In Focus: Prisons in Iceland

litla hraun prison iceland

On September 25, 2023, Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir announced a series of reforms to Iceland’s prisons. They included increasing the number of rooms in women’s prison Sogn from 21 to 35 and revisions to the Enforcement Act. The biggest news, however, was that the country’s largest prison, Litla-Hraun, would be replaced with new facilities, projected […]

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Deep North Episode 60: Boom Town

iceland immigration

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten.

And along with the tour boom, the community in Vík has grown in recent years as well. Here’s how this South Iceland community is making the best of it. Read the story here.

Boom Town

vík í mýrdal

The drive into Vík í Mýrdal from the west is one of my favourite stretches of the Ring Road. Just past the turnoffs for Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara, the flat plains of the south coast narrow and rise into a brief but beautiful mountain pass, windy in both meanings of the word. Before you know it, the town opens up below: to the left, its iconic, red-roofed church on a hill, watching over a slope of low-lying houses. To the right, a cliff leading out to the sea. Ahead, a plain on which the growing town stretches east. 

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten. 

vík í mýrdal

As elsewhere across Iceland, the booming tourism industry in and around Vík needs workers, and most of those who have come to the town in recent years are immigrants. While across Iceland, some 18% of the population are foreign citizens, in Mýrdalshreppur that figure is 60%, making it the only Icelandic municipality in which immigrants constitute a majority. It’s a reality in which both the opportunities and the challenges brought by immigration and multiculturalism in Iceland are magnified. I’m here to learn more about both.

icewear vík
tourism in vík
tourism in vík

The Mayor’s office

In Einar Freyr Elínarson’s office, a big screen hangs on the wall, featuring a photograph of goats frolicking in a field. “It’s taken on my farm,” he explains. “I’m the sixth generation of my family to live there. I’m a country boy, as deeply rooted in Mýrdalshreppur as I could be.” For years, the family farm has also had a guesthouse and a restaurant, and before becoming mayor last year, Einar was involved in the family business. “I have a background in tourism, and like everyone who works in tourism here, I’m used to working with foreigners. Since I was ten, there have almost always been some foreign people living with us at home, so I sort of grew up in that environment.”

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“In the youngest division of the preschool, most of the children are from families of foreign origin. Most of them don’t speak Icelandic. If we don’t address this, it could lead to certain social problems in 10-15 years. We have an opportunity to prevent that.”

Since Einar’s childhood, however, the tourism industry in Mýrdalshreppur has changed dramatically, expanding from a seasonal industry to a year-round one. “Back in 2010, people were hiring staff for two or three months over the summer, but there was nothing to do over the winter. Around 2017, that started changing very quickly. There started to be a lot of traffic over the winter, which meant tourism companies could hire staff year-round. I also think that’s why we’re leading in tourism in this area: we have such quality staff.” 

tourism in vík

When the pandemic brought tourism to a near-complete halt, it really sunk in for Einar that many of the foreigners who had come to Mýrdalshreppur for work were not just here temporarily. “I was on the local council at the time. When companies closed and had to lay off their staff, we thought the municipality’s tax income would collapse. What we hadn’t realised is that there were a lot of people who had lived here long enough that they had earned the right to unemployment benefits. The municipality got local tax income through those benefits, and its income didn’t drop quite so much. That’s when I realised: OK, people are starting to settle here. They’re not leaving.” 

I head to the Icewear wool shop to meet one such settler, who came to the town years ago and never left. 

vík black sand beach

Icewear

The Icewear store in Vík is more than a store, it’s an institution. A sea of coats, socks, knitted hats and sweaters, stuffed toys and souvenirs fill its vast, two-storey floor plan. Even on this weekday morning in early November, tourists are wandering the aisles, picking up a puffin-emblazoned scarf or a hiking shoe for closer inspection. “Summers are crazier, but the winters are catching up,” Tomasz Chochołowicz, the store’s energetic manager, and the chairman of the town’s English-language Council, tells me.

icewear in vík Tomasz Chochołowicz

“At first I thought local politics were beyond my reach, that they were more for Icelanders.”

Tomasz moved to Iceland in December of 2015. “I came straight to Vík. It was different than it is now. A year or two earlier, the hotels were closing down over the winter. I was unemployed for a month, I had debts. It was tough. Then I met a woman who lived here and she helped me find a room. I stayed with a guy who was working at Icewear. He told me to leave my CV here. I got a position because I already had housing; it was such a hard thing to get. Then I lost it one week later.”

Tomasz eventually settled in, and shortly afterwards, his girlfriend (now wife) joined him in Vík. Eight years later, he has climbed the Icewear ladder to become the store’s manager. He has a house and a three-year-old son. “There are challenges. But if you compare it to life in other places, it’s just crazy good.” He admits, however, that for residents arriving now, it’s more difficult to enter the real estate market. “We have many young people working here, between 20 to 35 years old. Very often they stay for three, four years. It’s a challenge for us to try to keep them here. To give them a carrot, so to say.”

Víkurskáli

One person looking for such a carrot is Irene, a cashier I meet when I pop into Víkurskáli gas station. Irene came to Vík two years ago, relocating from an Athens she describes as “overpopulated.” I ask her how the town is treating her. “I love it here, but it’s not for everyone,” she answers. While settling in wasn’t hard for Irene, “it’s after that it gets harder. Then it’s in Óðinn’s hands, or Þór’s,” she quips.

“I love it here, but it’s not for everyone.”

