Sunday, August 28, 2016

Íslensk námskeiðinn minn á Vestfjörðum - My Icelandic program in the Westfjords

Sælar! - Hi everyone!

So when I last left off, I was recounting a bit of my time at Núpur in the Westfjords of Iceland, specifically in the context of a three-day stint therein in which I lost and then somehow miraculously recovered my Android phone.
Today, I'm back to catch you all up on the rest of the amazing experience I had in that breathtaking little slice of heaven on Earth.

Due to the nature of the trip and how much days tended to run together, I'm not going to structure this into any sort of rigid week-by-week breakdown, as I had thought to do originally. I'll just give some general overviews of the setup and nature of our program, followed by some particularly special memories, thoughts on the experience as a whole, and how I've been feeling since getting back.
Let's go.

So the program in its design was primarily directed towards people intending on being exchange students at Icelandic universities for a semester or longer, but was also open to anyone (like me) who wanted to come to Iceland just for the program itself to pick up a little Icelandic. I'd say that the group was pretty evenly divided into those who were staying and those that weren't.
We were split up into two different language classes based on the amount of pacing that we requested - pretty much all of us that were not staying as exchange students, wanting to learn all we could in our limited time, were in the more fast-paced class, whereas virtually all the exchange students-to be were in the slower paced class, figuring they could ease into learning the language gradually over their much longer stays.
My class's teacher was a very blunt, funny, and kind man named Óli, who also had an interesting background of having previously lived in Sweden, Germany, and now in Zagreb, Croatia. I found his teaching style to be honest and direct, but also very informative and helpful, and I'm very happy I got to take from him for those few weeks; I truly think that it's his largely his merit that I learned the Icelandic I did - which, though haphazard, was a good amount for just a three-week program.
My fellow program participants were pretty well near universally awesome people. A good 40% were Germans, about 30% Americans, and then the rest were a smattering of other nationalities, including Italian, Croatian, Finnish, Dutch, Kenyan, Irish, Chinese, Norwegian, Czech, English, Scottish, Danish, Canadian, and Icelandic-Irish born and raised in Paris (in the case of my wonderful and cosmopolitan friend Sive). There was a surprising variety in reasons people had come - many were either studying languages or were language nerds (like myself), a few had come to learn or improve their Icelandic for interest due to Icelandic cultural heritage, yet many who were studying completely different subject areas, from physics to philosophy, had simply come out of pure interest and desire to do something different and exciting. In the three weeks we spent together in the isolated but breathtakingly beautiful setting of Núpur, we got to be very close as a group, sharing countless memories and inside jokes. It was a very dynamic group of kind, thoughtful, well-experienced and rounded, and intelligent people that I now miss very much.

Speaking of the geographical setting:
So Núpur was a bit more out of the way than I had originally understood before going to Iceland. While I had understood that it was right on the outskirts of Ísafjörður, the largest town of the Westfjords, it was in fact a good half hour drive away, located in a pretty isolated and sparsely populated area on the shores of a fjord called Dýrafjörður. Núpur itself is a former boarding school, now turned hotel. Though I was initially a bit surprised by the greater geographical isolation than what I had imagined, I soon found that I didn't mind - the company was wonderful; the scenery right outside, as I mentioned, breathtaking, complete with mountains, the beaches down by the fjord, and wide open fields full of flowers, hay bales, and sheep; and the program also offered us plentiful excursions. Some of these were included in the program's tuition fee, namely our twice-weekly trips into Ísafjörður to go to elective courses (or not) at the University Center, and then stop at a Bónus supermarket on the outskirts of town on our way back to shop for groceries we might need to cook dinner or on the weekends (we were fed breakfast and lunch on weekdays). The additional program-covered excursion was one to a place across Dýrafjörður called Haukadalur, the site of one of Iceland's famous medieval sagas, this one called Gísli Saga - there we saw an immensely condensed skit version of the saga performed by the only professional actor in the Westfjords, and then went on a scavenger hunt with clues in Icelandic to different spots relevant to the story. Another was to a small town in the vicinity called Suðureyri, where we got to watch a little culture show of individual acting, poetry reading, and even a rap performance.
Of the optional excursions which had to be payed for on an individual basis, one of my favorites was the one to Þingeyri, a nearby town in whose municipality Núpur is nominally included, where I went swimming with my friends Dennis, Dorigan, Coraline, and Erin, and then stopped at a cozy and charming cafe in town called Simbahöllin, which served some delicious Belgian waffles. I should mention that swimming pools are a very typical Icelandic activity and experience - pools in Iceland have a strict mandate commanding thorough naked showering before and after using the pool, and normally will include a comfortably room-temperature pool, a boiling hot tub, and a frigid outdoor cold pot, all non-chlorinated (hence the need for the thorough showering). Many of them have free water and coffee on the inside.
There were more excursions, but I think you all get the point.

