By Grant Nicol
The rough and tumble of your first few weeks in a new country is unavoidable. The struggle for control of your self-belief and the battle to keep your wits about you is ongoing. Learning Icelandic as a foreigner is a daunting prospect for many new arrivals. Far from allowing this to put you off moving to Iceland it should inspire you to push yourself further than you ever have before. It is now time to dispel a few misconceptions and tell you what it’s really like.
We are jolly green giants walking the earth
So, you’re new in Iceland. One of the first things you’ll want to do is start learning Icelandic. It is after all the passkey you will require to get along with the locals on their own level rather than expecting them to switch to English every time they see you. So the sooner you get started the better. Icelandic is however a complicated beast. Many years ago I tackled German vocab and grammar in high school and that now seems like a week on the shores of Lake Como compared to my new self-inflicted regime here on my very own North Atlantic version of Parris Island.
“You will give me the correct version of the number two that we use when counting librarians, which are of course of the masculine gender, or you will be standing tall before the man”. The first thing people do in a situation such this is panic. So that’s exactly what I did. At least I was doing everything in the right order. I knew that if I got this one wrong the whole platoon would be back over that obstacle course first thing tomorrow morning and I would be beaten in my bunk later that night with packets of harðfiskur stuffed down someone’s socks. I never let them see me crying myself to sleep but I’ll always know the truth.
Do you think I’m cute Private Pyle?
Tveir? Tvær? Tvö? Tveimur? My brain fumbled through all the options available. Not wanting to disrespect the man’s beloved Corps I dug deep and struggled to find the only Icelandic phrase that comes to mind easily in times of crisis. “Ég veit það ekki”, I spouted defiantly. It wasn’t the answer he’d been looking for but at least I’d used the right verb and as a sentence it was technically correct because, I didn’t know the answer. There were groans from the rest of the platoon and I saw the devilish glee in our drill-sergeant’s eye that told me that we would be back on that course again soon enough and the harðfiskur would definitely be coming for me again tonight.
As basic training, or as they call it in Iceland, Íslenska fyrir útlendinga 1 progressed we became more familiar with changing the gender of our numbers depending on what was being counted (only for 1-4 or anything that ends in 1-4 of course), finding the accusative at will and deducing which preposition to use whether we were sitting on a peninsula or at the bottom of an old swimming pool on Barónsstígur. Confusing superlatives were overcome and daunting but delightful declensions were also tackled head-on as though they were old friends and not bitter enemies.
It was a war that was getting tougher and tougher to sell to the folks back home but it was one worth fighting, of that I was sure. It was just hard to get your head around it unless you’d been face down in the mud with the rest of the grunts.
The deadliest weapon in the world is a marine and his umlaut
Finally after seven weeks on ‘The Island’ it looked as though the end might just be in sight. After this Viet Nam would be a doddle I was assured. And I believed them. That was until the day we were exposed to our drill-sergeant’s favourite joke about Icelandic grammar. “Have I told you the one about the umlaut that disappeared into the banana”?
Every man has his breaking point and this was clearly mine. I had travelled as far up this river as I could go without losing my mind. Captain Willard never had to put up with this. All he had to deal with was Dennis Hopper and a boat full of rock’n’rollers with one foot in the grave. I was tired, I was hungry and I no longer loved the smell of plokkfiskur in the morning. They had lied to me. It didn’t smell like victory. It smelled like fish. Thankfully right on the stroke of klukkan hálf átta Walter Cronkite declared the war to be unwinnable and it was decided we should all go home and call it a draw. Looking back on it now my only regret is I never found out what happened to that umlaut, or the banana. But life is full of regrets.