30 August 2010

Speaking Russian

For the past two days, my friend Lena has been living in her own room. Since I am living in her Mitbewohner's room, I was her de facto Mitbewohner for a couple of days. It was fun. Since I'm going to Russia in only a few days, we made the decision to speak only Russian. It turns out I don't have too too much trouble with making myself understood, and I only have intermittent trouble with understanding. These problems will presumably fade pretty quickly once I am in Russia. That is, I don't have to worry.

And yet, I'm worried. Although the content of the conversation was all quite normal, I couldn't shake the feeling that Lena was slightly annoyed at me. Pretty much constantly. I don't generally have this feeling when we speak German, so I'm going to blame it on Russian. I have a couple of hypotheses for why Russian would make me feel this way:

1. The intonational contours of normal Russian are similar to contours an annoyed American would use when speaking English. There may be something to this: Russian is, according to my subjective judgment, spoken in more of a monotone than is English.

2. I am annoyed at myself for speaking slow and with mistakes, and I assume Lena is also annoyed.

3. Lena actually finds it frustrating to talk to me, because we get along better when we both use German and can understand each other.

It could be a combination of factors. Anyway, I hope that I can shake the feeling of being a nuisance when I'm in Russia. Otherwise I will probably be sad.

27 August 2010


My life is pretty much in order. I've found a place to live. My friend Daria, who is moving away for several months, is giving me most of her furniture. Thus, I am free to turn my thoughts to higher things. Mostly, that means I've been doing a lot of thinking about coffee. 

My coffee situation in the last couple weeks has been as follows:

That is to say, my coffee is hilariously larger than my coffee maker. No, that's an artifact of hunting for images on the internet. The coffee is okay, I guess, but the little coffee press above allows a fair amount of grounds to come through. Anyway, I really want to finish this coffee, so I can get something fresher and better. So every day I've been putting more and more coffee in the press, brewing progressively stronger coffee. Today, it was pretty excessive. So I'm going to also need to increase the volume of my coffee consumption. Or find someone to share with. 

Anyway, though, my new Mitbewohnerin (the British would say "flatmate," and Americans would say "roommate," I guess, but "roommate" isn't strictly accurate, so anyway I'll stick with "Mit-bewohnerin" = co-inhabitant) doesn't drink coffee. So my new place comes without any means of making coffee. This is really excellent, because that means I get to buy my own equipment. And I'm going to do it right. I deserve the best coffee, and I can afford it because of my exceptionally low rent (on which I congratulate myself daily). 

Anyway, the first thing I'll need is a grinder. I'm considering buying the Solis Typ 166. It's not cheap, but I can always sell it when I leave, or bring it with me. And I've been wanting a grinder for quite some time. The other thing I'll need is a press. This I can get for fairly cheap. I'm considering the AeroPress. The most attractive feature of the AeroPress is that it is for sale at the Coffee Museum of Berlin! I had no idea that such a place existed, but now I do have an idea, and I want to go there. Kind of a lot.

The point is that if you come visit me, I will give you excellent coffee. So that's an incentive. So come visit!


I had dinner with a Hungarian friend of mine today. It was pretty great; I made dal (red lentils, ginger, garlic, cloves, cardamom, pepper, tomatoes, and some peanut oil, topped with yoghurt and mint leaves). There were supposed to be other people there, but they had to cancel. So I had dinner with a Hungarian friend of mine, who I met at a Couchsurfing language meeting, and who works at a Hungarian tourist bureau in Berlin. He's a pretty cool guy.

Mostly, the conversation was not too terribly unusual. I, as is fairly normal, did a lot of the talking. But then we came to the topic of The Treaty of Versailles. And my Hungarian friend has a lot more opinions about the Treaty of Versailles than I do. The Treaty of Versailles, you understand, deprived Hungary of half its land and half its population. Most of this land was predominantly ethnically Hungarian. Many Hungarians, including my friend, have relatives in these places. My friend is pretty okay with the loss of Croatia--there aren't Hungarians there anyway. But he is still embittered about the loss of Transylvania, and he is also annoyed at Slovakia for refusing to allow dual Hungarian-Slovakian citizenship for its ethnic Hungarian minority. I get where the dude is coming from. But I was still surprised.

Also! Today I started buying furniture for my room. I put down a deposit on a bed, and I bought a small bedside table. Craigslist is a beautiful thing. I'm going to check it right now...

25 August 2010

German beer

I have to admit something a little embarrassing. It's not embarrassing for me personally. Rather, it's a little bit embarrassing for the German Nation. And also a little embarrassing for me personally. This is partially because, in my mind, I am Germany in your mind. It is also partially because, in researching this post, I realised a lot of my own personal failings.