When I ask Irene about the challenges of living in this small, South Iceland community, she lists off many issues that small communities across Iceland share: the health clinic, which also serves as the community’s pharmacy, is only open from 9:00 AM-1:30 PM on weekdays. There’s a lack of housing, and most new buildings are “built for the tourists, not for the people who live here. They’re trying to build more housing, but it’s too slow.” Many of the issues, she recognises, are not necessarily reflections on the municipality, but the government. “The big heads seem to forget there’s a strong community of people here behind the touristic town that really try to stay long term. But we don’t have a hospital, post office, or school big enough to accommodate a town of nearly 1,000 people.” Irene wants to stay in Vík, but she doesn’t know how long she can under the current conditions. “There are not a lot of career opportunities for people who would like to work on their career path.”

The English-language Council

Over the past few years, as Mýrdalshreppur’s transformation was taking place, the issues facing foreign residents were not immediately apparent to the local council. That changed in the lead-up to the 2022 municipal elections. “When we were preparing the candidate lists for the election, Tomasz came to the meeting,” Einar tells me. “He took the stage and explained that a very large group of people within the community felt that they didn’t have a real opportunity to make an impact. So we had a very honest discussion about that and the idea of forming an English-language Council emerged.” 

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“It’s because of the work of these new residents that the municipality is in a good financial position.”

There was one specific development in 2022 that helped Vík’s foreign residents be heard. An amendment to Iceland’s election legislation meant that foreign residents could now vote in municipal elections after having lived in Iceland for three years (previously it had been five). In Mýrdalshreppur, this meant that suddenly, 42% of all eligible voters were immigrants. “The number of foreign residents on the electoral register quadrupled,” Einar reflects. “It was a whole different game. Suddenly this group could make demands of the municipality for services that were important to them. Building a new gym became a campaign issue, something that no one was thinking about eight years ago. The biggest demographic among foreign residents is 20-40 years old, this is a service that is really important to them.” 

polish immigration iceland

Once he became mayor, Einar quickly saw that to gain residents’ trust, he needed to make sure his involvement in the council was hands-on. “I decided that I would attend all the English-language Council’s meetings. I go to every single one and I give them a report on what’s happening in the municipal council. And it’s been really good for me as well to get their perspective on things. The issues we discuss in the municipal council affect all residents, including foreign residents.”

Doctors, drones, and dialogue

As Tomasz reviews the issues the council has discussed over its inaugural year, I can see they range widely: bringing more doctors to Vík, regulating drone flying within the town, preparing welcome brochures for new residents, and making Icelandic language education more accessible. Local residents often work long hours and finding the time and motivation for Icelandic classes can be a challenge – especially when their jobs mostly involve serving foreign tourists in English. “If you want to have true access to Icelandic society, learning Icelandic is key,” Tomasz says. “I had the idea that the municipality could hire a teacher who could be available at different times to accommodate shift workers. The problem is how to frame it since no one has done it before. But it’s also exciting, because why not? Let’s see where it takes us.”

In its role as an advisory body, the council has made proposals that are followed up on by the municipal council. Although the English-language Council technically does not have any executive power, Tomasz argues that soft power can be even more effective. “If we ask something of the municipal council, we cannot be ignored. We definitely have influence. I think this soft power is better when you’re trying to convince people of something, you create connections. If you push too hard, you create more divisions in the community.” 

Housing

When I ask Einar about the biggest issue facing Vík, his answer is clear. “Housing. Whatever housing goes on sale, employers buy up immediately, because they want to grow their companies. And in order to grow their companies, they need to hire people, so they buy housing so they can rent it to their staff.” In contrast to the capital area, most workers who have settled in Vík live in housing provided by their employer, Einar explains. “And the municipality is no exception there. We’ve had to buy a lot of apartments in the last few years just to be able to hire people for the office and the schools. And we’re in the same position as the companies: we can’t continue to house someone if they stop working for the municipality.” It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s not ideal for any of the parties involved, Einar explains. “It’s a bad situation for the worker, who is completely dependent on their employer for housing – they’re stuck working for the same person. And the companies would also rather invest their money back into the business or pay out dividends.” By building more rental housing, Einar hopes Mýrdalshreppur can change this system. New rental apartments have come on the market recently and the municipality just signed a contract to build 200 more units over the next ten years.

vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal

More secure housing independent of employment contracts will also help reduce resident turnover, Einar suggests, which could in turn help diversify the economy. “A lot of the new residents in this area are highly educated. They could easily do something totally different from working in tourism if they weren’t at risk of losing their housing.” Another important factor is ensuring good services. “Foreign residents are lacking a big part of their support network here. If they have kids, they need to know there will be space for them in the preschool, because Grandma and Grandpa aren’t around to watch the kids if something comes up.”

housing construction in vík

The preschool

When I enter the preschool, it’s naptime. I tiptoe through the hallways in search of its director, Nichole Leigh Mosty, hopeful that she, at least, is still awake. Originally from the United States, Nichole has been living in Iceland for over 20 years. Much of that time has been spent working in the fields of diversity and inclusion, in both Reykjavík and Ísafjörður (the Westfjords) and directing organisations such as the Multicultural Information Centre and W.O.M.E.N. in Iceland (the Women of Multicultural Ethnicity Network). Nichole took on the position of Vík’s preschool director last June. The immigrant community here differs from the others she’s gotten to know.

preschool in vík

“The other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we?”

