Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gray Whale

My second ever crochet project! I really can't believe it came out so well.

Made with Icelandic wool and stuffed with small beach stones. I used this pattern but I didn't follow it exactly.
Next I really want to make a lagarfljótsormur with a little gold ring and maybe a fish for him to eat.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hooked on Crochet

I realize that I haven´t exactly been spending my off-time enriching my life, so when Æsa said she was going to stop by Víkurprjón (the wool and knitting factory), I tagged along to see about getting some yarn.

Last night we attended a soap making class, which I probably should have just stayed home for. Not that it wasn´t interesting and informative...just that it was entirely in Icelandic. I tried really hard to pick up as much as I could for the first hour, but for the other two, I zoned out and doodled on my handouts. I could only understand maybe ten words, and when, about two hours in, he asked me 'Do you understand anything that I am saying?'

Oh well. He did show us how he makes soap, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it really doesn´t take that long, and it´s pretty easy, as long as you don´t mind inhaling acrid lye fumes. I would really like to make some soap soon. Maybe using sheep fat, spring water from the stream nearby, and black sand from the beach as an exfoliate. Super Icelandic Soap. But it´s for another time.

When we got to Víkurprjón, I started to think I might change my mind about learning to crochet or knit. Just looking at all of the yarn and the women in the back room toiling over immaculate sweaters and embellishments...It made me think that either I would completely fail, or fall in love with it and spend all of my money on yarn. But when I saw that a skein of yarn was only 290 krona, I changed my mind. I picked out a lovely grey (because I like grey) and bought a crochet hook from the nearby grocery store.

After a couple hours of practicing making chains and single, double, and slip crochet, I managed to make this grouchy four-leafed clover. I know it's pretty terrible, but I'm pretty impressed that I made anything at all within a two and a half hour time period.

A not-so-lucky clover.
Crochet is exciting because there's the possibility of making free-form objects like amigurumi. Anyway, I will keep practicing because I am hooked! (get it???)

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Get ready for a big shock...this post isn't about birds!
I swear I didn't do that on purpose, but if you know me at all, you know that I love birds and I just can't help myself. Also, birds make up most of the animal life in Iceland. 300 species compared to the 7 species of mammals on the island. (and just for interests sake, there are about 1,200 different kinds of insects, compared to the 20,000+ different kinds found in most other European countries).

Today was another day where I wandered down to the beach to take photos. Yesterday was completely foggy and grey, even though it was warm, and I still went out. But today is glorious. The sun is hot, the sky is clear, and the snow is melted. It's windy, but that's to be expected.

Here are some things I found while walking along the beach.
Where the spring meets the sea.

Fýll wing

Common Whelk egg sack and marine plant.

Rock collection
Unidentified crab

Dead loðna (capelin)/Mallotus villosus

I realized the other day that I've lived on two of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and they couldn't be more opposite. The sand on Clearwater Beach, Florida is pure white and so fine that it squeaks like talcum powder when it's stepped on. The beach in Vík has coarse black volcanic sand littered with polished round stones. The extremes of beach possibilities.

Friday, March 25, 2011


You know, at no point in my life did I ever stop to consider that I would one day be living in a remote Icelandic village, being stared at by chickens through my bedroom window.

But here I am. And the roosters are crowing at me through the glass.

 Here's a view out of my window as of right this moment.

 These were taken with my new Nikon D70, which arrived in the mail yesterday, courtesy of my pal, Bill in Asheville.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

More Fýll!

I can´t get enough of fýll. But that will probably change when there are more than three different kinds of birds here in Vík. Even though they are a rather homely bird when not in flight, and their voices sound like rattling pieces of wood, they possess the beautiful scientific name of Fulmaris glacialis, which almost makes up for the rest of their unpleasantries.

Today I resisted the strong urge to take a nap (which I´ve been doing every day, unfortunately) and took a walk with three guests who are staying here for a couple of days. I had planned to go back down to the beach and take more photos of the waves, because they were extra big, but instead we walked up to the top of the hill to see the cemetery. I wasn´t too impressed with that part, so I wandered down to the edge of the cliff and peered down onto the fýll, which caused quite a disturbance. I was more afraid of being puked on than falling off of the cliff, so I braced myself in the frigid wind and hoped that it´s not possible to fly and vomit at the same time. (I don´t think it is.)

