Showing posts from February, 2009

Icelandic water

Icelandair's inflight magazine had a big article on the water export industry in Iceland, how it might be the key to lifting the nation out of the recession. But there are also environmental concerns around that industry (less so certainly than the aluminum plants however), since the water has to be shipped either in plastic bottles for the "high end water market" as it is called, or in large bladders for use by beverage producers abroad, who want to let their consumers know that high-quality Icelandic water was used in making their product. All of this uses up a lot of resources, so there is a cost-benefit analysis going on. But the consensus seems to be that given the alternatives, and given Iceland's current situation, the water export business is the way to go. I am not a financial analyst, so I don't know about all this. There certainly seems to be enough water, so I would say it does not seem like such a bad idea. Plus it means I get to drink the best water

Monumental architecture

I am here in the lobby of a hotel in Boston, realizing that if this building were in Iceland, it would be one of the biggest buildings there. But it is just a very normal sized building for an urban setting in the U.S. I am pleased to realize that it does not bother me at all to scale-up, I feel right at home. 

Too cheap

Whenever I travel to the States, I have to remember to gather together my American paraphernalia . My American passport, my other wallet with my American credit cards, my American cell phone. The cell phone part is the worst; I just have not coughed up the big bucks to buy one of those fancy two-band cell phones that works both in the U.S. and in Iceland. Instead I have two cheap phones, one of which works only when it is in Iceland, and the other one of which works only when it is in the U.S. The plus side to this hassle is my giddiness at getting to check the inbox whenever I change countries, never knowing what has shown up in my absence. Obviously this would not work very well if I had a slightly more time critical job....

Alcoholics anonymous

All the people I know with addiction problems in Iceland have spent time in state-run rehabilitation centers, something that is affordable here in Iceland thanks to the health-care system. That is not the case in the States. Instead, once-a-week AA meeting model is pressed into service, usually by court order for a specific period of time. I would also say that AA meetings have worked themself into the fabric of American culture. Many TV shows include a scene where a person stands up and says their name, says how long they have been clean. Confession in a group setting, and the realization that everyone in the room has the same problems, is supposed to be very helpful, make people feel better about themselves and open up. Among those I know, sometimes this has helped for a while, sometimes not at all. I wish it would have helped my brother a little bit more than it did.  


I am sure I am not saying anything that American tourists would not notice their first morning in any of the Scandinavian countries: the open faced sandwich phenomena. Where is one supposed to put one´s fingers while eating such a meal? On the slimy meat? On the greasy cheese? And the funny thing is, Scandinavians just call it "brauð" as if there was not so much stuff piled on top of it that the bread is either almost falling apart of unrecognizable as such. I am sure it is terribly American of me, but I really do prefer a nice normal sandwich, two pieces of bread neatly containing all the stuff inside. Or if I am to eat one open-faced, the bread needs to be toasted rather crispy so it can handle all the toppings.  

Finding the center

I think it must be rather American of me, or at least non-Icelandic, to see our exhibition hall here in an international context, as the center of the North Atlantic, a place where all the currents meet. The cultural minister for the township was instead assuming we would have exhibitions here about local matters, and that may happen from time to time, but the main point is to show breadth and depth of the subject, to not get stuck on any one type of special exhibition. This thought is probably too radical for Keflavik, but I am going to give it a shot. 

May take some doing

Icelanders love to do things at the last minute, they are really famous for it. But I think it is beginning to dawn on my co-workers that it will definitely take some serious "doing" to get this thing open in May. We'll see if it works or not. As the lone American in the room, I did not have much hope of things being done in a more organized fashion. 

Speed Olsen Olsen

During rainy summer afternoons here in Iceland, both when camping or just over at Amma's house, my cousins and I would play Olsen Olsen. It is a decent card game, some strategy to it, but a bit simple, and I never quite understood the name (Danish I guess). My brothers and sister and I on the other hand tended to play a bit more rambunctious of a game, called speed, when we were out camping. In that game, there is no turn taking, there is no strategy, it is just about quick thinking and responding to the random occurrence of which card shows up next. The winner is the one quickest to seize the opportunity. I suppose Icelanders don't actually need to be taught more how to do that, witness the banking overexpansion and subsequent collapse!  

