Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss


I would never call myself an expat.  To me, an expatriate is someone who leaves their country with no intentions to return.  Oh sure, they may come back someday in the near or distant future, but with their one-way ticket they give up their permanent address and other homeland conveniences.  Not everyone who has an address in another country fits this description.  There are plenty of people who, like me, simply live abroad, juggling cell phones and luggage weight restrictions as we try to fit a jar of peanut butter into an already bursting suitcase.  The two paths seems similar, but are different.  That is, I’m guessing they’re different.

Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss does a good job of capturing that confusing in-between space.  The time when you’re abroad for a purpose, but don’t quite feel comfortable with the name ‘expat’.  Moss trades a comfortable life as a university teacher at Kent for the experience of living and teaching in Reykjavik.  For a year, her family experiences everything Iceland has to offer, from dark winter days to the explosion of Eyjafjallajökull.

Although her stories are fascinating and you’ll feel the disappointment of going to the local supermarket as she picks through boxes of wilted produce, what makes the book spectacular is Moss’ pointed descriptions of living abroad.  She spends much time discussing the let down that is Icelandic cuisine.  There’s a surprisingly absorbing chapter that retells her encounter with an old woman, convinced she can see and talk to elves.  You can feel Moss’ elation as she slowly finds shops that sell quality ingredients and hard-to-find items.  Her nerves as she returns to Iceland after spending the Christmas holidays back home, suitcases stuffed with every type of English goody imaginable, are palpable.  They are exactly the same kind of feelings I’ve experienced at different points during my time abroad and, I’m willing to bet, that other abroad-dwellers experience as well.

If you’re less interested in living abroad and more intrigued about Iceland, you’ll find this book entirely fascinating as well.  Moss may not travel much through the country, but her observations about the everyday life of Reykjavik dwellers more than make up for it.  Whether they’re driving like maniacs or letting their babies sleep in carriages outside of cafes, Moss has clearly enjoyed letting us in on all the little details of Icelandic life.

Of course, no story is complete without a good ending and Names for the Sea concludes with the most perfect sentence about living abroad that I’ve ever read.  After all the hardships she’s been through, after everything has felt so exhausting, Moss simply states her feelings towards Iceland in a surprising and seemingly contradictory sentence that captures the essence of living abroad.

I know exactly how she feels.

Living abroad?  Expat?  What’s the difference to you?

and, yes, I did buy some Icelandic chocolate in the middle of reading this book.  wouldn’t you do the same? 😉


2 thoughts on “Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss

  1. Danielle

    I call myself an “expat” from time to time to differentiate myself from a “study abroad student.” But, I’m right there with you with the knowledge that I do want to go home in the near future–not yet, but in the next few years.

    Other thoughts:
    (1) I hope you can fly Icelandair next time you go back to the States to experience Iceland on your own (it’s like no place I’ve never been).
    (2) I wish we could have an ongoing book swap! So close yet so far away 🙂 and this one sounds so good. Fingers crossed I can find it in an English bookstore!

    1. Emilia Post author

      Good point about using expat to determine from “study abroad.” Those two feel very different!

      I am most definitely planning a trip to Iceland soon, though it may wait until spring, purely for weather purposes.

      A book swap would be awesome. Good luck finding this one! The author is British so it does seem like a british bookstore should have it (isn’t there a WH Smith in Paris?). 🙂


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