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.)

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