It takes time to know a culture

One summer a few years ago I hitchhiked the south route between Reykjavík and Egilsstaðir. I had spent a short summer vacation with my family in Denmark and was heading back home to Seyðisfjörður where I live.

I hitched a ride with a couple from Dubai and we drove past Kálfafell on a clear, late summer’s afternoon. The vast landscape opened to the stillness, the constant change of light, the birds, the black sand and the mountains in the distance. You get the picture.

Just as we reached Skaftafell, the gentleman who was driving the car turned in his seat and looked straight at me. He pointed out the window and frowned: “Where are all the hotels?!”

A little puzzled I had to ask him to repeat his question. He continued:

“Look at all this empty land. Why are there no hotels? You could build lots of hotels and banks here.”

Quite quickly I gave up trying to describe the beauty and uniqueness of the untouched Icelandic nature. Instead, I fell back into the seat thinking about how it takes time to understand a new culture. No matter whether you are from Denmark or Dubai.

Being an immigrant myself, I have had to learn and understand the Austurland culture – more specifically when it comes to the notion of time. When trying to get an appointment with a person from Austurland the answer: “Maybe in half an hour” can be translated to “Maybe a storm will pass, the mountain will close and snow will fall for five months straight. How can I say a particular time?” I have learned by now that planning is different here.

I have always seen the lifestyle here as closely connected to the Italian. It is almost like Austurland could be Italy’s cold cousin. People here have strong family bonds and they treasure social gatherings and shared meals. Not to forget the importance of having several coffee breaks throughout the day! I often spend most of my days either looking for people (hence the before mentioned notion of time) or rúnturinn around between coffee stops.

I guess it comes down to being a part of a rural community on a semi-deserted island in the North Atlantic Ocean. As a Dane, even I who come from a culture so seemingly close to the Icelandic have had to listen and learn when it comes to the premises of living in Austurland. I joke about my colleague’s desperate need for coffee breaks, though I also remind myself that we live on a tiny spot in the world where it seems like the days are longer than the usual 24 hours. Where we do not have to spend hours commuting in heavy traffic or live by a tight schedule, but where we can push that appointment until tomorrow if now is for hunting, seeing a friend or hiking a mountain in good weather.

Jæja, it must be time for a coffee now!

By Nanna Vibe S Juelsbo

This article was first published in a special edition of Austurglugginn dedicated to the foreign-born residents of Austurland // Greinin birtist upphaflega í sérstakri útgáfu Austurgluggans sem unnin var í samstarfi við Austurbrú þar sem fjallað var um málefni fólks af erlendum uppruna á Austurlandi.