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06 March 2005

66° North: a treeless big rock in the North Atlantic

It's not easy to get to Iceland, even today. Well, yes, of course with airplanes, it is easy to get there, but for some mysterious reason, everybody still thinks it's hard to get there and nobody wants to go there much -- and this is a Big Mistake, because it is a fascinating, remarkable, sweepingly beautiful, and hospitable place. I've been twice, and if my ticket from Robbie's Lottery that I bought at the Curaçao Airport is a winner, I'll go back to Iceland in a heartbeat. I just can't find what the winning numbers were on the Internet. If you live in Curaçao and you can help me, please e-mail me. I need the 3 Sifra
and 4 Sifra winners for 16 February 2005.

But until you've been to Iceland and had yourself a genuine Icelandic ball, it doesn't seem like a very inviting or promising tourist destination. It is a small treeless (actively) volcanic earthquake-friendly rock in the middle of the North Atlantic, at 66 degrees North Latitude -- so far north that when I was there in late June, and got up at 3 a.m. to pee, the Sun was still up, and stayed up all night -- i.e., there was No Night. (That sure surprised me; I clearly had not been paying attention either to the calendar or the latitude.)

Six months later, if you want to pee at noon, it's totally pitch dark, because for a few weeks the Sun just never comes up at all. (Arthur Koestler's novel "Darkness at Noon" is, nevertheless, not about Iceland in December.)

Also the name of the place doesn't sound very inviting, but that's because it's a mistranslation. It doesn't mean Ice Land. It's an old misspelling, from Icelandic to English, of Island.

But I can take you to a few really swell glaciers, I can take you to Island's Ice Land. Don't fall into that Moulin! And watch out for that erupting volcano! Quick! Leap over that river of molten lava! Earthquake! Flee for your lives!

Probably the first people to set foot on Iceland got there by mistake, when a violent Atlantic storm blew them off course from familiar inhabited places like the Orkney or Shetland or Faroes islands or Norway. Iceland seems never to have had aboriginal Arctic people like proto-Inuits. When the Vikings showed up in 874 AD, they did find (and promptly slaughtered) a tiny monastery of Irish Catholic monks. How the hell the monks got to Iceland -- well, they would have had to have floated to Iceland in their animal-skin coracles or curraghs. This is comparable to you and a few of your buddies paddling a big kayak, without a GPS or magnetic compass, from Seattle to Hawaii by accident, only you're freezing to death and weeping and praying to God for deliverance the whole time.

There were trees all over the island, but the new Viking settlers promptly chopped them down for houses, firewood and boats, and that far north (the Arctic Circle is 66 degrees 32 minutes North Latitude), new trees don't grow back very fast. The government is now undertaking an ambitious and difficult project to reforest the interior. Watch This Space.

If you know lots of world-famous things that happened in Iceland, or lots of world-famous Icelanders, let me know. What you read here may be most of the only Big Noise Iceland has made off-Island in the last millennium. Not much hot electrifying news comin' out of Reykjavik most of the time, at least not much that makes it into the English-speaking media.

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VLEEPTRON PIZZA SLICE! if you can tell me the Only Other Place in the World, outside of Iceland, where bunches of people rap to each other in Icelandic, enough of them in fact to publish a daily newspaper in Icelandic. Extra! Extra! Read all about it in Icelandic!

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But interesting things do happen in Iceland; it's not their fault nobody's listening or paying attention or cares or can understand Icelandic. Volcanos constantly spewing rivers of hot lava and threatening housing developments in the middle of the night are Not Chopped Liver.

Don't be scared of or mad at the volcanos. They almost never hurt anyone, and the whole reason there's an Iceland in the first place is because the volcanos created Iceland and keep making more of it. The resultant landscape is overpoweringly, breathtakingly gorgeous, and NASA sent the astronauts there to practice; it's the place on Earth that most resembles the Moon.

