"You feel so safe here"

Thursday 26. November 2015 | By: Birna Lárusdóttir

Kirsten McCaffrey, a 22-year-old Canadian, moved to Ísafjörður just three months ago as a first-year student in the Coastal and Marine Management Master’s programme. Since then she has already taken on the role of president of the Ægir students’ association, and she is settling in well to Icelandic society.

We asked Kirsten to jot down some of her thoughts on being new in town, how it came about that she chose Ísafjörður for her studies, and some basic advice to those who might consider following in her footsteps. She is originally from Nova Scotia but she finished her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies from Grenfell Campus Memorial University in Newfoundland. Although home is far away Kirsten is obviously content with her lates choices and enjoying herself up here, close to the Arctic Circle. 

Kirsten writes: 

The kind economics professor

When you think of Iceland, you think of this crazy land of ice in the middle of nowhere, with no one living on it, with crazy temperatures and polar bears, am I right or am I right? So when I thought about graduate school and what I was interested in, coming to this far-away land of ice was the last thing on my mind. I was thinking something along the lines of going across Canada, thinking that was a big deal and all. The reason I’m now half a degree from studying on the Arctic Circle in Iceland is due to the kindest economics professor I’ve ever had, Gabriela Sabau. Gabriela always had these pamphlets and information brochures plastered on her office door and always hinted here and there about her time in Iceland teaching Economics every year. I was lucky enough to be in my graduating year of my undergrad with my best friend April Blackwood who, of course, absolutely adored Gabriela as much as I did.

Getting into the programme was like opening a Christmas present

Just before Christmas break, April and I were driving around town late at night and picked up a Tim Hortons decaf coffee and chatted about what we were going to do over the upcoming weekend. The CMM programme came up as a topic and we both agreed to just go out on a whim, take a leap of faith and apply for the programme (not thinking we would actually go). On spring break, I was visiting April’s parents with her and we woke up one morning to an e-mail saying that we were accepted to the programme. It was just like a movie where small children open a present at Christmas and cry with excitement, we were both bawling, our moms cried, and we couldn’t stop shaking. That’s when we realized that we could be moving to the Arctic in only a few short months and we had to make a decision. We decided to do it, because why not?

On August 21st, after reading Lonely Planet, Buzzfeed, and countless other articles about what clothing we should bring, how much sunlight we would have, and how to use the Icelandic currency, we said goodbye to our families and boarded the plane. After 52 hours of travelling with no sleep, we found ourselves in a red taxi-van headed to Ísafjörður with an older Icelandic man who spoke no English. We eventually found our house from the memories of pictures on the website and then wondered around Ísafjörður looking for signs of a grocery store.

Walking home in the dark without any worry

Now it’s November 22nd 2015 and I’ve been here almost exactly three months. I knew so little when I arrived here, but I think I have the hang of things now. A very important fact about Iceland is that it’s the safest place pretty much on earth. You feel so safe here and walking home in the dark is normal and not scary at all (something you can tell your parents before you leave home, because if your mother is anything like mine, she worries… a lot). I’m now going to spit facts at you and it’s coming from the heart, it’s not sugar-coated at all: this is really how I feel and how things are around here (from my personal perspective).

Hitchhiking to the grocery store

One of the strangest things you’ll see, which also emphasizes the safety aspect, is walking around town and realizing that babies and young toddlers are often left in their baby carriages outside of stores when their parents are shopping, with no one looking after them (yes, this is very strange, it’s very different from Canada, but it’s just that safe here). If you’re wondering about community transportation, it’s slim to none. I never hitchhiked until I came to Iceland and it’s probably the best way to meet people. Although you won’t need to catch a ride to most places, as everything you need is in the town centre. Bónus (a big grocery store) is 45 minutes’ walking distance from town and believe me when I say it rains a lot here so hitching is actually so convenient and the locals see it as normal, which means catching rides is a piece of cake. Since we’re on the rain topic, if you’re use to cold Canadian weather, then you’re going to find it extremely warm considering Ísafjörður is pretty much in the Arctic. It’s rare that the temperature goes below -10 degrees Celsius all year.  

