Monthly Archives: January 2012

Icelandic Music – Part II

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Part II – Folk

Folk isn’t really the proper genre of this category, but rather a description of a shared origin in traditional, Icelandic music. Of the three bands listed here, I suspect only one – Mugison – will appeal to any substantial audience. I’ve tried introducing my foreign friends to Þursaflokkurinn a few times with less-than-great results; my friends say the meanest things sometimes. I could have picked many bands for this made up pseudo-genre of mine – Steindór Andersen, KUKL, Þeyr, etc… – so the ones I have chosen represent my own taste more than anything.

Mugison

Mugison is at once the artist that comes closest of these to being folk, and the one that is the furthest away from what I described above. His roots in Icelandic culture lie, not as much in technique and structure, but rather in poetic lyricism and context. I’ve touched before on the rich music scene in Iceland, to the point where it seems as if anyone can pick up a guitar in Iceland and become a musician. In my mind Mugison embodies exactly that (and in fact his first records were recorded in solitude in his bedroom). Mugison’s style has changed and evolved through the years, ranging from heavily distorted electro-troubadour to rhythmic rock to melodic folk. For a musician, there are few things worse than becoming stagnant in one’s art; Mugison is in no danger of this happening.

Þursaflokkurinn

You might as well just skip this section. You won’t like it. Here is a progressive rock band that heavily implements traditional Icelandic folk music, jazz and classical music as well as lyrical scenes from Icelandic folklore. They heavily rely on an oboe in their songs, are you gone yet? The band split up in 1984 after six years of active playing, with many suspecting the decision was in large part fuelled by their lack of success abroad. Listening to their music again now, it’s not hard to see why they did not succeed in conquering the World. Theirs is a niche carved out in Icelandic ground – small, even for Icelandic standards. Nonetheless the band symbolizes an important cultural step, in that they were the first real attempt to modernize (to some extent) the ridged world of Icelandic folklore and ancient sagas. It’s sad that most won’t be able to enjoy the off-beat lyrics, but in case someone connects with the musical aspect… enjoy!

HAM

HAM never managed to reach a substantial audience during its initial period of active playing but have since gained a cult-like status in Icelandic rock-history. In 2001, HAM was revived once again with great success, and has since been a steady act at music festivals and most recently releasing their first album with new material since 1995. It’s hard to describe the band’s style. They are often said to be heavy metal, but the band (and I) don’t entirely agree. My best attempt would be something like; operatic heavy alternative rock. The music is an energetic clash of sounds, featuring two singers; one with a deep, powerful baritone providing the backdrop to the raspy growls and screams of the other. It is raw and chaotic, but behind it all lie the roots of Icelandic musical traditions; from the rhythmic structure to the conflicting vocals, resonating in parallel fifths. As great as HAM are, they are a band best enjoyed live. I’ve seen HAM a few times and it is always amazing. My most memorable experience was at Iceland Airwaves 2010, in the iconic venue Nasa in downtown Reykjavík. It was completely packed, it was so hot that the collective evaporated sweat in the room was verging on forming clouds above us and there were at all times at least four people crowd surfing. After the first roaring track, front man Óttar Proppé modestly introduced the band in his raspy voice; “we are the band HAM.” As if we didn’t all know… Below I’ve included one of their more famous songs, as well as a short clip from the concert I mentioned above. If you look closely you might see my head somewhere in the front, to the right of the stage…

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Let’s get this party started!

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A dorm party in the United States of America? That’s what I call living the American experience!  However, there is only one slight little problem. How can I describe what I’ve seen? How can I assign words to an experience that can only be felt and lived?  Well, in those cases, you can only try and explain to people (those who are not American of course, because I obviously already seem like an idiot to the American college students who live this experience every week) what  these parties are about and how they progress throughout an evening. Let the fun start!

Besides my roommates, I had no idea who were the people that were slowly filling our living room. The party started at 9:30 PM and I decided that hiding in my bedroom for as long as the party lasted was the best strategy to adopt. Here I was, sitting on my bed, wearing my prettiest dress, afraid of confronting the external world. Slowly, as time went by, distinguishing the sound of music became a harder and harder task. All I could hear at some point was a constant unpleasant sound of people talking. I have to say that, with my bedroom’s door closed, it sounded more like a swarm of bees attacking our room than actual people having civilized conversations.  Suddenly, the best thing that could possibly happen happened. My roommate barged into our room, feeling slightly tipsy (Yes! She is more than 21) and dragged me into the living room pretending she didn’t know most of these people herself.

