An Icelander's Sense of Snow

It's a cliché about the languages of cold, northern countries: they have a thousand words for snow, but no word for leveret. Or something equally stupid. But in the case of Icelandic, it's definitely true. Well, not a thousand words, but really quite a lot. I was having a conversation yesterday with the mother and her parents, about different sorts of snow and the words Icelandic has to describe them, and the minute specifics of when you would use these words. Both of the grandparents used to be Icelandic teachers and are of the generation that hardly speaks any English, and the grandfather especially knew lots of terms for snow that even the mother had never heard of before. 

And then they said to me, "There aren't many words for snow in English, are there?" 

"No," I said, and started counting on my fingers. "Well, there's snow, that's one. And... um. Wait, there must be more than that."

But try as I might, I couldn't think of another word for snow. I was convinced that there must be one, so I went downstairs to solve my problems with the internet. I still couldn't find one. How is it possible that English, surely one of the most synonym-rich languages in the world, only has one word for snow? It's not like we don't get snow in Britain. I think it's a bit lexically embarrassing. After a while, I thought of slush, as used to refer to wet, half-melted snow, but I don't think that really counts. Then I managed to find the word firn, which apparently is a sort of compacted snow / ice. This is not exactly in everyday parlance. And that's the best I could do. Wait, blizzard as well, I suppose.

Going through my dictionary file on my computer though, I can find at least fifteen Icelandic snow-words, and I know some were mentioned yesterday that aren't in my file. My favourite is skafrenningur, which means when there's loose, powdery snow on the ground and the wind whips it up so it's all swirling around in the air. English-speakers of the world, I think we should make an effort to assimilate this word.

As a matter of curiosity I just put leveret into my online Icelandic dictionary, and it came up with unghéri. So Icelandic does have a word for leveret, but it is a rubbish word.

P.S. I have used 'snow' twelve (now thirteen) times in this post, not counting the title. Because I had no choice!

The Bane of my Life

Recently the father came back from a business trip to the US. He bought some shirts whilst he was there, and one in particular has immediately become my favourite shirt that he owns.

Because it was made in Malaysia. Not really, it's the third line from the bottom that does it for me.

But why aren't all shirts like this?

Dogs in Iceland

The magic of the internet allows me to know the google search terms which bring people to click on this site. It seems people have some queries about dogs which I am not addressing, despite the misleading mention of a dog in the title. I don't want this blog to be a disappointment, so here are some responses to the concerns of the general world population:

"Why can't you have a dog in Iceland" - You can.

"Why are dogs banned in Reykjavik" - They're not.

"Icelandic food dogs" - They don't eat dogs in Iceland, but some people do feed dogs. They're not banned.

"Names you can't call a dog" - It's a dog, you can call it whatever you want. I once met a dog called Alan. 

Probably this post is only going to increase the flow of people who wanted to know something about dogs, and possibly dogs in Iceland. I hope they all enjoy their two seconds on here before they realise this is not what they're looking for. Unless they were wondering whether dogs were banned in Iceland - in which case I hope I was able to clear things up.

Marmite and Tea

A few weeks ago I found a shop in Reykjavík that sells Marmite! For anybody who wants to know, it is Pipar og Salt on the corner of Klapparstígur and Njálsgata. I was delighted. When I came to Iceland, I brought two consumables with me: Yorkshire Tea and Marmite. I have since had one shipment of teabags sent from my parents (not a smooth procedure - thanks Pósturinn), and one brought over by my brother. And a box also as a present from the father when he came back from a business trip abroad one time. The last was especially welcome, because I had literally just run out. I was feeling a bit frantic about the situation and he saved the day. 

This is odd, because not so long ago I really didn't like tea. I didn't start drinking it until the second year of university, when I was 19. It was because of an ill-fated attempt to give up coffee for Lent, and a complete failure to deal with the lack of caffeine. Even though it was because of the caffeine reliance that I thought it might be an idea to give up coffee for Lent, I told myself that if I just switched to tea I wouldn't really have failed. Now I drink coffee every now and again, but have a two-cups-a-day tea habit. And, as anyone who's ever been to Europe knows, it's really hard to source acceptable quality black tea. The bollocks they sell in the Icelandic supermarkets is not fit for animals. It probably is possible to get good tea somewhere here, but I have yet to discover it.

