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Here Don’t Be Dragons!

Here Don’t Be Dragons!

karen Pease
Words by

Published March 19, 2012

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. :)


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One Day in October (During Master’s Month)

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 On the occasion of the last day of October, known by some as “Master’s Month,” blogger Charlie Marlowe recounts his mostly futile attempts to become a master.  October 07, 2014: The day before yesterday, in honour of the glorious tradition of Master’s Month*, I decided that I would take the necessary pains to acquire a slew of new and useful habits—habits that would put me on the road to becoming a more successful, a more likeable, and altogether more estimable version of myself. A better me, in effect; a better better me. Having made this decision, I set my alarm clock

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Brotherly Love

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My brother is a fourteen-carat, stone cold wanker. At age twelve he spoke fluent French, at fourteen he was the fastest 100-metre runner in Ireland for his age, at eighteen, he captained our school choir and won a scholarship to university for academic excellence, by nineteen he spoke fluent mandarin. My name’s Tom and I’m his older brother. Yesterday I started putting raisins into my porridge. Raisins contain polyphenolic phytonutrients that can improve your ability to see in the dark, and in Iceland around this time of year I reckon that it’s a shrewd bit of thinking. But society wouldn’t notice.

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Lost In Mucous

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The first time I heard it, I did what all good girls do and politely ignored it. The second time, I shot him a look of disgust. By the third time, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I felt like I was going to be sick. I cast a crazed eye around the room, but to my shock nobody else seemed bothered by the fact that a certain member of the Grapevine team, let’s call him Bill (because we have a Bob), has a penchant for sniffling and snorting large globules of mucous down the back of his throat. HAD HIS MOTHER

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Audiomilk And Book Mafias

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In short: Only the privileged few A large number of Icelandic books are available as audio books at the audio books library. Available, in this case, however, means available to those who need them rather than those who would merely enjoy them. The audio book library is publicly funded and to some extent exempt from copyright restrictions, to serve blind and dyslexic audiences. Last week saw a mild debate involving non-blind and non-dyslexic readers who would nonetheless like to be able to buy these audio editions; the manager of the library who explained how absolutely nonsensical and futile not to

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Accidental Iceland

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I don’t have the sharpest social skills but I know when someone is making a joke at my expense. My travel agent was clearly making a joke at my expense: “I know you won’t fly through Heathrow or JFK and I know you will ‘never get on another Delta plane as long as you live,’ but of course you want the cheapest fare possible. The cheapest roundtrip ticket from New York to London is Icelandair with a slight layover in Reykjavík.” I had several pertinent questions for my travel agent and she answered with an exaggerated patience that made me

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You’re Wet, And You’re Cold, And You’re Miserable

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You’ve just come in for the day. Your clothes are strewn across the radiator. Your anorak is hanging in the bathroom. It’s creating a giant puddle on the floor. Oh, and you’ve just stepped in it with your last pair of dry socks. It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s gray. It’s late October in Reykjavík. You’re kicking yourself for not choosing to visit during the summer, but as some Pollyanna told you, at least this way you’re getting the authentic Icelandic experience. Well, you should know that it wouldn’t have made much difference if you had come during the summer. It

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