“In Reykjavík, there is a lot of diversity among immigrants. There are university-educated people who are working in their field; there are people like me, ‘two-decaders´ who have settled in, and not necessarily around a particular industry; there are people who receive refugee status who settle there because that’s where the services are. In Ísafjörður, there are immigrants who have been there for a long, long time. Here, it’s a whole different reality: there are a lot of people who are newbies, fresh to the country.” While the length of time most immigrants stay in Vík may have lengthened since 2015, Nichole still sees a lot of turnover. “And maybe that’s OK. Maybe we need to also think about short-term inclusion. Not necessarily just integration, but inclusion: how do we include people who come for a little while? Because there’s a lot of wealth in having young people here with new ideas,” she observes.

The fact that most of Vík’s new residents work in the tourism industry presents specific challenges when it comes to integration. “I have families here who work very hard in the summer and then take their vacation in the winter. So I’ll lose children out of the preschool for six, seven weeks. That might be great for the family, but it’s a huge gap in language development.” The preschool recently elected a new parent’s council, where two out of the three members are of foreign origin. “I’m really happy they came to me and asked if they could be involved. I want it to be a learning opportunity for them about how things work in the local community, but also for us, to learn what they’re thinking. Like, for example, why they still go to the doctor in Poland.”

Nichole Leigh Mosty

“I’m here because I believe something really special can happen in Vík if we all look at the community we have, look at the community we want, and work together to make it.”

As for the English-language Council, Nichole sees it as a good first step towards greater integration and inclusion in Mýrdalshreppur. “People are proud of the fact that it’s here. People are proud to be a part of it. And that’s a really important first step. But as for the next steps: how do we get the community more involved in the council? And how do we bring what happens in the council back out to the community?” Nichole stresses the importance of the council being involved in shaping policy within the municipality, particularly a policy on integration, which is still lacking.

When I ask Nichole what motivates her to continue to fight for inclusion, her optimism is apparent. “After the Women’s Strike the other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we? There are so many possibilities to get it right.” Nichole points out that the changes in Vík benefit long-time locals just as much as Iceland’s newcomers. “The town is booming. Everywhere you walk, they’re building something.” The preschool is no exception: it will soon be housed in a new building, the first phase of which is set to be completed by December. “Growth is happening. The question is, what do you do to include these new people in the community that they are basically funding and keeping alive?”

The running track

As I step out of the preschool, I wander to the running track at the edge of town. Two women are strolling around it, one pushing a baby carriage. During the pandemic, this municipality had one of the highest birth rates in Iceland. I think about how Einar framed his hopes for the future of Mýrdalshreppur. “I want the municipality to invest because it’s in a good position to invest right now. Many of the new residents are paying full taxes but they are young people without families, which means they are using very few services. As people settle here and have children, they go to school, the operations become more costly. The opportunity to build for the future is now.”

vík í mýrdal

I wonder what others in Iceland can learn from the developments in Vík: both its challenges and the enthusiasm and vision of its community leaders. I hope they won’t wait until immigrants become the lion’s share of voters to ask these questions. If they do, they’ll lose valuable time. As I return home to Reykjavík, Nichole’s last words to me echo in my head. “People should watch what happens in Vík.” I know I will.

Deep North Episode 49: Women Look to the Future

Arnarhóll hill women's strike 2023

It’s not an exaggeration to call the most recent Women’s Strike historic. With some 70-100,000 women participating, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the strike attracted international media attention and injected fresh energy into feminist activism in Iceland. We take a look at our 1986 coverage of Women’s Day Off and consider how far we’ve come, and where we have yet to go.

Give Icelandic a Chance

icelandic language education

As ever more tourists stroll around downtown Reykjavík, a debate has intensified within Icelandic society about the changes they bring with them. Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir has been especially outspoken in her critique of the increasing visibility of English in public life. Much signage in Keflavík International Airport, Reykjavík shops, and even rural restaurants is not even in Icelandic and English, but, increasingly, just English.

Many Icelanders, who pride themselves on a linguistic and literary legacy that reaches far back into history, are understandably upset. And tourists ought to be as well. After all, they travel to experience the specificity of a place, the collection of things that makes it here, and not there. Language is, of course, a major part of this. 

While there’s much to be said from a policy perspective regarding the accessibility of Icelandic language learning, some have already rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work. Not content to abandon the defence of this old and beautiful language to nationalist cranks, a small programme in the Westfjords is trying to give Icelandic a chance.

Growing up with a German father and Icelandic mother, I developed a fascination with languages and history from an early age. You can picture it easily enough: Tolkien and Beowulf were early touchstones, culminating in graduate work in mediaeval literature and historical linguistics. Icelandic is sometimes compared to Latin, a fellow Indo-European language, because of its retention of a highly developed declension system, in addition to several other conservative tendencies. Long after it ceased to be a vernacular language, Latin led an afterlife as a scholarly language, written and read, but not spoken outside the church. But unlike Latin, Icelandic survives, spoken daily by a nation of some 375,000. My Icelandic, however, has unfortunately developed into the scholarly kind, my studies leaving me more able to parse a manuscript than to chat over coffee. Languages need to be spoken to live, and when I recently had the opportunity to truly immerse myself in Icelandic in no less beautiful a setting than the Westfjords, I knew I had to head West and dive in.

Peter Weiss

peter weiss ísafjörður

Peter Weiss, or as he’s sometimes known, Pétur Hvíti, has called the Westfjords home for many years, having directed the University Centre of the Westfjords since its founding in 2005.

“We originally began the language program here in 2007,” Peter tells me in his office which overlooks the Ísafjörður harbour. Originally, the programme was intended for exchange students, mostly on Erasmus and Nordplus grants. “In the beginning, the goal was just to help students be able to order a beer in town,” Peter explains. “Most of them wouldn’t go on to stay in Iceland, but it brings so much more to the experience to live like a local while they were here.” The approach was more hands-on, with less emphasis on grammar. A typical homework assignment for an exchange student that wanted to join the university choir, for example, might simply have been to call the choir director and ask to join. Due to changes from Brussels, students across Europe no longer receive Erasmus grants to study in Ísafjörður. While enrolment has declined slightly, it’s had the side effect that more and more students living in Iceland seem to be interested in coming to the Westfjords to learn the language.

