on 15 July 2012
I've probably spent getting on for as much time in Iceland as Sarah Moss and reckon to know it fairly well, but a large number of short casual visits over a period of 25 years is not at all the same thing as living there for almost a year as she and her family did, and their experience makes for fascinating reading. She spent the academic year 2009-10 - just after the Icelandic bank crash - at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík teaching English literature; the crash - or kreppa, as Icelanders call it - meant that her salary diminished markedly in value even before she arrived, and the Mosses were far from well off in an expensive city, but her book is all the better for not being penned by a well-heeled visitor. She is an acute and perceptive observer as we follow her daily routine of getting the children to school and pre-school respectively, making ends meet in a society that doesn't seem to "do" thrift and secondhand goods, and learning what makes her students tick: indeed, she admits she learned as much from them as they did from her. Iceland's summer being short, life in Reykjavik took place mostly against a background of a wet autumn, dark winter - when you start to think of lunch before daylight at 11am - and a long, cold spring when it gets rapidly lighter but rarely any warmer. And you're walking or cycling everywhere in the cold and wet while everyone else is zooming past in SUVs.
We learn that Icelanders don't talk readily to strangers - and they don't, at least not to tourists like myself - not because they are unfriendly but because they have no real cultural experience of meeting anyone they either don't know or don't at least share common friends or acquaintances with. Her students baulk at being asked to do an exercise requiring them to strike up a conversation with strangers. We find that Icelanders don't - or at least didn't before the crash - buy in charity shops, partly out of pride that despite having a tiny population they see themselves as good as anyone else, and partly because the population is so small you might see your cast-offs turn up again somewhere. This sense of being the equal of anyone else yet being few in numbers also explains the mixture of insularity and outwardness in Icelanders, and is no doubt in some measure responsible for the "Viking Raiders" attitude that led to financial disaster. We learn that even the youngest children are left to roam free - left both to learn to climb and to fall, literally and metaphorically - while babies are left unattended outside shops, no one locks their cars, and schools lack any security measures. Her friends at the University opened many doors for her, and a highlight of the book was her talk with an elderly lady, Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, about life in Iceland before the age of glitz, SUVs and bank crashes.
And yet ... the statistics show Iceland to be little different to Britain in terms of crime, sexual violence and most other indicators of modern society: the difference is one of attitude, not actuality. This can only be because Icelanders still maintain the cultural mindset they had as rural dwellers before the explosive growth of Greater Reykjavík in recent years. It now has 80% of Iceland's 300,000 people, and many of the problems of most cities with a quarter of a million people. It seems likely its people's attitudes will as a result become more like their neighbours in other European countries, which would be a shame, because Iceland and its people bring something distinctively different to European culture which would be sad to lose.
A thought-provoking book, highly recommended (although - for me at least - one chapter about the much-reported Icelandic obsession with elves would have been more than enough, let alone two!).
Though definitely a person who basks in hotter-the-better sun, I am lured and also terrified by the climates of harsh, cold, isolation.
So Sarah Moss's obsession with, love of Iceland, biographical account of a year spent living and working there, was always going to be an absorbing read. In many ways my interest is as much in `how does a person coming from one culture assimilate into another' as it is in learning about a different culture; that is because the outsider sees things the in-dweller cannot, because it is so much part of their fabric that they can't step outside it.
Moss first went to Iceland when she was 19, over a university summer holiday, with a friend. By the time covered by this book, she is in her thirties, married, with two children, and a university lecturer (and of course a writer) This is post-the collapse of Iceland, and she had a accepted a lecturing commitment for a year at Reykjavik University. By the time she got there, her salary had so far dropped in its buying power as to make living there for the year quite hard.
What she found puzzling is that certainly amongst the middle classes she could not really see much evidence of what `collapse' had done to society, as, in boom, Iceland had moved to be a highly consumerist culture, households with several gas guzzling vehicles, a society of perennial new spend and dumping (not recycling, not sell-or-give-away-as second-hand) of the mildly out-moded but still fully functioning. She discovered this, even, in small children's clothing. Unlike her middle-class-British-society, where mums were cheerfully passing on clothes to other mums 3 months behind them in child-age, to the Icelanders, there was something distasteful and a little shameful in this:
"The Icelandic horror at the idea of the second-hand seems to be partly to do with the impossibility of anonymity here, the fear of `strangers' The risk is one of disclosure, that the person who classified the object as `trash' might see the same object reclassified by someone else.....this is why secondhand clothes are so terrible, because the anonymity of charitable giving might be broken, you might recognise your child's outgrown clothes on someone else and thus have to acknowledge some kind of hierarchy. One of the most widely held beliefs among Icelanders is that there is no hierarchy here"
Moss is both a lover of Iceland, and its people, and bemused and at times critical of it. During her year she also discovered that some of what Iceland told about itself TO itself - such as its low crime figures were just not true, and, even discovered in the forays she made with Icelandic friends around the country as her year drew to its close, that they too were starting to see a hidden Iceland that they had not known existed.