Beer in Germany is, above everything, traditional. In 1516, some Bavarian king instated the Reinheitsgebot, or "purity law," stating that beer may contain only malt, hops, and water. Apparently, in the 16th century it wasn't uncommon to add harmful or hallucinogenic ingredients to beer. The law was admirable in that it allowed people to drink beer (probably the only available beverage) without pesky divine visions or whatever form hallucinations generally took in the 16th century. Later, scientists or brewers or brewer-scientists realised that yeast was also necessary, so the law was changed to accommodate this. Eventually, the Reinheitsgebot was adopted all over Germany, and has persisted unto the present day. And Germans are very proud of this. To wit, the website of the Brewers' Association of Germany features three prominent axioms as gateways to various areas of the site: "Beer is pure," "Beer is Enjoyment," and "Beer is Germany."

Of course, not all beers brewed according to this law are awesome. Cheap beer, too, is brewed this way. Now, admittedly, cheap German beer is excessively cheap, and not as bad as my (admittedly limited) experience with cheap American beer. It's just, an absence of arsenic doesn't always makes for a great beer. German beer just doesn't always taste good. I don't like Berliner Pilsner, for instance, even though it isn't really even all that cheap. Germany is not some magical beer heaven, and in fact the weight of tradition dictates that people drink beer even if it isn't that delicious.

On the other hand, it's not as if you can't brew a great bear beer according to the Reinheitsgebot. I'm pretty sure 90-95% of delicious American beers also follow it, because most beer aspires only to be beer. I have no problem with the Reinheitsgebot, really. It's just I think it's unnecessarily limiting. When I visited the Harpoon Brewery, I had a beer that had been brewed with a few dozen oysters. It was deliciously chocolatey and also deliciously delicious, and it would never have been possible if America were as draconian as Germany about beer ingredients. The original Reinheitsgebot seems to me to have outlived its usefulness; that is, if a brewery wanted to put hallucinogens in its beer, it would only be allowed to market the stuff in the Netherlands due to other, more modern, laws--and it would advertise this feature of the beer pretty prominently, even though the "purity" of the beer would be compromised.

My local supermarket has some delicious beers: Pilseners, light and dark Hefeweizens, a couple of Schwarzbiers (see below)...and that seems to be pretty much it. That is, Germans do lagers. They don't really seem to have ales. This is kind of a problem, because Pale Ales, Porters, Stouts, etc. are a part of my conception of a balanced beer diet.

"Kyritz Murder and Deathblow. Schwarzbier. Brewed according to the German purity law."
Anyway this beer was good, but the taste kind of overpowered my lunch.

On the other hand, I'm rethinking my conception of a balanced beer diet. I'm in Germany, not England. Different countries have their own languages, their own cuisines, and their own beers. Who am I to complain, if I come to Germany, and all I find are German styles of beer? Answer: I am no one to complain. Like, I'm being ridiculous. 

I've also found a list of breweries and brewpubs in Berlin, and there seem to be a lot of them. In perusing the lists of offerings, I have realised that small breweries are (predictably) much more adventurous than my supermarket (although they still don't do ales). So anyway I'll let you know as soon as I visit some of these places.

Now, some beer comedy:

Beck's Pilsener, according to the website, is "a beer that fits you: sovereign, self-assured, and cosmopolitan" [my own translation].

Also, a block away from my current residence:

The Beer House Sunrise. 

Because there is nothing better than enjoying a nice lager at sun-up. (The bushes in front are just the median strip of the Sonnenallee. I don't live in the woods.)

24 August 2010

I feel bad

Guys, I just chose where I'll be living for the next year. I had two choices. One of them involved sharing an apartment with my friend Philipp, who I met last time I was here. I just got off the phone. I was telling Philipp that I would not be living with him, but rather in the other place I was considering.

I feel bad. Now he has to hunt for another roommate, which is an awful process. And I really would have felt at home there. Hanging out with him and his other roommate reminded me of hanging out with (some subset of) Jeremy, Jeremy, Huy, and James. On the other hand, I'll presumably be visiting fairly often, so it's not as if I'm repudiating Philipp as a friend. It's just, I could have done the guy a huge favour, and instead I just didn't do him any favour at all.

On the other hand, I'm excited about my new place. I'll be moving in in mid-September. More details later. I'm sleepy.

22 August 2010

What you do when you're not in Hungary

It occurs to me that most of you have some inkling of what a person might do, if a person were not in Hungary. You yourself have likely been that type of person on more than one occasion. But I think that we could all benefit from another perspective, another voice in the growing body of literature on this topic. And I'd like to be that voice. So I'm going to be that voice.

When a person doesn't go to Hungary, his friends often go on vacation. So he resigns himself to being alone in the city. And he drops this ridiculous third-person story-telling style.

Anyway, I went to IKEA to buy a knife. I love that store. I went through the self-checkout, because I thought it was weird that I went to a furniture store and bought nothing but an enormous knife. And I didn't want to get a weird look from a cashier. Anyway, now I can cut things. Like my fingers. I only have two visible scars at the moment, but production is ramping up, and the five-year plan involves the accidental amputation of 1-2 fingers. Either that, or the learning of better knife technique. I'm open to both possibilities.

