Iceland is a very peaceful nation (they better be, seeing how the whole country is the size of a small city). They don't have a military. Some might even go so far as to say they were apathetic about politics, except for their fishing industry, until a few months ago when the economy all fell down.
Now, there are weekly protests in downtown Reykjavík at the parliament building. There is no violence, and the demonstrators are very orderly and quiet, listening to the people at the front on the stage speaking into a microphone.
By now a lot of people have contacted me about Iceland being what the media calls 'bankrupt'. I don't really know what has happened, to tell you the truth, but all I know is that there might have not been as much government transparency as Íslendingar would've liked.
A lot of exchange students are saying, "It's cheap to be here now!" (especially those coming from the European Union) and others are saying, "It's interesting to be in the country while there's an economic crisis and it doesn't affect you at all." Well, grocery prices have gone up, although just by a few Krónur. Other than that the fólk are still thronging the malls and driving SUVs almost as if nothing has happened.
Except for the protesters. I am not sorry for those who racked up credit to go on spending sprees or buy huge cars, or for the young business graduates who can no longer be financial analysts right away. I'm sure some people are genuinely angry. I feel sorry for those who have lost their jobs and especially for those depending on pension funds for their income.
There's a controversy about the Króna, the currency. Should it stay or should it go? Should Iceland adopt the Euro or the US Dollar? Should it join the European Union (my opinion-no)?
This crisis has seemingly rocked the gentle boat, but I'm sure there will be survivors. In the meantime, enjoy these pictures. Please.
To distract you from the pictures following this one, this is what appears in random clothing shops. Huge stuffed zebrelephants.
International Monetary Fund woes.
The government has been sold! I don't know what the guy was supposed to symbolize.
There were feminist protesters saying how badly the male-dominated government has been.
I finally went into a cafe and ordered something all in Icelandic!
First I asked what was the soup of the day in Icelandic. And then the cashier replied. Mind you, I have almost no idea what they said; I just caught the words 'cheese' and 'tomato' and 'onion', but I said I'd take it.
Later I found out that what I had said was wrong. I said, "Hvað er súpadaginn?" instead of "súpadagsins" or whatever but I love how the cashier gave me the benefit of the doubt anyway. This officially marks my upgrading from 'tourist' to 'foreigner' level!
This reminds of when I was in Ottawa and I'd walk into a store that was clearly Francophone, and then speak in French and have them answer in French. I'd beam just knowing that the people did not switch to English.
It's hard to learn a second language when English is so prolific. Native English speakers are used to hearing accents and grammar mistakes and are generally accommodating when it comes to foreigners speaking because so many different people speak it as a second language, but not the same with other languages. At times, yes, it's easier for both people to switch to English when trying to speak and the other to understand, but then at other times it's just plain rude. To switch to English is automatically saying, "No, you can't speak the language. You're not a native speaker so don't even try."
People are leaving the residence one by one. Some are staying. Some are never coming back. By the end of December, most people, just as they are getting homesick (because the sun here is now rising at 11 and setting at 4), will get the chance to go home. Time has flown by. I do not know why. Time always flies by.
I've met people from all over the world (yes, surprisingly, all continents except for Antartica were covered - the majority are from Europe) and I've got to see many viewpoints of the world. A lot converge with my own, but some are different. We are only all the same along one thing: we chose Iceland to go on exchange, a place where your energy is put to the test, a place with strong sense of identity but questionable culture, and a place that seems at the edge of the world.
I realize that I've been living in a sort of different world than my own in the past few years, and until I got to share my 'favourites' with others I felt kind of isolated. For the last few years I've ditched Hollywood films and American pop music and listened to mostly European music, watched a lot of foreign films. And now I come here and get to ask, "Have you seen this movie? Have you heard of this band?" I don't know why. It's fun for me.
I think my presence here has conquered a lot of stereotypes and also my own stereotypes have been called into question. People aren't as simple as they seem. All I can end is by quoting a line from American Beauty: "Look Deeper."
