A traditional Icelandic food platter.

A traditional Icelandic food platter.

The Icelandic calendar has lots of fun and interesting traditional holidays and festivals throughout the year. Right now it is Þorrablót.

According to Iceland.is, “Thorrablot was a sacrificial midwinter festival offered to the gods in pagan Iceland of the past. It was abolished during the Christianization of Iceland, but resurrected in the 19th century as a midwinter celebration that continues to be celebrated to this day. The timing for the festival coincides with the month of Thorri, according to the old Icelandic calendar, which begins on the first Friday after January 19th (the 13th week of winter).

“Origins of the name ‘Thorri’ are unclear but it is most likely derived from Norwegian king Thorri Snærsson, or Thor the God of Thunder in the old Nordic religion.

“On this occasion, locals come together to eat, drink and be merry. Customary, the menu consists of unusual culinary delicacies, known as traditional Icelandic food. These will include rotten shark’s meat (hákarl), boiled sheep’s head (svið), and congealed sheep’s blood wrapped in a ram’s stomach (blóðmör)! This is traditionally washed down with some Brennivin – also known as Black Death – a potent schnapps made from potato and caraway.

“After the Thorrablot dinner traditional songs, games and story telling are accompanied by dancing and in true Icelandic style continue until the early hours of the morning! If you fail to receive a personal invitation to a family feast, local restaurants will often add Thorrablot colour and taste to their menus.”

So today, I participated in a traditional Þorrablót food tasting hosted by the Public Affairs section at the embassy. You can see the foods we had in the photo above. And I can honestly say that I tried everything except the dried fish, because I really don’t like strong fish flavors.

In the top row from left to right, we had the following: sheep’s head, cured ham, jellied lamb, ram’s testicles, slátur (similar to haggis), blood sausage, and two other kinds of pressed meat from the abdomen and chest. The pink glass had pickled herring with mayonnaise and red beets, and the other glass was a carrot and pea salad with mayonnaise. On the left of the bottom row was the infamous hákarl (putrified shark), dried fish, flatbread and rúgbrauð (dark rye bread), and mashed rutabaga.

I had tried the shark and Brennivín before and found it to be fairly awful, but this time it wasn’t so bad. Maybe because last time I’d downed the liquor like a shot, and it was incredibly strong combined with the ammonia from the shark. This time we were told we could also dip the shark in the liquor, which did seem to mellow it a bit. And then we sipped the Brennivín after, which is actually a fairly pleasant caraway aquavit.

Have always loved the rye bread; it’s very sweet. And the mashed rutabaga was quite nice as well. The cured ham was fairly straight forward. And the ram’s testicles were surprisingly good with a smooth texture…until you found out what they were. Some things were much worse once you added your imagination, and many of them had a sour flavor as part of the old preservation process used sour whey. But I love sour things, so I didn’t mind. I had a hard time eating the sheep’s head…but the tongue tasted much nicer than some other bits. The worst for me was probably the jellied lamb because I’m not a fan of slimy textures.

Overall it was an interesting experience! I can’t say that I’m going to add testicles to the grocery list. But it was a fun thing to be a part of. 🙂

View of the sun in Reykjavik on New Year's Eve right after noon at 12:38pm.

View of the sun in Reykjavik at noon on New Year’s Eve.

I can’t remember the last time I was so relieved to see the end of a calendar year. We have a pretty good and comfortable life that maintains a fairly even emotional keel most of the time (when we’re not moving), but sometimes those years come along that throw everything out of balance.

2016 was definitely one of them. Mostly because I lost three members of my family…my mother, my grandmother and my aunt; and my husband lost a younger cousin. Technically my grandmother passed away at the end of 2015, but I’m including her in the ridiculous death toll that affected so many in 2016.

On a much smaller scale, but still an emotional issue for our family, our son was diagnosed with ADHD and a small motor tic disorder. I know this is not a HUGE problem, and there are much worse things out there. And we’re so thankful for the bright, affectionate and funny boy that he is.

