God bless Iceland

by alda on October 6, 2013

It is five years ago today since then-PM Geir Haarde made his address to the nation, announcing that Iceland was on the verge of bankruptcy and that there was a very real danger of it being sucked into a whirlpool of financial annihilation.

About a week earlier the first of this country’s three commercial banks – Glitnir – had collapsed. In that week there had been a mass of confusion, with no one really comprehending what was going on. The government took pains to convince us that everything was under control – yet there was something in the air, and none of us really believed it. Maybe it was the reports of all those hush-hush meetings, the labour union leaders and bank owners and party leaders who frantically rushed into and out of sessions with the prime minister at the government’s official meeting place on Tjarnargata. Or maybe it was the sight of PM Haarde looking grim and haggard and all askew, putting on a brave face for the cameras, telling us all that everything was fine and no one should panic – even as his entire demeanour spoke something else.

geir1And then, on Tuesday October 6 came the announcement that he would address the nation at 4 pm. I think about 90 percent of the nation gathered in front of their TV sets or computer screens to watch what he had to say. He delivered the news soberly, and finished the address with the words: “God bless Iceland.” As someone said, recalling that time: “It was then we knew that we were all f*cked.”

In view of the anniversary, these days the pundits, media and various other people are busy recalling that crazy time, reviewing it, posting old videos and articles, immersing themselves in the mood of the time. I try to steer clear of that. I don’t like to revisit it, at least not in such a total-immersion way. I do think it’s important to remember, to glance in the rearview mirror with the purpose of evaluating what we’ve learned and where we’re at in relation to that – but not to wallow. I find that infinitely depressing.

Sadly I fear that, as a nation, we have learned very little, and after an initial burst of hope and inspiration we’ve regressed once again. The New Iceland that we all hoped would rise from the ashes has certainly not done so, and that is hugely disappointing. But there is no point in whining – instead we must boldly face the situation as it is today, and put our energy into confronting the difficult issues that this nation currently faces.

Finally, here is my own personal tribute to this day – an excerpt from my book Unraveled, in which my protagonist, Frida, sits down in front of her TV to watch Haarde’s address with bated breath, along with the rest of the nation.

~~~

Frida waited anxiously for the broadcast to begin at four. She could not recall the prime minister ever making a TV address like this, where he summoned the entire nation, apart from the annual new year’s address. It had to be serious.

At five minutes to four she was seated on the sofa in front of the TV. No doubt most of the nation was in front of one screen or another, she thought, waiting for the broadcast that she expected would determine the country’s fate. Involuntarily, she thought of Baldur. Was he also in front of a screen now? Was he scared and anxious like her – or did he know exactly what Geir was going to say?

And what about Damien? How much did he know?

It struck her that she had thought of Baldur first, as though her bond was first and foremost with him, not with Damien. Was it because he was an Icelander – someone whose loyalties were to this land, someone who was kin?

And if her country was in trouble, serious trouble, would she be able to pack up and leave? It would be easy to do. Just pack her things into a few boxes and hightail it out of here to the safety of a country with a stable economy that was not in danger of going bankrupt.

It was just too crazy to comprehend.

She felt her heart swell with love for her country. No. If Iceland really and truly was in crisis, it would not be easy to leave. She belonged here. It was her home.

Geir Haarde was on the screen before her, looking grave, his skin pasty. “Gódir Íslendingar” – he began, “Good Icelanders. I have requested an opportunity to address you at this time, as the Icelandic nation is facing great difficulties. The world is currently a experiencing a serious financial crisis, so serious that its effect on the global banking system is catastrophic …”

Frida listened, her eyes glued to the screen. The Icelandic banks had not been exempt from this predicament, Geir was saying, and their situation was now very serious. They had expanded rapidly and were now many times larger than the national economy. A bailout was out of the question: “There is a real danger, good Icelanders, that the Icelandic economy would, if all took a turn for the worse, be sucked into a whirlpool along with the banks, and the result would be national bankruptcy.”

There it was. That word. But what did that mean, really? Apocalyptic images flashed through her mind: decaying buildings, people in rags, crying children, desolation, despair, hopelessness.

Now Geir seemed to be outlining some sort of plan to help save what could be saved, some sort of emergency law that would allow the government to go into the banks and take them over. And then what? What about the people, their savings, the normal functioning of society? What about the schools, the hospitals; what about imports: food, gas, medical supplies? What about people’s jobs?

Why the fuck can’t he talk about the things that matter?

The intensity of her feelings surprised her. She stared hard at the TV screen, as though she wanted to penetrate through Geir Haarde’s skull, through to his thoughts, to see if he was really telling the truth, to see what he was really thinking.

“God bless Iceland.”

The broadcast ended. Those last words hung in the air. God bless Iceland. Well, what the fuck was that supposed to mean?

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Katharine Kroeber October 6, 2013 at 6:37 pm

I can’t help feeling that this sort of wallowing is actually a way of evading confronting, really confronting, mistakes we’ve made. It piles on the emotions and stops us being introspective and thoughtful.

It’s the degree to which we don’t learn from past mistakes that is so depressing.
I was horribly startled this Sept. 11th to log onto FB and find people posting photos from 2001 with injunctions to “never forget” — almost all of the posters people who were not in NYC on that day and did not lose friends or family. Ahem. Those of us who were or did, are not going to forget, and didn’t need wanna-be patriotic photos and jingoism shoved in our faces. I would much rather have seen postings that showed people had learned in the intervening years, how not to make the same old mistakes. I’m sure many Icelanders are going through the same emotions right now.

alda October 6, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Katharine – I wouldn’t presume to put the meltdown on par with 9/11 but I know what you mean.

Michael October 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm

An anniversary? Congratulations … just in case!
No or too few lessons learnt? How come? The culprits are back in power! Nationalism is on the raise! The rich are getting richer! Politicians and media are busy rewriting history! The creeps are busy ringfencing their capital and their banks! (By the way does creeps come from Krepa? Or vice versa?) The sun is shining ? We write books in record numbers! Surely, you must agree that some things are done right !?
Ps. Even The Guardian is optimistic: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013 /oct/06/iceland-financial-recovery-banking-collapse

Katharine Kroeber October 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm

I admit the analogy is a bit extreme, but, particularly having read “Unraveled”, I feel it’s fair to draw *some*parallels (not equivalencies) with the feelings of disbelief, unreality (I remember waiting and waiting for the announcement this had been some sort of movie-stunt a la the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, because this simply could *not* be real), confusion, and just overwhelming emotion. I think the hardest thing to convey to people is that sense of total unreality and baffled groping after “what does it mean for going forward?” Two different kinds of horrible, but not totally dissimilar, as the underpinnings we hadn’t even thought about were swept away. Hmm. I think I better go read the Guardian article Michael laughingly recommends, and take my mind, and guts, off this. “Creep” comes from Old English creopan (one who creeps along the ground), but despite the ties between OE and Norse I suspect “kreppa” comes from something else. “Crap” perhaps? :)

Michael October 7, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Of course! “Crap” would do nicely thank you! How could I not have thought of it?

Katharine Kroeber October 11, 2013 at 3:16 am

Now I hear Geir is comparing his speech with Churchill rallying the Brits. Head-desk.

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