Út að djamma

Að djamma, an Icelandic verb taken from the English to jam, means to go out, in the sense that we use in England to talk about going to a pub, bar, or club in the evening, drinking some drinks, enjoying some music, etc. It is a great verb. I'm a fan. Incidentally, it can also mean to jam in the musical sense, as in English. I think originally that was its only meaning in Icelandic.

Anyway, I have been út að djamma (out 'jamming') a couple of times now on the weekends, and now seems as good a time as any to tell the people who read my blog (hi, Mum) about them. The first time I went out was with Sindri and various of his friends and family. It was a peculiar night. Sindri came to pick me up and we went over to his house in Grafarvogur, a suburb of Reykjavík, where his mum, his mum's friend, his sister, his sister's friend and his mum's boyfriend were all getting drunk and singing along to every single song that Sweden has ever entered into the Eurovision song contest. It was the night of the final vote to decide Iceland's entry for 2011, so they were having a sort of pre-Eurovision Eurovision party. They were all very friendly and exuberantly drunk, and flatteringly excited about my Icelandic skills - it was a lot of fun. I tried Icelandic beer for the first time. It's nothing special, really, just the same as every other pale European lager to be honest. But one of them was called 'Polar Beer', which I appreciated.

I was asked, "How do you like Iceland?" for the first time! I had been lead to believe before I came to Iceland that in my position as a foreigner, I would be asked this question by every Icelander I met. Apparently an over-excited Icelandic journalist once asked one of the Beatles this about five seconds after they'd got off the plane, and ever since it's been sort of a national joke. But after one month, it's only happened once. Maybe it's considered a bit old hat now. I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Then we all got in a taxi and went to Breiðholt, another Reykjavík suburb, where there was apparently a party. But when we got there it was not really a party. It was just someone's house, and one person had a guitar. I didn't really know what was going on. Sindri's mum's friend was very drunk and spent most of this section of the night hugging the toilet. Anyway, we were there for maybe half an hour, and then Sindri and I went back to his house and listened to music on YouTube until about 1.30, when we got a lift with someone that he knew into actual central Reykjavík. In Iceland, people do not go out to a bar until stupidly late. It seems quite inefficient to me. We went to a bar on Laugavegur called 'Kofi Tómasar frænda' ('Uncle Tom's Cabin'), which is a café in the daytime where you can get a massive thermos of coffee for not very much. There we met up again with his sister, and some other people from earlier, and some others of his friends. There was music and beer and I don't really remember. A good, if somewhat complicated, night out. I'll report on other experiences with Reykjavík nightlife at a later date.

Sunny Reykjavík

Having lived here for a month, I can confirm that it is not always cloudy in Reykjavík. I provide photographic evidence. Not a cloud in sight!

I still think it's pretty incredible to see the mountains behind Tjörnin.
Looking down Njarðargata towards the sea.

One Month

So now I've been in Iceland for a whole month, apparently. It really doesn't feel like that much. 

I think my ability to understand spoken Icelandic really has improved, although I'm not sure that I'm speaking much more fluently at all. As I’ve said before, my vocabulary is not too bad. It's just putting things into proper sentences that's the tricky part. For those of you who don't know, Icelandic has quite complicated grammar. It's not enough to know a noun or an adjective - you also have to know how to decline it. Conjugating verbs is simple in comparison.

This is certainly what has given Icelandic its reputation as a very difficult language to learn. As much as I'd like to make my limited proficiency look more impressive... well, I can think of harder languages for a native English-speaker to learn. Icelandic has the same alphabet, a remarkably consistent and largely phonetic relationship between spelling and pronunciation, and loads of obvious cognates with English. They also have that Germanic habit of just putting words together to make longer words, which means it’s quite easy to guess the meanings of lots of words you have never seen before.

