“We have an unceasing capacity to make ourselves nuisances, basically. Students of tourism science can and do construct elaborate theories from physics, of course, invoking such wizards as Heisenberg and the Hawthorne effect and the status of Schrödinger’s cat to explain the complex interactions between our status as tourist-observers and the changes we prompt in the peoples and places we go off to observe. But at its base is the simple fact that in so many instances, we simply behave abroad in manners we would never permit at home: we impose, we interfere, we condescend, we breach codes, we reveal secrets. And by doing so we leave behind much more than footfalls. We leave bruised feelings, bad taste, hurt, long memories.”
– Simon Winchester, “Leave Nothing, Take Nothing”
So it’s your first visit to Iceland. Welcome!
I’m sure you’ll have a great time here. And let me say that I, for one, love the fact that more and more people are visiting Iceland every year. This has allowed me to meet some really interesting people from parts of the world I would normally never encounter, and I find tourism a far better option for a capitalist economy than, say, banking or heavy industry. My experiences with tourists in Iceland have been, far and away, predominantly great.
I make that preface because there’s a few things I’d like to talk to you about, our new first-timer. I’d like you to consider the following, bearing in mind that not only do I have nothing against you personally, but also I’ve probably been guilty of these very same things when I’ve travelled abroad.
When traveling to another country, there is a tendency to develop a blind spot over the fact that we are in a place where people just like you are trying to live their lives. We’re on our own time when we travel for pleasure; we can go wherever and do whatever our budget allows, when we like, and don’t need to worry about social consequences that would be totally applicable at home. This freedom, I believe, creates a false sense of entitlement and impunity. Not necessarily in truly horrible behaviour (although that does happen) but rather, in small behaviours that we maybe hadn’t considered might be intrusive or demanding; little injuries that, when repeated over and over by tourist after tourist, can and do foster long-term resentment among the locals.
In other words, I’d like to address some of the more common misbehaviours tourists to Iceland can and do commit, even with the best of intentions and nothing but love in their hearts for our island.
You can’t travel without being able to lord it over everyone back home that you went somewhere they didn’t, and what more effective way to do that than through the magic of photography? Believe me, I know: I live behind Hallgrímskirkja, and I can walk up that hill, anytime day or night, and find a dozen or more people with their smart phones and selfie sticks, snapping away. And that’s cool. Not so cool is taking photos of kids, even with their parents, without at least asking first. I know you find that parent-and-child in a foreign country motif to be a compelling one, but not everyone is down with random strangers aiming cameras at them or their kids and snapping away, as if we’re just part of the scenery. Same goes for taking photos of the outside or interior of people’s homes. Yes, the little primary-coloured corrugated iron houses are adorable, but again, people live in them. How would you like to emerge from your kitchen, wearing only your underwear, scratching your butt as you eat a cold hot dog wrapped in a single slice of white bread, only to find a stranger with a camera aimed right in your living room because they thought your furniture was cute? Watch where you’re pointing that thing, and if you’re pointing at people, ask them first.
All of Iceland’s currency—every bill and every coin—has its monetary value clearly displayed numerically. I say this because, for some inexplicable reason, our money seems to confound people. Many times, you will find tourists in line at the grocery store or standing at a bar, staring at a pile of coins in their hands for a few dumbfounding moments before, exasperated, they push the pile at the cashier and declare they have no idea how much money they have. Come on now. The numbers are right there on the coins! You don’t even have to know how to count in Icelandic. But hey, at least you’re using the money. Some folks try to use euros, which is maybe not the best way to go in a country that is predominantly anti-EU—but worse still is trying to pay in dollars. I mean, I hate to break it to you, my fellow Americans, but the dollar has about as much regard as Coke Life these days. Use the local money—it’s got like, colours and art and women on it.
Asking for directions
Hey, we all get lost. Even in a city where you could trip over a free map of said city every three blocks or so, which you could walk across from end to end in like an hour, it still seems a lot of people lose their way and need to ask for directions. That’s ok. Not so ok: flagging down a city bus to ask for directions. This may come as a surprise, but people actually use these buses to get places they need to be, like work, school, or the kid’s day care. City buses are not tourist information booths on wheels. Just get a map, or ask a passing local which way to go. Trust me, they’ll be happy to help.
Don’t ask how or where to pick up local women.
You’d think this didn’t need to be said, but having worked in Icelandic bars, yes, yes it does. This kind of travel-for-conquest behaviour is repugnant. No matter how much you insist that you really love Iceland and just find the women beautiful, they are not hunting trophies for your exoticisation fetish. If you’re lonely and want to meet people, go to places where people are and, like… try to talk to them. Be friendly, respectful, and engaging. Just like you would back home.
Forget the stuff you can get back home and how cheap it is.
If you’re disappointed to find the grocery doesn’t have Miracle Whip or that the bar charges twice what you would pay for a Bud Light back home, why did you even travel in the first place? Stay home if you don’t want to go places where they don’t have your usual stuff for the usual price. No matter how disappointed you are, you know whose fault it is, right? Not the poor cashier, waitress or bartender who has to deal with your histrionics. Try some new things; you’re in a new country, why would you do otherwise?
That’s the tip of the iceberg, in the sense that these are the most visible of the regular misdemeanours. Again, tourists are predominantly awesome people, in my experience, but that blind spot can still be there. Just remember that you’re not in some big theme park, where the buildings, vehicles and people are just props that add to the ambience and interactive experience. Actual people live here, trying to live their actual lives. Get to know them. They’ll probably enjoy getting to know you, too.
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