Back in the middle of last month, I was beset with a case of the January doldrums. This seems to be a common phenomenon in Iceland, a state of pervasive melancholy and lethargy that follows in the wake of Christmas (jól), a holiday whose traditions and celebrations begin sometime in early November and then energetically maintain a total and all-encompassing monopoly on the free time, food purchases (Christmas milk! Christmas beer! Christmas yogurt! Christmas herring!), and social engagements of everyone in the country until it comes to its final, climactic end on 6 January.
And then, of course, comes the hangover. The average number of daylight hours doesn’t creep up toward six until the month is almost over, so it’s basically dark when you get up in the morning, and dark again well before you go to bed. (It bears pointing out that this was true in December as well, but at that point, your sad state of Vitamin D withdrawal was somewhat tempered by the fact that it was Christmas.) In January, however, the weather pattern begins to swing queasily between frost and thaw on an almost daily basis, meaning that the once-beautiful snow morphs into ever-hardening, ever-slickening sheets of packed ice, so even if you don’t slip and crack a rib over the course of the month, it’s unlikely that you’ll make it to February without a grim array of purple bruises up and down your backside. January is all about returning: it’s back to work and back to school and back to the humdrum every day and no one is particularly amped about it.
In the midst of such malaise it’s natural, I think, to look for things to lighten the overall mood, and this is where Ostborgarasúpu, or Cheeseburger Soup, comes into play.
Yes, that’s Cheeseburger Soup, which on January 21, 2016 embarked upon its 15 minutes of fame as an experimental menu item served up in Háma, the University of Iceland’s student cafe, and ended them with local media coverage and its very own hashtag (#ostborgarasúpa, if you’re wondering).
Like many local events of note—art exhibitions, literary readings, public protests, the arrival of an important Íslandsvinur, or celebrity ‘friend of Iceland’—I found out about Cheeseburger Soup from Facebook. Pictures of an unidentified pot of pale and red-flecked nacho-cheese-hued liquid started popping up in my feed with a curious consistency until someone finally posted an article explaining all the kerfuffle. According to Vísir, an online news outlet, “Cheeseburger Soup Drove Everyone Wild at the University.” The article that followed was a brief interview with Eydís, a philosophy student/student council representative who, according to a photo caption, “was really into this soup.”
The arrival of the soup, advertised on chalkboards at the front of the cafeteria and also on the café’s online menu, drew the lunchtime hordes. “I think the most interesting thing about it,” Eydís remarked in the article, “is that the people at Háma discovered the power of social media...it got totally crazy at school. I have never seen so many people in Háma.”
Although Eydís didn’t think the soup really tasted like a cheeseburger—it was more like classic Icelandic kjötsúpa, or meat soup, she said—she did think it had a nice flavor. She seems to have been in a minority, though, judging at all from various social media reactions. “Top three list of the most unappetizing soups that I can think of,” wrote one Twitter user. “1. Kæfusúpa (Pate Soup) 2. Flatkökusúpa (Flat-Bread Soup) 3. Ostborgarasúpa (Cheeseburger Soup).” A number of others drew rather more colourful analogies, with one observer noting that he’d seen “similar puddles on Laugavegur [a main street in downtown Reykjavík] at 4am.” The Student Cellar, a pub located in the basement of the university, had a less disgusting, but possibly snider response, via Facebook: “Those who want a cheeseburger in soup-form can go to Háma. Those who want the traditional version can come to us.”
Suffice to say, however, it was a soup that got people talking—even non-Icelandic speakers and readers realised pretty quickly that something was afoot. “What’s going on?” one such student asked on Facebook. A translation/summary of the situation was quickly furnished: “Háma served cheeseburger soup, Icelanders make news.”
Before I go any further, I think it’s important to point out that while it’s true that this wacky (and ill-advised) intervention into the collegiate culinary scene “made the news,” it wasn’t like it was on the front page or anything. This was a short piece in the Lifestyle section and while it captured the hearts and minds (and stomachs) of the Icelandic internet for an hour or so, it wasn’t a topic that enjoyed any more longevity than your average cat video. But—beyond just the initial headline hilarity—the whole thing caught my attention because in a weird way, it seemed to very neatly encapsulate Icelanders’ relationship with social media, current events, and ‘the news’ in general.
Stepping back a bit, it should be noted that Iceland is a nation of news junkies. Reading through the daily papers, watching the morning and evening news, and then heatedly debating the contents is something of a national pastime. (It’s a fascination that extends to children, too: I run a pretty popular “Journalist Club” for seven and eight year olds at the after-school program where I work, in which the kids particularly enjoy interviewing their peers about their views on everything from snack time and activities to the importance of conserving paper.)
Public discourse in Iceland is active and interactive and tends to take place, in great part, on social media sites. It’s popularly held, for instance, that the ‘Pots and Pans Revolution’ of 2009 was able to gain traction (and remain largely peaceful) because of Facebook. More recently, Twitter and Facebook have been used as platforms for debating issues of gender equality and cyber-bullying, as well as to urge the government to accept more Syrian refugees than it had originally planned.
And although a passing fascination with Cheeseburgers-in-soup-form belies this fact, Icelanders also tend to be rather outward-looking in regard to current events. So once they get done perusing, deconstructing, and debating the news at home, they look abroad. For instance, my former landlady used to start her days listening to the news on the radio while reading the paper. Then, in the evening, she’d watch the Icelandic news broadcast, followed by a Danish news program, and then a third English-language broadcast for good measure. And when she wasn’t watching or reading or listening to the news, she’d try to engage me in debates about things like the imminent dissolution of the European Union (her view) or gun control in the US.
Although her interpretations were often somewhat unique, my landlady didn’t have an uncommon level of familiarity with international events and politics. Case in point: I have weekly conversations with coworkers and Icelandic friends about the ongoing American presidential primaries, conversations in which they are all, to a person, very well-informed. Even knowing what I do about Icelanders’ interest in international affairs, I still find this fact somewhat astonishing, considering that only a measly 27% of my own countrymen claim to be following the progress of their own presidential election “very closely.”
But what does this all have to do with Cheeseburger soup, you ask? This: Iceland’s appetite for news is still ravenous enough that no matter what important issues and events are happening both at home and abroad, there’s still a great deal of interest in what is happening not just in the country at a national level, but also right here, in this one particular corner of the city, at this very moment. I know that the immediacy of social media is such that this is increasingly true everywhere, but it seems particularly exaggerated here in Iceland because (and this isn’t a new revelation about the country, by any means) the distance between ‘news’ on your friend Sigga’s Facebook feed and the lifestyle section of a national publication is incredibly compressed.
And given that your typical ‘six degrees of separation’ is, in Iceland, more like two or three, news travels extremely fast here. So all news—be it news about a controversial bill in parliament or the scale in a local grocery store weighing things “a little heavy” or a woman in East Sussex, England who used a ton of gravel to block in a commuter who was using her driveway as his personal parking space—starts to feel local and personal. This phenomenon may foster a sense of familiarity that is not, in some (or many) cases, entirely accurate or “authentic,” but it does create a sense of being part of the world in a meaningful and interconnected way.
I find it interesting—though in no way surprising—that growing up in the US, an enormous country bordered by two other countries, my day-to-day experience felt, in many ways, rather island-like: isolated, self-contained, and separate from the rest of the world. And now, when I’m actually living on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, I feel closer to the rest of the world than ever before.
Larissa Kyzer is a writer and student of the Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. She currently lives in Reykjavík with her partner Mark and blogs about life and language-learning at ethandthorn.wordpress.com.