Saturday, April 25, 2009


At the Polls, Icelanders Punish Conservatives -

With about a third of the final vote counted late Saturday, it seemed that the country’s leftist caretaking government would be formally voted into power, with the Social Democrats projected to gain 22 seats and their partners, the Left-Greens, appearing to gain 13 seats in the 63-seat Parliament. The conservative Independent Party, ousted after a wave of demonstrations in January, was projected to gain just 14 seats with less than 23 percent of the vote, down considerably from its total in 2007.

I spent 3 weeks in Iceland in 2002 when my husband had a heart attack flying back from England and the plane was re-routed to

It was September, and I liked the weather--cool, windy and unpredictable. But it was terrifically expensive and I thought the architecture was perfectly awful. I couldn't connect to it because it wasn't on my Culture Tree and, after 3 weeks, I got sick of fish. Tomatoes were more expensive than caviar: I hadn't realized before then how much I craved fresh veg.

I stayed at the Salvation Army Hostel-- --highly recommended! It was populated by backpackers and skinflints, mostly from Scandinavian and German-speaking places, and the showers worked! Hanging out in the smokers' lounge I got a intriguing picture of their views of Americans and, even more interesting, the British--like my husband. It was fascinating to discover that they regarded Brits sort of peripheral Italians: as one put it, "Nothing works, and they don't work." In my experience this is true--and I approve.

I did not approve of the Icelandic language. A book I got declared cheerfully that most Icelandic verbs were irregular. Also, they have case endings, which I detest. I thought that with English, a Germanic language, and a little German I might have a shot. But, forget it. I went to the University to see if I could make contact and do a little work but I couldn't even find the philosophy department. Even technical terms and the names of academic disciplines are strictly Germanic and completely unintelligible. I only found out later that philosophy was not "philosophia" or anything like that but "heimspeki"--very interesting, I guess it means "worldview."

Negotiating Reykjavic I realized what it must be like to be an immigrant in a place where one couldn't even read the signs--having to ask people everything, being dependent on the good will of others. Of course, they all spoke English. But I hated having to ask. In France and Italy I could get around, but this was perfectly awful. I only realized that English was really a Romance language when I went down to breakfast at the Salvation Army Hostel. There was coffee--good coffee--and a couple of pitchers labeled "mjolk" and "surmjolk." I immediately poured the surmjolk into my coffee making the perfectly reasonable inference that it was cream, the top of the milk--sur-milk. It wasn't.

There's no punchline to this story. I'm glad the Icelanders are keeping the faith and keeping the red flag flying. Having spent that time in Iceland I feel a connection--I know Rekjavic really well because I've walked all around it and follow Icelandic politics a little. Anyplace we go marks our souls, I think. But this place was seriously alien to me, even more so because it was so near yet so far--a first world country populated by white folk, where I didn't stand out, but in some way I can't even articulate more alien to me than Kenya, which I hated but where I felt in some strange way more connected.


JB said...

Non-anglo-american culture is very alien to me, too. When complaining to a Norwegian professor about a class moving from Gilman to Bloomberg, he said "What? Bloomberg is clean and large. Gilman is just a crappyoldbulding."

Unknown said...

How's the Gilman-gutting going? I don't know why they're doing this: I liked the crappyoldbulding, with the strange pointless up-and-down semi-stairways, wastefully high ceilings, and rabbit warren of officettes and storage for ancient dissertations (like mine)in the windowless core.