You cannot find authentic Mexican food in Reykjavík. I’ve tried. It’s something I know. More importantly, it’s something I feel. I knew this the second a fellow ex-pat, who used to work in a now closed Mexican restaurant in the city, told me how Icelanders feel about refried beans. “They don’t understand them,” he said. “They find them unappetizing.”
Again, I found this to be true one night having dinner with my Icelandic roommate and his friend. He made chilli that night, and I grabbed a can of Kostur refried beans from the cupboard and added them into the already bean-y mixture to dull the overwhelming spice. I forked the beans out of the can, and they landed with a dull “plop” into the mix. I stirred them around. The two Icelanders looked at me as if I had murdered an elf.
It always strikes me how foreign influences only seem to make it halfway to this tiny island nation adrift in the middle of the Atlantic. At every Bónus grocery store, for example, there is a shelf stocked full of tortillas, chips, salsa, and Mexican seasonings, but no beans. There are kidney beans, but those don’t even come close to the real deal. A taste for Mexican food, albeit maybe a very Westernized Mexican food, certainly didn’t quite make it all the way here.
The more I look, the more I find many things didn’t quite make it all the way here. Iceland seems to be a land of in between, a land of halfway there. At times it feels like an oddly Americanised Europe, and then proudly Nordic at others. An Icelandic professor once told me that many things said about Icelanders are both true and contradictory at the same time, and I see what he means now. Icelanders are defiant in their indefiniteness—call it an Icelandic identity crisis of sorts. So much of Iceland reminds me of home, but not quite home. Té og Kaffi isn’t Starbucks. Mál og Menning isn’t Barnes & Noble. Mexican isn’t… well, Mexican food.
But then again, that’s not the point. These places, however eerily similar, aren’t American, and who is to say they’re even trying to be? This little island, with its mix of Danish and Nordic roots and unique language, is what I came here for. Iceland has made an impression on me, both for what it has and what it doesn’t have. As much as I notice Icelandic culture borrowing from elsewhere—a little something from here and a little something from there—I notice the ways in which it is also completely and wholly unique.
I’m leaving Iceland in two weeks, and as my carefully calculated 90-day stay comes to a close, I’m going to be exceedingly sad to leave. Ultimately, for everything that frustrates me about Iceland, there is something else that makes up for it. There are no beans here, but I think I am okay with that.