Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summing Up Iceland

Serene is not first word that would come to mind when talking about Iceland, but after a week there it is one of the most sufficient words that comes to my mind. The looming volcanoes, North Atlantic and harsh winds can easily rebut my claim, but not a day went by when I just gazed at the patina of a moss-covered lava field, a basalt formation, or a stretch of land to the ocean and then ocean to sky to just sit in wonder or empty my mind completely.

My own experience in the Canadian Arctic, where I lived at the outset of my career as a teacher, rid me of any impulse to describe the Icelandic landscape as barren, desolate, or otherworldly. The exposure to Iceland’s remote, uninhabitable landscape was at once humbling and easing. Visiting volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls and geysers in such proximity to one another satisfied my appetite for adventure and created a sense of wonder that makes it hard for Iceland to escape my imagination, albeit a scant few days after returning home. It is not a place or a nation that, neatly wrapped up in a package of confirmed preconception, I can dispose of it with a dismissive “been there, done that.”

Iceland was very much what I expected: spacious, illuminating, stimulating, daunting and compellingly scenic, probably a close match to what comes to anyone’s mind when the nation is mentioned. One day trip was threatened by volcanic activity that wiped out the main road to a spectacular glacial lagoon three weeks before our trip. To my surprise a new road was quickly built and I was afforded a view of the three stretches of the old road that now stretched out into the ocean, perpendicular to their former location. Despite confirming my expectations or preconceptions the way it did, my interest and fascination with Iceland is only deeper and there is a strong desire to go back sooner rather than later to contemplate the landscape or the possibility of being in an exceptionally remote and silent place with my thoughts.

A distinct difference between Iceland and the Canadian Arctic is that urban life is not quite as far away. Throughout the week, I made day trips from Reykjavik to the more remote parts of the country and returned by evening. Reykjavik is an intriguing harbour city that teemed with tourists from Europe for the most part with ample representation from North America and Asia. It is hard to discern the effects of their economic difficulties since 2008 without a before and after to compare but despite the evident missing teeth from the city’s harbour front and the stark evidence of papered over businesses, there is not much evident sign of decay or hardship in the city. There were not any indications of homelessness. There were stories of large numbers of families having to turn over their homes because their foreign currency mortgages were too onerous for them to maintain and there was a substantial residential development in the suburbs of Reykjavik that now stands abandoned. If there is any evidence that I could pick up on during my time in the city it was a certain youthful defiance and will to get through the economic difficulties

With just 320,000 people it is puzzling to determine how Iceland has the human capital to do things that other nations do. Perusing a bookstore, I was in wonder at the number of people the country would have at its disposal to translate literature into and out of a language shared on this remote island alone. Beyond that, there were questions along the lines of how Iceland staffed its diplomatic corps or what nuances and obstacles there are to the import and sale of cars for such a small, remote population.

Iceland is advertised or conceived, for myself at least. The time I spent there, though brief, left a lingering imprint of a unique place of compelling sights and humbling change and a people characterized and strengthened by an intimate understanding of its realities and a resilience that likely typifies and surpasses its Scandinavian brethren.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Random Thoughts on Iceland

Surprisingly, Iceland has 150!! golf courses. One for every 2000 people.

There was a moment Tuesday when I wanted to tell myself, "This is great, I really have to come back in the summ...-er. Hmmm."

Seriously though, I really would love to get back.

Iceland is a very easy place to lose track of time. Not one day went by where we didn't look at our watches to tell ourselves, "It's 9:30 already?"

Reykjavik is a very compact walkable city. The suburbs that are beyond the city, however, may be in for a short lifespan given the economic problems that emerged in 2008.

Speaking of 2008, about 4500 families lost their homes because of mortgage issues. The problems there seem to be relatively hard to notice but their currency has plummeted two about 2/3 of its pre-collapse value.

Apart from that there is a feeling that there is a rather unhurried pace of life. It might be a matter of getting 99% of their energy by green means - geothermal and wind primarily - and essentially a passive method when compared to oil and gas.

It was remarkable at times to realize how transient the land itself actually is. We drove on one road that had been whipped together in the space of a week to replace a road that had been washed away by flooding caused by volcanic activity.

