The Little Book of the Icelanders

16 March 2011

Blogger, writer and translator Alda Sigmundsdóttir, she of the Iceland Weather Report, has produced a fascinating eBook that outlines and explains some of the weirdness of Icelanders, and here I should add that while Icelanders are odd, they are no odder than most others. It’s just that the oddness is visible and can be highly perplexing.
These people aren’t easily understood. Quite apart from the language that is largely impenetrable to any outsider, Icelanders have an array of quirks and foibles that can baffle both visitors and those who have lived there alike.

Alda has the advantage of while she’s Icelandic, she spent much of her formative years overseas, giving her that invaluable dual insight that comes of being simultaneously an insider and an outsider.
I’d already read and been fascinated by Alda’s previous eBook, Living Inside the Meltdown, in which she portrayed the experiences and viewpoints of ten very different people and how they had been affected by the ‘The Crash’, as the pivotal events of 2008 are now referred to in everyday speech. The Crash has become a marker in time. ‘That happened before The Crash’ or ‘Was that before or after The Crash?’ are everyday expressions, along with ‘That’s just sooo 2007’ to describe anything that’s overblown, pretentious or just ridiculously expensive.

I kept Alda’s new Little Book of the Icelanders (vol 1) until I knew I’d have peace and quiet to read the whole thing without interruption, and the bar of the Portsmouth - St Malo ferry on an overnight crossing to France provided the perfect opportunity. Ferries at this time of year are pretty quiet, so, with a pint of Guinness at my elbow and with a genuinely terrible conjuror on the stage in the distance, I sat back with Alda’s book.
It was worth keeping for a day or two. I don’t know if my appreciative snorts of laughter distracted the conjuror or his sparse audience, but The Little Book of the Icelanders is a great read. There’s so much in there that’s absolutely spot on that I could recognise from my own experience, all succinctly put and with an unmistakeable affection for Icelanders and their odd ways.
Fifty short essays range from the uniqueness of Icelanders’ names to the reasons for various traditions and quirks, not to mention various aspects of the national psyche. Ever heard the expression ‘þetta réddast’? This will explain why it’s so important, before moving on to a valiant attempt to explain Icelanders’ gung-ho-ness, plus some valuable comments about driving on this island. After reading this, you may decide against hiring a car if/when you go there.
If you want to find out why Icelanders are like they are, or if you’re just interested in some of the oddities of Icelandic traditions and attitudes, or you’re doing business in Iceland and want to understand a little of the national character – then this is the place to start.
Incidentally, one major Icelandic company bought 75 copies of Alda’s book to distribute among staff at one of its overseas branches so that non-Icelandic staff could gain a little insight in their employers’ mindset.
I’m already looking forward to volume 2.

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