Part 2: The Naked Truth
When I began my search for Mexicans in Iceland, I was prepared to hear fantastic stories about cultural polarity. And that’s exactly what I got. From tiny Vopnafjörður we travel to the centre of it all, Reykjavík. This is the story of Rodrigo Aparicio, who found a second home in Iceland.
What does “exotic” mean? For many, Mexico—with its countless ecosystems, dialects, blue shores, sandy beaches, archaeological sites and colonial cities—fits the bill perfectly. To Mexicans, “exotic” is perhaps the type of place where you’ll experience midnight sun and the Northern Lights, where folks aren’t coy about the human body, where the famous “þetta reddast” mentality can make every worry vanish into thin air. To Mexicans, Iceland might be that exotic place.
“I began searching for volunteer programs around the world, and learned that I had to be younger than 30 to participate in most of them,” Rodrigo tells me. He says he considered Turkey for a while, but after a bit of research concluded Iceland was the safer alternative—plus, Iceland had it all. It was remote, safe and, above all, different.
And, it was completely alien, as the stereotypically must-achio’d Mexican would go on to discover. “I could only think, ‘Wow, this is nothing like Mexico at all!’ In fact, it’s the total opposite.’”
Rodrigo’s first trip to Iceland was a birthday gift from his mother. He then returned on the occasion of his 29th birthday. “My mom is my sponsor, she’s the person that I have to thank for getting to live this dream,” Rodrigo says with a grin. “One of my first jobs in Iceland was working at a tomato farm outside of Reykjavík, in Hveragerði,” he reminisces. But even though it was an incredible learning experience, Rodrigo has no plans of moving back to the countryside. “Everyone knew there was a Mexican in town. It was very bizarre. I don’t think Hveragerði had ever seen one. I loved living there, but to be honest, I’m a city person,” he relates from his cosy Reykjavík apartment.
How bare you?
Rodrigo’s hometown, Querétaro, is right by Mexico’s largest congregation of Catholic-conservatives. It thus stands to reason that one of his biggest challenges was getting used to Iceland’s liberal spirit. “When my mom and my sister first came to visit, we went to the supermarket and saw a man running in a Borat mankini, leaving little to the imagination. They were in a state of disbelief, no matter how many times I told them this was a rather normal sight,” Rodrigo recalls.
While mostly unfazed by the mankini incident, Rodrigo has experienced a fair bit of culture shock. “One of the hardest things for me was witnessing all the nudity on display. You don’t see that in Mexico,” he explains. “Querétaro is very conservative, we’re very religious. When I go to a swimming pool here, people feel strange about me not being comfortable with nakedness.”
As he ponders the local shower culture, Rodrigo goes on to share some observations regarding Icelanders’ grooming habits. “Apparently, they don’t like having anything down there. I really don’t know how or where they do it. Men, Oh God! They remove everything! But what I’ve seen is that because this is a very egalitarian society, if women remove it, men have to reciprocate. They say it’s a healthy choice, but I just think they do it so it looks bigger,” he confides. “If you stumble across someone who is hairy,” he continues, “you’ll identify them as foreigners right away. I think in general, men here have a very high respect for their bodies.”
Another thing that surprised Rodrigo was seeing women breastfeeding their children in public. “Many of them do it in restaurants, while engaged in conversation, surrounded by friends and strangers,” he shares. Rodrigo might be used to these sights by now, but they did make him uncomfortable at first. Indeed, according to a recent UNICEF study, Mexico is among the twenty countries with the highest incidence of non-breastfed children. Only four out of ten Mexican women will breastfeed their children, which, given that breast milk is basically free food, seems counterintuitive for a country heavily affected by poverty.
Bursting with pride
While discussing Mexico, Rodrigo’s face lights up, pride oozes from every pore and it is readily apparent that he didn’t leave the country in search of greener pastures. “I’m as Mexican as can be. I love Mexico. In fact, I always tell the same joke about how I can see Mexico from my window,” he explains while showing off the huge Mexican flag that adorns his bedroom’s skylight—an improvised curtain of sorts. “The other day, a friend came by to tell me there was a new Mexican in town. It turns out she had seen my flag! I told her I was the ‘new’ Mexican in town,” he continues. Apparently his pride has contagious capabilities. “Many neighbours started to adorn their houses with flags from their respective countries; I saw a family place an Icelandic flag, then I saw a Polish one, an African one, and so on. I’ve caused a flag-war!”
And while Rodrigo flaunts his colours in quaint Reykjavík, he never misses a chance to express his love for Mexico. “I keep telling people that Mexico is the best country in the world,” he says. But sometimes his sense of nationalism can be taken the wrong way. “In Europe, people tend to frown upon nationalistic behaviour. I guess, since the birth of Nazism and such extremist ideologies, people see this as something negative. But after I explain why I feel the way I feel, they understand.”
Iceland with a grain of salt
For Mexicans living in Iceland, one of the most painful challenges is being left out of Icelandic conversations. “Everybody here speaks English,” Rodrigo says, “but that doesn’t mean they like speaking in English.” While he understands that language has been one of the most fortifying strengths in terms of maintaining Icelandic culture, he doesn’t seem inclined to learn the language when he’s able to communicate perfectly in English.
Another big contrast between the countries is, of course, the food. “They eat a lot of meat, beef, pork, fish, seafood, horse, whale and lamb over here—and they’re addicted to sweets! They add liquorice to everything,” he says. There isn’t a single Mexican expat who doesn’t miss the food from his country and Rodrigo isn’t the exception. Just getting started on the topic makes his mouth water with a longing for some motherland delicacies. Rodrigo’s mom occasionally sends him care packages with Mexican junk food and candy. “The day I opened the bag of Churrumáis—a corn-based snack sprinkled with hot chilli and lime—I was elated. I only shared it with very special people. And they had never seen anything like it!” he says. The next best option, he claims, is the Mexican food at Santa Karamba. “I think it’s the best rice I’ve had in my life. The sauces they make, I really don’t know how they do it!”
Rodrigo tries hard to blend in with the locals, to the point of dressing like them. “People say I dress like an Icelander, perhaps it has to do with my haircut, the clothes I wear and where I live,” he says. According to Rodrigo, tourists are very easy to spot. “They’re the ones wearing tons of layers and hiking boots in the city,” he explains. Anyone could understand why he wishes to blend in. After all, who wants to be called a tourist? “I find that people here hate tourists. But I try to tell them that they’re the ones helping their economy.” And it is thanks to tourism that he can enjoy the luxury of living in Iceland. Rodrigo continues to describe a situation that is so out of control that local residents tend to avoid Laugavegur—the capital’s main shopping and entertainment strip—altogether during the months of July and August because it’s filled with, well, you know.
Rodrigo has plans to stay in Iceland a bit longer, and maybe commit to learning the language once and for all. It all depends on the job market. For the time being, the flag will continue to peep through his skylight, baring his love for Mexico—no pun intended.
No Mexicans were harmed in the writing of this article. Thank you, Rodrigo Aparicio for your valuable time. Muchas gracias! And special thanks to the Mexican Embassy in Denmark for helping me spread the word.