Is any situation not perfected by a Tove Jansson quote?
The post holiday blues kicked in some time ago and memories of my trip in February to Iceland faded quicker than the unexpected Nordic tan I picked up. I thought I would share a few thoughts on my adventure and coincidentally my renewed love of all things Scandinavian, and how all this fits in with my perceptions right now.
My trip to Iceland was not some random spoilt whim I woke up with one day. It was of great sentimental value because ever since I was a child I had told my parents I would live in Scandinavia.
A deep interest in Moomin, Jostein Gaarder and Astrid Lindgren novels maybe, but they do say that your core belief system is shaped most as a young child so I think these things must have influenced me.
After watching a documentary on Iceland, Mama said she would one day come with me to meet the elves reported to live there.
Alas we never got to do that.
Reinforcing this view, when I was about 11 I saw a green light in the sky and Papa came into my bedroom and luckily also saw it and said the mothership had come back for me! Harsh, but then he was like that!
Later at dinner he told me it was in fact the Aurora Borealis and it was unusual to see them so far South and somewhere so light polluted. After reading up about them I knew I would have to visit somewhere very Northern to investigate one day.
Then of course painfully of all, the very day my boyfriend died in 2012, we were due to go away to Iceland. It had all been booked and we were all packed. So nearly two years since his death I have finally managed to fulfil this great dream, albeit without any of the people I loved so much.
It exceeded all my expectations. And they were pretty high already!
This is not a travel blog nor a review site and if it is that kind of practical stuff about hotels and the Blue Lagoon you are after, then off you go to read that.
As always, everything I write on here is based on how I am wired, and how I came to be alone. I see the world as connected things, not separate entities and so culture, politics, philosophy and how people are shape my perspective .
I use all my trips to evaluate what is important in life, and how different cultures represent those things.
I question how the UK compares, and really try to observe and immerse myself as much as is possible on such short trips.
There is a saying, ‘the eye must travel’. For me ‘the senses must travel’. Humans are sensual beings.
Of course I also ponder on what my lost loved ones would have thought and how it might have been if they were there too.
Going away shakes up bad traits,or a toxic routine. They break me from the monotony of my problems and issues, like pressing the reset button. Often if I go somewhere I do not like or understand or have company of the irritating sort then it exacerbates my hangups.
This was not one of those times and I returned calm, refreshed, and perhaps most surprisingly, spiritually invigorated.
So Iceland. I would be hard pressed to find something bad to say about the place or my trip.
Even Icelanders love their country – you have only to read the numerous blogs to feel their sense of patriotism.
In fact let us start with the downside, as it is the only one I can really think of.
London seems like Poundland in comparison, in the sense that everything is painfully expensive. Obviously through high import costs and the economic collapse a few years ago, the Krona is slowly calming down but in fact is still as volatile as the volcanic terrain.
However I did hear about that before I went and budgeted what I could manage and in fact I would say that in fact I did not mind, as you get what you pay for. High quality products and service. Very unlike London in that respect. So even my one complaint is kind of justifiable already.
I suppose one might say if of the more patriotic bent, that I have returned even more confused as to what being British really means or what my native country really offers me with my particular set of beliefs or traits.
It is very draining on a person’s mental and physical health to live in an environment that is so at odds with ones core beliefs and feelings.
But I accept I can’t change some things. And being somewhere I do feel comfortable is a charming feeling so I must instead cherish that and work on how to achieve more of it.
Only being in Iceland for five days, but packing much in was easy.
Iceland has the ‘can do‘ attitude of America coupled with the easy and organised efficiency and sincerity of Scandinavia. All mixed in with the charming, kind and intelligent nature of Icelandic people.
It really is the place to go to get out your comfort zone, switch off and enjoy a very different way of life in a natural and wonderful way.
Going to Iceland will make you feel alive and very connected to the Earth. And really tired out, in a good way!
Watching steam bursting out the earth from a geyser, standing overlooking waterfalls, and riding angelic Icelandic horses over rugged lava fields next to volcanoes, all with the serene backdrop of snowy mountains – it would be difficult not to feel both connected, and in awe of the Universe.