The last day, after the long and exhausting bus ride back down to Reykjavik from the Westfjords, since we all had at least one more night before anyone was leaving, we decided to reconvene and have one last hurrah together as a group in the big city, especially seeing as both my Croatian friend Nika and my Dutch friend Louise had birthdays that we were celebrating. We spent the evening together at a delightful establishment known as the Kiki Queer Bar on Laugavegur, one of the main streets, spending plentiful time on both the calmer lounge level, and the loud and dimly lit dance floor on the level below. Though I unfortunately lost track of a few people that I would have otherwise really wished to say goodbye to, which is still something that I regret and am saddened by, I got to say solid and fitting goodbyes to virtually everyone.
The next morning, I awoke with the intention of doing a bit of last-minute souvenir shopping, and also grabbing a quick coffee with my Irish roommate Patrick and German friend Jan, two of the aforementioned folk I lost track of at Kiki but really wanted to see off, before leaving for Keflavik. Unfortunately, they didn't wake up until after I'd had to leave for the airport in order to make my flight. On the bus ride to the airport, as I found myself finally alone, at least in terms of people from the Núpur crew, for the first time in three weeks, thinking of the unsaid goodbyes that I'd so wished to say, of the beautiful country and good new friends I was leaving behind, the language I was just beginning to get the hang of, and staring out on the raindrops clinging to the window, I burst into tears.
After making it to the airport, having some lunch, and physically boarding my plane, I fished my travel journal out of my backpack, which I had spent a good chunk of the bus ride back to Reykjavik passing around the bus to virtually everyone from my program to have them sign it and leave a little note, which I would then not read until I was on my plane - a tradition I picked up as a NSLI-Yer in Turkey. Reading those notes, those beautiful testaments to the friendships and growth, the inside jokes and memories that had made my experience in Iceland so positive, and I was so sad to have to leave behind, I burst into tears again. I feel badly for the poor man sitting next to me, who must have been quite baffled by how much I was sobbing reading the pages of that darned book.

Overall my thoughts on this experience are hugely positive. I had been craving an authentic experience by the time I was getting ready to leave Reykjavik, and boy, did I get one. The Westfjords are in many ways a typically Icelandic region, replete with the sort of surreal and breathtaking natural majesty of waterfalls, mountains, and fjords for which the country is best known, and yet relatively untouched by the harrowing masses of tourism which I had found in Reykjavik. I was a bit desirous of more interactions and friendships with locals than what I got, but I was grateful for what I did get as far as that was concerned. The teachers of the elective courses, which ranged from folk songs to Icelandic swears, were kind and friendly locals, and we got to meet a few more the night of our "dansiball," when we had a dance at a restaurant in Ísafjörður which is also owned by the owner of Núpur, a fun and memorable experience.
My Icelandic isn't exactly fluent, but it's not like I was expecting to get even close in just three weeks of learning such a complex language. In spite of my imperfect pronunciation and use of cases, I'm quite proud of what I was able to pick up in such little time, and I can now understand and use bits and pieces of this beautiful, ancient Viking tongue. When I was back in Reykjavik and at the airport the last night and morning before flying back to the States, now able to use Icelandic to communicate, I got a great deal of heartwarmingly enthusiastic and delighted responses, which melted my heart.

So yes. That happened.
I feel I'm not even coming close to doing this experience any sort of justice with this post, but maybe I'm being too hard on myself. Hopefully I've at least given you guys a good idea.
Iceland has become a place, and Icelandic a language, that even more so than before, I hope to make a significant and important part of my life in the years to come. I intend to do all that I can to go back and deepen my knowledge of Iceland in the near future, and to hopefully make a few more local roots and Icelandic connections than I did this last time.

Coming back has been a little difficult, I will say. Leaving behind a place, an experience, and so many people that I had loved and come to care for very deeply, and coming straight back to campus at Beloit, arriving at 11:00 pm to start my sophomore year of college at 8:45 the very next day, was less than ideal, to put it politely. I was forced to immediately return to the intensity and craziness of life in academia with no chance to properly and calmly process my turbulent feelings in the wake of the departure. Over the past week since I returned, particularly over the weekend, I've had some good times with friends (some of which I will blog about separately soon) and alone that allowed me to do a bit of that emotional processing, so now I'm starting to feel a bit more settled at least than I was before. It's an ongoing process. And after such an experience, how could it not be?

A waterfall called Dynjandi, where we stopped on our way up from Reykjavik.

Núpur itself from a distance.

In the sunlight.

An abandoned building in the field out by the fjord.

From a little sunset excursion we took as a group.

The town center of Ísafjörður.

The library in Ísafjörður.

Part of the group jumping into the fjord.

My friends Ingunn from Norway (left) and Eilie from Scotland (right) about to get hit by an oncoming wave.

From an evening that I spent writing poetry on a hillside above the fjord as the sun set.

The church on the property at Núpur.

I climbed hay bales with a group of my friends.

My German friend Julian complied with my silly request to be photographed with my Icelandic flag. 

A little garden called Skuður about a ten minute walk from the hotel.

The sunset that taunted us on the eve of our departure.

Cool eclectic art in the Keflavik Aiport.

From my flight back to Chicago.
Takk fyrir allt, Núpur. Þegar ég sakna svo mikið. Sjáumst aftur.

(Yes, more Icelandic Disney. Fight me.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Síminn minn fór til fjandans og tilbaka - losing my phone in Iceland and getting it back again

(Or, to literally translate the Icelandic part of this title, my phone went to the devil and back).

Hey guys!

So as the title of this post suggests, I've had some pretty incredible luck here.

A few days ago, while going out for a walk on a hill overlooking the fjord outside of the hotel where I'm staying with the people from my program, I realized when I got down to the water that many people's worst nightmares came true - my phone was missing from the pocket of my sweater.

I realized that, somewhere in the tall, flowing, and unkempt grass that grows across the vast property, it must have tumbled out of my pocket.

I was immediately filled with an intense panic, and spent almost two hours searching for it in a crazed frenzy.

Given the wide area between the last place I remembered using it, and the height of the grass in that area, I thought I was screwed for sure. But by some miracle, through a combination of incessant persistence, determination, and use of innovative technological techniques to track the last recorded location and narrow down the search area a bit, I managed to find it. Ironically, it wasn't even buried deep in the undergrowth; it was lying out in the open on a spot where the ground sloped a little bit.

Once the shock cleared and I actually managed to realize I was seeing it, after having fully prepared myself not to see it again and deal with the related consequences, I grabbed it and jumped in the air, taking advantage by the lack of other people wandering on the mores to let out a boisterous whoop of celebratory joy, running until my lungs gave out on my way back to the hotel, and bowing comedically as everyone clapped upon my return with the phone in hand.

Though I'm admittedly very glad that I got my phone back, I'm also grateful for a number of important lessons that my three days without a phone taught me.

Let me make it clear that the main reasons I freaked out about losing my phone were two fold: not being able to take pictures of Iceland, and also the costs I assumed would be involved for my family to replace the phone and transfer its contents. Not to mention the fact that I was immensely angry at myself for having been careless (it was in the pocket of my sweater, which I knew was probably not too bright an idea).

