Give a Man a Fish

It’s just after six in the morning and Guðmundur Geirdal is pouring his first cup of coffee. It’s spring, so the sun has already been up for a couple of hours but a light veiling of clouds means that there’s a fresh snap to the air. Down by the Arnarstapi harbour, the squeaky cries of the seabirds are loud enough to drown out the murmured chatting of the other fishermen preparing their boats for the day.

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Walrus Follows Man to Work in Iceland

Jón Sólmundsson rostungur

An employee of Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute had an unusual commute to work this morning. Jón Sólmundsson was biking to his office in the town of Hafnarfjörður when he spotted a walrus in the harbour. The walrus then accompanied Jón on his journey for a few blocks before swimming away from the coast. It has since come ashore on the coast of Álftanes in the Reykjavík capital area, Vísir reports.

Jón Sólmundsson.

“I was biking and he followed me from Herjólfsgata street to Fjörukráin restaurant by Strandgata street,” Jón told reporters. “There he turned around and swam out into the fjord.” Walruses are not native to Iceland but have been spotted on its coast from time to time in recent years. A walrus dubbed Þór (Thor) delighted locals in Iceland earlier this year, stopping by Þórshöfn and Breiðdalsvík in East Iceland after being spotted in England. There are no indications that the one currently in the capital area is the same animal.

 

 

“He was also curious, there were some people that stopped to watch him and he seemed to be considering them too,” Jón added. While Jón works at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, he told reporters his area of specialty is fish, not walruses.

jón sólmundsson walrus rostungur

A live feed of the walrus is available on visir.is.

Pooling Together

iceland swimming pool

The ideal Icelandic hot tub, which takes the shape of a circle, finds its prototype in Reykholt, West Iceland. 

It’s there, on the historical property of writer, historian, and chieftain Snorri Sturluson, that a wooden doorway, leading from an underground passageway, baked into the side of a green hillock, opens up onto a short stone walkway. This walkway leads to a ring of more stone, in the middle of which sits a pool, fed by a hot spring, and dug into the ground so that it’s level with the Earth. While the current iteration of the pool is based on a contemporary mason’s guesswork, historical records show that Snorri Sturluson bathed in a pool of this kind, and, perhaps – looking out onto the vault of heaven – philosophised on the origins of life:

“And the spirit of Fimbultyr moved upon the face of the deep,” Snorri wrote in the Prose Edda (the world’s most complete source for Norse mythology), “until the ice-cold rivers […] came in contact with the dazzling flames from Muspelheim […] and Fimbultyr said: ‘Let the melted drops of vapour quicken into life’.” 

Indeed, there is a special kind of vitality born at the intersection of heat and cold, a quickening of the soul that is familiar to all those who have descended into the warm waters of an Icelandic hot tub on a cold winter’s day. This feeling of vitality, of rejuvenation, forms a not insignificant part of the appeal of Icelandic pools, for the tubs – at least to any mind unnaturally preoccupied with historical throughlines – always seem to hearken back to Snorri’s pool in Reykholt. 

And not without reason.

iceland pool swimming
iceland pool
vesturbæjarlaug reykjavík

Mirrored stages

The first public pool in Iceland to feature a hot tub was Vesturbæjarlaug in West Reykjavík, which opened in 1961. The outside area was conceived of by architect Gísli Halldórsson, who drew upon the design of Snorralaug for the pool’s two hot tubs. Their dimensions are precisely equivalent to Snorralaug, and tubs of this kind were originally referred to as Snorralaugar, or Snorri Pools.

Filmmaker Jón Karl Helgason, who recently released the excellent documentary Sundlaugasögur (Swimming Pool Stories), grew up going to Vesturbæjarlaug. He was six when the pool opened and would accompany his father to the pool every day after school. This father-son routine persisted until Jón Karl graduated from high school. 

Things were different back then.

jón karl helgason
Filmmaker Jón Karl Helgason

“Because there were so few changing rooms, you were only allowed to stay for an hour at a time,” Jón Karl explains. “You’d be handed a coloured bracelet when you entered, and at regular intervals, the pool guards would yell something like: ‘Everyone with a yellow bracelet must get out now!’ My friends and I, however, were quick to game the system. We’d collected all the different coloured bracelets so that we could stay as long as we’d like.”

As Jón Karl notes, the phases of many an Icelander’s life are neatly mirrored in their evolving relationship with the pools. “It begins at six or seven,” he observes, “during mandatory swimming lessons in elementary school. From there, the pools become a kind of playground. Then they serve as convenient venues to bring boyfriends or girlfriends, or to meet your friends. And then, later in life, you bring your kids along.”

