When we first began telling people we’d be spending our summer in Iceland, a common reaction we received was: “Iceland! Oh, that’ll be cool (wink, wink)”. So yes, Iceland is very, very far north.
In fact, Iceland is so far north that it has the honor of being home to the northernmost capitol of the world: Reykjavík. Furthermore, a good portion of the country sits just 60 degrees from the Arctic Circle. All that said Iceland is saved from a fate of year-round arctic conditions by being situated smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic Gulf Stream. So while it is incredibly far north, the environment here is actually rather temperate and consistent: summer temperatures rarely push above seventy but in the winter it is rare for Reykjavík to see the thermometer drop below zero. Nonetheless, while it may not be totally frozen solid, Iceland as a whole is still very cool.
Which is why I was, and still am, surprised to encounter the Icelandic obsession with ice cream. I grew up in the mid-western part of the United States. During the peak summer heat, one could easily sweat off five pounds just fetching the mail or taking out the garbage. It’s understandable to me why an ice cream shop would be an opportune business endeavor in a region that regularly issues heat advisories.
But what I cannot fathom is why, on a day when it’s fifty degrees out, cloudy and raining to boot, I might be walking downtown with an Icelandic friend, soaking cold and wet, see a line of people stretching beyond the horizon, enquire “what’s everyone waiting for?” and receive the answer: “Oh, that’s one of the best ice cream shops in town…do you want some?” But it happened and I did. And I was so befuddled, and my teeth were chattering so hard from what I’m semi-convinced was stage-one hypothermia, that I could hardly answer what had to have been a hypothetical and seethingly ironic question. But it wasn’t. He was completely serious. It doesn’t matter if it’s their last meal atop a glacier before an avalanche swoops down over them: Icelanders love their ice cream.
They love ice cream so much that they literally roll out the red carpet when it arrives.
Last week, we took the opportunity to journey north from Reykjavík to Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland. Bill heard of a Christian youth camp run by two brothers in a small town east of Akureyri and we managed to connect with them and arrange a visit. So on Thursday we piled into Bill’s car and embarked on an eight-hour drive to the other side of Iceland.
We arrived late Thursday night amidst heavy fog and damp cold just in time to join the camp staff meeting. We introduced ourselves as visitors from the States who were interested in learning about the camp and the work they were doing. Many of the staff members are volunteers, some of them from Iceland, others from the Faroe Islands. They introduced themselves individually, smiling and asking how we’d enjoyed our time in Iceland thus far. All of them were incredibly polite, cordial and welcoming. After the meeting there was evening tea, all the youth met in the dining hall for drinks and pastries before washing up and going to bed. We were offered refreshments and told to make ourselves at home. With the fog and rain outside, a cup of warm tea in my hand and Icelandic youth chattering and snatching cookies off plates next to me, it was difficult not to feel at home and yet very foreign and displaced at the same time.
The next day dawned with no positive change in the weather. Rain fell steadily; the staff members told us it was the rainiest day they’d had all year.
“Usually it will stop for at least part of the day,” one of them said me as we sat inside, staring out the window onto abandoned boats docked on the lake. It was cold, wet, and miserable. A perfect day to stay inside, a perfect day to do everything possible to stay warm. And, for Icelanders, a perfect day for ice cream.
It was mid-afternoon and I was watching a chess game between two of the campers, unable to understand much of the trash talking but clearly sympathizing with one chum who was getting his butt kicked. Suddenly, an announcement came over the intercom in Icelandic and for a moment I feared something terrible had happened. I feared maybe the local volcano had erupted, or a nearby dam had given way because everyone was running around and screaming, grabbing raincoats and shoes and sprinting out the door. And so I joined the crowd and ran around screaming, snatching my coat and hoping at some point that someone might inform me if a volcano was in fact exploding so I might perhaps go back and fetch my wife.
I sprinted out the door only to come to a sudden halt with everyone else because it was there the crowd had stopped and gathered around….an ice cream truck. I was baffled. This was what the chaos was all about? Ice cream? Let me remind you: it’d been raining all day. The temperature couldn’t have been above 55 degrees. I was standing outside in jeans with a sweatshirt and jacket atop and I was still a bit chilled and I’d just been rushed out of the building like a five-alarm fire for…ice cream. I like ice cream as much as the next guy, but this was a little eccentric.
