Travelogue: Reykjavik

I recently spent a few days in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and only real city. Here are a few of my impressions.

Iceland and the World

Iceland was discovered in the ninth century CE and settled in about 871, ending its status as the last large uninhabited island on Earth. The initial settlers were Vikings from what are today Norway and the northern Scottish islands, along with their largely Celtic slaves; Icelanders today don’t particularly look like the blond Nordic archetype thanks to this infusion of Britannic blood. In fact, there’s a joke among modern Icelanders: why are British people so unattractive? Because we took all the pretty ones as slaves.

Iceland claims it has the world’s oldest parliament, the Alþingi (which shares pronunciation and etymology with English all-thingy). It was founded in 930 CE, but it hasn’t existed continuously since then, which makes this claim a bit murky; if we’re going to count interrupted parliaments like that, perhaps the Italian Senate should win out as the arguable inheritor of the ancient Roman Senate. The Alþingi, more or less a committee of the island’s most powerful men, was Iceland’s form of government for a few hundred years, but the Kings of Norway were always hovering nearby.

Iceland’s international history consists mostly of a series of intrusions to which it grudgingly acquiesced. In 1000, King Olaf I of Norway basically forced the Alþingi to adopt Christianity. In 1262, after several decades of inter-clan warfare, the Icelandic chieftains agreed to be ruled by Norway, and after some dynastic maneuvering the island ended up in the hands of the King of Denmark from 1380 on. The fervently Lutheran Christian III of Denmark imposed the Reformation on Iceland in the 16th century, and the country today remains overwhelmingly Lutheran (although, being Scandinavian, not especially religious).


Perhaps the clearest theme in Icelandic history is backwardness. Perhaps appropriately for the last large island in the world to be settled, Iceland seemed to lag hundreds of years behind the rest of the world at times.

Until the nineteenth century, Iceland didn’t have a single city. The only industry in Iceland was farming. You would think fishing would also be a lucrative enterprise for an island nation, and they did fish, some, although fish is a surprisingly small part of Icelandic cuisine. But even as fish prices shot up during the Middle Ages, when more and more of increasingly Catholic Europe was forbidden to eat meat on Fridays, no one in Iceland made a living from fishing alone. This was partly because of the restrictive trading system imposed by Denmark, which basically gave individual Danish traders monopolies over buying and selling from individual Icelandic villages. This system not only distorted prices, it also prevented the formation of market villages, which helps explain why Iceland didn’t have any cities.

When the trading monopolies were abolished in 1786, a few trading villages were formed. One of them was Reykjavik, which coincidentally was on the site of the Vikings’ first settlement in Iceland. In 1801, its population was about 600. In 1860, it was at 1,450—approximately one tenth the size of contemporary Peoria, Illinois—but it had already been the largest municipality in Iceland for some time, and in the 1840s it became the site of the reestablished Alþingi.

Electricity and running water both arrived late; Reykjavik was dependent on local wells until 1909, when the first water utility brought piped-in drinking water. Although Iceland has no shortage of rocks, for some reason stone wasn’t used much as a building material until the 19th century, shortly before they switched to concrete.

Another reason Iceland seems so comically backwards to American eyes is the language. Icelandic is the most conservative Germanic languages, and it’s changed very little from Old Norse. For example, here’s a famous verse from Egils Saga, said to have been composed by warlord-poet Egill Skallagrímsson in the early 10th century:

Þat mælti mín móðir,
at mér skyldi kaupa
fley ok fagrar árar,
fara á brott með víkingum,
standa upp í stafni,
stýra dýrum knerri,
halda svá til hafnar,
höggva mann ok annan.

Here, for comparison, is what that verse would look like in Old English:

Þat mælede mín módor,
Þæt me scolde ceapian
flæge and fægra ára,
farran aweg wið wícingum,
standan úppe in stefnan,
stíeran deorne cnear,
faran swá tó hæfene
héawan man and óðer.

You can see the similarities between Old English and Old Icelandic; in fact, the two were still mutually intelligible when the verse was written. But we modern Anglophones can’t make head or tail of either version, whereas a modern Icelander would have no trouble reading the Old Icelandic original. (For an English translation, see here.) The only words in the Old Icelandic that are uncommon in modern Icelandic usage are fley and knörr, both types of ships, according to an excellent archaeological museum in Reykjavik. By contrast, there are about that many words in the Old English translation that we can understand.

