Under the Midnight Sun

Iceland Has Earned its Place as the World’s Fifth Most Productive Country, But its Citizens are too Overworked to Enjoy It.

Anna Claessen | September 2007

Domkirkjan, the church behind the statue of Jon Sigurdsson in Reykjavik (Photo: Anna Claessen)

"Ladies and gentlemen... welcome to Iceland," said the voice over the loud speakers. After two flights and a seven-hour delay in Denmark, I was finally here.... I was finally home.

I walked from the plane and through the airport to baggage reclaim. The first thing I did, after finding my luggage, was to go outside and smell the air. Fresh cold air, especially great after being in Vienna, drowning in sweat from the early summer heat.

The airport is in Keflavík, about an hour from Reykjavik, the capital. It’s a really different view from there, so deserted, barely any buildings.

I caught a ride with my aunt and uncle, who were on the same flight. The sun was shining as we drove down the highway, even though it was only five in the morning.  Unlike the long dark winters, in summer the sun barely sets at all, and the mean temperature is around 11, 8 °C.

The road from the airport to Reykjavik is covered by volcanic rocks and lupine bushes. But once in the city, the sight of nature turns into concrete block buildings drapped in the scenery of the sea nearby and the mountains afar.

I arrived an hour later, home at last. My family had just arrived hours early from New York. It was amazing to see them again after 5 months apart. I went into my bedroom and fell asleep in my queen size bed. I slept in the next day but got up later and went to a coffeehouse. I sat down, ordered coffee and looked around. All I saw downtown were foreigners.

In a city of 180,000 people, only about six percent are foreigners, but this is changing. More foreigners are moving to our country and the Icelanders are more open to migration, more than in previous years. However, some don’t learn Icelandic yet they are able to work in places like supermarkets, annoying some customers who have to talk in English in their own country. Many Icelanders just want them to speak the official language and respect the laws and the culture of their country.

The Independence Day of Iceland was celebrated a day after my arrival. Icelanders  usually go downtown to see the parade and enjoy from other sorts of entertainment. Icelanders also gather at the statue of Jón Sigurðsson, the leading man in the fight for our independence, while  the mountain lady, an Icelandic symbol, dressed in traditional Icelandic costume, a long black dress with sleeves and a golden belt and buttons and a white hat with a white long veil, recites poetry. The capital looks like a carnival, with booths everywhere selling all sorts of things, from balloons to food.

Iceland became independent from Denmark on Jun. 17, 1944, at one of our national park, Þingvöllur. Coincidentally or not, it is also the birth date of Sigurðsson.

I called almost all of my friends, who were in the country at this time,  but no one could go with me to see concerts downtown that night. Everyone was either working or having a dinner with the extended family.

Icelanders, my friends being no exception, tend to work on holidays. The drive behind this shows a little the way they think. They like to work to get money, because money buys you things and Icelanders just love to buy things. As the proverb goes: "Often does one desire what one does not need." They even go as far to borrow money to get what they want. The reason is also the price of living and partying in Iceland.

I was really looking forward to go barhopping with my friends. Bars open up to 06:00 in the morning. But people don´t go downtown until 03:00, mostly because the drinks are so expensive there, a big beer costs about 8-10 Euros. Instead, Icelanders normally gather at someone’s house and then hit the bars. The government of Iceland joined the wave of European countries against tobacco and banned smoking in June this year inside bars and clubs so there is a different athmosphere inside, since most of the people go outside to smoke.

I finally met my friends but it took a lot of planning. My friends started off complaining, mostly over how expensive everything was. I understood them but also reminded them how lucky they are. The country is the world’s fifth most productive country in the world, in terms of GDP per capita and human development and is a member of EEA, OECD, NATO and the UN. I can work and study in Vienna without a visa. We, Icelanders, tend to take these things for granted.

I met a couple of acquintences during my stay. The first thing they asked is what I was doing. They were expecting me to answer that I was studying something. Education is really important, as one Icelandic proverb goes "A man without books is a blind man." The people in the country also look up to people who use the opportunity to go abroad.

When I tell people I study abroad,  they often look up to me, especially the older ones. My parents also feel proud saying that two of their children study abroad. I think everybody should do that, just to get a different perspective, especially for the citizens of small countries like Iceland.

My friends asked me what I missed most. I have to say after living in a city, I really miss the countryside. The Icelandic nature is our greatest treasure and the main tourist attraction. The geysers, the glaciers, waterfalls and the beautiful nature. Ironically, I am like a tourist in my own country because I only go to the geysers when I have visitors from abroad.

Back in Vienna, I´m constantly asked to define Iceland and especially Icelanders. I find it so difficult, mostly because they are constantly changing. And also because sometimes I don´t feel Icelandic. It’s amazing how much of a foreigner one becomes after living abroad. Patriotism emerges and when you come back to your home country, everything looks and feels as if it were brand new again. So when the airplane speakers said: "Welcome to Iceland," I felt they were not only welcoming the foreigners but also me.

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