Thursday, June 28, 2012

11 Month Watsoversary

Reykjavik icon. 

Time is a strange thing.  I feel like I’ve been in some kind of strange paralysis as of late, with clocks ticking far too slowly and, simultaneously, far too quickly. 
I haven’t seen darkness in over three weeks. I had underestimated how much this affects life on daily basis. In some ways, it’s amazing. Days feel long and full of possibilities; there is less pressure to accomplish anything, and a remarkably relaxed, vacation vibe around town. But it’s also incredibly disorienting. Sometimes it makes me feel like I'm living in some kind of time warp. I sleep differently here and my dreams are strange,  hovering somewhere too close to reality. Every night I fall asleep with an airplane eye mask over my eyes that I inevitably find tangled in my sheets in the morning. 
This is what my midnight looks like. 

In some ways, the last few weeks have felt like a never-ending Groundhog Day. The light affects this, of course, but I’m also living in an environment that keeps repeating itself. I adore my Reykjiavk apartment, but I am its most permanent resident. There are three bedrooms and all are rented out on an almost nightly basis. My landlady (a wonderful person who has turned into a great resource for my research and whose twenty-three year-old daughter has become a friend), was willing to give me a big discount because I’m staying here so long, but it means that every day or two, the people I share the apartment with changes.
On a daily basis I hear people fiddling with the stubborn outdoor lock and come to the door to help them in. We shake hands and my ears adapt to their accents: Italian, Canadian, French. We have the same conversations. It's so weird that it really doesn't get dark at all. I read in the guidebook that people here eat rotten shark. Have you been to the Blue Lagoon? I am a witness to all of these strangers’ adaptations to Iceland, their journeys, their plans, their discoveries, their conversations on a loop. And then it's over. We talk about leaving. Do you know how to get to the bus station from here? How early do you think I should get to Keflavik before my flight? How often are the Flybuses?  
Then they pack up and leave.
 I’m still here. 
Eleven months later. 
It means almost everyday I have a constant reminder that the end is near.  It means I’ve been thinking about which Flybus I will take to the airport on July 27th for weeks now. It means I know the route to the bus station by heart. 
All of these people are coming and going around me, and I am coming to terms with a strange kind of permanence by comparison. And yet in the grand timeline of this year, it's really only fleeting.  It is only just beginning to hit me what a change this year’s ending will be, and how this change is much more than just a geographical one. I’ll be returning to the states and I’ll be giving up this opportunity, and, perhaps most jarringly, an identity. 
I don’t know how many times in the last year I have introduced myself. The words I have used to do so will be lost to me in less than a month's time. I will stop describing myself as a traveler, an American, a student, a person doing research, a person studying names. I will be moving about the world under different titles, and I'm not sure what words will fill those spaces.
People keep asking me if I’m ready to settle, if I’m looking forward to going home so that I can be in one place for a while. The answer is yes. I want to settle, I want to be in one place for a while. I desperately want to unpack my bags and stop wasting money at the grocery store buying things I don’t like because I can’t understand what it says on the packaging. But home actually isn't really settling for me. I’ll be in Vermont for a few weeks or months and then will probably uproot myself again for Philadelphia or New York or some other city where I miraculously might find someone who wants to pay me to do something.  The words I'm using to describe myself will most likely keep changing not only when this experience is over, but over and over again for the next few years. 

Icelandic Independence Day

I wish I could say I was having the best month ever, but in light of all of this, and the fact that I pretty much have no money left, I’ve been having a strange sort of hermiting few weeks, spending a lot of time in my apartment and drinking many cups of tea, venturing out for interviews or afternoons in coffee shops or walks by the water.
Counter-intuitively, I think my last month is going to be one of my hardest. I’m feeling a bit burnt out; a bit tired of my topic, a bit tired of meeting people I know I will be saying goodbye to in a short amount of time. It's hard to know if this is a product of eleven months of making connections and then breaking them, or if I feel this way because, on a sub-conscious level, I know the end is right around the bend. Time is strange that way too. 

It is hard to throw yourself into things when you know they are so temporary. I was talking to a friend the other day and we were talking about how this might not even be a product of a Watson-year as much as it is a product of being in your twenties; putting so much of yourself into places and relationships and jobs and opportunities that will most likely slip away again.
That doesn’t mean they’re not worth having in the first place, but it does mean that at this juncture I feel like I’m performing some sort of strange Watson-senioritis balancing act, one foot here, one foot in the uncertain future.
I know I’ll go home and I’ll miss these streets, I’ll miss these people.  I’ll miss introducing myself in the same way I have been for the last eleven months, even if these introductions lead too quickly to goodbyes. 

