10 steps to becoming an Icelander.

Posted on 26. Mar, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

La Cascada de Skógafoss Islandia by El Coleccionista de Instantes at Flickr.com

Thinking of moving to Iceland? Here’s what you need to know.

1. Forget about punctuality

Meeting your deadlines is appreciated but not actually expected. At least no one will meet any that you set, and they’ll act offended if you show any displeasure for the tardiness. As long as things get done that’s close enough is the local spirit, and it applies to everything in both good and bad.

Going to meet friends downtown? Rest assured they’ll all be late. Something breaks and you need to call a plumber? He’ll get to you… one day. Desperately need some official paperwork done? I’d start by taking a few deep breaths. The only way things will ever be done fast is by finding out whose fault it is that it’s not done yet and – imagine that – something that has taken three months in the queue will be completed in less than five minutes!

On the other hand if you’re ever late with anything yourself no one will bat an eye. Just go hand in that essay, you finished it kind of sort of almost in time and that’s usually good enough.


Our previous mayor Jón Gnarr.

2. Forget all the politeness rules you know

No, titles aren’t really used except maybe for the president, and the use of honorifics may even backfire in the most unexpected ways. Icelandic people only get formal when they’re trying to annoy each other or show their superiority, the true Icelandic politeness code works on an unwavering idea of equality – you can read more about it here.

3. Vegetarian? Vegan? Have I got bad news for you!

Like an old joke would have it, vegetables are expensive but thankfully there’s very few of them available. A typical grocery store will have a tiny selection of fruit and vegetables, tofu is a bit of a luxury product and in general the culture of eating meat sits tight. On an island where nothing really grows aside of sheep and mountains this is probably understandable, but sadly it means you’ll have to just do your best with what you get and hope that maybe one day Icelanders will get interested in no-meat diets.

4. Buy a jeep

The public transport is a joke that makes no one laugh. Buses are few and they run maybe twice an hour, the tickets are expensive and the prices are only going up. If you ever need to get from place A to place B a car will get you there in a fraction of the time it takes for taking a bus.

Why buy a jeep especially? Well… have you seen what condition the roads are in? A jeep also comes with the additional plus of not feeling absolutely dwarfed in traffic full of other jeeps.


Volcanic eruption Eyjafjallajökull by fridgeirsson at Flickr.com.

5. Learn to accept your mortality

Icelanders live with constant reminders from the forces of nature that death is not only inevitable, it can happen any time. Earlier if you’re stupid.

Snow storms, storms, the sea, volcanic eruptions, floods, waterfalls, mud springs, hot springs, cliffs, extreme coldness, no shelter anywhere… there are a billion things that can and do kill people here every year, and sadly a good number of them are tourists. Of these a disproportionately large group are travelers who were warned and should have known better, although Icelanders are on occasion equally talented at letting a YOLO -moment get ahead of thinking.

The sooner you realize that you’re very capable of dying the better. Keep it in mind and live a bit longer.

6. “So how do you like Iceland?”

This is what being a foreigner in Iceland sounds like. Be prepared to answer this question again and again until you’re so used to it that when you get friends over from some other country you accidentally end up asking them the same!

By the way, there’s no publicly accepted correct answer to this, you can answer it as honestly as you like. You can even complain all you want, the better if people someone knows are involved. “That taxi driver was sooo ruuude” – “Oh I know, Hildur is really awful – this one time -” :D


7. Get naked

Public nudity is a norm in swimming pools’ shower sections and complaining about the lack of privacy will be treated as a childish temper tantrum. One thing Icelanders won’t stand for is people entering common pools dirty, which is why there is pool staff at the shower areas making sure everyone washes properly before heading to the pools.

8. Gossip, gossip, gossip 

While you’re soaking in a hot pool it’s time to share the newest news! Who’s expecting now? Who’s the guy, does anyone know? The boss did what now? Did you hear about Páll yet – you know, your cousin’s husband’s workmate’s son Páll? Iceland is smaller than you’d think and somehow people always either know everyone or at least they know someone who knows the person you’re talking about, so every piece of news will make rounds at lightning speed.

Don’t worry though, it’s the same for everyone. Think of it this way: Iceland is such a peaceful country that little things like these really are all that people care about.


Iceland, Seljalandsfoss by Moyan Brenn at Flickr.com

9. Learn to be alone

Icelanders value their personal space highly. Sometimes people just want to be alone and other times they’ll leave their homes or host a party on specific purpose to meet other people. Other times they’ll keep to themselves so if you’re used to a community spirit, there’s very little of that available.

To better understand this behaviour I suggest a camping or a hiking trip. Just go out in the nature and be quiet, let the wind mess your hair and your wool sweater keep you warm. Look around you and really try to drink in everything there is to see, wake up in the small hours when it’s already light outside and listen to the hrossagaukur sing as it flies over your tent. Climb a mountain and watch the little towns and cities stretch out somewhere far, far below and the ocean behind them. This is the true feeling of solitude Icelanders wish they could have at all times, but since that’s not always possible even a little time in peace and quiet will do.


