Not long after I moved to a tiny village of fewer than 500 inhabitants in the north of Iceland, I found myself sitting in a large auditorium with wood-paneled walls. There was a stage ahead of me, draped in fading, red felt curtains. This was Þorrablót, the annual Pagan festival that’s celebrated all across the country. The night’s festivities would include dinner and a show. I was sitting with my husband and his colleagues who included Edgar, a local scientist, and Jón and Dora, a couple who ran a bed and breakfast in town.
The lights dimmed. The crowd silenced. The curtains rose and revealed a choir standing on stage. Little white booklets containing song lyrics had been placed on each table; they were reached for, opened, sung. I flipped through the pages and scanned the words and their odd-looking letters, trying to appreciate the intricacy of the way Icelandic is all extravagant pairings of consonants and clicks of the tongue, but this did nothing more than remind me of how little of the language I understood.
I searched for my husband’s hand beneath the table. He was speaking with Edgar, who was speaking with Jón and Dora, who were chatting amongst themselves between lulls in conversation. That left me, the lone English-speaker, without a thing to say or a way to say it. Finding his hand, I grabbed it, hoping that this action might communicate that I needed someone to speak English, or, please can someone at least translate for me? My husband cleared his throat, and then pivoted the conversation from Icelandic to English. They had been talking about the weather. They had been wondering why there hadn’t been any northern lights this winter yet. They had been chatting about how people ought to get outside a little more. “Yes, yes,” I proffered. “I think that, too.” Two sentences later, it was back to Icelandic.
The oddities of outsiderness
For my first months in Skagaströnd, I feared my arrival to town was perceived by others as strange and even questionable. Drivers turned their heads when they passed me walking to the shop; a woman watched me with unwavering focus as I searched for a forgotten stamp in my backpack at the post office. I felt more like an artifact in Skagaströnd than a resident, as though I were being observed fumbling inside of a snow globe, separated from reality by a glass barrier of time, language, and circumstance. And while I hated feeling like an outsider, I somehow rejected all opportunities I had to integrate and refused to recognize the role that I was playing in my own isolation.
It is difficult to move anywhere simply because when we move we end the life we leave behind and withdraw from the people in it. Though I was initially intoxicated by the mysterious new world and language that surrounded me after arriving in Iceland, my attitude slowly transitioned into frustration at not knowing the language and having little opportunity to learn it (I had, at that point, no job, no money, and there were few language classes in that region of the country). Eventually, my frustration turned into resentment, doubt, and fear, and it hit me that I was in the far north of Iceland, at the edge of the habitable world, and that life at home would go on without me. I feared that I had made a mistake, that I had stuck a fork in the freeway of my life and could not recalculate my route, but is this not always the risk we take when we decide to make a change?
For the lucky, expatriation is an exercise of freedom; for the millions for whom this is not the case, expatriation is not a decision but a way to stay alive. To remember this can be a powerful antidote to the jarring, uncomfortable reality when it hits you, that life is challenging no matter where you live it. I say this as another way to underscore the obvious — that the thrill of traveling eclipses the means that make it possible; that we should not take for granted our movement across the earth; that the desire to live abroad which arises from feeling squelched by aimlessness or an unsteady foothold in the absence of a plan is none other than the cold hand of freedom itself. Eventually, we learn that grass can only be so green. We expatriate, if we’re fortunate, for the thrill of motion and new experience, but at what costs?
At Easter, I traveled to Reykjavík for a family gathering. After navigating through a series of greetings, I sat down and the meal began, conversations started, and English was nowhere to be heard. But this time, instead of allowing myself to feel discouraged by my inability to communicate, I directed my energy elsewhere. I began to pretend that I was watching a film on mute, and soon noticed the subtleties of body behavior like I never have. I paid more attention to facial expressions, to tones of voice, to the uncomfortable intricacies of eye contact between two people who used to love one another.
My surroundings developed a magical quality, pregnant with the rich, unspoken dialogue that requires no skill in any language to understand. I entered into a state of curious joy, witnessing the minutes pass with accentuated observation. The experience was blissful and offered me new means by which to appreciate Icelandic culture. We are not dependent on language to belong or communicate, I realized, but we must still make an effort to get to know a community if we at all expect to be a part of it. And who knows, maybe it was the wine, the spring-like weather, or the wordless signals that my brighter attitude was sending, but before long, someone turned to me and asked with smiley warmth, “So how are you liking Iceland?”
Two years into my voluntary expatriation, I have learned to better appreciate the perspective of Iceland I’ve been granted; I see it not as a citizen, not as a visitor, but as someone in-between. This is a rare and wonderful viewpoint from which to experience a country and one that continues to evoke within me a quiet appreciation of life in a remote, faraway place. Being an expat and being an outsider go hand-in-hand. The experience is at once inspiring and alienating. It pushes you to trust the unknown and all those within it and to get outside the narrowness of a single perspective in order to witness a place through the eyes of someone else.