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The 10 Weirdest Things About Icelanders

The 10 Weirdest Things About Icelanders

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Are the Icelandic people strange? What are the oddest things about them? Like any other country, the inhabitants of Iceland have some distinctive traits that others may find peculiar. However, these quirks only add to the charm of the people.



When you read about strange things in Iceland, you'll notice that they mainly regard how many Icelanders still believe in elves, how they have thirteen terrifying trolls instead of one jolly Santa, and how they still eat disgusting food.

Although it's all true, at least to a degree, these facts are becoming a bit clichéd.

Sheep's head is but one of many foul foods Icelanders still enjoyPhoto from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by The Blanz

Therefore, this list will delve into some lesser-known, as well as some more recent, Icelandic oddities.

How weird you'll find some things on this list will, of course, depend on where you are from.

When researching this article, I discovered people of different nationalities often have entirely different concepts of what makes Icelanders unusual.

However, this top ten should serve to show the traits that make them odd the world over.
 

1. There are No Surnames or Family Names in Iceland

An Icelandic family in 1900; although all related, they do not carry a single common name.Photo by W. W. Howell, of Cornell University

There are exceptions to this, as any who knows of the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness can attest, but as a general rule, this is the case.

There are a few family names in Iceland, mostly Danish, but they are rare and usually originate from foreigners marrying into an Icelandic family.

For the majority, people have a last name that is a patronymic; that is to say, it is composed of their father's first name with the suffix of -dóttir (-daughter) or -son attached.

This system means that a family member will have a different last name to both parents and their siblings of a different gender.

Women also do not change their name when they get married (because they obviously don't become the 'son' of their husband's father).
 

This diagram makes the naming process clear

Of course, in recent years, matronymic names have also become a thing. More and more Icelanders have a last name that tells who their mother is, rather than their father.

In Iceland, everyone is called by their first name, be it teachers, doctors,  celebrities such as Björk (Guðmundsdóttir), or our presidents and prime ministers.

While calling everyone by their first name lacks formality, it does help foster a dialogue with a less stuffy hierarchy.

Using titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss or Dr. is not common either, even for foreigners.

Don't get offended if an Icelander doesn't know your last name or calls you by your first name even if they do know it; we're just not used to anything else.



2. Icelanders Elected Jón Gnarr as Mayor of Reykjavik

jon gnarr taking a shower

If you haven't heard or read anything about Jón Gnarr, we encourage you to do so.

This former comedian/actor/punk-rocker formed the Best Party in 2009 and won Reykjavík's mayoral elections in 2010, defeating the established Independence Party government.

Since then, he has been featured and written about all over the world for his eccentric and fun style.

He notably used to draw attention at Gay Pride, when he would always wear full drag.

Jón had no background in politics when he became mayor, but that did not stop him from winning hearts while he was in office and after.



3. Icelanders Banned Beer

With the selection currently on offer, it's quite a shockPhoto by Roman Gerasymenko

For a country where the inhabitants really do seem to love their alcohol, it's a surprise even to younger residents that beer was banned in the whole country until the 1st of March 1989.

The end of this darkest chapter in Iceland's history is celebrated annually. On the first day of the third month, it seems everyone hits the town for a few pints of liquid gold.

Alcohol can still only be purchased at Keflavík International Airport and in Víbuðin, the state-run alcohol store, often given the Orwellian nickname 'Ríkið,’ or 'the government.’

Beware that the only traffic jam you will find in Iceland nowadays is in front of Ríkið on late Friday afternoons.



4. Icelanders Are Passionate About Sauce

At the hot dog - or pylsur - stand, prepare for your meal to be drenched in delicious saucesPhoto from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Bryan Legdard

Icelanders coat all of their food in sauce, especially gravy, bearnaise sauce, various dipping sauces and condiments.

There is a unique sauce for everything. Even though the meat, fish and vegetables are of a high standard, they're only going to be better when covered in your favorite dressing.

Icelanders have specific sauces for pizza, pitas, fries, chips, vegetables, hamburgers, hot-dogs, and different ones for fish, meat and poultry.

There are also a few brown, cheese, mushroom, coca-cola, bearnaise, paprika and tomato sauces.

As for sauces on ice-cream, the list goes on further: chocolate, luxury chocolate, caramel, licorice, and one for every fruit.

Ice cream is a favourite dessert in Iceland; try it was liquorice sauce for a traditional taste

People do this in other countries, but not to the same standard; even the Brits, who love their gravy and ketchup, will find the choice overwhelming.

The toppings for a mere hot dog in Iceland include three different types of sauces: ketchup, hot-dog mustard (which is different from other mustard) and remúlaði (mayonnaise-based sauce, almost exclusively used for this meaty treat).

