Larissa Kyzer is a writer and student of the Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. She currently lives in Reykjavík with her partner Mark and blogs about life and language-learning at ethandthorn.wordpress.com.
In her first column for The Island Review, Larissa reflects on the challenges and joys of being an outsider in Iceland.
‘Hey! Foreign lady!’ Thus began my recent introduction to the joys of conversing with young, filterless Icelandic children at the suburban after-school program where I have started working in the afternoons. It was my first day on the job and my optimism about being able to communicate basic instructions to my new charges—let alone beautiful and complex messages of acceptance and cultural diversity—in their native (my would-be second) tongue, was waning, to say the least. “My name is Larissa,” I told him with a shaky accent, but successful Icelandic inflection. LA-rissa, as though I was standing on my tip-toes for the first syllable. “My name is not ‘útlensk.’” The boy shrugged, unabashed, and said he forgot my name already. “LA-rissa.” He looked at me skeptically for a moment and then shook his head in disbelief. “LA-rissa? Neiiii.” That simply couldn’t be my actual name.
No matter how open and adventurous you are when you move to a new country, no matter how much prior knowledge you have about the place, no matter how intentional and premeditated your arrival: integration in a new culture is a journey. And kind of a long one, at that. I’ve been here in Iceland for just over two years now and I’m starting my third year studying Icelandic as a Second Language at the university-level (that’s the whole reason I came, actually). And although it’s often been something of an uphill battle, my partner and I have been very happy here. We’ve made lives for ourselves in Reykjavík—the nation’s single urban hub, home to more than two thirds of the total population—and have had opportunities that would have been completely and utterly impossible in the crush of in New York City, where we previously lived for ten years.
Moreover, in my time here, I’ve picked up a fair amount of local habits. I drink squeeze boxes of kókó mjólk (chocolate milk) with frankly alarming frequency, despite the fact that when I arrived, I couldn’t stand milk and wasn’t really a fan of chocolate, either. I wear a traditional Icelandic lopapeysa sweater. I get antsy if there is no intermission during a film at the movie theater. Swimming outdoors during a snow storm doesn’t faze me (the pools are geothermally-heated, after all, and anyway, I’ve started winter sea swimming, too). And, like any born-and-bread Icelander, I now understand that umbrellas are not only futile in the country’s gale force winds, they are also symbolic of man’s inability to cope with slightly inconvenient weather patterns.
And yet, although I’ve adopted a variety of Icelandic tendencies and adapted in other, perhaps more significant, ways as well, I still experience a sense of distance and remove here in Iceland, a sense of being outside. I am, as that child so matter-of-factly reminded me, an “útlendingur,” a foreigner. I’m reminded of a brilliant moment in that classic 90s film, “My Cousin Vinny.” The eponymous Brooklynite, decked out in a black leather jacket and gold chain in the middle of rural Alabama, is fussing over his girlfriend’s spectacularly vivid Otherness. “You stick out like a sore thumb around here,” he grumbles. “At least I’m wearing cowboy boots.” She remains unfazed, taps her sunglasses down just a tick. “Yeah, you blend.”
I’m foreign. There’s no real point pretending otherwise. Here in Iceland, like many others (more than you might imagine in a country this small and this isolated), my most prominent characteristic is that I wasn’t born here. (Or, as they say in the state of Maine, I’m “from away.”) It’s a condition I don’t expect to overcome anytime soon. And honestly, I’m not sure I want to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to remain a permanent outsider. And I’m not trying to set myself apart because there is anything wrong with being Icelandic or because I have some deeply-felt sense of my own American-ness that I’m afraid will be subsumed in a new cultural identity. As it happens, I desperately want to be inside this place and this language. I hope to one day become a literary translator and translate contemporary Icelandic fiction into English, a goal which, no, won’t cure cancer, but means an awful lot to me and which will, in my mind, still make a postive difference in the world. Which is why, despite the fact that I had already finished (a couple rounds of) college, I applied for a grant and yanked my partner and I out of our jobs, away from our loved ones, and up to an isolated island nation known globally for active volcanoes, ideosyncratic musicians, beauty queens, elves, and short-sighted investment schemes.
(Icelandic has over 30 forms of the word “one,” half of which are in the plural. So believe me when I say that I didn’t move here and start studying the language on a whim.)
But the point is that being an outsider can have its benefits. It gives you a lot of perspective, for one. As the Icelandic proverb goes, “Glöggt er gests augað,” or ‘Clear is the eye of the guest.’ Discovering myself to suddenly be different, to suddenly not know how to manage everyday tasks from the most simple and mundane, like buying vanilla at the supermarket (it’s kept hidden under the cash register because it has marginally alcoholic content), to the most bureacratically complex, like securing a work permit and paying taxes, I became hyper-attentive. Not only to Iceland and Icelanders and Icelandic ways, but also to myself. My own predilections and preconceptions, my national attitudes, my turns of phrase, my accent, my clothes, my background, my personality, my weaknesses and my strengths.
I think it’s fair to say that I knew myself pretty well before I came to Iceland, but moving here was like meeting myself all over again. It’s been a journey, filled with many stories and observations, and every day still brings new surprises.