Learning to knit in no time

The northern lights are amazing, they look exactly like the photos and are visible only a few steps away from the light pollution of Ísafjörður. Starting around September, you’ll be watching Vedur.is like a hawk waiting for the Aurora forecast to rate them as “high” and you’ll probably feel like crying the first time you see them. You’ve probably never Googled Iceland as much as you have before this moment in time and you probably know that knitting is the classic hobby and everyone wants to either buy an Icelandic sweater, mitts, socks or hats. But, knitting is actually so fun and a great pastime. The knitting store here in Ísafjörður has a free knitting class every Monday and students are welcome to join. Since it’s been about three months since I arrived in Iceland, pretty much everyone has learned to knit, or has at least attempted it.

The most amazing yogurt on the planet

If you’re wondering about buying groceries and maybe finding some similar foods to home, it’s definitely possible. I was seriously praying that Bónus or the other grocery store in town (Samkaup) would have curry powder, and they do! It took me a few weeks to find it and to find the Icelandic word so I could actually distinguish it from other spices, but I got it. This is an example of the troubles you will have. Food items have really long, extremely hard Icelandic names, but you’ll eventually learn them, either by buying them and finding out that word meant lamb, or you might be able to identify it by just looking at the package. If you find yourself looking for the most amazing yogurt on the planet, Iceland has it. It’s called skyr and it’s like heaven on earth. Overall, buying groceries takes twice as long, but you still get to eat, so that’s a plus.

If you’re wondering how communication is, Icelandic people use English a lot more than you think they would. Although it can get difficult sometimes, you’ll eventually get the hang of saying common words just to get by. Going through the cash at the grocery store is a prime example. I have no idea what they are saying, I only know the procedure. First, they tell you the amount you owe in krónur, then you say how you are paying, then they ask you in Icelandic if you want a bag, then they ask you if you want your receipt. It’s the same every single time, so no worries there.

Do you want to taste whale blubber and Greenland shark?

Other great things in town are the bakeries which smell so good when you pass by them every day to walk to school. There is also a corner store called Hamraborg which has half-price pizza on Tuesdays and half price candy on Saturdays (it’s amazing pizza by the way). The fish market down by the back harbour is where you’ll find fresh fish and the nicest Icelandic man who lets you sample free whale blubber and Greenland shark, because you have to fit those classic Icelandic traditions in somewhere. Cats. Cats are everywhere and they are extremely friendly so if you find yourself feeling lonely, just step outside and there will be at least one hanging around somewhere. But before you step outside, make sure you check your porch because the mailman might have come in and dropped your mail off (this is another odd custom that I found… you put your name on your front door and they put your mail in your house for you).

Nature reserve camping trip in the making

In my undergrad, I was part of my student union. So, talking to some past students who were involved in the student union at UW centre from previous years, I thought I would start it up again. Being president of only 23 students is challenging, but not as hard as I thought it would be because I have four other people (Holly, Jessica, Josh and Anika) who are also on the student union and help in so many ways. We plan events at the local bars such as trivia, karaoke, a Halloween party and soon-to-be Christmas party. The money we raise by having these public events is going towards a class camping trip in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Getting involved in the student union has allowed me to meet new people, learn Icelandic culture and gain a new understanding of what life is like in the Westfjords of Iceland.

Pancakes to celebrate the return of the sun

Some things to remember is that the university centre has a coffee fund that you can pay into every month for UNLIMITED coffee or tea… yes, yes I just said that. You’ll meet new people who are passing through from all over the world every weekend, you won’t feel the sunlight for a couple of months of the year and days are very short, but in celebration of the sun coming back in a few months’ time, pancakes are made, and we all know everyone loves pancakes.

Iceland is in the middle of the ocean, and it’s pretty cool to study in a fjord. You realize that your classmates will become your best friends and even though your washing machine may be in Icelandic, you’ll eventually have clean clothes after a few tries. Everything happens for a reason, sometimes things fall into place and you get to study and travel abroad all at the same time, and I wouldn’t change this experience for the world. Twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed in the things you didn’t do then by the ones you did do.

Kirsten McCaffrey