The thing about learning Icelandic really, is that it's very difficult to get up onto the first rung, as it were. I imagine a lot of new learners give up, whence the language's reputation for fiendish difficulty. You can barely say the most basic things in Icelandic without getting your head around the dreaded cases and declensions, which are pretty much alien to most English people, unless they have studied Latin or something. There are actually fewer cases in Icelandic than there are in Latin, or Polish, but unless you understand them and are able to do a bit of declension, you'll quickly run up against a brick wall in Icelandic.

Cases haven't entirely disappeared in English. We still have them for personal pronouns - think of how the first person plural pronoun is we in a subject position, us in an object position and our when you're talking about possession. In Icelandic, all nouns behave grammatically like that, plus another case to distinguish between direct objects and indirect objects. The (admittedly ridiculous) sentence, "The dog gave the dog's dog to the dog" would be something like, "Hundurinn gaf hundinum hundinn hundsins". Hundur follows one of the regular declension patterns for masculine nouns – there are also feminine and neuter nouns, with several different declension patterns for each gender. And a few irregular nouns thrown in for good measure.

If you want to start forming basic sentences in Icelandic, you must become familiar with which case follows each verb/preposition, and learn to change the forms of words accordingly. There are no separate articles in modern, informal Icelandic, so the words also change form depending on whether you mean the indefinite (a dog - hundur) or the definite form (the dog - hundurinn). So four cases, doubled to include plural, doubled again to include definite forms – your standard declension table has sixteen fields.

But nouns are easy compared to adjectives. Adjectives change form depending on the gender, number and case of the noun(s) being described, as well as whether it/they are definite or indefinite. This makes forty-eight fields for the declension table (although not forty-eight different forms, since there is a certain amount of overlap). It does seem unnecessarily complicated, really.

All this means that often, when I’m trying to speak Icelandic, I end up floundering around, running through declension tables in my head. I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to decline without thinking about it, but I suppose eventually I won’t have to pause for a few seconds every time I want to use an adjective in the accusative, for example.

To this end, I have enrolled in an Icelandic course for foreigners. I’ve decided to start with Íslenska 3 and just skip 1 and 2. I think I’m not really a beginner anymore, even though I’ve never had any actual instruction. I’m starting on Monday, and then it’s every weekday morning except Fridays for four or five weeks, I can’t remember. I’m actually really looking forward to being taught some Icelandic by a real, live teacher. Also I’ll sort of be a student again, which will be nice. Anyway, I’ll let you all know how it goes.

Out with the boys

Today I went out to Kolaportið (The Plaice Yard), the Reykjavík flea market which takes place on Saturdays down in a warehouse-like building on Tryggvagata. As I was leaving the house, the 11-year-old and the 6-year-old asked if they could come too, so we all went.

Like most things in Reykjavík, Kolaportið is smaller than you might think, but there is still quite a wide selection of rubbish to be had. There were a few second-hand-book stalls that looked pretty good though, and one selling lopapeysur (the traditional Icelandic woolly jumpers - you know the ones) at probably cheaper prices than in the shops on Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur. The whole thing looks much like you might expect, and much like all flea markets.
We were just having a browse around though, really, until we got to the food section. Well! If you like fish and/or offal, Kolaportið is a real treat. You can buy a whole carp. Or a bag of salmon-heads. Or any number of vile-looking Þorramatur-style foodstuffs.
Yes, that does mean 'salted horsemeat'. The horse is as surprised as I was.
Svínasulta is pig-head-brawn, and sviðasulta is sheep-head-brawn. To the right you can see smoked eels. I think magáll is just general sheep-offal soured (of course) and mashed all together like a disgusting paté.
Here is some ýsa harðfiskur (dried haddock). These bits are roðlaus, which means 'skinless'.
There was also soured whale blubber, which could conceivably rival hákarl as the most disgusting food invented by man. I didn't intend to buy some to find out, though. Interestingly, hákarl was being advertised in English not as 'putrefied shark' but as 'cheese shark'. Peculiar euphemism. I bought a bag of harðfiskur (with skin) for me and the boys. I think perhaps Iceland is the only place in the world where a six-year-old child will ask you to buy him some dried haddock for a treat. But it is actually really nice.

