Here Don’t Be Dragons!

Starting a new life in Iceland
19.3.2012
Words by Karen Pease
As I write this from my apartment in Kópavogur, I realize I should start at the beginning. Every immigrant has a long tale, but I need to condense the background into a little 30-second snippet.

So here it goes: Growing up in the US, Iceland was this vague little dot on the map, something that might as well have been labelled “Here Be Dragons!” Every so often I'd hear something about Iceland in the news, and I would get excited about it, but I didn’t think very much about the country otherwise. However, after I fell in love with Sigur Rós and watched their documentary ‘Heima,’ I decided I had to go there. I started learning the language last spring and visited twice last summer, couchsurfing across the country. When I returned, I decided to do one of the craziest things that could have come to mind: attempt to move to Iceland and start a brand new life overseas. I translated my resume to Icelandic and dropped off perhaps four applications, thinking that there was no chance I'd actually get a job here. Unfortunately for Iceland, but fortunately for me, there’s been somewhat of a brain drain, especially for computer programmers with my skillset, due to the “kreppa.” I landed a job within just a couple of weeks.

Judging by comments that I see on Grapevine articles, I understand that I'm supposed to eventually become a Jaded Immigrant(TM). That is, I'm supposed to spend my time finding reasons to publicly gripe about Iceland and Icelanders. It'll be interesting to see how that evolves, because so far, every day I've spent in Iceland, I've just loved it more. Iceland is far from perfect and has its share of problems, to be sure. But from the snow on Esja to the use of kilojoules on food product labels (geek swoon!), from the geothermal hot water radiator beside my bed to the almost comically well-labelled streets and lights at intersections, from the unreal talent in the music scene to the carton of súrmjólk með hnettu og karamellu in my refrigerator, or the vast and often empty parking lots and trails that make you feel like they were built just for you. Well, I just love this country.

I once started making a list of the things I loved about Iceland and ended up giving up after a few hundred entries.
When I was shopping the other day to furnish my apartment, I picked up a small Icelandic flag. I took it inside and proceeded to hang it on the back of the wall of my closet, out of sight from everyone but me. To some extent, I'm hesitant to show it because, having come from the US, I have an uncomfortable association with flag waving and nationalism, and as an immigrant, I worry about being judged as naive or presumptuous for adopting someone else's symbol. But at the same time, I feel proud of my new country, and I especially want to have it for when I have to go back to the US to wait on my papers. Because I know it's going to feel like exile when it happens. I really don't like to think about it.

One of the stereotypes about this country is that it’s difficult to get to know Icelanders. Perhaps this is based on the fact that Icelanders don't generally feel the need to exchange niceties with strangers on the street, or perhaps because some people who come here don't really try. But I've had only the nicest interactions with people so far. One friend drove 45 minutes each way to Keflavík through a snowstorm to pick me up, has spent many hours helping me find stores to get what I need, loaned me a phone, a USB net dongle and let me stay in her apartment when she wasn't there so that I could use her computer. I had met her in person just once before I had arrived.

How is it that so many people from overseas seem to have a negative view of Icelanders, and even Icelanders often seem to denigrate themselves? I don't get it. Perhaps I'm just a naive “nýbúi” in for a surprise down the road; who knows?

Ever since I stepped off the plane, I feel like my brain is being twisted and tugged in all sorts of crazy remappings—learning stores, roads, products and, of course, Icelandic. With sufficient time and a dictionary for those random words I don't know, I generally do pretty well with written Icelandic. But when it comes to speaking, the first thing that goes out the window is the grammar. The next thing to go is the vocabulary. My brain just can't process things fast enough to handle it all yet. In time, I know, I should get better, but for now I sound like a bumbling fool. And the same goes for understanding when others talk. I make use of the voice recorder app on my phone so I can play back conversations and try to figure out what the other person said or to figure out where I screwed up.

At least I’m starting to master the rolled “r.”

Yes, I could just speak English. That would make things so easy. But I prohibit myself from doing that. I need to, and *want to* learn the language, so I must at least start out all conversations in Icelandic and, should they ever switch to English due to a lack of understanding, try to bring them back to Icelandic. The only exception I've allowed myself is for work, but I plan to try to close that "loophole" as soon as possible.

Anyway, that's life so far. Let's see what me from the future thinks of my decisions and current views a couple years from now. :)

Subscribe to daily news from Iceland



Most recent grapevine.is:



From our sponsors