From Iceland — Dear Reykjavík, Let's Be Friends

Dear Reykjavík, Let’s Be Friends

Published July 7, 2015

Katie Steen
Photo by
Jesus Solana

So, as I made pretty clear in my last column, it’s been a strange transition moving from Slovakia to Reykjavík. Living in the middle of nowhere, hours from the nearest city, was mentally tough. I’d wake up at the ass crack o’ dawn, get on a bus, teach high school students, then come back to my apartment for the rest of the day. Sometimes, I’d go grocery shopping. If I were feeling really adventurous, I’d take a walk to the park and pet some overly friendly guard dogs on the way. Life in SK was repetitive, simple, isolated. And you get used to that, y’know? My expectations were low, and instead of worrying about making friends, I read, I Netflixed, I savoured the solitude.

But a month ago, I moved to Reykjavík, and here I am—living in 101 where you can’t swing a dead fish without hitting an English-friendly bar or café. I figured meeting people would be easy. And it has been—with other foreigners, most of whom are just stopping in for the weekend.

When it comes to making friends with Icelandic locals, though, I’m completely at a loss. They’re either too reserved to get to know in the daytime, or too drunk to remember me after late nights. It’s like in Cinderella—these charmed nighttime hours where suddenly all of Reykjavík is my best friend…until the next morning when the magic of Brennivín wears off.

My first week here, for instance, I ventured out on a Thursday night, fresh, hopeful, and confused, not realising that the bars close at 1:00 on weekdays. I somehow ended up at the apartment of two Icelandic artists—a beardy fellow (I know that doesn’t really make the description any more specific) and his brother, who was stumbly-mumbly peeing-on-walls wasted, but seemed like a cool guy besides that. Unfortunately, I was kinda high-strung due to a tiny Mexican lady who kept taking her top off and accosting me for not being a Native American (“You’re not from a tribe? Then get the fuck out of Michigan!” “Well, I’m not in Michigan right now, am I?”). Throwing in the towel, I scribbled down my Facebook URL and shoved it in the face of the beardy artist in a sad attempt for future friendship, fleeing the room as the chick from Mexico scream-asked me what I do for Thanksgiving.

A few days later…still no add. ‘Well, oh well—next time, I guess,’ I thought, assuming that locals bringing strangers off the street to their apartments to hang out must be a pretty common thing in Reykjavík. But since that first week, I haven’t been making many friends from the area, and I’ve been wondering, what gives? I’m a fun girl! Who wouldn’t wanna be friends with me, am I right?

And by the way, let me just make this clear: when I’m talking about Icelandic friends, I mean FRIENDS. It is very easy to make more-than-friends in this town. Just the other night, my American friend and I were waiting in line for a hot dog when some dude with no lips asked her if she wanted to sleep with him. Just like that. “Is that how it works in Iceland?” I asked him. “Yep,” lipless man said.

There have been, however, a few exceptions, like the Icelandic med student I met in Martin, Slovakia, of all places. It was Halloween, we were both piss-drunk, I liked her Mia Wallace costume, and the next day we got together to nurse our hangovers over coffee, thus securing our friendship post-party hours. But I can’t help but feel that she’s a somewhat unique Icelander because I didn’t actually meet her IN Iceland. I think there’s something that separates Icelanders who have lived abroad for awhile from born n’ raised RVK rats who’ve stayed put. May they understand—it’s tough to meet people in a new country. You’re vulnerable. You’re confused. You’re foreign.

And yet, I’ve never had as much of a problem making friends abroad as I’ve had here. I think part of it might have to do with the fact that Reykjavík (and Iceland in general) is so small and insular. I feel like I’m infiltrating an already established social scene—like everyone already knows everyone, and I’m the new kid. Living here reminds me of a creative writing class I took freshman year of college. I remember feeling weirded out by how detached everyone was from one another—how silent the room was before each class. “Don’t people want to make friends?” I asked a guy sitting next to me. “Well, I’m a senior,” he said, “So I kind of already have friends…” It’s the same situation here—I’m just a frosh at U of RVK.

And because Reykjavík is such a tightly secured bubble, my status as a foreigner feels very apparent. Reykjavík is swarmed with tourists, so I can understand the reluctance to engage in lengthy conversation with tourists at bars. Why would an Icelander want to meet another perky backpacker who’s just going to leave in a few days when you can hang out with your own friends? Friends who speak the same language as you, who you’ve probably known for much of your life? Hell, even I’m getting sick of those same bland questions shouted at me as soon as a fellow Yank hears me speaking English: “Hey there, where ya from? How long you here for? Got any recommendations?”

For now, though, I’ll just enjoy the few friends I’ve made—that is, by and large, fellow foreigners. Actually, last weekend I met a dude from Detroit, who happened to be a DJ at Secret Solstice (Sinistarr—look him up!). He was by far one of the friendliest people I’ve met here, and I felt this pang of familiarity and a sudden yearning for that beautiful combination of Midwestern friendliness and Detroit attitude—simultaneously cool but down-to-earth.

But anyway. I’m not in Detroit, or Slovakia. I’m here and I’m going out this weekend. Say hi and have a drink with me, Reykjavík—but try to remember me the next day, too.

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