- Tromping through the forest in an overlarge men’s coat and new hiking boots while the dogs run at my feet makes me feel exceedingly happy and a little like Elizabeth Bennet.
- Today at work an elderly French man was wearing a scent that smelled so lovely and clean. My first thought, “Ah, so that’s why she’s with him,” regarding his much younger and very elegant wife.
- On Sunday evening, as I drove down the mountain, there was so much rain and fog that the view was completely gone. It was a surprise to realize that no view made me more nervous than the usual sight of a steep drop from sky to plain.
After almost three months of midnight sun, I have a strange yearning for nighttime and for stars. I want to sip hot tea out of a giant (American sized) mug and wear thick lopapeysa and read mostly-happy books while lounging under a cozy blanket on the couch. The days are already getting shorter.
I want to putter around the house, getting ready for bed, only to hear M call from beside the window, “Look outside!” and see streaks of green and purple dancing across the sky–the Northern Lights, flaming bright, just for us.
We have been searching for a place to call our own, and wouldn’t you know it–glorious Iceland, a country that just appears to be overflowing with land, land, land–has an eeny meeny housing market. Especially in our neck of the woods.
Any new listings that fit our budget and wishlist are quickly visited. We hold fast to optimism and hope, try to see the new view through rose colored glasses, only to be hit with a semi-truck of a huge dealbreaker.
It’s a bummer.
I wonder if the universe is trying to tell us something. Should we move to the North of Iceland, far away from family and friends (and Thai food)? Should we move to the States, and try to shift our dreams to Tennessee terrain? Should we try to move to France so that M can learn more about his beloved la Bresse chickens?
I know I should be grateful that we have a roof over our heads. But it is difficult to find gratitude when you live in a tiny summerhouse filled with another person’s belongings. Especially when that person’s idea of decoration is a beloved collection of miniature clown/troll/baby dolls.
Sometimes it feels like we will never own a house and will be nomadic renters forever. I crave stability. I crave STUFF. I dream of buying a vase that is Yves Klein blue and filling it with wildflowers. I dream about buying framed art prints and hanging them on white walls. I keep a list on my computer:
the duel russian ilya repin
les coquelicots argenteuil
But one has to stay strong. So I stuff the miniature dolls into the extra wardrobe (Icelandic houses don’t have closets), eat a piece of fresh sourdough bread with creamy Icelandic butter and watch the sunset. The clouds turn purple and the light goes reddish orange and the golden sun drips behind the horizon line.
No one can own a sunset.
They say that eyes are the windows to the soul. But if you’re woman living in Iceland, eyebrows are equally as important.
When I first moved to Iceland, I noticed a strange commonality among my female coworkers. Every few weeks, a woman would appear at work and something would be different. Had she gotten a haircut? Was she wearing more makeup? Did she lose weight?
After a second, more detailed scan I would pinpoint the change. It was the eyebrows–they were thicker, darker and more vivid. This–shall we say–intensity was not especially attractive, almost making the women appear vaguely angry.
After some days, the women’s eyebrows would fade and become more normal looking, and my curiosity would diminish.
Eventually, a new friend asked if she could dye my eyebrows. I felt honored by the request, as if I were being invited into a club that I never knew existed.
“Ohhhhh! I’ve noticed that’s a thing here,” I said. “But aren’t they are bit, erm, dark afterward?”
“Nei nei,” she laughed. “Some people just leave the dye on too long. We’ll set a timer, don’t worry.”
And so, my eyebrows were dyed Icelandic-style for the very first time. I was blessed with my mother’s brows which are darker and thicker on one side but then fade into blonde nothingness toward my temples. So basically, half an eyebrow.
The dye made the blonde hair turn an appropriate brown-black, and suddenly, my eyebrows were even and well-shaped. And while the brows were a teensy bit too dark on that first day, they faded quickly and were soon the perfect shade.
Yesterday, we went to look at another house for sale. The conversation was taking place in Icelandic until my husband told the homeowner that I was American and was still learning the language.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “You just really have an Icelandic look to you.”
I smiled, knowing exactly why I been mistaken for a local. The night before, I’d had my eyebrows done.
Friendship is something I value more than almost anything. Friends help me overcome struggles, encourage my creativity and make me laugh so hard I snort (the best kind of laughter). It is important to try to focus on the present and find new friends when you move to an unfamiliar place, but I am a firm believer that some friendships are meant to endure and even thrive at a distance. I’ve been living abroad in Iceland for one year, but it’s not my first rodeo at maintaining long-distance friendship. I grew up in Tennessee, moved to Illinois for college and then lived in NYC for two years before returning back to Nashville. During those years I also lived in France for five months and traveled around Europe for another three months. I am by no means perfect, but I have learned some strategies to help me stay connected.
