Cultural Connections: From Reykjavík to Washington, D.C.

BY JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Growing up in Reykjavík, Iceland, Ólafur Jónasson experienced a lot of autonomy. The capital city has an estimated population of 123,000 and boasts a very low crime rate. Jónasson explained, “It’s quite safe — when [you] are 7 or 8, you start walking to school on your own. We were able to play outside; people weren’t restricted as kids here. When you go to high school in the U.S., you are treated like kids, but in Iceland you have a lot more freedom and independence. We are not told what to do.”

Spending time outside in nature is a national pastime. “People are very outdoorsy. Icelanders play a lot of soccer and handball, but golf is one of the most popular sports.” Like many Icelanders, Jónasson and his family would leave the city on weekends to enjoy the vast expanse of nature. “My favorite place to visit in Iceland is Laugarvatn, which is about one hour from Reykjavík. My grandfather had a log cabin there so we would go there every week. There was a small lake, and we would go in the boat and fish and play golf.”

Given its proximity to the Arctic Circle, the country is bathed in darkness for several months each year. “Iceland [has] a big drinking culture. It’s quite common for people to go out at midnight and return home at 5 or 6 a.m. Because there is so much darkness, people spend a lot of time drinking.”

Ólafur Jónasson

The national drink, Brennivín, a type of schnapps also known as Black Death, is sometimes consumed with another Icelandic delicacy — fermented shark. Jónasson reported that most Icelanders reserve this pungent food to test tourists’ stamina, except during Thorrablót, which Jónasson described as “a special day where we celebrate Icelandic heritage and we eat traditional food like smoked meat and fermented shark and drink ‘burning wine.’”

Despite a brief stint in Sweden as a student, Jónasson had never lived abroad until moving to the U.S. five and a half years ago to begin his doctorate in physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The only thing I knew about Wisconsin was from ‘That ‘70s Show.’ It was my first time living away from my parents. I came with two suitcases, and I didn’t know anyone. I arrived in the middle of the summer, and it was 100 degrees and my apartment didn’t have A/C. It was the worst summer for heat, and everything was dead. It felt like the apocalypse.”

Although Jónasson did not experience major culture shock upon coming to the U.S., he noted “some peculiarities” and went on to explain, “The drinking laws here are strange. You have to be 21, but people break the law and drink. Here it’s a big thing to break the law. The fact that people would drink and drive was a bit of a shock. It was very irresponsible.”

He also found the amount of small talk disconcerting. “In a grocery store, people would ask you, ‘How is your day?’ and I thought it was strange because I’m just buying something. Later, I found out that people didn’t care. In Iceland, people are more reserved and don’t talk to strangers. At first, it was uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it. I wanted to figure out how to get out of the conversation without seeming overly rude.”

After completing his doctorate, Jónasson and his American wife moved to Hyattsville this past May where he got a job as a government contractor. He noted differences, saying, “It’s fast-paced here, and the prices are much higher and that was a shock coming from Madison, but I like the area. It’s a convenient location. Everything is in walking distance; I can walk to see a movie [or] to go grocery shopping.”

While Jónasson enjoys living in the U.S. and would like to stay here until he gets his citizenship, he hopes to eventually return to Iceland. But he said, “When I go home it feels kind of foreign. I feel a bit like a tourist because the places I used to go are different. Sometimes I forget Icelandic words, and I use an English word without knowing. I don’t feel like a foreigner, exactly, but it just feels different. I see it like an outsider.”

Cultural Connections is dedicated to sharing the voices of immigrants and other foreigners who have settled in Hyattsville.