But it does affect his medical clearance…not to mention its impact on his education, how he’s expected to perform in the classroom and the potential struggles he will have for the rest of his life. You always want the best for your children. You want them to be happy and successful and to have a good life. He will just have to try a little bit harder to achieve these things.

But we did have some good times!

We survived the first year of life with a giant dog…that after the first six months finally stopped urinating and defecating all over my new Ikea rug. Ugh, so disgusting! And he successfully graduated from puppy obedience school, so technically, he’s better behaved now. 😉

Happy New Year from me and Thorfinn!

Happy New Year from me and Thorfinn!

We had lots of great visitors come spend time with us in Iceland (probably more than the amount that visited us the whole two years we were in London!), which always makes me so happy.

During the summer, we had a fantastic three-week family R&R. We got to visit friends in the UK, and spend some fun time as tourists in Edinburgh, Inverness and Paris.

And we’ve tried to get out a bit and make the most of life in our current country. Some highlights include: hanging out in natural hot springs, seeing auroras, visiting spring lamb farms, collecting sea glass on the beach, and spending time with new friends. A much quieter lifestyle than our previous post.

I also joined a local women’s choir, completed a fun online Viking history course, and got promoted at work. It doesn’t change my job particularly, but I do make a little bit more money, which is never a bad thing.

Oh, and A lost his first tooth! The tooth fairy brought him a shiny gold Sacajawea dollar all the way from the States.

So it’s been a hell of a year…with some great ups and some serious downs.  Throughout my life, I’ve always noticed that the odd years are slightly better for me than the evens.

So here’s to 2017…I hope it brings us all more highs than lows! Happy New Year, everyone!!

Snow Queen Winter Solstice Yule Goddess 5x7 Greeting Card available from EmilyBalivet on Etsy.com.

Snow Queen – Winter Solstice – Yule Goddess (greeting card by EmilyBalivet on Etsy.com).

Four of the 13 Yule Lads (photo courtesy of www.northiceland.is)

Four of the 13 Yule Lads (photo courtesy of http://www.northiceland.is)

As I’ve mentioned before, Nordic countries have a slightly darker history when it comes to the Santa Claus myth. The Icelandic Santas aren’t really one guy…they’re 13 Yule Lads or jólasveinar that come down from the mountains and cause trouble for a couple weeks starting 13 days before Christmas.

They are the offspring of two trolls: Grýla and Leppalúð. Gryla is no slouch herself and likes to boil bad children and eat them. Part of the tradition is that kids are supposed to put a shoe in the window and the visiting lad will put some kind of gift in it, if they’ve been good…or a rotten potato, if they’ve been bad.

Last year A was too afraid of them to entertain the idea of them creeping around the house. This year I didn’t bring it up because the kid’s already getting a ton of stuff for Xmas, the last thing he needs is 13 MORE gifts.

But the school was all abuzz yesterday with news of who got what in their shoe. A actually took it quite well and took full responsibility for being passed over because he forgot to put his shoe in the window…bless him.

So last night he got the full treatment. Snowboot in the window. And an Oreo on the plate for Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) who hides in gullies waiting for an opportunity to steal milk. Unfortunately, Giljagaur DID come, and A realized it out about 1:00am…burst into our bedroom to tell us about it…and was too excited to go back to sleep for another hour.

Needless to say that when 6:30am rolled around, I did not understand nor appreciate the pile of empty milk containers on the dining room table that my hubby had painstakingly arranged.

So maybe no tell-tale cookie tonight. We’ll see how we fare with Stúfur (Stubby) who steals pans to eat the crust left on them. Maybe he’ll do me a favor and take any dirty dishes as well.

A pre-performance rehearsal.

A pre-performance rehearsal.

Things have been going really well with the women’s choir that I joined. I still don’t speak much Icelandic, so I Google translate all the group emails and postings on Facebook. And if I don’t understand what’s being said at practice, and it seems important, I’ll ask the woman sitting next to me. And they’ve continued to be so welcoming and accommodating. It really has been a lovely experience being part of their group.

This first “semester” has been focused on holiday music and culminated in two concerts at a local church called Guðríðarkirkja (Gudrid’s Church) in eastern Reykjavik. I got a kick out of the name as one of the books I’d read before we arrived was titled Gudrid, the Far Traveler about the Viking explorer Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir.

According to Wikipedia, “She appears in the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, known collectively as the Vinland sagas. Along with her husband Þorfinnur Karlsefni, they led an expedition to Vinland where they begat their son Snorri Þorfinnsson, the first European born in the Americas outside of Greenland.”

And the church actually was named after her because “after the death of her husband, Guðríður sailed to Rome to become a Pilgrim and later she became a nun. According to the Sagas, she was a very passionate woman and very religious” (TripCreator.com). It isn’t a fancy old-fashioned European church. In fact it’s rather square and modern, but it has fabulous acoustics.

Interior view of the church.

Interior view of the church.

The Icelandic songs were definitely challenging! We sang about fourteen songs altogether; one was in Spanish (“Ave Maria”), three were in English (“Mary’s Boy Child”, “It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas”, and “Please Come Home for Christmas”)…and the rest were all in Icelandic. I’d like to say that I was able to memorize all the lyrics, but I wasn’t. I’d say I could remember about 30% of them. The rest of the time I listened very closely and mimicked the director’s mouth as he formed the words. But I was able to remember all the music! And that’s the really important part. 🙂

And I can honestly say it was one of the few truly Icelandic moments I’ve had since being here. Surrounded by a bunch of Icelandic women, singing Icelandic Christmas songs to a predominantly Icelandic audience.

After the final performance, we had a little celebration and had some yummy snacks and a few glasses of wine. The women around me were super thoughtful and spoke in English, so that I’d be part of the conversation. I can honestly say that joining the choir was a fantastic decision, and I’m really looking forward to starting up again next semester.

I didn’t grow up with much in the way of elaborate Xmas traditions. We put up stockings, decorations and a tree and listened to Xmas music. You opened the presents from your stocking on Xmas eve and the rest of your gifts on Xmas day. We didn’t really have a fancy meal that I remember, but we liked to have a big breakfast.

And we always watched Xmas movies. My mom’s favorites were A Christmas Story and Miracle on 34th Street, although we never really watched the second one very often. I haven’t had much luck with the movie tradition since starting my own family. Our son has proclaimed them all boring unless they’re specifically geared for children. And my hubby’s not a huge fan of Xmas movies or chick flicks, which many of them kind of are (think Love Actually and The Holiday).

So lately I’ve branched out into a new genre for me…the B-Horror Christmas Film, and it is fairly entertaining for the grown-ups. It’s not completely unfamiliar territory…Gremlins was pretty popular when I was a kid.

One of the immediate things you notice in Iceland at Christmastime is that the warm and fuzzy Santa is definitely a Western tradition and not a Scandinavian one. So we began our foray last year with a Finnish Xmas horror film from 2003 called Rare Exports. This year we started off the season with Krampus (2015).

But I’d like to raise the bar a little bit. Since this is one of my family traditions that I actually really love, this year I’ve decided to turn it into an Advent tradition and watch 25 Christmas movies! One for every day until Xmas starting on Dec 1.

I thought of sharing this new tradition with my family, but my hubby pronounced the idea “painful.” But I’m not going to let that ruin my holiday fun!! I have a bit of catching up to do though, as today is the fourth, and I’ve only watched one film. I already have a few holiday favorites in mind, but I also found this list of many of the Xmas movies made in the US since 1901. So bring on the Amazon rentals! Next up…Love the Coopers.

I spent part of my childhood in Sitka, Alaska, which was the capital when it was a Russian territory. So I’ve always been interested in Russian language, history, art and culture. In October and November the Icelandic Opera was performing Évgení Onegin…a Tchaikovsky opera based on a novel by Alexander Pushkin.