Also, Icelanders put two types of onion with hotdogs, raw and crunchy. For a traditional Icelandic hotdog or ‘pylsur,’ simply answer 'everything' when asked about garnishes.



5. Icelanders Speak on the In-Breath

Icelanders frequently speak on the in-breath. This habit is most common when they say ‘Já’ or ‘Jæja,' which means ‘yes’ and ‘well’ respectively.

Perhaps not particularly Icelandic, as it occurs in other Nordic countries, this quirk is something most foreigners will notice and mention when they come to the country.

There is no need to act surprised if you hear it; it is just a way of the tongue, not an offended gasp.

It is surprisingly challenging for people who have never spoken this way, although that is hardly unusual for the Icelandic language.



6. Icelanders Have Barbecues All Year Round

Perfect weather for a BBQ and some ice cream!Photo from Things To Do During Storms in Iceland

It may be freezing and stormy outside, but Icelanders are known to have a barbecue in any weather, behaving as if they lived beneath the blistering Australian sun.

Come rain, come shine, Icelanders still want to have lamb, fish and kebabs grilled over proper coals. And then, of course, smothered with sauce.

Strangely enough, we can also eat ice-cream all year round. When the weather is as volatile as it is in Iceland, there is no point waiting until a clear day in July for your favorite treats.

It is also a frequent tradition of the Icelandic people to partake in ‘Ice Cream Runs.’ These are usually cute dates for couples or mums and dads taking the kids out of the house to an ice cream parlor for a tasty bite. The ice creams are, however, most often eaten in the car.

7. Parents Leave their Babies Sleeping Outside

Fresh air is good for everyone, especially those at such an important time of development

It's a common sight to see mothers or fathers meeting up with their friends in cafés, catching up on the latest gossip, and leaving their baby in the pram outside when they do so.

It is just as common to see babies left in open gardens or on porches. That way, the baby can sleep in the fresh air, and the parents can get on with what they want to without waking them.

For countries with higher crime rates or at least more sensationalist media, this may seem neglectful and terribly unsafe.

However, the truth is, the babies are at virtually no risk in Iceland. Even in Reykjavík, the crime rates are incredibly low, particularly violent crime (and ignoring financial crime rates). 

Abductions and the like are therefore almost unheard of.

Turf houses, like these, were the reason this tradition beganPhoto by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, from The Majestic Grenjaðarstaður Turf House in North Iceland

The tradition originates from when Icelanders lived in turf houses, which were mainly buried beneath the earth.

Their interiors were very unpleasant places, filled with filth, cluttered with people and often animals, and had terrible ventilation, making them very smokey.

Keeping your baby outside, therefore, was beneficial for its health. As a result, this custom is frequently practiced in Iceland to this day by modern Icelandic people.



While this tradition is likely to die out as the world changes and people become more cautious, it is still seen throughout the summer today.

Don’t worry if you see it happening; no doubt, the infant is still under the watchful eye of a nearby parent.

8. Iceland is the Best in the World, Per Capita

'Per capita' is one of the most used phrases in Iceland.

Icelanders, with just over 360,000 people, suffer from a small nation complex, and to make up for it, we claim we are, in fact, 'The Best Country in the World' for a number of reasons.

Icelanders will claim that this statement is true and get mockingly upset if you disagree, reciting one article or another in which Iceland comes out on top, always citing statistics 'per capita.'

Icelanders have the most beautiful women in the world per capita because we won the Miss World competition four times.

Icelanders also have the strongest men per capita, having had two individuals win the World's Strongest Man contest.

Icelanders even have the world's most Nobel Prize winners per capita, despite only having one - one in 360,000 is still the world's best ratio of Nobel laureates compared to other populations. 

Thank Halldór Laxness for that.

Halldor Laxness won the prize for literature in 1955


Icelanders have the best handball team in the world per capita, produce the most music and bands in the world per capita, and read and write the most books per capita.

The list goes on and on. It's even a catch-phrase: ‘Ísland, best í heimi’ (which translates to ‘Iceland, best in the world’). 

Though mostly said in jest, there are ways that Icelanders can say their nation is the best in the world without needing to add any rushed per capita under their breath.

For instance, Iceland regularly tops lists for the most gender-equal country in the world and fights with just a few other nations to be the safest, the most LGBTQ+ friendly, the cleanest, and the most naturally beautiful.



9. Icelanders Have a Lot of Monster Trucks

Only such vehicles can battle the terrain and snowPhoto from M´ývatn Off Road Super Jeep Tour

Foreigners that come to Iceland seem to be very perplexed over the scale of many of the vehicles.

While, of course, you have many little two-wheel-drives skirting through the streets, there are a disproportionately large number of massive super jeeps with enormous tires, you may usually expect to see only in places like Greenland and Alaska.

These monster trucks do not exist because of their owners’ inferiority complexes  (although it is fair to be suspicious of those who keep them just to travel around Reykjavík).

