Connections and Cultural lenses

Magazine Connections and Cultural lenses

An American in Iceland: Notes from a Field Journal  

Written by Kate Holthouser for Icelandair Hotels 


In 1951, Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris danced across theater screens in the States and Canada. Set to George Gershwin’s musical score, the film portrays Paris from the perspective of Jerry Mulligan—a cheerful American expat and hopeful painter, played by Gene Kelly. Bright and colorful, it’s an unabashed American interpretation of Paris—and a reminder that each time we travel, we see through cultural lenses.  


Recently, I explored Southern Iceland alone for 10 days working on a travel writing piece. Walking through the streets of Reykjavik or hiking up to see Gullfoss waterfall, I’d hear tourists commenting on what they’d seen and experienced. It got me taking notes about how each of us packs our personal experiences and backgrounds beside our socks and passports when we travel. We each take away something different from the places we visit.  


I wanted to find out what people took away from Iceland.  


During my visit I found myself talking to strangers—each time I pulled into a gas station, sat down on a barstool, checked into a hotel, or saw hikers on a trail, I started conversations. Tourists from all over the world told me about their impressions of Iceland. And Icelanders gave me insight into how they view their country.  


Each exchange told me about what people value—the natural beauty, the cuisine and music, meeting people, conserving Iceland’s pristine environment, recognizing Iceland’s contribution to sustainable energy—the list is lengthy. But what it came down to, regardless of cultural lens, is that people love Iceland. It’s a place to learn from. It’s a place to treasure. It’s a place that reminds us that nature is bigger than we are.  


And it’s a place of connection


As travel is more or less a matter of submitting to the new and unfamiliar in the pursuit of experience, Iceland is, by default, an adventure. And Iceland to Icelanders seems to represent the same. Between weather that changes at the drop of a hat to the economic growth boom they’re experiencing, it’s a country of unpredictability. Each day brings something new—which seems to foster community. Tourists stop and check on other tourists whose car has stopped; hitchhiking seems to happen frequently and is considered safe; and Icelanders are readily willing to offer advice or directions to lost or confused tourists. There seem to be connection points all along the way.  


As I talked to all those strangers during my time in Iceland, it was clear that this country holds something special for everyone—both tourist and native seem to agree on that. But what people take away, what they see through their cultural lenses, what they feel, soundly differs. Maybe that’s the beauty of travel. Or maybe it’s the charm of Iceland.  


How we interpret it is up to us. 

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