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Everyone's always focused on the big picture when comparing countries.  America spends half of the world's total military spending, Iceland has no military.  American has the death penalty, Icelandic don't even let police carry pepper spray.  "Liberal" is used as an insult in America, while you're apt to hear Alþjóðasöngur Verkjalýðsins ("The International Song of the Proletariat") sung at a party meeting of the governing centrist Icelandic political party on International World Workers Day.  Things like that.  But what's often glanced over are the structural differences, how people do everyday activities in a different manner than you might expect.  In some regards, Iceland is the unusual one.  In some regards, it's America, and most of you don't even realize it.

And that is what this diary is about.  Well, that and some of the random fun quirks.  :)


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

I've written a bit about healthcare before, which is obviously a big difference between Iceland and the US - we have a single-payer healthcare system, you have a cobbled together,  mishmash.  Now here's how it works in practice.

You start to feel sick.  You're not much thinking about "what will this cost".  You know what it'll cost, $15 for the doctor's visit copay and then something like $10-25 for your prescription, depending on what it is.  Usually you're more thinking about something like, "geez, is this bad enough that I want to leave in the middle of a workday?"  I can be gone from work for two days without a doctor's note, but I still don't like to bail. If I have to miss work for any reason, even though I work shifts, I don't have to find someone to "swap shifts" with me.  Even though we're all full time employees here, other employees get the chance to take my shift and get paid significant overtime.  This sort of stuff is standard, between the combination of unions and law (unions plural - I had a choice of something like 5 different unions when I signed on, even though I'm just a computer programmer).

So you decide you want to take the time to go to the doctor.  You call up your preferred local clinic (mine is next to a humorously shaped mall) and make an appointment.  In my experience so far, it's usually either same day (sometimes the instructions are just "come any time after 4") or the next day unless it's a weekend (although there's after-hours care options as well).  All doctors' offices in the country have access to a common set of digital medical records for you.  All they need when you walk in is your kennitala (national ID number).  Waits once you're in the office are pretty similar to in the US.  When you're called back, there's in my experience a lot more of trusting the patient if they're familiar with their symptoms and not a lot of extraneous testing.  I've twice gotten bladder infections (I'm somewhat prone) and neither time did they waste money on a culture.  It was just a check of symptoms and basic exams to make sure it was consistent and then a reminder that if it doesn't go away on the antibiotics to call them back.

There is no "writing a prescription".  There is no "calling in a prescription".  The instant the doctor enters it in his computer system what you need, every pharmacy in the country has it.  Nor do I have to call in to "have it prepared".  I go to any random pharmacy, give them my kennitala too, and a couple minutes later, I have my prescription in hand.  It blows my mind why the US makes it so difficult.  Note that a lot of things at the US that you'd get at a grocery store, like over the counter drugs, can only be bought at a pharmacy here.  The upside of this is that it means that pharmacies are more common.

The medical coverage (with the single glaring hole of dental, which they're trying to fix) is really great here.  I'm constantly discovering new "secret benefits" that all aspects of Icelandic life offers - unexpected discounts, coverage, sources of money, vacation, etc - that just seem to randomly pop up.  One recently was that when I had some stray hairs on my face that I wanted to get removed, I found that I was paying only half the cost.  Why?  Well, apparently the national health service covers half of the cost of that for women; it's not excused as being "cosmetic", but simply a treatment to be "normal".  Which in general seems to be the philosophy of the medical system here in general.

Naturally, that's all keyed to the kennitala as well.

The kennitala system is really clever and it fixes a couple really huge holes in the American system.  In the American system, your Social Security Number is both a key and a password.  Which any computer security expert will tell you is a really bad idea!  Here, the kennitala is just a key, like a second name for you.  It's fully public; anyone can look it up.  Mine is 300680-3999.  Anyone here want to do that with their SSN?  ;)

Because it's public and just a key, anywhere where something needs to be actually secured, you have to use real security, like passwords.  And then comes the next part of the system that's missing from the US - the þjóðskrá, the national registry.  It's a database which contains the official contact information for everyone in the country.  If anyone tries to do anything major that involves your identity (which, as mentioned is always tied to your kennitala), your address is looked up in the þjóðskrá and you get mailed about it.

