Diaries in this series: Iceland Calls :: The Icelandic Language :: Tvær Vikur Til Reykjavíkur :: Reykjavík, A City of Lights :: Reykjavík, A City of Drizzle and Dancing Clouds :: Reykjavík, A City of Cats and Gods :: Reykjavík, A City of a Storied Tongue :: Reykjavík, A City of Yuletide :: Reykjavík, A City of Hope :: Frá Reykjavík, Til Hjartans Heimveldisins :: Doldrums and Storms :: Til Kaliforníu, Til Iowa, Til Íslands
Velkomin og takk fyrir að koma! I hope your unicode character support is serving you well, because it's about to get a bit Norse up in this diary! And when I say up, we're talking 64 degrees latitude, baby. Við sjáumst, Ameríka; I'm moving to Iceland.
Today, I accepted a job (assuming the work permit goes through) from Isavia, the Icelandic government-owned company which runs all public airports in Iceland. Ooh, now I know what you're thinking -- a large government-owned company? SOCIALISM!
Heck yeah ;)
Reykjavík -- the Smoky Cove (að reykja = to smoke, vík = cove), the City of Cats. Its 120.000 people comprise over 1/3rd of the population of Iceland -- a country the size of Kentucky. To put the country's 320.000 people into perspective: The US has about 100 times the land and about 1.000 times the population. The Netherlands has 40% as much land and over 50 times the population. South Korea has slightly less area area and over 150 times the population. My current home state of Iowa looks like a crowded metropolis compared to Iceland, at over six times the population density.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Iceland has tons of open space ;)
With that space comes tons of fresh air and fresh water. Of course, in America, when you want hot water, you usually heat it up with coal-fired electricity or a natural gas boiler. In Iceland, it comes straight to your house -- heated by the still-hot waste of the geothermal power plants (over 99% of Icelandic power is geothermal or hydroelectric). In the US, we too deal with hot water at our power plants. But we just dump the waste heat into our rivers, killing fish and causing brownouts whenever there's a drought.
Hmm, did I mention rivers?
That's only something like the third-biggest waterfall in Iceland. Note the black-dot people by the side.
Now, I'll admit: part of the beauty of Iceland is a series of optics tricks. I've figured some of them out. Those unnaturally-blue highland streams and lakes? That ridiculously pure water combined with the black sand makes an excellent mirror to reflect the unpolluted sky. Those unnaturally stark contrasts of colors and long-cast shadows? That's from the sun that hangs low in the sky, not so much as setting but generally drifting up and down as it circles around you, making sunrises and sunsets last forever... in the winter only peering out briefly before moving back behind the mountains to reveal rainbow-colored nacreous clouds or dimming for the occasional show of the northern lights:
... and in the summer never really getting "dark" -- just a long combination-sunrise/sunset, meshing well with their party scene and letting you go practically anywhere with no crowds if you want to stay up late. Not that there's exactly lots of "crowds" in Iceland.
Iceland is quite well suited for nightlife. One of the least religious countries in the world, "prudish" is definitely not a term one would generally apply. There's little social stigma to "hookups", although still a strong stigma against cheating (hook up with the same person several times in a row and you're basically de-facto "dating"). Marriage rates are low, yet birth rates are high (by European standards); families tend to support their children and there is a level of government support for pregnant women that Americans could only dream of. To pick a random example, 90 days paid maternity leave (+ 13 weeks unpaid) for the mother, same for the father, and another batch of the same to be divided as the parents so choose. If you want, you can add your government-mandatory minimum annual month of vacation to that.
Should it be surprising that a country which has such attitudes about sex and parenting would be LGBT friendly? Yeah, you might get a sense that the country is LGBT friendly by the fact that their lesbian prime minister signed their same-sex marriage bill into law after it passed their parliament 49 to zero. But I think even more telling is the fact that, with over 100.000 attendees per year (nearly 1/3rd of the country's population), this is the largest annual festival in the country:
That's Reykjavík Pride. Oh, and their drag competition was held in their equivalent of Madison Square Garden (Harpa). Put simply, Icelanders in general just don't care who others sleep with. Reykjavík Pride is increasingly seen as a family event.
