Monday, July 25, 2011

I Am Different, And That's OK!

I think my cousin Kris (whom I ran into at Kaffibarinn the other night, he’s visiting from the States) said it best the when he described the fashion in Reykjavik as “intense.” At the risk of offending people (although that is not my intention) I will now reveal that I have come to affectionately/jokingly refer to the current trend that’s sweeping the city as “trashy chic.” Last year when I visited Reykjavik, the girls only wore black, and leggings under a miniskirt or dress were the required uniform of the day. Now people have embraced colors, but the outfits they put together look like… Well, it looks to me like they were blindfolded, then walked into a thrift store and picked out seven items and wore them right out of the store. Sometimes the combinations are really cute and creative, and other times they are…not so cute. Then, if you’re a girl who wants to be truly stylish, you must wear hot pink, red, or orange lipstick and put your hair in a bun on top of your head. If you’re a guy, either stop washing your hair entirely and/or put a lot of product in it and then stop washing it. On Saturday night when everyone’s going out, it’s fun and adventurous. On a weekday at two-thirty in the afternoon, it just looks like everyone is trying too hard. The funny thing is that in a place this small, whatever the fashion is, almost every single person adopts it immediately. I love outrageous new looks, but sometimes when I’m hanging out at a bar or café, I find myself yearning for the fashion of the 1940s, when men looked so clean and groomed and handsome, and women’s clothing was so tailored and gorgeous and flattering for the female figure. Of course, I’m always yearning for that time period’s fashion, so it doesn’t say much that I do so now. Luckily for me, by next year there will be a new craze for me to judge and form an opinion about, and it won’t be a big deal in the grand scheme of things either. Nonetheless, my fingers are crossed for a resurgence of the Golden Era of Glamor!

Living in a little place is interesting. No, I don’t mean the apartment, although that is little too, I just mean in a small population. For one thing, gossip among females is just as “intense” as this year’s fashion, and it’s only amplified by the fact that the population is so tiny. I made the mistake of participating at work, to a certain extent, in an effort to fit in (childish, I know), and within a couple weeks a veritable tornado of negative energy was tearing down the proverbial Kansas homestead of my personal life. Woo, what a ride! It was a good lesson to be learned. Negative thoughts and speech breed… more negative thoughts and speech. It wasn’t pretty. But the conflict highlighted a certain characteristic of mine that I’m thinking must be distinctly American: individualism to the point of defiance, when necessary. For example, when things got to a certain level of hostility at work, or if there’s a certain amount of drama surrounding friends or acquaintances, my inner American Rosie the Riveter says, “I don’t have to stand for this kind of treatment! I’m out of here!” and I feel perfectly within my rights to defiantly remove myself from the situation or social circle. Then I roll up my sleeves and go back to building airplanes for the war effort. Figuratively speaking.

I don’t know if that’s usually done here, but I think the customary view is that on this tiny little island, all the social circles are woven together within one big scene, so really there never is any escape from the ebb and flow of the tides of gossip, rumors, and news. I have a feeling all small towns or really close-knit communities are this way in varying degrees of “intensity” (what a handy word in this blog entry!). I mean look at high school for crying out loud, don’t get me started. But what was interesting was that when I compared notes with Icelandic friends about the situation at work, for example, I was the only one who naturally felt that I was within my rights to defiantly “walk out” in protest, so to speak. My American friends, however, totally understood where I was coming from. It’s interesting how when I was in America, I was always noticing the ways in which I was different from other Americans, and now that I’m in Iceland, I’m noticing the ways that I’m different from the Icelanders. It’s kind of fun!

Either way, what I’ve decided is that I am no longer going to attempt to change myself in order to merge with the Icelandic culture. I can go with the fashion to a point (any excuse to wear red lipstick!), but not all the way. I enjoy keeping up with the news of friends and family, but have learned not to share every opinion I have with anyone who will listen. I like being a mixed bag of cultures and characteristics, and hereby proudly embrace the Icelandic, American, and even Austrian (thanks Dad!) traits I exhibit. I already use the excuse, “Well, I’m American,” whenever my opinion on something differs from that of an Icelander I may be talking to (or when I forget how to say something in Icelandic). Although my uncle’s Colombian-American wife says that my sense of time (“It’s not like Earth will drop out of orbit if we’re late.”) and my attitude about when meals should be served (“Dinner can be consumed any time between seven and ten.”) are distinctly Latin, so who knows any more?

Anyway, we’re going on our camping trip this week, finally! I can’t wait to get out of the city again and savor the natural world. I’m going to see if I can find a little Celtic flute before we go, so I can pretend to be an elf and skip around our tent playing songs and NOT annoying the bejeezus out of my boyfriend. I will also definitely NOT try to wake up before him so I can greet him first thing in the morning with the sound of a magical, Celtic version of “Good Morning, Starshine,” being played directly into his ear. Of course not…

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Try the Plastic Trolls, They're Breathtaking.