As I stepped outside of my safe zone, I was amazed by the amount of people that can actually fit in this tiny living room. People were everywhere! The unpleasant sound became less unpleasant as I could now differentiate between the different sounds. I could see people desperately screaming hoping the person they were talking to would miraculously hear what they were saying. I could hear people laughing, that unique joyful laugh that happens only once in a while. But most importantly, everyone was smiling. Every single person in that room had that serene smile drawn on their faces. At that precise moment, I realized that people were truly happy to be here, to share unique moments with their friends, to let loose for once without worrying about classes, responsibilities or life and its adventures in general. This kind of gathering is what makes people lower the pressure by just embracing and enjoying the present. And so, I decided it was about time for me too to stop worrying about what happens in Morocco and make the full out of what happens to me in the United States of America.

I met new people. I had different conversations with various individuals; some lasted for half an hour and others for less than five minutes. But the point is that I actually had contact with real people instead of my usual (but precious and beloved) computer. Some of these people might forget about me. Others will politely wave at me when walking on the street. Very few of them will choose to stop and have a short conversation with me to ask about updates in my life. And probably, none of them will actually ask me to do something interesting someday to spend time together and learn more about each other in order to become friends.  Does it bother me? Not the slightest! Not because I don’t want to have friends here but because I am sure that if friendship is meant to be between someone and me, then it will! I just have to patiently wait for the right person to show up and not worry about anything but enjoying my stay in the US as much as I can.

Icelandic music – Part I

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The more attentive readers here may have noticed in my first post that I absolutely love music. Because I wanted this blog to sounds really intellectual, I went to wikiquote.org and searched for “music”, as one does. There are many excellent quotes about music there but for this particular piece I have chosen a quote from the famous misogynist Friedrich Nietzsche who once said “If a woman seeks education it is probably because her sexual apparatus is malfunctioning,” probably while slowly stroking his moustache and pausing intermittingly for dramatic effect. However he also said that “without music, life would be a mistake.”  I don’t agree, really, but let’s pretend for a moment that all is good, and that this is a great introduction to an intellectual, contemporary piece on the role of music in the modern world.

For someone that really loves music, Iceland is a great place to live. For a nation so small it is really nothing short of amazing how active the music scene is. If you’re a Buddhist I highly recommend raking in some good karma so you can be reborn on Iceland in your next cycle. If, however, you are not Buddhist then I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you. I digress.

Seeing that this is a somewhat cultural blog I figured it would be a good idea to give some insight into Icelandic culture.  Specifically I want to write a bit about Icelandic music. We all know about Björk and Sigur Rós (if you don’t, you and me have a problem) so I’ll try to focus the attention on bands that are less known, but should most definitely be famous. This is a rather sizable task I’m setting myself so I’ve decided to split it into four parts. Roughly these are as follows; electronic, folk, rock and Icelandic Airwaves. Without further ado, here is part one.

Part I – Electronic

Gus Gus

Gus Gus is one of those titans of the Icelandic scene that seems to have been around forever. They always put out solid stuff. I remember that they played once at a dance in my gymnasium in Iceland (almost the same as high school) and they actually sold out faster than the world famous Ratatat that also played at one of our school dances that year so yeah, they’re pretty solid. Personally though I’ve always felt like there was something missing, they were great but just not quite in the zone. Last year they put out a new album and this time they’ve added a new singer; Högni. Högni is also the lead singer of mega-group Hjaltalín, which I’ll mention in Part III of this series. It turns out that Gus Gus + Högni = electro magic. Their album from 2011, Arabian Horse, is one of my favorites of the year. Enjoy!

Apparat Organ Quartet

AOQ is an odd ensemble. It’s composed of five members, who are all well known within the music industry for other projects, amongst them Jóhann Jóhansson. Jóhann Jóhansson is probably the name on this list, most likely to sound familiar to readers, as he has become quite famous within the neoclassical music-sphere. AOQ, though, is entirely different from his more somber music. The band uses a vast array of outdated synthesizers, organs, cheap electric pianos and vocoders to produce songs of, what can hardly be described as other than, hard electronic rock. Their albums are complex and demanding, but the melodies and drops of powerhouse ecstasy are amazing. They’re also truly an experience to see live.