The entire complement of knives in my life, pre-IKEA.

After that, I went to ethnic grocery stores. You kind of need to, in order to get ingredients that make things taste good. The Turkish supermarkets in Neukölln (which is where I'm living) are particularly cheap and excellent. After the ethnic supermarkets, I still needed a carrot. So I made one last stop, at Real, which was a pretty unimposing building. Except when I went inside, it was huge! It was like a store in America! There was even an international foods section. I bought a carrot, but then I went a little crazy and also bought fleur de sel, which nobody really needs, and which is really expensive. I also bought coconut milk, because I'd forgotten to get it at the Asian supermarket.

Then I started cooking in earnest. I first made chicken stock. Mark Bittman said it wasn't hard, and I believed him. So I cut up a whole chicken and cooked it in water with some onion and carrot and a couple of bay leaves. I had to split it into two pots, because I didn't have one big enough. I used a tea-strainer to scoop off the foam.

The chicken with my new knife

Ingredients for stock (excluding water)

In my cooking, I am using Mark Bittman's book "How to Cook Everything." I recommend this book to all and sundry. Mark Bittman is so helpful and encouraging. He stresses the importance of good ingredients, and believes that everything can be made from scratch, often without much extra effort. He also is always telling me to use a food processor. I guess I'll buy one? I am keeping a food diary, wherein I record what dishes I have made (there are four entries already!), and what I would want to add or subtract the next time around. For instance, when I made chicken soup, Chinese style (with homemade stock!), I decided that it would have benefited from some radishes. Next time, I will remember to add them.

I froze the rest of the stock in an ice-cube tray, and now I have little stock cubes. It's great.

Anyway, the result of all this cooking is a kitchen that looks like this:

If this post was a lot more culinary than you expected, you're not alone. But it's too long, so I'm cutting it off. The next post won't be so much about food.

19 August 2010

I can't figure out how to buy things

I'm trying to decrease annoyances in my life by buying things. For instance, I bought a pen. Awesome. Now I can write things down.

The apartment I am living in lacks two important kitchen tools: an actual knife, and a can opener. I have been cutting everything using tiny disposable paring knives, and it just isn't working for me. I tried to open a can by stabbing it with a tiny sabre-shaped knife with a very dull blade. That didn't work for me either.

So anyway I went to a store today. They didn't have a knife that cost more than 2,79€. They didn't have a can opener that cost less than 5,50€. I already have crappy knives, and cans just aren't that hard to open, no matter what kind of can opener you're using. I want a nice knife and a basic can opener. I've been hunting for these items since I got here. Why is this so difficult?

In short: I want Target.

Can we please discuss a small irony?

I don't need a passport to cross any one of Germany's borders. I do need a passport to cross the outside-a-bus/inside-a-bus border, when that bus is in Germany. It's ironic. Smallly ironic.

Yeah, so, um, never mind

Going from Germany to Hungary is easy: you just go. There are no border checks. You can cross over completely naked, if you like. Except, apparently, not on a bus.

It turns out the German gov't requires bus lines to know exactly who is on their bus. But if the Russian embassy has your passport, you've no way of proving your identity. So you're not allowed on the bus. So you don't go to Hungary.

So you make a new plan. In the 2+ hours it takes you to get home from the bus station. But you can't write it down, because you don't own a pen. So hopefully you'll remember it tomorrow, and go out and buy some pens. 

18 August 2010

Leaving for Hungary

It's T-5 hours, guys. So, um, I'll be writing some posts on the bus. And then I'll post them. And thereafter the blog will be in Hungarian. I'm avoiding English insofar as it is possible.

Google translate is your friend.

The thrill of the hunt

These days, I spend most of my time asking people whether I can live with them. There are two reasons for this:

1) I need an apartment.

2) I need places to stay in various Hungarian cities.

I have about half of a post prepared on apartment-hunting. I'll get around to finishing it presently. That post is about the actual process of finding an apartment. The short version is that there are various websites dedicated to helping people find places to live. As a person hunting for a place to live, I go to these websites, read descriptions of places and the people who live there, and then send an email explaining why I'm interested. This post is not about the process. This post is about the feelings associated with the process.

The feelings are not good, guys. And it's not immediately clear why that should be the case. 

There are some obvious reasons why househunting should make a person feel bad. It's time-consuming and tedious. There is enormous pressure to find the best possible situation. But on consideration, these problems seem psychologically trivial. We human beings do an awful lot of boring stuff in the service of a greater good. Not sleeping on the street qualifies as a greater good.

The real problem is hidden somewhere in the following paragraphs.

