In Iceland, asking for help can be a complicated business. But as our columnist explains, offering it is even more so.
Chatting over coffee one late summer evening, a friend and I – she Scottish, me American – found ourselves mulling over a subject that is near and dear to just about every expat I’ve ever met, no matter where she’s living or how much she’s acclimated to her second home. Namely, the foibles and oddities of The Locals as compared, of course, to the completely logical and in no way eccentric habits and predilections of we, The Foreigners.
In this particular instance, my friend and I were discussing the way in which Icelanders tend to offer help. Or, more accurately, the frequency with which they specifically don’t offer help. To my friend, a very considerate and attentive person herself, this often comes across as rudeness. To her Icelandic husband, it’s the very opposite. “If someone wants help, they’ll ask for it,” he told her. “But they probably want to do it themselves.”
Accustomed as I am to Americans’ comparatively fanatical need to forestall even the slightest bit of confusion and to offer immediate, unasked for assistance to anyone, I, like my friend, find this attitude a bit off-putting. Because if we’re generalizing (and I am), Americans are a pretty solicitous bunch. We want – need – to help. We give directions to people who look lost. We make restaurant recommendations. We post product reviews on websites. We help pick up dropped change. We open doors, we hold elevators, we give frighteningly detailed instructions for even the smallest tasks, and we always bless sneezes. We’re a nation of waitresses, working for tips, all the time.
Icelanders, not so much. The golden rule here is self-sufficiency. So stepping on someone’s unalienable right to hash it out oneself, is, as far as I can tell, considered about as low as telling your best friend that her newborn baby looks like a smushed rutabaga. No wonder then that the national novel, as one might easily refer to it, is Halldór Laxness’ Independent People, a novel which one of my Icelandic teachers summarized thusly: “I’m starving and my family’s all dying, but I at least I work for myself! I’m independent!”
To further my point: I have only received one direct reproof in two months at my new job looking after children at an afterschool center. This was for preemptively pouring a glass of milk for a five year old at snack time. “Larissa, we do not pour the milk unless they ask,” said my colleague. “We want them to become independent.” Keep in mind, I later mistakenly directed the same child to walk home by herself, leaving her stranded on her doorstep until her mother came home an hour later. Utterly distraught at this epic blunder, I apologized profusely, only to have the same colleague shrug and say, “Well, we all make mistakes.”
All this being true, I must stress that if you do directly ask for help, most Icelanders (again, generalizing) will absolutely give you a hand, and will also do so in a way that suggests that it was no big deal whatsoever. The catch about all this freely given assistance in the US, after all, is that it often feels as though it comes with an obligation – one of a great deal of gratitude, if nothing else, although often it’s monetary. You get stranded on the side of the road, someone stops and gives you a ride to the nearest repair shop, you thank them and offer to pay gas money or “something for their trouble.”
Or take the reward money that’s offered for lost pets. Maybe you (the helpee) don’t actually expect that the helper will accept the money you offer (because, honestly, what kind of decent person only returns a puppy because there is money involved?) but it feels rude not to offer. Here in Iceland, however, help, once given, is given freely and without expectation.
My partner and I recently experienced this while on a road trip from Reykjavík to the northern town of Akureyri. It’s not a terribly long drive, only about five hours, but much of it is through mountain passes where it’s nearly impossible to pull over if you have car trouble, and you also don’t pass a whole lot in the way of civilization for the last third of the way. We were driving a sturdy if wobbly borrowed car, one that has survived for ages but looks like it might come apart at the seams if it went over an unexpected pothole. But we had been assured that the owner’s mechanic friend had given it a look and deemed it safe to drive, so we packed up and merrily headed on our way.
