Iceland’s stunning nature, breathtaking natural phenomena and peaceful aura are some of the main reasons people want to visit the country. But Iceland’s most unique feature might not be any of those things. It might just be that rare creature: the Icelander. Read on to find out why.
Due to its small population and low crime rate, living in Iceland gives you a lot of freedom. Children play outside until late in the evenings, especially during the bright summer months, and infants and toddlers will nap outside in their strollers throughout the year. In adults, this freedom mostly manifests in trusting strangers and taking each other at our word (the code honour is pretty big here). Besides, the country is so small we all pretty much know each other. We don’t have an army and the police are unarmed and quite friendly. In fact, our police are known for their upbeat Instagram account and colloquial twitter. Iceland is also among the most progressive countries in the world when it comes to equality. In 1980 we elected the world’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and in 2009 Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the first openly gay head of government in the world.
Speaking of the small population, there are a few things that seem to baffle those from larger countries. One thing is our names. And no, I don‘t mean our tongue-twister first names like Þuríður or Skarphéðinn. I‘m talking about our last names, or lack thereof. Most Icelanders don‘t have family names, instead we use the first name of either of our parents with the suffix –son or – dóttir (basically son of- or daughter of-) The question I get asked most often when explaining this is “how do you know who’s related to you?” Easy – we’re all related! But before you ask, no we don’t use an anti-incest app. Thanks internet rumours! Also, the naming convention within families is often very strong. I’m named after my grandmother, who was named after her grandmother and so on. And certain names are more common in certain parts of the country.
Clean, Clean, Clean
With its abundance of geothermal energy, used to heat up our houses and swimming pools, Iceland is one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. The air is fresh and the water from the tap runs clean straight from the ground, totally safe to drink and free, unlike the bottled water in the supermarket. But clean can also refer to other things in Iceland. As we’ve said before, Icelanders love their communal swimming pools. But to get into those swimming pools you are required to shower naked in communal (but gender separated) changing rooms. Now, we don’t have this rule in order to embarrass anyone or because we’re some sort of perverts. For us, it’s simply a question of hygiene, the only way to get properly clean is to shower without your swimsuit. In fact, I’d argue that it also leads to a healthier body image, since we don’t grow up with the idea that our bodies are something to hide.
Icelanders as a nation are really prone to fads. We take quickly to any new technology and try and stay up to date with all the new trends from overseas, even though we live on an isolated island in the Atlantic Ocean. But this isolation also meant, that for years Icelanders were relatively untouched by outside influences, and the traditions and customs from that time still survive today. The language itself has changed at a much slower pace compared to others, meaning that modern Icelanders can still read texts written in the tenth century without much difficulty. Icelanders are aware of the rarity of there language and try to protect it as much as they can (although that’s getting harder and harder in the age of the internet). For example, Icelanders invent new Icelandic words for new things from abroad instead of using the original word. Another way of protecting the language through the controversial naming committee. The naming committee has to approve all names that are not common in Icelandic, before they are given to babies. Any names that don’t conform to the grammatical rules of Icelandic are vetoed. In the last few years, as the country becomes increasingly multi-cultural, the existence of the committee has been called into question. But at least it will prevent people from having to go through their life named Audio Science, Pilot Inspektor or Apple.
The Biggest Small Country in the World
In spite of recent financial and political blunders, Icelanders are convinced that Iceland is the greatest country in the world. Just like a below-average-height man will sometimes make up for his short stature with big bluster, so Icelanders make up for their lack in numbers by extolling the virtues of their country and countrymen for all to hear (this blog might be the perfect example. Every word is true though!) We are convinced that every Icelander that has made a name for himself outside the country is as big as Björk (thanks, Björk!) and will be baffled if you’ve never heard of the footballer Eiður Smári Guðjohnsen or the pole vaulter Vala Flosadóttir who won a bronze at the 2000 Olympics. This outsized sense-of-self might be why Icelanders are so confident in chasing their dreams. Almost everyone you meet in Iceland will be in a band or writing a novel, alongside their dayjob, and people from all kinds of backgrounds can make it into congress. This also means that Icelanders abroad will always try and find a common connection, some mutual friend or relative and will be amazed when they can’t find one. Put two Icelanders away from home in a room and I guarantee one of the first things out of their mouths will be “Do you know so and so?” I once tried this with some Spanish friends. Surprisingly, it did not work out!