I think I interrupted a meeting.

Scram, or we will puke on you!
Somehow, they are rather cute.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Overheard some people (from Finland, I think) this morning talking about Americans. He was explaining that Americans act like they are your friend, but they are never true friends. The example he gave was that his friend was extended an invitation to come stay for a visit with the Americans, but they always made excuses when she tried to take them up on the offer, so she never got to stay with them.

My first reaction was to be a little insulted, and think of all of the exceptions, or excuses for the people he was judging...but why, according this this Finn, is it that Americans seem like your friends? ...They laugh a lot.
I like that. I think it's true, and I think there is a lot of truth to what he was saying. Americans are a bit independent, for better or for worse, and the culture doesn't specifically encourage strong family and friend bonding. It's such a big country and everyone is so spread out, so it's hard to stay close to people.

I'm grateful for insights like this. If something stings to hear it, it's always possible to find some truth behind it. It's like spilling lemon juice onto your hand and finding tiny cuts that you didn't even know were there.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Complain and You Shall Receive

First, an ornithological lesson.
Today during a break in the snowclouds, I took another walk down to the beach and made several identification mistakes. I was feeling cocky being able to actually be outside without freezing or blowing away, and shutterbugging it up underneath Reynisfjall, with the pattering of soft hail accumulating in my coat collar, and the waves thundering onto the snow-covered rocks below me.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of white birds nesting on Reynisfjall rigth now. They can be seen from a great distance, somehow cutting through the sharp bursts of wind, completely exempt to the laws of physics and bad luck. After my lesson about fýll the other day, I hardly bothered to take a close look at them. White with a grey wing and of similar size, and sitting on the side of a cliff in pairs, they appeared to be the same at first glance. But these birds are called Rita (or Black-Legged Kittawake in English). They are a member of the gull family, which was obvious when I reviewed my photos later.

Rita (Rissa tridactyla)
I was also pleased to see the local flock of previously unidentified songbirds on the walk back to the hostel. They were neurotically zipping in a halted loop from someone´s front yard, up into the sky, and back down again. Every few seconds they would explode from the ground. It was a pleasing sound, and their white wings splashed snow up into the air in front of the colorful backdrop of the house. They are Snow Buntings, or Snjótittlingur. When they change color in the summer, their name changes to Sólskríkja.

When I mentioned them to Æsa today, she gasped that she forgot to put out corn for them, and that they visit the hostel every day to check for their treat.

In other bird news, I also had the pleasure of catching a fleeting glimpse of a Tjaldur (Eurasian Oystercatcher) in flight yesterday. It has a stout, black and white bullet-shaped body not unlike a puffin. I only took note of it because of it´s high-pitched peep-peeping sound, which I later used to confirm the sighting. Very exciting, if only for a moment. They are considered a first sign of spring here in Iceland. Peep! Peep!

Now onto the complaining. I was bemoaning my crummy camera on Facebook the other day after going out to shoot those photos of waves. I am using a FujiFilm HS-10, which has some really great features, but I´ve been terribly disappointed with the color and sharpness of the photos it produces. Everything looks completely flat, dull, and brownish to me. Maybe it´s just the preference of my eye, but I can´t stand it. It´s devastating to come home to a bunch of washed out photos when my brain is so fully saturated with the day. I don´t mind Photoshopping images back to where they should be (and who knows, maybe I am over-saturating or compensating for a sub-par screen) but it´s a pain to go through every single photo and not be able to use anything sooc (straight out of the camera).
I don´t think I´m much of a complainer, but this is really important. Sometimes taking photos feels like the only thing I´m good at, and it´s the one thing that keeps me going. So having a camera that I hate is a big deal.
However, I am one lucky kid, because seconds after registering my complaint into the vortex of Facebook and the waters of the open internet, my photographer friend, Bill Rhodes, send me a message asking if I would like to borrow his Nikon D70.
Would I?!
He shipped it within a couple of hours, and right now it´s cutting through the winds of the North Atlantic, crossing paths with white-winged seabirds, and I cannot explain how grateful and pleased I am to be so lucky and have such generous and forgiving friends (heck, Bill and I only hung out in person a handful of times!). And now I really owe myself some serious lessons in photography.