1. Less More Often
Conversation is such an important part of friendship–I love to talk about everything under the sun and learn what’s going on in my friends’ lives. But everyone has a busy schedule and time differences definitely don’t help when it comes to planning a catch-up. It’s also difficult to feel tethered to a scheduled phone call. Scheduled calls can inhibit flexibility, and flexibility is key for those who are trying to grow their community. When you are new in town, you want to be available when someone invites you to a last-minute barbecue or for a morning coffee. A good friend will understand if you cancel, but if it happens too often, feelings will be hurt.
This is why I have come to believe in a “less more often” philosophy when it comes to long-distance friendship. I cherish the moments when I can have hour-long conversations with my besties, but I try to stay connected in-between. A quick text is an easy way to check in, and apps like Marco Polo make it simple to send short videos that can be viewed anytime. Don’t save all your news or hold back from reaching out because you’re waiting for the long conversation.
2. Every Friendship Is Different
Every person communicates differently–some friends love to talk and some prefer texting. Ask your friends what works for them and use that knowledge to stay in touch more effectively. One friend might value a long text that they can quickly read more than a video that they have no time to watch. Other friends might prefer videos because they have no time to compose their thoughts and type out a long text. I am still friends with a German woman who I met while traveling through Europe. We send one another handwritten letters 1-2 times per year, never speak on the phone and rarely text, and yet I still value this friendship despite how little we communicate.
3. Technology Helps
Written letters and postcards and very special, but let’s be real–texting, video calls and phone conversations are essential for long-distance friendship. One of my favorite tools is Marco Polo, a video chat app that lets you record videos to send to your friends who can then view them at their convenience. One amazing aspect of the app is the ability to have multiple friends on a group video chat. This is a great way to stay in touch with a friend group and give updates to multiple people at once. You can also multi-task and watch the videos while you are doing chores or talking a walk. We all lead busy lives, so it is wonderful to get a quick update even if you don’t have time for a face-to-face conversation.
My parents recently gave us a Facebook Portal. It looks like a small computer and is setup through your Facebook account. Initially, I wasn’t certain that it would add anything different to my life as I could already use my phone or computer to make calls on Facebook messenger. But having the Facebook Portal has been a game changer. It’s a great tool for my “less more often” philosophy. The Facebook Portal is on our kitchen table and something about its presence has made me more likely to reach out to my friends and loved ones just for a short chat. It’s a good reminder than you can call your loved ones whenever, and you don’t necessarily need to schedule the call. Even if they are busy and you only chat for two minutes, you will feel more connected to your friends.
4. Some Friendships Fade
Not every friendship is meant to last forever. Some friendships make more sense when you are living in the same city, but that does not mean that they will endure long-distance. And that is okay. Just because your friendship fades does not mean your friend despises you or that you are a terrible person. Everyone has busy lives and it is natural that a friendship is strongest when both people live in the same city. Don’t feel guilty if you lose touch with someone who you once considered a best friend. If the friendship is meant to be revived, it will happen. If not, treasure the memories and move on.
5. Live in the Moment
Despite all my tips about maintaining long-distance friendship, I think my biggest piece of advice is to live in the moment. When you move to a new place, your priority should be to grow your community and learn about your new home. It is difficult to make new friends if you are too focused on your old life. If your friends are compassionate, they will understand that your life has changed, and they will show grace in accepting that your friendship has also changed. Living apart from friends and family is a constant balancing act, and it is natural that some months you will better at staying in touch than others. Be kind to yourself and don’t stretch yourself too thin. If you have good friends, they will understand.
We have had amazing weather this summer–warm, sunny days with blue skies that stay blue. It’s the constancy that is so unexpected. A little summer sun isn’t abnormal in Iceland, but it’s usually followed by brisk wind and clusters of clouds scurrying across the sky. Just like that, the sun is gone again.
Sunbathing in Iceland isn’t the leisurely activity one engages in at the beach. No, Icelandic sunbathing is exercise in and of itself. The sunbathee sees the sun and rushes out to the porch, only to rush back inside minutes later. She wears a swimsuit so she can get a proper tan but keeps a sweater at hand, knowing that the sun’s warmth is merely temporary. After a long, dark winter, she is so desperate for a taste of sunlight on her bare skin that she will hover beside the window, hoping for the clouds to pass.
So yes, I have been loving this “hot” Icelandic summer. On my days off, I sit in the garden in shorts and sip an iced beverage. “Am I really in Iceland?” I wonder, watching the dogs run around on green grass, wildflowers waving lazily in a gentle breeze. Memories of the winter mornings when sunrise didn’t occur until 11:00 are difficult to access–I feel supremely content, lucky even.
But the lack of rain coupled with the constant sunshine has brought an insane amount of dust to the air. It fills the car when I drive down the gravel road that leads to our little cottage and turns the horizon into a haze. The looming shapes of Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull disappear into a murky off-white mist. My throat becomes scratchy and my nose gets clogged. I start to hope for rain and lower temperatures, to be tired of all of this heat and dust. It feels like a betrayal until I tell an Icelandic colleague. “Ha!” she laughs. “You’re becoming one of us.”
