In the Balance

Icelandic wrestling glima

“HE COMES FROM A GREAT LINEOF GLÍMA WRESTLERS.”  “Stigið!” calls the referee, and the two glíma wrestlers – who had just shaken hands, grabbed each other’s belts, and gotten into position, chin to cheek – start a sort of dance, their backs straight as arrows. After two or three steps, the referee blows his whistle. […]

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To the Vote

OUT OF THE EXACTLY

60 RESIDENTS OF SKORRADALUR, 

47 ARE ELIGIBLE TO VOTE.

In 1910, there were 203 municipal councils in Iceland. Now there are fewer than half that number. During the 20th century, following centuries of economic stagnation, Iceland finally industrialised. It was later than other countries in Europe, but it happened in half the time. As people streamed to urban areas, rural municipalities lost inhabitants, and towns grew. In 1911, the greater Reykjavík area had roughly 15,000 inhabitants, around 18% of the total population. Today, that number is 240,000 – and 64% of all the residents of Iceland. 

Having lost much of their tax base, many municipal councils are now in dire financial straits, struggling to find the funds to keep up the services they are required by law to provide. Minister of Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson has made it his mission to streamline municipal councils and presented a heavily-contested bill that would have required all municipalities to have a minimum number of inhabitants, forcing them to merge if they did not. This drew the ire of most regions in the country. The number he named as the minimum requirement was considered obscene, a preposterous idea to require municipalities to reach that size in the next few years. 

That number was 1,000 people. 

Municipal elections were held across Iceland this spring, and mergers once again became a topic of discussion. While increased requirements for bureaucracy, budgets, education, and services to inhabitants have forced several smaller municipalities to merge, the change is more fundamental than that: it requires a change in the way most Icelanders think about their immediate community. 

I grew up in a small town in West Iceland. When I was a kid, the town merged with some neighbouring rural localities to form the Borgarbyggð municipality of nearly 5,000 km2 of land and just under 4,000 people. What was formerly 13 different municipalities is now a single entity, with its headquarters in the largest town of Borgarnes.

Only a few kilometres away, there is a municipality of just 60 residents that has remained independent: Skorradalur. When I think about it, I don’t really know a whole lot about what’s going on there, so I do what any self-respecting journalist would do in my situation – I call my mom. 

A former member of the Borgarbyggð council, and possessing both a keen interest in genealogy and family ties to most farms in the  region, she would prove a key ally in figuring out the answer to my question – why do 60 people in a small valley cling to power over their own affairs, when municipalities ten times their size struggle to keep up with the requirements of such a project? 

My mother’s first suggestion? To call my ophthalmologist. 

Out of the exactly 60 residents of Skorradalur, 47 are eligible to vote. One of these 47 happens to be my former ophthalmologist and a friend of my parents. She tells me she’s not really involved with the local government but gives me a few names of people on the council, noting which ones like to talk and which like to talk a little too much. I also find out the name of the person chairing the Skorradalur electoral committee. I give him a call to let him know we’d like to pay a visit on election day. He stops me abruptly: “I’m helping a sheep in labour, I’m going to need you to call me back. It’s lambing season, you know!”

Permission to monitor the proceedings secured, I wake up to a bright and sunny election day. I walk over to my local polling station to cast my vote in the Reykjavík municipal elections before I leave town for the day. As soon as I drop it in the ballot box, I head out and jump in the car with Iceland Review’s photographer – we’re going west. 

Skorradalur is a deep valley centring on an even deeper lake. At around 17 kilometres, it is the longest in Iceland. Even though there are only 60 official residents of the valley, Skorradalur is saturated with summer houses, which dot the banks of the lake and stretch all the way up the mountains on either side. Uncharacteristically for Iceland, large swathes of the valley are covered in thick forest.

We park the car by the local reforestation society’s offices, the makeshift polling station. Unlike the elementary school where I cast my vote, there are no signs pointing the way. Everyone voting here knows where to go. The polling station opens at noon, but when we get there, the electoral committee is still setting up. A current member of the council is busy piling a table high with cakes, cheeses, strawberries, chocolate, and coffee. We’re here to gauge the local atmosphere and get to know the community, so I try to start a conversation. After dithering about and awkwardly asking some of my pre-prepared questions and receiving half-hearted answers, I decide it’s time to deploy my secret weapon. I walk up to the oldest person in the room, the chair of the electoral committee, who hadn’t had time for a chat the previous day due to the lambing season. 

“You know, I’m actually from around these parts. I think you might know my mother, Guðrún.” 

It’s as if I’ve flipped a switch. No longer an intrusive journalist from Reykjavík, I receive a warm smile as the chair of the electoral committee tells me that his grandfather and my great-grandfather used to be thick as thieves. 

Davíð Pétursson has lived at Grund farm his whole life, and his father before him. It turns out that no one is better equipped to give us a sense of the importance of the municipal council for the region than Davíð: he’s been involved in every election there since 1961. “But the book goes back further, it was my father who bought it,” he says as he pulls out a notebook from 1938, detailing the election proceedings and results each four-year interval since. Alongside his work as a farmer, Davíð held the now-defunct position of hreppstjóri (district commissioner) and was the chair of the local council for decades. He isn’t a member anymore, but his son, Pétur, has had a seat for a few terms now, following in his ancestors’ footsteps. 

“Have you heard about the worm?” 

“Excuse me?”

“The worm in the lake. A young woman from around here found herself in possession of a gold coin. She’d heard that if you put a worm on the gold, it would grow. She found a coffer and placed her coin under a worm. Sometime later, she opened it and found that the worm had grown with the gold. This unnerved her and she threw everything in the lake: the coffer, the worm, and the coin. But the worm kept growing and got so big it reached both ends of the lake. Its hump will sometimes reach out of the lake, but if it ever reaches so high that you can see Dragafell mountain between the worm and the lake, that’s when you know Ragnarök is pending.” Oh, that worm. 

“Did you sort things out with the committee? Is everything legal?” someone chimes in. The committee turns a little sheepish. “It’s their ‘estimate’ that it won’t be an issue,” he answers. This is the first time that someone mentions the new election legislation that took effect this year. It won’t be the last. 

“It’s in shambles, really.” 

“These politicians have no idea what they’re doing.” 

“All it takes is one person to file a complaint!” 

The new laws require that an electoral committee be made up of people with no familial or financial ties to council members. In this rural community of 60 people, that excludes pretty much everyone. They’d had the idea to switch electoral committees with the neighbouring municipality, but the law requires that members of the electoral committee have legal residence within the municipality. So they’re doing it like they always have, crossing fingers that no complications will arise. 

“And then they moved the date up!” It turns out people from Reykjavík really don’t know what they’re doing because, as I’ve heard again and again – It’s lambing season! 

Ewes don’t give birth according to a schedule, which means that in the spring, farmers and their families work around the clock assisting lambs into the world. Being on the municipal council never used to be a full-time job. That’s why, historically, elections never took place until late May or June. For the five council members of Skorradalur, that means that the increased demands of modern-day local government come at the expense of time at their other job, time with the sheep, or time off.

 

Voting in Skorradalur is a little different from Reykjavík. Not only are the refreshments much better (any at all is an improvement!) but there are no parties and no lists to choose from. Since no party has expressed particular interest in governing the municipality, every single person eligible to vote is also automatically standing for election. Out of the region’s 60 inhabitants, 47 people are Icelandic citizens of sound mind and body and over the age of 18. In theory, any one of them popular enough has a chance of being voted into office and thus being required, by law, to serve on the municipal council for the next four years. The only people allowed to bow out are senior citizens and people who have already fulfilled their duty to Skorradalur. 

A voter wanders in and finds a cup of black coffee and a seat to wait his turn. I lean over to ask him if the thought of waking up tomorrow with a seat on the municipal council is an enticing or a frightening thought. He lets out a cynical grunt. “I don’t think I’m at risk.” I ask if people campaign for a seat on the council or if it’s the reverse: are people pleading to be let off the hook? “I haven’t been going out of my way to be mean to my neighbours if that’s what you’re asking,” he says. “But you sort of know who’s up for the job.” I hesitate a little before mentioning the m-word, but bravely forge ahead.

“Any talk of a merger?”

This gets him going. 

“If I wake up tomorrow as municipal council director, that’s the first thing I’m going to do. It’s insane that they haven’t done it already, years ago. Utter nonsense to keep such a small entity running. We have no leverage in any sort of negotiations, no one bothers to talk to such a small municipality.”

I was surprised to get such an unfiltered response. I hadn’t even told him who my mother was. 

He drains his paper cup of coffee and gets up. It’s his turn to vote. 

I think I’m getting the hang of how conversations work here. Call it what you will: rediscovering my roots or getting in touch with my ancestral line of taciturn farmers, I walk up to a determined-looking woman. “Do you come from around these parts?” I ask. She responds fiercely: “Born and raised, I’ve lived in Hálsar all my life.” Jackpot. If anyone can explain the mystery of Skorradalur’s struggle to stay independent, a life-long valley resident must have the key. I get straight to the point. “Do you think there should be a merger?”

“Of course, they should have done it years ago. We should have started the negotiations right after the last elections.” She and another local explain to me that when the other municipalities in the region merged, Skorradalur stayed out and that, in their opinion, that was a mistake. There’s also a slight chance money played a part. Municipalities gain funds from their citizen’s taxes but also through real estate fees. While the 60 people in Skorradalur don’t raise any large sums through taxes, the 800 summer residences in the area keep the books squarely in the green. So, what’s stopping the merger? The other local doesn’t want to get too deep into the subject. “Let’s not talk about that here.” By the time it’s her turn to vote, I’ve added her to my mental list of names of people who send their regards to my mother.

“THESE POLITICIANS

HAVE NO IDEA WHAT

THEY’RE DOING.”

A current member of the municipal council walks in, wearing a lovely sheep-patterned wool sweater. He’s married to a member of the electoral committee, and I’d been told he was someone who could explain how things work around here. When I asked if the elections were filled with suspense, he chuckled. “Well, I’ve been on the council now for 28 years. If I lose my seat, I think I’ll be ok.”

The atmosphere around the table is convivial and relaxed. A young woman comes in to vote, and someone asks her who she is. Or rather, who her parents are: the Icelandic phrase directly translates as “Which people do you belong to?” She’s the younger daughter from Fitjar farm, currently residing in Reykjavík. As soon as the mystery is solved, the assembly relaxes and moves on to assessing exactly which characteristics in her demeanour add the most to her resemblance to her mother. She is enthusiastically encouraged to have some cake. 

In this calm, cosy atmosphere, I get overambitious. I decide to push my luck, so as I’m washing the last bit of cake and cream down with the now-lukewarm coffee, I nonchalantly say to the council member sitting on my left: “So, there are no official merger negotiations on the table?”

The temperature in the room drops several degrees. The amicable buzz of conversation halts. No one looks directly at me, but I can sense every ear in the house tune in. After a slightly-too-prolonged silence, the council member takes it upon himself to chide me. “This is not really the place for that topic.” I can sense their second-hand embarrassment on my behalf: I’ve broken the social code, and I don’t even know it. It’s the council member’s turn to vote, and he seems eager to get away from this blundering journalist. For the fifth time today, I wonder about how long it takes these people to vote. I get that this might be a weightier decision than voting for a party in Reykjavík, but it can’t be that hard. We leave the polling station to pay a few visits.


Our first stop is the incumbent municipal council director’s house. A relatively recent transplant to the valley, he’s in the process of renovating a house he bought on auction following the banking collapse. Colourful paintings cover most surfaces in his home – Árni Hjörleifsson might have spent his career in municipal matters, but his passion is art, not politics. Several of the paintings depict Skessuhorn, the triangular mountain above his home – Skorradalur’s answer to the Matterhorn. 

So why is he here? Turns out Árni used to be married to a local woman and the doyen of the electoral committee, Davíð (of Grund farm), had wrangled him into taking a seat on the council for his know-how in politics. His personal politics weren’t an issue, even though he identifies as a social democrat and Skorradalur, in his words, is “a conservative lair” (íhaldsbæli). “But they found use for this damned social democrat from Hafnarfjörður.” He chuckles. 

“In the last elections, I was the oldest person voted into municipal office.” Árni tells me about the cooperation with neighbouring “giant” Borgarbyggð, which at the moment isn’t going so great. “There’s new people there, and in my opinion, they’re trying to force a merger.” Skorradalur was a part of a joint force of small municipalities protesting the plans for mergers under duress. “We got out of the legislation, but there remained an incentive to merge.” In his eyes, forced mergers don’t make sense: they should only be entered into if both parties see an advantage.

So there’s nothing on the table? “There was a poll eight years ago to see if people wanted a merger. It was killed. Do you want some coffee?” I’ve had enough coffee today to start a small car so I politely decline. “But of course, it’s a question of when, not if, at this point. The talk turns to road construction on the north side of the lake and the renovation of the pool reception. We soon find ourselves back on the more comfortable topic of the incompetence of people from Reykjavík. The electoral committee should technically all be disqualified, and elections in the middle of lambing season! 

“And then it’s the question of the ballot.” The ballot? “We tried to get it changed, you know, so people wouldn’t have to write in the names by hand, but we had to do it like everyone else. But I had the idea for the stencil, so that’s one solution, I guess.” As he explains further, everything starts to make a little more sense. The reason everyone is taking so long to vote is that in order to make sure their handwriting isn’t recognisable, the voting booth has a stencil with block letters. It’s a secret ballot, but in a valley of 60 people, are there really any secrets?  

SO MUCH FOR

THAT WORM.”

At our next stop, we’re told to go straight to the barn. It’s lambing season, you know. Once there, we meet the council member from earlier. He’s shed his woollen jumper and is currently practising sheep midwifery of the highest order. A couple of minutes later, a ewe is tiredly baa-ing at a tiny lamb. Only one though: its twin didn’t make it. “I’d noticed she was having difficulty before I went to vote. If there’s bleeding at that point, it’s highly likely that you’ll run into trouble.”

I ask him if he’s excited to see if he’s still on the municipal council when he wakes up tomorrow, or dreading it. “I’ll do my duty, of course, but we need to get this merger going. This just doesn’t make any sense anymore.” He reveals that one reason for Skorradalur’s continuing independence is the fear that moving power away from the people will mean less attention to what needs to be done locally. “That’s why we’re renovating the pool reception; we thought we’d be merging by now and wanted to get it done before it was just a small task on a long list in a larger municipality.” I bring up rumours that Skorradalur doesn’t want a merger to protect their coffers, heavy with real estate fees from summerhouse owners. “No, that’s silly. We get by, but there’s no gold stash here.” So much for that worm.

 

We head to Grund, the ancestral home of the Skorradalur patriarch. Davíð is still preoccupied at the polling station, much like he has been for the past 60 years, but we’re there to talk to his son Pétur. As we drive up to the farm, he’s on his way out to the barn: lambing season. 

“So he told you the story? About Grund?” I hadn’t gotten that far in my chat with his father, although I’d gotten some humorous anecdotes about my great grandfather. “Our family’s been here since the 1670s. They bought the farm from Bishop Brynjólfur.” He’s the man on the 5,000-króna bill. But even here at the grand seat of power in Skorradalur, they see the writing on the wall.  An independent Skorradalur isn’t possible in the long term. As for the merger, it isn’t as simple as it looks. And perhaps Borgarbyggð, despite its proximity, isn’t the only option. “We should get the talks started immediately, so we can do this right. ” So why haven’t they yet? “Well, your mother should be able to tell you all about that. She was on the municipal council when the last merger talks fell through, and she wasn’t too happy about it if I recall. It was all going pretty well, until one meeting when a Borgarbyggð official went off on the smaller municipalities. He basically called us parasites.” There are other reasons too, of course. There’s the fact that the municipality of Akranes is actually the largest landholder in Skorradalur. There’s the question of making sure that Skorradalur’s needs are met within a larger municipality and the fact that through some mathematical gymnastics and the intricacies of municipal law in Iceland, a merger with Borgargbyggð could mean that the merged municipality might actually have less funds overall.

I feel as if I’m getting closer to the heart of the matter: it’s about identity and dignity. Living in a small community means that you’re constantly reaffirming who you are and where you come from. You rely on the people around you. You don’t want to relinquish control of your affairs to a party that doesn’t see your importance. 

Maintaining a municipality of 60 people doesn’t make any sense. Skorradalur’s residents all know that: especially those of them who have to run it in between shifts at the side of pregnant ewes. But it’s a matter of pride at this point. Nobody wants to let their people down. 

