I have yet much to learn about Iceland myself, but I’m starting to know about some very basic things. When sometimes people — especially of older generations — ask embarrassing questions about the country and its inhabitants, I feel confused. Because Iceland still feels a god-forsaken dot in the middle of nowhere to them and there is a chance they have only heard about it as a consequence of the volcano craze. I will skip the very stupid questions I am being asked every now and then, like “do Icelanders live in normal houses or in igloos?” (I’m not kidding…) or “do local supermarkets sell olive oil, fruit, vegetables?” or “have you ever met U2?” because they would be too much. In this brief overview, let us try to dispel a few of the other more reasonable misconceptions and commonplaces about Iceland and Icelanders.
1. Eternal Darkness
Endless darkness in winter: is this actually true? Uhm, yes and no. If we are just talking about perception, it may feel like winter and daylight in Iceland do not mix. Nevertheless, even at these latitudes, the sun does rise also in the darkest days of December. In fact, there are about four full hours of sunlight in December: the sun rises at around 11:30 and sets around 15:30. It must be said, however, that it never ascends very high over the horizon. This may be perceived as not having daylight at all, but it’s actually less shocking than it may appear. You could see it as being immersed in longer twilights, rather than imagining perpetual obscurity. On the other hand, if one has trouble sleeping, summer may be much worse than winter, as even during the nighttime it’s very light outside. If this is the case, it’s wise to have a solid eye mask at disposal.
2. The Physical Stereotype
To many foreigners, all Icelanders look alike. It’s a bit like with Asian people. So, was there a Nordic Jango Fett’s equivalent? Is the likeness simply a question of approximation, ignorance and poor observation skills? As genetics are concerned, Icelanders are primarily a mix of Nordic and Celtic blood as the first settlers were mainly from Norway and the British Isles, with less significant contribution from other European groups. Recent studies affirm there are reasons to believe Icelanders may have distant Native American ancestry, which explains some very peculiar — but not that uncommon — physical traits. OK, whatever. To stay in topic: not all Icelanders are blonde and have blue eyes, nor they are all tall or they look like the world’s strongest man. Many among them fit the description to some extent, but there’s more variety to them than you could gather simply by looking at tour operator brochures.
3. Cold Winters
Do you know what cold actually means? No? Well, neither do I. Thanks to the action of the warm North Atlantic Current, winter in Iceland is rather mild, especially if compared to other countries sharing the same latitude. In the southern coastal regions of the island — which includes also the Capital area — average temperatures rarely reach lower than a few Celsius degrees below zero. The central regions, the ones farthest from the coast, are the coldest areas of the country, but they are not inhabited. Expecting to see people living in houses carved in ice or wearing conspicuous wild animal fur during winter will lead to disappointment.
4. Popular Music
Not all music from Iceland is of the Alternative/Indie genre hipsters like to rave about. Average Icelanders do listen to crap music, also imported from abroad. I heard Italian music too in Iceland, and of the worst kind, like Ricchi e Poveri and Raff: Eurovision Song Contest quality stuff, brr… If you don’t trust me and still think Iceland is all Sigur Rós and artsy girls with massive accordions (no pun intended), there are many ways I can suggest to approach awfully bad music when in Iceland. For instance, spending too much time in Icelandic supermarkets and being exposed to local commercial radio stations can drive a sane person crazy, as in any other part of the world. Why would anybody want to try that intentionally though?
5. Post-crisis Dejection
The word bankruptcy always evokes catastrophic scenarios. However, post-crisis Iceland is still a country with high living standards. True, people had to cut down on expenses and unemployment rate has been rising, but also thanks to the country’s high level of education and cultural incentives, the impression one gets is still that of a place where one can live quite comfortably without having to resort to horrible hardships and deprivations. Another interesting aspect concerns the fact that in Iceland, as in other Nordic countries, there are not huge gaps between the rich and the poor. With a handful of exceptions, the well-offs are not so much more well off than others and people of more modest means are not confined in sketchy urban areas.