Niceland Police

I have had three run ins with the Icelandic police. The first time a cop pulled me over when I was speeding, invited me to come sit in his car while he wrote up the ticket, and then offered me a 20% discount if I paid the fine right there on the spot. The second time some cops noticed me looking a bit lost and gave me a lift to the bus station. The third time they came to my work to tell me about some messages they had received indicating I might be harmed (turned out to be a huge misunderstanding). Everytime I have been just so impressed with how calm and professional and human they were. So, I have come to agree with Alda, who always calls this place Niceland. Even when everyone was protesting police abuse in dispersing the crowds gathered around the Alþingi, I still did not change my mind, since of course one's personal experience will always outweigh the words of others. I felt it was nice to know someone was looking out for me, making sure things did not turn really ugly.   Ce

That was easy!

I must say it was much easier to go change my Icelandair flight just now than it was to change the domestic leg of my trip on Virgin American. 


My friend Amanda said to me the other day a witticism her mother had come up with (perhaps not entirely originally): Scandinavian divorces are nicer than American marriages. I knew exactly what she meant, having been surprised once to find out that Scandinavian divorces can be so friendly that the ex-wife can become fast friends with the step-daughter of the ex-husband. ( ie : man and woman get divorced, man marries a new woman who had kids from previous marriage, woman also marries someone else, has more kids.) The two newly formed families spend enough time together for everyone to get to know each other really well, become in essence one big family. As a Scandinavian colleague put it to me, "I am better friends now with my ex than even when we were dating!"  This is not how it is done in the States. First of all, there are lots of marriages with no kids, like me and my first husband - I don't even know where he is living anymore, and the funniest thing is that feels pe

Art Work from God

Both the inside of the exhibition hall and the outside area around it are still more or less under construction, the outside area much more so than inside though. There are piles of bolders out front, logs lying about, and low-lying swampy areas. But I am rather enamored of one thing out there, a red fire hydrant atop a gravel mound, which marks where the pavement will be when all is said and done. I guess because this reminds me of the first thing I ever published, an article in the university paper about my favorite piece of artwork on campus. In fact it was not a piece of artwork at all; it had been a very practical marker telling students which building was where but then all of its signage had been removed, revealing two thick pieces of rebarb, which stuck out at odd angles from the cement base. In my essay, I hypothesized that this piece of artwork had been dropped down by God, to remind us that perfection was not the goal, but rather truth. So I think I may be a little sad when

TV star

Tonight I am included as part of a larger program on Icelandic TV about my co-worker (unfortunately, I don't get that channel, so I have to go to his house to see it). It is funny, the few times I have been on TV in the U.S., I get very excited to see the program, find out how it went, have my dad tape it even. But I am not so anxious about it here in Iceland, more or less just take it as a slight indication that I might actually get accepted around here after all. 

Clapping protocal

Knowing when, and how, and for how long to clap during any sort of performance or sporting event or special event is always a bit of a trick. And anthropologists note that this varies by culture also, which makes it even more difficult for me living here in Iceland. I´m the sort that has indeed initiated claps in huge auditoriums full of people, suggesting perhaps that I am too expressive and/or too easily impressed. So when we had our little "key turning over ceremony" on Friday, I wanted to clap on several occasions, but decided instead to hold myself back. I was so relieved when someone else started a clap, and I jumped right in, probably going on too long and too loudly. I noticed the mayor was doing a much more modest clap. 

Complete idiot

Sometimes I really do feel like such a complete idiot, when I try to speak Icelandic. 


