laufabraud3For centuries, Iceland was an oppressed colony. Among other things this oppression took the form of a trade monopoly, in which the Icelanders, by law, were only permitted to trade with Danes – our colonial overlords. All merchants in Iceland were Danish, or Danish proxies, and the merchandise they profferred in return for Icelandic wares could be at any damn price and of any damn quality that they pleased. Predictably, the former was usually high, and the latter low. It was common knowledge, for example, that the flour that was sent to Iceland was often mouldy and/or infested with maggots.

And it was costly. That was why the Icelanders learned to make breads and cakes with as little flour as possible. The Icelandic flatkökur – a flat bread cooked on a skillet – was made with rye flour that frequently had Iceland moss mixed in, to make the flour go a little further. Today you can still buy flatkökur with Iceland moss in the supermarket – though this not because flour is still outrageously expensive, but because this small strategy for survival has become a part of our daily lives.

The same goes for the much-loved pönnukökur – Icelandic pancakes, which are akin to French crêpes (as opposed to North American pancakes). They, too, required a minimal amount of flour, as did laufabrauð – “leaf bread” – a wafer-thin crispy bread that is decorated with cut-out designs before being deep fried. The pretty cut-outs were meant to distract from the fact that the bread was not very substantial in nutritional terms. These days laufabrauð is usually only eaten at Christmas with smoked lamb, but as such it is an absolutely essential part of the yuletide celebrations. Many families also make their own for Christmas, using this as an opportunity to get together and spend some quality time during the Advent.

To keep up with Icelandic current affairs, join us on Facebook. For more on the Icelanders in the old days, check out the Little Book

Otherworldly

by alda on May 27, 2015

Thakgil Iceland

Last year when we did our Ring Road tour, we spent the first night in a place called Þakgil, in the south. To reach it, you turn north at a turnoff just past Vík and drive inland for about half an hour. We had no idea it was that far, and were starting to think we were lost when suddenly we rounded a corner and a beautiful oasis appeared before us, far from civilization.

Þakgil is a verdant plane surrounded on nearly all sides by grassy slopes, which provides good shelter from the wind. There is also a large cave with communal barbecues out front and picnic tables inside, that is lit with candlelight in the evenings. You can camp on the site, or rent any number of small huts that are situated there.

Around midnight, Aldís [daughter] and I decided to take a walk. We hiked up a path between two hills, and within a couple of minutes reached this beautiful waterfall that appeared like a vision out of the semi-darkness. Aldís climbed up on a large boulder to take this picture, which I love because of the way the water appears out of the night like a white ribbon. It was completely magical.

I am perpetually fascinated by people’s histories and how they inevitably manifest in their present circumstances.

The same goes for nations. A nation’s history tends to manifest in its present, just like an individual’s does. Take Iceland. For several centuries we were oppressed by our colonial overlords. Iceland became an independent republic in 1944, just over 60 years ago – however, in so many ways it still seems like the people of this country willingly allow themselves to be subjugated.

Alcoa_Emil Þór Sigurðsson Iceland

Alcoa aluminum smelter in East Iceland. Around 60 km2 of pristine wilderness were sunk to provide adequate power for its operations. Photo: Emil Þór Sigurðsson

Case in point: the way the majority of Icelanders sit by silently while their plentiful natural resources are usurped by a handful of individuals who exploit them to make themselves and their friends and families rich.

If you are a regular follower of our Facebook page, you will have some idea of the sh*t that routinely goes down here. As I write this, we have widespread strike action going on, and a full-blown general strike is imminent. Meanwhile, our prime minister goes on national television and maintains that the wage hikes the little people are demanding can only be met if the government is allowed to build more power plants to fuel heavy industry such as aluminium production, which is in the hands of foreign multinationals.

I’m going to quote a recent article in which Indriði Þorláksson, former Director of Taxation, presents calculations showing that aluminium production contributes a mere 1% to Iceland’s GDP.

This country’s energy resources, with the exception of geothermal energy for house heating, are virtually meaningless for the Icelandic economy. This is a result of the current policy by the Icelandic government to shift the revenues generated by those resources into the pockets of those who exploit them. This policy is widely manifested. The government resists making an amendment to the constitution [that would expressly state that the country’s national resources belong to the people], taxes on corporate revenues were lowered, the aluminium companies were guaranteed that they could transfer their profits, tax-free, out of the country, the abolishment of an energy tax on aluminium companies was given priority, a tax on fishing was lowered, and there are plans to allocate a mackerel quota without any taxation. […] As long as this policy is not properly abandoned and the economic efficiency of the operations that are supposed to use all this new energy is not proven, there is no logic to any further power plants being built in Iceland.

