Iceland After the Fall

Down With the Man! Up With the Potato!
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 30 2008 11:52 AM

Iceland After the Fall

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When people talk about Iceland, they talk about numbers, distance, and the awesome lack of human imprint on the landscape. The Vikings settled the harbor. It is 2,600 miles from New York. The island's footprint is 103,000 square kilometers, an area larger than South Carolina but smaller than Virginia, and 79 percent of the terrain is what the U.S. government calls "wasteland." Nine-tenths of the country's heat is geothermally produced. Renewable sources provide all electricity. The population has grown to 313,000—this is slightly less than the residency of Manhattan's Upper West Side, up to 155th Street—and the temperature of the Blue Lagoon, because I know you were wondering, averages 100 degrees, even in winter. What else? Iceland's culture today is a model of North European savoir-vivre. Almost two-thirds of its university students are women; the literacy rate has been estimated at 99.9 percent; and the annual publishing output is, per capita, the largest in the world.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

Data like these are trotted out whenever Iceland appears in the news—which, until this fall, was rarely—not because literacy rates are inherently telling but because they capture a vaguer sense of what the country signifies to outsiders. Iceland is, for many of us, the waist of the hourglass: the narrowest point in the flow of culture and commerce that buoys modern life, a place where the First World is winnowed and exposed. This is why we call its financial collapse a "crisis." It's the reason some of us with no clear stake are keen to learn what happened. And it's why, one afternoon not long ago, I stood in Austurvöllur Square in Reykjavík and watched a group of Icelanders rally against their government.

The protests have been a Saturday affair since mid-October, when the dust of the collapse first started to settle. Locals convene on a plot of grass downtown—just out of dumping range of a huge, ever-present flock of geese—and from a makeshift dais, speakers lay into the country's leadership. People go with homemade picket signs over their shoulders; collection buckets pass to fund the microphones and sound system. Everyone is in the loop. I hear about the protest from a waiter not an hour after I arrive in town. (And would I like more orange juice?) I get the details from a woman selling bus tours to a waterfall. "You will feel the anger and the disappointment," says a local writer just back from the countryside.

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What I feel that afternoon, mainly, is cold. It's overcast and 23 degrees, and with powerful winds surfing off the bay not far away, it feels even rawer. Austurvöllur Square is nested between Iceland's squat, gray parliament house and an array of shops, posh eateries, and luxury hotels. Near the center, there's a statue of nationalist Jón Sigurðsson, immortalized with elbows out and hands drawn, roosterlike, toward his armpits. I do not speak Icelandic, so I spend the better part of the rally sidling up to people like a creep at a dive bar, asking them to translate what's being said over the loudspeakers.

"We have this huge problem, but all the people responsible still have their jobs," Tómas Holton, a local teacher, tells me, narrowing his eyes to paraphrase. He's tall and lanky and has a White Sox cap pulled down as far as it will go; through the rally, he's been hopping up and down athletically, like a boxer keying himself up, trying to keep warm. It's his fourth protest, he says proudly. He thinks the weather weeded out the rubberneckers. As the speaker prattles in an epic baritone, Holton talks about "transparency" and the desire for new blood in government, "people who don't have connections." I murmur that this all sounds familiar. Holton looks away to weigh a thought, and a slight grin plays across his cheeks. "Of course, it's difficult, in Iceland, to make something new," he says dryly. "There are so few people."

The protests are organized by a group called "Phalanx Against the Situation," which sounds like a James Bond movie, or a particularly boozy Dada  cell, and the most prevalent picket sign reads "Óstjórnina burt!" which I am told translates to something like "Away with you, you corrupt government!" What, specifically, is being referred to here is open to interpretation. A woman in a turquoise hat passes petitions calling for the ouster of the finance leaders—one for the finance minister, another tailored to attack the bank heads. One grievance targets leaders' "lack of education," she explains; another blames them for trashing the "Icelandic image." A third is for (of course) "transparency." There are other signs: a piggy bank being roasted on a spit, a European Union flag X'ed out in red, and an austere black-on-white arrangement that says,

EURO NO
US DOLLAR YES
KRONA R.I.P.

Iceland's finances imploded in the manner of a dying star. To beef up its tiny economy, financiers had set up seductive online-banking systems, vacuuming in cash and loans from the world's powerhouse economies and then lending against this capital. Everything ballooned. One hundred percent mortgages were commonplace, and because Icelandic mortgages are keyed to inflation (debt rises as inflation goes up), locals found themselves dealing with, and owing, larger sums. Many took loans in foreign currency, planning to shuttle advantageously between that currency and króna. This was the burning ball of gas. As market concern spread this year, foreigners realized Icelandic banks were sitting on more capital than its government could ever insure. The market panicked. The fuel dried up. And Iceland's economic star began collapsing on itself.

These days, all that is back story. Iceland's more recent trials come from European circumspection, bad luck, and internal reticence. In October, Britain used anti-terrorism laws to freeze the British assets in one bank and seized the U.K. outpost of another. Meanwhile, the prime minister refused a call for parliamentary elections, saying the turnover could subvert Iceland's interception of its $2.1 billion IMF loan. Icelanders are upset about these things. They are unsettled by the cryptic management, and by the terrorist accusation, and by the IMF loan—or the idea of the IMF loan—and even by the prospect of joining the euro, which, some say, would straitjacket their work force. Their raw-goods market is in trouble, too: The price of aluminum, Iceland's biggest industry as of this year, has more than halved over the past five months. Fishing profits are down, in part thanks to a parasite infecting $20 million worth of exportable herring. Local sales of horse meat are, reportedly, way up.

In other words, to visit Iceland now, especially if you've been before, feels something like joy riding in the Maserati of a hospitalized friend. In 2006, when I first came to Reykjavík, a hamburger to go (squished-bun kind) cost something like $15. Restaurant entrées could easily set you back $60 each. Bound by a research stipend, I spent nearly a month that autumn, often hungry, based at the Salvation Army hostel, where the shower flooded daily by 11 and each Sunday, people (who were they?) would gather in some back room, thrum guitars, and sing spiritual songs. Still, I was in love: the cool, gray hills descending to the harbor; the oddly blue sunlight; the fervor of the clubs that sent licentious, dancing people out into the streets and home across the wee hours of the night. Iceland seemed to me then—it seems to me now—a place where the world can't wholly catch up with you.

What catches up instead, these days, is a peculiar, spent-too-long-in-art-school brand of grass-roots action. Just as the Austurvöllur rally ends, a string of firecrackers shoots above the parliament house, bursting like small flares. People huddle to the scene, and as they do, a vandal in a cheap Santa suit and gremlin mask ('tis the season) runs up and dumps a sack of potatoes on the parliament-house steps. They bounce and roll. The Santa gremlin disappears. An army of photographers kneels, essaying the potato-on-the-ground art shot. Iceland has become a "potato country," a woman says by way of explanation, so poor its people can subsist solely on tubers. "And also the leaders are, like, stupid, like a potato."

"Ah, I see," I say. I don't.

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