My ex-husband coined the word " yart " when we were living in Columbus, Ohio, to describe the phenomena wherein Americans decorate their yards with Americana type art (yard art in other words). The tiny plots of land outside their front door, in addition to being landscaped with trees and rocks or flowers, get various man-man items scattered about as well. Sometimes these are things like old-fashioned wagons or other antiques (my parents have an antique fire pump outside their weekend place in the desert, for instance). Other times it is store bought items; one particularly popular one was a two-dimensional metal cut out of a cowboy leaning against a wall, a silhouette of a bygone person. Some people have gotten creative and mixed together various old items to form something new, like the bottle tree my mother-in-law has (a tree trunk with various colored glass bottles stuck where the branches used to be).  Yart is not very common here in Iceland, mostly I guess because of

folk music

Tonight I thought of Don McLean's  Bye Bye Miss American Pie , really the pinnacle of the 70s folk music movement. I am not sure if that movement really caught on here in Iceland, but I do know I have never heard this, or another favorite of mine  Starry Starry Nights,  on the Icelandic radio. 

Boating metaphors

Since I have mostly mentioned here English metaphors that don´t have Icelandic equivalences, I guess it is also fair to mention Icelandic metaphors that don´t have good English equivalences. Most of these are in fact nautical, something us Viking ship enthusiasts like to point out. Mikið í húfi is one, referring to the piece of wood that bears the brunt of the force of the waves; if it is not strong, everything else collapses. Another one is staðið sig vel , a peculiar phenomena wherein a ship seems to know where it is going, stays on a straight course, hold its position I guess one could say, no matter what, as if miraculously.

Excess of personality

I was trying to describe my brother to some co-workers today, how much energy and intelligence he had, how quick with a joke (but always in sort of a clever make you think way) he was, always wanted to be going somewhere and doing something. I like to say that he had an excess of personality, but I do not think most people understand what I mean. Although people really ought to here in Iceland, where that condition is rather prevalent.

Nothing to be embarrassed about

Today we were given the keys to Vikinga Aldan, the building where the exhibition will be. So now the pressure is really on. The mayor said next we would get to see "Elísabet bloma" when the exhibition opens, and the people flood in (hopefully!). I chose to ignore whatever feelings of embarrassment I felt about this attention. Unlike in the States, where an exhibition is the responsibility of a group of people, here is it just little old me. And all I can do is do my best.


I am curious if the recession is having the same effect on showy displays of wealth in the States as it is having here in Iceland. A person who might have been the envy of most because of his high salary and shiny new car does not engender quite the feeling of jealousy these days. People are more likely to applaud those who do more with less. But an ethic of conservation is not necessarily always going to overcome the simple sense of unfairness in the face of really blatant discrepancies in possessions. I think California has it worse than Iceland in this regard, because the gap between the rich and the poor there is really very readily  apparent , especially in Orange County. But I'm hoping that when I go there next week, I'll find that the Green Revolution is reaching down behind the Orange Curtain!

Over the top

My enthusiasm for Iceland and all things Icelandic is really and truly over the top. It is a sickness that started many years ago; in highschool my friends banned me from using the "I-word" because it was all I would talk about. I am as excited to be here when things are going good - nice weather, plenty of hotdogs on the grill - as when things are bad - governments collapsing, hail storms looming. It is so ridiculously out of proportion that I think that anything associated with Iceland must by definition also be super fabulous; I like Icelandic art and literature much more than American, remember tidbits of Icelandic history much better, think of course the language is superior. In fact I think the only thing I don't like is when Iceland tries to act too American. 

The national museum

I think it is fair to say that I know the National Museum better than other non-staff members. I've worked with people there for years, have spent time examining the collections, and recently submitted an article on the permanent exhibition. Today as I was looking through the new temporary exhibition, I noticed that the assertions I made in that paper are also valid for this exhibition. That paper is entitled "The Rhetorical Challenge of the Everyday Object" and it discusses how the museum builds an especially strong narrative about the Icelandic nation by emphasizing the everyday uses of objects. I can think of no U.S. museum with the same challenge as the National Museum of Iceland, to fulfill its state-given obligation to lift-up the national image without the collections (mostly of colonial excess) other national museums are privy to. Everytime I go there, I am so gratified to see the dignity and strength with which they overcome that challenge. I was especially happy


I was expecting to lay out a considerable amount of cash to get my car fixed today, but instead the nice gentleman at the Mazda dealership told me there was nothing wrong with my alignment, I just needed better tires (the shaking I felt was from them not gripping the road well enough!). This simultaneously gladdened me, but also made me feel a bit silly for taking the car all the way into Reykjavik unnecessarily. But it turns out here in Iceland that the dealerships are just as reliable as the local car mechanic, which is actually as it should be. 


