Gathering

ROUND UP  At just before 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning, I drove north to the Svarfaðardalur valley – to attend a roundup. This roundup had nothing to do with a certain carcinogenic pesticide, nor did it involve the hasty collection of suspects during a police raid. The word roundup, when translated from Icelandic, implies the gathering […]

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Nothing to Speak Of

icelandic language education

/01

ICELANDIC EXERCISE: PRONUNCIATION

“Ministry of Culture and Ed- Culture and Trade.”

“Yes, hello. I’m a journalist from Iceland Review. I’m calling to inquire whether Icelandic language education for immigrants falls under this ministry.”

“Hmmm… Give me a moment.”

“Hi again. The ministry assignments are still being sorted, so I recommend you call back next week. I’m pretty sure that issue is being moved to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. But check back next week.”

I made the above phone call three months after a new government took office in Iceland. It had renamed the ministries and redefined their assignments. The issue of which ministry was responsible for ensuring that Icelandic language education was made accessible to the country’s roughly 50,000 foreign residents – now 15% of the population – remained a big question mark. 

In 2012, foreign citizens made up 7% of Iceland’s population. By 2021, that figure had more than doubled, to over 14%. Immigration is no less of a hot topic in Iceland than elsewhere, and many speculate about its effects on the economy, the nation, and the Icelandic language. But regardless of what those effects are, one thing is clear: Iceland needs immigrants. 

In a recent interview with Vísir, Halldór Benjamín Þorbergsson, the CEO of the Icelandic Confederation of Enterprise, stated that Iceland would need 15,000 new workers over the next four years in order to meet demand on the labour market. Only 3,000 locals were expected to age into the market during that period, which means that the country would need to acquire an additional 12,000 workers from abroad. Halldór Benjamín made it clear that ensuring these workers was a question of maintaining economic prosperity and locals’ quality of life. 

Successfully receiving 12,000 immigrants over four years would require a monumental effort on the part of the government, which needed to begin “no later than now,” Halldór Benjamín stated. “A part of that, nota bene, is to help people adjust to the society, with Icelandic language education and the like.” 

/02

ICELANDIC EXERCISE: ASKING QUESTIONS

“Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.”

“Yes, hi. I’m calling from Iceland Review. I’ve been told that Icelandic education for immigrants is being moved to this ministry. Can you confirm that’s the case?”

“The typical procedure for such inquiries is to send an email to the ministry.”

“I see. So you can’t confirm whether it falls under this ministry?”

“You can send an email to ___@___.is.”

“Right. Thank you.” 

The government of Iceland does not provide any free Icelandic language classes for immigrants. 

The structured learning available to the country’s newest residents largely falls into two categories. On the one hand, there are free conversational classes provided by community organisations such as the Red Cross, religious groups, and the Reykjavík Public Library. (One immigrant related to me how Icelandic classes offered by one Christian group always started with a prayer.) 

On the other hand, there are paid courses offered by privately-operated schools. An eight-week course will set you back around ISK 50,000 ($375; €340) – about one-sixth of the minimum monthly salary, pre tax. Those who are union members can usually get 75% of this fee reimbursed. Those who are not must pay out of pocket. 

/03

ICELANDIC EXERCISE: READING

Feb. 17 2022, 2:59 PM

To: Jelena Ciric

From: Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour

Subject: Inquiry: Icelandic Education for Foreigners

Case reference: FRN22020116

Hello,

Yes, Icelandic teaching for foreigners falls under the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, except for Icelandic as a second language teaching in upper secondary schools. 

Regards,

Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour

Hjalti Ómarsson

Hjalti Ómarsson, CEO of Retor fræðsla.

“IT WOULD TAKE TIME TO UNRAVEL

DECADES OF A LACK OF POLICY”

“I don’t get the point. I just don’t understand. No one has contacted us or tried to explain to us how moving this issue to the Social Affairs and Labour Ministry helps immigrants learn Icelandic or have more access to the language,” Hjalti Ómarsson tells me. 

Hjalti is the CEO of Retor fræðsla, an Icelandic as a second language (ISL) school in the Reykjavík area founded in 2008. While Retor receives some public funding, it only accounts for 35-40% of the school’s operating costs. 

“The rest comes from students or their unions. We also work with a lot of companies that buy Icelandic courses for their employees,” Hjalti tells me. He says the public grants available to workplaces for providing ISL classes are one of the things that got the school through the worst of the pandemic. “But when it comes to public funding, there’s not enough. The amount of grant money available has not risen since 2009. And whether your company has 10 employees or 100, the amount you can apply for is the same. Workplaces complain to us that they exhaust their grant money very quickly.” 

Retor’s staff has done their best to advocate for more government funding and attention to ISL teaching, but in Hjalti’s words, communication with the government has been “like the weather. Sometimes good, sometimes not at all. We’ve pointed out that the funding is there: funding that immigrants themselves create by working on the Icelandic labour market. I don’t understand why it isn’t possible to invest those funds back into immigrants, increase access to the language, and make it easier for people to learn.” Reports from the Directorate of Labour have shown that a lack of Icelandic knowledge is a barrier for immigrants when it comes to getting their education and training recognised – meaning they miss out on jobs, and the labour market on skilled workers. 