Ólafur Arnalds

From Jóhann Jóhansson to another giant of the Icelandic neo-classical scene; Ólafur Arnalds belongs in this section because he not only produces amazing neoclassical soundscapes, but he couples then with intellectual electo-beats. His albums are at once hauntingly beautiful and heavy head-banging bass-orgies. The kind that makes you sway, frown your eyebrows and think “daaaaamn, this is it, right here.” In reference to Part IV of this blog-series, Ólafur Arnalds is also one of the acts I look forward the most to seeing at Iceland Airwaves each year.

FM Belfast

And now to something completely different. It’s hard, really, to put the energy of FM Belfast into words. The music, as confessed by the founding band members, is engineered to be perfectly suited to young, sweaty parties. The music is fast, uninhibited and joyful. That’s only part of the experience though. Seeing FM Belfast live, at a good venue, is nothing short of amazing. Everyone dances, everyone is drenched in sweat, no one cares at all. It’s amazing.

The “Easy A” philosophy and other Socratic principles (or how to choose classes at GW)

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The time to register for classes began last month. The sacred “add/drop” weeks have followed. For the past few weeks all GW students have had to ask themselves:  “what classes do I choose?”

I don’t want to brag but it is not the first time I register for classes at GW. I already did it last semester and I can claim to be almost an expert on how students make those choices. Let me present you my – some would say very sophisticated – sociological analysis on that subject.

The main argument at the core of my homemade theory is that the student specimen chooses his/her classes negatively, that is to say, by elimination. Yet, there are several types of specimens and, as a result, different ways of choosing classes.

1) The “Easy A” choice  (AKA the “I am buying my degree” choice): The principle is very simple. Some students will try to get As (or Bs) the easiest way possible and will thus choose the easiest classes the University offers. Through this decision process, the student specimen (AKA the GW student) will be helped by other “Easy A classes” hunters or by websites such as ratemyprofessor.com. Someone fitting in that category might for example take the class rated 5/5 on easiness with the comment:” if you go to class Easy A”. Considering the price of education, some evil minds might say it is equivalent to buying a degree without working. But I am not this kind of person… (or maybe I am).

2) The “I-am-taking-your-class-because-nobody-can-be-good-at-it-except-for-me” choice: I have to say I hadn’t run into this specimen before last week. Concretely, when asked why he/she is taking this class, the student specimen will answer: “I think absolutely nobody does a good job at this (this includes the teacher) so I want to learn it myself”. When you get rid of the polite phrasing it means: everybody suck at this, including you; that is why I am trying to raise the level of the field. This approach rarely guarantees you to be liked in the class.

3) The “I need 12-credits and I don’t want to socialize” choice: Some students just don’t know what they are interested in but they know one thing: they already have friends and they are not here to speak to anybody. This specimen is particularly interesting if you are in a sociology class.

4) The “I need an internship” choice: Very pragmatical, this choice hinges on the following assumption: some teachers are brilliant professionals and they will probably help you find you an internship if you are very nice (or/and if you bring them cookies). This category is very specific to GW, or at least to the United States, and you have to be very strong not to be tempted to take advantage of it. Being very weak myself, I did.

5) The “I want to learn” choice: Very noble intellectually, this choice is motivated by a will to progress and to learn something out of a semester of study. Even though this choice seems to be the best from an academic point of view (once again, considering the price of education, you expect the student to at least want to learn something), it is often in contradiction with another variable: you actually don’t want to spend your nights working. As a result, the “Easy A” choice often wins this battle.

6) The “Everything was closed” choice (very popular among exchange students): Sometimes the choice is not a choice. If you register last and you don’t go often on GWeb to check if some classes opened, you will have to choose classes by default (instead of looking for the best classes, you’ll look for the least worse). That is how you can end up studying: “Famous harmonica players in the Nineteenth Century”, “Psychology analysis of princesses in the Middle East” or “Special topic in Engineering: Rubik’s cube”.