The fact that Icelandic looks so much like the Old English we’re vaguely familiar with from Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales makes the modern language seem much more archaic to us than it would to, for example, an Italian. (In the history of English, there’s a strong correlation between the passage of time and the de-Germanification of the language, so it’s generally easy for us to see heavily Germanic language as old language.) Then there’s the fact that Icelandic has been very resistant to importing foreign words for neologisms. For example, just about every capital city in the world has a national museum. In Sarajevo, it’s the Zemaljski Muzej; in Budapest, it’s the Nemzeti Múzeum; in Tehran, it’s the Mūze-ye Millī-ye; in Riga, it’s the Nacionālais Muzejs; in Ouagadougou, it’s the Musée National; and so on. In Reykjavik, it’s the Þjóðminjasafnið. Similarly, the photography museum in Reykjavik is the Ljósmyndasafn, the university movie theater is the Háskólabíó, and if you want some information you should look for the sign that says upplýsingar. Wandering around Reykjavik, you’d have a very hard time figuring out what was what if it weren’t for the fact that everything’s in English.

Icelandic is also the only extant language to retain two characters from the ancient Germanic futhark runes, thorn (þ) and eth (ð), which make a soft and a hard th sound, respectively. (Incidentally, before the letter thorn died out in English we started writing it as a sort of y-shape, which is where the phrase “ye olde” comes from—that first word is actually just “the.”) All of these linguistic archaisms, together with the fact that people there tend to have names like Ragnar, Guðbergur, and Thor, combine to make Iceland look a bit like a 10th-century landscape at times. Those are all first names, of course, since Icelanders’ last names are actually just patronymics formed from the father’s name suffixed with -sson or -dóttir. In the absence of family names, phone books in Iceland are organized by first name.


If Iceland’s history sometimes seems parodic (how did they not discover building with stone?), the sharpest and best parody comes from the era of romantic nationalism. Like most nationalisms, Iceland’s has a central figure, a hero in the mold of Simón Bolívar, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Lajos Kossuth, José Rizal, etc. The statue in front of the Alþingi in Reykjavik’s central square belongs to a nebbishy figure named Jón Sigurðsson, who lived in the late 19th century and accomplished very little.

Born in a small town in Iceland in 1811, Jón moved to Copenhagen in 1833 to attend university (there being no universities in Iceland at the time, and only a single college preparatory school). Unusually for a national hero, but not unusually for an Icelander of the time, he remained away from his homeland in the metropolis for the rest of his life (although he never graduated). Imagine George Washington spending his life in London, or Garibaldi in Vienna, or Bolívar in Madrid. You can’t, of course, because those national heroes were busy liberating their nations. Jón was sometimes known during his lifetime, and more often today in Iceland, as Jón forseti, or President Jón. This is not, as you might guess, because he tried for or achieved the title of President of Iceland; it is because he was the president of the Copenhagen chapter of the Icelandic Literary Society. This should give you some idea of the scope of his ambitions.

Being at the center of a group of Icelandic emigres in Copenhagen, Jón was elected to the Alþingi as soon as it was reconstituted in 1844. Fortunately for him, the Alþingi didn’t have that much to do, so it only met every other summer. He was elected president of the Alþingi for a couple periods here and there, although, in my favorite detail from his story, he at one point lost this position and went completely out of favor in Iceland because of his controversial stance on some sort of sheep disease. After this defeat he didn’t return to Iceland for six years.

In 1861, the Danes appointed Jón to a committee studying the possible fiscal separation of Iceland and Denmark. Jón famously produced a document known in Icelandic lore as the “Calculation Claim,” which purported to show that Denmark actually owed Iceland money. The prevailing belief had been that Iceland was basically a money sink for Denmark, which raises the question of why Denmark would care to prevent Iceland’s independence, and why Jón thought it was advantageous to prove that Iceland made money for Denmark. Part of the answer is that Jón didn’t actually want independence, he just wanted autonomy. In fact, when at one point the Alþingi passed a resolution calling for independence, Jón opposed it. Overall he seems like a rather arbitrary choice for a national hero, but I suppose there were no better-qualified candidates.