Retor’s meetings with the former Minister of Education and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir ended with many promises, but no action. “I sincerely hope something will be done. Because we, in our role, we can only do this for so long until we say ‘OK, nothing is changing, the public institutions aren’t making improvements.’”

/04

ICELANDIC EXERCISE: PARTS OF SPEECH

What the Icelandic government needs to do in order to improve access to Icelandic language education for immigrants is establish a clear policy, says Hjalti. “We need to receive immigrants differently than we receive tourists. When people move to the country, they should be informed that they are expected to learn the language. So there isn’t this weird in-between place where many people end up, sometimes for decades, where they’re not sure if they need to learn Icelandic or not, until they’ve gotten so old that it becomes even more difficult.” That policy needs to be accompanied by funding, “so that people who are paying taxes in our society can attend language classes. They need to be made accessible.” 

“I feel that it’s very short-sighted of the Icelandic government to do nothing. Whether you look at it from the perspective of the language, or the people who need the language as a tool. Because it’ll slowly create – not even just two nations in this country, but several.” It’s the immigrants themselves that bear the brunt of this lack of government action, Hjalti points out. “Like people in service jobs. Icelanders get annoyed at them if they don’t speak Icelandic. At the same time, those people have no access [to Icelandic classes] and no motivation to attend. If there is no policy and no funding to speak of, then people choose to do nothing. And that is the only option they have today. Except for very, very determined, or hardworking, people. And I don’t know if it’s even fair to say that, because people’s circumstances vary so much. I find it very unfair how much perseverance it takes to learn Icelandic.” 

Act no. 61/2011 on the status of the Icelandic language and Icelandic sign language (excerpt): 

Article 2: The Icelandic Language 

The national language is the common language of the people. The government shall ensure that it can be used in all areas of Icelandic society. Everyone residing in this country shall have the opportunity to learn and use Icelandic for general participation in Icelandic national life, as further prescribed in special legislation. 

Article 5: Language Policy 

The state and municipalities are responsible for preserving and strengthening the Icelandic language and shall ensure that it is used. 

Besides free sessions offered by charities and costly private schools, a third, though less common, route does exist for those who want to learn Icelandic as a second language. The University of Iceland offers a one-year Icelandic as a second language diploma programme, as well as a three-year Icelandic as a Second Language degree, of which Lina Hallberg is a recent graduate. Lina began learning Icelandic abroad, then after moving to Iceland in 2016, she completed all of the ISL courses on offer at a respected private school, as well as attending free sessions at a variety of community organisations. Some were good, but most did not help her advance beyond a beginner level. “In the end, I thought: OK, there’s nothing more I can learn here, so I just ended up applying to the university.” 

The Icelandic government has not conducted research on how many hours of instruction are required for a second-language learner to become proficient in Icelandic. The United States’ Foreign Service Institute, however, has. It concluded that it usually takes around 44 weeks, or 1,100 hours of instruction, for English speakers to achieve professional working proficiency in Icelandic. 

The Icelandic government’s upper secondary school curriculum for Icelandic as a second language accounts for only 540 hours to achieve a similar level of proficiency. Lina contacted Icelandic language schools across the country to determine how many hours of instruction they offered in total, when all their courses were added together. None of them surpassed 360 hours. Lina also points out that the government has not made teaching materials that cover everything outlined by the curriculum. 

“One response I often get as to why there aren’t courses at higher levels is usually: ‘people don’t want to do them.’ I don’t think people don’t want to; they are not able to. They’re tired, they don’t have the money, they don’t have access to childcare.” Some schools, like Retor, simply say that funding does not allow for them to offer courses at higher levels, which often require additional work to create teaching material. She points out that the government has suggested requiring Icelandic proficiency within certain professions, like her own: dentistry. Yet there are obstacles to reaching that proficiency. “I’m not against requiring people to have a certain level of Icelandic to get a licence as a dentist, for example, but then there should be a book for them. Can you imagine being required to do a driving test and there’s no book to study for it?” 

Lina had to scale back her working hours in order to be able to attend the ISL programme at the University of Iceland. “Everyone is saying it’s way too expensive to provide lessons for immigrants. But I chose to work 50% so that I could learn Icelandic. And when I’m not working, we don’t hire a dental assistant. So for 3.5 years, we didn’t hire an assistant, I wasn’t working: that’s money that is not being made. And if I’m not working, I’m not using instruments: we’re buying less, the denturist has less work. So it’s a loss for the economy and the government.” 

Lína Hallberg.

Attending the university’s ISL program made Lina more aware of the lack of materials available for learning Icelandic, especially material that was tailored to second language learners. “I was maybe complaining about it a little bit too much. I had taught a grammar lesson and prepared a second one for one of my courses, and then eventually the instructor told me: ‘This is really good. Why don’t you write this book that you say is missing?’ And I thought ‘Why not? I can’t be complaining all the time and not doing anything about it.” 

Lina then began to put together a grammar book tailored to immigrants as her final project in the programme. While it’s nearly ready for publication, she’s faced yet more obstacles in getting her book out there, primarily in finding funding for the cover design and proofreading. “I’m learning a lot writing the book. So if I don’t get paid, at least I’m learning. But I need someone to design the cover, and I will have to pay an Icelander to go over it in the end. And all of that costs money.” 

