Sarah Moss's memoir of a year spent living in Iceland with her husband and two young children is as wonderful as the cover photo. Moss, a writer and literature professor, took advantage of a change in employment status for her and her husband to accept an offer in Iceland. She seems to be the ideal candidate for this type of adventure, because she has an insatiable curiosity about the country she lived in. While this book is about the difficulties of adjusting to a foreign culture, it's also about Moss's interest in and willingness to learn about what's underneath the surface of that culture.
She also picked a most interesting year--2009--to move there. Economic upheaval and the volcano (a name I can't pronounce, much less spell) turned Icelandic life upside down in some ways, and yet in others, not at all.
Moss is open-eyed and willing to consider what it takes to fit in, but some of the cultural differences are just too enormous to grasp. For example, the sight of baby strollers lined up outside of stores, left alone while the mothers shopped inside. Or the freedom Icelanders give to young children, because the island and population are so small, who can possibly get away with kidnapping a child? Moss tries to adapt to that mindset, but eventually:
"No, we say. Because however often we might decide that our better judgements are based on foreign foolishness in relation to parking or fruit-eating...your safety is more important than cultural relativism. No. And I hear in my voice an echo I haven't heard before, the echo of thousands of immigrant parents raising kids in a society they don't fully understand or inhabit. I don't care how things work here; I know what's right and you'll do what I say because I love you....[Her son's] parents are fallible, their law a matter of cultural relativity."
Moss seeks out the roots of Icelandic sagas, meeting with a women who sees elves, and finds people who have lived in Iceland for decades and can tell her stories about life long ago. I found all this fascinating. Not so much, for me, were the political discussions. But that's a minor quibble in a beautifully written book that encompasses so much more than politics.
But one chapter, Knitting and Shame, really stood out, as Moss tries to find the "kreppa"--the victims of the financial meltdown. Most Icelanders insist there is no such thing, everyone is of equal class, there are no financially struggling people. What's more, most Icelanders scorn the idea of buying used goods, or donating them. When they're done with clothing or furniture, it's trash--and no one else should have it. But that's the full story, and when Moss finds the truly poverty-stricken, her Icelandic guide is taken aback, shocked to see what she's uncovered.
Finally, there's the knitting. Apparently Icelanders knit all the time. While walking with their children, at school, in work meetings. To the point that one of them is more than a little condescending about Americans getting excited about Knit in Public Day--in Iceland, every day is knit in public day.
Knitting is very much part of the Icelandic culture. While it seems to come and go in popularity in other countries, in Iceland it never loses ground. Moss meets the "Goddess of Icelandic Knitting," who tells her:
"My great-grandfather knitted. He was a fisherman, and when the sea was too rough to go out, he and my great-grandmother just sat and knitted, socks and sweaters, until the storm passed. My grandfather remembered going to sleep and hearing the click, click of the needles."
Sounds like a wonderful society to me.