The Icelandic approach toward raising children is at the same time both tough and protective. Children go outside to play during recess even when the weather is in conditions you'd never have kids go out in over here. It's not rare for children to work, either. At the same time, the conditions are tightly regulated for any location that deals with children. It's even federally banned for parents to spank their children.
While we're talking about federal bans, did I mention that strip clubs are illegal in Iceland? Yeah, but you can pick up camping stove fuel bottles at most gas stations in remote towns. :)
Outdoor activities are very popular. Despite the influx of American food into the culture after the Keflavík NATO base was established (since closed), their obesity rate is one-third ours. On a day of good weather, you can drive around and see people just randomly pulled off the road all over the place -- by some random waterfall, at the foot of a volcano, in a patch of the ubiquitous wild blueberries -- pretty much anywhere there's no fence. Both wildcamping and wildharvesting are perfectly legal. The country always tries to tempt you to pull over. I once encountered a park bench in the middle of bloody nowhere. On a sandbar. In the middle of a river. With water on all sides of it. Just daring you... "Come on -- wade out to me! You know you want to!" The volcanoes cry out to be climbed, the hot springs to be swam, etc.
(Come on... swim! You know you want to!)
It may then be surprising that there are no "high school" sports in Iceland -- but academic competitions are popular. Iceland has the highest rate of book publication in the world. The highest rate of broadband penetration. The highest rate of acceptance of evolution. Chess is the unofficial national game (Iceland has produced a dozen chess grandmasters). Want to feel like an idiot? Ask a random Icelander how many languages they speak. Oh, sure, some are kind of cheating (the Norse languages are pretty similar), but even beyond those, you always find fluency in English and they're often skilled in several more. Educational achievement seems quite prized.
Along with creativity. Random example: here's an Icelandic take on a pipe organ:
Iceland has an incredibly prolific and talented music scene, from the well-knowns (Björk, Sigur Rós, Múm, etc) to those who few outside the country have ever heard (Valdimar, Jónas Sigurðsson, Sóley, etc). There's the Icelandic reggae of Hjálmur, even a huge blossoming hip-hop scene. I'm continually blown away by the talent.
It's not just confined to music. You see it on the walls of Reykjavík, where building owners allow or even pay graffiti artists to decorate them. You see it in the sculptures all over town, in the architecture of the buildings. Unfortunately, you even saw it in finance, which led to the kreppa that they're in today ;)
Now, let's not pretend the country is perfect. They're deep in an economic crisis of a scale that makes America's look meager by comparison -- although they're on their way out of it. They saw their currency collapse to half its value. Many Icelanders left the country seeking work in nations less-hard hit by the crisis. While power, water, and domestically produced food (free range or (nearly) organic for pretty much everything) are cheap, imports (which is most goods) are very expensive. 30% of the government's revenue comes from (significant) customs fees -- including customs on personally-imported items (expect your mailed birthday present to be inspected and considered for tax fraud). There's a not insignificant "meat culture" there (although, sadly, what first-world nation doesn't have one? :P ). Some people adjust to the stark cycle of the seasons better than others. The tax structure is fairly progressive, but could definitely bear some steeper hits on the top individuals. And while some of the figures behind their economic collapse (including government officials) are behind bars, many are still roaming free, even enjoying special privileges (although there's still people working to throw the book at them).
Beyond all that, I'm not going to sit here and pretend like moving there will be a walk in the park. That getting skilled at the language won't take hours every evening for years on end. That dealing with immigration bureaucracy is easy. That integration is simple, or that everyone will always be nice and friendly to an útlendingur like me. I'm not going to pretend that my residence status won't be truly stable until I can get citizenship after a whole seven years residence in the country. That I couldn't earn well more money in the US.
Some day I'm sure I'll look back at this post. And say, "wow, how little you knew back then." But at the moment, all I can go on is how I feel.
And I feel it's worth it.
I'm moving to Iceland. Bless bless.