When she searched for grants that she could apply for, there was little to be found. “I never fulfilled the requirements: you either had to be an organisation, or work for the university, or the project needed to be a research project, or if it could be a book then the material had to be for children. The government can pay ISK 9 billion [$68.2 million; €62.1 million] for COVID testing over two years, but you can’t get ISK 1.2 million [$9,100; €8,300] for a book. It’s ridiculous.” 

Facing a lack of government support, Lina points out that many ISL schools have resorted to creating their own teaching material for more advanced levels, at their own expense. “The material that’s available isn’t good enough, so everyone has to do their own thing.” 

Icelandic Language Committee: Resolution on the Status of the Icelandic Language 2020 (excerpt): 

It is important to keep in mind that it is an issue of accessibility and equality for Icelandic to be used as a rule, as Icelandic speakers’ mastery of foreign languages is quite varied, and constant use of English can lead to a part of society being excluded from certain areas. […] Good Icelandic language education is also an important issue for equality, among other things to prevent a gap forming between generations and social groups.

/04

ICELANDIC EXERCISE: COMPREHENSION

March 2022: An Icelandic TikToker posts videos of himself printing and distributing flyers in mailboxes and on windshields in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood. 

The flyers read: IMMIGRANTS ARE KILLING EUROPEANS 

The immigration of people from Asia and Africa will lead to the extinction of Icelanders 

No Borders and “Anti-Racists” want to see white people become extinct! 

Immigration, racial mixing and democracy are tools used to eliminate Icelanders and Europeans 

We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children. 

“It would take time to unravel decades of a lack of policy,” Hjalti observes, saying the government’s inaction has influenced the nation’s attitude toward the language. “When Icelanders meet people who speak English, they just speak English. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. There are more than enough people who are interested in creating good ISL material, creating better conditions for learning. There is specialised knowledge. But there needs to be the will to do so: the government needs to have the will to do it, the interest. Instead of willingly preventing people from being able to build the life they want here, using the Icelandic language as a tool.” 

Part of the change that is necessary, according to Hjalti, is to let go of the ideal of perfect grammar and accept that Icelandic can come in many forms. “I think we need to normalise the fact that immigrants don’t speak perfect Icelandic. We want, first of all, to give people a chance to approach the language, and to be able to use it. That’s what this is about. When people start to feel good about just using Icelandic, even if they’re not saying everything perfectly, that’s when the ball gets rolling.” 

While many Icelandic language purists see any foreign loan words or imperfect grammar as a threat to the survival of Icelandic, Hjalti says this attitude only hurts the language. “Icelandic is incredibly adaptable. I think the best proof of that is that it’s still around. And I love how it has developed and changed through the years. I think it’s OK for there to be different versions of Icelandic, and for some people to speak well, and others to speak poorly. I think that’s something that Icelanders have to learn to accept.” 

The Minister of Social Affairs and Labour did not grant Iceland Review an interview during the writing of this article. After several emails and phone calls, the Ministry answered our questions by email, citing the 2021 government agreement and a parliamentary resolution from 2018-2019 that both emphasise a need to review Icelandic education for immigrants and its funding, much like previous reports and agreements. Whether this government will differ from previous ones, and follow through on promises made, remains to be seen. 

Aftershock

Quake

Picking up threads

Auður’s novel centres on a woman waking up from a grand mal seizure, having lost her memory. As a single parent, she feels unable to let on how much she has forgotten because she fears losing custody of her child. As she starts digging into her past, she finds more than she bargained for. For Auður, the story begins with past violence and how we rewrite our lives to make them fit to what we believe is right. “I’d read an article in a German science journal by a neurologist that stated that we were characters of our own creation. We adapt our memories to the capabilities of our personality.” Now that she’s seen Tinna’s take on the story, she can muse on their different approaches. “You have to strip the story down a lot for a film. A film’s narrative has to be a lot simpler than in a book. That’s why the novel is such a great format. It’s the only art form where you can let yourself take any stories you want and mix them all up. When a story gets to the theatre or a film, it has to have a really definitive voice; which thread of the narrative are you taking on?” Even though they share a storyline, her novel and Tinna’s film are entirely different. Auður tells me that she had no influence on the filmmaking process. “I told Tinna she should do it completely in her own way. When you’re creating a piece of art, you have to have your own unique take on it.”

For Tinna, finding a clear throughline in the intricate plot of the novel wasn’t an issue. “There were so many things that I wanted to keep, but then again, there were a lot of things I had to cut out in order to strengthen the story that I wanted to highlight in the film. The book has more threads to the storyline than the film does. I had to choose which one of them I wanted to highlight. I had to find the core of the story that I wanted to tell.” Again, she went with her gut, the part of the story that spoke the loudest to her. “In this case, it was her love for her son. That she wants to become a whole person in order to be there for her son was what spoke the loudest to me. It’s what we all want.” There’s more to it than simply taking care of the child. It’s a matter of saving the child from generational trauma. 