The Danes, being basically nice folks, unilaterally gave Iceland a constitution in 1874, in honor of its 1000-year anniversary, and made it a sovereign nation also ruled by the King of Denmark in 1918. In April 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Denmark. A month later, the United Kingdom occupied Iceland, passing it over to the U.S. two months later to use as a base. The 40,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iceland during the war outnumbered the island’s adult male population. In a 1944 referendum, Iceland declared itself a republic independent of the King of Denmark, who sent a congratulatory telegram.

The U.S. military presence lasted well beyond World War II and into the Cold War, and it left its mark on Iceland. The international airport at Keflavík was formerly a U.S. base, which explains why you need to traverse over 30 miles of beautiful empty Icelandic countryside to get between it and Reykjavik. In addition to the countryside, you also pass through several miles of American-style suburbs and highways; Iceland has the second-highest rate of car ownership in the world, after Luxembourg. Everyone in Reykjavik speaks good English. In preparation for my visit I’d gotten a Teach Yourself Icelandic book, but the hours I spent studying it failed to pay any practical dividends. The only sentence I spoke in Icelandic was “Talarþu enski?” (“Do you speak English?”), and the few times I broke it out people stared at me like I was crazy. “Enski? Já, já…” said one security guard at the Alþingi, as if I’d asked whether the sky was blue.

Reykjavik is tourist-friendly in other ways as well. It seems to be a running joke there that Icelanders are always asking tourists, “How are you liking Iceland?” Souvenir stores sell T-shirts that say “I’m liking it!”, as well as shirts that say “Ég tala ekki íslensku” (“I do not speak Icelandic”). Every coffee shop and cafe seems to have free, functional wireless internet. Perhaps most convenient of all, Reykjavik has almost completely transitioned to a cashless economy. There’s no need to exchange or withdraw any krónur, since basically every purchase can be made with a credit card. Backwards no more, you might say.

Iceland’s famous geothermal pools are also surprisingly accessible; they’re scattered all over the place, and the non-touristy ones at least are far from expensive. Icelanders use the pools much like Euro-Americans, and especially Britons, use bars and pubs: as a third place, a social venue in which to unwind and hang out. My Icelandic host said he goes 4 or 5 times a week. Pools are more family-friendly than bars, of course, and spending an evening there is a lot cheaper and more pleasant than drinking at a bar. The pool itself, or at least the one I visited, is filled with nothing but pure warm water issuing out of the ground; there are no chemicals, so everyone has to shower down naked beforehand to remove dirt. The pool isn’t hot, just warm, and on a cold October evening I wished it was warmer, but there were hot tubs nearby at three different temperature ranges as well as a sauna.

The decades of American influence on Iceland seem to have had all sorts of subtle effects, and they may help explain why there are disproportionately many internationally famous Icelanders. Icelandic bands often sing in English, and their good reputation in music-literate circles in America might be because they follow the American model of indie music in some way that mainland European bands, for example, don’t. It does seem to be upon music, first and foremost, and secondarily other cultural fields, that Icelanders have built their international reputation. The Icelanders I think are best known by American aficionados of high culture are, in order, Björk, the band Sigur Rós, the Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness, and the architect Olafur Eliasson (born in Copenhagen to Icelandic parents). (One could also count Leif Ericson, the explorer, who was probably from Iceland.) Not too many, but Iceland has a population of a little over 300,000, slightly larger than Newark, New Jersey and Riverside, California. For comparison, Albania has 10 times as many people, and Colombia more than 100 times as many, but I doubt even those American aficionados of high culture could name more than one or two people from either.

It seems somehow fitting, despite its centuries of backwardness and decades of American influence, that Iceland is among the world’s most progressive country. It elected a divorced single mother as the world’s first democratically elected female head of state in 1980, and the world’s first openly lesbian head of government in 2009. Gays and lesbians could get civil unions from 1996 and married from 2010. It routinely ranks among the top two or three countries in the world for a variety of measures of political freedom. Perhaps with such a small population, it had little inertia tying it to the rural, semi-medieval life that dominated the country only a century ago, and it’s had an easier time dragging itself forward into modernity. Regardless, it’s certainly worth a visit.

Reykjavik’s city hall and downtown viewed across Tjörnin, the lake in the city’s center.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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