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Why Iceland

PUBLISHED: April 26, 2013


I’ve just returned from my third trip to Iceland in a year. When this comes up in conversation, I am inevitably and understandably asked why—what takes me there?

It’s not business; yet vacation doesn’t seem the right word either. The question as to why Iceland would be most easily answered, I suppose, by photographs of its supernatural beauty. But let’s say you’re stuck next to me on a plane and we start talking. Here’s what I would tell you:

That it is clean; the streets and sidewalks and air and water are clean, unpolluted, unlittered by cigarette butts and trash and people’s spit and dog shit.

That it is small—only 300,000-some people on the whole island—but does not feel small. (Or, when it does, like a sexy dress or good suit, it is small in the right places.)

That Icelanders know their history and feel part of it.

That, as one Icelander explained to me, “fame has no value here.”

That one rarely sees Icelanders walking down the street or sitting in cafés or bars or cars staring into iPhones, oblivious to others and walled-off from human contact; indeed, this is the easiest way to spot an American in Iceland—eyes lowered, ears plugged, iPhone held to the face as if in anticipation of a kiss.

That there is virtually no violent crime in Iceland.

That Icelandic police do not carry guns.

That Iceland’s prime minister is a lesbian, legally married to another woman (same-sex marriage has been legal, with little fuss, for years). Her wife is respectfully called the First Lady.

That one’s family is of upmost importance—elderly or ailing parents or troubled older siblings are taken into one’s home—and yet definitions of family are not necessarily traditional; it isn’t uncommon for a man or woman in Iceland to have children from several different partners.

That there are swimming complexes in virtually every neighborhood. People of all ages, from babies to the elderly, come not only to swim but to socialize. In the hot tubs, neighbors and friends catch up and laugh after work as aches and pains melt away.

That Iceland’s chief form of energy and heat is geothermal.

That freeways outside cities are not cluttered with billboards and advertising. What you see when you drive is the mountains and the sea and land largely as it was before settlers arrived.

That Icelanders are proud of their language and yet also speak English with disarming style, choosing words carefully—for example, a photographer tells me that he prefers 35mm film cameras over digital because “film has more charisma.” Or, a woman says to me of her life, she is “always busy with the moment”—not busy because of her job and kids and spin class but “with the moment,” as if each moment is her partner.

Finally (and this list was just a start):

This is a little hard to describe, but that there is a soft, wordless gasp built into their language—haaa!—which often comes in response to something another person says (rather than “yeah?” or “okay” or “really?” or “uh-huh”). One may be at a table, gathered with family and friends for a meal, describing what one has seen or done or feels—say, for example, talking about why one loves Iceland—and all the while, from all around the table, you hear not words but these lovely, quiet, short intakes of breath: “haaa … haaa … haaa …

It is as if the sound of wonder is central to being Icelandic. The sound of breath being taken away.


Reykjavik - January


On the road to Raufarhofn


On the Prerogative to Change One's Mind - Reykjavik





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Rick Jones's picture
Rick Jones · 10 years ago
Nice article. My wife and I spent a bit more than a week in Iceland a few years ago. We were in Reykjavik, mainly, although we rented a car and drove clockwise around the island, spending nights in Akureyri, Fjaroabyggo, and some place on the south coast. It was hauntingly beautiful, and one of the few places we’ve visited that I continually think about going back to.
Albert Örn Eyþórsson's picture
Well written article but are you sure you were visiting Iceland and not Faroe Islands. People here caring for family and not staring into the empty void of some gadget at all times does not sound like Iceland at all. Did you spend time in downtown Reykjavik at all? best Albert
CRoth's picture
CRoth · 10 years ago
You do not mention the ethnic homogeneity of Iceland’s Norse/Celtic descendants [94% of population]; a homogeneity scrupulously enforced by some of the strictest immigration policies of any country. Though you’re in luck if you happen to be of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, or Finnish extraction, with no residency permit required. Please do another posting explaining how the lack of ethnic diversity–the ostensible source of our vibrant cultural life in the U.S.–has not made Icelandic society one-dimensional and stagnant.
Cynthia McCutcheon's picture
Cynthia McCutcheon · 10 years ago
Congratulations on capturing what is so very special in Iceland. It is hard to describe yet you seemed to incorporate many aspects of why I love this country! I have never been in a country where you literally lose your breath rounding a corner or where you walk down a city street while watching live art displays that peak your curiousity. Iceland is a country of wonders, where you can experience total relaxation, take in beauty from something as simple as a lupin to something as complex as geothermal water explosions. The wildlife is calming: meandering sheep, wild seabirds and majestic horses. All this said, nothing is as welcoming as the people in Iceland. Welcoming and genuine. Interesting, creative and open to a learning about your world too! I can’t think of any reason not to fall in love with Iceland! Just take a trip and you will understand. No wonder the Vikings tried to keep it a secret!
Merrick's picture
My wife is Icelandic and I am Jamaican (living in the Savannah, GA). The country of Iceland is beautifully untouched…I hope it remains like that for many years to come. However, like many places on this planet, we will always encounter or experience culture unqiuely when looked at as an outsider. To me going to Iceland with our kids every year is another reminder that we are humans and that there is something else bigger than us happening. I am always searching for an answer as to why I am drawn to Iceland and there are so many pros and cons as; but they are all intriguing to me and my family. The more you travel the more you are intact with yourself and the more you learn about your culture in return. I teach graphic design and I hope to create a visual representation that compares both countries qualities….still working on the concept.. However, not to rant anymore, but I enjoy the responses on this blog and thank you for the ha ha moment!

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