As legend has it, Iceland has served as a cold, unpredictable haven for adventurous, outcast or outlawed Vikings since the good ol’ 800s. Every now and again, a portion of the population would get swept away, because of the weather, because of a plague, because of a volcanic eruption or, perhaps, because of a smallpox outbreak. Nevertheless, as the legend also has it, those who remained are the fierce and lucky ones. That’s legend for you.
These days, people from all over the world for some reason voluntarily flock to this barren rock on the edge of the North Atlantic—to live, study, work and find new opportunities. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE, AND WHY ARE THEY HERE? This is a good question, we thought. So, we met up with six foreign master’s students at the Reykjavík University, all of whom at some point decided to leave their pleasant, cosy, non-volcanic homes to try and learn something… here.
ALL IN FOR ICELAND
Marvin Kißmer, 23, Germany
So, Marvin… Why Iceland?
I heard about the country for the first time when I was sixteen years old. After that, I looked up everything about it. I saw this guy on television trying to learn Icelandic in one week, so I started studying it too, just from books. I didn’t do that for very long—and when I came here for the first time last year, I couldn’t believe how different the language sounded from what I had thought!
What else did you experience when you first got here?
I came here to first work at a farm, took up Icelandic again, and when my work was done I decided I want to stay here and study. I was lucky enough to get into Reykjavík University because not only can I pursue my master’s degree in a field of my interests but can also live somewhere I feel most at home right now.
How is your life different now compared to Germany?
I’ve learned some new life skills here, like driving a tractor and gathering sheep. These are great experiences for a city kid to acquire! Furthermore, never before have I driven in a horrible snowstorm on a narrow road, looking out the side windows so as not to drive off. Other than those circumstances, the weather is actually perfect for me. I’d rather freeze than be warm.
How did you feel on the plane here, moving to Reykjavík?
Saying goodbye to family and friends for an undetermined amount of time was a little sad, but on the plane I got all excited. I knew that Iceland couldn’t disappoint me.
And it didn’t.
This is my country, my place to be.
IT STARTED AS A JOKE
Jannika Lövendahl, 25, Sweden, and Wilhelm Öhman, 26, Finland
A Swedish woman and a Finnish guy come to Iceland to study—why?
Jannika: One day when Wille came home from work, I asked him: “How about going to study in Iceland?” We both laughed. Then the joke turned into applications, and the applications turned into acceptance letters…
Wilhelm: We were nervous because we applied for different Nordic schools that we knew were good and just hoped we’d get accepted to the same one. Then Reykjavík University sent us letters that we had both gotten in.
Are there any differences between Iceland and those Nordic countries you hail from?
W: At least it doesn’t feel that expensive coming from another Nordic country. Some things are even cheaper here. But you can get surprised how things can be easier, or more difficult. For instance, finding an apartment was hard. At the same time, we found work by just walking into a restaurant.
J: The fact that you can just walk down to the ocean and see mount Esja and look up and see the Northern lights is amazing. And the friendliness of the people is wonderful! Our landlord just handed us his bike when he heard we were looking for one. Maybe that’s the island culture?
How does it feel, as a couple, making such a big life change?
W: We work, study, and live in the same places, so we have to make sure we have our own time, too. We work different shifts at the same restaurant, and study in different groups.
Jannika: We don’t want to be that couple that does everything together, so we don’t even sit in class together. On the other hand, it’s easier to make a home wherever we are together, which is good because we love to travel. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people back home who ask us, when are we coming home…
…We are always home.
BACK TO THE ROOTS
Liv Vestergaard, 24, Denmark
You are one-quarter Icelandic. Was this a long-term plan of yours, coming to Iceland to study?
No. I was actually going to spend six months in New Zealand, and then go back to Copenhagen to do my master’s. But, life took some unexpected turns—and here I am!
My grandmother was Icelandic, and I’ve been coming here for many years. It’s like a second home to me. Still, I’ve sort of always felt like a fake tourist—now I’m trying to actually live here and not feel like a phony.
What did it feel like, moving here?
Exciting. A bit scary, too. I came here last winter, which apparently was the worst one in ages. That’s why decided I couldn’t stay here permanently. Surviving the long dark winters is not for everyone. Icelanders are made of something different.
Has anything surprised you, now that you live here?
There are more differences than I thought. I recognize a lot of non-Scandinavian influence now: people want bigger cars than their neighbours, and the girls want to be prettier than the next girl. It’s different from back home, because in Denmark we have the Janteloven, “The Law of Jante.” It’s basically a common mindset that dictates that you shouldn’t try to be better than others, that you shouldn’t outshine anyone. However, the Icelanders also have a very entrepreneurial spirit—they make things happen.
What’s the most extreme thing about Iceland?
Oh my god the traffic! Iceland is the Italy of the north. I’ll be a much worse driver when I go back to Denmark. But getting into the traffic is totally worth it, because even though you drive through the same scenery here many times, it’s always different. There’s more or less water in the waterfalls, it looks different when it’s sunny or cloudy, you see a part of a glacier you hadn’t seen before… Iceland is wonderful and you never get sick of seeing it again and again.