People are to a certain extent their country and their country is them. Though I have felt disconnected with my own country since I was 16 I am sure I have many English traits and I would not deny them if people told me of them. While it is often dangerous to assume a collective character of a nation I do think stereotypes are often very telling and in the case of such a little population as Iceland I would say it was safe to do so.
So Icelandic stereotypes?
Well, my banker friend who worked there a lot (until he helped break the banks!) told me the women were stunning, and they really are.
You can definitely tell who the tourists are. Maybe it is the homogenous Viking heritage, maybe it is the clean air and environment, or maybe it is the healthy outdoorsy life. Even the guy at the car rental desk would not have looked out of place on the pages of Vogue Homme.
If it wasn’t for the outstanding scenery I would have spent a great deal of time ogling everyone!
They eat weird things?
Yes, there is very odd food on the menus which is perfectly normal to them. Personally I would prefer to observe puffins sitting on rocks by the sea rather than on my plate but then I am a pescatarian anyway so each to their own. I tried a few bits and bobs as I always do in different countries. One of the best parts of travelling.
I liked the Maltextrakt drink very much – it is a bit like Kvass or Root Beer both of which I enjoy, the plokkfishkur which is like cod and mash together on rye bread was very delicious, thought the Skyr was a yummy find which I hope to find in Scandinavian delis in UK and the coffee and cakes were of particularly high standard. A very important point for me!
As for the water. Well, just the water in the hotel bathroom tap was crystal clear, cold and pure. As opposed to the hard water where I live, meaning I go through expensive Brita filters far too often & washing my hair is less wash and go and more wash and effort.
One certainly doesn’t need to be eating Minke whale burgers to get by. My companion, an ardent carnivore was very happy and said the lamb and other meats he had was very delicious, tender and organic.
I suppose the lack of raw, fresh fruit and vegetables would get on my nerves though if I was there too long, though I hear to combat the high import prices they have started cultivating their own in specially designed greenhouses.
A stereotype which is entirely true, is that they are intelligent, and extremely nice people. Now why might that be?
A first class education system? A small population? A youngish republic still in love with their own freedom? Or is it all about the nature reflecting the people?
I think it is a combination of all of these.
As an homogenous small state with under half a million inhabitants, naturally a sense of community is unavoidable.
Community is something that is mentioned by UK politicians a lot, but it is not something you can create out of thin air.
It takes years to become a broken and uncaring society which nurtures and feeds loneliness and selfishness, therefore it will take years to mend.
Community is abundant in Iceland because there are less people and lots of space. People are grateful to see others and at the same time enjoy their own personal space. In England especially, we live in densely populated places surrounded by hoards of strangers, anonymous in our own surroundings.
But community is something else. It is respect and trust.
The low crime rate in Iceland is often held up as a shining example of community where the only crooks are the bankers, and theft or violence is not really an issue.
A peaceful nation with no armed forces is a rarity also these days but of course with as many enemies as the UK has that would be a non starter!
Community is something I am constantly trying to find in all my areas of life. Maybe school was the last time this truly existed for me and it is a source of fascination how in this age people try to create their own communities.
I noticed that cars all stop for pedestrians. Once was nice, twice was a coincidence but they do it all the time, and for everyone. There is no rush, so why not let people cross the street? I thought that was a very pleasant trait. Being nice makes you feel nice too. Win Win.
How many times have you cut someone up on the road or ‘stolen’ a car park space only to feel particularly rubbish afterwards. We are all magnets after all.
Coffee shops were full of people (quietly) chatting and laughing and being with their friends or families. A couple of people were alone on laptops or with a newspaper (I know, some people actually still read these) but they could do so in relative peace and quiet as the shops were invariably peaceful places, maybe some ambient music or gentle murmur of the people.
Even American tourists there sit quietly!
