Showing posts from January, 2009


I, who have tried so hard to learn Icelandic, just find it a crack up to see all the American slang that gets an Icelandic spelling once it enters the parlance here. I love hybrids, that is all there is to it, I love hybrids.  This week's list: kúl móv, mæspeis, fésbók, fokking, júsjúal söspekts

No denying it

It is almost impossible to overstate the degree of cultural difference between Iceland and the United States generated by the simple fact that the U.S. has a military, and Iceland does not. One reason I prefer living in Reykjanesbær is that I feel less of a need to apologize for that fact here than I would elsewhere in Iceland. Because as it so happens, I would not exist, I would never have been born, were it not for the U.S. Military. This does not mean for one minute that I support everything they have done or everything they are doing. But it does mean that I tend to see the military not as an abstraction, the evil "military industrial complex," but rather as an organization made up of individuals, with all the good and bad incumbent in any human endeavor. With the power to obliterate whole nations comes the responsibility not to do so, and I like to believe they (usually) know that. Not that I'm trying to apologize for them, or anything.  


A neighbor of mine in Southern California used to sell glass Christmas ornaments, and I always liked to save up some money as a child so I could buy a few every year. I liked the bells and the angels, and I also liked the glass icicles, how they would catch the colors of the Christmas lights. It was not until I was in my early 20s that I saw an actual icicle, made out of ice, during a ski holiday. Today there is a row of gigantic icicles hanging off my roof, right over my front door. I might be a bit afraid of them, actually, if they weren't so beautiful.  

Parties of 4

When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, my family was an anomaly in too many ways to even begin to explain, but one thing that stood out was that there were 4 kids, all full blood relations, my sister and I and our two brothers. I guess this is one reason The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe was one of our favorite books. Anyhow, we were the only family I knew with so many kids; some of my friends were only children, but most families had two kids, and a very few had three. I knew no one else where there were 4. Here in Iceland, that isn't so unusual at all. My mom grew up in a family of 4, two boys and two girls, and I have several Icelandic friends with families of a similar make-up. And with half-siblings and the like, Icelandic families tend to be even bigger than that. That is so nice, so comforting, but it does make me miss my siblings terribly.  

No animals were harmed in this study

I am always interested to note which foreign news stories get picked up by the Icelandic media. This story of a study from Newcastle, England made it into the Icelandic news , and I note that unlike the American press, which might make light of such a story, this actually resonates with a serious academic article published in an Icelandic journal recently about cow-naming conventions. This is important stuff in a country rather dependent on dairy products. 

Truer words were never spoken

It is a beautiful morning here in Iceland.


Despite the recent change in government here in Iceland, the problem of rampant unemployment will, of course, not be fixed in one fell swell swoop. It will take time, a few folks getting employed here or there, before the workforce is back in full swing. We at Vikingaheimar plan to do our part, since we'd like to get people on the unemployment list to come help us build a new Viking ship, maybe even two or three.  And I heard recently from my cousin the  mathematician that actually, unemployment in the United States is worse than in Iceland or in Europe, but they have a different way of accounting for it, so that it isn't quite as obvious.     

So nice to be wrong

My friend Thordis makes some very good points in her comment to my previous entry, and I think she is absolutely right. Icelanders care a great deal more about each other and about what is going on in their country than someone like me, who is used to living out my life in perfect anonymity, can quite appreciate. This is one reason, though, that I hope to be able to stay, in hopes of gaining that same feeling of community. 

Anatomy of a collapse

I have to say, ever since Tuesday, when the compounding cascade effect started after the Parliamentarians refused to meet while protests raged outside their doors, it has been so exciting to be here in Iceland, to watch the collapse of a government. I've never seen anything like it. These things do not happen in the United States; even when George Bush was at 23% approval ratings, he was still our President, no one was calling for impeachment (and only a few left leaning Berkeley types even did so after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq). Nope, we stay loyal, stick it out until the next election. Here in Iceland, there seems to be more of a sense that the government only gets a few chances to get it right, and then the people give up on them and they have to leave. Being a Libra, I can only say that I see the benefits of both approaches. But being an American, the first seems much more comforting to me, less of an us-them dynamic. Afterall, it's a democracy, not

Howling wind

For hours now, there has been a steady howling outside my door, as the wind whips around the building. I remember this sound from when I was a child in California, and the Santa Ana Winds (also known as the Devil Winds) would swoop down from the mountain side. 

