OLAFSVIK, Iceland- “There is nothing to do here. Look around, there is nothing,” an 18 year old kid in a bar in Olafsvik explained. His statements were by now seeming to me like a mantra of youth in rural Iceland. This time, finding his town beautiful and full of life, I countered his statement.
“Look around, this place is beautiful. I grew up in the countryside of the USA, a place where there was seriously nothing — way less than here. We knew we had to make our own fun. Look at these mountains, the sea, the boats” I spoke as I pointed into the cliff faces that broke just over us and then around to the port. “People come from all over the world to visity your town, to go into these mountains. Nobody ever wanted to visit my town.”
“If we go out there we die,” the kid countered pointing to the mountains. “I had an uncle once who went out there. He died.”
I left the conversation at a stalemate, grabbed the fellow’s beer and took a long sip. This is the attitude of youth in rural areas everywhere, if someone had said the same thing to me in my hometown when I was 17 I would have laughed in their face: “This place sucks,” I would have said. It was not until many years later until I realized how much fun I had driving around in the countryside, getting into trouble, playing music, making my own life where there was little on offer for kids without money. Perhaps, after moving to Reykjavik for a stint or two, the kids who were raging all around me in Olafsvik may realize that life in their nowhere fishing village was not too bad, and then return.
Olafsvik sits at the far end of the Snaefells peninsula, just a touch to the northeast of the volcano and glacier that gives this spite of land jetting out from the edge of Iceland its name. This place has always been a fishing village, and not even the modern age of industrial fisheries has yet been able to completely change this. The docks stick out into the sea, and the buildings of the town rise above the port. Although only a few hours drive outside of Reykjavik, Olafsvik may as well be on the other side of the earth: this is rural Iceland at its most idyllic, beautiful, bored.
I arrived in Olafsvik after a hard day of bicycling into an extreme head wind around the Snaefells volcano to find the town adorned in pink decorations, stuffed dummies in pink clothes, cutouts of pink pigs taped up in windows, and pink streamers galore. I did not know what was going on — apparently this town likes pink. I turned off into the tourist information office to inquire as to where the campsite was, but I also wanted to know the meaning of the decorations.
“Why are there pigs everywhere?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” the tourist info girl responded, “that is just the decoration people chose this year.”
“Decorations for what?”
She then told me that I had arrived just in time for Olafsvik’s annual summer festival.
Throughout the summer months each town in rural Iceland has their own festivals. The residents deck their houses and front lawns out with decorations which match their town’s designated colors, everyone gets together in the parks and bars, music is played, and everyone parties — for they made it through another winter, the midnight sun is in the sky, there is no such thing as night, it is time to get together and celebrate.
Pierre told me that he was heading home, so I offered to take him out for a beer — a real beer, in a bar, not a light beer from a gas station. We walked into an intentionally rustic looking bar and strode up to the counter. I knew what the damage was going to be. I dropped $16 on two beers. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” I joked with Pierre, “it would ruin my reputation.”
We were soon joined by a twenty something year old local guy. He wanted to guess our nationalities. He asked Pierre his name, he said “Pierre.” I figured this would be no contest, though I was unsure if it was his name or the scarf that was tied around his neck that would give away my companion’s Frenchness. The Icelandic kid had trouble though — for some reason — and we let the cat out of the bag: Pierre is from France.
The fellow then joked about an American and a French guy being friends.
“But you’re not suppose to like each other! You are an American, you are not suppose to like the French.”
This was not the first time in Iceland that people got a kick out of a Frenchman and a Yankee hanging out together. Both Pierre and I seemed to find the reaction rather odd. Pierre was an exchange student in a high school in the USA, and I doubt very much that he received much anti-French sentiment. Rather, his biggest complaints about the USA seemed to be that McDonalds no longer offered the option to “Super-Size” a meal and his host family went ape-shit when he whipped out a cigarette and started smoking in front of them.
“I don’t think most Americans care enough about France to bother disliking French people,” I responded to the Icelandic guy in the bar rather honestly. But resistance was futile, animosity towards the French is one of the odd snapshots of America that Europeans have grasped onto and, apparently, love to believe — sort of like how they like to think that we always eat super large steaks, love imperialism, have a lot of fat people, like everything big, and are all fanatical Christians. I will not vouch for nor deny the veracity of any of this.
Though I did deny that Americans dislike the French.
“But didn’t you change the name of French fries to freedom fries?” the Icelandic guy countered.
“No, we still call them French fries.”
