Journalist and author Colleen Kinder recently visited Iceland to interview American expats for a book projects she is working on. Here’s what she found out.
I’ve never heard thunder here,” Jonas, an American living in Reykjavík, blurted out during our hike, as raindrops flecked our bare arms.
“Really?” I checked. I’d been interviewing Americans living in Iceland for a month for a book project about expatriates. Just over a thousand Americans live in Iceland, and the few dozen I contacted were willing to talk over tea or shark. I wanted to know, first: what brought them to Iceland; next: how they felt about this second home.
My sources could handle the first question in a word: “WWII” for instance, or “Einar.” But part two required another cup of tea, a tangent, a brief rant on the rules of Icelandic grammar. Listening, I felt like I’d stumbled into an odd family reunion and taken refuge at the in-laws’ table. Like me, these expats were outsiders. But unlike me, they knew all about the inside.
I have Iceland’s expats to thank for coaching me through my first taste of shark, but also for nudging me out of the plane of first impressions. Every first-time traveller to Iceland begins by noticing the black fields of lava, then the quaint, corrugated homes, and finally, the spindly yellow cranes looming in every view. An expatriate, though, long ago looked past the features of the landscape, to notice what’s absent. He uses what he misses and, conversely, what he’s glad to miss, to characterise his second home.
Iceland: where the busiest corner of the capital stations no beggar. Where no one starts her workday by shoving onto a hot subway car. Where grown men aren’t hawking cheap souvenirs. Where little boys aren’t washing the windshields of cars stuck in traffic. Where women aren’t blighted for babies they didn’t plan.
Where litter is rare. So are pimples, and catcalls and sirens and the faintest sense of danger. Where strangers at a party don’t need to know where you work. Where parents don’t need to know where kids play. Where store clerks and waiters don’t bother with those how-are-you pleasantries, instead just asking what it is you want.
Glenn misses grape jelly, variety in cold medicine, relatives that are his. Paul misses corned beef, Maryland crab cakes, criticism in the arts. Others miss diversity that’s not so conspicuous, drinking that’s not so excessive, humidity, anonymity, washing machines that open up top.
Each time I read through these phantom grocery lists and non-phenomena, I wonder what they tell us about the American lives paused or deserted for Iceland.
What’s in a Name
People warned me not to expect commonalities among expatriates in Iceland. Work and love – the most universal of all themes – accounted for the presence of Americans on this island. Sure enough, most Americans I spoke with had clear professional purposes. To lump these purposes together would make as much sense as forming a union of Volcanologists, Artists, Smelter Engineers & Baristas.
Rather than shove Americans under a thematic umbrella, I’ll define them as they define Iceland: by contrasts. Around the globe, my fellow citizens are infamous for sticking out, and doing little to change that. Reykjavík, thank heavens, is not a depot of “ugly Americans.” People tell me an outsider will never truly fit in on this island, but could one ever last here without trying?
I understand now why my interviewees resisted the term “expat,” hinting that they identified more as non-Icelanders: defined not by where they came from, but where they did not. At this latitude, the challenge of expatriation is to claim whatever space remains in a society that might as well be called a family. And just as in-laws at a family reunion know to go along with the customs, the lingo, and the inside jokes, Iceland’s expats eat the skate, even if it feels like a joke on them.
I expected Americans to stand out from the Icelandic family when I opened the phonebook. Tipped off that native names rarely begin with the letter ‘c,’ I flipped right to the third letter of the alphabet and began cold-calling. Soon, I was talking to a bunch of British Catherine’s and Christopher’s, who sounded as confused as I felt. My criteria for an “American name” was proving flimsy, not to mention disturbingly anglophile. Names that looked too Latino or too European, I caught myself passing over for ethnically milder versions. When I called Caroline Linda Jeans on the basis of the jeans in her surname, I knew I was grasping at straws for an American identity. I finally threw in the towel when Chuck Mack didn’t answer his phone.
Though depressing, my phone book experiment was a clue to understanding what might incline an American to approach a culture as dense and preserved as Iceland’s with respect. We Americans take pride in our heterogeneity, but it can also leave us feeling diluted. Melt everything into one pot and it becomes hard to describe the taste.
Shark can be criticized on many accounts, but not for lack of taste.
Afraid of the Light
Unaided by the phonebook, I resumed my expat hunt by word of mouth, following one expat to his friend, to her ex-boyfriend, etc. I sometimes felt like I was cobbling together the tree of Iceland’s foreign community: The Book of Non-Icelanders, WWII to present. Though I’d be lying if I said my interviewees were clamouring for an Americans-In-Iceland club. There was just one person who craved Yankee fraternity: me.
June’s brilliant light had troubled my personal relationship with Mother Nature. I dreaded the freakish evening hours like a little kid afraid of the dark – except I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I was afraid of light. Iceland’s light. Unable to wind down and sleep, I asked my interviewees for tips.
“How do I fall asleep?” Stasia, an 88-year-old American, repeated my question back, as though I’d asked how to yawn or chew. She’d moved from Pennsylvania to Iceland on a freighter ship in 1946 and narrated her tale as “the second American woman to come here,” with the pride of a pioneer. “What colour are your blinds?” Stasia asked.
Immediately, I knew my error. “White.”
I realized also why I was touching base so compulsively about June light. Foreigners have no choice but to submit to the terms that govern Iceland, but it helps to first get a nod from one of your own that these terms are not normal.
“Oh no,” the pioneering American in Iceland clucked at me, thereby revealing that once upon a time, some three or four decades ago, she had taken some measure to acclimate to this new world.
Because the language of frontiers kept coming up (almost as much as outer space) I finally looked up “pioneer” in the dictionary, finding one of its definitions well-suited to the experience of expatriation to Iceland: “a plant or animal capable of establishing itself in a bare, barren, or open area and initiating an ecological cycle.”
July dimmed and so did my astonishment for midnight sun. But I went on collecting tips, enjoying the routine verification that something was odd, flip-flopped – alter-natural? – here. Planet Iceland: too many orbits away to hear thunder clapping.
“Isn’t that weird?” Jonas had asked.
There was, in fact, a scientific explanation for Iceland’s mute storms. But the point was to grant this fellow non-Icelander my whole-hearted agreement.
Who, but someone born elsewhere, could?
My last interview was with an American expat on his way out, bound for New York. It dawned on me to ask what he would miss most about Iceland. If Americans in Iceland portray the place like Rorschach portraits, the blanks as telling as the blotches, what ghost features might a returned-expat project onto Manhattan?
Seth looked out the window at Laugevegur Street. He, like me, lived three blocks away. It was easy for us to meet. Each time we did, he ordered soup.
“The simplicity,” Seth answered.
I was in New York the day I sat down to finish this essay. Rain poured down in a sudden August deluge, and roughly 313,000 wet New Yorkers took cover in the same Starbucks as me. Perhaps because my mind was many orbits away, on a planet where light teaches you to miss darkness, where ease puts stress into relief, and vice versa, a violent bang overhead made me jump like a child. That was thunder. This was home.