In the last month I have: 

-Seen an Irish faerie ring.
-Fed a Connemara pony.
-Witnessed a flash mob with dozens of colorful umbrellas.
-Taken a ferry to the Aran Islands and ridden in a pony trap around Inish Mor.
-Visited the Neolithic ruins of Dun Aonghasa
-Said goodbye to my parents (again).
-Met with members of the Irish Traveling community.
-Set foot in a new country (Iceland!) for the first time.
-Learned how to say thanks and cheers in Icelandic. (Do you need any other words?)
-Stumbled upon gnome houses and elf rocks.
-Seen more waterfalls than I ever have.
-Had three straight weeks of sunlight nights.
-Planned and completed a road trip around the country with two dear friends.
-Visited beaches laden with icebergs.
-Watched geysirs erupt.
-Climbed volcanoes, hiked glaciers, examined craters, collected rocks.
-Seen an infinite number of sheep.
-Gotten to drive (for the first time since January). Windows down, sun shining, music playing.
-Eaten bone marrow.
-Rented a car for the first time in my life.
-Visited a museum devoted to phalluses. (Also have been supremely weirded out by the fact Icelandic stores sell condoms that come in “regular” AND “extra safe” varieties).
-Swam in a geothermal pool.
-Stood at the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
-Created a music video.
-Received the gift of Watson-year flash cards. And an all-American snap bracelet.  (Nothing says “America” quite like a snap bracelet).
-Marched in a parade for Icelandic Independence Day.
-Bought an Icelandic sweater.
-Knit elbow patches for said Icelandic sweater.
-Patiently received instruction from the Handknitting Association of Iceland about how to make my first piece that involved changing colors. (Mittens are in the works).
-Met a Watson Fellow from the class of 1981.
-Tried (harder than I would like to admit) to be as fashionable as Icelanders.
-Spent weekend mornings perusing old record collections, used clothing, and fish products at the Kolaportið Flea Market.
-Smelled like sulfur every time I took a hot shower. 

335 days down, 30 days to go.  There's a kind of poetry in that, I think.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Name Post: On Cultural Cohesion

In some ways, Icelandic naming regulations and traditions aren’t that different from many of those in other places I’ve visited this year. In my mind, I’ve looked at Iceland as being in the same camp with Morocco and Germany because of the relatively strict legal regulations for what people can and can’t name their children. Lately, I’ve also been intrigued by the possibility of comparing how people use names from Norse Sagas here to how people in India pass on names of Gods & Goddesses from Hindu myths.  Also, because the patronymic gets passed on in Icelandic families, in some ways, it reminds me of how family relationships are spelled out in names in a similar way as to how they were in Bali. Similar to Bali, in Iceland, as a result of many people living in a small population with the same name, new strategies have to be used. Nicknames become important, as does listing occupations in the phone book.  
What makes Iceland unique, however, is just how few names there are.  Of all the places I’ve gone this year, names in Iceland are limited the most, by far.
 Almost every day I walk from my apartment to downtown Reykjavik and I pass by a building that’s outside is covered in names (one side for boys, one side for girls). My first week here I couldn’t believe my luck that I had somehow landed somewhere so close to the hubbub of all Icelandic names, until I learned that it was actually the office of an insurance company who thought the names would make for an interesting decorative choice. Although my hopes were a bit dashed, I often stop and linger here on my walk home, trying to decipher unfamiliar letters and sounds. 

Obviously, I included “Nella” and “Nelly” (approved Icelandic names) in my photo.

They are not particularly big walls. It is pretty easy to write out the list of sanctified “Icelandic names.” The definition of what constitutes an Icelandic name, as spelled out in my previous post, is comparatively simplistic and shaped around linguistic and grammatical rules. It seems to me that on average, only three or four names per year are added to the list. A 2010 article from The Reykjavik Grapevine reveals that “Mara” and “Sophie” were added to the list, whereas Marias, Dania and Vikingr (among others) were rejected. Apparently, Marias and Dania were rejected because they were not “in harmony with Icelandic rules of writing” (this refers to the four grammatical forms names have to be able to take on that I mentioned in my previous post), and Vikingr was rejected because it doesn’t fit the “Icelandic language system” (apparently the “singular ‘r’ ending was dropped centuries ago” and was replaced with “-ur, -ar, or ir.”).It seems that the forms names can take on are, in some ways, more important than the names itself. The same year, “Ripley” was approved, because though it’s far from being Icelandic in a cultural sense, many Icelandic names to end in “ey”, so “Ripley” could be consistent with Icelandic grammar. 

