Larissa: Eth and Thorn
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Iceland, etc.
The story of how I ended up coming to Iceland is rather convoluted, but the short version is that I love Icelandic literature. And not just the sagas - although those are great, too. Iceland has an incredibly rich and prolific literary tradition that extends into the present day. This country has one of the highest per capita publishing rates in the whole world, but only a tiny fraction of that literature is ever translated into English. There have been less than 25 Icelandic translations into English in the last five years, and most of those were done in the last year or so. (There are still novels by Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, which have never been translated into English. This seems crazy to me.)
So being a dedicated reader with an interest in language and translation, I applied for, and received, a grant co-sponsored by the U.S. Fulbright Program and the Icelandic Ministry of Culture and Education to come to Reykjavík to study the Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. My partner Mark and I arrived in Reykjavík in late August 2012.
Prior to receiving this grant, I was a very happy resident of Brooklyn, New York, and had just finished a Master’s degree in Library Science. One day, I hope to be able to work as both a translator and a librarian. But Icelandic is a formidable language, so that goal is probably a way’s off for now.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started my blog even before I left New York and arrived in Iceland. I’ve never been much for journaling, but I knew that this experience was going to be one which I wanted to both remember and reflect on as it was happening, and a blog seemed like the perfect medium for that. I also wanted to be able to share my experiences with people back home and other interested readers. Every time I write a blog post, I feel like I’m talking to specific people and telling them about something interesting or funny that’s happened. It makes writing these posts feel more like a conversation, and less like I’m just talking to myself.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
A lot has happened since my partner and I arrived here, so there have been a lot of posts that I’ve enjoyed writing. But some favorites would be:
- A Student By Any Other Name.
- Daytrip to Viðey
- The Skyr Power Rankings
- Adventures in Public Transportation: The Strætó
Tell us about the ways your new life in Iceland differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
There are, as you might expect, a lot of differences between Iceland and New York. For one, the population of the whole country is less than that of Staten Island, and Iceland is also still very connected to a rural way of life in a way that I never experienced in the United States. I was at a restaurant outside of Reykjavík once and listening to the people at the table next to mine ask the waiter where items on the menu came from. He just pointed out the window--the fish was caught in that lake; the lamb was raised on that farm.
Even so, Iceland is a really urbane, cosmopolitan country. People routinely speak two or three languages comfortably and fluently--and not just English. I was sitting in a bar the other night and several Italian tourists were having trouble ordering their drinks in English. The Icelandic waitress immediately switched over to Italian with a beautiful accent. The tourists were amazed (so was I) but she didn’t seem to think it was a big deal at all.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Iceland? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I definitely wasn’t fully prepared, but then I don’t think you really can be when you’re moving to a new country--you might have planned for all the things that you anticipate being really different, but then there are four or five new, unexpected hitches that never occurred to you before you arrived.
I’m not sure that there is anything major that I would or could have done differently. Perhaps made sure that the smartphone I bought in the states would be compatible with European signals. Mine is one of the few models that isn’t and electronics and cell phones and things like that are super expensive here.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
One small surprise was that over-the-counter medication (like headache medicine) doesn’t exist here. If you want medicine, you have to talk to a pharmacist and explain your symptoms so that he or she can pick out the appropriate items for you.
There’s also the fact that once you become familiar with prominent figures in Iceland (actors, politicians, authors, musicians...) you will see them all over town, all the time. I was at a small language program event at the university recently and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir--a former president of Iceland and the first elected female head of state in the world--was there. I passed the mayor of Reykjavík (who happens to be a well-known actor and comedian) on the walking path behind my house and stood in line at the mall in front of one of my favorite authors. Celebrity sightings are a regular thing in New York City, but Iceland takes this to an entirely new level because so many people participate in so many aspects of Icelandic cultural and political life.
Iceland is a small country, and that also means you’ll also run into people you know everywhere. I went on a road trip over reading week last semester and was standing at a waterfall slightly off the beaten track with nothing around but farms and sheep. Suddenly, another car drove up and out got the only other person I knew in Iceland at that point. This stops seeming so surprising after awhile, but it is pretty astonishing at first.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Iceland?
- Getting your kennitala (your national ID number) as soon as you can when you arrive is vital. They tell you that in all the visa paperwork instructions, but it cannot be overstated. You can’t do anything without your kennitala - you can’t get a library card, you can rent a video, you can’t get a cell phone contract, the list is endless. So go to the immigration office right away and get the ball rolling.
- I was expecting Iceland to be cold and dark for much of the year, but I wasn’t totally prepared the crazy amounts of intense wind and the rain. (There are over 50 Icelandic words for specific kinds and degrees of wind - it is a really big part of life here.) It rains a lot and since it is so windy, umbrellas are useless. So get some outdoor wear before you arrive - a good weatherproof jacket, and maybe some pants. It’ll be about four times more expensive to buy those things here. And once you have these items, you can use them on all the hikes and outdoor adventures that you will definitely end up embarking on at some point.
- Icelandic social life and systems can feel very unstructured to an outsider, and that can be hard to adjust to, but there is a definite internal logic to what looks like chaos. Not everyone will skate in the same direction at the public ice rink, and open swim time at the local pool will find six adults swimming laps in opposing directions, while small children catapult off a diving board into the deep end of the very same lanes. It looks messy and disorganized, and maybe it is, but everyone is making it work. If you can go with the flow in these situations, you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more, a lot sooner.
- And bonus tip #4! Go to the public library! The public library system here is really fantastic (I’m a librarian, so I can say that with some authority), and there are a lot of great language and social programs for foreigners living in Iceland, too.
How is the expat community in Iceland? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
It isn’t hard to find the expat community here at all. There are actually a few really active, helpful Facebook groups for expats in Iceland. Connecting with people through those forums is really helpful when you’re trying to figure out some of the basics about how life works here and can provide a great network, even if you don’t meet a lot of the members in person.
How would you summarize your expat life in Iceland in a single, catchy sentence?
Líf er frábært! (Life is great!)