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.