Icelandic Romance 101

Last summer, I took another small step against prejudice and genre-ism by beginning to explore the romance genre. Results have been mixed. But now I have found my favorite romance so far, and in a most unexpected place.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone that I’ve begun studying Icelandic. People who know me are sure to remember what happened when I tried to learn Spanish, or Japanese, or Chinese, and roll their eyes. I keep thinking that a writer should be good with languages, but at least in my case, it seems that any facility with words I possess is specific to the English language.

But after interviewing Snæbjörn of Skálmöld about Icelandic poetry, I just had to try to gain some direct access to this literary tradition. So I dug around online and found out that the University of Iceland has a free online course in Icelandic.

I’ve done my share of Rosetta Stone-type studies, and I have to say that so far I’m impressed. Not only does this one seem to be more immediately practical, but it’s pulled me in with a romantic comedy.

meetcuteIn a short video in Lesson One, we have a meet-cute where two young people standing in line both reach for a dropped pen. While learning how to introduce oneself, we can’t help but wonder if the charmingly awkward Daniel’s Icelandic is simpler and slower than hers because he is newer to Iceland, or because he is speechless at the sight of her.byrj112(02)_ewa


We learn about cups and clocks for a couple of lessons, and when we start counting in Lesson 1.5, Daniel and Ewa meet again. As they chat, it becomes apparent that Daniel is newer to Iceland than Ewa. He studies Icelandic full-time, while Ewa, who speaks more fluently, holds down a part-time job. This time Daniel walks away with digits and you can bet he won’t be forgetting those numbers.


In the next unit, Daniel goes shopping for a prepaid phone card, presumably so he can call Ewa, and then we don’t see them again until Daniel calls Ewa in Lesson 3.2. Their phone call reinforces some of the lessons so far.

We learn the names of some household tasks, and get to see Ewa at work. When she’s with Daniel, her Icelandic seems so natural; at the retirement home, her coworker Anna has to explain everything very simply – even what time to break for coffee and where to find the biscuits in the breakroom. Although as we can tell by looking, Ewa doesn’t eat cookies.

In Lesson 4.1 Daniel calls again, and this time he asks her out. Over the next few lessons, we learn with Ewa and Daniel about movie times and buying tickets. By the end of the date, we discover that Daniel is a little slicker than he seems. Otherwise, how would he have turned Ewa’s invitation to the library into a morning swim?

Hvar er klosettid?

Hvar er klosettid?

Ewa lives next to the pool, but of course Daniel gets lost and has to ask for directions. A regular at the pool, Ewa goes right in, but poor Daniel has to figure out how it works in Iceland – and ask the attendant where to find the toilet.

Look how close they stand now.

Look how close they stand now.

In Unit 5, Ewa gets sick. Looking better than most of us on a good day, she has to go to the doctor and finds out she has pneumonia. Once she gets her prescription filled at the pharmacy and starts feeling better, Daniel calls to check up. Stuttering with nerves, he asks if it’s okay to come over to her apartment – you know, to drop off some Vitamin C so she doesn’t get sick again. Laughing, Ewa invites him over.

I so wish I could embed Lesson 5.5, where Daniel, all nerves, presents himself at Ewa’s door with a bottle of Vitamin C in one hand and flowers behind his back. But all I can offer is the transcript, which you can paste into Google Translate (like I did – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a thing) if you can’t figure it out.

EWA   Hæ, Daniel.
DANIEL Gerðu svo vel. Ég er með C-vítamín handa þér.
EWA Takk fyrir!
DANIEL Og ég er með blóm handa þér.
EWA Handa mér! Þakka þér fyrir Daniel!

Now they’re on a roll, and once inside the apartment, Daniel is ready to go for it. He invites Ewa to go on a trip with him next week. Location undisclosed – irrelevant. Ewa is willing, but she has to move next week. A little too quickly, Daniel offers to help her move. He’s not to cool to look eager. Ewa is won over. They toast to their plans.


Where will the University of Iceland take this romance? Maybe they will take a trip to Geysir [pronounced geezer]. When I was there, the tour guide told us, “Geysir is retired, and rarely erupts anymore. But his little brother Strokkur goes up every few minutes. He is not so big as Geysir, but much more consistent.” He was totally straight-faced, and I was the only one who snickered. But I digress.

The course is designed for people living in Iceland. So the direction this romance takes will be a cultural education as well as a linguistic one. What do Icelanders think is most important? Will we learn how to say, “Was it good for you?” or will the course take the PG route and learn about road signs?

When I was in Iceland, I marveled at how well everyone spoke English. I’ve always wondered why learning a language seems to be so much harder in the U.S. than it is everywhere else. One thing is certain, Icelandic educators have figured out how to capture and keep students’ attention. I have to know – what happens with Daniel and Ewa? Will her Roman Catholic family in Poland accept a Palestinian son-in-law? Will they stay in Iceland together? I might have to learn Icelandic to find out.

Okay, I’ve got to go. I have some studying to do….


10 thoughts on “Icelandic Romance 101

  1. But then there’s the oven, the damned broken oven that interrupts everything! Sigh. And . . . brace yourself . . . we do not see Ewa and Daniel again. In the more advanced lessons, we learn all about the dangers of beer and cigarettes and the value of a healthy lifestyle, about lava and earthquakes, about poetry and sagas. But all romance is absent. 😦

    • Yeah, but Daniel is so much smoother by then- he very deftly returns Ewa’s attention to the wine – and we are left quite confident that the evening progresses satisfactorily. Now I am camping with Susan og Peter, and although Susan tells her diary, “But when Peter comes into the tent – goodbye diary!” the fact remains that Peter just isn’t as charming as Daniel. And my progress in Icelandic has slowed markedly since the focus shifted to backcountry safety. Guess I need to sort my priorities.

  2. This sequence is absolutely hilarious. I have used it in Icelandic class and the sexual innuendos were obvious to everybody. Daniel is just soo exited. Then come the grammar as usual:

    Við hliðina á – fyrir framan – fyrir aftan

    Ewa er á Daniel.

    You are supposed to fill in (besides, in front of, behind) , but what we read was: Ewa er á Daníel !!! Wich means: Ewa is on top of Daniel. So apparently the poor boy did have some succes.

    • The actors did a great job of adding subtext to what is literally the most fundamental dialogue possible. It’s really genius to hook new students with an entertaining story line. One wonders that it hasn’t been done more often before.
      I didn’t know that a sentence was formed without filling in the blank. I wonder if it was intentional…

  3. If you fill out the blank everything is ok. But before you do that you see the phrase: Ewa er á Daniel, which has a sense in itself (see above). I suppose this is an example of unintended humour. The whole methode is great, both for self-study and for teachers.

  4. I had given up on studying Icelandic for a long time, then recently started again at the New Year. Now I am almost where I left off, and just as my energy was flagging, this post suddenly took off again, reminding me that there is fun to be had in prepositions. Thank you internet, for inspiring me to study!

  5. Pingback: Rearview Mirror: Recent Writing | gemma D. alexander

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