Then we went out to wander around Reykjavík a bit, and we saw this statue, which I actually remember laughing at the last time I was in Reykjavík. That was about five years ago.
This man is sad because he has misplaced his genitalia.
On the way out of Ingólfstorg the eleven-year-old spotted that a place which was normally full of water was no longer full of water. This is what happened next.

I felt like perhaps I should have stopped them scrabbling about in mud collecting ten-krónur pieces, but I suppose it was actually quite enterprising. We went to the city library of all places afterwards to clean the money/children. They ended up with about five thousand krónur (over twenty-five quid), which is nothing to cough at when you’re eleven/six and sweets are basically your only aspiration.

Then I took them up the tower in Hallgrímskirkja, which the eleven-year-old had done once before. It was the first time for the six-year-old. There isn’t any snow at the moment, so you can see better how colourful the roofs of Reykjavík are.

The boys sheltering in the statue of Leifur Eiríksson.

Sabine Baring-Gould

So here I am in 21st century Reykjavík, but I expect you're all wondering what Reykjavík was like in the 19th century. This is one of the things I wrote about in my dissertation, and one of my subjects was Sabine Baring-Gould. I thought I'd share a few of his observations because they are pretty funny. In a very unkind sort of way. He was very rude about Iceland, but I can't really help myself laughing.

He is best known for writing the hymn 'Onward Christian Soldiers', but also used to go about with his pet bat on his shoulder. Once he asked one of the guests at a children's party, "And whose little girl are you?". The girl burst into tears and replied, "Yours, Daddy."

Anyway, here are some of the things he thought about Iceland and the Icelanders:
"An Icelander seems to have no sense of smell; perhaps it is well that he has none, for there is no possibility of gratifying that sense, whilst there is every opportunity of mortifying it. The enormous amount of snuff consumed is one cause of this deadness in the perception of scent. Nature has made a mistake in forming Icelanders' faces; she should have inverted their noses, so as to facilitate their plugging them with tobacco."
[On the school] "There are about forty-six boys now in it, which, considering that it is the only educational establishment in the island, is a scanty percentage. This is to be accounted for by the jealous fear which parents feel, lest their offspring should be corrupted by the grandeur and dissipation of the forty or fifty decent shanties which form the capital; lest, also, they should become too fond of the cleanliness of a Danish household, to return to the ancestral dirt of the parental piggery."
[On the cathedral] "This tower is perhaps the most hideous erection which head of man could devise or hand execute [...] the interior of the church is no better. There are galleries for the sake of contributing additional ugliness, I presume, as they can be of manner of use, as the whole population of Reykjavík could be accommodated on the floor [...] There is no east window, and the place is occupied by a baldacchíno enclosing a painting of the Resurrection, feeble in design and bad in colour, belonging to the worst French sentimental school [...] The brass chandeliers are fit only for a gin palace."
"The town is full of idle men, who follow the stranger whithersoever he goes - provided he does not walk too fast for them. They hang about the stores as thickly and stupidly as flies round a sugar-barrel; they stream into the shops after me, throng so closely around me that I can hardly move, listen to what I say, eye me from head to foot, ask the price of every article of clothing I have on; bid for my knickerbockers, which, of course, I cannot spare; feel my stockings, and laugh to scorn their loose texture; criticise my purchases, want to examine my purse, but I object, and by so doing, hurt the feelings of half-a-dozen; they pull out of my hand the comforter and sou'wester I have just bought, and would proceed to try the latter on their own heads, only I snatch it from them. Then they tell the merchant that he has charged too high for the muffler, and put too low a figure on the sou'wester. They make advances towards familiarity, shaking hands, asking my name, then my father's name, then they inquire who was my mother; they offer me a pinch of snuff, or rather a pull at their snuff-horns, which are like powder-flasks, and are applied to the nostril, the head thrown back, and the snuff poured in, till the nose is pretty well choked. One man, very dirty and very drunk, insists on having a kiss - the national salutation; and, when the merchant explains that such is not the English custom, he kisses all the natives in the shop, and embraces the merchant across the counter."
[On the baðstofa - the main room in an Icelandic farmhouse] "The stifling foulness of the atmosphere can hardly be conceived, and, indeed, is quite unendurable to English lungs [...] As the chimney is in the roof ridge, and is not always over the fireplace, the acrid, offensive smoke has to make its way out as best it can, or penetrate every corner of the house, impregnating all articles of clothing with its disgusting odour."
"The natives complain that the Danish Government does nothing for the roads; but surely each hrepp ought to look after its thoroughfares; and Government is like Providence, it only helps those who help themselves. It is essential for the prosperity of the island that these ways should be kept open for traffic; and Althing might well devote its session to a consideration of the means by which money might be raised for improvements of this nature, instead of frittering about its time in idle grumblings against the mild and merciful rule of Denmark."
"In character the people are phlegmatic, conservative to a fault, and desperately indolent. They have a peculiar knack of doing what has to be done in the clumsiest manner imaginable. When, for instance, it is requisite that a box should be corded, a native looks at it for a few minutes to discover how it can be most inconveniently and uncouthly tied up; he then slowly sets himself to work on it, after the fashion he has excogitated. The Icelanders may possibly employ themselves during the winter, but they certainly do nothing during the summer. I have not had the felicity of seeing a native do any real work. To accomplish a task, he takes as many days as an English labourer would take hours."

