“I had to lose everything to find out what I was capable of.” Gay comedian Jonathan Duffy tells readers how his break-up led him on a life-changing journey to Iceland.
I had first come to Iceland in 2011 on vacation with my then partner. It was a nice little country with amazing landscapes and interesting people. I remember at the time we had joked with each other about how it would be fun to spend some time living there. Flash forward to August 14, 2015 and I was at Keflavík airport arriving from Amsterdam ready to start a new life. Sounds exciting, but the confident comedian about to turn 30 was actually a broken and scared little boy looking to start over somewhere really far away from painful memories.
I had been with my partner since I was 20 years old. Together we had racked up a ton of adventures and seemed to be in the kind of relationship that was going to last forever. He was (and still is) a doctor and I was a gay comedian working across loads of different projects in Australia. We were sort of a D-List power couple. There was even a documentary about how we had spent years living in the heart of the homophobic Australian outback and had an amazing time doing so. All of this changed for me in what seemed like an instant.
I had begun touring festivals with a comedy show that took me all over Australia and eventually New Zealand (which is kind of like the reverse of an Icelander going to Denmark, in that Australia is like Denmark and Iceland is our New Zealand). While I was there I had an incident in a gay bar that shook me emotionally and psychologically. I performed my final two shows there and went back to Melbourne. All I wanted was to just get on with life and get back to the man who knew me better than I knew myself. A man who was sure to know how to make things better. However this couldn’t be the case.
When I returned he revealed to me that there were some issues in our relationship he wanted to talk about. He insisted that he wanted us to stay together and work through it. We went to two therapy sessions and it seemed that almost in a gust of wind, life as I knew it was over. I had spent years devoting my time and energy to our relationship and his success. I had blindly put myself second to make sure he was happy because I had so much unresolved self-worth issues. Of course there were other things that contributed to the break up but if I were to pin point the part I played in the relationship collapse it would be that my own hang ups and issues aided in creating an unequal partnership.
“I was alone for the first time in my adult life, living in a city where almost everyone knew me as one half of a couple instead of an individual. I no longer had a house I owned or even a car and had no idea what to do.”
I was alone for the first time in my adult life, living in a city where almost everyone knew me as one half of a couple instead of an individual. I no longer had a house I owned or even a car and had no idea what to do. One morning while we were going over final details of the break up, he asked me where I thought I would go. I remember telling him, ‘I don’t know, I feel like I just need to get out of here.’ He asked me where and I asked why it matters to him and he told me that he still wanted to be able to have me in his life. In a weird fit of aggression I shouted at him, ‘Well you don’t get to decide that, maybe I’ll move to Iceland.’
He was perplexed by this and insisted I was being a bit dramatic. Later that day he approached me as I was sorting through items in my office and said that he’d done some thinking and actually thought it wasn’t a terrible idea. He said that if I wasn’t tied to anything anymore, then why shouldn’t I just go have an adventure and see what life was like where I get to be in charge and I’m not constantly associated with someone else. He actually helped me make my travel arrangements and when the day came he even drove me to the airport. Maybe it was to make sure I actually left the country, I’ll never know.
This one act of spite opened a window to me that I probably never would have acknowledged if I had stayed in Australia. I got a British passport and did some travel. I settled on Iceland as my final destination for a couple of reasons. I knew someone here who was willing to help me with a place to stay. This friend also had a network of other creative friends and that provided an incentive to hit the ground running. Going somewhere nobody knew me also meant that I could create my own narrative. A chance to start over and do things my way. The time I had spent in the outback living in a community of just over 1000 people also influenced this. I knew how to live in small populations and also knew that it’s less likely in a country of 330,000 people that I would just fall through the cracks and end up homeless or working as an escort.
So I arrived broken and ready to heal which is possibly the most cliché thing you could say about someone moving here. I didn’t have an end date but also hadn’t convinced myself that I was going to be here forever. I had decided that if things worked I would stay, if not I would go somewhere else.
In less than a year, through hard work and determination I had accomplished what I believe is more than I ever would have done if I had stayed in Australia. I made music videos for one of Iceland’s most beloved pop stars (Páll Óskar), one of which was nominated for music video of the year, was the creative director for Iceland’s entry to Eurovision, became a main stayer in the stand up comedy scene, now in my 13th year as a comedian I never imagined i would work as a paid comedian in Iceland, I have a successful gay comic strip (Bruce the Angry Bear) and with Hugleikur Daggson my podcast Icetraila is one of the most listened to in the country.
“Iceland is a beautiful country which I now proudly call home. The people here are like a family to me and just like any family they sometimes piss me off. I make fun of Icelanders all the time but just like with my own family, they may be idiots at times but they’re my idiots so back off.”
Iceland has taught me that I can be the boss of my own life and career. It’s also taught me that nothing is ever handed to you – unless you are Icelandic and have famous parents (I’m just kidding, or am I). Everything I have achieved here has been through hard work, determination and countless hours doing other things I hate to pay rent so that I can focus on what I really love. Almost like the end scene in the wizard of OZ, I had to go on a weird journey to discover that I had the power to do it all inside me the whole time, I just needed to sort of lose everything first to get there.
I went back to Australia for Christmas last year and it was fun but I can’t quite describe the feeling after 4 planes and almost 3 days of travel when I touched down to the snow-covered runway at Keflavík on new years eve and thought ‘Finally I’m home.’
Iceland is a beautiful country which I now proudly call home. The people here are like a family to me and just like any family they sometimes piss me off. I make fun of Icelanders all the time but just like with my own family, they may be idiots at times but they’re my idiots so back off.
I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in my time here is that when you go somewhere new there will always be a honeymoon period where everything is shiny and new. You spend a while looking at this place through rose-coloured glasses but then eventually the honeymoon period is over and if you have things you haven’t dealt with before you came, they will eventually resurface.
Iceland is amazing but is just a country like any other. A place is what you make of it. You have to pay your dues and respect how things are done, you have to challenge things to make progress, which is one of the beautiful things about immigrants, but ultimately you need to remember that any place is exactly what you make of it. I don’t know if I will be here forever. Just over two years ago I thought I was going to be a doctor’s wife till the day I died. Nothing is forever but for now I certainly don’t have any plans to leave.
Note: The story of Jonathan Duffy is a part of stories that were originally read at an event called Distant Voices, during this year’s Reykjavík Pride, and are now published on GayIceland’s with the permission of the authors and help of the event’s organisers.