To share the summary from the website, “The dashing, unconventional Onegin visits the estate of Mrs. Larina and her daughters, Tatjana and Olga. From first glance, Tatjana believes that he is the hero of her dreams, but he rejects her without hesitation. Onegin is bored in the countryside and flirts with her sister Olga. He outrages Lensky, Olga’s fiancé and Onegin’s only friend and Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel where Onegin kills his only friend. To try to escape his guilt Onegin travels the world but returns to Russia and discovers that Tatyana is married to Prince Gremin and lives in the high society of St. Petersburg. He is devastated and begs her to return his love to her. Although she still loves him deeply, Tatyana stays true to her husband.”

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from http://www.whatson.is.

I was very excited to see it as this was the first time an opera had been performed in Russian in Iceland. My hubby is a fan of the arts, but he’s not a huge Russian opera fan. So I thought to maybe make it a girls’ night…except I couldn’t get a single girlfriend to go with me. Granted I didn’t ask EVERYONE I know, but it started to feel like it after a while. So eventually I just gave up on asking and decided that I was going to go see it on my own.

I used to go to movies and performances on my own all the time when I was single. But I usually made a point of going to matinees. Going out at 8:00 on a Saturday night on my own felt quite mischievous. But I bought my ticket, made it to Harpa, downed a glass of champagne and took a selfie in time to get settled in my seat.

A little champagne selfie.

A little champagne selfie.

And it was a lovely opera with convenient super-titles in Icelandic and English. I’ve seen foreign language operas before, but I’d never thought about how much effort went into learning the lyrics. Now that I’m in a local choir, and we’re doing a dozen songs in Icelandic, which I don’t speak, I can’t imagine doing three hours’ worth of music in a foreign language. You think that it all makes sense to the performers, but that’s not always the case. It’s like throwing a thousand meaningless words in a bag, dumping them out on the floor, and then trying to remember them in some kind of sequence.

So I was doubly impressed and had a thoroughly good time. I might have to make solo operas a regular event. 😉

My step-dad flew out from Alaska for a visit this month, and we were super excited about it! I’d only seen him once in the last few years, and that was to bring him my mother’s ashes. So that was incredibly sad, and I was happy to replace that with a fresh visit and be able to show him a bit of our life overseas. And A got to meet his Grandpa D for the first time!

We did a few of the usual tourist things…Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. But happily he’s a museum fan, so we also did some things that were on my bucket list, but I hadn’t gotten around to…like the National Museum of Iceland, the Maritime Museum and the Árbær Open Air Museum. And we caught a showing at Harpa of Icelandic Sagas – The Greatest Hits in 75 minutes, which was a lot of fun.

The two-person cast of the Icelandic Sagas with "the script" in a pile in the background.

The two-person cast of the Icelandic Sagas with “the script” in a pile in the background.

The National Museum was really interesting, and they have a great collection of Viking artifacts. But they also have a lot of neat items from a period that I never think about here…Medieval Iceland. From 1400-1600 Iceland was ruled by Denmark, and even though it was quite remote, it was part of the Reformation and was devastated by the Black Plague. They have some beautiful medieval art as well as the first printed translation of the Bible into Icelandic.

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Medieval painting.

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First printed Bible translated into Icelandic.

The Maritime Museum on the other wasn’t quite as exciting. It’s more of a museum dedicated to the fishing industry. If you pay extra (or separately) you can get a tour of the Coast Guard ship Óðinn, which is a decommissioned offshore patrol vessel.

Slightly more interesting is the Árbær Open Air Museum. To quote their website, “Árbaer is an open air museum with more than 20 buildings which form a town square, a village and a farm. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik.” They’re open from 10-5 every day during the summer. But in the winter they only open at 1:00 for a guided tour.

Farm church.

Farm church.

Interior of 1800s building.