I add one overlooked phase of his narrative, the libertine twenties: “When the pools were the perfect place to recover from a hangover.”

Jón Karl laughs. “Yes, it’s good – going to the pool the day after.”

hveragerði swimming pool
hveragerði sundlaug

A brief history of Icelandic pools

The tagline of Jón Karl’s Swimming Pool Stories reads as follows: “The Russians have their vodka. The Finns have their saunas. And the Icelanders have their pools.” 

But unlike those first two, Icelandic swimming pool culture is relatively young. It began in the early 20th century, when a national awakening to the inordinate number of drownings among fishermen was taking place.

reykjavík pool
iceland swimming pool
reykjavík swimming pool

Wednesday’s are “slide days” in Suðurbæjarlaug in Hafnarfjörður. On the day we visit, we meet two regulars: ducks, one green and one white, who commonly stroll around the outside area – and sometimes swim a few laps.

A newspaper article anticipating the founding of the Lifesaving Association of Iceland (SVFÍ) in 1928 noted that 1,754 Icelanders had drowned during the first quarter of the century, most at sea. The authors pointed out that other seafaring nations had long since established similar associations: the English in 1824, the Danes in 1852, the Norwegians in 1891, and the Swedes in 1907. “We are lagging behind,” they observed.

Besides the establishment of lifesaving associations, swimming pools were also a way to prevent deaths at sea. Their construction began at around the turn of the 19th century, so the natives could learn to swim. Some initially opposed the initiative by the rationale that teaching fishermen to swim would only serve to “prolong the agony of drowning.” But as more and more pools were constructed around the country – usually around sources of geothermal heat – and as swimming lessons grew more common, deaths among fishermen grew less and less frequent.

swimming pool reykjavík

These days, drownings off the coast of Iceland are almost unheard of. Modern technology and improved weather forecasting has, of course, played a significant role in this regard, but it would be unwise to discount the effect of swimming instruction in Iceland. As the headmaster of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre in Iceland once noted, swimming instruction accounts for “a total of 800 minutes per year in Icelandic primary school.”

“It’s ironic to think that more people currently drown in our swimming pools than at sea,” I remark somewhat hesitantly to Jón Karl, aware that as a child in Akureyri, he witnessed a drowning.

“I must have been five or six,” Jón Karl recounts. “I wasn’t actually in the pool myself; my mother had gone for a dip, and I, standing on the edge of the pool, fully clothed, noticed a young girl, wearing a red bathing suit, lying motionless on the bottom of the pool. I called for help, and my father immediately dived in after her. He tried to resuscitate her. But to no avail. It was a distressful experience, which later engendered a sense of care when it came to my own kids.” 

The great equalisers

Jón Karl began shooting Swimming Pool Stories in 2013. 

Filming took much longer than expected for he would often visit the pools where he intended to shoot three or four times in order to establish a connection with patrons. (He visited nearly 100 pools). It was only when he had become something of a patron himself that he felt confident enough to bring along equipment to record audio. Then a small camera – then a bigger one. 

Most of Jón Karl’s interviewees were over 80 (eight of them have died since the film was released) as he wanted to focus on those individuals who had been visiting their local pools for decades. 

hveragerði sundlaug

Ása visits the pool in Hveragerði, South Iceland every day. If she doesn’t, she begins to fidget. She moved to the town two years ago, to be closer to her sons. When we find her, she’s there with her elder son. The two of them have a close relationship: “He tells me everything. His friends sometimes say to him, whenever something noteworthy occurs: ‘You’re going to tell your mother about this, aren’t you?’.”

“I wanted people who could tell stories,” Jón Karl remarks. “People who had been swimming all their lives and who had become part of these pool communities. One of my interlocutors in the film, Hallgrímur from Þingeyri, West Iceland, told me that whenever someone from his group didn’t show up to the pool at the appointed hour – his companions would become concerned. I found that rather touching.”

Such “pool communities” have evolved all over Iceland, with people from all walks of life convening at their local pool at a fixed hour: Pottormarnir (a play on the Icelandic kenning meaning unruly boys, and the word for hot tub) in Hafnarfjörður; Morgunfrúrnar (Morning Dames) in Dalvík; and, perhaps most famous of all, Vinir Dóra (Friends of Dóri) in Vesturbæjarlaug.

