AN AMERICAN IN ICELAND: THE FIRST MONTH

By Lydia Holt

Our living room full of boxes.

As I write this our shipping container, holding all of our worldly possessions, is down at the harbor. Having cleared customs, all that is left to do is have it delivered and begin unpacking. I can’t wait to get my hands on my lip balm—I had only just found a lip balm that comes close to the magic of Aveda Lip Saver but at a fraction of the cost when we decided to make the big move and the one tube I traveled with is almost finished. I may find the same product or something comparable, here in Reykjavík but until then, I’m happy to be getting my lip balm and all my other familiar creature comforts like our sofa, beds, pillows…clothes that aren’t the same ten things I’ve been wearing for more than a month.

I am happy to say that this first month hasn’t been all that dramatic or traumatic. This ain’t my first Icelandic rodeo so I’ve become somewhat used to no one ever saying excuse me and am moderately proud of my status as locker room ambassador to foreigners unfamiliar with the ways of the Icelandic swimming pool. I see them timidly watching me out of the corner of my eye as I approach the locker room without hesitation and they stand looking at the shoe lockers in confusion. “How do we open it? Do we get changed here? Do we really have to shower naked?” they ask with a note of panic in their voices. Poor lambs, follow me. I don’t say that part, it’s patronizing, but if I were an older British lady I totally would. There are, however, three things that have happened in this first month that stand out. One is amusing, another is surprising and the other is woefully familiar.

First up is amusement. There’s a guy that we see regularly at one of the local pools. He has a man-bun and a long beard. The husband calls him The Viking because we’re pretty sure he goes to the pool to sit all stoic and Viking-like, with his beard and man-bun, in an attempt to attract tourists. This is probably not true but it’s one of the the stories we made up while people watching as the we soaked in the hot tub. So the other day as I’m walking to the bakery (Brauð & Co.) I see him coming out of a store. Thankfully he had passed in front of me and was well on his way before I said hello, thinking he must be a friend of my husband’s that I’d met at some point. Oh the horror I would have felt upon cheerfully saying “Hi” and feeling proud of myself for being friendly and social (which is against my very nature) only to realize, as the final sound left my throat, that I didn’t actually know this man. He would, no doubt, be looking at me in confusion or better/worse yet, a smile of glee that his man-bun and beard had finally worked their magic. It took years for this kind of thing to happen to me in Brooklyn and I’m a homebody who rarely left the neighborhood so for it to happen in the first two weeks here was unexpected.

Now the second thing is quite surprising to me and makes me feel like I owe Peggy, who works from her home office in Indiana while the kids are in school and Mandeep, who works at the call center, my sincerest apologies for not appreciating all their hard work. Even if Peggy and Mandeep don’t give a flying rat’s toenail about whether or not my wifi is working, the company they work for does and Peg and Deep know how to follow a carefully crafted script designed to help them help me and handle just about any situation that may arise during the course of our conversation which may be recorded for quality assurance and training purposes. Now, when I called the phone/TV/internet company to make sure I was setting up our router correctly, I pushed 5 for English because there are enough non-Icelandic speaking folk in Iceland these days to warrant having the customer service menu in English. I thought to myself, well that’s thoughtful, and according to the menu voice over guy, the call would be recorded. He did not say why, only that the call would be recorded, that should have been my first clue that I was no longer in the land of exceptional customer service. Another voice came on and told me I was number one in the queue and then California Dreaming started to play. The Mamas & The Papas gently lulled me into a sense of familiarity and comfort. I was thinking, this is just like being on hold with Time Warner, or Spectrum as they call themselves these days. So after I finally get through we go through a bit of back and forth to figure out what needs to be connected where but finally get it sorted out. Once the connection is established and in working order I say thank you, she says okay and then CLICK. That’s it. Click. Okay, see, I was already a little miffed that we didn’t get our service on the day they said we would and that the husband had to go pick up all the equipment and I had to set it up and then old girl couldn’t even pull out some rudimentary customer service and ask “Is there anything else I can help you with this morning?” Say what you will about Time Warner being slow as hell about getting out to your house or Verizon having you on hold for half an hour but Peggy would not have done me like this because Peggy takes customer service seriously. Mandeep would have apologized about the service not being ready when they said it would be and given us a week of HBO for free or something. I have worked in customer service. I KNOW Peggy and Mandeep don’t care but they have been trained and work hard to make it seem like they care about you as a fellow human being and about your satisfaction as a customer. I felt like I was interrupting her day with my questions. Just thinking about it gets my blood pressure up. I don’t know why they record the calls over at the Icelandic Phone Company That Shall Not Be Named but it sure as hell ain’t for quality assurance and training purposes.

This last thing caught me off guard but my 41 years of experience in dealing with low-key and overt racism in the US helped me get through it without being forced to play out the two stereotypes that I try my best not to perpetuate —the entitled, obnoxious American and the angry black woman. Last week, an Icelandic friend who lives in the states but was visiting Iceland suggested I get the boys library cards. She said they have kids’ books in English and a large comic book section and all the boys need is their kennitala (Icelandic ID number). Great! We head on over to the library and approach the small desk to ask if this is where we can get library cards. There’s an older woman behind the desk. I ask about the cards and before she can ask the question I see about to come out of her mouth I tell her they have kennitalas. “Do they have ID?” Now, it might have been my imagination but her tone was dripping with condescension and if ever there was a simpering smile she was wearing it like a badge of honor. I must have looked confused because she went on to say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s in another language we just…” and she made some half-assed gesturing motion toward my children which I took to mean, they could have stolen some “real” Icelandic children’s kennitalas to get their hands on these books. Here is where my experience kicked in. I did not kick her in the shins nor call her a racist, xenophobic cow nor storm out after swearing to never step in that gotdamn library again. Instead, I smiled broadly and said, we’ll be back and calmly walked out. I didn’t go back the same day because I couldn’t guarantee that if the same woman was there I wouldn’t grab her up by the scruff of her wattle and shake mess out of her. “Was that racist?” my oldest asked. “Maybe or somebody peed in her Cheerios this morning…or both,” I answered. The next day there was a young man at the desk and he helped us out without hesitation. The woman from the day before was there too. She had on her coat and looked like she was leaving for her lunch break as we walked up to the desk. I stared straight at her, daring her to pull the same mess in front of another employee but she did all she could to avoid making eye contact with me. When my son was ready to check out, another woman happily showed him how to use the self check out system.

My sanity in a cup.

Since I first began writing this post some tiki-torch carrying white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Virginia to show their asses. This is nothing new but it does seemed to have spurred more conversation amongst white folks about white supremacy, how saying “not it” isn’t enough and how it’s up to white folk to dismantle white supremacy. Maybe the talk will lead to action but white supremacy is embedded in the foundation of America and rooting it out will not be a simple task. In the meantime, I’ll be over here in Iceland and praying that I won’t have to choose between Texas or New York citizenship if the Union finally falls apart.

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