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Saturday, August 09, 2003 - 04:53 AM Permanent link for Iceland Impressions
Iceland Impressions

Finished up my vacation in Iceland (there are still a few more days before I get back to SF - I'm spending some time in NYC w/ a few friends).   Iceland is a GREAT country -- you can feel the pride in the country and it's unique heritage + 'features'  (for ex. patronymy).   In this aspect as well as its obvious geography, it's a great bridge between the US and Europe - if the EU can accept Iceland's individuality, perhaps there's an avenue for understanding America's similarly deeply vested one.  

Due to my regular readership of GNXP, I knew not to expect a country populated entirely by blond Viking descendents but was still surprised by how strongly Celtic phenotypes were visible (a few nightlife picts of the locals can be found here).   Many of the folks we ran into were easily Braveheart extras.  Historically, the Celts were brought to the island as a product of Viking raids into N. European and in particular the British Isles.   I read recently that geneticists have recently discerned that the distribution of various markers strongly imply that Celtic's may have actually strongly outnumbered Norse. 

In a country that prides itself sooo much on Viking heritage, I am curious if there are interesting, lingering social vestiges between the obviously-Norse folks and the obviously-Celtic ones.  I'd guess that a proper analogy would be more like America and it's early "Northern European" vs "Southern European" rivalries rather than the far more contentious "Black" vs. "White".   Most serious integration issues have been long swept under the rug and are instead replaced by a sort of gentle ribbing that carries on today ("Hey DiTomaso, can you get some of your Mafia bro's in here to fix this?"  "Har Har... idiot.").

Icelandic culture is noteworthy on a couple levels.  The Icelandic language is enshrined in the famous Sagas and is the product of Old Norse stocks and quite literally centuries of isolation.  The language isn't a pidgin in the true sense (a mistake I sorta made) - it's far more sophisticated.  Due to it's strong codification in the Sagas and other early written works, it has survived largely intact since the 12th century despite near-constant contact with external influences.   

Governmental mandates and organizations are directly tasked with preserving this Icelandic heritage.  A language bureaucracy, for example, enforces signage in Icelandic and coins words / phrases to represent constantly creeping English ones (for example "Computer" is "tölva" and "Software" is "hugbúnaður").   Despite the outward appearances these institutions may share with their French counterparts, I found none of the condescension, xenophobia and staid museum-quality so often associated with the Fifth Republic's cultural ministries.   The Icelanders seem to have succeeded to date in maintaining their unique ways while still embracing external influences with a youthful vigor.  

Everyone speaks flawless English.  And, as characteristic with many of the Nordic countries, the accent is almost more American than British.  Part of the credit here goes to the very widely available Hollywood media and music.  (On this trip, movie posters for T3 were everywhere).   IMHO, I'd also add that we tend to underestimate the degree to which the Scandinavian and Germanic diction helped create the split between British and American English. 

As a visitor, you quickly notice that the country enjoys a decidedly first world standard of living.   This particular vacation was spread across many residences (3 diff hotels + a cabin >1 hour outside of Reykjavik) but I was able to get 802.11 / WiFi access more than half the time.   Most cars on the road are relatively new 4x4's and a large number of "super-jeeps".   Men and women about town were generally quite fashionable and upbeat & there were a few designer shops along the main shopping strip.   Construction cranes were easy to find along the roadsides.  A steakhouse that a few members of my tour group had dinner at could easily have passed standards in both food and ambience of counterparts in New York or San Francisco.  

You really have to keep reminding yourself that the capital city only has a population of ~150,000 -- a modest surburb by US standards.   Economically, I kept asking myself how the heck do they do it?   Iceland's #1 export -- by a long ways -- is Fish. As an "arm chair economist" I understand at a logical level that for almost all countries, the internal economy is far bigger than the trade economy and hence you can't reach conclusions on the basis of trade figures / assumptions alone.  Internal, Icelander vis-a-vis Icelander productivity contributes significantly to this affluence - they are by and large an energetic, educated, and hardworking lot.   Internal per-capita GDP is ~$25k.  But in a nation of <300,000 it's still pretty hard to intuitively add it all up.   Several times my colleague and I sat looking at our lunch plates and wondered what % of our meal had to be imported.  

One answer to the puzzle is that Iceland's #1 domestic "product" is geothermal hot water + electricity.   Icelanders had a relatively subpar living standard for much of their history up until the 1900s -- a rugged, brutal lifestyle more akin to something you might find in the lowest climes of South America than continental Europe.   Post 1900, however, I'd venture that technology has been particularly adept at transforming & applying electric energy into other commodities and thus Iceland uniquely benefitted.  For these guys, a significant input factor into a large and growing number of modern production processes is basically free.   For example, almost all vegetables consumed are actually grown locally, year-round in climate & light controlled greenhouses.  Now I have no idea how much electrity it takes to grow greenhouse banana's in a near-arctic winter, but I've gotta imagine it's massive.  The primary "heavy" / export-oriented manufacturing on the island was an Aluminum refinery -- because Aluminum plants are massive consumers of the cheap electricity.  Could a steel mini-mill be far behind?

In a small country, everyone knows everyone else, even we ended up running into the same folks quite often.   Exploring downtown Reykjavik nightlife, we ran into at least 3 of groups of Icelanders whom we had met just a few nights earlier (one of whom was the copilot of our flight back to JFK).  Sitting outside in the cafe's, we witnessed a LOT of greetings exchanged between folks strolling on the sidewalk and people seated drinking their teas.   The gals pictured on the local Brit-style gossip rags are undoubtedly related to and friends with a good % of the readers.

Contrary to our weather report going in, we were blessed with GREAT weather most of our trip.   The countryside, due to it's violent, volcanic heritage is GORGEOUS and interesting from almost every angle.   Cliffs?  Check.  Waterfalls?  Check.  Geysers?  Check.  Mountains?  Check.  Glaciers?  Fjords?  Hot water springs?  Lava Beds?  Rapids?  Fissures?   It's all there.  And the Icelanders are proud of all of it.   The country is dotted with extensive nature preserves and parks and locals are aggressive about participating in their country's natural wonders.

[Image] Me in front of the Gulfoss waterfall - considered the most magnificent in the country.
[Image] A view from our hike through the Thingvellir (sp?) park.  The skies pictured in this pict gives a great idea of the weather we encountered for most of the week.
[Image] Icelanders enjoying the unseasonably warm / dry weather in one of Reykjavik's town squares
[Image] Geysir (Icelandic spelling!) erupting.   I had to muck with the contrast / brightness of this image a bit to make the plume visible against the sky.   Max height was probably 3-4x the height in the pict
[Image] The waterfall near the Viking Allthing.   The Allthing is regarded as the first democratic governing body in the world.
[Image] A geothermal spring.   Not quite a dip in a hot tub - the water is literally boiling at the edges of this pond and has cooked many a tourist over the years.  Other springs were punctuated with brightly colored water from the dissolved minerals (blues from copper sulfates and yellows from sulphur dominated).  We joked that in some parts of the US the same bubbling, seething multi-color cauldron is usually associated with an upstream powerplant or factory of sorts  ;-)
[Image] Another view from a hike.   Note the steam venting from the ground.
[Image] A different part of the city.   A family feeding ducks in the central pond near city hall.

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