stocked, everything seems fine. The national news and the Icelandic "blogosphere" suggests otherwise, that Iceland is on the brink of collapse. I can't seem to get excited about it, and instead find my mind on the election back home. An economic crisis in Iceland just cannot be as important as determining the "Leader of the Free World," I would say.


I have long been known in my family for leaving very long rambling messages on answering machines, practically entire conversations. Thankfully, most people in Iceland do not have answering machines, and even when I leave messages on cell-phones, they tend to be brief since I do so in Icelandic. I really must try to apply the same practice to emails, to write only in Icelandic and keep it brief. Today a co-worker made some reference to having to explain my "very long" email to another co-worker, and although a part of me wanted to think this was because I wrote in English, I knew what he meant. The more time I spend here, the quieter I seem to become.


The first time I ran across the name of this bird, I was working at the Smithsonian. And only recently did I realize this was the same sort of bird my Amma used to talk about, about how her and Afi would take walks in the winter and watch them scurry around. Now I see them outside my window from time to time, or hear the male croaking late at night. Like some elaborate courtship ritual, I have finally come to know this bird. And the funny name no longer seems so hard to pronounce, though I'm sure no proper Californian would know what I was talking about.

Mystery solved!

For about a week, a package I was expecting from my the States was simply no where to be found. The American postal service said it had been delivered to Iceland, but no Icelandic postal service had any record of it. Turns out it was sitting in the Customs House, which I now imagine as a vast warehouse whose inventory is unknowable, like the one at the end of Indiana Jones. Here import tolls are assessed, and I have discovered that the Icelandic definition of "gift" is restricted to anything under $100 dollars. The American postal system is not only less draconian, it also officially defines a gift as four times more valuable. Therefore proving the adage, it is better to give than to receive.


I never feel more American here in Iceland than when I go to the grocery store, and try to make a friendly comment to other shoppers, about the greenness of the bananas or whathaveyou. They always stare at me, and I try to tell myself I probably made a grammatical error or something to account for their less-than-friendly response. The fact is Icelanders only say a quick hello to close associates at the grocery store and do not make idol chit-chat with strangers.  In California, this constitutes a major facet of our sense of being part of a community.  Today I asked a staff member for help, and was so self-conscious about it, I felt compelled to start explaining I was half-American, etc. Turns out the staff-member's father was also stationed at the base, his mom also Icelandic, which isn't so unusual here in Reykjanesbær, and we ended up in a 10 minute conversation. Next time I'll try it the Icelandic way, no talking to anybody. 

Northern Lights II

The Northern Lights were back again tonight, much brighter. They have probably been here every night, I just couldn't see them through the cloud cover. And yes, I'm sure it wasn't just the glow from Chernobyl , or Petrolia, Pennsylvania .

Talk of the Town

I was at my cousin's 9 year birthday party today. After my aunt made a comment that we were doing nothing but talking about the financial situation, we tried to talk about the dog one person had recently got for a few minutes, but it was right back to the financial situation before we even realized it. I suppose it would be exactly the same if I was in California with my family. 

Image management

I'm working on an index for a book all about how people's perception of the northern parts of the planet - Alaska, Canada, Iceland - have changed through time, both for people living in northern areas and for people living outside those areas. The efforts of politicians, artists, scientists and authors to influence that perception are quite interesting.  Americans have always been very aware of the need to control their image, from the Revolutionary War through Manifest Destiny that encouraged people westwards and of course ever since World War II, jealously guarding the idea that we are a super-power, a world leader. This image has really begun to falter recently, obviously, but still many want to believe, want to keep it intact.   I've always been a little surprised that Icelanders aren't quite as aware of their power to control their own self-image, seeming more inclined to take on the ideas others have of Iceland. So I'm actually kind of proud of David Oddson a

Yoko and John

My sister always had me celebrate John Lennon's birthday when I was a kid, and the day he was shot was my first "national" memory, I was 8. So I find myself, in the midst of all of this financial mess here in Iceland, grateful that Yoko is here in Iceland, lighting the Peace Light she established on Viðey in John's memory. It reminds me of my childhood, it reminds me of my sister, and it reminds me of wonderful marriages. Funny what one beam of light can do. 

"Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland"

This week, Iceland's financial mess has made it to the "most read" selection of articles on But since Iceland doesn't make it on the international front stage too often, the authors feel the need to say things like "this tiny Nordic country" and "Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland," just so Americans can have some slight clue. At rare times like these, I'm rather satisfied to be "in the know" about this country already. That somehow helps off-set the difficult months ahead...

