I was in the produce section of my local Hagkaup supermarket the other day when I discovered I had a question:
YT: Excuse me, are these tangerines or clementines?*
FLOOR WORKER IN PRODUCE SECTION: [In English] Yes they’re very nice.
YT: [In English] No, I asked if they were tangerines or clementines.
FWIPS: Oh! I don’t know. [Weighty pause] Do you want me to find out?
After the lecture I got in Hagkaup a few weeks ago, I should not have been surprised that the worker in the produce section spoke English. In fact, people who speak [only] English are popping up all over the place now, in service jobs or, indeed, any given economic sector.
Last May, Iceland opened its borders to ten states that have recently joined the European Union and since then, foreign workers have flooded into the country, not least – note bene – because they’ve been invited. With the economy in overdrive, there are simply not enough domestic workers to fill all the vacant jobs and besides, Icelanders reportedly aren’t up to scratch in comparison to the foreign workers. According to one employer quoted in the paper a couple of days ago, he’d much rather hire, say, Polish construction workers, because Icelanders are slower and ‘are always talking on the phone’. Hm. When I think about it, I’m not sure an Icelander would as quickly have offered to ‘find out’ what sort of fruit I was looking at as the Hagkaup produce worker did.
Obviously, so many foreign people entering the country brings its own set of challenges and the Icelandic government has been ridiculously lax in dealing with those, preferring to employ the ostrich strategy. Case in point: an ‘Immigrants Council’ was set up a year or two ago to formulate policies, but under this year’s budget it receives no funding at all. Zilch.
With elections coming up in the spring, it was only a matter of time before a political party seized the opportunity to flag the immigration issue. In Iceland’s case it was the Liberal Party who made a huge splash last week by declaring that they considered it a ‘mistake’ for Iceland to have opened its borders in May, immigrant numbers should be limited, and we should definitely make use of the legal provision allowing us to keep borders closed for two more years to workers from the newest EU states, Bulgaria and Romania. [The government has since agreed to do just that.] The debate has been all over the board and predictably the Liberals have been dubbed racists etc. – however I don’t know that anyone foresaw that their following would shoot up as dramatically as it did, going from a piddly 2% to a sit-up-and-pay-attention 11%. This currently gives them an even greater following than the Progressive Party, that nonetheless makes up half of the coalition government.
What’s good about all this is that the matter is finally up on the table. The government has acted swiftly [did I mention there are elections next spring?] and has already agreed to funding of ISK 100 million [USD 1.5 million] to boost the teaching of Icelandic for foreigners next year. However, for the regular person shopping in the supermarket it brings home the fact that this society is changing at an alarming rate and our wee little language may very likely be dead in another 100 years. It wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the world – but that wouldn’t make it any less sad.
We’ve had two seasons this weekend – on Saturday everything was cool, crisp and white, with snow on the ground and ice on the roads. By Sunday, the streets were bare and everything was back to grey and various shades of faded brown. Today it’s been mild and wet; currently 5°C, sunrise was at 09.46 and sunset at 16.37.
*I can never remember the difference and neither can my fellow Nicelanders, it seems, since they tend to be marked randomly in the stores.