Icelandic perception of swimming pools differs from what can be found in western literature, I tell Jón Karl. “Two things come to mind: the short story The Swimmer by John Cheever, where the protagonist decides to swim home by way of the private pools at the homes of suburbanites; and The Great Gatsby, where the titular character meets his death in a swimming pool. In both cases, there are connotations of wealth, whereas, in Iceland, the pools are equalisers. As the cliché goes: ‘in the pools everyone is equal.’”

“Yes, and admission to the pool is cheap – especially if you buy an annual subscription,” Jón Karl points out.

Perhaps the most notable example of this democratic intermingling in the public pools relates to Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s fourth president and the first democratically-elected female head of state in history. Even after she secured the presidency, Vigdís continued to frequent Vesturbæjarlaug, where every morning – still to this day – a group of pool-goers engage in a tightly-scripted regimen of exercises invented by Danish gymnastics educator J. P. Müller. Vigdís, as president, was not above participating.

Conversations

In March of this year, Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir, Minister of Culture and Business Affairs, submitted a memorandum to the government concerning Iceland’s nominations to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The ministry’s two proposals were Icelandic laufabrauð (a Christmas season delicacy) and the country’s swimming pool culture.

“Swimming pool culture has been intertwined with the Icelandic national soul for many centuries,” Lilja wrote, “and has rarely been as vigorous as it is now. Many matters of national interest are discussed in the country’s pools, and it is a great honour for any intangible culture to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. And I believe that our swimming pool culture […] definitely belongs on that list.”

laugardalslaug
laugardalslaug

As noted by Lilja, the local pools are not only places of community, relaxation, and exercise – but also a venue for residents to engage in lively conversations about current affairs. In an article published in the New York Times in 2016, the writer Magnús Sveinn Helgason explained to reporter Dan Kois that because of the weather, the Icelanders “didn’t have proper plazas in the Italian or French style.” Furthermore, because beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, the country didn’t evolve a pub tradition in the manner of England or Ireland.

“The pool is Iceland’s social space,” Kois wrote, “where families meet neighbours, where newcomers first receive welcome, and where rivals can’t avoid one another.” Later in the article, Kois spoke to Mayor of Reykjavík Dagur B. Eggertsson who observed, “It can be hard for reserved Icelanders, who don’t typically talk to their neighbours in the store or in the street, to forge connections. In the hot tub, you must interact. There’s nothing else to do.”

There’s a family anecdote that sheds some light on just how engaging these tub talks can be. Some years back, my father went for an evening soak at the Suðurbæjarlaug public pool in Hafnarfjörður. Taking his place in one of the hot tubs, he became fully engrossed in what must have been a rather lively conversation with an acquaintance. At some point during the talk, a young man stood up from the hot tub and took his leave. My father’s acquaintance asked, “Say, wasn’t that your son?” My father looked at him as if he was half-mad. “No, no – he doesn’t look anything like that,” he replied.

The following morning, my younger brother met my father in the kitchen and commented in a rather ironic fashion: “Nice to see you at the pool yesterday.” I’m not sure who comes off as more eccentric in this story: my father, for not having recognised his own son at the pool; or my brother, for having recognised my father, but deciding not to greet him. 

Civil rights

In Jón Karl’s documentary, one of his interlocutors remarks: “If there wasn’t a public pool in Þingeyri (a town in the Westfjords of Iceland), it wouldn’t be habitable.” 

As a regular patron of the public pools, I sympathise with the sentiment, recalling a time when I was hunting for an apartment. Among the variables that I took into account was the property’s proximity to a public pool: If there was no pool within walking distance, then that strongly recommended against it. Luckily, it is rare, especially in the capital area, to encounter housing so far from a public pool so as to render walking unfeasible. As has often been observed, living in a place that’s within walking distance of a public pool is a kind of civil right in Iceland.

swimming pool iceland

“I read somewhere that there are 127 concrete pools in Iceland,” Jón Karl tells me. “And if you divide that by 380,000 (the rough population of Iceland), that comes to approximately one pool per every 3,000 residents. I was also told that something like 80,000 admissions are tallied every month in the Laugardalslaug swimming pool in Reykjavík; and I once reviewed data indicating that five to six million admission tickets were sold to Iceland’s pools every year.”

This may seem like a large number, but a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation may suggest otherwise. I visit a public pool, mostly the one in Hafnarfjörður, four to five times a week. That amounts to over 200 visits a year. If a tenth of the population frequent the pools with the same regularity as I do, that would mean over 7 million admissions annually. (Not including tourists).

