Christmas in Reykjavík

Iceland’s Christmas Monsters

Iceland's Christmas Monsters

Most people have heard of Santa’s more terrifying European counterparts, like the Austrian Krampus or the French Père Fouettard, but did you know that Iceland has its own cast of winter monsters?

Modern Iceland is one of the few European countries whose residents still believe (to some extent) in the existence of elves and fairies, known as the Huldufólk. (I heard a great explanation for the continued belief while traveling in Ireland, where certain trees are still considered “fairy trees” that should never be touched: the fairies might not be real, but my grandfather and his grandfather and his grandfather never touched that tree stump, so why risk it?)  And wouldn’t life feel more magical and mysterious if we all believed that there were still creatures out there that we didn’t know much about?

In Iceland, this continued belief even goes so far as to alter building projects and road work, since the Huldufólk don’t like people to encroach on their land.  But their presence in modern Icelandic culture is one of the things that makes this isolated country so unique and beautiful.

In particular, several of these beings relate to the Christmas season, so what better time to learn about them?

GrýlaGrýla is a giantess from the Prose Edda, the 13th-century compilation of Icelandic mythology and legends written by Snorri Sturluson and one of our main surviving sources of Old Norse.  Over time, Grýla became associated with the Christmas season, when she finds misbehaving children and turns them into stew.  She is also the mother of the 13 Jólasveinarnir, or Yule Lads.

The Jólasveinarnir are usually depicted as more innocent mischief-makers, Actors portraying the Yule Ladsalthough in some early legends they kidnapped children just like their mother.  Today, though, children leave out an empty shoe for the 13 days before Christmas; if they had been well-behaved, they would receive a small present or candy from one troll each night.

Grýla also owns  Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, a huge black cat that also likes to eat people.  One Icelandic tradition is that anyone who finishes all of their work for the year receives a new piece of clothing to wear on Christmas; the lazy people who didn’t finish in time and had to wear their old clothes would then be eaten by Jólakötturinn.  A 1987 song based on Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem tells the legend of Jólakötturinn (see the video below).

Iceland’s rich tradition of folklore includes many other fascinating characters.  I’d love to learn more about other Christmas legends; can any of them compete with Grýla gruesome family?

Daigoji in Winter

Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan

Given the relatively low number of Christians and European immigrants in Japan, it may be surprising that the country has its own thriving Christmas traditions.  Although Christmas doesn’t have the same religious connotation as it does in other countries, it is quite a popular holiday in modern Japan.

Traditionally Styled NengajoChristmas falls right in between several other national holidays in Japan, namely the current emperor’s birthday (天皇誕生日, Tennō tanjōbi) on December 23 and New Year’s (正月, Shōgatsu), which spans December 31-January 4 and is arguably the most important holiday of the year.  The end of the year in Japan traditionally involves gift exchanges and time with family, as well as a letter called a nengajō (年賀状) similar to a family Christmas card in the US.  Therefore, it was very easy to incorporate some Christmas themes into the traditional Japanese end-of-year celebrations.

Roppongi Christmas Lights: staples of the season like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and holiday lights are popular in Japan.  However, Christmas Eve receives far more attention in Japan: it’s a romantic holiday like Valentine’s Day in America, where couples spend time together, stroll through the decorated public light displays, and have dinner at a fancy restaurant.

Japanese Christmas CakeChristmas Day in Japan famously involves Kentucky Fried Chicken, thanks to a 1974 marketing campaign advertising “Kentucky for Christmas!”  Also popular is Christmas Cake, a strawberry sponge cake known around the world because of its inclusion on the Apple emoji keyboard 🍰.

Overall, Christmas in Japan is one aspect of the festive end-of-year season rather than the major holiday celebrated abroad.  Nevertheless, Japan has a thriving and unique set of holiday traditions not too different from what we see in the US and Europe.



Where Did You Go, Austria?

Where Did You Go, Austria?

Recently there’s been a lot of noise about the decline of the US as a world superpower. We aren’t really #1 in anything anymore, except for the average cost of healthcare. And while I may not be a political science major, and I tend to look on the bright side of life instead of obsessing about such large-scale issues, I would like to say: yeah, our membership in the Big Important Countries Club might be coming to an end.

For those people who think that such a dramatic decline would be impossible: may I direct your attention to a tiny country in Europe called Austria.

Size Comparison

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame or flare of countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK. When I told people about my study abroad plans, many people only had a vague idea where Austria. Some even thought I was going to Australia.

Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people. Back in the US, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people! The map above shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.

dissolution_of_austria-hungaryAnd yet, Austria had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago. I like numbers a lot, so let me lay some important ones out here: Austria’s Habsburg Monarchy ruled largely uninterrupted from 1521-1918. In the 1800s, the Austrian Empire had the third largest population out of any empire in the world, after Russia and France, and the second largest geographic empire after Russia.

So what happened? How did one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world shrink to a background country the size of Pennsylvania?

What happened was World War I. Even though we mostly study Germany’s involvement and how it led to World War II, it was the assassination of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that instigated the war. (For my favorite comedic 2-minute refresher on the causes of WWI, watch this video: Frightful First World War Causes of WW1) As a result, the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

And in the century since then, Austria has largely faded from the geographic and political scene. It’s often only mentioned in passing—usually in the context of the aforementioned assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Maria Theresa’s reformations in the 1700s, or The Sound of Music. That’s a far cry from being one of the most powerful and important countries in all of Europe.

Yes, WWI caused an unprecedented amount of political upheaval in a very short amount of time. No, I’m not saying that the US will be dissolved into 50 independent states in a similarly short amount of time. But Austria really did lose that Big Important Countries Club membership card; in less than a decade, what’s to say that the US won’t as well?


Amy Eats Weird Food!

Amy Eats Weird Food!

Why, yes. Yes I do eat weird food. It makes life interesting; my motto has long been “I’ll try at least one bite of anything.” (Unless it is still moving. In which case, no. Not going there yet.)

As I have mentioned before, I am an adventurous person both in my travel experiences and in my everyday life. One really easy way to be more adventurous at home is to eat new foods–and I’m not talking about just having a strawberry smoothie instead of a banana one. No, it’s time to be weird!

I am lucky in that living in Colorado, I have easy access to a wide variety of unusual foods: my family grills bison burgers as often as beef, and it’s easy to find elk, venison, and quail at the supermarket. I’ve even had prickly-pear juice and rattlesnake (although just at a restaurant, not at our family friends’ house, where they catch the snakes on their property and then keep them in a cage until dinnertime!).

But traveling or living abroad provides a wonderful variety of weird foods, many of which you can’t find in the US! Here are the five weirdest foods I’ve eaten abroad (in no particular order):

fish-in-a-leafFish in a Leaf: quite simply, I ate fish and plantains out of a banana leaf while visiting the Embera tribe in Panama. This traditional food was cooked over a fire and then served; while not as shocking as some of my other food adventures, the phrase “fish in a leaf!” has become a joking catch-all phrase in my family for unusual or unique food.

squid-on-a-stickSquid on a Stick: thankfully labeled with a small “ready to eat” sign, since I didn’t know how to tell if it was raw or not. I did eat raw fish while in Japan, but in general I prefer my seafood to be cooked. It was a surprisingly great street-food snack!

I had another experience where a raw fish was served at a breakfast buffet, but I thought it was already cooked. This lead to a rather mortifying exchange with the hotel employee trying to explain, at my basic Japanese level, that it needed to be cooked on a small table-top stove and therefore should not be on the same plate as my scrambled eggs. Lesson learned.

Another side note: the picture at the very top of this article is me eating dried squid, which is sold in convenience stores in snack-sized packages just like Doritos in the US. It was… an experience.

