Maria: Iceland Eyes
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Iceland, etc.
Well, my name is Maria Alva Þórisdóttir Roff, and I am a modern version of a “Western Icelander.” That is, my parents moved from Reykjavik, Iceland to California in the mid-sixties, where I was born. We came back for visits as often as possible, every three years or so, and always stayed with my grandmother in central Reykjavik. I got to know the neighborhood well, and decided at a young age that I would someday move “home” to Iceland. I lived here off and on during the 90’s then decided, with my Icelandic then-husband, to move here for good with our daughter in 1999.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I was one of the first wave of bloggers, and started my first blog in 2001. It was what all the cool kids were doing pre-MySpace and Facebook. I’d always kept diaries, and here was a perfect format for writing and sharing my self-involved ramblings. I invited my parents, still out in California, to read it as a way to keep in touch with our lives. It was when I got my first digital camera in 2004 that I started Iceland Eyes as a photo journal about my life here, reaching out to a much bigger audience.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
That’s a tough question. I definitely have favorite photos, and often they are the ones with the fewest accompanying words. I love my macro photos of local flowers and plants because everyone associates Iceland with these stunning landscape vistas, at the expense of the very small. The flora of tundra regions is so special because it takes such tenacity to survive and thrive in arctic climates. I think they deserve special attention. Here is an example: Moss. Not all my macros are of local flora, though. Some are the most basic of plants, viewed in a different way like Pink. I’m also proud of some of the essays I’ve written about the state of society here over the past decade. For example, I definitely sensed that some kind of crash was destined to happen before 2008, and, I feel, had a good read on the national psyche afterwards. In the years since I’ve often repeated my mantra that Iceland needs to move towards ecologically-soundness and self-sustainability to have any kind of solid future. I know I’m not alone in feeling this, but it still seems to be such a foreign concept to the people in power over here. As far as my readers go, these photos seem to be two of my most popular, namely Pond and Dreams.
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?
A big focus of my blog is the fact that Iceland is both very familiar and brand new to me, every day. From wandering around the streets here in Reykjavik as a child, I know the city well, but always find some new angle or secret or wonder that those born here have stopped seeing. Hence the name of the blog! As far as how different it is from California, when I lived here in the early Nineties Reykjavik was still very provincial, with little shops in every neighborhood where the shopkeepers knew your name. There were two types of pasta available, spaghetti and macaroni, and that’s it. We had Cocoa Puffs, Corn Flakes and Cheerios, period. The local “yogurt,” Skyr, came plain and with blueberry flavor, in one packaging size. Today there are probably at least 30 different versions of Skyr and yogurt, in all flavors and sizes, and almost anything you can buy in the States you can get here. If not you can order it online. US culture has usurped Icelandic culture and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The only main difference in cultures is how rude Icelanders can be, especially in public places. The part of me that learned about Elbow Room, Social Courtesy and Customer Service will always have a hard time accepting the blunt and colder side of the Icelandic identity.
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 think, based on my history, that I was prepared, and knew what to expect. On second thought, though, I don’t think I understood how island life really works back fifteen years ago. It took me a long time to be trusted and accepted long term here. When I first came back I was shiny and new, and there weren’t as many expats as there are now. When the shine wore off, though, and I was just another resident of the “village” that is Downtown Reykjavik, I had to prove that I had the tenacity to survive social scenarios and life changes the way people from small communities do: you learn to turn a blind eye to many things, and to forgive and forget indiscretions. You learn that we’re all stuck here together, and that we have to take care of each other, long term, and that trust is definitely not a cheap commodity.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Wow, I don’t know if I have a single one, but rather a recurring scenario. Basically, I have an accent when I speak Icelandic, and because I have so many expat friends and am an English teacher, I speak English a lot. Also, I use a family name (Roff) instead of the patronymic Þórisdóttir (“Thorir’s Daughter, after my father, Thorir). What this means is that people usually assume I’m not native Icelandic. I don’t know how many times I’ve been talked-down to, insulted (especially over the phone), told to “go home” (usually when the other person knows they’re wrong about something) or hit on in a bar as a potential one-night-stand-with-a-tourist until they find out I’m literally their cousin, however many times removed. Racism isn’t funny, but it is when the nationalistic bullies (and they’re thankfully fewer and fewer with every year) have to eat their words.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Iceland?
- Don’t expect to be able to be absorbed and accepted into everyday life here quickly or easily. It’s a long-term process.
- Don’t try to party like the locals! There’s a good chance you’ll end up on your own personal skid row before you realize that there’s no one here who’s going to stop you from jamming as much as you like, and they’re not going to pick you up out of the gutter either. You may be Party King or Queen back home, but… just don’t say I didn’t warn you!
- You will have to carve out your own niche, and play it cool doing so. It’s expensive and impacted here in Reykjavik, and just as hard to survive as in any city. Get everything in writing, especially job contracts, as it can be notoriously difficult to get the pay you have earned. Be smart - you’re dealing with a culture of very talented and intelligent opportunists here!
How is the expat community in Iceland? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The city is literally swarming with expats, so no, they’re not hard to find at all ;)
How would you summarize your expat life in Iceland in a single, catchy sentence?
Stay cool, dress in layers, survive late winter, drink as much water as you can, and don’t take anything, anything, too personally.