“But I heard you call them freedom fries???” he replied, not giving up.
“Ok, some people use to call them freedom fries,” I admitted, though I had not heard anyone in the USA combine these two words together in unison with a straight face since 2001.
On and on the conversation went. Misinformation about US society is rampant in Europe — even more than in other parts of the world — and many Europeans believe that they know all about the USA, and they often let you know it in cheeky, little dog snippets.
It is interesting to observe the bits and pieces of information about various cultures that get stuck in the collective psyches of other cultures — more often than not when there is no direct exposure between the two parties. Certain off hand tid-bits of mis-informatiom about a place will land in another place in the world, get spread around, and then become some sort of pan-culturally accepted fact. There are just some things that people just love to believe about other places, and it is no use trying to convince them otherwise. Trying to tell that Icelandic guy that Americans generally harbor no overt animosity towards the French would have been like telling an American that Tibetans are not inherently peaceful people. It just doesn’t work. The first “fact” that someone hears about something is the one they tend to believe, and when these “first facts” are backed up without opposition within a community they become tribal knowledge, and therefore virtually impossible or even dangerous to argue against — no matter how incorrect they are. “Freedom fries” is more of a conversation topic in Europe than it ever was in the USA.
The people I meet in travel who have been to the USA are often stripped of their disillusionment, realizing that only the extreme elements of any culture is going to be exported, just as anyone spending any real amount of time in ANY culture are likewise going to lose their illusions. This happens everywhere, it is normal, having your pre-supposed notions about a place and people smashed is one of the prime benefits to traveling the world — but it is still annoying to sit in a bar listening to some Icelandic guy who has never been to the USA tell me about my country. But, to my relief, he was doing the same to Pierre about France.
There is this insecurity that often rises to the surface when traveling in rural areas anywhere in the world: the people, especially men in their 20’s, seem to know that they live outside of the global geo-political-cultural loop, so to speak, and they try to make up for this by trying to convince you otherwise. Just sit down in a bar in some back water town in some country, and, soon enough, some guy will swagger up to you and start telling you all about the way the world IS.
Eventually, my patience with this bar room conversation began to wear thin. By the time the Icelandic know-it-all asked if I was aware of the fact that there was dancing in Indian movies I was already making my way for the door.
It looked like this night would be stunted. Neither Pierre nor I could justify dropping another $16 on a couple more beers, and, as we were conversationally chased from the bar, we began making our way back to camp. But I was stopped short at the barroom door. I saw a girl with tattoos all over her hands and arms who worked in the town’s grocery store and gave me a friendly nod earlier in the day. I walked over and introduced myself and Pierre.
And the night soon began.
Two weeks on the road riding a bicycle through the winds of Iceland is enough to make anyone look like shit. Pierre was not looking much better than I. Our faces were wind burned and had the visual consistency of a sheet of plastic. Our clothes were dirty, worn out, my rain jacket had years of grim worn deeply into the fabric. We truly looked like the vagabonds we were, and when we proclaimed that we could not afford to continue drinking we were easily believed. Hospitality ensued, and a young blond named Telma — The Coolest Girl in Iceland — promptly adopted us, buying us drinks, introducing us to her friends. Before long, two travelers who had grown accustom to being out in the remote Icelandic countryside, alone, braving rugged conditions were now standing outside a bar surrounded by acquaintances, having conversation with anyone who passed by.
This was what I travel for.
“What you need to do,” Telma said to me, “is write an article about me being the coolest girl in Iceland.”
“How do you like your time on Devil’s island?”
“Your country is a geological monstrosity.”
“How does our language sound to you?”
This was a question that I had been asked before as I traveled around Iceland, and I had an answer readily prepared:
“Your language sounds like the landscape. Sometimes smooth and rolling like the sea and sometimes jagged and roughed like the mountains and lava fields.”
They seemed to like me saying this, but the crowd soon added, “Our language sounds like vikings!” and then they all began yelling at each other like vikings. It was true, they did sound like vikings.
It is my observation that black tights with nothing over them or short skirts with nothing beneath them, push up bras, every possible square centimeter of cleavage showing over a low cut skin tight blouses is the national uniform of young Icelandic woman on the drunken prowl. I have rarely seen such sexually voracious and aggressive women in all my travels.
“How do we speak English?” a couple of teenage Icelandic guys asked me.
This seems to be a point of pride in Iceland. Although 99% of the people who I spoke to in the country spoke English fluently it was still a common theme for Icelanders to tell me that very few people spoke English, that only the educated (meaning themselves) learned the language. Many would set me up to tell them that they spoke English better than their peers — this seemed to be a competition of sorts.