Donald Rumsfeld

The announcement this morning that the Financial Minister and the leadership of the Financial Oversight Committee here in Iceland will step down is rather too late to really appease the protestors, and will probably instead fuel their fire. I must say, the whole thing reminds me of what happened with Donald Rumsfeld back in 2006. Instead of stepping down before the election, when it might have actually helped George Bush, he decided to step down the day of the election, when it was a meaningless gesture, politically speaking. It was as if he really did not want to help the President at all.  


Last night, I went bowling in Keiluhöllir, a place so completely modeled after similar facilities in the United States that the computer graphics and the shoes all come from America. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to be speaking English there with my Commonwealth friends.  This morning, I called the priest for Keflavíkakírkja, Séra Skúli, so he could express kveðju from my mother at the funeral for Guðrun today. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to call him, the priest that baptized my son, and who I ran into up at Skalholt one summer Sunday. We always speak Icelandic. 

Á leiðinni til Hafnar

The fresh snow enticed me to take a bit of a drive on my way into the office, out the road to Reykjanes Víti. Past Hafnir and in the midst of the empty hraun, I turned onto a little road I´d always meant to drive down but did not know what was at the end. There were some other tracks there as well, not many, maybe one or two cars had driven there before me, so it seemed an OK idea, even without my snow tires. The road was not very long, or too twisty, and about half-way through, the view opens up onto the ocean; I could see huge waves crashing on the black rocks in the distance. As I went through the gate, I realized this was a private road, but it was too late to turn around. And I was happy I didn´t, because at the end of the road, on a small rise stood a loan wooden summer house, with a horse grazing nearby, and two people painting the window sills. All of Iceland looked different after that.

"Going out on a limb"

One summer here in Iceland while camping, a group of us kids were scaling up a cliff-side beside a waterfall, where there were some small birch trees and shrubs. Grabbing hold of one of these to hoist myself up, I instead uprooted the tree, and it came tumbling down on top of my cousin, who then fell and hurt her ankle. I learned then that is important to look carefully at the roots and soil around a tree, before deciding to use it as a climbing aid. A few summers later, I was in California, at an outdoor shopping mall, waiting in line with my friend and her father to get tickets for something or another. It was hot and we were bored, so I decided to climb one of the tall sycamore trees growing in the middle of the parking lot. All good fun, until I went out onto the limb. It gave way beneath me, and I came crashing down onto the asphalt. I must have been unconscious for quite some time; when I awoke, there were firemen, an ambulance, and lots of onlookers, all wondering if I was OK. I

Time for change

I am absolutely certain that I have 100% adjusted to Icelandic time before, I mean I must have, I have been going back and forth like this for well over a year. But I don't really know how I managed it before. I think maybe I was more disciplined about forcing myself to get up or go to bed, or just more resigned to slog it through my days, slightly disoriented. This time around, though, I seem to be taking up the example of some friends of mine, and realizing that here in Iceland, it is OK if one's work day goes from 11am until 8pm, if that is how you want to do it. I really don't need to force myself into a 8 to 4 work day, it isn't like I work in some draconian office or something. The work getting done is what matters, not that I fall into some arbitrarily decided time frame for doing so. I guess I'm in my own little time zone, one in between Iceland and California. Hope I can stay, I actually like it here.   

On Skyr

There is simply no comparing skyr to any other dairy product anywhere in the world, let alone in the United States. It is full of vitamins and protein but low in fat, good for everyone from a young child to an ailing diabetic, fulfills all dietary requirements. A miracle food really. Plus, just a few bites of it, and a person is full for hours and hours. People who are really worried about the depression ought not be; as long as skyr is around, there is no chance that people here in Iceland are going to starve.  

