Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cell phones, Tech support, Red wine, and Baby Hamsters

It has been a while since I posted. This is because settling into life in Iceland has been a roller coaster ride of challenges, filled with ups and downs. I avoided posting because I didn't want to sound whiny or complain too much. However, I will eventually take the time to review the past several months and present those challenges in a more diplomatic way, along with the fun things we did and pictures from trips, etc. Today's post, however, will be a more light-hearted undertaking.

I got a job working in tech support for one of the communications companies here in Iceland. I answer the phone all day and... support people... technologically. The good part of the job is that I get to simultaneously play on the internet and occasionally solve a problem for a friendly person in need of help. The bad part of the job is that I also have to talk to complete jerks and often people who have no clue about computers at all. And I don't mean to say that I'm some whiz kid. I mean people who cannot find the address bar in their web browser. People who, when I tell them to open Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, have no idea what I'm talking about. People who call to ask me how to download Skype, when that is not my job, and then it turns out they thought that Skype was an Icelandic company that uses .is instead of .com in its web address. People who, when you tell them to restart their cable box, tell you that they already did and then it turns out that they meant that they did it last week. Then there are people who think that all they have to do is yell at me enough until they reach some unspecified quota which will prompt me to push a magical button that instantly fixes everything, or dispatch the special emergency technician we keep on hand for just their sort of problem, who sits waiting in his car, willing them to be just rude enough that we can finally release him from the parking lot and over to their house to fix their television. I have hung up on two customers since I started working there in August. And each time was glorious. No regrets!

One of the things I miss is having ready access to my friends and family on my cell phone. I only have a few friends here, and we don't really chat that much on the phone because we're either all working at the same time, or we really only chat in person, or we don't want to use up all of the money on our prepaid phones. When I lived in the States I usually called my mom at least once a day but often several times a day, just to chat, usually on my lunch break at work and then sometimes in the evenings. I'm a communicator, I like to keep in touch. I also sent a lot of texts to my friends all around the country, if something reminded me of them or if I heard something really funny or if I just wanted to say hi. But since I moved here and cannot do that, I transferred all of my daily phone chatting energy over to Aggi, my boyfriend. The poor man takes the brunt of it. Let me give you some examples.

Now, Aggi is a musician, not only at heart but professionally too, his current band has put out two albums here in Iceland and toured in Europe, and so have previous bands that he's been in. But for day-to-day work and money he works outdoors doing manual labor, mainly doing cement and pavement work (by hand!) and also laying pipes for fiber optic cables, and many other things that he tells me about but I only vaguely remember because I have ADD. The point is that, usually, when I call him, he is in the middle of a major project involving heavy machinery, drills, pipes, carrying things, digging things, cement mixers, work gloves, boots, and other big strong manly equipment (no pun intended). But, being the wonderful boyfriend that he is, when he hears the phone ring or feels it buzzing away in his pocket, he will stop what he's doing and check to see if it's me, and if it is, 9.99 times out of ten, he answers. Even if he has to transfer some huge pile of equipment he's carrying to precariously balance it in one arm, endangering himself and risking injury, to do so. When he answers, it's me saying things like...

"Isn't purple great? I was thinking we should get something purple for the apartment, like maybe a scented candle! Do you like grape or lavender better?"
"I saw a bird! It was so cute and little and round! I just wanted to squeeze it! It was kind of black with a white spot somewhere. Do you know what those are called? Do you remember if we have any more peanut butter at home? Okay thanks honey, byyyyeee!"
"Oh nothing, I'm just eating lunch... and thought I'd call... just to say hi... What? Oh, you're busy? Oh, ok. Just one more thing! What do you think about Florida? Yeah, should we move there? Do you know if it's expensive? Yeah me neither. Okaysorrybye!"
"How do you say, 'I am going to have to end this phone call if you continue to speak to me in this manner,' in Icelandic?"
"Omigosh I thought of the cuuuuutest thing we could get for Sprinkles! Do you think he would get sick if he chewed on one of those castles they make for fish tanks?"