Marmite, on the other hand, is not really an addiction with me. I don't eat it every day, or even every week. But I do love it, and I would be sad if it wasn't in my life. Back in the beginning, when I'd just come to Iceland, if ever I felt a bit homesick I would go up and have a teaspoon of Marmite, or just smell it. I don't care if that makes me sound weird, Marmite is really comforting. Which is why I'm so happy to have found this shop, ensuring that I need never run out. Also it is an amusing thing to have around, because you can give it to Icelanders and watch their faces. One boy I gave it to actually spat the toast in the bin. Which is a bit rich coming from a national of the country that gave the world hákarl. Only one Icelander that I've given Marmite to has enjoyed it. I was very impressed.

Here's to a delightful weekend in the country

Right. I know it’s taken me ages to get around to posting about the weekend in the east. I’m unreliable, and you probably couldn’t trust me in a combat situation. But here, I’m telling you all about it now. I had such a great time. It's unbelievably beautiful there, the weather was (on average) quite fair, the people I was with were lovely, I fulfilled a long-standing ambition to see puffins, ate a good deal of cake and barbecued meat, drank a lot of Icelandic beer. All the positive things. I even managed to whip through an Icelandic novel that I found on the shelf in the summer house (Engill, pípuhattur og jarðarber by Sjón) – it was very surreal, about a boy walking round with a sort of ghost talking to chairs and putting raisins in boxes. Not sure I really enjoyed it, to be honest, but it was good practice nonetheless.

Last Friday was the 17th June, Iceland's national holiday commemorating their independence from Denmark in 1944. So there was a lot going on in Reykjavík. However, I am unable to report on it, because that was the day that we left for Egilsstaðir. I spent the morning packing and generally milling about, Ahmad came round about one o'clock, and Stacey picked us up from my house to go to the tiny domestic airport, conveniently located just down the hill. There is only one gate, and you can turn up ten minutes before your flight, tell them your name and get on the plane. With no ID and as much liquid as you like, because nobody is going to do any security checks. Good old Iceland. The flight was an hour, and then Ahmad's mum Gurrý picked us up at the other end to take us to the summer house. Ahmad's sister Tamara was there as well, so it was pretty much a party. Although I am a bit disappointed to have missed the national celebrations, I'm sure there will be other opportunities for that in the future, and we had fun letting Ahmad teach us the most complicated card game in the world.

On Saturday we went out in search of puffins. The weather was rubbish, although I suppose it could have been worse. Low cloud and cold damp, but not much rain really. 

Typical Icelandic fog on the mountain pass.
Ahmad and Stacey at a coffee break and tactical planning session in Borgarfjörður eystri.
We meandered around Borgarfjörður eystri for a good while before we found them, despite the instructions we got from the woman in the café, but when we did it was amazing. There were hundreds of them, and the walkways let you get within about three metres. They didn’t seem bothered at all – I suppose they are used to tourists gawping at them. Obviously I took about a thousand photos, because puffins are probably the cutest birds in the world. Here are a few of them:

Wait, these are kittiwakes. Kittiwakes make a noise like a wailing child.
That's better.
All those little white dots on the grass are puffins. Believe it or not. The flying gull is a fulmar.
Landscape smothered in cloud.

In Icelandic puffin is lundi, which sounds a lot like Lundy, n’est pas? Interesting etymological snippet for you. Also the French word for Monday, but no etymological link there, of course. Speaking of days of the week, to take a small detour, you know how in English they’re mostly named after Norse deities? You’d think they would be in Icelandic as well, of all languages, but actually they’re Sun-day, Moon-day, Third-day, Midweek-day, Fifth-day, Fast-day and Bath-day. Obviously Bath-day is my favourite (Laugardagur – could also be translated as Pool-day or Hot-spring-day); it sort of makes up for the tedium of Midweek-day (Miðvikudagur). I think they did used to be named after Þórr and Óðinn and all that lot, but were changed as part of the Christianisation process, but don’t quote me on that.

