Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Hlutir sem ég hef tekið eftir - Íslensk útgáfa / Things I've noticed - Icelandic edition

Hey guys!

So a while ago, while looking over posts that I wrote during my exchanges, I realized that I made two posts, both named "things I've noticed," consisting of observations regarding my surroundings, my host countries and their cultures, in both Egypt and Turkey, over a year apart, and didn't even realize it. So now I've decided that this will be a tradition I will keep up with all of the countries I stay in for significant amounts of time. Here's the Icelandic edition of things I've noticed.

1) Things here are expensive as all hell.
From a standpoint of even just reading prices, it can be sort of jarring and difficult to get used to. The exchange rate is 1 US dollar to 128 Icelandic crowns, or kronur, so hearing prices in the hundreds and thousands for what are actually relatively inexpensive objects is sort of weird. But even with the conversion rate, it's really not a good situation a lot of the time.

2) Overall, this is a pretty homogenous country.
By and large, 93% of Iceland's 330,000 people are Icelanders, with immigration from other countries thus far having been very minimal compared to many other countries. Nonetheless, I've both seen and met a number of Icelanders of foreign origin, and Icelanders of color in particular, since I arrived, especially in the Reykjavik area. It's great to see a country that is typically known for its homogenous nature taking on more diversity in its society, with great success, for the most part.

3) It doesn't feel nearly as small as it actually is. 
In spite of the minuscule population by international standards, somehow most urban centers don't feel nearly as small as they are. Reykjavik, for example, which is smaller than my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, feels much larger. And Ísafjörður, in spite of being a town of 2,600, has numerous cafes, hotels, bookshops, and just generally a much more dynamic and, for lack of a better term, happening, feel than one would ever expect for such a small town.
I think this is to be accredited mostly with the cultural tendency of Icelanders to foster innovation and creativity, wherever, whenever, for the benefit of everyone. It's one of the things I love most about this country.

4) By all accounts international tourism has skyrocketed within the past few years.
Everyone I've talked to who has lived or been here prior to 2012 or so has said that the amounts of tourists that come to Iceland have greatly increased over the past couple of years. Last year there were a million and a half, and there have already been that many in what has passed of this year alone. I can definitely understand - this country is incredible and should be seen. But based on people I have seen and accounts I have heard of other tourists, I would like to please request that anyone who comes to Iceland as a tourist PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE show respect to the natural beauty of this country, and the culture of the people who come here. With so many more people coming than they're used to, those are both pleas to be heeded.

5) There's a strange amount of English everywhere.

In Reykjavik bookstores, many of which I browsed and perused during my time there, I noticed a staggering amount of English books, whole floors of them! I speculated with a Canadian girl who I met and chat with during my travels the reasons that this might be. We wondered whether it was for the benefit of the huge amounts of tourists, of which the Reykjavik city center is overrun right now, or maybe due to a relative lack of people to translate books coming in from the rest of the world, due to the small population. It's probably a combination of these and more elements yet. Not sure.

6) It's very difficult to be vegetarian here. Even more so for vegans. 
This makes sense, at least in the context of the development of Iceland's traditional food. Due to the long and cold winters, food had to be stored in bulk and preservable for long periods of time, and only the hardiest of vegetables, like carrots, beets, and potatoes, could be grown in the brief summers. As a result, traditional Icelandic cuisine is very meat and dairy-heavy. If you're a self-operating person traveling or living on your own in Iceland, you'll probably be able to survive as a vegetarian or a vegan. Plenty of food is available in the supermarkets, and in the past few years the introduction of vegetarian/vegan restaurants has helped things along even further. But if you're living or being hosted with Icelanders, you might have a rougher time. I know AFS Iceland actually does not even allow vegetarian, much less vegan, exchange students to come to Iceland on AFS programs, because it's too difficult to find Icelandic families in which to place them that can accommodate this lifestyle.

