Soon, I will be boarding a plane to Iceland with three friends, and Names for the Sea; strangers in Iceland, was the book I decided to read in preparation. It’s the kind of book I don’t often read, but it does me good to step outside my comfort zone. A friend of mine who has visited Iceland three times and has also read this book warned me that there were some negative points which didn’t match her experience, so I was ready to be not put off Iceland by those parts. Names for the Sea relates the experience of author and university teacher Sarah Moss; who takes a job at the university of Reykjavik and moves herself, her husband and two young sons to the Icelandic capital for an entire year. Naturally someone spending a year in Reykjavik, with young children, a job, financial concerns etc. will face entirely different experiences to those of us just visiting.
This is not Sarah’s first visit to Iceland, in 1995 when they were nineteen, she and her friend Kathy spent six wonderful summer weeks in Iceland. Sarah feels like she has always been drawn northward.
“The Arctic is just over the horizon, the six months’ darkness always at the back of the mind, the summer-long day impossible to believe in winter and impossible to doubt when it comes. Here, just below the Earth’s summit, there are towns and villages, a tangle of human lives, in the shadow of Arctic eschatology. I keep going back to the North Atlantic, working my way north and west as the Celts and Vikings did, as if I’m heading for the Vikings’ westernmost point at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.”
It was 2009 when Sarah Moss took a job at Reykjavik university and she and her family left their home in Canterbury for a year in Iceland. Between accepting the job and moving to Iceland, beginning the search for an apartment and all the rest that goes along with moving a family from one country to another, the financial crisis hits Iceland, and the value of her salary is practically halved. The (some would say bad) timing of Sarah’s year in Iceland is quite key – because the financial crisis affects the kinds of goods readily available in the Icelandic supermarkets – and has Sarah soon yearning after the plentiful fruits of Kent.
Moving to another country will always be something of a culture shock – I don’t think it is ever something I could do. Sarah is very aware of her ‘foreignness’ finding her few words of Icelandic stick in her throat – it’s that acute embarrassment thing, isn’t it? – but mortified to be continually expecting people to speak English to her. Customs, everyday practices which Icelanders takes for granted must be explained. Living in a new (not yet finished) apartment complex out in the suburbs Sarah learns that just like in California – everybody drives – almost no one of driving age gets the bus, but for the first few months Sarah’s family resist getting a car because they have so little money. It can be quite an operation preparing herself and the children to walk to school from their apartment once the winter begins, and it is at this point a car becomes a necessity. The financial crisis hit Iceland hard, and Sarah and her family – living with very sparse, basic furnishings (sitting on garden chairs in their living room as they were cheaper) – feel very poor. Sarah begins to look for that poverty in Icelanders – and is unable to find it easily – though she knows it must exist. She also discovers that there is practically no such thing as second hand in Iceland – people having a cultural reticence to using other people’s things.
The weather is another key feature – probably unsurprisingly – and again Moss can appear a bit negative, again, I find that totally understandable. Working with children as I do, I know how staff feel when the children haven’t been able to go out to play two days on the trot – it drives us all demented – imagine having two young lively boys effectively cooped up in an apartment for months. She does however find moments within those long winter months that charm and delight her.
“The aurora are unsettling partly because they show the depth of the space, the falsity of our illusion that the sky is two-dimensional, and partly because it’s hard to convince your instincts that something bigger than you and grabbing at the sky isn’t out to get you.”
Overall Sarah’s experiences are fascinating, I was particularly interested in the details of schooling and nursery provision which she had to access for her sons – children start school at six and continue until they are twenty! There is good, full time nursery provision in Reykjavik which it seems everybody takes advantage of. Sarah’s youngest son, picks up Icelandic with impressive speed, young children often do in these situations, while her elder son settles happily at an international school. Sarah is drawn to the Icelandic landscape, the volcanic craters, the scattered farmhouses and isolated communities, she drives at speed along unsurfaced roads as she explores her unique environment.
During her year in Iceland, Sarah makes a lot of friends and connections among the people she lives and works among. She works hard to learn more about the country and its people. She learns about the elves and the hidden people, who play an important part in the oral histories of the country. Sarah meets Þórunn at her remote house, a house for which Sarah feels immediate envy, Þórunn claims that she is never alone in her isolated summer home, she is surrounded by hidden people.
“Þórunn gestures, and I gaze at the space she’s pointing to. I can see my own reflection, out there under the tree, and I can see the table on the veranda Þórunn a, and the wind stirring the rowan trees, and the ash cloud rising into the blue sky. ‘She’s from the hidden people, and she lives in the lava field with her family. I used to go and visit her, but about three years ago she started to come and see me, just for a visit. And there are tree elves that I can see out there, small tree elves, and the flower elves, which are even smaller’ – Þórunn holds her hand about a foot above the coffee table – ‘but usually elves are very delicate creatures, with a very fine bone structure.”
At the end of the year, Sarah and her family return to England, to Cornwall this time, but a year or so later return to Iceland for a holiday. On this return trip, she notes how the availability of some goods she had so missed while she lived in Reykjavik had improved quite a lot.
I’m glad I read this book, I feel as if I have learnt a lot about a country I have wanted to visit for years. I am only visiting Iceland for a few days, but a whole year – that is an entirely different kettle of fish. The one thing I don’t think I would do very well with however – is that six-month winter, though the long bright days at the other end of the year sound wonderful. As I get older I appreciate the light more and more. I am still, naturally really looking forward to my holiday. Iceland sounds like it is a fascinating country.