“You guys speak English great,” I responded, but did not add that the entire country seemed to speak English equally as great.
One kid then began trying to use very obscure English words in conversation. His friends just laughed at him. I added a few more pompously unneeded words to his vocabulary.
A girl soon tried teaching me some Icelandic.
“See that sign over there,” she began, “that says ‘Hobbit Inn.’ It means hobbit.”
My lesson did not get very far.
A red headed kid then began singing old Irish ballads. I joined him. I found the choice of songs suiting, as this kid looked nearly 100% Irish. The genetic makeup of most Icelanders is roughly 55% Viking — Scandinavian — and 45% British Islander. Both genealogical/ DNA studies and archaeology match up in this regard: en route to Iceland ships full of Vikings would stop in the British Isles to pick up wives.
As would be expected of a former Viking colony, a genetic analysis of the Y chromosome of present-day Icelandic men has found that the vast majority of their male ancestors came from Scandinavia.
However, an analysis of mitochondrial DNA – which we inherit solely from our mothers – has found that much of the female line of present-day Icelanders can be traced back to Britain and Ireland. -Vikings take British and Irish women to Iceland
I asked a group of kids about Jon Gnarr, the mayor of Reykjavik. This guy was formerly a star of the Reykjavik punk rock scene, a taxi cab driver, an assembly line worker in a car factory, and, more recently, a comedian and actor of national fame. Gnarr formed his own political party, called the “Best Party,” and ran on an anarcho-surrealist platform (whatever the f’ck that is) and said he was going to supply swimming pools with towels. His campaign started off as a joke — a media prop, a middle finger response to the old political guard of Iceland — and then he won.
“It was a fuck you vote,” one of the kids told me.
“So the people just wanted something different?” I asked.
“Yes, we wanted something different.”
In 2008, the Icelandic economy crashed as a result of the self-serving exploits of a small handful of powerful individuals. After this, the people said enough, threw some of the offenders in jail, while others fled the country, and some still remain in Iceland to be the continuous target of insults and blame. Seeking a new way, Reykjavik elected a punk rock comedian.
The first thing he did was raise taxes.
Pierre soon enough told me that he wanted a hot dog. Maybe it was because of the all out sausage fest around Telma. Men all through the bar were all over her, grabbing and hugging her as they walked by. Many seemed jealous of the attention she was paying towards her two pet vagabonds.
“Do men hug each other in your countries? Is it strange?” Pierre and I were asked by a curious group of Icelandic males.
“We give dude hugs,” I responded, but this was an inadequate explanation.
“But do you hug like this?” one of them asked and demonstrated the particular way in which Icelandic dudes give each other hugs.
One guy grabbed another firmly and pulled him in with a strong yank. Momentarily placing their heads side by side they finished off the exchange with a few hearty pats on the back. They then repeated the action a second time for added emphasis.
“This is how Icelandic men hug!”
It was a dude hug.
I then became more careful to observe this exchange, and found that this style of hugging was more of a common introduction than a handshake. It became clear: when meeting men in Iceland, hug firm with two pats on the back.
“It is very bad here, the people are very poor,” a 18 year old kid with a sideways baseball cap told me. “Maybe you can’t tell because things look OK, but they are bad.”
“Everyone seems happy,” I responded.
“Yes, that is the problem. I get so angry, I am just angry about this all day long, but there is nothing I can do.”
I gave him a beer.
These Icelanders received a hard blow delivered by the fist of the global economic infrastructure. Their standard of living dropped slightly, prices soared, workers were laid off, but, a few years later, the country has seemingly stabilized. The people are not begging in the streets, they are not living in cardboard shacks on the outskirts of cities without utilities in some unsanitary muck, and almost everyone seems to have what they need to live reasonably well. The economic collapse meant that many people needed to scrip and save, it meant that many lost a good portion of their savings, but it did not mean people starving to death, or, for all apparent purposes, going hungry or without the basic essentials for life. Like so, it was difficult for me to regard the Icelandic economic collapse with much empathy: these people received a hard blow, yes, but they are still living far better than 90% of the planet.
“You are not like most Americans,” one young Icelander notified me, “you are open minded.”
I am unsure where he got the idea that most Americans were less open minded than me, but I replied theoretically nonetheless:
“Everyone that you agree with seems open minded, but really we are just as closed minded as those we disagree with.”
I thought that sounded pretty good.
A crowd of young Icelanders gathered around me as I peeled off my shirt to reveal my upper body tattoos. The Icelanders showed me theirs. The one stout guy strode up and made a very bold claim:
“Look at this,” he roared, “look at this. I have the best tattoo.”
He then slowly rolled up his sleeve. On his upper arm was the best tattoo. I burst out laughing. “OK, you win, hands down, you win.”
There, scrawled indelibly into his skin were the words, “Only my dick can judge me.”
Such a tattoo was in need of an explanation.
“I was in Turkey out one night with my friends and I saw a sign that said ‘Only God can judge me’ and I was like ‘Only my dick can judge me!’ and thought that it was really funny. So I got it tattooed on me that night. I was really drunk.”
“See these jeans, they probably cost $30 in the USA.”
I looked at the jeans of an Icelandic guy. His estimate was correct.
“But here they cost $100.”
Iceland is an expensive country, even for Icelanders. Being a country where the average wage was about the same as that of the USA, I had no idea how anyone was able to afford all the beers they were drinking, or, for that matter, anything else in Iceland beyond the basic living necessities. But they could.
“Please stop saying uh-huh, that really offends me,” a kid that I was talking with at length finally said to me.
“What do you mean, you don’t like me saying uh-huh when you are talking?”
“Yes, that is very offensive in Iceland. It means that you just want the person to finish what they are saying quickly. Like uh-hu, uh-hu, uh-huh, please stop talking.”
“OK, but I am saying uh-huh to show that that I am interested in what I was saying. If I was talking with someone and they didn’t say uh-huh I would think they wern’t listening to me.”
“In Iceland we do this just by nodding silently.”
In a world were cultures are 99% the same, I had finally found that discordant 1% in Iceland. In my culture, as well as in many others, people say uh-huh to show attention in conversation, but in Iceland doing so is a no go. Even after I explained why I was saying uh-huh the guy that I was talking with would continue to get seriously offended and continued to request that I stop.
I tried. I couldn’t do it. It is far too ingrained of a habit to encourage people to continue speaking by saying uh-huh that I truly could not cease doing it without extreme effort. If I thought “don’t say uh-huh” over an over I could gain control of the reaction, but if I were doing this then I was no longer really listening to what we being said. I eventually found talking to this guy too much work to continue doing, and I had to cut the conversation short.
Telling me to stop saying uh-huh in conversation is like telling an Indian to stop head bobbling. It is a very difficult request to fulfill.
There are little ingrained social cues that are ingrained into every culture which its members do as an almost biological reaction. No American tries to say uh-huh in conversation, we just do it. Just as, I assume, no Indian intentionally head bobbles, it is just a symbolic action that was acculturated into them from an early age. Once such patterns — social twitches — are set they become very difficult to break.
Most people in most cultures that I have experienced are able to accept these little socialized twitches — they accept that foreigners come from a different place and may do some things a little differently, and I only very rarely experience instances where my acculturation slams head on with someone else’s. In almost all cultures, foreigners are given social lee way. But this guy at a bar in rural Iceland was offering me no such liberty. He wanted me to stop saying uh-huh. I had to walk away.
It is a good thing that nobody else in Iceland expressed or even seemed to have a problem with my uh-huhs.
The night soon drew to a close in Olafsvik. Well, the night didn’t, but I did. I went back to camp as the all night party raged on. I saw Telma the next day. I thanked her for all the drinks. She coolly brushed off my thank yous. She was hung over.
“I’m so hung over. I haven’t even showered yet. I need to get over this hang over so I can get drunk again tonight.”
I laughed. She was serious.
“See that guy over there,” she said while pointing to a young guy in a cafe. “He got really mad at me because I wouldn’t have sex with him last night.”
“Telma, every guy was trying to have sex with you!” I countered. “They were all over you.”
“That’s because I’m newly single. I’m fresh meat on the market.” She smiled and laughed, loving it.
In August, Telma will move to Reykjavik — like most of the other young Icelanders that I was hanging out with the night before will also eventually do. Reykjavik is the somewhere to their rural nowhere.
“What are you going to do there?” I asked.
“Maybe I’ll become a doctor. Not a drunk doctor, a good one.”
I nodded. It seemed like something within her range of possibilities.
“The big party is tonight,” she added, “last night was just a warm up.”
I told her that I was going to get moving on. I was not sure if I could handle another night of partying Iceland style.
“That’s your choice, but you should stick around, the real party is tonight, honey,” she reiterated as she turned and stylishly walked away.