Whining about buses

At first I thought maybe buses in Iceland would be different. But it turns out that bus-drivers are the same the world over. Is there something about driving a bus that turns you into a bitter, apathetic, humourless prick or does the profession just attract people already of that temperament? I suppose we'll never know.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I did have a particularly irritating day of bus travel yesterday. I was taking the six-year-old to his ice-hockey lesson and I saw our stop coming up. So I pressed the button and it duly stopped. The doors opened and a woman got on - we were just about to get off when the driver closed the doors again and pulled away. This left me feeling a bit confused, so I pressed the button again and dithered about in the aisle, being unsure of how far away the next stop was and whether this was going to make us late. Then the driver braked suddenly. Being encumbered by a large sports-bag, I fell over in quite a dramatic way, which was both painful and embarrassing. I sat down hurriedly. Luckily the next stop was not that far away and this time we managed to successfully disembark. As we did so the driver said to me, "You ought to wait until the bus stops".

Unfortunately in the limited time available to me I was unable to produce a suitable parting remark in Icelandic. And there are probably laws about verbally abusing bus drivers, even if they are complete wankers.

Having dropped the six-year-old off at the skating rink (which takes quite a long time, because he has to get changed into ice-skating clothes - lots of clothes), I went out to take the bus home. As number 19 approached I saw that it was the same guy driving. This time, as we came up to my stop, he was too busy talking to some people sitting at the front to even bother stopping at all. The next stop really was quite a long way away, and in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It took me about twenty minutes to walk back to the place where I wanted to get off the bus, using Hallgrímskirkja as a visual reference.

I pretty much couldn't be feeling more bitter towards that bus driver. I also have a massive bruise on my thigh. Perhaps this is their plan - if they are inconsiderate enough then eventually everyone who uses the bus will become as hate-filled as they are.


In Britain, Eurovision is generally seen as a joke. I think if we actually won, I would be a bit embarrassed rather than pleased. Luckily, this is unlikely to happen, so it's not something I need to worry about. I really enjoy watching it, but it's so that I can laugh at the spangly costumes and terrible, terrible music (and of course the snarky commentary from Wogan/Norton). I am actually a bit upset that I won't be able to watch the BBC version for 2011.

In Iceland, they freaking love Eurovision, and genuinely take it quite seriously. They've actually been having a competition to decide who will represent them, and everyone's been watching it. The children were allowed to stay up late to watch the final vote. Incredible. Don't we usually just get the BBC or Andrew Lloyd Webber to decide these sort of things so we don't have to bother? I suppose such competitions have happened in Britain, but I don't remember any of them.

