Monday, 27 January 2014



Vincent writes:

This picture was taken at Sólheimajökull when a few friends came over to Iceland to celebrate a stag party. I organized a trip for them and took them sightseeing on a Sunday. 'Eerie Sólheimajökull' is what I call this picture. Everyone was quiet; there was a solid sense of awe from the guys who had never seen it and they thanked me for taking them there, since this isn't exactly a tourist-trap.

Vincent, originally from Belgium, is a software engineer at AlterEgo Studios here in the Greater Reykjavik area. He first came to Iceland years ago to work for CCP Games, left the country, then came back because he missed it so much. We're very glad he did! And I certainly hope he keeps finding beautiful landscapes to visit, and keeps taking beautiful photos to share.

(Note: My goal is weekly, if not twice-weekly, updates for this site though it's been a fortnight since my last post. Sometimes I just can't find a good photo to post, so I'd rather delay a bit than toss just anything into the mix. I update the Facebook Page daily, though, so check in there if you'd like a bit of Iceland every day : )

Thursday, 23 January 2014

New Year

Started getting too busy with work!

One things for sure, location matters.

Im working in a hospital in the city, making it easy to try a variety of food.

Say hello to Sushi Zanmai's yee sang. It is not your typical traditional yee sang. I wouldnt rave too much about Zanmai's yee sang. The authentic one is much better. But, just for a tiny celebration for fun with friends in a comfortable environment and cheap yummy sushi, Zanmai is worth it.

New Year resolution - Buy a car and house? :)

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Flower power

A dozen roses for me.

Feels amazing to receive it and to wake up to it in the morning again. A simple gesture, a simple gift can brighten my day!

How I wish it will stay as beautiful forever :)

Je t'aime

Wednesday, 8 January 2014


Like I mentioned yesterday on the Facebook page I've decided to dig a little bit into the story of tobacco in Iceland, specifically because this photo is of the display window of our local smoke shop, Tóbaksverslunin Björk on Bankastræti. I'm going to guess that all of you who've visited Reykjavik have passed by this store, which is just a few houses up the street from the restaurant I wrote about in November. It's been there for as long as I can remember, with the same friendly and slightly eccentric man behind the counter, Sölvi Óskarsson.

He recently sold the shop, but not before raising a bit of hell. After a four-year long battle with the government (which holds the sole license to import all tobacco products, as well as alcohol) over a law passed in 2002 which demanded that all tobacco for sale must be kept out of consumers' sight, an exception was made in 2006 for his shop, based on the fact that the majority of his livelihood depends on the sale of that specific product. I know personally that he's had other issues with the monopoly on booze and smokes as I've heard his (very justified) rants on why specialty tobaccos brands, Nat Sherman for example, which produce higher grade, higher quality non-chemically treated cigars and cigarettes (there are no additives in the tobacco, paper or filters) are not available in his store: they are not allowed to be imported and sold in Iceland, though much more toxic and probably deadly corporate brands (you know their names...) are.

The monopoly is of course nothing new. The Danes held the reins on import and trade for two hundred years, which the government of the newly formed Icelandic republic took over in 1944. I found a nice BA thesis from 2011 on the history of tobacco in Iceland that I'll let you read at your leisure, as well as a very cool book from 1758 called the Natural History of Iceland which states, "In this manner all payments are regulated by fish, and whatever comes to less than the value of twelve fish cannot be paid in money, but must either in fish, or roll tobacco, an ell of which is equal to a fish" (page 128.)

Today, more and more people I know are buying loose tobacco and hand-rolling with quality paper and filters. It's about half as expensive, and seems to have relaxed the culture of smoking overall. It takes time to roll a cigarette, which means there has to be forethought. They also burn slower than major-brand cigarettes with their treated paper, which means less of that creepy fast-action suck and drag that so many chronic smokers adopt. The doubling of the price of smokes here in just the past six years (they're almost $10 a pack), the ban on smoking indoors (adopted in 2007), and better preventive education means fewer and fewer smokers on our island. Good news.