Indriði Þorláksson’s voice is the voice of reason. There are numerous others like him. And yet, a large proportion of the Icelandic population chooses not to hear, and to have their livelihood, in the form of their own resources, stolen from them, right in front of their eyes.

I cannot find any other explanation for this but that, as a nation, we have no sense of entitlement, and have exchanged one set of oppressors for another.

Tomorrow, Tuesday May 26, there will be a demonstration to protest the Icelandic government’s oligarchy and autocracy. Austurvöllur square, 5 pm. Please be there if you support the voice of reason.

About the Icelanders 9: Traffic culture

by alda on May 22, 2015

Earlier this week I wrote a brief rant treatise about the Icelanders’ irreverence when it comes to other people’s cars, and their motoring skills in general.

I was not kidding about this.

PANICKED DRIVER Iceland

Once I had a conversation with someone who was working at one of the embassies in town. He told me that the ambassador of that embassy did everything he could to avoid driving in Iceland because he was so scared out in traffic. Nowhere had he encountered driving culture as nerve-wracking as in Iceland. And this was a man whose previous postings included Athens, Greece and parts of Africa.

The main reason for his terror was the unpredictability of Icelandic drivers. This is something that frequently gets mentioned with regards to the Icelanders and their driving. Sure, there are parts of the world where the traffic is all over the place, but – at least according to the good ambassador – there is some logic to the chaos. In Iceland there is none. Someone may suddenly stop the car in front of you for no good reason … say because they spotted something in someone’s front yard and wanted a closer look. They won’t even have noticed that there were cars behind them – and if they had, they wouldn’t have cared.

You never know where you have them, and that’s the scary part.

Many Icelanders still drive like they are all alone on a gravel road with no one in front or behind them. This nation has moved from a rural to an urban society so fast that the generational mindset has not managed to keep up. The abysmal traffic culture being one of the symptoms.

[Pic found here. More on the Icelanders here.]

Double rainbow

by alda on May 20, 2015

Iceland waterfallLast summer I did a fabulous tour around Iceland to distribute my books to retailers. We drove the south->north route, and one of our first stops was at Seljalandsfoss in the south, one of Iceland’s most stunning waterfalls [it’s the one you can walk behind]. As it happened it was a beautiful sunny day [one of the few sunny days in a decidedly rainy summer] and a gorgeous rainbow had formed in the mist from the falls. My daughter snapped this pic of me in front of it and on closer inspection we saw that there was not just a single but a double rainbow. Which just has to be auspicious, right?

Much as I am pleased about the increased tourism to this country, especially following the economic meltdown, I must say that I was a little shocked at the sheer number of tourists we met going around the country. I had not done much travelling around Iceland in the few years previously, and though I had heard of the tourist boom and experienced it somewhat in Reykjavík, the number of people outside the capital was astonishing. Case in point: the line of people behind me, waiting to pass behind the falls. Just a few short years ago you could turn up in that location and be the only person there. Not any more.

We regularly discuss Icelandic current affairs, including the tourist boom, on our Facebook page. Join us!

About the Icelanders 8: the ubiquitous practice of dooring

May 18, 2015

Not all of the Icelanders’ quirks are as endearing as their phone book shenanigans. Take their treatment of car doors, for example. If you live in Iceland you will undoubtedly soon notice that most cars more than a year old have numerous small-ish dents and scratches on their sides. This is because the people who […]

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About the Icelanders 7: weird phone book professions

May 15, 2015

Speaking of the phone book: did you know that, in Iceland, your profession is listed in the phone book, and you can make that profession be whatever you want? By which I mean: you don’t have to show up with proof of your profession if you want it to be listed in the phone book. […]

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Nature’s artwork

May 13, 2015

I am a fan of the small stuff. As much as Iceland’s magnificent natural wonders and open vistas can stun and amaze, I sometimes feel like the real beauty of this country is incorporated in the things that you see when you look down; when you look closer. Like those tiny flowers that you find […]

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About the Icelanders 6: on a first-name basis

May 11, 2015

Did you know that the Icelanders address everyone, from the president to the local garbage collector, by their first names? Children even call their teachers by their first names, and the Icelanders are listed by their first names in the phone book. The only slight deviation from this is that the head of state [a.k.a. […]

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Factoids about the Icelanders: Solon Íslandus

May 8, 2015

This illustration is by Iceland’s most famous vagabond, Sölvi Helgason, who called himself Sólon Íslandus. If the name sounds familiar it is because there is a restaurant/bar in downtown Reykjavík by that name. Sölvi was born into poverty in 1820 and from the age of six was fostered out to various farms. He started roaming […]

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