My niece visited our house the other day and, as she was leaving, she paused to jot down our land line phone number, which she had lost. I told her the number and added, “Anyway, we’re in the book.” But I immediately recalled that Verizon and AT&T, among others, have been moving toward discontinuing phone books. Although phone books are a nuisance to have around the house, and although I can’t remember the last time I used a phone book instead of the Internet to look up a number, I’ll be sorry to see them go. I’m an avid phone book reader when I’m away from home. I study such things as how many people are listed with my surname and how many with my wife’s surname. There are seldom more than one or two – often none. Whenever I find one it’s like spotting cobalt sea glass. I also thumb through to see which name generates the longest list in that locale – Smith? Patel? – and which names catch my attention because they’re familiar or odd.


Icelandic phone book


Reading the phone book in Iceland, incidentally, is an offbeat experience, because most people in Iceland don’t have family names as such. Folks are listed in the phone book by their first names, patronyms, addresses, occupations, and then telephone numbers. The patronym consists of a person’s father’s first name and a suffix that indicates whether it’s a son or daughter. So the Icelandic singer would be listed as Björk Guðmundsdóttir, because she is the daughter (dottir) of  Guðmundur Gunnarsson, who is the son of Gunnar. If you look closely at the page to the left, you can see listings for several people who share Björk’s name.



It was often said of the actor Charles Laughton that he could make an audience weep simply by reading the phone book aloud. That was meant as a compliment to Laughton, but I think I’d be reduced to tears if I had to listen to any actor read the phone book. I, on the other hand, will miss those out-of-town opportunities to read the listings to myself and provide occasional commentary to anyone without the sense to leave the room.

Meanwhile, my first thought after I told my niece that we’re “in the book” was that the expression “in the book” might disappear from our language if the trend to eliminate “the book” continues.

Although I know it’s an inevitable process – idioms coming and going – I always regret the loss of such expressions. I’m old enough, though, that “in the book” could last as long as I do. After all, the rotary dial started disappearing from telephones in the 1960s and has been virtually non-existent for several decades. And yet, many people still speak of “dialing” a number when, in fact, they’re entering the number with a keypad.

Come to think of it, I’m so old that I’m older than rotary dials.






School children in Heimaey. The island has about 4500 inhabitants.

The news of a volcanic eruption in Iceland and the lingering aftermath has had me thinking of our visit a few years ago to Heimaey, one of the Westman Island group off the southern coast of Iceland — the only one that is inhabited.

We took the ferry out to Heimaey, a trip of about four nautical miles, spent the night in a very nice little hotel, and then wandered all over the island and took a cruise around its outskirts.

The centerpiece of Heimaey is Eldfell, a volcano that erupted in January 1973, an event that continued until the following July. Besides the initial output of volcanic ash — an estimated 1.6 million cubic feet were blown onto the town — there was substantial flow of lava that threatened to close the island’s harbor.

A cluster of typical Icelandic buildings on Heimaey with Eldfell in the distance.

Overnight the whole population of Heimaey was evacuated, largely thanks to the fleet of fishing boats that was in the harbor at that time of year. If the lava had continued to flow unabated, it would have closed the narrow channel into the harbor which would have been disastrous to the fishing industry that supports the island’s economy. However, the islanders prevented that by pumping sea water onto the lava, redirecting the flow of the molten rock and causing much of it to solidify.

There was enormous damage to the town. Also, because of the lava flow, the length of the island grew from about 6 miles to about 8 miles. Ultimately, the residents returned and the town was restored. Video of the 1973 eruption is a THIS LINK.

A mural on an exterior wall of a building in Heimaey depicts the principal occupations of the residents.

Besides learning about the Eldfell event, I was preoccupied in Heimaey with the mindset of the people who live there. It’s human nature for a person to think of himself as standing at the center of all that is — even if intellectually he knows otherwise — and it’s a part of that conceit to wonder how anyone living on a tiny island in the North Atlantic could entertain such an idea. The people we met appeared content and cheerful, which seems counterintuitive to someone whose whole life has been spent in the New York-Philadelphia megapolis. I suggested to my companions that it would be an interesting experiment to relocate to Heimaey for, say, six months to see how it would affect one’s world view. They didn’t share my curiosity.

A panorama of Heimaey, the largest island in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, first settled in the ninth century AD.

P1000051One thing a traveler can’t help noticing in Iceland is the sheep. They are everywhere.

When Chris and I first visited there, we were fascinated, amused, and sometimes frustrated by this phenomenon. Except within the confines of cities and towns, we encountered sheep everywhere we went, usually in groups of two or three, as in the clotch at the left which I photographed last year, on our second visit.

When I say the sheep were everywhere, I mean everywhere. We often were driving in areas where there were no structures much less human beings within eyeshot, but there were sheep. We drove over an area covered with lava — black as far as the eye could see — but there were sheep.

Often the sheep would be standing in the middle of the road. They have an attitude, these sheep. As you approach them in your car, they pretend — by mutual consent — that they don’t notice you. If you sound the horn, they look your way as though to say, “Oh. I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?” Even then — as though to demonstrate who belongs in this countryside and who does not — they hesitate before moving off the pavement. This provides you with small satisfaction because in two or three miles your path will be blocked again. By sheep.

We noticed that these sheep were marked, so it seemed to us strange that they were wandering, literally, all over the country. So we did what any wise traveler does: We asked a waitress, “What’s up with the sheep?”

She explained that the sheep are driven off Icelandic farms in the spring so that they don’t graze in pastures meant for growing and harvesting hay. In September — right now, as a matter of fact — much of the population gets on horseback and rounds up these sheep which, by now, are — well — everywhere. This is done in several waves, and the sheep are identified and either returned to their farms or sent to a slaughterhouse. It’s a case, for the sheep, of who shall live and who shall die.

In the largest roundup, which occurs at Audkúlurétt in the northwest, between 12,000 and 15,000 sheep are corralled.

What’s Icelandic for “Yippie Yi Yo Kiyay”?



Puffin at the westernmost point in EuropeI photographed this puffin two years ago at Latrabjarg, Iceland, which is the westernmost point in Europe. Puffins, as the photo makes clear, are cute. Too cute to live, apparently, because the Icelandic people eat them. The puffin population isn’t in any danger due to this, because the taking of puffins is controlled, and there are plenty of them.

We were talking at a dinner party the other night about the odd contradictions in the way many of us respond to food. I was a good example. I won’t eat rabbit, for instance, for which there is no rational explanation. I would eat game birds that I have not ever tasted – say, pheasant – but I wouldn’t eat a pigeon. Well, for me, puffins fall into that category.

So it didn’t set well with me to read that a visual artist named Curver Thoroddsen has opened a pizza restaurant in a lighthouse near the cliff where I took this picture, and that one of the most popular items on the menu is puffin pizza. Thoroddsen said he was inspired to open the restaurant – which he pointed out is as close as one can get to the United States and still be in Europe – while he was doing graduate work in New York, where there is a pizza joint on every block. I wonder if, while he was in the city, he took advantage of the abundant supply of pigeons.

Hipster doofus cuisine

May 21, 2009

pizzaWhat country has the greatest number of Domino pizza restaurants per capita?

That’s right! Iceland!

Oh, that wasn’t your guess? Well it wouldn’t have been mine either, but them’s the facts, at least according to a blogger on

There are relatively few fast-food chains in Iceland, as we Americans know and love them, so we have noticed the Domino restaurants when we’ve been there, but only as an anomaly. Frankly, eating pizza never has occurred to us in Iceland and, even if it did, we wouldn’t have eaten Domino’s pizza there any more than we would eat it here.

The blogger, Aina Fuller, who is writing from Italy, not from Iceland, is musing over where she has had the best pizza of her life. I don’t have to think about that; it was the pizza my grandmother made, but there’s no point in dwelling on the unattainable. Fuller’s journal includes this observation:

But the glaring memory of the best in my mind, pulsing with Icelandic enthusiasm, is a mixed cheese pizza I had from a tiny restaurant in Saudárkrókur, where we shamelessly dipped bite after bite in home-made jam.
(For the foreign contingent, I know what you’re thinking. Pizza and jam might sound like trying to play a violin with a chicken feather, but don’t knock it ‘til you try it—and inevitably start doing it with a lot more strange combinations than pizza.)  




Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I won’t be trying that. I have to go along with Poppie, who told Cosmo Kramer that if you let people put anything they want – including cucumbers – on pizza, pretty soon you can no longer call it pizza.  

Fuller mentioned salted cod as a favorite home-grown topping for Icelandic pizza, and she accurately pointed out that it isn’t so far afield of the anchovies Italians like. In fact, even though I normally don’t eat anchovies, I would inhale the pizzas my grandmother made with anchovies, garlic and wild mushrooms. I was surprised – maybe I should say relieved – that Fuller didn’t report that Icelanders like to top their pizzas with the rancid shark meat that is supposed to be such a delicacy up there. 

Her blog is a lot of fun. It’s at this link:


waiter2One of the current brouhahas in San Francisco has to do with the annoying custom – or business practice – known as tipping. The city wants the restaurants in town to either provide health-care coverage for their employees or pay a fee to the city so that the employees can be covered by the universal health-care program. The restaurant owners are suing the city over that issue, but they have a counter proposal: A “tip credit” that would reduce the minumum wage paid to wait staff by the amount they earn in tips. Don’t you love it? The minumum wage in San Francisco is $9.79 an hour, by the way – a far cry from the federal requirement, but hardly the stuff of which fortunes are made. 

tipping Tipping is one of my pet peeves. One of the reasons I like visiting Iceland is that tipping isn’t practiced there. Restaurants charge what they need to in order to pay the staff a living wage and still make a profit, and customers don’t follow up a meal by analyzing the quality of the service and the personality and repartee of the server.  Civilized people, those Icelanders – although, there is the whole whaling thing.


”Whaddya think? Fifteen percent? Well, he did bring more coffee. OK, what? Eighteen? Twenty?” Just the thing to encourage digestion.