Pósturinn Páll is erratic and overzealous

In Iceland, my old childhood favourite Postman Pat is called Pósturinn Páll. Jess is called Njáll. Ridiculous. 

But really this post is about the Icelandic postal system, and specifically about the guys working in the international packages department. What is their deal? Why does it take them so long to process these things? Why do they have to open everything? 

Most frustratingly, when my mother legibly writes the contents and value of a package on a label, and then sticks that label on the package, why do they remain so confused about the contents and value of the package that they feel unable to allow me to have it without also receiving an e-mail from my mother confirming that yes, it's fucking tea and it's worth about three fucking quid? Hmm?

They also opened said tea, either before receiving the confirmation e-mail (in which case why do you need this in electronic writing when you can see it's tea with your own eyes?) or afterwards (in which case, if you don't trust my mother's word when she's given you the information twice, why don't you just skip this e-mail stage?). We are currently going through this process for the second time with some earphones that I ordered on Amazon and had delivered to my parents. Amazon doesn't deliver to Iceland and to be honest I can see why. They don't need that sort of hassle.

Actually, I think it may be a trust issue specific to my mother, because I recently received a package from my friend in the USA containing chocolate and, although they had opened it just to make sure, there was no preceding card through the door saying, "Hey, you have a package from abroad waiting for you, but we're not going to give it to you yet lolz". Maybe they think Mum is trying to send me drugs or bombs?

Níu komma sjö

I finished my Icelandic course today. For the final exam, if it can be called an exam since it was pretty informal and you could look at your books and everything (although I did not, out of principle), I got 9.7, which equates I believe to 97%. Some of the marks I dropped were also slightly controversial. For example, my spelling of the word for ankle was corrected to "ökli", when by far the most common spelling, and the one that appears in our textbook, is "ökkli". There was also one section about adding the definite article on to the end of words. Skæri ("scissors"), which, like scissors, only exists in the plural, was in the table with the singular words. It said above the table, "All these words are in the nominative singular". Hmmm, I thought to myself, I know that it's skærin but in the singular it would have to be skærið... I didn't think the singular existed, but I went ahead with skærið, which was apparently wrong. Not quite cricket, I would say. 

Overall, I think that Icelandic 3 was a bit easy for me. But I met some great people, and it was sort of nice to find nearly everything well within my abilities, in an I'm-not-pushing-myself-at-all kind of way. Icelandic 4 starts on the 11th April. I haven't enrolled yet, but I mostly likely will.

Now they are five

The latest addition to the household was born today. I was making porridge and the father came down and said, "Góðan daginn". Then he wandered around for a few minutes looking at the newspaper before letting me know that his wife was in labour. I suppose if it's the fifth time it's all a bit routine?

Anyway, he was born by about 11.30 am, and the parents and baby walked home from the hospital (which is only just down the road) to be home by teatime. So everything seems to have gone pretty well. I didn't know it was possible to give birth in the morning and then walk home from the hospital in the afternoon, but apparently so. So far he has mostly been asleep. It's hard work being born.

Another night out in Reykjavík

I am just recovering from a cold which I managed to inflict upon myself by going out into the freezing cold and damp night a few weeks ago. I met up with Brynna, who is a Canadian also working as an au pair over here, and Ahmad, who is from Jordan and is half-Icelandic, and we went on a little bar-crawl round central Reykjavík. We went first to Hemmi & Valdi on Laugavegur, which is a nice café in the daytime. It has comfy seats and a pleasant atmosphere. We were out way too early though - starting in a bar at 9.30 is seriously un-Icelandic. Everyone in there was speaking English. There was a guy sort of DJ-ing, but he must surely have been friends with the people who owned the bar or something because he was absolutely dreadful. My lasting impression is of some sort of terrible reggae and a voice repeating the word 'fire'. I'd definitely like to go back to Hemmi & Valdi sometime at a later hour, hopefully when the reggae guy isn't there with his laptop.

After we left there, we headed down Laugavegur to Kofi Tómasar Frænda, which is also a nice café with comfy seats. It was pretty dead, to be honest, but the music was less upsetting. And so to Kaffibarinn, which was more lively, possibly because it was a bit later, but also because it's just a really popular bar. On a different occasion, I saw Hallgrímur Helgason there (author of 101 Reykjavík, which I read in English and 10 ráð til að hætta að drepa fólk og byrja að vaska upp, which I read in Icelandic). I almost made up my mind to go up and say something to him, but then he left before I managed to compose myself sufficiently. Kaffibarinn is co-owned by Damon Albarn of Blur fame and Baltasar Kormákur of Icelandic director/actor fame. Baltasar directed and appeared in the film of 101 Reykjavík, and the bar itself features in the film. So it was cool to see the author of the book drinking there. But as I say, that was a different night.

After Kaffibarinn, we headed down to the new Laundromat bar on Austurstræti. It was pretty good - I wouldn't say I like it as much as Kaffibarinn or Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar (which I visited for the first time last weekend). I think it was about 2.30 by the time we left. We went to stand shivering in the freezing, wet, snowy queue for Bæjarins Beztu and I got eina með öllu, and promptly managed to get sauce all over my gloves. And then we decided to go for a walk on the Tjörn, because this was back when it was frozen solid. I found this really exciting and ran around a lot. When I was well and truly chilled to the marrow, I went home to bed. Woke up the next morning feeling pretty ill. But it was worth it.

A short anecdote about Rolling Stone magazine

Justin Bieber is on the front cover of the most recent edition of Rolling Stone magazine, which the father has a subscription to. They all think it's hilarious to tease the 15-year-old by pretending that she fancies Justin Bieber and the 3-year-old was having a great time walking round with the magazine, showing it to people so they could say, "Er hann ekki sætur?" ("Isn't he cute?"). Then her father gave her the previous edition. She asked, "Er þetta líka Justin Bieber?" ("Is that Justin Bieber too?"). Here is a picture of the front cover she was asking about:

This is a room full of books, but is it a book shop?

Last Saturday I went to a bookshop on Hverfisgata that I’d been told about, with my German friend from Icelandic lessons. It was incredible, like no other bookshop I’ve ever been in before. There is a television programme here on Wednesdays called "Kiljan", which means "The Paperback", and is also the adopted middle name of Halldór Kiljan Laxness, my favourite author and to some extent still the literary darling of Iceland. Even though he was somewhat controversial during his lifetime, he remains the only Icelander to have won a Nobel Prize, which sort of makes his position as king of twentieth-century Icelandic literature unassailable. It is a programme about books and literature, as you have probably guessed, and every week there is a feature called "Rykkornið", meaning "the speck of dust", in which the presenter goes to talk to the owner of this book shop about some old books. The bookshop-owner, Bragi Kristjónsson, always takes snuff during this short interview, and by all accounts is slightly eccentric.

We didn't actually see him when we went to his shop - in fact there didn't appear to be any staff there at all, which would probably have made it quite difficult to actually buy a book. But lack of staff was not as much of a problem as the sheer impossibility of finding anything that you might be looking for. There was a system of sorts, but mostly it was like being in someone's attic. 

This, I presume, is the place where you are supposed to pay for your books. As you can see, it is unmanned. And quite cluttered.

I loved it, but I wouldn't advise anyone to go in with a specific book in mind... it's more of a browsing experience.

Ravens and Kangaroos

This is one of the children's books. It is called Vísnabókin, which means The Book of Rhymes. It's mostly poems about god and/or farmyard animals (kids love that stuff). The front cover looks like this:

What is that cat snickering about?

I know what I expect when I see such a book cover, and it isn't illustrations like this:

Yeah, that's a raven about to eat a decapitated sheep's head.

And then on the back cover we find this:

Which is presumably your child coming to you in the night because he's having nightmares about those cold, dead eyes and that gently lolling tongue. Slightly macabre?

I also enjoy this towel thing with animals on. All the animals are drawn with eyes and mouths that make them look either startled, saddened or possibly haunted by their time fighting in the Vietnam War. My favourites are the kangaroos and the cat.

These two have seen too much. You don't know, man, you weren't there.
Why? Why did you take my hummingbird? Why did you crumple up my map of Mother Earth?

Ballið á Bessastöðum

I forgot - I did do something noteworthy last weekend. I went to the theatre with all four of the kids to see a children's play. It looked like this:

I understood most of it. In case you didn't catch it, they are singing here the title of the play, "Ballið á Bessastöðum". Albeit with a bit more la-ing. Bessastaðir is the residence of the President of Iceland, who is a main character in the play. He is mostly unhappy because he has to answer letters all day and has no time to eat waffles. The basic story is that someone is getting married, and therefore needs a cake. Also, the king, queen and princess of Norway are coming to visit Iceland. The cake is accidentally ruined, and the President of Iceland and the princess of Norway set off with it to try and find the person who can fix it. There is also a ghost baker from the days when Iceland was a Danish colony, and he is unhappy with the quality of the cake to start off with. Anyway, they end up eating the cake and using it as currency, so by the time they get to the person there is hardly any left anyway. Luckily, the ghost baker bakes another, better cake and they all go back to Bessastaðir and have a big party, because it is this wedding (although I don't remember it actually taking place) and also the 17th of June, which is Iceland's Independence Day. Oh, and someone who was trying to pull the President by sending him socks through the post paints Bessastaðir pink. 

Yeah, I have incredible summarising skills. Anyway, it was a fun time.


Hello, looks like I forgot to post anything this week. I've been a bit busy with life and stuff, but nothing especially noteworthy has happened. Just mostly Icelandic lessons and au pairing. Sorry about that. Here is an extract from Egilssaga Skallagrímssonar instead, a story about a man who had a much more exciting life. This is a nineteenth-century translation, partly because due to the problems of transporting my library I do not have my modern translation to hand, whereas this is available online, and partly because nineteenth-century translations are funnier.

"Skallagrim took much pleasure in trials of strength and games; he liked to talk about such. Ball-play was then a common game. Plenty of strong men there were at that time in the neighbourhood, but not one of strength to match with Skallagrim. He was now somewhat stricken in years. There was a man named Thord, son of Grani, at Granastead, who was of great promise; he was then young; very fond he was of Egil, Skallagrim's son. Egil often engaged in wrestling; he was headstrong and hot-tempered, but all had the sense to teach their sons to give way to Egil. A game of ball was held at White-river-dale in the early winter, to which was a great gathering of people from all the country-side. Thither went many of Skallagrim's household to the game. Chief among them was Thord, Grani's son. Egil asked Thord to let him go with him to the game; he was then in his seventh winter. Thord let him do so, and Egil mounted behind him. But when they came to the play-meeting, then the men made up sides for the play. Many small boys had come there too, and they made up a game for themselves. For this also sides were chosen.

Egil was matched to play against a boy named Grim, son of Hegg, of Hegg-stead. Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age. But when they played together Egil got the worst of it. And Grim made all he could of his advantage. Then Egil got angry and lifted up the bat and struck Grim, whereupon Grim seized him and threw him down with a heavy fall, and handled him rather roughly, and said he would thrash him if he did not behave. But when Egil got to his feet, he went out of the game, and the boys hooted at him.

Egil went to Thord and told him what had been done. Thord said: 'I will go with you, and we will be avenged on them.'

He gave into his hands a halberd that he had been carrying. Such weapons were then customary. They went where the boys' game was. Grim had now got the ball and was running away with it, and the other boys after him. Then Egil bounded upon Grim, and drove the axe into his head, so that it at once pierced his brain. After this Egil and Thord went away to their own people. The Myramen ran to their weapons, and so did either party. Oleif Halt, with his following, ran to help the Borgarmen, who were thus far the larger number, and they parted without doing more. But hence arose a quarrel between Oleif and Hegg. They fought at Laxfit, by Grims-river; there seven men fell, but Hegg was wounded to death, and his brother Kvig fell. But when Egil came home, Skallagrim said little about it; but Bera said Egil had in him the makings of a freebooter, and that 'twould be well, so soon as he were old enough, to give him a long-ship."

Yeah, he killed another child because he lost to him at sport. He had the makings of a freebooter all right.


Grýlukerti is my new favourite Icelandic word. It means "icicle", but literally translates as "Grýla's candle". Grýla is an ogress / troll woman from Icelandic folk stories. She comes down from the mountains at Christmas and puts unruly children in her sack, carries them back to her caves and eats them. She's also the mother of the thirteen jólasveinar ("Christmas Lads"). They come down one at a time in the thirteen days before Christmas and leave presents in children's shoes - or potatoes if they have not been good. Anyway, it's not Christmas so this is not really appropriate. I just think grýlukerti is a really good word for icicle.

There are a lot of icicles in Reykjavík at the moment, hanging off all the houses. This past week it's been extremely cold. Well, it's been what I would class as extremely cold. My friend from Manitoba keeps laughing at me for my inability to deal with subzero temperatures. On Wednesday morning it was -11. It's finally worked it's way above freezing today (according to Veðurstofa Íslands - I have yet to go outside this morning) but temperatures generally have been around -6 ish. Going outside is like preparing for a polar expedition. I have been wearing a lot of wool. There's been intermittent snow, but not much since Wednesday, when I felt like Scott of the Antarctic going to my Icelandic lesson. This is what Reykjavík looked like yesterday.

Still not much sign of spring - I've seen a few leaf buds but that's it. I love the bright red house.
See the house with the letterbox on it? That's the narrowest house in Iceland. How about that.
This doesn't appear to be a mosque - it looked just like a normal house to me. But it has a bright orange dome.

Tjörnin is so frozen, you can walk on it! I did and it was really exciting. Last night I ran a race on it at 3 o'clock in the morning, which was also exciting.
How stunning is that.

