Frost

Individually, snowflakes are fragile, easily broken, dissolving into droplets of water at the mere touch of a finger or a breath of air, while en masse, they’re capable of wreaking havoc on the city streets and causing catastrophe when avalanching down a mountainside.

Contrary to expectation, the correlation between outside temperature and the feeling of cold is less straightforward than people would think. It’s the wind that gets you.

At -19°C [-2.2°F], everything feels crisp. The air, certainly, but also the few rays of light that make it all the way up north at this time of year. The horizon turns an impossibly pastel shade of blue or pink and the grey streaks on the sides of the mountains solidify into a texture that, from a distance, looks soft to the touch.

They say there’s no such thing as bad weather: only a bad attitude to whatever conditions nature offers. Besides, bad weather is good weather under the right conditions. Snuggling beneath a warm blanket wouldn’t be half as nice if the sun were out and temperatures were warm.The weather is an opportunity: a not-so-blank canvas on which one can impose one’s limited imagination.

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These past two months have suggested, however, that the gods have come to show a more determined frigidity towards their human subjects: a lasting and glowering disapproval for our nonchalance towards nature.

Temperatures in Iceland usually vacillate. The weather here is infamously fickle. As if the product of temperamental gods, bestowing, depending on their mood – commendation or condemnation on the mortals dwelling below them.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when you breathe deep in -19°C weather and – for a split second – your nose freezes shut.

We care about the cold weather only as it affects our human lives. We lament that the accompanying snow has blocked the road to the airport. That the municipalities have been lacklustre in their clearing of sidewalks.

And we, worst of all, remain continually apprehensive that the utility companies will announce the indefinite closure of the public pools. Otherwise, the constant cold has made for beautiful weather. Less wind, clearer skies; there’s beauty in steadfastness.

The ground is frozen solid. Icicles form along the gutters of roofs. And birds struggle to eke out their existence. Cars are warmed before passengers clamber inside. Old people slip on the sidewalks. And the unhoused entreat the municipalities to keep the shelters open around the clock. But even so, nature’s long exhalation of cold air provides pleasant relief for a mind dreading the coming warmth. 

Sparsity Blues

“A brutal ballet of flesh and bone”

It’s Saturday night – and it’s feckin’ freezing. 

Seven below.

Even inside the Egilshöll stadium, my fingers feel like popsicles. Taking notes means pitting the will against whatever half-responsive nerve cells are relaying messages from my benumbed digits.

Inside the locker room, Sigurður Jefferson is screaming his testicles off. 

But not because of the cold.

“We’re the only fucking football team in Iceland!” he yells. “We’re fucking Vikings!” 

It’s not the most original of sentiments – but it gets his teammates going.

And they really need to get going.

It’s halftime, and the Einherjar – literally army of one, referring to the warriors in Norse mythology who met their death on the battlefield and then caught a Valkyrie-driven Uber to Valhalla – are 20 points down. 

34-14.

They’re losing to a ragtag bunch of Romanians called the Bucharest Rebels. 

Everything’s going goddamn terrible.

THE PATH

Let’s rewind…

The Rebels scored a touchdown during the first play of the game. Their quarterback – who had all kinds of time – spied a wide receiver sneaking up the right side of the field with limited coverage. 

Like a cell phone in the boonies.

After he ran into the end zone, the game announcer and his assistant – seated at a rickety table above the bleachers – scrambled to get the game clock going.

“There’s something wrong with this damn thing!” The announcer complained. He was wearing a Lamar Jackson jersey and comporting himself like an office worker caught in a scuffle with a dysfunctional printer. 

“Anybody know how to work it!?” he said, jabbering into the void.

Einherjar hadn’t played a game since last March – so of course they were rusty. That’s one of the things about being the only American football team in Iceland. Not a lot of on-the-job training.

When they gained possession (eight points down), the centre hiked two bad snaps to quarterback Bergþór Philip Pálsson; and each time, Bergþór – who goes by Beggi – pounced frantically on the skidding pigskin as if he were jumping on a pinless grenade. 

And then he imploded.

Despite the rust, the Einherjar don’t break easily. They’ve got spirit and moxie and subscribe to a kind of football mindfulness that involves fully inhabiting every passing parcel of time – without getting needlessly distracted by the calamities that seem to beset each moment.

“There’s only the next play!” someone yells philosophically from the sidelines.

They’re forced to kick it. Rebels’ ball.

The Romanians, who are the strongest team in their national league, progress swiftly upfield – but then one of the Einherjar safeties makes an interception.

When it comes to the Viking Gods of American Football, however, Óðinn is blind in both eyes.

Flag on the play.

“Offside. Defence. Five-yard penalty,” the head referee, a man named Jan Eric Jessen, announces to the crowd. He says something else, too, but it’s barely audible.

The announcer calls “first down,” and a man in his thirties, who’s been watching the game from the concrete walkway above the bleachers – a stone’s throw away from the dysfunctional clock – strolls over. 

“That can’t be right,” he observes.

“Jan said first down!” the announcer fires back.

“Yeah, I know, but I don’t think that’s right,” the man replies, in a voice full of meekness and understanding.

Below them, near the halfway line, a Rebel wide receiver catches a short pass and breaks through a series of abortive tackles.

The announcers begin complaining about the clock again.

Ref Jan Eric – noticing the slow progression of time – walks over to the announcers and suggests they find someone to help out with the clock.

As he walks away, the main announcer calls, “Jan, it’s not automatic first down when there’s an offside!” 

“Yeah, I know,” he replies. “I said third.”

“I dream of developing the sport here in Iceland; that we get the same respect as all the other sports clubs. It’s perhaps an unusual dream for an Icelander.”

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SOME BACKSTORY

The Einherjar football team was founded in the year of our unlordly economic meltdown. 

2008.

They played their first match in 2016 – but all of their games are friendlies. Not yet recognised by the National Olympic and Sports Association of Iceland (ÍSÍ), the Einherjar must fend for themselves as far as their finances are concerned.

Ten days before the game, left tackle Úlfar Jónsson – who also coaches the youth team – stood on the sidelines of the Kórinn sports stadium in Kópavogur, waiting for the clock to strike 10:00 PM. 

If that seems like a pretty late hour for practice – it’s because it is.

“It’s cheaper to rent the last slot of the day,” Úlfar explains, “but we still need to shell out ISK 160,000 ($1,130) a month, which we manage to eke out through practice fees collected from the players. We’ve also got a handful of sponsors, Shake and Pizza at Egilshöll, for example.”

The application process for ÍSÍ has proved a real hassle. 

“It’s been one step forward and two steps back,” Úlfar notes. “Without making them sound like massive dicks: when we first contacted them, they said that the sport would need to be practised in all the six regions of Iceland – but that couldn’t be right. We pointed out that facilities for figure skating were only located in Akureyri and Reykjavík. They then suggested we begin by applying to UMSK [the Youth Association of Kjalarnesþing, for youth and athletic associations in the capital area], and that’s in the works. I get regular updates from our head referee.”

As he says this, a young, scrawny wide receiver walks up and unceremoniously slaps him on the rear end. There’s a spark of static electricity. 

“I’m getting electric shocks left and right!” The man, a bundle of peculiar energy, says – before bursting into laughter.

“I’ll have to speak to the head of human resources,” Úlfar replies with a wry smile. He’s a tall and solid man who has the demeanour of a Viking chieftain, despite his young age. He’s 21, studying sociology and working part-time. 

“This is the dream. Let’s see what happens,” he says solemnly.

“You dream of playing football abroad?” I inquire, not quite understanding.

“No, I dream of developing the sport here in Iceland; that we get the same respect as all the other sports clubs: [the handball team] HK, Stjarnan, etc; that we’re able to conduct regular seasons, similar to the high school seasons in America; that we can offer athletes the opportunity to play abroad – and bring players over here.”

Bergþór Philip Pálsson is 27 years old and began playing football at 13. A jack-of-all-trades to begin with, he took on the role of quarterback – the most prestigious of offices, one could argue – a few years back because “there was no one else.” He’s been a driving force for the sport of American football in Iceland.

He has an earnest look on his face.

“It’s perhaps an unusual dream for an Icelander,” he admits.

Úlfar lived in Belgium from the age of one up to the tenth grade. He played American football for two years during high school, mainly against American soldiers.

“There’s a real sense of NFL culture there. They’ve got two professional leagues. They travel to the Netherlands and Germany; don’t have to go far to find games. The NFL’s everywhere today,” he adds. “People are playing fantasy football and watching games on TV. Sometimes when I’m picking up equipment here, I hear the kids say, ‘Hey, is that NFL!?’” 

I ask him how long before we have two teams in Iceland.

“Depends on how much time we invest,” he replies. “We’re closer now with the under-18s – because they’re motivated. They have two teams that play nine-a-side games.”

When the buzzer goes off, Úlfar takes the field with his teammates as dozens of winded football players – English football, that is – stroll off the field. The Icelanders call it bumbubolti (pot-belly ball), referring to the kind of ball sports played in stadiums across the country by men well past their prime.

