I haven’t even been remotely tempted to write about the financial situation in Iceland. The reason is first and foremost the fact that I know nothing about the subject. I wasn’t there when the bubble started and I wasn’t there when it burst. I know nothing about banking or financing and I don’t understand politics.
But (and there’s always a but!) after reading Michael Lewis’ article in Vanity Fair I am tempted to say a few words. First of all it’s an incredibly entertaining article to read, especially I think for an Icelander. It’s insightful, clever and well written. I spent the time reading, trying to decide if to be incredibly offended, laughing and nodding my head in agreement (strangely these emotions always seemed to coincide, overlap.). Of course I sneered when a man from a country where many people don’t know their own grandparent’s names talks about inbreeding (without actually using the word) and family ties. It’s a fun pun. I get it (I live abroad it’s not the first time I’ve heard it) but it’s a bit overplayed.
I grew up in Iceland. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life on that island without ever treading foreign soil. To the world it’s a strange and foreign place but to me it’s the rest of the world that is a little strange. But everyone feels that way. Everyone has their own interluding episode they call their life. We’re all from some small farm, town or neighborhood. Some may live in a big city but even big cities have their secluded spaces and neighborhoods. It’s what creates our experience. The strange places to point their fingers at are closer than you might think. We all have our Springfield’s were we can point a finger and say: “Did you know the people in Springfield are yellow? Do you think it’s a genetic disorder?” or something of the sort.
That’s the reason this article is so amusing. Iceland has suddenly become Springfield with four fingered people and macho vikings, bumping their breasts with whomever wants to join in the game. And I guess it’s nothing new. I’ve been asked all kind of questions over the years. “Do Icelanders live in snowhouses?” is a question I don’t expect to hear again after this. Once I was in a student gathering and was asked by a big fellow with red hair (had he been Icelandic he would surely have been either one of the bankers, a fisherman or both!) asked me: “what’s the life expenctansy of a cod?” referring to me as a giant encyclopedia of fish. And he wasn’t the first.
It’s a small place. The city I live in now exceeds Iceland’s entire population and it’s still considered a rather small city. And it’s not strange that the rest of the world knows little about it. It’s therefore always pleasant to see someone go to some lengths to try and understand it.
There was little in the article that surprised me. I’ve read all the Icelandic sagas. I know about the Icelandic man and I about the drinking habits (although reading people’s reactions to Icelandic drinking habits never seizes to amuse me). What did surprise me however was the distance he claimed there was between men and women. I hiccuped at that point in Michael Lewis’ article and sneered (again) bumping my chest (although not too hard) mumbling to myself “Icelandic women are the most independant, most free, most involved women in the world“.
Icelandic women have never been known to just sit by and watch while the men go about their business. I wouldn’t mind putting on my feminist mask (a mask I rather like wearing!), point a finger and yell “it’s all their fault” but my heart wouldn’t be in it. The distance between the sexes the article talks about is completely foreign to me. Where I come from men and women always shared in these things. They might not have agreed on everything but they did share in the discussion, in the decisions and in the responsibility.
I don’t know what happened in Iceland. I don’t know who is to blame. I don’t know if it’s an elitist group of people with power who is to blame or if we (Icelanders as such) are all to share in the responsibility (one way or the other it’s the little guy who suffers though, we do well to remember that!). What I do know is that behind Gunnar á Hlíðarenda stood a stern woman and if you read the sagas closely you realize that the women were always central when it came to decisions and action.
Perhaps we’ve changed. Icelanders aren’t barbaric vikings anymore (although they’d love nothing more than for everyone to believe that). Icelanders are normal people, filled with life, spirit, patriotism (I truly detest patriotism wherever it comes from but it’s hard not to root for the place you come from with all your heart!) and for a while there was the Icelandic dream. And it still exists. It just doesn’t have a golden jeep in the picture anymore.
When I brought my significant other to Iceland for the first time to show him my hometown one of the first things he was asked was: “How do you like Iceland?” (Now all Icelanders who read this are giggling a little just so you know). He shrugged his shoulders from the cold and smiled politely. Next came a statement: “you know the astronauts came here to practice because the landscape looks like the moon“. He looked around a little confused, we stood in Reykjavík centrum I believe. Later he told me that he didn’t get the moon likeness but that he gave us the benefit of the doubt because he’d never been there and then he asked, “why is there such distance between the houses? You can see the horizon everywhere in the city!”
And I think it all boils down to that. Icelanders see the horizon constantly. They always know what’s coming. Another dark winter. Another cold year. Another rainy summer. Hail in June. No fish in the sea. Earthquakes. Financial crisis. It’s all happened before (although this is surely the biggest financial crisis the country has had to face for a long while, it certainly isn’t the first one!) and although we predict them as well as the weather (by sticking our heads in the sand, closing our eyes and humming to the smooth music of Sigur Rós) it’s nothing we can’t handle. Right?