Showing posts from September, 2010


I am terribly remiss in having discussed salad bars as a California thing. While the intention to build a salad may be California, dependent as it is on the availability of fresh produce, the idea behind it--lots of bits of food for people to choose from--must surely come from the Scandinavian hlaðborð tradition. Especially popular at Christmas, but available year long at most hotels, these are a very social and relaxing way to eat. People are encouraged to take their time, share their opinions of dishes with one another, go back again for more of the same or a little something new. With Christmas just around the corner, I can look forward to hlaðborðs making their appearance again.  

Operating out of hope, not fear

Today I met with two people who are finishing up a course in Ferðaþjónusta from símenntun here in Reykjanesbær. Right now is a hard time to be unemployed in Reykjanesbær, and it is a hard time to be an institution owned by the city, in need of staff, right now also. But we are not letting fear of something horrible happening determine our actions. We are letting our hope of something wonderful happening determine our actions.

To table an issue

I have noticed that Icelandic has a phrase "allt upp á borði" which translates as everything on the table. In American English, at least to me, this phrase is a poker metaphor, in as much as we sometimes say, "lay it out on the table for me", a saying coming from the moment at the end of a poker match where everyone has to put their cards down, face up, on the table, so that everyone can see what they have and thereby determine the winner. I suspect that the Icelandic phrase however may instead have a more medieval antecedent, in as much as some saga passages have characters laying all their weapons down on a table. Here the sense is less of one of discovery of truth or determination of winner, and more a matter of making everyone equal. Now no one has a weapon, and everyone can get down to talking without threat of violence. The funny thing to my English ears, however, is that "to table an issue" in American English actually means the exact opposite o

Salad bar

Salad bars are incredibly popular in California, and are available at everything from fast food hamburger places to major specialty chains and in grocery stores. I have not seen as many salad bars here in Iceland, but there are some, definitely. Still they always strike me as a little out of place, since I know they are based on the American model. This evening, I took advantage of the one in the Samkaup Úrval (or Straks, can't remember) right near my house. That Samkaup is now occupying the old Navy Exchange convenience store (called One Stop if I remember correctly). There is still a big sticker when one walks in, congratulating it for being the convenience store of the year for the Navy in 2004.  So this salad bar is both less out of place and more out of place at the same time. But for anyone that is curious, yes, the pasta salad tastes good, here on the other side of the Looking Glass. 

Nose job

I read in the paper recently about an Icelandic plastic surgeon working in Los Angeles. California is of course the capital of cosmetic surgery, and I must say I am not immune to the thought that I would look better if I got a nose job (I think really a nostril reduction would do the trick).  Three of my girlfriends from highschool had their noses changed by surgery, and two of my girlfriend's had breast surgery. It occurs to me that I do not know of anyone here in Iceland that has done this. I do not think this has to do with people in Iceland not being interested in their looks, nor do I think necessarily that Icelanders are sooooooo much more naturally better looking that Californians. I think mostly it is a matter of money, and the health care system. Having a nose job is a status marker in California, because it is the kind of procedure not covered by insurance.

A genuine rain

It rained all day yesterday here in Reykjanesbær, and I think over most of Iceland. Today it will be raining all day as well, and the forecast calls for more rain through Tuesday at least. I am watching the trees outside my window, and the rain dashing against the window panes. And I am thinking about how the sound of the rain fills the hall at Vikingaheimar with just the right ambiance. There ought to be weather in Iceland, rain and wind. We are perched in the middle of the North Atlantic, and the North Atlantic is not a languid pool, it is a body of water in movement, with surges and waves. This is the kind of weather Viking ships were made to handle, and it suits me just fine.


Sometimes when scholars disagree with each other, things can be unpleasant. But I must say, although everyone at the conference today had radically different ideas about what the word Viking should refer to, and there were a few moments when it seemed like the panelists might start entrenching to their own viewpoints, my feeling was that by the end there was a newfound feeling of respect and openness by almost everyone in the room. A pivotal moment came actually when one scholar made a very positive remark about how clever Jón Páll (the world's strongest man) had been in defining himself as a Viking. The talks prior to that talk were not the sort that would have looked kindly on such a neologism, but in a scholarly symposium, it usually only takes one good idea for everyone in the room to start thinking about things differently. I was most grateful that I was not the one who had to come up with such a discussion-altering tidbit. The discussion afterwards came around to one of m


Tomorrow I will be speaking at a symposium here in Iceland, and then two weeks later, I will be the "key note", or whatever you want to say, speaker at a dinner for the Leif Ericsson Society in Seattle. I have not given a lecture since the Saga Conference in Sweden last summer (at least as far as I can remember!) So to have two within two weeks of each other is a bit unusual for me. I like giving lectures, actually, but I must admit the main thing that got me excited about Seattle was the chance to get back to the West Coast. So I booked a ticket for a month-long visit. Now it looks like my trip back might be abbreviated a bit, but as long as I get to spend a few nights snuggled up with Palmer, I'll be happy.