Photo credit to paulinealacreme.comHaggis: made, as I had to confirm before I ate it, of sheep organs, onion, and oatmeal, and traditionally encased in the sheep’s stomach. A lovely description, I know, but it tasted surprisingly… normal. Like any other meat pastry. But with so many more interesting reactions than other pastries 😀

ginger-rice“Ginger” Rice: which seemed tasty and neutral, especially compared to my first experience with sashimi (hint: raw fish tastes better if you dip it in the provided sauce instead of just… eating it). Then I looked at my rice bowl a bit more closely, and discovered that the rice was full of tiny fish that still had their eyes. And it is extremely rude in Japan to not eat everything you have been served, so… Yeah, finishing that was a bit tough.

black-puddingBlack Pudding: which you can’t actually make in the US, since it is illegal to buy or sell blood here! Yes, black pudding is made with blood. So is blood sausage, both of which I ate on my recent trip to England and Ireland, and both of which are actually delicious. As was the lamb liver that my black pudding came with. Who knew? 😀

Eating weird food is an easy way to be adventurous in my everyday life, plus I’m always finding new things I never would have guessed I enjoy. And even if it doesn’t turn out to be my favorite dish, I always enjoy seeing my friends’ reactions to my culinary forays!

Thoughts Against the “Cultural Appropriation” Craze

I have a question about political correctness, specifically the current hypersensitivity to cultural appropriation. This issue has been bothering me for a long time, so I would appreciate honest feedback and opinions.Amy in Dirndl

In 2013 I studied abroad in Germany. Partway through my program, I told my host family I was interested in buying a dirndl, a traditional Bavarian dress. They were somewhat surprised but happy to take me to several shops and help me try them on; all the women in the stores were excited to help me, and they loved that I was looking for an authentic dirndl as opposed to a cheap costume.

I absolutely love the history and culture present in clothing like this, as well as the idea that even today you can just go into a shop and buy something with so much tradition. America doesn’t have anything like that. I rarely have a chance to wear my dirndl, but I’m still glad that I bought it because it’s so much fun to have.

So far so good, right? No problems yet?

(If there are, I’m sorry. It’s going to get worse.)

Then in 2016 I studied abroad in Japan. One of the program activities was to attend the Gion Matsuri, a huge festival in Kyoto. As a gift, we each received a yukata (a summer kimono) to wear to the festival and then to take home. This was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the entire program. I could hardly breathe because of how tight the obi was, and I had to take uncomfortably small steps, but I loved every minute of it. I felt beautiful, and again, there was so much culture and history in the clothing. It was amazing.

The only reactions I received were positive ones. People gave me compliments, loved the way I tried to imitate a traditional hairstyle (even with pretty short hair), and smiled at how excited I was. Locals kept asking to take pictures of me because foreigners so rarely take part in these festivals, much less properly wear a yukata.


And now let me ask you: was this me being an insensitive racist? Was I appropriating Japanese culture? I clearly don’t have a single drop of Japanese blood in my veins. I wasn’t born or raised in Japan. And yet I put on a yukata. I went to a festival in it. I posted pictures of myself wearing it on my Facebook page.


Well, let me tell you.

There is a very important difference between racism or cultural appropriation, and participative celebration of a culture. It’s all about intent: are you trying to make fun of something foreign to you, or are you excited about it and looking to take part in it?

This idea has been completely obscured recently. Everywhere I look, people are getting offended, pointing fingers, screaming about the insensitivity of the horrible white people stomping other cultures into the dirt. (It’s usually white people. If you’re going to get mad about something I say in this post, please don’t nitpick that detail. That’s not the point.)

And sometimes that’s true. Sometimes people are racist, insensitive, wrong. But—this is the important part—not always. Am I supposed to stay only within the confines of my own ethnic culture, and never explore or celebrate other ones? Me wearing a dirndl is fine, because I am ethnically German. But is the fact that my family only comes from Ireland and Germany supposed to limit me from ever taking part in other cultures?

Here’s another example. Anyone who has met me knows that I braid my hair almost every day, and I have for years. Braids are perfect for everything. You could wear them, say, while performing at a medieval fair. Or to be a classy student representative at the UN, or while hiking on Mt. Vesuvius, or even while touring Kyoto in sweltering summer humidity.

