Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sidewalks and You: A Survival Guide

I know a thing or two about navigating the mean streets of Reykjavik. I live downtown, sans vehicle--like some kind of goddamn hippy, and I'm a runner and occasional bicyclist. So I thought I'd share some pearls of wisdom about sidewalk hazards and how to avoid them or at least come out mostly unscathed.

"The fortress wall":
Being from such a sparsely populated country with a predominant car culture, Icelanders have never really learned the whole "fall back to single file" thing when approaching oncoming pedestrians on sidewalks. This is a great source of amusement and frustration to many expats living here, especially those who have lived in actual big cities with many tacit pedestrian norms.

So what happens is you get this group of people, at least two or more, who form what I call "the fortress wall" that take up the whole fucking sidewalk. And they do make direct eye contact with you (an Icelandic trait) so they KNOW you're there. But it's like playing Chicken. There is absolutely no effort by the wall to move over enough to allow you a human-sized passage.

You can do one of three things:
1. Go out of your way and walk in the street. You pussy.
2. Having moved over to the side, hoping that someone gets the point and does the same, just hold your ground and expect a blunt impact. Have you ever played the game Red Rover?
3. STOP. Just stop moving. Fiddle with your phone or whatever. But just stand there in the sidewalk. This interrupts the game of Chicken and really confuses people. You will watch as the others frantically try to rearrange themselves to walk around you. It's fun.

Note 1: I've found that loudly clearing the nose (as in covering one nostril and blowing really hard), coughing up phlegm or making other bodily noises will help break up a wall when jogging. And obviously, I try to avoid busy streets for such activities. 
Note 2: Tourists are also guilty of forming walls, although they're usually staring off at buildings or maps so chances are they don't even notice you. They too are busy being Inspired by Iceland.

Strollers (Prams):
These are the size of Hummers in Iceland. I suppose they're gigantic because otherwise the Icelandic weather would rip them to shreds or blow them away Wizard of Oz style. A typical Icelandic stroller could probably be used to transport ten people in a developing country. (It is worth noting that an average Icelandic two-year-old is roughly the same size as a teenager in some parts of the world.)

Since half of the Icelandic population is under three years old (not sure, just made that up) you will undoubtedly meet several strollers on the sidewalk. Particularly on weekends, when pram-pushing mums often travel in packs of two to four, forming the dreaded "fortress wall", only more heavily fortified. Because the strollers are like megaliths, you will be reduced to options #1 or #3 above. For entertainment, watch as a group of strollers approach each other. Total mayhem.

Yes, really. It's sadly common that I'm walking down a sidewalk and encounter a car (usually a huge jeep, of course) that is backing onto the sidewalk to park as I'm just steps away from impact. God forbid anyone should have to walk a few meters from a designated parking area. As Iceland is known for creative parking, you will just get used to having some type of vehicular obstacle to maneuver around.

Other obvious stuff:
Downtown Reykjavik has plenty of character, and this extends to the sidewalks. You'll see a lot of sunken stairways and window wells of cellar apartments and there is no city ordinance to enforce railings or covers for these so you've really got to watch your step, especially when you're stumbling home from the bars. (I wish I had a statistic for how many people fell into these.)

And in winter, some sidewalks have heated sections but otherwise the surfaces turn into an icy hell due to the constant snow-melt-freeze cycle. Since sidewalk salt doesn't do much good the city doesn't even bother applying it. (Elderly folks be damned!) So invest in some decent, albeit dorky, ice cleats or rubber traction out-soles that can snap on to the bottom of your shoes. They were big sellers this past winter.

Above all, use common sense. And be glad that Iceland is not a lawsuit-happy society.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Realities of Life in Iceland: Part 1

I have no idea if there will be a Part 2. Bear with me.

