Helvítis útlendingar - Íslenska er lykillinn

I'm a foreigner. Or as the Icelanders would say, an útlendingur. Being an útlendingur is basically the only experience I have had in my life of being a minority. When you're living in southern England and ticking all the demographic boxes that I did, you're not exactly standing out from the crowd. It's a pretty comfortable place to be. Here I deviate from "normal" in that I'm not Icelandic, and sometimes it's not too comfortable. Occasionally it's fun to be different, most of the time I don't really think about it, but sometimes it can be pretty lonely or isolating.

I suppose there's a cultural element to this (although Iceland and Britain are really not so far apart culturally), and it's probably something that all immigrants go through even between countries where the same language is spoken. In Iceland, though, if you don't speak Icelandic you'll be able to live here easily enough but you will always be on the outside of society looking in. I wouldn't advise anyone to move here unless they are genuinely committed to attaining a good standard of Icelandic. The links between nation and language here are notoriously strong - an oft-quoted example of this is the signs at Keflavík airport. The English version says, "Welcome to Iceland". The Icelandic version says, "Velkomin heim" ("Welcome home"). If you speak Icelandic then Iceland is your home - if you don't, then you are a visitor. Think about it, it's not an assumption you could make, and largely be right about, in many other international airports.

I was doing a bit of reading for some of my university work and I came upon this paragraph in a text outlining proposed language policy in Iceland (originally in Icelandic, but I have translated it with my skills):
There is a danger that foreigners here in Iceland do not receive sufficient encouragement to learn Icelandic. Unfortunately, the view is widespread amongst Icelanders that Icelandic is a "little language" because of how few speak it, and therefore it is perhaps not worth it for foreigners to learn it; also that Icelandic is an archaic and complicated language and therefore tremendously difficult for foreigners to learn. On top of this is the common opinion among Icelanders that they themselves are so proficient in English that it is easy to live and work in Iceland without learning Icelandic, English is universally viable in Iceland. Obviously it is undeniable that the number of people who speak Icelandic is not great in international terms. What is more important, however, is that Icelandic is the language of society as a whole; in Iceland, Icelandic is the principle language in all areas of society. Icelandic is therefore the most important language in Iceland by far. In order to be able to fully take part in Icelandic society and properly enjoy the complete quality of life on offer, it is necessary to have command of the language - Icelandic is the key to Icelandic society.1
It's true of course. I've heard a lot of foreigners here complaining most bitterly over closed-minded, unfriendly Icelanders - I've even heard the term "racist" thrown around pretty casually. There definitely is a lot of xenophobia within Icelandic society - as one might expect from such a small, homogeneous nation that for so long was pretty isolated from the rest of the world - and I'm not at all saying that there aren't problems that need to be addressed. I'm also aware that I have it easier here as a western European than someone from say, Asia. But I personally become irritated pretty quickly when a group gets into a complaining session about how Icelanders hate foreigners and how difficult it is to make friends with them. Without fail, the loudest voices here come from the ones who speak little or no Icelandic. In all fairness, should you really be able to expect groups of Icelanders to switch over to English based on the presence of one person who doesn't speak Icelandic? Sure, it's the polite thing to do if that one person is to feel included, but you can't demand that people keep on doing this for you, that they repeatedly put themselves at a linguistic disadvantage to suit you. You need to go some of that distance to bridge the gap yourself, and a big part of that is learning the language. Icelanders are generally friendly to visitors, but you'll never quite be an insider unless you speak the language - you'll still be a visitor in some sense.

This isn't a flip of the switch process, though. Language-learning is a curve, you're not going to get there overnight. I've achieved the "insider" status of someone who speaks Icelandic, but only to a certain extent. I don't ever expect (or really want) my Icelandic to be at a level where people don't notice I'm foreign. At the moment though, I'm still struggling for words in a lot of situations, I can say a lot of things and carry a conversation about most topics just fine, but without finesse - and I still make grammatical errors that immediately mark my speech as foreign. If we accept that the burden of bridging the gap between immigrant and native rightly falls mainly on the immigrant, that also means that all the linguistic disadvantage falls on you, the foreigner. 

In my experience as someone trying to speak Icelandic as a second language in Iceland, the vast majority of people you speak to will recognise that and try to help you feel confident through the way that they interact with you. I could count on one hand (one finger probably) the number of times I've received an overtly negative reaction to my Icelandic - most people are grateful for your efforts and respect you for what you've achieved, even though you're not perfect. The best thing is when you feel like you're actually communicating, that you're being listened to and responded to based on what you're saying, that your "foreignness" isn't the central point in the conversation. Unfortunately, "talking to foreigners" isn't a social skill that all Icelanders have perfected. I'm sure immigrants in the UK with English as a second language have to deal with a lot worse, so bear with me while I complain about what are probably quite trivial irritations, which basically fall into two camps: the overly positive and the overly critical.

There are some who treat you a little like a dog that has learnt to walk on its hind legs ("it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all" - the supremely sexist comment from Samuel Johnson on female preachers). They certainly mean to pay you a compliment when they react with delighted surprise on hearing you speak Icelandic, but when you've heard this a few times it begins to wear a little thin. Don't get me wrong, practically nothing makes me happier than when people compliment my Icelandic, I've worked hard at it and it's good to hear it's going well - just that often it comes off as patronising. You sometimes get the impression that people would compliment you even if you'd only mastered "góðan daginn"... An exaggeration, but the point stands. Dear Icelanders: Icelandic is not the most difficult language on the planet, it is not a miracle that a non-Icelander can string a few sentences together. Please keep your compliments genuine and in perspective. 

These people are a hundred times better than the other sort, though. There are people (thankfully few) who couldn't care less what you are actually saying, they are just delighted to have the opportunity to instruct you on the Icelandic language. Of course it's useful to get corrections and tips on how to speak the language better, but when the original topic of conversation is completely pushed to one side, your autonomy as a speaker is taken away. I have spoken to Icelanders who have simply denied me the power of communication because, although they understood me, I did not say it flawlessly - instead of answering me and giving a correction perhaps as a side-note (or correcting in a more subtle way using repetition plus rephrasing/correction), the correction is the answer. No, I don't want to keep on making the same mistakes because everyone's too polite to say anything, but this sort of approach is extremely disheartening and certainly discourages us foreigners from even trying to say anything in Icelandic.

1. Íslenska til alls, Tillögur íslenskrar málnefndar að íslenskri málstefnu (Reykjavík: Menntamálaráðuneyti, 2008), p. 79.

Ljóni kisi and other news

Last Sunday we realised we hadn't seen the cat for a while. Ahmad said that he'd been in on Saturday morning, but otherwise his whereabouts were unknown. Since he's a pretty sociable cat and is rarely out for more than a few hours at a time, this was a bit worrying. Ahmad went out to look for him, and put up adverts on Kattholt and Dyrahjalp. On Monday with still no sign of Ljóni, he printed out some flyers to hand round to the neighbours and stick up in the local shops. I felt that, sad as it was, the most likely explanation was that he'd been run over. He's young, and we live in a pretty quiet area so he might not be as wary of cars as some cats.
Then on Wednesday I came home from the library to be greeted by a wailing of meows. Apparently someone in the neighbourhood had found him locked inside their garage, and Ahmad's phone number and our address were on his collar so they got in touch. Instead of waiting for Ahmad to go and pick him up, they just brought him round and let him go in our garden, where apparently he ran straight inside. I gave him a whole can of tuna to eat (which he didn't manage to finish, but he seemed pretty hungry nonetheless) and was much relieved. Our stripy little bird-murderer back to spread feathers and blood all over the living room another day! He seems to have been slightly freaked out by his experiences and to be suffering from abandonment issues now, meowing his head off when you don't let him come with you into the bathroom for example. But I'm sure he'll get over it soon enough.
He's not living here much longer though. Along with Ahmad, he's moving to Garðabær to Ahmad's mother's house. So Thomas and I have been searching for a new flatmate. We put up some adverts and unsurprisingly got a fair amount of interest, because our flat is amazing and in a really good location. We had some of the promising applicants over and we've now chosen someone who, all going well, will move in in January. She has a cat as well, so we can get a replacement for Ljóni, who I will miss. I suppose I'll miss Ahmad a bit as well, but not really because I'm sure I will still see him really often.

The City of Dreadful Night

Although the brightness in the summer time doesn't stop me sleeping, the darkness in the winter really does stop me waking up. I feel like I'm in a constant state of semi-dozing, dragging myself out of bed in the mornings (not that I'm the greatest morning riser at the best of times), my unwillingness to participate in the world slowly reaching new lows in the afternoon as it gets dark again. And when I say mornings, I mean approaching midday. The level of light has convinced my brain that it is not a reasonable time to get up until at least 11 am. Sadly sometimes life commitments require me to get up before this. I do not enjoy this.

I usually manage to get into gear by 6 pm, but by that point there's not much of the day left. And it's not even December yet. It reminds me of the world's most depressing poem, 'The City of Dreadful Night' by James Thomson:

The City is of Night; perchance of Death
But certainly of Night; for never there
Can come the lucid morning's fragrant breath
After the dewy dawning's cold grey air:
The moon and stars may shine with scorn or pity
The sun has never visited that city,
For it dissolveth in the daylight fair.

Luckily it's not quite that bad (few things could possibly be as bad as that poem, in which the protagonist's only ray of comfort is that there's no god, so suicide is a legitimate option), but I'm certainly looking forward to the spring.


It is November, which in Iceland is very definitely winter. The mornings are drawing closer and closer to the midday point, the sun hanging low in the sky. We awoke to the first light snowfall a few days ago, snow which is now a thin layer of slick white ice coating the pavements, temperatures hovering just below freezing. Not a single leaf left on the trees, not a chance they could have clung on in the gales that whip through Reykjavík. The edges of the Tjörn are crusted with wind-frothed ice, although there's not a chance of walking on it yet. Christmas decorations have begun to appear already, as seems to be inevitable these days, although thank god I haven't heard any Christmas music yet. 

The bright point is the jólabjór in the warmth of the bars - the Kaldi is particularly good, the Gæðingur also well worth a try. Last Friday I went to Hemmi og Valdi with Siri, stumbled upon some poetry night, too late to relocate since we'd already bought a pint of the jóla-Víking. Some of them weren't bad, some of them seemed to go on rather too long. In general I prefer music to poetry in a pub setting. When it was over Grétar joined us, and then Ewelina and Kalli, and we headed down to the Microbar on Austurvöllur to sample the more upmarket jólabjórs. The only one I haven't tried now is the Tuborg, imported from Denmark, where I believe the tradition of Christmas beer comes from. 

The university semester is gearing up towards final projects and exams, so there's a lot to do on that front. I'll be finished on the 10th December, and then my flight back to England is on the 18th. I'm spending Christmas with the family of course, but then coming back to Iceland for New Year's Eve. I want to see what all the fuss is about, although odds are it will be anticlimactic. Apparently the fireworks are really incredible, and I missed Fireworks Night of course, so it would be nice to see some good ones.