In attempting to find a good situation, I am asking a bunch of people to grant me a favour. Every request is a type of audition; that is, I get one chance to impress these people. I don't deserve the favour, really, but then again nobody else asking for the favour is any more deserving. Therefore, why shouldn't I be granted it? (Applies to both kinds of requests)

My choices are extremely limited in these endeavours by my desire to not spend all of my money. Most apartments that I can afford to live in (under my current budget rules) are pretty intensely undesirable. When I find an apartment that I actually want to live in, I can't imagine living anywhere else. I acquire an unhealthy fascination with the apartment. I'm pretty sure this is how stalkers feel. (Applies to only apartment requests, not couch requests)

This last bit is the least rational, but probably the most psychologically damaging. Many adverts just aren't friendly to me personally. Some require me to be at least 25 years old. Some require me to lease the room for at least a year. And some of them aren't friendly, period: "the room should be used for mostly sleeping and working. In exceptional cases a friend could spend the night on the couch." I think, like, I don't know, they would probably like me if they gave me a chance. But I won't get a chance. These are the same problems Olga is running into in Irvine (we have discussed this), and I think they take a heavy psychological toll. 

I may very well have 6 more weeks of this kind of inner turmoil. I think I'm going to need to just chill out.

16 August 2010

Russia! It's back on!

I'll be on my way on 3 September, providing the Russian government doesn't decide I'm a spy.

I have many things to tell. But I'm really tired from waking up at 6. So these are two opposing forces. You will know the result of the battle between them by the presence or absence of new entries.

Also, it's my dad's birthday. Happy birthday, dad! I'm pretty sure I'm going to call you right now.

14 August 2010

A way to make the blog more interesting

I was thinking how people enjoy looking at pictures. I haven't been taking any. So this blog has been pretty text-heavy. I'll try to take pictures today of various things that happen to me, and then I'll write a blog entry based on the pictures. And then we'll work toward a shared understanding on text-to-picture ratios, a shared understanding that we can take with us into other important life endeavours, such as co-founded bi-weekly newsmagazines and collaborative pre-historic cave paintings.

13 August 2010

If you don't reach your destination, you'll probably reach somewhere else

Guys, it's been a while. I've been busy. Here's what I've been doing:

Last Friday, when I arrived, I took the requisite forms down to the registration office. I already had a signature from the guy whose apartment I'm staying in, because I asked him to leave a signed form on the table before he left. I also went to an insurance company here in Berlin, so that they could write me a letter certifying that my US insurance is valid in Germany. Then on Monday at 7 am, I went to the Ausländerbehörde (Furriners Office) to obtain my German visa, which I did without problems. I was then able to go to a tourist agency to obtain a Russian visa. It turns out, however, that I need hotel reservations in Russia in order to get a tourist visa. So I hunted around for, essentially, sham hotel reservations (I'll be staying with people, you understand). Having found them, I returned to the tourist agency. I will have my Russian visa just in time for my 30 August flight to Moscow.

Except not really. This is a fantasy scenario I made up inside my brain. This is what the past week would have had to look like, in order for me to get my Russian visa in time to use my tickets. As things stand, I have no hope. It's really disappointing. I have to call the airline today and try to change my tickets around. Except I don't have any idea when I can change them to. Today is therefore Dustin-hangs-out-with-his-calendar Day.

Does anyone want to hear the real-actual scenario, the one that the world made up outside my brain? Well anyway you can.

Remember the signature that I had to get? Well, it arrived yesterday at 11.00. So I rushed to the registration office, waited an hour, and then got registered. Then I came back home to make copies of a bunch of documents. I should have done this beforehand, but I didn't. For some reason, I had become convinced that I could not accomplish anything productive before I got the signature for the registration form. Such folly!

The Furriners Office is located in an obscure part of Berlin which takes an hour to get to, at best. You know what, never mind, I don't want to tell about the office. It's boring and painful. The point is that by the time I arrived, the machine that gave out little tickets with numbers on them had already been turned off. It was 14.45. The office closes at 18.00. That is to say: you must arrive more than three hours before closing time; otherwise, you will likely be turned away empty-handed. But I waited anyway.

In order to keep busy, I appointed myself steward of the take-a-number machine. Whenever anyone would come and vainly press the button, I would tell them that no more numbers were available. In this way I became more-or-less acquainted with a Russian girl with whom I then had a waiting-room conversation. You know this type of conversation. It starts with some remark about how waiting is probably not the best thing in life, and continues in this vein, until one of the participants is called away. It never really goes much deeper, because both people are secretly yearning for it to end. Not because it's unpleasant, but because they really want to obtain their respective visas. Anyway, this conversation was interminable: small talk, five minutes of complete silence, more small talk, ten minutes of silence, and so on. For over two hours. I'm sure were both interesting people; in fact, this girl legitimately did seem interesting. But neither of us were able to translate this into any type of interesting conversation. I personally don't think I've ever been boringer.

