Square Meters of Water (VH)


Vala Hafstað's picture

August 3rd, I received a phone call asking if I’d be ready to work at Iceland Review for a month to cover for someone who was ill. So surprised was I that I almost dropped the phone. Lately, I’d been doing some translations and editing, in addition to writing poems and an occasional short story. Quickly, I responded that I didn’t feel ready, that I couldn’t jump in like that at the deep end. The voice on the other end explained it was only the shallow end, since this would only be for a month. “No,” I said, “I need some time to think about it, but do call others in the meantime, because I don’t think I can do this.” I hung up and called my brother. That’s what I always do when in doubt. He told me I was insane not to accept and insisted I call right back. So I did. The next day, I began working here.

Right away, I was told what would be expected of me, how many stories a day I needed to write, how I’d have to post photos, learn all about the computer system, post on Facebook and Twitter and answer emails. What surprised me was that nobody in the office seemed to be in danger of dying from stress, as I had always imagined every journalist’s problem to be. They all seemed exceptionally friendly.

A walk into the kitchen revealed a love at first sight: tall, lean and inviting, beckoning me to come and express my wishes, which would be instantly granted. I made four wishes that first day and four the next and couldn’t sleep a wink for two nights in a row. As tempting as my new love was, I reduced the number of wishes to two on day three. That, I realized, was the maximum number of latte portions I could tolerate in one day without losing sleep.

Quickly, I discovered that I loved writing the news. I looked them up in the Icelandic media, combined them, stirred them, added some humorous spices when appropriate, and then posted them. The first two weeks, my superiors were overly nervous, I could tell, because they realized I had a tendency to create headlines reminiscent of tabloids. But patiently, they allowed me to play with words and decided not to say a word (only lose some heartbeats and perspire profusely) when I wrote: “Iceland: Virgin or Prostitute?” “Cuts Lupine, Cuts Neck, but Lucky,” and “Iceland’s PM not the Hottest”—right in front of their eyes.

What caused me a headache were the technological difficulties of downloading photos, filing them into the system and finally posting them. Such things took me forever to learn, but my love of writing kept me going. Miraculously, I managed to pass the technological hurdles.

Then came all the mistakes: I messed up people’s job titles and thought I’d never learn the English version of every Icelandic institution. Thus, the simplest story would take me forever to write if it included a few job titles and the names of offices I never even knew existed. I was slow as a snail.

Things didn’t get better when I was told to write about sports. I asked my superiors to spare me the agony of writing about a subject I knew nothing about, but they showed no mercy. I was to write about football and label a number of photos with the names of players I had never seen before. That proved a daunting task. But at least I knew there were two halves in a football game, while writing about basketball, I had no clue how the game was divided up. Just in case, I kept my descriptions short.

And then came the flood in Skaftá, followed by a flood of complaints. I kept writing about record amounts of water, but failed to label them properly. In utter thoughtlessness, I used square meters where I meant to write cubic meters per second! That was too much for our readers to swallow. They posted corrections, surprisingly polite, and sent me emails. Water, they pointed out, is better measured in cubic meters than square ones. A year ago, I would have been too embarrassed to show up for work again. I would simply have handed in my resignation by phone. Now, for some reason, I decided this would make an interesting headline. Instead of resigning, I ensured our readers I had corrected the mistake and promised it wouldn’t happen again.

My inability to know east from west without thinking first about a map of Iceland and reminding myself that west is where the West Fjords are, has sometimes slowed me down considerably. Once, I made the mistake of telling you that Siglufjörður was in East Iceland. Not because I didn’t know better. I’ve been to Siglufjörður. No, I was writing about stowaways who came by ship, and in my mind, I was in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland, where most ships from abroad come to harbor—a town in the news lately because of narcotics hidden aboard the ferry Norræna.

Shortly before my failed water measurements, August had come to an end and I was ready to leave. I entered the boss’ office and said I’d not be coming back the next day. To my surprise, he told me that one of my superiors, whom I had not yet met, would be going on maternity leave in mid-October. Could I perhaps cover for her as well? This time, I didn’t have to call my brother. I knew the answer.

And here I still am, albeit not working as fast as I should be, but gradually gaining speed, and not yet dead from stress. I’m down to one cup of coffee a day from that irresistible machine. My favorite part of the news is still finding the right headline. I know that if I find a good one, you’re more likely to read the story. Sometimes I tease you by hiding the truth until the last line, but only if the story calls for it. You didn’t need to know right away that the stowaways in Siglufjörður were bats or the fired police force member a dog. You found out eventually.

I think newspapers often have a tendency to be dull. That’s why I see it as my duty to apply spices whenever I can. The hottest spice I know is humor, so that’s what I’ll keep using. Luckily, the office I work in is full of it, and even though some of my coworkers keep the window wide open all day, causing me shivers, it’s still the warmest place in which I could imagine working. I’m delighted I jumped in.

Vala Hafstad―[email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.