10. Þetta reddast

Icelanders are a good example of a people who just won’t give up. They already know that even in the face of the worst possible odds things can and usually will work out somehow, as long as you keep going. Þetta reddast.

So if something bad happens remember this. When bad things are piling up on top of each other, it’s raining cats and dogs and a few polar bears, the sun barely comes up and the bureaucracy is killing you everything’s probably still going to work out in the end. Accept reality as it is, try to find the best possible outcome in it and then strive for it with all your might, little by little. Even if you fail you at least got somewhere; never, ever give up.

Choirs, choirs everywhere!

Posted on 19. Mar, 2015 by in Icelandic culture


At a practice: A group of a hundred and thirty youths present the Sea Symphony lead by Gunnsteinn Ólafsson; interpreting the sea and the sailors’ conflict with it.

Icelandic is nightmarish to learn to pronounce, so wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a shortcut that allowed you to easily remember how certain letters are pronounced, and maybe even help you out with learning them in the first place? Well, there is!

Like I often like to say, singing is the way to go. Singing alone is beneficial already but nothing compares to singing in a group. If you’re lucky enough to actually be in Iceland for studying the language, the best option for you, if you’re at all inclined to singing, is to join a choir. In comparison to the size of the country Iceland has an unbelievable amount of choirs of all kinds, and possibilities for joining them are everywhere. The one I’m singing in is Háskólakórinn, the University Choir, and joining it was probably the best decision of my whole language learning time… and even though I already graduated from the university, the choir doesn’t seem to be kicking me out just yet for some reason. :D

I admit that originally I was very shy about the whole idea. Joining a choir? Me, who barely spoke any Icelandic at first? It therefore took me a few years before I dared to try the auditions but once I was accepted I quickly settled in. The choir has a large-ish minority of foreigners so all information comes first in Icelandic and then in English – my initial worry of always being confused was proven false right from the start.

I quickly made friends inside the choir too which further dipped me into a twice-weekly language bath, because your Icelandic friends are less likely to switch to English than random strangers even when you’re struggling with the language. Best of all I’m continuously forced to learn complicated texts by heart, have people around me ready and willing to translate the parts I need help with (if even they understand them, old Icelandic can be difficult even for the natives), and I always have a large group to help me out with pronunciation difficulties. Singing also helps build the correct rhythm into the language as well, so joining a choir has been an all around positive experience for me.


Logaland félagsheimili, a summer camp centre. One of the places the choir camps have been held at.

Naturally that’s not all there is to it. The choir also hangs out together outside of the actual practices, organizes rehearsal camps in the Icelandic countryside, travels abroad almost every year and works on one large piece per year. This year’s piece is Sjávarsinfónían, The Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams and it will be performed with the Ungfónía, young people’s symphony orchestra with a pun-ny name put together of ungur (= young) and sinfónía (= symphony). Lately we’ve been practicing many extra long days since the first concerts will be held this coming Saturday and Monday – exciting times for me for sure!


Choir practices with a great view! The steam means that there’s a warm swimming pool nearby (and we were allowed to go have a soak during a break).

An article about the concert can be found here. Our baritone soloist had this to say about the piece:

Sjávarsinfónían er ótrúlega flott. Þótt verkið sé samið snemma á 20. öldinni og hafi þá þótt framúrstefnulegt í tónmáli er Vaughan Williams svo melódískur og skrifar fyrir alla. Hann fangar líka stemninguna vel þegar hann túlkar hafið og baráttu sjóaranna við það.

“The Sea Symphony is unbelievably good. Though the piece was composed in the early 20th century and was then regarded as futuristic in sound (tónmál = lit. transl. sound language), Vaughan Williams is very melodic and writes for all (as in his works can be enjoyed by anyone). He also captures the mood well when he interprets the sea and the sailors’ struggle with it.”

I have to agree with him about this. The Sea Symphony is a beautiful piece and if you ever have a chance of hearing it I warmly recommend it! And for those of you who sing in choirs in other countries… wouldn’t it be awesome to add some Icelandic songs to the repertoire? ;)


Choir vocabulary

kór/inn, kórar/nir = choir, choirs
kvennakór = women’s choir (all female voices)
karlakór = men’s choir (all male voices)
sópran/inn, sópranar/nir = soprano, sopranos (note that this is indeed a masculine word though by default it means a group of women)
alt/inn, altar/nir = alto, altos (same as above)
tenór/inn, tenórar/nir = tenor, tenors
bassi/nn, bassar/nir = bass, basses
tónlist/in = music (this word only exists in singular form)
lag/ið, lög/in = song, songs

Iceland – deadly for the careless.

Posted on 12. Mar, 2015 by in Icelandic customs

Summer?! by Stig Nygaard at Flickr.com

It began and ended as these things usually do: Icelanders warning tourists who decide to ignore the warning and then almost die as a result.