The Einherjar are a motley assortment of players, which is one of the charms of American football: there’s a position for all physiques; a heavyset man with long grey hair and a Viking beard, takes his position in front of Beggi. Úlfar, who has long arms and massive shoulders, is, as the Icelanders like to say – “no lamb to play with.”

“Alright, let’s complete every single ball now,” Beggi yells.

Watching the Einherjar practice is like observing some kind of armoured analogy for modern life: people trying to do way too many things in way too short a time; football practices, Úlfar later notes, usually last for two hours, given the complexity of the game. 

The Einherjar only have one. 

They scramble through the three phases of the game: offence, defence, and special teams – only that they’ve allotted the latter phase all of about five minutes. After the centre hikes two rotten snaps at quarterback Beggi, they call off special teams on account of the clock winding down.

I worry what this means for their upcoming game.

SIGURÐUR JEFFERSSON

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that Sigurður Jefferson is one of the most talented players in Iceland.

His foray into the sport began five years ago, when he was a sophomore at junior college – and when he barely knew what American football was. (Despite being half-American himself.) It wasn’t until a friend dragged him along to practise that he understood. 

He hasn’t stopped playing since.

Handball – which Sigurður’s played since he was nine (he plays professionally) – was his first love, but there’s just something about the NFL that engrosses him. It differs from all the other European sports because it requires a different mindset: a man must be willing to transform his faculty of vision so as to perpetually “see red” – nurturing a kind of homicidal attitude towards his opponents, the kind that has led to a series of gruesome injuries that have long plagued the sport. 

And then there’s all the hype and exaggeration, so often on display in American football stadiums, the kind that doesn’t appear to come naturally to the Icelanders, who very often bristle at American melodrama.

But that doesn’t necessarily hold for Sigurður Jefferson. He has some knack for showmanship.

A natural athlete who’s tried almost every sport he can think of, Sigurður Jefferson proves to be a real menace on the field; 14 points down, Sigurður returns a punt from deep inside the end zone and tears upfield like a soldier who’s just consumed a bowl brimming with stimulants. He weaves and jumps over Rebel defenders and makes it well beyond midfield. 

The crowd, composed of maybe 150 people, goes wild. 

Sigurður’s talents had been restricted to defence for the past two possessions but now transitions into the role of running back. He completes a 15-yard run on the first attempt – and looks very much like a man possessed.

After some good progress, Beggi throws an interception – but the Rebel defender drops it. Sigurður Jefferson tears through the defence again, securing “second and short” – prior to completing an easy touchdown. They kick for an additional point. 14-7. Game on. 

Or so it would seem.

THE GODDAMN REFS

Despite their moxie, the Einherjar gradually lose sight of the Rebels. 

They go 20 points down early in the second half and begin to grow frustrated. One of their defenders – a choleric man roughly the size of a horse-drawn carriage – appears to grab an offensive lineman by the back of his shirt so as to rather violently dispatch him to the pitch. 

One of the referees calls a penalty – and the man loses it. He walks off the field in a fit and begins to vent his frustration to his quarterback, who’s standing there on the sidelines.

“This is precisely why you need to find better refs, Beggi!” he yells. “I hate that ref!” Prior to storming off the field, he adds that the officials show “zero ambition.”

(In his defence, losing is hard. Also, his knee is killing him.)

Three weeks after the fact, I mentioned the incident to referee Jan Eric, who seemed to have little recollection of the event.

“I certainly had an opinion when the incident occurred” he explained, “but as soon as he’s off the field, I’m focusing on the next play. Generally speaking, our interactions with the players have been good; sure, we sometimes get into spats during the game, but after it’s all done and dusted, we usually engage in a productive conversation.”

Jan Eric, who sounds like a stoic father figure, capable of contextualising his kids’ occasional tantrums, observes that because the Einherjar play so few games, many of the players likely don’t have a good enough handle on the rules themselves.

He landed the role of head referee by a rather circuitous route; having taken an interest in the NFL about ten years ago, Jan Eric – who has some experience as a referee in Iceland, in that other kind of football – posted on the NFL Iceland Facebook page to inquire about the rules of the game.

Although he received no response, he did discover a private message in his inbox from Bergþór Philip Pálsson, asking whether he was interested in officiating a few games. Jan Eric said “sure,” and most of the work that he and his colleagues have done thus far has been pro bono. But the Einherjar have, as of late, insisted that they pay them something for their trouble.

They’re an honourable bunch. 

“Given the size of the remuneration,” I speculated, “I imagine that the players must be a little more understanding towards your efforts?”

“Yes – and they are. They remind each other all the time that we’re doing our best. I think the overall mood has been good; tempers flare from time to time, but that’s just part of the game. I’m not easily offended. But I do think that it’s important that the players exercise good sportsmanship because they’re role models for all the younger players.”

All talk of American football in the modern age must at some point broach the injuries that have marred the sport’s reputation. Jan Eric acknowledges the problem – while adding an important point. 

“The rules differ between the NFL and college ball. The rules for college football are much more strict, designed to keep the players safe. And we, like most of the other leagues around the world, follow the college rules. Take targeting, for example: if you target a player’s head or neck area during a tackle, when he’s defenceless – you’re sent straight to the showers. Head injuries are rarer in college ball; of course, the technology and the helmets will improve, but because the risk of injury is higher in American football compared to most other sports, we need to protect the players.”

MAN OF THE MATCH

The Einherjar wind up losing by a significant margin. But everyone seems to be in good cheer after the game. The Romanians line up on the sideline, in front of the audience, and take a bow. They receive a hearty ovation. 

Afterwards, the two teams line up on the halfway line for some pictures. The main announcer hands out a few awards. Sigurður Jefferson, despite being on the losing side, is chosen Man of the Match.

“How do you feel?” I ask.

“I mean, it’s pretty upsetting, in the immediate aftermath,” he admits. “It’s not what we had aimed for defensively. But, I mean, we’ve got a lot of younger players, and the Rebels have been playing league games every week.” 

Playing an average of one game each season is tough; it takes time to get into the zone. 

“It was hard after they scored like five touchdowns; it was all about surviving at that point. But I’m happy with our sense of fight. We kept going. Given our roster and our effort, I can’t complain. We’ve got another game early in 2023. Hopefully, now that the rust is gone, we can get things going again.” 

And no doubt they will. 

Making It Work

The uphill battle for equality in the workplace and technology’s latest solutions

It’s been 43 years since Lilly Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton solved the equality issue in the seminal film 9 to 5, but somehow, we constantly find ourselves running into the same old stumbling blocks, and even some new and unexpected ones. Venture capital investments are only a tiny fraction of the business world but they are indicative of a larger issue. No matter how you slice it, women still aren’t on equal footing with men in the workplace. Despite the situation, plenty of things have changed since 1980, including attitudes towards inequality as an issue. Women are a much larger part of the workforce and they’re putting in the effort to change the game.

Someone recently tweeted about a relatively young Icelandic tech company that’d just gotten a large investment. When someone jokingly replied asking where a woman could go to find such a large sum of money, the jesting tone was lost on the original tweeter who replied that investments like this are the result of years of hard work, something that many men and women can and do earn. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? 

Except that it’s mostly men. In 2022, a report found that women-led teams accounted for 1.1 % of companies that received funding from venture capital funds. And reader – if you, like me, hoped that that number is so low because most of the teams are mixed, I regret to inform you that mixed teams received just over 10% of the funds. 88.7% of VC funding goes to all-male teams of founders. 

PayAnalytics – Working with international companies to evaluate salaries and positions for people of all genders and origins.

PayAnalytics founder Margrét Bjarnadóttir has a background in operation research. Her Ph.D. focused on how we can use data and mathematical models to support decision-making. When a COO at an Icelandic bank complained about the lack of resources to close the pay gap where they worked, Margrét was the right person to hear them, at the right time. Two years earlier, the bank had realised the extent of their pay gap and vowed to make changes. Their goal was to incorporate gender equality into all hiring processes and promotions. When they assessed progress at the end of those two years, nothing had changed. For Margrét, this was the perfect research opportunity, and she created her prototype of a mathematical model that would not only analyse the extent of the pay gap, taking into account different positions and responsibilities but also provide the solution to closing the gap. When her calculations worked, providing the bank with the tools they needed to implement change, the foundation was laid for Pay Analytics. Today, the company has clients in more than 50 countries, the largest of which comprises hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide.

Since its beginnings in 2016 when the idea for PayAnalytics won the entrepreneurial competition Gulleggið, Margrét has found the conversation regarding the pay gap is changing rapidly. “When we were starting out, we needed to explain to investors that there were companies that needed this kind of service, but we donʼt anymore. There’s been an avalanche of rules and regulations all over the world requiring companies to measure pay gaps and release the results. They differ from country to country but in the EU, for instance, when you advertise a position you will soon be required to also advertise the pay range.”

When the percentage of VC funding allocated to women-led teams comes up, Margrét nods sympathetically. While acknowledging that every company’s trajectory is different, she recognises the stories of investors asking defensive questions and focusing on risks rather than potential successes when talking to women. “By now, I can send the guys out to investor meetings,” she states jokingly, referring to the CEO and the CFO. On a more serious note, she continues: “The pay gap and lack of investment in female-led companies come from the same root: implicit bias. We all have it and it taints our decision-making,” Margrét adds. Her approach is to fight bias with data. “Documentation also helps, such as writing down why people get raises. Research shows that having to provide neutral descriptions of why people get raises lessens the pay gap.”

