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10 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Iceland

Iceland Culture
by KT Browne Oct 30, 2017

1. Freaking out about snowstorms.

I’ll forever think fondly of winter in New York for the way the city freaked out over snow — how it would obsessively broadcast impending storms and warn residents to either GET OUT or STOCK UP. I’ll always have pleasant memories of waiting in line for hours at the grocery store to buy weeks’ worth of water and food, and of the flurries that predicted “storms” turned out to be. In Iceland, hurricane-force blizzards wallop without warning. You’re walking outside, you’re making your way to the café, and WHAM — a gale of wind nearly knocks you to your knees; it blows your hat off your head; it piles snow drifts against your front door, blocking you in for days. Is this a big deal? Not in Iceland. Save your freak out for something else.

2. Freaking out about time.

Icelanders are known for their laid-back attitude. This is putting it lightly; somehow, they manage to maintain a perpetual state of calm akin to the sedating afterglow one feels after a day at the spa. I don’t know how they do this, but it is a skill I strive to attain. Time is one of those things that Icelanders don’t let themselves get caught up with. At all. If you tell an Icelander to meet you at 3:00 PM, they’ll show up a quarter after. If you have a doctor’s appointment scheduled for 11:30, don’t get there anytime before 11:50 — you’ll have to wait otherwise. An attempt to investigate the origins of this remarkable phenomenon revealed that the country’s small size coupled with the fact that most of its population resides in Reykjavík contributes to an overall take it easy attitude. There is, after all, not many places one can go! Though I’ve certainly lost the edge to my New York-bred time anxiety since moving to Iceland, it’s not completely gone. I still set my watch three minutes ahead.

3. Bottled water

When I was growing up, my mother used to call my bedroom a “water bottle museum”. Empty Poland Spring plastic bottles lined my windowsill like an art installation, boxy Fiji bottles collected along the floor, behind my bed, between books on the bookshelf. Since we did not own a water filter, buying bottled water was necessary, and buy bottled water I did. When I arrived in Iceland, one of the first questions I asked my roommate was, “How do you drink water?” Did you actually just ask me “how do you drink water?” she replied, holding back laughter. Clearly, she was not aware of my excessive water intake behavior. She went to the sink and turned on the tap. “Best water in the world right here.” She was right. To this day, the quality of Iceland’s water remains one of my favorite things about the country. And I’m proud to say that I haven’t bought a single bottle of water since leaving the US.

4. Wearing shoes inside.

I never really thought about it until I moved to Iceland — how Americans so rarely think twice about walking into their homes or schools with their shoes on. Growing up, I never owned a pair of slippers; I saw my outdoor sneakers as all-purpose footwear, serving as slippers, as beach shoes, as party shoes, and so much more. Moving to Iceland helped me wake up to the reality that this sort of shoe-wearing liberalism is, quite frankly, dirty. Walking into an Icelandic office building, for example, one is immediately greeted by a shoe rack — you take off your outdoor shoes and put on your indoor shoes, which are often simple black slip-on, rubber sandals. The same can be found in school buildings, where students and teachers alike all have a pair of indoor shoes waiting for them by the door. This is especially helpful in the winter, when trekking through deep snow, slush, and ice becomes a daily reality.

5. Road rage

There is only has one main road that circles the entire country — Route 1, or “The Ring Road” — and driving on it is like a dream; you put on music, don your shades, and relax as the landscape carries you forward, whether that be across an infinite, mountainous expanse, or beside the wide, open ocean. It’s sometimes easy to forget that you’re driving at all, especially when the road narrows into an incline so steep that the view out your windshield comes to strongly resemble the view out of a plane window.

6. Caring about fashion.

In the months before I moved to Iceland, I began to dream about winter fashion. I pictured myself sporting luxurious, fur-lined parkas and multicolored earmuffs, frilly scarves and patterned, woolen socks down the street in Reykjavík as a gentle snow fell over the city. I arrived to Iceland in the deep of winter, my plane touching down just after midnight sometime in January. “The weather in Keflavík is…” the pilot started, searching for a way to describe the thrashing, violent soup of wind and snow outside the cabin. “The weather is…oh, it’s just winter in Iceland.” I very quickly realized that my inner fashionista would never survive the beast of Icelandic weather. Which is to say, my frilly scarves and multicolored earmuffs are now a thing of the past. They have since been replaced by a face mask, ski goggles, a neon orange jumpsuit, and knee-high industrial rubber boots that make a hammering sound when I walk in them. It’s all very Vogue…relatively speaking.

7. Public transport

Though Iceland does have a decent bus system, its public transportation stops there. There are no trains in Iceland, no subways. There are taxis, of course, but not in the sense that you can just stand on the street and flag one down like you can in many American cities — you’ve got to call ahead for one. This was not a difficult adjustment for me to make; I don’t miss the uncomfortable intimacy of being sandwiched between strangers on the morning 6 train to Union Square when I lived in New York, or hearing the throbbing, obtrusive death metal of the car behind me on the 101 freeway when I lived in Los Angeles. Though booking your seat on a bus in Iceland requires one to call 24-hours ahead (if no one needs a bus, there will be no bus), to check the weather (buses are often cancelled due to inclement weather), and to check the departure time (buses are often delayed due to “unforeseen circumstances”), I’d still take that over American public transport any day.

8. Bikini beaching

The temperature in Iceland rarely rises above 50 degrees. This may sound harsh, but it’s also something you can get used to when what you get in return is overwhelmingly beautiful scenery that can so easily make you forget you’re shivering like a jackhammer in your North Face fleece. Take Icelandic beaches, for example. They are spectacular, surreal slivers of utopia that would be so much better were the temperature about thirty degrees higher for swimwear — this is, at least, what I thought when I first arrived. Though it took some time to adjust to cold-beaching mentality, it wasn’t long before I was making my way to the shore in my parka and boots with a beach chair and a book. You tend to forget about your attire after a while. After all, the sun on your face is warm no matter the temperature outside.


You can always pinpoint the Americans abroad; they’re the ones for whom most everything warrants an accentuated “Oh my godddd!” Did the sandwich joint forget to put mayo on your BLT? Oh my goddddd. Was your flight delayed twelve minutes? Oh my god. Did you forget to renew your Netflix subscription and now can’t catch the finale of House of Cards even though you already know what’s going to happen and don’t really like the show anyway but watch it regardless because you need something to fill the awkward silences during lunch with your coworkers? OH MY GODDDDDDD. Those three words were the first things I shed when I moved to Iceland. I began to recognize that the tendency to make a fuss about nothing at all robs us of our ability to have meaningful conversations.

10. Taking the environment for granted.

Iceland is the poster child for renewable energy and environmental awareness. Due to the country’s geological location over a rift in continental plates, there is a wealth of geothermal energy — so things like heat, water, and electricity are plentiful, cheap, and best of all safe for the environment. When I moved to Iceland, I gained a new appreciation for the delicate environment that surrounded me. I learned to feel grateful for endless hot showers, and for the ease with which I could raise the heat in the house without seeing much of a spike in the following month’s heating bill. It is easy to forget where your water or electricity comes from when you live in a city, where the natural environment is often obscured by towering buildings or cluttered freeways. But in Iceland, it is impossible to ignore. I came to treasure the ease with which geothermal water flows from the faucet without end, even if its sulphur content causes it to smell like rotten eggs from time to time.

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