Sunday, March 15, 2015


I have been fascinated with Iceland and have wanted to visit ever since I read about its hot springs as a kid. I remember seeing pictures in elementary school of people in their swim suits sitting in these hot springs with snow all around, and the steam from the hot springs would hang heavily in the air around them. It looked crazy, but at the same time, I wanted to try it. And then when I watched the 2013 version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” I definitely wanted to visit since part of the movie took place and was partly filmed in Iceland. The landscape is absolutely beautiful in a lonesome kind of way. 


Common folklore surrounding Iceland’s name says that it was originally from the Old Norse Ísland, meaning “land of ice.” It was used as a deterrent to keep people from settling on the island, making people think that it was the island covered in ice.  Whereas Greenland was given its name to make people think it was actually green and to settle there instead. The truth is that Greenland is the one covered in ice and glaciers, not Iceland as its name makes you believe.   

Iceland is an island country bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and the Greenland Sea.  The island of Greenland lies to the west, and the Danish-controlled Faroe Islands lie to the southeast. The Hebrides Islands of Scotland lie just south of the Faroe Islands. The Norwegian island of Jan Mayen is about 370 miles north of Iceland. While it is politically considered a European country, geographically, it straddles the European plate and the North American plate. 

Celtic monks and Scandinavian explorers were the first people who arrive on the island.  However, Swedish Vikings were the first to navigate around the island.  When the Scandinavians, Scottish, and Irish were arriving in the island to settle it, roughly a quarter of the island was then covered in forests, compared to about one percent today. There was very little arable land on the island, and explorations in Greenland started to take place around this time as well. During the Middle Ages, it was controlled by a unified Scandinavia, and it was also during this time when the Black Death struck the island – not once, but twice.  King Christian III of Denmark introduced Lutheranism to the island after the Reformation was established on the European mainland. The 17th and 18th centuries dealt Iceland several hard blows: a number of volcanic eruptions devastated the island; Denmark imposed strict trade restrictions on Iceland; problems with pirates, famines, smallpox epidemics; and, diseases resulting in the deaths of nearly half the livestock in the country.  During the latter part of the 1800s, Iceland began the fight for its own independence. In 1918, Iceland became the Kingdom of Iceland, but remained special friends with Denmark. After WWII, they finally became the Republic of Iceland in 1944. The US set for forces in the country in 1951 as part of the Cold War, and I couldn’t believe that we finally moved the last of our forces out in 2006. (Why didn’t we hear about this on the news? This gives me no hope that we can remove our troops from any other place anytime soon.) The 1970s were filled with Iceland’s “Cod Wars” with the UK over how far out in the ocean their fishing rights go. Starting in the 1990s, Iceland started to establish itself as a significant member of the international community in politics and economics. 

Iceland’s capital city is Reykjavik, located on the island’s southwest corner. Literally meaning “bay of smoke,” it’s named in reference to the smoke emanating from island’s natural hot springs. Originally mentioned as farmland, it became a small settlement during the 9th century but wasn’t officially established as an actual town until 1786.  In comparison, it’s “founding” is only five years older than Washington, D.C. 

Historically, Iceland’s economy has depended a lot on the fishing industry, and they’ve had a significant impact on the whaling industry as well. These days, they have started to expand its industries a bit to include software, finance, and biotechnology, ecotourism (including whale watching). Before the global economic crisis of 2008, Iceland was the 7th most productive country in the world per capita. Iceland also capitalized on renewable energy, and their utilization for hydroelectric and geothermal power has made it the world’s leading producer of electricity. Because of Iceland’s cold environment and lack of arable land, the only vegetables produced here are potatoes and other green vegetables that are grown in a greenhouse.  They also produce a large amount of mutton and dairy products. This country also consistently ranks high in terms of having one of the freest markets, productivity, and most innovative. And unlike other countries (especially in North America and Western Europe), Iceland uses the flat tax. 

The vast majority of Icelanders speak Icelandic, which descended from Old Norse, a Northern Germanic language. The closest language to Icelandic is Faroese, the language spoken in the Faroe Islands. I think the coolest thing about Icelandic is their use of two symbols that were leftover from runic letters, namely the thorn [Þ] and the eth [Ð, ð], which sound like the “th” sound. (I wonder if I could just spell my name as Bð instead of Beth? Would anyone get it?) I had only previously seen these symbols when I studied Old English and learned IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). In Iceland, English and Danish are required courses in school. Other languages you’ll hear spoken in Iceland are French, German, Swedish, and Norwegian.  A really fascinating thing I learned was about Icelandic names. Most people have a given name (“What will we call the baby?”) and a family name (your “last name”). But in Iceland, many people’s last names reflect the relation between themselves and their mother or father. It’s why you’ll notice a lot of last names will end in –dóttir (daughter) or -son (son) as in the last name Jónsdóttir or Grímsson. And phone directories are listed in alphabetic order by first name, not last name. 

Roughly three-quarters of the people here lay claim to attending the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. It’s interesting that the current bishop is not only a woman, but the first woman to hold this position. There are a smaller number of people who practice other Christian denominations.  Iceland also has a small number of people who list Buddhism, Germanic neopaganism, Islam, or Bahá’í as their religion, and about 11% are unaffiliated or practice some other religion.  

Several years ago, I read a TIME magazine article about the deCODE Genetics project.  They were a pharmaceutical company that ran genetics testing on people in order to predict and help diagnose a variety of diseases. It turns out that since most of the people in the country had their genetics ran, there was a very cool side effect of this: now people can trace their genetics back over 1100 years. I also recently read that in 1975, 90% of the women in Iceland went on strike for their rights, and when I say went on strike, that’s exactly what they did: walked off the job, out of their homes, and essentially shut down the country. The very next year, their voices were heard. Parliament passed a measure ensuring equal pay, and five years later, they elected the first woman president. Iceland is quite the role model for getting things done. If they want something to change, they figure out a way to do it in a democratic way. It’s quite commendable, and I’m looking forward to finding out what other incredible things Iceland has done.

Up next: art and literature

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