  1. You can go jogging past Björk's house and think nothing of it. In fact, you as a joggeroutside in the elementsare more of an oddity than Björk, and people in cars will stare at you with looks of pity, scorn or confusion.
  2. You want to punch people who ask if you know Björk upon hearing you live in Iceland.
  3. You have a new appreciation for trees (if you didn't already). 
  4. After a while, you just give up on weather forecasts. Today might start out sunny but bring gale-force winds and bitch-slap-you-across-the-face horizontal rain guaranteed to obliterate your pores. Tomorrow is likely the same. And the weekend. And next month.
  5. You make fun of people who comment about the weather on Facebook, doubly so if they live in Iceland and should be accustomed to #4 by now.
  6. Umbrellas are futile.
  7. The expat community is a revolving door; friends come and friends go.
  8. You may be told "no" but the answer may magically change to "yes" if you bring an Icelandic friend or partner.
  9. If you didn't know how to cook before you moved here, you learn quickly. And then you learn how to get creative with ingredients.
  10. You discover that Sriracha sauce is the best thing ever for bland traditional meals.
  11. You reminisce about customer service in other countries.
  12. It's hard to walk down the main shopping street in Reykjavik without running into at least one person you know, even if you've lived here only a short time.
  13. You often wonder how humans have survived on this island for over 1,000 years, especially before electricity and the internet.
  14. You go for a 2nd or 3rd or 4th university degreejust for something to doand because it's cheap. You may not finish, but you won't care if you don't.
  15. If your main form of daily transportation is bicycle, people will regard you as either a saint or a crazed hippy. Or as someone just too fucking cheap to just buy a car like everyone else.
  16. No one seems to know proper sidewalk or biking/walking path etiquette.
  17. Pedestrians and jeeps are mortal enemies.
  18. Trips to grocery store veggie/fruit sections are morbid adventures.
  19. You are astounded by how many people at your workplace are related to each other.
  20. You don't try to have a conversation with someone at a party until they/you are drunk.
  21. Thinking of excuses to get out of attending confirmation parties becomes a hobby.
  22. You don't tell many people other than close friends or family (or your boss) that you're going on holiday in the U.S. because you don't want everyone and their cousin asking you to bring things back for them, like shoes, ipads, phones, laptops, odd food products, makeup, etc.
  23. You have sandals or open-toe shoes in your closet that get about 3 uses per year.
  24. A new fad hits the island, and you watch the chaos ensue in bemusement as you patiently wait for the craze to die down.
  25. You go to a shopping mall just to be able to do some walking in bad weather, not to actually buy anything.
  26. You know how to pick out Icelanders from other tourists at airports.
  27. You watch a lot of foreign TV shows on your laptop.
  28. You start to hoard your old clothes because you never know when something will randomly be in style again.
  29. Few people go to the gym for a proper workout; it's more about meeting people and looking nice in your new gear. Sweating will totally ruin the 30 minutes you spent on your hair and makeup.
  30. If some asshole answers their cell phone during a movie at the cinema, no one wants to be the meanie who scolds the asshole. Because maybe the asshole is a friend of a relative, etc.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The land of perpetual winter?

It seems ICEland is living up to its name lately.

As my fellow expats in Iceland are so painfully aware, we've been having a bit of a cold snap here on The Rock. Actually, "a bit" is an understatement. It's just fucking cold.

While it's true that no one visits or moves to Iceland for the weather (except maybe people with heat sensitivity or excessive sweating) this is just getting ridiculous. It has barely cracked 10 degrees C (50 degrees F) since one glorious week in the beginning of May. As I write this post it is a balmy 6 degrees.

The biggest problem is that the last two summers have been "unusually nice" (as many Icelanders have told me) and so by comparison, this summer is not living up to the new high expectations.

Now, I'm not one to obsess about the weather because I'm holed up in an office most days but I've since taken up a crazy hobby of training for a half-marathon in August. And you know what? Cold, rainy, windy weather ain't good for the joints and muscles. Nope. I was forced last week to buy fleece-lined "winter running tights" at an excessively inflated Icelandic price. (12000 ISK for 50 Euro tights.)

One of my old college buddies and Facebook friends recently posted a haiku she wrote about the heatwave that's steaming up Wisconsin. In response, I wrote this about our sorry excuse of a summer here:

Cold is getting old
Waking up with stiff ankle
Not my cup of tea

This probably doesn't need to be explained, but I was never a poetry major in college.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Global warming: taking a toll on the Icelandic farming industry...

...causing the hot, steamy farmers to sit around nude in haystacks:
"You can leave your hat on..."
The original image source and article can be found at:

BONUS POINTS for the first person who comments on this post with the Google Translate version of the headline. (It's hilarious--many LOLz guaranteed.) Try it now at Google Translate.

EXTRA BONUS POINTS for coming up with a creative new caption for this photo. Go!