I will leave you now with a photo from today´s walk...of a rock with a tophat. It was probably some fancy troll on his way to a hot date when the sun came out and turned him to stone. ;-)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

99 Problems (But a Beach Ain´t One)

Today I took off work a little early because I have been working pretty hard and also I got done a bit early. It was a nice day out, especially compared to the last week. Wind was at a minimum and it was even warm enough to turn all of last night´s snow into wet slush. I love walking in slush. No no, you don´t understand...I LOVE slush. But I also own rubber boots so that makes a lot of difference.

So what to do in Vík on a semi-tropical day like today? Go to the beach, of course! Actually, I had to make a run to the post office (it costs 220ISK to send a postcard out of the country, by the way, so if you get a postcard from me, feel honored that I worked for about 45 minutes to pay for that stamp), so I took a couple of hours to walk around with my camera and look for birds.

These are fýll (not to be confused with the Icelandic word for elephant, which is fíll). They are medium-sized seabirds that live in Iceland all year 'round. In English, these birds are Northern Fulmars (Fulmaris glacialus). They are kind of special, even though they are very common. If you look very closely at my crummy photo, you can kind of see a little bump at the base of their beaks. That is a salt gland that they use to desalinate their bodies when they drink seawater. Petrels and shearwaters have these glands as well. They need them for their incredible long-distance flights over open water.

But fýll are usually seen hanging out on cliff shelves like in the photo above. They are monogamous and mate for life, so they tend to be seen in pairs if they are not flying around looking for food or surveying the territory.
And speaking of territory, the other thing that makes these birds special is their horrible, horrible defense mechanism. They make a rich, oily stew in the first part of their stomach (before the gizzard) that is used not only for feeding chicks, but for projectile vomiting on anything that gets too close. It´s so sticky that it can mat down the feathers of another bird and kill it. So I was pretty careful not to get too close as I was taking photos today.

The only other thing I know about these birds is that they have been a delicacy for years in this area. They are terrible at walking on land, and the babies are especially fat and cannot fly, so when they waddle down to the sea for their first swim, it is easy to come up behind them and hit them with a stick to kill them. I don´t know any specific recipes for fýll (and can´t find any online), but if it´s like other traditional Icelandic meals, it´s probably just boiled or baked with a little bit of salt, with potatoes on the side.

After annoying a bunch of fýll, I took a walk down to the beach and watched the waves rolling in for high tide. There were some tourists there for a few minutes, but they took photos and left me alone there on the soft black sand and the misty rain. 

Waves sounds like bedsheets snapping a clothesline in slow motion.
A view to the East
The name of these rock formations is Reynisdrangar. The highest part is 66 meters. They are made of basalt, but a legend says that they are trolls who were trying to drag a 3-masted ship to shore. When the sun came up, they all turned to stone.

What a lovely place to live.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tattoos as Reminders

Here's my tattoo. I forgot why I got it.

I love tattoos. I might get another one while I'm here in Iceland, not only because I found the perfect design, but they are also quite a bit cheaper than in the USA. (At least from what I can tell from informal polls amongst friends in Reykjavik)

So I spend a fairly decent amount of my internet time looking at other people's tattoos. I'm especially a fan of the Tumblr blog "fuckyeahtattoos" because I get a big, fresh, steaming pile of rad submissions every day. The thing I hate is when people explain the meaning behind their ink. I can't even tell you how annoying it is. It almost literally makes me mad. Why would I get irritated by something so stupid? Because people have no idea why they got a tattoo, and everyone else forces them to explain why they got it, and people panic and say that it's a reminder of something. As if a piece of artwork needs an explanation. Look, sometimes a tattoo is just a tattoo and someone got it because it looked cool. No other reason. Some tattoos have a lot of thought and meaning behind them. I love the stories behind those. But some of them don't and I hate it when people try to pass them off as something really deep and end up sounding like some high-school suicide note.

Do you really need a tattoo to remind you of something? Really?! Here's a sampling of some of the "reminders" I've seen lately. These are straight quotes.

"My reminder that no matter how rough life is, things always get better."
"... remind me of my Grandma."
"it reminds me to see beauty in simple things."
"I got this to remind myself that in the end you want to be able to have something to show for your life, not just money and work."
"reminds me now until I die to feel alive everyday even when things get rough."
"It is a constant reminder that whatever happens will happen."
"It reminds me to live my life."