As a consequence of all of this, identity theft is practically nonexistent here.  The system is also ridiculously convenient.  For example, if I go to a store and buy a refrigerator and need it delivered, I don't need to bother filling out my address to deliver it to.  It comes up automatically when I give out my kennitala.

One thing that blew me away here was to discover that nobody uses checks.  Like, ever.  The US is weird among first world nations for still using them extensively.  Here, all payments are done with netbanking.  When someone wants to bill you, you get a "greiðsluseðill" that shows up in the equivalent of an inbox at your bank.  This could be from Giant Company ohf or from Siggi down the street.  It could be your phone bill, your rent, paying the guy who trimmed your bushes, whatever.  You look at them and decide whether you want to pay them, which just takes a click and your pin (and you can pay multiple at once or autopay).  You can give money to anyone in the country just as easily.  The whole concept of what people do in the US, actually writing out checks and putting them in envelopes and then mailing them to someone who has to take them to a bank where they have to get punched in... I mean, it just seems so absurd, even ignoring the issue of check fraud!

I'm still getting used to the system, mind you.  Even today, I asked a coworker when I should pay him for my share of a gift for a coworker (thinking, as in the US, you give him cash).  He seemed confused and asked me, do I not have a bank account?  He had included his kennitala in his email for convenience, after all!  Oh, duh, so that's how I was supposed to pay.  And when people aren't paying with direct bank transfers, it's almost always credit cards - everyone has those little portable card readers, the secure authentication type (all our cards are chipped and also function as photo IDs - I have something like five legally valid photo IDs on me!).

Lots of stuff in Iceland is oriented toward charity.  There's lots of charity concerts and other charity fundraisers, ways to automatically done to charity, etc.  Several of the larger charities annually send greiðsluseðlar to everyone in the country to make it easier to choose to donate (although you can opt out of receiving them if you want).

Now, mind you, the post office doesn't collect mail from homes here.  As is normal for Iceland, I have no stamps in my house!  I'm not even sure if they make stamps here these days.  But without the need to send checks or deal with all sorts of stuff like medical paperwork, I rarely have to send anything in the mail anyway, so there's not much of a point to home pickup.  Mail is, for the most part, for sending gifts or goods.  You drive down to Pósturinn, take a number, give them what you want to send and the address, then pay for it and leave.  Packages for you also go to your nearest post office (regular mail is delivered to the home), and if they're from overseas, it has to go through customs and you (usually) have to pay significant tarrifs on it at the post office.  This is not popular.

The "take a number" system at the post office is widespread here - post offices, government buildings, banks, pharmacies, everywhere have those number-printing machines.  Rarely is there an actual wait, but it's designed for efficiency in case there is and so that you don't have to stand in line.  Every counter - for example, bank tellers - has a digital sign over them that pops up your number with a little ding when they're ready for you.

In some stores the price tags on the racks are digital as well.  Shopping carts are omnidirectional (they roll sideways as easily as they roll front to back), which once you've used it, is maddeningly obvious that this is how shopping carts should be built.

Lots of stuff is incredibly efficient here.  I find it funny to hear Icelanders complain about how "inefficient" the road system is.  Iceland (IMHO) makes great use of traffic circles, not overdoing them or overcomplicating them like I experienced sometimes in the UK, but not underdoing them like in the US.  They keep the traffic moving and at a proper pace without making you stop - not only saving time, but fuel, too.  The only thing you have to watch out for is that the inner lane has right of way on exits!

Now, IMHO, a fair source of complaint would be two things - one, how much of a maze the downtown roads are, with all the one-way streets and unusual angles (and even when not downtown, the fact that this is a rugged country means that roads twist and turn all over the place), and that the names of streets are not always as well labeled as in the US (more often signs label "directions", like pointing out that left leads to Kópavogur while right leads to Mosfellsbær or somesuch).  On the other hand, the controlled intersections are generally well done, even overdone by US standards, with multiple sets of lights for each direction (so both people up front and further back can see the light's status) and a "red + yellow" light to let you know when it's about to turn green.  That is especially useful for manual cars, which almost all cars over here are.

You drive with your headlights on, even during the day, by law.  The police aren't very aggressive at stopping speeders, but they're very aggressive at stopping potential drunk drivers, especially during party times (midnight to 6 AM on weekends - which of course, during summer, isn't dark!).  In general I've found the beat cops here to be very polite and professional during stops.