The cold dark winters here in Iceland have made me really crave fresh vegetables, and so I am sincerely grateful that Icelanders figured out how to grow tomatoes and cucumbers. I don't like buying imports. 

Not sure what to call it

Living in an abandoned American military base has some oddities about it. When the military was here, there were crews of men picking up the trash, fixing things, keeping things presentable. There is no such army now. Instead, trash blows around unattended, and huge puddles accumulate in every low lying area, no one even trying to get them to drain properly, and instead they form muddy morasses. This morning two kids gleefully slugged through the unofficial gutter/drainage ditch/creek that has formed in the field outside my window. That's the new property management team around here, but I am pretty sure they were making things better, not worse.   

A bit baffled

Well, the election here in Iceland is scheduled for April 25 th , and I must confess my genuine lack of understanding of this process. That Iceland has 5 political parties I think I get, also that more might be formed before the election. That there are 4 districts for the country side and several more (not sure how many) for the heavily populated area between Mosfellsbaer and Keflavik (including most importantly the capital!) I can also grasp, even if I'm fuzzy on the details. It seems some sort of an attempt to balance the needs of representation by number with representation by area. But then my understanding peters out. There is something about each party having a list of candidates for each district, and there are people in the first seat, second seat, and third seat of that list. At first I thought this meant they were competing with each other, but that is not the case. So I find myself wondering if basically a voter here in Iceland chooses a political party to vote for,


I do not know if it is because of the wonderful view out my window, or the chill in the air, but I know I am much happier staying inside all day in Iceland than I ever would be in California. 

Back yard pools

When my parents were house hunting, way back in 1975, for a house in Southern California, my dad insisted the house have a pool in the back yard, because to him he would not be living in California unless he had a pool. Growing up with a pool definitely defined my childhood, made it absolutely distinct from anything I could have had growing up in Iceland. And it was not a mistake on my dad's part, all four of us kids loved that pool, we really made the best of it. We would play games in there with our friends after school, I would jump in the pool on any hot day and especially after coming home from the beach. And my mom and dad had barbeques with their friends back there from time to time too. It was the center of our household, really.  That tradition continued with the grandkids, especially since the daughters of my oldest brother and my sister are about the same age. We'd heat up the pool any chance we got to get the two of them together. My son Palmer has already been in t

Oh to see the sun!

I was just heading out the door to (another) meeting, when I noticed the sun light falling on the houses down the hill from me. After a rain storm, there is nothing so wonderful as the sun breaking through, and that holds true both in Iceland and California. 

"sem" eða "og"?

Modern Icelandic differs from Old Icelandic (which I learned in school) in of course a number of ways, the vocabulary being especially changed (names for weapons and wounds are oddly enough less important these days). But I find myself continually stumbling over the fact that modern Icelandic has expanded the meaning of the word "og." That word has the same historic root as "and" in English, and indeed is still used in that way: it marks objects in a series (I bought eggs and bread and milk at the store). In that sense it signifies equality, that all the objects mentioned are equally important. But modern Icelandic also uses "og" in places where English would use a subordinate conjunction, such as "that" or "which". For example, in English we would say, "A law was passed that makes it legal to hunt whales" but in Icelandic they say, "A law was passed and it is legal to hunt whales." There is an implied hierarchy th

Catholic holidays

While I was in Florida, the stores were full of decorations for two Catholic holidays that have been morphed in the United States into fun commercialized excuses to buy things, Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day. Valentine´s Day is especially commercialized and the pressure on men in the United States to do something romantic for their ladies on February 14 is still in full swing despite the recession (though the suggestions this year were for more modest gifts, i.e.; a diamond pendant instead of a full tennis bracelet). Mardi Gras is mostly about the beads, the parades, and the party. In this it is like Halloween, which is also a Catholic-holiday-gone-array, or St. Patrick's Day; the main reason they are popular is it is a good excuse for a party.  Mardi Gras is the only one of these Catholic holidays that is part of the cultural fabric of Iceland; here it is called Spengidagur, and people are supposed to eat a lot, especially a lot of salted lamb meat and beans, before fasting fo