Another lovely sight on my daily walk home. 
I’ll admit it, I’m skeptical. I’m always skeptical of countries where governments try to regulate names and naming because it seems that in doing so, there is an inherent bias against the names of people who are new to these countries or, as I learned in Morocco, may have been living there for centuries but are a discriminated-against minority. Inherently, defining and creating a specific cultural identity  also involves a process of exclusion.
On the other hand, Iceland has a population of 320,000 people. These people all seem to be trying as hard as they can to maintain what they define as “Icelandic culture” in a big, wide world (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s locals, not just tourists who don the popular Icelandic sweaters downtown). And though I’m skeptical about name regulation, I’m just as worried about the risk of losing cultural traditions (like tribal names being lost in many parts of Zambia as biblical names were adapted). The Icelanders I’ve spoken with seem to view names as a fundamental aspect of Icelandic culture; all of the people I’ve spoken with so far have complained more about the names the committee has approved than the ones it hasn’t. The naming committee is a point of great controversy here, and part of me wonders if this is why getting a hold of them for an interview is proving to be quite difficult.  

Interestingly, I’ve had several Icelanders tell me they believe a person should be able to name their child whatever they want, but then, a few minutes later will point out the “ridiculousness” of certain names that the committee has approved—names that they wouldn’t have approved themselves.
It seems that sometimes Icelanders are torn between wanting to believe in an ethos of  individuality and independence, but also wanting this individuality and independence to remain within the homogeneity of their population. Names in Iceland have, for centuries, reflected homogeneity. I recently read an article by Bob Brooke which said that since the 13th century in Iceland, 25% of males have been named Jón. In the 1703 census, over half of all men and women had names that were found in the top ten respective lists. The greatest increase in diversity of names was from 1921 to 1950, a time which, (not coincidentally) coincided with a lot of economic and political change in Iceland.
I forget this when I look at Reykjavik’s spotless streets and well-dressed, healthy, populace, but until relatively recently, Iceland was quite poor.  Because of its geographical isolation, it took a long time for many technological and social innovations to reach Iceland. A huge proportion of the population was living off subsistence farming in turf houses into the 20th century when fisheries finally became industrialized and the Marshall Plan went into effect after World War II. These factors combined made Iceland skyrocket to being one of the wealthiest countries in the world by the 1990s.
It’s interesting to me that this period of time was also when there began to be much greater diversity in names. It’s unsurprising that as there was more access to other parts of the world through trade and technology, Icelanders would start picking up on different names as well. But it was also around this time, a time of huge economic growth, and gaining independence, that there were also huge questions about what Icelandic identity consisted of in relationship to all of this.
The answer seems to be largely linguistic. People say that Icelandic is a virtually untouched language. When Iceland’s first settlers left Norway in the 9th century, all of Scandinavia spoke one language. As a result, modern Icelandic is very similar to this original language, whereas in comparison, Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish and Danish have all changed much more. This is partly because of Iceland’s geographic isolation, but also because it has always had an astoundingly high literacy rate, which helped preserve and pass on its language. Modern Icelandic is supposedly very close to that original Scandinavian tongue -- whereas Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish and Danish have all changed substantially.

On the one hand, I get it. There aren’t very many people speaking this language in the world. If you’re living in Iceland, the least you can do is give your kid a name that will abide by the grammatical rules of the country your kid was born into. But on the other hand, it makes me kind of uncomfortable.
This is most likely because I grew up in a place where creating a wall of the names that I was surrounded by would be impossible.   I like imagining what painting “American names” on a wall would look like, and all I can think is that better be one big insurance company.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the rules that govern naming in Iceland, but I think of my imagined wall of American names, and I wonder if maybe a lack of a coherent cultural identity is a price worth paying for a devotion to inclusion. 

(Thanks to Rebecca Roberts:, Paul Fontaine:, Bob Brooke:, Wikipedia, and my recent conversations with Sarah Brownsberger and Bryndís Guðjónsdóttir).

