Egill Bjarnason


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Associated Press
Icelandic language at risk; robots, computers can't grasp it
Picked up by New York Times Sunday-edition
and Time magazine online, among other

When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees "Solarfri" posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means "when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather."

The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Artic.

Hundslappadrifa, for example, means "heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind."

But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both for mass tourism and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.


Hakai Magazine
This article is also available in audio format.

For 70 years, Iceland has kept afloat the idea that mandatory swimming lessons save lives, but the policy doesn’t hold water.

MOB: the acronym under a red button on almost every commercial fishing vessel. If pressed, it means that a man is overboard, floundering in that 71 percent of the world called the ocean. In cold waters, each number of degrees the ocean temperature registers on the Celsius scale is roughly equal to the number of minutes it takes the average human to reach hypothermia. Crossing through Rósagarður, relatively warm fishing grounds between Iceland and Norway, in early October the water temperature is a balmy 5 ?C. That’s five minutes for a person to tread water while the crew on board throws a life ring, turns the boat, and readies the rescue net for a MOB recovery.

The belief that you can make it back to the boat—or, if it’s close, to shore—once you’re in the open sea is largely a fallacy. Whether you can swim or not, the cold ocean almost always grabs you and doesn’t let go. This myth of potential survival, however, has affected every child, every taxpayer, and every town in Iceland. The story many Icelanders tell themselves is simple: few will drown in the ocean (or, bonus, anywhere else), if you teach everyone to swim.

Outside the greater Reykjavík area, towns and villages in Iceland have, on average, 19 boats, 1,182 people, two petrol stations, one church, and one outdoor swimming pool. Just like every other adult in Iceland, I spent 10 years swimming back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in a 25-meter pot of water—never going anywhere. By the time we finish sixth grade, we can swim 200 meters without aid, the Nordic definition of being able to swim. Compulsory swimming lessons may be a good idea, but not for drowning prevention, like most Icelanders believe.


Al Jazeera Online
Tourism boosts Iceland's whaling industry

Ready to try grilled minke whale skewers, the "Moby Dick on a Stick", as the dish is advertised by The Seabaron restaurant, a British tourist observes, "looks like a Turkish kebab." Taking a bite, he adds, "Tastes indeed like red meat and poor ethics."

Tourism is booming in Iceland . A record 1.8 million people visited the remote North Atlantic island last year, a 40 percent increase from the year before. The number of American visitors alone - almost 415,000 - outnumbered Iceland 's native population of 320,000, and even exceeded the total annual number of tourists in 2006.

The flock of foreign visitors made Iceland the fastest- growing developed country in 2016 in terms of gross domestic product.

In Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, tower cranes rise from the skyline, ever more global fast-food chains are opening down the capital's main shopping street Laugavegur, and the low-cost carrier WOW Air plans to build an enormous new headquarters.

Less visible is the success of Iceland's only operating whale-hunting company. Having been declared bankrupt in 2012 and 2013, IP-Utgerd Ltd (previously Hrefnuveidimenn Ltd and Hrafnreydur Ltd) is now having a much smoother sail.

The company hunted 46 minke whales this past season, the largest number in years, to serve a growing demand from restaurants serving the meat to tourists. The catch is now split 60/40 between restaurants and grocery stores.


The New York Times
Woman Was Thrown Into Ocean, Autopsy Says, in Murder That Shook Iceland

For weeks, the people of Iceland, a small Nordic country where the police do not usually carry guns and murders are exceedingly rare, have been horrified and riveted by the mysterious killing of a young woman.

The mystery of what happened to the woman, Birna Brjansdottir, an outgoing 20-year-old sales assistant, now appears to have been at least partly solved. She died from drowning after she was thrown — possibly from a bridge — into the North Atlantic Ocean, according to an autopsy report that was leaked Monday night to the national broadcaster RUV.

Ms. Brjansdottir was alive when she was thrown, the report concluded, but it was not clear if the killer knew that, or if she was conscious.

Medical examiners found bruises on her neck, the broadcaster reported, and she was naked when her body was discovered near a lighthouse about 20 miles southeast of Reykjavik, the capital.

