Day Two: Guardian Spirits and the Search for the Elusive Kennitala

Thus continues the First Week in Iceland Recap…

Day 2: Monday, August 27

Our first order of business on our second day in Reykjavík was to head over to the Directorate of Immigration, or Útlendingastofnun, to have our photographs taken so our ID cards could be printed, and, more importantly, so our kennitala (Iceland’s version of a social security number) could be processed and issued.

Let me take a moment to describe the Icelandic Directorate of Immigration because for any of us who have stood in line at the DMV pretty much anywhere in the US (extra horror points for the Brooklyn location at the Atlantic Center), the whole bureaucratic process here is kind of astounding.

Firstly, the building is–like pretty much every point of interest/natural wonder/tourist site/governmental building in Iceland–not really all that easy to find. It’s located behind a stand of trees just off a large highway, behind a residential neighborhood. Once you get a hand of navigating Reykjavik’s rather nicely maintained pedestrian pathways, it’s not hard to get there on foot (the bus would have been easier, but we hadn’t yet conquered the bus), but there’s definitely not a big, neon arrow pointing down and saying “CONFUSED ÚTLENDINGURIN: THIS IS WHERE YOU GO!”

When you do find the small unassuming building where the Útlendingastofnun is housed, though (we came to it through the shrubbery ourselves the first time), you’ll notice two things. Firstly, the Directorate–the place where all immigration business for the largest city in the country–is open from 10:00 AM until 2:00 PM, Monday to Friday. Not the largest window, right? Especially if you, the immigrant/visitor, are tromping through the trees trying to figure out where it is. But nevermind that. The second thing you notice is the awesome seal (like the coat of arms, not the animal) that adorns all the Útlendingastofnun signs. Observe:

The Icelandic Coat of Arms, Featuring the Country's Four Guardian Spirits: a dragon, a vulture, a bull, and a giant.

The Icelandic Coat of Arms, Featuring the Country’s Four Guardian Spirits: a dragon, a vulture, a bull, and a giant.

Awesome, right? Here’s the back story (via the Prime Minister’s website):

“King Harald [Gormsson of Denmark] told a man versed in magic to travel to Iceland in a different shape and find out what he could learn there to tell him. The man set out in the shape of a whale. And when he approached land he headed west along the north coast. He saw that all the mountains and hills were full of land spirits, some large and some small. Off Vopnafjörður he entered the fjord, intending to go ashore. Then a huge dragon came down along the valley with a train of serpents, insects and toads breathing poison over him. He fled and went westward off the coast as far as Eyjafjörður and went into the fjord there. Then a bird flew towards that was so great that its wings spread over the mountains on either side of the fjord, and many other birds with it, large and small. He left there and continued westwards, then turned south into Breiðafjörður, and headed for the fjord. A large bull came towards him there, waded into the sea and began to bellow menacingly. A band of land spirits followed it. He headed south from there around Reykjanes and tried to go ashore at Vikarsskeið. A mountain giant came towards him there with an iron staff in its hands and its head higher than the mountains, and many other giants were with it. From there he went eastwards the length of the land, but “there was nothing but sand and deserts, and surf off the shore, with such a vast sea between the parts of land,” he said, “that a longship could not cross it.”

That’s a good coat of arms, I’d say.

Okay, so you go into the Útlendingastofnun and you take your number. There are–maybe–four other people in the room. All quiet. There are two women working at the windows–one, if someone is on lunch–and no one seems particularly harried or impatient. I’ll say this–Icelanders may not go out of their way to provide you with contextual details or particularly nuanced instructions (more on this later), but they tend to be pretty laid back and polite and nice about government paperwork, be that residence permits, or passport checks, or what-have-you.

But getting back to the kennitala: every piece of paper, every website, every little ‘how-to-get-started-in-Iceland’ blurb that you come across begins with the emphatic instruction that you must immediately proceed to Útlendingastofnun and have your picture taken because it can take days–maybe weeks–to finalize. Point taken. I thought.

I thought I understood the importance of this kennitala right off–as I understood, it was mostly a government thing so that foreigners and citizens alike could be effectively registered and tracked. I figured it was used for social benefits, employment, etc. This is true, but the kennitala is so much more. As one of my scholarship advisors/administrators explained, “You can’t even rent a video in Iceland without a kennitala.” And boy, let me tell you, this is a fact.

Would you like to see a list of things that you can do in Iceland without a kennitala, short of “be a tourist”? Okay then:

1. Nothing.

Instead, maybe I should give you an abbreviated list of the things you cannot do in Iceland without a kennitala:

  1. Sign up for a cell phone contract
  2. Sign up for one of the more high profile pay sites for apartment rental listings
  3. Register for classes at the university
  4. Have a tax form filled out for you saying that you don’t need to pay taxes for a grant you just received
  5. Obtain a bank account (and therefore, get paid by that awesome, aforementioned tax-free grant, because oh, yeah–it appears that 98% of all business transactions in Iceland are conducted directly via bank transfers.)

This is just a start of a presumably long and detailed list of Things You Cannot Do In Iceland Without a Kennitala (TYCDiIWaK). The reason I emphasize this now is that, having shown up apparently rather early before classes/orientations begin, we went straight to the directorate, only to find out that the machine that takes the necessary photos was broken. The lady at the counter did not seem fussed, so we were not fussed. This was, I admit, before I realized the extent of TYCDiIWaK, but we had time. The woman at the counter told us to call back before we returned, just to double check on the machine.

So we did. Two days later, it wasn’t working.

Three days later it wasn’t working.

Four days later, it wasn’t working, but Mark resourcefully asked what we could do to help along the process. And that, my friends, is a story for another post.


2 thoughts on “Day Two: Guardian Spirits and the Search for the Elusive Kennitala

    • Excellent idea! Or at least one of the spirits. This is definitely something to consider further. I’ve seen a number of burly men with runic tattoos, too, actually, but that might be a little *too* epic for me.

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