It’s been a month since I left Iceland. I took copious notes and too many photos. I’ve nagged the non-writer in me, to write something about this trip, this adventure, this bucket list item. But I couldn’t wrap my head around the experience enough to see it for what it was. Then I began reading a book, given to me by a dear and insightful friend. Author Eric Weiner devotes an entire chapter of his book, The Geography of Bliss, to the little country of Iceland. This island unto itself is about the size of the state of Ohio. Fewer people live in this space than live in my small metropolis of Boise, Idaho.
So what is it about Iceland that makes it so special? So unique? So unparalleled? Weiner is fascinated by Iceland’s unexpectedly high ranking on several databases that measure the happiness of countries around the world. How can a place that is beset by eternal darkness for part of the year and eternal brightness for the other part of the year possibly cradle such notable happiness? How can a place that requires wool and neoprene for the bulk of the year be so cavalier? How can people be so content when their lives seem so burdened with hard labor and repair? When a hurricane slams into an American coastline, we lose people, we lose heart, and we lose money. When one of Iceland’s many volcanoes hurks molten lava onto ice to form an oozy mass of mud that rolls inexorably to the sea, taking land, animals, buildings, roads, and bridges with it, Icelanders just pull on their mukluks, rev up their bulldozers, and begin rebuilding.
Much is said about Icelandic sobriety—or lack thereof. Surely I missed the underbelly of despair that undoubtedly exists in pockets of Iceland. But my visit to the capital city of Reykjavik coincided with Iceland Airwaves, an annual music festival that has been stirring up the pop music world for 14 years. Venues blanket the very walkable downtown and clubs stay open pretty much all night. Yet even with all of this hoopla, I was never accosted by bleary-breathed drunks as I hiked the city in search of my next fabulous meal. No, I don’t believe Icelandic happiness is the result of drunken nirvana.
Iceland emanates a warmth that belies the country’s northern latitude and darkening skies. The people are friendly, unassuming, well-educated, generous, and eager to talk about their country. The literacy rate in Iceland is one of the highest in the world. Poets and writers are considered part of the national treasure, right along with the plethora of mineral baths and thermal pools. I found a thriving capital city that was both modern and old-fashioned without seeming clichéd. The museums, art galleries and public art were plentiful and tasteful. The streets, sidewalks, and parks were immaculate and shop windows were chic and tempting, right down to the realistically-nippled manikins—or would that be herikins?
Iceland also bears the reputation of being ultra-expensive. Granted, my inept math struggled to convert Icelandic Kroners to dollars. But after all the charges came in on my visa bill, nothing looked particularly frightening. While vacationing, I eat well. None of my Icelandic meals cost more than $50 and that included wine and dessert. In the states, it is not unusual to drop that much on a meal, once the tip is added in—tips are absolutely verboten in Iceland, that’s what wages are for, don’t you know?
The condition of Icelandic roads puts my state to shame. A population of 350,000 has no need for multi-lane highways and cloverleaf overpasses. But a pristine two-lane road with hundreds of bridges encircles the island—despite frequent natural disasters, I never saw a pothole.
Aside from the many things I found interesting or amazing, Weiner is right. There is a palpable feeling of contentment associated with Iceland. The inhabitants of this ever-changing land seem reconciled to an ultimate lack of permanence. Everything we know today could be completely transformed by tomorrow. The boredom of seeing the same old faces year after year could be interrupted by the sudden emergence of a new volcano. To accept this knowledge, perhaps relieves people of the need to excel, to worry, to hurry, to fret. Life is what you make of it. The people of Iceland are content to live in the moment, to fully focus and engage with each other and with their guests. I felt an unexpected sense of longing as I boarded the plane to leave Iceland. I was not longing to be home, I was longing to see more of this land of fire and ice.