I've loved post-rock ever since ever. Some of my favourite bands are post-rock or influenced by the genre: Hope of the States, Mogwai, 65 Days of Static (all from the UK by the way).
When I first heard of a band from Iceland called Sigur Ros (I first pronounced it as sugar ross), I pretentiously pronounced it as pretentious. When I finally got around to hearing some of their songs the weird, incomprehensible lyrics and the instrumental drone grated on my ears. I had just come out of my Arcade Fire/M83 phase then (no more indie! down with instrumentalists! no shoegazing allowed!)
I listened to a few more of their songs but never really got into it. It was so sad because the reason why I lot of people love Iceland was Sigur Ros and I was soon going to Iceland and had no love for Sigur Ros (look at past entries).
When I heard that they were playing in Iceland I bought a ticket for the experience, not because I was a fan or anything.
But yesterday's concert officially edged Apocalyptica out of its place as #1 of my mind's "Top Concerts".
I don't get why people are forced to go to sucky concerts. No offence to people in Ottawa, but I feel let down by almost every concert I've been to in Ottawa. Sucky venues, average-to-okay artists, bad concert-goers. In other places, sometimes the performer has an amazing voice but no matter how great that is, I can just sit at home and listen to a perfected CD instead of having to go out. Or it's the opposite. A lot of the time the entertainment is great but that's because the musician has a lot to make up for his or her lack of talent.
But yesterday, none of that was experienced. I discovered a lot of great songs. I saw a bunch of awesome musicians. There was confetti, water, smoke. GREAT lighting. Excited crowds. The background sometimes showed videos. There were also cameras INSIDE the instruments themselves. Jónsi's shadow was broadcast on a wall. The concert was long but every song was great. I really enjoyed it. I must give credit for the light and sound crew though - they did an amazing job.
Now I am a fan, whether I like it or not.
Sorry the pictures are of poor quality but I just had to post them!
Everyone here is a musician, and of course everyone is connected to everyone else. The guy who sat in front of me in the cafeteria today? I'm going to watch a concert with them performing tonight. Your next door neighbour? Björk or the next international export. You might even be able to ask her to play at your next party.
At any night of the week in almost any cafe there's bound to be some form of free live music and it's not the bad stuff that you have to wince and plug your ears to. The city is very musical in this way. There needs to be no reason for live music at a place - it's not a festival, there's no special event. Who needs a pre-packaged Starbucks rotating soundtrack when you have this?
Yes, Canada, Toronto and Montreal especially, have some great exports. The arts and crafts label especially, etc. The difference between here and there is that you wouldn't be able to do the above-mentioned things.
And now as the world is entranced by Sígur Rós, Icelanders are enraptured by one song. "Þú komst við hjartað í mér" (you touched my heart) is the club, radio, and shower-song hit of the month (or year - I haven't been here long enough to know, but ever since Airwaves they've been playing it more and more). Once the song comes on people scream and sing along as if it's an old favourite. It's a cover by the ensemble Hjaltalin that people are really obssessed with. The original was not the most well known song by the disco singer Páll Óskar. Both versions sound alike and different at the same time.
And oh, as much as I think the Icelandic language sounds ugly (sssh don't tell anyone I said that!), I think it's a beautiful language to sing in.
The government of Canada should NOT be raising tuition fees, or even thinking about it. Instead, they should GIVE money to its citizens to study. That's what I've found out the governments in Denmark and Cyprus do. Oh, sure, we can say things like, "Phew! At least I'm not in the US where tuition is crazy high!" But then we compare O the Beloved with Cyprus, NOT usually a welfare-loving country, who dishes out $3,500 to every one of its students every year. Canadians have to pay $20,000 more or less for a bachelor's. Of course, sometimes that creates a problem of perpetual students.
Okay, I'm only speaking for domestic Ontario students, of which I am one. And I'm not considering schemes like OSAP - sometimes it gives out grants, but mainly it is a loan program, which I believe just puts students into debt after they stop studying.