7) Iceland is sort of Europe, and also sort of…not. 
I'm not quite sure how to best put this into words. Iceland is, of course, a Nordic country, since it was settled mainly by Vikings that came from Norway, so its roots are very thoroughly Scandinavian, making its cultural foundation European in essence. But since it was settled over 600 years ago, is geographically very isolated, and was settled much later than most of the rest of the world by far fewer people than most other countries, the culture here has evolved separately from those of the European mainland. There's also definitely a certain element of North American culture, which I'm told comes partially from the fact that Iceland was occupied by American and British, but especially American, forces during World War II as they took advantage of the island's strategic geographical position to get back at the Axis powers. This is just my personal observation, but I think I don't see it as European mainly because of the fact that since it was settled so much later than other European countries I'm from  (Italy) or have been to (Spain and France too), it doesn't share the same kind of strongly established ancient roots that go back thousands of years, and its history did not divulge in the same way during the Middle Ages and stuff because of the smaller population and being fairly culturally uniform. I see it as being most closely identifiable to Europe than any other general bloc of cultures in the world, but being both European and not, and both of those and mainly its own thing, all at the same time. This is rambly but I hope I'm making some kind of sense.

8) The jetlag getting here is a lot worse than what I expected. 
I found a sort of weird juxtaposition in how my last two long transatlantic flights have felt compared to how I thought they would. Back in January, when I flew to Turkey for my trip to visit my friends and host family for eighteen days, my direct Chicago to Istanbul flight felt much shorter than I thought it would - it was ten hours when I'd imagined twelve or thirteen, and even the ten seemed to fly by.
My experience flying here was the exact opposite. I thought a five and a half hour Chicago to Reykjavik flight would be a piece of cake, and although it did feel a little longer than I thought it would, it wasn't so much the length itself that threw me for a loop. What did was the logistical scheduling of the whole thing.
One nice element about my arrival in Turkey was that I landed at around 5:30 pm, and then it took me another hour to two hours to get to my hostel and check into it, so by that time I was able to pretty calmly and comfortably just shower and go to bed confident that I could sleep through til the early morning.
Conversely, my flight to Reykjavik landed at about 9:30 am (three hours behind schedule, I might add),   leaving an entire set of (typical) waking hours before I could get anywhere close to a reasonable bed time in order to adjust my body clock to the local time zone. I couldn't even check into my hostel until 2. I took advantage by walking over to Hallgrimskirkja, a cathedral which is a prominent monument of the city, and going up to the top of the tower, which was beautiful and fun and I enjoyed it so much. But by the time I checked in, I was shaking and delirious from jet lag. I gave in, and knew I had to take a nap. I slept from about 4 to 9 pm, at which time I forced myself to stay awake until midnight or so in order to be able to sleep through til morning, and that seemed to do the trick. But man, that was a rough time.
Anyway, sorry for the super long story and the random interjection of Turkish stuff. Tl;dr: Jetlag was rougher than anticipated.

9) It barely gets dark during the summer. 
While I've missed the days of the real and true midnight sun, it still is much lighter here at night than I'm used to. Though the sun goes down by now, it never really gets completely dark. A colorful twilight with left over clouds tinged with the colors of the sunset hangs above the city in a pretty limbo. The other night I was hanging out with a friend of mine named Allison who I met at my AFS Returnee Leadership Summit, and a group of her friends. When I realized that it was 1 am, I was left in utter shock. Partly because time flies and you don't realize you're tired as easily when you're having lots of fun, I guess. But also, as I realized in retrospect, because of the deceptively light sky. Even as I said my goodbyes and walked back to my hostel, not wanting to oversleep and miss the 9 am departure for my Golden Circle tour the next day, as the hour neared two, the multicolored dusk looked like what would have been no later than 10 pm back in Michigan. It was a surreal and beautiful thing to experience.

