Friday, July 25, 2003


Nesjavellir and Thingvellir today, with some walking at both.


Geysir and Gullfoss. These places get better the more they are seen. The Great Geysir fizzed a bit but didn´t go off. Strokkur is every 5 minutes or so.

On the road back past Thingvellirvatn saw SIX GREAT NORTHERN DIVERS at close range plus a glimpse of more well out on the lake

David´s Iceland Bird Wish List

Brunnich´s Guillemot
Sea Eagle
Harlequin Duck
Barrow´s Goldeneye

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Random Witterings

Visitors to Iceland often get the idea that Icelanders don’t have a sense of humour. They might just be right.

Icelanders have a very serious view on life. Maybe months of Gothic night every winter has its impact. Their television news is read in a monotone, even when it is clearly a good-news story. Their television weathermen must feel they will be sacked if they ever smile. Ask an Icelander a question and you will get an answer – a full and comprehensive one, so make sure you have the time. Icelanders are at their worst when talking about local writers, painters, sculptors and the like. Invariably they start: “the world-famous prize-winning writer X lived here”. Don’t they realise that if you have to say someone is world-famous, then by definition they are not?

In England we tell jokes about the Scots and the Irish. In America there’s a fair few Irish jokes. Even in Ireland they tell County Kerry jokes. In Iceland they tell jokes about Norwegians and Hafnies.

Norwegians are seen as Vikings who haven’t mellowed. They are seen as over-fit, over health-conscious, over sophisticated. Which probably proves that no-one in Iceland ever goes to Norway.

Hafnies are the folk who live in Hafnafjorthur, the next town to Reykjavik and its poor relation. Apparently in Hafnafjorthur they tip-toe past the chemist’s shop so as not to wake the sleeping pills. People there go shopping with ladders because they know the prices are high.

One Icelanders never seem to tire of is “What do you do if you are lost in an Icelandic forest?” The answer is “Stand up”. To relish this joke you need to know that “forest” in Iceland is birch and willow scrub not more than three or four feet high. To laugh on the 100th telling you have to be an Icelander.

The biggest joke is directed at foreigners. It concerns hand-knitted Icelandic jumpers. Iceland has a centuries-old tradition of knitting, some distinctive patterns, and super quality wool. They also maintain the home-industry of knitting. Their jumpers are great quality, ideally suited for the Icelandic climate, a genuine Icelandic masterpiece of art and utility … and in Icelandic popular culture worn only by half-witted yokels. No Icelander will wear an Icelandic jumper. Ever. They are exclusively worn by foreigners.

Shops hide certain products. Toilet rolls are now on display – apparently a few years ago they were kept under the counter. But Icelanders seem mighty self-conscious buying such things.

At the supermarket check-out the regular question is “Would you like anything else?” Now I found this a puzzle. I’ve just unloaded my basket onto the conveyor belt. What can the check-out do? Run round and get me another carton of milk if I’ve forgotten it? Or am I expected to say, “Yes please, I’ll have a dozen of your horribly expensive polythene carrier bags”? Then finally the guy in front of me at the check out said yes, he did want something else. And a rather small drawer was opened beneath the till to reveal the contraband. One half was full of tobacco, the other half condoms. All unpriced. Clearly if you’re buying illicit products you mustn’t worry about the price.

Icelanders have a complicated view of alcohol. For some a bottle of wine is clearly the ultimate sign of culture, an indulgence picked up on holidays in the Mediterranean. And a bottle of wine presented by a visitor to an Icelandic home seems to be a most acceptable gift (and far too precious to be uncorked in front of the visitor). Icelanders pay anything from £50 to £250 a bottle in a restaurant for what looks like a bottle of unremarkable wine. Wine is in effect a rather naughty indulgence. Ordinary shops cannot sell it – rather alcohol is only available through state-owned off-licenses. There aren’t many of these – and outside Reykjavik they tend to be not a shop but rather an alcove in a hardware shop or similar. Opening hours are short, and the state monopoly keeps prices astronomic. Yes, wine is cultured, decadent, reassuringly expensive, proof that you are affluent, and really wouldn’t be worth drinking if it were cheap. But the reality is that Icelanders drink very little wine, and don’t know their Chianti from their Claret.

Alcohol has another function in Iceland’s night life. It is drunk with a view to getting drunk. I’m informed that if you drink the cheapest stuff available, £80 will see you under the table.

Iceland does not have a class structure that Karl Marx would recognise. There is no proletariat. Specifically there is no class of factory workers, as there are hardly any factories. Those few working in fishing, fish packing and farming are paid very high wages. This is where Iceland’s wealth comes from, and the workers receive their reward. Virtually everyone is in middle-class jobs. Shops and restaurants tend to be staffed by young people and students who are doing the jobs on a short-term basis, just passing through as it were – you just about never see anyone over 25 in these jobs. Just about everyone is a professional. In Iceland it is not the bourgeoisie that has withered away, but rather the proletariat. And no-one would do what Marx would recognise as a proper day’s work.