Sprinkles is our hamster. One night I had a glass or two (or four) of wine while I was home waiting for Aggi to come back from band practice, and I was talking to my friends on skype and missing them, and wishing that I had more friends here to hang out with. And then I got annoyed. And then I had another glass of wine. And then I decided to buy myself a pet. I had repeatedly asked Aggi if we could get a small dog for me to stave off my loneliness, and he pointed out that not only is he allergic to most dogs, but we do not have the space or the time to dedicate to a dog, and what would we do with it if we ever wanted to move out of the country? He was right. But I was tipsy.

So I went onto this website they have here called bland.is, which is basically a classifieds website, sort of like craigslist.com but without prostitutes. I went to the pets section and saw a little dog for sale, a Chinese crested/Chihuahua mix. I wanted to ask how much she cost, but I didn't have an account, so I couldn't post a comment. But I tried anyway, thinking that maybe I could sign in as a guest. Lo and behold, when I attempted to write a comment, it turned out that Aggi already had an account and had saved his login information to our computer! I signed in and asked how much it cost. Then I found some guinea pigs and asked how much they cost. I kept going until I found an listing about a litter of baby hamsters for sale. I had hamsters as a kid and they looked so tiny and cute, I had to have one. I staked my claim on one of the males that were still available, and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, I left for work like nothing had happened, although I remembered what I had done (I wasn't that tipsy, geeze!). I checked back on the website, and saw that the owner of the hamsters had responded to my comment, saying that she would reserve the baby for us, "young nr. 7". I called Aggi and told him what I had done.  He wasn't exactly excited, but I promised that I would take good care of the pet, and that I wanted a little animal to play with during the long, dark winter, and that if we decided to move overseas I would simply hide the critter in my purse and hope that airport security wouldn't notice a living, breathing rodent on the x-ray screen.

So now we have a hamster! His name is Sir Sprinkles Robsalot Name-Name-Name. Sprinkles because he's a hamster and he should have a sickeningly cute first name, and Sir Robsalot after my good friend Rob whom I've nicknamed "Sir Robsalot" for no reason in particular. He has my last name followed by my boyfriend's last name, which is Danish and already comes with a hyphen. So he has a double hyphen! This made us realize that if we ever have kids we're going to have to just choose one last name per kid, although we will alternate between my name and his, to be fair. Two hyphens is just too much.

Anyway, here is a picture of the little guy that the breeder took just before we brought him home! He's getting bigger and is lots of fun and lets us pick him up and everything. I'm going to get him one of those plastic hamster balls that you put them in which allows them to walk around the house without getting lost. Isn't he cute?!

Monday, July 25, 2011

I Am Different, And That's OK!

I think my cousin Kris (whom I ran into at Kaffibarinn the other night, he’s visiting from the States) said it best the when he described the fashion in Reykjavik as “intense.” At the risk of offending people (although that is not my intention) I will now reveal that I have come to affectionately/jokingly refer to the current trend that’s sweeping the city as “trashy chic.” Last year when I visited Reykjavik, the girls only wore black, and leggings under a miniskirt or dress were the required uniform of the day. Now people have embraced colors, but the outfits they put together look like… Well, it looks to me like they were blindfolded, then walked into a thrift store and picked out seven items and wore them right out of the store. Sometimes the combinations are really cute and creative, and other times they are…not so cute. Then, if you’re a girl who wants to be truly stylish, you must wear hot pink, red, or orange lipstick and put your hair in a bun on top of your head. If you’re a guy, either stop washing your hair entirely and/or put a lot of product in it and then stop washing it. On Saturday night when everyone’s going out, it’s fun and adventurous. On a weekday at two-thirty in the afternoon, it just looks like everyone is trying too hard. The funny thing is that in a place this small, whatever the fashion is, almost every single person adopts it immediately. I love outrageous new looks, but sometimes when I’m hanging out at a bar or café, I find myself yearning for the fashion of the 1940s, when men looked so clean and groomed and handsome, and women’s clothing was so tailored and gorgeous and flattering for the female figure. Of course, I’m always yearning for that time period’s fashion, so it doesn’t say much that I do so now. Luckily for me, by next year there will be a new craze for me to judge and form an opinion about, and it won’t be a big deal in the grand scheme of things either. Nonetheless, my fingers are crossed for a resurgence of the Golden Era of Glamor!