As far as the Björk tobacco store goes, as you can see in the photo they have a ton of other cool products and souvenirs to keep them going, even as the culture of chronically, addictively puffing ciggies seems to be fading into what will hopefully one day be the distant past.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Austria and the Past

Austria's one of the countries I've visited most in my life, around half a dozen times each year, and one I still find a bit of a puzzle.  It's the land of beautiful mountains, the Sound of Music [click on the link for everything you need to know about that], and Vienna.  Yet there's something I don't quite "get" about the place.   A lot of that, I think, is to do with the way Austrians relate to their past, which is what this blog post is about.

The Monument actually takes up a whole square
Last week I was in Vienna and I took the above photograph of the National Memorial to the Victims of War and Fascism.  It was inaugurated in 1988 on the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss of the country by Nazi Germany.   It's a big, prominent feature, right in the very centre of the city, behind the Opera House, at the entrance to the main shopping street.  You'd assume they chose the words quite carefully.  The plaque simply says:
"On this sport stood the Philipphof, which was destroyed during a bombing raid on 12 March 1945.  Hundreds of people who had sought refuge in the cellars of the building died as a result.
This monument is dedicated to all victims of war and fascism."
That's it.  Where to start.  Well, let's go back to some basics on Austrian history before we reach the reason why this is so jaw-droppingly unacceptable in my view.  You may have wondered why Austria, which speaks German, and is made up overwhelmingly of ethnic Germans, and shares very close cultural links to Germany, is not part of the country.  I shall endeavour to explain!

Ostarrîchi and all that jazz

The country traces its modern roots to about 996 when its name, which means "Eastern March" (a fortified area bordering the Slavic domains) was first mentioned.  It was populated by German speakers and became an independent duchy in 1156.  For over 600 years of this time it was ruled over by the Habsburg family, who were actually originally immigrants from neighbouring Switzerland.  See: this is what happens unless you have strong borders: first they come to do the underpaid jobs you don't want on hotel receptions; and next they're ruling the place, strutting around calling themselves Holy Roman Emperors and building magnificent palaces like Schönbrunn.  Vote UKIP and all that.

Austria was pretty shit at wars, losing a remarkably high percentage that it ever got involved in.  For this reason there's a HUGE monument at the Praterstern in Vienna to an utterly insignificant naval victory they won in 1866 against the Italians, in which two(!) Italians ships were sunk.  When you're rubbish at battles, you've really got to sex up the ones you won, I guess.  So, instead of fighting, Austria married off its royal children strategically and built up a great empire.  The Habsburg motto became: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (let others wage war; you, fortunate Austria, marry).

The vast, multinational empire was all fine and dandy until the political changes occasioned by the rise and defeat of Napoleon, and the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.  Austria occupied an odd position in German affairs.  The Habsburgs tended to be elected to the position of Holy Roman Emperor (ie. German Emperor) and so had a reasonably dominant influence in the territory we now call Germany.  At the same time they had a vast non-German empire, whose people would come to identify more and more with their national grouping as time went on.  Matters came to a head when the North Germans took on Austria in war, and of course won so rapidly the poor Austrians didn't even have time to get their Apfelstrudels out for breakfast.  If you've been paying attention, you'll remember: Austrians = "shit at war".

The once multinational, multilingual Austrian Parliament

Austria was pushed out of German affairs, the King of Prussia became Kaiser of a unified Germany (excluding some 8 million ethnically German Austrians), and Austria-Hungary, as it was now known, tried to hold together its dysfunctional empire of around 10 different nationalities.  On one level it was doomed to failure; on another view it was an economically booming multinational entity of 50 million people.  Its economy grew 75% from 1870 to 1913, for example, almost double the rate of Britain's, and faster even than Germany's.  Representatives from around the Empire addressed the Parliament in Vienna (above) in their own language, schools taught in their the local language, and State officials could use their own language at work.  Some would say it was heading very much in the right direction, and was a prototype for a central European Union.

