Growing up in a quaint old village in Kent, England, my Icelandic Dad liked to tell me stories about a man from Suðureyri, (a small fishing village in the Westfjords of Iceland with a population of 312). He was mentally handicapped and the whole community participated in his imagined world to avoid bursting his bubble. There is a legendary story of when he got stuck in an imaginary tractor in high tide. Waist deep in water, after hours of people cheering him along, he was finally saved by a local with a van and a rope. Being pulled out of the water was the only way he would be rescued—break his mirage and you broke his spirit.
Similarly, I am caught in a strange position between insanity and hilarity. Whenever someone asks me where I’m from inevitably I will answer “Iceland,” but there is something about the question that troubles my own sense of identity, so I add “originally.” I am Icelandic but not quite. Like a growing number of Icelanders, I am the child of migrants. I was born in Reykjavík in 1987 to Icelandic parents. My name, Álfrún, means ‘friend of the elves;’ how kitsch and Icelandic, how Björk, how Sigur Rós. How thoroughly unpronounceable on an international scale! I realised this to my utter frustration and rage at the age of three when I first recall my name being changed to Katherine by the teacher, to make it easier for the other children to say. My name definitely does not compute in England, my home since I was three years old.
A couple of months ago, twenty years after moving away, I decided to move to Iceland. I am lucky enough to speak Icelandic quite well; I lack vocabulary and make grammatical errors, but my accent is Icelandic. If you are Icelandic you might even think that I am too. After a few minutes of talking to me however, a look of confusion will come over you. Just after that, a sympathetic expression takes over when you realise there’s something a bit off about me. Relief will come at about six minutes, when I will meet your confused look with an explanation. “Sorry if I sound like an imbecile, I’m actually English you see.” You will, however, forget almost immediately and give me a funny look when I don’t know who Gunnar Helgason is or that the Eyafjallajökull joke is still supposed to be funny. At this point I am stood in an invisible tractor, waist deep in water, being gently mocked by a room full of people, albeit in a compassionate way.
Last week I walked past a petrol station with a terrible headache and decided to pop in to buy some painkillers. After looking around for a few minutes, I asked the shop assistant where the paracetamol was kept. Leaning with her whole bosom spreading over the counter, a strange look came over her, as if she’d just remembered a dirty joke. Furrowing her eyebrows, she stepped back. “Paracetamol?” I looked at her with determination; “Ibuprofen is fine, I just have a…” I trailed off as I noticed her laughing. “You can’t get paracetamol here.” “Oh,” I said, “at the supermarket then…” “No, at the pharmacy, you can only get painkillers at the pharmacy” and she let out a content sigh as she turned to her colleague and rolled her eyes. Feeling like the village idiot, I slid out of the shop with my face burning. The pharmacy was closed.
Ironically, if I had spoken in English to the shop assistant, she would probably have offered me some painkillers from her personal collection in sympathy, but because I was stupid rather than foreign I received none of the famous Icelandic hospitality.
Storming into my friend’s house with a face like thunder, the first response I got from my story was unadulterated laughter. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I think I’ve got some painkillers in my bag.” My desire to burn down a petrol station was soon replaced with the very Icelandic notion: “Þetta reddast” (It’ll work itself out) and I was soon placated with a heavy dose of prescription drugs.
Iceland is a place that I have grown up through, rather than in, and like Alice going through the looking glass, I am taking the leap for curiosity’s sake. The line between nonsense and logic is inevitably blurred whilst I stumble through my Icelandic experience, holding tightly onto my sense of humour.