The Anthropocene Reviewed

Icelandic Hot Dog Stand and Signing Your Name 250,000 Times

Episode Summary

John Green reviews an Icelandic hot dog stand and the act of signing your name 250,000 times in a four-month period.

Episode Notes

John Green reviews an Icelandic hot dog stand and the act of signing your name 250,000 times in a four-month period. 

The Anthropocene Reviewed book is out now! The San Francisco Chronicle called it the perfect book for "whenever you need a reminder of what it is to feel small and human in the best possible way."

Order a copy online or at your local bookstore:

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Episode art by Nadim Silverman.

Episode Transcription

Hello, and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast--and as of today also a book--where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing an Icelandic hot dog stand and the act of signing your name 250,000 times in a five-month period. 

Speaking of which, signed copies of The Anthropocene Reviewed book are available in the U.S. and Canada, and also maybe in other places. There’s an audiobook as well, narrated by me. And there is an e-book, if you prefer your reading screenbased and searchable. My podcast hero Anna Sale of Death, Sex and Money said of the book, “The Anthropocene Reviewed somehow satisfies all the contradictory demands I have for a book right now: it stimulates my brain while getting me out of my head while taking me to faraway places while grounding me in the wonders of my everyday,” which is incredibly kind and exactly what I hoped the book would be, so. Thanks for reading, and I hope you like it.

Alright, let’s turn our attention to Iceland.

In the summer of 2008, my wife Sarah and I traveled to Europe with another couple, our friends Laura and Ryan. I like Laura and Ryan a lot, but one thing you need to know is that they are the sort of people who really try to suck the marrow out of life and make the most of their brief flicker of consciousness and all that stuff. This is very different from my style of traveling, wherein I spend most of the day psyching myself up to do one thing—visit a museum, perhaps—and the rest of the day recovering from the only event on my itinerary.

The trip took us from Denmark to Sweden and then on to Iceland, a small and mostly rocky island nation in the North Atlantic that attracts tourists primarily by offering free stopovers to anyone who flies Iceland’s national airline, Icelandair. I was interested in visiting Iceland partly because I have a longstanding fascination with tiny nations, and partly because my publisher, Julie-Strauss Gabel, had told me she loved this one hot dog stand in Iceland called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.

The trips to Sweden and Denmark had been lovely: There were smorgasbords and museums, but the highlight had been an evening spent with Ryan’s Swedish relatives, who lived on the shores of some vast lake in the Swedish wilderness. They welcomed us to their home and proceeded to get us blisteringly, unprecedentedly drunk on Sweden’s national liquor, brännvin. I do not often drink to excess, because I have an intense fear of hangovers, but I made an exception that evening. Ryan’s relatives taught us Swedish drinking songs, and they taught us how to eat pickled herring, and my glass kept getting filled with brännvin until at last the eighty-year-old patriarch of the family stood up and spoke his first English words of the evening: “UND NOW VEE SAUNA!”

So we got in the sauna, and then after a while Sarah and I stepped outside and walked knee-deep into the lake. The eighty-year-old patriarch whose name was I think Lasse joined us, and he was standing there completely nude, next to the ridiculously modest Americans in their bathing suits. And then Lasse clapped me on the back in what was intended to be a firm gesture of camaraderie. Unprepared for the strength of his embrace, I fell face first into the lake. I was uninjured but my glasses were thoroughly and irreparably scratched from an encounter with the rocks in the lakebed. The next morning I woke up reminded that my abject fear of hangovers is fully warranted, and also unable to see much on account of the gouged glasses.

Two days later, we arrived just after dawn in Reykjavík, Iceland’s largest and really only city. I was still hungover, which for me always means a sour churning in the left side of my abdomen combined with a general desire to dissolve into the landscape. This is the real crux of a hangover for me—alcohol consumption increases my vulnerability to despair. I understood that it was only the hangover talking, but the hangover does talk rather loudly.

Hangovers also make me quite sensitive to light, which would’ve been a problem except that it was a hideously gray morning when we landed in Reykjavík, not just overcast but misty--one of those days where you realize that “sky” is just another human construct, that the sky starts wherever ground ends. 

