Be warned, Iceland, your toes are about to get stepped on by a loud, pushy American.
Any conversation about life and culture in Iceland exists against the backdrop of its size. By which I mean, it is impossible to move discussion forward in a meaningful way without a nod to the size of Iceland and the impacts that size has on its people and culture. So bear with me a moment, while I respectfully and with the deepest love possible, tear this tiny little island to pieces with my big-bossy-loud-mouthy American perspective on things.
Most of the time, Icelanders could do with a big bite of Humble Pie. There is an inflated, Viking-like sense of self-importance that has often landed our cute little nation in some seriously hot water. I mean, if you look at a map of the world, Iceland is in the centre, at the very top. No wonder we think we’re The Shit. Truth telling time.
“Stop saying everything is cute! We are VIKINGS!”
To begin with, more people live in Wichita, Kansas, than the whole of Iceland. There are roughly 320,000 people living here now, about two-thirds of whom are in the “capital area” which includes Reykjavík and the surrounding municipalities. You could drive around the whole country in 24-hours. To do that, you would just hop on Highway 1 (you know, because there is just the one, really, and it’s pretty much all paved…mostly…) and then drive either clockwise, or counterclockwise (if you’re feelin’ freaky) and go until you end up where you started. So, both in terms of population and geography, Iceland isn’t all that big.
Living here warps your perspective of space and time. I grew up out in the boonies, with chickens and pigs and sheep and whatnot. When we needed to go to the grocery store, it was a 20-minute drive. I commuted 45 minutes each way in rush hour to get to my high school. If you were to start in any populated space in Iceland and drive for 45 minutes in any direction, you would end up in the middle of a lava field, up a glacier, or deep in a fjord somewhere.
In Iceland, the “other side of town” is never more than a 15-minute drive, but because it is as far as you can possibly go before you it barren wilderness, it feels like the other side of the planet. The result is a distorted sense of distance and the time it should take you to get to the place you want to go. I have been in an Icelandic traffic jam. It feels just as frustrating as sitting in traffic anywhere, but I contest that unless you have been in a *real* traffic jam, say on a five lane highway stuck for two hours in the US, you don’t get to bitch about a 10-minute delay on your way to work.
Also, sorry to burst your bubble, folks, but Reykjavík isn’t a city, it is a town. And a cute one at that. My first ever trip to Iceland was in the summer of 2006. As I wandered the streets of Reykjavík, I kept commenting, “Oh my gosh, look at how cute that house is!” and “Oh how sweet, there’s a little square with people playing games, cute!” and “Awe, there’s a little cute pond with ducks and stuff!” Much to the irritation of my companion, who turned to me and said, “Stop saying everything is cute! We’re VIKINGS!” Riiiiight. Noted.
All these years later, I still think this is the most adorable little town I have ever seen. And also very tough. You’re a tough wittool Weykjaveek, aren’tchoo? Lookit all de colourful woofs. D’awwww.
When you live here, it is easy to slip into the feeling that Iceland is the whole world. Iceland has a big heart in a cute little package. The best way I can describe the Icelandic pride is to compare it to Small Dog Syndrome, which, according to Urban Dictionary, is:
“A disease usually exhibited by those of small stature, in which they constantly threaten to ‘beat the shit out of’ people many times their size. The name is derived from the fact that many breeds of small dog (ex. chihuahuas) are usually vicious, yet they can do no real harm.”
Maybe because it is small, maybe because it is young, Iceland is like a teenager that finally has the keys to the car, and is fiercely determined to do whatever the fuck it wants. As anyone who has read Halldór Laxness can attest, independence is one of the most fiercely guarded virtues of the country, even when it is to the detriment of people here.
When paired with national pride, this stubborn independence can have preposterous effects. We Icelanders will proudly tell you all about the time we defeated the British Empire back in The Cod Wars (yes, really) of ’73. We think that there is a chance that maybe this time, just maybe, we could beat Germany in football. Stranger things have happened. We think, “Hey, this international banking thing isn’t so hard. We can make a shit-ton of money!” (aaand, cue total economic collapse and ensuing disaster.) We think, “Fuck you, European Union! Eat me, IMF, I don’t wanna pay you back! I can hunt whales if I want to! Don’t tell me what to do! I don’t even want the Euro! It totally makes sense for an isolated island with less than 400,000 people that survives on international trade to have its own unique currency! Fine, I am going to my room, I wish I was never born!” You get the picture.
All together now
Then there are the effects of living in a tightly knit community, which can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. I choose to like it. In a small place like Iceland, there is essentially no privacy. No anonymity. Everybody knows everybody else, or at least knows a common friend or relative. The first thing Icelanders ask when they meet one another for the first time is where they are from. This is an attempt to map out a common relation. “Oh, you grew up in Ísafjörður. My cousin moved there. Do you know Siggi Spess?” It might also be why some Icelanders find it so difficult to connect with foreigners, and why some others are drawn in like magnets. I am convinced that this is the only place on earth where a chick from my neck of the woods could possibly be considered “exotic.”
If you live here, you will always run into someone you know, bump into an acquaintance, stop and chat, get invited for a coffee, catch up on gossip, so on. Here, mistakes are forgiven, because we are all one another has. You could decide to hold a grudge against your neighbor forever, but really? Who has the energy? Hate is so exhausting. Much easier to just move on and tolerate one another. Since everybody knows everything about everybody else, a polite veneer covers social interactions. You don’t say what you actually think (unless you know your companions share your views, in which case, Icelanders can gossip and bitch like nobody’s business!) for fear that someone in earshot may be deeply offended.
My first experience of this was in a class in which we were discussing if Icelanders should, as recently occurred, shoot polar bears who float over from Greenland and stumble, confused, onto our shores. Someone said that, no, it is wrong to shoot polar bears because they are not doing so well in the wild, and we should explore another solution. To which a lady in the class responded, “Hey! It was my brother who shot that bear! He was a danger to his children! What was he supposed to do?!”
Whenever you open a door in Iceland, you see yourself on the other side.
And finally, when it comes to professional life, in a small society like Iceland, ambition and work ethic actually mean something. Since there are so few people here, if you decide that you want to learn how to do something, you simply find a way to learn it. If you do well and work hard, you can pretty quickly become a national expert. So, basically, if you want to live the American dream, move to Scandinavia! Or not.
Personally, I choose to revel in this tiny place. Though it is sometimes hilarious to watch, the pride of the Icelanders is endearing. The stubbornness to survive this harsh place is part of what makes Icelanders who they are. And having lived through the winters here… I can say they earned it.
Rage on, little Viking. Rage on!
Happy 17th of June 🙂
Mary Frances has a blog where she writes things you might enjoy reading. This post originally appeared there. That is, here.