Photo Credit: Jewells Chambers
The Black Expat: There's More To Iceland Than The Blue Lagoon
When Jewells Chambers befriended the only Iceland native at her upstate New York University, she never imagined how that relationship would impact the trajectory of her life as an engineering student.
“He had friends coming over to visit, and one of those friends ends up being my future husband,” she recalled of that first encounter. “So this is 15 years ago that I was introduced to Gunnar, who is now my husband. We did not get together at that time. It’s actually eight years ago, when we were both single and decided to meet up. And from that moment it just felt like we were a couple. It felt very natural.”
Her then-boyfriend made it clear that he intended to return to Iceland and Chambers, despite not knowing much about the Nordic country, was totally on board.
“I was just up for the adventure.”
She eventually moved in June 2016, her transition made smoother by the welcoming nature of Gunnar’s family, who she describes as amazing. But what really sold Chambers on Iceland as a forever home was her job with an adventure travel company. To market the company effectively, she needed a more intimate understanding of it, and Chambers found that by immersing herself in her new surroundings.
“I already loved my husband and my new family, but going out there and just being in nature, on a glacier, and in the highlands; just so many places that I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams was part of my job.”
And much like when most people fall in love, Chambers couldn’t stop talking about it. She channeled her enthusiasm into a new podcast called “All Things Iceland” in 2018 where she explores Icelandic history, culture, and language through the lens of an expat.
Chambers spoke to Travel Noire from her home in Iceland about what she found most surprising, why travelers need to think beyond the Blue Lagoon, and whether she would ever consider leaving.
Travel Noire: You didn’t really know anything about Iceland before moving, so what was the most surprising thing when you arrived?
Jewells Chambers: Culturally, there’s always these certain things that stick out to me. And one of them that’s still hard for me is when this happens in Nordic countries, in general, is that they like to leave their babies bundled up outside in the carriage for a nap. And it’s not that the mother and father are sitting out there with the baby. They could be in their house and the baby could be on the balcony. It could be at a coffee shop and the baby’s outside on the sidewalk taking a nap, and they’re just sipping their coffee. They’re not really watching the baby because they’re not afraid that anyone’s going to take their child. And so for me being from New York City, it gives me so much anxiety.
And also surprising I think is work culture. I’ve worked in two different companies in Iceland. And while those companies are very different — one was the adventure travel company and another one being an advertising agency — it was bizarre that it’s a lot more of a relaxed environment. Even if there’s a lot of work, they still try to emphasize taking time off. In the United States, you get 10 working days of vacation, and they’re not all at the same time. It’s BS. But in Iceland it’s four weeks, and some people get more than that with overtime. And they’re encouraging you to take it off: take two weeks at a time, take three weeks if you need it, just make sure you use it. Those types of things really surprised me about this family feeling in companies that I’ve worked in.
TN: Did you find the people of Iceland welcoming?
JC: I would definitely say that I’ve felt stared at. And I don’t know if it’s a novelty as much as just a surprise that I’m there in person. Because it’s obvious that people watch TV here. They consume a lot of media and a lot of people speak English here as well — the majority of the country. So maybe their view of what a Black person is like is only formed through media.
But I’ve not encountered any overt racism or discrimination. I’m thankful for that. I’ve met a lot of friendly people. I’ve also met some people who maybe weren’t so friendly, but they weren’t refusing me service or treating me badly. They were just grumpy. If I speak in Icelandic, though, that definitely changes it. I mean, there is this joy that comes out of Icelanders, at least when I have spoken it to them.
TN: Are you fluent?
JC: I do not consider myself fluent because I consider it a work in progress. It’s funny because I always say that when I talk to people who have been here for 20 years, and their Icelandic is amazing, they will never say they’re fluent. And I think there’s just this insecurity that comes along with learning Icelandic because it is very difficult that you never want to say you’re fluent because you’re afraid that that means you don’t mess up.
The language is different from English — to a point. What’s so fascinating about Icelandic is that it comes from old Icelandic and then Old English, which is where English comes from. Icelandic and Old English were mutually intelligible. You could understand each other if you were speaking Old English and Old Icelandic. And there are symbols from Icelandic that are in Old English, but they’re no longer in modern English. The evolution of things is it’s not like modern English technically, but there’s a lot of similarities. For most people who are coming from an English background, you’re going to have a hard time.
TN: Is there a substantial Black community over there?
JC: There’s a Facebook group called the Black People of Iceland. There’s two of them. There’s one for English speakers or those who want to take part in the English-speaking one, and then there’s one for people who speak Icelandic.
In 2020, when George Floyd was murdered, we had a huge gathering of Black Lives Matter. It was so amazing to see the large amount of Black people and people of color that live in Iceland. I was astonished at this. We don’t have this collective where we all get together often or anything. Like I mentioned, there’s a Facebook group, and Facebook in Iceland is huge. That’s where a lot of people communicate and share things. So it’s at least present there. And there’s also a store called Afro Zone, which is a place where you can buy fruits and vegetables. I think she usually gets them from Ghana. You can get papaya or fresh aloe and all these different things like hair products and whatever else. So it’s really catered towards Black and brown people to be able to get access to these different ingredients.
TN: I know the Blue Lagoon gets a lot of attention, but what are some underrated spots?
JC: Iceland is much larger than people realize. You mentioned Blue Lagoon, and it’s worth it to go there. But it’s not the only thing. It’s a bucket list worthy thing.
Other regions of Iceland include the west, where the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is. One of my favorite places to go is in the northwest, which is called the Westfjords. So the ring road around Iceland is just one road that goes around the whole country. It’s hard to get lost in that regard. But if you’re going to go to The Westfjords you have to go off of the ring road into this one section. It is isolated, but it’s absolutely beautiful. You’re going through this winding fjord, and seeing these really beautiful views.
In the summer, you can see puffins, and it’s a great place to go whale watching. There’s an area where you can get to by boat called Hornstrandir. That’s where we can see Arctic foxes, and they can’t be hunted there, so they’re just really friendly, and they’re used to people because they know they’re not going to be hurt.
The south of Iceland pretty much gets the most amount of attention and that’s I think mainly because of glaciers, and also it’s not that far from Reykjavik, but if you actually go to other places around the country it’s amazing.
TN: Would you and Gunnar ever consider moving or is Iceland your forever home?
JC: I made a video about this because I get asked this question. And I first see Iceland as being my forever home. And my husband is the same. We don’t have children. We’ve talked about having children, and I’m very comfortable with the idea of my children being Icelanders, growing up here, and having the freedom that many children have and feeling safe and being close to nature.
I’ve changed so much as an individual, and even starting All Things Iceland, you would think you would feel trapped and being like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t talk about Iceland,’ but I love it so much. Because there are so many layers.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.