Why maintain the distinction?

There are six or seven different types of white block cheese available in Iceland. Some have red packaging, some have blue, some are called skolaosti and some are not. I can tell some of the distinction comes from how much fat is in each type, but flavor wise they are identical to me. So I always stand there in the cheese aisle in Iceland, wondering why in the world there are so many different types. Not cheddar versus jack versus swiss versus brea. No, 7 or 8 different types of what is basically jack cheese. Honestly, every time I go to the store, I just randomly pick one. I like all of them just as much, I have no favorite; I consider them all the same cheese.

Grumpy little guy

Last night I called home to California, and talked to Dave for the first 10 minutes or so, asking him about whether or not he liked the new cabinets in his kitchen, whether or not he was getting a new stove, and when it would all be done. I know the kitchen remodeling is bothering Dave a lot; it is rather inconvenient, to say the least, to not be able to cook dinner every night. Making a meal at home and sitting down to eat is pretty central to a household. Plus Dave likes to cook, so having an inoperational kitchen is really annoying. When Dave finally put the computer down where Palmer was playing, I could tell Palmer was not in a good mood. He has a molar coming in and has been running a fever the last two or three days because of it. But when I asked him what car he had in his hand, he said "Ask Daddy." This made me think maybe he was jealous that I had spent such a long time talking to his Dad. Sometimes, though, there are things mommies and daddies need to talk abou


If there is one constant of the Icelandic Universe, it is that every person I talk to for more than 2 minutes will inevitably ask me where I am from. I take comfort in the steadiness and reliability of this, and anticipate a life time of some variation of said question. I do my best to mix up the answer a little bit, just to try out new linguistic ways to say it.


I need to ask my Dad, I never can quite remember. His grandmother, who raised him, her name was Katrin. She immigrated to New York from what was then the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. The village she came from was on the Danube. Her last name was Ulyanke. I think it is possible she was ethnically Slovakian, but I am not sure. I have always been interested in the political situation in Eastern Europe, wrote my first ever research paper about that topic, and like Woodrow Wilson because of his interest in that region. But I do not invest a lot personally in it. It is interesting and I have always liked learning more about it, but it is not an area near and dear to my heart. Not like Iceland. Not by a long shot. I would for instance never want to move there.

Permission to hug

Yesterday afternoon, I was talking to Palmer, and he seemed kind of down. His ear is bothering him and he was coughing a little. So I told him to go get a big hug from his Daddy. Then he said that he had tried to give his teacher at school a hug, and she had not hugged him back. We talked about how strange it is that his teachers in Kindergarten do not give him a hug, when his teachers in preschool did, especially Guðrun in Iceland always gave him a big hug every day before he left. I told him that is the difference between preschool and regular school, that the teachers don't give hugs.  Maybe it also has something to do with the US, where all those child molestation cases and lawsuits have gotten people completely freaked out about touching children. But a hug is an incredibly healthy and therapeutic thing, and suddenly, that my son's teacher did not offer him a hug seemed so wrong to me.  Why really is the world like this? Why really do we put up these sorts of barriers, t

Ode to Mom #2

Today I gave a tour of Vikingaheimar to the President of Slovakia and a diplomatic entourage. It went well and was a lot of fun. Afterwards, I was telling Vaka about how my mom was once offered a job at the diplomatic service of Iceland, and how she always encouraged me when I was first working in D.C. to rub elbows with people. It was kind of like, in addition to inheriting her brown eyes, she felt I had also inherited her career path.