Sure, my university has signed an agreement with the University of Iceland letting me study here for a year 'without paying international fees'. So I pay $5,000 to remain a full-time student at UO, while foreign students have to pay just $700?
Why didn't I know this before? Of course, this would be different if Iceland was part of the EU. Then, if you are not a EU or EEA citizen, then you have to pay about the same rate (or more) as in Canada. But if you ARE a citizen, then you pay nada or almost zip.
Is it because I'm getting a higher -quality education? Or is it just because I'm a citizen of this country? All states are equal, but some are more equal than others...
Humans adapt. I now think that the sweet, salty and bitter mixture of licorice is okay. The itchiness of the wool sweater is oblivious to the wearer who needs warmth and protection from the wind. But seasickness? Seasickness is the result of the body not being able to adapt...and is almost inevitable when going (and coming back from) Vestmannaeyjar.
I was talking to a girl who lives on the third floor on Thursday night and I asked her what her plans for the weekend were. "I'm going to the Westman Islands." For a split second my mind weighed the pros and cons of spending yet another weekend in bed trying to sleep and then waking up and doing pitiful amounts of reading for school and have that be the weekend, or travelling to a desolate place in the middle of winter. "Can I come along?"
The people I went with are all in the same program - they're studying to become teachers, all live on the third floor, and will be leaving Iceland in about 2 weeks, all Scandinavians, one from Denmark, Sweden, Finland. I love how I'm meeting these people and breaking down stereotypes that I have of people - all Swedes are blonde, Danes love Danishes, the Finnish come from Thunder Bay. In total there were four of us.
The Westman Islands are a group of islands off the south coast of the main land. The largest one is Heimaey. In 1973 part of it got covered from a volcanic eruption. They call it 'Pompeii of the North' but personally I think it's pretty lame compared to the real Pompeii. To get there from Reykjavik, you can a) fly b) take a bus for 45 minutes and then a ferry that takes 2h45m. We did the latter.
I'm not usually seasick, and I didn't become seasick this time, but I truly felt like it. The waves of the North Atlantic are definitely not where cruise ships usually sail. I was planning to travel by Ferry from east Iceland to Norway at the end of my stay in the spring, but once the Westman Island ferry got moving all thoughts of that were obliterated. I like the sea and the thought of ship travel. But all I did was spend 2h30m lying down, because the moment I sat up the swaying would get to me immediately. But coming in was amazing. The huge mountain-rocks looked just like they were carved out of wood.
Anyway, we arrived and our resident advisor from the dorm had recommended to us a guesthouse just up the road. When we were about to go in, a woman came out and said, "Did you have any reservation?" We said no, not expecting we needed one, "Oh, then it's not you I'm expecting," and pointed to a group of four behind us. For the next 30 minutes we walked around town looking for accommodation. All the hostels were full, which really surprised us. At this time of year? We finally found an empty hostel at the 'edge' of town. Even the owner of the hostel (it was really just a house) found it weird that there were tourists now. So why were all the other hostels full?
Thankfully you can walk the whole town in any direction in 10 minutes. It's that small. I was so angry that there was no one out walking - everyone had cars, even though the town was tiny! I have no idea why they have cars there. L later observed that they have no stop lights, and J observed that the cars have no license plates. Hmm.
By the time we settled down it was almost dark but we went to explore a volcano - actually, the people explored and I just sort of gave up halfway up the mountain. I sat there staring out at the views of the sea, being blown over by the wind, thinking how really far from everything this place is. Why would 4,000 people want to live here? There are 4 restaurants, 2 grocery stores, and a bunch of little shops and gas stations where you buy hot dogs and lottery tickets. And there's the fishing and (wintertime non-existent) tourist industry. That's it. Anyway, as we headed back it was REALLY windy but with my wool sweater, it was all fine and dandy.
