“Arriving in Keflavik is like landing on Mars.” I hadn’t thought that it would rain this much on Mars.
At first, the transition away from Britishness was gradual: depart through a terminal gate emblazoned with “Barclays”, arrive through one logoed “Landsbanki”. Airports exist to facilitate the free movement of capital, not of people, not that I was in any danger of forgetting this: like a growing number of my student peers, I was an economic migrant. Come to Iceland on the ERASMUS program, pay less rent than London, and receive an additional grant together with a tuition fee waiver. Alone in a new country, speaking none of the language, I suddenly had cause to doubt my own economic logic. Was any of it worth this?
Outside the terminal showed more promise. I peered through my coach window, stunned by public art that wasn’t a hideous corporate abortifact: a metal seed sprouting hesitantly among a pile of rocks; the Norse gods’ rainbow bridge, Bifrost, reaching up into the air. Perhaps Iceland is different, I thought.
First impressions confirmed that. Reykjavik is a spacious, green city, with better weather than Edinburgh: colder, brighter, with winter snow that’s less hostile than driving rain, heated by free geothermal energy. I saw no homelessness; sleeping rough in winter would equal murder. I found that I breathed more easily once outside the UK, away from the grinding negativity of the media and from new-found fear of the police, inspired by student and activist friends’ accounts of truncheons and dubiously legal arrests.
I did feel that I had escaped something by coming to Iceland, but exactly what? Contrary to the hype, Iceland hasn’t escaped the economic consequences of the banking crash, facing cuts and the ratcheting open of the country to outside corporate investment. Still, as Iceland’s government stated firmly to the IMF, this is a Nordic social democracy, with a solid social safety net. Was the difference here purely economic?
Something did feel different. There was no nastiness in the air, no murmuring about scroungers and laziness. Some of my friends had the kind of precarious service-jobs that usually serve up micromanagement and bitter depression to their workers. Here this was completely absent, personality clashes aside. Crime was rare, supervision minimal, and people were free to work under their own initiative.
Still, clearly the Crash showed that everything wasn’t hunky-dory, with many of Iceland’s richest people having fled abroad to escape prosecution. This wasn’t some kind of capitalist utopia. Socially, historically, and geographically Iceland is different, even from the other Nordic countries: family and social bonds are strong, and, knowing this, many women have children young – and choose to do so across social classes. There is less pressure on women to be thin, to regulate their sexuality, to fit into a specific media-mediated mould. Society in general felt less controlled, less hierarchical, and more open to possibility.
I opened my own mind, too, and found myself thinking less about how much of freedom is economically determined, and more about how much is not.
Living in Iceland, I found myself linguistically privileged. Most Icelandic people speak English, and are happy to do so when asked, otherwise defaulting to Icelandic. People talk freely in English about the rich, about Klein’s Shock Doctrine, yet most of the country’s political debate is conducted in Icelandic. If there is nastiness in Iceland, it doesn’t make it across the language barrier. Whatever regulatory regimes exist work on those living within a culture permanently, mediated through social connections and language. As a foreign visitor, albeit a long-term one, I got a free pass.
This, naturally, led me to read about the English. I read about how much of class is mediated in Britain through language: the usage of living room, sitting room, or lounge being one gross, banal example. Iceland isn’t the classless society it would like to be, but it doesn’t have that. I also felt free through not being part of the horrific grind of British politics, with its accompanying apocalyptic levels of pessimism from Left and Right.
I wondered: when I did feel hopeless about the future, how much of my pessimism was based on direct experience, and how much on media-mediated narratives, on shows and articles commissioned for profit? Anyone who reads anything online knows how awful and unrepresentative comment threads are, and how impossible they are to avoid. A few awful experiences, a few hate-filled idiots, are far from the totality of experience, though in terms of word-volume it feels as though they are.
When Occupy Wall Street began to take off, I attended meetings in Reykjavik, understanding little, speaking less, and ultimately cooking in lieu of words. I saw Occupy Reykjavik evolved, not into the equitable meetings between homeowners, nationalists and radical left that we hoped for – and initially saw – but into two or three hardy men sleeping in tents, raising awareness of something that everyone in Iceland was perfectly aware of already. Something had gone wrong here, and something inevitable: instead of working on change in Iceland, we were replicating what we saw on Youtube and looking overseas.
Looking to New York, and to London, centres of global economic hegemony – and world centres of the English language.
It turned out that I couldn’t escape after all.
Yet now I don’t feel so hopeless. Another world is certainly possible, though not one I can step into by boarding a ‘plane. I couldn’t cut my ties to the UK so easily: every day I was online reading, talking with friends and relatives, all in English.
I love Iceland, and my hopes go with it into an uncertain future; I remain confident in Icelanders’ ability to fight back against negative social changes, no matter how economically inevitable they are painted to be. Yet building something new, something needed? That’s something we all need to do, through organisation and through language, and hiving off and becoming an island is the only thing that isn’t possible.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
But islands can only exist
If we have loved in them