I want to move to Iceland for the Jolabokaflod.

wild reindeer
Every year, my mom gives me a book for Christmas. She gets me other things, too, because my mom and I share a tendency to over-gift, but the book was a constant. As a child, we were often allowed to open these packages on Christmas Eve. We only got one gift early, and it was always, always a book.

I thought this tradition was unique to my family. Turns out, it’s a common practice in Iceland. Books are such a standard present in that cold country that it spurs a surge in publishing in the months leading up to the holiday. This wonderfully literary ritual even has a name: Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas Book Flood.”

According to this NPR article, Iceland is an extremely literary country. Not only does every Icelander aspire to write a book (hey, me too!) but the average citizen buys more books than the typical American. “If you look at book sales distribution in the U.K. and the States, most book sales actually come from a minority of people. Very few people buy lots of books. Everybody else buys one book a year if you’re lucky,” says Baldur Bjarnason, a researcher who has been following the Icelandic publishing market. “It’s much more widespread in Iceland. Most people buy several books a year.”

Several books a year? Okay, that doesn’t sound like that many, especially to a book-horder like me. But it is a fairly big difference. Literary culture, on the whole, is much more significant in Iceland than in America. Perhaps this explains why so many Icelanders believe in elves (aka the Huldufólk, or “hidden people”). Maybe people who read more fairytales are more likely to believe in them. Or perhaps just reading in general opens your mind to the weird and wonderful possibilities of the world—magic not excluded.iceland cabin

“I loved reading and I wanted you kids to love books,” said my Christmas-crazy mom when I asked her whether she knew about this Scandinavian ritual. “A lot of people have the tradition of singing carols, which is what I did as a kid. Reading books to you kids was something we could do all together.” We’ve never been a musical family (I’m particularly tone deaf, though my brothers aren’t exactly talented in that department either) so reading it was.

There are a lot of holiday rituals I don’t observe. I’m not religious, nor do I imagine that will change (I don’t believe in elves, either, though I sort of wish I did). But a tradition that revolves around giving—and getting—brand new reading material? That’s my kind of Christmas.

History of words gets visualized in Minna Sundberg’s lovely arboreal chart.


Check out this amazing illustration, which shows the growth and spread of “Old World” in a properly old school-lookin’ linguistic family tree. Stunning, isn’t it?

As a side note, Finno-Ugric is the strangest language group! I lived in Hungary for six months and learned so little Hungarian—I remember it took me weeks to properly pronounce köszönöm (thank you) and even then, I still preferred to just say the short version (sounds like “kussie”) for fear of embarrassing myself. It’s such a difficult language, and related to so few other European tongues. I always loved to hear it spoken—to me it always sounded twisty and jagged, yet musical, like a piano played too fast. Oh, Magyar. I miss you.

To be fair, I’m also terrible at languages in general, despite being fascinated (a little in love with, honestly) words and their sounds.


Workin’ on my night moves: Writing about the graveyard shift at Sugarloaf Mountain

mainesugarloaf2I want to share one of my recent pieces (and one of my favorite assignments) from Maine magazine. Last winter, I spent a night driving around in snowcats with the Sugarloaf mountain groomers and snowmakers. As anyone who has worked the late shift knows, there’s something uncanny about the routines we form when everyone else is asleep. The world becomes quiet and intimate, your field of vision shrinks, making everything seem at once bigger and smaller.

mainesugarloaf3This night was like that—full of big machines and big mountains and small, sweet moments of conversation and connection. Vast sublime views and odd little human details: snippets of This American Life played over an iPod, off-record conversations about marriage and love, day-old pizza boxes pushed out of the camera frame.

Mainesugarloaf1Even though they wouldn’t let me drive a snowcat (which, given my driving record, was probably a good call), I still had a blast. Here’s the full piece. All pictures by immensely talented photojournalist Fred Field. Words are by me, with quotes from the smart, funny, cool guys who work at Sugarloaf Mountain.


Today I’m inspired by… Yayoi Kusama’s entire career.

yayoiI’ve professed my love for Yayoi Kusama before, but this playful, colorful art installation in Aix-en-Provence just takes it to the next level. It’s like a scene from a utopian fantasy novel, or an adult Dr. Seuss. A quick google search revealed that this Japanese artist was active in the New York art scene at the same time as Andy Warhol—which makes perfect sense, because nothing quite says POP art to me like colorful dots and infinitely repeating patterns (these trees are kind of like a deconstructed Lichtenstein). Her work has been labeled feminist and minimalist, with strong (and pretty awesome) psychedelic undertones. But what really surprised me is that she’s also the author of multiple novels. She’s 84-years-old and a totally badass lady with more talent in her little finger than most people have in their entire bodies. And just look at her:

Yayoi_Kusama_3018813bI get so wrapped up in stories of young people creating amazing things, but often these “prodigy” narratives make me feel unaccomplished. Reading about established artists with long, varied, and interesting careers is the perfect antidote to that ugly, envious tendency. At 84, she’s still creating wonderful things. Life is (hopefully) long and full of wonder. I still have time.

P.S. Dig this artist? You can check out more of her work at Artsy.net.

