A few days ago I received a request for an interview by a journalist in Bejing. I was impressed by his questions — he was clearly well-informed about the background to the situation here in Iceland, and appeared to have a sincere desire to communicate to his readers what life here is like in the wake of the collapse. I asked him if he minded if I posted the interview here and he had no problem with that. I should hasten to add, before I post it, that these answers are completely subjective and only reflect my own views and opinions of what’s going on.
1. Which kind of families are starting to lose their homes and their cars, do your neighbor or relatives are one of them?
Contrary to what many people think, we here in Iceland are not really in bad shape, at least not “en masse”. I don’t know anyone who has or is about to lose their home or car. I think the people who are first and foremost affected are those who borrowed in foreign currencies — who took out car loans in foreign currencies, or mortgages. Because of the devaluation of the krona, those loans and the payments have gone up a great deal and that is difficult for many people. — On the other hand, it is important to note that the government is implementing measures to help the people who are worst affected. The measures taken include people having the option of freezing part of their loan payments for a certain period. As far as I know no one has become homeless as a result of the crisis and I don’t think that will happen. After all, even if the banks do repossess the homes [and remember that the banks are all owned by the government now] they will not be able to sell them. So what is the point of having lots of empty homes around and nobody living in them? — These are, of course, unusual times and they call for unusual measures.
2. Do you have some friends who worked in the banks but has lost there jobs now, since the majority of banks has collapsed, they are looking for which kinds of new jobs? Be a fisherman like before?
I do know some people who worked in the banks and most of them still have their jobs. I know one person who lost her job. The thing is, that even though the banks “collapsed” they didn’t really — they were taken over by the state and are still functioning and they still need their staff. There were some cutbacks, though, and it was mostly the people who were involved in the foreign banking aspects, or the stockbrokers, who were let go. I haven’t heard of anyone going back to the fishing industry after banking — and anyway, going back to being a fisherman is not that easy here because fishing is strictly regulated, you need to have a fishing quota for your boat, and so on. People can’t just get in a boat and go out and fish.
3. If they can’t find a new job, do they still stay in Iceland or find new jobs abroad?
I know that a number of people are looking for jobs abroad. Foreign employment agencies have come here and introduced possibilities for Icelanders abroad, and offered assistance. Mostly they are from the Nordic countries, although just recently an agreement was signed with Manitoba in Canada, to help Icelanders go over there, to where the Icelandic settlements are, near Winnipeg. Most of the people who are looking to go abroad are skilled labourers and people in the construction industry — carpenters, plumbers and so on. The construction industry has pretty much bottomed out here so people are looking to go elsewhere. However, most of them say they are only looking to leave temporarily, until the situation improves.
4. How about your life now? Can you repay your car loan and the house loan normally; do you think you are in safety? Why?
Yes, I am fine. I still have plenty of work [I have a small writing and translation business, and sometimes work as an interpreter] and my husband still has his job. I have had to take a reduction in my salary [about 10 percent], like many Icelanders. We have a very reasonable mortgage and it’s not in a foreign currency [we are very lucky] and we own both our cars [they’re not new!]. So we don’t notice much of a difference in our lives. — As for whether we feel safe, well, you never know what tomorrow will bring! But for now, we feel OK and are not very anxious about the future.
5. Many Icelandic children’s dreams ever be a bank director, but now they maybe change it, what’s your children’s dreams?
I don’t know if many Icelandic children dreamed of being bank directors! Maybe. Not mine, though. I have one daughter and three stepdaughters … my daughter is about to turn 18 and still has two years of school left before she goes to university, and she doesn’t quite know what she wants to do, but if anything, I’d say her dream is to be a singer. My youngest stepdaughter is now in Berlin trying to make her dream come true — she has been studying dance and wants to be a dancer. My middle stepdaughter lives in New York — that was her dream and she has been there as an au pair for a couple of years, but will come back to Iceland this summer. My oldest stepdaughter is a doctor [currently an intern]. So — nobody wants to be a banker!
6. Who should be blamed for the crisis? The former PM David Oddsson who loosen the regulation to the banks? Or the directors in the banks who lure you to borrow from them? Or the borrowers themselves?
It would be nice to be able to point the finger at one person and say “it’s him” but I don’t think it’s that simple. It was a combination of lax regulations, bad regulators who didn’t do their job, the Central Bank not doing its job in the lead-up to the collapse, and not least the bankers who were blinded by greed and went completely overboard in taking risks. — As for borrowing by the public, that was not the problem — the problem was that there was so much corruption in the banks and they were owned by people who also owned many big companies in Iceland and abroad, and they were milking the banks for their own purposes. They were essentially robbing their own banks — and now that they have collapsed, we the public must pay the debts of the banks. Many of those debts are overseas and are colossal for a small nation like this one. And then of course there is the whole issue of the owners transferring huge sums into offshore accounts in tax havens. Much of that has yet to come to light. An investigation is just getting started.
7. Since the krona depreciated, the price become far more expensive to the Icelanders, could you give me an example about you?
Again, we are very lucky that we don’t have loans in other currencies. That is a huge relief. Last year we were thinking of buying a larger home and a new car, but now of course we are so relieved that we didn’t. We do notice that food has gone up in the shops, some products more than others, but it is still manageable for us. On the other hand, we probably won’t travel abroad this year on holiday [we had been doing that about once or twice a year previously] and our thought of moving or buying a new car is completely on hold [which is fine — we didn’t really NEED either of those things]. Also, clothes and everything that is imported has gone up a lot, and we have definitely scaled down our spending on those things. So, I would say that we think a lot more about what we spend our money on, but we are really not lacking in anything. We’ve just come back down to earth about a lot of things.
8. I have read your biography, you have lived in many countries, now do you think the Iceland is still the happiest country in the world?
Yes, I do. Icelanders have this boundless optimism, it’s amazing. People are really focused on looking for opportunities in the recession. And it’s important to remember that some businesses are actually doing very well now, in particular the export companies. When the krona was strong, they were always in trouble with exporting their goods, but now they’re doing a booming business [for example fish exporters]. Also, we have a lot of natural resources, for example our geothermal heating, which keeps us warm, and we have very well-built houses. So people here are generally happy and not very worried about the future. We get a lot of international channels on our TV and when I look at the news from the UK, for example, I would say they are a lot more pessimistic than we are, even though their situation is not half as bad! — One also has to realize that Icelanders as a nation have experienced much, much worse than this. Only 100 years ago we were living in turf houses, and shortage of firewood and of hay, for example, was a regular occurrance. The Icelandic nation has been nearly wiped out about three times in the last 1,000 years, through famine, disease, or volcanic eruptions. So what we are experiencing today is like a luxury problem.