ísafjörður

A language can survive some mistakes, but it dies in silence.

Peter firmly believes in simply getting students talking, even taking out classified ads in the local newspaper to remind locals to speak Icelandic with the students here. As he likes to say, “a language can survive some mistakes, but it dies in silence.” A major part of this philosophy is getting the community involved through programmes like Gefum íslensku séns (Let’s Give Icelandic a Chance), a series of events including lectures, concerts, art exhibits, and “speed dating” meant to bridge the gap between the classroom and the world outside. 

Spearheaded by Ísafjörður resident and Icelandic teacher Ólafur Guðsteinn Kristjánsson, Gefum íslensku séns is breathing new life into Ísafjörður. In response to the cruise ships which often flood the small community with more passengers than residents, Ólafur (who goes by Óli), began a poster campaign in 2021. Shopkeepers could place a poster in their window to identify as “Icelandic friendly,” somewhere locals could go and still feel at home. By 2022, the poster campaign had turned into a lecture and event series known as Íslenskuvænt samfélag: Við erum öll almannakennarar (Icelandic-Friendly Society: We Are All Teachers). This year, the programme has grown and changed yet again into its current form: Gefum íslensku séns. And although the University Centre of the Westfjords has always taught Icelandic with these principles in mind, the degree of community involvement that accompanies the new initiative is a game changer.

icelandic language learning
ísafjörður language learning

“What we really want to do here,” Peter tells me, “is to work against this reflex to always start a conversation in English. We want the entire community to also act as teachers. The easiest thing, for everyone, is of course to just stay in their mother language. What’s second-hardest is to just stay in their second language, at work for example. But we’re asking the hardest from people, to navigate a way between Icelandic and their native language, to stay in Icelandic for as long as they can, to ask questions, to ask people to repeat, and so on.” 

The Westfjords also represent a good learning environment, far away from the English signs and menus of downtown Reykjavík. In a Reykjavík filled with “brunch” and “happy hours,” where stores are increasingly “open” or “closed,” rural Iceland may become not just a tour destination, but also a language-learning destination. “I think it’s a very positive development,” Peter tells me. “The population in the Westfjords has decreased significantly since the Second World War, by around 30%. So whenever something new starts, there’s excitement in the air. Life is coming back to the Westfjords.” 

Of course, it isn’t just Icelandic that’s taught at the University Centre of the Westfjords. There are also international MA programmes in Marine Management and Rural Development on offer. “Obviously, we’re happy to see the region beginning to grow again, and having these other programmes is an important part of that,” Peter continues. “But we also think that the Icelandic courses here and Gefum íslensku séns are just as important in building up the image of the Westfjords. I think that people are often surprised by how much the Westfjords have to offer –maybe that’s why we see more and more creative people moving here.”

Inga Daníelsdóttir

“I’m retired, but I still think it’s good to give something of my time to people,” Inga Daníelsdóttir tells me. “And coming to these events is fun, too.”

The event that we attend is a presentation on contemporary immigrant literature in Iceland. Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, internationally recognised author and native son of Ísafjörður, is also in attendance. Inga enjoys popping in to some of the events hosted by Gefum íslensku séns, especially “Icelandic speed dating,” in which locals and language learners convene at the local brewery to meet, greet, and practise Icelandic. Past events have proved popular enough that there were too many locals per language learner, locals having to wait their turn to chat. Admittedly, the event may be popular among locals for the possibility of getting a beer on the house.

inga daníelssdóttir

Always start in Icelandic. Have a little patience, and talk clearly. And it’s fine if people switch to English sometimes. Let them switch back to Icelandic when they want. It doesn’t need to be either or.

“I used to work in the music school here in Ísafjörður,” Inga continues. “But most musicians in Iceland move to Reykjavík.” She mentions a notable exception, the internationally acclaimed Mugison who is based here in Ísafjörður. “So often we had to hire music teachers from abroad,” Inga explains. “If you’re teaching small children, then of course you should learn some Icelandic. Not all teachers will learn immediately, but even phrases like well done, first finger, and practise at home make a difference. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but you have to start somewhere.”

Inga admits that the creep of English into everyday life in Iceland can be frustrating. She notes that when she recently travelled near Húsavík, a destination popular with tourists for its prime whale watching, she was hard-pressed to find a restaurant with an Icelandic menu. She was also in the market for a new front door recently: “I went to a couple different stores for an estimate. Only one of them sent it to me in Icelandic! It’s one thing to use loanwords for some technology, but we have perfectly good words for price, delivery, installation, and so on. I just don’t understand it sometimes.”

Gefum íslensku séns

Although the events have proven a success, Inga thinks that the way forward is through less formal relationships. “People can meet for coffee, for instance,” Inga tells me. “I have a friend in the Westman Islands who helps children learn Icelandic. She’s a ‘reading grandmother’ who helps a child that doesn’t have native Icelandic parents.”

Inga has been impressed with the success of Gefum íslensku séns and thinks that Icelandic learners should “get themselves a nice shirt from Óli.” The shirts, and matching buttons, state simply: I Want to Speak Icelandic.