Note: After posting this, I found a condensed English version of this story at Iceland Review. In a nutshell, farming and tourism haven't too lucrative for these guys so they've resorted to Plan B. Oh, and ladies -- there will be a calender too! 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A little rant about the joys of shopping in Iceland or importing stuff from the free world

This is what I think of when I'm forced to do any shopping in Iceland:

Here's the thing: my boyfriend owns two pairs of jeans. Only two! Seriously. Meanwhile, I have how many pairs? I lose count. But I digress. Anyway, these jeans are going on three years old, which means that after near-daily use, they are wearing to threads. Threads! Keys are falling through the front pockets. There are impressions in his back pockets, perfectly formed in the shape of his wallet. It's time for new jeans to join the family. Oh boy.

Therein lies the problem. Shopping here--as I have ranted about in great lengths in previous posts--is really like entering a world of pain. It's a small island, OK? Stuff is imported at high cost and then due to general lack of competition the stuff is marked up to an even higher cost. Then there's a 25.5% VAT levied on the stuff. And now the stuff has become prohibitively expensive. For new jeans in Iceland, we're talking about 15000 - 20000 ISK on average, not even for designer denim. You don´t even want to know how much that costs.

To get around this obstacle, most people residing in Iceland simply take 1 or 2 mostly empty suitcases abroad and stuff them full of Target or H&M or whatever store the merciful retail gods have presented to them. Socks, underwear, jeans, computers, iPods--you name it, it's all fair game. Naturally, at customs in Keflavik Airport, nothing is "new". And sometimes, unassuming guests coming to Iceland are given a formidable shopping list by their host(s) in Iceland. (Thanks, Shannon!)

But lacking the time or money for a trip abroad or lacking any visitors from "the free world", sometimes a person has to bite the bullet and [gasp] buy stuff here. After a largely unsuccessful trip to one of Reykjavik's two shopping malls, my boyfriend decided that maybe he would just order some cheap jeans from American Eagle Outfitters in the US and just pay the exorbitant shipping fees. BUT here's how that would work out:

1 pair of men's jeans (on sale!) at AE:  $35
AE's fee to ship to Iceland: $50

But wait, there's more!

Jeans & shipping: $85
VAT @25.5%: $21.68 (This is obviously converted to ISK by this point)
NEW SUBTOTAL:  $106.68 for a  $35 pair of American Eagle jeans.

There may also be an import duty assessed to this shipment but it's hard to calculate what that would be, mostly because I'm not up to date on all the laws and bylaws and technicalities of the Tollstjóri, the Iceland Directorate of Customs. However, by checking out the Iceland Post website, I found this handy-dandy little toll calculator, courtesy of Tollstjóri

According this calculator, there is a 15% import duty on the package. That works out to $12.75. But then when I went back to double-check my USD-ISK conversion of the VAT in the toll calculator, I found that my original VAT estimate was off. The toll calculator first adds the 15% import duty to the shipping costs and purchase cost of the product and THEN it calculates the VAT. So now we have this:

"cheap" jeans from AE: $35
shipping to Iceland: $50
import duty @15%: $12.75
VAT @25.5%: $24.93

FUCK! SHIT! World of pain!

And this is why I have a lot of clothing from second hand stores and clothing swaps, folks.

The Tollstjóri can also charge a fee to just open a box to examine the contents and value--even if it is marked as a "gift" from your mother. They do this because even gifts valued over 10000 ISK are subject to VAT and import duty (only on the difference on the amount above the 10000 ISK threshold). The fee for opening a package can be something small like $5 but it's still insulting. But sometimes--if a minion at the Tollstjóri feels altruistic that day--then maybe there's no charge.

Once I had to pay 800 ISK for the privilege of them ruffling through a package from my mom that contained (no kidding) a Green Bay Packers jersey as a joke and three boxes of Craft Mac 'n' Cheese (not as a joke). I thought this was annoying, yet somewhat hilarious. More recently, my friend Shannon sent me a "hipster mustache" that she found for $3.50 at a grocery store in Portland, OR. It was sent in a padded envelope along with a quirky magnet and my spare keys (that she forgot to return after visiting us in Iceland). This package was also opened by the Tollstjóri but they found the kindness in their hearts not to charge me for it.

Fake 'hipster mustache' from Portland, Oregon: $3.50
Knowing that someone at Tollstjóri was thoroughly confused by a package containing a fake mustache and set of keys: PRICELESS