Or: Why there is no dating culture in Iceland
It’s nearing four o‘clock and the boys at the bar are tearing their shirts off. Bare chests multiply on the dance floor like drunken amoeba—three, four, five. This is a high-stakes game and all stops are pulled. You don’t go gently into that good night, unless you want to go home alone. Succeed once and you might never have to play again. If you don’t, there will always be another Saturday night.
There have been so many Saturday nights, each one a repetition of the last. Bill Murray ain’t got nothing on me as the weeks turn into months, then years, then decades. And yet I never seem to learn. I am sobering up far too soon, and I still have my shirt on—two cardinal sins that lead to sexual exile. A thousand years since the end of the Viking Age and we still have not mastered the art of conversation.
A Strange Kind Of Paradise
In his novel ‘Paradise Reclaimed,’ (‘Paradísarheimt’) Iceland’s Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness writes of the time romantic love came to Iceland. He suggests this happened sometime around the year 1874, on the 1000-year anniversary of settlement, and describes it thusly:
“That which we now call love had not yet come to Iceland. People mated without romance, according to the wordless laws of nature and in conformity with the German pietism of the Danish king. The word love survived in the language, certainly, but only as a relic from a distant unknown age when words meant something quite different from now; perhaps it had been used about horses.” [Translation by Magnús Magnússon].
Old Laxness may have been exaggerating somewhat, for evidence suggests that romantic love never really made it to Iceland at all, and contemporary texts seem to agree. In the charmingly titled e-book ‘Bang Iceland,’ an American calling himself Roosh V. documents his findings after a 2011 visit, during which he conducted extensive research (well, at least a couple of weeks). Surprisingly, he seems to broadly reach the same conclusions as our Nobel poet. (Disclaimer: In no way is this an endorsement of the politics or worldview of Roosh V).
Icelandic Hookup Culture
One reading of Laxness suggests that the half-naked men dancing drunkenly in bars in 21st Century Iceland are a direct result of the Danish pietism of the 17th Century, a period when drinking and dancing were prohibited. Perhaps this is, then, a belated middle finger to our former king, in the same way that Americans still carry guns to spite George III. If true, the same aversion to romanticism would logically apply to the Danes themselves, who were, and still are, ruled by these very same kings and queens. Roosh appears to concur:
“It’s safe to say that Icelandic guys can’t approach. Until I got to Denmark, I’ve never seen such piss-poor all-around game. I’ll give them a pass because the Icelandic environment promotes passivity, a strategy that may actually increase the chance for a permanent male resident to land a girlfriend. While sometimes they do approach while drunk, the only time I saw ‘normal’ approaches was from Icelandic guys who had lived abroad…”
At the end of ‘Bang Iceland,’ Roosh sums up his conclusions under the heading ‘Icelandic hookup culture is kind of fucked up, and that’s coming from me’: “I still can’t get my head wrapped around how strange Icelandic hookup culture is. It’s basically backwards: they have sex first before having an extended conversation that women from almost any other country in the world would require as a prerequisite to sex.”
Admittedly, Roosh does not strike one as a particularly sympathetic character. However, more reputable observers, such as Alda Sigmundsdóttir, who grew up in North America and relocated to Iceland, tend to make the same points. In her ‘Little Book of the Icelanders’ (2012), Alda claims Icelandic men are “renowned for being hopeless at hitting on women.” She goes on to quote her 22-year-old daughter, raised in Iceland, who explains that she would never consider going on a date with someone. After all, what if the guy turned out to be boring?
Why then, one might add, leave the selection process to the morning after? What if his alimony payments are as bad as his jokes? This is something you might want to consider before rather than after coitus.
Alda further describes the natural course of an Icelandic relationship as: sex, a movie, kids, moving in, and perhaps marriage, pointing out that everything here is done in a different order than it is most other places.
The Long Walk Up Laugavegur
Leaving the bar and heading out on the long, lonely walk up Laugavegur, we move from literature to conjecture. Yes, Icelandic men are hopeless. Most sources agree on this. But, why?
A Swiss girl once told me that going up Laugavegur on a Saturday night was one of the most harrowing experiences of her life beset, as she was, on all sides by jovial, obnoxious, drunken barbarians getting grabby. She further noted that on mainland Europe, it was quite normal for a man and a woman to strike up conversation when, say, waiting for a bus. Mostly no more will come of this, but the possibility is still there, and in any case, this can be a pleasant way to p
ass the time.
Not so in Iceland.
In fact, I have sometimes heard Icelandic women describing trips abroad in much the same terms as the Swiss girl described Iceland. They felt very uncomfortable being addressed by an unknown man in broad daylight. There is a time and a place for these things. And that time and place is on and around Laugavegur on a Friday or Saturday night. Five to ten drinks in.
