(Note: This diary is being written after a return from my first week at my new job in Iceland, currently as a contractor until my work and residence permits go through. Everything you read happened one week prior.)
Diaries in this series: Iceland Calls :: The Icelandic Language :: Tvær Vikur Til Reykjavíkur :: Reykjavík, A City of Lights :: Reykjavík, A City of Drizzle and Dancing Clouds :: Reykjavík, A City of Cats and Gods :: Reykjavík, A City of a Storied Tongue :: Reykjavík, A City of Yuletide :: Reykjavík, A City of Hope :: Frá Reykjavík, Til Hjartans Heimveldisins :: Doldrums and Storms :: Til Kaliforníu, Til Iowa, Til Íslands
Föstudagur. Úm morguninn. I'm at the office, and I've already been warned that there's a chance that there may be a fire drill. The drill occurs. Everyone flows out of the building in a well-organized fashion toward the clearly demarcated gathering point outside. Most people stand and chat with each other, but I really don't know anyone that well and am not comfortable with my ability to chat in Icelandic, so I stand by myself. Right next to the gathering point, however, is an Icelandic flag flapping in the wind.
A flag means different things to different people. It's easy to get used to your flag when you're in your country. Nobody there was paying it any heed. Nobody nema, except, me. For to an immigrant, a flag can be a powerful symbol. And for one who wants to be right where they are, it's a symbol of great pride. I am here. This is my country. The paperwork may say otherwise for the time being, but paperwork doesn't change your reaction to your flag flying overhead.
(Note: You can find an Icelandic pronunciation guide here. I'll try to work a little Icelandic vocabulary into the text where it shouldn't distract from the diary.)
My last day at work before I'll have to go back to the United States, til Bandaríkjanna, til Hjartans Heimsveldisins. Throughout the day, S., my boss, keeps sending me little things -- documents, suggestions, details -- to make sure I'll be set to work remotely sem verktaki, as a contractor. I spend the morning rebuilding the program environment after I accidentally lost my copy. S. seems impressed that I was able to do this.
One of my coworkers asks if that evening I would like to go to a party being held at the offices of a company that they contract out to. I say yes.
My last lunch is uneventful. I exchange the customary few sentences with the women working there. I later exchange a few with the cleaning woman whose "Ég er bara ég" had so confused me earlier. S. calls me into his office, to tell me that he's going to be leaving soon, and to make sure I'm all set (he also has me help with the English in my own Non-Disclosure Agreement). He stops by my office not long after to tell me that he's about to leave, to say our goodbyes one more time.
S. had previously told me, shortly after I arrived, that he had now been asked twice by higher-ups, "Can't you just hire someone else?" And he said that the short of it was, no, he really couldn't -- finding someone with my skillset would take him a year or two. Well, today he tells me that after seeing me work, he thinks it would take 3 or 4 years, and even then, he doubts they'd have the same sort of background and different development perspectives that bringing someone like me in allows them to have. While I had been being frustrated by my difficulties with hooking in the debugging tools and the fact that it was going to take more than the one week to get S. debugging data from their whole system, S's reaction had been just the opposite.
A coworker stops by and jokingly chides me. I'm told (for the second time this trip) that I work too hard. Because apparently it's working too hard if one doesn't do things likely take 40 minute walks in the woods after lunch or whatnot. ;) He lets me in on a fact that I had already kind of noticed -- that S. would do whatever it took to bring me there because he always looks out for his employees. And when you're fighting an immigration bureaucracy, that's the sort of person you want to have on your side.
I take the time to carefully handwrite write a letter in Icelandic to leave on my desk for people to read after I'm gone, thanking them for being so nice to me, encouraging them to speak to me in Icelandic and to correct my mistakes when I return, and telling them how much I look forward to coming back.
The workday ends, and I'm the last person still at their computer. It's time for the party, so I pry myself away from the code, shut down the laptop, and pack it up to take it home. We drive cross town and are greeted at the entrance by a friendly "Gakktu í bæinn!" (an Icelandic idiom... it literally means "Walk into the farm", but is used to mean "Welcome!". Icelandic is an idiom-rich language).
We head upstairs; I follow a coworker, "B." around. The first group of people are gathered around an office widescreen TV, playing soccer on an office Playstation 3. We walk around and see the place. Their offices are even more modern and roomier than ours. We continue on into the main room where everyone has gathered.
I've sort of been expecting the worst. I don't even know my coworkers that well, and here I am in a big room full of people who all know each other and are going to be speaking Icelandic. After drinking, at that. So I've sort of set the bar for myself pretty low this evening, prepared to just sit around by mysef if that's what it took.
I turn to B. and tell him, "I just want you to know that you don't have to hang out with me all evening. My gut reaction is going to be to follow you around everywhere since you're one of the only people I know here, but if you ever want to go off and do something, by all means, please do!". He says no no no, I'm not a bother at all, and smiles.
