Europe, Iceland, Travel Reflections
Comments 6

Home in a Foreign Country: Can we belong somewhere our homes are not?

The French have a word untranslatable into English – dépaysement – many English translation sources cite it as the feeling you get when you’re not in your own country. Others define it as a change of scenery, a change of feeling, the sense of being away from your place of origin. If you deconstruct the word down to its roots, “de-” is a Latin prefix for negation or reversal, “pays” is French for country, while the Latin suffix “-ment” signifies a state or condition specified by the first root. Ultimately, while we have no word for this feeling in English, we can, perhaps, understand the sentiment behind it.

What I have difficulty understanding is how you can visit a country you’ve never been to before, and only experience dépaysement upon return to your home country. How you can go to a place you’ve only seen in pictures and find all of it oddly familiar, and not a visual familiarity either – more like the feeling you get in your gut when you’re walking in your hometown and know you have to turn right at the next corner. How you can connect with strangers and family you never knew you had and instantly feel a sense of belonging. How, when you return from a place, you feel like a stranger in your own home – though perhaps that’s just all part of the realization that the life you surround yourself with has gone on without you.

Two weeks ago,  I returned from a three week trip to Iceland, and now that I’m at home, I’m still feeling out of sorts.  I no longer can blame this feeling on jet lag or tiredness from a busy trip. It’s almost like feeling out of my own body, like I’m just floating through these motions I used to call routine, all the while feeling an unbearable sense of misery in my missing of Iceland.

To preface this, I am a quarter Icelandic from my maternal grandmother’s side. Before you start poking fun at White North Americans who descended from immigrants that crossed the Atlantic a hundred years ago or more and need to somehow justify the existence of their heritage by divvying up various European nationalities into fractions, this is different. My grandmother has kept her preservation of that heritage alive and I’ve always felt more of a connection to Iceland than the other 3/4 super-pale European nationalities that make up my genetics. I’ve always wanted to explore Iceland, despite the unwelcome climate its name suggests and the insanity of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that literally took the world by storm in 2010.

Last summer, I found out about a Writers Retreat happening in Iceland the following spring. I mused about how amazing that would be but, like most amazing things I hear about that cost a lot of money, I sort of filed it in the “a girl can dream but it’s not going to happen” section of my brain; it’s the pessimistic, logical part that represses impulse, spontaneity, and wanderlust. But shortly after I found out about the retreat, Icelandair announced that it was expanding operations to include a direct flight from Edmonton to Reykjavik – a quick, easy, and inexpensive journey. Then I found out that Joseph Boyden, one of my favourite Canadian writers, was going to be leading workshops at the retreat. As you may have already guessed, I decided to “YOLO” it and booked the flight and retreat – too many things were falling into place that it would seem like madness not to take advantage of the opportunity.

Being in Iceland was the first time I ever felt like I was surrounded by a population that has more interests in common with me than not.  Back home, my mad music enthusiasm as well as my passion for literature and writing are niche communities (that are also completely separate from each other), relatively small groups of people where I can feel safe talking about what matters to me, small venues and outlets where I can participate in things I enjoy.  The majority of the population falls outside these communities so it’s easy to happen upon people from other groups, and the differences between people are immediately evident – if Edmonton was a high school, the clicks would be well-defined.  But in Iceland, everyone is an artist, or an “art enthusiast.”  I didn’t meet a single person who, in addition to their day job, wasn’t a writer, or a poet, or a painter, or a musician.  My interests, which back home are sometimes considered “nerdy” or “quirky,” were more normal than not.

Iceland has the highest per capita publication of books, and 10% of Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.  Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature, complete with a literary walking tour.  To participate in a Writers Retreat that took place in Iceland only made sense – writers from around the world flocking to literature’s most fostering and nurturing country.  Even the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, said during a reception I attended at his house that the statues around the country aren’t of the politicians, but of the artists, the writers.

It helped that, at least for the Writers Retreat portion of my stay, I was surrounded by fellow literature and writing enthusiasts from around the world, to whom gushing about sentence construction, word choice, and metaphors were common conversation starters.  I had my initial doubts too about meeting these other aspiring writers – there are people in the writing community in Edmonton who are overtly self-involved and only like talking about how interesting they are with others they deem interesting enough by their standards, and, you know, they’re oh so interesting.  Shoot me.  Instead, I befriended a small group of people from all over the world at the retreat, a remarkable group of storytellers who understand that listening and observing are the foundations for building plot.

I am heartsick for Iceland – not only for its amazing landscapes and scenery, but for its culture and people, and also for that community we built in just four short days at the Writers Retreat.  In my own country and home, I feel out of my element – I feel, for lack of a better term, dépaysement.  I can only hope that the inspiration of Iceland’s desolate yet beautiful landscapes, its population of artists, and its influential Writers Retreat, will, in lieu of me actually being there, force me to write to fill that void.

I recently re-watched this video (it’s a song I’ve always loved), only now realizing it was filmed in Iceland and I’d visited many of the locations.  Music videos don’t often make me weep, but now this one does.


  1. Christina Jennings says

    Hi there, I saw this retweeted on twitter by someone on the Icelandic Tourism board(I believe/something like that anyway) and I started crying when I read what you wrote. I went to Iceland in Fall 2013 to produce a movie. I was there 6 weeks. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I instantaneously felt so connected with the land, culture & people. I felt like I was home and couldn’t believe it had taken me 30 years to discover it. I came back to the States and as much as I tried to just get back into it here in Austin(a place I had previously always thought of as my true home), I just could not shake my deep longing to be back in Iceland so I’ve been working on a plan to move there ever since. If all goes well, I’ll be there sometime this summer but I’ll get there one day no matter what. It overtook me and I just loved that you were able to articulate the feeling I’m feeling. I hope the Writers Retreat goes well. If you are partially Icelandic, you know, you would have an easier time moving there. Only saying that BC it seems like it’s calling you as much as it calls me. Much love to you!

    • I almost started crying reading your comment! I’m glad you were able to connect with the same feelings I’ve been having since coming back. I hope you are one day able to get back to Iceland on a more permanent basis, especially if, as it is for me, home doesn’t feel like home anymore. Thank you for your kind words, much love back to you.

    • It’s interesting to say that both this blog post and your response to it, Christina, have been reported on an Icelandic news site. I suppose it’s part of the small nation mentality but it seems like we can’t get enough of praises about our country and will seek them out wherever they are posted.

      Glad the two of you liked the stay as well as our artistic tendencies.

  2. Kristjan Thorgeir Magnusson says

    Some day, you might decide to move to Iceland. if you do, then welcome home Arielle.

  3. Bret Moore says

    I’ve been there twice, finally taking my wife there this summer for a vacation. It’s a special place. I know exactly the feeling that you describe… There’s a strange peace about being there, a stillness, a quiet, kind of meditative.

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