We fell in love with Iceland on our recent July visit. The landscape is stunningly beautiful in the summer with its Icelandic horses roaming wild, rocky fjords, thermal spas and colourful houses. Would I live there? No. A month of warmish sunshine in the year would not cut it for me. I would spiral into seasonal affective disorder faster than you can say Seydisjjordur.
I noticed though that we kept being served by American waiters in Iceland. Clearly some people really did emigrate to Iceland in search of Nordic lovers and socialist utopia. Just in case you are tempted by an outdoorsy life in a small town masquerading as a country, I would like to share some tips on how to be Icelandic with you.
How To Be Icelandic in 60 Minutes
I would suggest that you start off with an overview of what to expect with the fabulous comedy show How To Be Iceland in 60 Minutes at the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. A one man comedy with Bjarni Haukur Porsson, he relies on physical comedy (perfect for children) and multi-media for laughs. Porsson had a lot of fun with the Icelandic language in particular.
The Icelandic language has a lot of peculiarities. For example, the words are long with a minimal of vowels. Somehow it always sounds much shorter than what you see written on paper. You also need to speak Icelandic without much of an inflection, i.e., in a flat, monotone voice. Or, as Porsson says ‘talk like you are dead’.
Apparently cute little kids are greeted by adults with this phrase (and it’s direct translation). My kids thought it was hysterically funny.
I have zero knowledge of the Icelandic language so I will leave that to the experts. I’ve heard repeatedly that Icelandic is considered one of the hardest languages in the world to learn thanks to its convoluted vocabulary and grammar. So, good luck to you.
8 More Tips on How To Be Icelandic
Just from a general observation of Icelandic life though, I’d like to add some non-language tips of my own.
1. Be practical with a dash of romance.
Believe in fairies, trolls and elves. According to a University of Iceland survey, over 80% of Icelanders refused to deny the existence of magical creatures. But, only less than 10% were prepared to go out on a limb and say magical creatures definitely existed. So, everyone else was hedging their bets.
2. Be respectful of nature.
At any time, Mother Nature can go from being pretty to one mean mofo. People in Iceland are aware of this thin line between normal life and catastrophe. For example, the entire island is divided in half by the two tectonic plates that make up Europe and North America. These tectonic plates drift apart a couple of centimetres ever year.
Slightly more time-sensitive, a volcano can erupt at any time. Iceland has 35 active volcanoes and 10 of these volcanoes are classified as very active. For example, Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most infamous volcano, erupts on average once a century.
3. Be prepared to drink. A lot.
The Icelanders really like to drink. You got to appreciate any country that has Beer Day (March 1st) which celebrates the end of prohibition on the brewing of beer in 1989. They love their beer so much that they even have a Beer School run by one of the local breweries.
This interesting article from the Reyjkavik Grapevine looks at why people in Iceland prefer to drink themselves silly as opposed to other countries that enjoy sipping a glass of vino as part of a social gathering. Apparently for a long time, it was socially acceptable for Icelandic men to drink themselves into oblivion and get into fights. For some reason, this type of social life reminds me of the caricature of Viking life portrayed in the movies, How To Tame Your Dragon.
4. Embrace New Christmas Traditions
At Christmas, Icelanders don’t have a jolly old fat man in a red suit married to a Mrs. Claus (equally warm and fuzzy) with a lot of happy little elf helpers. No, they have Gryla, an ogress with 13 children (the Yule Lads). Every Christmas Gryla goes searching for children who have misbehaved to be boiled alive. Slightly less gruesome, the Yule Boys leave sweets and candy every night starting 13 nights before Christmas. And, then there is the Christmas Cat. If you don’t get new clothes at Christmas, the Chirstmas cat will eat you. A nice family pet for Gryla and her brood.
We weren’t in Iceland for Christmas obviously. But we did get to drink their Christmas Ale which can now be drunk all year round. Christmas Ale is a half and half combination of a malt drink that is combined with Appelsin (an Icelandic orange soda). My children loved Appelsin (it’s very similar to Fanta) but hated the Christmas Ale combo.
5. Be an adventurous eater.
Be prepared to eat random things. Check out this article from a guide to Iceland which proudly lists their most disgusting foods, everything from dried fish to sheeps’ heads to soured rams’ testicles.
On the other hand, we have had some fabulous meals in Iceland. Reyjkavik is quite the foodie destination from the world-famous hot dogs at Boejarins Beztu Pylzur stand at the Reyjkavik waterfront to New Nordic cuisine in posh restaurants. Apparently 70% of Icelanders have eaten a hot dog at the Boejarins stand. It’s reputation for premier hot dog quality was sealed by a visit from former US president Bill Clinton post-heart surgery.
6. Be prepared to like licorice.
I feel you either love liquorice or you hate it. I personally find the stuff vile. Icelanders, on the other hand, seem to have an obsession with the stuff. You find it everywhere – mixed with chocolate, added to salt, mixed with alcohol etc. It’s hard pressed to find a sweet in the candy aisle that doesn’t have licorice.
7. Don’t beat around the bush.
Icelanders are very direct in their speech. Porsson, the comedian described it as being rude. I don’t think it is necessarily rude, but just very direct. It is pretty much the opposite of some countries (ahem! England) where things are couched in a certain way so that you don’t even know what people actually mean.
I’ll give one example from my life that I had ‘translated’ by my English husband.
The headmistress at my kid’s school was retiring. I asked a teacher (the headmistress’s daughter and right hand person) if she would take over for her mother since she’d clearly been undergoing training to do so. Her actual response to me is below, and I’ve imagined her response in either the USA or Iceland.
England: I could never do as good a job as my mother did. (I took that to mean no but my husband said that was very much a ‘yes’).
USA: I’m considering the options.
Being direct in your speech isn’t such a bad thing in my opinion. At least you don’t get lost in the nuances of an answer.
8. Get Used to Hipsters
When I was in Reyjkavik, I had the odd feeling that I could be in a college town in the pacific Northwest of the United States. Practically every man had a luxuriant beard. Everyone drank gourmet coffee. A lot of the people in the city did not actually seem older than 30. So be prepared to show up on Icelandic shores with an open mind and to like artisanal food, vintage clothes and anything/everything liberal.
Woo Hoo! Iceland is for me!
Think you can do all of the above? And, live for months on end in a harsh winter without any real sunshine? Iceland may be the perfect country for you. You can thank me later, but please, no Icelandic food baskets.
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