One thing that I found unusual was to learn that crime victims in some types of cases get payments from the government.  The concept is to ensure that they get compensated from the perpetrator; the government goes after the perp for the money but ensures the victim gets it regardless.  The judicial system here is in general good and effective, although there have been some controversial rulings at times, like when the Supreme Court ruled that a journalist was liable for defamation for publishing the (supposedly defamatory) statements of workers at a strip club while doing an investigation on it (it was overturned at the European Court of Human Rights).  Strip clubs are illegal here (as well as prostitution and ads exploiting sexuality), but two places work around the law by classifying themselves as champaigne clubs and not directly employing the women.

Laws on things like prostitution are based around principles of preventing sexual victimization (in particular, trafficing), not enforcing a moral code, and as a consequence, what is illegal is paying for sex, not receiving payment for sex (you don't want to be punishing a victim).  Even surrogacy is illegal here in most cases out of fear that people could be pressured into carrying a child that they don't want to out of financial obligation, although this is controversial and may change.

Most stores generally aren't open as long here as in the US, especially on Sundays.  The upside is that the 24-7 places like convenience stores are generally better stocked than in the US, even with a significant range of fresh vegetables and the like.  And this being a country that loves the outdoors, you can buy camping fuel bottles at regular gas stations.

To generalize for a moment here: building aesthetics, especially interior, are generally kept to high standards, with nice hardwood floors, well-painted walls, etc.  Buildings are generally very structurally sound, to withstand the high winds, earthquakes, etc.  The wiring and plumbing however... heh, yeah, they leave something to be desired.  It's not unusual to see dangling wires, and I'm having to move to another apartment after a chain of events caused by water dripping into the wiring of my current place.  And one of the jokes here is that due to the country's high ratio of philosphers to competent plumbers, the arguments here hold water but the pipes don't  ;)  Usually, people simply strive merely for "functional" when it comes to things like wiring and plumbing.  The effort is focused elsewhere.

That said, a lot is simpler here.  You know your furnace?  Your air conditioner?  Your water heater?  Your water softener?  Yeah, almost nobody here has any of those.  Almost everyone has two water feeds to their house - one with cold glacial meltwater (extremely fresh and tasty), and one with hot volcanic water (as much as 80°C).  The hot water smells and tastes of sulfur, like a volcano, and is almost as cheap as the cold.  You generally don't cook with it unless you want your food and drinks to taste volcanic.  It's used for cleaning, for bathing (it's so relaxing and great for your skin, like bathing in a hot spring - it even has a bit of a bluish color), and for home heating via radiators along the walls.  Hot water for tea is generally made with electric kettles.  The climate means that air conditioning is simply "open a window", and most windows have slats at the top designed for that purpose.  There's not a vent or air duct at all in most homes, and in large buildings, they're generally just for circulation.

Internet here in most places is fiberoptic, 50-100 MB/s - extremely fast.  It's very cheap, too, although if you're a heavy data user you have to pay extra for the extra data.  My company pays for both my net and phone service, so it doesn't matter to me (did I mention discovering random perks all the time?).  Television is often done by "myndlykill"; I don't know the English word for it, but it's a little box that you plug into ethernet on one and and which gives a HDMI signal for your TV.

The difference in TV, too, is kind of funny.  Let's say you wanted to watch the Mythbusters.  You'd be in America, watching an American TV show, with American english voice, commercials from America, in American English, etc.  Up here, if I tune into Mythbusters, I'm tuning into an American show with American actors, but a British-voiced announcer, commercials from Europe broadly (but especially the nordic countries, especially Norway), with Norwegian channel announcements!  Why?  Because there is no "Discovery Channel Iceland", only a Norwegian version, which is based on the UK's discovery channel.  Multilingualism is important here!  For example, the dials on my washer are written in Danish.

We constantly suffer through an annoyance that you generally never even think of, in that the net and random pieces of software don't understand our writing, so we constantly have to mangle it.  For example, "ja.is" really should be "já.is", but we can't write that.  "Vedur.is" should likewise be "veður.is".  So we have to remember to map our writing to the closest equivalent we can with only English letters.  For an equivalent, imagine if you had "facebook" and "twitter" but had to write it them in a language without a "b" or "t", so you had to spell them something like "facephook" and "dwidder".  That's what it's like here!

