(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
In the summer, Reykjavík is lit nearly the whole day by the low hanging sun which circles around your head, casting long shadows on the ground and lighting up the colorful buildings and the distant mountains in stark contrasts of colors as it circles around you. But come the winter, the sun rides lower and lower every day -- 8 hours at the start of nóvember, 5 hours at the end of nóvember, and 4 hours at the solstice in late desember. During this time, Reykjavík becmes a city of lights. Blessed by cheap, clean electricity, the city uses it to fight off the growing darkness. The Hallgrímskirkja, the towering columnar cathedral in the center of town, is peaked with hundreds of amber lights, giving it a look something between a candelabra and a volcano. Perlan, the glass dome on a hill built atop the tanks that hold the city's water supply, is likewise lit up by hundreds of speckles, and above them, a rotating beam. Offshore on the island Viðey, Friðarsúlan (the Peace Column, aka, the Imagine Peace Tower) shines its spotlight into the sky, causing scattered streaks as it breaks its way into the clouds -- a fitting monument for a country often ranked as the most peaceful on Earth.
It is to this land of dwindling sun and shimmering lights that I travel, to work for the first time at my new job, preparing to be an immigrant in a new land.
(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.)
Sunnudagur. I arrive on Sunday to beautiful veður and, once again, people everywhere insisting, "The weather is never like this!". I'm two hours before I'm supposed to be able to pick up my car, but in the typical Icelandic fashion of not caring much about the rules when they're getting in the way of helping people out, they take me to it right away. By this point, I've already had half a dozen occasions where I planned meticulously what I was going to say in Icelandic to someone, only to chicken out at the last minute. After meandering, deliberately lost for a while so that places have a chance to open, I skreppa í búð, going to a store for my first task: finding price comparisons with the US to know what to bring and what to leave behind.
Húsasmiðjan ("The House Workshop") is a chain of sizeable hardware stores, akin to a Home Depot or Menards, and has an attached garden center, Blómaval ("Flower Selection"). I hadn't eaten in over 24 hours, but that's okay; with my notepad in hand, I was on a mission. 2.400kr ($21) to 12.295kr ($107) for a brauðrist (toaster). 49.900kr ($434) to 247.600kr ($2153) for a full-size frystiskápar (freezer). 2.990 ($26) for a ~30cm tall pant, amusingly named Tannhvöss Tengdamamma ("Bitchy Mother-In-Law" -- I think it was a Mother-In-Law's Tongue). Og fleiri. Some prices reasonable, some expensive -- as expected -- and a great vocabulary lesson. The similarities make me smile every time -- like at the center of Blómaval, just like in the Ace in Iowa City: an African Grey parrot. I watch for a few minutes as a child walks up to it, in order to figure out what's stereotypical to say to parrots in Iceland. Sæl(l)? Goðan dag(inn)? No, actually: "Hello."
They say never to go to a grocery store on an empty stomach. Add to that never to go to a grocery store in another land whose food is hard for you to get at home, on an empty stomach ;) Hagkaup time. Yes, I still made myself compare prices first; non-locally-grown fruit and vegetables are exorbitant (extreme example, 2.000kr (~$17) for a small bundle of green onions), while most other foods are surprisingly affordable (t.d., 99kr ($0.85) for a jar of tasty Italian-made pesto). They even have a large section selling lopi (unspun wool) and other yarns. But it shouldn't be a shock that I then leave the store with a bag stuffed full of jólabrauð (jol = Christmas, brauð = bread) and some other rye breads, smjör, skyr, þykkmjólk, súrmjólk, Húsavíkur cheeses, ice cream (did I mention that Iceland does dairy mjög vel? :) ), rhubarb jam, o.fl. And I proceed to check into my hotel room (also early, at no extra charge) and put some of that food to good use ;)
The sun is still up when I leave, and the weather still svo fallegt, perhaps around 12 stig (that's degrees celsius, of course), and clear sky (windy, að vísu -- to be sure)... time for some geothermally-heated waters. I want somewhere relatively low key, so I go to Vesturbæjarlaug, a small pool on the west side. I semi-chicken out with speaking Icelandic, managing to get a only a few words out of my mouth to the woman at the front desk, and finding myself unable to break apart her response into individual discernable words, before switching to English. Hmm... this is becoming a pattern and a problem.
Going to a pool in Iceland means, of course, stripping down naked, walking around and washing in front of strangers. No problem; I'm used to even bathing naked with strangers from spending time in Japan. Now in my suit, I go outside and get in the pool in the only area without swim lanes, but quickly realize that is the kiddie area (not used to how things are laid out in Iceland). Meh; the water is cool enough and the weather hrass, windy enough that I felt the need to get into the warmest nuddpottur. That is, hot pots of different temperatures that they have right next to the steam rooms (gotta love public pools in Iceland ;) ). Into a nuddpottur until I was practically baked, out to the pool to do laps and cool down, back and forth until my body is like jelly and my jet lag insists I tackle my last errand of the day or risk falling asleep at the pool. That last task is buying a phone.
I sit out in the car for kannski, perhaps, 15 minutes, trying to get the courage to go in and ask the woman in Icelandic where I could get a phone. I chicken out and return several times, meandering aimlessly, closer and closer, until finally I have no choice but to ask or risk looking strange. And I ask. The conversation is uneven. She at first thinks I just wanted to use the phone. (awkwardly muttered) "Nei, nei, ég meina að ég þarf að kaupa sími!" -- "Að kaupa síma?" -- "Já, fyrirgefðu, sím*a*!" Dang declensions -- I've gotten myself used to them on paper, but realtime when talking is another story. ;) She directs me to Kringlan, the local mall, where unfortunately I chicken out about speaking Icelandic.
The language thing is at this time, for me, proving to be a huge series of highs and lows. It should be reiterated that in Iceland, almost everyone speaks English amazingly well. I mean, you hear people say, "Oh, in Japan, they speak English", or "In (insert mainland European country here), they speak English", things like that. But nowhere I have ever been have I found the level of English fluency where not a native language as in Iceland. Yet at the same time, I feel incredibly uncomfortable speaking English over there -- not just that I'm setting myself apart as an outsider, but that I'm constantly conscious of how I'm inconveniencing those around me. Don't get me wrong -- many Icelanders (rather frustratingly) jump at the chance to speak English; as soon as they hear that hreimur, that accent -- words spoken too slowly, the r's rolled poorly, perhaps even the words said too clear and distinct instead of run together at lightning speed with a quarter of the letters dropped -- they switch to English. And sometimes even speaking Icelandic back at them won't get them to stop. But at other times, you can tell it's a bother -- and if not by the reaction you get when you speak English by itself, then by the contrast with the reaction you get when you speak Icelandic -- that extra góða skemmtun, that extra sömuleiðis, o.fl. And yet... I now find myself totally frustrated, by the combination of my lack of courage and my inability to parse even when people speak what I know to be simple setningar that I could handle if written down in a heartbeat.
But cheering myself up would be easy if I could manage it -- and manage it I do, when I set up a vakning (wake-up call) with the front desk in Icelandic. It is on this note that I go to sleep, stuffed with skyr and rúgbrauð and rosalega girnilegur ís, and ready to meet my new boss in the morning.