Drunken Teenagers Going On 50
I was 22 and living in Helsinki when I learned that it was OK to talk to women while sober. And this, mind you,
was in Finland.
In the capital area, the Finns have developed something of an embryonic dating culture, but leave the big city and you find yourself in a Kaurismaki movie. The same broadly applies to Oslo versus most of the rest of Norway, or Southern versus Northern Sweden. Even in Århus, Denmark, they go out on dates. I know this from first-hand experience, though I can’t really speak for the more unintelligible parts of Western Jutland.
For an Icelander, it largely seems to apply that the farther away from civilisation you go, the more you feel at home. And while it is true that all Nordic countries went through the same bout of Puritan insanity in the 17th Century, perhaps it is actually the size of a place rather than the religious history that counts when it comes to sex.
After all, we do sleep around, whereas the Puritans didn’t. We just don’t do it sober.
No Lack Of Sex In Iceland
Sometime last year, newspaper Morgunblaðið published a cover story on single women in Iceland, which they wrote accounted for 47% of women aged 20-39, up from 38% 15 years earlier. And while most of the women interviewed made the point that they enjoyed singlehood, some also complained about Icelandic men’s introversion, overcome only with excessive amounts of alcohol.
Yet, there is no lack of sex in Iceland. According to the Durex Global Sex Survey, Icelanders are actually world leaders when it comes to first sexual contact, clocking in at an impressive average age of 15.6 years. Unfortunately, there are no statistics measuring the level of drunkenness when this occurs. The same study puts us fourth when it comes to average number of sex partners. Apparently, we get an average 13 each, well ahead of the global average of nine, but behind New Zealand, Australia and Turkey. Again, there is no accounting for the level of drunkenness, nor if there is any correlation between numbers of sheep in a given country and numbers of sex partners therein.
The question, then, is this:
How are all these hopeless men having so much sex? Somebody must be doing something right. Right?
Could it even be that Icelandic men are rewarded for the very same behaviours that so horrify, say, the Swiss (average number of sexual partners: 11.1)? That as our 15.6th birthday rolls around we all get happily drunk and lose our virginities, but at the price of becoming promiscuous Peter Pans, unable to grow up or learn how to do it any other way?
The Virtues Of Alcoholism
As those raised in Iceland will attest, the link between severe drunkenness and sex is forged early on. Which, in itself, needn’t be so bad, until you see the divorcees in their 30s, 40s and 50s mindlessly stumbling between bars and blackouts, using the only method they know that is both efficient and socially acceptable in order to approach one another? Which, again, may go some way towards explaining the drinking culture.
Iceland is one of the few places where alcoholism actually gives you a competitive advantage when it comes to courtship. Most normal people wouldn’t know how to behave amongst the bare-chested men at the bar, but for an alcoholic, this soon becomes a natural state of affairs. If you feel at ease in your surroundings, you naturally become more attractive. And in environments like these, it helps to have a drinking problem. Thus, the alcoholics breed like the rabbits in Öskjuhlíð, resulting in all those embarrassing sloshed uncles found at every family reunion.
If society’s reward system turns you to drink, then the flip side is that it penalizes sobriety. The smallness not only encourages excessive drinking, it also discourages dating. In a small town, if a boy and girl decide to meet in broad daylight, everyone will know about it. “I didn’t know they were seeing each other,” someone will say to someone else even though it might have been just that one date and so they might have to spend the next weeks and months retracting the rumours. A failed date is not only a personal humiliation, but also a social embarrassment.
Much better to construct this otherworld, where men and women are free to mingle, the lights are dim and memories hazy, and what happens doesn’t really count. Going out on a date in broad daylight is a major commitment, going home with someone at night is not. Having picked and made your way among the princes and the frogs, you eventually take the big step with your chosen one from the otherworld to the regular one, and you can finally watch movies together have kids, move in and eventually, perhaps marry.
Unless, of course, you find out somewhere along the way that the guy is a complete bore.
Finding A Way Into Icelandic Society
Fast forward a few days, and I am sitting at the university cafeteria with group of foreign men. No dirty weekend tourists these, hardly Brits on the piss. Rather, they are able scholars, a Spaniard, a German and a Latvian, who all speak Icelandic fluently. Perhaps they assumed linguistic ability would allow them to enter Icelandic society, but the Spaniard is feeling dejected. “There is no flirting here, or anything like that,” he says. “When I want something physical, I go abroad.”
As the days become longer, then shorter again, it’s strange to think that somewhere out there are places where it is possible to have a conversation without the aid of King Alcohol. Perhaps, one day, we will be more like them.
Until then, there is always another Saturday night at the bar.
Valur Gunnarsson is a writer reluctantly living in Reykjavík. His novel ‘Síðasti elskhuginn’ (“The Last Lover”) came out last autumn and is now available on ebook (Icelandic only). You can see him at Ölstofan over the weekends.