Last October, while on a gap year between high school and college, I had the opportunity to live with a family in Northern Iceland on a sheep and horse farm for two months. Looking back, these are the lessons I took away…
1. One can survive off of very little
On the way to Iceland, my domestic airline managed to lose my luggage. My airline assured me they could handle this issue and my bag would eventually arrive in Iceland. Well, they weren’t wrong. It did arrive in Iceland, just two and half weeks after I arrived. Turns out getting your luggage halfway across the world in a rural area isn’t as easy as one would think. Luckily I was living with a host family, so I just borrowed clothes from my host sisters. The things they didn’t have I learned to either get by without or get creative: olive oil makes an excellent moisturizer and if you wear enough socks, rain boots become winter-proof. Also, Iceland is a place with very little resources, so the people are very inventive. A lot of our modern conveniences are relatively new to Iceland. Up until the 70’s, no one could get any modern child’s toys on the island, so children grew up playing with sheep bones instead of Lincoln Logs. The turf houses many associate with Iceland are not for aesthetics. It wasn’t until the 20th century that houses could be built from wood, since there are very few trees on the island. Because of this they had to find alternative ways to build their houses. Once timber could be shipped to Iceland, they began building wooden houses.
(An old Icelandic turf house)
2. Let go of some of that anxiety
As I said before, my baggage was lost, and, surprise surprise, that caused me to be really stressed. Instead of enjoying my first few hours in Iceland, I worried about something that was out of my control. I must have taken 15 years off my life just sitting there, knots in my stomach, worrying. And in the end it all turned out fine, all that worry was for nothing. A logical person would have realized that my host family wouldn’t leave me barren in the Icelandic winter when they have clothing shops in Iceland. But when you’re stressed out, you don’t think logically. Your mind is in fight-or-flight mode and the world is crumbling around you. Looking back now, I would tell myself to acknowledge the stress and attempt to fix the problem, but if it can’t be resolved, don’t carry the anxiety with you.
(The views of Iceland I didn’t see until I stopped stressing out)
3. Try everything
One of the things I loved about my host family is how they were so excited to share their culture with me. Everything from their food, to their folk tales, to learning how to grab a ram by the horns. I was involved in every aspect of their life. This meant there were a lot of new experiences coming my way, some of which didn’t sound that delightful to me. But I don’t regret any of it. I had fermented shark, which I can wholeheartedly say is the most disgusting thing I have tasted in my life, but I also ate dried fish with butter, which has now become my new favorite snack (I even have some in my dorm, my poor roommate). I tried to keep an open mind to everything, from food to public nudity, and looking back I couldn’t have learned about the culture a better way.
(Enjoying the snow while swimming in the winter)
(My favorite snack, dried fish)
4. Stay open to the people you will meet
While in Iceland, I met a lot of people, from my host family, to the passing tourist exploring the area. There are many people to meet when traveling. Most nights I would sit by the TV and work on some knitting while talking to whoever was in the room. It was the perfect way to meet people. I remember one night, sitting there talking to some American tourists about our shared love of Grey’s Anatomy. Along the way, I bonded with one of my host sisters, Krissa, and another girl my host family was hosting, Kara, from Germany. We were all from different cultures with different experiences, but we connected and became friends. And we had so much fun together, whether it was goofing around in the snow, racing the horses in the field, or eating Icelandic candy. Making friends means putting yourself out there, which can be scary for some, but you never know the friendships you will create.
(A view of my knitting spot)
(My host sister, Krissa, and I)
5. Take in the moments
This tip was given to me before I left on my trip and I decided to practice it. Looking back a year later, I am so glad I did. I tried not to let any of my thoughts interpret the moments I knew I wanted to remember. I stayed wholeheartedly present. For example, I will never forget the first time I saw the Northern Lights. It had been a dream of mine for so long and standing in the frozen landscape, the condensation of my breathe sticking to my eyelashes, looking up and seeing the lights, all I felt was pure and utter joy. And that’s a memory I will carry with me my entire life.
(The Northern Lights)