Expatriate in Iceland

Adventure

... we come to the beautiful, frozen glacial lake. So of course I had to dive in.

In an attempt to provide even more comprehensive information for everyone, we are doing a series of pieces about expatriates in Iceland. We will cover everything from practical facts about coming to favorite places and memories of Iceland.

I meet up with Steven at Micro Bar to chat. I get the Indian Pale Ale Tumi Humall from Gæðingur and he gets a Double Indian Pale Ale which our bartender says he hopes he likes, since he brewed it with his own two hands. There's a huge upsurge in microbreweries recently in Iceland. We are not disappointed.

The man: Steven Hawkins 

Origin: Georgia, USA

What were you doing in Iceland? I was a foreign exchange student at the University of Iceland.

And what did you study? International Relations and Norse Mythology.

So, classic, cheesy question: How do you like Iceland? Oh I love it. I'm so glad I came, it's one of my favorite places in the world. I had a great time. I come back every time I can, usually I stop over whenever I fly between Europe and America. So what did you like in particular? Just the people, the beautiful environment, the snow, the culture – it's much more relaxed, you know? At home they're much more high-strung, I have that feeling that in Iceland it's just people being people. Like you don't get all hung up on celebrity worship, even the president is called by his first name. And you never have to worry about your safety in the street – for one thing there's no gun violence here.

Is there anything you didn't like as much? Almost nothing. I really can't say enough good about Iceland. Though I guess towards the end I could have gone for a bit more warmth. And the beer could be cheaper. Was it very cold? Well not as cold as I would have thought, actually I kinda over-packed on heavy coats and winter boots.

So did you get out of the city at all?
Oh yeah several times. Our first road trip was in January, first weekend after I got here, we went and saw Gullfoss and Geysir [the classic Golden Circle day tour near Reykjavík] and I got to see Gullfoss waterfall mostly frozen, so that was pretty special. And then we drove down to Jökulsárlón... -Jökulsárlón? Like the one in South-East Iceland? That's kind of a long trip, you must have been driving for some hours...? -Yeah we were gone for a few days. So we're driving and driving and you see the Vatnajökull glacier off in the distance and then you get to this icy pale blue lake. And it's just ice on every side of it, and these huge, blueish-white icebergs floating around in it. It was unreal. So of course I had to dive in. 
What? You dove in? 
Yeah. The water can't have been more than 1 or 2 degrees. 
That's crazy!
It was pretty crazy.

 

Yeah I mean there were seals swimming around in there. It was a pretty cool experience.

That's cool. So that was your first road trip... ? Yeah later I hiked up.. what's that mountain that's right by Reykjavík? Esjan. That was really cool, to have the panorama over the bay and over the city. There's a lot of beautiful, serene places like that in Iceland. And then on our second road trip, in May, we drove to Akureyri and visited the Kaldi brewery. They have this drum set autographed by Dave Grohl. 
No way! 
Yeah for real man. Then on the way back we threaded the whole West Fjords along the coast with all the fjords and peninsulas and all. -In no way is that on the way, but ok. -Yeah it was really cool, it's really magnificent up there with all the mountains and fjords and all. It was kinda crazy actually, there was a freak snowstorm during the trip – in May! -Yeah that'll happen... -I think that was the only time I was scared in Iceland - that's one piece of advice I'd put out there for people: be careful on the roads. And I mean on that first road trip, the one in January, it was very Icelandic countryside, there wasn't any salt or sand on the road – the road was just a solid sheet of ice, like a skating rink. And we could drive on it with the studded tires, but as soon as you got out of the car you were gone. [edit: I think they do a pretty good job of clearing the roads most of the time, but I guess not all of the time.]

So anyway, back to the trip in May: we were driving along these ridiculous rickety mountain roads, with a mountain on one side and like the ocean on the other looking down into the fjords, it was really beautiful - I got to see a whale jumping in and out of the water! -Wow. -Yeah and then the other thing, that I had been waiting for pretty much since I got here, was I got to see a puffin up close. And there they are just hanging out.

 

Wow it's just right there. 
Yeah I think that's part of why they're so endangered – they're just not shy of people at all...

Did you ever ride an Icelandic horse? No. I petted one though, across a fence. We took a little trip up to Snæfellsnes and saw a mare across the fence. The farmer was there and she had just given birth 5 minutes ago, so we got to see the little foal take his first steps in life. It was pretty special. Then the farmer invited us in and showed us his stable. So we got to see a lot of horses there.. That's really cool. Yeah it was pretty cool. Like I say people being people. A lot of the best experiences you're gonna have are gonna be unexpected when you're just out and about. That's another piece of advice I would put out there is that, really, the more exploring you can do the better.