Whatever the exact figure, the public pools in Iceland continue to evolve; what began as dirty mud holes, dug for the purpose of swimming instruction, have gradually morphed into ubiquitous modern facilities, featuring concrete pools, hot tubs, kid-friendly areas, waterslides, and, most recently perhaps, cold tubs: where patrons sit, shiver, and meditate, surrounded by a community of individuals who come for various reasons, and with varying regularity, and who, in the event of a protracted stay abroad – usually come to miss the Icelandic pools.

Without them, Iceland wouldn’t be habitable.

Parents to Association of Local Authorities: “Negotiate Now”

Wage negotiations

Parents affected by the ongoing BSRB strikes organised a protest at the headquarters of the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities (SÍS) this morning, RÚV reports. No progress has been made in the talks between BSRB and SÍS.

Talks remain at a standstill

Widespread strikes in 29 municipalities by members of BSRB – Iceland’s largest federation of public sector unions, comprising 19 labour unions with some 23,000 members – are still in full swing. The strikes extend to staff in preschools, swimming pools, sports facilities, service centres, town offices, utility houses, and harbours; and include approximately 2,500 BSRB members and affect the activities of about 70 preschools.

According to Elísabet Ólafsdóttir, assistant state mediator, the situation is being regularly assessed. Elísabet told RÚV that there was “no reason to call the disputing parties into a meeting” since it was considered unlikely to be successful. Inga Rún Ólafsdóttir, Chair of SÍS’ negotiation committee, agreed with Elísabet’s assessment: there was still a significant gap between the negotiation parties’ demands.

Chair of BSRB, Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir – who also concurred with the aforementioned view – told RÚV that there had been several reports of strike violations and that BSRB is investigating the validity of these claims; BSRB is currently reviewing whether it will take the municipality Snæfellsbær in West Iceland to Labour Court for strike violations.

“Negotiate – it’s not complicated”

Given this state of affairs between BSRB and the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities (SÍS), frustrated parents arrived at the premises of SÍS at 10 am this morning to protest, RÚV reports.

Astrid Jóhanna Kristjánsdóttir, Erla Þórdís Traustadóttir, Esther María Ragnarsdóttir, Birgitta Ragnarsdóttir, and Indiana Rós Ægisdóttir organised the protest, which was attended by approximately 100 people. The organisers are requesting that the conflicting parties negotiate immediately, given that the situation in preschools is “unacceptable.”

“These are some of our most important workers. The towns would be nothing without them. If the towns are nothing without them, we can’t go to work,” Esther told RÚV. When asked if preschool services had been curtailed, Esther replied in the affirmative, explaining that staff had only been allowed to attend for half a day. Her message to SÍS was simple: “Negotiate. It’s not complicated. These are some of our most important workers. This is completely disrespectful. Negotiate.”

Parliamentary Resolution on the Icelandic Language Introduced

The Icelandic government has published a parliamentary resolution, consisting of 18 actions formulated by five ministries, to protect and bolster the Icelandic language. The plan has been uploaded to Samráðsgátt (the government’s online consultation portal) and emphasises supporting the Icelandic language, particularly in relation to children and young people, immigrants, and within digital spaces.

“A big change in attitude” towards Icelandic needed

Yesterday, the government’s parliamentary resolution for the protection and bolstering of the Icelandic language was made available for presentation and comment on the government’s online consultation portal (i.e. Samráðsgátt). There are a total of 18 actions formulated in cooperation between five ministries, whose goal is to prioritise the government’s projects in the years 2023-2026 when it comes to the protection and development of the language.

“The agreement of the governing parties emphasises support for the Icelandic language with attention being paid to supporting children of foreign origin and their families. I am very happy with the priorities in this action plan because they are in line with what we proposed when we formed the government. I am convinced that increased support for all those who move here and want to live here results in an increased quality of life for everyone,” Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir is quoted as saying in a press release on the government’s website.

Read More: Nothing to Speak Of (On the Shortcomings of Icelandic Education Policy)

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The press release also quotes Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir, the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs: “We need a big change in attitude towards our language – Icelandic itself. Together, we need to unravel that apathy and that misplaced sense of obligingness that has given precedence to the English language. We have this language – this lifeline – which is part of our identity, expression, and our understanding of history. With these actions, we are sharpening priorities in favour of the Icelandic language. I encourage everyone to delve into the issue.”

Strengthening Icelandic in the digital world

As noted in the press release, a ministerial committee on the Icelandic language was set up in November 2022 at the Prime Minister’s proposal: “The committee’s role was to promote consultation and cooperation between ministries on issues relating to the Icelandic language and to ensure coordination where issues overlap. In addition to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs; the Minister of Education and Children’s Affairs; the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market; and the Minister of Education, Science, and Innovation have permanent seats on the committee.”