Of course, the matter isn’t as simple as immigrants and language learners practising more. Inga also has advice for her fellow Icelanders: “Always start a conversation in Icelandic. Have a little patience, and talk clearly. And it’s fine if people switch to English sometimes. Let them switch back to Icelandic when they want. It doesn’t need to be either or.”

Helen Cova

Helen Cova is a Venezuelan writer who moved to Iceland in 2015. She now lives in Flateyri, a small village in the Westfjords, and she’s come to Ísafjörður to give a talk on how the personal experience of immigrants is affecting modern Icelandic.

When Helen first moved to Iceland, she was interested in entering a book in the annual Icelandic Literary Prize. “But when I found out they don’t accept works in translation,” she tells me, “I thought, ok, if you want a book in Icelandic, I’ll give you one!” Since those days, Helen already has two original books in Icelandic under her belt, Snulli Likes Being Alone and Snulli Learns to Say No, in addition to a translated collection of short stories entitled Autosarcophagy: To Eat Oneself

helen cova

You wouldn’t guess it from speaking to Helen in her adopted language, but she also had her own struggles in learning Icelandic. “It can be very difficult for learners to find opportunities to speak and practice,” she explains. “Especially in Reykjavík.” Indeed, simply being able to speak Icelandic with her neighbours is one of the aspects of living in Flateyri she appreciates most: “It’s always the same people you see everyday, in the pool, for example. It’s much easier to have a rapport with people when they know you as someone who speaks Icelandic.”

Not even the most trenchant of prescriptivists would find much fault with Helen’s Icelandic, but she also thinks it’s for the best that the language has gotten some fresh perspectives lately. “I think we’re all carrying our own personal experiences,” she elaborates. “And it’s these experiences that will change contemporary Icelandic. I speak Spanish, for example. How does that influence how I speak Icelandic? Some things I’m conscious of, but there are definitely times when I express myself differently from how a native Icelander might. But we’re still speaking the same language. Or when I’m writing, I’m definitely thinking about how I might say this or that in Spanish. I don’t write in ‘pure’ or ‘perfect’ Icelandic – if something simply comes to me in Spanish, I just go with it and return to it later.” 

helen cova author

When I found out they don’t accept works in translation, I thought, ok, if you want a book in Icelandic, I’ll give you one!

Helen also happens to be something of a tabletop game fanatic, with over 400 board and card games crammed into the shelves of her Westfjords home. “I worked on this game with my friend, Fan Sissoko,” Helen tells me. “She was learning Icelandic and she experienced what so many of us have experienced: it can be very hard to practise speaking with others. She wanted to change this, and there weren’t any native resources. So as usual, it was up to the people who needed these resources to make them.”

Next year, Helen and Fan will be releasing B.EYJA (a play on the words for island and inflection which I am tempted to render as Destination: Declination). Play tested with Icelandic language learners, B.EYJA takes place in a dreamy land filled with coffee and sleeping babies and challenges players to tell stories and describe things in Icelandic, without the fear of making mistakes. Helen and Fan also plan on touring Iceland with the game upon its release next year.

In addition to more resources like B.EYJA, Helen also thinks that a shift in attitude is important, both for native Icelanders and language learners. “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that Icelandic is a hard language,” Helen cautions learners. “I think so often we get caught up in this negativity, and it becomes self-reinforcing. I think we all need to be less shy. It’s ok to just ask people to speak Icelandic with you.”

Regarding native Icelanders, Helen says it’s important to allow learners to practise, but also to not push or judge when they can’t. “I’m so lucky to be able to speak this language,” Helen says. “But not every hour needs to be class time for learners. You might need to explain something important in English sometimes, but you should still try as much as you can. I love Icelandic, but sometimes language is just a tool for expression, and it’s the message that matters, not the packaging.”

Vaida Bražiūnaitė

“The first winter I ever spent in Iceland was in a yurt near Þingeyri with my husband,” Vaida tells me. After meeting her husband while studying visual anthropology in Norway, she fell in love with Iceland as well, skipping Reykjavík and moving right to the Westfjords.

When Vaida first met her Icelandic in-laws, there was a little confusion about her name. Væta in Icelandic can mean damp, drizzle, or showers, and her mother-in-law kindly teased her about a name that she was sure to get her fill of in the Westfjords.

Vaida Bražiūnaitė

Now, Vaida has lived in Iceland for 10 years, working on a variety of creative projects including the Ísafjörður Museum of Everyday Life and Gefum íslensku séns. When she was chosen in 2022 as Ísafjörður’s Fjallkona, the feminine personification of Iceland chosen during National Day celebrations, she composed the following poem about her first experience with the Icelandic language and landscape:

Intermittent showers here and there, expect cooler weather.

Slight showers in the forecast.

Cloudy across the country, and showers now and then.

 

Showers, væta, was my first Icelandic word.

For good reason.

Vaida is a name I carry from my homeland, Lithuania.

Could I have asked for a sweeter name here in this land?

ísafjörður

Once we put someone in an English space in our minds, it can be very difficult to change. That’s why I think speaking Icelandic is so important when you form a new relationship. We associate a person with a language, even if it’s not their native language. You can have an Icelandic relationship with someone, even if neither of you speak Icelandic natively.

“I think it’s a little bit sad that some people feel they have to come all the way to Ísafjörður to just come together, to talk, and learn Icelandic,” Vaida tells me. “But at the same time, I think it’s exciting to have something like this happening outside the capital area.” The Westfjords are a beautiful region of Iceland, and moving to a small community outside the capital region has much to recommend it for a language learner. There are, of course, still some difficulties. “There were definitely some hard times,” she continues. “With my education and interests, it was hard to find the kind of work I like doing. Everything is very practical out here, but as a visual anthropologist, I’m more likely to step back and ask questions like ‘what is this?’ and ‘who are these people?’”