We have our own sets of common websites different from yours.  For example, instead of Craigslist, we use bland.is, which is really a great, amazingly active site for buying, selling, renting, chatting, and pretty much everything else you can imagine.  (Usually) instead of Google Maps we use ja.is, which is much more accurate and understands Icelandic addresses better than Google.  For weather forecasts, northern lights forecasts, and even things like earthquake reports, we use vedur.is.

Employees often do more together than in other companies; there's always events going on.  I recently helped in a group project with several other employees to make a "Geðveik jól" (Crazy Christmas) video - the company gave us about $1500 and the video will not only be promoting the company, but also be part of a nationwide video contest to raise money for mental health services.  We created this great video with custom music and special effects (we employed the help of a guy who works on the Iceland-produced kids' cartoon show "Latibær" ("LazyTown")).  We didn't use all of the money so we hired comedian/troubadour Svavar Knútur (one of my favorites) to come perform for us during lunch one day (there's some of his less funny but very pretty music here if you're interested)

Of course, that's just an example - there's always something, whether it's going to a party for the dedication of a new plane,  forming a company choir to make a video for the annual festival, etc, etc... heck, we probably would have made a company Gangam Style video, had we not been beaten to the idea first!

Just found out minutes before I wrote this that there's going to be the first of several Christmas parties this Sunday.  And that there will be three Santas parachuting onto a hill overlooking our building (staff kids are supposed to come help "rescue" them).  Iceland has thirteen santas known as the jólasveinarnir, all of whom are a bit evil but which have softened up over the ages by merging with the american version of Santa Claus.  The three that will be arriving are Stekkjastaur (has stiff legs and steals sheep), Giljagaur (who hides in gullies waiting for the chance to steal milk), and Stúfur (very short, steals pans to eat the crust left on them).  The "santas" all are in one big family which also includes a giant black cat who will eat children who don't get new clothes for Christmas, and their mother, an ogress who kidnaps naughty children in a sack to make into soup.

Companies here of size usually have "starfsmannafélög", that is, "employee associations".  The employee puts in a little money, the company more, and then they use their bulk buying power to regularly organize all sorts of fun events for employees to do together - nice meals, guided hikes, festivals, etc.  Unions too offer all sorts of perks - pretty much every union has at least one summer home in the highlands which members can reserve, they offer benefits like tuition support, help pay for new laptops, etc.  My company offered to buy me a new phone recently but I didn't need one so I turned them down.

Speaking of "perks", I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the government mandates that new mothers get 3 months paid leave (plus an optional 3 unpaid), fathers another 3 and 3, and the couple can apply for an additional 3 and 3 to split as they so choose, so up to 9 months paid and 9 unpaid between them.  But apparently that's not enough because the government is looking to raise it to 12!  The country is incredibly child-friendly, both in terms of laws and culture.  I've seen kids playing around the prime minister's table while a party speaker discussed tax policy.  I've seen 2-6 year olds dancing in the front row of a heavy metal concert.  People leave strollers with young children unattended outside because "the fresh air is good for them".  Of course the strollers are totally winterized.  People just take their kids everywhere.  Businesses cater to them, with things like play rooms, free fruit for kids, etc - it all varies by place and time, but parents are clearly the target.  And in general kids grow up faster here, gaining both freedom and responsibility at younger ages.  It can be surprising to see how young kids sometimes start work (although under tightly controlled conditions).  And they're often allowed to roam free, so long as they're back home before a (generally late) curfew.

In the winter it gets windy (a couple days after Sandy we had gusts in the capitol region of cat-5 strength from an unrelated storm), it gets icy, and the terrain can be quite steep.  In some heavily trafficked steep areas they actually run hot water pipes under the roads to hasten the melting of the ice, but in the suburbs and countryside of course this doesn't happen.  Some people, especially in the countryside, turn to "nagladekk", nail-studded tires that you could drive across a glacier on.  However, they add extra wear to the roads and create dust that can be a health hazard, so they're controversial in-town; the current "compromise" is to only allow them to be on vehicles in the capitol during winter months.

