Preconception of Iceland

Before I did any research on Iceland, and well before I actually visited the country, I wrote down what I thought I knew about the place. So, think of this description as a snapshot of what some random West-coast American might think about Iceland from hearsay and pop culture. (Of course, actually going there will change this picture dramatically.)

Iceland is a big ice-covered chunk of rock way up north, populated by a collection of pale-skinned people all crammed into one large city, close to some killer geothermal pools that are probably very relaxing to sit in. The population is so small they have to be careful who they date, but they’ve mostly solved this problem with detailed bookkeeping.

Having nothing to exploit on their rock in terms of natural resources and not much of a tourism draw, but consistently bearing the best skin color, hair color, and height for social navigation, they have naturally turned to banking and finance as the means to stay at first-world levels of comfort. From a sideways perspective this isn’t too far from the plundering behavior of their ancestors, just white collar instead of blue collar.

Nobody does any crime because Iceland is too cold, but people struggle with depression a lot.  This ironically makes Icelanders a very interesting and engaging people to talk to.  This is also probably why they spawned Björk.  Occasionally their snow-covered rock explodes a little, dumping hot ash into the air and blocking the sun, and there is some fatalistic worry over this but soon everyone goes back to ignoring it.

Icelanders probably throw really cool parties.  And hey, don’t hate them because they’re beautiful and smart.  Do business with them instead.  You’ll live longer.

Seeing Things Clearly

I have an obsession with clarity, or at least with a kind of clarity.  I think about how much of my world is constructed in shorthand and stereotypes, and I want to fill in those gaps.  I want to try, at least, even though it’s probably like patching a leaky roof with sponges.

If I look too closely, the number of gaps in my knowledge becomes overwhelming.  It feels like even basic communication between people about simple ideas is impossible, and we’re all stumbling around alone in a permanent fog.  But that’s not so!  We manage to connect with one another, with imperfect language and limited time, and carve out a common experience — a place where that permanent fog is not so thick.

And we do it in such an improbable way:  By flapping our mouth parts!  And wiggling our fingers on keys!  Somehow it gets the job done.  Dialogue is amazing.

Of course, dialogue also takes time, and our lives are full of concerns.  We have to budget the dialogue, so the connections we invest in are useful.  It makes perfect sense to work hard to clearly see the people in our immediate neighborhood, in our families, at our workplaces, et cetera.  They matter to us and affect us.  But if everyone is solving that equation the same way, that means we probably all have common gaps in our knowledge — common blind spots, filled in with handy assumptions that no one bothers to question.  Those gaps are limits, like a moat around a castle, or the walls around a housing community.

That leads to the reason I’m writing this:  Long range travel is an opportunity to challenge my stereotypes, and fill in gaps that I might not notice when confined to my own community.  I want to know just how much I am failing to see things clearly; perhaps how much my whole community is failing.  I expect it’s a lot.

A Map Of The Gaps

To do this right, I need to document what my outlook is before I make a big journey, even before all the research I will inevitably do as I’m planning it, since that’s research I probably wouldn’t do otherwise.

First, the basic landscape:  I’m not dumb; I don’t think people in China walk upside down, or that everyone in France wears a beret.  Actually I think I’m pretty enlightened about what people are like elsewhere in the world.  But … of course I think that, right?  How would I know otherwise?

I’m going to make descriptions by country, since that’s the main way I compartmentalize the wider world.  I’ll go in roughly the order I might be traveling.

Perhaps these descriptions will sound eerily familiar, even like the whole truth, if you’re a person with demographics similar to mine. Or even better:  You can probably make a good guess at my time, location, appearance, age, gender, and so on just by pondering what things I’m ignorant of and comparing them to your own.