B. starts bringing me up to people from the other company (and people from our company which I haven't met yet). One guy in particular from the other company turns out to be awesome for me. As soon as he learns that I'm learning Icelandic, and tries to gauge my level, he asks whether he should speak Icelandic with me or not. And I really struggle with the answer to that. Get practice and get lost, or follow what's going on and not get practice? I tell him (in Icelandic) that if he doesn't mind, I'd like to try, but if we have trouble, we can switch back to English. No problem! He shows amazing patience the whole evening, constantly dealing with my "Ha?"s and my "Endurtaka?"s, my reluctant "Á ensku..."s and my happy "Nei, nei, á íslensku!"s. And suddenly I'm starting to find things clicking. It's not just a few sentences, mainly with me doing the talking. It's an actual samtal, a conversation, with me actually understanding what's being said a good bit of the time. And who's in the group keeps shifting, and sometimes he's not there any more, but I'm already in the mode, already in this zone where when the conversation becomes difficult, a couple words changes it to English, and then afterwards, I start talking in Icelandic again and it reverts. I'm even picking up new words and new usages of words, like how you "drive" (keyra) a computer or a program instead of "using" (nota) it.
Don't get me wrong -- just to follow things is still requiring a great deal of repetition, occasionally in English (when those one or two key words are missing from the sentence ;) ), and I know they're doing their best to try to be clear for me because when they're just talking amongst themselves, I'm not able to follow much (although clearly more than I had been able to at the beginning of the week). But still, my ability to function in conversation in Icelandic during this party hit me out of the blue. I'm no longer hanging on B.'s coattails; now I'm just going with whoever has the most interesting conversation at any point in time.
At one point, one of the people there recounts (in Icelandic) a story about a Canadian acquiantance who moved to Iceland, but moved back six months later, shortly after complaining to him that she keeps trying to speak Icelandic with people, but they never understand what she says. And she had apparently told him that she was going to do something, at... and then I couldn't understand what word he said next, so I asked him to repeat it. Still couldn't understand it. So he switches to English, goes up to a whiteboard and writes the word for Saturday up there:
"Do you know what this means?" he asks.
"And how do you say it?"
I pronounce it -- roughly like "LOY-yhar-DAH-yhihr", although I can't really express it right with English letters. He tells me, right, like that. Then he reads it off as she was pronouncing it, and I immediately recognize, it's that word he was saying before that I couldn't figure out: "LAW-ger-DAG-ger." Oww, it grates on my ears! She was butchering this beautiful language! I mean, I feel like I'm butchering it with my bungling "r"s and uneven enunciation, when I can't get that "tongue forward" sound that they do. But ouch, how could you live here for six months and not understand the most basic aspects of Icelandic pronunciation on common words? It'd be like living in Mexico for six months and thanking people by telling them "MUCH-ass GRASSY-ass."
Conversation turns back to work, and the people from the new company talk about how proud they are of their new development strategy. I come to find out that their office is divided into teams, who are in competition with each other -- each with their own names, logos, etc, almost like a sports rivalry. In the morning, when people come in, there's a quick 5-10 minute meeting where everyone announces what they plan to work on and accomplish that day, and what they accomplished the day before. Basically, they shame only themselves if they don't succeed rather than working simply out of fear of being fired.
The more I see of Icelandic workplaces, the more I like them.
In for the dinner. Everyone but me eats hamburgers from the grill. The salad is good. The fried potatoes are even better, and they have this great "potato spice" that you can sprinkle on top. And of course, in Icelandic fashion, not only is katsup available, but pink "kokkteilsósa" (so-called "cocktail sauce"), which I found to be an approximately equally suitable condiment. The beer was endless, although I didn't partake.
After dinner, there is an announcement, a bit of a speech from the company owner. I follow very little, but that's okay -- I've already found my zone, and nothing can shake me out of it. After dinner, I meet S's bosses -- a firey woman and a guy who looked like he could wrestle down a polar bear. I feel a bit like the object of "show and tell", but I don't mind; I do my best to chat in Icelandic with them, and they seemed pleased to see me working at it (I don't think they expected me to speak her at all).
Near the end, I start chatting a bunch with another employee of the company running the party. He's younger than most, and one of the sort of people who seem eager to show off his English -- which I must say, was næstum villulaus (nearly flawless). So it's not being as productive for me as it could have been, because that keeps encouraging me to speak English to him as well. But nonetheless, we have a great time chatting. He has to get back, as he has a two-year old daughter; he had just gotten divorced, and we have a bit of a laugh as he drives me to the hotel about him being old fashioned (in Iceland, two thirds of children are born out of wedlock; marriage is increasingly seen as more of just a religious blessing, not an essential part of a childraising union). In Iceland, relationships are both relatively easy to get into and to get out of.
He drops me off at the hotel and we say our "look forward to seeing you next year"s. I go up to my room. It's late. Sleep awaits.