Even more incredibly, the Icelandic public failed to choose this song. Watch out for the opera singer bit.

Instead they went with a song which in my opinion does not really capture the Eurovision spirit. The band do not even have a smoke machine. They chose it because the guy who wrote it died shortly before the competition began. So some of his mates (including the singer of the above song - apparently you're allowed to enter twice?) decided that the show had to go on, and entered in his stead. It's too dull for me to want to post it here, but just type 'Aftur heim Sjonni Brink' into youtube if you're at all interested. I suppose they all just fell for the sob story.

Such a come down for Iceland from the heady heights of 2006.

A trip to Þingvellir

On Saturday I went to Þingvellir with Sindri (he is the Icelander that I went for coffee with before). Þingvellir is quite a big deal in a lot of ways. Geologically it's pretty incredible, because it's on the border of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates - they are at different levels and you can see exactly where they meet.

Historically it is even more interesting (or perhaps I'm just more interested in history). Þingvellir is the traditional site of the Icelandic Alþingi, or national assembly. All national governmental goings-on are now held in Reykjavík, but from c. 930 to the union with Norway in 1262 they took place at Þingvellir. Everyone who was anyone in Iceland (and a lot of people who weren't) would attend the annual þing. The official purpose of the assembly was to create new laws and to settle in court, with a jury, legal disputes which people had not been able to resolve by themselves. It was also an important social occasion. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people from all over the sparsely-populated island were temporarily in one place, so it was a great opportunity to keep in touch with friends and relatives, make new friendships and alliances, meet prospective marriage partners and so on.

The government, such as it was, was made up of góðar (plural of góði), which loosely translates as ‘chieftains’ - these were generally the wealthiest farmers and those who were the most skilled lawyers, although the position was originally linked to running temples in the old Norse religion. A góði was more powerful the more supporters he had, and in return for support he was expected to offer legal counsel and protection. Since Icelanders could freely transfer their support to a different góði if they were unhappy with the performance of one, it was a form of quasi-democracy – although you became a góði by buying or inheriting the position, not by being elected. In theory, every free Icelander also had the same rights before the law (in practice money spoke quite loudly). Although there was no single leader as such, the most important man at the Alþingi was the Lawspeaker, who was elected by his peers. He was expected to know all of the laws of the land off by heart, and every year he would recite a portion from the Lögberg (Law Rock). If you ever read an Icelandic saga, you will notice that Þingvellir and the Alþingi are narrative lynchpins - a lot of the most important action, meetings and decisions take place there.

Even after Iceland came under the Norwegian crown, the Alþingi continued to meet every year at Þingvellir, although with the scope of its function reduced and its autonomy limited. It was banned by the Danes (who then had control of Iceland) in 1799 and when it was finally restored in 1844 it was relocated to Reykjavík. Þingvellir remains a site of great national significance, though. When Iceland declared independence in 1944, it was at Þingvellir.

The pictures have come out looking a bit grey - the weather was quite bright really.

Almannagjá, the biggest chasm caused by continental drift. The name means 'Everyman's Gorge', because everyone used to walk this way to get to the þing.


Öxárarfoss (Axe-river Falls)

This bit of Öxará (Axe-river) that is iced over is called Drekkingarhylur (Drowning Pool), because women deemed to be of slack morals were drowned here in the olden days.

Here we are standing on the Lögberg, I think.


I was looking through one of the children's books today and found some truly horrifying illustrations. If you've ever read The Wind Singer by William Nicholson, remember that bit with the really old children? Remember how terrifying it was? Well they would have looked exactly like this.


I can see my house from here

The other day it was genuinely quite sunny, so I thought it might actually be worth it to go up the tower of Hallgrímskirkja. It was really cold up there, but you can see pretty much all of Reykjavík. At the moment there is much more snow than there is in these pictures - this means that if you try to go anywhere with two small children it will take absolutely forever and everyone will end up with wet socks. But when these pictures were taken there was just a little bit. The bells rang whilst I was up there and startled me so much I nearly dropped the camera, but fortunately I was able to preserve these photos for the world.
You can see the harbour on the left.

