A Tale of Two Cities: Seattle vs. Reyjkavik

Space Needle

The parallels between Reykjavik, Iceland and Seattle, Washington are striking.

Both are surrounded by breathtaking landscapes. On those rare days when the whether is clear, the volcano Snaefellsjokull can be see from Reyjkavik, much like the volcano Mount Rainier in the Puget Sound region. A major landscape difference is that the massive conifers of Western Washington are replaced by a mosaic of lichens and moss in Southwest Iceland.

Both are inhabited by polite, but distant citizens. Seattle is legendary for its “chill” effect, where people are courteous, but resist interacting with others on a personal level. National Public Radio did a segment about this (I listen to NPR because it is sometimes interesting even if I can’t stand it politically). One explanation NPR gave for this phenomenon is that Seattle is dominated by professional types whose friends come mostly from their work circles. Another explanation is that Seattlites are tech oriented people who prefer to interact with electronics rather than actual people. The final explanation was that the “freeze” was a vestige of rural Scandinavian culture, in which people were suspicious of strangers, opening up only after generous amounts of alcohol had been consumed. After visiting Iceland, the third explanation seems most likely. Talking to the Icelanders during the day was difficult. They were helpful, but brief, keeping with Scandinavian custom of the Jante Law that prescribes politeness, non-conflict, and not being boastful, similar to the “Minnesota Nice” of the Midwest.¬†Only on weekend nights did they imbibe the prolific amounts of alcohol that turned them into gregarious people. If they drank sufficient amounts, the berserk (a crazed Viking warrior drunk with blood lust) would emerge, as in the case of two Icelandic girls in short dresses and heels throwing bottles at each other in the street at 4AM on a Saturday illustrated.

Reyjkavik from a neighborhood on the west side as I walked back from the pool. The prominent church is the Hallgrimskirkja.

Reyjkavik from a neighborhood on the west side as I walked back from the pool. The prominent church is the Hallgrimskirkja. The low cloud to the left of the steeple is from one of the geothermal plants that generates the country’s electricity.

In another case of Seattle deja vu, Icelandic fashions embrace eccentric styles or expensive outdoor clothing.

Both have terrible weather, with a grey, gloomy maritime climate.

Both have lots of awesome coffee shops. Until recent history, Iceland was a very poor country. Coffee was a favorite drink, besides beer, of course, but was so expensive that most could only afford to drink it on Christmas and Easter. In the late 1800s, many Icelanders were going hungry as the island reached its limited capacity for farming and fishing. Agents were sent to various places in North America to find a suitable place for Icelandic colonists. There were actually talks with the US government on the possibility of starting a colony on Kodiak Island, Alaska. This is a fascinating “what if” moment… It would be interesting to have a “little Iceland” on the shores of my home state. Eventually North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada became the destinations for poverty struck population. Coming back to coffee, the potential Icelandic immigrants were amazed when they heard that even poor people in North America could afford “kaffi” every day! The weather in places like Seattle and Reyjkavik makes coffee nessecary to pep up during the grey, damp days.

The architecture was strikingly similar, as both cities are fairly young, with lots of corrugated metal and things built at odd angles. The skyline in each is dominated by a an unconventional structure, the Space Needle observation tower and the Hallgrimskirkja church, respectively. Both cities favor ugly modern sculptures.

I was unsurprised that the two are actually registered as sister cities… a better match was never made.

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One Response to A Tale of Two Cities: Seattle vs. Reyjkavik

  1. Pingback: Seattle vs. Reykjavik | inc.is

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