Showing posts from November, 2008

Familiar sounds

Houses in Southern California are built to withstand earthquakes, for obvious reason. One strategy is to make the house very strong, with reinforced walls and windows and doors. Another strategy is to make the house very flexible, so that when an earthquake hits, it shifts with the ground beneath it. At least that is what the real estate agent told my father when he and my mom bought the house we all grew up in down here in Mission Viejo, to explain why all the windows rattle everytime a door is closed anywhere in the house. Such housing construction would obviously not work out in Iceland very well, one storm would blow it down.   

Mommy etiquette

After 2 months away from my son, my mommy instincts are perhaps a bit off. Yesterday, without thinking, I started singing this song for him. He loved it and has been trying to imitate saying "fire" and "liar" with this wacky accent since then. Of course, it would have been even worse in Iceland, where no one has heard of either Elmer Fudd, Robin Williams, or Bruce Springsteen. 

Living on the edge

A few days ago I took a drive through Los Angeles. Between the smog, the fires, the lack of water, the sandy soil and the immense number of people living here, I feel fairly confident declaring this a much riskier place to live than a rocky, windy, cold island in the middle of the North Atlantic. 

California rainbows

It never rains in California, especially not in Southern California. So seeing actual rainbows is just about impossible. But my parents live in a town called Rainbow, named after all the colorful flowers that are grown here for nurseries nation wide. In other words, the town looks like a rainbow when viewed from an airplane. This is the reverse of rainbows in Iceland, which of course are only seen from the ground when looking into the air. The question is, where is the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow?

Allt i einu

Last night, a cold snap settled in over Berkeley, and this morning I noticed that all the leaves had fallen off the maple trees. Just like that, all at once, winter has arrived in California. Now it is 60 degrees instead of 80.

Kids these days

This morning I spent some time in my son's preschool classroom. On the way in Dave said, "Next they'll expect Big Foot to show up. They think you are an urban legend." After being there a few minutes, the teacher said, "Palmer's mommy is here from Iceland" and then glanced at a globe, asked if I could show them where that was. Both of the teachers were surprised when I pointed to a tiny island way up in the North Atlantic, as if confirming the existence of a fictive land. I was more surprised by the fact that when I asked the kids who had been on an airplane, they all raised their hands. Three year olds get around these days, both in California and in Iceland, I guess.

Arboreal musings

The Icelandic birki is one of my favorite trees, it has a lovely fragrance, small, dark, filigreed leaves, and bark that changes color and texture, from a smooth red to a bumpy brown. Now that I'm back in California, I am turning my attention to the eucalyptus trees.  Like the birki trees, they have a strong fragrance and interesting bark that peels off in great layers, though the leaves are larger and smoother. They are, however, a non-native species, and are in fact too tall and thin for the California soil and for the strong winds here. Branches routinely fall off, and whole trees fall down on top of houses during stormy weather. The unobtrusive birki trees, hanging close to the ground, rarely get uprooted. Something to be said for things that grow slowly and cautiously.  

Pale One

When I was growing up, I used to spend my summers in Iceland while all my friends spent their summers at the beach in Southern California. So I am pretty used to the phenomena wherein I am 5 shades whiter than everyone else in California. And yet still today, wearing a short skirt, I found myself self-conscious about it.

Truer words were never spoken

The day before I left Iceland, a friend of mine was telling me how happy she was I was going home to see my son. She said even though she understood that my career was important, children are the only thing in life that really matter. Looking at my son this morning, the wisdom of this seems clear. Children are a simple affirmation of hope and love in life.

VP woes

This morning I went to turn on CNN, to catch up on the U.S. news. What to my wondering eyes should appear but "Governor" Sarah Palin. She seems to keep sticking around, even though her ticket lost the election. I found this a bit surprising, this lack of any sort of awareness on her part that she doesn't have the national spotlight anymore.

Short cuts

Icelandair has made some cut backs on their services, especially in the barest bones economy class, where one has to pay for one's snacks. So I already felt like some short cuts were being taken. Then I got on Jet Blue today; of course there is no food service, but their short cut went one step beyond: no inflight magazine either. They just expect Americans to sit happily in front of the built in television sets. Why should one need to eat or read when TV is in the offering? Of course, the ultimate short cut was getting to put on a pair of shorts this afternoon!

