Iceland Like a Local: Exploring Culture And Quirks

Kissing cousins alarm, Russian grandma’s nightmare, Gluggaveður, and child neglect. Iceland like a local and learn about culture you won’t find anywhere else.

“Iceland like a local” is about our 10 days encounter with traditions and culture from an isolated and quite remarkable place.

Years ago we developed a passion I called “What it is like to be a local”. It happened during our first trip to Hawaii: we were lucky to live among locals, buy groceries at the same place (where bags of cement were next to diapers and poke), we spent our free time at local favorite places. It turned out, getting to know locals is a thrilling experience!

Buying old horse meat and other delicatessens with local chief. Iceland
At the local market, buying old horse meat and other delicatessens. Iceland

Iceland like a local: Shame on you, Vikings!

The first thing you see in Iceland, either in reality or in a picture – bare ground. Raw, treeless landscape, looking like thousands of years ago, untouched:

Seljalandsfoss waterfall
Seljalandsfoss waterfall. photo credit: Gerald Lobenwein

What a bummer! 🙁

Once upon a time, Iceland was covered in trees. But 1100 years ago, after Vikings’ arrival, most of them were cut down. For building ships, houses, and making metal parts. When sheep were brought to Iceland, the rest of the trees were razed for pastures. While sheep didn’t mean to, they caused massive erosion, creating a landscape no more good for growing trees.

Reforestation has a low rate of success in Iceland, but locals keep trying hard so more places can look like in the picture below:

South Iceland, Þjórsárdalur forest
South Iceland, Þjórsárdalur forest. photo credit: Skogarpesi

Iceland like a local: Not all Icelanders are blond

Icelanders are attractive, educated, proud, and tough. On our first day in Iceland, we were exhausted from the overnight flight and I kept finding myself looking at local men: tall, attractive, with stiff dark blonde hair.

After jetlag symptoms disappeared, I discovered other features. Non of the locals were exclaiming “Such a cute baby!” to our 4 months old, or smiling, or saying “Hi” to strangers on a street (us), which would be a common and expected practice in the US, where we came from. And there were many shades of hair other than blonde 😀

At Samfes youth festival, Reykjavik.
Samfes youth festival, Reykjavik.

We were surprised to know there are 14% of immigrants in Iceland. And that nearly 50% of Icelandic genes are from Ireland (either settlers or slaves).

Nearly 14 000 from 300 000 of the Icelandic population is Polish and about 3000 from Lithuania. At the local pools, we met a Cuban mom and a mom from Russia, both locals, talking fast in Icelandic.

Icelanders are highly proficient in English. During a 10 day trip, we met a non-English speaking (and grumpy) local only once.

Iceland like a local: Child neglect

Pardon me, just a different culture.

A baby left without supervision would be considered neglect in the US. Especially outside during winter. And although we came from a culture where infants nap outside even at the freezing temperatures, moms are usually nearby, and not having a drink at the restaurant!

Iceland is one of the safest countries. Crime rate is very low here
Iceland is one of the safest countries. Crime rate is very low here

In Iceland, strollers are usually left outside of most cafes/restaurants. For many reasons: a sleeping baby, dressed for cold weather will be overheated, no space for all prams to fit inside, and parents have the right to enjoy their time.

We tried to be like a local, and we liked it :). On the picture above: a local baby (on the left) and ours, on the right, 4 months old.

Iceland like a local: how to prevent kissing cousins

During our trip, we had a wonderful guide, named Tyffy. He told us a lot about the culture and quirks:
– Try to guess, what do we check during the first date?
– Um-mm
– If we are too closely related.
– ??!

Reykjavik, view from Hallgrimskirkja Church
Reykjavik, view from Hallgrimskirkja Church

– Iceland has only 350 000 inhabitants and everyone comes from the same family tree. Nearly 220 000 live in the densely populated capital region. We check Íslendinga-App to find out if we are… dating a relative. I bet it is different from where you came from! – said our dear Tiffy.

