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Sixteen years

Today marks sixteen years since AAH and I moved to Iceland.

It was 1994. The Internet didn’t even exist yet – at least not as a normal part of life. A few months after arriving I started working at Iceland Review as a journalist and translator, and about a year after that the IR website was launched. Every morning myself and the other journos wrote little news blurbs mostly taken from Morgunblðið [before it became Morgunblather], and me and another journalist named Gary Wake were usually entrusted with writing the weather reports [as Don outlines here]. Those were the dog jobs, nobody liked to write the weather reports because they were boring [partly cloudy, winds from the s/e, highs of 3°C etc. etc.] — until we figured out a way to make them more interesting by adding little tid-bits from our daily lives. And as some of you may already know, the title of this blog is a throwback to those days.

Back then, nobody in Iceland seemed to have a lot of money. I mean, some had more than others, but there wasn’t a sh*t-load of dosh floating around with everyone driving big SUVs or buying huge properties or having their kitchens/bathrooms remodelled or travelling abroad five times a year. That came later. In fact, it is still a complete mystery to me how I as a single parent managed to live off the salary I was earning then. It was barely enough to feed two hamsters. I drove an old Fiat Panda that leaked oil incessantly and kept breaking down. And yet – somehow we managed, and it seemed that people were not any less content in those years than in the times when this society was awash in money and cheap credit.

I left Iceland Review a couple of years later and started freelancing. Then right around the turn of the millennium I was recruited to a dot-com company when that whole boom was happening. All of a sudden I was earning really good money and being sent on business trips to New York. I bought a new [used] car and life was peachy. Looking back, though, I’ve rarely been involved in anything quite so bizarre. The business model was dodgy, and never in my life have I seen money squandered with such reckless abandon. Unsurprisingly the bubble burst a few months later.

Shortly afterwards I started working for the British Embassy here in Reykjavík. I spent a couple of good years there before deciding it was time to move on and went back to freelancing. That was when the boom was starting, and work was plentiful. I worked for companies owned by all the three main oligarchs at some point during those years – probably like most people here in Iceland. They owned just about everything.

At the time, it didn’t feel particularly strange or out of whack. Like most people here, I didn’t think about the economy too much. It was just kind of there, like the weather. Nor can I say that I particularly benefited from the boom — apart from the fact that work was plentiful. But then again, work is usually plentiful for people in my line of work here in Iceland. The oligarchs, the owners of the banks and those who were on a buying spree abroad, the people who flew in on their private jets and published pictures of themselves in their own magazines — those people inhabited a completely different universe from the rest of us. Personally, I found them profoundly uninteresting. However, not for a moment did I doubt that they had an exceptional talent for business. After all, they were so wildly successful.

Economically not much changed for me during the boom. I still drive the same old car I bought ten years ago and live in a flat that is marginally too small but still OK. I think the greatest change for me since the meltdown has been to come to terms with a new world view. For one thing, I am infinitely wiser now about the intricacies of finance and global economics. But also, the picture I had of the society in which I lived has undergone a total transformation. It was like going to sleep in one world, and waking up in another.

And I am still happy that I moved to Iceland sixteen years ago. That has not changed.

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  • Michael Lewis March 3, 2010, 2:22 pm

    “never in my life have I seen money squandered with such reckless abandon.”

    Having worked for investment banks all my working life, I’ve seen plenty of money squandered. But you have to work for government to really stuff things up. I can’t name names or name the organisation. However, just before the dot com bust, my bosss (an MD at an investment bank) invited a few of us to dinner (‘Windows on the World’ at the then world trade centre). Now he was a tinny bit arrogant, and to prove that he was boss (and infintely more powerful than us) he insited that the sommelier come to our table. He then berated the person, before demanding to know what ‘proper’ wines the resturant had – and not give him a list that had been written down and printed. It was genuine Silverback, alpha male behaviour. The old addage about a fool and his money being easily parted … he order some bottle of wine to the tune of circa 15,000 USD (In todays money, not allowing for inflation, but using the current spot rate, thats roughly 3 million ISK). Personally, I can say we were all drunk and never really appreciated the wine.
    He went on to glory though, at the hight of his excess, he paid (on a company Black Amex) for his staff to have an offsite: at the George V hotel in Paris, and paid for some boat trip too. I skiped the boat trip. How did it all end? Well he was due to be fired: but his manager made a comment that made reference to the religion of one of the New York based team and the company (lets call it ‘European’ – you can guess the nation) paid out a fortune to several people to leave quietly (the conversation was made on a dealing phone, so taped and could be requested in any legal proceedings).
    HR are the most two-faced department you’ll find in any organisation.
    Sadly as an underling I got nothing other than to continue my job under a differnt boss.

  • Eliza March 3, 2010, 2:40 pm

    2003-2007, the years of blissful happiness or is it collective blindness ?

