I’ve been living and working and growing in New York for about 8 months now (I know, sorry for the lack of posts). I’ve moved through a lot of phases in that time, many of which I felt during the first months I spent in Iceland in 2013. I came across this article I wrote for a student publication a few weeks into my new life in Iceland and wanted to share – it’s mainly a reflection on my strange, bifurcated identity as an Icelander and an American. I hope you enjoy, and I also hope to update this soon with a few pictures and musings from my last few months in the city…!
(Not) New In Town
Invariably it happens, and the person pauses for an almost imperceptible moment, a quizzical expression forming on her face. What she’s said is nothing incomprehensible; it could be, “I saw that exact sight yesterday at the flea market!” or “Now we’ll do three laps back and forth across the gym.” Up until that point I’ve yet to give myself away, and everything goes smoothly. But it always ends the same way, and I hear myself explaining, “Well, yes, I speak Icelandic, but I’m not familiar with that word (which to every Icelander living in Iceland is obvious). No, no, I am from Iceland. I just moved back. Well, I haven’t actually lived here in 23 years,” my words painting an even blurrier picture.
How to explain the complexity of having grown up largely away from my homeland, returning often, but as a visitor. My Icelandic language formed by the words necessary in my home, but little imbued with the culture of my generation. My mimicry skills and lack of American accent belie my troublesome grammar early on in the conversation, which creates tension later, especially when discussing new subjects. This is exacerbated by my pride in language and my desire for my expression to be crystal clear, a problem I rarely have in English.
It’s not only the language that proves troublesome. My friend tells me where she lives, stating a specific location in a neighboring region, maybe only within a few kilometers of my home, or the University. My blank expression baffles her until she laughs, “Oh right, you aren’t from here.” I’m not. But I am. My memories of summers spent splashing through wetlands and picking rocks from the shore couldn’t be more vivid in my mind. Tourists are similarly confused when I cannot point them in the direction of the mall, especially if I’m wearing my lopapeysa.
In a comfortable setting with a familiar person, my words flow effortlessly, misplaced modifiers and improperly conjugated nouns lost in the wind. My close friends and family have grown to anticipate these little stumbles, and so I take no notice and move on. In the harsh face of a stranger, though, I might stammer or find myself grimacing when I hear the blunder.
Icelandic is an achingly complex language where nothing remains constant – even your own name morphs in the act of receiving, or bestowing, a gift. I’ve changed, too, and moving to Iceland was a gift. I’m grateful for my mistakes and the curiosity they afford me. Several times a day I find myself looking up the origin of a word, the meaning clicking gracefully into place when I realize its relation to another. When my grandmother refers to my grandfather as “bóndi,” the word I’ve always thought of as “farmer,” I realize that putting together “hús” and “bóndi” creates “husband,” and the world opens up a little bit wider. These small ends justify the means tenfold. The truth is that I’m lucky to be in the situation where every day I learn something new. How many people can say that? Learning and relearning languages brings into clarity what was once out of focus, and if the price I pay is a little awkwardness and a good icebreaker, it’s well worth it.