Wow! The last few weeks have flown by, and I've been either too busy or too lazy to write anything, except for several times when I've really been in the mood to write, but was at work and was unable to do so. But here I am! And yes, you heard me correctly, I have obtained employment! I work at one of the little tourist shops in downtown Reykjavík. We sell many things, such as things made from Icelandic wool. Customers often seem to find it difficult to believe me when I tell them it's Icelandic wool. Many people don't even recognize wool when they encounter it, let alone the Icelandic kind. These conversations go something like this:

Customer: I'm looking for a pair of gloves.
Me: Sure, here are some.
Customer: Hmm... These are gloves?
Me: ...Yes. Gloves. They go on your hands. Have you not seen a pair of gloves before?
Customer:  And what are they made out of?
Me: They're made of wool from the Icelandic sheep.
Customer: Wool? Really? These are wool? Are you sure?
Me: Yes.
Customer: And they're really Icelandic? Are they made here in Iceland?
Me: No, actually it's an interesting process. We raise the sheep here, then round them up, shave off their wool, turn it into yarn, dye it, and then send it off to Malaysia to be knitted into mittens and then sent back here for us to sell them.
Customer: Really?
Me: No.
Customer: So they're Icelandic?
Me: Sir, there's a sticker on them that says "Made from 100% Pure Icelandic Wool." There's a tag sewn in the inside that says it's made of Icelandic wool. There's a cardboard tag on the outside with a picture of an Icelandic sheep that says "Icelandic wool" with a diagram showing why Icelandic wool is superior to all other types of wool in guarding against the elements. Everyone working in this store is Icelandic and has been wrapped, swaddled, hooded, gloved, clothed, or tucked into Icelandic wool in one form of a shockingly wide array of blankets, garments, and protective wear or another since our first tender moments on God's green earth. I'm pretty sure I can spot Icelandic wool from at least 1.5 kilometers away, let alone read to you the statements on these little tags, and I hereby assure you that these gloves are made from the wool of a sheep that is, at this very moment, very likely standing on the other side of that hill over there eating grass! YES. THEY ARE MADE OF ICELANDIC WOOL.
Customer: I don't like the color.
Me: Get out.

No, but really it's not that bad. But there are things that tourists do that are annoying. Some nationalities are more prone to this than others, but if I get into that here I'll make a bunch of hypersensitive enemies and who has time for that? So instead, I've compiled a list that I like to call:

