Showing posts from March, 2009

spring flowers

A rather unexpected snow storm has descended on us here in Iceland, which in itself is not so bad. But I worry about the flowers that had recently emerged and the buds on the trees. These thing need a nice consistent warming trend to blossom, in my experience, and shelter from the wind. 

Sobriety certification

I attended an event at 6pm yesterday, a Monday afternoon, and was quite surprised by the number of people I talked to that had a distinct alcoholic odeur. Beer was being served at the event, but this was not a beer smell. For some reason, this got me thinking about the American marriage license provision: one has to swear to the court official that one is not drunk before a marriage license will be granted. I guess I was thinking this may account for why marriage is less common here in Iceland than in the U.S.  But no, I am just kidding. I do not by any means think this is an isle of lushes. They are just the ones more likely to talk to me. 


I do not know if this is because I am living in Iceland now, and my body needs some extra nutrient due to the cold and dark, or if it is just one of those things that happens as people's taste buds develop over time, but I noticed a few days ago that I have actually started to like the taste of bananas. I mean, I have eaten them in California, of course, but I found ripe ones far too sweet to even eat, and so if I was going to eat one, it was always the hardest greenest banana I could find, which actually are not very good either. Last week I was at Kasko, and without really thinking about it, grabbed a bunch of bananas. When I was paying for my groceries, I looked at the bananas on the conveyor, and thought it was a bit odd that I was buying those, figured I might not even eat them (but I would have put them in the freezer for use in some baked good at some point in time).  About three days ago, I grabbed one in the afternoon, ate it by itself just as a snack. Then the next day, I

The mayor of beantown

Yesterday I was talking to my mom, trying to explain to her just what deep sh*t Iceland is in, financially speaking. So I was telling her about a conversation at work last week; Gunnar and I were talking about what would be best to do. The problem is that the mayor, who is a really unbelievably fabulous guy in my opinion, has also slightly over extended himself, I mean he just did not imagine the crash would be as bad as it has been, which is entirely understandable. So now he is scrambling a bit, trying to decide what kind of progress can be made on which projects. My first instinct is to do whatever we have to do to help the township as much as possible, to have a sense of team spirit and good will, and definitely not to complain. But then on the other hand, given that only the most urgent problems are going to receive any attention from our war weary mayor, another part of me feels like sending up the red flag, demand that he take matters into his own hands and do something about ou

Bobby Fischer

One of the early experiences that peaked my interest in Icelandic culture came when I looked at a drawing in my uncle's bedroom, a drawing of Bobby Fischer beating his Russian opponent in a famous match here in Iceland. Why should this have been an important moment for Icelanders, such that my uncle would speak of it with glee, want to be reminded of it on a nightly basis? I did not understand, even though the Icelandic national obsession with chess gave some hints. Some years later the American film Searching for Bobby Fischer filled in my image of this chess playing iconoclast, but from an American perspective, as highly suspect and problematic, unpatriotic. But Icelanders seemed to embrace him, so I was still puzzled. Then I went to a meeting of the Folklore Society here in Iceland, their place is located on Fishersund, an alley in downtown Reykjavík named after Bobby Fischer. It was a cozy street, a cozy setting, and it seemed symbolic of the way Iceland had embraced Bobby Fisc

Child labor laws

My friend Kendra came for coffee today, on her way to the airport, and, as always, the conversation was enlightening. We were discussing the unemployment situation here in Iceland, and I mentioned my concern for the generation of kids in their 20s now, a group that seems to me rather beatnicky.  Americans of this age group on the other hand are by and large very ambitious and industrious, having largely ignored the expectation of teen rebellion in favor of the promise of economic prosperity. Anyhow, Kendra agreed, and mentioned the possibility that the change in child labor laws enacted in order for Iceland to join the EEC may partially be to blame, no more 13 year olds working in the fish factories. How ironic it would be then if it was this same generation that decides to stop Iceland from joining the EU. 