We took a taxi from the airport, and the cab driver was listening to some kind of Icelandic talk radio that was turned up entirely too loud, and I was squeezed between Sarah and Laura in the backseat. As we entered the city, I was struck mostly by its eerie silence. There was not a single person out on the streets, even though the weather wasn’t that bad. It was a Friday in summer, and I had imagined a small city where people walked all day to the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker or whatever. Instead, the town was utterly still.

About four blocks from our hotel, the cab driver said, “This is good.” He stopped and asked us to pay him. We expressed an interest in his driving us all the way to our hotel, but he said, “No, it is too much. It is too much, what do you say, too much stress.”

From my perspective, it didn’t seem that stressful to drive on these empty streets, but whatever, I’m not an expert in Icelandic driving. So we got out of the cab and began wheeling our suitcases down a wide, abandoned sidewalk in central Reykjavík. What I remember most is the sound of our suitcase wheels on the sidewalk’s stone tiles, the noise overwhelming amid such silence.

And then, from nowhere and everywhere, simultaneously, came a shout followed by a groan. The entire city, hidden somewhere inside the buildings all around us, seemed to have made the exact same noise at the exact same moment.

“That was weird,” Ryan said, and we began speculating on why the city was locked down. Maybe there’d been some kind of weather threat that tourists weren’t made aware of. Maybe it was a national indoor holiday.

“Maybe,” Laura said, “it’s what that guy was listening to on the radio?”

And at that moment, the city’s silence burst apart. A tremendous roar erupted all around us and people poured out of every doorway—out of homes and stores and bars, and into the streets. They were screaming in exaltation, all of them, yelling, “YYYAAAAAAAAAA!” Many of them had their faces painted in the colors of the Icelandic flag, and quite a lot of them were openly weeping. A tall fellow around my age picked me up and held me up to the sky like I was in Simba in The Lion King and then embraced me as he wept. Someone draped a scarf around Ryan’s neck.

“What the hell is happening?” Sarah asked, with her trademark precision.

Beers were handed around. We took some. The initial chaos of screaming soon organized itself into song, songs that were apparently very emotional, because everyone except for us was crying. Some people had to sit down on the curb in order to sob properly. The crowd continued to swell. There are 120,000 people in Reykjavík, and they were all on the streets, all seemingly on this street. Making it to our hotel was an impossibility now. We were in the throng, amidst some great wave of human experience, and all we could hope for was to hold on to our suitcases. As one song ended and everyone began to shout again, I decided to try it myself. I lifted my unopened can of beer into the air and shouted “YAAAAAAA!” Although I did not know what we were celebrating, I felt exultant. I loved Iceland. I loved Reykjavík. I loved these people, whose tears and sweat smudged their red, white, and blue face paint.

Eventually, we were able to ascertain that Iceland had just secured its first-ever team Olympic medal, in the sport of men’s handball. I found myself wondering what event in my home country might lead to such shared celebrations. Cities celebrate when their teams win the World Series or the Super Bowl, but the only time I’d seen any public celebrations of a national event was 1999, when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team won the World Cup. I was living in the village of Moose Pass, Alaska, that summer, working at a cafe. My colleagues and I were watching the game on a tiny TV in the corner of the shop, and after Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty kick, I heard horns honking, and then a minute later, a single voice from somewhere in Moose Pass shouted, “FUCK YES AMERICA.”

I didn’t know much about men’s team handball, but I am willing to get excited about almost anything in sports, and by the time we got to the hotel a couple hours later, I considered myself a diehard fan of Icelandic Men’s Team Handball. I wanted to rest in the hotel and perhaps watch some highlights—the excitement of my beloved team winning an Olympic medal had exhausted me—but my compatriots insisted that we should go out and soak in some Icelandic culture.

The crowd had thinned considerably, and it was still early in the day, so we visited a museum where we learned that because the Icelandic language has changed so little over the centuries, their classic sagas read like contemporary literature. We saw the chess table where Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in 1972. We saw some waterfalls, and quite a lot of rain, which lashed at us from seemingly impossible angles, rendering umbrellas useless. 