 

Cool. So for someone thinking about studying in Iceland, how on earth did you end up here? Well, what like practically? I went to my Foreign Exchange office at my school and applied for the ISEP program. They told me to choose 5 schools I'd be happy to go to and on the list was Iceland. I didn't know anything about it but I googled some pictures and was like “that looks pretty cool”. So I put it down as number 3 of 5. So it was kinda like your wildcard? Oh it was absolutely my wildcard. So how does it work, you get accepted to a course and then...? Well you have to find classes that closely substitute classes in your own program. But then once those were approved there was some leeway, like I did some courses as a “regional concentration”, that's how I wound up doing some Norse Mythology, which was really cool. I love the mythology here. Ok so you got accepted, and was it all smooth sailing after that? You just apply and that's it? Well I had to send a couple of overnight care packages to make sure they got there on time to get my visa. Oh you still have to apply for a visa? Yeah like a student visa. Well first you get like an “ok” document and then some weeks after you arrive you get the actual visa and a “kennitala” - social security number. So first after I arrived I couldn't like open a bank account or anything. So that was a bit of a hassle.

Was it easy to make friends in Iceland? Yeah I made some good Icelandic buddies – mostly women now I come to think of it. They're a a bit more approachable and open, the guys are “cool” but a bit “colder”, too. I guess maybe they don't see the point in “investing” in you if you're just gonna be here for a few months. Yeah that sounds familiar. I think a lot of Icelanders, men in particular, have the same friends from grade school onward. Yeah. But I made some good friends and then you get to know a lot of the other international students. Like one of my good friends Dan, we met on the bus from the airport on my first day, we took all the same classes together and lived just down the hall from each other. Some of the people I still keep up with, and that's one of the main reason I come back so often, to see the people I know here. And in the end I think that's what makes the whole experience – the people you get to know along the way.

Steven with some good friends up in Hvalfjordur in western Iceland

 

Oh you lived at the dorms? Yeah I lived at “Gamli Garður” [The Old Campus] - I loved it! Oh yeah how was that? Well, first when I got there and saw my room I was like “this is tiny!” But actually, I mean yeah it was small, but I had everything I needed. Bed, desk, plenty of storage space, bathroom, and a kitchen down the hall that I shared with all my friends so there was always someone to hang out or cook with. There's one kitchen per hall so you get a little community going. 
That's cool. So is there a good exchange student community at the dorms? Yeah like we only had classes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so Wednesday night was the start of our weekend. So we would party on Friday and Saturday, cause so would everybody, but we would have our own exchange student party on wednesday nights. [Laughing] Yeah we call that “little friday”. When you party on a wednesday.

So is the studying pretty chilled then or how was it academically? Well I would say it like this: without being too challenging, I was able to learn a lot. Cause it's all very open and discussion-based compared to my university in America, and you get a lot more from that kind of environment than a straight up lecture. Like we would get asked something and then us students would discuss it between us and teach each other. And I mean though we only had lectures three days a week, it was a lot of reading to do on your own. That's cool. So is it a lot less formal than the States? Oh yeah much less. Like the whole addressing your teacher by their first name was strange to me. [In Iceland, instead of traditional family names, we have patronymics, so people generally go by their first name] I mean in the US you'll have some more liberal lecturers, but on the whole it's a lot more strict and rigid there.

So did you have to have anything to do with the authorities while you were there? Like formalities, paperwork, medicine...? How does all that work, is it a huge hassle or is it easy? Oh yeah I spent spring break in Spain skydiving with some English paratroopers I met in a combined military training operation some years before – best spring break of my life! Anyway I had to see a doctor to get a certificate that I was like healthy and capable of skydiving. And was that all easy going? Yeah I had my Icelandic friend with me and the doctor spoke good English, he took a look and told me I was healthy and good to go. And does the system totally accept you? Did you have to pay a lot? Hmm.. I think it was like 9000 ISK but I didn't realize the insurance policy I bought is the kind that reimburses you after the fact so I could have got it back. But it wasn't that huge an amount so it was no big deal. So you get your own insurance? How does that work? Well all I remember is it had to be through an Icelandic company. I went with the one with the blue logo... -Sjóvá? -Yeah that's the one.

Well that's all really cool man. Anything else you wanna share about Iceland? Oh one thing – I really loved the local music scene. Oh yeah? What was your favorite? Hmm probably FM Belfast, I saw them live at NASA just before it shut down, it was probably the most fun concert of my life – just the energy in the room somehow. -Any others you liked? Oh, For a Minor Reflection – they're kind of like a post-rock band -Yeah that sounds like a post-rock band name. Hmm.. Retro Stefsson, like dance music, and Muck, the hardcore band. There's a lot of good ones, people just need to keep an eye out for what's on..

Awesome. Well thanks a lot for taking the time Steven.

Hey man, thanks for the beer.

Steven in a group of good friends all wearing their Icelandic wool lopapeysa sweaters