Until now, the clues that had emerged since the victim disappeared on Jan. 14 after a night on the town in central Reykjavik had been jarring but elusive. She was last seen walking unsteadily down a street in the capital.

The police say a suspect, Thomas Moller Olsen, 25, a fisherman from Greenland, rented a red Kia in which Ms. Brjansdottir’s blood was found. Mr. Moller Olsen was arrested on Jan. 18 by a squad of officers — called the Viking Squad, part of the only armed police force in Iceland — who pursued him by helicopter after his trawler, the Polar Nanoq, had gone on its way back to Greenland from Reykjavik.

The police said that Mr. Moller Olsen had a criminal record for dealing hashish in Greenland, and that about $2 million worth of the drug had been found on the ship when he was arrested. Mr. Moller Olsen has not been charged.

The killing has both shocked and united Iceland, a country of 336,000 people, while spurring an outpouring of sympathy in Greenland. After Ms. Brjansdottir disappeared, nearly 800 Icelandic rescue workers searched for her body. Icelanders embraced her, referring to her simply as Birna.

At her funeral last Friday, hundreds of mourners, including President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson of Iceland, paid their respects at the capital’s 244-foot-high Hallgrimskirkja church, where Ms. Brjansdottir’s body lay in a simple white coffin covered with flowers. Many Icelanders took to Twitter to write, “I am Birna.”

Yrsa Sigurdardottir, a best-selling Icelandic crime writer, said the murder was right out of a Nordic noir novel and had devastated Icelanders. “She was just an innocent girl walking down the street,” Ms. Sigurdardottir said, adding that she had had trouble writing since hearing the news.

She said, “In the past we have only witnessed murders like this in works of fiction.”

Ms. Brjansdottir was last seen at 5 a.m. on Jan. 14, eating a falafel pita. The moment — caught by surveillance cameras — has been replayed over and over again in the Icelandic news media.

The friend who last saw her, Matthildur Jonsdottir, said in an interview that they had played a card game at a pub in the center of town, before dancing elsewhere. Ms. Brjansdottir won. “She was like that — an effortless winner in life,” she said.

Ms. Jonsdottir said she left the pub before her friend, who wanted to stay until last call. “We have no clue where she was planning to go,” she said.

Ms. Brjansdottir was declared missing after not reporting for work the next day. “It was very unusual that her phone was dead,” said Maria Bjarnadottir, a friend and co-worker in the department store Hagkaup. “She would never come in late.”

After several days of frenzied searching, the police found Ms. Brjansdottir’s Doc Martens shoes on a dock at Hafnarfjordur, a serene town about 10 miles south of Reykjavik. When her body was discovered a few days later, nearly 10,000 Icelanders converged on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavik, where she was last seen.

Ms. Brjansdottir’s former boyfriend, Andrew Morgan, an industrial design student from Salt Lake City, met her on a vacation last summer.

He recalled in a phone interview that she mingled effortlessly with strangers. “She said she wanted to know someone from every nation and then visit them all,” he said. After he returned to Utah, Mr. Morgan said, she visited him, and the two decided a long-distance relationship would be too difficult.

While in Iceland, he said, the two had often walked late at night on Laugavegur, and he had scolded her for sometimes walking alone. “She insisted that it was fine to walk home alone, but coming from the United States I disagreed,” he said.

Mr. Morgan said he could barely bring himself to watch the surveillance video. “I’ve only taken a look once,” he said.

The Icelandic sea chef
Commissioned by Al Jazeera.

A chef in the North Atlantic for more than four decades, it’s Icelander Finnbogi Kristinsson’s job to lift spirits, keep his crew healthy, and step in whenever a problem arises.

Reykjavik, Iceland - When you are out on the sea, you don’t choose who you live with, where you go or what you eat. I remind myself of this - everyone’s diet is my responsibility.

Fishermen have long considered tomato paste a vegetable and marinated their meals in margarine. Having witnessed the unusually high rate of cardiovascular diseases among the profession, I have come to realise that broccoli and bananas are no less important than safety helmets.