Living in a little place is interesting. No, I don’t mean the apartment, although that is little too, I just mean in a small population. For one thing, gossip among females is just as “intense” as this year’s fashion, and it’s only amplified by the fact that the population is so tiny. I made the mistake of participating at work, to a certain extent, in an effort to fit in (childish, I know), and within a couple weeks a veritable tornado of negative energy was tearing down the proverbial Kansas homestead of my personal life. Woo, what a ride! It was a good lesson to be learned. Negative thoughts and speech breed… more negative thoughts and speech. It wasn’t pretty. But the conflict highlighted a certain characteristic of mine that I’m thinking must be distinctly American: individualism to the point of defiance, when necessary. For example, when things got to a certain level of hostility at work, or if there’s a certain amount of drama surrounding friends or acquaintances, my inner American Rosie the Riveter says, “I don’t have to stand for this kind of treatment! I’m out of here!” and I feel perfectly within my rights to defiantly remove myself from the situation or social circle. Then I roll up my sleeves and go back to building airplanes for the war effort. Figuratively speaking.

I don’t know if that’s usually done here, but I think the customary view is that on this tiny little island, all the social circles are woven together within one big scene, so really there never is any escape from the ebb and flow of the tides of gossip, rumors, and news. I have a feeling all small towns or really close-knit communities are this way in varying degrees of “intensity” (what a handy word in this blog entry!). I mean look at high school for crying out loud, don’t get me started. But what was interesting was that when I compared notes with Icelandic friends about the situation at work, for example, I was the only one who naturally felt that I was within my rights to defiantly “walk out” in protest, so to speak. My American friends, however, totally understood where I was coming from. It’s interesting how when I was in America, I was always noticing the ways in which I was different from other Americans, and now that I’m in Iceland, I’m noticing the ways that I’m different from the Icelanders. It’s kind of fun!

Either way, what I’ve decided is that I am no longer going to attempt to change myself in order to merge with the Icelandic culture. I can go with the fashion to a point (any excuse to wear red lipstick!), but not all the way. I enjoy keeping up with the news of friends and family, but have learned not to share every opinion I have with anyone who will listen. I like being a mixed bag of cultures and characteristics, and hereby proudly embrace the Icelandic, American, and even Austrian (thanks Dad!) traits I exhibit. I already use the excuse, “Well, I’m American,” whenever my opinion on something differs from that of an Icelander I may be talking to (or when I forget how to say something in Icelandic). Although my uncle’s Colombian-American wife says that my sense of time (“It’s not like Earth will drop out of orbit if we’re late.”) and my attitude about when meals should be served (“Dinner can be consumed any time between seven and ten.”) are distinctly Latin, so who knows any more?

Anyway, we’re going on our camping trip this week, finally! I can’t wait to get out of the city again and savor the natural world. I’m going to see if I can find a little Celtic flute before we go, so I can pretend to be an elf and skip around our tent playing songs and NOT annoying the bejeezus out of my boyfriend. I will also definitely NOT try to wake up before him so I can greet him first thing in the morning with the sound of a magical, Celtic version of “Good Morning, Starshine,” being played directly into his ear. Of course not…

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Try the Plastic Trolls, They're Breathtaking.

Wow! The last few weeks have flown by, and I've been either too busy or too lazy to write anything, except for several times when I've really been in the mood to write, but was at work and was unable to do so. But here I am! And yes, you heard me correctly, I have obtained employment! I work at one of the little tourist shops in downtown Reykjavík. We sell many things, such as things made from Icelandic wool. Customers often seem to find it difficult to believe me when I tell them it's Icelandic wool. Many people don't even recognize wool when they encounter it, let alone the Icelandic kind. These conversations go something like this:

Customer: I'm looking for a pair of gloves.
Me: Sure, here are some.
Customer: Hmm... These are gloves?
Me: ...Yes. Gloves. They go on your hands. Have you not seen a pair of gloves before?
Customer:  And what are they made out of?
Me: They're made of wool from the Icelandic sheep.
Customer: Wool? Really? These are wool? Are you sure?
Me: Yes.
Customer: And they're really Icelandic? Are they made here in Iceland?
Me: No, actually it's an interesting process. We raise the sheep here, then round them up, shave off their wool, turn it into yarn, dye it, and then send it off to Malaysia to be knitted into mittens and then sent back here for us to sell them.
Customer: Really?
Me: No.
Customer: So they're Icelandic?
Me: Sir, there's a sticker on them that says "Made from 100% Pure Icelandic Wool." There's a tag sewn in the inside that says it's made of Icelandic wool. There's a cardboard tag on the outside with a picture of an Icelandic sheep that says "Icelandic wool" with a diagram showing why Icelandic wool is superior to all other types of wool in guarding against the elements. Everyone working in this store is Icelandic and has been wrapped, swaddled, hooded, gloved, clothed, or tucked into Icelandic wool in one form of a shockingly wide array of blankets, garments, and protective wear or another since our first tender moments on God's green earth. I'm pretty sure I can spot Icelandic wool from at least 1.5 kilometers away, let alone read to you the statements on these little tags, and I hereby assure you that these gloves are made from the wool of a sheep that is, at this very moment, very likely standing on the other side of that hill over there eating grass! YES. THEY ARE MADE OF ICELANDIC WOOL.
Customer: I don't like the color.
Me: Get out.

No, but really it's not that bad. But there are things that tourists do that are annoying. Some nationalities are more prone to this than others, but if I get into that here I'll make a bunch of hypersensitive enemies and who has time for that? So instead, I've compiled a list that I like to call:

