Iceland : “…they have not — not yet — become vulgar”

May 5, 2014

Jack Schnedler, blood, dirt & dngels’ occasional roving (and raving) correspondent, is footloose this month with wife Marcia in Iceland. Here’s his first transmission:

REYKJAVIK — Twenty-four days in Iceland: No, that’s not the jail time meted out to minor miscreants. It’s the length of the road trip that the retired Schnedlers are beginning in this mid-Atlantic nation best known for its plenitude of volcanoes — or perhaps as the home of superstar entertainer Bjork.

Why Iceland? And why for so long?

Our correspondent. ©Marcia Schnedler 2014

Our correspondent. ©Marcia Schnedler 2014

Honestly, it’s not because Marcia is an enthusiast for Game of Thrones, the hit TV series that has done extensive location shooting amid Iceland’s frozen winter landscapes. Or because we’re keen to see the house where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met to wind down the Cold War.

Three days in Iceland on the way to France a year ago sparked our enthusiasm for this much longer stay. We were dazzled by the spectacular landscapes formed by eons of volcanic activity (most recently, the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, whose ash halted most European air traffic for six days). The natural phenomena include the original Geysir, for which all such spoutings of water are named, and Gullfoss, a two-tiered waterfall of prodigious power.

We also relished the good-natured Icelanders (almost all of whom speak fluent English), the abundant bird life, the multitudes of shaggy little Icelandic horses and the unexpectedly good dining (even if horse steak does occasionally show up on the menu, not to mention whale). Overall, we enjoyed the pervasive sense of being somewhere still ruled more by nature than human presence.

Game of Thrones notwithstanding, 24 winter days here would seem like a jail sentence to most visitors, with only a few hours of daylight and finger-freezing temperatures. May is a much better bet, with sunset happening around 10 p.m. High temperatures in Reykjavik our first three days have hovered around 50 degrees, with blue to partly cloudy skies and only a sprinkle of rain.

We’ll be doing our island circumnavigation in a rented Dacia Duster. It’s a quasi-jeep of Romanian provenance with four-wheel drive and the capability of traversing unpaved mountain roads should we be daffy enough to go that route.

Since Iceland has only three-fourths the area of Arkansas with a population of about 330,000 (a bit more than a tenth of the Natural State’s), this circle drive could be done in four or five days.

But once away from metropolitan Reykjavik, which harbors two-thirds of Icelanders, we’ll putter. We’ll try to evoke the spirit of British poets W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, who spent a summer in Iceland as young men in 1936.

For their book Letters From Iceland, Auden penned a whimsical verse that may still hold true to some extent:

The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
The tourists sights have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population.

Auden returned to Iceland in 1964. In the foreword to a new edition of Letters From Iceland, he wrote that “it was holy ground still, with the most magical light of anywhere on earth. Furthermore, modernity does not seem to have changed the character of the inhabitants. They are still the only really classless society I have ever encountered, and they have not — not yet — become vulgar.”

Harpa concert hall, opened a few years ago, is Reykjavik’s architectural pride and joy. © Marcia Schnedler 2014

Harpa concert hall, opened a few years ago, is Reykjavik’s architectural pride and joy. © Marcia Schnedler 2014

Iceland still has no trains, but reforestation is returning a good many trees to the landscape. There is now a smattering of eye-catching contemporary architecture, most notably the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. Fruits and vegetables are grown abundantly in hothouses warmed by thermal energy.

Scandinavian-level prosperity came to the county in the 1970s and ’80s thanks mainly to income from fishing rights. The 2008 banking collapse that hit during the worldwide recession battered Iceland’s consumer society. But there has been enough recovery that the main shopping streets of Reykjavik could pass for those of a larger city in France, Italy or the United States.

Auden wrote dimly of Icelandic food in the 1930s: “Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.”

Reykjavik these days is as lively a restaurant town as Little Rock, and that is to be taken as a compliment. Our first two evenings featured top-flight dinners at Caruso, an Italian spot jampacked on a Wednesday, and Gandhi, an Indian place where the tandoori salmon was marvelous.

As Marcia and I do our circumnavigation, we’ll aim to dodge any dried fish that might cross our path. We’ll also try to divine how classless Icelandic society remains, and whether 21st century vulgarity has taken a toehold. Stay tuned.and whether 21st century vulgarity has taken a toehold. Stay tuned.


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