Anschluss and Austrian War Criminals

World War One is of course the hot historical topic of 1914.  It all of course began when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry.  If you're a Blackadder fan, you'll know the poor Ostrich died for nothing too :(  Germany had given Austria-Hungary a blank cheque offer of military support, which given just how shit Austria was at fighting wars was possibly rather silly.  

The plaque commemorating Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Imperial Burial Vault in Vienna is dedicated to "the first victim of WW1".  How interesting a spin that is, from the country that actually chose to declare war and invade Serbia a month after his assassination in Sarejevo.   I also read a fascinating little Q&A in a Vienna tabloid last week on WW1.  The first thing it said was "It's clear that Emperor Franz Josef was not solely to blame for the war."  This narrative of "it wasn't us" will return... 

When Austria pulled out of the war in October 1918, with its empire collapsing round its ears, followed by the collapse of Germany shortly afterwards, the question was, what next.  Now that they were free of their foreign empire, plenty of Austrians favoured union with Germany. However, the Allies were having none of it.  A referendum in Salzburg province indicated a genuine 99.8% support for becoming part of neighbouring Bavaria.  The victorious Allies would only apply the principle of self-determination when it suited them and strengthening Germany was not on the cards in 1919.  So, Austria became a "rump republic" just 1/8th the size it had been, once again outside and independent of Germany. 

Terrified Austrians look away in horror at the Anschluss. Oh.

In March 1938 the Germans invaded.  Well... that's how many Austrians tend to characterise it.  Given crowds lined the route of the panzers towards Vienna and the only thing that was thrown at them were flowers by the ecstatic onlookers, it's hard to see it as a military invasion in the usual sense.  I'm told that during the filming of the Sound of Music, the city of Salzburg's objection to decking the streets with Nazi flags were swiftly withdrawn when they were told actual archive footage would be used instead (thanks @chrisdaleoxford!).  Just 25 years later there would have been some very prominent, identifiable, red faces to be noted in the crowd.

Let's not sugar-coat Austrian involvement in the Third Reich.  They were in it up to their ears.  From the Führer Hitler, downwards to Adolf Eichmann (the major organiser of the holocaust who attended the same school in Linz that Hitler did, 17 years later), to Franz Stangl (commandant of Treblinka), to Amon Goeth (of Schindler's List fame), and to members of the Austrian ski regiments that the Third Reich newspapers proudly proclaimed had taken part in the invasion of Norway, the Austrians were hugely enthusiastic participants in the Reich.  The uncontrolled viciousness of anti-Semitic attacks in Vienna during 1938/9 actually caused the Nazis in Berlin embarrassment: the Jews needed to be robbed and encouraged to emigrate in an orderly fashion, not be beaten up so obviously under the nose of the world media.  One shocking statistic I heard is that the Austrians made up just 7% of the Third's Reich population, yet contributed 25% of the membership of the SS, and 40% of the management at the death camps.  

In other occupied European countries, there was a mixture of collaboration and resistance.  In Austria there wasn't collaboration: there was full on leadership and participation.  Austria was an integral part of the Nazi Third Reich.  There was absolutely no armed resistance: as the historian Guy Walters put it to me recently, the museum of Austrian Resistance in Vienna is the smallest one he has ever visited.

The Real Life Amon Goeth, from Vienna, as played by Fiennes

From 1943, only when it became clear that Germany was losing the war, and food and other shortages hit hard, did the love affair at being part of the Greater German Reich began rapidly to wane in Austria.  Local party officials reported regular occurrences of dissent and anti-Piefke comments.  Piefke is a derogatory term for Germans still used by some Austrians: it's a bit stronger than the US term for northerners, "Yankee".  Let's go with "Fukcing Yankee", or similar.  Then, late in the war, came the Allied bomb raids: the centre of Salzburg was obliterated and around 30% of Vienna was destroyed.  In the end, Austria was on the losing side of yet another war (this time, fortunately, and of course!).  Finally the country was divided, like Germany into four zones of occupation.  This lasted ten years until the US, Soviet Union, Britain and France withdrew in 1955.  Austria was forever to remain a neutral country, and would never seek reunification with Germany, as part of the new Austrian State Treaty. 

