First Day in Reykjavik

July 14th, 2009

Joan and Melissa 7/14/09:   Reykjavik is a city of disconcerting contrast. The downtown has some broad streets, but mostly the streets are narrow enough for only one car, or barely two. Most of the older buildings downtown are small, no more than three stories, and obviously used to be homes before they were divided into apartments, stores, restaurants, and an amazing number of coffeehouses. We have noticed that a good number of the buildings have painted, corrugated galvanized steel. If you are a cat person, Reykjavik is your city. There are a large number of cats (with collars) roaming the streets. As long as you keep your eye on the city streets, it just seems that you are in a small, very windy but otherwise unremarkable city – and then you look down one of the narrow streets that end at the harbor, and suddenly your entire perspective shifts. Across the slate grey harbor and its whitecaps rises Snaefells, an imposing mountain, grey and barren, with traces of snow on it, dwarfing the city and making you realize that you are one of a very small number of people (300,000) on an island the size of Kentucky in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.

We arrived from the airport, dropped our suitcases at the guesthouse – which is in a gentrifying part of downtown, rather close to the red light district – and wandered off in search of breakfast around 8:00 am. The streets were empty and most restaurants were not open; we began to wonder if this was some sort of holiday. So we were quite pleased to find a place that offered good food, very good coffee, and free wi-fi. We parked ourselves there for close to 3 hours, during which time we realized that in this city nothing starts before 9:00 am. Very civilized.

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The film Dreamland was showing here this spring and broke all records for attendance, but it’s left the theaters and hasn’t been released yet on DVD, so that was off the day’s options list. We walked through the downtown to the Tjörnin, a large pond where people come to feed the ducks, geese, and gulls. City Hall was built on pillars in a corner of the Tjörnin; we went in and found a huge relief map of Iceland. From there we walked down to the National Museum, where we spent some hours browsing through an extensive and excellent exhibit on the history of Iceland. We were hoping to visit the Culture House as well, just to see the manuscripts of the sagas, but we were too tired. On our way back to the guesthouse we met up with Meagen Pollock and her three geology students and had a little Wooster reunion back at the Tjörnin with the water fowl. DSC00514 DSC00515 IMG_0169One of her students informed the group of the differences between basalt and rhyolite, two common igneous rocks, that are commonly found in Iceland.

Then all except Bill took off for a soak in an outdoor geothermal pool in one of the city’s public baths. Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh….it was very nice and relaxing (There are NO photographs of this!) (Tom – that’s what you thought.  Here’s one of Dale, Mareike, Melissa, and Joan post-soak) DSC00518
After the visit to the pool, we headed off to dinner with Arni Finsson.

Mareike 7/14/09: Met with Arni Finsson today, had a lovely dinner (during which jetlag caught up with Melissa a few times, and the rest of us acted as if we didn’t notice). DSC00519 DSC00520 I admit I was the only one who did not have fish, instead I went for the delicious roasted lamb. We had interesting discussions about Iceland and its independent streak, which he compared to the Alaskan spirit of the frontier and the stubborn attitudes people have in light of their resource extraction economy. This leads to conflicts between people’s love of nature and their unwillingness to compromise regional development (i.e., aluminum smelters in Iceland, pipelines in Alaska). Finsson explained that, within its own culture, Iceland tends not to be rebellious, except in issues of nationalism or independence. This leads them to be stubborn against others, whom they perceive to be intruding or telling them what to do (the EU, Denmark, …). I am thinking of Halldor Laxness’s novel Independent People (1955), which describes just this kind of stubborn will to be independent in a farmer who worked for 18 years for others to finally get his own piece of land in the early 20th century, and he is not going to swerve from this goal, even if it means his demise and that of his wife. Finsson  mentioned an interesting piece by Laxness entitled “War Against the Land”. It’s published in “Overshadowed Places” – and the only thing I can find online is an interesting article about it. See here:  It contains an interesting parallel (and then distinction) between Iceland and Australia.

Bill 7.14.09  After a morning regaining our strength in a local coffee shop, we trekked over to the National Museum of Iceland <>. The museum showcases the early history of Iceland, and was an excellent introduction for putting our visit in a larger, historical context.

In the evening, we dined with Arni Finnson at a small restaurant across from the Althing (parliament) Building. Finnson is an environmental activist from Iceland <>, who studied in Copenhagen.

Since returning to Iceland nearly a decade ago, Finnson has worked relentlessly on environmental issues in Iceland <add link>. During dinner with our group, Finnson noted that the Iceland environmental movement has achieve both successes and disappointments in championing environmental protection. Interestingly, much of the success has been thanks to external institutions, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) <>.

Eventually our conversation turned to Iceland’s recent economic collapse. Finsson recounted speaking with an Icelandic business colleague several years ago who commented that Iceland’s banking practices were inherently unstable and that this financial bubble would ultimately burst. A year before the collapse, even Iceland’s politicians should have know that the banking system was increasingly insolvent and stemmed the losses before they ballooned further. However, rather than acknowledge and deal with an unpopular mess while it might still be manageable, they remained silent until collapse of the Icelandic banking system finally resulted.

Just before our departure, I finished reading Limits to Growth (2004) <>, a 30-year update to the original report that questioned whether continual economic growth was sustainable. Based on modeling analysis and increasing physical evidence, they argue that continued growth is unsustainable and will lead to societal collapse. While they argue that time is running out and that further delay reduces our flexibility to respond, they urge world leaders to recognize and respond to the approaching crisis. If it’s politically unfeasible for government leaders to acknowledge a potentially devastating situation that imperils a national economic institution, can we genuninely expect our governmental leaders to initiate change to rescue us from impending global challenges, such as climate change? Or is it inherently the fate of human societies to ignore the warning signs of potential danger until it’s too late?

11 Responses to “First Day in Reykjavik”

  1. Meagenon 15 Jul 2009 at 4:47 am

    It was great to see you in Reyk! Your conversations with Finnson sound enlightening. My interaction with Icelanders is primarily limited to geologists (and the occasional farmer), who have a slightly different perspective on environmental issues. I think all of them would argue that they are environmentalists, but several of them are employed by the energy and metals industry, so they balance environmentalism with sustainable resource development. Like the oil industry in the U.S., keeping environmental health at the forefront of development decisions requires environmentally conscious employees in the resources development industries as well as external environmental activists.

  2. Lynon 16 Jul 2009 at 6:51 pm

    It speaks volumes about the civility of Reykjavik that there are so many cats there. And I note, from the photos, that the standard European weeds (dandelion and white clover) are also residents in what seem to be extremely long and narrow yards. So at least you won’t have too much biological culture shock!

    It is interesting that your contact Finnson notes the important role of non-Icelandic, global environmental groups (things like WWF, TNC, Wildlife Conservation, Greenpeace, and so forth) in fostering environmental thinking in Iceland. The same was true, in my experience, in Brazil; while it is important to remember the sovereignty issues, and to avoid being a harpy, the idea that there is a larger world out there is a valuable way of supporting local efforts and also offering new ideas and alternatives. So that $40 check you send off to WWF every year is a contribution – albeit small – to global environmental thinking!

    Have a great time!

  3. Melissaon 17 Jul 2009 at 5:30 pm


    I took the pictures of dandelions and clover for Brett to emphasize that Iceland does not appear to use pesticides to reduce weeds (those photos were actually taken of the lawn at the Icelandic National Museum). The Icelandic people are probably just happy to have something growing!

    …and the cats looked were happy and were quite friendly.


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