Ode to mom #1

In addition to all the other things my mom has done for me, from giving me life and sending me off to Iceland all the time as a kid, to being a trusted friend and advisor, my mom also taught me how to cook. Or kind of. Because my mom's style of cooking is intuitive. She opens the cabinets, pulls one thing out, and then as she is cooking, adds other things, one by one, until she has something at the end that is really spectacular. She does not follow a recipe, but I think she usually starts off with one main ingredient, say the meat, and then lets her creativity work from there. Pretty often, she'll start frying up the ground beef while still deciding whether to make spaghetti sauce or chili or some sort of goulash. I highly recommend this sort of cooking. Put your hands on some main ingedient, start cooking, give it a taste midway through, and then throw in whatever you've got to finish it off. The best thing about this type of cooking is it is fun for the chef, rather

What did you have for dinner?

Palmer's kitchen in California (well, Dave's kitchen) had a leak behind the dishwasher, caused by a mouse chewing on the line, and from that leak emerged a mold infestation behind the cabinets of the kitchen. So their kitchen has been out of service for two weeks now, as the contractors try to repair everything. So I have been asking everytime I talk to Palmer which restaurant he has been going to for dinner. This is on top of my usual regular questions about what he has been eating, for snack or lunch or whathaveyou. Because of course with our loves ones, we want to know about the minutia of their day, where they went and what they ate, how well they slept the night before. I notice also how happy I am to see what clothes Palmer is wearing when we talk on Skype. Of course all of this means I miss the little guy a lot. Today he asked about when he was coming back to Iceland, and I told him that first, I would be coming to see him in California. Though my trip in October m

Minds that shape the world

My friend Heidi and I were talking about it when she was here a few weeks ago, the weird phenomena here in Iceland where things somehow, almost magically, work out. You bump into someone at a party that is just the person you need to talk to about a project, etc. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that these things happen MUCH more often in Iceland than anywhere in the U.S. Heidi and I contemplated whether this had something to do with Iceland's four guardian spirits. I have also considered that maybe all that lysi affects something in the brains of Icelanders, such that they all become partially empathic. Or maybe there is enough left of the old pagan beliefs, where dreams and signs and the other world could intermingle with this world, to let Icelanders understand what is happening around them in a more wholistic  sense. Iceland may also be a small enough society where certain individuals, with enough will power, can wordlessly get things to fall into place for themselves. I

Over the top

Though I can hear the zoom of the jet planes over the museum here in Reykjanesbær, I am not listening to it. I am listening instead to the sound of the wind and the waves. Maybe it is because this show of bravado, this show of force, implicit in these maneuvers do not really belong here. Maybe it is because I have heard this all before and often. Somehow or another, it just does not sound sincere. At El Toro airforce base, growing up, or even now in Florida, the Blue Angels roaring overhead did seem sincere, in sync with the crowd and the surroundings.


The other day I was picking up a pizza at Langbest pizza, and the video was playing for Katy Perry's California Gurls .  I must say, I was really impressed with all the inter-textual references in this song and video.* Everything from Lollipop , to the  Beach Boy's , and well of course Dogg's gansta rap . I grew up listening to American 50s music, thanks to my dad. I know the words to just about all of those "golden oldies." And so I love it when the sweetness of that time period catches up to the smoothness of the present.   *It has nothing at all to do with the fact that I am from California.  

Domestic flight

Today I am flying up to Akureyri for the Vest Norden trade show, so this morning I went to the domestic airport in Reykjavík. That airport is just so neat, it reminds me of the airport in Nuuk and the way Orange Country airport was when I was a kid. Flights coming and going without the trappings of a huge apparatus, one just showed up and walked on the plane. I think it is marvelous Iceland still has that sort of domestic travel, one that harkens to the golden age of navigation, when flight was about freedom and open skies. And it made me realize just how much that excitement about flight has been beaten out of me, how much I just think about the bureaucrocy and procedure of flights. I showed up at the domestic airport, an hour and a half before it was supposed to take off. I was told to come back in an hour, ie: a half-hour before the flight. Thank you Flugfélags Ísland, for reminding me of how it is supposed to be.