I call my mother on the way back to Reykjavík. After reciting a long list of regards and messages, she commends me on my choice of interviewees. “There’s some good people in Skorradalur.” I watch the election coverage that night. It takes a long time to get the first numbers from Reykjavík, but I keep an eye out for the results of the Skorradalur election. Jón gets reelected, so does Pétur. Then there are some new faces, the woman from Hálsar’s daughter-in-law. A farmer we met that day, and a woman from Akranes who just started a sheep farm with her husband.

Erró: Remembrances of a Titan

Erró Icelandic visual artist

“Uuh!?”  Urinary associations Suspended on a wall in the Reykjavík Art Museum, there’s a cardboard plaque displaying, among other things, the exposed penis of one of Iceland’s best-known visual artists. A major figure of the narrative-figuration movement in the 1960s, Erró hosted a “happening” at the American Centre in Paris in 1963, in which he satirised US […]

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Stumbling Into Success

Vigdís Hafliðadóttir Icelandic musician comic actor

“I SOON REALISED THAT ACTING WASN’T THE MOSTPRACTICAL OF PURSUITS … AND SO I WENT TO SWEDENTO STUDY BALLAD SINGING.” THE ENTERTAINER  Vigdís Hafliðadóttir is shuffling nervously in the foyer of the restaurant Nauthóll. Inhabiting a baggy brown shirt, sleeves partly rolled up, she eavesdrops as Valgarð Már Jakobsson, a teacher at Mosfellsbær Junior College (FMOS), […]

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In Focus: Relocating Reykjavík Airport

Reykjavík City Airport flugvöllur

BackgroundThe dispute over the location of the Reykjavík City Airport is nearly as old as the airport itself. An agreement has now been made to move it from its current location in Vatnsmýri and build a residential development in its place – but a new location for the airport is yet to be determined.The airport […]

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In Focus: Íslandsbanki Private Stock Offering

Íslandsbanki headquarters in Reykjavík

The Icelandic government’s sale of 22.5% of Íslandsbanki bank in a private stock offering last March has resulted in allegations of corruption, investigations by two state institutions, weekly public protests, and calls for Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson to resign. What went wrong?BackgroundAfter the 2008 banking collapse, a restructuring of Iceland’s financial system took place. From […]

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Grounded

hulda sveinsdóttir iceland sustainability

Iceland’s nature is truly magnificent. Grand mountain ranges flanking bottomless fjords. Endless stretches of tundra and vast glaciers. Formidable rivers and thundering waterfalls. But what is there to see when you take your focus off the horizon and bring it closer: to the soil beneath your feet? What if you could zoom in even further, see the microorganisms that are invisible to the naked eye but actually make up the vast majority of the genetic diversity on the planet and are the basis of its ecosystems? 

We have plenty of information on Iceland’s soil and microbial ecosystems. But theoretical knowledge is quite a different beast from practical knowledge. You can put soil under a microscope, dissect its chemical components, and assess which tiny critters reside in it. Or you could take a more creative approach and experiment – just to see what happens. Through trial and error, Iceland’s creative people are digging in the dirt – literally – and making illuminating discoveries along the way.

EARTH TONES

“I started wondering if I could dye fabrics in these colours
and did a few experiments, but it wasn’t clicking. I’m not
a textile artist, I’m a ceramic artist.”

A far cry from mass-produced soil, forming clay by hand is an intimate one, with the material coming to life from the touch of an artist’s fingers. That sort of connection is hard to come by with Iceland’s soil: most of the ingredients Icelandic ceramic artists work with are imported. While there’s clay all around the country, making it into a piece of pottery is a challenge. Ceramic artist Hulda Katarína Sveinsdóttir grew up in Hveragerði, a town named for the geologically active ground. “I felt an affinity for the hot spring clay, but people really don’t like it, and I get that, because it’s hard to work with.” 

A few years ago, Hulda began researching what she could make from Icelandic clay. “The results were brittle and would often explode in the oven.” Working with natural clay means that you don’t always know what you’re getting into. Clay is a fine-grained, natural soil containing clay minerals, but its chemical composition differs vastly. The most obvious way you can tell is its range of colours. “When I was studying, we looked into Icelandic clay. You’ll see a field of bright red clay streaked with veins of yellow or silver,” Hulda tells me. Once she had explored all the qualities (and weaknesses) of Iceland’s clay, she was most struck by the colours. “I kept working on it, and I noticed that cloth that touched the clay would stain, and the colour wouldn’t easily wash out.” 