For large parts of the 20th century, enrolling in a state army was safer than sailing the North Atlantic. However, with the drastic improvements in maritime safety over the past 40 years, danger doesn’t lurk up on deck any more. It has moved into the galley.
Making a difference in a traditional workplace takes time.

More fruits and vegetables have been well received. Exotic dishes like lasagna or hummus? To the blue bin [the ocean] with them. I find that healthier ingredients are more likely to be approved of if they go with potatoes as a side dish.

The industry keeps adding volumes to the safety handbook, while making no official guidelines about the fuel driving the crew itself.

Shanghaied as a sea chef four decades ago, I asked the shipping company for a job description. Sure, they said, we will send a description - via floskuskeyti, a message in a bottle. Either my duties were completely obvious or they were impossible to list.

By definition, the chef’s sole order is serving meals. The traditional authority is greater. Consider the simplicity of life out on sea. Day and night, the crew is running shifts.
Uplifting pleasures are few and life passes without much intimacy. A nice meal, served by someone who cares for your wellbeing, leaves a definite mark.

Everyone on the ship leads a double life, spending one half together in Herman Melville’s ‘watery part of the world’, and the other apart, in Iceland.

On a small vessel, the crew know each other better than their own children, immediately sensing if anyone is plagued by problems at home - paying the bills, raising a child, maintaining a romantic relationship.

To lift spirits or solve debates, the chef is the diplomat on board, grabbing men by the coffee machine and connecting across ranks.

After a full month, 90 communal meals, we dock in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. On fishing boats, the crew share the value of the catch. The cook gets one and a half shares. That’s a lot of money. A chef on a trawler can leave with enough money to buy a restaurant, give or take.

I used to think, and say to friends and family, that I was in it for the money. I can’t say that anymore. I now work on a cargo ship. Same job. Same environment. Same hours. Just no catch to split and thus I could make the same salary cooking on land with fresh produce and no scissors flying around during rough weather.

But I don’t care what people ordering from a restaurant menu think about my food. I cook for my crew - the men who congregate at the sound of the ship’s bell and give me honest feedback. With healthier calories, I hope to prolong the joy of having each and every sailor around. The boat is changing course, one radish at a time.


The Greenlandic experience
A blog entry about my Master's thesis work in East-Greenland at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Raise the schooner! Stretch the preventer! Five degrees to starboard! The hurricane-like Föhn Wind sailed our ship The Hildur seven knots into the world's longest fjord. The first settlers witnessed the same thing I did, after a 48 hour voyage across the Greenland Sea. I don't even have to check the history books. The only possible time to arrive is summer, when the sea-ice finally opens up.

At the mouth of the infamous Scoresby Sund is a settlement of 438 people with a long name (Ittoqqortoormiit) but a short history. The town of Ittoqqortoormiit was established in 1925 by the government of Denmark to claim territory over northeast Greenland.

To inhabit what was to become the world's most isolated town, eighty Inuits from Ammassilak -- the nearest town 500 miles away -- were, in a colonialist manner, shipped to latitude 70° North with hunting knifes, harpoons and building materials from Denmark.

What met them was not snow or glaciers or Santa, as the tourist expectations run, but rocks: alpine mountains and stones formed no less than five million years ago. In this high-Arctic climate, the highest trees are Dwarf Willows, taking decades to grow even a few inches tall.

The Inuit settlers found old remains in the area, which according to Danish documentation of this history were pre-Inuit. What is left unexplained is how humans were supposed to have reached a part of the world so locked by ice, even accounting for climate change and land drift. (Sea-ice here does not create a bridge to connect the island to a continent, as it does on the West side of Greenland.)

The more likely explanation for these alleged “old spirits” is that they were a case of manipulation by Danish missionaries. The settlers were given wood so they could "voluntarily" build a church to keep the supposed spirits away. The church, built in only two years, is still the main landmark in town and the oldest remaining building.

As a Sunday morning activity, I strolled to Mass at ten in the morning. I arrived to meet a party of two people: The priest and a toothless man with a beautiful voice.

Besides the occasional "Amen", I did not understand a word of the gospel. The priest signaled with his hands when I should stand up for prayers. The old man could no longer take part in such exercise but instead sang for the two of us.

