Back in the US but still thinking of Iceland

I’m back at Notre Dame, and I’m already missing Reykjavík. I miss the people and the school and the city – all of it. But being back does mean that I’ll be able to use my Icelandic in my research, which is quite exciting!

Looking back on what I learned in Iceland, I’m still astonished by how much my language skills improved. I’m still understandably far from fluent, but I’m now able to read texts more fluidly, and I can actually hold a conversation in a language in which I could barely introduce myself in June! Reflecting on the goals I outlined before heading to Iceland, I think I achieved the goals I had set: I feel comfortable holding a conversation in Icelandic (though I need to work on my vocabulary related to my field of research: history of medicine), I can read Icelandic with much greater ease, I met Icelanders with whom I can continue to practice my Icelandic, and I experienced modern Icelandic culture.

My current knowledge of Icelandic would have been impossible without the SLA grant. Icelandic is a language that is rarely taught and has relatively few speakers; going to Iceland was genuinely my only option for studying this language. I was initially worried because I’d never really conversed in the language before going to Iceland, but this allowed me to realize how incredibly effective immersion programs are. I was speaking Icelandic on day one, and on day three I was thrilled when my instructor switched to using Icelandic exclusively. My experience has shown that immersion programs and the SLA grant are appropriate for languages with few available resources and were definitely the best and most productive options for me.

Now that I’m back at Notre Dame, I am going to start reading through the academic journal articles written in Icelandic that I’d found but had been unable to read prior to my trip to Iceland. Additionally, I kept a list of books and resources about the history of medicine in Iceland that I came across while in the country, and I plan on working through that list next. Not only are these books and resources supporting the research I’m doing now, but they’ve also generated new questions and avenues of research. This language has provided me with a ton of material to explore!

I know my work will take me back to Iceland in the future, and I can’t wait!

Bless bless, Ísland! (Goodbye, Iceland!)

Unfortunately it’s my last day in Iceland. It’s gone by so fast! I still feel like my Icelandic is rather basic, but when I think about how little I could say before I started this program and how much I can use the language now, I realize that I’ve improved exponentially! I’m sad to be leaving Iceland, but at least I have a few books in Icelandic to read until I can return to this wonderful country.

Sjáumst, Ísland! (See you later, Iceland!) I will definitely come back!

Two Icelanders sit in the garden behind the parliament building (Alþingi).

Two Icelanders sit in the garden behind the parliament building (Alþingi).

Skate park in Reykjavík.

Skate park in Reykjavík.

The statue of Leifur Eiríksson before Hallgrimskirkja.

The statue of Leifur Eiríksson in front of Hallgrimskirkja.

Amy Bloch (left), a friend of mine from the program, and me (right) on the famous Icelandic horses. Photo credit: Courtney Cook

Amy Bloch, a friend of mine from the program (left), and me (right) on Icelandic horses. Photo credit: Courtney Cook

Cairn in Kaldidalur (Cold Valley).

Cairn in Kaldidalur (Cold Valley).

Water boiling out of the earth. This energy is used to power greenhouses nearby.

Water boiling out of the earth. This energy is used to power greenhouses nearby.

Icelanders at Grotta Lighthouse.

Icelanders at Grotta Lighthouse.

Enska á íslensku (English in Icelandic)

If you’re looking for Icelandic slang, look no further than English. Whenever I ask an Icelander for slang words, Icelanders invariably tell me about the words Icelandic has taken from English. Here are some I’ve collected:

– From the English hi and pronounced similarly (æ in Icelandic is pronounced like the i in hi). It’s an informal greeting in Icelandic.
– You can probably guess what this one is – it’s from the English bye. Similar to , it’s an informal way of saying goodbye.
Næs – From the English nice.
Tjilla – This one is probably not so easy to decipher – it’s from the English word chill and is used and conjugated like a normal Icelandic verb: “Ég tjillaði í gær. (I chilled yesterday.)”
Lots of English curse words – This is rather surprising to hear as an English speaker, but in Icelandic English curse words are not considered nearly as rude as they are in English – they are just like any other English loanword. It is considered rude to curse in Icelandic, but English words are fine.

Some Icelanders prefer Icelandic alternatives to English words, which is why new inventions such as electronics get purely Icelandic names rather than retaining the foreign names. For example, radio in Icelandic is útvarp and computer is tölva. This linguistic purity is an effort to avoid the loss of the Icelandic language; Icelandic has few speakers compared to other languages, but Icelanders are very proud of their language and don’t want it to be lost under the deluge of English like so many other languages. Fortunately, with so many Icelanders (and so many foreigners) interested in this beautiful language, it seems like the language will persist!