Three Finnish cross-country skiers on Vatnajökull met with Björgunarsveitinn, the voluntary rescue units, when one of them fell ill, and knowing there was a huge storm on its way the Björgunarsveitinn did their best to try to convince the two remaining ones to leave on the same ride (link). The Finns refused, thinking they knew already how to deal with snowstorms. To be fair, in Finland they probably would have done just fine, but Iceland is no Finland and their stubbornness nearly killed them when the storm hit them, destroyed their gear and left them sitting helpless in a glacier blizzard.

The two tourists in self-inflicted peril quickly grew into one of the main topics of the whole weekend because things like these happen all too often and Icelanders are both getting fed up with it and at loss at how to stop this kind of thing from happening over and over and over again.

Snowstorm by Atli Harðarson at Flickr.com

Here a storm does not mean that you just dig yourself in a snowbank and wait it out – with winds like ours digging yourself into snow won’t even be an option. A glacier storm in particular is something you shouldn’t toy with and confidence in cold climate survival will easily be your death; the only thing you can do in Iceland when you know a storm is coming is to go indoors, close the door and not venture out again until things stop flying around. That’s not a joke, things do fly around. In some areas the things flying around are large rocks and pieces of asphalt stripped off the road by the wind.

A recent snowstorm

Strong winds in Iceland toss cast iron garden furniture around like nothing. They chill you to the bone so fast that if you’re lost in the highlands, especially on a glacier, you may end up as sadly as the Swedish tourist who ventured onto Sólheimajökull alone just a few years back to take a few quick photos, got caught in a glacier storm (they can rise in a matter of minutes), got lost, fell into a crevasse and froze to death before help got to him. When you’re out in the wilds the rescue units can only hope they’ll find you in time but alas there’s no guarantee they will, or even that they’ll ever find your body. Even if you’re eventually found it may be too late for you since it can take many hours to even get to the area where you went missing and bad weather will make searching for you even harder.

If you end up walking in one of these storms the wind feels like it blows right through you. There’s no cover anywhere.

There are already web pages that try to inform people of the many dangers of Icelandic nature but especially with the recent boom in tourism it seems people don’t even glance at them. You’ll find tourists being swept into the ocean, having their car blown off the road, driving off the road because of ice, driving on to closed roads (never mind the signs and chains that say the road is closed) and then getting stuck there, in danger due to ignoring every warning they’ve received – these stories never end…

Tourist dies in Iceland cliff fall (link)
Missing Tourist Died from Exposure on Glacier (link)
New Search Prepared for Missing German Tourists (link)
American tourists stuck on an iceberg after deciding to have a picnic on it (link)
Tourist Saves Family from Icy Death (link)
Searching for Ido – the man whose memorial now stands on the Laugarvegur hiking trail (link)
Tourist Rentals Pelted by Rocks, Cars Fill with Snow (link)
Danger! Danger!  - or the tourist who said: “Am I maybe doing something I shouldn’t be doing?”(link)
Tourists Endanger Themselves at Gullfoss (link)
Tourists Put Themselves in Grave Danger at Glacial Lagoon (link)
Tourist Wades into Reynisfjara for Better Pictures (link)
Tourist Family Laughs as Their Son Freezes (link)

You know how long it took me to find the links above? 15 minutes of googling after which I simply decided to stop, somewhat overwhelmed at the sheer amount of deaths, damage and danger that could all have been easily avoided.

Lokad by David Gee at Flickr.com

The worst? Whenever people end up in trouble the voluntary rescue units are sent after them, therefore just one person ends up risking the lives of many more. The two Finns called for help on Friday, and the nearest rescue unit center sent a group of people who otherwise would have spent a leisurely Friday evening after work into an absolute blizzard, knowing they were getting the same guys who had refused to leave just one day before. The unusual element of the story is that the Finns actually paid some part of the rescue (link) but usually these rescues are completely free of charge regardless of whether or not you’re in trouble because you deliberately put yourself in it.

Iceland has no army or a rescue unit outside of the voluntary ones. Björgunarsveitinn funds itself by donations and selling things such as campaign key chains, fireworks at New Year and so forth. The units consist of trained workers who largely pay for their own equipment and gas. Everybody knows why these people are worth more than their weight in gold and it would be the underestimation of the year to say that Icelanders appreciate them – we absolutely love them and hold them in huge respect.

Visibility – not so good.

It’s no surprise many wish to change the system that puts these people at unnecessary harm at their own cost. Since Icelandic law does not allow you to physically restrain anyone (no really, you’re at full liberty of getting yourself killed by the nature here), typical suggestion seems to be that if you endanger yourself deliberately you should pay for your rescue yourself. Personally I would vote for this in a heartbeat.

Web pages you should definitely read when traveling here

Safetravel.is (link)
Vegagerðin for road conditions, important all around the year (link)
Veður.is for weather (link)
Iceland warnings and dangers at Virtual Tourist (link)
I Heart Reykjavík’s wonderful article which explains why the rules here are what they are (link)