One of the things I love about being able to speak Icelandic is that it's given me access to the mysterious world of small talk, Iceland style. As you might expect, a lot of it is pretty much the same as it is anywhere else in the world. For example, a few weeks ago I was waiting for the bus and an elderly gentleman ambled up to wait at the same stop. During the few minutes we stood together, we discussed the changes in bus policy and how the mild weather was pleasant and would hopefully last until Christmas (naturally, it didn't). During the subsequent bus ride, I complimented a fellow passenger on her fabulous boots and she returned with an admiration for my red patent-leather pumps. Pretty standard.
It gets more interesting at certain places, like the downtown post office. This isn't the easiest post office to choose, since it requires paying for parking, but one woman behind the counter makes it worth the visit. She's apparently a legend in at Pósturinn according to a friend who works in another branch office, and it's easy to see why. First of all, she must be the fastest stamp-canceler in the West, but she's also perennially cheerful. Last time I was there, I was mailing packages containing Icelandic wool and slabs of suðusúkkulaði to friends in America, and as she weighed and stamped my packages we discussed the contents. I said that this pairing was popular for almost everyone in America, but when I was going to visit my parents, I had to include that classic Icelandic fish jerky, harðfiskur, in the mix since my mom's such a fan. "ahh yes", said she, "those are nammi* number one, two and three in life."
Interactions like this make me think about the reputation that Icelanders sometimes get of being unfriendly on tourist websites and in guidebooks. I've never really felt that way, and the more I can communicate on their level, the less I feel the reputation of unfriendliness is warranted. I always thought small talk and striking up conversations with people you don't really know was a typically American thing, but the more I see of this island, the more I realize that it's just the way humans are. Particularly when you're in these remote areas where people can be few and far between, those small conversations with an unusually charming gas station attendant, or over the merits of harðfiskur add a little sparkle of human connection to life.
*nammi is one of those fabulous Icelandic words that doesn't have an exact direct translation into English. It means candy most often, but also refers to any sort of yummy treat.