We walked around town for a bit. If you love Christmas shops, every shop has some kind of Christmas decoration in their windows - not just lights, but the works - little santas, angels, red felt cloth, stars, everything. It's amazing. I would've loved spending a day in the shops if only they were open! After buying candy at the grocery store, L found a flyer advertising pizza at the cashier and we finally decided to go there to eat dinner. We took a cheap take-out deal which included garlic bread and headed back to the hostel. There were three pizza boxes although we had ordered two, and I was wondering how the garlic bread was packaged even though all we could smell was just garlic during the walk back. When we opened up the boxes, it was discovered that the garlic 'bread' was actually a garlic and cheese pizza. People who tasted it said it was disgusting, but I thought it was normal-tasting. Just not used to it in pizza form.
After that, there was pretty much nothing else to do. So we slept for two hours and then woke up. It was only 7:30. We'd travelled all the way to sleep. We turned on the telly and watched the whole of Pirates of the Carribean 3, which, for those of you who've watched it, is a very long movie. And for me personally, very very boring. So I just slept on and off throughout the drone. I almost regretted travelling. Almost.
At around 11:00, the movie ended. We went out to see the Northern Lights and ended up downtown again to check out the 'night life' of the Westmann Islands. We were laughing our heads off - no one was anywhere, we were just wandering a dead 'downtown'. We went into the only place that was open and was attracted by the pool table opportunities. No one was there. The music was a CD mix, a CD that skipped. We played pool. All the pool clichés occured: I, of course, was on the losing team. We lost because of me. The coin operator almost didn't work. The person claiming to not be good at pool turned out to be the best.
After a bit, people started coming in. Then there's this guy (let's just call him C) who asked J in Icelandic, "Are you from the Westman Islands?" When J answered in English, the guy immediately screamed, "Cool! Foreignjers!" and pulled up a chair (when he learned J was from Denmark, he got even more excited and tried out his probably bad Danish). I was amused that people here are so desperate to get out of here that they are so eager to interact with anyone who is not from the island. Turns out that he was part of a handball team (Iceland won silver in handball at the Olympics this year - I guess it's one of their more beloved sports) who was 'stranded' on the island because the people operating the plane would not fly out any more that day. A team of handball players stuck on an island - sounds like the next Snakes on the Plane (by the way, check this out: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1075749/). Anyway, a younger player from the team started talking to us about handball and football. K and me just spaced out. When C came back, he said, "Is this guy that boring?" and K replied, "All he would talk about is handball and football--" C interrupted "Oh, you mean the Blue Lagoon!" Then he went to the younger guy, pointed to him and said, "This guy's a retard. He only knows how to speak English. He's left-handed and he's the mascot of the team. He's a left-handed mascot. My dog Smeeta? He has a smaller IQ than him." and then K said, "What kind of dog?" We all started laughing because that wasn't the point of the phrase at all, but I got it. K was curious because the name of the dog sounded Finnish. Of course, the younger person got really upset. After they were all gone, L said, "They should calm down. It's just handball."
The next day, we hiked (or in my case, attempted to hike) more mountains, saw the destruction that the eruption resulted in, then got on the ferry to go home.
More observations: There are signs of polar bears and puffins all around town. And also, there is the embassy of Sweden and Norway here, out of all places.
The ferry ride back was even more nauseating than the one coming in. Even then, nice weekend. Pics on the way.
It's such a pity that so many people come here (okay, so many people meaning me and a few others) to get away from their countrymen and end up stuck in a trap hanging out with mostly them. I have to admit, the dormitory where I live has a disproportionate amount of Canadians living there. I think I got a dorm room so easily because the housing office just crammed all the Canadians together and called it a day. If I could, I would move out to either live with Icelanders or other people. I mean, the Canadians here are all nice and everything, but I can live with Canadians in Canada. You know what I mean?
But then again, a wise roommate once told me that types of people are the same wherever in the world you go.
