As far as kitchen metaphors are concerned, Iceland has always been less a melting pot and more a sandwich grill: a historical environment that, generation after generation, melds together a handful of related ingredients (Wonder Bread and white cheese, e.g.) to produce something consistently plain and predictable.
There is, perhaps, only one place that warrants the use of the first-mentioned analogy, not least because of its association with the original referent (i.e. the United States). With nearly a third of residents having immigrated from one of over 50 different countries, the town of Keflavík – and by extension, the Reykjanesbær municipality – has long seemed a place for the out of place. A home for misfits and oddballs. And a venue for various unseemly occurrences.
Widely reputed to be home to more fast-food restaurants than any other town in Iceland, Keflavík is also known as the birthplace of Icelandic rock music, a former fishing town (like most other Icelandic towns), Iceland’s first – and current – gateway to the outer world, and one of the country’s youngest communities, demographically speaking.
As we dive deeper into the fabric of the community, we delve into the big questions. Whether they grew up in Keflavík, in other parts of Iceland, or in other parts of the world – what exactly are the town’s residents doing here?
Seen from the south, the church of St. John Paul II resembles an abortive stone staircase: three white steps aimed fruitlessly towards the sky. On the church’s broad, eastern wall, the kind eyes of its namesake look out upon the neighbourhood of Ásbrú – another name for Bifröst: the rainbow bridge conjoining the realms of men and Gods in Norse mythology.
Residing somewhere between these two figurative structures is Father Mikołaj Kęcik, who emerges quietly from his quarters in the back, on a somewhat dreary weekday morning. He’s got a large, unkempt beard and a self-proclaimed fascination with Viking poetry.
“The way they were fighting, too,” he observes. “They were so good at it that half of the kings in Europe had Vikings as their private guard.”
“And is this a Viking tradition, too?” I ask, glancing down at his bare feet.
“I don’t know,” he laughs. “It’s my tradition.”
Mikołaj Kęcik first came to Iceland eight years ago, and he’s been a priest at St. John Paul’s for three. He’s lived mainly in the Reykjanesbær municipality, which is not “a bad place” – although there’s plenty of room for improvement. Especially in Ásbrú.
“There’s no place where you can sit and drink coffee,” he laments, “and no place for children.” His congregation, which consists of around 2,000 people, officially, comprises various nationalities – primarily Poles – and the nature of the available work makes for a somewhat unusual society.
“The airport and the Blue Lagoon are important places of employment,” he notes, “which means that if you want to visit someone, you have to make sure that they’re not working a shift. It’s not like a normal community where most people work from nine to five. You have to adapt.”
As Mikołaj tallies up the pros and cons of Reykjanesbær, Iceland’s most multicultural municipality, his ledger seems subsumed by an implicit assessment: Keflavík may be a boring place – but boredom trumps danger.
Mikołaj’s parents, political dissidents, met in a Polish prison during the Cold War. In 1981, when the authorities declared martial law, his parents were arrested a second time; Mikołaj was so traumatised by the event that he would start shaking at the sight of a policeman.
“They wanted to give my sisters and me some sense of normality,” he says, having taken his seat across from me on the couch in his office, “and so they fled to Sweden, where we settled in one of the country’s most affluent communities. I thought that the Swedish kids would like me more if I was better off – so I started fighting for money.” Whatever adjustments Mikołaj made to accommodate Swedish sensibilities were quickly nullified by his return to Poland at the age of 15.
“The Poles thought that I was better than them because I had lived in Sweden, or so I suspected. And so I went to great lengths to prove them wrong. I became the biggest drunkard. Cultivated the worst character.”
The tumultuous circumstances of Mikołaj’s youth engendered an intense hatred in his heart – against communism, the police, the government – so much so that he began studying books on torture. One of the generals complicit in his parents’ plight lived a mere 200 metres from his home. Miko imagined using some of what he had learned on him.
“I didn’t like myself very much,” he admits. Which was when his ascent towards something more ideal began. When he found forgiveness.
“My father brought me to catechesis in the church. It was there that I heard for the first time that God loved me for who I was. I thought to myself: ‘If there is someone who can love me when I’m at my worst, when I’m hurting other people – when I don’t even like myself – then that someone is worth being with.”
Mikołaj spent twelve years in seminary, studying mainly in Denmark (but also in Italy, Sweden, and Finland), and he’s been a priest for 15 years. He loves Iceland’s swimming pool culture (his colleagues in Reykjavík joke that he knows more about who goes to which swimming pool as opposed to which mass) but objects to the turbulent air; he sometimes finds himself sitting alone in church, heeding the otherworldly howl of the wind.
There are few places in Keflavík where the wind is more pronounced than in the yard of the Vesturberg preschool. It sweeps in from the coast, through the metal fence to the north, affording a convenient tailwind to the trikes of small children.
Standing in the middle of the yard is one of the school’s veterans, Danijela Živojinović, who’s busy mediating a dispute between two boys. “He keeps chasing and pushing me,” one of them whines. He’s wearing a KFC buff, which seems apt, in light of the town’s enthusiasm for fast food.
“And what do you say to him?” Danijela asks, hammering home a familiar mantra.