Anyway, on Sunday we mostly went to look at fjords and, whilst it was a bit cloudy in the morning, we had the most beautiful summer weather in the afternoon. It was at least 13° I would say! We saw Seyðisfjörður, which I think is probably the prettiest town I have seen so far in Iceland. 

There it is, down there.
A small fossy bit in the river which flows down to Seyðisfjörður.
Seyðisfjörður's answer to the Reykjavík Tjörn.

Boats and that.
Mountains, Gandalf! And poppies - it's the summer time!
 Apparently there’s a long period during the winter months where no sun can reach the town, because it’s so deep in the fjord. That’s probably pretty depressing, but they do have a Vínbúð to help them cope. The opening hours would require you to be quite an organised drinker, though. 

In winter it's now open four times as long on Fridays! Which is still only four hours.
Even in 101 Reykjavík, you have to plan a lot further in advance if you plan to take some beer to a party or do a bit of pre-drinking before you go out. Alcohol is only sold in the state-run Vínbúðs, not in supermarkets (unless you count léttöl, which I don’t), and the Vínbúð is only open from 11 to 6, and is closed on Sundays and public holidays. This has been a shock to the system after my lifestyle in Sheffield. Especially in second and third years, where I would go to the Co-op between two and five times a day to get things as I needed/wanted them. Some days we used to go there around 6 to get some things for dinner, pop back after dinner to get pudding, and drop in again between 9 and 11 for some gin if we were going out. Not to mention morning milk runs, lunch-time egg restocking, mid-afternoon lollipops. I never really considered buying all these things at the same time, and buying something earlier than the day I wanted to consume it was a rare occurrence. So having to go down to Austurstræti at 5.30 to get drinks for some impossibly distant time in the evening is mostly annoying to me. I don’t think I could cope with Seyðisfjörður, as picturesque as it is. One of my favourite things about the town was the artwork in the café. I was immediately taken with this picture:

I couldn't even capture how great this is on my camera. It's a freaking hologram, and when you move, it changes which eye Jesus is winking with. Outstanding.
This weeping child masterpiece only added to my delight. Because it was in the toilets right above the baby-changing area. I found that really amusing, but it might be just me.
In the afternoon we went to Reyðarfjörður, and on round to Eskifjörður. Which was lovely, and we saw beautiful things like this:

Here we see Eskifjörður, and some lupins.
Down in Eskifjörður. Desktop material. This actually is now my desktop.
Stacey down by the shore when we were enjoying the sunshine and warmth.

Gurrý and Tamara.
Mr. Eider Duck and his harem.

On Monday, our flight was not until 8 in the evening, so we had the whole day to go and explore a bit of the highlands. We went to a natural hot spring that we’d read about, but it was a bit of a disappointment to be honest. It was tepid rather than hot – only Ahmad went actually in. The rest of us were content to dip feet.

It's pretty desolate up there.

Well, that’s all for now. In the mean time, I leave you with this stunning picture:

I think it's the cigarette that makes it.

T-Shirt Weather

Lots of pictures in this post. It was definitely t-shirt weather yesterday, so Ahmad and I headed out for an adventure, wearing t-shirts. We had intended to get some food from the Hagkaup in Garðabær, but it turned out to be closed - something to do with Jesus, or the Holy Ghost or something. The ice-cream shop was open, though (Ísbúðin is so ungodly), so we got ice-creams and sat on the bench outside watching all the pasty pale Icelanders with their legs out. Then we got some crisps, skyr and Víking léttöl ('light' low-alcohol beer, which is the best that Iceland can do on a Sunday) from the petrol station and set out for Kleifarvatn in Reykjanes. On the way we stopped to have a look at some fish drying racks. 

Fish that has seen better days.
Me under a fishy canopy.
We found a lovely, mossy, sunny bit overlooking Kleifarvatn where we could enjoy our petrol-station picnic. It had a good rock for doing intrepid poses.