Gratuitous Selfie Braid Collage

But today, I found out that *gasp* I’m apparently a terrible, terrible person for braiding my hair like that. Because in terms of technique, there’s no difference between a Dutch braid and a cornrow. And I’m not black. Ergo I am not allowed to wear cornrows, ergo I’m not allowed to braid my hair this way, and doing so is an insult to black cultures all over the world. RIGHT???

Amy getting braidsExcept, why can’t I? When I was little and we went on vacations, one of my favorite things was to get my hair braided into—hold on now—cornrows. I remember sitting on this beach, when I was six years old, while this nice local lady braided my hair as tight as she could. I remember needing to hold my head really still during it, which was hard because it hurt to have my hair pulled so tight. But for a few weeks after that I had a fabulous set of braids, usually with a headband made of beads. I loved them. Nobody ever said that I was being culturally insensitive. So what if my skin isn’t the same color as the lady who did it? Why should that matter? She knew how to do an awesome hairstyle that I liked. My mom didn’t know how, so it was something I could only have when we went on vacation. End of story.

And yet a simple Google search of “cultural appropriation” will pull up an insane number of articles saying that any white person wearing cornrows, or other traditionally non-white hairstyles or clothing, is systematically oppressing ethnic minorities, shaming their cultures, capitalizing on their traditions, etc, etc. I’m not exaggerating here; this is what a 30-second search pulls up:


To summarize those “horrible, oppressive crimes”: a woman wore a dress, another woman said she’s changing her musical style yet again, and a teenager wore braids. An artist’s show was cancelled because her work looked “too indigenous.” A man sold a really expensive jacket. Realize also that those articles were all written in the past 10 days; that’s how much finger-pointing is going on right now.

How far does the mentality of “sorry, this is a club for our ethnicity only” stretch? I guess I’m not allowed to study Japanese either. Or Russian, or French, or Arabic, or Swahili, because I’m just an Irish-German-American girl. Maybe my claim on the German language is too thin as well—after all, I was raised American. How dare I presume to take ANY of those languages for my own use. Maybe that dirndl was going too far, too.

I sincerely hope everyone agrees that this is ridiculous.

We live in an increasingly international, interconnected world. An unavoidable and welcome side effect of that is that cultures will start to mix, whether through fashion, food, or language. The only way to NOT experience this would be to build a wall around each country in the world and prevent all contact with the outside, and to also ensure that everyone inside each wall acts only in a way that is deemed purely, acceptably “traditional.”

One country’s doing that right now. It’s called North Korea, and nobody is suggesting that we use them as a model for our own regulation of culture.

If our ultimate goal is to create a world full of mutual respect for and appreciation of all cultures, why the current backlash against people who incorporate pieces of other cultures into their own lives? Against actually living a part of those cultures because they admire them? Do we really want to turn culture into something in a glass case for everyone to admire but no one to touch? That just doesn’t make sense.

The mixing of cultures is something that we should celebrate, not get up in arms about. If I want to wear a yukata, then as long as I’m not using it to mock Japan, that should be fine. Same with braiding my hair or speaking German or adopting whatever aspects of foreign cultures I admire and want to emulate in a respectful, conscious way. That’s what it means to live in a global society.

And if I’m wrong, if everything I’ve said here is horribly offensive and behind the times and I actually need to stay within the confines of my own culture all the time from now on, I guess I’ve got two clothing options:


That’s right. Athleisure/flannel/baseball cap, or the American flag head-to-toe. Shown here, fittingly, while I was literally on a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, although bald eagles posing majestically in the background would be an appropriate accessory as well.

What a fantastic fashion statement that will be.

Venetian Canal, 2015

The Evolution of Travel Photography

The Evolution of Travel Photography

Everyone who travels abroad today documents their experiences with cameras. Whether you carry a professional DSLR camera, a tripod, and four extra lenses or rely on a conveniently pocket-sized iPhone, photographs are a universal component of modern travel.