Tonight I have been invited to the grand re-opening of the Officer's Club here on the former military base, once the hardest place to get into in all of Iceland, when in fact only Officer's on the base and their guests were allowed in. Now it is being turned into a night club for general admission, and this symbolic Icelandicization of an American icon has been met with enthusiasm. I am not so nostalgic for the old, since I myself never went there, but I do note its passing, and I think it merits a toast.   

Left-Right Government

This coalition government stuff still evades me a bit, but as has been explained to me a few times, and is now becoming rather apparent to me, Iceland had a weird government before the collapse two months ago. It was a coalition formed between the largest party, very fiscally conservative and business friendly, and the second largest party, which was socially progressive and pro-government. We Americans are used to this, would imagine such an arrangement would basically ensure a sort of level headed, compromise approach to most matters. But instead it seems the liberal party let the conservative party do whatever it wanted domestically, while it concentrated on foreign affairs. Or what do I know, I wasn't here. But the changes to the financial system here were the ideas of the conservative party, and they were implemented with a vengeance.  With the upcoming election, there is the opportunity for a truly left-centric government, if the social progressives and the Green party form a

Solar eclipse

Last summer ( August 1 ), the total solar eclipse over the Arctic was visible from Iceland, and in fact Iceland was one of the few habitable places to see it. There were some tourists that came to Iceland specifically for that, because a total solar eclipse, when the moon totally blocks the sun, is a rare and memorable event. But this summer, when the Icelandic economy really could use an extra influx of tourists (to offset the world wide-financial collapse and the reinstitution of whaling), the complete solar eclipse will instead traverse a narrow band between parts of India and across to southern Japan. People in the know are, I am sure, already making their travel plans thataway, because a total solar eclipse is definitely something worth making special effort to properly experience. I was really bummed to have missed the one last summer here in Iceland, since I was teaching at Cal. 


I miss President Clinton's cat, socks. But that is not the subject of this post. No, a yet more mundane subject. One thing I really cannot stand is wearing socks. If there was one thing I could change about Iceland, it would be that I leave the house without wearing socks. (notice the lack of a proper subjunctive voice in English; should I say "that I might leave the house" - hah! I think not).

Icelandic pottery

I have been a fan of Icelandic pottery for a long time, ever since I was given my first piece as a child. Unlike asian pottery, with its clean lines and beautiful glazes, or even southwestern pottery, with its bold symmetric designs, Icelandic pottery delights in its roughness. The movement started in the 60s with the inclusion of hraun (lava rocks) into the glaze, or embedded into the form. More modern pieces are less apt to use rough hewn hraun, but they still maintain the rough aesthetic by leaving portions unglazed, and by using a corse tempering material. My mother gave me a set of Icelandic pottery for my 30th birthday, and although it was beautiful and heavy and thick, I could tell as soon as I picked it up that it was also friable and therefore fragile. One piece broke the day after I got it, but I repaired it. The other piece started to show some cracks in the glazing (glazing some surfaces and not others adds to the likelihood of this happening). But I kept it around. Then Pa

Three odd adventures

Well, yesterday was a very Icelandic day for me, especially in the afternoon, when a series of events occurred and at each turn I thought to myself 'only in Iceland'. I planned to meet a German PhD student for coffee and to view an exhibit at 4:45. The coffee place closed at 4:30, but they still let us come in, gave us the last of the bread and the last of the cake, which was hospitable but slightly awkward. The exhibit was OK, and free so one could not really complain, but actually far too sparse to warrant the name exhibit. Anyhow, we talked about the difficulties of living in Iceland, becoming part of the society, since she thinks Icelanders are not immediately friendly, and I must say I rather agree. So, that was odd adventure number one, and I was already feeling Kafka- esque enough to want to go home. But she suggested we check out a documentary on China at the university, which she reckoned in fact might even be over, so I thought it couldn't hurt to walk over ther

Blowing in the wind

This is the time of seasonal allergies back in California where the winter rains bring out all the wild flowers. They blanket the hillsides in an array of yellow and orange and white. Then these beauties send forth their pollen seeds, which swirl around in the air far and wide, finally settling in heavy concentrations as the wind dies. Even though this spectacle may make people sneeze, I still have to say I sort of miss it right now, being here in Iceland, where there are very few wind-pollenated flowers. 