How odd to be served by native people of that country too. When did you last get served in a cafe or restaurant by a native Brit and not a brilliant East European academic wasting their talents? It does make me wonder what all the Brits are busy doing. Must be discombobulating visiting some parts of the UK as a tourist I think.
I often go to a coffee shop in Britain with the Puppy and my book or a laptop and cannot hear myself think amongst the noise of the machines behind the counter, yelling of the staff to one another across the shop, all the noisy people talking on their mobiles or shouting at each other pretending to have a conversation, and if ever I do see families or friends together they are all busy on their own tablets or phones anyway.
People genuinely seem to like being with other people there. It was a really lovely positive environment.
Trust is a big thing. We went to several places unmanned by staff as they were off elsewhere momentarily and there was a box for you to put money in. And you would wouldn’t you? Trust works both ways based on mutual respect. You can totally leave your bag on a table and it will still be there if you wander off.
One waiter returned our change after a meal and told us that we didn’t need to leave tips in Iceland as service was included. Now okay, the meal was not cheap, maybe more than I would pay in London on some occasions but that kind of honesty, not trying to fleece a tourist is a charming gesture. I asked if it confused the Americans who make tipping a national obsession and he laughed and said they were very put out by the whole thing!
I also bumped into that waiter again when we were in a coffee shop somewhere else one day. I waved and he waved back! Of course I never forget a face and he may just think I am a fruit loop! Either way, seeing familiar faces out and about in a capital city is quite novel and sweet.
I note a very wry and witty sense of humour. I notice this a lot in Northern Europe somehow. Britons do in truth have a great sense of humour and Brit comedy is some of the best in the world. I think we may not have much in common with Scandinavia nowadays but our humour is on the same latitude.
Germans for instance are much maligned for having no sense of humour but they have a very dark, sarcastic humour which is similar to the Scnadinavian one I think.
Icelanders write funny little comments in their menus, on signs and anywhere really and they make you smile. It is like a gentle mischief that is very endearing. It reminded me of my parents a lot, leaving cheeky notes around.
In Iceland, the acceptance of depression has a lot to do with this.
I asked someone if all the houses had fairy lights and candles in as we saw a lot of this. I thought it looked very pretty and remembered how I used to tell Papa to keep my Christmas fairy lights up well after Christmas and he sometimes hung them in my bedroom for a few weeks.
Well apparently in Iceland they do just that, after a bishop mentioned that the lights brought a bit of joy into the dark months, so why not keep them up into February.
They naturally suffer from SAD but it is accepted to have these dark moods, and one must simply accept that this is going to happen and do nice wholesome things to counteract it. Be outdoors exercising or walking, be with friends, make fires and light candles and eat healthy foods and so on.
I am sure people do pop pills or drink too much as they do in UK but certainly talking about the ‘darkness‘ and being upfront is a far healthier attitude in itself.
People joke about the suicide rates in Scandinavia but in reality some of these are the happiest countries. Suicide is not always about deep dark depression but also about peoples’ own present predicament or issues. Embracing the dark side to life is actually paramount to surviving at all. Only by knowing about it can you know how happy you are when you really feel happy or content.
The education system, which yes is based on horrendously high taxation, is such that all children are educated well and equally, learning about how to be good people, respect nature as well as a deep understanding of their own culture, history and language. This forms well rounded individuals who are a pleasure to chat with.
It is seen as a bit snobby or highbrow in England if people talk about certain things and this is not how it should be. It also is upsetting just how many Brits can’t read or write properly. This just would not occur in Iceland for sure. Even if a child didn’t learn well at school, their family and community would ensure they learnt things they needed.
All these absurd measures and polices in England concerning education or childrens’ lives merely highlight the shortcomings of most parents to bring up their own children correctly.
Schools are there to teach and parents to do the upbringing. This has got a bit blurred in Britain where people selfishly have children and then expect the state or others to pick up the reins financially and morally.
Naturally as a literature lover, I was thrilled to see the abundance of charming wonderfully stocked bookshops. Where better to splurge, than where I began my love affair with books as a child, with Scandinavian literature. Not the Scandi crime noir that is prevalent now, but simple elegant novels.