Interior of 1800s-style building…Suðurgata 7.

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More of Suðurgata 7.

I usually prefer to explore on my own, but this time I didn’t mind trailing around in a little group and getting a few extra stories. I particularly enjoyed seeing the traditional homes with the sod roofs, but it was equally insightful seeing the other homes decorated as they would have been through various periods of Icelandic history. One of the buildings had been designed in the 1800s and felt very much like being on the set of Anne of Green Gables. I guess the Georgian and Victorian eras looked fairly similar the world over.

For our last adventure, my step-dad is a member of the Rotary Club in the States, so he tracked down a local meeting of Rotary International, and we joined them for a nice lunch in a restaurant on top of the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel. It had a great view. I’ll have to check that place out again.

All too soon it was time for him to head back to Alaska. But it was so great to have him here and to get a chance to get out and see some new bits of Reykjavik together.

Trying a little bit of everything at the Embassy Thanksgiving.

Trying a little bit of everything at the Embassy Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving! I’m backdating this post because I was a slacker and didn’t get it written until weeks later. But I didn’t want to leave the holiday postings incomplete. This year I had, not one, not two, but THREE Thanksgiving celebrations. Ya, it was pretty awesome.

It started on the day before the holiday with a lovely potluck with the embassy staff with turkeys provided by the Ambassador and DCM. And then A and I went over to a friend’s house for a big celebration on the actual day (N wasn’t feeling well, so he stayed home to rest). They had invited over 20 people! So we had two grown-up tables and a kids’ table and lots of great food and socializing.

We also wanted to host our own event with some local folks. But they weren’t working on the American holiday calendar. So we waited until Sunday afternoon when it was convenient for everyone and had another lovely Thanksgiving dinner with friends from Iceland, Germany, Israel and Scotland. It was a lot of fun to be able to share our American tradition with friends that hadn’t experienced it before. And we counted them among the things we are thankful for this year!

I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving! Happy Holidays!

 

1. A's first Halloween, Colorado 2010. 2. A and friend at the international department's Halloween party, Iceland 2016. 3. Me as Maleficent, Iceland 2016.

1. A’s first Halloween, Colorado 2010. 2. A and friend at the school’s Halloween party, Iceland 2016. 3. Me as Maleficent, Iceland 2016.

I’ve always liked Halloween, but I didn’t really do much about it for the fifteen or so years between graduating from high school and getting married. When we lived in Colorado I kind of missed it and was looking for a reason to dress up one year, so we bought tickets to a Halloween event at the Molly Brown House Museum and grabbed a couple cheap costumes, which was fun.

Even after we had A, we’ve expended varying amounts of effort but have mostly focused on him, of course. Some years we’ve pulled off coordinated family outfits. When we were in London, I don’t think we (the grown-ups) dressed up at all because there was so much going on, and there were so many kids, it didn’t really matter. Now that we’re at a smaller post, getting dressed up has more entertainment value.

And I’ve finally realized that I get surprisingly stressed out at children’s Halloween parties. Apparently I’m really protective of A because he got really scared and upset a couple times in London. They’re usually crowded with a ton of chaotic kid energy. And I HATE balloons…well, I hate them being popped in my face anyway. Maybe I should have a couple glasses of wine beforehand.

Last year, I think we did a pretty good job as a family. We were all Lego Avengers characters. A was Thor, N was Captain America, and I was the Statue of Liberty. But I’d gone cheap and used a mint green sheet instead of buying a costume…and it kept falling apart at the party. So this year, I made sure I ordered a good costume ahead of time, and I really enjoyed this one.

No real theme this year though…A wanted to be the Black Power Ranger, so we all just kind of picked something. I chose Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. The horns were the best. And my hubby wore a dog mask and a tweed jacket…a Dapper Dog, so to speak. He couldn’t wear it in the house though or Thorfinn would attack him. 😉 So we’ll see what we can come up with next year.

I hope you all had a lovely Halloween!

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