Color symbolism

Languages and cultures divide up the visual spectrum into color lexemes in various ways, even in cognate languages red and rauð may not refer to the exact same shades of color. A famous example of this is the root word for blue, which originally referred to shades we now call black. But although it is easy enough to anthropologically investigate this, say with a color chart , it becomes a bit more tricky to track down all the cultural associations with different colors. Just now I noticed again the Icelandic use of blá (ie: blue) as a prefix for things that are dangerous, slightly scary, even potentially life-threatening. So the name bláfell (blue mountain) should not sound lovely to me, it should sound ominous. I suppose I never will learn. 


The belief in the pagan Old Norse gods is very common here in Iceland, exponentially more so than in the United States anyhow (especially when reckoned as a percentage of the population). It is a recognized religion here, with priests and gathering places, and a rather formal belief system. I went to the goði in my part of Iceland about a year ago, and I found out that the rune that governs my life is the rune of love; on this day in the calendar of the gods, a love drink was made out of the blood of fishes, enchanted by vatnadísir (fairies). My day is also ruled by Laufey, the mother of Loki, a shamanistic sorceress who was feared and respected by the gods. My life will be marked by knowledge, a pioneering spirit, eccentricity, seriousness, and self-confidence.  Of all the readings I have gotten of myself, from the astrological readings a friend did at the Smithsonian to the wisdom of the Chinese zodiac on a restaurant placemat, I rather like this Ásatrú reading, especially since it h

Lengthening days

The days are starting to get longer and brighter here in Iceland, and the air is still clear and crisp. Last night I could see all the way to Hellisheiði, as a line of lights wound up the slope far off in the distance. 

Holding interest

I have come to know Iceland slowly, bit by bit, first with short trips in the summer to visit my grandparents, and then through work and school, and then by getting an apartment here part time. At each stage, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Iceland still held just as much interest for me, at each stage I was surprised that I wanted to understand the culture and language more and more. Now that I have decided to move here, I do not foresee that changing in the least, and that is really good to know.  

Tax deductions

One thing that the American religious, corporate, political, and marketing system have utilized to the hilt is the charitable ethic. In fact I think Americans consider it one of the cornerstones of what it means to be an American, that one takes one's excess money and puts it into causes one believes in, of one's own choosing. This is not all purely altruistic; companies use this as a way to brush up their image, and individuals use it as a way to reduce their tax burden. Plus American charities usually have to put a lot of creative energy into getting funding, even staging silly things like raffles for ugly pieces of artwork. But it all works somehow, adds a sense of excitement, a sense of anticipation, and even a sense of hope.  Icelanders are less familiar with this ethic, it is less well developed here (witness the "New Vikings" who never even seem to have once thought to take up a charitable cause). And within the political and economic context here, it will cert

Anecdotal evidence....

that the recession may not be as bad as everyone feared. The restaurant I went to tonight in downtown Reykjavik with a group of friends was absolutely packed. So nice to see!

Mad TV

Although Saturday Night Live seems to have some traction here in Iceland, I must confess that I prefer MadTV, and, as my exhibit keeps getting scaled back, I find myself thinking about the Lowered Expectations bit they ran, about a dating service for unattractive singles who needed to settle for equally unattractive people. I must also confess that I have no anthropological knowledge about the practice of utilizing dating services here in Iceland, but I have a feeling it is pretty uncommon, and no Icelander anyhow would sign up for this one . 