It is very hard to get a feel on peoples’ wealth. This is a country where peoples’ greatest aspirations are to climb Icelandic mountains, spend a week camping (summer or winter), cook their evening meal on a barbeque, and get geraniums to bloom virtually on the arctic circle. And you don’t need to be rich to do any of these. Statistically Iceland is the world’s seventh wealthiest nation. And most of the top six are Gulf sheikhdoms where wealth comes from oil, which will soon run out, so they really don’t count. Icelanders are rich in global terms. Cars in Reykjavik are a very mixed bag, though there is an argument that the roads are so ghastly that a car will get wrecked anyway, so why not run around Reykjavik in an old banger? Outside Reykjavik the 4x4 is king, and there are some seriously expensive vehicles on the road, and owners wealthy enough not to be bothered about getting their toy damaged by driving hundreds of miles on tracks and through fords deep enough to sweep a 4x4 down-river. For while a brand-new 4x4 will certainly manage Iceland’s interior “roads” (I’m looking for an alternative word – some of them aren’t even tracks, just land you drive over) and even get across the rivers (crossings cannot reasonably be called fords – they are long drives sometimes of hundreds of yards through far from shallow rivers) it won’t be scratch and bash free at the end of the trip.

Housing is all very middle-classed. There are very few really big houses, though it seems the rich go for second and third homes. Which means most Icelanders have at least a bungalow somewhere outside Reykjavik.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003


Well today's good news is that the book looks like a book. All the chapters are there, and it just about hangs together. 58,000 words written. With links and descriptive bits and pieces it will get up to 70,000, maybe even a tad more. And I don't think just at this moment I can stand to look at it again! The Old Icelandic material proved gritty. I don't think there are optative clauses in Old Icelandic, but it is always hard to prove a negative. Curiously imperative clauses are very rare indeed. You always wanted to know that, didn't you?

Somewhere along the line I've taken in a couple more of Reykjavik's many museums. Labour Union's Art Gallery has some striking expressionist work, and is in a gallery which is itself a work of art.

Just received an e-mail from Damian on the difficulties of buying a railway ticket in Peru. That' one problem that doesn't exist in Iceland, as there are no railways! There is however an old steam engine preserved by the harbour which was used to haul stone to make the groins. Long-distance busses are rudimentary. It is possible to do the loop, but an Icelander at Reykholt told this as if it was an example of the madness of foreigners. It would take at least 4 days to get round, with lots of long journeys, and on routes where there is not necessarily even a bus a day. I guess to go right round the ring road in a car would be 20 to 24 hours of driving. Iceland is big!

Everything in Iceland works. The idea of queuing for ages to buy a ticket would be incomprehensible to people here.

David flies out tomorrow, and as he's a keen birdwatcher expect updates on the birds of Iceland. Some of the rarer and most striking birds here include White Tailed Eagles (which I saw last year), Great Northern Divers and Snowy Owls. The latter are very rare and stick to the hinterland, but I've hopes of a Great Northern Diver. Loon is the American name. David might well be looking also for Lesser Known Beige Birds, which are doubtless very rare ...

Monday, July 21, 2003

A severely text=based post this one, but here goes anyway!


Okay, I’ve been too long in Iceland. Today it is raining, and it’s almost a relief. I’ve seen no night for six weeks. And when it is not only light but bright sunshine hour after hour it gets weird. Disorientating. So it bit of gloomy weather actually comes in very welcome.


Blue lagoon today. As good as ever, though more crowded than I’ve seen it before. There’s just too many tourists ….

On leaving noted that a chunk of rock had a brass plate on it. Apparently it is the first chunk of rock excavated when the changing rooms were built – and it was formed in 1226. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this sort of precise dating on a rock.

Nearby at Sandgerdi there are some salt water fish tanks with fauna from Icelandic waters. I guess the octopus was the star, but a lot of other curious critters. Not so keen on the stuffed birds, and not at all keen on the mangy-looking stuffed walrus that was a present from Greenland.

Sometimes whales can be seen from the Reykjanes coast, but no luck today.

Saturday evening

The book is now 57,162 words. And at last it seems to have a proper shape. I guess I’ve got a thousand words of preface and maybe 4,000 of bibliography sitting on computer at Morpeth. So say 62,000 words done. I’ve a couple of thousand words more of Old Icelandic examples and discussion (a gritty section I’ve been hoping might go away). Plus a bit of expansion particularly in the conclusion. This book is coming to 70,000 words. Which is about right.

Views in Iceland

Okay I’m sure a more compelling heading could be found, but its nearly 11pm and the inspiration really isn’t coming.