Anyway, when I finally managed to talk to a human being, I was turned away immediately. I did not have the proper proof that my insurance was valid in Germany. So I could not get my visa. The office is closed on Fridays. Hopefully I'll be able to get the visa on Monday.

In order to clear up the mysteries of my life, I then called a tourist agency. The conversation:

"Hello, how long does it take to get a Russian visa?"
"Two to two-and-a-half weeks."
"Can the process be expedited? I have already bought tickets." (for 30. August)
"Yes, of course. When do you need the visa?"
"I'm American."
"Oh, no, sorry, never mind. American applications cannot be expedited."

So. The trip to Russia is postponed indefinitely. I'm looking into Bulgaria.

09 August 2010

Comments policy!

This is a blog! A blog needs a lot of things. It needs an author or authors:

The author of this blog, on his balcony.

It needs content. (You're reading that, more or less). 

Um, it needs a name. Which you can find at the top of the page. 

It needs a soul. I have actually split off a small part of my soul for this purpose.

A piece of my soul (artist rendering).

Most importantly, a blog needs a comments policy. Bloggers, according to the ancient adage, "thrive on nurturing the interaction between themselves and their readers through blog comments." But without a policy, the comments area is likely to dissolve into hopeless anarchy. Which would be intolerable. Here is my preliminary policy:

I do not censor comments. I in fact encourage comments of any kind, especially those containing ad-hominem attacks, or blatantly off-topic 2000-word anti-capitalist rants. Links are also encouraged, especially links to your own blog, or to any type of internet scam from which you earn your livelihood. Please do not confuse "its" with "it's." That really sets me off. 

Suggestions for additions to the policy should be made in the comments section.

In which my problems are otherwise than I had heretofore believed them to be

I have an exciting problem: I have a ticket to Moscow on 30. August. This would normally just be exciting, but I don't have a Russian visa. This, in turn, wouldn't be a problem, but I can't obtain a Russian visa in Germany unless I have a German visa. This also really wouldn't be a problem, except that I need to register myself before I can get the visa. Let us discourse upon the German surveillance state:

When you move your household in Germany, you must present yourself within one week to the local registration office. You must give them a form, signed by you and your landlord, which states your address, your previous address, your dependents, the citizenship of you and your dependents, and other information. I'm pretty sure you're also meant to give them a copy of your rental contract. But I don't know. It's unclear.

Now let's go over my current living situation: I'm living in a lovely apartment with a balcony whose occupants are on vacation and will be until the end of September. One of them is my friend Lena, with whom I will be going to Russia on 30. August. The other is a dude I've never met. I'm paying 250 EUR total for this privilege, which is a really great price. I'm getting the great price because I won't be here for much of the time. I agreed to the great price in an email to Lena that was written in Russian, but I'm giving the money to the dude I've never met.

So, in order to register myself, I need to obtain the signature of and maybe a contract from a guy whom I've never met, with whom I have no formal arrangement, and who will be vacation in southern Germany until the end of September. I've sent him an email. He seems like a really nice guy. I'm checking his mail for him.

Anyway, I guess I'm going to the registration office at 8 tomorrow morning!

On the other hand, a letter of acceptance from a university is (quite sensibly) necessary to obtain a student visa. I thought that it might be a hassle to obtain this letter from the Humboldt-Universität. But I just looked through my email inbox, and it turns out they sent me such a letter back at the end of June. Somehow I missed it. So that problem is nonexistent!

Back to couchsurfing (obsessions are like that)

Guys, guys! Guys, guess what! A coincidence happened in my life! It's noteworthy!

Anyway, one time I decided Jeremy Aron-Dine had to have a beer after his 21st birthday. And we were both in Berlin. So I took him to this place in Berlin, Eschenbräu, where they brew their own beer. Because fresh beer is better. He didn't really like the beer. Not very much at all. He compared it to kale. Kale. I, on the other hand, really liked the beer and the place. The only bad thing about the place is that it is here, way up in Wedding. (I live here, which is like 100 000 miles kilometers away. Fast forward to the present day »»

Anyway, in the present day I decided to attend a couchsurfing event billed as "Authentic Pakistani rooftop barbecue." Because seriously, what human being would pass up that opportunity? I'll have an opportunity to meet some cool people (couchsurfers!), and I'll get to eat some delicious food. And I haven't a lot else going on in the evenings, because all my friends are either on vacation or studying for exams. Anyway, I decided to find out where the barbecue was. It is here. Do you recognise that? That is because it is Triftstraße 67, the exact address of Eschenbräu! Crazy coincidence!

By the way, here is a picture I took of people in Iceland. Couchsurfers.

Risk was Davíð's new obsession. We called a truce because of the late hour.