After 10 years of living in the Westfjords, Vaida speaks excellent Icelandic, coming to teach guest lectures at the University Centre of the Westfjords. But she’s still learning, too. “I think I still speak English too often,” she admits. “My husband and I met each other in English, studying abroad in Norway. It was an international programme, so of course you use English to get around. But once we put someone in an English space in our minds, it can be very difficult to change. That’s why I think speaking Icelandic is so important when you form a new relationship. We associate a person with a language, even if it’s not their native language. You can have an Icelandic relationship with someone, even if neither of you speak Icelandic natively.”

This is why Vaida thinks that, in addition to learning a language through living in a community, it’s still important to take classes. “We often have these bubbles in our daily lives, we settle into our routines and habits,” Vaida continues. “Learning in an environment like the one we have in the Westfjords is so important because it allows you to switch over, to become a new person.”

Vaida is herself still continuing to learn Icelandic, and she’s been enrolled in the Icelandic as a Second Language Programme at the University of Iceland since 2021. Despite all the work that learning Icelandic requires, Vaida says it’s important to not let the memorisation of charts and paradigms get in the way of the joy of learning. “Learning Icelandic is so creative and fun,” she tells me. “It’s good to not dwell on the hard things.”

ísafjörður

A new chance

As Helen Cova and I get up to say goodbye from our brief conversation, I cannot help but wonder at what just took place. That Helen, a Venezuelan writer, and I, can talk about such things in a language that neither of us have as a mother tongue represents a minor miracle.

One of the words that came up regularly in these conversations was móðurmál, or mother tongue. In English, mother tongue has a romantic resonance, but in Icelandic, it’s simply the word for one’s native language. I admit the word fills me with a certain sadness. Icelandic, after all, was in fact my mother’s native language. Growing up in an international family, I was filled with a wonder and love for languages at a young age that I still carry with me today. Long before I learned what umlaut mutation was, I felt something natural about the way mamma bends to mömmu, and how this might have to do with a deep history.

Perfect Icelandic still eludes me, and when I think of this word móðurmál, it is not simply a sadness for what I never had – it’s a loss that runs deeper, more like of a parent or beloved. That, perhaps, is why I came to Ísafjörður: to deepen a connection with my mother’s tongue. Though I missed the chance for a móðurmál, Icelandic might yet be my ömmumál, my mother’s mother tongue.

Deep North Episode 44: Working it Out

work week iceland

A few years ago, Iceland instituted a four-day work week. It’s gone off without a hitch and everyone’s been happier since. At least that’s the story that has spread through foreign media outlets.

The truth is much more complex. Firstly, it’s not a four-day work week, but a 4.5-day work week. Secondly, it technically only applies to public service workers. Thirdly, although preliminary data shows the shortened work week has had many positive impacts, there are still many kinks to work out in its implementation. And when we examine those kinks, we begin to realise that long working hours are only one of the challenges faced by Iceland’s labour market – and that the shortened work week is only one solution of many that will be needed in the coming years.

Read the story here.

Results of 2021 Census Reveal Changes in Icelandic Society

Reykjavík old historic centre

Statistics Iceland has recently published new data from the 2021 census, revealing a growing nation and shifting demographics.

Here, we break down some of the major takeaways. The full report can be found here.

As of January 1, 2022, Iceland is home to some 359,122 residents. This represents a 13.8% increase from the last census, taken in 2011. Statistics Iceland reports a discrepancy of some 10,000 inhabitants with the records of Registers Iceland.

This population growth is distributed very unevenly across Iceland. Suðurnes, the region of the Reykjanes peninsula outside of the capital area, has grown by some 28%, with South Iceland following at 19%, and the capital region at 15%. The slowest growers have been Northwest Iceland, at 0.6%, and the Westfjords, at 1.6%.

However, these numbers are not entirely telling the full story. Although no region has experienced a population decline on average, the countryside is still decreasing in residents. In West Iceland, for instance, when the town of Akranes in included, the region saw overall growth. But when Akranes is not accounted for, the region as a whole decreased in population considerably.

On average, Iceland has 3.5 inhabitants per square kilometre.

Iceland, like many other Western nations, is also an ageing nation. In 2011, the proportion of the population 67 and older was 11%, but this figure now stands at 13%.

The gender balance has also shifted slightly since the last census. In 2011, some 49.9% of Icelanders identified as women, but according to the latest figures, that figure now rests at 49%.

‘What colours the lives of all nonbinary people is invisibility’

A new study finds that one of the most significant challenges faced by nonbinary people in Iceland is a lack of visibility, as well as difficulty and discomfort in accessing even basic medical care. RÚV reports that Birta Ósk, a master’s student in gender studies at the University of Iceland, is currently conducting a study on behalf of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association to determine what obstacles nonbinary people regularly face in their daily lives, as well as how the government can better serve this community’s needs.

“When I talk about obstacles, that can mean both obstacles in general and systemic ones,” says Birta Ósk. “But in general, what colours the lives of all nonbinary people is this invisibility. Society doesn’t take nonbinary people into account.”

There is a great deal of awareness-building taking place in Iceland right now, says Birta Ósk, and the general public is still learning how to speak in gender neutral language, for instance. But the issues faced by nonbinary people in Iceland has not yet been researched much, particularly in regards to sexism and gender inequality. “[Nonbinary people] have been somewhat left out of reports on gender equality,” says Birta Ósk, whose research specifically aims to rectify this disparity.

