In Pursuit of the Elusive Kennitala: Part Two

Dalvegur Bus Stop, Kopavogur

As I explained in great, painful detail in a previous post, in order to live–and do basically anything–in Iceland, you need a kennitala (government-provided ID number). In order to get this magic number, you are supposed to present yourself at the Directorate of Immigration (the Útlendingarstofnun, which we’ve figured out literally means “foreigner office”) and have your picture taken. No picture and the process is indefinitely stalled.

The camera at the the directorate, however, has been broken for over a week now. Being very resourceful, however, Mark was able to determine that if we went to a police station in the nearby suburb of Kopavogur, we could have our photos taken there. It meant a 40 minute bus ride with a transfer in the middle, but definitely worth it to get the process kick-started. And it also meant getting to see a little more of the residential areas around Reykjavík.

Dalvegur — Plaza with police station and Útlendingastofnun in Kopavogur.

After extensive consultation with the very detailed and helpful Straeto website, Mark figured out how to get to the office. We arrived without too many complications, entered the office building with the awesome Icelandic coat of arms logo that I mentioned before (didn’t actually see the police station we were looking for), and took a number for what we were pretty sure was the information window. In less than five minutes, our number was up, so we headed to a desk in the back of the office, sat down, and I began to explain our situation. In English.

Yes, I am here in Iceland to learn Icelandic, and yes, the best way to better your language skills is to practice. However, I simply do not yet have the vocabulary to say,

“Hello, we were sent here by the Directorate of Immigration in Reykjavík. We need to have our photographs taken for our ID cards, but their machine is down. Can you take our photographs here, please?”

I have trouble even saying “May I speak English?” So I didn’t. I just started speaking in English. If this sounds arrogant, it probably is a little, but consider that I have been here twice now, and nowhere that I went did I encounter a single person who couldn’t communicate at least in simple phrases in English. It’s what people tell you about all Nordic countries: everyone speaks English.

Dalvegur Plaza, Kopavogur

Can you see where this is headed? As soon as I get out, “Hello, we’ve been sent here…” the very friendly-looking lady on the other side of the desk says something in Icelandic. I don’t get all the nuances, but I do get “Ég tala ekki ensku,” or, “I don’t speak English.” At this point, I sort of goldfish in my chair for a moment (open your mouth, close your mouth, open your mouth, close our mouth), and Mark tells me later that he thought he was going to have to get me a paper bag to breathe into. As I sit there, fidgeting stupidly in my chair, I’m able to get out the words “we,” “Reykjavík,” and “but” in Icelandic and then a lot of garbled ums and ehs and ums. After that brilliant effort, I basically run out of steam and can only sit there looking at her futilely until she hands me a post-it pad and a pen and indicates that I should draw? write? out what I want. Now, I know the Icelandic word for picture (“mynd”) but I can’t remember my own name at this point. So I draw a picture on the pad of a stick figure in a box that I’m hoping that looks like a photograph and then write “nei photos” and “nei” on the bottom, underlined for special linguistic emphasis. A great communicator, I am.

As I hand the awful post-it back to her, I try desperately to think of pretty much any useful Icelandic word I can come up with. Nothing. Or more appropriately, nada. Because suddenly, I can speak Spanish again and I can communicate just grandly. So while I’m trying to think of my Icelandic verbs and vocab, this is what I get:

Hola. La oficina de imigracion a Reykjavik nos manda que necesitamos obtener las fotographias para las cartas de identificacion aqui. La maquina a este oficia no funciona ahora. Puede usted ayudarnos? Gracias.”

My Spanish hasn’t been up to snuff for years, but essentially, this is the gist of what I was trying to say. I would have been understood. In Mexico. Something similar happened to me in Denmark a few years ago, when I had been studying Danish for awhile. I was taking a day trip to the country and tried to buy a train ticket from a woman working at the counter. I was trying very hard to speak in Danish, even though the general reception there was that attempting to do so was not only foolish, but futile. So I stood at the window and started in (bad) Danish, realized I was not making sense at all, then spontaneously started speaking a few words in German (I don’t speak *any* German, but we had just been to see a friend in Berlin and I had learned one or two phrases in preparation), and then ended the sentence, lamely, in Spanish. The woman at the window thought I was crazy, but I couldn’t go through all of that and then switch to English–we she most certainly spoke–because if I spoke English, why didn’t I just start there in the first place? (I eventually got my ticket–by shrugging until she handed me a map and we worked through it silently.)

But back to the present moment. Somehow with a stick figure in a box and “Nei photos nei” the woman understood what I was trying to ask for. She gestured that we should wait and then went and found someone who spoke English, at which point I looked at her helplessly, said thank you (in English) and managed to get out my go-to Icelandic phrase: “Ég er að læra íslensku” at which the blessed lady actually said, “Oh! Very good!” and sent us on our way.

Photos taken, station departed, shame felt.

But hey! One step closer to the kennitala. My ID card is on its way to the address of the woman at Fulbright. Mark’s is in limbo until we get an apartment. But we have some back up plans if an apartment doesn’t drop into our laps shortly.


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