06 August 2010

Yeah, um, so

Anyway, my phone actually does vibrate. Only the option is buried under several layers of menus, and is very difficult to find. There are two ways to read this:

1) People who design the menu systems of phones aren't good at their jobs. The primary goal of these people should be to make the most important options easy to find. They failed. Stupid people.

2) I'm 150 years old and can't handle technology: "What is this thing? A cell phone? Where do ya plug it in? Whaddaya mean, ya don't have to plug it in? What's going on? Let me get my glasses. Mabel, where are my glasses? Mabel!"

It's your call.

I just bought a phone for 33,-€

Edit: The following story is just 100% false. Keep that in mind when you read it. The true story is in the next post.

It seems to be a perfectly good phone. Except it doesn't have a vibrate setting. This is an incredibly stupid design decision. Like, incredibly. Way to go, Samsung! I guess I get to spend a year without a vibrate setting on my phone...

No, I'm going to come back to this. Okay. An ability to vibrate is something we take for granted in a phone. When we look at what features a phone has, there isn't even a place on the form to list Vibration Ability: Yes/No. The reason that all phones can vibrate is that it's An Incredibly Valuable Feature. But now I've got this phone, the Samsung GT-E1150. So I guess that's the story. I just keep getting angrier, the more I think about it.

Iceland, an extrospective retrospective

I'm in Berlin! I didn't get to my room until 3 in the morning, and then I fell asleep. Anyway this is what I wrote in Keflavík airport:

Last time, on Loosest Translation: Dustin waits for his last Icelandic friend.

I found him. His name was Halldur. He drove me to several nice places. But I didn't have a great time; we just never really seemed to click. I don't know exactly why. He was 28 and had been in the workforce and things; perhaps that was the problem? Or perhaps we just didn't have a lot in common? Maybe he was kind of a boring person? It's unclear.

But! We went to dinner at the American Style Restaurant, which is a chain of restaurants around Reykjavík. I ordered the Heavy Special (a bacon cheeseburger) with fries and a coke. The amazing thing about the American Style Restaurant is that they offer free refills on your tiny, tiny glass of coke. This is what makes the style American.

Halldur lived near the people I was staying with, so I was able to get a ride back with him. We picked up a hitchhiker whose name was Aleksandr. Yes, we picked up a Russian hitchhiker. We conversed in English, and he kept saying things like "I am very much hate Putin." That really is how Russians speak, when they do not know English very well. The Russian had come to Iceland to work, for reasons that are not entirely clear, as there are no jobs in Iceland. He was interested in my views on American politics, and he was very supportive of my plan to visit Russia. We dropped him off.

The people with whom I had left my luggage were couchsurfers. They had accidentally accumulated 11 guests for last night: A Swedish woman and her grandson, a Dutch woman living in NYC, an Austrian woman and her Flemish husband and her only-Austrian-German-speaking parents, three Polish girls, and me. It was epic. I'll have a picture as soon as they send it to me.

Couchsurfers, it turns out, are pretty much the best people. They are interesting and generous and enthusiastic and adventurous and kind. I mean, in my experience. Which is admittedly small. Davíð and I attempted to teach Risk to several of them, with varying levels of success (we ended up ending our game in a truce because of the late hour). We spoke of many things. But apparently nothing very memorable, because I don't seem to have any content of these conversations to relate to you.

My second hitchhiking experience went much better than my first. In fact, I was picked up 5 minutes after I walked out the door, before I had even reached the highway. My saviour's name was Willi, and he was an airport employee. And he spoke English. He drove me to the departures area and waited around while I ran to get a cart. People are awesome.



The word for "yes" in Icelandic is "já," which is pronouned "yow" (or [jau], if you're a linguist). People often say jájájájá when they mean "okayokay." I just heard a man answer the phone with "já?". It is intensely cute.

"Ola" in Polish is a nickname for both "Olga" and "Aleksandra." That's weird.

04 August 2010

Blogging from a garish bench

The garish bench
All right. Anyway. I've got a backlog already. But what, I ask, does "blog" mean, if not "b[ack]log." In any case. Okay. Eyrún picked me up from the side of the road, and we headed off to Reykjavík. On the way, she saw her friend Magga and picked her up. And just took her along to Reykjavík. Because everyone in Iceland knows each other. To wit: There was a band playing in a record shop. Eyrún and Magga knew those guys. We went to a flea market; Magga picked up a book that was illustrated by her aunt. Later, we found a book about warm mittens, wherein Eyrún's friend was pictured several times. Iceland.

The most popular dish in Iceland is the pylsa, which means hot dog. They top it with mustard, mayo, onions, and fried onions. Eyrún and Magga took me to the best pylsur stand. I was amazed by the special pylsur tables, which are apparently de rigeur in Iceland. Pylsur cost 280 ISK, making them the only affordable food in Iceland.

A pylsur table. Holds four pylsur.

After the pylsur, we drove and walked about the city. I'm not sure what utility Eyrún and Magga got from this; apparently they're just incredibly hospitable. I went back to my hostel and fell asleep at 6:30 pm. You'll see photos when I get around to posting them.