Jason Brooks puts Paris on paper.

paris005Fashion illustrator Jason Brooks has just managed to bump Paris onto my “worth it” plane ticket list. I never really wanted to go to Paris. I’ve always been more attracted to isolated places, like Alaska or Siberia, than big, beautiful, old cites. Though describing it now, I realize I do like those crowded places, too. Just Budapest, not London. Philadelphia, not LA. I’m picky, I guess.

But I am veering too far off topic. Jason Brooks is publishing a book of his sketches of Paris. They are, by their very nature, wonderfully romantic. How can a drawing of a street be romantic? I don’t know. It just is. That’s the entire point of Paris. It exists solely for the macaroons and tulips and rainy, hazy days, and the entire idea of Spring in Paris and love in Paris and that lady who fell in love with the Eiffel Tower and married it. Clearly, she took it too far, but Paris has that je ne sais… Ugh, I’m sorry. Just look at his book.

dear paris

Where the wild things are.

312033_415917278455577_1915020339_nI find it endlessly fascinating how people around the globe have created folklore and mythology that falls along the same basic narrative structures. People as beasts, beasts as people. Spirits that need to be appeased, and sacrifices that must be made. The dead who walk again, and the living who wander into the twilight land between. These stories are told again and again, from language to language and mouth to mouth. It’s beautiful, if you think about it. We’re all beasts, inside. Wild men, in the words of photographer Charles Freger.

02-portugal-lazarim-character-caretos-670Freger captures the wild men of Europe in their various costumes and headdresses. With a few simple materials, the human body is transformed into fantastical shapes, shaggy creatures of imagination and deep symbolism.

312090_415917238455581_1283995928_nLooking at his photographs, I find myself feeling an odd envy. I have never enjoyed Halloween and the skimpy outfits it seems to inspire, but I would love to turn myself into a fearsome (yet wooly) creature, a brute straight out of a fairytale.

Alternatively, it would be nice to go around Europe snapping pictures of these colorful rituals. Feed your own envy here.

Two cool things: Green architecture, plant emotions.

PIC_MarkMiller_11. Plant-In City. I’ll let their description do the talking:

Mankind is increasingly leaving nature behind, migrating to concrete jungles where green space is at a premium. Yet urban dwellers will always long for a connection to the earth: we build parks, protect nature reserves, and grow gardens. We’ve become adept at shaping nature to fit our multiple spaces and lifestyles.
Plant-in City is a collaboration between architects, designers, and technologists who are building new ways of interacting with nature. Our 21st century sculptural terrariums combine modular architecture, basic laws of physics, embedded technologies, and mobile computing to construct a “Plant City” where the aesthetic meets the pragmatic.

2. Do plants have emotions? We were discussing this at work the other day, and while my first inclination was to be really skeptical, I’ve been a little swayed. No, I don’t think weeping willows actually need Prozac, just that maybe there’s something these living creatures pick up on that is kind of, maybe a little, like our empathy. Further reading can be found on NYT.com, but this is one of those weird moments when I don’t want to know too much more. According to some people, plants react when living things are killed. Perhaps it’s true, perhaps it’s not, but I rather like that idea and for now, I would like it to be so.

I think this must be how people in Iceland “believe” in fairies. According to one article, 80% of Icelanders think fairies are real. Maybe they do, or maybe 80% of the country just has a more whimsical outlook on life than we do. Either way, I want to go to Iceland and see some freaking fairies.

My Russian romance.

wooden church 1There are few places I want to visit more than Russia. Maybe I’ve just read Anna Karenina one too many times (no, that’s not possible), but if I were to suddenly fall into a Scrooge McDuck-style pile of money, I would spend it all on a ticket to Russia.

If I could go to Russia, I would want to see everything—not just the cities, though Saint Petersburg looks like magic made of stone—and I mean everything. I want to ride the Transsiberian railroad and stare out at all the miles of quiet, scarcely inhabited land. Oddly enough, my desire was only amplified by this recent story from the Smithsonian about a family that lived in the wilderness of Siberia for over 40 years without any human contact. Driven from society by religious persecution, the family of five survived off the land, hunting for meat and dining on bark when there was no better food to be found. It’s really, truly fascinating (not to mention strangely inspiring).

But I’m digressing from what I wanted to blog about, which is this fantastic series of photographs by Richard Davies. The UK-based artist lived my dream and journeyed through the northern part of the continent, capturing images of grand old wooden churches. While I’m familiar with the shapes of the buildings (onion domes that billow out and spires that aspire to the heavens) I don’t think I’ve ever seen them rendered in wood quite like this. Continue reading

In case anyone needs cheering up on this rainy Monday morning, I found a great—little bit silly but really adorable—video from Inspired by Iceland (via super awesome site NotVentures).  I already was dying to go there, but this makes me want to hop a plane even more.  And to further incite travel-lust, here’s an amazingly beautiful Flickr album, shot in—where else?—Iceland.

Finding beautiful things amid squalor is has become a survival skill of sorts for me; as someone used to open spaces and clear night skies, it’s pretty much necessary that I figure out ways to see the aesthetic aspect of urban life. Here’s a good slide show example (though a little more rough than I usually tend): Beauty Amid Ugliness.