What’s interesting is the way that the subject matter evolves as you become a more experienced traveler. Initially, we focus on pictures of ourselves, visually saying, “Look at me! I’m here!”

Me in Puerto Rico, 2003
Me in Puerto Rico, 2003

As we become more sophisticated travelers, the focus become less egocentric and instead focuses on just the things that we see.  We use our photographs to say, “Look at the cool stuff I saw!”

Costa Rica, 2011
Costa Rica, 2011

Finally, mature photographers focus more on the people that truly reflect the experience of being in a foreign country, striving to capture the foreign experience and convey it to others rather than to simply brag about the trip.

Venetian Locals, 2015
Venetian Locals, 2015
Photo Credit to William Valdes

Global Careers

Global Careers

No matter what major or career I settle on in the long run, I am determined to continue emphasizing multinational work and foreign languages.  I hope to live abroad after I graduate, both on a Fulbright research scholarship to work on my Masters degree and to simply experience life as a local resident in a foreign country.  I am therefore extremely interested in career options that would have either enough flexibility for me to move abroad, or that would have such a vital international component that I could justify such moves as “required for my work.”

In order to adjust to life in new countries, the experiences that Global Engagement provides me with will be vital, from learning foreign languages—something that I am extremely passionate about to begin with—to breaking down cultural barriers, to adapting to life in new places.  Having emphasized these qualities in Global Engagement throughout my college career, I will be far more prepared to live, study, and work abroad than other graduates who are inexperienced with traveling to and learning about other countries and cultures.

Careers today emphasize and require more international work than ever before, although some fields excel in cooperating while others continue to remain focused on competition.  If I remain in aerospace engineering, I hope to work towards a truly international, collaborative space program.  Modern space programs maintain the “us against them” mentality of the Cold War’s space race.  In order to successfully progress into space, we need to move beyond this aggressive model and work together.  In this way, my goals of learning languages and living abroad will mesh extremely well with my career path.

Photo by Andrew Wilkinson

Peter Singer: Maximizing Impact

Peter Singer: Maximizing Impact

Peter Singer’s arguments raise interesting questions about the intrinsic obligation to help those in need.  On one hand, his anecdotal examples are compelling and memorable, and I do believe in his message that we should not ignore those in need just because they are living in far off countries; on the other, he focuses too much the guilt that the wealthy should feel for having the fortune to be born in a developed, Western nation rather than in poverty.

The graphics he includes in his TED Talk do pack a powerful emotional punch: in particular, the visual representation of how much money is required to raise and train a seeing eye dog versus to provide treatment to cure certain varieties of blindness in developing countries was shocking and impactful.  But Singer’s methodology rigidly focuses on the effectiveness of various charities as the sole measure of whether they deserve donors’ support, ignoring the emotional component of donation.  This narrow-mindedness is both ignorant and unnecessary.

In the case of a person who decides to donate time and money to assisting blind people, Singer argues that donors should only donate to effective charities, since they will then impact the most people.  However, isn’t it enough for a person to feel passionate enough about a cause that they will willingly donate their time and money to it?  If a person chooses not to donate to charities for whatever reason, but is passionate about raising and training seeing eye dogs, why should their contributions be ignored or belittled as being “ineffective”?  Certainly, the $40,000 that Singer cites as necessary to train the dog and the recipient ultimately only had an impact on one person; but that $40,000 was donated nonetheless.  Someone was suffering, and someone else sacrificed their own time and resources to help—just as Singer advocates.

In reality, not everyone is willing or able to donate such a large sum of money or an intensive amount of time; most donations will be relatively small sums of time and money that, when added together, can have a significant impact on the recipients.  In these instances, donating to a charity that will maximize the use of your time and money is a worthy goal.  But for those people who are willing to give up thousands of dollars and years of their lives for a positive cause that they are passionate about, I don’t believe that the by-the-numbers evaluation of effectiveness that Singer prescribes is a viable examination of how we should donate.