A Love Letter to the Icelandic disregard of time. Posted by hulda on Jun 24, 2014 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs
When I first moved here four years ago I almost didn’t have a culture shock. Iceland and Finland seemed so similar, though one had trees and lakes and the other one mountains, volcanoes, waterfalls and glaciers, I very nearly felt at home right away.
Whenever I arranged to meet with my local friends I would go to the meeting place and wait – and wait – and wait. Perhaps no one would arrive, or if someone did they’d be an hour late. Neither option seemed to mean anyone was to let me know by even a text message. Same went for hobby meet-ups, I would arrive to the meeting place and either spend the meet-up alone or with another foreign member of the group.
Similarly whenever I needed something to be done it never seemed like a pressing matter, be it about health, permission to stay in the country or university papers that I needed. Very quickly I realized that Icelanders seemed to have one thing in common in their attitudes towards time: nothing was ever urgent.
You may ask if I wasn’t just being mistreated for being a foreigner but this definitely was not the case. I had managed to friend several Icelanders and got to watch them struggle with exactly the same things, though their level of frustration was somewhat milder than mine (a few annoyed huffs versus my close-to-murder-screaming-or-both mindset). It seemed that anything that could be done tomorrow was not only not done before tomorrow came, it could easily be canceled until the next week, month, or up until I sought up the one responsible and mentioned the problem, at which the task was usually completed immediately in front of my eyes.
The Icelandic laissez-faire didn’t end there, though at first I was too busy being punctual to notice it. In fact, just like the Icelanders, I wasn’t expected to do anything in time either. The first time I realized it came in the spring of my first year of the university when I forgot to hand in an essay for a class where each homework counted towards the grade. Angry at myself but understanding my personal responsibilities I made a point of never making the same mistake again and forgot about the essay…
…until a whole month after the deadline my professor asked me about it. What? Of course it could still be handed in. Yes, it was a little late but that wouldn’t affect the grade. I should just bring it to the class as soon as possible and she would accept it. If the university deadlines were more like guidelines the bigger surprise was that the same went for many other official institutions as well such as the tax office. If I had returned my tax forms late back home in Finland I would have been in a world of trouble, in Iceland I didn’t get as much as a notice (though I don’t recommend handing your tax papers in late). It was then that I understood that Iceland works with the idea that as long as things get done it matters little when they’re done.
I cannot lie, Iceland, I used to hate you for this. You have no idea of the depths of anger I sunk to, you literally couldn’t fathom it since you never had any idea of what punctuality means in the first place. However, what you do know instead may rule over that what you don’t, that there’s always another tomorrow and that needless rush and a real emergency are two very different things. As it so often is acceptance was the key to solve my initial problem with your flexible ways of meeting scheduled affairs, and with these thoughts I began to feel less slighted and started to relax, slipping into the Icelandic sense of time myself.
Meetings were best arranged in cafes where I could sit comfortably and drink a few litres of coffee while waiting for the others to arrive, I even brought a good book, my Icelandic homework or a knitting with me to kill time. I also began to be occasionally late myself, and though never deliberately I no longer felt the usual panic of trying to catch time by its tail. One person cannot change a culture of a whole country but a new culture can change a person so in the end I gave up and let it go, embraced
my ice queen powers the disregard of time, and now I think I don’t want the stress of my former life back.
(But seriously, at least text me if you’re going to be late!)
This entry was influenced by “A Love Letter to Chinese Dumplings“, a great post at the Chinese blog by Sasha.
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