Then it got weirder.
Because as I stood beneath the porch, watching the campers huddle and shiver in the pouring rain (some of them, in all their urgency, had forgotten a jacket) I watched as some of them actually lined up to take pictures with the ice cream man. I mean, don’t get me wrong: the delivery guy was handsome and all: but taking a picture with him? Isn’t that a little much?
Apparently not. Because next thing I knew, a group of the staff members dashed back inside then reappeared with a box full of supplies. Within seconds, they had arranged a red carpet leading to the ice cream truck, lined the campers on either side with horns and Icelandic flags, and positioned the smiling deliveryman at the end next to the truck. And there they stood, blowing on the horns and waving the flags as the rain fell and I stood off the to side asking myself: what. on. earth. is. happening? At this point, I was truly baffled and started to wonder just what type of camp I’d wandered into and if maybe I should lock the door when we went to sleep that night. At the same time, I was leaning down to tighten my shoelaces, just in case the next thing they did was trot out a goat to sacrifice to the ice cream gods; if that happened I’d just start running. In case you’re wondering, I was concerned about my wife, thank you very much. But she’s run a half marathon. She’d catch up.
But just in case I was missing something, and because they really did seem like nice, amazing and awesome people, I turned to one of the staff members next to me and asked her what was going on.
She turned to me and laughed. “Já” (that’s Icelandic for ‘yeah’ or ‘yes’ the one word I readily understand) “this must look a little strange, huh?”
I allowed a small laugh but kept tightening my shoelaces nonetheless.
“There’s a competition with this ice cream company right now for the best picture taken with their delivery man. You take a picture and then tag them online. Winner gets, oh, I guess it would be equivalent of $2500 US dollars.”
“Oh…oh. Okay, I gotcha,” I wiped my brow. “That makes sense.”
She laughed. “Yeah, they’ve been planning to do this all week. They really want to win. I guess it must look a little… uh…strange, yes? I can only imagine what you must be thinking…it must…is something wrong with your shoelace?”
“What? No, sorry…just needed to tighten them a bit. Look at that! They’re all set.”
So many times we are quick to judge a culture by our own standards and biases. I’ve heard endless stories of missionaries who’ve tramped into foreign environments and immediately wrecked Christ’s reputation with misunderstandings of the local culture. A missionary in Europe declared the national church heretical for their use of wine in communion, a minister to the Congo was appalled by the immodesty of the local natives whose women didn’t wear tops, this one American buffoon thought Icelanders were really weird for how they reacted when the ice cream delivery guy arrived even though they were actually just trying to win a photo competition… the list goes on and on. We have a tendency of attempting to fix a culture, to break it down and smash the circular way things are in order to fit them into our square perspectives before even taking the time to understand what’s really happening, what’s truly going on.
The more time I spent with the camp staff, the more I enjoyed their presence. They were some of the most joyful, sincere, and welcoming Christians I’d met on our trip. I stayed up till midnight that day just hanging out with them. We sat around the kitchen table and ate popsicles. They talked, laughed and since they were speaking Icelandic I simply laughed when they laughed and hoped they wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t a clue what was being said (spoiler alert: they did). I never would have come to enjoy this kinship if I’d assumed the worst and written off an innocent attempt to win a photo competition as some lactose-ridden golden calf incident.
I’m not saying there isn’t right or wrong, I’m just saying that there’s also culture. And before jumping to the conclusion that something is morally unacceptable, we owe it to the people we’re with to assume that perhaps, just maybe, our view is culturally nuanced, that there’s a log in our eye that’s keeping us from seeing things clearly. Especially when it comes to spreading the Gospel.
For the Gospel message is one that stretches to every tribe and every tongue, and you can bet that it doesn’t sound the same or look the same in all of them. Some of us will inevitably dance differently, act differently, understand things differently and say things differently than the rest. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t all worshipping the same God. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have more to learn than those who’re already here.
Because who knows, some of them may even line up to buy ice cream when it’s really cold outside. And for what it’s worth, I guess that’s not too weird. In fact, I think it’s kinda cool.