Newcomers to Iceland – Conversations with Jashi and Momo

Recently, Icelanders have been discussing immigration quite often. The amount of people of non-Icelandic heritage living in Iceland has increased rapidly in recent years, and now almost 10% of the population comprises immigrants. I asked two non-Icelanders, Jashi and Momo, what it was like to live in Iceland.

The first, Jashi, is originally from the Philippines and moved to Iceland with her husband, who is Icelandic, three years ago. She currently works at the student cafeteria at the University of Iceland. I asked her what she thinks of Icelanders and Iceland. She said that she finds Icelanders to be friendly and hospitable. She said that the country is “cold” – which she prefers to the heat of the Philippines. She is also learning Icelandic, and although she thinks the language is difficult, she likes to use it because Icelanders make you feel welcome when you do – “you don’t feel like a foreigner”.

Me (left) and Jashi (right) in the student cafeteria at the University of Iceland.

Me (left) and Jashi (right) in the student cafeteria at the University of Iceland.

After talking to Jashi, I went with my friend in the program, Courtney Cook, to Ramen Momo to talk to another non-Icelander. Momo is a Japanese student at the University of Iceland and works part time at Ramen Momo. She came to Iceland to study the language and history, and she quite enjoys living in Iceland. Like Jashi, she too finds that Icelanders are very friendly.

Left to right: Momo, me, and Courtney Cook (another student learning Icelandic) in Momo Ramen.

Left to right: Momo, me, and Courtney Cook (another student learning Icelandic) at Ramen Momo.

Momo also mentioned that Iceland’s gorgeous nature is a definite plus to living in this country – and I have to agree!

Near the Barnafoss waterfall.

Near the Barnafoss waterfall.

“Sólin fer upp aftur” (The sun comes up again)

I’ve been curious about Icelandic holidays, so I asked some Icelanders what they think of Icelandic holidays and about their favorite holidays.

The first holiday I asked about was Þorrablót (the “Þ” is pronounced like “th”) which is celebrated in February and coincides with the month of Þorri in the old Icelandic calendar. Þorrablót was originally a pagan holiday that was abolished after the adoption of Christianity in Iceland around 1000CE. It was brought back and became a symbol of Icelandic nationalism in the 19th century, when Iceland was still under Danish rule.

Þorrablót is celebrated by eating traditional Icelandic food, including many fermented, sour foods like rotten shark. I asked Bertha, a chef in Reykjavík, what she thought of the holiday. Since she isn’t a fan of sour foods, Bertha said that Þorrablót wasn’t her favorite and she wouldn’t recommend it for tourists.

Eva, an Icelander who works in a tourist information center in downtown Reykjavík, enjoys Þorrablót. She doesn’t like all of the sour foods, but she eats them all during the holiday!

Eva at the tourist information office in downtown Reykjavík.

Eva at the tourist information center in downtown Reykjavík.

What is the favorite holiday of Icelanders? Jólinn (Christmas).

Elisabet and Hallgefður, baristas at Kaffihús Vesturbæjar, both said Christmas was their favorite. Elisabet said she liked it because she could spend time with her family.

Elisabet (left) and Hall. (right) at Kaffihús Vesturbæjar.

Elisabet (left) and Hallgefður (right) at Kaffihús Vesturbæjar.

Another Icelander, Gunnar, likes Christmas best because it’s when “sólin fer upp aftur” (the sun comes up again). Iceland is so far north that, in the summer, the night is only a few hours long, while in the winter, the day is only a few hours long. Christmas is around the time of the winter solstice – after which the days start becoming longer and longer.

Eva at the tourist information center agrees with Gunnar. She said that Christmas is beautiful in Reykjavík because the whole town is covered with Christmas lights – lights which brighten the dark days. The lights are kept up after Christmas, too, she said, to keep the city lit and everyone’s spirits up until the days become longer. Reykjavík must be so beautiful with all of those Christmas lights! I’ll have to come back in December!

If Reykjavík is this beautiful in the summer, I can't imagine how beautiful it must be lit up with Christmas lights in the winter!

If Reykjavík is this beautiful in the summer, I can’t imagine how beautiful it must be lit up with Christmas lights in the winter!

Íslenskur matur (Icelandic food)

After being in Reykjavík for two weeks, I needed to try some traditional Icelandic food, so I headed over to Café Loki – conveniently located on Lokastígur or Loki’s lane.

Café Loki - a great place to try traditional Icelandic food!

Café Loki.