Annoying Things Tourists Do When Shopping In Foreign Countries
  1. Asking how much something costs in dollars/euros/british pounds. Yes, we do have a little currency converter built into our point-of-sale system, and so we are capable of telling you how much something costs in your home currency. But don't you think it's kind of silly to ask a salesperson that kind of question? I live here now and I still find myself calculating how much certain things cost in dollars every now and again, I know it's not an automatic mind adjustment. But when I'm traveling to a foreign country, I like to take the time to find out what the exchange rate is, and am then content to either walk around calculating prices on my own, or to just be satisfied with having a more vague estimation of what the cost is. It just seems so insular and weird to expect a stranger working in a store to do the math for you. What's the matter, are you scared to be away from home? Do you need the rest of the world to turn itself into a duplicate of your homeland for you so you don't have to think too hard? Either buy it or don't, I'm sick of translating for you. Sorry, I guess that bothers me more than I realized.
  2. Complaining about how expensive things are. Try living here. Also, it's a tiny island somewhere between Greenland and the UK. Do you see a plastics factory pumping out toy Viking helmets anywhere? No, you don't. That's why you can breathe our air without getting lung cancer. But it costs money to buy all those little helmets plane tickets and get them over here to this shop where you can buy them for your kids to wear while they hide away from the sun playing video games and eating chips. Either buy it or don't, but loudly whining about the cost does nothing but let us quietly judge you.
  3. Calling things "Icelandic" all the time. This one is difficult to explain and I think I'm the only person that is bothered by it. It weirds me out when people call something by its nationality when they're in that country. Like saying, "Oh Madison, look at those Icelandic mittens!" or "Hey Kyler, check out these Icelandic shot glasses," or "Dude, they've got an apron with an Icelandic penguin on it." (It's a puffin.) For some reason it's just weird to me. Unless the occasion calls for differentiating the item as specifically Icelandic, like when saying, "Icelandic water tastes better than any other water on earth," or "Those shorts have the Icelandic flag on them," it's seems strange to call it out like that. It's like walking into a souvenir shop in the U.S. and saying, "Oh wow look at the American coffee mug!" It's just a coffee mug commemorating your visit. It's not a person or a certain native species of plant or animal. 
  4. Talking in a voice that is slightly too loud for the occasion, as if no one else can understand you. Maybe this works in some countries, but when you come here please be aware that we have a 99.9% literacy rate, and almost everyone speaks at least three languages, one of which is usually English. And even if we don't understand you, loudly talking and joking from across the shop is still disruptive. Don't be rude.
  5. Many people in the world still eat meat. Yes, many Icelanders eat sweet, succulent, adorable lambs, and beautiful puffins and glorious fish and even, in small, controlled quantities, non-endangered species of whale. I just tasted minke whale the other day for the first time, and it was breathtakingly delicious. You go your way, I'll go mine, and if you think that eating nothing but vegetables is anything other than devouring something that was once living and is now dead for your own survival, think again. For all we know, plants may be sentient. They respond to certain stimuli and even music, and, to me, eating a carrot is morally the same as eating "something with a face." So, while I'm on board with protesting animal torture or population depletion of a species because of some myth that their horns or bile or spit will help the Chinese get erections, try to otherwise be sensitive toward other cultures. If you travel to Greenland, get ready to see people eat adorable seals. If you go to Texas, expect to see people eat barbecue pig. And if you come to Iceland, don't expect to change our minds about eating our heart-rendingly cute lambs.
  6. We sell key chains, we don't monitor the Icelandic puffin population's migratory patterns. Sometimes I start conversations with customers, and then I wish I hadn't. Like that time I promised an elderly French woman I would chat with her crusty old husband (I'm not being mean, he actually did have dried, crusted fluids on his face) so she could shop in peace. He was only interested in reciting the "facts" and figures he had read or heard about Iceland, and didn't want the person he was talking to participating in the conversation at all. I should have just propped him up in a corner in front of a mirror and let him talk to himself, which I'm sure he would have enjoyed much more than talking to me. But let me ask you this: Without looking it up, do you know what the average number of children per family is in your country? No, not "about two or three," I mean the actual national average, in decimal form, rounded off to the tens place. What about yearly rainfall? Major imports and exports? Lifespan? Me neither. But apparently, there are people out there who memorize these facts before traveling to a foreign land, and then expect the local gals working a summer job at a souvenir shop to go toe-to-toe with them in a heated exchange of trivia. However, this gal is usually just waiting for her coffee break so she can purchase a delicious pastry and call her man to talk about what movie they should rent later.
But really, most of the tourists who come to visit are either very nice (Canada*); usually very nice but on rare occasions arrogant, ignorant, and rude (U.S.A.*); either quite charming or crusty and obnoxious (France); surprisingly small in stature but fun to talk to primarily in English since the 10+ years I spent studying Spanish in school does nothing to help me when it comes to them (Spain); warm and friendly and speak the Spanish I can actually understand and speak back (most of Central and South America*); generally indifferent to locals unless they speak their language, and are often senior citizens over the age of 65 traveling in large groups (Germany); often physically attractive, generally reserved and speaking a language I may have trouble identifying but can usually understand (most of the Scandinavian countries except Finland); look like they could be my really blonde cousins who seem very nice if only I could understand what they're saying (Finland); generally attractive but speak to me in their native language which I would be able to understand if I had been raised here, but I do not, although I pretend that I simply refuse to as a free and independent Icelander (Denmark); or very tall, often tan and blonde, with a completely indecipherable language that sounds like they're choking on something (Holland). I haven't met many British tourists in the shop, but I see them a lot on the bus going to the campsite that's near our house. They are mostly very friendly, but they never even attempt to speak Icelandic to anyone, not even a quick takk for thank you or bless for goodbye. Hmmm...

There, I couldn't resist vaguely categorizing and generalizing the tourists I encounter each day, based on my own observations. 

Countries marked with an asterisk (*) are, 90% of the time, the only ones whose citizens respond when I greet them as they enter the shop. I'm just saying.