Moved to the back of the class

When I was in elementary school and junior high, I always took a seat in the first row, nearest the teacher. But sometimes the teacher would send me to the back of the class room, for talking too much to my classmates. This is when I began to realize I may be just a bit too verbally expressive for my own good. The funny thing is that whenever I am here in Iceland, I basically feel like I´ve been moved to the back of the classroom, since I speak MUCH less here than I do at home. My thoughts get ahead of my ability to express them in Icelandic, so I just stop. I have to say I think this is a good thing for me, since it has really helped me improve my listening skills. But the last time I went back to the States, all these pent up ideas and words came flooding out of me; I simply could not help myself, I spoke to just about every person I saw at the airport. Poor shoe shine guy, he really got an earfull. I am expecting just about the same thing to happen today and tomorrow, as I arrive St

Leaving on a jet plane

I've gotten my routine of what to do to get this apartment ready for my departure down to a science. Plus it makes life so much easier having two wardrobes, one in California and one here in Iceland; I basically don't even have to pack. It also helps that one wears completely different clothes in California than in Iceland. 

Victory dance

I hereby confirm that it feels just as good to hunt down an obscure reference in old Icelandic books as it did to hunt down odd archaeological facts at the Smithsonian. One of 6 projects is officially done!

On poetry

A few months ago, some of us foreigners up here in Iceland were debating why Icelanders are so snobby about their language. I was sticking up for Iceland's deep love of the language and used as an example how familiar everyone is, no matter how educated, with a large body of Icelandic poetry. That knowing Icelandic is not just knowing the grammar, but also knowing all the poetic ways in which the language can stretch to accommodate new meaning. This is not the case in the United States; there are a few Robert Frost poems I suppose most of us learn, but mostly the teaching of poetry in the United States is limited to teaching Haiku. All of us have to compose Haiku at some point during school, since it is a relatively rule bound and short poetic form. But it can be quite beautiful. This morning I read a slightly unorthodoxed Haiku poem from my brother, and have decided that the U.S. school system really knows what it is doing. The poem was perfect.

Normal enough conversation

Well, I just got off the phone with my aunt, we had a long conversation about the man haunting the house in California where I grew up. She's seen him, I've seen him, my grandfather spoke about him.  Funny thing is, on the very rare occasions I ever mentioned this to anyone in California, it was quickly dismissed. I am not sure now if I'm exactly comforted by my aunt's easy going assumption that this was normal, but at least it makes me feel part of the family. 

Always on the move

One thing that is remarkable about California is that just about everyone there comes from somewhere else. I knew very few kids whose family had been in California more than two generations, and almost all my friends have moved out of the town where we all grew up. Just now I was reading Íslenzkar Æviskrár , which describes in brief the lives of important Icelanders living between 1500 and 1900, or thereabouts. Everyone I've read about was on the move constantly, going to Denmark, to Rome, living in this farm and then that, heading off to Stockholm, then moving around from this farm to that again back in Iceland. I guess that is why I feel somewhat at home here, this tendency towards outward movement instead of inward stillness sits better with me. Even if it is the same tendency that caused the collapse of the banking system.    

The Onion

Many of my friends in the United States read the satirical "newspaper" The Onion. I've never gotten in the habit of it, but sometimes my friends post links to good articles, and they are always a crack up. Iceland of course has four national newspapers and several underground papers focusing on the music scene and campus events. Icelanders also blog a lot. But something like the Onion is missing here, an irreverent, intelligent, funny, topical, critical without being condescending, stimulating newspaper. It would be nice if an Icelandic newspaper like that made its appearance.

Not giving up

This article  on the front page of the New York times has gotten everyone here in Iceland talking. And it has gotten me realizing how strange it is that I am not one of the foreigners planning on abandoning Iceland. It never occurred to me to do so. But it does make a bit more sense to me why people have started suddenly to ask me if I am definitely coming back in January, after going home for the holidays.  

Canary in a coal mine

My mom told me the other day that the U.S. press is characterizing the collapse of the Icelandic banking system as "the canary in the coal mine." I mentioned this to my Icelandic relatives the other day, and they were confused. I had to explain that a canary in a cage was lowered into the mining shaft before the miners, and only if it kept singing would the men go down. I suppose the canary also stayed with the men all day long, chirping and singing as long as everything was fine, but quickly dying if the air turned poor. The metaphor does not work in a country that does not have a deep history of mining, no memories of mine shafts that can fill with carbon gas before the workers even realize it. For me growing up, mining was a meaningful symbol of California's first settlement, of the potential riches of the soil, of a hard way of life we were overcoming. (One folksong I learned in elementary school about miners dying enmasse "In the town of Springfield, Nova Scotia

Saint Margret?

