Fish, moss , sulfur, water, wool

by Lorenzo Piccoli


I land in Iceland after having spent one week in Paris. The contrast could not be more striking. I leave chaos and warm spring colours behind and I jump into a pale, spacious, and mostly silent place. Not entirely silent because of the wind that whispers almost all the time.

I have two first impressions of Iceland. The first is the Icelandic accent in English: such a bizarre blend of Greek and Scottish. Not quite what you would expect. The second is the smell and the thickness of the water: sulfur. I have a hard time showering in the morning, although they say it is very good for the skin.

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It is difficult to understand the tourist turn of Reykjavik today without thinking about the effects of cash (the financial crisis of 2008) and hash (the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010). This combination led Icelandic authorities to brand Iceland for tourism, creating a very powerful industry. There were less than 30.000 people per year coming to Iceland in 2008 and there are more than 2 million now. It is a rather appalling tourism: Americans enjoying a prolonged layover on their way back home and rich people. The branding of Iceland is all about white, upper class people enjoying leisure time.

Most of the promotional images about Iceland feature beautiful women (e.g. here). This is a perverse twist in a country that ranks first for gender equality. Indeed, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the fourth President of Iceland, was the world’s first democratically directly elected female president. With a presidency of exactly sixteen years, from 1 August 1980 to 1 August 1996, she also remains the longest-serving elected female head of state of any country to date.

Reykjavik is a relatively big city, with 200.000 inhabitants, about two third of the people who live on the island. The centre (that is, the main street Laugavegur) is completely gentrified and there is a tourist shop every twenty meters. The museums are mushrooming and most of them are rather useless. The buildings are rather anonymous on the outside but often surprising on the inside. The architecture is practical, bright, robust, efficient.

I am surprised to see many cyclists. I remember reading about bike rides in Iceland. I would not want to do it. The roads are mostly flat and extremely windy. Not a good combination. I notice that all the cyclists have expensive bikes and hyper-cool clothing on.

I am lucky enough to arrive during the Keykjavik Literaty Festival. I discover two good writers: Fridgeir Einarsson and Carolina Setterwall. Jean-Baptiste is the house keeper of the place where I am staying. He sticks with me most of the time. He lived in the Middle East for several years and got sick of violence and chaos. He looked up a ranking of the most peaceful countries in the world and ended up in Iceland. He is not the only foreigner. There are many Polish working as cashiers in the supermarkets and many Americans in the tourist shops.

I go the the swimming pool with hot, thermal waters almost every morning: Sundhooll Reykjavikur. I love the Braud & Co. for warm ginger bread. Kex hostel is probably the nicest place for a beer. Kaffibrennslan is the spot to go to read with a hot coffee. Harpa is a wicked building. The Arts Museum has remarkable interiors and good exhibitions. The Photo Museum is tiny. I take away a romantic picture shot by Gunnar Runar Olafsson.

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After three days it is definitely time to drive out of the city. My journey is guided by the spirit of  Gunnar Gunnarsson’s The good shepherd, a book that Leonardo suggests before I venture outside of Reykjavik, and by Giacomo Leopardi’s Dialogo della natura e di un islandese. Christina is the perfect travel companion.

The landscape is rugged. The colours are pale. It is quite obvious that the nature here shapes local music (Björk, Ólafur Arnalds, Sigur Rós) and literature (Halldór Laxness, Jón Kalman Stefánsson). Iceland, in this sense, is a very material place. Fish, moss , sulfur, water, wool. Fair and rugged. In a way, I think the Icelandic landscape fits very well the Zeitgeist of the hipsters, yogis, and digital nomads: it looks pure, silent, natural.

When you are there is actually rather craggy, volcanic. The Icelandic flag has three colours, which are symbolic for three of the elements that make up the island: red is for the volcanic fires, white for the snow and glaciers, and blue is for the skies. In my opinion the island is, most of all, green. I discover that the Norse explorers wanted to keep the island for themselves, therefore they called it Iceland and they called the other Iceland further north Greenland. In fact, it should have been the other way round. Sneaky, deceptive Norse.

It is too late in the season for the northern lights but we see a spectacular sunset I want to remember. It is not only the view all around us, red, wide, glorious; it is also the symphony of the birds, who bid their farewell to yet another day.

Some interesting facts about this place. Icelanders are very practical about religion. They do not care too much and every time some foreign powers forced them to convert they did without too much of a fuss. Until the 1960s black American soldiers were not allowed to stay on the island. It was JFK who mediated a solution. Until 1989 beer was still prohibited in Iceland: nobody knows exactly why. There is still a name committee approving names for kids. All the volcanoes have female names.

Iceland was a hot spot of confrontation during the Cold War. The famous picture of Reagan being summit meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev

The legendary chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972 took place in Reykjavik, which was neutral territory between the US and the USSR. After the 1972 World Chess Championship, Fischer went into a period of sudden obscurity and isolation. He did not play a competitive game in public for nearly 20 years. He then re-emerged to play Spassky in a “Revenge Match of the 20th century” in 1992. The match took place in Sveti Stefan and Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in spite of a United Nations embargo that included sanctions on commercial activities. The US Department of the Treasury warned Fischer before the start of the match that his participation was illegal, that it would violate President George H. W. Bush’s Executive Order 12810 imposing United Nations Security Council Resolution 757 sanctions against engaging in economic activities in Yugoslavia. In response, during the first scheduled press conference on September 1, 1992, in front of the international press, Fischer spat on the US order, saying “this is my reply”. His violation of the order led US Federal officials to initiate a warrant for his arrest upon completion of the match. He went to Japan but was to be extradated to the US. The Althing (the Icelandic Parliament) then agreed unanimously to grant Fischer full citizenship in late March for humanitarian reasons, as they felt he was being unjustly treated by the United States and Japanese governments and also in recognition of his 1972 match, which had “put Iceland on the map”. Fischer went to Iceland and lived a reclusive life until his death in 2008.