This day was interesting. Eyrún couldn't hang out, because she was working all day. And apparently her grandmother died. I was going to meet another random internet friend. But then he bailed on me too. So I wandered. More pictures. I went past Björk's house without even knowing. (PS It's the one painted black.)
I slept late. Then I decided to go to the mall. It turns out that the main shopping streets are not very good for souvenirs. There are lots of tourist shops, but the goods there are sickeningly touristy. I figured that a mall outside the centre would likely have goods that were for Icelanders, and that some of them might have Icelandic on them, or they would have something specifically Icelandic about them. I was, um, wrong. Icelanders import everything at great cost. So nothing is specifically Icelandic, or even affordable. Seriously. A normal pair of running shoes cost 37.000 ISK = $300 or thereabouts. 

I didn't know that Eyrún's grandmother had died, so I didn't know to expect a great delay. It wasn't that she was sad; apparently her grandmother had been waiting to die for 25 years. Rather, she just had to sort through a lot of old bank-statement envelopes. Then she finished. And she drove me to Þingvellir, the first home of Iceland's parliament, the Alþing. Hooray! It was very beautiful. There was a pond where they used to drown woman criminals (hanging and other normal methods were too dignified for woman criminals, as far as I can understand).
Eyrún, next to the pond where they used to drown women

We picked very tiny wild blueberries!

After the trip, Eyrún took me back to her house, where I talked to her mother and aunt. Everyone's English, by the way, was excellent. It turns out that everyone in Iceland must study linguistics! Everyone! So I could talk about my research a bit without losing them. They gave me sole to eat. This will be the only fish I eat in Iceland; I am not able to afford it in general.

Afterward, we went to hang out with Eyrún's friends in a café. One of them spoke perfect English, and the other two spoke very good English. The two whose English was not absolutely perfect wouldn't talk to me very much. I think they were self-conscious? It's a shame. Anyway they were nice. We read through the list of permissible Icelandic names, and they bemoaned the proliferation of new names like Christopher, which are not Icelandic. And they judged me by the music on my iPod. (I passed). In fact, we're going to share music. Apparently, a lot of great bands play in Iceland, and Icelanders who care about music will in general know exactly what year any given band played here. (Of Montreal: "I saw them here in 2006." Vampire Weekend: "Yeah, their show in 2007 was really good." Et cetera.) 

Anyway, I expect my last Icelandic friend any moment. I'll say hi to him from you. Also, someone just took a picture of me. Hmmmm.


Some more cool things about Iceland:

The mayor of Reykjavík is also the most famous comedy actor in Iceland. His party is called the "Best Party." My friends really like him, mostly because of his Facebook page, where he chronicles his every activity. None of my friends have any idea of what his policy goals are, or whether he has achieved anything positive in his tenure as mayor. But anyway he's cool.

If you have an Icelandic social security number, you can access a database which gives you your entire genealogy back to the viking settlers. And beyond. Eyrún is descended from a an Irish king of the 8th century. You can also find out how any two people in the country are related. There is in fact a Facebook app which will list each one of your friends and how closely you are related, provided they have given their full name and correct birthday to Facebook. Icelanders are always at least 10th cousins, apparently. 

The legal drinking age in Iceland is 18. The legal age for purchasing alcohol is 20. It is not legal to purchase alcohol for those under 20. So 18 and 19 year olds can only drink alcohol if they find it. My friends think this is funny.

My friends were calling America strange. I told them that Iceland was strange, because hot water comes out of the ground. They asked me "Where does your hot water come from?" 
When I answered that we had a water heater in the basement, they were taken aback. I have never seen anyone's eyes go quite as wide as Sonia's.

Guys, Iceland is really great

Just in case you were wondering. I'll elaborate as soon as I have time. Until then, this:

02 August 2010


Don't exchange dollars for kronur at the airport. I exchanged $160, and got 18600 ISK, for a rate of 116 ISK/USD. Google's quoted rate is 160 ISK/USD. I got ripped off.

Edit: Google is confused. I didn't get ripped off. Don't trust Google exchange rates. Do exchange dollars at the airport, if it's convenient.

Things about Iceland

Remember my last post? The one I wrote after sleeping from 6:30 pm to 1 am? In that post, I mentioned my friends in Iceland. These friends have two sources: couchsurfing.org and livemocha.com.

couchsurfing.org: This website originally failed me pretty spectacularly. I asked eleven different people to host me, and was denied by all of them. Disenchanted, I turned to livemocha.com, where I had more success. But more on that later. Having failed to find a host in Reykjavík, I decided to find someone near the airport who could hold my enormous suitcases for me, and possibly host me for a night. I found a Canadian (Ko-leen) and her Icelandic husband (Davíð).

