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Elves, SUVs, underfloor heating, a love of learning and the cult of the new.

Names-for-the-Sea-imageThough definitely a person who basks in hotter-the-better sun, I am lured and also terrified by the climates of harsh, cold, isolation.

So Sarah Moss’s obsession with, love of Iceland, biographical account of a year spent living and working there, was always going to be an absorbing read. In many ways my interest is as much in ‘how does a person coming from one culture assimilate into another’ as it is in learning about a different culture; that is because the outsider sees things the in-dweller cannot, because it is so much part of their fabric that they can’t step outside it.

Moss first went to Iceland when she was 19, over a university summer holiday, with a friend. By the time covered by this book, she is in her thirties, married, with two children, and a university lecturer (and of course a writer) This is post-the collapse of Iceland, and she had a accepted a lecturing commitment for a year at Reykjavik University. By the time she got there, her salary had so far dropped in its buying power as to make living there for the year quite hard.

Reykjavik Wiki Commons

Reykjavik Wiki Commons

What she found puzzling is that certainly amongst the middle classes she could not really see much evidence of what ‘collapse’ had done to society, as, in boom, Iceland had moved to be a highly consumerist culture, households with several gas guzzling vehicles, a society of perennial new spend and dumping (not recycling, not sell-or-give-away-as second-hand) of the mildly out-moded but still fully functioning. She discovered this, even, in small children’s clothing. Unlike her middle-class-British-society, where mums were cheerfully passing on clothes to other mums 3 months behind them in child-age, to the Icelanders, there was something distasteful and a little shameful in this:

The Icelandic horror at the idea of the second-hand seems to be partly to do with the impossibility of anonymity here, the fear of ‘strangers’ The risk is one of disclosure, that the person who classified the object as ‘trash’ might see the same object reclassified by someone else…..this is why secondhand clothes are so terrible, because the anonymity of charitable giving might be broken, you might recognise your child’s outgrown clothes on someone else and thus have to acknowledge some kind of hierarchy. One of the most widely held beliefs among Icelanders is that there is no hierarchy here

Lopi sweaterMoss is both a lover of Iceland, and its people, and bemused and at times critical of it. During her year she also discovered that some of what Iceland told about itself TO itself – such as its low crime figures were just not true, and, even discovered in the forays she made with Icelandic friends around the country as her year drew to its close, that they too were starting to see a hidden Iceland that they had not known existed.


Along the way we meet the modern tradition of ‘Icelandic knitting’ (not something dating back to Viking times at all), a belief in elves alive and well, and of course, the ‘old’ diet, divorced of fresh fruit and vegetables, for large parts of the year, later superseded, as Iceland entered its boom years by exotic greengrocery from all over the world, now returning, as the price of food sky-rocketed, to earlier privations

And, of course, there is much that hinges up an inescapably close relationship Sarah-Mosswith climate, geography, landscape and the rules imposed by a far more dramatic relationship with day and night, cold and colder, than we have in most of these isles.

Names For The Sea : Strangers In Iceland Amazon UK
Names For The Sea : Strangers In Iceland Amazon UK