The whole world seemed taken with the Icelandic soccer team and the fan presence last week. The skill, the fervor, the number of people who flew over – but perhaps more we were fascinated with who they are. That the co-manager is a dentist who worked full-time in his practice on the island of Heimay until he took the national team (now it’s less than half time.) Or the players with their many jobs from videographer to youth coach.
The people and their whole approach to life, education, work and history felt fresh and intentional and honest. The woman in the gas station treated me as if she owned the place and I was important. The fellow selling the best hot dogs from a stand in downtown Reykjavik spoke perfect English, had a wry humor and an opinion on U.S. politics. Both had other jobs and other passions as well. Their identity it appeared was their ‘self’ and not their job.
In honor of the team, I’m reposting a piece from my second day in Iceland, the Golden Circle day, in November 2014!
Iceland 2: No Theme Parks
This was a confusing day. I drove the Golden Circle to see three big sights: the Geysir (where the name came from), Gullfoss the massive double waterfalls, and Pingvellir. Pingvellir is a deeply significant place geologically and in Icelandic history. It is where North America becomes Europe – where the plates that form the Eurasian and North American continents can be seen creating a slowly widening rift. It is also where the law-making body of Iceland met for 900 years starting in 930, always meeting during the same week of summer.
The GPS landed me in a dreary isolated car park. I had not had enough coffee and I am embarrassed that, in a stereotypical American whine, I asked the couple parked next to me “where is it already??” Where is the Information Center. This they told me was just the hut with the maps -over there – no constantly looping video, no interactive displays. I actually had arrived. They trekked off politely.
Here is the thing. This place is sacred to the country. No gift shop or café. They don’t want to build on this place and don’t want fumes from buses and cars on the site. If you want to see it, you hike up the valley, stand on the spot, and see the sites as close to natural as possible.
You are not left uniformed. There are wooden placards with great stories. In fact, I learned that thieves were the most vile criminals and were beheaded or drowned. With murder, apparently, they left room for two sides to every story. About the drowned thieves, I wonder if centuries of this practice is why everyone from the rental car agent to the desk clerk says, ‘who locks up? It’s Iceland!’
With Pingvellir and other sites, I think they have something important figured out. The site where their government started, where the 1000th year of Christianity was celebrated in 2000, beside their biggest lake, a World Heritage site, is free admission. Open to all. There is no theme park atmosphere to make sure it’s worth the ticket.
Four Things I Learned About Iceland
Iceland was the first democracy to elect a female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served as president from 1980 to 1996.
They have a 100% literacy rate and love publishing. Every year, all the publishing houses release lists of new titles for the holidays at the same time called the Christmas book flood.
Progressive, they elected the first openly gay world leader, their prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
Plus, just as a bonus, there is a list of approved first names for babies. This is important because children’s surnames are their father’s first name and ‘sson’ or ‘dottir’. Crazy trends like Apple or Moon Unit just start a decline of dignity.