About three hours into the drive, we were oohing and aahing our way through the barren but rather magnificent scenery – all new to us – when something unusual happened. An SUV pulled up next to us (at 100 km/hr) and motioned that we should stop the car. I did so and he parked behind me, hopped out, and jogged to the window. He said something in Icelandic that I didn’t quite catch and pointed to the car. I said that I didn’t understand, so he switched to English, went to the back of the car and kicked the wheel. “Your tire is coming off,” he repeated. “You need to jack up the car and retighten the bolts.”
“Do you think we can make it to the next town?” I asked, calculating that that was about 45 minutes away.
“Now,” he told me. “You need to do it now.” And then he jogged back to his car, hopped in, and sped away.
I looked at the wheel. It looked a bit canted but all right to me, but then again, I’ve depended on public transportation for most of my adult life. And, moreover, if an Icelander tells you something is dangerous, you listen. It will not happen often, as they are not a terribly protective, or litigious, culture. But you can be sure that if it looks bad to an Icelander, they aren’t exaggerating.
We had, thankfully, passed a small gas station a few kilometers back, so we turned around and under the watchful eye of the proprietor, jacked up the car and checked the bolts on the tires. Everything was tight as could be. We drove around the parking lot a few times, it still looked okay. So we made our way to the next town, driving much more cautiously, and stopped again. The wheel had jutted out to its original position and was sitting at an ominous angle. We jacked up the car again, more nervously this time, and checked the bolts. Still tight.
It was almost 10pm, too late for a service station to be open, but we decided to drive to the large gas station in the center of town to look for a second opinion. The cashier was young and bored, but went in the back and printed out a list of local mechanics for us, crossing out the names of people he figured wouldn’t answer the phone. When none of the remaining people picked up either, my partner Mark – not himself a terribly gregarious person – decided on another route.
While I returned to the car and stood impotently shining my flashlight on the back wheel, Mark approached two truck drivers who were finishing their coffee. (“They know vehicles,” he pointed out sagely.) Through a series of hand gestures and Iceland-ish phrases, Mark explained the situation. The truckers came over, one immediately dropping to his knees and looking under the car and rattling around with the chassis.
“Skrýtið.” Strange, he said to his friend, lighting a cigarette.
The friend, lighting up his own, went around the back, knelt down, examined. Took the jack from me, jacked up the car with surprising quickness, tested the bolts.
“Skrýtið,” he agreed, adding that the bolts seemed perfectly tight to him. The two men proceeded to physically shake the car, jumping up and down and pushing it with all their considerable might before checking the bolts again.
They turned to us, one of them saying in English that everything was tight enough, but the alignment was off. It would probably hold if we didn’t drive too fast – “not like 120 km, or anything” – but that we should definitely get it checked out tomorrow.
“Where are you going?” they asked us.
“We are going there, too. We will follow you to Akureyri. If you have trouble on the way, we will be there.”
They lit second cigarettes, giving us time to get a head start and waved us on our way. We started weaving through increasingly steep, increasingly winding, pitch-black mountain roads, the only light coming from our (pretty dim) headlights and, soon after, the headlights of the trucks catching up behind. Dutifully staying well under 120 km/hr, I trudged along with one of the trucks close behind me until he cheerfully tooted his horn and passed me.
Now sandwiched in between both, we went along until the road became steep enough that I was traveling much faster than the truck in front. He blinked both turn signals, letting me know I should pass. I did so, and he flashed his lights and sounded the horn again. Then the second truck passed me, same story, and shortly after, when the road got much steeper yet again, I passed them both.
We leap-frogged our way all the way to Akureyri, an hour or so away. My anxiety about our wheel popping off like a champagne cork and spinning us into a ravine to a blazing death evaporated within minutes of joining this cheery caravan. They never sped so far ahead that I didn’t catch up, and – as noted by all the happy light blinking and horn tooting – they were clearly keeping an eye on us.
“Did you at least buy them a coffee when you got to town?” my mother asked when I told her this story.
“No. They pulled over at a grocery store on the edge of town to make a delivery, I think,” I said. “And we just continued on our way.”
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.