Power here is 230V, using europlug and schuko connectors, with the occasional bizarre Btcino "magic" socket connector in the kitchen that you need an adapter for.  The "magic" connectors aside, in general it's an excellent system.  230V is more efficient and more powerful, the Europlug connectors are small, the larger Schuko connectors for higher power, grounded devices fit tightly but don't wear down as easily (often American plugs either seem to be in too well or not well enough), and here the sockets on the walls are often labeled for their rated current.  The current available can be quite high, which combined with 230V means a lot of power on hand!  Which here in Iceland means cheap and clean, geothermal and hydroelectric.

Despite the image of Iceland as a "green" country, CFLs are not widely used.  Electronics (including CFLs) are expensive here, power is cheap and clean, and heat is generally a useful waste product.  Recycling services have historically been poor here (due to the small population) they are increasing.  Another thing that Iceland could stand to improve on on the environmental front is picking up loose trash (although I think the problem is amplified by the fact that the winds here like to pick up stuff and blow it all over the place)

Iceland has the most lax gun laws of the Nordics, although that's kind of like saying the most religious person at an atheists' convention.  There's a good number of people who go hunting, although it's far more regulated than in the US - for example, when hunting ptarmigan, you can't use lures, decoys, blinds, or anything else, you have to stalk them, your gun options are limited, etc.  The permitted days for hunting different animals are brief and not everyone who wants to get a permit will.  All guns in the country are tracked and owners are expected to be extremely responsible with their usage.  Earlier this year there was a case where a guy fired a gun in his house,  into the floor, for fun.  It was a major news headline, the guy was arrested and sent for psychiatric counselling, etc, and of course he lost his guns.  Guns are looked at as deadly weapons and that anyone who would play dangerous games with them should not be allowed to own them.

Most of the locks at my company are RFID, with the key being my badge, which I wear around my neck.  The building being an air traffic control center, it's mandated to have various security regulations, including a security fence around it and such.  This being Iceland, it's not 10 feet tall and topped with razor wire, just a simple wrought-fence just high enough that a person couldn't be inside of it and reasonably claim, "Oh, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be here!"

The population is incredibly spread out in much of the country and the terrain quite rugged, so in some towns, it's not practical to keep the roads to them open all winter.  The government responds by legally classifying them as an island for part of the year.

Almost everyone famous except for the "top" people in each field has a "day job", so it's not at all unusual to see them outside of the venue they're famous for working some regular career.  For example of the popular death metal band Skálmöld, one of the singers is a preschool teacher, another is a taxi driver, etc.  Their music seems particularly popular among teachers and schoolchildren; at least one school has held a Skálmöld day where the young kids showed up in their best death metal gear and listened to their music.  Others have held sing-alongs and the like.  For example, this song:

being sung by these students:

Or for that matter:

Anyway, to back up for a bit, I've learned to stop being surprised to find out that the people I know and work with have incredible musical artistic talent and am now more surprised to learn when it's not the case.

Cheese here, at least the brand I buy (Oðals), forms a rind when left out which preserves and protects it, like a proper cheese is supposed to, instead of rapidly turning into a hard brick like happens to most cheeses in the US (in my experience).  I have an experiment on my counter right now with a block I've left out for nearly a month.  It's still perfectly soft inside.

Iceland has the third highest per-capita coffee consumption in the world.  Everyone has their coffee mugs during meetings at work and there's a great automated coffee machine that lets you brew up a customized brew.  Alcohol consumption here is also high, but typically concentrated in party-night binges.  It's seen as sort of a sign of desparation to hit on someone when sober.  Some statistics put Iceland at number one in Coca-Cola consumption, while others put Mexico at #1, but either way it's high.  Yeah, Iceland may be way ahead of the US in terms of health statistics (and has one of the world's longest lifespans), but we're considered the least healthy of the nordics - despite how much outdoor activities people do here.  The candies and deserts are diverse and abundant.  One that's inexplicably popular is a basic chocolate wafer candy called Prinspolo, which is made in Poland.  Iceland consumes the majority of Prinspolo production, leading to jokes that if Icelanders ever lost their taste for it, an entire village in Poland would be out of work.

So much more could be written but I've talked your ear off enough.  Bestu kveðjur frá Íslandi!

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Rei on Tue Dec 04, 2012 at 07:02 PM PST.

Also republished by Global Expats and Community Spotlight.

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