Blowing hot and cold in Iceland


MANCHÁN MAGAN'stales of a travel addict

Seeing other cultures through the prism of one’s own is normally a reductive experience, but with Iceland it’s hard not to do so. The similarities are just so striking. It’s like encountering a twin, or at least an alter ego in which we get to see how we might have fared without a millennium of English interference.

The majority of the original female settlers of Iceland in the 10th century were Irish and Scots, and so it’s common to recognise people in the street, only to realise that it is in fact the descendent of a shared ancestor .

Locals say the Vikings chose only the prettiest Irish women, which may explain their uncanny beauty. They deny that any Irish girls were taken by force, insisting that the sheer allure of their Nordic forefathers was enough to woo them.

This enviable self-belief extends throughout their culture. Icelanders are fanatically proud of their music, literature and food. The pride and pleasure they get from their language is heart-wrenching for a Gaeilgeoir. There are no English loan-words, all new terms are derived from Old Norse. Children by law must be given Icelandic names, and surnames are not used; the telephone directory lists people by first name. The same pride is apparent in chic urbanites wearing traditional woollens knitted by their families.

Of course, their confidence has been impacted by the greed and hubris of recent boom years, when the country was bankrupted by a tiny group of business megalomaniacs who gambled away the nation’s wealth.

Yet, rather than wallowing in its mistakes, Iceland sees itself at the cusp of a grand new age in which it will prosper from its vast supplies of sustainable energy and fresh water. Under sea high-voltage cables will bring geothermal electricity to Europe via Britain soon.

With a population of only 320,000, it won’t be long before everyone is rich again, so now is the time to visit, while it is still just about affordable.

Going off-season means avoiding crowds in the tourist areas, but clad oneself appropriately. I’ve been here in the Writers’ Union of Iceland in Reykjavík for three weeks and I am still not accustomed to the arctic winds.

But even this weather may change. Iceland is warming faster than the rest of the world. Some of the smaller glaciers will be gone in 50 years, while the rest may have disappeared within two centuries.

The opening of the North-Eastern arctic passage could shorten the shipping distance between the Pacific and the North Atlantic by 40 per cent, making Iceland a trans-Arctic shipping-centre, the Singapore of the north.

I thought I was coming to a land of sheep farmers and fishermen to see what Ireland was once like, instead I see what we could yet be if we choose to shift our focus from England and America’s end-of-empire despair to our island’s true potential.

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