 

Family inheritance

In some ways, working through your own trauma is the most selfless thing you can do, as you’re taking on the challenging work of self-discovery in order to provide better conditions for your children. Tinna went on: “I wanted to touch on the chain reaction that many of our generation are combatting these days. Trying to be open and honest about events and experiences we’ve had. About the things that shaped us in our childhood and our lives. How we can face these things and work on them in order to stop our own trauma from affecting how we raise our children. So, they don’t have to deal with what happened to you as well.” In Quake, the older generation is silent on some family secrets, while the main character is trying to get things out in the open. This ties back to a mindset shift that’s currently taking place. “I think we’re stepping away from the closed-off, silencing mindset that many of us grew up with. Not just in our families but in society as a whole. People are much more open about things these days. It’s difficult, and it comes with growing pains, hurt feelings and sensitive topics. But sometimes, you just have to dive deep into your core and acknowledge that things aren’t great all the time.” Tinna states. 

Auður’s books have long dealt with family secrets and generational trauma. It’s raised plenty of interest but a considerable number of eyebrows as well, especially early on in her career. To her, denial equals isolation. “It’s not a question of is there a family secret, but which one is it and where is it buried. When you write about these things, so many people tell you that it’s their story, we’re so similar in so many ways.” As the years have gone by, Auður finds less and less resistance to her writing. “The book came out in 2015, and it was harder to tell the story back then. We’ve gone through such an awakening as a society. With each year that passes, it takes less effort to open up about these things. More people are listening without diminishing your experience.”

As Tinna was writing the script for the film, Icelandic society and the world as a whole was in upheaval over the first wave of #metoo. Much like Quake’s main character was forced to go through the painful process of rewriting her own narrative, writing the story of such a personal journey tugged at Tinna’s soul. “It was hard. I went through some lows when writing the script. Some deep lows. It’s a touching story, and just as I was writing it, the #metoo campaign was at its peak. Everyone was opening up and sharing their stories. People were taking sides, and stories were coming out in Facebook groups. There was a lot going on in society, and I was dealing with some events that have to do with silencing.” While Quake doesn’t deal with sexual abuse, it addresses the necessary pain involved in opening up about past trauma. “It was a purge and an awakening. It hit people hard at the time. But it was necessary and important. In every moment of reckoning, there is a struggle involved. It’s painful. And if it isn’t, it isn’t real, and you won’t get what you need.” 

Tinna Hrafnsdóttir

Auður Jónsdóttir

Healing from within

For Auður, the role of narrative in the healing process is fascinating. “In therapy, they ask you to tell your story, and there’s a good reason. It gives you the power to see things out for yourself and to acknowledge your role in what happened as well as other people’s role. It validates your experience and gives it space. The story itself is a healing process.” The talk turns to #metoo again, which in Iceland prompted a nationwide study on the traumatic history of women and its effect on their physical and mental wellbeing. “It’s not just that people are waking up to these things. We’re also learning so much more about them than we used to. We have better tools to understand our traumatic experiences and how trauma is passed down in some families. If you experienced trauma as a child and never had the chance to deal with it, there’s more risk of trauma as you grow older.” 

As stories of trauma get shared more widely and openly, people also realise that there’s often logic behind irrational behaviour. “Because it’s so hard to understand. People need to know more about trauma and how it affects people so they can understand how to get the help they need. I’ve also heard experts say that it’s important to go through working through trauma in order to be able to let go. It’s so interesting when we embody our trauma, and they start to control our reflexes. We can be another character than we could be if we hadn’t dealt with our trauma and learned to understand our own reactions. People can run into trauma in love, in life, in decision making, if it is always there, strumming in your subconscious.” For instance, there’s the urge to keep a secret hidden when opening up about it might start a healing process. “People do the strangest things without understanding it themselves. Speaking of reflexes, they’re often very counterintuitive. A woman of this generation, like so many others with buried trauma, has her way of making sure it stays that way. It’s her only way to keep her reality going. And that’s what family secrets were all about. No one could say anything because then it would all blow up. Keep a straight face and keep the family together. And it passed from generation to generation. I think there’s something to the idea that if you want to change the fate of your whole family, you should start with yourself. So you don’t pass it on. Secrets come with certain actions. Repression, shame, insecurity.”

 

Finding your strength

For Tinna, it’s crucial to find a personal connection to what she’s writing about, no matter how hard it is to dive back into these feelings. “Even if the film is based on Auður’s book and I stay true to that core, there’s plenty of me in the script as well. How can there not be? My voice gets added to the work.” For Auður, authoring the book was deeply personal, requiring her to open up. Tinna says: “I am infinitely grateful to Auður for giving me this opportunity. I respect her deeply as an artist for doing it.” Such an act of letting go requires humility. 

Tinna recognises that she has that ability now and that it is a product of her going through a traumatic experience herself and overcoming it. “In my case, I couldn’t always be this brave. I wasn’t always able to. I was shy and scared of other people’s opinions. But then I had to go through a massive personal challenge myself, I couldn’t get pregnant. For five years, I had infertility treatments, which is a really long time when you can practically hear your biological clock ticking.” Motherhood had always been her goal. In fact, she remembers a conversation on infertility with a friend years before she experienced it herself. “I distinctly remember telling her I could manage just about anything life would throw at me, except that. Not being able to become a mom, I couldn’t bear the thought.” After five years of infertility treatments, Tinna’s own personal miracle happened, and she had two healthy twin boys. “Sometimes, I think life put me in this situation. I needed this. I was so insecure before it happened. All the feelings I experienced during that period, all the fear and doubt that came along with it, proved to myself who I was and what I could do. I won’t give up no matter what. And to me, this was the greatest victory I could ever achieve. I don’t care if I could direct a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep; this would still be my greatest feat. And when you get to that point of your greatest victory, all the losses you face become so much easier to deal with. I was filled with serenity. As for what I do, I can stand by my work if I do my best and put my heart into it. But if people don’t like it or if it isn’t going according to plan or doesn’t reach the peak I want it to, that’s OK too. Because I’ve already proven to myself what I’m capable of.”