They are needed to cross the harsh terrain of Iceland's rugged landscapes, particularly in winter.



A super jeep in the HighlandsPhoto from Landmannalaugar Superjeep

If you leave the paved Ring Road of Iceland, you might find yourself on a dirt track littered with pot-holes, glazed in ice, or broken up by glacial rivers.

Only in these circumstances will you feel the value of having a super jeep; they’re just a spectacle for everyday domestic urban life.

In summer, they are essential for getting into the Highlands and traveling along F-Roads. This necessity is particularly true if you’re planning on visiting places in the Icelandic Highlands.

Individuals own many super jeeps, but tour operators own more.

Super jeep tours are very popular in Iceland, heading to otherwise inaccessible places such as Landmannalaugar, Þórsmörk and Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010.



Two super jeeps on the crest of a snowy hillPhoto from Iceland's Top Sites | 3-Day Super Jeep Winter Holiday

But it's not only the size of the cars around Iceland, however, that visitors notice; it's also the fact that people seem to park everywhere and anywhere.

While many locals would like to blame the worst of this on tourists, it's a problem that comes from all corners.

Maybe it is because Icelanders are used to having a lot of space, but they are notoriously sloppy parkers.

There is even an Icelandic Facebook site that posts pictures of the country's worst parked cars daily.

One place you will not, or should not, see super jeeps is off-road. Off-road driving in Iceland, across the lava, moss, and even the snow and black sands, is illegal, with enormous fines and a possible prison sentence attached.

Ensure you never leave the track you are driving on, lest you take a massive hit to your wallet and have to endure a thorough shaming from any Icelander who sees you.



10. Icelanders are Naked and Unafraid

A sign showing what you need to wash thoroughly and naked before entering an Icelandic pool.

Nudity is a very normal thing in Iceland. This routine nakedness may not be a scary surprise to other Northern Europeans, particularly Nordic, Baltic or German readers. Still, others, particularly those from North America, should be given fair warning.

While showering before swimming is a normal exercise around the world, few places insist you do it naked and, in some cases, publicly.

This requirement is because most of the pools in Iceland are not chlorinated, so fellow bathers and swimmers need to be confident that the waters they will be entering are clean.



There is nothing sexual or perverse about it. In fact, most people just get naked, shower and move on.

If the thought of it embarrasses you, the best course of action is definitely to simply grit your teeth, close your eyes and do it., There are few things less humiliating than an Icelander demanding you take your clothes off and wash more thoroughly in front of a room of strangers.

No need to be shy; everyone else here has done itPhoto from the Blue Lagoon Transportation from Keflavík Airport

Thankfully for the reserved, in the most popular pools such as the Blue Lagoon, there are places you can wash and dress privately.

Bathe in the warm river of Reykjadalur Valley.Photo from: Horse Riding in Reykjadalur Valley | Hot Springs Day Tour



The inhibitions of Icelanders are not only absent in the changing rooms. Many people also bathe naked in certain hot springs or jump naked in the sea.

If you want to immerse yourself in the culture and do the same, make sure that the hot pool you are going to doesn't have anyone else in it (you can't expect everyone to be as free-spirited as yourself) and that is safe for bathing.

Some geothermal waters have bacteria that are harmful to your health, while others, such as Grjotagjá, have unpredictable temperatures, and entry is forbidden.


Of course, sea-swimming should only be done in safe areas, as the North Atlantic waters are treacherous.

Think about heading to Nauthólsvík in Reykjavík, rather than Reynisfjara on the South Coast, where the waves have taken many lives.

Again, if strangers are also trying to enjoy the area, it is best to stay dressed. If you feel like you want to take in the Icelandic culture to the max, you can, however, ask those around you if it’s ok to bathe or swim naked in their company.

Nudity in Iceland also has a political bent. On March 26th, 2015, a big 'topless revolution' under the hashtag #freethenipple (which originated in the USA) swept across the country.

Sick of images of breastfeeding and innocent nudity being censored and of female nipples only appearing in the media in gratuitously sexual or violent situations, thousands of women walked through the streets and took to social media with their chests bare.

This movement wanted to earn the same social standards held by men because men can show their respective parts almost anywhere at any time.

 

The double standards of whose nipples you can see when does not sit well with many Icelanders



Though it was a contentious campaign, it was successful and continues every year.

Therefore, if coming to Iceland, it may be best to leave any excess modesty at home.

You may well have to accept the fact that in your travels through the incredible Icelandic nature, you may have to endure seeing an exposed breast or two. It's hardly the worst concession one can make while traveling.


What did you find most unusual about Icelanders on your travels? Are any of the oddities on this list the same as the oddities you find at home? What traits of your nationality would Icelanders consider bizarre? Let us know in the comments below!