One of the difficulties of working with Icelandic clay is that it shrinks drastically in the kiln. It’s not just water that evaporates but all sorts of natural chemicals, such as sulphur. “When firing the clay, it’s important to be wary of the fumes, as a lot of sulphur dioxide gets released.” Sulphur is a natural colour fastener, which inspired Hulda to start thinking about the clay colours in a new way. “I started wondering if I could dye fabrics in these colours and did a few experiments, but it wasn’t clicking. I’m a ceramic artist, not a textile artist. But that’s the process that led me to make crayons out of the clay.” In her natural clay crayons, Hulda captures the surprisingly varied colourscape of Iceland, using finely ground clay from geothermal sites and the region surrounding her hometown of Hveragerði. 

During the process, several things surprised her. The biggest one was the immense variation between different types of clay, even those that were sourced only a few kilometres from each other. Some required only a bare minimum of the soy wax she uses as a binder, while others turned brittle without plenty of it. “I thought I could figure out the ratio and use the same recipe for all of the assorted colours. That was impossible. Each clay had its very own personality.” While the crayons present a beautiful way to connect with the colours of Iceland, to Hulda, this is one step of the way to familiarising herself with Iceland’s clay.

GREAT WASTE

If this is so easy and so good for the planet and so effective, why hasn’t anyone done this on a large scale?

Björk Brynjarsdóttir and Julia Miriam Brenner love dirt so much that they want to make more of it. Much more, in fact. And they’ve developed an ingenious way to do it: by making trash into treasure. 

In the modern world, technological improvements have often served to move us further away from natural processes. One of the most pertinent issues this has created is the way we manage waste: burning it or burying it in a landfill isn’t sustainable, and all over the world, people are working hard to solve the problem of what to do with what we throw away. Björk and Júlía are working on one such solution through their composting company Jarðgerðarfélagið. Their goal is to take a complicated issue – managing organic household waste – and develop a solution applicable on a large scale without sacrificing the hygiene and comfort we’ve come to expect. The key, if you ask the pair, is microorganisms. 

Have you ever made compost? You need time, oxygen, and heat, and you even need to stir it. That process brings to mind two unpleasant words: trash juice. When Björk was studying in Denmark, she heard about another composting method:  fermentation. “The first thing that sparked my interest was what this would mean for the environment,” Björk tells me. “But now I just find  everything about it fascinating.” Her partner in crime, Julia, is a soil scientist. They met while taking a class on home composting. “The thing is, individuals can compost independently, and many are, but they shouldn’t have to. Putting the responsibility on the individual is not a sustainable solution.” She explains that in Iceland, the responsibility of waste management is entirely in the hands of municipal authorities. If they want to do better, they can – and they should! 

Bokashi composting is a way of taking organic waste and transforming it into nutritious fertiliser. Composting is not the right word for it, as the bokashi method relies on fermentation, an anaerobic (oxygen-free) process, and traditional composting requires oxygen. Developed in Japan in the eighties, all you need to do it at home is a sealed bucket and some microorganism-infused bran, and in two weeks, your vegetable scraps and banana peels become usable fertiliser. Unlike traditional composting methods, there’s no stirring needed, and since the bucket is fully sealed, it doesn’t emit any unwanted smells. The microorganisms kill harmful bacteria and promote the growth of good ones, much like when making kimchi or sauerkraut. Keeping organic waste out of landfills also stops it from producing more greenhouse gases. 

It all sounds a little too good to be true. “Right?” says Björk. “At every step in this process, we’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like, if this is so easy and so good for the planet and so effective, why hasn’t anyone done this on a large scale?” Björk and Julia are now working with Rangárvallasýsla, a region in south Iceland, to scale up their bokashi production. “We’ve been taking this one step at a time, not making grand plans until we know for sure that this works. But so far, it’s been working pretty spectacularly. After our first pilot project, we did some user interviews, and people were thrilled with it. And the process creates a nitrate-rich soil, which is perfect for Iceland, as our volcanic soil naturally lacks nitrate.” When doing their due diligence, Julia and Björk were also pleasantly surprised with the hygienic properties of their microorganisms. “We absolutely flooded some waste with E. coli and salmonella to test them. After leaving it with the microbes for a couple of weeks, the harmful bacteria had been completely annihilated.”