Icelandic work ethic

So, I "work" at a "company" that has in fact no full time employees. And that is not unusual here in Iceland, where plenty of people do freelance work with several different groups of people, or have several side jobs besides one main job. This has its disadvantages, certainly, in terms of meeting schedules or deadlines because, well, it is a bit like herding cats. People are really busy with several different agendas. But it also has a distinct advantage, because an American worker, stuck within the inner clogs of a large corporation, will often resort to tactics that eat away at a company from the inside. An Icelandic employee is empowered enough not to need to do such things. 

Hen day

I am coming to find out that the American tradition of a bachelorette party is quite unusual. That tradition is modeled on the bachelor party in that it involves going out with friends (usually to strip clubs or something vaguely racy) and getting really drunk the night before the wedding (well, the weekend before is actually more common, especially for bachelorette parties; a hung-over groom is one thing, a hung-over bride quite the other). The symmetry of a bachelor/bachelorette party pre-models the ideal symmetry in the marriage; bachelorette parties are a sign of women's liberation. I suppose I ought not simply suggest that is why they are not thrown here in Iceland, but for whatever reason, they are not. Instead, Icelanders, like the English and the Australians, have Hen Day. Some weekend before the wedding, the bride's friends secretly plot to kidnap the bride-to-be from her bed, unbelievably early in the morning, and then make her go around all day long to various places

Brand loyalty

The collapse of the Icelandic banking industry is going to have huge repercussion on the outcome of the election coming up April 25th, obviously. I do not think Americans, or any country with a deep tradition of capitalism, can really appreciate the potential for radical change latent within Icelandic culture. I certainly have been more apt to make light of it, thinking that the sort of change might be akin to Obama's presidency, that a new leader with new ideas might be found, who could work within the system to make changes here or there that overtime would be transformative. But I was thinking this morning about the lack of a genuine capitalistic ethic here, 18 years of the Sjalfstæði flokk does not compare to the 120 year tradition of this in the U.S. And I got to thinking about brand loyalty, about how little brand loyalty Americans are expected to have. Advertising agencies do their best to instill a sense of familiarity that makes people unconsciously purchase their products


Yesterday during coffee, Gunnar and I got around to talking about Starbucks (even though there are no Starbucks here in Iceland). He had a particular opposition to Starbucks which I had never heard before and seemed particularly Icelandic; Starbucks supports the work of anti-whaling groups, who have been known to purposely damage Icelandic ships. When Americans express an opposition to Starbucks, it is usually because it manages, even though its coffee is more expensive in many cases, to beat out the competition in a neighborhood: people go there instead of to mom and pop coffee shops. I have gone back and forth on this issue myself. When I was in college, and ran a small coffee shop, I disliked Starbucks very much, thought its ubiquity was distasteful. But then one summer a few years later, I ended up taking a job at Starbucks, and found out how good the company is to its employees. They give them lots of training, are great about building a sense of camaraderie , offer opportunity f

Icelandic dictionaries

Icelandic dictionary editors have a tough job on their hands (as does any dictionary editor) because there is not (or at least was not) a set agreement here in Iceland about what seems like a pretty important issue: alphabetical order. For instance, 'a' and 'á'. Some dictionaries list all the entries for words starting with 'a', and then list all the entries for words starting with 'á'. Other dictionaries treat 'a' and 'á' as basically the same letter, alphabetizing entries instead by the letter that comes after it. Then there is the issue of the special characters - should ð come right after d, or at the end somewhere? Some dictionaries do it that way, some the other way. Just now I looked at the dictionary sitting on my kitchen counter, and noticed that the cover lists the letters, which at first seemed strange to me, until I remembered this quaint problem for Icelandic dictionary editors. Online editions have of course made this proble

New constitution

It is so strange to me, the symbolic importance that is being attached to plans for a new constitution here in Iceland. To me it just seems like a technical legal issue, but I suppose I would have felt otherwise, 200 years ago, right after the Revolutionary war, when a newly formed nation called its best and brightest together in Philadelphia. 

The ocean

My favorite thing about living in Iceland is getting to see the ocean everyday. 