Friday, June 22, 2012

On (Not) Passing

 With streets as pretty as these, is it any wonder Reykjavik is well dressed?
                On one of my first nights in Iceland, Isa, a new friend named Laura, and I went out to dinner and were interrupted by a drunk Icelandic man. (There are many of these in Reykjavik). He began talking to us and we asked him how he knew to approach us in English. He pointed to Isa (who is a redhead) and said that he could tell she was Irish. He pointed to Laura (who has brown hair and is very tan) and said she was Spanish. Then he pointed at me. “And you,” he said. “You’re just American.”
                These comments were obviously mostly inaccurate. They were also problematic, not to mention slurred. Nevertheless, I took them quite seriously and have  spent the last two weeks trying to make up for this blow. Before spending much time here, I was under the incorrect assumption that I could pass for Icelandic. I thought it was a question of coloring, only to learn it’s actually one of face shape. There's apparently quite a difference between looking Scandinavian and looking Nordic, and my Danish roots just don't cut it. I'm finding, however, that it's also often a question of fashion.
                As I’ve walked around Reykjavik over the last two weeks, I have come to accept that I will never be as hip as Icelanders. They walk around in open-toed sandals despite the 50-degree weather and wear a conglomeration of clothing from over-priced vintage stores that I can only describe as “European 90s in Space”. They are beautiful. I have never seen anyone pull off suspenders like an Icelandic man can. 
             The hippest fashion accessory seems to be a baby. I have no idea what the statistics are on pregnancies in Iceland, though I do know it is much more common here for young couples to have kids but never get married. There just seems to be a large contingent of beautifully dressed blond women in sweaters and yellow tights with a picturesque baby propped on their hip. 

Striped over-sized sweater: check. Small vintage bag: check. Leggings: check. Baby: check. 

           I wish I had more photos to show you of these fashion choices, but somehow I think whipping out my camera to document them would probably not help my obvious American appearance. 

 Infinitely cool over-sized mustard jacket: Check. Icelandic sweater: check. Baby: check.

              I've been on the search for the perfect Icelandic sweater since I arrived, and, though it may not be perfect, I recently purchased one (as well as a pair of secondhand boots) at a Red Cross store downtown. For weeks now I've been scoffing at the price of sweaters (it's rare to find them for less than $100), but I found one that's an "old design" and has holes in the elbows for $17. I'm currently working on fixing these holes but it hasn't stopped me from wearing it in the meantime.

Infinitely cool bright blue skirt: check. Scandinavian top bun: check.

                 Amazingly, I've found that I can (occasionally) pass for Icelandic in certain outfits. (And they are not often combinations of clothing I would tend normally put together). I measure this by the number of people in cafes and shops downtown who speak to me in Icelandic. Of course, when someone speaks to me in Icelandic, I get way too excited and quickly blow my cover. "What made you think I was Icelandic?" I desperately asked one guy ringing me up at the grocery store the other day when he announced my total. “It’s raining and you’re not wearing a raincoat, so I didn’t think you were a tourist.” He told me. 
                I’ve noticed that when I wear my new Icelandic sweater, one of the long skirts I have with me, a secondhand/vintage blue dress, my oversized olive green jacket, or my hair in side braids or what I term the “the Scandinavian top bun”, I am spoken to in Icelandic about 50% more often. No joke. 

This baby is saying "Don't even try, Nell. You will never have as unique a twisty/braid hairstyle as I have right now. Also, my 6 year-old sister is wearing shorts over tights."

              You’d think that after living out of a suitcase for almost a year (and in many places where I have no hope of "passing"), I'd have given up by now, but instead it's left me having (literal) dreams about what awaits me in my closet in Burlington. (All of my dreams in Iceland have been very strange. I blame it on the fact that I’m always sleeping when it’s light outside).  

Now I just need to find myself a baby.  

 p.s. Icelanders are not usually this patriotic. Most of the photos above were taken on Icelandic Independence Day on June 17th. (A great excuse for people watching).
Icelandic babies don't usually dress like the girl above (she was in a traditional costume for Independence Day), but how cute is that?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Icelandic Adventuring (Part II)

We worked well as travelers. We all had around the same level of of caffeine addiction, driving skills, and affection for Icelandic hot dogs (a hot dog in Iceland comes with about seven unidentifiable and delicious toppings). We were equally obsessive about keeping track of how much money we owed each other, and obviously, all of us were game for making a rather delirious music video. We all were happy to pull off the road at random intervals, to photograph more lambs or pretend we were on the moon.

