03 April 2007


Today at lunch, a guy I've seen in the cafeteria but don't know by name was next to me dishing up soup. He turned to me mid-ladle to ask how I liked the skiing in Selva back in February, because he'd seen me and some others coming out of a ski goods shop wearing the (really nice) jackets the company gave us that are emblazoned with an arm-logo. It's pretty incredible that even foreign vacations are Observed here, and somehow word always gets back to you.

The population here is small enough that whatever you did last week was not anonymous, whether it was a road trip or a night out at a bar. The network of relatives, friends, and co-workers somehow manages to spread across the globe, so wherever you go, you'll meet someone you know, or at least their cousin or former schoolmate. For people who grew up here, it means that the witnesses of their youthful indiscretions, the relationship that may not have worked out as they wanted, or a different version of their personality once attempted are all still around you. You'll have to figure out how to reconcile your past since it's going to be part of your future. Even those who move away are still remembered years after they left, since the rest of their family is here and the reports continue to filter back.

Anytime I meet a new person, a friend's already got stories lined up about how they went fishing with them four years ago, or how he's the friend of someone else's boyfriend, or they met in Scouts. Sometimes it's all three. I think in the past six months I have not met a single person here that doesn't have some filament of a story already woven through my own corner of the society.

There are advantages and disadvantages to a society like this. In the US, most people have several chances at total reinvention- going to university, moving to a new city, starting a different job. The chances that there will be people from your past in the new place are slim, so you can claim to be whomever you want, and nobody needs question what you say. Whatever pieces of your past you are unhappy with can be conveniently forgotten in favor of your newly invented self.

I'm told that there is a certain feeling of that for those who come from a small town in the north to come to Reykjavík, but there's still going to be some cousin or sainted aunt that remembers something about your mom or what have you. It seems that this makes some people feel a bit trapped at times, but it also makes people more forgiving of those moments when you might have slipped up. Had a festive evening with co-workers? Everyone will still be in on Monday morning and working away as if nothing happened. Saw that guy you shouldn't have had the evening with three years ago downtown? Smile and nod and move on.

I do feel that this gives a greater understanding for the complexities of being human, and the multifaceted nature of everyone. I've seen more sides to most of my friends and coworkers here than I ever knew about in the US. I know about their children, the pet turtles, met grandparents and stayed in the apartments belonging to unknown relatives.

Of course, incorrect stories do circulate and there is such a thing as a bad reputation, but for the most part there is a more forgiving approach to the things people do that aren't always the smartest. I do feel like it's made me really think about the implications of many decisions, you really have to own your actions and take personal responsiblity in a way that's not so necessary when living among many thousands of others who are moving in and out quickly.

It also means when someone needs help, it's much harder to brush it off as someone else's responsibility. Icelanders often seem very proud of their independence, and it can be no coincidence that the most internationally famous novel from Iceland is entitled Independent People, but I don't think we are so independent here. It seems to be almost impossible to be truly, completely alone here, for better or for worse. Someone's always looking out.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Like you say - the small population has it's advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, most relationships - professional or otherwise - are very informal. Most people chat to their bosses as they would old friends. Everyone calls everyone else by their first name (even the Prime Minister or the President) etc etc.
On the minus side, you're out of luck if you happen to value your privacy. Everything you say or do will come out eventually.
I myself tried to escape by living abroad for almost 4 years. But it was no use - people still seemed to follow my every move. I like to disappear into the crowd, but that is absolutely impossible here in Iceland, but gradually I've come to accept my nosy neighbors and annoying strangers that always want to know my grandmother's name and what town she came from!
In my opinion the advantages really do outweigh the disadvantages. But I don't think it's a coincidence that so many young people want to live abroad for a while.


sir said...

The advantages I'd say is that there's always someone looking out for you, for your best interest, that is if you're genuinly a good, kind person in Iceland. Finding nasty people is hard, but they do exist. Abroad disappearing into the crowd can be fantastic, but like today it can be a reminder of how sometimes it can be lonely too. Depending on how one looks at it. I ended up getting sick for days, finally dragged myself to see a doc, and then she advised me to go to the hospital which I did. During registrating, the big question always comes up. 'People to contact in case of emergencies'? It always throws me off, as my answer always ends up being none. Sad but reality though. Here yes indeed we disappear into this abyss of people and it's nice to be able to be anonymous. But it'd be nice to be able to give a name for emergencies.
Oh well, this is the choice I've made.
I do sometimes wonder if I'd be able to return to Iceland and be anonymous. I don't think so even though we're talking almost two decades.

ECS said...

Pétur: Thanks for the excellent comment. It's interesting to hear how it feels from the perspective of someone who grew up with it. It's similar to my childhood in some ways, since I did grow up in a small town but it's really different as a kid than it is as an adult. For the most part now, I do agree with you that the advantages are worth it, but sometimes I do just want to disappear into an anonymous crowd.

Sir: I think it's not so much nasty people as it is the entertainment of gossip that I find oppressive sometimes. But yes, the helping-hand aspect of this culture IS fantastic, and I owe my still being here almost entirely to that attribute. It's a great thing that I definitely didn't have when I lived in Boston.

sleepless said...

i can't have enough of your thoughts it seems. i keep on reading through your them with the same vigor that i had when i discovered books... it seems an exaggeration but its true.

fascinating to read about how this community goes on, something i could never envisage when i last visited it.