“Stop?” he offers.
“Exactly. It’s good that you’re talking to me, but you can also talk to each other.”
Danijela first came to Iceland in 2006 to work as a nanny in South Iceland. She met her future husband in Reykjavík, and the two of them eventually settled down in Keflavík. If the community is lacking anything, she says, it’s a better hospital, employing better physicians; last year, the health authorities revoked the licence of a doctor at the Suðurnes Hospital and Health Centre (HSS) after he was accused of causing the deaths of six patients – by prematurely placing them on end-of-life care. And then there’s the insufficient number of paediatricians and gynaecologists.
When asked about the wind, Danijela gives an answer imbued with strong logic and sanguine good sense:
“It’s an island; it would be weird if there wasn’t any wind!”
As we talk, we gradually move closer to the school building, which, as Danijela points out, affords an uncanny respite from the turbulent air – as if the distance between the windswept yard and the building’s wood patio were to be measured in miles, not metres.
The school’s philosophy also evokes the movement of air; imported from Denmark by a former headmistress, “open flow” (opið flæði in Icelandic) allows students to move freely between the school’s four divisions. The doors between the departments are only closed during nap time and lunch.
“What’s special about this place?” I inquire.
“The airport,” Danijela replies. “For us foreigners, it’s good living close to the airport, as opposed to, say, Egilsstaðir. There’s plenty of work, too,” she adds. “We’re a growing municipality, the fourth largest in the country, and when I say we, I mean we – because I feel like I’m from Keflavík. My children were born here. This is their home.”
Danijela remarks that Reykjanesbær is a multicultural society: 25% of residents are of foreign extraction, and that’s not counting Icelandic citizens like herself. Something like 90 languages are spoken in the area.
“Would you say that the locals are welcoming?”
“Well, when I first moved here,” Danijela begins, “I heard it said that the Icelanders half hated foreigners and that helvítis útlendingur (“god-damn foreigner” in Icelandic) was a common refrain. Hearing such things wasn’t nice. But it hasn’t been my experience.”
Like Mikołaj – who had half a mind to take up arms with the Ukrainians – Danijela despises war. As a Serbian, she experienced the NATO bombing of Serbia (Yugoslavia) in 1999 first hand. She was 18.
“Those three months were hell. I know war well. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone,” she observes, adding that she harbours no enmity against the Russian people.
Although Danijela came here long after the bombing, Reykjanesbær is home to more than a few Serbians who did flee the war. And many more who came as quota refugees from Bosnia or Croatia, like Danijela’s husband and family.
“When Croatia joined the EU, many Croatians moved here. And many Serbians as well. There are over 100 Serbians in Reykjanesbær. That I know of.”
Omar Ricardo Rondón
The white, two-storey building on Njarðarbraut houses a few separate institutions, among them Fjörheimar, a centralised community centre for kids between grades 5 and 10, and 88 Húsið, a youth centre serving teenagers and young adults.
Hanging above the building’s main entrance, slightly to the left, is a small traffic light. It glows green when the place is open, red when it is not. Directly below the stoplight is an obnoxiously hefty metal fixture, seemingly put there to fulfil the sole purpose of preventing the heavy door from blowing off its hinges in the wind.
“Do you like the wind?” I inquire, somewhat ridiculously, of Omar Ricardo Rondón, a visual artist from Venezuela who moved to Keflavík two years ago. “Nei, I prefer to avoid it!” he says, rather succinctly. One of the more charming people I have met, Omar wears a big smile and seems eternally on the verge of convulsive laughter.
He came to Iceland because that’s where his girlfriend was living. They always planned on moving to Reykjavík, but during the pandemic, when Omar found work at the youth centre, they decided to stay.
“It’s kind of hard because there isn’t much to do,” he admits. “It’s like: the restaurant where everyone eats. The bar that everyone goes to. But I’m a small-town guy, so I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in big cities.”
When Omar began working at the youth centre as an art instructor, his role was confined to that office. But as his circle of acquaintances grew – the children, and by extension, their parents, come from all walks of life – more opportunities presented themselves. He does work for the municipality, shooting and editing videos, while also providing services for the international protection team; as a refugee himself, he wants to demonstrate to others that here, unlike in other countries, the system is designed to help you reach your goals, that is, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
“I think it’s a very open community. I’ve always heard that the old people are a bit closed-minded, but most of the people, in my experience, have been really nice. I began by teaching art classes, devising a programme that began in the summer of 2020. I feel very blessed because I’ve had a lot of opportunities. I’ve lived in Columbia, Spain, the US, and as an immigrant, this hasn’t always been my experience. But here, it’s proved relatively easy. It’s been lovely, actually.”
As he says this, one wonders to what extent Omar’s openness, as a variable no less significant than that of the openness of the community, has determined the ease with which he appears to have assimilated; disposition, and state of mind, often outweigh the effects of the environment.
“Let me show you my place,” Omar says, leading us downstairs toward his studio. As we descend the two flights of stairs, we find ourselves in a chaotic space: two lightbulbs dangling nakedly from the ceiling, second-hand sofas and tables, and a beautiful comic-book mural on the northern wall created by the artist himself.
