We’re hopeless. The whole lot of us. Old Icelandic bachelors that is. By Icelandic I mean Icelandic North American as well as the real thing.
That’s why there was a report in Iceland Review some time ago that Icelandic women prefer foreign men. I don’t blame them. English men, for example are improvable. A woman can look at a callow youth and see his potential. It may be hard work and take time but eventually he can be taken out in public.
That’s not true of Icelandic men. What you see is what you get. If he wears running shoes with a business suit or flosses his teeth at the table when he’s twenty-five, he’ll be doing it when he’s seventy-five. It’s not a matter of looking at potential and saying, when I’ve whipped him into shape, he’ll be worth living with. Instead, it’s a matter of looking at him and saying do I want to live with this the rest of my life?
A lot of my friends are hopeless cases. Bundles of bad habits. At least they change their long johns more than once a year. A friend of mine knew a bachelor who bought one pair of long johns every spring. He came into the country store, the owner gave him a pair of scissors and sent him into the back. He cut them off, put on the new pair, pulled on his clothes and left. The store owner lifted the year old underwear with a pitchfork and put it in the burn barrel with a bit of gasoline and some dry wood.
It’s not just Icelandic women who think that Icelandic bachelors are a hopeless lot. Hallgrímur Helgason, in 101 Reykjavik, has Hlynur, a terrible drunkard who also takes drugs, has no ambition, doesn´t have and doesn´t want, a job, as the main character. He spends his days watching pornography but when the opportunity for sex appears, he makes love with his sunglasses on and, as soon as possible, after it is over, flees.
Arnaldur Indriðason´s detective, Erlendur, has been divorced for years. He was a lousy husband and father, and can´t manage a relationship. When he´s not detecting, he lies around feeling sorry for himself because of a past trauma. Some of the time, his wrecked daughter appears and berates him for his failings as a father and husband. His idea of a good time is to get svið from a fast food take out and eat it by himself.
Yyrsa Sigurdardóttir´s main character is a woman lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She divorced a useless husband who is so involved in karaoke singing that he has no time for his kids. Icelandic men are so hopeless (see above, Hlynur and friends) that Thora hasn’t had sex for two years. When she does let lust overcome her, it’s with a German. Thora agrees with the Iceland Review. Foreign men are better.
Even Laxness agrees that Icelandic bachelors are a dreadful lot. In Independent People, he has the innocent, fourteen year old daughter of Bjartur of Summerhouses, Asta Sollilja, seduced and made pregnant by her teacher. In The Fish Can Sing, Garðar Hólm, is both a fraud as a singer and, it would appear, as a lover for he flees from the attentions of a young woman whom he has seduced. In Paradise Reclaimed, Steinar abandons his family while he goes off an exotic journey. After he leaves, his barely adolescent daughter is made pregnant by the Icelandic sociopath, Björn of Leirur.
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So my grandmother used to say. She was right. Habits are hard to break. The longer you have them, the more deep the ruts in which they run. Then there are genetics. Icelandic genes have been formed in isolation for over a thousand years. There’s been no need to adapt. It’s easier to make up Icelandic words for things, including television and computers and financial instruments, rather than learn English ones.
I still eat dried cod even though my one great grandmother left Iceland around 1874 and there are no cod in Lake Winnipeg. We’ve been codless for nearly one hundred and fifty years but I still eat dried cod. I still eat vinarterta with prunes even though in Iceland, they’ve shifted to rhubarb filling. I’m outraged by rhubarb filling. It’s not that it tastes bad. It just shouldn’t be done. Not that I’m any more rigid than most Icelandic men. I remember one woman saying to me, “You’re the most intractable man I´ve ever met.” I had to look it up. She just hadn’t met many Icelandic men.
“Why don’t you get married?” I asked an Icelandic bachelor friend of mine. He’s very eligible. Good looking still, has a whacking good pension, beautiful house, nice car, sense of humour, highly educated, successful.
He sighed and didn’t say anything. He looked around. I knew what he was thinking. Being married once was enough. He’d proven he could do it. For awhile, at least. Enough to breed and get over the insatiable need for sex out of his system. If he got married again, he’d have to adapt, he’d have to do things differently than he was used to. He’d have to negotiate. Do we have scrambled eggs for breakfast or oatmeal porridge? Do we go to Florida or California this winter? His wife would want him to wear button down collars or not wear button down collars. She would want him to tell her where he was going before he disappeared for a week or two to visit friends. She’d want him to eat broccoli because it was good for him. Eating broccoli at his age might add three nano-seconds to his life.
All Icelandic men are essentially Vikings. Even if what they do for a living is deliver mail or sell shoes. They’re always dreaming of getting into a Viking longboat and heading off to pillage. They’ve been dragged to the ballet, Swan Lake, by their wives, but what they’re really thinking about is blood and guts and booty. You can tell by the faraway look in their eyes.
Men with Icelandic genes are a hopeless lot. They squeeze the toothpaste from the top. They forget to put down the toilet seat. They prefer a lawn that looks like a meadow instead of a golfing green. They forget birthdays and anniversaries. They drink wine out of juice glasses. They eat with their fork in their right hand. None of these things would be a problem in an Englishman, Frenchman, or Italian. These habits would be imperfections that could be remedied, smoothed out. These men are no more difficult to upgrade than a kitchen. New cupboards here, a granite counter top there. With Icelandic men (and their North American counterparts) no amount of retrofitting would help.
(A somewhat different version of this article appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Subscribe. Support your Icelandic heritage.)