It reminds you to live your life? That things happen??? Are you flippin' serious?!? ARG.
So basically, what I'm getting out of this is that people with these tattoos would forget to even be alive if they didn't occasionally glance down at those cherry blossoms on their arm. Or when they catch a glimpse of their shoulder tat of a purple dolphin with a sunset in the background it's all like "Oh yeah! I totally forgot that I had a dad who died". WTF people. A tattoo is not the same as writing shopping lists on your hand with a Bic.

So here is my plea to those of you who place vacant meaning onto the art on their skin: Stop it. Admit you got it because you thought it was spiffy. You don't owe anyone an explanation for anything so stop making stuff up. If you can't remember a simple cliché that is completely devoid of meaning in the first place, you probably have no business getting a tattoo. I mean, what are you going to do to remind yourself that you even have a tattoo? Maybe you could rig something up that sends electrical shocks to your throat every few minutes to remind you to look at your tattoo that reminds you to be alive.

I have zero problem with attaching meaning to a piece before or after it's done. Meaning is good and natural, especially if it makes us appreciate our own bodies more. And there are tons of good reasons to get a tattoo. They're great to memorialize someone, to mark an accomplishment or a significant part of your life, as a good luck charm, because it makes you look cool, because you love something, because you lost a bet, whatever...but a tattoo is not a Post-It Note (unless it's a tattoo of a Post-It Note. That would be pretty cool). You're not going to forget something really important if it's actually important. If you do forget it, then a tattoo is probably the last thing that's gonna jog your memory. I got my first tattoo (not shown in the photo) over six years ago and at the time it had a lot of thought and meaning put into it, and now I can't remember what it meant to me at all. I mean, I like it and all, and it does mean something...but I'm just not the same person I was when I was 20. It's not a reminder and it never was. It's a part of my body that I love because I think it's beautiful and I'm glad it's there. Over time, for better or for worse, meanings fade much more dramatically than ink does.


(I'm sorry that this is a rant and not a post about Iceland. It was just driving me completely crazy. I'll post something relevant and interesting soon, I promise. Oh...and if you're someone who thinks tattoos are stupid, keep it to yourself. No one wants to hear it. Thanks.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vík í Mýrdal

The day I was to be picked up and driven to Vík was the day that we got news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. After staying at my friend's house for the night, I spent the next few hours in the Hálskóli Íslands library café watching AlJazeera clips over and over again, completely horrified by how surreal it all looked. I felt sick watching all of those people's lives get washed away so quickly. My heart goes out to all the people who are suffering as a result of yesterday's tragedy.
I can't say I didn't feel a little vulnerable moving to a town that is sandwiched between a temperamental sea and an active volcano buried under a glacier. But I'm much safer here than even in Reykjavik, so there's nothing to worry about.

In less oppressive news, I've started my first day of work at the hostel in Vík. It's even nicer than I remembered it, and I felt instantly comfortable around my host family. It's a huge relief to be here. My first night was marked with the brightest Northern Lights display of the entire winter. Þráinn drove the children and me up to the top of a nearby cliff so we could get a better view of the pink and green trails filling the sky. I attempted to take some photos by lying on top of a stone cemetery wall, but the gusts of wind were so strong that sometimes I had to crouch down below the wall just so I wouldn't be knocked over. So holding the camera steady for long exposures was impossible. I got one halfway decent shot, just to prove that I saw them.
 As a surprise to me, the lights were not only humongous, filling half of the entire sky, but much closer to the earth than I had expected. Since I had always imagined them being very high up in the atmosphere, I expected them to move very slowly. But the wind whipped them around and the shapes changed constantly, sometimes fringing the eerie green with seashell pink. They danced around each other like wisps of cigarette smoke, curled around the moon, and streaked across the dark sky. Spectacular. I was too overwhelmed to take it all in properly. But tonight is also expected to be clear, and if they come back, Þráinn will drive us up to the other cliff where it is darker, and we can see them better.

The first morning at the hostel was highlighted by a lovely breakfast spread that we start preparing at 7:30. The hostel offers a breakfast buffet to any guests for an extra 1000ISK, and Æsa prides herself on providing the best breakfast around. She is extremely industrious and DIY, so many of the items were handmade, or harvested nearby. 