Milk Story

In Iceland the nýmjólk ('fresh milk' - I would assume milk sold in supermarkets to be fresh, but it's nice to be sure) cartons have little stories on them, centered around words which have recently entered the Icelandic language. This is by far my favourite, mostly because of the expression on the woman's face.

The text reads:

Ding dong
The ringtone on Gulla's mobile phone was a recording of the doorbell in her house. If her mobile rang whilst she was at home, it was impossible for her to know whether she ought to go to the door or answer the phone. But that's how she wanted it. Life shouldn't be too predictable.

I think the artist has definitely captured, in Gulla's face, the thrill of being uncertain whether a noise is coming from a phone or the front door.

P.S. In case you didn't guess, the neologism here is hringitónn (ringtone).

Bolludagur, Sprengidagur, Öskudagur

I hope you all had a lovely Pancake Day yesterday. Unfortunately, in Iceland there is no such thing. Today we are finishing a trio of mildly festive days that Icelanders celebrate in the run-up to Lent. And also the beginning of Lent I suppose, since that started today.

On Monday it was Bolludagur (Bun Day), on which Icelanders eat a lot of rjómabollur (cream buns). I enjoyed it very much and managed to get cream all over my face, although as it happens I only had one bolla, because the six-year-old and I had to leave for his ice-hockey lesson. When I returned there were no remaining bollur. Sad times.

Yesterday was Sprengidagur (Exploding Day). It is so called because you are supposed to eat so much salted lamb and split pea stew that you explode. So that's what we had for tea, and it was properly delicious. I am a big fan of stews. I'd never had saltkjöt (salted lamb) before, and it was really good. At Ikea it was possible to get this meal yesterday for two krónur. Which is genuinely only one penny. Is that not incredible? We didn't go, but all the kids were singing the jingle all day. Saltkjöt og baunir, túkall!

But it was Pancake Day in my heart, and I'll be damned if I'll go Pancake Day without any pancakes. So I bought some lemons on my way home from my Icelandic lesson, and after dinner I made English-style pancakes with the 15-year-old. I felt under a certain amount of pressure as the ambassador for the noble tradition of Pancake Day, especially as I am not the best ever at making pancakes without everything going wrong at the flipping stage. To make matters worse, the pan was far from ideal - way too deep. Sure enough, a number of the pancakes were not in pancake form when they left the pan. Quite a lot turned out really well, though, and they all tasted excellent. Icelanders never have lemon and sugar with their pancakes, but I think people were fans. Apart from the 6-year-old, who refused to have lemon on his second one.

Today is Öskudagur (Ash Day), which obviously corresponds to Ash Wednesday in English-speaking countries. But here it is quite a big deal. It's sort of like a weird Icelandic version of Halloween. All the kids went to school in costume (they were dressed as Lína Langsokkur / Pippi Longstocking, a bat, an emo and a toddler, going from youngest to oldest), and the 11-year-old and his friends went down Laugavegur singing in return for sweets. I have the feeling that this tradition is relatively recent, because it doesn't really tie in with the religious calendar at all. Today is the start of Lent; we're supposed to be abstaining from things and practicing self-control, not eating as many sweets as possible, er það ekki? I suppose Iceland was just jealous of the American Halloween, but didn't want to copy too obviously.

Icelanders also do not give things up for Lent. It was very difficult to explain the whole concept. I don't usually give things up for Lent. One time I tried to give up coffee and my need for caffeine just drove me into the arms of tea. But this year I intend to. I am giving up speaking English to Icelanders. Because I do it far too much, and it is not good for my language learning. I have already failed, technically speaking, because I lost my purse this morning and I was having a crisis about missing the bus. I was too stressed to not speak English. But from now on, having found my purse again, only English when talking to non-Icelanders.


When I grow up I want to be an eyebrow. No, only joking -  of course I want to be red in the rainbow.

But there is something wrong with my left eyebrow. There's a massive hole in it. I have not accidentally plucked the hole, or shaved it or anything. As far as I'm aware of, there's been nothing rubbing it... except maybe my hat, but then why is it only the left eyebrow? I find the situation confusing and alarming.

In other hair-related news, I need a haircut. Which is pretty bad news, because it means that not only will I have to get my hair cut by someone other than the woman from my village, which I do not feel good about (I never got my hair cut in Sheffield, even), but I will have to speak Icelandic to a stranger and then allow them to apply scissors to my hair. Although actually, I probably will ask if it's all right to conduct the exchange in English at least the first time. I do not feel confident about this.

