Reykjavík, March 1996

The first time I visited Iceland, I was nine years old, and I went with my father. It was my first flight anywhere other than Florida, the occasion for my first-ever passport, my first time crossing an ocean. My father and I watched The American President on the flight and landed at Keflavík early in the morning. I remember watching the sun rise over the lava fields outside the bus window. A child of the suburbs, I had never seen a landscape so…bleak. There was no grass anywhere, no trees; there was only one road that I could see, and beyond it the great grey-blue of the Atlantic.

Just like on those trips to Florida, we were there to visit my grandparents, though we were far from their airy Florida condo. Instead, my grandfather was in a nursing home by the sea and my grandmother was in a studio apartment nearby. I wasn’t used to studio apartments, or the slim sizes of Coke cans, or digital clocks flashing 0:00 at midnight, or the strange taste of the Icelandic hot dogs my grandmother boiled for me on her small stovetop. I certainly wasn’t used to my grandfather not being able to talk at all. I hated the nursing home on sight, where the blank faces of the residents and their stale urine smells stood in stark contrast to the aggressively cheery yellow walls. I also had to keep meeting new relatives and family friends. I was used to knowing exactly who was in my small American family – four uncles, two aunts, three baby cousins – so being introduced to a legion of strange adults, all of whom were called “cousin”, was disconcerting.

What sort of an impression did Iceland leave on me? I remember the wind being so strong it blew my hat off. I remember watching ER and 60 Minutes with Icelandic subtitles at another cousin’s house and wondering why all these American shows were on Icelandic television. I remember the surprise of seeing kids my own age travelling without adults on the city buses, chattering away in a language I couldn’t understand. I remember the outdoor swimming pool, where I felt embarrassed at the chicken pox scars all over my belly when I had to shower before putting on my bathing suit. I remember walking to Ikea with my father, who was probably trying to show me something familiar from the Washington suburbs in the midst of all of the strangeness. The hot dogs there didn’t taste the same, either.

I knew that we weren’t there to be tourists, my father and I. We were there to visit Afi, my grandfather, who was sick and didn’t remember how to do things I thought all adults were able to do, like walking down stairs or using the bathroom. I can’t say that we didn’t do touristy things, though. We drove around the Golden Circle with two cousins, who made jokes about the pale green plastic-covered hay bales being after-dinner mints for trolls. I remember the glistening coins in the water at Þingvellir, the enormous, quick spray of the geyser, and visiting Gullfoss. Well, really, I remember eating orange ice cream at the cafeteria at Gullfoss. I also remember eating orange ice cream in the cafeteria at Perlan, looking down at Reykjavík from the hilltop terrace.

Why I fixated on orange ice cream on that trip, I can’t really tell you. I can tell you that two winters before, I had strolled down the sidewalk of a south Florida town with my grandfather, who picked an orange off a tree to share with me. My grandfather, the story goes, grew up only seeing oranges at Christmas; how strange it must have been to be able to simply pick one off a neighbour’s tree to share with his granddaughter. But not strange in the same way that it strange was for me to find myself in his home country, just nine years old and not completely able to realize that I was there to say goodbye.

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What’s in a name? Icelandic naming conventions

This is probably old knowledge for some of you, but I think it’s worth mentioning, especially because it can lead to some confusion for people who are Icelandic or have spent some time in Iceland. Essentially, my last name is recognizably Icelandic, but it also shows that I’m not from Iceland. I’ll explain.

So, my name is Kathleen Gudmundsson. My father’s name is Bruce Gudmundsson. His father’s name was Ívar Guðmundsson. So far, so good, right?

My great-grandfather – my grandfather’s father – was named Guðmundur Jónsson. So his sons had the name Guðmundsson, and his daughters had the name Guðmundsdóttir. If you’ve guessed that the suffix “son” means, well, “son” in English and the suffix “dóttir” means “daughter”, you’ve got it. These patronymics remain with Icelanders for life; it is not practice for women who marry men to take their husbands’ names as it is in some other parts of the world.

My grandfather ended up having children outside of Iceland, though, so he adopted the name “Gudmundsson” (without the ð, which makes a soft “th” sound) as a family name. His wife, his daughters-in-law, and his grandchildren ended up with the last name “Gudmundsson”, too, following naming conventions in Denmark and the United States (where my father and uncles were born and grew up, respectively). While some Icelanders or people who have spent time in Iceland might be confused that I have the last name “Gudmundsson” without being, well, anyone’s son, most realize that these name changes and fluctuations are part of the story of migration – names being changed and simplified to fit the receiving culture.

Had I been born and raised in Iceland, my patronymic would be Brúsadóttir (the daughter of Brúsi). My brother would have the last name Brúsason (the son of Brúsi). My first name would be a different story. The Mannanafnaskrá (Icelandic Naming Committee) is responsible for deciding whether a given name is acceptable for a child born in Iceland. Because nouns are declined in Icelandic according to their place in a sentence, it makes sense that there needs to be a clear way to change the spelling of the name to fit in a sentence in the Icelandic language. So, would “Kathleen” be acceptable? Probably not; my parents would have needed to use the Icelandic variant of “Katrín” or choose another name altogether in order to fit with convention. Otherwise, I’d run the risk of having my ID cards read stúlka” (“girl”).

If you’d like to see whether your own first name would pass muster with the Mannanafnaskrá, you can check the website. The English version doesn’t have the list easily accessible, but the Icelandic page is easy enough to figure out. Clicking on each letter will take you to the lists of names that start with that letter. Italicized/underlined names have been officially rejected by the committee, while names with a date next to them were brought before the committee – the date represents the day the name was approved. Under drengir, you’ll see names accepted for boys; under stúlkur are names accepted for girls; millinöfn are acceptable middle names.

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Since 1991, Icelanders have the option of using matronymics in addition to or instead of patronymics. For example, the child of a woman named Anna and a man named Ívar could use the matronymic “Annasson” or “Annasdóttir”. The child could even be named with a combination of both matronymic and patronymic, such as “Elín Annasdóttir Ívarsdóttir”. I’m not sure how widespread this practice is, however.

The patronymics Guðmundsson and Guðmundsdóttir are fairly common in Iceland. For instance, there’s the writer Einar Már Guðmundsson and the footballer Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson. Even if you don’t know much about Icelandic culture, you’ve probably heard of at least one famous Guðmundsdóttir. Does that mean I’m related to all of these Guðmundssons and Guðmundsdóttirs, though? Not necessarily, at least not closely… though that’s best covered in another post.