Four of the 13 Yule Lads (photo courtesy of

Four of the 13 Yule Lads (photo courtesy of

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” ( 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

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from

Photo by Johanna Olafsdottir from

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.


Medieval painting.


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.


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!

The University of Oxford, UK.

The University of Oxford, England.

As you can imagine, being an office manager isn’t exactly neuroscience. So on occasion I try to find something more structured and educational to keep my brain from atrophying.

The last year we were in Belize, I was very excited about our impending move to London and discovered that the University of Oxford has a great distance learning program through their Department of Continuing Education. So I enrolled in an online course about Roman Britain.

It was a lot of fun to chat with the professor and other online students from all over the world, and it really opened my eyes to a period in British history that I hadn’t paid much attention to.

And when we lived there, it made my personal experience much richer being able to recognize and visit significant Roman sites around the country. Even a year after we left, I was thrilled to visit Hadrian’s Wall and Vindolanda Roman Fort while we were on R&R in Scotland and Northern England. 🙂

I didn’t take any classes while we were in London since we were so busy, and I spent most of my spare home computer time researching things to do on the weekends in the city. But now that we’re in Reykjavik, and life is quite a bit quieter, I’ve enrolled in another class called “Vikings: Raiders, Traders and Settlers.”

It’s a perfect subject considering our current location in Iceland with its long association with Viking history and culture and the Old Norse language. And so far, I have not been disappointed!

If you’re interested in taking a class, you can see all the available courses on their website. They have over 150 available in everything from Microeconomics to Northern Renaissance Art to Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Contemporary British Fiction.

It’s really easy to register. And you’ll get an email with your logon information and course information when it starts. The classes are all pass/fail, so there’s no pressure to get certain grades. Plus it’s fun to get a little transcript from one of the world’s oldest universities at the end. 🙂

I’m very excited to report that I auditioned for and have joined a local women’s choir in Reykjavik! Woo hoo! I love to sing and really enjoyed being in the Rock Choir in London. Recording at Abbey Road Studios was obviously an amazing and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But as choirs go, I prefer something slightly more traditional.

The Rock Choir is great for people with no vocal experience as they don’t use any kind of sheet music…it’s just a page of lyrics, and you download the audio files from the internet. This kind of bugged me a little bit. Also, being a four-part male and female harmony, you only spent 1/4 of any given practice actually singing, and we rarely sang a single song all the way through.

Plus, as much as I love my boys at home, I needed some estrogen in my personal life. So I was thrilled to become part of an established women’s choir. Once a week, I get to spend a couple hours doing one of my favorite things with 120 wonderfully warm and welcoming ladies.

The practices are all conducted in Icelandic, so I rarely understand what’s being talked about. But I can follow the music easily enough. And the women have been so nice and will lean over and tell me anything truly important in English.

Although I think they find it slightly odd that I’m there at all. It’s a very tight knit group, as you can imagine. Iceland already has such a strong sense of community, and the choir itself has been around for 20 years with many of the same women (the average age is about 50). But they’ve all been truly kind, and I’m so happy that I found it.

They have a couple of performances during Christmas, a concert in the spring, and every other year they take a choir trip somewhere in Europe. This year they’re heading to Finland and Estonia. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I will be able to join them, and be part of their group, if only for two more years.

After being at post for a year, we finally got cable TV! I had been putting it off because I wanted us to spend more time outside and be more active…but that hasn’t really happened. Everyone just spends time on their personal electronics instead.

And I’ve missed having TV. We have one room that has a random satellite dish attached to it that receives 20 or so freeview channels from the UK, which is awesome. So when I want my TV fix, I usually watch that.

But I actually like watching local TV. For one thing, it really helps you with the language. And I think the programs they choose to air give some insight into the local culture. I’m also loving the diversity.

We signed up for “The World” package and get about 150 channels, most of which are in Icelandic. But there are also two Danish channels, two Swedish channels, three Norwegian channels, and about a dozen American channels…like the Food Network, E!, National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild and Animal Planet.

There’s an assortment of news stations in English, French, Icelandic and German; half a dozen kids channels in English and Icelandic; two very strange American movie channels that show 60s Westerns and other equally vague films; and something that’s slated as the Travel Channel but with a lot of ‘70s-era Michael Palin travelogues that never match the guide; with a few music video channels thrown in.

So there’s quite a bit of variety! And I like to think that my Icelandic is improving…between episodes of House Hunters and My Cat from Hell. 😉 Just in time for the long winter.



The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and are not attributed to any government organization.

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