In Iceland Among the Hipster Vikings

I’ve already drawn the parallels between Seattle and Reyjkavik. Especially interesting is Iceland’s sub-species of hipster, the Viking hipster. Imagine a common hipster: ugly sweaters, clever tattoos, big glasses, skinny jeans, and converse sneakers. Now add facial hair that would make a berserking Norse warrior proud, and you have the Viking hipster.

Despite the ridiculous way some of the Icelanders dress, I have never encountered more serious people, contrasting with the boisterous Scotsmen, and of course, Americans. Many of the personal questions that would come up early in a conversation with an American stranger are completely taboo for conversation with an Icelander. Icelanders love to talk about Iceland, international politics and traveling, but are guarded about themselves.  Icelanders are very proud of their history, language and culture. Their unpronounceable language is the closest there is to the original Norse tongue. Trying to get an Icelander to help you sound out a place name is a sure way to endear yourself. They usually give you three tries before they roll their eyes and say “close enough.”   I started to understand why Americans are perceived by many foreigners (unfairly, in my opinion)  as fake. We are a different type of “volk” who are naturally more outgoing and easygoing. Even the US smile is distinctive; when I met a Norwegian, I cracked my giant, trademarked Sven grin. She looked at me and said, “You are an American; only an American could smile like that.”

Icelanders value words. The Icelandic Sagas are epic tales almost a thousand years old that are roughly equivalent to a Viking Iliad and Odyssey, and come down to us as the only picture of a functioning Medeval society. The literacy rate in Iceland is 100%, and 1 in 10 Icelanders publishes a book in their lifetime. With their tradition of story, it seems appropriate that Icelanders are a laconic people who reserve their words for important functions and don’t feel the need to make endless small talk.

Acutely aware of how isolated they are by geography and language, Iceland does its best to make its citizens cosmopolitan, cultured people through excellent education. While all Icelanders speak fair English, many speak it so well that I am embarrassed for my country where many people speak in a mix of Redneck and Valley Girl. My Icelandic friend, who I met through the Couchsurfing program is about six feet, eight inches tall, and is completing his residency as a doctor, used the word “Machiavellian” in a discussion about politics. Most Americans wouldn’t even recognize a word like that.

A beer in downtown Reyjkavik costs about 1000 Icelandic Kroners, or about 8 American Dollars. I quickly learned to reckon the approximate cost of something by the number of beers it would convert into. Icelandic coins all feature fish on the tail side, and I soon disregarded most of them except th 50 kroner coins featuring crabs. 5 crabs buys you a cup of coffee.

I spoke to one Icelandic girl whose laments would be familiar to small town people everywhere (and Iceland is a small town as much as a country).  “I hate Iceland!” she declared.

“But why?” I asked. “It seems wonderful to me.”

She pointed to a man at random in the bar. “See him? If I sleep with him, there is a good chance that one of my friends has already slept with him. It is too small here.” Needless to say, there is a culture of causal “hooking up” in Iceland. So close are the family trees that the government even sponsors a genealogy app specifically designed to ensure people don’t inadvertently sleep with their cousins. I have a few guesses on what might have created this culture. First, Christianity didn’t really take root on the island until the sixteenth century, and its tenuous grip was quickly lost in the late twentieth century. The Icelanders worshipped the old gods for a long time; perhaps the ambivalent attitude to sex is a hold over from paganism. Second, women have traditionally had significant power in Scandinavian culture, and a culture with more influential females seems to have looser sexual mores. Third, the Icelanders are traditionally a sea going people, and as many a sailor can tell you, wives and sweethearts can be less than faithful when their men leave on long voyages.

This culture with a strong, visible role for females is credited with saving the country financially in 2009 when Icelanders refused to prop up banks, simply letting them collapse. This resulted in Iceland’s economy coming back quickly from the abyss, as they avoided bailouts and austerity.

Although the economy is alright for the moment, the political angst in the country was palpable. With so few industries to rely on, and being so far off trade routes, the Icelandic economy is less resilient than most countries. There was a lot of political graffiti everywhere expressing anger against the incumbent politicians. The future of socialized medicine and free college education caused concern among many young people. Tourism has experienced explosive growth due to tireless advertisement and special deals from Icelandair Airlines. Icelanders, already wary of strangers, were unhappy to see their city redesigned to accommodate what they believe are excessive numbers of visitors at the expense of their culture.

Anti-capitalist graffiti that I happened upon in a back alley. I can't read the words but the message is clear.

Anti-capitalist graffiti that I happened upon in a back alley. I can’t read the words but the message is clear.

My friend, who is close to becoming a licensed doctor, lamented the crumbling hospitals. He spoke of moving to Sweden to find work. I sincerely hope Iceland will be able to solve these problems; a “brain drain” of talented young people will sap the country’s lifeblood.

The small town feel of Iceland was evident, as gangs of young children laughed and played in the streets among tourists. What a difference from America, where parents live in the constant, media induced fear that their children will be kidnapped. During the mornings, many young couples could be seen pushing strollers around the clean streets. All of this gives the country a very youthful, hopeful feel that I think bodes well for Iceland. American cities, with their emphasis on business and pleasure seem only superficially cheerful: a city needs children to be truly alive.

Humorously, I walked in at a bad time among some thuggish Icelanders who were dealing drugs at the city’s author/actor bar. They were quite threatening by Icelandic standards, grilling me on what I was up to while they petted their miniature Dachshund. Despite their jailhouse antics,they didn’t compare to the people I’ve seen in Columbia or Detroit, or Williston for that matter. I eventually told them that they were being rude, and they promptly backed down. How I managed to find the sketchiest people in one of the world’s safest countries I will never know.

I enjoyed the gravity that Icelanders brought to day to day life, and I sometimes wish that my countrymen were more thoughtful. Wearing my serious face and nice clothes, I was often mistaken for an Icelander, which was quite flattering. Unfortunately, the seriousness of the Icelanders reactivated my dormant Scandinavian melancholy, and I found myself pondering existential questions. I was happy to find a group of gregarious Americans and Canadians at the hostel to go hell raising with.

There are two interesting asides that I would like to mention. In a true “small world” moment, I met an older man at the hostel who was the president of the Sons of Norway in Seattle, and he knew some of the same people from the SON I used to dance at near Seattle. He also knew an acquaintance of mine from the military. The world really can be a small place, reminding me of the proverb, “He who has 1000 friends has not enough, but he with 1 enemy will meet him wherever he goes.”

In a second interesting nexus to Iceland, I walked into a drilling bit company factory here in Williston, North Dakota to introduce myself. I assumed the bits were for drilling oil wells (what else in this area?) but the company actually manufactured only bits for geothermal bore holes, and they actually supplied some of Iceland’s geothermal ventures.

There is so much interesting about Iceland: the history, the film culture, the mountains, the geothermal industry, etc. I couldn’t begin to discuss all of this, so I just tried to present a series of unique observations.

I will always remember my time in the Valhalla of the Viking hipsters, Reyjkavik, Iceland.

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