May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
The World's Great Towns, June 1997

By the Editors

The Numbers
Population: 160,000
Climate: Actually, quite nice
Number of McDonald's: 2
Gestalt: Blonds have more fun
At first sight, it's an Arctic Lego-land, all colorful, boxy houses, gleaming streets, and an uncannily bright-blue, midtown salmon stream. The residents — genetic lottery winners all — strut along in Nordic splendor, taller, blonder, and more wholesome than you. It's a great place. There's little crime, virtually no pollution (thanks to geothermal heat), 100 percent literacy, sexy-cool nightlife (Bjork is considered way pass‰), some of the globe's most spectacular countryside, and approximately 10,000 single Icelandic men for every distaff arrival (and 10,000 single women, too). So why doesn't all the world repair at once to Reykjavík? Mostly because they won't let us. Icelandic immigration regulations are strict even by European standards, and the job market is tight. But it's worth the effort. This is a place where seemingly every one of the city's inhabitants will show up to provide the old heave-ho if a whale beaches itself downtown, and where 18-hour-long winter nights are celebrated by group dips at dawn in one of the city's steamy geothermal pools, followed by repeated vodka shots. Dawn, after all, arrives about 11 a.m.

What's Out There
The outdoors is so much a part of everyday life that Reykjavíkers have almost no sense of "recreation." Being outside is just part of being Icelandic. And why not? Within miles of Reykjavík you'll find fjords, lava fields, hundreds of hot springs and geysers, glacial rivers, and colossal waterfalls. Seals, seabirds, and 17 different species of whales roam the coast. The nation's newest national park, three hours north, holds the Sn†fellsj÷kull glacier, from which Jules Verne sent his argonauts to the center of the earth. Nordic and downhill skiing, snowboarding, sea kayaking, horseback riding, and any sport involving ice are all standard workouts. And for some of the finest fishing on the planet, you needn't leave downtown: Just pay your licensing fee (about $250) and cast from your balcony into the Ellitaßr.

Around Town
During the workweek, this is a fairly staid, bourgeois city. Business execs, male and female, gather in the morning for a swim, then head off to downtown offices. At night, they read, then read some more. Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other nation. But then comes Thursday night; and the Icelandic weekend begins. Hordes of young Bj÷rns and Gudruns, clad in this season's Gaultier and Prada and tressed to make Parisian fashion editors swoon, descend on the city's clubs and drink until the sun comes up — or in July, till it goes down, which happens about 4 a.m. Conversations are heated and, to outsiders, shrivelingly intellectual: What's the role of NATO in the post-Communist world? Why didn't Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's latest film cop an Oscar? Why is DKNY making those dowdy sheaths? Buy a few rounds, nod intelligently, and plunge into the active and always interesting Icelandic social scene. If you're feeling just a little inadequate, simply remind yourself that no nation's people are perfect if they embrace, as a semiofficial national dish, something called hßkarl — putrefied shark meat that's been buried in sand for months.

Living Quarters
There are two types of housing in Reykjavík: modern and ubiquitous or wooden, older, and unavailable. Most of the downtown area consists of square steel or concrete buildings softened with Crayola-colored paint jobs. This is where young, cosmopolitan Reykjavíkers live, in sunny two-bedroom apartments renting for about $700. Townhomes nearby sell for $150,000 or so. Graceful, preûWorld War War II wooden cottages also dot the downtown area, but are much more rare and therefore chic. Expect to pay at least $175,000 and probably more — if any are available.

Nine to Five
In a word, challenging. Many Icelanders work more than one job to keep up with the cost of living. Americans tend to work at the Keflavík NATO Air Base — alienating themselves somewhat from native Icelanders, who view the base as an invasion on their turf — or as fish gutters, a profession that quickly palls. Higher-level positions do occasionally open in tourism-related companies. Technically, you need a job offer before arriving, but if you have the necessary funds and want to start your own company, you're likely to get waved right in. Mr. Ingi Ingasson at the Invest Iceland Bureau promises so.

Memorize This
Thetta er, sto'r lax sem thu' ert med. Ma' bjo'da the'r drykk? ("That's a very large salmon you've got there. May I buy you a drink?")

Language Lessons
To know another language, somebody once said, is to possess another soul. That's the sort of talk that makes polyglots feel great but scares the bejesus out of those who've never ventured beyond English. The trouble with learning a new language is that it guarantees humiliation, usually in a highly public way. My oldest friend once stormed into a Venetian grocery and declared, "I believe in ham!" Another person I know, needing a napkin in a Quebec ice-cream shop, got a big laugh by asking for "extra diapers." I myself have tried to purchase breasts in a barber shop, to no avail.

Don't kid yourself. There's no easy way to absorb a language. Listening to cassettes while you sleep, for instance, is the kind of lazy-ass idea only Americans would love. Acquiring a new soul is grueling work. Unless you can spend a few months in a wilderness hut with trained CIA linguists, you'll need real time in your adopted land — no problem, since you've already decided to emigrate. (Thanks a lot, by the way. We'll deal with these budget and crime messes you've left behind.)

The downside, of course, is that the touristy expressions that are the lifeblood of guidebooks become irrelevant once you make the leap to expatriate status. Rarely, when you move to Istanbul or Oslo, will you have to say, "Excuse me, where is the hotel?" Instead, you'll need hard-core phrases like "neck sprain," "Stop that noise, you bastard!" and, God forbid, "Phillips-head screwdriver." Remember: It is unacceptable to simply say these phrases really loudly or in a thick accent. Locals never fall for this, even when they know what you are saying.

The best way to learn a language is not a $2,000 week at Berlitz. (I tried that, and to this day the best I can do in Russian is proclaim, "The pen is red!") No, the ideal route is a far more slothful and cheap enterprise. You must watch as much TV in your new country as you possibly can. I know this from personal experience. As a kid, thanks to my Italian grandparents, I could speak a respectable form of kitchen Italian. One step outside that sacred room, however, and I was struck dumb — compelled to make strange, insectlike gestures to get my point across. And most of my points, in the end, seemed to involve soup or rice.

Years later, during a drinking binge in Rome that many of you might recall as the Gulf War, I had the opportunity to watch months of Italian TV. Thanks to long spells of mindless gaping, I could soon rattle on like an auctioneer. The crucial tools in my mastery of the Italian language became (a) CNN broadcasts in Italian and (b) the European megastar known as Panto.

Panto was an obese fellow in a captain's outfit who presided over a cryptic game show that obliged contestants to remove items of clothing. The overall effect was every bit as demeaning as it sounds, but Panto boldly persisted. (It's not me, his manner seemed to say. It's the game.) Thanks to the endless banter of Panto and his seminude guests, I acquired a wealth of useful slang. The wise expatriate will not allow the wisdom of Panto — of Pantos around the globe — to go to waste. Because of the captain's on-screen endeavors, in no time I was dreaming in Italian, which is always a sure sign that the language is seeping in. Granted, given Panto's role in my education, my dreams were at times disturbing, but che sar€ sar€.

Good luck. Mind you, once you become fluent in your new language and start feeling superior to monolingual pals back home, consider this: You'll never see an efficient post office or a decent grocery store again. Not for the rest of your life. — Marshall Sella

Illustration by Gary Baseman

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