Working up a list

My friends and I on Facebook have started gathering together some of the more awful things we've said while trying to stumble our way through Icelandic. "I'd like some god-damn bread" instead of "I'd like whole wheat bread," or "My son has AIDS" instead of "My son has allergies." Mine are too innumerable to try to keep track of, but one of the ones I feel the worst about was when my cousin had us out to her summer-house, had really gone out of her way to make a beautiful spread of all kinds of things to eat, and when I was leaving I said, "I'll get back at you for this" when what I meant was "I hope I can return the favor." Thankfully, she is a really sweet person, and I have no doubt she understood.  

Saturday plans

I woke up with no plans at all today, but as often happens here in Iceland, it looks like my whole day is already taken up. 

on Jenna

I am really sorry to report that an American friend of mine, who had decided to move here to Iceland all on her own and to begin a new line of work, is going to have to go back to New York. She is the first real victim of the financial collapse here that I know of personally, and it is especially ironic because now she'll have to go back to reporting on financial matters, the very thing she was trying to escape, instead of reporting on the environment, an issue she really cares about. I think it is just a shame, since it seemed like such a good idea, to try something new. But it also means that somewhere lurking in the images of Iceland abroad is the idea that it, and not the United States, is the land of opportunity. And it also means that I really ought to make sure I get some work done. Bless í bilið.

Some work better than others

When I started this blog, I did not realize it would turn into an extended exegesis on metaphors. But that seems to be what has happened, mostly because I still think in English. So, for instance this evening, during a telephone call, I thought, "Time to get off my high horse." A great metaphor, based on the historic fact that overbearing generals rode on taller horses than everyone else in the Civil War. I do not believe there is an Icelandic equivalent, since here, none of the horses are particularly tall. 

In memoriam: Gunna Leifs

I don't know exactly how to grieve for a woman I did not know very well, but whose goodness effected the lives of those I love profoundly. It helps that here in Iceland, I serve as my mother's ambassador, expressing her condolences when she cannot. But to occupy only that role diminishes my own personal grief, my own opportunity to understand what this lady meant to me. That her daughter, Elísabet, died just before my first trip to Iceland had some symbolic import, as if I were meant to fill the void she left. Today, when I told my mother about Guðrún dying, she said through heaving sobs, "She was like a second mother to me." And so it seems full circle. I only hope I can convey all of this to Leifur, her husband, and my mother's second cousin. 

Pair of jokers

Since I was in a really good mood this morning (always a morning person, even without sleep), the fact that several strange men who I had never met before decided to start teasing me the moment they met me did not bother me so much. They were workers from the town, helping us move the cases around the exhibition hall, and by the end, I let one give me a ride on the tongs of the forklift. As my husband can attest, this really and truly would NEVER happen in California. Something about that family metaphor just makes social interactions here, even between genders, completely different than in America. As if we are all instantly siblings, even if we've never been properly introduced. 

Sleepless nights

Although I am not a very sound sleeper, I never have any truly sleepless nights in California. Here I have them much too often. If I were in Reykjavík, and it were the weekend, this would not be any sort of a problem. But here in Reykjanesbær, one is surely not motivated to get dressed and out of bed just to head over to 10-11. Although I suppose the people who work there might appreciate it, could probably use the revenue to ensure they do not loose their jobs. Now I have a a guilty conscious, one more thing to keep me awake.  

I'm sure I shouldn't say anything...

but there is no way that a national on-line newspaper in America would have, on its homepage, a sponsorship link telling people to "smelltu hér" for "Super Hot Sex." Animated no less, making it really very distracting when one is trying to read the news. Thank goodness American editors have a little more sense of propriety.  

One step back IS two steps forward

There is no doubt I have had trouble with various aspects of living here in Iceland, the language absolutely, also figuring out how Icelanders give directions, which is often very vague and dependent on the person pretty much already knowing where they are going, and the constant change in the length of days. But nothing has been harder for me to overcome than my expectation that work, getting a job done, should be the same here as it is the United States. At the Smithsonian, we had a firm objective, we had a schedule, we had a budget, we all followed it, and when the exhibition opened, everything was done, the catalogue, the website, the exhibition, all done on time and to our standards. This is not the plan here, this is not the expectation here. Instead, as our marketing consultant explained to me today, we'll open the doors on a certain day, and however much is done that day will be fine. Then we'll keep working on it, just like we have been. There is no opening per se, the

Higher powers

Just yesterday, a colleague and I were discussing the fact that I need a desk for my office in the new exhibition hall, and I was wondering if I should go buy one. Today, we were moving boxes and crates from one building to another, and low and behold, there was an office desk, just sitting there, unused. Turns out it fits perfectly in my new office. And so my faith in the Icelandic adage "Þetta réttast"--it just takes a little patience, and faith, to find out everything will work out--grows day by day. Plus some heavy lifting to get the desk through the door. 