Every successful idea raises the question: Why hasn’t someone done this before? When I pose the question to Margrét, she refers to the cultural environment. “It’s not a coincidence that we’re an Icelandic company. Iceland has always led the way in this regard. Gender equality is a topic that people of all genders in the country care about. The issue was on people’s radar much sooner than in other countries.”

For Margrét, we’re in a unique position to tackle inequality. “We’ve never talked this much about diversity, inclusion, and equity. And the regulations and legislation are being put into place to back it up.”

Empower Now – Digital consultation working to create inclusive workplace culture.

While Pay Analytics focus on financial equality, Empower Now offers a holistic DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) solution to develop people-friendly workplace cultures. This extends beyond finances to areas including employee experience, public perception, recruitment processes, parental leave, diversity, and team surveying. But the first step is to assess the current status. Sigyn Jónsdóttir is the CTO of Empower Now and in her opinion, there is still much work to be done. “The fact is that most workplaces can and should do better,” she tells me. Once Empower Now has analysed the situation and isolated the issues, they provide a solution to the challenges that come up, based on measuring, goal setting, and education. “We offer micro-learning modules on DEI topics that leave an impact. An easy example would be our short videos in mobile format that the employees can choose to watch anytime, so people gain perspective and education, which they can then apply in real life.”

Founders Dögg and Þórey have been working as DEI  consultants for years but in-person consultation is impossible to scale up to an international level. The scalability comes in taking the process digital. 

Sigyn explains further: “If a scandal occurs, many issues can arise, from losing valuable employees due to completely preventable bias, to affecting bottom lines, like the company’s stock tanking. Since #metoo, they’ve found that old-fashioned crisis management practices, like simply firing a CEO, don’t necessarily repair their brand image or employee trust. Nor correct behaviour and prevent it from happening again. Issues of discrimination or bias are never down to one person. Even if the issue stemmed from a single person, it is still down to culture. It becomes a scandal when it’s not immediately handled and corrected properly. If something like this has been happening at your company, people know that it’s an issue with the workplace culture. But companies are a little lost on how to correct issues when they arise and prevent them from happening in the first place. That’s where we come in.”

There aren’t many men working in the gender equality business and finding out that it was mostly women cleaning up misogyny’s messes was a glum start to my research. Sigyn, however, has a more uplifting take. “Often, we get our foot in the door because a person who has experienced inequality gets us involved, but it’s important to us that it doesn’t fall on victims of discrimination to get Empower Now integrated into their workplace. Senior leaders who want to create equitable companies need to take action. The pressure is usually on groups who are the most vulnerable to bias to fix matters, which creates an unnecessary additional burden. But they also are often the greatest drivers of change.” According to Sigyn, it makes sense for those who are susceptible to discrimination to have a voice in fixing it. “That shouldn’t change. But they can’t be tasked with the responsibility of fixing these problems. People in a position of power should focus on being allies to those with less power and support their work.” 

Sigyn’s optimism is only slightly dampened at the mention of the 1.1% figure. “A recent study from Harvard Business Review shows that when pitching to VCs, men tend to get progressive questions focusing on potential gains, while women get more defensive questions focusing on risk and potential losses,” she states. “A progressive question might be something like: How do you plan to monetise this? While a similar defensive question would be: How long will it take you to break even?” Interestingly, she adds that there doesn’t seem to be a difference if it’s a man or a woman posing the questions. A dearth of women presenting their ideas can also be explained by the state of the startup world: “The startup scene has been known for its ‘bro’ culture, and that’s not a culture that supports DEI in any way.”

Empower Now is the rare instance when a women-led team gets funding based on an idea, without presenting a ready-made prototype. “Usually, teams have to be much further along in product development to get an investment. I hope that with more funds being available at the very early stages of a company’s development, that things might be changing. Unfortunately, I think, given the news in the last weeks about investments in women-led teams globally being down in 2022, it may only be an aberration.” In Sigyn’s opinion, things are changing for the better, but she has to admit the statistics don’t support her optimism. Yet.

GemmaQ is working on a gender diversity index for investment professionals, based on the mounting evidence that gender equality is not only a question of equality but can also be an indicator of a lucrative business. 

Freyja Þórarinsdóttir is the founder of GemmaQ, an index which automatically rates publicly traded companies according to management diversity. The reason why investors should focus on companies dedicated to equality isn’t just moral or ethical. According to Freyja, investing in equality is good business: “There’s a correlation between diversity and an above average profitability. Although we don’t have evidence of causation, multiple studies have shown us that companies with greater representation of women in corporate leadership are more likely to outperform those with less diverse leadership.”

 “First and foremost, there’s a marketing aspect to being able to state publicly that your fund is only investing in companies who’ve got it together when it comes to equality and to be able to back it up with data,” Freyja states. Before launching GemmaQ, she was with the Merrill Lynch wealth management division of Bank of America in Seattle and a director and team leader at the Central Bank of Iceland. In addition to her degrees in law and political science, Freyja received a Master’s in Economic Policy Management from Columbia University. Her work in asset management showed her that besides wanting a return on their investment, clients wanted to know where their money went and if it was making a difference. While there was a distinct generational shift in clients’ sense of responsibility, it’s clear that pension funds, for example, are set on investing in a more responsible way, as are large national funds such as the Norwegian oil fund and Japanese pension funds. 

GemmaQ is a technical solution that gathers public information on companies’ management diversity and monitors changes that would jeopardise it. Officially started in 2019, the project has earlier roots as Freyja’s research project at Columbia University. With 15 years of diversity data at her disposal, Freyja explains that while things are looking up, attitude-wise, the numbers are still bleak.

 “Gender Lens, the GemmaQ Fortune 500 index, tracks the gender leadership balance among Fortune 500 companies. It shows that women represent only 10.2% of Fortune 500 companies CEOs, and just 6.6% of board chairs today. With five new women taking on CEO roles in January 2023, this is becoming a record year with women in leadership roles”. 

 

In the US, legislation differs significantly by state. Some states have required gender quotas on company boards, while some companies are required to list their gender ratios publicly. In some states, however, there are no regulations at all. “Even though there are differences between companies in the same sector depending on their location, we are seeing the same trend across states,” Freyja tells me. “Women are being promoted at far lower rates to leadership roles than men. The rate of change is unacceptably slow.” 

Heima – An app that organises housework and family life, splitting tasks equally between family members, ensuring an equal division of labour while removing the mental load of managing the home.

The business world doesn’t exist in a bubble. And in spite of the recent explosion of the fintech sector, it is still run by humans, not robots. It’s not enough to make sure the business world is paying people of all genders equally, providing a healthy environment, and diversifying their management teams if the pressure of housework and managing the home doubles their workload when compared with men. That’s how women get burnt out. According to Alma Dóra Ríkarðsdóttir and Sigurlaug Guðrún Jóhannsdóttir, their app will not only lessen the workload in the home but also make your relationship better. “We believe the key to happy family life is to work well together and communicate well. We went with a software solution, a management tool that enables people to cooperate harmoniously, much like work management tools operate in the workplace.” Data suggest that women do 75% of housework worldwide which negatively impacts their personal and professional development. Alma continues: “The idea was inspired by my work as a specialist in gender equality in the Prime Ministry. We were mapping the major equality issues in Iceland and the world, and the unequal division of housework is a foundational issue. If we’re going to have equal pay and equal opportunities, we need to start at home and make this right.” When introducing their idea, Alma and Sigurlaug had to start at the very beginning, by explaining the concept of the mental load of managing housework, sometimes referred to as the third shift: “The invisible managerial work in the home that’s less tangible than simply washing the dishes or cleaning floors. We’re bringing that unseen work to the surface.” In Iceland, VR, Iceland’s largest trade union, launched a national campaign to introduce the idea to people. “We do sometimes have to explain the concept of the mental load, especially when talking to people from outside of Iceland. It’s becoming better known worldwide, but in Iceland, everyone knows what it is, following VR’s campaign. Before, we would have to introduce the concept to people doing user reviews. Now, people bring it up in the first place,” Alma says.

While younger people are generally more excited about technological solutions, in the case of Heima, it makes perfect sense. “We’re focusing on younger people, who might have young children. People who’ve been living together for decades have their own routine that they’ve settled with their partner and it might not need disrupting. We’re doing this for the people in the process of creating their housework division and settling their routine. People who want more equality, less hassle, and more joy in the home.” According to Alma, tension over housework is the third most common cause of divorce worldwide, so there’s a lot to be gained.

On the issue of finding funding, the developers behind Heima have received initial funding. Now they are marketing their concept to investors and developing their business plan for their second round. Alma is hesitant to make generalisations about the startup environment. “What I can say is that I was working for the Ministry of Industry and Innovation, looking into funding for women, and what I found was that very often, when assessing the success of innovation projects, what’s looked at are the results, the successes, the companies that have made it through and been successful. And men are much more heavily represented. So if your idea of a perfect entrepreneur is Mark Zuckerberg, women will always be further from the goal than men.”

