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It's sometimes uncomfortable to voice anything other than a Pollyanna viewpoint on current affairs, and so I usually avoid writing about current affairs! Occasionally, though, I just have to write what I feel, and this is one of those days, though I don't have the heart to go into details. Something about these still, trapped, waiting men in this dirty, decaying window is prompting me, so this is what I have to say:

The glamour/adventure construct that our PR men and women have spun in the past decade has paid off in tons more tourism and happily so, because that's where the money lay, right? I don't disagree at all, and find the average visitor to be a polite and friendly type, willing to help the natives see their homeland for all the glory it has to offer via their curiosity and cash. No cynicism intended: the traveler brings with them a new view and if they open their wallets, it's to share some of what they've got in return for local goods and experiences. Win win for sure! I hope we maintain an ethical, eco-friendly bent in the further development of our tourist industry, because that's why people come here, and not to get what they can get in any other Euro city, and probably for less.

Before we start pandering to Others and their dollars, though, we need to take care of our Own. Though a shiny new hotel might lure a thousand more weekenders into the city, it does little for the morale of the local who can barely maintain the roof over her and her children's heads. It may bring in summertime cash and create a few jobs, but it doesn't solve the problem of once-reasonable and seemingly practical student loan debts, taken by people who honestly wanted to better themselves and their society, that have now doubled since the crash with no discussion on the table of doing anything about it. A new hotel might make us feel superficially proud and even rich as a nation but does nothing for that overwhelming deep-seated feeling that we've completely lost our way and are wandering, ethically compromised, into strange unknowns, missing in our cultural hearts something we can't quite seem to name...

We can welcome our visitors with all the stuff and buildings and ads and magazines and luxuries we think they will need and enjoy, but when traveling nothing ever really surpasses a warm and contented smile from a local, does it? Let's not twist the faces of our single, hard-working mothers, and ammas and grandfathers and men into hard-scrabble grimaces because they are just barely scraping by. There's a offended,indignant  tone, a bitter swallowed anger that is stuck in the throats of so many Icelanders these days for the ever-mounting evidence of swindle, corruption, greed, violence, and social breakdown happening here, on our beloved wonder of an island. There is no glory in suffering, and there is no glory in wealth if it's at the expense of a distant relative, or the woman who scans groceries. At the expense of one's own people, born here or not.

Something has to give.


Professor Batty said...

As an outsider looking in, all these issues which you bring up here have gone through my mind many times- and when I do visit Iceland I always try to keep a proper perspective when dealing with people who have not only the basic human problems, but problems specific to Iceland.

The tourism industry in Iceland is indeed a success story, it is much easier to travel there now than when I first started coming 12 years ago. The main reason I keep coming back is the people I've met and the culture Iceland has to offer, not big hotels and other artificial attractions. (The countryside is wonderful, but my outdoor adventure spirit has its limits.)

"... we've completely lost our way and are wandering, ethically compromised, into strange unknowns, missing in our cultural hearts something we can't quite seem to name..."

I can name it. Sociopathy- a mental disorder fostered by elitism, a deluded sense of entitlement made manifest in organized criminal activity in the financial sector done with no fear of any consequences. It ruins everything, and the perpetrators still refuse to see it. The situation is the same here in the USA, and it seems to becoming prevalent in most of the rest of the western world. It hasn't always been this way, and it can change back- but not until it gets to a breaking point. Iceland seemed to be at that point in 2008, but the moment has passed.

The crippling debt caused by indexed loans is a product of Iceland law- no other nation allows such usury. It is in place to insure the concentration of wealth to the elite. If that law can be changed to be more equitable, Iceland may have a chance.

I'll be coming back to Rekjavík this fall for a couple of weeks. All the issues you have raise here concern me greatly, but all I can really do is spend some money- hoping that in that small way it will help things get better. My greatest fear is a breakdown of your society- it would be a great loss to the world. The cultural contribution of Iceland to the world far exceeds its size.

Thanks for writing this post, we need to see these points expressed, if only to force us to look at the realities of the situation.

Iceland Eyes said...

Thank you for your comment, Professor. You, who have not only read Laxness but studied him and his writings, have an intellectual and literary knowledge of Iceland that most of our visitors don't, as well as an implied love for our island nation. That means, for me at least, your words have weight.

I'd like to point out one thing, and that is that when I wrote of missing something in our cultural hearts, I meant some sense of disconnect from our heritage and ancestry. I agree with the sociopathy factor and as a college teacher can easily see how it is fostered in the educational system here (I think, in reference to Laxness, that a morally and ethically developed independent individual chooses to take part in and to be of humble service to his or her society, at no cost to personal gain or development) but I think that maybe you misread the word "missing" as "feeling."

I'm actually glad you brought up the topic of this now-cultural disease, though, which may be the product of years of survival mentality in the last few generations of adults who grew up in secrets-laden homes rife with abuse (alcoholic, sexual, emotional) or may just be the by-product of the instant-gratification economy. It's a modern factor we just can't ignore.

Professor Batty said...

Looking back at what I wrote, yes, I did mis-read that part, I should never comment after 11:00 pm!

Jono said...

While I have never had to live in difficult times, I know some of the details of my predecessors lives in poverty and war. They wrote about it or just told me stories and I listened well so that I never would forget. Some of these stories are Icelandic and are contemporary to some of Laxness' writings, especially in the more rural settings. My own understanding of these things has come in the last 5 years since traveling to Iceland and reading (with guidance - thank you Batty!).

I also hope the glamor of modern life and the lure of riches doesn't remove the people from the history that made them what they are. I think it is important to know where you come from in order to help guide the way to where you are going, both individually and as a society. The past of Iceland is unique in many ways, but I only wish I knew how to get people to remember what they have learned from it as well as things that should be changed.

To me it is the people and the environment in which they live that makes me want to visit a place. Fancy city trappings (hotels) are not my cup of tea. I prefer the farms and animals and raw, wide openness of the land to draw me back, but I will go into Reykjavik to visit cousins and get a little culture.

Please ignore me if I make no sense, but I do understand what you are saying. I am really glad you started blogging again.

Kevin Trammel said...

Good thoughts, Maria, and well and sincerely said. They are certainly apt here in America too, where temporary capital gain seems to have trumped long term stewardship; where ideals of compassion have been replaced by "serve thyself." These things seem to by cyclical, with every society, over the reaches of time, going through its periods of "renaissance," and "involution." It's as if, as Jefferson said, the ideals must be reborn regularly by suffering and struggle. Somehow, the mind just never "gets" the soul. The mind and ego seems to require cycles of suffering in order to reclaim virtue. Even then, it never seems to equal what one might hope.

I'd Rather Be in Iceland said...

Great post Maria and although I'm not as eloquent as some of your commenters :) I do feel what you are saying and am going to be thinking about this one for a while. I think time will tell for Iceland.

What is encouraging is that I think many Icelanders feel as you do and the population is small enough that people can and do stand up for things and make a difference.

I would hate to see the character of Iceland change and I also worry about the impact of tourism on Iceland. Yes, I know, ironic that when I come in a few weeks and walk around I will not "see" any of what you talk about but I will be bearing it in mind and I wish I could bring more value to Iceland myself (not monetary). In my own world I hope that my little blog gets people interested in Iceland that may not have been before, but for the right reasons.

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