That'll do pig, That'll do

Just before I left California, my son and I watched the movie "Babe", which has really got to be one of my alltime favorites. I remember walking out of the theatre with joy just oozing out of me. For Americans of my age group who are slightly nerdy, it has filtered down into the vernacular, especially the last line, "That'll do pig, that'll do." Today, I was tempted to try some sort of Icelandic equivalent, and then realized that film may not ever have even been shown here. Hazard number 1,242 of this little adventure.  

Well, excuse me

The people at Kaffi Tár do not seem to appreciate me cracking up for no apparent reason any more than the people at Senoia Coffee Company in Georgia did. I think this is a risk coffee shops should have in mind when they provide free internet, where ever they may be. 

On the basis of need

One difference between being in Iceland and being in California is that in California, I had deadlines. Honest to goodness, class-is-about-to-end, deadlines. And I stuck to them, always. Now that I'm here doing freelance work and research, I am trying my darnedest to establish my own deadlines, and it is really very difficult. The only real way to choose between two projects, both of which are equally important, is to ask, "which one needs my attention more?". Sometimes, that is a hard question to answer, and sometimes very easy, very obvious.  There is genuine change in the air here in Iceland, as much as there are structures in place to maintain the status quo , and I know that is all terribly important. I want to give my attention to it. But I do not need to. 


On three separate occasions, during summer trips to Iceland, relatives back home in the United States have died, and only once did I manage to make it back in time for the funeral. I knew the likelihood of this would increase now that I am here more often. But I've decided I will take no chances with my ailing brother, I will take matters into my own hands. Maybe if I'm not in Iceland, he won't die.  

3rd party accolades

The question, "How do you like Iceland?" has become so routine as a conversation starter with foreigners that there are several t-shirts printed with it as a slogan of sorts sold at shops and on-line. Obviously, the question is intended to invite foreigners to offer compliments about this fair land; Californians expect the compliments to be forthcoming without prompting, or know it all too well themselves, since most of them recently chose to move to California. But I think hearing 3rd party accolades is really nice at any point in time, and probably especially necessary these days in both California and Iceland, where things are kind of a mess.  

Serious clean up operation

Since the day I got here, fireworks and smoke bombs have been set off every evening. I don't know if this is the remains of New Years celebrations, but it feels more like an extension of the unrest in Reykjavík, creeping out to my quiet corner. And it has left an absolute mess all over the grounds in front of my apartment. Well, that is probably my fault, for choosing the apartment with the best view. Had to do it though; in California a view like this costs millions and millions of dollars.   

Gun laws?

America gets a lot of press for the prevalence of gun ownership, but this morning, the most popular blogger in Iceland cited the statistic for gun ownership here, which I found striking. In his subsequent entry, he lambasted the government for refusing to hold elections, clearly implying the need for armed revolution. That the parliament has not disbanded is surreal to me--it must be just about to happen, I cannot believe otherwise--but the idea of Iceland experiencing an armed revolution is even more surreal. I'm not sure exactly where the Iceland I remember has gone to, but something like that would certainly mean it had disappeared forever.  

Lie in the bed we make

When George Bush was re-elected 4 years ago, us Americans knew we'd have to lie in the bed we'd made, and wait it out until the next election. I don't quite know enough about the Icelandic legal and political situation to understand if that metaphor works here or not. Since elections are not scheduled in advance, I suppose it may not. But I plan to lie in my bed all day today, and try to get some writing done. 

At face value

Spreading my life over two continents has forced me to utilize digital means to keep in touch with people, for certain. But it turns out that makes me a bit more Icelandic, since not only do almost half of all Icelanders write a blog, the news reported last night that almost the entire population has a Facebook page. 