Startups are looking towards the future, trying to be the first to decipher what it may hold, being the first to introduce new solutions and technology into our lives. But somehow, when it comes to business, they keep betting on the exact same type over and over again. “They’re trying to make you fit into a male entrepreneur cookie cutter instead of acknowledging that women bring different things to the table. I think that plays a part. Also, many funds talk a lot about a funnel problem, that the percentage of women who receive funding represents the percentage of women that approach them, but it has been demonstrated that funds who make an effort to highlight women and make sure women know about them and that they have access to them have a higher proportion of women in their portfolio. So it’s not a funnel problem, it’s a question of accessibility.” While funds are in the end only responsible for maximising the return on their investment, Alma maintains that the singular approach to finding projects likely to succeed is limiting their scope. “We know that women tend to be more conservative in their estimations of success than men are. So instead of pushing them to create more unrealistic business plans, you could factor that into your calculations, while keeping in mind that men’s goals are likely to be unattainable.”

Finally, the women behind Heima arenʼt afraid to state that they’re not doing this just to serve their ideals. “We’re not afraid to say that this is a for-profit company. We intend to give our investors a return on their investment. We want to find a way to get our solution to as many people as possible.” That’s how they make their mark. “With money, you can scale up, you can enter more markets, introduce your solution to more people and have a bigger effect. We can give our app to the thousand people on our mailing list and that would have an effect but we could also try to get it to a million people in two years and that will have a bigger impact.”

Tall Tales and Treacherous Waters

Útivera Ganga Náttúra Gengið frá Aðalvík að Hesteyri og til baka

The 17th-century voyage 

of Jón the India Traveller

Christian IV was King of Denmark and Norway from the age of 11 until his death aged 71 in 1648. Contemporaries described him as above average height, most often dressed in French fashion, and a true warrior by nature. Christian was known as a plucky, hard-drinking man of grim wit and vision. His domestic reforms brought a level of stability and wealth to the Danish Kingdom virtually unmatched elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, towards the end of his reign, the Danish King was a broken man. Christian’s obsession with evil spirits and witchcraft led to numerous brutal public executions throughout his kingdom, including 21 Icelanders. He also brought true disaster upon his kingdom by leading Denmark into the Thirty Years’ War, one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history that drained the Crown’s coffers, undermined the economy, and cost the kingdom large swaths of territory. As a result, absolute monarchy was abolished and the king was forced to share power with parliament.

On a bright May morning in 1679, an 85-year-old widower passed away in his sleep after a long illness. He had lived a full life and was loved and highly respected, well satisfied with his long life and fortuitous relationship with his God. As the burden of age weighed on him ever more, Jón Ólafsson of Eyrardalur farm, situated in Álftafjörður in the Westfjords, had given up his daily chores as a farmer and dedicated his remaining time to educating young people in reading and writing full time.  Throughout his long life, Jón Ólafsson was known as more than a faithful Christian, farmer, and beloved teacher. In a time before television, radio or even printing presses – when even dancing was illegal – 17th-century Icelanders craved a well-told story. He was a storyteller without equal; he was Jón Ólafsson, the “India Traveller.” 

Although impoverished Icelandic society had benefitted from growing international trade, better ships, and improved fishing techniques, the early 1600s were aptly dubbed the “torture years.” It was an abnormally cold period fraught with tragedy. Various diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, and the plague exacerbated by poor nutrition killed thousands annually, limiting Iceland’s population under some 50,000 souls. An average adult could expect to live between 40-45 years and the infant mortality rate was atrociously high. Jón’s parents lost 11 of their 14 children. When he was just seven years old, Jón’s father died of dysentery. 

Much of the economic woe that Iceland suffered at this time was exacerbated by a strict monopoly on all trade that kept prices high and supplies of often poor quality. The Danish-Norwegian Crown enacted the Danish-Icelandic Trade Monopoly in 1602 to support Danish merchants, increasing the wealth and power of the King of Denmark to the detriment of their Icelandic colony. Nevertheless, illicit trading flourished. 


ENGLAND

In the early summer of 1615, a 50-tonne English freight ship that had been blown off course ended up in the vicinity of Jón’s homestead near Ísafjörður, where he lived with his mother and two siblings. At the age of 22, Jón Ólafsson decided he wanted to see the world beyond Iceland’s rocky shores. He had two distinct sides to his character; strong in his Christian faith but also unusually fearless and adventurous. In a small boat, Jón and a few of his companions rowed over to the English vessel. Despite the language differences, Jón managed to negotiate passage for himself to England, trading a substantial quantity of homespun wool for the journey, Iceland’s main currency at the time. After a tearful goodbye to his mother, they set sail on June 23. Jón had brought more than 200 kilos of dried cod and a few barrels of fish oil, with which he hoped to finance his adventure, most of which was lost overboard in one of the frequent storms the ship encountered. During the seven-week voyage, Jón befriended the crew, enabling him to acquire English very quickly and quite fluently. Disembarking on August 11 in Harwich, near the coastal city of Ipswich, Jón was surprised to see how many coal ships were constantly coming and going. At this time, England was rapidly expanding coal production, which would become the dynamo that powered the industrial revolution and would make Britain a global superpower. James I was king and England was thriving economically and blossoming culturally.

Once in England, Jón was quick to form friendly relations with the locals and was twice offered bountiful employment which he kindly refused, explaining that Iceland’s colonial capital of Copenhagen was his ultimate goal. Before he could find a way to Denmark, Jón visited Shakespearean London and was astounded by its beauty and sheer size; the dozens of bridges and hundreds of churches including the imposing bulk of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose spires towered over the great city at nearly 150 metres high. Best of all was the music; pounding drums, pipe organs, and soaring trumpets utterly captivated Jón, who came from a country almost completely devoid of musical instruments. Jón soon ran into Danish sailors who were serving on a royal warship bringing horses as a gift from Danish King Christian IV to James I, his brother-in-law . He was offered passage aboard the Danish warship, finally arriving in Copenhagen a few days later, months after his departure from Iceland.

While wandering the outskirts of Tranquebar, India on a day of leave from their duties, Jón and his mates encountered a massive cobra that terrified a local village and allowed Jón to demonstrate his courage. “The beast was three-coloured; black, white, and grey. The sting or bite of this kind of serpent is so poisonous that few survive it.” A King Cobra such as this one can grow up to nearly 6 metres in length and is the world’s largest venomous snake. Seven crew members engaged and fought the giant snake. “His movements were both swift and fierce, and dire injury would be all but certain if he managed to strike us, either by his poison breath or by the point near the end of his tongue, with which he stings many a man to death.” After most of his friends gave up or ran away from the fight Jón found himself alone in pursuit of the mighty beast. “My blood was up. I was entirely set on overcoming the serpent if God would grant me victory.” The giant of a cobra first attempted to evade Jón: “He fled into a large bush, forcing his way into it so violently that the whole thicket trembled and shook, as did the earth under our feet. Suddenly he rose and came straight for me, fiercely at great speed; raising his head high above the ground while his tail rattled ominously. The huge snake was raging against me with much hissing and puffing so that it seemed as if there was blue smoke all around him. I was not terrified either of the massive snake nor of his cruel look, but my comrades cried aloud and were sorely frightened. I brandished my broadsword with the strength of my two arms so mightily that the others were surprised, just then the serpent prepared to strike me so I hewed at him with all the force God had given me. I was about two paces from his head, which I cut clean off with one fell swoop.” Although vanquished, Jón thought the beheaded King Cobra might still represent a threat. “I stepped at once between the two pieces of the serpent, so that it should not join together again, about which the Indians had warned me.”

COPENHAGEN

Jón was fascinated by 17th-century Copenhagen’s castles, towers, fortresses, churches, and trading halls. Elegant stone buildings with genuine glass windows were everywhere, a novelty to Jón who had spent his life in dark, earthen-floored dwellings of turf and raw stone. Sailors and soldiers, merchants and craftsmen, musicians and beggars crowded the streets and marketplaces, and Danish horses were enormous in comparison to Iceland’s squatter breed. The flavours and aromas of the food surprised him the most, including pork sausages, baked bread, and sweet pastries – all of which were virtually unknown in his native land. Jón had lost much of his dried cod and fish oil cargo and badly needed money so he got a job combing horses at the king’s stable. A few weeks later, Jón joined King Christian IV’s army as an artilleryman. The job required discipline and technical knowledge and was relatively well-paid. Best of all, Jón’s true passion – travel – was a fundamental part of serving in the king’s army. 

According to Jón’s tales, he was incredibly successful in forging friendships with all manner of people, including many of his superior officers and even the King of Denmark. One day while serving as a gunner aboard a Danish Royal navy vessel, Jón was ordered to present himself to the king. Christian IV was curious about his faraway colonial subject and surprised to learn that Icelanders were serving on his ship. When he met the king, rather than bowing and scraping, Jón looked the Danish monarch straight in the eyes, addressing him with due respect but speaking as an equal, which charmed the king. The fact Jón could read and write was praised, as literacy was not common at the time. The king asked how he had gotten to Denmark. Jón decided to tell the king the flat truth: that he had illegally bartered with an English captain for passage to Europe. The king asked why Icelanders would have anything to do with the English, to which Jón replied that trading with foreigners was a matter of survival. Jón’s brave sincerity impressed the king, who rewarded his honesty with large quantities of ale. 