Adaptation

The process of adapting the book to film took years, a lot of personal growth, and the process was slightly marred by the global pandemic. A twist of fate meant that the release of the film coincided with the American release date of Quake, translated by Meg Matich. The book she wrote several years ago is all of a sudden a massive part of her life again, and that has had some unexpected results. “I got back in emotional contact with it through the film. It really hit me when I wasn’t expecting it. Tinna and I went to New York to promote the film and the book, and so I started talking about the book like it came out yesterday. The book started taking more space in my life again, and it reignited feelings that I’d forgotten. A book is such a part of the era you write it in. I got a little sensitive, which surprised me.” Memories resurfaced, and issues she believed she had resolved years ago reared their head again. “You think you’re done working through it. But it can get you when you least expect it. It’s fiction, but the feelings are real, and there’s a creature in this book that can be raised from the dead even if you don’t expect it.” 

Even for a novelist who writes autobiographical fiction set on airing out old secrets and facing them head-on, when Auður was working on the novel, she found another side of trauma she didn’t expect. She had taken control of her own narrative, but she still wasn’t ready to let go. “Vigdís Grímsdóttir was writing my mother’s biography and mentioned an incident from my childhood in an unfamiliar context. It struck me down. I realised that while I had written autobiographical fiction until then, I had always had control over my own narrative. I was protected by the fiction.” Quake centres on a woman who’s forced to rethink the narrative of her own life. For Auður, it’s a process she’s familiar with. “I’ve had to rework my narrative often. That’s where I got the idea. I wanted to write about a person that wakes up with a clean slate as if she were a newborn.” 

In the end, Auður was able to let her story go. “Tinna does it so beautifully, so strongly. It’s healthy for an artist to see another artist’s take on their work. It’s fun to work with others in this way.” Auður adds that this isn’t even the first new work of art that’s sparked by her novel. “There’s also a musical composition by Páll Ragnar Pálsson based on a text from the book. When the book was published, he asked if he could make a composition based on a clause from the book about nature within us and geological activity within us. He composed this work, Quake for cello and orchestra, that’s been performed all over the world and was selected as the most outstanding work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Budapest in 2018. The text always accompanies it whenever it is performed. And then he made the score for the film with Eðvarð Egilsson. So, there are at least three works of art derived from this one story.” Tinna took Auður’s words and transformed them into her own images. “I think it’s so important to use every frame and use all the imagery you can.” Tinna states. “Sounds and colours are so important as well. No less important than the words. The soundscape is so strong in this film, which is why I tell people to see the film in the cinema. I use colours very strategically as well. I use grey, white, and red, these are the colours I use most in the film, and all this is a part of how I tell the story. She’s wearing a red coat, and there’s a reason for that. There’s snow everywhere, everything is white, and there’s a reason for that.” She tells me that getting such copious amounts of snow during the shooting was a lucky coincidence. “You can never rely on Iceland’s weather like that. And we for sure didn’t have the funds for fake snow!” 

Neverland

arndís lóa magnúsdóttir

For several months, Sólveig had started every day by playing a little game with herself. She’d wake up exactly 47 seconds before the alarm clock rang, lie completely still in bed, and count down in silence. 47…42, the bus drove past the house; 35, their upstairs neighbour slammed the front door; 21, the nextdoor neighbour […]

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Finding the Energy to Change

kristjana kristjánsdóttir

The conversation about renewable energy is buzzing louder than ever before. Talk about methanol, in particular, is gaining traction across the automotive, marine, and electricity sectors, all of which have long relied on fossil fuels. A clean-burning, water-soluble and biodegradable electric fuel, methanol is the world’s simplest alcohol and is comprised of only hydrogen, oxygen, […]

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Big Fish In Small Ponds

vebudin blackport icelandic television

Blackport – a political thriller set in the remote Westfjords of the 1980s, documents what happens to a small fishing village when the Icelandic fishing quota system is implemented. If this doesn’t sound like the premise of a hit TV show to you – that’s understandable. But Blackport had Icelanders glued to their television sets […]

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Idea Island

icelandic startups

In the past few decades, startups have revolutionised how we communicate (Facebook), how we travel (Airbnb), and how we work (Zoom). They’ve also brought with them a new way of thinking about business, and even talking about it – one coloured with optimism. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the “idea economy,” joining a […]

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Höfði

On a cold winter’s night in 1952, John Greenway, Great Britain’s Minister to Iceland, heard a loud bang and woke in his bed with a start. He was alone in the embassy, commonly known as Höfði house, which also served as his official residence. Intent on discovering the source of the disruption, he descended the […]

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Keflavík

keflavík iceland

In this three-part series, Iceland Review explores the history and culture of Keflavík, as seen through the eyes of the locals.

 
 

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 towns), Iceland’s first – and current – gateway to the outer world, and one of the country’s youngest communities, demographically speaking.