Health care systems

I hear comparisons between the U.S. health care system and the European model all the time, and I find myself weighing the benefits of each. Is it better to have the best doctors and the best equipment but for only part of the population to have access to that know-how? Or is it better to have a decent, workable, but not really stellar, system which everyone has access to? The two systems are usually couched in financial terms, which highlights the unfairness of a system that allows the wealthy better health care than the poor. But I think it is also an ethical question about prolonging life. In the American system, the goal is absolutely to prolong life, to keep it going at all costs. When it fails, it fails spectacularly, after dramatic attempts at experimental treatments, after everyone has gotten their hopes up only to have them dashed. When it succeeds, it is a miracle, so much so that people stand back in amazement. I do not know enough about the the European (and Icelandic) syst


I was in Florida for five days, and have come back to Iceland this morning to find the exact same snow on the ground, with all the same footprints and tire tracks, as when I left. This surprised me a bit, since normally the snow melts here every few days. Almost as if I wasn't gone at all. 

Full moon

When I woke up this morning in Florida at 4am, I went outside and noticed the beautiful full moon. And I thought, "I would have also seen this if I'd been in Iceland instead of here." And that was nice, that the small things in life, the important things in life, stay with us no matter where we are.

It takes jutspah!

I am pretty sure I could have rented a similar two door sports coop, with a killer burnt orange paint job, in Iceland as I did last night in Florida. And I suppose I could have programmed my ipod to play a similar mix of Classic Rock and jazz and 50s tunes as I found on the radio during my 5 hour drive along the Panhandle. But I would not have been on a 6 lane highway, weaving in and out of traffic, like a race car driver, the whole way. Just the way my brother, Billy, taught me to drive.

Renewing friendships

I like to think it is very Southern California of me, that I am not good about keeping in touch with friends, and actually very bad at nurturing important contacts (or should I say Orange County of me; I have a feeling people in LA are better about using their contacts, at least in the film industry). My only explanation for this is that I have always felt somehow that I am bothering people, really. But over the last 2 days, I have had five or six people explain to me that I am not bothering them, and that in fact they are a bit put-off that I have not been more eager to be in touch. The funny thing is these were all people I had thought of many times, had in fact very much wanted to talk to, let them know how I was doing, hear how they were doing. I can't even quite understand what made me not contact them sooner, except I was waiting for some practical reason to do so. As much as I would like to, though, I am pretty sure I cannot push the blame for this off on a suburban upbringi

Nóg af fiskum?

Living on a small island in the middle of the North Atlantic has certainly increased my awareness of how resources are being utilized; they seem finite and not infinite, precious somehow. And it is a little scary, truth be told. When this whole collapse first started, I was seriously worried about having enough to eat, but then a friend of mine told me not to worry, það er nóg af fiskum (there are plenty of fish). Well, tonight a relative explained that the reason it is necessary for Icelanders to kill whales is that the whales are eating the fish, competing with humans, such that there really aren´t enough fish anymore. I then ask if the dead whales are put to good use--the meat eaten, the oil rendered, the bones used--and after being assured that they were, well, I guess I came to side with the idea that the fish are a pretty precious resource, worth fighting for. Though now I may be swinging to the extreme, where only Icelanders should be allowed to consume them. Scratch one more ex

History lesson

The latest political uproar in Iceland is that the new government wants to appoint a new president of the Senate, and the former ruling party is not happy about it, calls it a power grab. In the United States, the President of the Senate is actually the Vice President, and in the beginning, the Vice President was whoever came in second in the presidential election, meaning that the President and Vice President might not even be of the same party. The founding father's must have considered the President of the Senate an important role, because in point of fact, it is the only formal role the Vice President has within the workings of the government, and I think they meant to keep the two somewhat independent of each other. Now that has all changed--the VP is chosen by the President--but still the Vice President only has this one official function. So, in the United States, if a new president of the Senate were to be chosen, the former president of the Senate would loose all official

That's how that works!