Along the way we meet the made-up tradition of `Icelandic knitting' (not something dating back to Viking times at all), a belief in elves alive and well, and of course, the `old' diet, divorced of fresh fruit and vegetables, for large parts of the year, later superseded, as Iceland entered its boom years by exotic greengrocery from all over the world, now returning, as the price of food sky-rocketed, to earlier privations
And, of course, there is much that hinges up an inescapably close relationship with climate, geography, landscape and the rules imposed by a far more dramatic relationship with day and night, cold and colder, than we have in most of these isles.
on 29 January 2015
Many more of us are visiting this enticing country but know little of what everyday working life in Iceland would be like. Sarah Moss draws us into her year spent in Reykjavik with her husband and young family, as she undertakes a university post teaching English Literature. It has to be a relatively frugal year, living on one salary. The young sons pick up Icelandic, but their mother is shy at practising hers, and anyway, everyone seems to speak English. The underfloor heating goes some way towards mitigating the vagaries of the ever-changing weather, but the winter dark and cold are an undeniable feature.
The family are warmly helped to settle in by newly met friends. Petur has a fund of stories of when he worked on farms in the sixties. Cut off during the winter months, news was shouted accross rivers, and everyone could listen in on the communal telephone line. Some Icelandic history is gleaned through meetings with locals, and they often make it come alive. Theodor, the grandfather of one of her students from the Westman islands recounts how he carried people away in his fishing boat when the volcano erupted. His wife remembers how she grabbed the six children, put them in whatever she could find and just ran for the harbour. Four hundred houses were destroyed and another three hundred filled up and covered over with ash. Gradually, through observation, daily life and meeting some interesting folk, Sarah gathers insight about the education and social systems, the Icelandic diet, the financial crash, the enduring influence of Icelandic sagas, and the people who seem to really believe in elves.
A year after leaving, the family return for a more care-free exploration of the island. They stay at Petur's summer house on the northern side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, they travel across lava fields named after the Berserkers (Vikings who went into trance-states of uncontrollable violence), and they pass country which changes from lava and rock to green farmland at the feet of volcanos, then resembles Alpine landscapes and Norwegian-like fijords and the Scottish lowlands... This is richly described and makes you want to take out the walking boots and take a trip.
on 5 January 2013
Friends gave me this book knowing I'd visited Iceland. My trip to Iceland, for the landscape and geology, was led by fellow Brits and spent mainly away from the towns staying in a hotel staffed by eastern europeans. We had minimal contact with local people and this book filled the cultural gap, albeit making me feel I had been in a different country.
I found the mixture of domestic detail, academic life, historic, social, economic and cultural insights really fascinating and the writing wry and engaging. It's given me a better understanding of Iceland whilst, ironically, making it feel more foreign than it seemed at the time.
on 16 July 2012
I became interested in Iceland after the banking crisis of 2008. I had some money trapped in an Icesave account. I started to read the comments of Icelanders posting in English in our newspapers, and was amazed by the "group think" they appeared to demonstrate. In fact, they saw themselves as victims of the UK, because Gordon Brown had used legislation to deem the Icelandic banks to be in default, and to freeze their assets.
Although I was annoyed that Iceland was refusing to honour the guarantee that had permitted their banks to operate in the UK, and to make vast amounts of money from which the Icelanders had all benefited, I became intrigued by their situation. In January 2010 I was able to visit for a few days. Their society and landscape was so different, and so interesting, that I have wanted to go back there, but have not yet managed another trip.
I had not heard of Sarah Moss before, but read a recent review of her book in a newspaper, and bought it from Amazon. I found it entirely gripping. She is examining a tiny society that has developed outside the European mainstream, and the mindset that this has engendered. Before the crash, they seem to have regarded themselves as having the best society in the world, although the wealth was based on an illusion, and the egalitarianism was not quite what it seemed. However, from reading the book, I am left in no doubt that they will quickly recover from the financial cataclysm that struck so suddenly, and will be the better for having gone through it. It has added a necessary dollop of humility.
Sarah Moss sets out an exquisite examination of various facets of Icelandic society, as she found it in 2009/10 while working at an Icelandic university. Her description of Icelandic scenery and weather, and the passing of the seasons, is an important part of the appeal. She is an interested and non-judgmental observer, who asks all the questions I would ask if given the opportunity. Her appealing personality and penetrating intelligence shine through.
on 7 March 2014
Sarah Moss speaks early on of not wanting to be a "whining ex-pat" - she did not succeed. the focus of the book is not primarily on Iceland, but on the author adjusting to life overseas, her family life, her work life. As such, defining it as a travel book is not entirely accurate. This was bought for me as a gift by my boyfriend as we were visiting Iceland for my 30th birthday, but it wasn't what he or I expected. In the time she is in Iceland, she doesn't really get out much!
To be honest, I admit my opinion was negatively skewed as I found the author to be somewhat pretentious. I read The Guardian, but it’s a certain type who feels the need to make a point of making people know this, and that they own "five different types of paprika". Judgmental? Probably, but Sarah is not innocent of this herself. I found this book incredibly judgemental, with attempts to be self-deprecating by making comments about her ignorance as a ‘foreigner’ actually sounding much more like thinly veiled criticisms of the country she was living in, and its people. Yes she felt 'different' and she tried to make out that she felt this was her fault and down to her ignorance - but it always just sounded as though what she really meant was that the Icelanders were doing things wrong by not doing things how she was used to. The moaning...about the cold, about the lack of fruit and vegetables, about the driving, about the university she was working in, the teaching methods used there, the resources...all of this just sounded snobbish, patronising, and even somewhat xenophobic to me.
The positives were that I did learn something about Icelandic culture, folklore, history...not really much about what to do and see, hence again I argue against this being classed as a travel book!
The humour others have spoken of was present and did make me smile in places. However, for me, her moaning far outweighed this. My favourite chapters by far were towards the end - particularly when she had moved back to the UK, and visited Iceland for a holiday. Not only was the writing beautiful, and the detail about the places she was visiting what I was hoping for, but she also seemed warmer, more relaxed, less...moany.
Despite my three stars, I would still recommend this book overall!
A friend who had visited Iceland lent me this book just prior to setting off on a cruise that would take in three Icelandic ports. I found it absolutely fascinating and it gave me a good insight into present-day Iceland, providing historical insight, cultural information and practical details.
What I really appreciated about this book was that it is an affectionate portrait of a country while remaining objectively critical. Clearly Sarah Moss enjoyed her year in Iceland, despite the harsh climate - and how right she was about that! When we visited in August it was COLD, and wet and windy, from which I conclude that life there must hold some charm for her as she clearly would have liked to stay on had circumstances been different.
As regards her awareness of feeling "A stranger in Iceland" she was simply reflecting what it feels like to be an ex-pat living and working in a foreign country, an experience new to her. I know that feeling, especially when the language is an unfamiliar one, and it is tough and disorientating.
This is a real travel book - it tells you in depth about the country and its people from having lived and worked there, not just having passed through as a visitor.
I applaud Sarah Moss for managing to write this book while doing a full-time job and bringing up two young children - however did she find the time?
on 16 July 2012
One of the best holidays in my life was spent in Iceland so, having seen this book reviewed favourably in The Times, I decided to buy it. Of course there's a difference in living the Icelandic life all year round and visiting as a summer tourist, as Sarah Moss points out. I found it interesting that she only really seemed to relax and enjoy Iceland and discover something of its spirit when she visited as a tourist after her year living there; here there's a real sense of enjoyment of the things that make Iceland special. Maybe it was asking a bit much to live and work in the dark, teach in a foreign university, bring up a young family AND write a book about it all at the same time - in places it seems a bit rushed and even grumpy (there's an awful lot about the cold and the limited diet), and at times I wondered how the Icelanders reading it would view all the criticisms of their society. There is quite an emphasis on the foreign-ness, the strangeness, and being an outsider. Some descriptions are beautiful, others rather long-winded and cumbersome. It's a good read, but ultimately perhaps it's not sure whether it's a personal and family story or a travel book. Some of the information comes from reported conversations with Icelanders, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.
on 21 October 2015
I have a fascination for isolated communities (living as I do in one) and this book was a most interesting read about modern day Iceland. The only reason for 4 rather than 5 stars is that it read as a series of separate essays rather than a coherent book and it seemed as if the editor had urged her to go back for another visit to write about Iceland as a whole rather than just Reyjavik
on 3 March 2014
Having been to Iceland I found this an interesting insight into Icelandic culture and seeing beyond the tourist goggles. Some people will like the bulk of text which centres on family life and the mundaneness of moving to another country, but for me it was at it's best getting under the skin of the country which it didn't do enough of. Part biography, part cultural commentary, part history listen, but not the jack of all trades it could have been.