So there's your long-winded answer.  Why isn't Austria part of Germany today, whilst say neighbouring Bavaria is? - a series of historical accidents.  It did not stop them, sadly, from participating fully in the worst chapter of German history imaginable.

The Myth of the First Victim

With newly re-established Austria finding its feet in 1955, many people turned firmly to the future and did not want to discuss the past.  To be fair, collective amnesia was a phase that many in Germany went through too.  The difference was that the Austrians had what they took to be official sanction for it in the words of the 1943 Allied "Moscow Declaration".  It had described Austria as "the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression".  This was a blatant untruth, and was intended to encourage resistance in the country.  It followed directly with a warning that if Austria did not do so it would pay for it when victory came.  As we know, that resistance never happened.  Right up to May 1945 young Austrian men were dying fiercely defending the Third Reich.

In West Germany, by contrast, an intensive programme of civilian de-nazification had been carried out by the Allies, which just did not occur here.  It suited many Austrians, laden with personal or family guilt, and latent resentment for the terrible fate that had befallen the country from 1938-45, to buy into this myth of the first victim.  The Sound of Music is the perfect example of the sugar-coating/ total white-washing of the period of history.  You watch it and think "oh those poor little Austrians!" forgetting entirely about the sing-song Viennese accents ordering people off trains and into gas chambers.  Worse, the movie isn't even Austrian - it's a product of Hollywood.

Oh Julie: what were you part of?

In 1991, a majority of Austrians said it was time to "put the holocaust behind them".  Just consider for a moment how many holocaust and other war victims were still alive and suffering at that point.  A poll in March 2013 that was widely reported abroad showed three of five Austrians want a "strong man" and lead the country, and 42% think things were not all bad under Hitler.  46% (in 2013!) still thought of Austria as a victim.  

I suppose it's something, though, that 54% rejects the myth.  Given these figures it would be silly, and wrong, to say "all Austrians deny the past".  They clearly do not.  As time has gone on, there has (slowly) been a more honest and critical reappraisal of the situation.  Attitudes also vary according to which part of the country you visit.  Vienna has long been traditionally more social-democrat and, I think, open to own up to the country's history.  Even in sleepy, conservative Salzburg I met a woman who was spitting mad about companies celebrating their 60th anniversaries in 2008/9, when she said it was blatantly obvious they had been "aryanised" (i.e. stolen from their former Jewish owners).  The picture is nuanced, but it's fair to say that in general Germany has been admirably open at least since the late 1960s to talking about its past, whereas Austria has been remarkably reticent on the whole.

Does the Past Matter?

Well yes, I think it does.  An honest appraisal of the past is, for me, a key component in achieving a healthy, tolerant society.   The Jewish community of Germany is absolutely flourishing once more and is the fastest growing in the world.  At 120,000 it is the 3rd largest in the EU.  Munich's Jews are back up to pre-1933 numbers.   It's nothing short of a miracle that Jews feel safe and want to bring up their children up right across the country.  I absolutely believe this in part down to the way the country has dealt so thoroughly with the history of the Nazi period.  In Austria there is a quite different feeling.  The small Jewish community is centred in one district of the capital, it is predominantly Ultra-Orthodox and was for many years completely stagnant in size.  Repeated recent stories sadly point to Viennese Jews being wary of anti-Semitic attacks. 

The far-right Freedom Party of Austria regularly polls 20-25%; in 1999 when it entered national government as part of a coalition, it attracted diplomatic sanctions from the EU.  Germany (just like Britain) isn't a bed of roses when it comes to xenophobic tendencies, but in Austria these people have been polling big numbers for decades and actually taking part in local and national government.  Its leader was recently embroiled in a scandal over an overtly anti-Semitic cartoon that he published.

