On our various travels, my wife and I have noticed that every country is either a coffee country, or a tea country, never both. I am here to tell you that Iceland is a coffee country. It’s the type of coffee country, however, that prefers strong coffee in teeny tiny cups, which suits neither of us.
It is also—though this may be just the type of hotel we booked (three star) or the fact that the economy is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy—the type of country that is rather economical with its coffee packets. The coffee and tea making facilities in our room consist of an electric kettle, two coffee packets, two tea bags and two sachets of powdered creamer. This precluded us from having a cup of tea at bedtime, so we resolved to stock-pile what we could by locking the leftovers in the hotel room’s safe and hopefully scoring some UHT milk and extra tea bags at breakfast.
Breakfast, it turned out, was a buffet affair with—I kid you not—a guard stationed at the tea caddy and a communal jug of milk that discouraged us from nicking any for personal use. So we left breakfast defeated, but upon leaving our room to meet up for the city tour later that morning, we ran across an unguarded maid trolley and helped ourselves to what supplies we needed. (Hey, Iceland owes the Brits billions of pounds in bad debts; they can take it off the bill.)
After the tour we were cut loose so my wife and I wandered up to Kringlan, Reykjavik’s answer to Bluewater or the Icelandic Mall of America. I have to say, for a nation that can boast only 300,000 inhabitants (that’s the whole country—Reykjavik has only about 120,000) it was fairly impressive. Before engaging in retail therapy, however, we needed a caffeine boost so we headed to the food court.
Now I am always chagrinned at my inability to speak a foreign language, especially when I hear the fetching young lady at the counter speaking Icelandic to the young men in front of me, and then smiling and saying, “Yes,” to me when I am forced to ask, “Do you speak English?”
I ordered two strong coffees in teeny tiny cups, then drew on my vast knowledge of the Icelandic language I learned during the five-minutes of instruction the tour guide gave us that morning, and said, “Tak,” meaning, “Thank you.”
The young lady smiled again and said, “I’m Polish.”
Now I could have made a witty observation accentuating the irony of me, an American, attempting to speak Icelandic to a Polish immigrant I mistakenly took for a local. Or, even better, I could have kept my mouth shut. Instead, I replied, “Then what are you doing here? I thought you were all in England.”
This is when I learned it is not always wise to joke with people for whom English is a auxiliary language. Her smile remained, but it faltered. If she spoke British, I’m sure she would be thinking, “wanker!”
Since I don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry,” in either Polish or Icelandic, I simply took my coffees (only 385 Icelandic Kronas) and retreated.
So much for a career in the diplomatic corps.
What I Learned at the Mall