Solid Iceland

Mild winters in a civilized moonscape

TERRY MacCORMACK November 1 1974

Solid Iceland

Mild winters in a civilized moonscape

TERRY MacCORMACK November 1 1974

Solid Iceland

Mild winters in a civilized moonscape

TERRY MacCORMACK

Iceland is not a myth; it is a solid portion of the earth’s surface — Pliny Miles.

It used to be you never heard anything about Iceland. It was one of those quiet, remote countries that the guy down at the corner post office didn’t know existed until, in the last few years, it began making it in the news with stories about the world chess championship and the cod war with Britain.

You may have come across the name here and there. If you studied literature, you knew it was famous for its sagas written during the 12th and 13th centuries. Or perhaps you read that the late W. H. Auden had carried on a long romance with Iceland from the time of his first visit, calling it “holy ground . . .

with the most magical light of anywhere on earth.” If you followed rock music, you would have noted the late Jimi Hendrix’s comment that he loved Iceland because some of the most beautiful women in the world live there.

Still, not many people know much about Iceland. Before I left, friends had the impression I was setting off on a trek into some barren arctic wasteland and might never make it back. This is the kind of thing that amuses many Icelanders. Sitting in the very modern Vinland Bar of the Loftleidir Hotel in Reykjavik one evening, I was talking to a young Icelander named Oli, and he was telling me:

“Yes, there is this myth about Iceland. People have the impression it is so

cold and barren and completely covered in ice and snow all year around. They picture us living in igloos, and so on. Much the same as you Canadians are all lumberjacks who chop down trees. Of course it isn’t true. But I find it nice to have these myths. I think it helps keep Iceland apart from the rest of the world, and I like that. Perhaps it is the same with you Canadians?”

There are other Icelanders who don’t enjoy the myths and will tell you very bluntly that their country is not what the rest of the world likes to think it is. They point to its chilly-sounding name, saying it’s not right that a country only one-eighth covered in ice should be called Iceland. It allows for too many misconceptions, too many images of Es-

When a reporter came to Iceland to interview a murderer, he found the man had been let out to go to a dance

kimos living in igloos even though there

are no native Eskimos in Iceland and never have been. It implies severe subzero temperatures when really Iceland has a surprisingly moderate climate with winters much milder than Canada’s, and summers that are refreshingly cool. The author of an excellent handbook on Iceland, Iceland In A Nutshell, suggests: “It would be more appropriate to exchange the name with Greenland, which consists largely of a huge ice cap.”

But the myths persist. Which is unfortunate, because Iceland must certainly be one of the most intriguing places in the world to visit.

It is a country of only 200,000 people living on a rugged little island about a quarter the size of Newfoundland. Three-fourths of it is virtually uninhabitable, and a mere one-fourteenth of it is worth cultivating. It has few natural resources, no timber supply, and very little industry. Icelanders make their living mostly by fishing, farming and raising sheep.

Yet it is a country that has managed to achieve a high standard of living. It has all but eliminated poverty — Auden called it “the only real classless society.” And people live a long time in Iceland.

Its literacy rate is higher than that of the U.S. Every year, Iceland’s 20 publishing companies sell a total of about 500,000 copies of Icelandic books.

There is almost no pollution in Iceland. There is no tipping; in fact, Icelanders consider it an insult if you try to tip them. The sport of boxing has been prohibited. And curiously enough, there are no dogs allowed on the streets of some cities in Iceland.

Almost everyone in Iceland speaks English as though it were their natural second language, and many have a fair knowledge of Spanish, French, German and the Scandinavian tongues.

There is television in Iceland — it runs from around four-thirty to midnight six days a week, with Thursday being the TV people’s day off (during the whole of July, while they are on holiday, there is no television at all). But Icelanders are not impressed with it. My landlady in Reykjavik told me about a cinema owner who drummed up business by installing a TV set in the foyer of his theatre “to let his customers see for themselves just how bad television really is.” She added that “it is often difficult to get tickets in that theatre.”

And most remarkable, there is virtually no major crime or violence in Iceland. On a bus tour through Reykjavik,

our driver informed us that “here, in the world’s most northern capital of just over 80,000 people, there are only 150 policemen, all of them unarmed, who seem to spend most of their time sitting around the station drinking beer and playing Icelandic whist and krokino. What crime there is, is petty theft and whooping it up on a Saturday night.” But Sigurdur, a garage mechanic in the northerly city of Akureyri, told me about a murder that had taken place there not long ago. It made headlines in the Akureyri newspapers, as well as in all five of Reykjavik’s dailies.

Two men had got into an argument of some sort, he said, and one of them had taken out a knife and put an end to it. The man was arrested and put in jail to await trial. A murder in modern Iceland was such a rare event that a London paper sent one of its reporters to Akureyri to cover the story. The reporter arrived at the Akureyri jail and asked if he could interview the prisoner. The jailer said he had no objections, except that at the moment the prisoner wasn’t in.

“He isn’t in?” the reporter exclaimed. “He’s been moved to another jail, then?”

“No,” the jailer replied, “he hasn’t. He’s out at the moment.”

“Out?”

“Well yes . . . He’s gone to one of the local dances. After all, it’s a Saturday night and the fellow asked if he could go out for the evening.”

“But . . . but the man’s a killer!”

“A killer? Oh, yes, he killed a man. But it was a crime of passion. He would never do the same thing again.”

“I see . . .” the reporter said. “But aren’t you worried that he might escape?”

“Escape? No, he wouldn’t do a thing like that. He realizes that he killed a man and that he must pay for it. Besides, this jail is his home now. He has nowhere else to go. He’ll be back.” “You expect him back, then?”

“Why yes, of course. But I tell you, he had better be on time. Because if he isn’t . . . well, I’ll just have to lock him out. I have to get my sleep, you know.” One thing that will always be of mythic proportions about Iceland is the land itself. William Morris, a 19th-century poet and artist, wrote that it was no use trying to describe it, but that “it was quite up to my utmost expectations as to strangeness; it is just like nothing else in the world.” Everything for Morris was “strange” and “wild.” Throughout his Icelandic journals, he writes of the

“glorious simplicity of the terrible and tragic, but beautiful, land.”

Driving in toward Reykjavik from Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, my initial impression was that I had landed on the moon. There was nothing out there but long, barren stretches of twisted lavic rock and vast patches of ink-black cinder. Narrow, winding roads led off the main highway to disappear suddenly behind bleak mounds of cooled lava or an extinct volcano. What made it even more eerie was the absence of any trees. It was like a nightmare landscape, overpoweringly austere and desolate, and just a little frightening. I remember the sense of relief I felt when I finally arrived in Reykjavik.

“The land does this to you.” Oli had ordered another round of Viking Specials from the bar, along with a small shot of Brennevin, a kind of Icelandic schnapps often referred to as “The Black Death” because of its potency. “It [the land] speaks of violent things. But there is a serenity in it too. You can’t help but be affected by it. There is this about Iceland: it is something you experience; you do not go and merely see in Iceland, you experience. It is something special, like magic.”

As he was leaving, Morris said he felt as if a part of his life had passed away; it was the last time he would ever visit Iceland. His heart, he wrote, swelled with the wonder of it. “Surely I have gained a great deal, and it was no idle whim that brought me there, but a true instinct for what 1 needed.”

HOW TO GO, WHERE TO STAY

There are daily flights from New York to Reykjavik with Loftleidir (Icelandic Airlines). During June, July and August, an individual, inclusive airfare for a maximum of 21 days is $276 return, plus $100 (for hotel accommodation and tours) that has to be prepaid; 22 to 45 days, return fare is $377. In both cases there is a $15 surcharge each way for weekend travel. The rate is $282 return in September, October, April and May. From November to March it is $258.

For further information write: Icelandic Airlines (Loftleidir), 610 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020.

Information on hotels and other accommodations can be obtained from Iceland In A Nutshell by Peter Kidson, or from your travel agent. If you’re traveling to Iceland during the summer season, reserve your hotel or lodging well in advance.