I could have either chosen to participate in the culture around me, or stayed in my room and watched internet TV.
It was a line that became my defense to the people I explained this to, and one that I often repeated to myself.
By the natural law of aging I had turned 30. Those that say that 30 isn’t a difficult age are generally much older and have forgotten what it was like to enter the third decade of life. Here’s my second defense: I hadn’t meant to end up in a dorm. I had signed up for an apartment, but the day I was to move in I was notified that it had permanent water damage, and instead the University of Iceland had placed me in a dorm called Gamli Garður. It was mostly other foreigners, most of them in their early twenties. They were good people, and had an inclusive sociality about them. There was a 60-year-old woman on the floor, for whom I was grateful for, I hoped, broadening the context of age, but I still kept an eye out for signs that I might be the creepy old guy. I checked myself every time I wanted to make a reference to “Saved By the Bell” or MC Hammer.
Iceland is an expensive place. The first time I bought a loaf of bread, bananas and cheese I was shocked when I had to hand over twelve dollars. Even with the modest diet and cheap tastes of someone like myself, a person will pay $500 a month for groceries on the island. It’s tough to sustain the student lifestyle when basic needs have such a high price tag. The youth of the expat community, however, found a way around it.
In my day it was only something one heard of hippies doing, and only the most eclectic hippies at that. Nonetheless, I was invited to the early expeditions, which involved two other Americans and a French guy making the rounds to the area grocery stores under the cover of darkness. We stuffed our coats with plastic bags and wore our hats low over our heads, going behind the buildings as if it was our business to do so.
The first feeling one has in opening the plastic cover of a dumpster for the first time is astonishment at how much good food gets thrown away on a daily basis. There were loaves of day-old bread, fruits and vegetables still fresh, bottles of juice, cereal, brownies, pies. Sometimes there was cheese and high-end yogurt only a day in expiration. One bakery occasionally put out a bag of gourmet sandwiches, which we eventually termed “the golden bag” and faithfully hoped for each time we went out. In the same dumpster was the best chocolate chip cookies I had ever had, even when coffee grounds and a plastic glove stuck to them. For those braver there was even meat, including a leg of lamb that would have been $70 in the store. There were also many higher scale products, such as sushi or Italian focaccia, which I had never bought myself. Once, near Thanksgiving, we found what we thought was a turkey and had a proper holiday with just dumpster food, despite later translating the package to find that it was actually a “celebration chicken.”
The Icelanders scoffed at us, but they did so out of a position of privilege, being able to actually afford life in their country. As for myself, I had never eaten so well. We often made meals together out of our findings, sharing whatever we had. Other residents of Gamli Garður eyed the bags of goods we brought back, eventually asking if they can come with us next time, until most of the dorm was making rounds to one grocery store or another. This sometimes culminated in turf wars, both inside and outside of the dorms, and sometimes talk of unionizing the system, but in the end the bounty was plentiful enough to keep everyone content.
Icelanders themselves often say that the attitude of the country changed after their economy collapsed in 2008. Perhaps that is why grocery store owners and employees chose to leave their dumpsters unlocked and looked the other way while we scavenged through their garbage. Once a group of us were heading towards the back of a discount food store when the security guard came bursting out. We immediately turned in the other direction, trying to be as casual as possible.
“Hey!” the guard shouted in a booming voice, chasing after us. “Guys, hold on! It’s Okay! Come and take it, it’s going to waste anyway!”
There was a rush of adrenaline in sneaking around buildings in full sight of the road. We always approached the dumpsters swiftly and confidently, if not a little nervously and perhaps with reverence. We had to grow bolder as the summer went on, since eventually in Iceland the sun doesn’t set and we had to carry out our work in broad daylight. I had a beard and wore an old leather jacket, and my hair was a little long. I was fully conscious that I looked like a homeless person rooting through the garbage. Humility is good for you anyway, I thought. Humility and free cookies.
People back home struggled to understand how I was living. My grandmother cackled on the phone every time she asked about it. Once my father, commenting on an unrelated matter, remarked “Well, how can anyone take you serious with your backend hanging out of a dumpster?” It was not the proper behavior of a 30-year-old. I should have mentioned how it was good for the environment, saving resources from being wasted, or that I probably couldn’t have afforded to eat like a normal person anyway. I should have explained how it brought us together, all of us, from different backgrounds and experiences, and made a sense of community. I could have pointed out that once, while diving, we saw the purple northern lights, which was quite rare and would have gone unnoticed otherwise. I could have said that it was a new experience and that I enjoyed it. In the wisdom of my old age, however, I did not do any of these things, except pull out another chocolate chip cookie I didn’t pay for and eat it while I listened.
This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman.