But You Don’t Look Icelandic (JóB)


joiben_dl“I’ve seen you quite often in Reykjavík,” a stranger girl told me in a party, when introduced by a common friend. “But I never thought you were from Iceland. You look like one of those exchange students that hang out in the cafés downtown.”

I replied: “Thanks, I guess…”

“Or maybe you have a doppelgänger. There used to be a bartender at Hemmi & Valdi’s café that looks somewhat like you. Do you know whom I speak of?”

“Not sure. Can you describe him?” As the words left my mouth, I understood how stupid my request was. The girl had already given a very precise description; the bartender looked like me. But, unfortunately, she didn’t realize that and gave an honest answer.

“Well, the bartender is about your height. Dark hair and eyes, big nose. I wouldn’t say he’s handsome, but he’s not ugly either. He has this strange smile, like a grimace, which is very hard to describe. He’s probably from southern Europe: France, Spain or Italy. He was very often surrounded by the international gang in Reykjavík. Do you know him?”


The girl kept on talking, but I zoned out. Don’t cry, I said to myself. Be strong. She was talking about the bartender, not you. The only thing she said was that you looked non-Icelandic. Nothing wrong with that.

The stranger girl moved her lips and I stayed in my thoughts.

I was not fine with it the first time someone assumed I was a foreigner. Yet I’ve always understood the assumption perfectly. I don’t look Icelandic at all. But who does?

I fell deeper into my own thoughts. Do Icelanders have obvious characteristics that distinguish them from other European nations? Probably not.

But how come foreigners in Iceland always stand out? I have no idea. Maybe it has something to do with their newly bought colorful I’m-ready-to-go-camping parka. Maybe it’s something else.

And for that matter, can an Icelander be spotted in a group of foreigners? I would say yes. Several times, I have seen someone, across the street, in a foreign city and thought: This person must be from Iceland. And most of the time I’m right.

This indicates that Icelanders have some distinguishing characteristics. I can’t point my finger at any specific one, but my brain can somehow finish the puzzle, using subtle hints and hunches.

Back to the party and the stranger girl.

She was now talking about her boyfriend, who apparently was a yoga teacher. I politely excused myself, gave her my strangest grimace-smile, put on my colorful I’m-ready-to-go-camping parka and left the party.

Jóhannes Benediktsson – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.