However good Jón’s relations were with most of his superior officers, he was treated no better than an ordinary gunner whenever he misbehaved. For the infraction of arriving late to his watch, Jón was arrested and locked in the infamous ‘blue tower’ jail, and summarily sentenced to death by hanging. Despite the direness of his situation, he did not panic or lose hope. When the king caught word of Jón’s death sentence, he pardoned him and personally saw to his release, saying with a smile, “Look after yourself better, dear Jón!”

As a well-trained naval gunner, Jón served on board a Royal Danish-Norwegian Navy vessel during a military conflict between the Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden. King Christian IV of Denmark always longed for action and often followed his warships into war despite the risk to his safety. The skirmish with the Swedes was raging and both sides suffered enormous casualties. After a harrowing attack, the Danes were on the verge of defeat and attempted to surrender. The enraged Swedes refused to acknowledge the white flag and advanced hard; they wanted nothing less than to capture or kill the meddlesome Danish King. 

Many of the Danish soldiers were dead or wounded including the king’s guard; leaving the monarch alone and vulnerable. Few of the oil lamps aboard remained intact and the interior of the ship was dim and disorienting. With his gunpowder spent, Jón’s cannons were at last silent. Jón could hear a small number of Swedish marines attempting to board the Danish warship. Recognising the direness of the situation, he desperately rushed to find the king, pledging to protect him with his life. He found the ruler alone but in a defiant mood. Suddenly, a Swedish soldier surprised them and slashed at the king with his sword, hitting him on the side of the head and injuring his ear. His head was bleeding profusely and the shocked king fainted, falling on his side. The Swedish soldier cursed the darkness as he stabbed and swung his sword about the cabin in search of his royal quarry. Jón saw an opportunity to turn the tables on the Swede. He jumped to his feet from the shadows and with his remaining strength, thrust his sword through the soldier’s chest. When all was at last quiet, Jón hauled the unconscious Christian IV to a safer place, staying with the king until passing out himself, exhausted and wounded from the fray. Meanwhile, the damaged Danish ship managed to silently withdraw to safety. After this dramatic episode, it was said that the king held his Icelandic gunner in high esteem, for which Jón would later be very thankful.

INDIA

Following the success of the Portuguese and Dutch colonies in India, Christian IV sent a delegation to the subcontinent in 1618 to found a military outpost and lucrative trading colony. Imported spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper would fetch ten times their cost in India. In late 1620, after two years of negotiations with a local ruler, a trade agreement with the Danish East India Company was established and Denmark’s first colony in southern India was officially founded. When Jón was offered to serve as an artilleryman for a two-year stint in the Indian colony he jumped at the opportunity. In addition to the ships’ crews, there were administrators, diplomats, merchants, barbers, priests, carpenters, sail-makers, and soldiers like Jón aboard. The 16-week journey took the fleet of four Danish warships down the Atlantic coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean, making resupply stops in the Comoro Islands, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka before finally finishing their journey in the southern Indian town of Tranquebar, where the Danish fortress of Dansborg had recently been erected. While the trip had been relatively uneventful and Jón remained in good health, many had died on the voyage, including a fellow Icelander and close friend of Jón’s. Scurvy due to poor nutrition, diseases such as dysentery, and accidents killed up to 15% of the crew and passengers, but this loss was considered acceptable at the time.

During a stop in the Comoro Islands, Jón came across unfamiliar but delicious fruit. “No fruit was ripe at that time of year except pomerans [red oranges] and bonanzers [bananas] of which the natives took a few bunches. These grew in their fruit gardens, 30-40 together, they are about the size of a guillemot [a sea-bird eaten or used as fuel in Iceland in Jón’s time] hung up to dry and are especially good fruit, refreshing and of a good taste as if there was fat in it; they are also excellent to eat on bread,” he wrote of the tasty novelty.

BACK TO DENMARK

After 14 months of military service in India, Jón’s tour of duty was completed and he boarded The Pearl, a Danish naval frigate, in the autumn of 1624 for what would be a terrible journey back to Denmark. When the cannon he was loading unexpectedly exploded, blasting him off the deck of the ship, he was badly injured. Artillerymen in this time were often killed in such accidents, but Jón miraculously survived despite being nearly drowned, losing several fingers on both hands, and getting scorched by gunpowder over much of his abdomen. In the sickbay, the barber who served as a surgeon wanted to bleed Jón, the standard treatment for most ailments, but he was already haemorrhaging so much blood that it was deemed unnecessary. Jón wisely refused to let six men sit on him, also a standard procedure, during the amputation of two more fingers. After nine weeks, despite poor hygiene and absurd theories about healing, Jón was able to stand. Five weeks later, he was more or less recovered, although his injuries would prevent him from ever serving as an artilleryman again. 

Unfortunately, this tragic episode was merely the beginning of the crew’s troubles. Once The Pearl passed the Cape and reached the Atlantic, she encountered fierce storms and unusually rough seas that lasted for 12 weeks. Treacherous storms flooded the ship and ruined much of their food supplies. Fresh water quickly became scarce. Any shipmate caught stealing water would suffer the death penalty. As their hunger worsened, the cook suggested they eat the ship’s cat, but too many baulked at the idea. Violent gales and powerful storms broke off two of the ship’s three masts and her rudder. As The Pearl mostly drifted northward, the slowly starving crew began to fall ill and die. After months of agony, the crew of the stricken warship, at last, spotted the south coast of Ireland and were towed into harbour. The captain and half the crew had perished, but Jón somehow pulled through. The Danish warship was repaired and resupplied over the coming weeks while the surviving crew of The Pearl recovered.

Back in Copenhagen, Jón was offered a teaching position at the Danish naval college but politely declined. At Jón’s request, he was duly given a farm in the Westfjords free of charge for his long and loyal service to the king. For the globetrotting Icelander, now 34, it was time to return to his homeland and start a family. During his 11 years of adventure abroad, word of Jón’s fantastic experiences had travelled from farm to farm in Iceland and he was welcomed everywhere. Some called Jón the ‘Icelandic Marco Polo.’ Eloquent and funny, dignitaries were eager to invite the renowned storyteller to their farms for lavish meals. Jón was always happy to regale his eager audiences, large and small, with his exotic tales, and he was never afraid to stretch the truth if it pleased his listeners. 

Jón is best-known today for the autobiography and travelogue he wrote with the help of his son in 1661 at the age of 67. His descriptions of city life in England and Denmark as well as the sights and people of Africa and India are remarkably vivid. He was an excellent observer and able to accurately describe the daily life of ordinary people in a reasonable tone and with little prejudice. Fond of terrifying his audiences, Jón paid close attention to what people wanted to hear and would adjust his stories to maximise their appeal. His book became so popular and widely read that it passed from person to person for centuries in numerous handwritten copies until it was finally published in print in 1908. Since then, it has been translated into Danish, German, and English and is considered a remarkable record of human life and events in Northern Europe and South India in the 17th century.s.

But I will tell anyone who will heed it that every single man who undertakes such journeys and has neither kinsmen on board, nor money, nor powerful friends must have three good qualities, namely; gentleness and an even temper toward officers and others who are worthy of it. Secondly, willingness; so that he does not wait to act till he is bidden. Thirdly, he must suffer hard times without complaint, yet must know his limits and must defend himself with honour, manliness and understanding. The sum of it all is to act and behave honourably in word and deed so that he need never fear answering boldly for himself.

Man of the Year

Haraldur Þorleifsson

This is Haraldur Þorleifsson. In 2021 he sold his company, Ueno, to Twitter. During the sale process, he was advised how to legally avoid paying taxes on the profit. Instead, he demanded that the purchase price be paid as salary to maximise the tax he would have to pay.In 2021, he paid the second highest tax in Iceland.

When Ramp Up Iceland constructed its 300th ramp this November, a curious scene ensued. As Haraldur Þorleifsson, the project’s founder, took centre stage in the Mjódd bus station to make a celebratory speech, President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson interrupted him from the crowd, in what the media would later playfully describe as “heckling.” The President then proceeded to spray-paint over Halli’s initial goal of 1,000 with a new one of 1,500. Later, Halli would tweet, “Since he’s the president, I guess we have to do it.” The playful exchange captured what many find so endearing about Halli, as he’s often known: a benevolent tech titan who’s still able to take a joke. Much of the exchange also took place on Twitter, of which Halli is both an avid user and a current employee.

People can be successful without working hard or being smart. But nobody can be successful without luck. And a lot of it.

LIFE BY DESIGN

As a designer, Halli thinks a lot about the decisions that shape the world we inhabit. We take so many aspects of life for granted, be it a building, a coffee cup, or a public transportation system. We see them as a given, as part of our environment, forgetting the choices and circumstances that made them. Halli, however, was not the kind of child to settle for “that’s just how it is” as an answer.