Although I do think Ahmad's failure to stand on the highest point compromises the intrepidity.
T-shirt weather! At least 13°!
The actual lake. Kleifarvatn is the title of one of the Arnaldur Indriðason murder mysteries (I think it was The Draining Lake in English), but I haven't read it.
Ahmad's quest to capture a spider on film. Or a flower, or a bit of moss or something.
Then we went a bit further on round the lake to see some geothermal activity on the beach. If you've been to Iceland you'll know what it was like - bubbly puddles, the smell of sulphur, lots of steam.
Not in this picture, though.
There we are.
Small muddy geyser. Pretty cool.
Black beach.
We went on to see another bit as well, but my camera battery died. 

I am charging it up now, because on Friday I am going east to Egilsstaðir with Ahmad and Stacey for the weekend. Friday is the 17th June which, as any fool knows, is Icelandic Independence Day. Egilsstaðir is the biggest town in eastern Iceland, with over 2000 residents. Even smaller than Ísafjörður. It's going to be a lot colder than Reykjavík. They had proper snow over there only last week, I think, so probably no t-shirt weather.


So this is one of the reasons for my most recent guilty long pause from writing on here. Just look at this weather.

About 9 o'clock this morning.
Jemima and her eight ducklings in the Tjörn. This picture is especially for Ann Brown.
So obviously I am quite busy just wandering around doing nothing a lot of the time. Looking at ducks.

Reading and Cakes

Really I should only be reading Icelandic novels. When I was learning Icelandic in England, Icelandic books were something of a rare commodity, so I would work through them pretty quick. This was also because, as a student / general unemployed person, I had a lot of free time (although not actually as much as I gave myself when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation) and high motivation, when it came to anything that wasn't my dissertation. And because the books I was reading were more pop literature than anything else. I can pretty much read an Arnaldur Indriðason murder mystery without recourse to a dictionary, even if I don't get every single word.

But obviously the experience is not at all the same as reading in English. It's impossible to get so deep into the story, the characters, the language and so forth if you're constantly looking up bits in the dictionary. Even if you're following everything, there's still a detachment. You can't really get the same literary kick, or at least I can't yet. I read Gauragangur by Ólafur Haukur Símonarson over a period of about three months and then I decided I needed a rest because, although I enjoyed it, it did sort of wear me out.

So, after a few false starts with a couple of Jón Kalman Stefánsson novels, I gave in and re-read The Great Gatsby in two days. It was like a breath of fresh air, understanding not just the story and all the words, but the actual art and beauty of the thing. Then I got The Tin Drum out of the library a few days ago, which is the last thing in English for a while, honest. After that, I will definitely go back and struggle on with Himnaríki og helvíti. I thought the few pages that I managed to get through were great - it just took me ages and I was getting frustrated with it.

In other news, the 15-year-old has got a summer job at a bakery and is bringing home bloody loads of free cakes and bread every day! I  probably won't have to pay for a vínarbrauð for months.

Guillemot Eggs

I was at Kolaportið this Saturday and I saw some interesting eggs, which turned out to be guillemot eggs. I heard that the birds had been killed by the volcanic ash and that's why the eggs were taken, but I'm not sure whether that's true. Maybe you can routinely buy seabird eggs here when they're in season. Anyway, I got really excited about them and, although the people I was with did not really share my enthusiasm, I bought a couple and dragged my friends back to my house for fried egg. This was after I dragged them to the library with me so I could look for Watership Down, which turned out not to be there. I am excellent company. The eggs were beautiful. They looked like this:

On the Morgunblað obituaries. Which is, by the way, quite a big section of the newspaper because every single person who dies in Iceland gets an obituary in the paper. You can do that sort of thing when you have a population of 25.
Taking up most of the frying pan. I broke the yolk because of my skills.
I did manage to persuade my friends to taste the egg.
To be honest, guillemot egg looks better than it tastes. The white was weird, not properly white, sort of translucent and a bit gummy in texture. The yolk was not dissimilar to chicken egg (I think to a certain extent, eggs all taste mostly the same - birds' eggs at any rate), but with a definite maritime overtone. A bit fishy or briny - I can't quite put my finger on it. Either way, it wasn't that nice. But still exciting. Not a lot of people have eaten fried guillemot egg, after all.