In general I'm very happy to be here and feel oddly settled and comfortable, which almost never happens, ever. I decided to do my master's in teaching instead of Old Nordic Religion. (It turns out that I really enjoy feeling emotionally and spiritually attached to the ancient gods and goddess of Ásgarður, and I don't particularly want to dissect them in a scientific or academic way. I just want to learn all about them on my own without having to measure up to a bunch of so-called scholars who aren't even sure if they ever existed.) Anyway, the other day I was thinking about whether I might want to just go back to the States to get that teaching degree, since it would be so much easier to do so in my native language. While the idea of studying in English is appealing, I somehow can't bring myself to pick up my feet and leave this place. At least not yet. Not in summer, when everything smells so good outside and the sun is shining and there's camping and swimming and horseback riding to be done! Ask me again in winter. Oy. Let's not think about winter, I'm not ready!

Thursday, June 16, 2011


If the color green had an official scent, it would be the way the air smells in the yard in front of our place right now. It’s just about ten o’clock at night, the light outside looks like it would at five in the evening if we weren't so close to the Arctic Circle, and it rained a few minutes ago. Everything is cool and fresh, and each blade of grass and leaf practically rings with life, issuing forth that glorious smell of summer in Iceland.

My boyfriend has trotted downtown to meet his friends at the pub, but I start my new job tomorrow and want to be fresh for the little tourist souvenir shop downtown in the morning. It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived in Iceland, and tomorrow is June 17th, Independence Day.

The first week was rainy and cold, and people kept making jokes like, “If summer comes, we should go camping/go to the pool/go fishing, etc.” My mind spent the first week teetering between jet lag, exhaustion, getting used to speaking my second language more than my first, and going through that lovely phase that happens whenever a person moves to a new place and wonders, “Oh no. Have I made the wrong decision?”

Then, literally less than twelve hours after I finally broke down and cried to my extremely nice and understanding boyfriend, came The First Sunny Day, and all my concerns went flying in the same direction as those nasty old storm clouds. We got in the car (loaned to us by said boyfriend’s mother who was on vacation), pointed it away from the new set of clouds looming in the east, and drove northwest-ish to Hvalfjörður (“Whale Fjord”) and the surrounding area.

Maybe it’s a genetic thing, maybe it’s because I was born here, or maybe it’s just the nature of the country itself, but my body has ten times the energy it usually does whenever I come to Iceland. In most parts of the U.S. I’m generally sluggish, with bouts of excitable energy, and I can force myself to exercise from time to time when I start to notice a little excess weight gain here or there. But, jet lag aside, turn me loose in a grassy area of this Arctic island and, depending on what shoes I’m wearing, I turn into a frolicking machine. I can also accomplish tasks and run errands during the day, and still have it in me to go out after dinner, all of which is highly unusual for me. And this walk that I took to the corner store a short while ago, meant to help me wind down, filled me with so much of that vim and vigor I’ve heard so much about that I might have to do some jumping jacks before I’m able to fall asleep tonight. I suppose the sunlight and blue skies this late at night may have something to do with that as well.

So now that I’ve come back down to earth after relocating to Iceland from America, the summer of new challenges is spread out before me like a picnic blanket with the words, “Are you sure you can handle this?” scrawled across it in ants and mustard. Challenge #1: I’ve moved in with my boyfriend (who is 100% Icelandic*, compared to my 50% Icelandic, 50% Austrian, 95% raised in the U.S. of A), which is the first time either of us has ever lived with a person we’re dating. Challenge #2: I’m now living and working in the land of my birth for the first time since I was newborn into this world of ours, and hoping to increase my Icelandic language abilities to the point where I’m able to follow even just one grammar rule with any amount of consistency. Challenge #3: I am also attempting to prepare for beginning my Master’s program in the fall. Hopefully this Master’s program will be the one Old Nordic Religion at the University of Iceland here in Reykjavík. I’ve been accepted and everything, but now that I’m here it seems there have been some changes made to the courses being offered and I’ve got to talk to the head honcho of the whole shebang before I agree to fill the ample brain space I have available with Old Norse grammar and other such grueling medieval subjects.

I’ve decided to skip the jumping jacks and go straight to eating chips, drinking kókómjólk (the greatest chocolate milk drink the gods gave man), and watching Harry Potter before I go to sleep. No shame!

* Retraction: It turns out he is 80% Icelandic, 20% Danish. You learn something new about the people you live with every day. :)