The biggest challenge

In case my readers have not noticed, my life is less 50/50 these days, more like 80/20 or even 90/10. It becomes more and more apparent that I have in fact moved to Iceland. When I first got my apartment here, I balked whenever people would say, "So, when did you move to Iceland?" and even still I evade the question, say something like "Well, I got my apartment a year and a half ago".  Of course it is wise to try something out, take one's time, and I guess part of my reticence was just wanting to test myself, make sure I could deal with all the challenges moving here would represent, like the language and the food and the weather. But really it seems to me that in the last few weeks something has changed, not with these practical issues, but just in my attitude, in my confidence. I think I am ready to say that I moved to Iceland two years ago, simple as that. 


I have a tricky job, because I offered up a quick, practical, but really very decent compromise in terms of my exhibition. Normally in the museum field, and certainly at the Smithsonian, exhibitions are made from scratch. One starts with an idea, a budget, and then makes all new components as required to fulfill the ideas. But the exhibit I am doing here is not that way, most of it was already made quite a while ago and I am refitting it to work into my new ideas, my new exhibition theme. One reason I felt this was OK to do here is that the exhibition is not in fact the centerpiece, the end all be all of what we are offering to the public. We have an outside area for families, a beautifully newly built building with a great view, and a very cool ship people can go in. I will produce new lectures and kids programs. And all of this will work with the exhibit, and it will all seem fine. And when it comes to the temporary exhibitions, which will be specifically advertised, those will be bu

A year's worth of work

We just met with a blacksmith, to see if he could make a copy of a well-known Viking sword for us. When I first started talking to him, I misunderstood, thought he had already made a copy of that sword, and that we could borrow it. But he had already made a copy of a different sword, which was not the one I wanted. So we were discussing how long it would take him to make the right sword. Getting all the details right, from the construction of the hilt, to the strength of the blade, to the design on the pummel and cross bar, will be about a year's worth of work, if he works on it slowly and carefully. It is the sort of work that cannot be rushed. He suggested we could use a photo of the original sword, but I told him I would rather wait, and have a special exhibition later, when we can get copies of all the weapons from that grave properly assembled. I'm not sure this is the Icelandic way (Gunnar at least wanted to see if there was any way we could 'faka þetta'), but whe

Missing the magic

Slate magazine ran an article last week about Iceland. I must confess I did not like the article much. The perspective was a bit empirical, in both senses of the word (coming from the empire and being about empirical reasoning). While the former sense was probably pretty noticeable by most readers, ie : the exoticising of the Icelandic other, it is the latter sense that bothers me more. The article left no room at all, none whatsoever, for the potentiality that there may be power and forces beyond the conventional wisdom of modern science. I am not an advocate for going back to witch doctors, but nor do I say the whole of the matter is known now. I think the ability of the Icelandic people to be comfortable in the grey zone, in acknowledging the potential for things beyond our immediate ability to reason them, is exactly what makes this place special.

Holding up traffic

Yesterday, on my way into the city, there was basically no one on the road, and it was a really nice drive. On my way back, I noticed a line of cars 20 deep, all stacked up behind one car on the stretch through Hafnafjordur, which is still one lane. The car holding up traffic did not seem to have any mechanical problems, nor was it by design a slow moving vehicle. What was really strange is that the driver seemed completely oblivious to how much he was holding things up, just casually going about his drive as if it were normal. This would never happen in California. In the rare cases where there are one lane roads (up mountain sides, for instance), there are turn offs every few hundred feet, and a driver is required to go into one of these to allow the cars behind him to pass, if there are more than 3 cars stacked up. 20 would get the guy thrown in jail. 


I had what counts for me these days as a long day at work (though it pales in comparison to my days at the Smithsonian). On my drive home I thought how nice it would be to flip on the TV, and watch some Seinfeld. Not possible here in Iceland, at least not unless one has cable. But I found this clip , which will satisfy me for a bit. Thank god for the internet, is all I can say. 


