This week, we departed the land of fire and smog for a land of fire and steam– where we will be visiting Iceland, the tiny volcanic island in the North Atlantic for the next week. Why does this guy keep going on vacations all of a sudden, you ask? And what’s this about sponsored travel content!? Well, the second one is more complicated, but lots of vacationing in a short amount of time is apparently what happens when ██ █████ ██ ███ ██ ██ ██ █████ ███ ██. (more details on this coming soon but it’s top secret for now).
The Song Of (Actual) Fire And Ice
A small island country of 387,800 in the arctic northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is a magical land of fire and ice, but notably without the rampant misogyny of George Railroad Martin’s book series. Also, no dragons– that we know of, at least, although Icelanders do have this whole thing about elves and gnomes and stuff, which its pretty cool. In spite of its geographically remote location, Iceland has a rich history that often connects it with its more populous neighbors– still separated by quite a bit of frigid oceans- of Scotland and Scandinavia. Everybody in Iceland is, like– just like Moon Zappa says in the 1982 song Valley Girl of Encino, California- super-super-nice. Or, so we hear.
It’s not in the EU, though believing it is would be an easy mistake because of how well-integrated the country is with its Schengen neighbors, with whom it has played quite nicely in most recent memory. (How can a country be part of the Schengen Area but not part of the EU? This kind of question vexes Americans, probably the same way Europeans are vexed by how a cow in Wyoming can have more voting rights than a fifth-generation Mexican-American US citizen in California). Anyway, while the settlement of the island goes back to the 9th century, the idea of modern statehood is a relatively new one in Iceland, the current setup having been finalized in the 1940s as a kinda-sorta-modern-statehood-M&A move on the part of Denmark expired amicably and they had to figure out what was next.
The Modern Country
Since that time, the country has been one of the main co-conspirators in visions to advance European progress (in spite of the not joining the EU properly, which is a story for another day).
The Alþingi (“ahl-thingy?!”) is the country’s parliament. Icelanders will remind you that it is (quite impressively) over a thousand years old. Of course, you don’t have to burst their bubbles by telling them that the US Congress has been meeting for 230-some years straight, while theirs took several centuries off while the country was subjugated under this time Norwegian rule. In contrast to the United States, though, Iceland has left the darker parts of its history in the past, while many people in the United States are trying to bring some of it back!
Norway? Did you mean… Denmark?
Wait, Norway?! What about Denmark? Look, folks, I’m not a historian, and I can already barely handle reading Icelandic maps without it absolutely melting my German-speaking brain. Suffice it to say that the precise history of who owned whomst and whenst (speaking of language melting my brain) is perhaps less important than where Iceland is these days.
As a country that has struggled through some historical periods of scarcity and suffering as dark as the eternal dusk conditions in the subarctic winter, Iceland has come out of the 20th century swinging, welcoming ever-more-record-breaking numbers of visitors into a burgeoning economy for ecotourism, cultural tourism, and more. Even with a high rate of car ownership (the product of extremely low population density), the country’s population is considered one of the “greenest” in terms of individual energy consumption and carbon footprint. This is skewed heavily by the enormous footprint of a major aluminum smelter near Reykjavik, for example, to highlight how small the country is, and this kind of thing is a relatively new innovation, making use of the island’s abundance of geothermal energy.
It’s one of very few countries that has no standing army. It’s got one of the highest standards of living of any country in the world. It’s quite wealthy. It also has some things that do not necessarily make sense given the first two, like a flat income tax, but low wealth disparity. It’s not clear to me how this works, other than that you could fit the population of the island into Southwest Detroit and you’d still have vacant lots leftover. In spite of a fierce sense of national pride (which I’d attribute more to the fact that these people have been able to survive hundreds of years of solitude in a cold place that is dark for months out of the year), the country is relatively socially liberal, economically productive, and highly social.
We have some boxes to check and then we’re getting underway, staying in the absolute middle of nowhere, not too far from Thingvellir National Park. We’re then headed back to the coast in Eyrarbakki, then returning to Reykjavik. I have a few specific things on our itinerary. Plus, I told my wife I wanted to see a glacier before the only place you can find them is in encyclopedias and perhaps tiny vials in the hotel gift shop (“it’s just tap water, though, let’s be real,” we’ll tell our kids). Meanwhile, though, I thought I’d see what the robot imagined as Iceland, so check out this series below. I will have to report back on the accuracy: