I’ve been living in Iceland for over 6 weeks now, and I’ve definitely had the chance to soak up Icelandic culture. I’ve been trying to keep track of all of my favorite things/the weirdest things about Icelandic culture, so I thought today I would share this list. I do apologize if some of these sound like complaints – I guess sometimes it’s the annoying quirks that I notice the most!
1. Icelanders work. A lot. Several of my colleagues have emphasized to me much Icelanders love to work. Icelanders are often not just given days off – they usually have to ask for a day off. I’ve learned this the hard way as I haven’t had really any days off in the past three weeks, but I’ll hopefully be getting some days off again before I leave.
2. Even the kids work. Icelanders start working at a young age, and especially in the summers, it’s not uncommon to see 13 and 14 year-olds working. There is a program here where young teenagers earn money for doing basic public works jobs during the summer – things like cleaning up parks, planting trees, removing litter from roads, etc. At first when I would see large groups of 15-year-olds working on the side of the highway, I found it very confusing (in the US that generally implies that the kids are in trouble), but here, that kind of work is perfectly normal.
3. You cannot be vegetarian in Iceland. Period. I’ve traveled a good bit now, so I was expecting it to be slightly difficult to be vegetarian here. However, Iceland’s serious addiction to meat makes this by far the most challenging place I’ve been. Outside of a few of the more touristy restaurants in downtown Reykjavik, most restaurants here literally do not have a single vegetarian option. Even though I’m vegetarian in the states, I’ve been eating fish and some chicken while I’ve been here. I haven’t really had a choice in the matter – every time I eat with my boss or my colleagues, I basically have to either eat meat or eat just crackers and snacks. And after eating crackers for lunch or dinner a few (or really way) too many times, I find myself needing real food. Needless to say, I am very, very, very excited about returning to the land of delicious, healthy vegetarian food!
4. The grocery stores are never open. One of the biggest challenges of living here has been finding fresh food. The grocery stores that are easily accessible from my apartment in downtown Reykjavik are only open from 11-6. So when my hours are 9-6 and I don’t have days off, it is basically impossible to go to the grocery store. Fortunately there are corner stores where I can buy cereal, pasta and a can of beans (my staples), but getting fresh vegetables is truly a problem.
5. It is really hard to buy alcohol. Here in Iceland, you can only buy alcohol at Vin Budin, the state-owned alcohol store. And it’s not just hard liquor that’s only purchased in an alcohol store – it’s ALL alcohol, beer and wine included. There are surprisingly few of these stores, and they are only open six days per week from 11-6. Maybe I’m just way too used to being able to get beer at even the gas stations in the states, but it is very annoying if you don’t get off work until late and then cannot get drinks for the night! The store does stay open until 7 pm on Fridays, but if you walk into Vin Budin at 6:45 on a Friday evening, it will feel like half of Reykjavik is in the store. Seriously. I think I’m going to go to Harris Teeter (the North Carolina grocery store) at 1 am when I get home to buy some fresh vegetables and a bottle of wine, just because I can!
6. I don’t understand Icelandic drinking culture. I had a very funny conversation with my boss and my French and Swedish colleagues a few weeks ago about drinking cultures in our countries. I explained to them how my family likes to have a glass of wine with dinner most nights and how I often really enjoy a beer after a long day of work. I very infrequently have lots of drinks; rather I like just a single glass of wine or a beer at the end of the day, and I think this is fairly standard among my friends and family. I was shocked to hear that in Iceland, this would make me an alcoholic. Here, you do not, I repeat, do NOT, drink during the week. At all. But on the weekends, by all means, many Icelanders drink as much as they want until they black out. I work weekends here so I’m usually out the door around 7 am on Sundays, and I frequently walk outside to people literally passed out on the pavement, which in America, is very much frowned upon. It’s pretty funny how the consumption of alcohol varies and I could actually go into fairly significant detail about these two drinking cultures, but I’ll spare the lecture and simply say that I much prefer the ‘American’ drinking culture and will happily return to drinking a glass of wine at dinner when I get home!
7. Icelanders love to swim. And they like it hot. There are pools all over the place in Iceland. Every tiny village has its own pool, often complete with water slides and the mandatory hot pots (hot tubs). Even in the small neighborhood pool I’ve gone to, there were at least 8 different hot pots, all at a different temperature so you can find the one that is just the right temperature. For a cold country sitting on top of basically endless geothermal hot water, Icelanders’ affinity for hot water certainly makes sense. I’ve discovered this water is a bit too hot for me; every time I’ve gone to one of the pools and sat in the hot water, I’ve had to leave because I felt too sick or too lightheaded. I may be like the Icelanders given my toughness in the rain and cold, but I’m apparently not quite able to handle the heat!
8. Everything smells like sulfur. The first time I showered here, I was in for quite a nasty surprise. Here all hot water comes straight from the very hot ground, which makes it an extremely renewable and sustainable energy source. However, this also means that all hot water smells like sulfur. Really quite strongly like sulfur actually. I hated showering for my first few weeks because I simply could not stand the smell, but at this point I’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t even notice. Also, because all hot water is geothermal, the hot water is actually so hot that it can actually burn you. I like not ever having to worry about running out of hot water (a common issue when you have 6 roommates), but even after 6 weeks I still haven’t quite mastered the art of getting the water to the right temperature.
9. People here know their geology. In the US, I often feel a little strange when I mention that I study geophysics, as it’s such an obscure field that 90% or more of people I meet have absolutely no idea what it is. Even when I mention geology, most people just think, ‘oh yeah, rocks and stuff’ but really don’t know what a geoscience degree actually entails. In Iceland however, everyone knows geology. People are often genuinely interested in discussing geology and understanding the geology of their country. Geology and Geophysics are extremely well-known departments at the universities here, and a getting a geo degree is not at all uncommon. I even met an Icelander at a bar a few weeks ago who is also studying geophysics which would be almost completely unheard of in the states. Iceland’s a pretty awesome place to be for a geoscience nerd like myself!
10. ‘Closed for weather’ means its sunny outside. Icelanders do not complain about the weather as much as you might think they would, as cold and rainy is pretty average here. Many Icelanders I’ve talked to have told me to just forget about ever checking the weather and always prepare for cold and rain – if on the slim chance it’s ever nice, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! It’s nice outside so rarely here that a ‘closed for weather’ sign on the door of a business actually means that it’s sunny outside. If the sun is finally shining, many companies close and all Icelanders go outside for that rare chance to actually get some Vitamin D and feel sun on their skin. And after living here for even just six weeks, I completely understand that feeling!