07 March 2009

Sugar, Spice and Everything Ice

Iceland lays low for the most part. Living in a small community on an island in the frigid North Atlantic, Icelanders quietly enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. So why would they make waves on the worldwide scene?
However, the normally unassuming country has made headlines twice in recent months. It became the first nation to elect an openly gay head of state, which was certainly a great step forward for worldwide civil rights. The entire country also went bankrupt.
Those in large countries might find that second tidbit to be a little much to take. The entire country? But let us not forget that the whole population of Iceland is just over 300,000. That's slightly less than the number of residents of Omaha, Nebraska. Considering that 112,000 Americans declared bankruptcy in February alone, the Iceland statistic becomes more believable.
But let's set the economy doom and gloom aside and look at the country itself. What must it be like to live in such a small sovereign nation?
Well for a start, everyone knows everyone else, or is at least a degree of separation away. This does not bode well for those in the service industry. One of the airlines I worked with closely was Icelandair, and almost everybody wanted 'special favors' simply because of some so-called mutual friend. ("Do you know Johanna? I know Johanna. Got any free upgrades?") The aircraft also reeked of fish. Fish is daily bread for Iceland, and accounts for the majority of its export. They have fish for lunch, fish for dinner; they send fish to their relatives in other countries as gifts. One of the main reasons they have yet to join the European Union is because of loss of control over fishing limits. This is a country serious about its fish.
When they're not enjoying fish, they're partying. Reykjavik, the capital city and home to about two-thirds of the country's inhabitants, has a reputation for being a major nightlife center. We're talking about everybody--all 200,000--getting out of work on Friday, going home to start drinking (any money saved by pre-partying will be significant, because food and drink are obscenely expensive in Iceland. As is, for that matter, everything else), then hitting the town. And not finishing until it's time to go back to the office on Monday. It's a nightlife scene to rival any in the world. This is no doubt aided by the northerly latitude: in the summer months, the sun never sets. It merely approaches the horizon and then begins to rise again. In the winter, of course, just the opposite is true: there is very little daylight for six months. Either way, it's a condition condusive to a vibrant party atmosphere.

But that's just the tip of the cultural iceberg. Iceland has a rich history and an active artistic and literary scene. The writing is, of course, in Icelandic. The Icelandic language is a fascinating study in the retention of linguistic purity across generations. It has changed so little that most Icelanders are able to read the country's medieval epics--written a millennium ago--almost as if reading a modern book. (By contrast, most English speakers have some difficulty with Shakespeare, written 400 years ago, and consider Chaucer's Middle English--650 years past--a different language entirely).
There are no family names in Iceland. Instead, your surname is your father's first name, along with whether you are his son or daughter. So Britain's Prince Harry would be called Harry Charlesson and Bob Geldof's first child would be Fifi Trixibelle Bobdottir. Except they wouldn't, because all first names must come from an approved list.
It's interesting to think about living in a land with no history of indigenous predecessors. Iceland, isolated from both Europe and North America for eons, and with few trees and relatively infertile soil, appears to have been completely untouched by humanity until its settlement by Scandinavian colonists in the 8th century AD.
The land itself is a living example of nature's power. It is relatively young by geological standards, and lies on a huge tectonic fault, which means the landmass is a breathtaking melee of tundra, glaciers, active geysers (the English word 'geyser' is actually borrowed from Icelandic), volcanoes, mountain ranges, hot springs, and violent waterways. This explains why most of the vast interior is uninhabited and why the population centers lie mostly along the southwestern coastal fjords.
This geothermal activity, however, makes Iceland one of the most environmentally friendly places on the planet. Most of their electricity and energy is generated by directly harnessing the heat below the surface. The remaining percentage comes hydrologically from waterfalls, rapids and reservoirs. Iceland is truly at the vanguard of successful reliance on renewable resources, and makes active policy of working towards carbon-neutrality. The one drawback: many places smell pungently sulfurous, sulfur being one of the main elements underground that makes it all possible.

The thought of Iceland draws slightly unfair assumptions about its climate from most Westerners, probably because the name translates as...well, "Iceland." Make no mistake, this is certainly not Antigua. But it lies at the end of the North Atlantic Drift, a fast and powerful ocean current which constantly feeds it with moderating, temperate conditions. A gift-wrapped present from neighbors to the south, perhaps. So granted, Iceland is chilly, but it is more of a never-warm place than a too-cold place. And compared to other lands straddling the Arctic Circle, its consistently 30-degree weather makes it seem like an oasis of warmth.

All in all, Iceland figures to be one of the best places on earth. It has among the highest standards in the world for literacy and education. It enjoys first class health care, and its people have the second-highest life expectancy on the planet. Crime is virtually non-existent. It is a liberal, egalitarian community governed by a progressive parliament. It boasts culture, nightlife, and stunning natural beauty. Its overall standard of living rivals any nation in the world.

And yes, Iceland's banks are in trouble. But it's a virtual certainty that the Icelandic people will persevere, recover from the crisis, and have a damn good time while doing it.

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