The Not So Real Iceland by Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson Skip to content

The Not So Real Iceland by Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson

The travel guide The Real Iceland by Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson is supposed to tell the whole truth about the Icelandic nation, including all the customs and quirks that visitors have wondered about but have been afraid to ask.

What is the truth? There are many sides to a story and the author mainly provides one—his own.

On the cover, Ásgeirsson is described as a “local expert” and on the back cover as someone who has “traveled widely in Iceland and around the world and written several popular guidebooks for Icelanders.”

While that may all be true, I’m not sure such qualifications make Ásgeirsson an “expert” in the Icelandic national character.

In fact, I don’t think anyone qualifies as an expert in a nation’s character since a nation is comprised of different individuals who have different characteristics despite sharing a common cultural background.

One can naturally make assumptions to that end based on one’s feelings but to claim that there is an absolute truth in what characterizes a nation is simply not viable.

While there is some truth in most things Ásgeirsson writes and his book does provide a decent insight into the psyche of a certain group of Icelanders, it is also opinionated, generalizations are made and stereotypes confirmed.

For example, Ásgeirsson writes that the majority of the nation believes in elves, without supporting that claim with proper argumentation or sufficient statistics.

According to research that I’ve undertaken on the topic for this website, it is simply not true that most Icelanders believe in elves. It is, however, a much hyped cliché and a marketing trick, which is probably why “elves” are mentioned on the cover of The Real Iceland.

In a 2007 survey by folklorist Terry Gunnell at the University of Iceland, 37 percent of respondents said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely, 13 percent said elves could not possibly exist and five percent had no opinion on the existence of elves.

According to Gunnell’s survey, the majority of Icelanders don’t believe in elves. However, a high percentage of respondents didn’t deny their existence, which is interesting because it indicates that the Icelandic elf legend has a certain stronghold on people. Therefore it is a shame that Ásgeirsson doesn’t expand on the topic.

Another surprise is that most of the book is dedicated to Reykjavík and the surrounding area. I couldn’t find any description saying that this is a Reykjavík guidebook so I expected it to cover other regions of Iceland as well, while only a few other destinations are mentioned.

However, if people are interested in learning more about Iceland’s capital, I would recommend this book because it gives a personal and detailed account of Reykjavík.

It mentions interesting walks—some of which probably no other guidebooks include, such as a walk down Iceland’s “Wall Street” turned “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (as aptly described in the book)—old buildings, new architecture, outdoor art, the author’s favorite museums, restaurants, cafés and fast-food joints.

I also expected the book to include more history, as promised on the cover, while historical references are made almost as an afterthought, often lacking explanations and dates.

It seems, in fact, that the book was written in a rush (a feeling which grew once I read that the original copies had been called in because they included the home addresses of Icelandic celebrities—who, needless to say, weren’t happy about it).

The style of writing is informal and straightforward, which hadn’t necessarily been a problem had the wording not been so clumsy and repetitive—the author uses the word “nerd” a lot and keeps writing “by all means,” which started to annoy me after a while.

About half-way into the book it struck me that it read like a long, unedited Daily Life contribution: opinionated, personal, with one thing leading to the next and clear lines between chapters lacking. This style may suit some types of publications but in this case I had expected a more professional structure.

Despite its flaws, The Real Iceland is a decent guidebook—its highlight being the chapters about Reykjavík. However, if readers are expecting it to include a more wide-angled view of Iceland, like I was, they might end up being disappointed.

It is also a more honest and insightful account of the Icelandic nation (although some statements are exaggerated, if not simply incorrect) than I’ve seen before, describing both the good and the bad, including some commonly accepted bad manners like littering.

Some practical information is also included, like what kind of weather to expect and how to dress accordingly, and that it’s obligatory to shower in the nude before entering a swimming pool.

As long as people are aware that the book is not exactly what it says on the cover, it could prove a good introduction to Iceland and its nation. It could also spark people’s interest to learn more as I suspect that in some cases it raises more questions than it answers.

The Real Iceland is available in Icelandic bookstores and on the publisher’s website (the website is in Icelandic so email [email protected] if you have any questions).

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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