• Yvonne Kristín Fulbright

As societies around the world have been under orders to lockdown, practice social distancing, and self-quarantine, I can’t help but think that Icelanders are – literally - weathering such circumstances more easily than many others. This spring has been typical Iceland weather, with almost every day bringing a mix of rain, snow, sleet, and high winds; the sun makes its occasional guest appearance. In some respects, Icelanders are preconditioned to manage any degree of lockdown quite nicely since such is a staple of surviving North Atlantic winters. It’s practically in our DNA to hunker down and entertain ourselves indoors. Our ancestors did so, for centuries, with an evening tradition known as the “kvöldvaka.”

The kvöldvaka (which translates as “evening wake” – a bit of a misnomer) took place in the evening, when household members would work together on indoor chores in the baðstofa (main room of the traditional Icelandic farmhouse). It was a time for people to keep themselves preoccupied, especially in the dark winter months, with a member of the household reading aloud, from any available book, while others occupied themselves with knitting, spinning, tool-making, and various other tasks.

This time of the day also staged the area for moral teachings, lessons that eventually became imbedded into the moral fiber of Icelandic social order. The kvöldvaka was a time when Icelanders shared stories, sometimes in the form of long, epic poems from memory, that became a part of their collective identity and existence - tales of Nordic gods, trolls, heroes, hidden people (huldufólk), outlaws, ghosts, and forefathers who were Vikings, chieftains, or kings.

Common themes were characters confronting adversity and emerging victorious. The endings were often uplifting. Stories always involved moral lessons on ethical behavior. These stories very much acted as an opportunity for Icelandic families to impart societal values, while sharing history, geography, and cultural knowledge.

Storytelling contributed to children’s spiritual development, playing a huge role in their upbringing and providing them with role models and a moral compass. It sparked imaginations of what it meant to be noble, valiant and have character. It strengthened one’s sense of right versus wrong, giving youth role models to emulate and, hence, shaping their character. The kvöldvaka was also a time when children received education, namely how to read and write, as required by religious law.

For everyone, the kvöldvaka provided an opportunity to stay mentally sharp, with entertainment involving people making up poetry on the spot. “Að kveðast á”, as it was called, involved somebody making up the first line in a poem, then another person the making up the next, and so on. This evening time together ultimately proved itself a cultural institution for creativity, enlightenment, and the cultivation of the nation’s values and attitudes towards life.

The kvöldvaka was a space of hope in lives that were full of loss, grief, and hardship – and in ways many Westerners will, thankfully, never know. It ended as a formal, nightly tradition with my great-grandparents‘ generation, when housing in Iceland became more spacious and sophisticated. But given Iceland‘s long, hard winters, Icelandic families have continued such regular quality time together to some extent, enjoying evenings filled with activities like puzzles, card games, reading, music and movies.

These last few weeks of social distancing, to counter the spread of COVID-19, have been incredibly challenging for many of us globally. Yet for those lucky enough to be quarantining with others, this time together can be an opportunity to enrich and bond as never before. Instead of looking at lockdown as a type of imprisonment, consider how you and yours can have a kvöldvaka of sorts.

What can you make a tradition for your family in spending quality time together? Could this involve reading aloud for each other? Putting on a play or puppet show? Discussing the themes and morals of a family-friendly movie? Taking turns making up your own tales? Singing or playing musical instruments for each other? Learning to knit or perform other hand tasks, perhaps with YouTube experts as guides?

Don‘t be afraid to challenge yourselves as far as how creative you can be, perhaps discovering a talent you never knew that you had. Don‘t underestimate the joy and satisfaction that can be found in the simplicity of activities. Do be open to all of the ways this challenging time can invite more old-fashioned enrichment and connection.

Kvöldvaka Resources

I originally learned a lot about the kvöldvaka when doing research for my dissertation (on mother-daughter sex communication in Iceland), thanks to:

Koester, D. (1995). Gender ideology and nationalism in the culture and politics of

Iceland. American Ethnology, 22, 572-588.

A delightful book I recently came across, Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days, confirmed much of what Koester had to say.

  • Yvonne Kristín Fulbright

Updated: Apr 16

In these uncertain times, with global panics on more than one front, I’ve found myself thinking of the notorious Icelandic saying “Þetta reddast.“ In conversations with my fellow Icelanders, no matter how bad the news on the coronavirus (COVID-19) or its economic impact, we‘ve been reassuring each other with „Þetta reddast.“ And we truly believe it will. It has to.

Regarded as an Icelandic motto of sorts, “Þetta reddast“ captures the country‘s philosophical outlook on life. It basically means „this (Þetta) will work itself out in the end.“ When uttered, the sentiment is that everything will be all right. A solution will always reveal itself. And Icelanders should know.