In the 18th century, an intrepid spelunker climbed down an extinct Icelandic volcano, took A Journey to the Center of the Earth, perished down there (the place is infested with giant carnivorous monster lizards), but managed to send back this message writ in his own blood:

Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of Scartaris caresses, before the kalends of July, audacious traveler, and you will reach the center of the earth. I did it. ARNE SAKNUSSEMM

Build in a few hours of layover between planes on your way to or from Yerp, and that's enough to take a side excursion to The Blue Lagoon-- a big-ass kick-ass Natural Hot Thermal Volcanic Springs Resort. They'll sell you a bathing suit if you forgot to bring yours. You don't have to go, of course, it's not mandatory. You're just a dope if you don't go and bubble a delicious hour away at The Blue Lagoon, surrounded by hundreds of near-nude and very happy and relaxed hot wet Icelanders and fellow tourists. Very Reasonable Admission. If your next flight is mega-delayed, the airline will bus you to and from TBL for free, so you can kill time and get to really like Iceland and think about returning. (Most IcelandAir passengers aren't visiting Iceland, they're just using Keflavik Airport to shuttle between North America and Europe for cheap fares and convenience. Most just spend an hour or two at the airport changing planes, in a remarkably well choreographed mass transport dance.)

If you would like your skin to stay young and supple and beautiful forever, if you would like The Secret of Eternal Youth & Beauty (like the original SWMBO, she is 2000 years old and still looks just like the 23-year-old Ursula Andress), TBL sells special Magic Volcano Eternal Youth Skin Goop (™) which is guaranteed to do the trick. I brought some back for my SWMBO, she tried it, and that night at the movie theater they demanded to see some photo i.d. before they'd sell her a ticket to an R-rated flick. You can buy it on-line from the above link, but you should really buy it in person at TBL gift shop or at the airport or nearly all the stores in Reykjavik.

Bjork (Bjork Bjork Bjork Bjork Bjork Bjork Bjork Bjork Bjork god i love that name I could say it all day Bjork Bjork Bjork) is a genuine Reykjavik dushi, and first fronted a local band at clubs in Reykjavik, which, then and now, has Quite the Hot Music & Heavy Drinking Scene, they love the Nightlife, they got to Boogie (especially all night long when there is no night, or all night long when there's nothing but night).

While Bjork and her colleagues were touring in Prague, they ran across Absinthe, and approved. The traditional ritual for preparing to get all fucked up on Absinthe involves a sugar cube, so they immediately renamed themselves The Sugar Cubes.

Me and my Nephew Alexander were in a taxi, the driver spoke no English, we were in the back making dumb tourist Iceland jokes, Bjork's name came up, and the taxi driver got very excited and shouted "GUDMUNDSDOTTIR!" That's her last name, she is the daughter of Gudmund.

a Brief History of Iceland
by a guy who's been there twice
and only knows the Icelandic for Thank You (Takk)

After the Vikings slaughtered the monks and chopped down all the trees, they grabbed all the farmable land they could, and each Viking chieftain defended his farm on the back of his marvelous shaggy neolithic Icelandic horse (NOT pony!) with a big sword and a hot temper -- these were violent, proud, distrustful, hair-trigger pagans, and they loved to sing stories to each other in ye Mede Hall about their violent murderous vengeance-dripping family blood feuds that typically lasted the better part of a century.

Some of the wildest and most thrilling stories in all world literature are the Icelandic Sagas (sung stories), the most famous one Njal's Saga, or the Saga of Burnt Njal. At the end, Njal's enemies set fire to his house and incinerate Njal and his entire family. (Njal was a seer, and knew it was coming, but you can't escape Wyrd.) The Saga lists his hometown as Bergthorsknoll
in the 1050 AD phone book, place names don't change in Iceland from millennium to millennium, and archeologists claim to have found the burned timbers. You can drive to it in a rented car, park, gawk, and take pictures of yourself at what may have been Njal's Burnt House.

(The cool thing about driving around Iceland is that if you get hopelessly lost -- all roadsigns are in Icelandic -- you have just as much fun, or more, and see just as much beauty, or more, than if you know where you're going.)

Women (with names like Gudmundsdottir) stand out large and bigtime in these stories, usually berating their husbands, calling them low-life weasel sissy cowards, and ceaselessly pestering them to go out and kill some neighbor to avenge some perceived or imagined or fabricated insult. Finally hubby reluctantly girds himself, lies in ambush, leaps out from behind a volcanic rock, hacks the startled neighbor to death with sword or axe, and the blood feud gets another ten-year spurt of violence and clan revenge.

