Saturday, May 05, 2007

Independent People

Reykjavik on a grey April day !

It's nearly 2 weeks since our trip to Iceland and I meant to write a little bit more about this unusual and interesting nation.

The Bank Holiday weekend is giving me a little bit more time and Mrs. Donatella and I are going no where more adventurous than Tunbridge Wells so I have lots of "webtime"- for now at least.

So to Iceland. On arriving at Keflavik International Airport one is struck by two things. Firstly a clean modern scandinavian airport of the style that I have seen in Gothenburg, Stockholm or on a bigger scale in Copenhagen. Secondly the landscape looks like being on another planet. There is literally not one tree visible from the airport. The reason is primarily due to the fact that it sits on an ancient lava field dating from a large volcanic eruption. The rocky landscape, human activity and generally cold climate have prevented any tree growth.

Reykjavik itself, about 45 minutes drive away is a lot more planet Earth in style and trees are not unusual ! That said it does have a unique style with many buildings being covered in brightly coloured corrogated iron. In the past Icelandic buildings were often constructed of rock and turf due to the lack of wood on the island. More recently iron has played a significant part.

Iceland's history has been long and hard with permenant settlement by Norwegian and Danish travellers since the 9th Century. It also has a significant Celtic (Irish) influence. Iceland is home to the world's oldest still functioning Parliament dating since 930. It has never been a monachy although for much of its history was under Danish rule of some form or another.

World War II brought the biggest changes with first British then American occupation. Iceland became fully independent in 1944.

The American influence remains to a significant extent and can be seen in the vehicles, food as well as foreign policy. Iceland generally sides with the US in most areas.

Iceland has a really very low population of around 300,000. Despite that, it is very much a nation with a President, parliament, police, hospitals, schools, TV and radio stations, factories, fishing industry and ever growing tourist industry. I doubt that the necessary talent to fulfill all these functions could be found in a British city of 300,000 people but somehow the Icelanders manage it.

Icelanders don't really have surnames and are known by their first name followed by the name of their father with an ending depending on whether they are a son or daughter e.g. Johan Petersson or Lolla Jakobsdottir. This apparently makes their telephone directories very difficult to use !

Icelandic wildlife and countryside is unique and generally unspoilt. On our visit there we went successfully whale watching (seeing a Minke Whale) and saw albatross and small Icelandic horses. The tough climate and island location mean many breeds are largely peculiar to the country.

The country sits on the rift between the European and American tectonic plates and in geological terms is relatively new. Geo-thermal forces bubble away close to the surface and mean Iceland is blessed with cheap power and boundless hot water. That said it is not unusual to get a strong smell of sulphur (essentially bad eggs) when turning on a tap. This becomes largely unnoticeable after a few days.

Icelanders are cranky islanders like most other people who live on Islands- obviously including us Brits ! They are however a proud resilient people who have survived a tough history on their rocky island. Today they enjoy the highest standard of living in Europe and are an educated and civilised race.

Iceland is on the tourist map although high prices (£5 for a beer) mean it is never going to attract the masses. That said it is a quite popular destination for up-market stag dos and slightly quirky girls from around Europe seem to appear on every tour complete with a back-pack. Reykjavik is a party town with bars staying open until 5.30 am. It's Northern lattitude mean long dark winters but 24 day light in the summers.

Despite their small numbers their influence is disproportionately high. Reykjavik was the setting for the US/USSR summit in 1986 between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. Bjork is is a global star and Haldor Laxness became Iceland's first Nobel Prize Winning Writer with tales such as "Independent People". Today crime writer Arnuldur Indriadson wins awards and fans around the world.

I was really impressed with Iceland. I like its uniqueness and eccentricity. On the days of our visit Iceland's news was dominated by a fire at a night club and bar in the centre of Reykjavik. No one was injured but a fire in the centre of Town was big news for a population the size of Reading !

I hope Iceland long remains unique and special because in a world where so many places start to look rather similar it is refreshing to go somewhere that is truly different and still feels like it has an independent people.


Maria Alva said...

Great write-up on Iceland! You hit pretty much all the core issues/histories/hot topics in one concise blog post. I'm gonna go ahead and link to this entry, if you don't mind...bless í bili!

Mrs Donatella:-) said...

I think it is very romantic place. And if at some point of my life I would like to escape from reality I would remember IcelandJ Also the atmosphere in restaurants is very unique . There are very warm places with wooden panels, fireplaces and enigmatic mirrors. On the other hand there are superb Modern style cafés with almost Vienna atmosphere and exquisite pastries. I am not talking about fish. I also liked aquamarine water in a volcano crater surrounded by the mountains. That was only time I saw the sun during our 3 days in April…

Luis said...

Thank you Maria Alva.

I feel honoured to have complements from a real Icelander ! After all, I was nothing but a tourist spending a few days there.

However I was truly glad to see your country and had wanted to visit it for some time now. I once saw Keflavik airport briefly changing planes to New York but since being obliged to work for a while in Scandinavia I became more interested in the whole region. The limited English translations of Arnuldur Indridason's detective books made me aware of the uniqueness of Iceland.

I also meant to mention in the original post that Iceland's disproportionate influence for the size of its population extends to owning many shopping chains in Britain- including quite appropriately "Iceland" the frozen food shop and the House of Fraser department store chain. Just recently one of your fellow countrymen bought West Ham football club. So Icelanders seem to be taking over here quite a lot !

Happy for you to link to this post and I will continue to check in on your photos with interest.

Luis said...

Thank you Mrs. Donatella :-)

Glad you enjoyed our trip and you too found it a unique and special place. We will have happy memories of this trip- maybe our last trip for a while before circumstances make it less easy to jump on a plane somewhere :-)