I am too skinny and need to eat more

Today the father's father came round for lunch. He was talking to me in Icelandic about where I was from, learning Icelandic and so forth. Interestingly, whenever you tell an Icelander you are from 'near Bristol', they first ask "Is that in Wales?" and then "Is that in Cornwall?" I know this will make certain of my friends happy who like to insist that Bristol is in Wales.

But then he says, "So, are you a Catholic?"
"Uuuuh, no."
"What is the church in Britain?"
"Uuuuh, Church of England. Anglican."
"So you are an Anglican?"
"Uuuuh, no. I'm an atheist."
"Oh, so what do you believe in?"
"You believe we just came down from the mountains?"

Wow. I am not equipped for this conversation in Icelandic. I muttered something about evolution. After a little bit, he continued, "So you don't celebrate Christmas or Easter?" And then, "So what would you do if your father died, wouldn't you go to the funeral in a church?" Jings crivvens! I just didn't know what to say...

And then he said in English, "You are too skinny. You need to eat more." OK, thanks for that. I wasn't offended at all, just mildly bemused that someone would actually say that. To someone they only just met.

In which I apparently embarrass myself, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't my fault

So last night I went out to the cinema with the 15-year-old. Obviously she is not old enough to drive, so I was supposed to be doing that. We didn't take the massive automatic 4x4 - instead we were in the massive (but slightly less so) manual Volvo. I was actually doing pretty well, after I got used to the gear-stick and handbrake being on the wrong side. I slowed down as we came up to a roundabout and put it down into 2nd, and then it stalled. I'm pretty sure it wasn't my fault, because we were in 2nd and weren't going that slowly. So I turned it off, put it into neutral, handbrake on, turned the ignition again - everything you're supposed to do, and... nothing. It made a sort of noise, but it wouldn't start again. I tried it in gear, with the clutch in various positions (since I don't know anything about cars, I don't know whether these things could make an actual difference - I was clutching at straws), but it didn't work.  I was definitely turning the key all the way. So I put the hazard warning lights on and the 15-year-old called her dad. All the cars behind me were honking their horns, even though I was obviously not stationary out of choice - people don't just stop five metres away from a roundabout and forget what they're supposed to be doing.

All the time I was thinking, "If he gets here and it starts immediately, this is going to be super embarrassing." So obviously that's exactly what happened. Sigh. 

Anyway, the film was fun. They have intermissions in Iceland, like the olden days. How quaint. I understood perhaps 30% of what they were saying, but I could follow the story well enough. It was called Gauragangur, about some kid who's at school and various things happen. Yeah, I am not good at summarising plots (especially ones I only just grasped), but it doesn't matter really because it's unlikely that you were considering going to see this.

In other news, I went to Austurvöllur (a square in central Reykjavík) today and saw an establishment called 'The English Pub'. They had Guiness signs up and were flying the Faroese flag. I laughed to myself.
Close but no cigar.


Here are a couple of pictures that I took yesterday when I was going to pick up the 3-year-old from playschool. The way goes round the edge of 'Tjörnin' (The Pond), the lake in the middle of Reykjavík.

Geese on ice.

Landmarks and Birds of Reykjavík

I went out for a walk today to try and get my bearings a bit. The weather is completely overcast, but not raining or very cold at all. I went down to Sæbraut, but the scenery was missing.
You can just see the base of the mountains. To make up for the grey, miserable weather, Reykjavík is fairly brightly coloured, which is nice. I can't remember which street this is, but you can see all the houses painted blue and green and red. Trés jolie.
 I also took some standard tourist shots, when I thought nobody was looking.
This is Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímur's church), a famous Reykjavík landmark. The green man in front is Leifur 'heppni' Eiríksson - you probably know him as Leif the Lucky. He's the one who was (maybe, probably) the first European to set foot in North America, which he named Vínland (Wineland). Practically this exact photo has been taken thousands of times before, but hey, you're only in Manchester once.
This different green man is Ingólfur Arnarson, the 'first settler' of Iceland. Probably he wasn't really, but who cares. He came to Iceland in 874 AD, and built his farm on the site of modern-day Reykjavík.
And here are some nice birds that I saw.
Eider Duck  
The trees were absolutely packed with redwings, blackbirds and starlings, all singing away like mad. I suppose because there aren't very many hours of daylight they have to sing more energetically whilst they have the chance.