Someone had shown me the house of Halldór Laxness who I had never heard of before. He told me with great pride how he won the Nobel prize for literature and was a famous Icelander. I have begun one of his novels and am enjoying the mischievous humour, darkness and strangeness of it very much.
I am 32 and it just fills me with great happiness I still have so much to learn and discover. New books, trying horse riding and actually being quite good at it, seeing the Aurora Borealis and so much more. I am very grateful to Iceland right now.
I also bought a humorous book about elves. Now, in actual fact this is a very serious matter.
I am not talking about little people with bells on their shoes and green pointy hats.
The Icelandic people genuinely believe, some more openly than others, there are hidden people. In part based in religion, descended from biblical characters.
Why is the concept of Huldufólk any more outlandish than believing in Jesus or Mohammed? Or indeed God.
But this book describes the process in how to see the elf. The ending is key to me as it taps into the psyche of what it would be like to live in such harmony with one’s environment.
‘If you didn’t see one [elf] that’s okay because it was a beautiful moment all the same, everything takes practice and sharing a moment with nature and opening your heart to possibilities is a wonderful thing. Sharing space with hidden people means we are all connected to the earth and equal’
Yes, yes you may think this is all some hippy mumbo jumbo. But
to feel disconnected and isolated is not a healthy way to live, and if opening your mind and heart can make you a better human being and care and respect those around you better, then little elves or not I heartily endorse it.
While church going may be as low as in the UK, Iceland has a spiritual side to it that means the people are lot nicer. Whether that comes from pagan beliefs and love of Mother Earth, Lutheran ones, or belief in hidden souls is of no importance.
Spirituality is a very important thing for a nation to have. Without it, arrogance reigns supreme. Separation of church and state is a good thing, but not separation of state and the Universe.
I was in a shop with beautifully crafted wool items and there were these little elf slippers with curled toes and bells on them and I thought how much I would love to buy them for Mama as an amusing gift.
When I was little and looking in the under stairs cupboard she would go past and shut the door (don’t worry there was a light and it didn’t lock) and I would come out angry with her, and she would feign ignorance and say the elves did it and how mischievous they were.
I miss the mischief. Like Papa, they were both incredibly serious with others and many saw them as aloof but at home we were often very silly. Both my parents had extremely mischievous streaks which I thought everyone had until I grew up, and sadly discovered lots of people are in fact, just very dull.
The politics of a nation also reflect the people, and the thing about the Scandinavian model as a sweeping generalisation is it is roughly set out and standardised. People know what is the politics of their country. Prime Ministers may change but the core belief system is set and there is certainty in how the country will operate.
In the UK we chop and change leaders and no one is ever really certain what is happening and what the future holds. What is the British model? We can clearly see the Scandinavian model whether we approve or not.
It is an incredibly selfish and uncertain way of leading people. The brain needs certainty, and never more so than during hard times.
When Ed Miliband mooted the idea of adopting a more Scandinavian model it was shouted down. Is it that Britian is just a very right wing country? Or is it just that I believe Brits could learn a lot from Germany or Scandinavia, but at the heart of the issue is that Brits are not German or Scandinavian. So the idea falls flat.
As Buckminster Fuller once said,
You can’t change people. You can change the environment.
And what about the limbo over the EU? In, out , don’t know, don’t care.
When I first arrived in Iceland, because it is in Schengen there is no need to stamp the passport but as I was about to pass the control booth I asked if he would stamp mine anyway and he smiled and did so. I travel a lot in the EU and so it is nice to do this I think.
I passed many ‘Nej Takk EU‘ posters and it is clear that Iceland is remaining firmly out of the EU.
I have to say it did at times question my own thoughts on the matter.
But then I remembered …the UK is not Iceland. We do not have friendly neighbours who we have special trade and cultural bonds with. We certainly do not have our own power supply and an homogenous nation. Iceland while vehemently against being an EU member realises it needs to function with and within the EU and works on that.
Britian needs Europe to survive else it be even more isolationist than now.