The whole area covered by this photograph is about a quarter of how big central Reykjavík is.

In this one you can see Tjörnin, and where I live.

Back on the ground, here is an Icelandic flag.

This is the statue of Jón Sigurðsson in Austurvöllur. He was a pretty big deal in Iceland's struggle for independence from Denmark. His birthday is now Icelandic Independence Day (June 17th).

Keep on trucking, Reykjavík.

Tjörnin is completely covered in snow now.

That guy from that band

I went to Bónus today to buy a red pepper. Even in Iceland, my life is intensely exciting. I don't know exactly what the British eqivalent of Bónus would be, but somewhere around Lidl or Aldi. The Bónus pig should give you an idea.

What? Who designed this?
Bónus is not central to this post, I just wanted an excuse to include a picture of the supermarket's mascot, which amuses me. Perhaps the pig is supposed to be drunk with the heady excitement of cheap, cheap prices. Anyway, I came out and was walking along Laugavegur with my head down, because the snow was all blowing in my face. I looked up and who should I see walking right past me? Only Jónsi from Sigur Rós. Reykjavík is so small and Iceland has so few people (most of which are in Reykjavík), that really it was only a matter of time before I saw somebody I recognised. Still, I was quietly thrilled.

Dark, dark, dark

It is still really dark in the mornings. This was one of the things I was least looking forward to about living in Iceland, and yeah, it's pretty miserable. However, because Iceland veers between such extremes in relation to daylight, it's changing fairly fast. Sunrise gets about three and a half minutes earlier every day. I have calculated that on the 28th March, the sun will finally be up when I get up (7 am). Looking forward to that.

I'm quite enjoying the weather though - it's sort of hovering around freezing point, which I think is a nice temperature. Cold enough to feel bracing and make you glad you're wearing gloves, but not cold enough to discomfort you. Just perhaps a bit more sun would be nice, but it's not like I'm not used to overcast weather having lived in England my whole life. I also still find snow genuinely exciting - possibly I'm the only British person who has not been immured against this following our recent winters. I was walking back from the bus stop after taking the 6-year-old to his ice-hockey lesson today and it was practically a blizzard. I was grinning like an idiot and people were giving me funny looks.

I got my kennitala yesterday! This is like my social security number - I need it to do pretty much anything in Iceland. Now I can get a library card, and open a bank account and so forth. My legal domicile is also now registered as here, which is exciting. 

Sun, Snow and Icelandic Skills

It hasn't really taken long to get the hang of central Reykjavík, since it is tiny. I think there is still a bit more to explore without going into the suburbs, but not very much. Generally I am settling in all right. I can't really tell if my Icelandic is improving or remaining static, but I've had no trouble in shops or anything. Only in the tourist shop where I bought a load of postcards was I spoken to in English; the rest of the time people have been replying in Icelandic, which must be a good sign. I also went out the other day for a coffee and a drive with an Icelander that I knew from a language-learning site and, although there were a few hiccups, I would say my conversation skills weren't too bad. We certainly managed to keep most of it in Icelandic - whether I was speaking like an absolute moron or not I couldn't say, but he seemed to understand me most of the time. My vocabulary is OK, because I've spent so much time reading Icelandic books - it's just the conjugations and declensions that trip me up. If I couldn't ever resort to English, though, I don't think I would get on too well. It is frustrating, not being able to express yourself properly or understand everything that's said to you, but then I've been here less than two weeks.

Anyway, here are some pictures of Reykjavík taken over the last few days. We've had a little bit of snow, and a tiny bit of sun as well, which has of course been pretty exciting.

Frozen Tjörn
Look, the sun! Under those clouds! The towery bit is Hallgrímskirkja.

That missing view from Sæbraut.
That sculpture down by the sea. I forget what it's called.

Restaurant for tourists on Laugavegur. 5900 krónur is about £32 (according to the internets).
"Milk is good." It sure is.