Icelandic pool culture: all the problems are resolving in a tub

The entire generation of Russian-speaking grandmas would faint if they would see a typical Icelandic pool. The whole idea of a child walking wet after showering, nearly naked, during snowfall to an outside swimming pool sounds crazy!

Only in Iceland: kids making snowballs for a fight
Only in Iceland: local kids (and Artem on the right) making snowballs for a fight

– We, Icelanders, believe that “all the problems are resolving in a tub”, Tyffy told us.

– Many Icelanders are going to the pool on daily basis. It is our ritual, favorite “gathering space”. Chat with friends, swim, soak, and you’ll leave the pool in a different shape. You, guys, said you want to meet more locals? All kinds of people swim in Reykjavik’s public pools: old, young, families, politicians, seamen. Bjork too, – he said with a twinkling.

Pools are often partially or entirely outdoors, spotless, and heated by geothermal energy. I’d add much more, they deserve a separate post. Loved it a lot!

Artem happily playing under the freezing rain. By Icelandic magic, he (and all of us, including 4 months old) didn't catch cold
Artem playing under the freezing rain. By Icelandic magic, he and all of us, including 5 month old baby didn’t catch cold

Land of happy children and boobs

Despite the fact that parents are working long hours, often separated, and the cost of living is higher than in NYC, Iceland has one of the happiest kids in the world. It is a very safe, gender-equal, has almost free public university, and a strong sense of community in raising children.

Kids roam around without supervision, are allowed to eat ice cream outdoors even during a blizzard, get free tickets to many places and activities (12 y.o. and under).

Laundromat Cafe, Reykjavik
Reykjavik: the entire floor in the restaurant is dedicated to kids; you can have a drink while little ones are playing.

We loved Iceland because it felt like it is created for children and families.

It came as a big surprise, but everywhere, at the local pools, library, museums, or restaurants kids were welcome, and us, adults, felt comfortable, even with babies… and boobs:

Iceland was the most enjoyable place to be with an infant!
Iceland was the most enjoyable place for us to be with an infant

Iceland like a local: Gluggaveður

Gluggaveður or “Window-weather” is a very special Icelandic saying: “weather that looks beautiful while you are inside, but is much too cold when you step outside.”

Iceland has more writers, more books published and more books read, per capita than anywhere in the world. Window weather has created a nation of writers and readers: 10% of Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.

Movies about Iceland

We love to watch movies before and after the trips.

Our most favorite about Iceland is “The Falcons” (2018). It is more than a story about 10 y/o Jón at a major Icelandic football tournament. I would say it is about “How to grow up in one summer”. Great movie for a family viewing.

"The Falcons" ©Sagafilm
“The Falcons” ©Sagafilm

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a movie about Icelandic Eurovision contestants. Lovely as well! 2020. Comedy, music.

The last movie we saw was Rams (2020). Great movie, but isn’t a “light one” if all you need is to relax. I learned everything I could find about Scrapie on the internet after that movie.

P.S. Where we stayed in Reykjavik

We stayed all 10 nights at Swan House, a 3-star hotel. The location was excellent, as well as the hotel itself. The only con we realized after arrival … studio wasn’t working for us anymore. We needed at least one separate bedroom to put 4 months baby and 5 y.o. to sleep:

Yes, we even brought “crib” with us 😀

Thanks for reading, friends! I hope, you enjoyed Icelandic culture and quirks as much as we do :). There are more curious things I would like to share in the next posts.

Read next:

Icelandic Christmas: 9 reasons why it is special. The best and worst about visiting Yellowstone.

Frankfurt and our first impressions about Germany

More “Like a Local”: Munich, Amsterdam, Vancouver.
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By Mrs. Grazy Goat

I am Ira, the author behind Grazy Goat. My husband and I run this blog and share our experiences about thrilling places and cultures. Our son Artem recently joined us and helps with editing.

We are very happy to have YOU here 😻

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