7) The “I need the class to graduate” choice: This case is particularly interesting to study from a psychological point of view, especially if the specimen is a senior (like my roommate, but this is completely fictional and absolutely not inspired by her registration for an economy class). To make it simple, the student specimen has to take a specific class to graduate and is consequently particularly eager to take this class. He or she (or it) will do everything to get into the class (even take a Japanese swordsmanship class – which has nothing to do with it but I wanted to mention at least once that we have those at GW). You would thus think that this motivation will last but human beings are human beings so … no.

There is of course a last kind of choice: the “I am interested in this class” choice. Yet, it is overall pretty rare since, let’s be honest, we are all students in a private very expensive university.

Culture Shock: Shopping

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$300… That is the exact amount of money that I had in my pocket when I went to do my groceries the first day I came to the US. After getting everything that I needed, I was happy. I had done all my calculations. I bought the cheapest articles (but still good quality ones) and I was certain that I had to pay $292.69. This was perfect. I already had my metro ticket so paying the invoice amount was the only thing left. The best part was that I would still have a few dollars left, you know just in case…

$310.25… This is the amount of money that I ended up paying at the register. It would be legitimate of you to just assume that I forgot to include a couple of items’ price when I did my calculations. Well, I didn’t. You could say then that I simply am terrible in math. Well, that is not completely untrue but I swear I used my phone’s calculator when computing my expected invoice amount. So, what could be then? If you have shopped at least once in the US, you might already have guessed what happened by now, but for those who are still struggling to understand how something like this could have happen, let me tell you something. In the United States of America, the price does NOT include taxes. Not only prices are ridiculously high, but these same ridiculously high prices will even grow higher once the tax is included. You may think I am the one who is being ridiculous by making a big deal out of such a trivial thing. But, what if I told you that the most expensive bottle of water (1.5L) in Morocco costs 50 cents? What if I told you that the most delicious burger’s price cannot exceed $3? What if I told you that an hour cab ride from a city to another (60 Km of distance) costs $2.5? Do you still think that I am making a big deal out of trivial little things?

Life is… expensive. This is the biggest culture shock that I’ve experienced since I came to DC. Speaking English every day and being with people from a completely different culture (or should I say from a completely different world) were not a shock for me. I was prepared for it. However, I was not prepared for giving up drinking bottled water. Food is expensive, transportation is expensive…but oddly enough, clothes and shoes are cheap. What a paradox! How can someone afford to buy cheap clothes when the most necessary thing, food, is too expensive? The metro is supposed to be the cheapest mean of transportation. I had to pay $5 for a 5min ride between two close neighborhoods. How is that cheap? I can pay half the price to travel from a city to another in Morocco!

So, to sum up, not only life here is unbelievably expensive, but cashiers love it when they see your face right after realizing that you don’t have enough cash on you to pay the bill because you did not include the tax! The most logical explanation (for me) to this “do not include tax” phenomenon would be that Americans know how much things are expensive in here, so they don’t want to scare you off by showing you even higher prices by including the taxes. Actually, there is also a more logical explanation which involves talking about the laws of the United States of America but I really would have no idea about what I’m getting into.

Now, if you are still wondering how I made it out of the supermarket with all my most needed purchases, stop wondering. I did not pay $310 simply because I didn’t have that kind of cash on me. I was $10 short so I had to give up buying a pan and a couple packages of noodles. Giving up those items dragged the total amount of the bill down. I walked out of that store with a dollar and a few cents in my pocket, hoping that the “just in case” scenario that I was talking about earlier does not happen…

My first week in America

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China, Japan, Singapore, France and Taiwan are all countries that I had the chance to briefly visit this last week without even physically going there. I met people from all over the world, with so many different cultures and personalities. This is the reason that brought me here at the first place and I am glad to see that it is also the reason that brought many of the other exchange students. Last week, I kept going on and on about how this place is depressing when it is empty. Well, when it is full of people, it becomes a place when dreams might come true.