The thing I actually enjoyed the most about not having a phone was that it forced me to reevaluate  attachment to various social media apps and connectivity, and to focus on the moment completely. This is something which I try to do as much as possible in my life anyway, but had intended to do further in some way for a while. This was perhaps the only aspect of the experience of losing the phone that I actually enjoyed. For three days, anything and everything I did, whether it was watching the Olympic opening ceremony with my group and loudly, raucously cheering every time someone's home country marched in the Parade of Nations, jumping into an ice cold fjord at sunset with a Brit, a Scot, a Czech, a Vermonter, a German, and a Canadian, or just enjoying walks out by the fjord (while looking for the phone haha), everything was done with no thought to what might become an eventual Facebook status, Instagram photo, or Snapchat update. And I liked that.

I genuinely enjoy communicating with other people in my life and sharing things through social media, but begin forcibly cut off for it and having to live without it for a time, reminding me it is ultimately not necessary in my life, provided me some good perspective.
I'm definitely glad to have it all back, but from now on I will be a lot more measured in my use of it, making conscious efforts to leave my phone in the car or room sometimes, and be as present in my own life as I was without a phone.

It also did great as a bonding experience. With pretty much all in my group here being fully conscious of what a drag it is to lose a smartphone in today's world, everyone was genuinely sympathetic and very, very helpful in ways I didn't imagine. Without even asking for assistance, I found myself one among three different scouting parties up to eight strong that volunteered to come help me look for it, and that was incredibly touching. People were also honestly invested in the issue, and happy for me when I found it (as well as being impressed that I'd managed to find it by myself after having gone out with so many other people so many times!).

Another thing that was great about this experience was the persistence and effort I put into looking for it pay off.
Not everything in life works out, and I'm definitely not a believer in the idea that everything (though many things, I would agree, do) happens for a reason. But definitely don't be afraid to persist in seeing your efforts to accomplish a goal through as much as you can. Whether it's finding a phone, applying to a college, program, or job, finishing a challenging project, or anything else, don't give up on your efforts and remain dedicated to your goals. I had resolved myself to probably never seeing that darn piece of plastic again, but I resolved that nonetheless, I would go back to look for it, just in case fortune would come through for me.
If I had given up completely and stopped looking for it, then I wouldn't have found it like I did, even though I might have passed right next to the spot where I dropped it. So don't give up, because you never know how close you are to a breakthrough in accomplishing something.

I'm sorry if this got overly cheesy, but I just wanted to share these thoughts.
I'm 100% not bashing social media; as I mentioned, I genuinely enjoy it and look at it as a positive force that fosters communication and interconnectedness among people in different places and of different beliefs. There are many friendships I never would have been able to form or maintain, and insightful or life-changing ideas that I never would have been exposed to (or at least it would have taken much longer) without social media. But I think in today's world people, myself included, do tend to get quite wrapped up in it at times, often to unhealthy extents. And I think that it is incredibly beneficial to all to balance things out and keep things in healthy moderation.

Suffice it to say that although it was a bit of a scary experience and I'm glad to have the phone back, I'm grateful for the perspective it provided me.

Take care and be well, everyone.

An incredibly beautiful music video to a calm and relaxing song, which was filmed here in Iceland. 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Fjórir dagar í Reykjavík - Four days in Reykjavik

Hey guys!

So I'm in Iceland now, more specifically in the Westfjords, where I'm already two days deep into my Icelandic language and culture immersion program.

But this post will focus on my first four days in this incredibly beautiful country, which I spent in and around Reykjavik, the capital.
Here we go!