Californians, at least in my experience, do not spend a lot of time talking about people who have died, especially if they died quite some time ago. I had to overcome that hesitancy last night, since the main topic of conversation was a woman named Margrét who died in the 50s. She also happens to be my great grandmother. My mom is named after her, and I'm named after her sister, who died just before I was born. Her daughter, my grandmother, was named Maria, and my sister is named after her. So this morning I am thinking about four generations of women who carry the names of devoutly religious women, and whose lives, each in their own way, have a touch of the divine. Not a bad payoff for going a bit out of my comfort zone. 

Heppin Kona

I'm a lucky lady in oh so many ways, both in the U.S. and in Iceland. The latest example of this came this morning, when I stumbled into a colleague who said there was a "kjallara partí" late this afternoon, and in case I hadn't gotten the message (which I had not) she thought she'd let me know. Not only in work but also in life, I seem to follow in the wake of Leif the Lucky/ég er í kjölfarið Leifs Heppins.  He was also half-Icelandic, you know. 

Dinner invite

I have been invited to dinner tonight at the house of a not-so-closely related relative whom I have basically never spoken to before. I told a friend of mine that today at lunch, and she said, "oh, you´ll have fun!" in a completely non-sarcastic way. She´s been in Iceland 20 years, and has a bit more faith than I do that when Icelanders get together with family, they find something to talk about. I on the other hand still have nightmares about when I invited a 2nd cousin (Icelandic) I´d never spoken to over for dinner in California. Things went from bad to worse, first the awkward discussion of why our grandparents were only half-siblings, then my son didn´t want to play with their kids, but the worst was that I forgot to offer them coffee. Anyhow, I´m heading off tonight with a positive attitude, with hopes it will go better this time.

Orderly transition

On Tuesday night, the American Embassy hosted an "election watching" party at a hotel in Reykjavík. The room was packed even before the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland took the stage. She spoke not only about the presidential election, but also about all the other issues on the ballot as well, races for governors, senators, and representatives, and other initiatives. But it was her discussion of the orderly transition of power from one president to the next that really struck me. Here in Iceland one of the main reasons they have not held parliamentary elections is that all the same people would be on the ballot anyhow, it would hardly make a difference. In the United States, when a new president comes to power, with him comes a suite of new faces, new ideas, new challenges. It is a dramatic change, every department, every office, gets new leadership and new direction. Washington D.C. literally changes overnight on January 20th. It was amazing to witness in 2000, how peaceful and d

Time change

Last weekend, the United States "fell back", everyone set their clocks back one hour to accommodate the shorter days, thus meaning that most people's normal time to wake up corresponds to around sunrise, rather than when it is still dark. I've already lamented that a similar practice is not done here. But even more perplexing to me is the use of a 24 hour clock to tell the time of meetings or talks. A talk at 4:30 in the afternoon is said to be at 16:30, which of course makes sense. But then I convert it in my head to 4:30, and then the next time I think about it, I wonder if the talk is at 14:30, in other words 2:30 in the afternoon. Thus I am constantly double checking my email just to make sure I've got it right, always feeling like I'm loosing 2 hours from everyday. Sigh. 


Change is in the air both in California and here in Iceland, because the US election is over, a clear winner decided. There were also a few Propositions on the California ballot that had my attention, and one of those, Proposition 8, is as of yet still undecided. But I was really happy to hear Prop 2 passed; it requires "farmers" to allow egg-laying hens, pregnant sows, and calfs enough room in their cages to stretch out their limbs completely and turn around. I put farmers in quotes because it is the industrial agricultural giants, and not normal farmers, that have instituted these cruel and restrictive practices. I also note that this proposition likely gained support by strategically only referring to animals that could engender special sympathy as mothers and young children, and that chickens raised for their meat are still going to be stuck in tiny cages (Foster Farms must be happy). So, although I'll feel better about eating meat in California after 2012, I still ra

Wasting time in the city

Except when I was stopping overnight somewhere while traveling, I've never really had to figure out how to waste time by myself in a city. This stint in Iceland has seen lots of that, lots of talks and events late in the evening in Reykjavik and nothing to do in that awkward interim period, when a person is too tired to work more but thinks it would be a ridiculous waste of gas to drive back to Reykjanesbaer. I've tried dining alone, calling up my cousin to see if I can hang out at her house for 2 hours, and indeed, driving back and forth twice in one day. But tonight I'm settling on my most affective strategy to date, hanging out at Mal og Menning. There seems to be plenty of tourists here anyhow. 

