I have made the ambitious decision to learn Icelandic.
Now is the chance to call me crazy. All the possible amazed/shocked/skeptical responses have already silently bombarded my self-doubt as I entrench myself further in my decision. I have asked myself possibly them all: “Of what use is Icelandic? You’ll never use it again.” “Isn’t that a really difficult, unusual language? Why not stick with something easier and more practical for an American, like Spanish or French?” “Aren’t you already studying German? Won’t it be difficult to learn two languages at once?” “Most Icelanders speak English – why on earth would you want to subject yourself to rigorous study when there’s no need?” and of course “Your trip is only 9 months away. That’s much too short a time to learn Icelandic!”
Oh, yes, I’ve asked myself all the anticipated questions.
I’ve also begun to see the polite, but skeptical or bemused expressions of people around me as I share my excitement for my latest intellectual challenge. No one has actually asked me these questions, but you can read them in the lines of their fleeting facial expressions. They all think I am crazy, if a likable one.
But in the deepest depths of my gut, despite my own mental echoes of those doubts, I know I am right.
This is a challenge that needs to be undertaken.
I just finished reading a journal from 1871 written by an Englishman who travelled by ship to Iceland and spent a solid month exploring the country by horseback. Before he left, he intimately studied the Icelandic language and literary legacy of the Sagas. His journey was enriched immeasurably by his preparations. He could pick up bits and pieces of local conversation and saw the fantastic adventures and stories of the Sagas playing out before him in the dramatic landscape. Despite a tone of English superiority (which seems to saturate pretty much all travel writing from that era), his journey was so much more authentic than those who jumped in without any understanding of Iceland’s language and culture.
I yearn for that authentic experience.
In today’s lightning fast world of the instant – cell phones, TV on demand, up-to-the-minute Twitter and Facebook updates, and (relatively) instant hops across oceans and continents – we lose the enriching slower pace of the journey into another culture. As Americans, with our culture spread across the globe, we expect people in other countries to understand us and speak to us in English, to have familiar foods and experiences. We expect sameness in the safe bubble of the hotel and only encounter the “Exotic” when we venture for the day away from the resort or cruise ship. There is a time and place for this kind of travel – primarily it can be a great way to relax and do nothing but sit by the pool and read. But that’s not the kind of travel I want.
I want to know I’m in a completely different culture. I want people to stare at me, the bumbling foreigner who is trying to learn about and engage with their community. I want my horizons to expand and to come home with a deeper, richer picture and understanding of our world. And I feel it’s only fair when traveling through another’s country and home to be expected to at least try to learn a few phrases in their language. Or try some of the local foods and delicacies. To see how the local people live and worship, dance and sing, how they approach the world. I am a guest in their home. I should be expected to honor their hospitality. Not the other way around.
So yes, I am going to learn as much Icelandic as I can before I fly to Reykjavik. I see it as a way of honoring them. I’m realistic – I won’t be fluent in nine months. I’ll probably stumble over sentence structure and verbs, and make silly mistakes that people will laugh at. Hopefully I won’t accidently say something offensive. But I will dive in to living in Iceland for a month.
So here I am, throwing open the first page of my language study and popping in a CD as I adjust the headphones. I have a long nine months of study ahead of me.