-Where were you born?
-In which country and city are you living now?
I live in Reykjavík, Iceland.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
-How long have you been living in Iceland?
Almost two years
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Iceland?
I always wanted to live abroad, and the decision to move to Iceland happened when my (American) boyfriend got a job and moved there. We were apart for a year and then I moved to join him, with the plan to find a job that would allow me to stay permanently.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
My first stay in Iceland was as a tourist, which is allowed for 3 months in Schengen territory. Once I had a job, the residence/work visa was not too much paperwork, and at the time it was even free to apply. The whole process from submitting the paperwork to touchdown in Iceland with a residence permit was less than two months. If you’ve got someone advocating for you, everything is much smoother. The restrictions since I arrived have gotten much tighter though, and I have heard of people having problems in more recent months.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
Iceland’s medicine is socialized, so it’s free after being a resident for six months. Before that, my company provided insurance for me as part of the visa sponsorship package.
-How do you make your living in Iceland?
It took me less time to find a job in Iceland than it did to find my previous job in the US, since I had nothing else to do during the days but job hunt. I used the newspaper to find the websites of companies that were hiring, and if they had an English-language version and I had relevant experience, I applied. I did a "walkaround" too, where I visited the places I’d applied and asked to speak to someone about my application. I interviewed at agencies, and told everyone I knew (and my boyfriend knew) that I was looking for a job. Ultimately it was the personal connections that came through.
My job is in IT/software, which is a wonderfully flexible and portable field. I have a greater opportunity for professional growth in Iceland than the US (thanks to the small population and flat organizational structure), I learn a lot and get to travel, am earning a pretty good income, and have a much more flexible work schedule than in the US.
-Do you speak Icelandic and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I speak enough to be functional in shops and most basic interactions, and I understand quite a lot. Unfortunately, Icelandic is well-known to be one of the more difficult languages to learn, thanks to its complex grammar and very long words! Most Icelanders my age speak almost perfect English, which has been useful in some ways but has prevented me from learning as much as I could have. However, I do think that it’s an important part of living in a country, especially when the language is such a point of pride for the culture. Icelandic has remained almost unchanged in 1000 years, and it’s only spoken in this one tiny country. The preservation of the language means a lot to people.
Local customs here are not too different from what I experienced in the US, as far as major holidays and such. There’s some very unappealing traditional food that I think every expat living in Iceland must try if you hope to have respect with the locals. Also, if you choose to make your life in another country, I think it’s important to experience the whole package, which includes the customs and traditions.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Of course I miss family and friends! However, thanks to all the communication options, I am able to stay in at least voice or email contact with people back in the US. Fortunately, friends and family do find Iceland interesting enough to come visit, and the flight from Boston to Iceland is not too long.
In Iceland there are plenty of activities available. The (heated outdoor) pools and hot tubs are an essential part of daily life in Iceland, and in the summer hiking and camping is very popular. Artistic activities are also common here, and most people sing, play an instrument, draw, paint, write, or do some other kind of artistic activity. I’m in a choir, I am a handweaver, I take photos, and I write on my blog (reykjavikharbor.blogspot.com).
-Do you have other plans for the future?
I’m not the kind of person who has a 10-year life plan (or even a 5-year one for that matter) so I don’t know what my long term plans are. In the shorter-term, I’m keeping the paperwork in order should I stay long enough for citizenship here, and intend to stay as long as it’s still enjoyable and fulfilling.
My job currently has me traveling semi-regularly to countries in continental Europe, a feature that I really enjoy. Iceland can feel a little isolated, so getting “off island” helps keep it fresh. It was also part of the expat life I wanted to have - instead of going to Connecticut for business trips, I go to Oslo.
I’ve also made quite a lot of friends here in Iceland who have since moved to other countries, making for all kinds of interesting travel potential that I hope to take advantage of.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I’m renting, and it costs about the same as what I paid in Boston, where I last lived.
-What is the cost of living in Iceland?