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I am really bad at gossip, partially because of my religious background, partially because of the lack of a real social network in California, and partially because of my preference for talking about what will happen instead of what has happened. I like to think that is American of me, though it may be just suburban of me.  But I've caught the bug a little bit with a woman who is a friend of my aunt and my mom. I invited her to my wedding, at my mom's suggestion, because she used to live in Georgia. She's Icelandic, and recently moved back here, wanted to start a new life. I've heard all about it, even though I haven't seen her in what, 5 years now.  She just called me a few minutes ago, and I realized how incredibly helpful it was to both of us that I have been following the gossip. No need for lots of chitchat, I knew why she was calling, she knew I knew why, and so, the best part is, we got right to decidi

Að jafna mig

The weather and length of days in California are so invariable, so similar from day to day, that one barely takes note of it, finds no need to listen to the weather man at all. Over the last year and a half of living here, I have certainly learned to listen to the weather man, otherwise one can really find oneself out on the street, shivering and unprepared.   For the last few days I have also been noticing how amazing the difference is in the length of days. Back in November, I noted how quickly the daylight was diminishing, and now I note how very perceptibly it is increasing. It feels like the days are a half-hour longer every day. But I hope I know well enough not to get used to this, because in point of fact, the only constant in Iceland is change. Philosophers say that about everything in life, everything in the world, everything in the universe, but only Iceland forces you to accept that. 

A personal problem

I am coming up on 300 posts on this blog, which is not even a year old. And I have got to say, that although there are absolutely differences between Iceland and California, I find myself realizing that much of what I notice says a lot more about me, about the kind of person I am, than about either one of these places. This is a common realization amongst anthropologists; perhaps people only go into this field if they do not know themselves very well to begin with. I have certainly learned a lot about myself in the last year, and I think I understand better why other people do not understand me. The best part is I am getting quite comfortable with the ambiguity, which is neither particularly Icelandic or American of me.

Canadian proposal

With the bank collapse and revelations of 18 years of problematic government, Iceland is seriously considering a number of radical changes.  This caught the attention of some people in Canada, according to the news here, such that some recent op. ed. pieces in a major Canadian newspaper were discussing whether or not Canada should make Iceland one of its provinces. This seemed to me like it might strike an emotional cord for Icelanders, since they feel a definite affinity for Canada. Both are similar countries in terms of their northern latitude and wide-open spaces, and there are historic ties, not only the Gimli settlement but also going back 1000 years to the Viking settlement on Newfoundland Island. Iceland, I think, likes Canada an awful lot, feels comfortable with Canada. So I was surprised that the immediate response here was "no way would we do the same thing Newfoundland did," when it chose to become a province of Canada in 1949-50.  The wider context for this discus

The Fourth Quarter

I went to a superbowl party last night at the house of my American friend. We had the nacho dip and the pizza, beers chilling on the patio, a gigantic flat screen TV, and a room full of people who actually knew the game and the rules. In other words, we were just like millions and millions of Americans, except that for us, the game started at 11:30pm and did not end until 3am.  Because of the time difference, the temptation is much greater here in Iceland than in the States to give up on a game before it is over. My uncles did that to me last year, declared they were tired of watching it and went to bed, and one of our American friends couldn't stay awake last night either. I was tempted to go home myself, since I had almost an hour drive back, and around half-time it really looked like the game was a wash.  But Bruce Springsteen's various gaffes reawakened us considerably, and in the third quarter, the Steelers seemed to come unglued a bit, which got us all yelling at the

Orange Tabbies

Every morning there are fresh kitty paw prints outside my front door, and some mornings I have seen the cat that leaves them, an orange tabby. The same orange tabby that followed my son and me home one day last summer. I think he comes past my house as part of his regular morning route, as he checks his territory. I have left food out from time to time, a piece of chicken or whatever, that I was going to throw out, and so I guess that is why he keeps coming by, checking to see if there will be more. I should stop doing that, because as a matter of fact, he has his own home, one block over. It is just that he reminds me of my all time favorite cat, Ember. He was also an orange tabby, and I miss him very much.