Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Names for the Sea, Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Hi Dear Folk,

I've now read two of Sarah Moss's books this one Names for the Sea of their time spent in Iceland as a family and the other fiction Night Waking.

I loved this book and anyone who wants to get a better picture of Iceland or is planning to visit, should read Names for the Sea.  Sarah Moss applied for a job at the University of Iceland teaching literature for a whole school year.  It's their and especially her view on looking for an apartment, buying a car and settling into her new job.  Plus getting to know the Icelandic people, and the beauty of the land.

You always think of Iceland as a place to visit to see the Northern Lights, or is on the news for another island rising out of the sea, or a volcanic explosion downing all planes with ash fall out, and I think of Icelandic wool and knits. But here we view what it is like to live in Iceland as an outsider.

By foreign standards, ones other than Icelanders, they seem rude, there is in fact no word for "please" in Icelandic and "thank you" and "sorry" are used much less, than in British and American English.   Moss says on this.

Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn't need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is unIcelandic to explain yourself.  Self-explanation suggest some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life.  Icelandic drivers don't indicate, Petur once told me, because they don't see why anyone else needs to know where they're going.

At dinner you don't need to say please could you pass this or that, and thank you when you receive it, because it's a given your are sitting there for a meal and of course you want the salt.

It's just so false, says one of my students, all this thanking people and apologizing all the time when there's nothing to be grateful or sorry about.  It's like Americans telling you to have a nice day when they've never even met you and they really don't give a damn about your day.

Petur a friend moved to Iceland in the sixties when he was a young man and worked on a farm.  Johanna the farmer's wife liked to talk.

She told him about the arrival of rubber boots in rural Iceland, when for the first time it was possible for people who spent their days working outside to keep their feet dry.  The old people, she said, didn't like it, found dry feet uncomfortable and were sure it must be unhealthy.  They used to pour water into their wellingtons before they went out, (Along the lines of a wet-suit, I muse; your feet would be wet but not, after a while, cold.)  And she remembered the building of a road up the valley, the novelty of being able to walk all the way to the next farm, without having to look at her feet.

'I thought Icelandic women used to knit while they were walking?'

Petur lifts his hands, as if any idiot can knit while crossing the lava.  "Well, you can do that, can't you?  You don't have to watch your knitting.'

Most Icelandic people own several cars to a household and the vehicle of choice are large American SUVs.  which came as a total surprise to me.

It's only foreigners who cycle and they'd just get killed if they went on the road.  

Getting to know her students.

Travel writers are always writing home.  They tell me that the Icelandic for stupid is heimskur, one who stays at home, and that there is a saying:  'He is as stupid as a child reared at home.'  This is a nation where travel is the precondition of intelligence.  But, there's another saying they told me, right at the beginning:  'Iceland is the best in the world.'

Foreigners may know how to do things abroad, but only Icelanders understand Iceland.  This country seems both outward-looking and insular, a nation of deeply provincial voyagers. 'Insular', Petur reminds me, is the adjectival form of 'island', and not incompatible with 'well-travelled.'  I try, and fail, to explain to the students why English has two words for 'foreign' and 'outlandish'.

Moss has already found out that there are no charity/thrift shops in Iceland and no second hand furniture shops. all her second hand furniture was found by word of mouth, a friend of a friend has something stored, if not it goes to the landfill.

She wanted to visit the other side of society the poor.  A friend Einar says he'll try but does not think there is anywhere like that, a place where food and items are handed out to the poor.

Young Icelanders keep telling me that there's no class system in Iceland, that inequality is a foreign phenomenon, but the fact of many of my students' alienation from poverty seems to prove Icelandic social inequality.  I remember a colleague in Sociology telling me that not only is there a difference between the middle class and the poor, but the difference is so great that the existence of the poor is news to some of the middle class.  Einar starts his car.  'I did not know,' he says.  'That is the worst thing, I did not know.'

Maybe, I think.  Or maybe the worst thing is that I've known about poverty all my life and I'm not shocked.

More about knitting.

Icelandic undergraduates, it turned out, can knit while drinking coffee, taking notes on their Apple Macs and making enlightening contributions to discussion to Lyrical Ballads. ... Colleagues knit in meetings, which seems a far more constructive use of time than the doodles produced in the English equivalents.

Mark a Canadian married to an Icelandic girl, who has built a beautiful Eco friendly house from trash.

He glances up at me, gauging the real extent of my enthusiasm, and then goes on.  He and Sigurn Maria got much of their furniture from the dump, too.  I didn't know you could, I say, and recount our attempts to find unwanted furniture, the way we thought we'd be able to pickup second-hand or free and found that that market doesn't exist here, certainly not for foreigners.  No, he agrees, it's crazy.  Every time he goes to the dump he sees useful and valuable things thrown away;  garden furniture, sideboards, tables and chairs, a cement mixer he thought he could use.  Televisions and computers.  So after a couple of time he asked the guys there if he could take some of it.  It was only going to a landfill.  They said no.  He asked why not.  They glanced at each other - crazy foreigner!  Because, they explained slowly, some one's thrown it out.  It's some one else's trash.  Mark didn't mind.  No, they said.  No way.  Imagine if you take it and and someone sees that you're using their trash!  Imagine it!

This mind set is hard for me to understand especially when just about everything in Iceland has to be imported.

I do like this idea of Sewing Circles.

Sewing circles seem to be established in adolescents  and continue until death, although some are intergenerational and therefore, presumably, infinite.  Many women are members of more than one, which is probably part of the answer to my question about what Icelanders do in the winter.  Yes confirms Anna, it is lovely.

More on knitting well you know I would mention that.

We often talk about the three pillars of Icelandic knitting heritage:  the sweater, the shawls, and the rose-pattern shoe-inserts.  The inserts are a very special part of Icelandic knitting.  They are very intricate little designs, complex motifs in interesting colours.  In those days people wore sheepskin shoes, and they put these soles into them.  It was a craft of women, in the days when people were wearing only grey and brown, homespun colours, everything very dull, and then there were these bright decorations hidden inside their shoes.  They were for warmth, really, they had a function.  

I love this idea, it's like lining a winter coat with a wonderful splashy lining or a dark leather bag with pop out colours.

The word 'berserk'

... across a lava field called Berserkjahraun.  Berserkers were Vikings who went into trance-states of indiscriminate and uncontrollable violence, usually in battle, and this lava field is named for two berserkers in Eyrbyggjasaga who were killed here by being boiled in a bath-house built over a geothermal spring.

Sounds fun.

Did I mention that there is a lot of Folklore, quite understandable with long winters at the firside and a verbal heritage, many are related to trolls, little people and giants.  This is an important part of their heritage with even plaques marking certain locations of trolls.  This interest in where the little people live even touches the building of new roads and buildings.  Ones who claim to have a closer leaning in these fields are contacted to find out would this be an auspicious place to build a road or building, or would it upset the little people or would they look on favourably.  The only troll I remember from childhood was in the story "Three Billy Goats Gruff."

Would totally recommend this book.  And now for dreams of a trip to Iceland.



  1. Really really interesting! I must get those books to read

  2. I really enjoyed Names For the sea.Iceland has such amazing scenery. I had a few days there and would like to explore further afield. Most of the people I spoke to were well educated and well traveled.

  3. I want to read this! what a nice review, /Christine! And ill not say thank you.


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