Birta Ósk says that space is rarely made for nonbinary people. Restrooms are frequently gendered for men and women, and registration and profile systems do not often offer gender-neutral or genderqueer options. The situation extends into interpersonal interactions: when meeting someone for the first time, Birta Ósk says people rarely consider that that individual they’re meeting could be nonbinary.

See Also: Iceland’s Gender Autonomy Act is a Step Forward for Trans and Intersex Rights

Iceland passed a landmark law on gender autonomy in 2019, which Birta Ósk says was an important step forward. “A lot of things have gotten better but there’s still a lot that needs improvement in both the healthcare and school systems.”

Trans and nonbinary individuals can seek assistance from the so-called “trans team,” which, per Trans Iceland, is “a loose team of doctors (a psychiatrist, endocrinologists, and a plastic surgeon), psychologists, and a social worker within Landsspítali (the national hospital) that oversees trans-specific care.” The team can help individuals access hormone replacement therapy, all standard surgeries, and therapy. But Birta Ósk says there’s a lot that needs to change about the team and its diagnosis process in particular.

“People have to undergo four diagnostic interviews with a psychiatrist and a psychologist before anything can begin. So they feel a bit like they have to convince doctors that this is something that they want and that they are really nonbinary.” These interviews are particularly onerous because there can be a very long wait—up to a month’s wait for the first interview, for instance. “So it can be a really long wait before you start on hormones, for instance,” explains Birta Ósk.

A nonbinary person could have potentially been in this process for a year and a half, then on hormones for six additional months, and then decide they need to have an operation. Then the process has to start all over again. “They have to go through four diagnostic interviews again,” says Birta Ósk, “go through the same wait before they can book themselves for a procedure which there’s maybe another long wait for.”

Nonbinary people ‘can never completely relax’

Birta Ósk says their interviewees also spoke about the difficulties they generally experience in basic interactions with healthcare professionals, from dentists to GPs. These doctors ask a lot of questions about their nonbinary patients’ gender and often don’t know how they are supposed to speak to them, even when gender is not relevant to the medical service being provided. This makes nonbinary people feel insecure about accessing even basic medical care.

There’s a pressing need, Birta Ósk continues, for a general awareness-raising in both the healthcare and school systems about what it means to be nonbinary how to use pronouns correctly. “I think it’s a serious thing that healthcare professionals don’t really know and even within the Trans Team—that they don’t exactly understand the experience of nonbinary and trans people.”

In the course of their research, Birta Ósk has interviewed nonbinary people of all ages. “My interviewees have explained to me how they have to constantly be on the lookout for risks in their environment—they can never completely relax because they don’t know how people will receive them.” Nonbinary people continue to have to justify their right to existence, Birta Ósk continues, and are often put in the position of having to educate people themselves when this responsibility rightly belongs elsewhere.

“When people use hate speech against nonbinary people, it suppresses all the good awareness building and makes people feel even more insecure about being themselves.”

Birta Ósk’s report will be published in September, at which point they will have suggestions for measures the government can implement to better serve the nonbinary population of Iceland, such as better enforcement of the 2019 Gender Autonomy Law, increased visibility for nonbinary people, and more educational outreach.

Keflavík

keflavík iceland

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

 
 

As far as kitchen metaphors are concerned, Iceland has always been less a melting pot and more a sandwich grill: a historical environment that, generation after generation, melds together a handful of related ingredients (Wonder Bread and white cheese, e.g.) to produce something consistently plain and predictable.

There is, perhaps, only one place that warrants the use of the first-mentioned analogy, not least because of its association with the original referent (i.e. the United States). With nearly a third of residents having immigrated from one of over 50 different countries, the town of Keflavík – and by extension, the Reykjanesbær municipality – has long seemed a place for the out of place. A home for misfits and oddballs. And a venue for various unseemly occurrences.

Widely reputed to be home to more fast-food restaurants than any other town in Iceland, Keflavík is also known as the birthplace of Icelandic rock music, a former fishing town (like most other towns), Iceland’s first – and current – gateway to the outer world, and one of the country’s youngest communities, demographically speaking.

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

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

keflavík iceland
Garðar Eyfjörð Sigurðsson

Out of place

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

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

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

Kilo.  

keflavík iceland

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

No one’s been here longer than him though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor’s Hammer

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

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

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

keflavík Iceland
Aníta Engley

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

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

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

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

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

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

keflavík iceland

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

Clair de lune

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

Robert Plant meets Harald Fairhair.

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

And then there’s his wedding.

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

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

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

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

keflavík iceland
Svanur Gísli Þorkelsson

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

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

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

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

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

Eager to oblige

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Career Day

Hilmar Bragi Bárðarson has the most villainous eyebrows in Keflavík. 

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

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

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

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

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Hilmar Bragi Bárðarson

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then they just left.

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

The neighbourhood went dark

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

“What distinguishes Keflavík from other towns?”

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

And then there’s the music.

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

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

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

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

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Erla Guðmundsdóttir

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

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

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

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

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

“And who presides over it?”

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

“We can talk then… ”

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

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

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

Year in Review 2019: Society

Reykjavík walking district laugavegur

From Iceland’s last McDonald’s order turning ten to a dramatic increase in injectable filler procedures, here are a few news stories of note involving Icelandic society in 2019.