Icelanders are used to life being challenging. Centuries of hardship have resulted in a hardy mentality, one combined with a sense of surrender and laissez-faire attitude toward life. Foreigners have found this stance annoyingly carefree. But Icelanders surrendered themselves, long ago, to being made inconsequential in a climate and landscape full of uncertainty, knowing there will always be another volcanic eruption, earthquake, hurricane force winds, or avalanche to deal with. Their forefathers (and mothers!) endured extreme poverty, deadly volcanic eruptions, high infant mortality, indentured servitude, and brutal living conditions.

So this “Þetta reddast“ (pronounced: „thet‘ tah redt‘ ahst“), laid back approach to life is a coping mechanism of sorts. And no matter what they‘ve been through, Icelanders manage to carry on with a positive fatalism, believing that one can find happiness in spite of life‘s realities.

A 2017 poll conducted at the University of Iceland found that nearly half of Icelanders report living their lives according to „þetta reddast.“ Over half of respondents confirmed feeling „very“ or „rather“ lucky. And lucky them, indeed, since there‘s a strong correlation between luck and happiness, with happier people significantly likelier to consider themselves lucky.

Perhaps a great example of such optimism is the mini-Baby Boom Iceland experienced nine months into its crippling financial crisis years ago. In August 2009, the birthrate increased by 3.5% - the highest number of deliveries in Iceland in at least half a century. While experts don´t want to attribute this uptick to the financial collapse entirely, given birthrates were already rising before the collapse, it speaks to the Icelandic mentality that everything is going to be okay, that life goes on.

In light of recent events, people around the world are joking that we can expect a Baby Boom in nine months. But Icelanders may be the only population that actually delivers, literally. Throughout history and around the world, there has been a decrease in births with wide-spread adversity, e.g., the Great Depression. The 2009 mini-Baby Boom in Iceland can be possibly explained in that some had more time on their hands in being suddenly unemployed. With emotions high from the collapse of the nation´s biggest banks, some may have been looking for comfort.

Then there is this trust Icelanders have that this will all get sorted, that fortune will smile upon you in leaving things to fate.

Icelanders are very self-sufficient in spite of being a country with great social support. Less than a generation ago, many families survived as fishermen or farmers, with a number of today‘s elderly growing up in households where milking a cow, collecting the sheep, knitting sweaters, churning butter, maintaining a potato garden, making rhubbarb jam, baking bread... were all a part of liveihood. At the same time, Icelanders have the comfort of community and social support in having a social welfare state, a safety net to fall back upon in hard times.

Icelanders are used to battling the elements. There´s a level-headedness that life is hard and that this is a part of life, and you need to make the best of the hand you´ve been dealt. Icelanders believe in themselves and their ability to do just that.

Þetta reddast can feel flippant in trying times or moments of crisis; it‘s not meant to sound insensitive. It provides comfort in hoping for the best and actually believing it. We, Icelanders, are a people who know grey skies and long, dark winters, both in actuality and figuratively. From that, we‘ve developed a conviction that things will work out because they have to.

In getting through the next few months, it can´t hurt to adopt this Icelandic mentality. Things always have a way of working out in the end. Þetta reddast.

  • Yvonne Kristín Fulbright

Updated: Apr 16

Gleðilegt nýtt ár! Happy New Year!

I remember thinking, as a little girl, that 2020 was so far away, and wondering what dreams and future fantasy depictions the year would realize. Plus, what would the future beyond this future year hold? Yet, in preparing for this New Year’s blog, contemplating the future isn’t as critical as examining the present, and how people, all over the world, can do a better job taking care of the planet.

Nature feeds us, nourishes us, molds us. Going green, Iceland-style, in the New Year, and every year, is sure to boost your sense of well-being, life management and control. With sexual wellness integrally tied to overall wellness, taking care of the planet is not only a matter of self-care, but a form of sensual care as well.

Iceland wasn’t modernized until the establishment of the U.S. Army’s NATO base in the Keflavík area during World War II. For most of the country’s history, Icelanders have been reliant upon the environment, and taking care of Mother Nature, in surviving and passing the baton to the next generation.

In writing this blog, I’m thinking a lot about my Amma (grandma) and Afi (grandpa), who let nothing go to waste, as was habitual for everyone in our village of Stykkishólmur and throughout the country. With 2020 now here, it is my hope that you will find the practices of older Icelanders inspirational in taking care of our planet and communities.

As we go into the next decade, full of reflection and ready for renewal, may we learn from the following planet-care, self-care strategies…

Reuse/Repurpose: Every single thing that entered a household, like my grandparents’ home of Sólbergi, was used again and again until it could be used no more. If store-bought goodies were sold in a tin, for example, the tin was eventually used for storing homemade cookies. Such repurposing continues today, with Icelandic playschools, for example, having children create art out of old cereal boxes or worn puzzle pieces. Nearly everything is evaluated as to how it can be reused versus tossed into the garbage or sent immediately to recycling.