10) The Icelandic learning community seems to be one that is very closely knit. 
When I hung out with Allison, who was an exchange student in Iceland herself, in Sandgerði, who was in Iceland for the summer doing the Árni Magnússon Institute summer program which I applied to and was rejected from (if anyone I know got to do it, I'm sure glad it was her, for the record :)). We were joined by a number of friends of hers from the program, many of whom, like her, have a very admirable dedication to mastering Icelandic, and have made it far in their goals. It seemed to me that the community of people committed to pursuing Icelandic to a degree of measurable proficiency is one that is very tight knit and supportive of others who seek to speak well in this beautiful, historic, and (let's face it) obscure language. It reminded me of how I felt when I started to learn Turkish, that as a foreign learner of Turkish, I was joining a very unique, tight-knit, and supportive community with great goals and members alike. I felt like this element was multiplied even further in starting to learn Icelandic, due to the unique nature of the language and its nature of being even less commonly taught.

11) Forget San Francisco - 
the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Iceland!
Okay, that's not true. Being from Michigan, I've weathered some pretty intense and frigid winters in my day, if I do say so myself.
But Iceland is surely the coolest place I've ever been in July/August. The four days I was in Reykjavik, the temperature never ventured above the high 60s (Fahrenheit), and here in the Westfjords it rarely goes anywhere above 60 anytime of the year, period. As someone who enjoys cooler weather and was looking forward to escaping the suffocating 90-degree heat waves which had been the rule of thumb my last few weeks in the American Midwest, this is actually quite a welcome change.

12) There are no trains in Iceland. 
This definitely makes sense, at least in the context of intercity connections. About two-thirds of Iceland's population of 330,000 lives in and around Reykjavik, and the remainder is spread in sparsely-populated and far-flung settlements, making the money that would be required to spend in order to build and maintain a rail network through the island's long and harsh winters is simply not worth it. Even Reykjavik itself does pretty well without a metro or anything, as the center, at least, is pretty easily walkable.
In my humble opinion, however, especially given the huge uptake in tourism within the last few years, it would makes sense to set up a train line at least between the Keflavik International Airport and the city center of Reykjavik, a 50 kilometer journey which currently can only be made by bus or private vehicle. But I digress.

13) This country's commitment to environmental sustainability and green living in general, as well as their success, is to be lauded. 
Iceland is famed for its beautiful, intense, and untamed natural beauty, and the efforts of the Icelanders to preserve, maintain, and uphold it is for the most part incredibly successful. The country's many gorgeous glacial waterfalls and rivers are almost universally safe to drink from directly with no sort of treatment or alteration to their water. There is little use of gas or coal energy; most of it is electric, or geothermally heated. As someone who passionately believes in and tries to advocate for environmental sustainability and commitment to green living in order to keep our beautiful planet safe and thriving, I truly believe the world could take a great many examples from Iceland to advance these goals.

14) People here speak amazing English.
I have yet to ask an Icelander if they speak English before asking for help, and have them reply with "nei" (no). They're usually modest about it, but their English is almost universally fluent, well-researched, and beautifully expressive, embellished with a light and airy accent which is part of what makes their language so beautiful.
On a few locations, I've more or less tricked Icelanders into speaking Icelandic to me: the first was on the first day, when I went up to Hallgrimskirkja, and set my goal to buying my ticket up to the top using only Icelandic. Simple though the conversation may have been, consisting of me saying "good day, one ticket, please," and the response of "here you go," I was immensely proud.
The second was an occasion on which I bought a book in Icelandic, and thus the salesclerks assumed I was an Icelander. Which I, tickled pink, did nothing to dissuade.

15) Icelanders are kind and friendly for the most part. 
It's in a bit of a different way than the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures I've experienced outside the US thus far. Instead of being almost intimidatingly welcoming and hospitable all the time, Icelanders may appear a bit cooler and distant at first than many may be used to, as it's not as typical here to make friendly chit chat and smalltalk for no reason. But once an Icelander opens up to you, they will be a friend for life. They're kind and very helpful if you ask for anything, but not almost unnecessarily cheery like in North America. Pretty much everyone I've talked to here is also very supportive and receptive of foreigners who take a genuine and deep interest in learning about their unique and isolated language and culture.

That's all I can immediately think of. If anything else comes to mind, I will let you all know.
Thanks for reading.
Bless bless! (Bye bye)

-Nicholas Edwardsson

(Because I, as a giant fan of all things Disney, use dubbed Disney songs to learn languages). 

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