Minister for the Environment meets with climate strike organisers

In March, Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson met with organisers of a weekly climate strike. The strikes are organised by the National Union for Icelandic Students (LÍS) and the Icelandic Upper Secondary Student Union (SÍF), with the aim of urging governmental action on climate issues. At the meeting, the Minister and strike organisers reviewed the protesters’ demands, which first and foremost involve immediate and more ambitious measures to fight climate change and increased budget allocation to address the issue. The Minister and organisers agreed that the government could not solve the problem alone; however, the organisers emphasised the importance of the government taking the lead, as it holds legislative power. 2019 also marked the “funeral” of the former Ok glacier. Writer Andri Snær Magnason authored the text for Ok’s memorial plaque, which was installed in August.

Inhabitants of Iceland to reach 434,000 in 2068

In November, Statistics Iceland published population projections for 2019-2068. The forecast was predicated on statistical models for migration, fertility, and mortality. As of January 1, 2019, the population in Iceland was 357,000, but according to the forecast’s median variant, the Icelandic population is expected to grow by 77,000 over the next 50 years, reaching 434,000 in 2068. The median variant also predicted that from 2055 the number of yearly deaths would exceed the number of births. Life expectancy at birth is expected to increase from 84.0 years in 2019 to 88.7 years in 2068 for women, and from 79.9 to 84.4 years for men. By 2035, 20% of the population will be older than 65 years. By 2055, that number will rise to 25%. After 2046, inhabitants of Iceland over 65 years old will become more numerous than those inhabitants under the age of 20. Immigrants in Iceland currently account for 14.1% of the population.

Iceland’s last McDonald’s order turns ten

In 2009, Hjörtur Smárason purchased the last McDonald’s burger sold in Iceland before the fast-food restaurant ceased operations in the country for good. One decade later, the burger, and its accompanying fries, still look as good as new. The order is currently being displayed at a guesthouse in South Iceland, which provides a live stream of the peculiar exhibit. “I had heard something about McDonald’s never decaying, so I just wanted to find out for myself whether this was true or not,” Hjörtur explained. Hjörtur gifted the burger to the National Museum of Iceland, who sought advice from a Danish specialist on how to preserve the item. The specialist deemed the task impossible – though Hjörtur pointed out it seemed to be doing just fine. “I think he was wrong because this hamburger preserves itself.” Hjörtur eventually reached out to friends who run Snotra House in Þykkvibær, South Iceland, and the burger and fries are now on display in the lounge of the guesthouse. Ten years since their purchase, neither seems to show any signs of decay. McDonald’s opened its doors in Iceland in 1993. In October 2009, the chain announced that it would be closing its doors, with less than a week’s notice. The decision was attributed to the 2008 banking collapse, which had doubled the fast-food restaurant’s expenses for meat, cheese, and vegetables.

Icelandic names will no longer be gendered

As part of the Gender Autonomy Act, which Parliament passed in June, Icelandic given names are no longer designated “male” or “female” in the national naming registry. The new law applies to both parents naming their children and to adults who want to change their names officially. The new legislation means that anyone can now take any name in the registry, irrespective of gender. The law marked a significant change in Icelandic naming conventions. Per the previous provisions of the country’s naming laws, “Girls shall be given female names and boys shall be given male names.” The Gender Autonomy Act also gives individuals the right to change their official gender according to their lived experience and register as neither male nor female (denoted with an “x” on documents). The first person to legally change their name was farmer Sigríður Hlynur Helguson Snæbjörnsson (formerly Sigurður Hlynur Helguson Snæbjörnsson), who adopted the name in honour of his grandmother.

A dramatic increase in unregulated injectable filler procedures

Beautifying procedures involving injectable fillers saw a dramatic increase in 2019. The Directorate of Health does not regulate such procedures. “There’s just been this explosion,” Björn Geir Leifsson senior physician at the Directorate of Health stated earlier this year. “It’s become so popular, and there’s become such a market in Iceland, that foreign doctors have even begun inquiring what they must do to inject their clients with fillers.” Procedures involving Botox – which is categorised as a drug – are regulated by the Directorate of Health, but as injectable fillers are not classified as healthcare, they are not regulated by the Directorate of Health. According to Björn Geir, this needs to be changed: “These operations aren’t without their risks. We’ve received several damage-related complaints regarding these procedures.” The Directorate of Health is currently drawing up a proposal for the Ministry of Health. “We need to review the regulatory environment,” Björn Geir stated. “It’s full of grey areas and, at times, rather patchy. These are invasive procedures where bodies are being injected. We need to monitor who is doing these procedures, how they’re being done, and what kinds of fillers are being used.” More and more people are injecting fillers into their lips, cheeks, chins, jawlines, or into the area beneath their eyes.

The ninth annual slutwalk

Reykjavík’s ninth annual Drusluganga, or SlutWalk, took place this summer. The main goal of the march is to “create a platform for solidarity with survivors of sexual violence and return the shame to where it belongs, with the perpetrator,” organisers wrote, as well as to bring an end to rape culture. The Reykjavík SlutWalk has grown continually since it began in July 2011. Last year, 20,000 people took part. The protest was founded in Toronto, Canada and took place in April 2011 after a police officer suggested that if women didn’t want to be assaulted, they “should avoid dressing like sluts.”

Parental leave extended to 12 months

In its final session before Christmas, Parliament passed new legislation extending parental leave to twelve months. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir called the new law a huge step forward for Icelandic families, and also an important step toward greater equality. The history of parental leave in Iceland traces its origins to 1980. In that year, a new law guaranteed women a three-month maternity leave with six months’ worth of compensation. Mothers who worked from home were entitled to one-third of what working mothers received. In 1986, Parliament extended maternity leave to six months. The right of fathers to paternity leave was enacted in 1998. Otherwise, the parental leave system remained almost unchanged for twenty years, from 1980 to 1999, until the 2000 legislation that extended the leave to nine months.