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On being mistaken for a tourist

Some people, including some who read this website [you know who you are, wink] have remarked on the amazing fact that Icelanders always just seem to KNOW if someone is foreign, and not Icelandic.

It’s like a sixth sense.

I was telling EPI this and he remarked, “Well, not quite.”

Turns out that when he’s wearing his super-sporty cycling outfit [which he wears VERY often, especially in summer because he goes everywhere on his bike] Icelandic shop clerks frequently address him in English.

He figures they mistake him for a tourist.

I mean, it’s an easy mistake to make, right? On account of all the tourists we have walking around here in their super-sporty cycling outfits?

Yep. Elementary.

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  • Lissa July 15, 2010, 3:14 pm

    Tourists are always easy to spot. If the weird clothes don’t do it, the confused look while standing around looking for answers will (I work in Washington, DC. Please do not stand in Union Station chatting. Thank you.)

    So I was shocked when I was not just greeted but spoken to in Icelandic in a shop in Akureyri last year. I figured my creative interpretation of góðan daginn would make it clear to anyone I was a foreigner, leaving aside my unstylish tourist clothing (no, I was not wearing super-sporty anything).

    It was flattering as all heck. Cute, too, as the shopkeeper was mortified.

  • Esteban July 15, 2010, 4:03 pm

    I find that I am more frequently addressed in Icelandic when I am visibly hungover.

  • Auður July 15, 2010, 4:22 pm

    Hah! I have a story to share on this topic; when I was still living back home in Iceland, two different shop clerks at Bónus very kindly asked me in english: “Do you wanna bag?” on two different occasions. Also, but not as nice, walking home from school about 5 years ago some teenagers shouted from a parked car, in Icelandic, something along the lines of “go home!” as if I was an unwanted immigrant.

  • Karen July 15, 2010, 4:45 pm

    My husband was so proud of himself once when a store clerk actually replied to him in Icelandic after an attempt at “Goðin Daginn” – most of the time they’d been replying in English.

    Yeah, I guess we stand out. 🙂 Not for the super sporty clothes, ’cause we’re history geeks, not sporty people. But something says ‘tourist’. It’s probably the camera. Oh well, a few more visits should take care of it. 🙂

  • The Fred from the forums July 15, 2010, 5:25 pm

    In that position I would have been tempted to reply with a long grammatical Icelandic sentence but deliberately mangling my pronunciation, just to create an impossible puzzle for my listener.

  • Paul Clapham July 15, 2010, 6:03 pm

    I was addressed in Icelandic when I was there (as a tourist) last year. However it was the checkout clerk at (I think) the Bonus and perhaps she didn’t look too closely. She said something including the word “poke” so I gathered she was asking if I wanted a bag. “No thank you” I said and she looked up, a bit startled.

  • Joerg July 15, 2010, 6:06 pm

    I hope, it will not leave a deep scar on an Icelander’s psyche, if he is mistaken for a tourist. 😉

    On the other side – I don’t suppose, that being spoken at in Icelandic is generally equal to being mistaken for an Icelander but I think, it’s an indicator. My theory is, the fewer layers of clothing I wear and the less colorful my outfit is, the more likely I am being addressed in Icelandic.

    Of course, there are other indicators. If I am wearing my Cintamani jacket, I will more likely appear like an Icelander than if I am going sightseeing through Reykjavik in walking boots.

    In the outback it’s more difficult to decide but there is one rule. If I come across a group of people in the middle of nowhere, who make every effort to ignore me, than they are definitely Icelanders. It has happened a couple of times and feels always somehow awquard – completely different to the same situation in Anglo-Saxon parts of the world.

  • SOe July 15, 2010, 6:11 pm

    Perhaps a reminder of the good years when it was hard to find Icelanders in Iceland (Reykjavik) during summer 😉 90% of the people during the summer months were tourists or foreign summer jobber while the Icelander was in Spain, …

  • Zig July 15, 2010, 7:36 pm

    ^^^I would be happy if I said something in Icelandic and they replied even if they heard an accent, because that means that they want to help you learn Icelandic. In fact, wherever I am I usually refuse to speak English with people if they are trying to with me, simply because I don’t feel like it’s advantageous for myself. If they want to practise their English with me, then they can go to an English country :p. I did this in Germany a lot, although my German actually allowed that since it’s quite good.

    Anyway I was in Iceland and I was never addressed in English ever/anywhere, only ever Icelandic, but it might have been because when I went there I was 17 and just hanging out with other people my age.

    It was certainly funny at some points and fun at others. For example I was in the penis mall and some girl came up and talked to the group of people I was with and then remarked that I was really quiet, to which my mates replied that I was a foreigner ha ha. That happened several times actually, quite fun. And then sometimes it was fun when I tried to do simple things in Iceland, say, at a movie theatre.

    But then again, when people are OBVIOUSLY tourists, it’s very noticeable (as redundant as that sounds). This happens to me in my uni town here actually. I can often tell when someone’s on a holiday or something (having a local dialect helps distinguish as well :p). I could even pick them out in Reykjavík (the people wearing jackets in July/August).