Tonight, since I have not been food shopping since I came home from California, I decided to go through the drive through at KFC, just like a normal American. Now I rather regret doing that, since the food was not good, even though it was convenient. Would have been much better to have watched the clock better, and to have gotten myself to Kasko before it closed. Guess I am a little bit too used to the extended shopping hours of U.S. grocery stores.


I am on my way to the airport to go pick up a friend of mine, who was also a Cal graduate student here in Iceland. She never did reply to my email saying I would pick her up, but since I know when the buses leave, I am sure I will not miss her. I would not say the same for all airports, everywhere in the world, but this one is pretty darn predictable. 


Though everyone was talking about spring last week, a white snow fall just blanketed Reykjanesbaer. And made me want to watch White Christmas, since Bing is really just the best (and I don't care one iota about the rumors). But now I'm thinking the better of it, the plot is afterall a bit silly, and it is impossible to come by here in Iceland. 

Quality control

Yesterday, on my way into the city, I was listening to the morning DJ's here in Iceland, having a conversation not terribly unlike one someone might hear in the States: a discussion of getting together the best players for a team. But, as one of the commentators pointed out, this is particularly challenging in such a small country. His co-hosts pretended not to know what he meant at first, so he expounded on the point, that the odds of having enough really good players within a narrow age span, all of them having good coaches their whole career, to be able to field a really World-Class team, was just extremely unlikely to ever happen in Iceland. The co-hosts laughed uncomfortably, and then told him that the idea was to try to be optimistic on that fine Saturday morning, to be in fact nationalistic. This is where the conversations definitely steered away from its American model. 

church concerts

I, like I think most Icelanders, have been inside Icelandic churches mostly for baptisms, confirmations, funerals, and concerts. Yes, concerts. Unlike American services, where music is part of the service, here there are just ticketed entry concerts, unaffiliated with the mission of the church. Had this not been something I was familiar with from youth, it might seem strange to me; I went to Hallgrimskirkja to hear my cousin sing when I was really quite young. And then a few years later to a different church to hear classical guitar and harpists play. This morning I find myself nostalgic for those dulcet sound s. Too bad a concert is not planned for today. 

On subtlety

When I was considering whether or not Dave should move to Iceland, one thing that spoke in favor of that idea was that he is from the South, Georgia to be specific. He, like any clever Southern boy, has a very subtle sense of humor, reinforced through a specific literary culture that often celebrates the witty turn of phrase over the bombastic. Icelandic literary culture does the same; the poetry in particular has a eye for the subtle details, the small changes, the gradual ebb and flow, and in this it seems as mature and thoughtful as Southern poetry. Unfortunately, one has to know Icelandic to appreciate it.  


It is amazing to me how much more I nap here in Iceland than I ever did in California. Except when I was an overachieving highschool student, then I napped a lot also. And when I was pregnant. So living in Iceland is like being a pregnant highschool student. 


When I was in Southern California last week, I was a bit stressed out. I went to the mall just before it closed, and was looking for some songs at a music store. When I walked in, two staff people came up to me, asked if they could help. I asked if they had a way to burn songs from several artists onto one CD. They said they did not, and then the young lady working there chimed in with a super perky "Sorry!". I turned to her and said, "Don't use that tone with me. I am not leaving just because of that." I think I may have made the poor girl cry, or at least scared her. She disappeared into the back. The guy that worked there came up to me a few minutes later, offered to help again, and I let him help me find an artists I was looking for. I never did see the girl again, or say anything to her, and indeed I felt a bit bad about it. Other than being tired and upset, I think I may also just have gotten too used to the subdued customer service here in Iceland, such t

Come what may

I ran across this news item , and it reminded me of just how little traction the whole abortion debate has here in Iceland. By contrast, in the United States, this is a serious moral issue, with considerable effort put into changing public opinion. That is why the film on this topic (set to be released March 17) uses a very positive phrase in English "come what may" as its title. The phrase had previously had a much more romantic connotation in American culture, reinforced in songs from such giants as  Patti Labelle  and Air Supply and recently reinvigorated in the movie  Moulin Rouge . 