Definitely pretty high. Food is expensive since almost everything has to come in by boat or plane. Iceland grows some vegetables and fruits in greenhouses but it’s of limited variety. Happily, household utilities are relatively inexpensive. Iceland is volcanically active, and the geothermally heated water is pumped into Reykjavík for heat and showers. Electricity comes from the geothermal activity as well as hydropower, since Iceland is full of powerful glacier-fed rivers.
As for housing, I last lived in Boston where rents are notoriously high. Reykjavík’s similarly priced, but you get more for your money. My apartment is bigger than what I had in Boston, is more centrally located, and has more extra amenities (storage, etc.).
I save much of my shopping for when I’m not in Iceland, since clothing & electronics are also pricy, although some of it is worth getting here, since Iceland has some prolific and inventive clothing designers.
-What do you think about the Icelanders?
Icelanders seem to take quite a long time to get to know, but in general they’re a helpful lot, and quietly friendly. It’s just that they’ve been fairly unexposed to massive amounts of foreign residents until recently, and the assumption is almost always that I either have an Icelandic spouse or I am part Icelandic. Neither applies to me so I’m usually greeted with a bit of perplexity when I reply negatively to either question.
The way they treat foreigners depends a bit on where you’re from. US immigrants are not in significant numbers, and are not seen as being much of a threat to the Icelandic cultural purity, but I have heard that others have a harder time. It also depends on how interested one is in learning the language and integrating with the culture at all.
Many Icelanders have circles of friends that they’ve known since childhood, so it can be difficult to integrate at times. There’s sort of the feeling that they’ve got all the friends they need in this group, so why bother adding some random foreigner? As a result, many of the people I have gotten to know here are also from other countries, which has turned out to not be so bad, since I now have a network of people I know all over Europe.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Iceland?
December is very dark! Iceland’s almost on the Arctic Circle and you really feel it, with the amount of light shifting quite a bit every day. The weather’s also famously disagreeable, but I prefer a cooler summer, so a “hot day” being 17-18C is perfect to me. It can feel isolated at times, since it is an island, and the population has only recently surpassed 300,000.
On the upside, you’ve got easy flights (2-3 hours) to most of Europe, some of the best tap water I have ever tasted, deliciously fresh air, tons of seafood, and because the population is so small, lines, crowds, & traffic jams are almost nonexistent, and you can very quickly feel like a part of the community. The swimming pools are also a significant part of why I love being here. Nothing fixes a crappy day quite like a nice long soak in the great open-air hot tubs here.
On a daily basis, it’s also a great feeling to be surrounded by so much sky, the mountains, and the ocean. It’s easy to leave town and in 15 minutes be in open countryside with only horses and sheep as companions. The landscape here is like nowhere else in the world and very accessible. I really felt this when one Tuesday evening I found myself atop a glacier in the long hours of summer "night," looking at a massive spine of mountains in one direction, a huge fjord another direction, and the vastness of ocean the other way. The variety of landscape here is fantastic - cliffs and beaches, glaciers and rivers, geothermal areas, and secret hot springs all over the country.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Iceland?
Before you decide to move, come visit in one of the darker months to see what it’s like to have almost no light all day. Also, the island effect and vast amounts of emptiness can be bothersome to certain people. It’s hard to really explain just how empty most of this country is compared to almost everywhere else in the world these days, and it can seem eerie sometimes when you’re on a vast beach just outside of town and there is nobody else, or when you drive 3 hours outside of town and can be on top of an empty glacier. Some people find it liberating, others find it scary or constricting.
Also, the extremely small population where everyone knows everyone can either feel restrictive (because everyone knows what you did last weekend even if you didn’t tell them) or it can feel cozy to have people who know you all over the country.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Iceland?
There aren’t a lot of English-language sites about living here, but it’s changing slowly. Some sites with info:
www.reykjavikharbor.blogspot.com – my own blog, which covers most of the topics asked about above!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/89576072@N00 – my photos of Iceland
www.ahus.is - the international house website, with immigrant support info. A good starting place for people considering moving here.
www.utl.is - the immigration office of Iceland, with regulations and applications.
http://blog.icelandexpress.com/iceland - this is a conglomeration by a bunch of local writers, hosted by one of the Icelandic airlines. It covers a lot of the "basics" of Icelandic culture.