His tech career has allowed him to work wherever he wants, and he has travelled extensively, living and working in places like Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Barcelona, and Rio de Janeiro. Both his travels and design background have made him think very deeply about why cities are laid out in certain ways and why certain buildings lack accessibility, while others don’t. “You can go from city to city,” he says, “and often even just within the same country, there’s a very stark difference. So it’s very clear that these are all man-made decisions.”

 

HUMBLE BEGININGS

Halli’s journey to becoming one of Iceland’s so-called “tax kings” was not an obvious one. Born with muscular dystrophy which left him fully dependent on his wheelchair by his mid-20s, his family was working-class. Looking back, Halli is fully aware that things could have been different. “Education is definitely the big one,” Halli says, reflecting on the advantages of growing up in Iceland. “In places like the United States, there’s a big difference in education depending on the money you have. And social differentiation begins very early in education, starting in kindergarten. And of course, it’s not just the quality of education, but the network you develop and your social ca  pital as well.” 

Having studied philosophy and business at university, Halli went on to drop out of a master’s degree in economics. Like so many foundational figures of the tech industry, Halli found it hard to adapt to the daily routines of formal education and work life. But unlike many of his tech peers, Halli hasn’t mythologised his origin story. “It wasn’t really a principled stance at the time,” Halli admits. Thinking back to some of his first jobs, he’s quite candid about the reason he forged a different path: “I just felt I couldn’t show up in a tie every day.”

As Halli was finding his way in the world, he also received some aid in the form of disability payments. “I couldn’t have lived off of them for a long time,” Halli says, “but they did get me through some hard times.” Some of these hard times included being fired from one of his first serious jobs in New York and a difficult period with alcohol and drug use. He also recalls ruefully how he happened to start his first day of work at CCP, a large Icelandic game development studio, on the same day as the banking collapse in Iceland. But in 2011, Halli sobered up and got married.  In 2014, founded Ueno.

Ueno grew out of Halli’s work as a freelancer. Halli scored a lucky break in taking on a project for Google, and as his projects grew bigger and bigger, he realised that he needed to organise a team. Over the years, Ueno grew into a full-service design agency, developing apps, making websites, creating brands, and leading the way in online marketing for some of the biggest names in tech, including Uber, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Visa, Verizon, and others. Some of their best-known projects include the Google Santa Tracker, the Reuters news app, and Dropbox’s online guide.

When Halli sold Ueno to Twitter in 2021, the proceeds from the sale were enough to send him to number 2 on the list of Iceland’s top taxpayers, the exclusive list of “tax kings.” Normally, selling off a highly profitable tech company involves stock options and other financial instruments designed at keeping the profit in lower tax brackets than wages. Instead of experimenting with creative bookkeeping, Halli went in the opposite direction, opting to receive the majority of his profit in the form of wages. The highest wage bracket in Iceland is taxed at a marginal rate of 46%, with lower brackets at 38% and 31%. Had Halli chosen stocks or other financial instruments instead, he would have been taxed at a much lower rate of 22%. Not all details from the sale are public, but according to his tax return, Halli reported a monthly salary of ISK 102 million [$718,000; €672,000] throughout 2021, some 46% of which would have been paid in tax.

In talking with Halli, there is no sense of martyrdom or regret. Nor does he seem to have been simply “following the rules,” impartially acting like everyone ought to. He seems genuinely happy to have the ability to give back. 

The largest part of his working life has been with American tech companies. Reflecting on the differences between his home and the United States reveals a deep appreciation for Iceland’s social systems: “In terms of living, Iceland is simply a better place. In terms of work, if you just isolate that part, the US probably has a leg up, but not for the right reasons. It’s a fear-based society. People are afraid to make mistakes, and when they do, there are no safety nets. In a lot of ways, I relate to that American work ethic, but I don’t think we should build a society around it. Everyone is very motivated, but I don’t think they’re happier. In Iceland, because of the social system, there’s more room for life.”

Despite his passion for the principles of social democracy, Halli certainly does not believe he has all the answers for the world’s social woes. Exhibiting his trademark humility, Halli says simply, “I’m not smart enough to have solutions, but I think in general it would be good to level things. We should start with the assumption that it would be good to be more equal, that people who have more should pay more.” 

This, it seems, is Halli’s goal: to make Iceland an even better place for living. 

‘Talent’ is my least favourite word. It implies that some people are born with a gift. And that others are not. It’s a limiting word. Gatekeeping through genetics. Passion is what actually matters.

RAMP UP

Once Halli was back in Iceland with his family after years of travel, its lack of accessibility seemed both obvious and insupportable. Only now, he could do something about it. Ramp Up Reykjavík started humbly, with the goal to build 100 ramps, mostly in downtown Reykjavík. “It seemed like every year, there was some story about how a person in a wheelchair couldn’t go somewhere on Laugavegur,” he recalls. “The reporter was always shocked, but nothing ever changed, and I remember stories like these going back for decades.” 

Now, Ramp Up has expanded its scope from Reykjavík to all of Iceland, with the goal of 1,600 total ramps across the country by 2026. The difference is especially noticeable on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Just a year ago, the entrances to many stores, restaurants, hair salons, clinics, and more were blocked by staircases. Now, gently sloping stone ramps, unassuming in their design, can be found throughout the land, allowing people in wheelchairs to access services previously out of reach. Every ramp is a little different, needing to be fitted to the building and surrounding in question. Ramp Up’s success, according to Halli, is largely thanks to the very focused nature of its goal. “In the beginning,” Halli remembers, “we weren’t really sure how it all worked. But now we can do it at scale. It’s complicated and expensive to do as a one-off, but we’ve learned from doing this over and over again.”

“We have a very deep knowledge of this subject now, but we have no idea how to do anything else,” he jokes. The goal of Ramp Up, in short, is to remove any excuse for lack of basic accessibility, making it as easy as possible for the store owner. With a total budget of ISK 400 million [$2.8 million; €2.6 million], half of which is supplied by government funding, Ramp Up handles everything from applying for permits, submitting plans to the city, sending out work crews, working with local municipalities, and everything else. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, with many confessing that they’d wanted to build ramps to their stores for years, but had no idea how to go about it.

However, Halli tells me, as Ramp Up has made progress, they’ve quickly realised that ramps are far from the whole story: “In the beginning, we talked with a lot of people in the disability community. They rightfully pointed out that it’s not just ramps. How wide are the hallways in a building? Are the restrooms accessible? Are there accommodations for blind and hearing-impaired people? There are so many things that need to be fixed,” Halli says. “If anyone wants to tell me how we could be doing better, I’m always listening.”

A tourist asked me recently why there were so many people in wheelchairs in Reykjavik. I told him his country had them too, but it wasn’t as accessible so they stay at home. Same applies to all minorities. If you don’t see them it’s because they are hiding.

ANNA JÓNA

One of the defining experiences of Haraldur’s life was the loss of his mother to a car crash at age 11. He was on vacation at Disney World when his father received the news, but it was only once they arrived back in Iceland that he was told. Her early loss was, of course, a tragedy. But before he lost her, she left a lasting mark on her son that would shape how he viewed the world for the rest of his life. In Halli’s telling, his mother Anna Jóna was like many mothers: “The best in the world.”  

His mother imprinted a deep love of the arts in Halli. According to him, she was loving and creative, having worked in set design for films. He remembers how they watched many movies together and what an amazing storyteller she was. It speaks volumes that many of his passion projects now aim at promoting the arts. Upcoming projects include an artists’ residence on the Kjalarnes peninsula and his own musical pursuits, including a guest appearance at this past year’s Airwaves festival and an upcoming album called The Radio Won’t Let Me Sleep, to be released in the spring. For an awkward and depressed kid, the recent time in the spotlight isn’t entirely natural. “I’ve had to learn to be open to failure in a whole new area,” he explains. “It’s a small country, so everyone’s kind of famous, but I’ve gotten a fair bit of attention. It’s been kind of scary. What if the music is terrible? It would be a very public failure.” 

This February, Halli will be opening a new café in downtown Reykjavík. Dedicated to his mother, it bears her name: Anna Jóna. With a small theatre equipped with 40 seats, it also aims to become a venue of sorts for small performances and screenings. “It’s an homage to my mother,” Halli tells me. “But something I thought about a lot before opening this café was how I only grew up with her until I was 11. When I think about it now as an adult, it’s such a small slice of her life. I thought about going around to everyone who knew her and asking about her, about their memories of her. But, ultimately, I decided not to, because there’s no way for me to capture her in her entirety. This is an homage to her, but it’s also an homage of my memory of her, of a son for his mother.”

An especially strong memory of his mother stays with Halli to this day, some 40 years later. “Something I keep coming back to is a conversation with my mom I remember very well,” Halli tells me. “We were walking around the city, I think, and she was telling me how everything I saw, everything around me, was man-made. I got such a clear impression from my mother that I could have an impact on the world, that it wasn’t just for me to look at. It was something that I should, that we all should, feel some responsibility for changing.”

 

LIFTING THE VEIL

A popular post featuring Halli made the rounds on social media recently, titled simply “If you’re rich, be more like this guy.” In the comments, a general consensus emerged that cast Halli as the “good guy millionaire.”