July 28, 2016:
After an unexpected three-hour delay in the Chicago O'Hare Airport, where I managed to make the most of the delay by having a surprise Google Hangout with Salma and Ruth, I boarded my Icelandair flight to Keflavík and was off on my way.
Though, as I mentioned in my last post, the jet lag threw me for a bit of a loop and was worse than expected, I weathered the trip just fine for the most part. I watched an Icelandic movie, a couple episodes of Friends, a touristic video about the Westfjords, which got me quite pumped, listened to some Icelandic music, and tried (and failed) to get a little bit of sleep, just in time to witness the intense descent over the North Atlantic into Keflavík.
I putzed around the airport for a while, trying to figure out how to go, and then finally caught a bus into the city.
Walking down the quiet residential neighborhoods that defined the walk to the city intercity bus terminal, I could already feel myself beginning to fall in love with this country and the city in which I found myself.
I left my stuff at my hostel, and, with several hours before I could even check in, walked the ten minutes over to Hallgrímskirkja, a cathedral which is one of the most well-known and characteristic monuments of the city. After checking out the pleasing symmetry and quirky organ that align the interior, I bought a ticket to go up to the top of the tower, all in Icelandic, no less (my first successful all-Icelandic interaction!). The view of the city was beautiful from all sides, with immaculately beautiful and intense vistas of the city's colorful roofs and buildings, the mountains and fjords in the distance, and the low-lying green plains I had passed on the way in from Keflavik. I cannot recommend going to the top of Hallgrimskírkja enough to anyone traveling to Iceland.
However, by this point, my jet lag was really starting to get to me. Seeing as I was shaking by the time I got back down, I decided that I would be legitimately endangering myself if I tried to stay out much longer. So I headed back to my hostel, buying a map of Iceland in a bookstore along the way, and took a much-needed four hour power nap. When I woke up around 9 pm, I forced myself to stay up until around midnight, so that I could sleep through solidly til morning. And though I initially struggled a bit to do so, seeing as my hostel was right next to a nightclub, sleep through till morning I did indeed.
After takeoff from Chicago.

Landing at Keflavik.

Literary quotes dotted the airport. 

View from my hostel.

Outside Hallgrimskírkja.

The geometrically pleasing interior and quirky organ.

The view from the top. 

July 29, 2016
This was my day of intense, all-encompassing solo Reykjavik sightseeing.
I started off in the morning with a walk up to Tjörnin, a pretty pond located in the center of town with really pretty reflective up-close views of the lovely, colorful roofed houses I'd seen from the tower of Hallgrimskirkja the day before. The pond is also home to a surprising number of birds - multiple types of ducks, geese, and swans, seagulls, and the world-traveling Arctic terns.
After waling around Tjörnin, I peeked inside Radhus, the city hall, where I admired the architecture and a large 3D map of Iceland inside.
From Radhus I headed on to the National Museum of Iceland, which has an incredible quantity of priceless testaments to all eras of Iceland's past, from the Settlement Era and sagas to the more recent independence movement, and everything in between (Iceland, surprisingly, as I found out, only gained its full independence from the Danish crown in 1944).
From there I moved next to the Reykjavik 871 +/-2, a technologically interactive museum which has been built over a Viking settlement built in or a few years before or after 871. Finally, I ended the sightseeing portion of my day by taking a peek inside Harpa, a beautiful concert hall built on the beach.

Afterwards, as I mentioned in my last post, I met up with Allison, a friend of mine from my AFS Returnee Leadership Summit, who was an exchange student in Sandgerði several years ago, and was back for an Icelandic language program of her own this summer. We had just enough overlap in our stays in Reykjavik to be able to squeeze in a quick meet up. First we got ice cream at a famous and well-loved place by the Reykjavik Harbor called Valdís with a group of people from her program, and then took it to some nearby rocks on the water to gaze out over the sea as we chatted.
After dispersing for a moment to go back to our respective hostels, houses, or places we were staying to layer up, we met up again at 10 to go for a long walk to a lighthouse right outside of the city.
This was one of the best nights I've had in a while. Here I was walking down the seaside road in Reykjavik through a beautifully vibrant sunset, catching up with a friend who was instrumentally helpful in making sure I pushed to fulfill my dream to come to Iceland, and meeting other amazing international folk, from having a great conversation about life and languages in Spanish with a fun and easygoing Colombian, and trading favorite dairy alternatives and recipes with a vegan Canadian. And right the eff out of nowhere, suddenly it was 1 AM.
I had to part ways with the group to make my way back to my hostel and get some sleep before my 9 AM tour of the Golden Circle the next morning. But my, what an evening that was. I remember thinking on my way back to the hostel, still doing a double take since, in spite of the fact that it was fast approaching 2, the sky still glowed with the appearance of a gentle pinkish twilight, and I thought to myself about the evening, this is why I travel. 