Make of it what you will

I can say with confidence that my voluntary separation from my son is equally baffling to people in America as it is to people in Iceland. But we've found ways to make it work. For instance, my son and I have gotten really good at giving each other virtual hugs over Skype. We do it over and over with lots of squeezing noises. No replacement for the real thing, of course, but still, I think it helps bridge the gap, and is something special just between us. 

Cream puffs

It is a small thing, perhaps, but Iceland has definitely perfected the cream puff. 

That´s what that sound was

I was awoken from my nap (I´m still adjusting to the time change!) by a loud crashing noise. It was sheets of ice sliding down my roof, banging on the pavement, a sound I admit to not being at all used to. Even so, I found myself about to head out the door without a jacket on, as if I was still in California. 

A name to keep in mind

Certainly while I was working on the Viking exhibition at the Smithsonian, I had the opportunity to meet a number of official dignitaries, from Hillary Clinton to the First Lady of Croatia. Here in Iceland, this sort of thing is more common, since the ratio of government to "people" is much higher than in the United States. Still, yesterday when I met the Alþingismaður for this area, a native Keflavíking, I felt a bit uncivilized. I could not tell her any details of either my mother or my family history that would help her clue into who I "am", which meant I failed at the Icelandic game of 6, or 3, degrees of separation which ritually begins most conversations.  Of course, it was never necessary in the United States to try to figure out how an elected official would know my mother. But it turns out there was a very easy way to do this. My grandmother's brother was Sverrir Júlíusson, an Alþingismaður himself. I'm going to have to remember that for next time. 

9-11 Rememberances

About a year ago, an Icelandic friend of mine and I were discussing 9-11 over after-dinner drinks. We had a difference of opinion concerning the proper way to commemorate that event, with him favoring a small, bronze plaque mounted on the side of the new building being erected at Ground Zero.  I told him something far more dramatic was required, and thought that being Icelandic, he could not understand the deep emotional pain that had been caused by the events of 9-11, especially for someone like me, who lived in D.C. at that time. I was reminded of this conversation last week, when I was again in Washington D.C., as I looked across the skyline and saw a huge edifice looming behind the Pentagon. Called the Air Force Memorial and located in Arlington Cemetery, it is not officially linked to the 9-11 memorial at the Pentagon, which is an understated affair consisting of one bench for every person killed in that event (excluding the hi-jackers, I believe). This memorial, by contrast, cons

Humility versus Entitlement

When I was a teenager, my mom would send me to Iceland with a whole suitcase full of gifts for all the relatives. I remember handing them out, and I felt like some sort of Orange County Santa Claus, everyone was so excited and so thankful. Sometime in my mid-twenties, when my mom would still ask me to bring over gifts for everyone, this began to change. The things I brought didn't engender much excitement; there were comments about items not being the right brand or not fancy enough. Even the gifts to the kids were less and less of a hit. And so I've scaled back.  I haven't been able to exactly put my finger on why the protests here in Iceland bother me so much, but I think it is related to the same idea of gratitude and humility versus entitlement.   If there is one word I would use to describe my grandmother, it would be that she was a humble woman. Most of my family here in Iceland, I would describe that way. Now I know plenty of humble people in the United States as wel


I was glad to discover, as I came back to my apartment in Iceland this morning, that the carton of G-mjólk I had stashed had not gone bad while I was away. I do not think G-mjólk has an exact American equivalent, although condensed milk is similar. G-mjólk can be kept unopened in a cabinet like condensed milk, but unlike condensed milk, it has an expiration date within a few months of its production. I guess somehow it made coming back now seem timely.

Capital idea

Well, I haven't finished any work related projects, but I had such a nice day visiting the museums in Washington D.C. today, and then walking up to the capital at sunset, that I wanted to write about it. Plans are well underway for the inauguration celebration: fencing, tents and bleachers have been set up, and all my friends are discussing which Balls they are going to go to. The excitement here in Washington is really palpable, even with the bad economic news and concern about the logistics of 4 million people packing onto the National Mall. It made me think how wonderful the election process can be, how much it can fill people with hope and optimism. And it makes the unwillingness of the Icelandic government to hold elections seem really unconscionable.