Icelandic is considered difficult and archaic - the least developped of the modern Germanic languages (to which, among others, belong the Scandinavian languages, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Frisian and English).
The University of Reykjavík, however, recently posted a free online beginner's course in Icelandic on the internet! Very neat site I must say. Most Icelanders speak very good English, that's true. But it's always much appreciated if you can at least mutter a few words in the language of your host!
This sculpture by Asmundur Sveinsson (see museum of) in front of the University of Iceland depicts a man fighting a seal. It refers to an old legend, and the statue has become the unofficial symbol of the university. Saemund the Learned (1056-1133) was the first Icelander we know of who went to France to study at Sorbonne in Paris. The stories about him tell us that he made several contracts with the Devil, but he always broke his word when his time came to pay the Devil what was due to him for services rendered (S´s soul). In this particular story Saemund had just finished his studies in Paris and had to hurry home to Iceland and needed a fast transport. The Devil was prepared to take the job. He turned himself into a seal and with Saemund on his back he swam for Iceland’s southern shores. His price: Saemund’s soul if he didn’t get wet in the landing process. But when they were almost there Saemund took the Psalter he was reading on the way and banged it on the seal’s head. The seal disappeared, but Saemund swam ashore. The contract was thus never fulfilled. Saemund the Learned, who was a real person not fictional, became a priest at Oddi where he founded a school for priests and officials which was kept going for two centuries, maybe the first school of it’s kind in Iceland.
There is a great vibe about Reykjavik and it seems no matter what the weather people tend to flock to local cafes of a morning/lunch time for coffee and catching up with friends and family. We found a nice place called Café Paris (Austurstræti 14), which was very lively and serve great pastries. Perfect place for people watching.
Reykjavík is probably not the first place people think about when looking for special places to ring in the New Year, but other major cities have nothing on the small capital of Iceland.
Around 8:30 p.m., bonfires ("brenna") are lit up at different places in the city. Locals gather around these fires and sing traditional Icelandic songs. Around 10 p.m., people go back home to watch the Áramótaskaup (a comedic recap of the past year) show on TV. We used this time to walk from the site of our bonfire, which was in the park behind the youth hostel, to the Perlan, which offers one of the best views of all Reykjavík.
When the Áramótaskaup show ends, fireworks start lighting up the night sky. The most intense period is from 11:30 pm to 12:30 a.m., as the fireworks flare up from everywhere. There are so many one does not even know where to look anymore! It was probably the most spectacular fireworks display we ever saw, and this is coming from people who live in Montreal, city of the international Loto-Québec (formerly Benson & Hedges) fireworks competition.
As the fireworks wind down (without ever really stopping -- even a few days later, the occasional fireworks could be heard and/or seen around town), bars open, eagerly awaiting locals and tourists alike to continue the celebrations well into the morning.
I found it interesting to note that several houses, including historical buildings are covered with corrugated metal sheeting. It is certainly weather proof! Painted, it remained me of similar style panelling in upper Burma!
Iceland has been experiencing an economic boom in recent years - though perhaps the current (spring 2006) currency crisis will take some of the "oomph" out of economy. I had read that property values in Reykjavik have more than doubled in the last 6 years, and certainly I saw an ambundance of cranes along the waterfront. Much of the recent development has been the creation of new luxury apartments and condos in Reykjavik 101, the center district close to where everything is happening. And of course many people are willing to pay extra for a room with a view - in this case, a view of nearby volcanos and islands and the dramatic Reykjavik harbor.
However, in 2006 many people seem to feel that Iceland is overdue for a "pause" in its boom, if not an actually recession. Interest rates have skyrocketed, and the Icelandic kronor has declined in value against the Euro, pound and dollar. (I think for the tourist this simply means that Iceland is now only very expensive, not exorbitantly expensive.)
The pond in front of the City Hall is a popular meeting place for members of Reykjavik's avian community. They seem to welcome heartily those who will "break bread" with them - why, they'll practically eat in right out of your hand!
Reykjavik is a working harbor. The seafront is a abuzz with activity: cargos loading and unloading, fishing vessels setting out, commercial ships setting out for Europe. . . If you like the tang of salty air, or if Joseph Conrad is your favorite "English" writer, then you'll enjoy a walk dockside in central Reykjavik.
Icelandic is a beautifull language but difficult to learn, in Icelandic there are some letters that don't exist in other European languages. The letter thorn (Þ and þ) and letter eth (ð and Ð) for example... That makes the languages interesting and mysterious. But there are only
300 000 people who are aible to speak and understand Icelandic.
Don't be fooled, the only time someone eats sheepheads and shark are at the "Thorrablot", annual festivals in january/february to celebrate the month of Thorri (according to the old calendar). Then people eat that as well as some other things and drink brennivin. (picture from: http://pannkaka.txt-nifty.com/pp/images/hakarl.jpg)
I try to learn the local language wherever I go, however I must say that Icelandic is pretty difficult. It is a language that has been relatively unchanged over the past millenia.
Although the government actively promotes the language, most Icelanders speak English. Nevertheless, you will be well received if you at least pick up a few words and basic phrases.
Hvar er......where is
-post hus.....post office
-Bilaleiga.....car rental agency
Hvat kostar.....how much is it
Eg vael fa.....I would like
Eg er.....I am
Eg heiti......My name is
Takk fyrir.....Thank you very much
Talarthu Ensku.....Do you speak English
Eg skil ekki.....I do not understand
Needless to say, with Bobby Fischer's recent asylum-seeking scheme, that chess is big in Iceland. Apparently, the Vikings brought chess (and backgammon) over 1300 years ago and it has been popular ever since. Bobby Fischer competed in a few tournaments here back in the 1970s.
Quite a few cafes in Reykjavik have chess sets and it is not uncommon for locals to pop in and play a few games. One such cafe was Cafe 22, which is located in the city center (Laugavegur 22).
Icelandic cuisine isn't that much different from other Nordic countries, but more limited to fish, spuds and a limited range of veggies. Add to this some fantastic lamb and reindeer and that's about it. The good thing is that within these limits, Icelanders excel in stuff! Dairy products like skyr (what Dutch would call 'kwark'), local beers and hard liquor ('brennivin') are all well worth sampling!
Oh, another delicatess. My main food source while staying in Iceland, skyr. This is very traditional stuff in Scandinavia, for Americans a quick explain, something between sour cream and plain yogurt. Skyr or kvark or rahka as we say in Finnish, is sour milk product, which is an excellent to use in sweet desserts. Because of its low fat content, it cannot be heated.
Icelandic skyr is the best one. They do it in different flavors like vanilla and strawberry. Low in fat and high in protein. Missing skyr.
Oh, this is so good! The Islandic Ryebread, yummy yummy. Just a thought of it makes me feel hungry. We do bake good ryebread here in Finland, but this Icelandic one is great. It might be because of syrup or sugar, which makes it so sweet kind of, but anyways, oh man it is yummy. Try it. Go to local grocery store and check out labels with Rúgbrauð, guaranteed trip to the world of food.
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