Now that I am not alone anymore, everything just seems brighter. Who knew that buying a prepaid phone card could be fun? It is not what I am doing here that makes this experience unique but the people that I am sharing those moments with. Taking the metro for the first time is supposed to be scary. For us, it was just fun! We knew that nothing could happen to us as long as we just stick to each other. Ice skating on the other hand was a complete new territory for me, and what was supposed to be a disaster became one of the best memories that I have. Why? Simply because not for a single second I was alone. There was always someone next to me grabbing my hand, keeping me from falling or helping me up without making a fool of myself. Are those people childhood friends? No. However, I know I can count on them. They are living the exact same experience that I am and they can feel how much sharing with one another is what makes this adventure an amazing one.

Does this mean that I don’t miss home anymore? Of course not! However, it means that I don’t want to leave this place without making the most out of this experience. Every day, I discover a new thing and step by step, DC becomes less of a mystery. I will never “fully” know DC, but when I will become familiar with most of it, I will be able to finally say that I am ready to go back home. The unknown must become known and I need to be brave enough to go beyond my limits and do what I have never been able to do out of fear.

A week ago, I was afraid of going to sleep because I was cold, alone and completely terrified. Today, going to bed has become one of my favorite parts of the day. The coziness of the bed, the warmth of my blanket and the comfort of my pillow are things that I look forward to meeting again after a long day of shopping and touring. I start thinking of the room that am currently occupying as “mine”, and not just some random room on George Washington University’s campus. I am starting to get used to my new habits and this means that I am not scared anymore. Having something constant in my life that I can rely on is what keeps me from losing my mind. In Washington DC, I am lucky enough to have two things that are constant: my room and my incredible new friends.

I don’t quite know how life at GWU is going to become once the courses will begin. Does it scare me? Yes! Does it terrify me? Absolutely not: I have my constants in my life that will always keep me balanced. Going to classes is also a new experience that we will get to share with one another and I can’t wait to start complaining about a crazy professor, a lazy teammate or talking about how great the new course that I added is. Then, waking up each morning to go to class will become a constant and new things, unknown scary things, will start popping up. All I will have left to do is deal with them one at a time. This is the beauty of life: you don’t have time to get bored. Having particular habits have a tendency to be reassuring; but when we decide to stick with the reassuring part of life, we end up missing out on the exciting one, the one that is the main ingredient for great memories…

Stuff I‘ve learned the hard way in the US (and some stuff that wasn‘t hard to learn)

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Americans love hidden costs

I’m sitting at the Denver airport writing this and looking back at the week of skiing I’ve enjoyed in Colorado, one thing is blatantly clear. Americans absolutely love hidden cost. I already suspected that this was the case, but only through my travels has it become this obvious.

In Iceland we don’t tip. It’s not because we are mean, vengeful people that take pleasure in the troubles of the underpaid working class (we do, of course, but for different reasons). No, in Iceland we actually just have the decency to pay employees appropriately so there’s no need for tipping. This means that going to a restaurant or whatever is a fantastically annoying experience for me. Especially since I’m usually going with people that each pay for themselves, so we invariably encounter problems when calculating each part in the sum.

Knowing that this is a school blog I’ll have to contain my vocabulary for this one, but it is absolutely unfathomably stupid that prices everywhere do not include tax. See, legislation should eventually benefit the buyer, not the corporate hell-machine. Now if we step back a bit and try to view this with unbiased eyes, who does this system really benefit? Is the buyer encouraged to spend less? No, of course not! It’s just yet another way of robbing buyers of their hard earned cash through the sleazy tactics of modern commercialism.

These are the basics but it certainly doesn’t stop there. Upon renting a car here in Colorado we were told we had to pay 200$ extra because we were under the age of 25. Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking that this is just common sense but I assure you, it’s not. Neither of us had ever rented a car and we’ve grown up in a country where posted prices are final. If some company had done this to me in Iceland, believe me, all hell would have broken loose. I actually checked the fine print when I rented the car and not once did it warn us of this ludicrous addition to the price, in fact we first heard of it when we were in the office of the car rental in Denver, Colorado. At that point there’s nothing to do, really, but suck it up and pay the 200$. The whole trip was basically a continuous string of these incidents. The lesson learned here is that I was naïve. Naïve to believe people wouldn’t screw me over. I know better now.