Canada is a very young country. And I don't know much about China. But I've met so many Europeans, and compared to Canada there is so much history! Austrians and Germans were discussing about the war that made their lands separate in 1870's. I was thinking: that's just when Canada was made a Canada! Of course, there was human inhabitation much before 1867 when Canada was 'founded'. But politically...I mean, I never knew that ethnic Hungarians lived in Slovakia, which used to be Czechoslovakia etc. etc..
Loyalists defended Canada. Canada was made. Separate provinces joined. Alberta thinks it's part of America. So has Quebec, twice. We sold Alaska for $1. Newfoundland was threatening to separate not that long ago. I know it's not and will never be as simple as what I state here. But there was never really any occupation. There was no revolution. No takeovers. No monarchy. No annexation. Of course all the British and French stole the land of the First Nations who were already there but I am not talking about that right now - and I am digging myself into a political and ethical hole here so I will stop. But the main point is that civilization is almost timeless when it comes to Europe. Politically, so much has happened and still happening, for better or for worse.
I came to Iceland because I thought this would be my only chance, as a student, to live in one of the most expensive places in the world.
Now that I've lived here for a few (okay, two) months and now I'm reading this book called Dreamland, which criticizes the environmental decisions the country has made. While reading the book, I realize more and more that Iceland is not really that first-nation. It is just beginning. It is just a little ahead of China and India in its race for industrialization. Just one or two generations ago, there was still a lot of jobs that were in the sectors of fishing and farming (and still are). Then all of a sudden the country became industrialized and now people are pouring into the city (like they are all across the world) and driving huge SUVs. Just a few years ago, Iceland was one of the poorest nations in Europe.
Everything is so new here: They are like the suburbs of Southwestern Ontario. Everything was built in the 70's and up. Except I'm talking about the city and not the suburbs. Places like London, New York, even Toronto have had a history of at least a hundred years of merchants and trading and commerce. According to Wikipedia, about a hundred years ago, Reykjavik had a tiny population of 11,500. This is almost like Toronto in 1834.
Rome was not built in a day, although it was founded in 753 BC. China became a country in 221 BC. Iceland gained Independence in 1944. So it is almost as if this country had a sheen, a façade of being so rich and industrialized when that is not really true at all. It is geologically young, it is industrially young, it is young. It is still learning.
My parents came here last weekend. It was very last-minute of them; usually they plan trips a year in advance. This time I had two weeks' notice. It was a fun weekend; now I just have a lot of work to catch up on.
I hope it was fun for them because it was a really cold week, with snow already on the ground. They saw the northern lights and went on the Golden Circle while I sat in on classes and tried desperately to catch up on work.
I got a calendar of Icelandic horses and a peysa from them.
It's easy to leave people but it's not easy being left behind. I remember when I left for Ottawa I'd just leave in strangers' cars without another look behind, just like Hershey would go quickly to the kennel owner. But the first time I lived alone last summer, in this huge strange house I had never really lived in, I remember I didn't want my parents to go. I haven't really felt homesick yet. I've been leaving 'home' constantly for the past four years. I guess I'm restless. I left HG people behind, then C, and even T, and now UO people.
I've booked my flight to London over the break. And I'm almost certain I'm going to Paris. These cities aren't on the top of my 'to go' list (surprisingly), but they're up there. It'll be a good change of pace from small little Reykjavik.
Now, the headaches start: what to do while I'm there and how to do it so that I maximize my time?
I'm really angry that I'll have to pay for all the accommodation on my own, which is the most costly expense in these two cities. I was counting on a (distant) relative and a (distant) friend to board me, but both of them are travelling. Boo. I could've gone somewhere cheaper but I really don't know where. I had an opportunity to pester some people and go to the north of France or Prague (for Christmas? how romantic) but it'd be another headache figuring out how to get there. Those can be for later.
Anyway, I have to tell myself: no regrets. What's decided is decided. Besides, I can list a few people who'd kill to go to London and Paris right now...