Bike riding

My dear friend Amanda lives in Copenhagen, and her bicycle keeps getting stolen, which is terribly inconvenient, since bike riding in Copenhagen is a basic necessity. People use it as their main way to get around in the city. In California, by contrast, bike riding is a serious sport, done on the weekends with lots of planning and preparation, loads of expensive equipment and training, arduous 50-mile rides the norm. Here in Iceland, bike riding is virtually unheard of, except by the youngest kids (and German tourists). I myself used to bike-ride the California way, but now have adopted the Icelandic model, ie: I don't.   


Rainstorms were such a rare and special occasion in California that I treated them like entertainment; I would sit at the window and watch the drops fall onto the ground, into the pool, against the glass. And when it rained at night, I would stay up listening to the sound of it pelting the roof until it subsided.  This habit has followed me to Iceland, a bit inconveniently. And so I find myself unable to sleep tonight, immersed instead in rhythm of the rain. 

Horseback riding

Looking out over the mountains on this clear beautiful day, my thoughts turn to horseback riding. Iceland, like most of California, is good horseback riding country, because the mountains are not forbidding, there aren't many trees, and the views are spectacular. I, however, like Icelandic horses much better than American horses, because even after they are broken, they retain all five of their natural, spirited gaits. 


This morning, there is not a single cloud in the sky. Makes me think I am in the desert instead of in Iceland. Or maybe just a desert island? 


Tonight I went to my aunt's house to tell her about the memorial we had for my brother. Most of this I did in Icelandic, but here or there I slipped into English (I am still really jetlagged). One thing I said in English was that in several of the speeches, people mentioned how spontaneous my brother was. My aunt asked her husband what that word meant, and he could not come up with an Icelandic translation for it. Then his sister and niece came over, and they also could not come up with the right Icelandic translation for the English word 'spontaneous'. Which makes me think spontaneity is a bit lacking here. 

110 to 220

Well, on my return to my apartment this morning I noticed that the dreaded event is about to occur. They are about to change the electricity in my block from the American 110 system over to the European standard of 220 volts, which means I will have to buy all new appliances. Change can be such a bother, even when it is electrifying. Which got this song stuck in my head.

Washers and dryers

During my brief trip to Southern California, I was reminded of my longstanding opposition to dryers, especially in a climate like that. Unfortunately, the "modern" American household is not supposed to have a clothes line, they are supposed to have a dryer, no matter how silly or wasteful or unnecessary they are. In Iceland, even with the humidity and frequent rainstorms, my Amma knew that no modern convenience can replace the smell of line-hung clothing, the influx of Icelandic air into the fibers of the fabric. Every chance I get, I hang the laundry not only for myself, but also for my aunt and my cousins. It really is such a pleasure. 


As a kid and even when I worked at the Smithsonian, Icelandair was my favorite airline, mostly because of the food and how much I liked hearing Icelandic onboard. About 5 years ago, Southwest Airlines got that honor for how easy it was to book, get a seat, and earn free trips. But I have recently become a convert to Virgin Airlines. The planes are new and stylish, they offer Wi-fi on board and all sorts of TV options, the stewardesses never come around unless you ask them to, and everyone on board is young and hip, as far as I can tell. Plus the price is just right. How they manage to be so fabulous in the midst of this financial situation is a bit beyond me, but anyhow, they have won my loyalty. Icelandair has not so much, since they keep trying out business strategies other airlines have used to a modicum of success, instead of really going for something "brand" new. 


Today is the memorial for my brother. In Iceland, these sorts of things have a very set format, there is a way they are supposed to be done, everything from the announcement in the paper to the choice of music in the church to the types of cakes served at coffee afterwards. No such culturally defined ritual exists in California - everyone does something different (though there is some sense to do something within about a month of the death). There is great freedom of expression in this format, an opportunity for emotional honesty, but also the danger of so much second guessing, wondering if this or that church or type of service or wake would have been more appropriate. In other words, none of the decisions have been made ahead of time, not even what church to hold the service in; we had to decide everything from scratch. Because when there is no "should" or "supposed to" one just has to make do with the best one can.  