Around 1000 AD Christian missionaries arrived from Europe and challenged the old Norse pagan priests. They finally decided to settle the faith-based dispute in a big public contest of competing heavenly supernatural powers. First the pagan priests called down lightning onto the missionaries, and it singed the Christians and shook them up pretty good, but didn't kill them or eliminate them from the competition. Then it was the Christians' turn, and their God opened a gaping chasm underneath the pagan priests, who barely managed to scramble out with their lives. All the spectators agreed that God and His Son Jesus were somewhat more powerful than Thor and Wotan and their family, so everybody converted to Christianity on the spot.

What adherence to the Old Religion survived, the missionaries wiped out promptly, including an enforced prohibition against reading or writing in the old pagan runic alphabet called Futhark (just scroll down a tad to see it). The missionaries substituted something resembling the Roman alphabet, and started a rumor that still lingers that anyone still using Futhark was an evil witch whose Futhark spells and curses were sickening your farm animals.

(Memorize your credit card's PIN in all-numbers, or you'll be real sorry, frustrated and cashless at a Reykjavik ATM. I said it resembles our Roman alphabet, but not very closely on an ATM keypad. But, Stranger, if ye can solveth ye Riddle of ye Icelandic keypad, ye shall have as your reward Icelandic Krona, about 60.5 of them to one US Dollar.)

The tourist traps in Reykjavik sell leather bags of Magicke Futhark Rune Stones, suitable for casting magicke spells and seeing ye future, probably manufactured in Malaysia. We sell the same bags at lots of stores in Northampton. Come to Northampton MA USA for all your magicke supplies.

Around the time of the conversion to Christianity, the clan chieftains began meeting every summer in a meadow in a tent community called the Althing, the world's first democratic legislature; they began settling blood disputes less violently at the Althing. Today the Althing is the oldest democratic parliament on Earth, although it's moved into Reykjavik and conducts its affairs all year round. You can visit the original site, which is at the spot where two oceanic continental plates are ripping apart (very slowly), a very weird, unique landscape with a nifty geology museum and cool movies of erupting volcanos.

The last political violence in Iceland came around 1500, when word sailed into Iceland (about three weeks stale) that Denmark had just converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism. The Icelanders were subjects of the Danes, so they converted, too -- but the Catholic bishop of the northern half of the island and his sons (!?) waged a brief civil war against the new-fangled heretical Protestants. Eventually the entire island became Lutheran, and still is, but with a small Catholic minority.

where you can go to Sunday services.

Throughout its history, Iceland had snoozed somewhere in a hazy, ambiguous, ill-defined zone between sovereignty, Scandinavian colony, and just largely ignored or forgotten by the rest of the world. They had politics and a foreign policy, but nobody knew much about it, or cared. (Even Scandinavians can't understand spoken or written Icelandic, which is Old Norse largely frozen from the ninth century.)

After the invention, around 1900, of small gasoline engines which could power fishing boats, Iceland's fishing industry -- previously just crude coast-hugging family subsistence -- exploded into a protein powerhouse for Europe and the world.

Unhappily (IMHO) the ambitious Icelandic fisherfolk are still hung up on catching and eating whales.

Well -- okay, let me try to break you of some habit you've been doing for a thousand years, let's see how promptly and cheerily you get with my politically correct self-righteous demands. Officially, Iceland says it's only killing a few more whales and defying international treaty bans for scientific research, to find out more useful science stuff about Our Whale Friends which will help them thrive in the future.

On a downtown stroll, I was reading the sidewalk menu of a fancy Reykjavik restaurant and the headwaiter, outside on a smoke break, began extolling the delicious virtues of his whale steak entrée, but I passed. On a personal website from another treeless North Atlantic rock, the Faroes Islands, a guy writes:

Yes. We eat whale meat. It tastes good.

By the 1930s, Iceland's government elite's sympathies lay with the Nazis and their odd Wagnerian promises of a Thousand Years of World Nordic Supremacy (All Nordics, Teutons & Aryans Welcome). One expression of these sympathies was to exclude Jews desperately fleeing Nazi Europe from finding refuge and sanctuary in Iceland, and the government forceably returned Jews who had managed to reach Iceland back to Nazi Europe.