After the ceremony, the priest came up to me, shaking my hand, thanking me for coming. "We usually have more people," he said, "like the organist. He just had to go hunting."

My favorite word this summer was "Greenlandic" and this was my most Greenlandic experience; the Inuit way of life blending in with the institutional life imposed upon a traditional hunting society. The organist hunted two musk oxen.

"Come back next week for the music." And I did.


My struggles with photography captions.

According to a cliché as old as Eastman Kodak, a photograph speaks a thousand words. Taken quite literally, a photograph quantifies two pages of typewritten nonsense. Because without context, photographs are, at best, ambiguous and often drastically misleading. In 1959 Elliott Erwitt photographed president Nixon pointing his index finger up against the chest of Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union. The image suggests an intense Cold War dispute. In reality, they were having an argument about cabbage soup versus red meat. This is why a few actual words are usually attach with images, to contextualize the invisible thousand.

There are three types of photography captions. One is the National Geographic style of having the captions identical to what the viewer already sees: “An infant Guinean sleeps on his mother’s back as she lifts a barrel of water.” Then there is the idea that the column left blank on the page for captions is actually there for the writer -- who is often a reporter -- to dump yet another suppressing information on the reader: “In Guinea-Bissau, where fertility rate is 4.3 children, women also do all household work. On average, water is carried 3.7 miles in West Africa.” Lastly, we can simply write what sounds good: “Dreaming of a kitchen sink.”


Twelve Types of Tofu and Other Hella Good Adventures
Published on the Fulbright Foreign Student Blog.

In between a gloomy forecast on the future of capitalism and an Op-Ed about why everyone should walk barefoot, the Question of the Week in the student-run newspaper, City on a Hill Press, asked what kind of action people were taking to help the California water rationing. One undergrad no longer kept the tap running while brushing teeth. Another took shorter showers. The third took no showers at all. The fourth, pictured deadpan in a hoodie featuring the school mascot Sammy-the-Slug, was apparently “only drinking espressos because of the drought.”

UC Santa Cruz is the strange uncle in the University of California system, founded fifty years ago to embrace the “eccentric imagination.” Like all UC campuses, it is a research university. Yet the graduate population is less than 1,600, compared with some 10,500 and 12,200 graduate students at UC Berkeley and UCLA respectively. Here, redwood trees outnumber students.

During my Fulbright Program, there were just seven of us in my M.A. program in Social Documentation (SocDoc): seven would-be filmmakers driven to promote social justice through documentary production. Our thesis work resulted in short documentary films, ranging from one tackling California’s prison-industry complex to another about the dark side of chocolate, following the trade-route of cacao beans to its source in Panama’s virgin rainforest. My project (“Once the Ice Melts”) documents the fate of young adults in a hunting community in East Greenland.

SocDoc is for the practical polymath: I was challenged by faculty to become a one-man band, shooting a film production solo and articulating my project in a research paper, as well as taking classes in creative and ethnographic writing. Alongside all that, I had my duties as a teaching assistant (TA) in photography and statistics.

Teaching Assistantships are an example of how graduate schools in the United States are so much more than just attending classes and completing assignments; they are about contributing to a learning community. Being part of the Fulbright Program further extended that experience. Attending Fulbright events and seminars allowed me to connect with fellow grads who still spoke English with a thick accent and shared a fresh eye on American life. The highlight was traveling to a Fulbright Enrichment Seminar in Philadelphia.

I am Icelandic — Yes, people live there.

Feeling smug in their own knowledge, Californians commonly shared with me the one single fact they know about the North: that Iceland is green and Greenland is ice, a mix-up known as the first PR-trick in history. I tried not to spoil their satisfaction by pointing out that they probably picked this up in the 90s blockbuster “The Mighty Ducks” which can hardly count as a peer-reviewed source.

But I, too, knew nothing more about the California Republic than what pop culture had shown me, before moving to Santa Cruz. Two years later, I have tasted twelve types of tofu, met grown men who use the word “hella” on a regular basis, shared a campus with a wild mountain lion, and made life-long connections with locals and internationals alike, thanks to the SocDoc program and the Fulbright Foreign Student grant. Hella good.