Iceland’s Seismic Shift

25th April 2016

The most facile way to characterise this topsy turvy country of fascinating contradictions is to deem it ‘quirky’. Indeed, Icelanders embrace and trade on the zaniness of life up here at the Arctic. But in the end, it is not the ‘quirky’ which captivates me as I travel through her lunar hinterlands and sample her puffin, shark and whale. Underneath that superficial oddness, I simply love how much we share.

Icelanders are committed to the values which I too hold dear; they share much the same sense of humour; they even share some of my genes – though thankfully not all. Iceland is the familiar other, the nicely neighbour you somehow forgot. It’s easy to be forgotten when you’re an island, off some islands, off a couple of continents. We got cut off for a bit. Actually, for the guts of 1000 years. 

Ingólfr, the hallowed father of Icelanders, arrived to an island full of foxes, birds and volcanoes. A courageous seafaring Viking who had also lived in Ireland, he set about creating the first permanent settlement on this lava mound to the north. Bit by bit, more of his people joined him, and a unique culture grew, hermetically sealed for hundreds of years. 

The essence of Icelanders today can be found peering, godlike, through their smallest gestures. Those values I spoke of? They can be found in the detail. 

This rough hewn place does not go in for nanny-ing, for example. Tourists are encouraged not to approach the boiling geysers which can scorch, or thunderous waterfalls which can smash a man apart, or sheer lava cliffs which can kill at will. But if tourists should so insist, they can go right ahead. There are precious few warning signs to be seen. Because in Iceland, if you’re a dummy, that’s your problem. Iceland does not place barriers of steel where common sense should suffice. 

We considered experimenting with fermented shark as a starter in a Reykjavik restaurant, and asked our waitress for some culinary advice. ‘It won’t be tasty, but it will be memorable’, she said. ‘We eat shark for our ancestors, not for ourselves’. This, I felt, was a compellingly bolchy way to recommend vile food. We ordered it, and it was, indeed, memorably vile. 

On a tour some days previous I asked our guide about Icelandic gunboats – a political skirmish regarding fishing rights which featured in late 1970s news bulletins. ‘The cod wars?’ she asked, vaguely. ‘I remember we won. That’s all I remember. We definitely won’. She was not a woman to hold a grudge.

The layers in Iceland’s story fascinate. This country emerges from the rift between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. It is teeming with seismic activity and has converted this into an enviable asset: it boasts being the only country in the world to use wholly renewable energy. Its only horse is the Viking horse. These small, squat animals which dominate the vast knitted landscape of low-lying hayfields are bred here for over 800 years and are passionately protected. Any horse which leaves Iceland cannot return. It is banished for all time, in a singular bid to keep that which is theirs, theirs alone. Hermetic. Sealed. 

The land itself is an evolving saga. It is black, rough and uneven in its grandeur. Its startling beauty brings to mind the big skies of Montana, or the giant scapes of South Africa, or perhaps the black sands of Santorini. But it has a pristine quality all of its own. One detects that the island is freshly minted, specially loved by the volcanic gods which gave it birth some twenty million years ago. 

A people nursed and grown in such an environment must be special. Quirky indeed describes a kind of truth about them. But not the whole truth. Change is a requirement of life, and Iceland is changing too. I’m inclined to think that ‘Bjork-quirky’ – the dominant marketing narrative of Iceland to the world, and the DNA of almost every Icelandic brand one encounters – will undergo a seismic shift. The current national narrative that matters is less about quirky charm, and more about how a tiny nation came up against a modern cataclysm, and found the mettle to stare that cataclysm down. 

Iceland, you may remember, commanded the world’s attention in 2008 through its economic collapse – a period (however brief) when the island was renamed ‘Half-Priceland’.  Soon after, in 2010, that darned unpronounceable volcano erupted and closed European aviation for seven days…

The combined force of these two global stories had an unexpected effect: it placed the country upon the radar of the mainstream traveller. By dint of disaster, both economic and natural, pot heads and hipster backpackers gave way to mainstream tourists looking for a special break away. 

Over the last years a visitor surge of 30% annualised growth has spewed forth like welcome, nourishing lava. In response, Iceland has relaxed some of her protectionist tariff regimes and, amongst other things, has begun importing beef and dairy to bridge the food production gap. Change is afoot. The distant, hermetic land is thawing. Just as it is exciting to be here, it is surely exhilarating to be from here right now. The familiar other is growing ever closer. 

As my return flight climbs high over the southern tip of the country, I see endless, stretched plateaus of escaping steam and blackened pumice, through which no road or byway wends. This empty, beautiful country entices in such an elemental way, one wonders what will happen when the world arrives to her door. Looking down as my aircraft reaches the coast, I imagine Ingólfr in 874AD landing on the black beaches from Ireland – eager to find shelter, to hunt foxes, and to make sense of the distant, choking mountains which nightly hurl fire to the sky.


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