Insanity comes in many forms. A sudden catastrophic event can turn an otherwise normal person into a drooling vegetable. Sometimes, it’s a slow and steady decline into complete, babbling, window-licking lunacy. If you’re lucky, you may be gifted with social oddities that leave you labelled “eccentric.” My insanity came on over this last week at the hands of the Icelandic immigration and customs departments.
In all fairness to this country’s majestic bureaucracy, I must admit that I didn’t help myself out by missing the first night of my Icelandic language courses. I arrived in the country just in time for night two of “Íslenska Fyrir Alla.” I found the ten other students in my class eagerly taking notes as our teacher explained, in Icelandic, how to identify the gender of a given word and then use it in a sentence. The eclectic mix of Vietnamese, Latvian, Armenian and American students responded confidently with flawless pronunciation. I was hit by a wave of indigestion.
The following morning, with family in tow, I went to immigration to get legal. I have been married to my Icelandic wife for eight years, so this seemed like it would be a pretty straightforward task. The building, unlike so many in Reykjavík, was well marked and easy to find at Skógarhlíð 6, in the shadow of The Pearl. The parking spaces were wide and plentiful. There was no line at the information counter. The girl behind the window looked young, energetic and attractive. I should have known I was doomed.
As I approached, my lovely liaison walked away and was replaced by a woman whose children, if they have any decency, will treat mourners to a closed casket at her funeral. She barked a curt, “Yes,” and I explained cautiously that I needed to apply for permanent residency and permission to work. Upon hearing my English, she turned to my wife and gave her a set of orders in Icelandic about how to complete the documents. On our way out my wife asked, “Did you catch that?”
“She said that you can’t work for three months.”
I got in the car and wrapped my seatbelt around my throat.
My next stop: customs. In the interest of protecting the names of the guilty, and in the hopes that I will one day get all of my belongings back, the people and the shipping company involved in this debacle shall remain nameless. Before leaving the States, I had sent our car, a camper, my small motorcycle and various household junk in a 40-foot container to Iceland. With what seemed like divine serendipity, the container arrived on Icelandic soil on the same day that I did. All I had to do was clear the paperwork through customs and go retrieve the stuff. No problem! One week, four visits to the office and roughly fifteen phone calls later, my mind, in what I can only describe as a sick defence mechanism, has since linked the mention of the word “customs” with the final scene in The Deer Hunter.
In all modern, “civilised” executions, the members of the firing squad are given rifles loaded with one bullet. Some of the bullets are live rounds, and some are blanks that look, feel and sound like the real thing. That way, everybody can leave with a clear conscience not knowing if they had been one of the executioners. What I will say about the Icelandic customs department is that there is one nice person who works there. Let’s leave it at that.
Yesterday it all began to be too much. I could feel my mind fluctuating between complete rage and serene apathy. Was it all worth it? I had a pretty good life in the States… To top it off, I had to act alert through three hours of Icelandic language courses. The windows started to look pretty tasty.
Then an odd thing happened. As I sat down next to my Polish classmate and looked around the room, I saw the look of expectation and hope in the eyes of my fellow immigrants. Perhaps they had been struggling with the same sort of hurdles, but here we all were, looking for a fresh start in this surprising, beautiful and sometimes frustrating new country. My teacher asked in Icelandic, “How are things?”
“Allt fínt. En þú?”