Like totally American, ya know

I'm dressed in red, white, and blue today. It seemed appropriate given the election going on back home, though I imagine most Icelanders won't get the connection. 

Drawing distinctions

In the United States, it is the official job of the government to make distinctions of various sorts, between schools, between communities, between state economic systems and legal codes. Not only the census bureau but also the education department and the commerce department develop various lists ranking this or that aspect of American society. Everyone in the U.S. knows to take these lists with a grain of salt, not to put too much faith in them, and yet we use them, find them interesting and informative, and they can be a source of motivation since they spark a competitive drive. I was talking to my cousin about this last night, and it turns out the Icelandic government does not participate in these sorts of comparisons, does not make official lists for instance of which elementary schools are "the best" in Iceland. And yet these rankings are made, in conversations here and there between parents, the slow accumulation of word of mouth. I'm terribly bad at conversations


I am proud to report that one quality I was well known for in California has re-emerged with a vengeance today. No, I'm not talking about being too pushy (although perhaps I was that at one of my meetings), but rather my special skill for breaking glasses. Happens all the time anywhere I live. My family here in Iceland said my grandmother was the same way, so I take comfort in that. Today it was as if the gods of the glasses demanded a sacrifice, and were not going to rest until they got it. First thing this morning, I chipped one ceramic coffee cup, then a few hours later I spilt a huge glass of hot tea all over my counter. These two accidents did not suffice, so just a bit ago, my measuring cup leaped out of the cabinet, breaking into hundreds of tiny glass fragments all over my counter top. It is good when somethings don't change. 

Pizza! Pizza!

When I was growing up in California, there was an extremely annoying advertisement on TV for Little Caesar's Pizza.  A Roman looking cartoon character would come on the screen, carrying a spear with two pizzas stuck on top, and yell out "Pizza! Pizza!".  It probably did not help my negative reaction to this ad campaign, that the pizza itself was very bad.  On the other hand, Dominoes Pizza here in Iceland has a wonderfully affective ad campaign, casual and confident, a bit funny. For radio spots, they say their phone number really fast, call it the easiest number in all of Iceland to remember (5812345). They also have a television ad that is a loving close-up pan over a steamy, greasy pizza, while sultry music plays in the background. I've been craving pizza, any pizza, ever since I saw it. I never had this reaction to Little Caesar's Pizza. 


The word "elitism" has been bouncing around the U.S. presidential election, and a bit here in Iceland too, that the intellectual elite have failed their countrymen by not taking action sooner to fix this financial mess. I have to admit, when I hear the word "elite", I draw a blank, I don't know what people are talking about. So I've been wondering about that, how it is that I have failed to notice a phenomena everyone else seems to think is genuine. I've decided to blame it on "Cal" (University of California, Berkeley, for those of you not in the know - is that elitist of me?). U.C. Berkeley is one of the best universities in the world, consistently ranked in the top 3 in the United States, but instead of marketing themselves that way, they talk about being a public university and about the diversity of the student body. The rivalry with Stanford and Harvard is not alive and well on campus, no one cares about it at all, everyone is just focused

Two weeks notice

At the dinner party I went to last night, there were 2 people who worked in the Icelandic banking sector, and have therefore lost their jobs. But it turns out here in Iceland that that means something different than in the U.S. In the U.S., when someone looses their job, there is no law about how much notice an employee is given ahead of time. I guess most employers try to give two weeks warning, just as an employee is supposed to give two weeks notice before quitting. But it can also be that people show up to work one day to find the establishment simply closed, no warning what so ever. Then it is up to the employee to apply for unemployment from the state, which usually lasts 3 months. In Iceland, employers are legal obliged to keep their employees on the payroll for 3 months after they have been told their position has been terminated. And then it seems after that, the government gives people unemployment payments for an extended period of time thereafter. It is therefore a process,

New game in town

Everytime I listen to the radio or the news and can understand every word that is said, I get a little cocky, a bit full of myself. Today my linguistic skills were put a bit to the test when the radio started advertising for " skvass " as a new sport, a new way to exercise. And then I realized that was a borrowing from English, for the sport "squash", which indeed in English ought to be  said with an extremely annoying, long nasal "ah" sound in the middle. Icelanders have dispensed with the annoying middle part, and put a pleasant little kick in the word instead. None of which changes the fact that it is a really hard game to play, for Icelanders or Americans.