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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.
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.
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 -” 😀
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.
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.