2 September 2015
Just back from a flying dash through Iceland, Finland & Russia. Will put up some photo galleries in the near future. For now, here are a few tidbits from the northernmost capital in the world, Reykjavik:
Icelanders know exactly when their culture was founded. Norwegian Ingolfur Arnarson sailed in around 870 AD and gradually imported people, livestock, and seeds over subsequent decades. There was no indigenous population. Even today, the vast majority of inhabitants are the descendants of Vikings.
The written Icelandic language has barely changed since the 12th century. It looks remarkably like Old English, and is about as hard to read. The Viking Sagas are still at the heart of the national literature, and great attention is paid to poetry and the literary arts. Icelanders have a shared, private language; almost a holy connection to the past that only they can savor.
The oldest parliament in the world was convened at Thingvellir in 930 AD, as 36 chieftains gathered at the spot where the European and North American continental plates collide, leaving a dramatic valley rift. The Althing met annually for centuries, ending only in 1798. In 1000 AD it was the spot where the nation agreed to adopt Christianity as the sole religion.
There are only 300,000 Icelanders, and nearly half live in the greater Reykjavik area. 97% are connected to the internet. There are 126 swimming pools. More than half of the population believes in elves. Unless you ride the bus, you would never need cash. Virtually all workers pay 40% tax, but public services are high. Value for money, for sure (e.g. education at the public University of Iceland is only $700 per year).
As late as the end of the 19th century, most people either worked on fishing boats, or were indentured servants, grubbing out a bare living for a handful of gentlemen farmers. Between 1875-1914, a quarter of the population emigrated to the New World, leaving entire remote districts of the island empty. Bitter poems were written about the inability to survive on the land, and its harshness.
Reykjavik today is a hotbed of bands and electronic trance music. Back in the early rave days (late ’80s), the few local DJs were so desperate to kick the scene off that they imported an entire night club from London, just to show the local underground what they were missing. Those long, long winter nights pass a lot faster inside the clubs.
Dockside restaurants serve thick “haunches” of salmon, beet-red whale meat (no, it doesn’t taste like chicken), and even tender puffin, gathered from their cliffside aeries. Icelandic water—whether in the vodka or straight from the tap—is as refreshing and delicious as it comes.
Sculpture is an art form that seems to express vital elements of the Icelandic soul. The solidity, the weathered shaping of natural elements, the solitary silence of the wood, or stone . . .