— this is really happening

Iceland, as told by my Mama

Politically and Economically

Iceland, the country, came
into being in the 9th century. About year 871 the Vikings
(Danes) landed there, brought their Irish slaves—maybe just Irish
wives—and went about establishing a structure from which to run their
society. It’s not clear where they got their models, but the
Parliament they established—Thingvellier—was quite sophisticated:
representatives from 63 districts met once a year, debated and settled
issues, and then took turns shouting out the laws. One after another,
some 600 laws. The idea was that if you know the law, you will

There was no native population
in Iceland, so nobody was displaced in the settlement process.

It took a while to establish
a legal structure. At first, the only punishment was expulsion;
later they punished transgressions by death: men were beheaded and women
drowned – not much attention was paid to distinguishing smaller and
bigger crimes – you either conformed or not.

Today, Pingvellier is
the longest standing Parliament in Europe
. Maybe in the
world. The Vikings were writers and poets (to wit – Icelandic sagas).
The Settlement Museum in Reykjavik has, therefore, a multitude of documents
to draw on — but the exact date of settlement is uncertain. Therefore,
the Museums’ sign reads 871 +/- 2. 

Iceland feels unthreatened
by their 2 neighbors – Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. In
fact, they feel unthreatened altogether. It may be the only
country in the world to have no standing army, navy, or air force
Just Coast Guard.   Sort of like Yiddish, which has no vocabulary
for guns, ammunition, military strategy, or any kind of warfare.

Iceland is not a member
of the EU and does not aspire to be
. They see their economic
future as tied to fishing, a priority the EU does not share. They
are very protective about their territorial waters and do not wish to
share those. Within their boundaries, it’s their country and further
input is redundant. Recently, they started commercial whaling
in those waters.

They do not allow any non-Icelandic
airline to serve their market. No Lufthansa, British Air, SAS,
or United at the international airport in Keflavik. Just Iceland
Air, Iceland Express, Icelandic, etc… Not sure if all of these are
government owned, but they are certainly not foreign.

The top components of their
, in descending order: 

  1. Fishing
    mostly bacalao cod, a delicacy of the Mediterranean and South America. These cod-drying racks dot the landscape:

  1. Energy
    hydroelectric (Iceland has the 4th largest resources of water
    in the world, after Canada, Norway, and Turkey) and geothermal. Get this: every house in Iceland is heated FOR FREE using geothermal
    energy. Even snow on the streets is melted from below so Icelanders
    don’t have to shovel. Greenhouses throughout the island grow
    every imaginable crop, for free. As Helena puts it. “they can
    grow bananas if they wish”. If they could only figure out how
    to export that energy! and
  2. Tourism.


The Icelandic Krona fell 40%
in the last 6 months, much thanks to all the sub-prime papers they purchased
with all the optimism of the rich – and now they are rich no more. Our guide in Reykjavik said that they have 2 choices to cure this economic
malaise (1) To join the EU, or (2) To find oil.

They are looking for oil.

Socially and Culturally: 

As to “further input redundant”,
Iceland in fact may have it right. There is 1 murder every 2 years
in Iceland. We saw the house of the Prime Minister – no security
whatsoever. Literacy rate is 100%. They apparently
read more books per capita than any other nation in the world. Most of them are Lutheran but do not conform to the tight dictums of
the Lutheran church; for example, they permit gay church marriages as
well as civil ones. They have meticulously maintained their language
in which they publish and to which they translate much of worlds’
literature. They have a Nobel Prize winner in literature, Halldór Laxness, 1955.
The presentation speech starts with “Iceland is the cradle of narrative
art…” http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1955/press.html
Helena and I visited several bookstores in Reykjavik; impressive. Ones
section for foreign languages; the rest in Icelandic. This, for
a nation of some 316,000.    

Even their lambs, cattle, and
horses roam free. Tagged and numbered at birth, and are then allowed
to roam for pastures wherever they wish. They scale incomparably
steep mountains, perch themselves on dizzying edges, sheep happily
grow their wooly coats, and generally seem very contented with their
Icelandic homeland.

Note about wool – EVERYBODY
knits in Iceland. Men, women, walking sitting… they all knit. It’s cool to knit. 

Health care, and education
are free.

Immigration to Iceland it not
easy. After a decade-long residence the applicant must prove fluency
in the language and, if admitted to citizenship, must change his first
and last name to an Icelandic one.  

Last name is especially
: a patrimonial structure for both men and women. For example, Herdis, the daughter of Petur, is always Petursdottir (dóttir
= daughter) even after she marries. Petur, son of Palmi, is Petur Palmason. So in a family of 4 comprising Mom, Dad, daughter, and son, everybody
has a different last name!  But these last names do repeat themselves
a lot, and Icelanders are ALWAYS referred to by their first name, so
last name only as a third-level sort. 

Everybody’s lineage is carefully
recorded and available on line to at least 7 generations back; many
back to the 9th century, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~islwgw/ or http://www.halfdan.is/aett/ which allows inquiries, but only in
Icelandic. Have a look.

Reykjavik, the capital, is
home to 2/5 of all Icelanders. It has no tall buildings (our guide
says “we don’t seem to be running out of space”), and views are
all around. There are many public spaces: parks, lakes, benches,
and many monuments of artists and writers. No military heroes,
of course. No “unknown soldier.”  However, on one of
the main squares in the city is a whimsical monument of an Unknown Bureaucrat.

Main “square” in the city:

And here, amidst another amazing
sunset, our last one in Reykjavik, Helena sang our farewell:

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