This past June I finished my undergraduate studies in my home town in Estonia. I was enthused to have been accepted to attend the University of Iceland from August: a dream come true. But truth be told, I was scared to death, too. It was the first time for me to move out of the home I know and love, quite literally stepping out of my comfort zone. And my heart skipped a beat or two, on my journey of making the long-desired move a tangible reality.
Words: Johanna Raudsepp
I spent the whole summer having nightmares about missing my plane, about never finishing packing, about one thing going wrong after the other to chain me up, and keep me gravitated towards home, the list is endless. I took every little sign going wrong as a curse trying to stop me from leaving the familiar and stepping into the unknown. You have no idea how many times I considered giving it all up before the gratifying ‘big leap’ had even begun.
Come moving day, the saga surrounding bidding my adieu-s to people, as well as the past advents and accomplishments, and the final ‘letting go’, went easier than I had anticipated. Moving country is hard, for anyone, I’d think, so I didn’t exactly expect it to be a peaceful walk in the park. Fortunately, I had already a family (my boyfriend’s, to be more precise) waiting for me in Iceland, even a small circle of friends. I think their support and hospitality have made the transition easier for me, no doubt. I’m also glad that the Icelandic culture is somewhat familiar. Yet still, there are many things that take more time to get used to and that keep amusing me and offering me challenges day-to-day. What I love about this place is that people are free and open-minded. I see that change slowly happening in Estonia, too, but in many ways we still have a long way to go. After all, it was in Iceland where women marched for equal pay already back in the 70s, and where people elected a female president in 1980, long before it was the righteous and cool thing to do. Iceland is the country where anyone can get married in a church, no matter their sexual orientation. In many ways, I was welcomed to Iceland with open arms. Many of their social values were more similar to mine than the ones back home. But I still feel slightly alienated about some cultural codes of conduct.
On one hand, I love the open-mindedness, that spirit of freedom that exudes from the people. But at the same time, as a contrast, I’ve realised how closed-minded I really am. Be it because of my cultural background or because of the rather dire history of my people, in Iceland, I tend to be the ignorant foreigner who often misses the point. There’s even a funny example. There’s a sex shop across the street from where I live. I’ve truly been feeling awkward and shameful about knowing that, and about seeing people casually go in there in broad daylight. I shrugged it off at first. A few weeks later, we were at a cafe with my schoolmates and chatted about life in Iceland. Somehow the topic came to sex and I just wanted to shrivel up in my chair because I felt TOO embarrassed of casually chatting away about the subject with people I barely knew, in a considerably public setting. To be fair, I agree that we should all talk about sex and sexuality openly and honestly, but in that particular setting I realised I had been rather too conservative to immediately open up around other people on such a discreet subject. I started feeling like something was wrong with me and I quickly became ashamed of myself. I felt awkward because the open-minded social discussion wanted to drag me into rather unfamiliar lands. I learned that it takes much more time to melt the ice with me, especially around such delicate subjects. But for Icelandic people, it was the most normal two-beers-around-the-bar-table talk ever. I wrote it off as another precious challenge teaching me about the everyday coping mechanisms, or Wiki style: How to Immerse in an Unfamiliar Cultural Setting Like a Pro.
After that awkward, yet mind-opening encounter at the cafe, I became a bit more reclusive. All of this was about a month in and ‘Mega-Missing Home Mode’ started slowly sinking in. I sought comfort in the fact that I live in a Polish neighbourhood, similar to the Russian-speaking one I lived in back home. It was comforting living among other expats. However, as I’m writing this - eureka - I did figure something out about the valuable, yet painful ride on an endless cultural learning-curve lately: I’ve learned a great deal about equality, feminism, sexuality and diversity here in Iceland. Don’t get me wrong, Estonia hasn’t completely deprived me of those experiences. I’ve simply been more enlightened in these two months here than I have been in the previous twenty-something years of my life. And that’s something to be thankful for. But, then, there’s still one important part that I haven’t mentioned about my moving story: the real reason.
I surely mentioned my graduate program, and it truly is a dream. I’ve been loving every minute of it. But I also moved for love: to finally be together with my boyfriend of 4 years. I know it can sound super cheesy, but now that I’ve settled in here, I have begun to wonder where would I be without him in my life. Would I have had the courage to move out of my tiny hometown and leave my comfort zone; follow my dreams and pursue the grand ambition of studying abroad? Probably not. Or did I move because of him and not because of my dreams at all? That’s also rightfully wrong. But these dilemmas still keep haunting me daily. As much as I love this place, it has torn me apart in the sense that I don’t know who I am any more; I am not attached to anything familiar and the ‘self’ I used to know is split in delicate halves. It somehow feels like starting over. Perhaps this is my way of finding out who I really am and what I’ve set out to do in life. By packing my bags and moving to an icy wonderland… By tearing down all the walls of the blanket fort that is my comfort zone and learning new things about the world and my own boundaries.
Living in Iceland is definitely an experience that’s turned out to be much more complicated and multidimensional, but also more enriching than I expected. Never in a million years would I have imagined having to break down so many parts of myself, to my discomfort. Or that this step would take me to a place of discovering myself. I think I’ll need to embrace the opportunity and seize the day. Despite the personal life ups and downs, however, I am excited for what still awaits me here at the polar line, 66 degrees North.