  • sylvia hikins July 15, 2010, 8:18 pm

    I was mistaken as a ‘local’ too last March when I was photographed in my padded winter coat and fur lined hood by two young students for a school project. I was not only chuffed about being assumed Icelandic, but as an older person, even photograpohed at all!!!! More reasons for loving Iceland and Reykjavik.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Peter - London July 15, 2010, 9:43 pm

    I find its pretty easy to spot foreigners in London; the clothes, the makeup, hairstyle, the skin colour and features. Americans are the easiest, they are often overweight and their clothes are cut to fit a heavier person.

  • Rob July 15, 2010, 10:32 pm

    I am addressed in Icelandic all the time, but i am Canadian, luckily I know just enough to buy things at the store without having to resort to English. TBH there is a few times i just nod my head.

    The times i don’t get addressed in Icelandic are when i am on my bike with shorts and a T-shirt, then i just get strange looks and asked where i am from.

    I come from norther Canada, Iceland is warm (year round) 😛

  • Volkmar July 16, 2010, 12:13 am

    On my first two days in Iceland, everybody addressed me in English. But then, I went to a 66° North store and bought a jacket there. From that moment on, each time I wore that jacket, I was adressed in Icelandic 70% of the time. I think it was not the jacket alone, the other reason was that my camera, being quite small, was hidden in my pocket most of the time. I’m sure: with a visible camera, most Icelanders would have recognized me as a tourist.

  • Jeffrey Diamond July 16, 2010, 12:26 am

    I like to dress up as a tourist in my own town, it’s fun 🙂 feels like you’re on holidays.

  • Mark July 16, 2010, 1:52 am

    If you know a bit of Icelandic and are trying it out don’t answer back in English if thy say “what?”. Let them open their ears grow their range of understanding.

  • Natalie July 16, 2010, 3:20 am

    It must be a sixth sense, I have a good experience and a bad one. My first time ever in Iceland back in 97, with my Aunt, we are in this shop looking at the, you guessed it the alcohol or spirits, well I was 🙂 I was wearing a black coat with a pink ribbion pin and jeans with nice shoes 😉 , I didn’t think I looked like a tourist, (I tried not to) the woman at the shop looked at me, smiled, I smiled back, then she asked me in English how my íslenska was coming.
    My other time in Iceland, I had some creepy woman at one of the airport shops, stare and follow me around the store for a good 30min, oui, I am a tourist, you don’t need to stare and follow me.

  • Jessica July 16, 2010, 10:30 am

    I would agree with Joerg that the less colourful and “weather appropriate” I am dressed (meaning dark clothing with sandals and light sweater in drizzly 12 degree C weather) the more I am responded to in Icelandic. It could also be that I have a tendency to dress like a crazy bag lady (think Mary Kate Olsen), which seems to be the style in 101. Or maybe because I’m not overweight, my American nationality is cleverly disguised. (There are a few of us, Peter! : ‘ )

    It could also be a sign of the times that people here are beginning to realize that Icelanders aren’t all blond and blue-eyed. Internationalization is starting to show up in the DNA. : ‘ ) And while some nationalist zealots may not like it, it’s nice to have more diversity here.

  • hildigunnur July 16, 2010, 4:35 pm

    haha, my husband looks like he can fit in everywhere – doesn’t matter where we are in the (western) world, Italy, Australia, Britain, Germany, Czech Republic, people always tend to stop him and ask for directions.

    I think tourists are fairly easy to spot anywhere, actually, not just here.

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson July 16, 2010, 6:46 pm

    Jessica, Icelanders have never been all blond and blue eyed (the majority are not, cause of our Irish/Scottish genes) but I think that is something that is often assumed by foreigners.
    I have been mistaken for a foreigner myself but the one to make that mistake was a Spanish woman working at a restaurant in downtown Reykjavik, I was well tanned at the time and with my brown hair and green eyes did not fit her stereotype of how an Icelander should look.
    She asked me where I was from and was very surprised at my reply.
    If you want blond/blue eyes, you should rather check Sweden or Denmark, they look much closer to that ideal.

  • hildigunnur July 17, 2010, 10:49 pm

    Jessica, Sigvaldi is right – we’ve never been very blond and blue-eyed. The people from the Nazi party who talked about Icelanders being the ultimate Arye people got a shock when they came up here and saw all the dark-haired people here.

  • hildigunnur July 18, 2010, 1:32 am

    (and actually, bizarrely, I think one of the reasons my husband gets stopped for directions is his ultra sporty running outfit – a runner who looks like he knows where he’s going is bound to live in the area).

  • kay July 23, 2010, 10:56 pm

    That is something that struck me when I came to Iceland : expecting to see the aryan cliche and instead finding people of an average height and a lot of brunette and brown eyed people. The one thing that I noticed is that icelandic women do not have big(wide etc) noses. I havent been spoken to a single time in english during my stay (even though that would have helped since i had to ask everyone to repeat) and physically im just the average 5’5 girl with brown hair and blue eyes.