The press release goes on to say that in parallel with the meetings of the committee, work had been done to formulate actions related to the issues of the Icelandic language, taking into account the review of Icelandic language policy that took place at the level of the Icelandic Language Committee between 2020 and 2021 in addition to the progress of actions in parliamentary resolution no. 36/149, on promoting Icelandic as an official language in Iceland (approved in June 2019).

“Icelandic is a valuable resource that should be a creative and fruitful part of the environment. It is specifically noted that attention needs to be paid to the teaching of Icelandic to children and young people, adult immigrants, and Icelandic students in order to meet the changing conditions in society. Work must also continue to strengthen the position of Icelandic in the digital world with an emphasis on language technology.”

Key actions in the programme include:

  • Job-related Icelandic learning for immigrants alongside work.
  • Improved quality of Icelandic teaching for immigrants.
  • Introduction of electronic assessment tests in Icelandic.
  • Joint distance learning in practical Icelandic as a second language.
  • Icelandic for all – requirements should be made for immigrants to acquire basic skills in Icelandic and incentives to do so strengthened.
  • Strengthening the Icelandic language skills of staff in kindergartens and primary schools and after-hours activities.
  • A web portal for sharing electronic learning materials for all school levels.
  • Coordinated procedures for receiving, teaching and serving children with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds with a special emphasis on Icelandic as a second language.
  • Regular measurements of attitudes towards the language.

The proposed legislation will be open for comment on Samráðsgátt until July 10.

Open Books

edda icelandic manuscripts

The Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection, located at two institutions in Iceland and Denmark, is on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. It was established by Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), who travelled widely across Iceland collecting vellum manuscripts and books stretching back to the 12th century. On his deathbed, he bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen in […]

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Lone Hiker Rescued Near Þakgil, South Iceland

Þakgil

Emergency responders received a distress call from a trapped tourist who had deviated from the trail near Þakgil, South Iceland. The hiker was guided back to Þakgil with the assistance of local rescue teams.

Cold but safe

At 8.30 PM yesterday, emergency responders received a distress call from a trapped tourist who had deviated from the trail while hiking near Þakgil, south of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in South Iceland.

Rescue teams from Vík í Mýrdal and Álftaver were subsequently dispatched.

As noted in a press release from ICE-SAR (the Icelandic Association for Search, Rescue, and Injury Prevention), it took some time for the rescuers to reach Þakgil due to challenging road conditions.

After searching from different directions the rescuers located the man after 10 PM. He had become cold but had found a safe spot. The rescuers then provided assistance in guiding him back to Þakgil.

Milk Cartons to Be Recycled in Sweden

recycling in iceland

After an investigative report revealed that recyclable milk cartons from Iceland were being shipped to a cement factory in Europe to be incinerated, the Icelandic Recycling Fund and SORPA have decided to send Tetra Pak cartons to Fiskeby Board in Sweden for proper recycling. An independent party will also be appointed to monitor the implementation to ensure adequate recycling.

Shipped to Sweden

As reported Monday, an investigative report by Heimildin found that SORPA – the municipal association for waste management – was shipping recyclable milk cartons to a cement factory in Europe to be incinerated.

After the story broke, the Icelandic Recycling Fund and Sorpa released a public statement saying that they would modify protocols; Tetra Pak cartons would henceforth be sent to the company Fiskeby Board in Sweden to ensure that recycling was carried out correctly and would deliver the expected results.

“The Recycling Fund and SORPA jointly intend to obtain assurance that the recycling party that will from now on receive containers from SORPA will deliver the expected results,” the statement reads. The statement further notes that the decision had been taken following the discovery that Smurfit Kappa, SORPA’s paper recycling partner, could not recycle cartons in its processing plants.

A meeting with Guðlaugur Þór

The press release also notes that representatives from the Icelandic Recycling Fund and SORPA had met with Guðlaug Þór Þórðarson, Minister of the Environment, Energy and Climate, yesterday. The upshot of the meeting was that the Icelandic Recycling Fund and SORPA would appoint an independent party to monitor the implementation and confirm adequate recycling.

“The Recycling Fund has required other service providers, Terra and Íslenska gámafélagið, who have collected the milk cartons for recycling, for confirmation that adequate recycling has taken place abroad. Information is expected to arrive in the coming days.”

The press release concludes by stating that the Icelandic Recycling Fund had recently revised its terms and conditions vis-à-vis the fund’s service providers to ensure traceability and knowledge of the final disposal of the waste covered by the fund.