Inevitably, the idealisation of Halli is also tied up in romantic ideas of what people want Iceland to mean to them. These ideas portray it as a perfect society, the first nation in the world with an openly LGBT head of state, and the nation that jailed their criminal bankers, if only for a little while.

But to be faithful to Halli’s own social democratic convictions, it is only fair to see him too as someone human, all too human. There is, for instance, the uncomfortable truth that Ueno made much of its fortune working for American tech companies, many of which are working against precisely the systems which allowed Halli to flourish. Companies like Uber, Tesla, and Amazon have all worked to drive down wages, while fiercely resisting the recent wave of unionisation in the United States. Ueno was, of course, not directly involved in these practices. But nevertheless, wherever Silicon Valley seems to promise novelty and freedom, one cannot help but notice that potentially democracy-destabilising concentrations of wealth seem to follow. Halli was lucky enough to benefit from strong social systems during the hard times of his life, but for many, such opportunities are increasingly being taken away by these tech firms.

Though Halli’s fortune is admittedly more humble, it is difficult not to draw comparisons with other members of the tech elite. In some sense, Halli serves as the inverse image of his current employer, Elon Musk. The child of South African diamond miners, Mr. Musk has likewise benefited from the advantages of his upbringing, though where Musk was born into great generational wealth, Halli was simply born into a strong social democracy. But what truly differentiates Halli from his fellow members of the tech elite is the application of the designer’s eye to his own life as well. Halli doesn’t take the world for granted, nor his position in it. Where others justify their anointed positions through appeals to genius, work ethic, and rugged individualism, Halli openly talks about the social support he’s received, often letting online followers in behind the scenes of his life. 

And it’s this kind of online engagement that keeps Halli optimistic about the future of our increasingly digital lives. “I still remember the first chat on a computer I ever had with my cousin on an old 286,” Halli muses, referencing a popular Intel PC model. “Back then, I thought it was going to revolutionise the world in almost exclusively good ways. I am in general more optimistic than pessimistic, but the pessimistic part has definitely grown.” Something the tech world, and especially Twitter, has still not totally come to terms with was the election of Donald Trump and the accompanying culture wars centred around freedom of speech, “cancel culture,” and online hate speech. Today, Halli is working closely with his team at Twitter to address some of these problems, but given the sensitive nature of the work, much of it is under wraps. As hard a project as it may seem, Halli hopes to make Twitter resemble more the digital hopes of his youth. “Twitter has allowed me access to different groups of people,” he explains. “I think it’s broadened my view of the world. I often learn things on Twitter that are uncomfortable but necessary. I come from a very specific background, a community where everyone is kind of the same. It’s important to have access to these different experiences.” 

haraldur þorleifsson

MAN OF THE YEAR

At the end of 2022, Halli swept various Icelandic media outlets’ awards for Person of the Year, being voted by the audiences of Iceland’s widest-read publications as the man of the moment.

And for good reason: between Ramp Up, his contributions to legal funds for victims of sexual abuse, and generous donations to families in need over the holidays, it is hard to think of one Icelander trying to do more good. 

And yet, despite all of the good he’s done, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider a peculiar irony. The Man of the Year, after all, was chosen for something every one of us does every year: paying our taxes.

Born and Bread

On visits to my grandfather’s farm, I would often follow him around, helping him with the farmyard tasks. In the early afternoon, perhaps after mending a fence, we would come inside to have some coffee and flatbread topped with butter and lamb that my grandmother had laid out. Taking off his rubber boots that smelled of rust and horses, he would smile with satisfaction at the simple fare, mumbling happily: “Ekta matur.” Real food. 

TRUE TO TRADITION

Like language and music, flatbread is a near-universal feature of cultures throughout the world.  And for a cuisine such as Iceland’s, which is often so different even from the other Nordic nations, flatbread is also a humble connection to the wider world.

To this day, Icelandic flatbreads, or flatkökur, can be found in any Icelandic supermarket, making them arguably the most versatile and popular of Icelandic gamaldags matur, or traditional food. Often pre-cut into halves, they are traditionally eaten topped with a smear of butter and smoked lamb (hangikjöt) or liver pâté (kindakæfa). Mottled with specks of char and perforated by fork tines, a flatbread has a subtle flavour, so often paired with butter and lamb that the light burn marks and smokiness of the meat merge into one. Standard flatbreads found on a grocery store shelf will contain a mixture of wheat flour and rye, but traditionally, they were made exclusively with rye. Often, other additives such as dried moss and seaweed were also used to stretch out the precious imported flour. This modern lunchtime and family gathering staple is, like so much of what’s considered traditional Icelandic food, a relic from a time of scarcity.

 

ADVENTUROUS EATS

When I first tried hákarl, the notorious fermented shark native to Icelandic cuisine, my uncle proffered me a small yellow cube on a toothpick, grinning devilishly. “You’ll love it,” he said. “It’s terrible.”

Brought up on dried fish and cod liver oil, it was not the smell that deterred me, though it is admittedly rather unpleasant. It was the gelatinous texture I found most repellent, making the experience last much longer than one wants. Still, washed down with a stiff drink, it’s not quite as bad as it’s made out to be.

That little phrase, “You’ll love it; it’s terrible,” captures something important about Icelandic attitudes towards traditional food. Icelanders are a people who get through things, it says. But in the grim determination for survival, there is a perverse pleasure as well. Collective suffering often brings people together, and something of this masochistic ritual lingers today in Icelanders’ attitudes towards their traditional foods, best characterised by þorramatur.

In a land of scarcity like pre-industrial Iceland, these foods were what was available in the depths of winter. Additionally, the lack of available firewood in Iceland made extracting salt from seawater through boiling impractical. In terms of food preservation, pickling was the only game in town. So when Icelanders gathered round for þorrablót, no doubt dishes that we recognise today as þorramatur must have made it to the table.

And yet, the particular spread of þorramatur in its modern form is very much a recent invention, originating only in 1958 at the Reykjavík restaurant Naustið. Even then, such foods were perceived as something from the olden days, and as Iceland quickly urbanised in the post-war years, the sense developed that the rural heartland of Iceland was quickly being displaced by the urban culture of Reykjavík. When Naustið began to offer their “traditional” spread of good old country cooking, it was as much an expression of this urban-vs-rural dynamic, as an attempt to preserve an already-fading tradition. Eating þorramatur is a sort of historic reenactment, performed at specific occasions to strengthen the bond to a past long gone.

It is no surprise that þorrablót also forms a key event in the social calendars of many Icelandic emigrant communities, such as the West Icelanders in Canada and the American Midwest. Eating such foods becomes a rite of passage, and for second- and third-generation Icelanders abroad, what better way to connect with the past than the communal consumption of fermented offal?

While the flatbread is present at the þorrablót buffet, it isn’t limited to such an occasion. Traditional foods, after all, can still be delightful.

Brynja and her mother Tóta have been making flatkökur together for the past 30 years. And for the last 11 years, they’ve had their own business down by the harbour in Vogar. They use an old family recipe that has been tweaked and improved through the years, and they even use specially-modified grills that reach higher temperatures than standard commercial flattops. 

icelandic flatbread

HARD TIMES

Up until the importation of colonial goods through Denmark, Icelandic foodways remained more or less frozen in time. It was well into the 19th century when Danish merchants began to supply Icelanders with sugar, coffee, tea, butter, raisins, and a host of other everyday luxuries now taken for granted. The introduction of flour also caused a minor revolution in food customs, in what Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, one of the foremost food historians in Iceland, has called “The Great Cake Deluge.” Where visitors might previously have been offered plates heaped with smoked lamb, dried fish, and other preserved foods, middle- and upper-class households could now offer baked goods to their guests. Cakes of various kinds exploded into the Icelandic diet, and to this day, they remain a staple offering at most coffee tables.

But prior to the large-scale import of flour that began in the 19th century, bread played a relatively minor role in Icelandic diets. For the first period of Icelandic settlement, about the first two hundred years, some grains such as barley, rye, wheat, and oats could be grown in small amounts. These were never highly productive crops in Iceland’s climate, but of these, barley, seems to have by far been the most popular, able to be grown in Iceland’s grassy lowlands. However, Iceland’s ecosystem began to decline with the deforestation of the island. Following the beginning of the “Little Ice Age” in the 14th century, grain production in Iceland completely collapsed, with barley cultivation only resuming in the 20th century.

While barley is the only grain to have seen any successful production in Iceland, it was imported rye flour that became the grain staple of Icelandic diets, wheat flour being reserved for the refined breads of the wealthy. But for much of Icelandic history, imported flour wasn’t used to make bread. Instead, porridge was the staple of choice, presumably because people considered it more economical to thin out the small amount of grain into larger batches of porridge. What bread there was, was known in several forms in pre-industrial Iceland. Besides flatbread, refined wheat cakes, fried in pans, were common among the well-to-do, in addition to “pot bread,” in which the bread would be baked in a dutch oven, either in the kitchen hearth or in a hot spring. 

There is also reason to believe that different regions of Iceland knew flatbreads by different names. We have, for example, a story from Vopnafjörður, a fishing village in Northeast Iceland, which refers to flatbread as dindill: “An old vagrant with a bad reputation came to town one day. He was given a flatbread (dindill) and some butter to spread on it. He was then heard muttering ‘I should be careful, I should be careful.’ Someone present asked: ‘What are you being careful of?’ The wretch said: ‘To make sure there’s enough butter for the flatbread.’” 

Like in many folktales, it’s hard to find a moral, so far removed we are now from the story world. But besides the curious name for flatbread it preserves, it also serves as a time capsule for historical Icelandic attitudes towards food. On the one hand, food was scarce in pre-industrial Iceland, and extra mouths to feed must never have been welcome. On the other hand, these conditions of scarcity were precisely the reason why generosity was one of the highest values an Icelandic farmer could embody.

She and her mother start the workday early, often by 5:00 AM. Getting off in the early afternoon, they always take a soak in their “private pool,” by which they mean the local pool that they mostly have to themselves at that time of day. “I think it’s important for us to keep making these,” Brynja says. “As far as I know, Icelanders are the only ones to make flatbread like this. It’s nice to have something that’s just for us.

Þorramatur is the collective name given to the foods eaten at Þorrablót, a midwinter festival based on the Old Icelandic calendar. If you’ve seen a YouTube video of an adventurous tourist in Iceland tasting something challenging, chances are it’s a form of þorramatur. The menu is broken down into two categories: fermented and unfermented. To the latter category belong many uncontroversial favourites, such as hangikjöt (smoked lamb). But to the former group belong various farmhouse curiosities including ram’s testicles pickled in whey (súrsaðir hrútspungar) and pickled meat boiled and wrapped in offal (lundabaggi). Today, you can buy a selection of these traditional foods in Icelandic grocery stores, stored in industrial-strength buckets to prevent unnecessary olfactory trauma to innocent shoppers.

MAKING A CLASSIC

These days, there are several ways to make Icelandic flatbread in a modern home kitchen, most of which involve the use of an electric stovetop.

One of the distinctive features of the flatbread is its char marks. This can be achieved by simply placing the flatbread in a dry pan and cooking on both sides, but many Icelanders will either cook the flatbread directly on their stove burner, or else use a torch to lightly char the bread. Most home cooks will then quickly dip the flatbread in water, so that it doesn’t dry out too quickly. 

However, even these char marks, which most would recognise as a sine qua non of the Icelandic flatbread, may be up for debate. A classic recipe found in Hallgerður Gísladóttir’s landmark book Íslensk Matarhefð (Icelandic Food Customs), specifically calls for an oiled pan to avoid burning. Perhaps the housewives of the interwar years did not recall as fondly as we do cooking on hot stones, and welcomed their new electric stovetops without nostalgia. Is the real flatbread from the postwar period, or does authenticity simply mean older? In a sense, one could argue that uncharred flatbread is obviously preferable, and it’s understandable that a generation of Icelandic cooks would prefer the cleaner, more controllable electric stove. But at the same time, there is something curious about the length that we will go to in order to re-introduce the char marks when we have perfectly modern kitchens. 

Today, foodies visiting Iceland will find open-faced flatbread sandwiches sitting under plastic wrap at a variety of cafés and brunch buffets throughout the nation. They are a staple of school cafeterias, weddings, and funerals, visits to relatives, breakroom snacks, and afternoon coffee spreads. 

Some chefs, however, aren’t content to let this national icon waste away on shrink-wrapped lunch trays.

FUTURE OF A TRADITION

Represented abroad by such star chefs as René Redzepi, Claus Meyer, Magnus Nilsson, and more recently by native Icelander Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, New Nordic Cuisine has brought about a transformation of our attitudes towards food, emphasising the local, seasonal, and natural. In pursuit of these goals, New Nordic Cuisine has also reignited an interest in traditional Scandinavian foods, limited as they were by what was available at any given time of year.

Dill restaurant, owned and operated by chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, opened in 2009 and has since been at the forefront of Icelandic food culture, earning Iceland’s first-ever Michelin star in 2017. For chef Gunnar, Icelandic flatbread represents a unique intersection of the past and present. “One of the things we try to do in the restaurant is to remember how we ate them in our childhood, how our parents and grandparents ate them. I think one of the best things we can do for a patron is to give them this glimpse of childhood simplicity again.” Joking, he adds: “You know, like in Ratatouille”

The development of their recipe for flatbread consisted of everything from historical research, kitchen experimentation, and, of course, asking little old ladies for their recipes, preferably passed down through several generations. “When I was younger, I used to work at a farm up in Vatnsdalur, by Blönduós,” Gunnar recalls. “The farmer’s wife there made everything herself: flatbread, rye bread, pancakes, dumplings, you name it. Later on, when we opened the restaurant, I went back to visit and get as many of her recipes as I could.”

Dill’s flatbread is reinventing a tradition, but they’re certainly not just reiterating it. For starters, they most often use barley flour instead of rye. “We get this wonderful barley grown in Fljótsdalshérað in East Iceland,” he says. “But we also love the idea of the whole barley in the flatbread, so we also cook the grains and let it cool before adding it into the dough.” This addition also creates a heterogeneous texture in the flatbread, making more than just a sideline to the main act. Some traditional recipes also call for the addition of rutabaga for their earthy sweetness, which Dill has also experimented with.

The subtle texture and taste of flatbread also mean it pairs well with many things. Gunnar is of course not content to serve up the most obvious renditions of the classic, and patrons at Dill can expect to see it topped with dehydrated and powdered trout, micro greens, flecks of kelp, and pickled preserves. “Sometimes our toppings have nothing to do with tradition,” Gunnar admits. “But at the end of the day, it goes well with so many things.” 

In addition to the taste and texture of flatbread, chef Gunnar is a firm believer that the char itself is an integral part of the flatbread experience. “We char them to the point of burning,” Gunnar says. “It’s definitely how it would have been back in the day.” There is actually some controversy in the culinary world about this. Foodies often talk about sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami as the building blocks of flavour. But the process of carbonisation, of burning, brings out other elements in foods that can’t simply be described by these categories. When done properly, charring food adds a whole other dimension to it.

At the end of the day, the survival of flatbread in both everyday diets and fine dining represents a small miracle for Gunnar: “It’s definitely one of those things that could have died out a long time ago. It’s very simple. When I think about all of the new foods available to us, the selection we have now, it’s amazing how everyone is still eating it. My wife and kids alone go through tonnes of it every week!”

This, then, is the lasting meaning of flatbread. Rather like this island itself, it’s a relic of the past that’s found its own place in the modern world. Humble and unassuming, whether found on grocery store shelves or Michelin Star plates. Just something to ruminate on at your next meal. 

Before the introduction of store-bought yeast and chemical leaveners, bread was either unleavened or leavened with sourdough. Some recipes, for instance, call for a remainder of the last batch of bread to be mixed into the dough and left to rise. Then, a portion of the dough would be set aside for the next batch, and the cycle would continue. Some other households would knead out the dough in a wooden trough. Through years of breadmaking, microbes living within the wood itself would develop, and it would be enough to knead out the dough and let it rise in the trough overnight, the wood itself forming the sourdough starter. 

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Once urbanisation was underway in Iceland, the byproducts of brewing would also be used in baking. Conveniently, many bakeries were also breweries, and they would use the excess malted grains in their baking. Although baking and brewing often went hand-in-hand, it is a relatively new tradition in Iceland, the first commercial bakery only being established in 1834.

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Several historical accounts of Iceland make specific mention of the rarity of bread in Iceland. The 15th-century German cartographer, Martin Behaim, took note of this in his 1492 globe Erdapfel, the oldest surviving globe in the world. It briefly notes Iceland as an island inhabited for some time by Christians living in such poverty that they sell their dogs and children to merchants for bread. Needless to say, this was not the case. But the kernel of truth behind this tale is that bread was not an everyday food for the poor.

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While we can assume historical flatbreads were not standardised in size, modern flatbreads average 15 cm (6 in) in diameter. There was, however, considerable regional variation, and among these regions, considerable variation among households. There are some accounts, for instance, of a turn-of-the-century flatbread from the Westfjords which was considerably larger, around 25-30 cm (10-12 inches) in diameter, and around a centimetre thick. These were used instead of plates for meals, which would simply be served directly on top of the flatbread. Flatbreads also came in considerably smaller sizes, with palm-sized flatbread for children traditionally known as góma.

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150 gr rye flour

150 gr whole wheat flour

150 gr wheat flour

100 gr sugar 

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 dl milk

Bring the dry ingredients together and then add boiling milk. Knead well together and form into thin cakes. Prick the cakes. Bake on a stone slab (a dry cast iron pan will also work) or directly on the burner. Dip them in lightly salted water and pile them in a stack. Make sure that the flatbreads do not stick together when they’ve cooled down.

 

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MENTAL NOTE

Unnsteinn’s insights from half a lifetime in the music industry. It’s the last night of the Iceland Airwaves festival. There have been some good shows and a few bad ones. I’ve stopped trying to adhere to my thoroughly-researched festival plan in favour of a more vibe-based approach. What sounds like fun?As a more-interesting-than-expected act wraps […]

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