On Icelandic doctors

My friends and family here in Iceland were very enthusiastic about me going to the krabbameinsfélag for an exam. I was really impressed how easy it was to get an appointment--booked online even! And when I got there this afternoon, the efficiency continued: they have a well oiled operation in place there, all very organized with computers asking questions and keyed lockers to keep one's personal belongings in. Then when it came time to see the doctor, well, that lasted all of 2 minutes. And I paid 3420 kroner. So I was overall a little disappointed. When I mentioned to the front desk clerks that I was wondering if it was possible to actually get an appointment where I could speak to a doctor, I was given a variety of phone numbers. None of the ones I called had appointments within the next 6 weeks. In the United States, when I want a doctor's appointment, I can usually get it within a week of calling, though sometimes I have had to wait 10 days or so. The highest co-pay I hav

Once when wandering in the Eymundsson kids section after dinner I heard about a book

I have been trying to decide what sort of gift to send my son, and am now leaning towards a little bit of everything--one t-shirt, one book, one car--something like that. For the book, I already know which one I want to buy for him. It is a book I bought for my cousin Robert Páll a few years ago, on the suggestion of Ármann, who said he had really loved it as a child and had bought it for one of his friend's kids. So I figure any book that has been around that long, and been read by that many Icelanders, should be one my son should have. Plus it is about outer-space, and my son is now old enough to be into that. T-shirt wise I think I will get a touristy Icelandic thing, since I have a vague hope of him wearing it at school and getting a chance to tell his classmates all about Iceland. Of course, he'll probably be most excited about the car, no matter what make or model it is!

Doesn't hurt to ask

I think I may just begin to check around, find out if anyone at Berkeley is going to be gone next semester, and might be willing to do a housing exchange with me or something. That would be nice.

Sensible decision?

I was trying to decide whether or not to take the bus over to my friend Johanna's house last night. The bus from Keflavík to Reykjavík only runs 4 times on weekend days, but actually taking the 4pm bus there and the 9pm bus home would have worked out fine. I was however unsure as to whether or not the 9pm bus would go through Reykjavík again, or just leave straight from BSÍ onto Reykjanesbraut.  Here in Iceland, there is no 24 hour customer support at the bus company, no one I can call to ask a simple question like "what route does the bus take back?"  But on the other hand, the bus is free!


I have never been much of a stamp collector or knitter or computer gamer. I do not have a favorite weekend activity, like golfing or going to the gym or rock climbing. I am vaguely interested in all of these things to some extent,  but I have always rather been of the opinion that I have no hobbies. For a while I thought that meant I was a driven, ambitious workaholic. That is, until I moved to Iceland. Now I realize that something I used to enjoy doing as a kid has turned into a definite hobby here in Iceland: keeping up with the news. And like any good hobby should, my hobby borders on an obsession, one that easily gobbles up all my free time. The addiction to the news and current events started early for me, I suppose it had something to do with my dad requiring a half-hour of silence every night while he watched the evening news. Thursday night at pubquiz, the only section I did really good at was the current events section. And as I have mentioned here before, my daily ritual

Time to end the charade

Last night at Pub Quiz, I got a question about the Norse gods wrong. This is the second time that I have done so at Pub quizzes. I think my team mates basically bought my explanation for why I said Oðinn was the God of Poetry back a year or so ago (instead of Baldur, the "correct" answer), but last night I had a hard time saying anything to excuse why I answered "Loki" when asked who was Mímir's nephew (Oðinn was the correct answer). I knew Mímir was the first giant, and I thought about Oðinn for a second, since I knew he (and his brothers, whom he killed if I recall correctly) were the first gods. But still I answered Loki, since of course he is half giant and half Æsir. Well, so, the point is, having read through most of the corpus of Eddic poetry about the Norse gods, I am by no means an expert in them.


I just filled out the online request for an appointment from the Krabbameinsfélagið at (which I think is kind of a funny website name). People have been telling me to do this for a while, since I guess the annual exam is free and it is also easy to get an appointment.  Of course no one really likes to go in for a cancer screening, but here in Iceland, as in the States, they talk about the importance of regular check ups, early detection, and also just starting a baseline file. Seems like it is also kind of a requirement? So although I do not consider it of life or death importance, I am also not opposed to being in the system. As long as they do not give me really bad news at any point in time, I imagine I would be perfectly happy to talk to the fine folks at the Cancer Association. 

Jón Baldvin and Einar Benediktsson

On August 27th, we had a formal reception at Víkingaheimar for Dr. Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian. Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, who was the Icelandic Ambassador to the US when the Viking exhibition opened at the Smithsonian, and Einar Benediktsson, who was the head of the Leifur Eiriksson Millennium Commission of Iceland which helped coordinate our exhibition, both attended the reception. The evening was really lovely, because many of us had known each other and worked together before, and also everyone is still really pleased with how well the millennium events came together a decade ago. It was hard work, and it had lasting, if somewhat intangible, dividends. I was reminded though of just how interconnected everyone is here in Iceland, when Einar Ben referred to Jón Baldvin as "my former foreign minister". I had forgotten that when Einar was Ambassador to the US in the 90s, Jón had been the Foreign Minister of Iceland. Icelanders I think become very adept at relating to one

Country girls

The first time I came to Iceland with my boss from the Smithsonian, he made a comment about how the young ladies in Reykjavík looked a lot more like thick, sturdy country girls than the tall, thin wisps he had in his mind as the Scandinavian female. I suggested this might have something to do with the Celtic admixture here in Iceland. An announcement for a conference in South Iceland on the Celtic influence on Icelandic landnám made me think of this. Probably also the fact that I am at the University library today.