To delve into the many curiosities of this peculiar community, we began by acquainting ourselves with its recent history.

And no past phenomenon looms so large in that history as the former Naval Station. Wriggling out from underneath its shadow seems altogether impossible.

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Garðar Eyfjörð Sigurðsson

Out of place

There’s a big red house in downtown Keflavík, right next to the main road. 

If you ever find yourself standing in the middle of its living room, you’d not be surprised to learn that it’s one of the oldest houses in town. It’s all carpets and teak furniture, and almost every inch of its four walls is covered with landscape paintings and decorative dishes and the occasional stag-head wall clock. There’s but a single disharmonious element in the entire quaint configuration: the house’s resident, Garðar Eyfjörð Sigurðsson.

He’s lounging there on the padded brown sofa, wearing an oversized Rocawear t-shirt, gripping the gilded handle of his brass-knuckle coffee mug – as if he’s starring in a pretty ironic music video. When he lays down the mug and crosses his arms, they display a Kalashnikov rifle, on the one arm, and, on the other, the letters of his nom-de-plume in aggressive font: 

Kilo.  

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His grandmother bought the house in 1978, and it’s served as a place of refuge for members of the family ever since. “My cousin Svanur lived here, my mom, my siblings,” Kilo enumerates. “Anytime anyone needed a place to stay, they stayed here.”

No one’s been here longer than him though.

He lives here with his step-grandfather Böddi, who exists as a mere cough on the other side of the wall and who, in his full physical manifestation, is a much gentler soul than Kilo’s grandfather by blood, legendary strongman Reynir Sterki. 

Kilo’s grandmother, to whom he was very close, passed away last year. His best friend died two years ago. Three years ago, he underwent two angioplasties, following a near-fatal heart attack. That’s been his life, for the most part: one bad thing chasing another.

These serial travails are documented on his latest album, The Serenade of Solitude. It’s one of the great Icelandic rap records and, like many of the strange yarns spun in this part of the country, traces its origin to the skein of the former Naval Station in Keflavík: 

When he was younger, Kilo’s mother met an American soldier stationed in town. They moved to the Naval Base when he was four or five, and then they followed the bastard to New Orleans, where they stayed for six years. In the States, Kilo suffered horrific abuse at the hands of his stepfather – and he’s been trying to piece himself back together ever since.

“I’m seeing a therapist now, and I’ve learned to face my trauma head-on; I feel like I’m crying all the time these days,” he says, with his irrepressible, child-like smile, preserved in picture-form on an adjacent wall. 

The impact of the Naval Station on rap music in Keflavík has not been well documented, but there’s been plenty of ink spilt on the subject of rock ‘n’ roll.

Thor’s Hammer

In the early 1960s in Iceland, there was only one state-run radio station broadcasting on a single frequency. 

When the first broadcast station on the Keflavík naval base was established in 1963, its signal was just strong enough to be decoded by antennae in Keflavík and Njarðvík. “For the first time in history,” Aníta Engley of the Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n’ Roll tells me, “Icelanders could change channels.”

It was with the advent of American radio (Kanaútvarpið) that Icelandic teenagers were introduced to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. “In the blink of an eye, you had over 50 garage bands in Keflavík – young kids performing in grandma’s kitchen,” Aníta explains.

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Aníta Engley

By the time the antenna from the Naval Station was enlarged, so that its signal reached the capital area, musicians in Keflavík had enjoyed a two-year head start. Among the bands that availed themselves most fully of this advantage, and perhaps best synthesised the sound of rock music, was Hljómar (“Chords”). By 1964, Hljómar was performing “relentlessly all over Iceland” (as noted by musician and music journalist Dr. Gunni) and probably would have made it big abroad had they not Anglicised their name as “Thor’s Hammer.”

“From Hljómar to the Sugarcubes, from the Sugarcubes to Björk, and from Björk to Sigur Rós,” Aníta notes – the history of modern pop music in Iceland begins with the Naval Station in Keflavík. 

“Besides inspiring this museum, and your eventual role within it,” I ask, “did the Naval Station have a direct impact on your life?” 

“Well, you can tell by my last name,” Aníta responds, “I’m a product of ‘the situation’ myself. My grandfather was an American soldier of Irish extraction.” 

“The Situation” is a euphemism describing the romantic involvement of Icelandic women with Allied soldiers during World War II. Such affairs were poorly received by local men (and the prudes of Reykjavík society), who very high-mindedly accused these women of prostitution or treason; when US troops returned to Keflavík, as part of a post-war NATO agreement, unmarried men from lower ranks were made to observe a 10:00 PM curfew and only allowed to stay out till midnight once a week. (Documents later revealed that the Icelandic government also asked the US to limit the deployment of soldiers of colour.)

But it wasn’t just Icelandic women who fell for American men.

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“There are no mountains; calm weather tends to pass through here pretty quickly.”

Clair de lune

Svanur Gísli Þorkelsson is laughing profusely from inside the municipal library in Keflavík. He’s dressed in a dashing winter coat – made from “Scottish wool” – wearing six rings on five fingers, and his grey, curly locks are hanging down to his shoulders. 

Robert Plant meets Harald Fairhair.