Fresh waffles.
Some homemade jams. Currant, carrot and orange, crowberry, and raspberry (I think...sometimes the names of berries gets lost in translation because of species variations)

Friday, March 11, 2011

The First Two Weeks: How It Went Down

It's been just over two weeks into my life as an expat. It still sounds strange to think of myself in that way, but it's accurate. 
I sold or gave away most of my possessions and pared down my life to about 25kgs (which is admittedly still too much, but does include the weight of the suitcases), sold my van, abandoned the apartment I lived in for three years, and said goodbye to all of the friends I made in Asheville, North Carolina over the last five. I bought a one-way ticket and I will not be returning. Instead I've started a life of living outside of the USA, and my first job offer happened to be in Iceland.
This was convenient because I spent two months in Iceland last year in the winter, so I knew a little of what to expect. I have friends here and I'm familiar with some of the towns and cities, so worst-case scenario, I would end up taking a nice holiday to a country that I love.

The day that my flight left New Jersey, I received another job offer, which I was very grateful for. I had suspicions about my first job in the town of Mosfellsbær (Mohs-ells-buyer) which were quickly confirmed. 
From this...

The man who hired me runs several guesthouses, which are hard to exactly pin down online. I see that he has now set up a small webpage explaining the job and it's location. But as for the guesthouse...It's a little bit of a trick for tourists. The rooms are very cheap, and when someone books one, they are not told the location, so they probably assume it is located in Reykjavik. In fact, it's located in a suburb about a 15-20 minute drive from Reykjavik. There is a guesthouse in Reykjavik, but it's more for large groups.

My reasons for being suspicious were based on the vague emails I exchanged with the owner. I'll call him Siggi, because that's his name. (It's also one of the most common names in Iceland, so whatever) When I asked him to write up a contract, he dodged me repeatedly, and send me a list of some chores I was expected to do. Mostly laundry and cleaning the rooms, spending some time speaking English with his children a couple days per week, and helping his elderly mother about the same amount. Actually...the exact words were: "doing cleaning, laundry, helping with the children and grandmother, gardening and other such tasks that will free up my time to do other things" and nothing else. When someone is desperate to find help and gives you an abbreviated task list, it's pretty safe to assume that you can expect something completely different when you get there.

The actual job involves quite a bit more than that. Which really wouldn't be so bad if he had just been up front with me in the first place. My main problem was personal. He just treats people like servants. His own home is very dirty and it seems like he never lifts a finger to do anything about it, but he expects his "employees" to be perfect and do whatever he wants while he sits on the computer. For all I know, he could be dealing with matters of national security or digitally keeping dams from bursting, or coding for NASA. Maybe he really is very busy...but it just didn't come across that way to me. To me it seemed like he was leaving his dirty dishes everywhere for me to clean up. Or yelling at his kids. Or ignoring his elderly mother when she called him for help. I received no instruction on how he wanted things done (except for a crash course on the first day on how to operate the washing machines and how to fold linens) so every day I worked as much as I could doing what I thought was a good job...and at the end of every day on inspection, I would get told how wrong everything was. It was completely demoralizing and I felt like I'd spent the day doing nothing. The best compliment I got was "This is almost not bad". Not great for morale. this.

I guess it was just a personality clash. I didn't sign up to join a family to be treated like a cheap maid (350ISK/hour). I signed up to be an au pair because I want some personal connection with a family in a different country and culture. It just didn't work out. So I met with the woman who owns a hostel in a town in southeast Iceland called Vík Í Mýrdal. At a hostel that I've actually stayed at before. The choice was obvious, so I gave Siggi 5 days notice and finished up the week.

And now here I am on my last day in Reykjavik, waiting for the ride to take me out east to start working in a much less uncomfortable environment. 
It wasn't all terrible though. I was close to Reykavik and got to see my friends, hit the town a few times, have some great meals, and hang out with some cool guests who stayed during the time I was working there. It's always nice to be next to Reykjavik and that's the only disadvantage to leaving Siggi behind. So that's an abbreviated version of my first two weeks here, and this is where I want this blog to begin.

This post was just to kick off the start of this blog, about my life as an American expat living in Iceland for a few months. A quick update for those of you who were wondering what happened (I've been being vague about it), and an intro to those of you who might have stumbled across this. It will regularly update with photos and stories, so please either follow, add to your RSS feed, or bookmark. Thanks so much for reading.