Last night, my husband and I were lying in bed, talking about our days. Our bedroom curtains have been pulled low all summer, blocking out the midnight sun. But the sun is setting earlier and earlier now, and the nights are getting colder. I had a hunch and pulled up the curtains to open the window as wide as possible.
A deep draught of cool air filled the room, scented with sweet aspen. We both inhaled deeply. It was the pure, Icelandic air that I missed all summer, sweet and clear–almost able to be tasted. “Do you feel that?” I said. “Finally,” my husband said. “Finally, I can breathe again.”
The only real way to learn a new language is through trial by fire.
I have been living in Iceland for just over one year and have taken two Icelandic courses. My comprehension is coming along meira og meira, but I am not a confident speaker.
Part of my struggle is that so many Icelanders speak excellent English. Another part is that I work in the tourism industry and only really speak English with my colleagues. I try to practice with my in-laws, but sometimes the need to communicate outweighs the effort of an attempt. My husband and I practice…until we eventually slide back into English.
But today, my hand was forced. I was sitting in the back office at work, trying to catch up on emails. The phone rang, and because my colleague was busy, I answered. It was a guest, calling to order a taxi back to the hotel after dining out.
Our most reliable local taxi driver is known as Jón Gamli, which literally translates to “Old Jón.” He is very friendly but does not speak much English. I knew in that moment that it was time to put my Icelandic skills to the test and order a taxi instead of waiting for my Icelandic colleague to do it.
I gulped and dialed the number. My words came out in a jumble, but eventually they straightened themselves out into something that sounded comprehensible. At least I knew the words were close enough to correct, even if their endings weren’t.* I even said einmitt (precisely) a few times, as if I were directing the conversation. Jón Gamli seemed to understand my request and mentioned something about how I was dugleg** at learning Icelandic. I hung up the phone, feeling awkward but proud about my semi-comprehensible Icelandic baby talk.
Of course, I asked my colleague to call Jón back and double check that he had understood my message. She said that he had understood einmitt and that he was impressed by how much I had learned. Usually, I would say something self-deprecating, but instead, I smiled and took the compliment. Meira og meira. Einmitt.
*In Icelandic, the endings of words bend depending on how they are used in a sentence. Even people’s names!
**Dugleg is high praise–it means hardworking. Whenever I first heard this word being spoken, I legitimately thought Icelanders were saying Diglett, like the Pokémon.
My husband’s best friend and his wife recently had twins. A week or two after they returned from the hospital, I suggested that we bring them dinner.
“Why?” said my husband. “What do you mean, bring them dinner?”
And so it was revealed to me that Icelanders do not bring new parents food. And yet! This Is Decidedly A Thing, with a myriad of articles offering recommendations about what to bring, advice on how long to stay once the thing has been brought and tips about foods that can be consumed with only one hand (the other presumably being used to hold an infant). But I guess it’s an American Thing, not an Icelandic one.
I consulted my mother-in-law after considering that perhaps my husband just didn’t know the code. This was his first close friend to have a kid, after all. Alas no, my mother-in-law only said “huh?” and stared at me with a puzzled expression. But hope was not lost.
“You know, I did a lot of Swedish stuff when I moved here,” she said, smiling at the distant memory. “All of the Icelanders thought it was a bit weird, but it’s good to share your traditions.”
So damn it, I decided to share my American tradition. My husband was supportive, but I still sensed a vague awkwardness in his demeanor when he alerted me that he had told his friend about our impending dinner offering.
“What did he say?” I asked, hoping to be told that the friend had smiled warmly or exclaimed with great cheer.
“He said okay,” my husband said.
“Okay?” I repeated.
“Yeah, we were mostly talking about dogs, so it wasn’t a big part of the conversation.”
I furrowed my brow but dug in steadfast and determined. As we are living in a tiny summer house without oven or washing machine (I’m not crying, you’re crying), I decided that pizza would be our contribution.
My husband texted his friend and vaguely arranged for a date upon which the pizza would be delivered, with no mention of time nor toppings. I suggested he ask about time or toppings and he said he had a general idea of what would be acceptable.
I felt sheepish and awkward as I walked into the home of two relative strangers holding a pizza aloft.
“You have to explain what’s going on,” my husband said on the walk from the car to the house. “It’s your tradition.”
And so I did, muttering some phrases about “tradition” and “congratulations” and steeling myself for the potential embarrassment of making some kind of cultural faux pas involving pizza and babies.
My husband’s friend took the box and smiled.
“That’s a wonderful tradition!” exclaimed the new mother, grinning broadly.
We walked into the bedroom and peered at the sweet, small babies. Their little hands were grasping at the air, each finger tiny and perfect. Eventually, we went home.
In the car, I relaxed. The smell of aspen trees was on the wind, and the rare Icelandic sun shone down against the dusty road. I looked at my husband who was smiling.
“It’s a good tradition,” he said.
“Told you so,” I winked.