18 September 2007

the restless natives

A few months ago a friend and reader, partly in jest (I think) commented that I never say much in a positive light about the people who inhabit this island, just the landscape and the scenery. Since then I've been thinking about why exactly this is. First of all I am still interested in preserving some level of anonymity (not sure how effective this is for the Icelandic readership) so getting super specific about people I know would likely make that impossible. Second of all, the time I am most likely to think about things to write is when I am alone, contemplating some lonely expanse of landscape and making mental notes as to where this experience differs or compares to the years Before Iceland.
And finally, I am reluctant to go all sweeping generalization on the people I've met and gotten to know in the past two years. Still, it's thanks to all these people that I am still here, living the foreign land life that is not fun or perhaps even possible without the people that have helped me navigate through all the complexities.
There's the endless funnel of advice I've gotten on all the little things that make up the infrastructure of life- translating the Icelandic tax-form terminology, knowing what kind of salary range to ask for, understanding the health care system, the housing, the leasing, the visa process, cooking a Christmas ham properly, even the instructions on the all-Icelandic washing machine at the last apartment. It's a lot of life-bits to have to learn all over again, and these guides have been the difference between thinking giving up was the easiest answer and soldiering on in the face of words that are 20 letters long.
There are the rides I've gotten on so many mornings, so many frigid afternoons or late evenings that have made it possible to avoid the miserably inefficient bus system, and the trips I've been invited on as the spare rider. It's the chance to borrow a car when a friend comes to visit, a detail that made the difference between a pleasant visit and an amazing, memorable trip.
It's the people who have opened their houses to me and to my family and friends, the ones with the advice about places to visit, secret hot springs, and how it just might be possible to get an extra portion of the alcohol allotment past the guys in the airport. Some people say that people here are rather rude because they're not all napkins snapped into the lap, doors opened for the ladies, and holding coats. I say that after a shared cab ride from the edge of the world through Kópavogur and finally to Reykjavík, when you're the last out of the cab and find that the guy that got out just before you paid so much he covered your share and left you with 500 krónur extra, that's real chivalry.
There are quite a few foreigners who live here for the sake of the landscape, the air & water, the social benefits, and really don't care much for the locals, but I have to say I'm not one of them. Sure, some of the features of Icelandic society are still befuddling or a bit unappealing to my more straitlaced New England mentality, but for the most part I am overwhelmingly grateful to all the people who have made my life here so varied, so interesting, and so much easier than it would have otherwise been.


tsduff said...

The Icelanders themselves are as much a part of the beauty of their country as the lava, hotsprings and crashing surf. Their language is lovely to listen to, and they are friendly and warm. Thanks yet again, for your eloquent description of them.

Professor Batty said...

In my very limited experience I have also found the people that I've interacted with in Iceland have been helpful and direct, I once had coffee with an Icelandic blogger and it was as if we'd just resumed a conversation, instead of meeting for the first time. And that's not counting "hot-pot" conversations or that night I spent with the three nurses in Kaffí Nauthóll! tsduff is right when he says the language is lovely to listen to- the two National Theatre productions I have attended have been high points of my life...

And thanks again for your wonderful posts over the last few years, they are really appreciated...

Kris Lewis said...

I suppose that you could say that perhaps it's the small differences that may tend to make those foreign to the island think that Icelanders are cold or snobbish?? Personally, IMHO, I believe that it's just because those of us from the US tend toward immediate gregariousness (and in many cases are downright OBNOXIOUS). It may take a little time to get to know an Icelander well, but once a friend they're friends for life. I'm lucky enough to claim a small handfull in my circle of close friends and thankful for that fact. My only regret is that we don't get back to Island often enough to visit. (It had been more than 3 years before we managed to sneak in a few days in May). Thank God for Skype and care packages :) There have been more than a few packages containing Little Debbie cakes, Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls and Pops and candy corn that have made their slow way across the Atlantic to be reciprocated with Sudusukkaladi, Lakkris and Ekt Gott !!!!

I envy you every time I have one of my "anywhere but here" moments and consider running away from home for a break. Takk Fyrir og Bless!!

Northern musings said...

That was just so beautifully written, I am so glad that your experience of Icelanders and Iceland is so positive. I must admit that I like the fact that Icelanders are a little aloof, that is does take a while to get to know them - because eventually they will be friends for life. While at the same time, if they meet you "on the run" and have the opportunity to show hospitality they will - because deep down we do believe in karma and that what goes around - comes around

ECS said...

tsduff: you're welcome! You're definitely a die-hard Iceland fan :)

Batty: I'm glad to not be the only one with this perspective on the people here. I think that no matter how great the landscape is in a place, people really make the difference.

Kris: Some people have said it's language awkwardness that makes Icelanders seem unfriendly, some have said it's the still relative newness of having lots of foreign visitors peeking in on the culture, some say it's the farmer/fisherman mentality that makes Icelanders more comfortable inside their heads rather than all chat-you-up friendly. Don't know what it is.

However, I do have to say I was kind of charmed by the supersuper friendly ways of the Americans I interacted with in Boston. I'd forgotten how it was and I was enchanted by all the "hi! howareya?"s I got in stores, even if they weren't 100% for real curious about how I was.

northern musings: Seems like you're a fellow Iceland-dwelling foreigner, judging from your blog. I hope it's more than just Icelanders who believe in Karma!

Anonymous said...

Please tell me you're at least thinking about getting your work published to a wider audience. This post was especially fantastic, E.
My husband and I found very little to dislike about Iceland (the abundance of highly trecherous dirt roads in the Western Fjords being one of them) and it truly lived up to my dreams and then some. The people were exactly as I like them: private, honest, and polite, and their language is truly a thing of beauty.
I'm really missing Iceland lately. Do you realize, E, that it was over a year ago that we met?

-Sarah :O)

ECS said...

sarah: I know I am adding this comment super late but I wanted to let you know that a few weeks ago I was thinking about you! I was rollerblading home (at night along the sea path) and I saw a great northern lights show! I wished it had been like that last year when you were here.

Anonymous said...

Here's hoping for a better show next time we're there... Sorry this autumn hasn't been as pleasant for you. If it makes you feel any better, I have yet to see a turned tree out here, and next week I'll be in Phoenix where it's supposed to be 98 and, as always, nothing but brown as far as the eye can see.
We are, however, bringing our Iceland pics with us, so that should help to ease the ocular boredom a bit!

-Sarah :O)