When we returned to the hotel around six, sopping wet and bone cold, I begged my friends for a quiet night in. We’d done so much. Couldn’t we just order room service and watch some handball highlights and go to bed? But no. The marrow had to be sucked out of life, and so I reluctantly followed my wife and friends out into what would’ve been the evening, except that in summertime Reykjavík, the sun doesn’t set until after ten.

We walked to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, that hot dog stand Julie recommended, and stood in a surprisingly short line outside a small building decorated with an anthropomorphic frankfurter wearing a chef’s hat. I’d been told to order “one with everything,” and I did—a hot dog with remoulade, sweet mustard, and bits of fried onion. The hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur are famous—they are featured in travel guides and TV shows. This hot dog stand has been rated on a five-star scale by thousands of Google users, and like anything that has become exceedingly popular, there is widespread backlash. Many reviews point out that this is, after all, just a hot dog. “Nothing too special,” one wrote. “Not that good had better at a gas station,” reported a visitor named Doug.

Like Doug, I am often disappointed by much-hyped culinary experiences, partly because of the weight of expectation, and perhaps because I just don’t like food that much. And yet, I found the hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur not just worthy of the hype but, if anything, underappreciated. I don’t even particularly like hot dogs, but that hot dog was among the most joyous culinary experiences of my life.

A few months later, in the fall of 2008, an economic recession would sweep the globe, and Iceland would be among the nations hardest hit, with its currency declining in value by 35 percent. As the recession took hold and credit markets froze, experts said we were experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime economic contraction, although as it happened, the next once-in-a-lifetime economic contraction was only twelve years away. We should get out of the habit of saying that anything is once-in-a-lifetime. We should stop pretending that we have any idea how long a lifetime is, or what might happen in one.

And yet, I strongly suspect that our long day in Iceland really was once-in-a-lifetime. On the chilly summer day Iceland secured their first-ever team Olympics medal, I ate a hot dog while huddled with my friends. It was the greatest hot dog I have ever eaten. It cured my multi-day hangover and cleared the film from my eyes and sent me out into the Reykjavík twilight feeling the kind of close-to-the-chest joy that cannot last—but also doesn’t need to.

I give the hot dogs of Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur five stars.

After the break, some thoughts on signing your name 250,000 times. But first...


The first thing to know is that it’s gonna take a while. If you rush, you can maybe sign 700 sheets an hour, but you’re not a machine, which is one of the primary lessons of this endeavor. When you account for the time spent boxing and unboxing and sorting and stacking and whatnot, this will take a bit less than 500 hours. Plan accordingly. 

Here’s how it will work: You will hold a sharpie in your right hand. On your lap, a stack of papers known as tip-in sheets. You will sign a sheet, and then another, and then another. Once you’ve signed 3,000 sheets, you’ll use this extraordinary machine made in 1972 called a Lectrojog that bounces the papers around until they’re perfectly aligned. You’ll put the Lectrogged sheets into a box, and once you’ve filled 83 boxes, you will send them all to the printer in Virginia, where a machine will insert one signed sheet into each book as it is being bound, so that every copy of your book’s first printing is autographed. When you are finished with the signing, and carrying the boxes up from the basement, you will begin to wonder about the actual mass of this enterprise, and you’ll calculate that the 250,000 sheets in total weigh around 2,200 pounds. After learning this, it will become completely impossible to resist the urge to tell your spouse that you have signed a sheet ton.

But before you can make those terrible puns, you’ll need to do the actual signing. Hold the marker loosely. Remember what that physical therapist told you once: The sharpie is doing the work, not your hand. Keep your shoulder relaxed. Don’t hold tension in your neck. Occasionally, you’ll want to draw a spiral to mix up the motions your hand is making.

But the real question is not what your hand will do for these 500 hours but what your mind will do. What will you think about? Sometimes, you’ll listen to podcasts or an audiobook; you’ll make your way through Barbara Tuchmann’s history of 14th century Europe and Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. But much of the time, you won’t listen to anything. You’ll just sit there, signing as your thoughts wander about.