But it also made me wonder why when Britian geographically has more ties with Northern Europe how we are so very far away.
It almost makes me understand the Scotland independence campaign. I can easily see how living in the Orknies you have far more in common with Oslo than London.
Yet Denamrk is in Scandinavia and roughly on same latitude as much of Britian. Is it that much of England and especially the South is so incredibly different? In that case perhaps more in common with those across the channel. Yet that is not true either and Britian’s constant hatred of the French and Germans is stronger than ever.
I genuinely cannot fathom it out anymore. Feel free to let me know your theories.
But for Iceland I think they have made the right choice and being outside of the EU is exactly right for them. The EU, especially at this time dealing with Ukraine needs to remember that the EU is not for everyone.
Iceland also have a great deal of North American ties. Culturally and trade wise. This came as a bit of a shock actually and though Iceland is a bit Scandinavian it is also quite East Coast American. Then of course parts of Iceland look like the Moon. So basically it is like nowhere I have ever been and very unique.
Their take on alcohol is admirable. Now I realise the drink addled middle aged, middle classes of the UK would be apoplectic if we had state owned off licenses and the government controlled the sale of all alcohol.
Admittedly the goal of this is to reduce consumption, but what actually happens is it is just really expensive.
But still, the moral objective is there and I do think people treat alcohol less as self medication or a crutch as they do in the UK.
I recently heard a British comedian say without wine, parenting would be unmanageable. I really don’t see that as funny and says way more about British society than being a mere joke.
Did you know Norway had a philosopher appointed to manage the nation’s oil profits in the best most moral way? I only read about this recently. Henrik Syse advised the Norwegian central bank using a moral compass and helped them combine good economics with morality. Can you just imagine if the Bank of England did such a thing?
But why not? Philosophy and politics go hand in hand, and it is high time we put the intelligence back into national and international politics.
Amidst my Scandinavian love affair, I discovered two wonderful words.
Lagom and Hygge. Two words which kind of sum up all you really need in life.
Lagom in particular is a superb word with a brilliant moral basis.
One needs just enough. For food, for money, for everything.
Critics might say this feeling stunts entrepreneurial spirit or competition, but I would argue it curbs greed and grasping.
I think moderating certain things leads to a certain form of contentment. Much of Western misery stems from greed and the desire for more and more stuff.
Lagom to me equates with a sense of calmness and tranquility.
Hygge is a Danish word which I take to mean community spirit or togetherness. Again, it is based in a basic human need for socialising and being part of something warm. Is it a coincidence that Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world.
I came back from Iceland with a sense of calm which cannot be bought. Purchase wise I did not spend a great deal as prefer to spend money on experiences like horse riding or visiting places. Though I did treat myself to a super warm classic Nordic sweater which just about all the locals seemed to be wearing. On a rare day when it was cold enough to wear it back home someone said I looked like a sexy Nordic nerd, which I think totally justifies the cost!
Also I indulged in a special beautifying face serum to make me as stunning as the locals (though could only afford trial size so we’ll never know if that might have worked!) some very healthy looking Icelandic moss tea and many sweets which have of course long been consumed. And the cheapest thing of all was a tiny handcrafted elf doll for my old friend in the nursing home.
Nowhere is a perfect utopia but I think the UK could do a lot worse than look to Scandinavia for inspiration on much more than how to decorate our homes or how to catch serial killers.
And I haven’t even touched on their amazing Eurovision prowess!
If I had known I would have seen the Northern Lights in Essex I could have saved myself a fortune!
In all seriousness, to have been blessed to see the Lights is a dream come true and by no means a given. The moment standing on a snowy hilltop in the pitch dark listening to the sea and watching the dazzling display is a moment I will have in my head and heart forever. Whether you believe in God, or elves or you are a die hard atheist, feeling so part of the Universe is a truly enriching experience.
In case you feel I have become too soft let me end with one of my favourite philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard, reminding us not to be so sentimental.
People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains, new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human; they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence and they think they have seen something