Besides being knowledgeable about the region’s history, regularly contributing brief historical essays to the Facebook page Keflavík og Keflvíkingar (Keflavík and Keflavík Residents), Svanur has also lived an eventful life. He once met Margaret Atwood aboard a cruise ship in Canada. She was so impressed with his powers of recitation that she convinced him to record an audio version of Beowulf in Saxon. 

And then there’s his wedding.

It was on a sunny Saturday morning, on September 11, 1976, that Svanur Gísli awoke to the sound of someone barging into his bedroom. “I’m sorry, but you’re not getting married today!” declared the intruder, his brother.

“What do you mean?” Svanur asked, sitting up in bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Croatian freedom fighters have hijacked an American aeroplane – and they’re en route to Keflavík to refuel,” his brother explained.

This grand geopolitical gesture was not a problem for anyone else getting married in Keflavík on that day. Only that Svanur happened to be engaged to Cynthia Farrell, daughter of Captain John Roger Farrell, Commanding Officer of the Keflavík Naval Station. Their wedding was to be held at 2:00 PM at the Farrells’ home, which happened to be situated at the end of a runway – right where the Croats were being invited to refuel. 

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Svanur Gísli Þorkelsson

Determined to ensure that his daughter’s wedding could go ahead as planned, Captain John Roger Farrell had been busy coordinating with police and firefighters all morning. He had ordered security guards at the gate to admit wedding guests without harassment, and instructed them to forgo the inspection of any goods that, on the surface, clearly resembled presents of the nuptial variety.

When the guests arrived at the Captain’s home, they were ushered into the living room, where at 2:00 PM, Svanur’s mother-in-law sat down at the piano to play Clair de luneAs Debussy’s dreamy suite meandered along, the crowd gazed out the broad, panoramic windows towards a Boeing 727 aircraft idling just a few metres from the house. Two men, dressed in white overalls, hands on their heads, appeared on the runway and began kicking a big cardboard box toward the aircraft. When they had scuttled back to safety, a man with a ski mask walked down the airstair and took hold of the box. Somewhere not far off, Captain John Roger Farrell, joined by the chief of fire and police, was directing operations through a walkie-talkie. 

When Clair de lune finally faded, Captain John Roger appeared with Cynthia on his arm, and a walkie talkie in the other, as a fuel truck pulled up to the aeroplane.

“His oration was promptly drowned out by the sound of jet engines,” Svanur says, laughing loudly. He and Cynthia later divorced, and Svanur eventually married a British woman. 

Her kind “invaded” our island in the 1940s.

Eager to oblige

When Nazi jackboots tramped into Denmark and Norway in April of 1940, Churchill feared Iceland was next. “Whoever possesses Iceland,” the old bulldog is to have observed, paraphrasing one of his subordinates, “holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.”

Suspecting that the Icelanders, who had officially declared neutrality, would rebuff any overtures of military protection, the British decided to invade. Just after midnight on Friday, May 10, 1940, they dispatched a reconnaissance aircraft to survey the area. Whether owing to accident or miscommunication, the plane flew directly over Reykjavík.

By the time a small fleet of British warships rolled into Reykjavík harbour on Friday morning, a crowd of locals had already gathered. Fishermen. Taxi drivers. A few cops. In retrospect, the British had scant reason to be alarmed (despite their blown cover); when the British Consul arrived at the harbour and observed the unfortunate proximity of the crowd to the mooring ships, he spotted a local policeman and asked if he could instruct his people to step back. “Certainly,” the officer responded, eager to oblige the honourable British gentleman in his quest to conquer the island.

Approximately 25,000 British soldiers occupied Iceland between 1940 and 1941, and the British “invasion” helped end the recession; among other things, 2,000 barracks were imported from Britain and Reykjavik Airport was constructed. 

In 1941, the Americans relieved the Brits (who’d previously been relieved by the Canadians), establishing a naval base in Keflavík. The base was split into two airstrips: Meeks Airfield, which would later become Keflavík International Airport, and Patterson airfield, which served as home for most American officers. The US forces left in 1947, in accordance with the Keflavík Agreement, but after NATO was established in 1949, with Iceland as a founding member, the Americans returned in 1951 and were employed as Iceland’s Defence Force. 

At its most populous, the naval base in Keflavík was home to some 5,700 people. Despite being segregated from the rest of the community, the Americans, for the better part of the 20th century, exercised an outsized influence on Keflavík’s history and culture.

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Career Day

Hilmar Bragi Bárðarson has the most villainous eyebrows in Keflavík. 

They depart from the ridge of his eyes at an impressive 45-degree angle, and although one is initially inclined to attribute some vague edge in his demeanour to his life-long career in journalism, it occurs to one, only later, that it may have had more to do with those two devilish brows. (He’s quite personable and obliging).

As he ushers us into the middle of the Víkurfréttir newsroom, situated at the top floor of a relatively tall, glass office building, he begins talking about last year’s volcanic eruption; the building shook so vigorously in the months leading up to the event that he sometimes suffered bouts of vertigo.

“We were the first to report on the eruption,” he declares, and not without a measure of pride. “The photo that accompanied the article was taken right out this window. We had front-row seats.”

Thirty-six years ago, Hilmar Bragi visited the offices of Víkurfréttir on Career Day. He was hired shortly after that and has been working there ever since. Since 1988.