Sometimes, the hours will pass like the landscape passes on a road trip, and you’ll find yourself happily daydreaming about where each signature might go. Some will end up recycled. Some will end up in places you’ve been. Maybe this one, signed in your favorite sharpie color of Intergalactic Indigo, will end up on your old high school campus. Maybe another, signed in green with a spiral scrawled in the corner, will go to Ocala, Florida, where you saw Halley’s Comet with your dad in 1986. Most will travel to places you’ve never seen, and will never see. That’s a lovely thought--a book on adventures its author could never imagine. Someone told you once they read The Fault in Our Stars while sailing alone across the Atlantic, and only later did you think of what you wish you’d said in response: “Thanks for taking me on what will almost certainly be my only transatlantic sailing trip.”

Other times, you’ll struggle with your thoughts. With your hand cramping and deadlines looming, you’ll feel exhausted and frustrated. You have to sign every night, and every weekend, for months. This is ludicrous. This is literally Sisyphean. You will wonder why, exactly, you are signing your name 250,000 times. Is it merely a publicity stunt? If so, it’s not a particularly good one. Literally no media outlet has written about this absurd endeavor. 

Sometimes, you will think that the signing is an attempt to make people happy, to give them the little burst of joy you always feel when you come across a signed book. Other times, you’ll think that you’re doing it for yourself--to give your burnt-out, stress-drenched self something specific and measurable to do.

Of course, you’ll also think about the obvious psychologist-y explanation for this endeavor. You will remember being nine years old and winning a writing contest that meant you could attend the Florida Young Writers Conference of 1987. And you will remember that a very famous author whose books you loved was the special guest at that conference and that you stood in line with dogeared paperback copies of his books only to be told that the very famous author was only signing new hardcover books, which you didn’t have money to buy. You will remember how small and silly you felt holding those books you loved that the author himself didn’t seem to care that much about. 

In adulthood, an author yourself, you’ll realize that the Very Famous Author probably wasn’t nearly as wealthy as you thought he was, and you will understand how much pressure is placed on authors to sell their new books. But still, it is not hard to sign your name, and you vividly remember being that heart-sunk 9-year-old, and it is probably not a total coincidence that your first memory of authors was of not getting an autograph and now you sign your name quite a bit.

What else will you think about? Sometimes, you will think about the signatures themselves, the little imperfections you can’t seem to rid yourself of even after all this practice. Sometimes, you will think about how many sheets you have left in this box, and how many boxes you have left. 

But mostly you won’t think at all. On the other side of monotony lies a flow state, a way of being that is just being, a present tense that actually feels present. It’s the consolation and pleasure of driving alone at night, or getting lost in a story. You’re listening to the sharpie on the paper, and you are, and this is. 

What you really want to say with the signature is some kind of thanks. The bookmaking process has become so mechanized, so distant, that it’s easy to forget how extraordinarily intimate and personal a book is, how vulnerable it makes both reader and author. Because what you’re really asking of the reader is to allow their feelings and hopes and fears to commingle with yours. 

Kafka said that writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself, and it is, but writing is also an attempt to share what you find after descending into that cold abyss. When it works, both reader and writer--without ever meeting or knowing anything about each other--are less cold, less abysmal, and most of all less alone in the frigid depths of the self.

You are reminded of something Eudora Welty once wrote. “All serious daring starts from within.” Forget transatlantic crossings. This is proper adventure--reader and writer descending into the chasms, roped together like climbing partners. Sometimes, when you read, it feels as if the writer knows your secrets without you ever having to say them aloud. Similarly, writing can become a place where you talk about what you can’t talk about, where you seek form for the formless. How can you thank the reader for venturing into these depths with you? You can’t thank them properly, and so you sign your name over and over again, because it is the only thing you can think to do. 

As the sharpie loops around the J and scribbles out the rest, you think maybe the signing is most of all an attempt to acknowledge the connection that must be forged for any book to work. It’s not much, but here is a piece of paper that was touched by both reader and writer. Here is an attempt to say thank you. Knowing that someone is out there, wherever they are, has helped you to feel less alone in this loneliest time.

I give signing your name 250,000 times four stars. 

Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas. Hannis Brown mixes the show and makes the music. Niki Hua made the transcription possible. Thanks also to Sarah, who suggested a review of signing my name 250,000 times, and to Ryan and Laura. If you want to suggest a topic for review or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. I hope you enjoy the Anthropocene Reviewed book. Signed copies are available now. Thanks again for listening; we leave you today with the sound of me signing.