Most of the anniversaries that I keep track of are ones that are important to only me. 3 June: moved to Berlin the 1st time. 29 August: moved to Paris and was supposed to move to Iceland. 16 October stands out as a long standing freindiversary and coincidentally the day of the collapse of my email anxiety. 10 September should probably be one of those dates but I doubt it will, it was the day I did move to Iceland, a day that was tricky for me to remember exactly because everything about it happened so quickly. It was only six months ago and I had to check my passport to be sure I got the date right, so for this date that is already well on its way to being lost in my memory, this is a story about where six months living in Iceland leaves you.
On the 10th of March I had to buy a new bus pass. The store that sells them in Kopavogur is more than a little old school. As far as I can tell they only sell candy, hot dogs, DVDs, cigarettes, and bus passes. But you jjust go up to the counter, ask for a bus pass, they stamp it for you, and put a little piece of tape over it so the date doesn’t smudge. Then you pay and are on your way. It’s truly unremarkable, but as I left that day and was putting my mittens back on in the street, I realized that for the first time I’d done it all in Icelandic. My Icelandic has improved since I arrived here, but mostly I get by just because I’ve guessed correctly what someone said to me, not because I actually understood it. I did understand what the man in the video shop had said to me that day, I’d also had time to practice. When I bought my card in February, we switched into English when I had to be clearer about which type of ticket I wanted. But since I had done Icelandic up to then, the man asked me if I was a student, and I was explain that I was in one of my stock Icelandic phrases I learned this summer and have only rarely been able to bust out since. The other months blend together, I remember just the usual embarrassment at not recognizing phrases that I should know.
Despite this suggestion of linear improvement make no mistake, my Icelandic has not significantly improved since I arrived. From the beginning I have mostly been able to get through basic service encounters: ordering at a cafe, paying at the grocery store. I haven’t really expanded my vocabulary, now I just realize when I’m being asked for ID or if I’d like a double or a single cappuccino. That six months in this would be the state of my language abilities would have surprised me before I came. During the summer I wrote lists and lists of Icelandic words in my notebook. When I was stuck in visa limbo at home when I was supposed to have already moved I rode my bike around the neighborhood to work out my anxiety, and had simple conversations with myself in Icelandic to distract me from thinking about the future. When I got here and realized the workload, it became clear that I didn’t have time to take Icelandic classes but I was still dedicated to teaching myself. My notebook became Icelandic only, I bought dictionaries and novels. But it all sort of faded away, the notebook was unsustainable from the start, and there is only so much willpower to power through a children’s novel when you can only understand about one sentence per page. But what really muddied the waters was my increasingly mercurial feelings about Iceland.
I first visited Iceland as a tourist in October, and it was charming and beautiful. When I moved here there were the usual adaptations to the mental map I had laid down. Tjörnin had been out of the center before but now I walked past it everyday, and where before the surrounding countryside had been easily accessible, now it was outlandishly far away. And then it wasn’t the sort of adaptation I was used to anymore. The city became too small, I would walk down the street and see someone I knew, there were only 4 cafes I went to and only one or two more left to try. And then the sky started closing in, it was gray all the time and suddenly it was solidly night by 5pm and my 10am class had become obscenely early.
I didn’t realize that I was unhappy because of the winter until I called my parents in tears wanting to drop out. Preferably by that weekend. It was October, as dark as it had been when I visited, except now I lived here and the darkness mattered. As you have hopefully deduced I did not drop out. Instead my parents said many rational things about Seasonal Affective Disorder, and at least taking my exams first. And I spent a lot of money on fancy therapeutic lamps and vitamins, and trips to literally anywhere else, and I felt more stable but I didn’t feel in love with Iceland anymore.
It was still nearly impossible to get up in the mornings, and I would hear the family I live with getting ready, having breakfast, and getting out the door by 8am, and even at my best I couldn’t imagine ever being able to get kids clothed, fed, and out the door by 8am when 8am was as dark as midnight. And if I could barely function, how could I possibly be happy living here?
The one thing I always liked, SAD or no, was the pool. Iceland has outdoor geothermal pools in essentially every town where people go to relax, chat, or if you’re me sit and think about things. In December I went out to the pool, a 15 minute up hill walk from my house, about half way there it started snowing. When I got in the pool I had already been thinking a lot that day about my favorite subject, where on Earth do I want to live? I had been reading Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series and had become enamored of the northern Scottish Isles. But if Iceland feels too small, how claustrophobic would an island system of 20,000 people feel? So I sat in the hot water and watched the snow fall. Sometimes it would be melted by the waves of hot vapor rising off the water, sometimes it melted only just above the surface of the water from the heat, sometimes it fell on my exposed face and arms, and all of it was shining golden in the night sky thanks to the pool’s overhead lighting. And everything clicked. I’d been thinking of Iceland all wrong, Reykjavik isn’t a small city, it’s a large village. You can see it on the bus, people get on and recognize one of their friends, they have a chat while they ride to different places. It’s why you run into your professors in grocery stores. It just doesn’t feel like a village to me because I’m still an outsider, I may be a resident now but I don’t speak Icelandic and no one really expects that I’ll stay. In that pool I realized that I could become a part of the village, and in that moment I wanted to.
But loving Iceland is still hard, and I don’t think that I will put in the work needed to become at home in this village. The idea of moving back to Iceland next spring no longer feels terrible like it did, in fact that’s right where I’ll be next year. After a hard look at the options, I decided to move to Aarhus Denmark for my next semester, which means I’ll be back here in Iceland to write m thesis. When I made that decision I got excited to be in Iceland all over again. I decided to start real Icelandic language classes this summer, and thought that I’d probably stay on here after the program finished. Now the dust has settled and the excitement has died down, I no longer think there is any likelihood that I will stay here after my program ends and consequently I don’t think I’m going to try to learn Icelandic seriously.
In my most clearheaded moments I can see that I conflated my readiness to settle down (read: live somewhere for at least one year) with the place I will be when that becomes a possibility. But just because I feel that Iceland and I must go our separate ways does not mean that I’m unhappy here (anymore) in these six months I’ve formed a community, which will only continue to grow over this year and the next and that will be the legacy of my time in Iceland, not an unhappy debate over the future in my own head, but a bright community which will provide me with the hot goss in academia after I’ve left it, endless new ideas for knitting, and probably quite a few couches in quite a few countries to visit.