  • Andrew (the other one) March 3, 2010, 3:32 pm

    Thank you for that thoughtful piece. it brought back memories of the dot com era of excess to me too. After years toiling away as a badly paid university researcher, suddenly I had a huge increase in salary, company credit card and business trips to Vancouver and Seattle. Also the work was actually rather easy. It was pretty nice while it lasted. Now of course I am back to working as a university lecturer on about a third of the salary. But I still managed to meet some very nice people and learn a lot about business, patent law and some interesting bioscience while it lasted.

  • icelandbob March 3, 2010, 4:34 pm

    An interesting decade indeed!

    I started it working for a major UK bank in the city, but quit after a few years as i wasn´t getting “The Game” (i.e. – suck up to the awful bosses, hang around your desk until VERY late, dress down friday didn´t mean just a t-shirt, sandals and battered old jeans). i was earning a very good wage, but my expenses were greater, as you were expected to conspicuously spend more (nice suits and clothes, better food and wines, crap expensive nightclubs) so that no matter what you were spending, you always seemed short of money. We often met the “big guys” (i.e. the investment bankers) and they just acted like they were in another universe.
    In the end i gave it up and worked as a street outreach worker for a charity working with homeless people, drug users and sex workers in Camden for 3 years! even though the pay was less, so were my outgoings. I haven´t worn a suit for nearly 6 years now thank god!

    and when i came to Iceland 2007, it was probably the high point of the “boom”. Looking back on it now, the thing that rather niggles me about all of this is that there is so much collective memory “loss” nowadays as to how a lot of people acted in those heady days. The same peple who go to me now “I WASN´T ONE OF THOSE BANKERS!” where back then doing their best to squeeze the system to get their slice, where it was getting a custom imported car, deliberately inflating their expenses and wages at the companies they worked for and spending huge amounts on clothes and flat screen TV´s using credit cards without giving much thought about how it was going to all end up.

    Is there an Icelandic word for “introspection”?

  • idunn March 3, 2010, 5:21 pm

    A lovely story, well said and read.

    It seems circular to me as well. If not much money widely available then, much the same now, with all that much wiser in consequence. As if learning something in a dream.

  • sylvia hikins March 3, 2010, 5:40 pm

    According to the records, in 2006 Iceland was the most expensive country in the world to visit. A glass of beer cost £11 in Reykjavik. I was a decently paid academic but I couldn’t afford a trip, let alone bring my three kids. Food prices were described to me by a visiting colleague as ‘extortionate’- she bought food from the local supermarket and ate it in her hotel room. You were being ripped off by middlemen as well as those greedy oligarchs- or maybe that was all of the same. Perhaps a positive side of the ‘kreppa’ will be a return to those values that you talk about experiencing during your first few years in Iceland- a return not just for Nicelanders, but for all of us. After all, what do we really need to make us happy? I doubt whether an SUV or a flat screen TV does the trick. I look forward to reading your blog on 3rd March, 16 years time!
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Kris March 3, 2010, 5:41 pm

    Hubris is the central theme of many stories. No less the current one in Iceland.

  • Tom Harper March 3, 2010, 5:50 pm

    This was a really great post. Thanks for sharing this little tidbit of your life with us =)

  • James March 3, 2010, 8:03 pm

    Nice article.

    It seems like Icelanders were forced to take the red pill in late 2008 and can now answer the question: What is the Matrix?

  • JimJones March 3, 2010, 9:29 pm

    I think it was in Geography of Bliss where the author cited studies that say that past a certain amount of money per year(around $20,000 USD, if I recall correctly) money does not provide anywhere near as much happiness(like instead of a 1:1 ratio, happiness to money, it’s more like a 1:5 ratio after $20k USD a year).

    If you think about it that makes sense. When a person makes money in the beginning, they are paying for things that are really, really important for happiness like food, shelter, water,etc. Without those it is in theory possible to be happy, but it is much harder. After that point it seems that additional things don’t generate as much happiness(like a BMW or an extra house).

    Something to think about at least.

  • TMCD March 4, 2010, 4:36 am

    Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story 🙂
    Bless, Bless

  • Joerg March 4, 2010, 7:34 am

    Very interesting article. I have been following Iceland’s development for more than twenty years more or less intensely. Sixteen years ago, it was definitely a very different country compared to now. In the years preceding the crash, I got somehow alienated by this bizarre fixation on consumerism and recklessness in respect of taking out loans. And a certain degree of hubris and the belief in Iceland’s speciality was palpable almost everywhere. Despite the current predicament I feel more at ease now, when visting the country. Of course, it’s a view from outside.

    Nowadays, there are so many people entertaining the idea of leaving Iceland. So, it is good to hear somebody, who is still sticking to the decision of moving there.

  • ad28 March 4, 2010, 11:38 am

    Your short story of last 16 years refreshed our memories, so nicely. But is there anyone who could say how Iceland would look like in the next 16 MONTHS?

  • Dad March 7, 2010, 1:32 am

    I guess nobody is happier than I that you moved to Iceland sixteen years ago.