On these depressing occasions, Icelandic women who were disgusted with their government's policies would come forward and marry Jewish refugees at the last moment, dockside, so a few of them could remain safe in Iceland. (They get the out-of-town newspapers a week late in Reykjavik, but they knew what was going on, they knew what would happen to Jews sent back to Nazi-occupied Europe.) There are to this day no recognizeable or practicing Jews in Iceland. (At least I couldn't find any trace of them.) Among Western-style open societies, Iceland and Japan remain notoriously hostile to non-native immigration.

Until recently there were almost no immigrants of non-Icelandic origin. In recent years world pressure has pushed the Icelandic government reluctantly to admit immigrants and refugees from Europe and Asia. Under the law, they have one year to learn to speak Icelandic competently, and if they fail the final exam, they can be deported.

Reykjavik ain't what it used to be. There's a pretty damn good Chinese restaurant on Laugavegur, the main tourist shopping drag,
it's run by Authentic Chinese People without a hint of Vikingness to them. At a corner table, the proprietors' kids are hunched over Icelandic textbooks, anxiously trying to get up to speed with their fluency. Iceland may be compromising on its genomic homogeneity (everybody with original Viking DNA is so genetically alike that the nation recently sold its collective genome to a pharmaceutical giant as a biotech research shortcut), but the government draws the line and tries to enforce and coerce cultural and linguistic homogeneity. You no longer have to be a genetic Viking, but you do have to wear the outfit, sing the Sagas, and talk the lingo.

When Nazi Germany overran Denmark in 1940, the Allies faced the unpleasant prospect of a Nazi-controlled Iceland in the North Atlantic, which could offer safe haven to German navy ships. U-boats were sinking Allied shipping crucial to keeping the UK fighting the war, which the USA knew it would soon be dragged into. The U.S. Navy sailed to Iceland and liberated it for the Allies for the rest of the war.

And never got around to de-liberating it afterwards. When World War II ended and the Cold War began, the Soviets now had hostile submarines in the Atlantic, and the USA (under the ægis of NATO) kept Iceland for anti-submarine naval and air operations, and built a large US air base about 40 km outside of Reykjavik. Eventually the expanded US air base provided facilities and a runway which became Keflavik International Airport (KEF, recently refurbished, very spiffy and fun shopping, buy a big hunk of the most delicious Lox in the whole world, and the world's warmest niftiest prettiest Icelandic wool mittens and winter caps! Sorry the VleeptronCam is still on the fritz, I would model these snazzy items for you).

Iceland was now independent of Denmark, and technically a sovereign nation. But the USA continued to call the shots for anything resembling foreign or military policy, and the USA provides all of Iceland's military defense.

In return, for decades, the USA has agreed to the Icelandic government's wish that American troops, and their penises, be largely confined to the air base, and not mix with or insert their penises into Icelanders.

They mix a little in Reykjavik anyway. (I was a soldier; soldiers and sailors like to sneak off base and go downtown whether they're supposed to or not.) One Icelander, a world-class professional boxing contender, was asked by an American sportswriter if he was afraid to face the American champion.

"Heck, no," the boxer grinned broadly, remembering happy boyhood days. "Where I'm from, beating up Americans is the national sport."

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I hope you've enjoyed some of the above, and I hope you paid attention. You'll need it for the Big News From Iceland which will be the next post, or maybe the post after the next post. Coming Soon. Watch This Space.


Blogger Mike said...

VLEEPTRON PIZZA SLICE! if you can tell me the Only Other Place in the World, outside of Iceland, where bunches of people rap to each other in Icelandic, enough of them in fact to publish a daily newspaper in Icelandic. Extra! Extra! Read all about it in Icelandic!The only one that I know of is in Canada. Shot in the dark.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Canada is a large sort of place. Can you zoom in a little? I need the name of a specific city.

Blogger Mike said...

I stand corrected. The one I know of is in Saskatchewan, but it's weekly, not daily. Sorry for the false alarm.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Saskatchewan -- you're zooming in nicely. But I need a city, not a province, and Saskatchewan's the wrong province anyway.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Okay, correction: This newspaper might not be a daily paper. But as of my reference from 2000, it was still being published.


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