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Hilmar Bragi Bárðarson

Víkurfréttir has two other full-time employees: Páll, the editor (who’s off skiing somewhere in Europe), and Andrea, in sales, who intermittently shoots us furtive glances from behind her desk. “We also have another guy who works part-time, along with a handful of freelance writers,” Hilmar explains.

If you’re looking for romantic, high-flown sentiments about Keflavík, you would do well to ask someone other than Hilmar Bragi.

“What differentiates Keflavík from other towns?” I ask.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s the fact that there are no mountains; calm weather tends to pass through here pretty quickly,” he says with a straight face (as far as that’s possible). “But I do suppose that the airport, whether we’re talking the former Naval Station or the international one, has been hugely significant.”

On Wednesday, March 15, 2006, Víkurfréttir almost broke its biggest story. When word got out that the Americans were about to depart from Keflavík, a weary Hilmar Bragi, who had stayed up the night before to report on a conflagration in Garður, scrambled to confirm the story. He reached out to Friðþjófur Eydal, the Naval Station’s Public Relations Officer, who vigorously denied everything until the official announcement was made later that day.

“Despite not breaking the news,” Hilmar Bragi says, “we did manage to squeeze it into our paper, which was sent to print later that afternoon. It would have been a complete disaster if we hadn’t included it.”

And then they just left.

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“Whoever possesses Iceland, holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.” – Winston Churchill

The neighbourhood went dark

Pastor Erla Guðmundsdóttir is sitting on the second floor of her church and drinking a can of diet soda. She has short blonde hair, a handsome face, and is holding a large smartphone in a pink case.

“What distinguishes Keflavík from other towns?”

“The residents of Keflavík are powerful,” Erla says, full of sincerity and passion. “They’re courageous. They’re kind. There’s a sense of solidarity. It’s this rural area near the city, which stretches out into all these directions.”

And then there’s the music.

“We’re different,” Erla continues. “Our funerals are different – because of the music. We were ‘the Beatle town.’ Rúnar Júlíusson was raised right here in this church. He would sit here with his mother and sing. Magnús Kjartansson would make out with his girlfriend in the cellar. Valdimar was a choir boy here. We have one of the greatest music schools in Iceland. Lots of culture. A vigorous theatre. It’s a vibrant society. A good place for children.”

More so than other residents, pastor Erla seems particularly in touch with the different strata of society – attuned to their struggles. (Unsurprising, perhaps, given her profession.)

“When the Americans left,” Erla begins, “you had an entire neighbourhood (Ásbrú, the site of the former Naval Station) that went dark. Many people lost their jobs. And when the economic crisis struck two years later, the unemployment benefits of many residents had already expired. Our community in Keflavík dropped so low.”

“We were going to build a college society,” she continues, “to repurpose the apartments as housing for students. Keilir Academy was founded to raise the education level, which had been relatively low, since it was easy to find well-paying jobs with the Americans without an education.”

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Erla Guðmundsdóttir

Although Ásbrú did eventually become a college community, there were also rumours, as noted by reporter Hilmar Bragi, that capital-area municipalities took advantage of the void left by the former Naval Station, and the relatively low cost of housing, by shipping off “problematic cases” to Ásbrú: that they had paid to transport people to the neighbourhood, shelled out a few months’ rent in advance, along with a deposit, and then just left them there. It was perhaps something akin to modern hreppaflutningar, a historical Icelandic practice of relocating impoverished individuals between counties.

“We tried to be positive,” Erla says, sipping from her can, “but the area has proven problematic. You have many immigrants and asylum seekers. It hurts, listening to their stories. Conditions are not great, but the cost of housing has remained relatively low.”

Despite priding itself on being a multicultural society, a recent paper published by the Social Science Institute of the University of Iceland revealed that more so than other inhabitants elsewhere in the country, residents of Iceland’s southwest region (including Keflavík and Reykjanesbær) believe that “too many immigrants have arrived in the country” – and that they “pose a threat to Icelandic society.”

Given that many Poles reside in the area, my colleague inquires into the influence of the Catholic church.

“The Catholics bought St. John Paul II Church in Ásbrú. During the time of the Naval Station, there were 25 different religions practised at the church. It had a rotating altarpiece to accommodate the different faiths.”

“And who presides over it?”

“There’s a priest called Miko. He’s a refugee – from Iran. He spent time in Greece, and Sweden, too. He’s lived quite a life.”

“We can talk then… ”

The naval base is gone, a closed chapter in the history of Keflavík, albeit one that still lives on in recent memory; it’s easy to elicit stories about the Americans. What’s proven more difficult is getting a handle on what’s replaced them.

On Monday, March 21, late in the afternoon, I reach Mikolaj Kecik. As the parish priest of St. John Paul II Church, he’s spent some time in the shadow of the former Naval Station.

“I’m going on vacation,” Mikolaj says, over the phone. “But I’ll be back on April 7. We can talk then …”

In Focus: Does Iceland Have a Gun Problem?

guns

Two recent shootings in Reykjavík have put gun ownership in the spotlight, sparking conversations about how many semiautomatic weapons there are in Iceland, if they are too easy to obtain, and the ideology of those carrying and using these firearms.Iceland is renowned for its safety: it has topped the Global Peace Index for the past […]

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