For anyone who missed the last post, this is a continuation of Tom’s trials and tribulations as he tries to practice his Icelandic with the natives. Not a simple task, as it turns out!
I began wondering what, besides my obvious accent in Icelandic, led people to label me as an outlander. I didn’t dress in a particularly touristy way during my day to day life; no camera, no hiking gear as I walked around Reykjavík (why do people do this, anyway?), no giant map. As Alda mentioned in a recent blog post, everyone just knew. While chatting with my teacher one day, I commented on this. He advised that, if any Icelander refused to speak Icelandic to me, I should either a) pretend not to understand them in English or b) call them on it and ask why they refuse to speak Icelandic to me.
I was never bold enough to do the former. I wasn’t too keen on doing the latter, either. The weekend after my second week, however, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. My mom had come to visit me, and I took her to the Blue Lagoon. I bought some food at the snack bar. Being at a touristy place, I was always greeted in English by everyone. Nevertheless, I greeted her in Icelandic, and even asked her a question about the cost of coffee. She replied in English, and I found her attitude slightly offensive. I handed her my bankcard**, and she handed it back to me and nearly spat, “Would you like the receipt?” At this point, I took Jón’s advice.
Me (in Icelandic): I spoke to you in Icelandic, why won’t you speak it to me?
Her (in English): Your bank card was American.
Me (in Icelandic): Yes, but I spoke to you in Icelandic.
Her (in English): Where are you from? AMERICA?
Me (in Icelandic): *blinks* Yes, I am American (Bandaríkjamaður), but I live in Britain, now.
Her (in English): We never use Bandaríkjamaður. You should say Kani instead. And it doesn’t mean Canadian. It’s just our word for American.
Me: Já, ókei. Takk. *storms off*
I was appalled. I don’t pin this woman’s rudeness on her being Icelandic in any way, but it was still the most negative Icelandic language experience I have ever had. When I related this story to other Icelanders, they were surprised both at her behaviour and her language “advice”: Kani is, in fact, a slang term for American, but as with “Yank”, it’s neither the canonical term nor one that an American would necessarily use to describe themself.
As much as this was a low point in my Icelandic language journey, it was also a massive turning point. I wanted to prove to myself that my experience with this woman was unjustified and that my language ability was enough to cross the chasm between Icelander and foreigner, whatever name was on the top of my debit card. I began seeking more situations to talk with random Icelanders. I tried making small talk with shop owners while browsing. I went out of my way to ask questions about things I was curious about even if the answer was inconsequential. This more aggressive approach was exactly what I needed. The responses in these situations were overwhelmingly positive. My Icelandic was far from perfect, but Icelanders seemed to be happy to chat away with an Icelandic learner who showed an interest in their designs/wares/food. Many transitioned from answering my questions to asking about me, asking me about why I speak Icelandic, etc. I think this also changed my overall demeanor, because Icelanders suddenly spoke to me in Icelandic far more than in English. Either my appearance had changed (I guess my hair was two weeks shaggier?) or something about the way I approached people (perhaps without abject terror written on my face?) and interacted in Icelandic had reached the tipping point.
I felt victory was finally achieved in a jewelry shop on Laugavegur one afternoon. I was walking back toward my flat and decided to do a bit of aimless browsing. I walked in and greeted the woman behind the counter. She asked me if I needed any help and I replied that I was just browsing. After walking around for about half a minute, she said something that, lost in thought, I didn’t understand. Only when I asked her what she had said did she say, in English, “Oh! You aren’t Icelandic.”
W00T! This woman had no idea what her simple mistake meant for me. We continued to chat for a while (in Icelandic), and I expressed my absolute glee about the fact that she was the first person not to instantly assume I was a tourist and couldn’t speak Icelandic. I think she thought I was a bit strange for being so happy, but after weeks of feeling like I was under the national microscope, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
My situation only improved from there. People generally assumed that, at the least, I was an Icelandic speaker and I was almost never spoken to in English, even after hearing my accent. I even began receiving compliments about my Icelandic. People could clearly hear my foreignness (they often asked me where I was from), but they clearly approved. I was also often mistaken for a Scandinavian, which made me feel like less like the notorious American/Briton who sticks out like a sore thumb on holiday. All of this may seem a small victory, but after labouring for nearly a month to work a little deeper into this close-knit society, each of these small experiences left me with a warm feeling of acceptance.
The course ended four weeks after it began. I stayed for a week after, and my fiancé and some friends came to hang out with me during that time. Having them there brought back into the focus the life I had taken a short hiatus from to do this course. It also made me very aware of how comfortable I had become in Iceland. While I couldn’t believe that an entire month was already over, I also felt like I had been in Iceland for six months instead of one. Along with the extreme coffee and dairy addictions I developed, my experiences with the language stand out the most in my mind. The anxiety that I felt that first day was gone. The souring experience with the woman at the Blue Lagoon had been overwritten by all the wonderful and kind things people said to me in the following weeks. I realised that, in addition to falling in love with Iceland all over again, I had started to feel rather at home.
Even before this experience, I had the rather unoriginal dream of moving and possibly settling in Iceland one day. There are many obstacles between me and realising that dream. Finishing my degree, finding a job, getting a work permit, convincing the aforementioned fiancé. I know now, however, that I don’t need to be afraid of the cultural barrier. This experience taught me that the role of the Icelandic language is critical. Despite all the other blatant cues that we foreigners apparently broadcast when walking down the street in Reykjavík, the ability to speak the Icelandic language seems to make a lot of other differences infinitely more forgivable. Now that I am back in England and reality has once again set in, I am longing for the day I can return to Iceland, but when I do I feel like the flight attendant will be including me when she says “Velkomin heim.”
*The Icelandic word for foreigner, *”útlendingur”*, translates literally to “outlander”
**I didn’t even make the foreigner mistake of trying to pay with cash everywhere!