Photo: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

10 Icelandic Habits We Should All Adopt

Iceland Culture
by KT Browne Oct 18, 2017

1. Letting babies sleep outside in freezing temperatures.

For generations, Icelandic babies have napped outside in freezing temperatures. Today, it’s altogether commonplace to see strollers sitting outside of shops and cafés while parents enjoy coffee indoors — no matter the weather. Since Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (less than two murders per year), the chance that one of these outdoor-snoozers might be kidnapped is about as slim as a Christmas without snow in Reykjavík. A far greater danger involved with infant outdoor napping is high winds — every now and then, it’s possible to witness a lone stroller blowing down the street in the wind. Still, Icelanders firmly believe that babies sleep better when they’re surrounded by nature and that the white noise of the wind soothes them in a way that indoor clamor cannot. And with Iceland having some of the cleanest air in the world, it’d be a shame to not let these tiny Vikings get their fill early on.

2. Behold the power of the fish (enzyme).

Being an island nation has its benefits and Iceland knows how to take advantage of that. Scientists have created a fish-derived enzyme called Penzim which is made from the North Atlantic Codfish. The potent enzyme has been made into both a facial gel and crème that works like the nectar of the gods for wrinkles, acne, and just about anything you can think of. Rumor has it that Penzim also has virus-killing properties and that a simple spray up the nose or down the throat has the power to knock out whatever you’ve got brewing in there. Think Icelandic version of Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That’s Penzim.

3. #poollyfe

There are swimming pools just about everywhere in Iceland. That’s no exaggeration; every town, no matter how small, has a pool. And every pool, no matter how small, has a hot tub. Even more remarkable is that most of these pools are geothermally heated, which gives the water a slightly slippery feel that does wonders for dry skin. But perhaps more importantly, swimming pools in Iceland serve a valuable cultural purpose. During long, dark winters, and especially in remote towns and villages far from the capital where there’s not much to do, swimming pools become meeting points for friends and family. They’re a healthy and fun way to relax and let off steam (pun intended). And if that doesn’t already tickle your spa-craving fancy, pool goers are even offered coffee once they’re immersed comfortably in 100-degree waters!

4. What weather?

Blizzard dumping snow by the meter onto your driveway? No problem. Can’t get to Reykjavík because the mountain road is covered in a sheet of ice? There are worse things in life. White-out on the road? Hope your car is comfortable — you’re gonna be there for a while! To say that the weather in Iceland is harsh is an understatement — house-high snow drifts and (regular) hurricane-force winds might give you a sense of it — nevertheless, Icelanders have adopted a c’est la vie attitude towards the weather, but instead they say “ekkert mál” (no problem) no matter how severe the conditions may be. Instead of flocking to the nearest grocery store to stock up on water and canned food as though they were preparing for the apocalypse, Icelanders have learned to relax in the face of stormy weather. Relax is the key word here; to Icelanders, a storm just means spending more quality time with family, and a cozy evening (or three) inside a geothermally-heated home.

5. The Merry Christmas rule

There are few things more unnerving than seeing Christmas décor in your local Bed, Bath & Beyond… in October. Try as we might, most Americans can’t seem to shake their obsession with all things Christmas-y long before the holiday arrives. In Iceland, things are a bit different; especially when it comes to wishing others Gleðileg jól (Merry Christmas). Here, nobody says it until 6 PM on Christmas Eve, believing that the holiday does not officially “arrive” until then. This took me by surprise when I arrived to my first Christmas party in Iceland around noon on the 24th. “Gleðileg jól!” I said jollily to the crowd and was greeted with looks of shock in reply. “It’s not six o’clock yet,” a friend said to me. “We don’t wish each other Merry Christmas until then.” After waiting patiently for the few hours until the holiday utterance was deemed appropriate, the clock struck six and all of a sudden a chorus of “Gleðileg jól!” sounded around me. As if on cue, everyone started hugging everyone, exchanging gifts, and pouring shots of Tópas — a licorice-based liquor — truly living in the moment.

6. Þorrablót

Every February, Icelanders gather in their community halls to celebrate the Pagan and deeply underrated holiday: Þorrablót. What makes this holiday so special is the food. When I first moved to Iceland, I thought this meant roasted lamb and buttery potatoes; turns out, I was right about the animal, but wrong about the parts of it we’d eat. I returned to my table at our town’s annual Þorrablót celebration with a plateful of shark, ram’s testicles, and sheep eyes. My fellow diners, munching on their own sheep eyes, sensed my distress. “This is very, very special food,” one exclaimed, clamping down on a hunk of shark before washing it down with a shot of Tópas. “Try it!” And try I did. The shark had a sharp taste, not altogether unlike a pickle. The testicles were reminiscent of a strange kind of gummy bear, and mildly lemony. The sheep eyes reminded me of tapioca balls, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it.

7. Five-star jails

Iceland’s six prison facilities have a reputation for being extremely comfortable, housing about 140 convicts per day (crowding is a non-issue, as you can imagine), whose time is spent making things like tic tac toe games, benches, and license plates. In Icelandic prisons, the cafeteria-style canteen is nowhere to be found; each prisoner cooks their own meals in dorm-like environments. Rumor has it that Icelandic prisons even use the same beds as many of the country’s most popular hotels. And if that isn’t shocking enough, prisoners in Iceland are allowed to bring electronic items (think small TV, computer, or radio), and after completing the first part of their sentence, prisoners can apply for “leaves” which allows them to exit the facility once a month to visit family and friends for the day. If that’s not a luxury prison experience, I don’t know what is.

8. Cabin getaways

One of the (many) wonderful things about living in Iceland is that you don’t need to leave the country to go on vacation; the wonders of untouched nature are outside your door. Icelanders know how to take advantage of that with cabin holidays, or sumarbustaður. These rustic, cozy cabins can be found practically everywhere, whether on a mountain in a far corner of the West Fjords or edged against the ocean in Vík. And if you’re employed in Iceland, you’re automatically entitled to rent one of these cabins — best of all is that much of the rental cost is subsidized by the labor unions, making a sumarbustaður rental far cheaper than any AirBnB. Oh yeah, and each cabin comes with its very own hot tub.

9. Size doesn’t matter.

Iceland has never been a nation that’s let its small size get in the way of things. From health care to school systems and a superb emergency response team for whom rescuing hikers from inside cracked glaciers is no big deal, this country has a lot figured out. Even the country’s financial and economic recovery from the 2008-2011 banking crisis has been coined a textbook success story. With a similar “ekkert mál” (no problem) mindset that Icelanders embody when it comes to weather, the country rebuilt itself with grit and determination and is now one of the wealthiest economies in the world. But that’s not the only way Iceland shows its power; just last week, it became the smallest nation to qualify for the World Cup in soccer, proving once more that small countries can do very big things.

10. The Hidden People

When you board an Icelandair flight to Reykjavík, a charming video plays on the seat-back screen in front of you. Did you know that Icelanders believe in magic? it says at one point. Though this could be seen as a marketing gimmick (and probably is), it’d be wrong to say there wasn’t some truth it. Magic is something that Icelanders know quite well, whether it’s a night sky full of green-pink ribbons (a.k.a. the Northern Lights), or things of a more invisible nature, most notably: the hidden people (huldufólk). According to Icelandic folklore, the hidden people are elf-like creatures who supposedly live inside rocks. Belief surrounding the hidden people is so firmly rooted in society that construction projects have even been halted for fear of disrupting their precious abodes. The lure of the Hidden People extends to tourists, too; the Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavík even organizes special excursions for visitors!

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