Microbe Brewery

iceland sustainability

Iceland’s environment doesn’t only offer materials for artmaking: its microorganisms can also make food. While modern science has deepened our understanding of microorganisms such as yeast, you don’t need to know what’s working or how to make some magic happen. People have been doing it for millennia; baking bread, fermenting vegetables for storage and easier consumption – and making beer. 

When Sveinn Steinar Benediktsson and Kjartan Óli Guðmundsson met, they were both studying design at the Iceland University of the Arts. They shared a massive interest in microorganisms, and over a beer or two, Grugg&Makk was born. Using old traditions peppered with modern science, they set out to figure out what Iceland tasted like. 

To make beer, you only need four ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. The yeast is where things get complicated. These days, you can go to the grocery store and buy commercially produced yeast that comes to life in your bread or beer, but you don’t actually have to go that far; there’s yeast in the soil and air all around us. The Grugg&Makk boys simply leave out a liquid containing the optimal conditions for the kinds of microbes they want to attract, and the milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. Only in this case, the milkshake is an unfermented beer base, and the yard is a brewery. 

“Grugg&Makk is all about collecting bacteria in certain places in Iceland,” Sveinn tells me. “We’re connecting the microbial ecosystems of specific locations with a flavour experience. So, you can taste a place.” A glass of wild ale brewed with yeast collected in a lava field is a cloudy golden colour and tastes fresh, with a hint of currants, lactic acid, and warm spices. “Seeing through a microscope doesn’t tell you much about what’s going on, but tasting a beer made with yeast from Svörtuloft versus one made with yeast from Djúpalón – the vast difference between them gives you a deeper sense of the scale. Everyone assumes we add different flavours to the beers, but it’s just what happens. It’s amazing how much difference different microbes can make. And taste is one form of perception.” 

Their methods are based on culinary traditions present in most cultures throughout history, even Iceland. Kjartan explains: “To make skyr, people would use some skyr from the previous batch as a starter, keeping their culture alive. But if every last scrap of skyr got eaten, you had to get some new microbes. Waiting until summer, you would put out a few bowls of skyr base in various places around the farm and then pick the best-tasting one as the base for your future skyr.” 

“And people would have favourite skyr based on which farm it came from!” Sveinn chimes in. “Although the beers from farmland regions were some of the most challenging ones we made – flavourwise. Except for maybe the Ingjaldstún one?” he looks questioningly at Kjartan. “Well, that one was also close to some swampland. I liked it; it tasted a little bit Belgian.” 

The difference between these guys and rural Icelanders in centuries gone by is that modern science has cast a light on what’s happening behind the scenes.  As they get lost in talk about the differences between saccharomyces and brettanomyces and what makes beer taste “farmy” – the mad scientist vibe borders on uncanny. 

They agree that the most accessible beer they made happens to come from lava fields by the sea. Their experiments included visiting the locations in different seasons (more mushroom spores in the air in the fall), and they wondered if the temperature in the sun-soaked black lava affected the outcome. While collecting wild microbes is a game of chance, they also exert a considerable level of control. “Back in the day, beer was sourer, like this one, because lactic bacteria would also be present. It keeps bad bacteria at bay. Most bacteria ideal for human consumption can’t survive in low-acid conditions. It helps to make the product safe for consumption. So, we use old traditions with modern knowledge of microorganisms. We create optimal conditions for the yeasts and microbes we want to collect in our collecting liquid. The base is unfermented beer, with a little alcohol to keep mould at bay. I add a little yeast nutrient to it and a tiny amount of hops, so I don’t get too much lactic acid.” 

Letting nature do its thing through a controlled process based on old traditions and modern science – along with a whole lot of trial and error. 

That’s how you make magic.

Keflavík Pt. 2

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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?

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 3 here.

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Mikołaj Kęcik

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.”

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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.”

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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.

Danijela Živojinović

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.”

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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!”

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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.

 

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“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.”

 

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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.”

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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

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.”

Jón Þorgilsson

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?”

 

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“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.

 

Guðberg Gunnarsson

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.”

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Michał

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.

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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…