Also, especially for Alex, here are a couple of amusing mistakes I have made over the past few weeks in my attempts to speak Icelandic:
  • I've been saying, "Ertu allt í lagi?" to mean "Are you all right?" I have recently found out that I should have been saying, "Er allt í lagi með þig?" What I have been saying translates more accurately as, "Are you quite all there?" Thinking back now, this does explain some slightly confused reactions.
  • Trying to say "feed the dog" (I forget the context), I got my verbs confused because of the similarity to English and used að fæða instead of að gefa. So what I actually said was "give birth to the dog". Oops.

Language School

Today I finished my first week of Icelandic lessons. It's been fun to be doing a course again - I've been missing seminars (although not essays). They are held just outside central Reykjavík, from 9.20 to 11.30 on Mondays to Thursdays. It takes about ten minutes on the bus. There are something like twelve other students in the class, one each from India, Ethiopia, Thailand, Germany, Mexico and Canada and then the rest are Polish.

At first everything was going a bit slowly, and I was getting pretty frustrated because the things we were doing were so easy I hardly had to try at all. I mean, actually stuff like 'Hvað heitir þú?' ('What's your name?'). If you've enrolled in a course which is taught in Icelandic, and is labelled as intermediate, I'm pretty sure you've got simple introductions down. It wasn't just 'Hvað heitir þú?' sort of stuff, but really nothing challenging. I was thinking maybe I'd have to change up to Icelandic 4. And also wondering what on earth people were doing with their time in Icelandic 1 and 2.

I still think I could probably handle Icelandic 4, but I'm going to continue with Icelandic 3 because the pace is starting to pick up a bit. We've got some nice grammatical tables to get our teeth into, and I actually made quite a lot of mistakes today (a lot of kitchen-appliance related vocabulary seems to have fallen out of my head). Which is good, because obviously if you're not making mistakes then you're not learning, you're just going over things you already know.

I'm really glad we're getting more grammar now. Is it weird that I enjoy conjugation and declension? I mean, it frustrates me no end when I'm trying to speak Icelandic, but I actually find it quite fun to write out the tables and do 'fill-in-the-gap' style exercises. Hopefully we'll have more of that, and more challenging vocabulary. It would be nice to do more than the simple present tense for verbs (pretty much the least useful tense), but I suppose I have plenty of time in Iceland. I can safely finish Icelandic 4 and 5 when I'm done with this.

Icelandic food

Besides the frightening þorramatur, food in Iceland is generally pretty normal. However, there are a few things that I find a bit odd. Food and drink are some of the most visible points of cultural difference when you go to another country, and also I think one of the things that you hold most dear about your own country. I brought Marmite and Yorkshire Tea with me to Iceland because I didn't want to live without them. OK, that sounds like I would be a suicide risk if I didn't have them - that's not what I meant. I would just strongly prefer to have them than not.

The first thing that I found odd is that they didn't own a potato masher when I first came here. They have now acquired one, I think because I was so dismayed to discover its absence. Honestly, they've got one of those things for slicing boiled eggs, but didn't have a potato masher? I remember those cheaps packs of basic kitchen utensils that people had at university, and they were made up of a ladle, a big spoon, a spatula and a potato masher. Those are the essentials.

Also, Icelanders have a peculiar habit of mixing sweet food together with savoury, definitely not in a good way. For example, rice pudding is eaten with brown sugar and cinnamon and black pudding. Yep, all in the same bowl together. In the same vein, they think it's OK to eat bread with cheese and jam. 

To end on a positive note, I'll also tell you about 'Bæjarins Beztu' ('The Best in Town'), which has a 'z' in it because it has been going so long. 'Z' is no longer in the Icelandic alphabet, probably because it's pronounced exactly the same as 's' and is therefore a waste of a letter. Anyway, it's a little wooden hut down on Tryggvagata where you can get a pylsa (hot-dog), probably the most popular take-away food in Iceland for 300 krónur, or approximately £1.60. Most Icelanders strongly believe that the best hot-dogs in the world are to be had from Bæjarins Beztu - it's become sort of a national institution. There is a massive queue there every lunch-time. What's more thrilling, Bill Clinton once bought a hot-dog there. There are many pictures of this happy event displayed in the hut. 

I don't really have much experience with hot-dogs - they're not particularly popular in Britain - but I will say that they are excellent value. The thing to do is to get "eina með öllu' ("one with everything"), which comes with fried onions, a brownish sauce and a yellowish sauce. I wouldn't say it's the best fast food I've had, but it's pretty good. And did I mention that they are really cheap? By Reykjavík standards, I mean. Apparently it's open until 5 am, which is pretty good, but not good enough. I tried to buy one at 6 am two weekends ago, and was disappointed.