On Saturday night, I had some of my Berkeley Icelander friends over to enjoy Ljósanótt with me. Three of us were native Californians, and both Todd and Eric actually have what I would consider a "total surfer dude" California accent. I used to have an unbelievable "valley girl like ya knooooww" accent. So we were laughing about that. Then the next morning, I had to get up and open up at Víkingaheimar, where we had lots of visitors and almost all of them were Icelandic. So there I was, pretty tired, still recovering from my cold, trying to speak Icelandic after a night of only speaking English. And it turns out, under those circumstances, according to many of the Icelanders that came on Sunday, that my Icelandic sounds like I have a Danish accent. In other words, I was somehow speaking Færoese on Sunday. This was of course not intentional on my part. I have never been to the Færoese, and have no desire to sully my linguistic (in)capabilities further by throwing Fær


Tonight for Ljósanótt, there is the Harmonikkuball at the community center. I like that old timey Icelandic accordian music, it is especially good to dance to, if one is dancing with a man who knows how to lead.

Lesson learned

I have written about it before, about the way Iceland and Icelanders integrate and balance their personal life and professional life differently than Americans. I think though I have written about this in a somewhat negative light before. But this morning I woke up thinking how nice it is, to know and trust that really, no one here in Iceland is too busy to take care of those they love. I am going to send Palmer a present this weekend. He misses his mommy.

Ready for the big time?

The Ljósanótt festival starts here in Reykjanesbær today, and runs until Sunday. At Víkingaheimar, we've got two for one admission all weekend, and our resident Viking, Böðvar the Blacksmith, will be having on site demonstrations using a bellow forge table we just had built. So I am looking forward to seeing that in operation. The play Ferðasaga Guðriðar starts its fall season tonight, and the tickets are already sold out for tonight and tomorrow night, though some seats were still available for Sunday night. My electrician neighbor, David, was still installing the new lighting system last night, which I have no doubt will be wonderful once it is done. Still, with all these various projects trying to come together at the same time, it makes me wonder whether or not we are really ready for the big time. Though of course, at some point you do just have to go for it.

Not a question

Tonight I was cooking a chicken. I cut off the breast meat and made fajitas with that. Then I cut off the drumsticks and thighs, put those in a barbeque marinade and I suppose I will bake them tomorrow. Then I took the ribs and wings and boiled it to make chicken broth. I just finished picking all the bits of meat off the bones from the boiled carcass, so I can make chicken and rice soup this week too. I have a policy about chickens, that first of all they need to have had had lives outside of cages before they are killed, and secondly, that I buy them whole and butcher them myself, as a small way to show respect for the fact that this was a living animal.  Since I have moved to Iceland, I have never once doubted that poultry farmers in Iceland raise their flocks in a humane manner. I have never once considered not eating them. Even though the chicken I was dissecting tonight was suspiciously fatty, it was happily consumed. In fact, the fajitas were really good. 

Some decisions are easier than others

Over the last few days, I have had lots of interesting meetings with interesting people, full of good suggestions for what to do at Vikingaheimar and even some advice on my PhD and personal life. I always find it odd, the degree to which I receive advice on things I rather have my own opinion about, versus the lack of advice I receive for things I really am unsure about. To some extent, I think this is because I am living here in Iceland, and so there is a lack of context for others to understand my present concerns. But it could also be just an idiosyncrasy of me, that I get stuck trying to make little decisions like what kind of present to give someone, but have no problem deciding definitively on big life issues.


The table setting at the American Embassy tonight was a series of small glasses, of different sizes, each one filled with a few daisies. I thought it was delightful, this play of glass and water and petals and stems across the long white table cloth of the Ambassador's dining table. Though some of the guests we were hoping to be there were not there, it was still a nice evening, a good farewell to Dr. Fitzhugh.