Annoying Things Tourists Do When Shopping In Foreign Countries
  1. Asking how much something costs in dollars/euros/british pounds. Yes, we do have a little currency converter built into our point-of-sale system, and so we are capable of telling you how much something costs in your home currency. But don't you think it's kind of silly to ask a salesperson that kind of question? I live here now and I still find myself calculating how much certain things cost in dollars every now and again, I know it's not an automatic mind adjustment. But when I'm traveling to a foreign country, I like to take the time to find out what the exchange rate is, and am then content to either walk around calculating prices on my own, or to just be satisfied with having a more vague estimation of what the cost is. It just seems so insular and weird to expect a stranger working in a store to do the math for you. What's the matter, are you scared to be away from home? Do you need the rest of the world to turn itself into a duplicate of your homeland for you so you don't have to think too hard? Either buy it or don't, I'm sick of translating for you. Sorry, I guess that bothers me more than I realized.
  2. Complaining about how expensive things are. Try living here. Also, it's a tiny island somewhere between Greenland and the UK. Do you see a plastics factory pumping out toy Viking helmets anywhere? No, you don't. That's why you can breathe our air without getting lung cancer. But it costs money to buy all those little helmets plane tickets and get them over here to this shop where you can buy them for your kids to wear while they hide away from the sun playing video games and eating chips. Either buy it or don't, but loudly whining about the cost does nothing but let us quietly judge you.
  3. Calling things "Icelandic" all the time. This one is difficult to explain and I think I'm the only person that is bothered by it. It weirds me out when people call something by its nationality when they're in that country. Like saying, "Oh Madison, look at those Icelandic mittens!" or "Hey Kyler, check out these Icelandic shot glasses," or "Dude, they've got an apron with an Icelandic penguin on it." (It's a puffin.) For some reason it's just weird to me. Unless the occasion calls for differentiating the item as specifically Icelandic, like when saying, "Icelandic water tastes better than any other water on earth," or "Those shorts have the Icelandic flag on them," it's seems strange to call it out like that. It's like walking into a souvenir shop in the U.S. and saying, "Oh wow look at the American coffee mug!" It's just a coffee mug commemorating your visit. It's not a person or a certain native species of plant or animal. 
  4. Talking in a voice that is slightly too loud for the occasion, as if no one else can understand you. Maybe this works in some countries, but when you come here please be aware that we have a 99.9% literacy rate, and almost everyone speaks at least three languages, one of which is usually English. And even if we don't understand you, loudly talking and joking from across the shop is still disruptive. Don't be rude.
  5. Many people in the world still eat meat. Yes, many Icelanders eat sweet, succulent, adorable lambs, and beautiful puffins and glorious fish and even, in small, controlled quantities, non-endangered species of whale. I just tasted minke whale the other day for the first time, and it was breathtakingly delicious. You go your way, I'll go mine, and if you think that eating nothing but vegetables is anything other than devouring something that was once living and is now dead for your own survival, think again. For all we know, plants may be sentient. They respond to certain stimuli and even music, and, to me, eating a carrot is morally the same as eating "something with a face." So, while I'm on board with protesting animal torture or population depletion of a species because of some myth that their horns or bile or spit will help the Chinese get erections, try to otherwise be sensitive toward other cultures. If you travel to Greenland, get ready to see people eat adorable seals. If you go to Texas, expect to see people eat barbecue pig. And if you come to Iceland, don't expect to change our minds about eating our heart-rendingly cute lambs.
  6. We sell key chains, we don't monitor the Icelandic puffin population's migratory patterns. Sometimes I start conversations with customers, and then I wish I hadn't. Like that time I promised an elderly French woman I would chat with her crusty old husband (I'm not being mean, he actually did have dried, crusted fluids on his face) so she could shop in peace. He was only interested in reciting the "facts" and figures he had read or heard about Iceland, and didn't want the person he was talking to participating in the conversation at all. I should have just propped him up in a corner in front of a mirror and let him talk to himself, which I'm sure he would have enjoyed much more than talking to me. But let me ask you this: Without looking it up, do you know what the average number of children per family is in your country? No, not "about two or three," I mean the actual national average, in decimal form, rounded off to the tens place. What about yearly rainfall? Major imports and exports? Lifespan? Me neither. But apparently, there are people out there who memorize these facts before traveling to a foreign land, and then expect the local gals working a summer job at a souvenir shop to go toe-to-toe with them in a heated exchange of trivia. However, this gal is usually just waiting for her coffee break so she can purchase a delicious pastry and call her man to talk about what movie they should rent later.
But really, most of the tourists who come to visit are either very nice (Canada*); usually very nice but on rare occasions arrogant, ignorant, and rude (U.S.A.*); either quite charming or crusty and obnoxious (France); surprisingly small in stature but fun to talk to primarily in English since the 10+ years I spent studying Spanish in school does nothing to help me when it comes to them (Spain); warm and friendly and speak the Spanish I can actually understand and speak back (most of Central and South America*); generally indifferent to locals unless they speak their language, and are often senior citizens over the age of 65 traveling in large groups (Germany); often physically attractive, generally reserved and speaking a language I may have trouble identifying but can usually understand (most of the Scandinavian countries except Finland); look like they could be my really blonde cousins who seem very nice if only I could understand what they're saying (Finland); generally attractive but speak to me in their native language which I would be able to understand if I had been raised here, but I do not, although I pretend that I simply refuse to as a free and independent Icelander (Denmark); or very tall, often tan and blonde, with a completely indecipherable language that sounds like they're choking on something (Holland). I haven't met many British tourists in the shop, but I see them a lot on the bus going to the campsite that's near our house. They are mostly very friendly, but they never even attempt to speak Icelandic to anyone, not even a quick takk for thank you or bless for goodbye. Hmmm...

There, I couldn't resist vaguely categorizing and generalizing the tourists I encounter each day, based on my own observations. 

Countries marked with an asterisk (*) are, 90% of the time, the only ones whose citizens respond when I greet them as they enter the shop. I'm just saying.


In general I'm very happy to be here and feel oddly settled and comfortable, which almost never happens, ever. I decided to do my master's in teaching instead of Old Nordic Religion. (It turns out that I really enjoy feeling emotionally and spiritually attached to the ancient gods and goddess of Ásgarður, and I don't particularly want to dissect them in a scientific or academic way. I just want to learn all about them on my own without having to measure up to a bunch of so-called scholars who aren't even sure if they ever existed.) Anyway, the other day I was thinking about whether I might want to just go back to the States to get that teaching degree, since it would be so much easier to do so in my native language. While the idea of studying in English is appealing, I somehow can't bring myself to pick up my feet and leave this place. At least not yet. Not in summer, when everything smells so good outside and the sun is shining and there's camping and swimming and horseback riding to be done! Ask me again in winter. Oy. Let's not think about winter, I'm not ready!