 Road block on Iceland's main highway.
We also made a great traveling trio, because Katie or Isa always inevitably wanted to sleep in the backseat while I always wanted shotgun. (That girl, pictured above, with a camera case on her head, can sleep anywhere).
 (How could you not pull over for that, really?)

On the third day of the Great Icelandic Road Trip we traveled to the Lake Myvatn region, a popular destination for Icelanders in summer. The lake itself is beautiful and right near the (active) Krafla volcano. We climbed over wetlands and volcanic rocks and swam in the Myvatn nature baths--a ridiculously warm geothermal pool that left us awestruck and with happy straw-like hair that smelled like sulfur.

Wetlands wandering:

Nature baths: 
 We stopped at Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe (I'm beginning to find waterfall superlatives particularly amusing...mainly because I've heard a lot this year...would you rather be the most powerful waterfall or the biggest? And, as Victoria Falls makes you question, is size measured by the length of the waterfall or the height at which the water falls?)

Near the guesthouse we were staying was also Hverir, a landscape made up of craters filled with bubbling goo. The word "belching" comes to mind. We marveled at the general grossness until the smell got to us and we made a quick retreat back to Thor. (Apparently the technical term for these holes are "fumeroles"...traveling in Iceland makes me realize I've never really learned any geology).

The next morning, we braved some windy roads up to the Krafla volcano and hiked around one of the "Viti" craters ("Viti" apparently means "hell" in Icelandic, because people used to believe that hell was the insides of volcanoes. I'd believe it.)  We all agreed that the Caribbean-turquoise water inside the volcanic crater was dangerously misleading and began constructing contingency plans for if any of us fell in.

 (They're not actually jumping over a crater).

It was only hiking around the volcanic rock areas of Krafla, that the idea for the video took off, and the rest is history. The rest of the day consisted mainly of collecting moon rocks and listening to Carly Rae Jepsen as we drove from Myvatn to the cottage in Skagastrond we were staying in (fun fact: Skagastrond is also Iceland's country music capital). All of the shots below are places we stopped at along the way.


The following day, we drove back to my Reykjavik apartment with stops for some gnome houses we found on the side of the road and also Thingvellir National Park.


Despite the fact that we were a bit burnt out at this point, Thingvellir is a pretty amazing sight. It's where the first democratic parliament was held in 930 and also where the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian tetonic plates is visible. We made wishes and threw coins in the fissure, a tradition supposedly started by King Frederik VIII of Denmark.

Thingvellir has the reputation of being the "most important historic site in Iceland."  The Althing general assembly met there from 930 to 1798. It's pretty amazing to stand in a place that was, essentially, an outdoor parliament. It's wonderful to think of almost the entire population gathering there, which has happened several times in Iceland's history, to stand below the rock where the law speaker used to recite all the laws by heart, and to think of the space as one of great decisions.

We returned to Reykjavik for some delicious fish & chips, a few episodes of Girls, and attempts at goodbye.

Consistently throughout the visit, I was reminded how great it is to have friends. I feel like a kindergartener skipping home and proclaiming, "I made FRIENDS. And they are so COOL." Because they are. And because I kind of forgot how great friends could be.  I was talking with Deivid, the other Swarthmore Watson, the other day, and we were both saying how at some times during this Watson year, it's as if everyone from home only exists in some virtual world, as if we've just dreamed them up. They are so separate from our daily lives.

It's nice when relationships from home don't have to be dependent on how good a wifi signal you have.  It's even nicer when your friends come prepared. Katie, in her DC-political-organizer-super-on-top-of-it wisdom, brought flash cards. She told me that she & Isa wanted to hear all about my year, but they knew that asking, "so how was it?" would be the lamest thing ever. So while we drove, and hiked, and ate, and drank coffee, occasionally, a neon colored index card would come out of her backpack. "A new skill," she'd say, or "a get-me-home-moment," or "best sunrise." As she said, the cards were ambiguous enough that we all could answer all of them, whatever journeys we'd been on this year in our separate lives.

That's just the kind of considerate, thoughtful, friends I'm lucky to have. And seeing them (in person! I have FRIENDS. And they are so COOL), just gave me another reminder of what I can look forward to about being home, even if the idea of going home sometimes feels more overwhelming than exciting these days.

Thanks for flying to Iceland, you two. And thanks for your thoughtfulness, dance skills, humor, compassion, and flash cards while here. I'm already counting down until the next reunion.