Þorramatur - as disgusting as you might expect

Yesterday we all went to Ikea, because they needed some more stools for the kitchen. And also because it is supposedly the cheapest place you can get lunch in Iceland. Anyway, I'm sure you've all heard that in Iceland they eat rotten shark. They don't all the time - it's like traditional food (þorramatur - food of þorri, which is an old Icelandic name for late January/early February) from the olden days when they didn't have freezers or anything. So the only way to preserve meat and fish for the winter months was to pickle it into submission, rendering it almost inedible, but not actually toxic.
They were selling this stuff at Ikea of all places, and the father thought it would be funny to get some for me, 'bara að smakka' ('just to taste'). And yeah, rotten shark (hákarl) really is absolutely vile, although it smells a lot worse than it tastes. Sviðasulta (sheep's head brawn), hrútspungar (pickled ram's bollocks) and lundabaggi (pickled sheep-stomach roll) are equally disgusting. They just taste like sour whey. The pickled herring was actually quite nice, though, and I quite liked harðfiskur (which in this case was dried haddock). It just tastes really strongly of fish, with a texture like fine wickerwork - sort of like eating a coaster. I also had some hangikjöt (smoked lamb), which was pretty unpleasant and tasted quite a lot like an ashtray.

Then we went round to the mother's parents' house. They were very nice, and they kindly lent me Sjálfstætt Fólk, which is the original Icelandic of my favourite novel Independent People by Halldór Laxness, and made some waffles with jam and cream, which were much better than the þorramatur.

In other new experiences, I drove a massive automatic 4x4 round Reykjavík on the right-hand-side of the road last night. It was absolutely terrifying, but I didn't crash or anything.

So Here I Am

So here I am in Iceland. It is 10.30 am and still dark outside, which is mostly depressing. I am perfecting my wide-eyed face of incomprehension and saying 'Ha?' a lot, but in general I am doing slightly better at communicating in Icelandic than I thought I would. And things can only get better. 
I am perfectly competent at talking with the 3-year-old about what colour things are, so that's a start.
I will probably write some more later, but I am still a bit overwhelmed/tired right now. Think I'm just going to go back to watching Babar in Icelandic with the two younger kids.


It turns out that the organisation necessary for temporarily moving to another country is a complete hassle. I am definitely not good at forms and phoning people up and all this sort of thing, which has somewhat put a damper on the giddy excitement of it all. Luckily a bit of this is being handled by the agency, but I am still sick of Doctor's certificates, Subject access requests, EHICs, E104s, CA 3916s, etc, etc. In good news, my temporarily dead antique phone has come back to life, and I'm pretty sure I'll just be able to buy it an Icelandic SIM once I'm there.

I went to the Post Office on Monday to order a bit of Icelandic cash - a hundred quid's worth, which I'm picking up later today. I can't remember how many krónur this is going to get me, but it's in the thousands. The conversion rate is something tricky like £1 - 187 ISK (although obviously transfer fees mean I won't be getting 18,700 kr.). As anyone who's seen me try to do a sum in my head will testify, I think I'm going to have to forget about "How much is this in pounds?" and just try and get used to it.

I've written a list of all the things I need to pack, and am definitely starting on that this afternoon. I'm also going to the hairdressers, to delay for as long as possible the inevitable terror of getting a haircut in another language.

And then before I know it, it's going to be Friday, and I'll be going up with my Dad (and my Mum if she can find someone to look after the puppies) to stay the night with my Auntie Alison in Putney. And then to Gatwick in the morning, by which point I'll probably be close to having a heart attack. Now the 'Iceland deadline' is really rushing up, and all my vague conceptions about the future are starting to solidify into something very real. People who I've only communicated with via email and telephone - I'm going to be actually meeting them and actually living in their house and actually attempting to communicate with them in a language which hitherto I have spoken only to myself. The Iceland that I've created inside my head won't survive this - I want to talk about Proust a lot at this point, but I'll refrain. I am quite scared.

Happy New Year (a bit late)

Every year in Iceland there is a programme called 'Áramótaskaup' (New Year's Joke), broadcast on New Year's Eve. It's a sort of topical comedy sketch show, and it always ends with a song. 2010's song is superb. It's a version of 'Empire State of Mind' by Jay Z and Alicia Keys, sung by Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir, who once represented Iceland at Eurovison as her comedy alter ego Silvía Nótt, and played Eva in the film 'Jar City' / 'Mýrin'. It features Icelandic politician Jón Bjarnason eating snuff by the handful, some teenagers giving a giant króna a cup of coffee, some hungover bankers being handed their marching orders and, best of all really, a lovely optimistic message of hope for the future. See below for translated lyrics. They don't rhyme anymore, and some of it sounds a bit weird, but you will get the idea. I started a new line everytime the on-screen subtitles change. Gleðilegt nýár, öll!

