Innit just a great little letter? And would any of you be surprised at all to learn that today's post is going to be about one of my most favoritest I-words AND locations of all time? Now, I come from a town that starts with the letter I. I also went to school in a state that starts with the letter I. Those and so many more cherished locations do merit their own spotlight someday - but today I'm going to give you a little bitty lecture about the location known as Iceland.
Iceland. Just the sound of it sends little thrills up my spine.
It's a country about the size of Iowa. We drove around the country, by which I mean acutally circumnavigating it in a little car on the only highway they have for JUST this purpose, in about a week. When in a hurry, you can probably get from point A to point A again in less time - but who'd want to? Iceland is more than just some volcano-addled outpost full of blondes and impossibly complicated names for things.
Iceland is almost like a hinge, for us North Americans. It's the hinge that connects our world to that of the Europeans, while still resting soundly on its own deep and sturdy roots. The pendulum swings from LA to Germany, from New York to France, from Houston to Belgium and we see all these amazing and gorgeous contrasts and cultural differences. And at the tippy top of it all is this gem of an island kindof holding all together and appealing equally to both sides. Iceland is a country where you don't have to be either-or. Iceland was built on being BOTH.
Iceland, is quite litteraly a place of BOTH. Two tectonic plates come together there (The North American plate and the Eurasian plate) and you can walk just as easily from one to the other as you might do from your front entrance to your bedroom. Iceland is as modern as could be, with grocery stores and night clubs and a blooming art scene. All of this modernity blooms from a rich soil of human history and viking exploration. Iceland is a country whose soil is drenched in blood. Iceland is a nation whose heartbeat pounds proudly with hope and wisdom and courage in the face of an uncertain future.
When Iceland's ecomony tanked, they put the criminal bankers in jail. When their young people and recent graduates are confronted with questions about how they'll survive in the new, floundering economy, the broad-strokes response is "we'll find a way."
It's a hard place to live. It's a hardening place to live. It's small and it's as big as anything on the planet ever was. Elves and wights still roam freely in this country that still recognizes the religion we today refer to as Asatru (or the old norse mythology).
Iceland was originally a blessed escape, you know, and a chance for a fresh start for the first emmigration waves out of Scandinavia. So much so, that when the little island was discovered, with all the geothermal activity and the comparatively rich farmland (and the fact that there acutally WAS land to farm)... the vikings that arrived there were afraid it would be quickly overwhelmed with people as desperate as they were for this fresh start. The homeland was poverty-stricken and starving and wretchedly, wretchedly over populated. It wouldn't take much for hoardes of people to come over and it would take even less for the little Atlantic Gem to become as overcome and poverty-stricken as the homeland if word got out too fast.
With that in mind, the first real-estate sales pitch was initiated and the ones who returned from the most perfect island on the planet reported to the public that it was a desolate mess that they wouldn't want to bother with. They named it Iceland.
Of course, it did become overwhelmed anyway and the place was deforested and most of the natural resources were consumed pretty immediately. So another trek was sent west again - and that noble group of explorers found a brutal place with bad weather and bad soil and precious few places to even set up camp, much less keep the boats for any length of time. It was time for another real-estate sales pitch to get the people moving again.
They called the new discovery Greenland.
But back in Iceland, the vikings lived and survived through unspeakably difficult odds. Winters were long and cruel. Farming techniques had to be adapted. Building techniques had to change. Entire societal dogmas were established and clung to fiercely, for the simple fact that if jealousy, lust and greed were allowed to run unfettered then the entire population would die. A parliament was established, a means of legislation-through-representation that had been carried with them from the homeland. This legal establishment was called the "Thing" - or the Allthing for the big ones (which in English makes it sound hillariously vague).
It is the oldest extant parliamentary institution in the world. That's a quote from wikipedia. And it's true too.
Those rugged, ragged warriors, those fierce farmers and gentle giants knew that in order to survive, they'd have to agree to live under a rule of law. They'd have to work together if they were going to live. And if things got messy, they knew that the only way to resolve their problems was to take it to a court, a government of elected officials who were trusted for their wisdom to make the right call for the people.
Of course, things got corrupted in that government too. But isn't it wonderful to think of those nasty, snarling vikings sitting around the fire in the longhouse and talking about how "dammit, I just got jury duty again".
And it all happened in Iceland. The work-horses the vikings brought over with them are still alive and healthy today too (well, not the same horses... of course, but their descendants) and they are about the purest breed on the planet. If you're a horse person (and largely, who isn't) you should look into the Iceland horses. They'll steal your heart as quickly as the entire country stole mine.
It's a country that's rugged and hard and beautiful and poetic and magical and mathematical and it's everything the whole great big world should be. It's not a perfect place, not by a long shot. Noplace is.
But if you're looking for an exotic location for your next vacation; if you're looking for someplace where you can get pampered in a spa one day and then climb a glacier the next day and then go on a whaling ship in the north sea on the third day; if you want a modern country full of friendly faces and intricate history and a scintillating music and art scene; may I suggest Iceland?