On pyramids

I have never been to Egypt, but I have been to Las Vegas, where the Luxor hotel, shaped like a gigantic pyramid but made entirely of glass, dominates the landscape.  Here in Iceland there is also a pyramid, well, a volcanic cone shaped like a pyramid, Mount Kellir, which I can see out of my kitchen window. These days the sun rises right behind it, and I'm inspired to worship.

David takes responsibility

I guess I'm far too used to American politics, but I was really pretty stunned to see the former prime minister, and now the leader of the national treasury, on the evening interview show. He talked about the past, the present, and the future. Like most politicians, squirming about the past was not so pretty; he tried to say he warned of this collapse five years ago. His answer about the present was more impressive: he explained that the Icelandic government decided to just say "no thanks" to shouldering the foreign debts Icelandic banks had accrued when they nationalized the banks, making their stocks worthless. In other words, taking care of Iceland and Iceland's children was more important than keeping businessmen around the world happy. It was his answer about the future I liked best, he was perfectly willing to quit if that would make Icelanders feel better.  I haven't heard any politician in the U.S. make a similar offer. 


A mixed-format children's program started here in Iceland called Lætibær is now internationally famous under the name Lazytown. I've been perplexed by this shows insistence on really stark gender differences (the main "boy" wears only blue and is very sporty whereas the main "girl" wears only pink--including her hair--and likes to dance). But at least now I think I understand the name a bit better, since here in Iceland when the weather is really terrible, the urge to be incredibly lazy is just overwhelming. 


Icelandic sweaters with a curved geometric design across the sweep of the shoulders, called lopapeysa , are one of the handicrafts really unique to Iceland. What is nice in my mind is this is what we call in folklore a "living tradition"; Icelanders continuously work on the basic form, improvising. I have two of the traditional types, knitted of undyed wool and with beautiful silver buttons down the front. But yesterday my cousins gave me one of the new-style lopapeysa , a pull over, short sleeved version that really highlights the design around the collar. I wore it all last night and am considering wearing it again today. This reminds me of the reaction I had many years ago to the very non-traditional sweater that my grandmother knitted for me when I was 9 or 10, wearing it everyday in California, no matter the weather. I didn't even care that all my elementary school class-mates relentlessly made fun of me for this. A fashion " maverick ". 

On libraries

One of my favorite places to spend a Saturday is at the beautiful Doe main stacks at UC Berkeley. It seems so luxurious to be able to have a whole day of peace and quiet, surrounded by books. Although I find myself having more than enough peace and quiet here in Iceland in my apartment, I do nevertheless need to go to the Icelandic National Library today, and it has got me thinking about those lovely Saturdays at Cal. Besides the architecture, the selection of books, and the selection of reading areas, the main difference is I expect to see people I know at the Icelandic library, and I never had that expectation at Cal. Though it did sometimes happen. 

Formality vs. Professionalism

At 6:30pm last night, I found myself standing inside the exhibition hall, it snowing outside, a friend of mine at my house alone, and me meeting with two Englishmen and an Icelander. It was a bit surreal, especially when in the midst of this odd setting, the Icelander broke into a very formal tone (and then left a few minutes later).  From an American perspective, Icelanders stand on formality to a remarkable degree, something that seems almost quaint, a vestige of how things used to be. I've sometimes thought this formality was a necessary defensive structure in a country where everyone knows everyone else, but otherwise I haven't been much for it. But this morning it struck me that it might be at the heart of the difference between Icelandic and non-Icelandic approaches to business relationships. Because me and the English gents, even though we'd never met before, right after the Icelander left, we went straight into talking at length about the real meat of the problems t

It snowed!!

Only a light dusting, but oh my goodness, what a beautiful sight, to watch the sun rise over a layer of new fallen snow.  That this occurred on October 2nd I am trying to ignore. 

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan gave a concert here in Iceland this summer while I was in California, and I was really disappointed to miss it. When I got back here, I asked people how it was, but no one seemed the least bit interested. In contrast, National Public Radio in the U.S. see his music as so important, they have posted his new album , in its entirety, on their website. 

Kaffi Tár

Reykjanesbær is not the shining jewel of Iceland the way Reykjavík is, but I like it very well, think it has real potential. One sign of this is the coffee roasting company started here, Kaffi Tár, which has turned into a bit of an Icelandic institution. They have satellite shops all over, and their beans are sold in all the stores. A local kid makes it to the big time. Without turning into Starbucks.