I have always been slightly obsessed with the Nordic countries – indeed, my choice of (serious) partner has always mirrored this to a ridiculous degree: my first boyfriend is a marine engineer for ice-class ships in Finland and my husband is a glaciologist who spends months of his life camping out next to the Greenland ice sheet.
At university I spent a summer railing and sailing round Scandinavia, taking the boat from Newcastle to Norway and racing the summer sun up and down the gulf of Bothnia and along the Arctic circle. I rode a bicycle across the Lofoten islands and took the sleeper train to Helsinki, and spent a storm-tossed crossing from Denmark to Germany drinking whisky on a boat train full of German students.
A few years later I flew to Iceland, the mid-Atlantic meeting point between Greenland and England, wild camping on the remote Hornstrandir nature reserve and slipping down into a crack in the earth’s crust to bath in its heated waters. Even as a child I poured over my best friend’s mother’s beautiful Carl Larsson books, imagining what it must be like to fish for crayfish in streams and eat picnics at midnight in birch forests (and live in a beautiful wooden house decorated by my artist-partner!) My family’s three-generation fascination with Tove Jansson’s books (detailed here) fed into this too – how marvellous to have one’s own miniature island to spend the summer on! You get the picture.
So when I chanced upon a book which told the story of one English family who moved to Iceland only a few years ago I was always going to fall on it like a hawk upon prey. Sarah Moss shared my obsession with all things Nordic, but has the wherewithal (and academic career) to make this dream of Scandi-living into reality. (My only experiences of the realities of this are occasional shopping trips to Ikea, where my husband scorns the Daim bars and I spend the whole time thinking about the meatballs.)
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012) is not a fluffy nostalgia-ridden account of time spent gazing at the northern lights from the steamy sides of a geothermal spa. It tells the real difficulties faced by people who are not Icelandic living in Iceland. First, there are the practical problems: ‘You can’t do anything without a clan, not without spending insane amounts of money.’ Iceland has virtually no immigrant population, and hardly a single second hand shop. The two are not unrelated: as Moss finds out, people are part of small tight-knit clans who are used to looking out for each other and therefore would not think of buying second-hand from a stranger.
People from útlond – the outsider’s land – are not easily assimilated into these groups, but fortunately Moss has friends at the university who seek out fridges, washing machines and high-chairs from their familial networks. But the way she is referred to as an útlendingur (foreigner) also jars – and this I can easily understand, because when I lived in Japan it felt very strange to be called a gaijin (literally ‘outside person’), and always appreciated it when people used the more friendly gaikokujin – an ‘outside language speaking person’.
Then there is the omnipresence of the Edda, Iceland’s unique record of its own history: ‘Many Icelanders can quote the sagas in the way that 17th century Puritans quoted the Bible.’ Moss finds these gnomic utterances cropping up everywhere – and it unsettles her, because of the assumed unthinking way that they are treated as a true and semi-sacred text. It is the anxiety of influence and the English professor – I have to say, I rather like that literary heritage is so interwoven into people’s lives and speech. Of course, it is true in English too – but this seems to be restricted to smaller phrases which no-one can quite be certain of their origin (my friend SiAB has done a brilliant quiz to test your knowledge on this here.)
Moss certainly doesn’t seem her time in Iceland through rose-tinted spectacles. I’m not likely to move to a new country anytime soon (the thought of choosing and transporting books alone holds fresh dread after the recent move), but I am going to continue my love affair with all things Nordic, as there is the Northern Streams festival of all music Scandi-Scottish here in Edinburgh in a few weeks and I quite fancy getting my fiddle out, or at the very least singing some new songs…