Duck family!

Lots of birds live in the pond itself.

Ráðhús, the city hall. 


Beautiful stained glass at the National Museum.

Harpa Concert Hall.

The amazingly aesthetic interior.


Colorful balconies.

Me and Allison!

July 30, 2016
Successfully waking up in time to venture out on my Golden Circle tour, I was treated to three of the most beautiful, breathtaking, and well-known attractions in Iceland - Þingvellir (thing-vetlir) National Park, Gullfoss, and Geysir. We also made a few additional stops at a beautiful waterfall called Faxi, which was a surprise stop from the driver, at a horse farm, and a church.
Þingvellir is the meeting place of one of the world's first parliaments, the Alþing, established in 930 CE, and the European and North American tectonic plates alike, a stunningly beautiful expanse of lush grasslands and a wide, cobalt lake.
Gullfoss was absolutely spectacular - I've come to call it my Icelandic Aya Sofya, as it's a place that, albeit in very different ways, mesmerized and captivated me utterly and completely, saddening me when it was time to leave even with plentiful time to explore it. Suffice it to say that it was a breathtaking spectacle of nature's majesty, all rolled into one magnificent waterfall of gray and fluffy white.
Geysir was a bit less impressive than the other two, but it had a hard act to live up to, for sure. It was definitely stunning as well in its own way though, seeing how the explosion of boiling hot water came no more than ten minutes apart, like clockwork.
Faxi was a lovely surprise, a true treat. It was a beautiful and majestic waterfall, but in a bit of a different way than Gullfoss. It was much smaller and very differently colored, a vibrant sapphire shade to contrast Gullfoss' more tame gray. But flowing into a swiftly flowing river of the same shade, it made no less strong of an impression. It was named after "fax," which is the word for a horse's mane, a reference, I believe, to the way the water whitens and drifts down the falls in a way resembling, not surprisingly, a horse's mane. A true treat that I feel lucky to be able to have seen.
I remember little of the church and horse farm, because we were not at the horse farm for very long and were not able to go inside the church due to a scheduling conflict with a concert.

Our very first stop, a geothermal field. 

Þingvellavatn, the lake of Þingvellir.

Meeting place of tectonic plates and ancient Viking parliaments alike.

The unbelievable, breathtaking beauty of Gullfoss.

Geysir erupting. 

Faxifoss, a much smaller but also lovely waterfall that we actually stopped at as a surprise from our driver. 

The church we didn't get to go in.

From the Icelandic horse farm we stopped at. 

From an evening walk I took after getting back into the town center and resting a bit.

July 31, 2016
On my last full day in Reykjavik, having seen pretty well near everything I wanted to in the Reykjavik area, I allowed myself a calm day of chill relaxation and wandering around the city. I wandered onto the campus of the University of Iceland, spent a bit more time inside Harpa, and had dinner at a raw and vegetarian-focused restaurant. Not much else to tell about this day, really.

I immensely enjoyed my time in Reykjavik, but admittedly by the time I left I was feeling ready to, only because I was yearning to get to know a more authentic side of the country and its culture, which was difficult to see in Reykjavik due to the fact that I was experiencing it from the most touristic of places and situations, and was looking forward to my program starting.
The Cathedral interior. 

The Cathedral outside.

The Alþingi. 

Wandered back to Tjörnin.

Wandered back on to the University of Iceland campus.

Little pond right outside the Nordic House. 

Took a walk up Sæbraut.

A sunset reflecting on Harpa. 

Hallgrímskirkja is just so aesthetic.

I hope you enjoyed hearing about my intense, but very rewarding and fun time in Reykjavik. I will be back soon to tell you about my program and experience here in the immensely beautiful Westfjords.


More Icelandic Disney. #sorrynotsorry