Reduce use of paper products. With Iceland largely lacking trees, paper products are a premium. Instead of paper towels, cloth towels are used for cleaning. Older generations are better about using handkerchiefs versus boxes of tissues for runny noses. On a similar vein, older generations didn't have the wasteful luxuries of plastic wrap and aluminum foil in storing food. Homemade bread, for example, was wrapped in a dampened cloth in maximizing freshness.

Avoid food waste. My family still jokes that it’s amazing that Amma didn’t kill Afi with some of the leftovers that were consumed days later. While I’m not encouraging food poisoning, many of us could make more out of what we have in our kitchen.

Avoid seasonal shopping sprees. My grandparents’ generation didn't update their wardrobe every season, or even yearly, for that matter. They mended clothing, with needle and yarn always available to darn one’s socks or patch a tear. One of my favourite pictures of my Afi is of him intently working at his craft as a tailor, a needle in one hand, a shirt sleeve in the other. One of my go-to stores is the Handknitting Association of Iceland, which will repair a hole or the cuffs in one of my aging wool sweaters or cardigans for as little as 500 krónur (roughly $4 or £3.10), extending its longevity.

Enjoy the old as new. With Iceland’s Airbnb boom, younger Icelanders have made the use of old (“antique”) furniture hip – and stylish. Guest accommodations and personal homes alike contain couches, armchairs, bookcases and other treasures from grandparents and those long passed. Family heirlooms, like holiday needlepoint décor and artwork, are passed down from generation to generation, building character in a home.

On a related note, second-hand stores have become more popular, with young people shopping for clothes at places like the Red Cross in an effort to counter how the clothing industry is contributing to global warming. Facebook groups like “Allt til gefins” (“Everything given”) are also popular in that people post furniture and other items that are in really good shape – for free to the one who claims and collects the item first! All in all, the culture of recycling is more popular than the collection services can handle, given many Icelanders live in homes too small for hoarding.

Use to the Last Drop: Whether toothpaste, shampoo, or dish soap, Icelanders try to get the most out of the products that they use. This is largely because almost everything is so expensive here. People want to get the most for their money and avoid being unthrifty.

Bypass beverages sold in plastic. Icelanders are very blessed to have easy access to some of the cleanest tap water on the planet. Still, with Icelanders drinking more than just water, coffee, and fresh milk in the last 30+ years, plastic container waste has been a major concern here. Efforts are being made to encourage tourists and locals alike to avoid purchasing plastic bottles, with Reykjavík, the capitol, installing drinking fountains throughout the city last year.

Reduce doing loads of laundry every week. In being cold year-round, sweating isn’t as great a concern for Icelanders as those in warmer climates. In the olden days, Icelanders were known to wear the same outfit for at least 3 days in a row, only changing their socks and underwear daily. This reduced laundry/water use.

Take fewer baths and showers. Again, the cold weather quells the need to bathe daily since Icelanders sweat less than those in warmer countries. Often, a “European shower” of washing one’s armpits and groins with a warm washcloth and soap will suffice. The notion of using a freshly laundered towel every time one showers is also unheard of, as that’s such a waste of resources.

Avoid harsh chemical products. For generations in Iceland, boiling hot water was the best sanitizer, with those at the turn of the 20c having grænsápa (a natural, all-purpose soap cleaner – safe enough to use in one’s hair) at their disposal. This really begs the question of: how necessary are many of the products being sold to us?

Spend less time in a car. Many Icelanders live in villages where everything is within walking distance. Those in the city try to utilize services that are available in their immediate vicinity, versus across town, as much as possible. This allows for less time spent in a car, which means less fuel consumption (Iceland’s petrol prices are among the highest in the world).

Appreciate less as more. My grandparents’ generation could be considered minimalists in only buying what was necessary. When done purposefully, proponents of minimalism claim that the practice can reduce stress, boost self-confidence, give one a greater sense of purpose, and provide clarity of mind.

Asserting one’s will with daily practices aimed at taking care of the planet can give one a sense of control, helping to thwart anxieties and worries that negatively impact well-being (and, ultimately, libido). Taking care of the environment puts us in touch with nature, helping us to support and cultivate an Earth-energy sensuality that could otherwise be lost.

According to psychologists Joseph Chancellor and Sonja Lyubomirsky, efficient use of resources and “strategic underconsumption” can bring hedonic (pleasurable) benefits. Such lifestyle practices can lead to a more sustainable happiness, with thriftiness “ensuring that the collective can flourish as well as the individual.” This sense of connection, community, belonging and influence is sure to invite more positivity into your life, as well as a sense of abundance.

And this positivity is sure to have a ripple effect in all aspects of your life, your sensuality included. To me, that sounds like a very happy new year.

Yvonne 2 lit.jpg

In no particular order... Sexologist. Columnist. Professor. Author. Media Consultant. Mamma. Partner. Yogi. Swimmer. Icelander. Nature lover. Sensualist.

© 2020 by Yvonne Kr. Fulbright. Proudly created with Wix.com

Join My Mailing List
  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn Social Icon