Two hours well spent

I just came back from the hairstylist I have used here in Southern California off and on for 20 years, an ex-girlfriend of my oldest brother. That was a great use of 2 hours, an excellent cut with highlights that cost next to nothing, and a fabulous conversation. I have never found a similarly competent hairstylist ever, anywhere, my whole life. 

Cold in California

When I am in Iceland, I am sometimes chilled to the bone cold, cold in my bed at night, cold sitting on the couch, cold working at the computer, cold the minute I walk outside. So the first few days when I got here to Southern California, I was stunned how warm it was. My family here on the other hand has been complaining about being cold, which puzzled me. But now and then, when the breeze kicks up, or when I am outside without any shoes on, it seems chilly here too. 

Celebrity poker

Yesterday, I was at FedEx Kinkos (a great idea to merge these two business=service giants together - it really works very well, makes for an energetic specialty store, lots going on). Anyhow, since this was in California, myself and another customer struck up a random conversation. He was having a poster made to invite people to a celebrity poker tournament, just $180 dollars and one got to play poker with the likes of D.B. Sweeny. He was so cute in that ice-skating film, I was sort of tempted. Then I remembered I live in Iceland and would not be able to make it. 

Themed bathrooms

When we had a Mardi Gras party a few years ago in Berkeley, some of my Berkeley Icelander friends came over. And they were all laughing about my bathroom, joking that all one had to do was look for all the sunflowers. Kristinn said, "If you see the sailboats, you have gone too far, look for the flowers." So I admit it, my decorating technique had tended toward the "themed" side of things; this is codified decorating advice in the U.S., to keep like things together. Like Elvis' Jungle Room, I guess. I was reminded of this today, as my mom and I went and bought new toilet seat covers, rugs, and shower curtains, all with a nautical theme, at Big Lots! Snobby we are not. 


Last night there were two earthquakes here in Southern California, well, one earthquake and one aftershock I guess. This reminded me that I missed the two major recent earthquakes in Iceland, the one summer 2000 and the one last spring in Reykjavik. I know this sounds a bit odd, but I actually like earthquakes, especially when the housing construction is designed with them in mind. Then they can be a powerful reminder of the forces of nature that are just beyond our comprehension, beautiful in the unpredictability. A reminder that there are things greater than our individual selves. 

Dealing with death

Last night I gave my mother the Morginblaðið page that had my brother's death announcement. Obviously she was upset, but then she began to speak of how much better Icelanders do death than Americans. There is a feeling in Iceland that everyone has suffered a similar loss, everyone understands the pain and anguish involved, and indeed almost a sense of shared national mourning since everyone, I mean everyone, gets a death announcement in the paper. The response I got from co-workers in Iceland was really amazing, so heartfelt. In California, where I am now, although my friends have been good about it, a quite common response is to say something like "I just cannot imagine what your family is going through." There is in fact some sort of pressure for us to then create a narrative for their consumption, a narrative not only of "who" he was, but also of our grieving process, a Hollywood "happy ending" if you will. "Oh, it has been really terrible, but

Ripe oranges

The orange trees, lemon trees, and grapefruit trees behind my parent's house were hung heavy with ripe fruit. Each one dropped into my hands with the slightest tug, and they tasted juicy and sweet. I knew as I was walking back there with my son, weighed down by my bag of fruit and the heat of the sun, my toes exposed to the weeds and twigs, that there would be no way to do anything remotely so decadent on an Icelandic farm. 


I am here in California helping plan my brother´s memorial service. When I return to Iceland, I will ensure our exhibition opens on time and to rave reviews. In both places then, I know where my responsibility lies and I have no doubt I will do what is required and expected of me. It is in fact incredibly nice to know one is needed, that one´s actions are important to the success of the whole, no matter where one might be.