My flight arrived at 6:30 am. I was to arrive at my new friends' house at 9. I decided to wander the airport parking lots and look for a pedestrian route. In so doing, I determined that the distance to their place was far too great to cover with my enormous quantity of luggage. I also determined that the road was too busy to admit pedestrian traffic (although I later found out that it has exceptionally wide shoulders). I also lost my passport, retraced all my steps, and then found my passport among my maps, in my computer bag. Very smooth. Anyway I decided to take a taxi.

Observe the dinosaur egg (?) sculpture

I didn't like the taxi. It cost me 2820 ISK = $24. And then when I got to my destination, the door to my friends' apartment had a sign on it saying "Do not knock. The dog is a bark-aholic." I called out a few greetings, but I didn't want to shout, and I was not heard. So I waited. For like 10 minutes. And then I conceived of a plan. I went outside and whistled the opening bars to "O Canada." When I went back up to the apartment, my hostess opened the door. I said "The door said not to knock." She said "Most people just open the door and walk in." I was abashed. But I would have felt very uncomfortable just walking into a stranger's home. Later, my hostess explained to me that part of couchsurfing is assuming that everyone is a friend. So anyway I learned a lesson.

I spent the whole morning with Ko-leen, Davíð, their nine-year-old son Kasper, their 9-month-old son Leópold, and their dog Rósa. I learned many things. Did you know that Icelandic rents are inflation-indexed, but Icelandic wages aren't? Worst thing ever. You can make $6/hr. after taxes as an electrician. And a box of cereal costs $4. Anyway. I had a hot shower (hot water is essentially free; volcanic islands are awesome). Rósa loved attention, and I was happy to oblige her. Then Davíð woke up, and we spoke of books and linguistics. Kasper was an awesome heritage speaker of English, and he talked a great deal. Then I decided to call my livemocha friend Eyrún. So I did. And then Ko-leen decided to lend me a cell phone. Have I mentioned that I really like these people?

I needed to get from Ko-leen and Davíð's place to Eyrún's hometown of Hafnafjörður (which you shouldn't try to pronounce). I had a bus ticket that could have gotten me there, but I would have had to go back to the airport to catch the bus. And I didn't want to take another taxi to the airport. So Ko-leen recommended that I hitchhike. Apparently everyone in Iceland hitchhikes. Kasper hitchhikes by himself. Davíð has hitchhiked all around the country. So Ko-leen told Kasper to take me down to the highway, and he left me there. Apparently, Ko-leen and Davíð's guests never have to wait more than 5 minutes for a ride. I was the exception. After 45 minutes, I called "Mom" on my borrowed cellphone, and I asked whether my technique was wrong. Ko-leen was horrified that I had been waiting so long, so she sent Davíð to pick me up and take me to a better spot. Which he did. And I waited another 30 minutes. And I was cold. But then an old man pulled over and let me into his car.

This old man did not speak any English. I think he tried to communicate with me in Danish. But apparently the only sentence of Danish I understand is "Do you understand this?" So we sat in silence. For like twenty-five minutes. Then he dropped me off at the Viking Hotel in Hafnafjörður (which you still shouldn't try to pronounce). I called Eyrún, and waited. For like 5 minutes. Then the old man came back. My shaving cream had fallen out of my bag, and he had driven back to give it to me. So wonderful.

Then I waited for 5 more minutes. Then Eyrún arrived.

I have more to tell, but this post is already too long, and I must attend to other matters. So for now, a few observations:

The weather in Iceland is the same at 6 am as it is at noon as it is at 10 pm: Chilly, breezy, damp, but ultimately fairly pleasant, given the proper attire.

Things are expensive here. My cash is running out, so I'll have to use my credit card (which will tack a 3% fee onto every purchase).

None of the words of Icelandic are pronounced as you might guess. I therefore can't refer to streets or people or anything, because I just say it wrong. Also, Icelandic looks like Hungarian sometimes because of the letters áéíóúö. The word "out," which is what they post on exit signs, is "út," which is also the Hungarian word for "road." So that's funny.

Hol van az út? Where is the road?

Today is a national holiday, so most things are closed and the streets are pretty empty. It's less than ideal. Apparently there are 15 000 people camping on an island in the south where they are having some enormous festival. This might be why I had such trouble getting a ride. That is, the type of person who might pick up a hitchhiker is the same type of person who might go camping on an island for an enormous festival.

I broke my pen, and I can't seem to get a new one for less than 400 ISK. So that's annoying.

I'll post pictures soon.

The kindness of friends

Ísland. That's where I am. It's an entire country with the same population as Toledo, OH.

There is much to tell.

Before arriving in Iceland, I decided to obtain some friends there. The reasons for this were twofold: I wanted to save money, and I hate being a tourist. You might think that it could be difficult to obtain friends in Iceland. You would be so wrong.

But anyway I am sleepy. I'm going back to bed.