WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Life from the Outside

By on March 29, 2016

Stepping into the shoes of a foreign worker offers important lessons for living at home and afar.

No room for the author at this table. He spent an hour standing here without being acknowledged by his new Icelandic peers. (Photo: Andrew munz)

No room for the author at this table. He spent an hour standing here without being acknowledged by his new Icelandic peers. (Photo: Andrew munz)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I’ve been living in the small town of Neskaupstaður, Iceland, for five months now, and I recently realized I’ve never considered myself as an immigrant or a migrant worker. The term “expatriate” always tasted a little better on the tongue, but I don’t know why I never connected the dots before. Perhaps because (thanks to my dual citizenship with Austria) I managed to evade entangling myself in any immigration red tape, and was able to find a job fairly quickly. But now that the romance of moving to Iceland has dulled, I’ve been faced with the harsh reality of what so many expatriates face: integration.

The hotel I’m employed at has a few other international workers and we’ve created our own version of camaraderie within the confines of the property. There’s a mediocre pizza joint, one or two bars (operating hours whimsically vary) and, well, that’s about it. And while one of those bars occasionally has a DJ or a live band, we foreigners have an incredibly difficult time meeting new people.

As you can imagine, Icelandic is an extremely difficult language to master. While a few of us have added some useful phrases into our arsenals, they’re not enough to win favor with the locals. Unlike in Reykjavík, where English can be almost more common than Icelandic, our town is in the boonies, way off on the other side of the country. The people who live here haven’t fully experienced the massive tourism floods that plague the west and south coasts, so English is not a priority. Not with the older folks, anyhow.

I do my best to tell the locals and hotel guests that I’m learning Icelandic (Ég er að læra Íslensku!), but also that I can’t speak it very well. More often than not they would prefer I get someone Icelandic to help them, rather than bother with English. This can certainly dampen my spirits, because I want nothing more than to be seen as a part of the community, even if just for the limited time I’ll spend here.

The locals whisper about us foreigners behind our backs, wondering what we’re doing here and why our boss wouldn’t just hire Icelanders for our positions. Oftentimes at functions or parties, a few Icelanders are interested in getting to know us. I had to find out why we are continuously so shrugged off, so I asked local hair stylist Anna Bella Sigurðardóttir, who gave me some insight.

“The personality is carried over from the time of the fish factory,” Anna Bella said. “It used to be a seasonal company with operations in the summer only. So people would come only for a few months, and people didn’t bother getting to know them because they would be gone anyway in the fall.”

I hung my head and laughed. She asked me what was so funny.

“We have the exact same problem in my hometown,” I said.

Here I am, 3,500 miles away from Wyoming, and I find myself still standing in the shoes of two types of Jackson Hole workers: the immigrant who doesn’t speak the language, and the 90-day wonder who wants to be a part of the community.

A majority of my Icelandic language frustrations can be likened to Spanish-speaking workers trying to master English, and my desire to be seen as less of an outsider is no different than those Southern swoop-haired fellas who come to Jackson and claim local status.

I’m happy my own privilege and comfort-zone have been challenged in Iceland. It’s refreshing to trip on the curb of another person’s reality. An experience like this makes me truly appreciate and admire other people who leave their home countries to take up a new adventure elsewhere. It will continue to be a struggle way out here in east Iceland, but hopefully I’ll soon get a little better at the language so I can become the Viking I aspire to be. PJH

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