“What’s your dream?” I ask.
“To be honest, I wanted to become an artist when I began my studies in Venezuela. I was rather successful. In Miami (where Omar did an internship), my ego and expectations were big. The more I learned about the art world, about those who were selling paintings for upwards of $100,000 – everything struck me as a little fake. It was about having the right contacts, knowing the right people. ‘Maybe this isn’t what I want,’ I began to think.”
And then Omar seems to articulate what my previous two interlocutors had allowed to remain implicit.
“Venezuela had been going through a rough time. When I returned from the US, I did a lot of political art. Criticising the government, etc. But after I moved here, I thought, ‘I have nothing to complain about anymore.’ So I started painting for painting’s sake.”
Omar explains that he had been searching for the right inspiration, but when he began working with kids – some of whom are autistic or are having troubles at home – to his surprise, he found that the work was incredibly fulfilling.
“Parents would come to me and express disbelief at the various positive changes that our work seemed to have engendered.”
“We’re doing something positive for the community, and that’s my passion,” he says. “Working with kids. Seeing them change. I have a certain vision, coming from a country that’s been in such a bad place, so I feel like I can give them advice with a more global view. Many of them don’t know what they want to do after school, and so I tell them ‘let’s work with what you have.’ I feel that we’ve changed a lot of lives over these past two years.
Jón Þorgilsson is a superintendent at Suðurnes Comprehensive College (FS). He followed two of his boys to Reykjanesbær after they had “become captivated” with a pair of local girls. Posing in what he considers “the most beautiful” area inside the school – a spacious, modern-looking lounge with bright-coloured chairs – he explains that the room had been “a lot nicer” before it was vandalised. “Freshmen damaged the furniture, so we had to remove a few sofas and chairs; we’re talking kids who don’t want to be here but who are made to attend by their parents.”
Aside from the occasional hooligans, Jón considers Reykjanesbær “a pretty good place to live.” He jokes that he may be too old to qualify as a competent judge and defers his judgement to his two boys, now 24 and 26, who rarely seem to complain. If he were to nit-pick, the school system – like in most places in the country – remains less than perfect, especially as far as waiting lists for preschool are concerned.
Jón celebrates the community’s multiculturalism. “I can’t remember how many languages are spoken here,” he says. “I have a grandkid who’s half Filipino. She’s doing well.”
Þórunn and Emma
Dressed in baggy grey sweaters and sweatpants, the national exam-taking outfit among Icelandic youth, Þórunn and Emma, ages 18 and 17, exit the classroom and proceed down the large staircase at the centre of FS. Their faces betray a certain uncertainty in regards to their performance.
Þórunn was raised in Keflavík, and when asked if there’s anything lacking in the municipality, she replies that she just had the same conversation with her father. “He said that there was a lack of diversion. No bowling alley, for example.”
“What do you do for fun?”
“We drive around,” Þórunn says, employing the word rúntur, an Icelandic concept meaning “to pass the time by driving around,” one that often involves people-watching. “We go to Iceland [the frozen goods store] sometimes.” Most of her friends have their own cars, and they often take road trips to Reykjavík.
“And what do you do in Reykjavík?”
“Things that you can’t do in Keflavík,” she says and laughs. She and her friend found work at the airport and the Blue Lagoon this summer, respectively.
Sitting by himself in the back of KFC, Guðberg Gunnarsson is on lunch break from the hardware store Byko. He’s 17 going on 18, and he recently finished his exams at FS.
He’s got the kind face of a cartoon bear and a matching demeanour, too; the playground backdrop seems fitting. Speaking softly from his booth in the back, Guðberg remarks that he moved to town six years ago and lives in Ásbrú with his parents. “It was the most affordable option,” he says.
“How do you like it there?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. It would be nice if they opened a grocery store, though. The streets, too. There are a lot of potholes.”
When asked what he does for fun, the first thing that comes to mind is “driving around with friends.” Sometimes they go all the way to Reykjavík for ice cream. When asked if those friends include any of foreign extraction, Guðberg replies that he has “a couple of Polish friends.”
As Pharrell Williams’ Happy plays on the speaker system, Michał, 38, mans the cashier at the Mini Market – one of a chain of small grocery stores catering mainly to the needs of Poles and Eastern Europeans.
He lives upstairs in an apartment above the store, which caters mainly to Poles, Romanians, Latvians, Russians, and the occasional Icelander, who come here mainly to buy cigarettes.
“They’re cheaper here,” Michał says. He first came to Iceland in 2007, and he’s worked at the Mini Market for 12 years. Keflavík is “a pretty nice place,” although there isn’t much going on here. “You can always arrange something to do,” he observed, but for cultural events, a person must travel to Reykjavík.
He doesn’t have a lot of Icelandic friends and usually hangs out with Polish people, not because the locals are closed-minded – it’s got more to do with his personality.
“I have rather few friends,” he says. “I know a lot of people, but not friends. I just know people. From my work, for example.”
When asked if he foresees staying here, Michał says that he’s not sure. Keflavík is nice and quiet, although he’s been considering a change of scenery. Maybe Canada, where his sister lives.
to be continued…