It‘s okay to talk smack about other companies in advertisements

I don’t really watch television so I don’t really care about this at all. Having spent a week in a hotel with a certified TV-addict, though, I saw my share of commercials and one thing surprised me. First of all the commercials could all be put into four different categories; diet and weight loss, drugs, taxes and erectile dysfunction.  I’m not sure what this says about the US nation, and I’m certainly not one to pass judgment. What did stick out though was that companies here see no problem in directly attacking the products of other companies; “I was taking this drug, but it doesn’t actually work so I switched to this drug and now I’m feeling great!” Again, not something that bothers me, it’s just weird for me because this is something that’s forbidden by law in Iceland.

Americans are unable to safely operate umbrellas

I’ve travelled quite a bit through the years and surprisingly enough, many of the places I’ve visited also have weather. This means that from time to time I’ve seen people whip out their umbrellas. Personally I don’t mind getting wet but I can certainly sympathize with those who want to keep dry. That is, if they know how to keep their damn umbrella out of my face. From London to Berlin, Copenhagen to Valencia, even in Reykjavik people know how to keep to the side, lift the umbrella when passing people and tilt it when meeting another umbrella-enthusiast. It’s a system that works, everyone is happy. In America this is not the case. It’s as if people view it as their God-given mission to take up as much space as physically possible with their umbrella. Walking in the middle of the street, pointy metal spikes in eyelevel, making sure to direct the raindrops at everyone around, it’s all cool. I’m not entirely sure what the cause of this reckless behavior is, but if Dr. Sigmund Freud has taught me anything it’s most likely penis envy. It’s always penis envy.

Everyone is caring (but most don‘t care)

This one is a bit different because it’s not really hurting anyone, it’s just a weird cultural tic. Whenever getting into a grocery store or a taxi or just about anywhere you’re always greeted with a “hi, how are you?” or something similar. Everyone seems so nice, all the foreigners notice it. The truth, though, is that no one actually cares about the answer. If I told my taxi driver that I wasn’t feeling to well he couldn’t care less. To my analytical European mind this seems redundant. I’m used to people asking me how I feel when they actually care about the answer. Having to reciprocate with this pseudo-courteousness all the time just feels weird and fake.

American plugs are not like European plugs

I knew this one but it still managed to sneak up on me. When preparing for arrival in the US I thought I had taken care of every detail, and yet when I finally got to my dorm room I came to the grim conclusion that I had forgotten to buy an adapter. My first night was spent in a dark room, staring blankly at the barren wall in front of me, with my plethora of dead electrical gadgets lying tauntingly in front of me. After frustratingly staring at my laptop for a couple of hours I realized that I was hungry as all hell, having been kept alive during the day only by the occasional, stale airport sandwich. I decided to venture outside but not knowing where to go to find food at 10:30 PM I ended up walking in circles. You know how people in snowstorms end up walking in circles when they’re lost, because one foot is stronger than the other? It was exactly like that, except not at all. Eventually I did find a 7-11 (ironically positioned very close to my dorm but not close at all to the circular path I had been pacing) and bought another stale sandwich.

Americans only know one thing about Iceland

As much as I try to convince myself that my English is infallible, people eventually pick up on my accent and ask me where I come from. When I tell them I’m Icelandic they invariably get overly enthusiastic and proceed to tell me the only thing they know about Iceland. The American school system is incredibly efficient in teaching students that The US of A is (obviously) the center of the Universe, but literally the only thing they tell students about Iceland, it seems, is the following: “Iceland is in fact green, whereas Greenland is actually icy. End of lesson.” In my mind this lesson is promptly followed by a timid girl in the back of the class going “U – S – A, USA, USA…” which then breaks out into a full blown, school wide, roaring USA-chant. I could be wrong though.

Everyone loves my name

Americans have a hard time pronouncing my name, which is entirely understandable. There are some weird letters in there, accent marks and other incomprehensible stuff. The sounds required to correctly pronounce my name is just not within the average oral capacity of Americans, so I just gave up on trying. Now whenever someone asks me for my name at Starbucks or whatever, I just tell them my name is Thor. It’s true enough. My name, Arnþór, literally means Eagle-Thor, so my roommates just started calling me Thor.

The love it! “Wow, dude, is your name seriously Thor? That’s so awesome, man. You’ve got the beard going and all!” That’s the typical reaction. I’m certainly not complaining about this one.