I ordered two traditional Icelandic dishes – skyr and harðfiskur. Skyr is something I’d had before. Similar in taste and texture to Greek yogurt, fruit-flavored skyr is in all of the grocery stores, and it quickly became a favorite of mine after I arrived in Iceland. At Café Loki, however, I tried skyr the traditional way: plain, in a pool of cream, and with sugar sprinkled on top.

Delicious skyr!

Delicious skyr!

I asked the chef – an Icelander named Bertha – why skyr was so popular. She explained that skyr is popular now because it is very healthy; it’s lacking in fat and sugar but chock full of protein. It’s also extremely filling; a single dish of skyr can substitute for an entire meal. Bertha also explained that skyr has been popular in Iceland since the island’s settlement in the 9th century. Skyr is easily made and has a long shelf life, which was useful for the settlers. Additionally and surprisingly, skyr is not a kind of yogurt but actually a kind of cheese (yogurt is made by the fermentation of milk, while cheese is made by the acidification of milk).

After the skyr I had some harðfiskur, which is essentially dried fish; Bertha compared it to beef jerky. It’s usually eaten covered in lots of butter.


Harðfiskur – Icelandic fish jerky.

Harðfiskur með smjöri - Icelandic fish jerky with butter.

Harðfiskur með smjöri – Icelandic fish jerky with butter.

Harðfiskur has a mild flavor almost overpowered by the butter and is very chewy. Bertha said that, like skyr, harðfiskur also dates back to the settlers and was another protein-laden food with a long shelf-life and is still quite popular in Iceland. Interestingly, Bertha also said that harðfiskur is often given to Icelandic children as candy or treats. So much healthier than the candy I’m used to!

Café Loki was so fantastic that I went back for more Icelandic food later and this meal was also delicious! Well, all except for the rotten shark; it tasted, as my friend in the program Courtney Cook said, “like nail polish remover smells.” Even some Icelanders, like Bertha, are not fans of such fermented meats. But other than that Icelandic food is frábært!

Me eating traditional Icelandic cuisine at Café Loki - before I tried the rotten shark.

Me eating traditional Icelandic cuisine at Café Loki – before I tried the rotten shark!

Velkomin á Íslandi! (Welcome to Iceland!)

I’m in Iceland! That still seems almost unreal, though I’ve been here for a week already. In the past week in Reykjavík, three things have become very clear:

Númer 1. Icelandic is hard to speak. I’m not talking about the grammar or the vocabulary which, since Icelandic is a Germanic language, are probably easier for an English speaker than in many other languages. No, I’m talking about actually making the sounds of the language. First of all, there are difficult consonant clusters – nn, rn, tn, ll, etc. These are the reason I accidentally ordered a Fanta when I wanted a water (Icelandic: vatn) and the reason everyone stumbled over Eyjafjallajökull when it erupted in 2010. To be fair though, these sounds are part of the reason Icelandic is so wonderful to listen to, so I really can’t complain.

Icelandic horses in front of Eyjafjallajökull

Icelandic horses in front of Eyjafjallajökull which erupted in 2010

Another difficulty in speaking Icelandic is the inhaling-já which peppers Icelandic conversation. In English, we generally speak while exhaling and thus get out of breath after long sentences. Icelanders, however, often inhale while saying já (yes). After about a week of concerted practice, I can finally do a passable inhaling-já.

Númer 2. Iceland is very, very small. The capital Reykjavík feels more like a small town than a city. I don’t even need to ride the bus because it takes no time to just walk from place to place in Reykjavík. I didn’t really realize how small Iceland was until our class met the former first lady of Iceland. Literally. Apparently a good friend of our teacher Ulfar, Jónína Leósdóttir is an accomplished journalist and author as well as the wife of the former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir. Jónína talked to our class about her career as an Icelandic writer and her life with Jóhanna, the first openly lesbian head of government in the world. I was ridiculously excited to be meeting the former first lady, but it seemed like a usual occurrence for the Icelanders – and why wouldn’t it when just today the new president, who was formerly a professor at the University of Iceland, stopped by his university office next to our class!

The view of Reykjavík from the University of Iceland's campus.

The view of Reykjavík from the University of Iceland’s campus.

Númer 3. Iceland is absolutely beautiful. With the ocean, the mountains, the glaciers, and the lava fields, it’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Although the midnight sun has taken a while to get used to, I’ll deal with lack of night if it means experiencing this beautiful country!

The sea near Reykjavík.

The sea near Reykjavík.

The church at Oddi.

The church at Oddi.

A chicken coop at a farm in rural Iceland.

A chicken coop at a farm in rural Iceland.

Me by the sea near Reykjavík.

Me by the sea near Reykjavík.

Sjáumst! (See you later!)