Culture, Europe

I’ve Become Icelandic

July 19, 2015 • By

When traveling, it’s entirely appropriate to want to blend into local life, and nothing says “Icelandic” more than the comedy production How To Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes, performed nightly at the Harpa in Reykjavik.

It touches on some very interesting points:
To act like the 330,000-some locals, one must show no emotion (“almost like a dead person”), learn to be rude, give general directions with hands waving in the air and walk with a Texas swagger. For true assimilation, you must provide tourists with magnificent whale watching excursions, only to have boats simultaneously set sail to kill the same wild whales. You must learn the language; the importance of this focused on a clip of international broadcasters butchering the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull (Ay-ya-fyat-la-yo-kuddle), the volcano that erupted in 2010, wreaking havoc on European airports.  The audience practiced a few lines, and I am happy to report even the Norwegians and Danish, from which Icelandic is derived, suffer linguistic misfortunes like the rest of us non-Icelanders.

Fantasy Aisle

Live one person show

Now that I completed the Icelandic course and needed to ingratiate myself into local culture, I immediately shunned my layers and marched right to an ice cream store on the main thoroughfare. Icelanders love their ice cream at all hours of the day and in varying temperatures of the year. This isn’t Tasti D-light or Mr. Softee–this is real soft-serve, silky as an Indian scarf and as flavorful as freshly churned cream. I added the obligatory caramel toppings and continued on my journey to camouflage myself as a local.

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We all scream for REAL ice cream

I visited the Sagas Museum and learned about the Vikings version of storytelling. With seemingly everlasting flare for the dramatic, the sagas depict Viking history. Based on oral traditions that were eventually written in the Old Norse language, the ancient texts compile more than 27,000 pages of killing, revenge, marriage and religion. There is some back and forth regarding the authenticity of the sagas but Icelanders uniformly agree they illustrate “dressed-up facts.”  The stories most certainly prove Icelandic families are related, even if it’s necessary to go back 10 generations. With my Germanic heritage, I could definitely be an Icelandic cousin.

Fantasy Aisle

The local trolls hanging on the main street

This blog is called Fantasy Aisle, and I’m always on the look out for a great fairytale. Icelandic folklore certainly fills that narrative.

Becoming Icelandic also includes accepting the existence of the hidden people or elves (Huldufólk). This was a topic I brought up to any local who might entertain the conversation. While polls indicate the majority of Icelanders do believe in elves, there are many who are plain afraid to admit it either way, for fear of ridicule or an unwillingness to upset the elves. The hidden people live in the lava rock formations or maybe gardens, and they do talk to people. My guide told me that the tale he often hears stems from a visit God made to Adam and Eve. Eve, embarrassed by her dirty children, hid them from God, who was very upset.

Alda Sigmundsdottir, Icelandic author of The Little Book of the Hidden People, vehemently denies the existence of elves but instead focuses on the stories and traditions from which they originate. I think she is trying to convince the world that Icelanders are not crazy.  In her book, she discusses how the stories of the hidden people actually stem from the settlers living in destitution, dreaming of better lives and creating fantasies of elves to imagine what life could be.

I’ll buy that explanation for now, but allow me an opportunity to change my opinion after I complete my course at the Elf School in Reykjavik, where I can learn about the 13 different types of elves in as little as a day! I’m on the hunt for trolls as well.

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Icelandic Folklore

Lastly, to become Icelandic, you need to work hard and value hard work, starting at age 14, drink alcohol only on Friday and Saturday (alcoholics drink at lunch–oops) and take an Icelandic name from an approved list. There are no Christines or Jennifers here. Icelanders use the patronymic system, where a surname is a combination of the father’s Christian name (possessive) and then “son” or “daughter” (dóttir) is added. I could be the next Björk Guðmundsdóttir (“Guðmund’s daughter” or, if Björk were a boy, “Guðmundsson”). Additionally, I contend you need to enjoy darkness as much as sunlight, learn to cook lamb soup, salmon and cod, hike to appreciate the country’s gorgeous landscape, fish for entertainment and for survival, and buy and wear at least 12 Nordic wool sweaters.

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Icelandic Last Name

Oh, and get used to the earth quaking–daily.

…and maybe have an evacuation route if you live near an active volcano.