The water in Iceland is so pure that they have had some problems with their sewage systems. Matter just doesn't get broken down by any bacteria or minerals in the water. To ensure that the water systems don't corrode, sulfer is actually added to the water. The purity is a consequence of glacial water filtering through the lava into ground water.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Serene and exotic need to be applied to Iceland. Serene might be a harder sell if you have had to fend off the harsh winds that buffet the place on a regular basis, and if you are preoccupied with the volcanoes that are far less active than the media have made them out to be over the last year or so.

It is quite easy to find a place to hide yourself away somewhere of the beat trail. The fact is that the beaten trail - if you are talking about the single lane highway that rings the country, for instance - is that it doesn't take too much to get away from civilization and contemplate the calming patina of a moss covered lava field an ash desert or the lapping of the waves on the shores of the island.

Much of what I've seen here reminds me of the granite shores of Nova Scotia or the Canadian Arctic. The geology is different of course, but the solitude with the elements that you can so easily find here is so easy a place to find some peace and let your mind wander to greater questions or greater throbs in the passage of time than the ticking of your watching or the turning of the day (something that seems almost optional here at the moment.) When the resilient layer of moss envelopes everything from where you are to the horizon and beneath it and the hardened lava notions of what lives and routines existed below it a mere 200-odd years before and to be reminded that on geological terms this is all so young and to wonder what archaeologists might find if they ever find away or reason to dig below to find out what people did on this same spot once upon a time... It is a small miracle that our thoughts can find such contemplation and caught up in the space.

The bus tours were sufficient during our time here, but it doesn't take much to conclude that the next trip ought to be done by car. The bus tours still insist on stopping at the obvious landmarks that are eye catching anywhere: waterfalls, volcanoes, glacial lagoons. (Okay two out of three.) Even as it was it is a little hard to engage the interest of sullen teenagers. I'm sure that they would rather have the house and a supply of frozen pizzas for the two weeks or would sell it as a much more exciting or seismically unstable locale if they had the opportunity.

My trip has been too short and too quick. There is much more that I'd like to take in next time around.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

First Thoughts in Iceland

I don't think I'll be able to structure my first posting in Iceland around a destination at this point. We've been in the country for three days and for all of the promises that are beyond the limits of Reykjavik, the capital still holds a strong allure.

Saturday was spent out on a tour of the so-called Golden Circle and visiting the waterfalls at Gullfoss, geisers beyond there and being completely rapt with the landscape. The first temptation is to throw the word barren into the mix and talk about moonscapes but there is an undeniable life out on the land beyond Reykjavik. There is a grey-green moss that covers places for huge stretches at a time, but there are plants of several varieties to choose from. It is certainly not of the variety that your would find further south in either Europe or North America but there is enough variety of those hardy breeds to dispel notions of the place as barren. There is always a flower finding root in a stone to illustrate a metaphor but things never flourish too far. As our tour guide said on Saturday, "If you are lost in the woods in Iceland, just stand up."

At this point I am completely preoccupied with how a country of 300,000 people finds the people to get all of the things done that nations need to do for themselves. How big is their diplomatic corps? Their civil service? How many translators and interpreters do they have and how good are they at what they do? There have to be countless other examples of fields of endeavour, or national needs that there are so very few people to choose from. A look at the corrugated walls or the minimal lines of the buildings here and I wonder how the architect or architects of this country encapsulate and communicate the desires and needs of this country into the function and form that a nation desires. Whether this expertise is something that comes from one of Iceland's nordic brethren would be a satisfactory answer but I'm still wondering how a nation finds the means to define itself in terms other than the most cliched. A thousand years of history and an environment that is so unique and assertive certainly help.

Another thing that has certainly stood out is the sense of design and the visual that is here. I'm not sure if it is specific to Iceland and has its own distinct look and style or if it has happened to be outsourced from their Scandinavian neighbours. There are several small niches of Reykjavik where there is a vibrant splash of colour - usually from graffiti artist. The first few times I've seen it I've wanted to proceed with caution, not sure if I was heading into a dodgy neighbourhood or some realm of protest in the aftermath of the financial collapse here. I've gotten the feeling, however, that it is more a matter of exercise a particular desire to express for expression sake.

At this point, I still don't feel like I have the grasp of Reykjavik that I'd like. It may remain beyond my grasp well beyond the end of this trip but it has been an entrancing host thus far.