Open-minded, liberal friends of mine in Vienna acted angrily to the reporting of the March 2013 poll abroad.  They said Austria was being picked on and it really was time to move on - their kids were sick of hearing all this when they had nothing to do with it.  I'd have a lot more sympathy with this if the country had actually been through the process Germany has.  You are much more inclined to forgive when something has been honestly owned up to, rather than dealt with it in a half-hearted and sometimes completely dishonest way.  This is even more the case where almost half the population still today thinks of their country as a victim rather than a perpetrator nation.  Of course my friends' kids were nothing to do with the actual crimes: but they are part of the society in 2013 that answers these polls the way it does, and that votes the Freedom Party in.

Mauthausen in Austria: the cruelest of all camps?

I remember my first visit to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz.  It is widely known as the most gratuitously cruel of all the camps across German-controlled Europe.  The SS took pleasure in devising over 60 ways of killing prisoners, from forcing them to climb down a quarry wall whilst taking pot-shots at their hands (the "Parachute Jump") to the "domino effect" of prisoners carrying heavy stones up 180 uneven steps falling back onto the people below them.  There was a special exhibition on entitled "Austrians in Mauthausen".  This presumably was set up by whatever professional historians run the exhibits here.  I was excited to see this acknowledgement of the role of Austrian SS management and guards in this Austrian camp.  But no, it was an exhibit about political opponents and the handful of priests who had ended up there.  The last section was a huge celebration of the liberation of Austria in May 1945.  Wow.  Just wow.  Austrian kids will come here to be educated on the holocaust and they will leave with the impression the Germans came in, did it all, and left.  It's actually shameful.

"That" Monument

So we return to the monument in the centre of Vienna.  In a way it draws together all the strands of this post perfectly.  It purports to commemorate all victims of war and fascism, yet it makes no reference to the Jews, to the Gypsies, to the socialists, to the communists, to the priests, or to the gays.  Of the 40 million victims of the Second World War, it in fact only mentions one group expressly: the 300 or so rich Austrian inhabitants of the luxury Philipphof apartment complex who were killed in a US air-raid.

I feel quite strongly about the wrongs of the Allied carpet bombing of German and Austrian civilian targets (please read this post if you haven't already) but this "War and Fascism" monument.. it actually makes me vaguely stabby.  I believe it is right and just to acknowledge civilian victims, even in a perpetrator nation, and even if they were members of or supporters of the Nazi party.  They did not deserve to be summarily burnt or crushed to death in a cellar in this way.  But before that HAS to come acknowledgement of the other victims, and indeed this country's role in carrying out crimes against them.  That is entirely, 100%, lacking here.  Austria really can do better than this.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014


It's that time of year again to wish everyone a Happy New Year!

It's been a busy and super enjoyable holiday season, ending with tonight's rack of lamb dinner at my parent's house just a few blocks away from where we live. While my daughter Valentina and I were poking around on our iPhones (don't judge, please!) Óðinn, my 7 year old son, called his best friend Þórir, who lives just a few houses away, and invited him over to eat with us without asking his grandmother first.
Þórir was more than happy to join us as his family was having duck tonight, not his favorite. When he showed up my gracious mother Ásthildur  of course welcomed him as a part of the family, as she always does.

After dinner and a dessert of homemade ice cream, my father, whose name is also Þórir (pronounced Thorir, with rolled R's, and usually shortened to Thor in English) took the boys out for a last round of rocket-style fireworks and flares, which they all thoroughly enjoyed. Pictured above from the left, then, is Thorir, Thorir and Óðinn well-fed and happy after a great holiday season. 

Thanks to all my wonderful friends and family for making this a December to remember!

2014, here we come!

P.s. If you'd like to see a short clip of the fireworks that were set off last night in front of Hallgrímskirkja, just go to our Facebook page : ) 

(For the curious, my father is wearing a neck brace after a very unexpected slip on ice. It's been crazy slippery here, and even someone as agile as my dad is took a surprise fall. I wonder how the emergency rooms have been this past fortnight!)