("Well, it's starting to heat up in parliament, we'll go in and have a look."
"This left-wing government is useless. I need someone to replace them who is fit to govern. I intend to be that person."
"I can't be fucking bothered with this anymore"
"Why can't I hire my son? Is he somehow worse than other sons?"
"I am not fat!"
.... can't tell what anyone's saying here, too many people talking at once...)

Hey, hey!
All of you shut up!
Do you think it's quite reasonable to belch here and ramble
Up on your podiums like you've always done
Something's not quite right when a fire burns outside
And in here the politician sits totally impotent
Wouldn't it be sensible to stop attacking each other
And let out the foul smell of this political hot air?
Whilst the Taxman, Loki and the demons dress our children up in chains
Built from the debt of old calculating errors
We don't want to hear about more written-off loans
For the chosen vikings, the flash criminals - the idiots.
Those sick money-imps with shit all up their backs
Who then slunk off and left you behind in the rubble.
But oh, unfortunately, no peace, we need to make cuts.
It's so horribly unfair, the way this pie is sliced
But we've been driven before onto the ice and come back strong.
We fell asleep on our watch but this evening we'll wake up.

New Year!
Let's reject those things worth rejecting
And start to change.
Happy New Year!
We'll throw out the worst
And harness our best.
Happy New Year!

We cannot forget in this strange situation
There are fewer of us than live on one street in any foreign country.
A few thousand people, all like sisters and brothers.
Let's kindle a new fire and blow life into the old embers.
Let's enjoy our small population and join hands together,
Everything's fucked as well in lots of other countries.
In Portugal, Britain, Ireland, Greece,
And the American dream is struggling in its death throes.
But here is where I want to be and rest my bones.
There's so much good here that we have to do.
This statistical-figure-kid isn't a package of problems
But the generation destined to inherit the whole thing.
Because the future, it awaits
And the future doesn't hold the same mistakes we made, no I don't think so.
Let's write the story again and turn our backs on the bandits.
Let's dance out in the street and give each other five.

New Year!
Let's overthrow them and cast them into the fire
To melt down for Icelandic steel.
Happy New Year!
Now we welcome the future
And tighten our embraces.
Happy New Year!

Hey, stand up out of your chair in your crisp-ironed dresses
Throw out bad thoughts and grab your arse inside your trousers
In the city centre and the suburbs, at the New Year's parties,
Hug all your cousins, then go and see the fireworks.
And shout into the sky your dearest wishes.
We'll make it out of this volcanic ash with stubbornness and tenacity.
And with cooperation and cohesion and collaboration and just co... whatever!

New Year!
Let's say goodbye to the private interest mafia
And make the generations rejoice.
Happy New Year!
We'll all join hands together,
Friends and enemies!
Happy New Year!

Let's raise a glass to Iceland
And all its countless merits
Because despite everything I want to be
My whole life just here with you with me,

Hello etc

Hello, everybody. Here is a blog that I intend to write to let everyone who is interested know how things go in Iceland. I am going up there to be an au pair for a year (well, almost a year), staying with a family in central Reykjavík. They have four children at the moment (15 year old girl, 11 year old boy, 6 year old boy and 3 year old girl), with a baby expected in March. Which is quite a lot of children, really.

As I'm sure anyone who's ever met me is aware, this temporary move to Reykjavík is pretty much a dream come true for me, because for a long time I have been quite interested in Icelandic history, literature, culture and language. One of my university tutors once said to me, in an exasperated tone, "Why don't you just marry Iceland?" Yeah, my enthusiasm for Iceland is at embarrassing levels. It wasn't always like this - I don't know what happened to me.

Before university (four years ago) I can remember toying with the idea of living in Iceland after my degree, but such a notion didn't really seem possible. After the first degree I didn't know what to do, so I did what a lot of people in my position do. I signed up for an MA. Nearing the end of that the real world was starting to loom over my comfy student existence in a very menacing way. And by then going to Iceland was pretty much the only thing I wanted to do - trawling through graduate jobs made me want to cry. I can't really believe it's all come together so smoothly... part of me still thinks it's a bit outlandish. But I booked my plane tickets today, and I'm flying out from Gatwick to Keflavík on the 22nd January. In eleven days.

I am in turns ridiculously can't-sleep can't-stop-grinning excited, vaguely uneasy and in a state of disbelief. All going well, this will probably be one of the most terrifying, challenging, exciting years of my life. Definitely the first time I've had anything worth writing a blog about, I should say. Hopefully it'll be reasonably interesting to read. Hopefully I won't forget about it. In the mean time, here is a quotation from W.H. Auden that I always enjoy:

"Few people take an interest in Iceland, but in those few the interest is passionate."