True Story: The Little Book of the Icelanders Skip to content

True Story: The Little Book of the Icelanders

I bet I wasn’t the only one who felt sad when Iceland’s leading lady of the blogosphere, two-time Bloggie nominee Alda Sigmundsdóttir of The Iceland Weather Report, announced her decision to stop blogging.

For years she has entertained and enlightened the world with her honest and hilarious anecdotes about the Icelanders and her deep and profound news analysis, which provided foreign media outlets with valuable and, sadly, often unaccredited information.

But fans of Sigmundsdóttir will be thrilled to know that she has not stopped writing, she just switched formats, and are sure to welcome her second eBook, The Little Book of the Icelanders – Vol. 1.

Preceded by the more serious Living Inside the MeltdownThe Little Book of the Icelanders is of a lighter topic, comprising of “50 miniature essays on the quirks and foibles of the Icelanders”, as it says on the cover.

The book strikes me as an extension of her blog, or perhaps a summary and elaboration of past entries. It isn’t only light in topic, it is also light in structure—as Sigmundsdóttir says in the introduction, it has none, it was meant to be spontaneous.

Indeed, one chapter leads to the next, creating a continuous chain of storytelling. It feels as if you’re sitting in the author’s kitchen, enjoying a cup of coffee and conversing with her about the quirks of her countrymen, every now and then bursting out laughing.

And Sigmundsdóttir sure has mastered the art of storytelling. Her style is sarcastic and straight to the point, drawing up amusing and truthful examples of Icelandic behavior.

As an Icelander, I can confirm that she does provide readers with a fairly accurate picture of how things are done here, although I wasn’t aware that some of these things seemed so strange to outsiders, like the inability to make small talk and the pride in owning a home.

Sigmundsdóttir is in a unique position to write about the Icelandic national character as she is an insider, being an Icelander herself, with an outsider’s perspective, having been raised in North America.

I’ve read a book similar to this before, The Real Iceland, written by Icelandic guidebook author Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson. It struck me as too exaggerated and too cliché, although it did have some valid points as well, but it’s not nearly as good as this book.

When readers ask me what Icelanders are like I’m usually hesitant to answer because, naturally, there is no way to describe what an entire nation is like; each person is different and any comments about a collective national psyche can easily turn into stereotyping.

Sigmundsdóttir is aware of this problem and therefore makes a disclaimer to that effect in her introduction, saying: “This book is stuffed with sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions, armchair philosophies and random musings,” stressing, “No special studies were carried out in the writing of this book.”

And the book should be read with that in mind. Yet, there is a lot of truth in all of Sigmundsdóttir’s comments and the combination of chapters like “The Independence Thing” exploring the Icelandic mentality and “Big Birthdays” explaining Icelandic traditions should provide foreigners with good insight into the Icelandic community.

I would actually recommend that people planning to move to Iceland read this book to prepare for an imminent culture shock.

For example, it’s good to know that you shouldn’t expect a surprise party for your birthday or anyone buying a cake for you; in Iceland you bake or buy the cake and organize your birthday party yourself.

Not being aware of these cultural differences, an American colleague of mine was very sad that no one remembered her birthday when everyone expected her to announce it was her birthday and bring a cake to celebrate like everyone else at the office does.

Also, if no one mentions it specifically, you should not bring your own food if you’re invited to a dinner party or a BBQ and usually the host provides the beverages too, while bringing a bottle of wine for the host is considered a polite gesture.

The book is a valuable source of information about many Icelandic traditions, including naming traditions, which, based on the interest of my readers in that subject, is a likely hit.

Despite being sort of an extension of Sigmundsdóttir’s blog, as I mentioned earlier, the book is an independent work of writing.

However, there was one thing which might puzzle the uninitiated: the reference to EPI, who is the author’s husband, because as far as I could tell, it wasn’t explained anywhere.

There were also a few minor things which I felt were localized or based on personal experience rather than being representative of all of Icelanders.

For example, at my secondary school we went on a graduation trip many months before the graduation, which I thought that was the norm rather than going on a trip after the graduation as Sigmundsdóttir indicates, although it probably is different from school to school.

In the traffic chapter, to me Sigmundsdóttir described the driving experience in the capital region, which may not be as traumatizing in other parts of the country.

In memory, at least, drivers in Akureyri where I grew up are more civilized, using the indicator more often and stopping to let pedestrians cross the street, although the situation may have worsened since I moved.

Us Akureyrians actually complain about the inconsiderate and fast Reykjavík drivers, who in turn complain about utanbaejarfólk (“out of towners”) who drive too slowly and in the passing lane—yes, that’s us who aren’t used to streets having many lanes and are nervous about getting lost so we pick the lane most convenient for making the next turn.

Some traditions, such as weddings and funerals, aren’t that different from those in other Western countries, I believe, at least not European or Nordic countries, but, of course, Sigmundsdóttir draws the most comparisons with North American traditions.

These passing remarks are probably just as subjective and based on personal experience as those made by the author, basically proving her point in the introduction, that making generalizations about an entire nation is virtually impossible and that there are always people who will disagree, saying: “But I’m not like that”—and rightfully so.

So, without further ado, I’m going to heartily recommend The Little Book of the Icelanders both to fans of Sigmundsdóttir’s blog and those unfamiliar with her work. It is a funny little book that does ring true, although it shouldn’t be taken too seriously either.

And I’m already looking forward to the sequel; this is just Vol. 1, after all, and I’m sure Sigmundsdóttir has many more stories to tell.

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The Little Book of the Icelanders is available on The Iceland Weather Report.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

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