With the super weather of the last few days views across Reykjavik bay – Faxa Floi – have been something rather remarkable. Snaefellsness is big and clear. It’s 85 miles away, but looks 10. You are supposed to be able to see Calais from Dover, a mere 26 miles, but with the Channel pollution I’ve never managed it. Brighton to Dieppe is 40-something miles, and I’ve never heard of anyone who has seen across – though there are cliffs both sides. So to see clearly 85 miles is quite something – and that from sea level. Jules Verne says that there is a tunnel from Snaefellsness to the centre of the earth. Some today reckon that UFOs land there. In reality the mountain is a draw for the eyes – you can’t stop looking at it. It was one of the landmarks used by the Vikings on the Greenland crossing – the other being Cape Dan. The Vikings state that from the middle of the crossing they could see Snaefellsness to the east and Cape Dan to the west. The distance is 200 miles, so this means visibility 100 miles in each direction. And with the sort of visibility possible in this unpolluted corner of the globe I have no difficulty in believing that this was possible, and indeed would still be possible.

You don’t realise it at first, but only the top half of Snaefellsness is visible. The bottom half is of course hidden by the curvature of the earth, and is a superb visual demonstration that the earth is curved. Viking navigators were well aware that the earth was curved. There is a description of the direct route from Bergen to Cape Farewell where sailors should pass north of Shetland and south of the Faroes in a manner so that the sea appeared half way up the mountains of each group. Then continue due west …. This should work, as this is a correct latitude of Cape Farewell. Snori Sturluson went a stage better than a statement that the world was curved, and described the world as a sphere. And all this hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus’s crew were worried about falling off the edge of the earth!

Just heading out for a walk to see if I can see Snaefellsness …
LATER – super view from Kopavogur to Snaefellsness at a few minutes to midnight. The light nights continue. Or the no nights.

Reykjavik in Figures

Average winter temperature –1degree
Average summer temperature +10degrees
Highest temperature last year (2001) +17degrees
Highest temperature ever 24degrees

Population in 2001 in Reykjavik city 112,276 (plus another 60,000 or so in the communities around). Population of Iceland is 286,275.

Life expectancy: men 78 years, women 81 years. Is this the world’s highest?

There is virtual full-employment – unemployment 1.3%.
86% work in service industries. 14% work in agriculture, fishing or manufacturing.

65,671 in Reykjavik city alone – one for every two people.
77 buses – one for every 1,445 people. No wonder everyone drives!

837,668 passengers passed through Keflavik and Reykjavik airports 2000 – that’s three times the population of Iceland.
48 cruise ships called in at Reykjavik (2000)

There is only one hospital in Reykjavik – a big one! All your eggs in one basket comes to mind ….
GPs – one for every 2000 people. They’re even rarer than the busses! It is curious that a country with a world-leading life expectancy has so few hospitals and doctors. It suggests that affluence and lifestyle has a very big effect on life expectancy, not medical resources.

Reykjavik City
Income 2002 26,960,000,000 ISK
Costs 2002 23,046,375,000 ISK– leaving a very healthy surplus.
The cost of city services per person is in the region of £2,000 pa.


Major deleting session with the book. Down to 55,404 words, yet I must have written over a thousand.


I’m up to 56,040 words. Seem to be deleting almost as many as I write.

I saw two faces of tourism in Iceland today.

One was a guy I met at the morning coffee break at the conference. The conference is using two hotels. There’s the very respectable Leifur Eiriksson, where I stayed last year, which is a comfortable hotel in a central location. And there’s the Holiday Inn, which offers a cheaper but doubtless very respectable alternative. Now this guy is not staying at either of them, but rather at the Salvation Army hostel. I imagine this is clean and tidy as everything in Reykjavik. If he were in his 20s I might even have thought this was a sensible way to deal with the costs of Reykjavik. But this guy was mid 50s. He had brought food with him from England, and was tucking into the conference coffee break free cake as if he hadn’t eaten since he was in England. He was physically in Iceland, but his constrained finances meant he wasn’t planning to leave Reykjavik, which means he really wouldn’t see much of the country. And he certainly won’t experience the Icelandic horse, or the blue lagoon, or any other of the fun things Iceland has to offer. A shame.

A little later in Eymundsson’s I overheard a middle-aged lady buying some books. Now Iceland produces some super books, but at prices that have to be seen to be believed. If costs matter to you at all you look in the bookshop, then go into the internet café 50 yards away, order the same book on-line through Amazon, and pay the UK or US price which is about half the Icelandic price. The books would be at your door at home in a very few days (probably before you get home), and you don’t have to carry them. Basically a foreigner buying a book in an Icelandic bookshop is, well lets say comfortably off. She was also American, which meant that the sales transaction was conducted in that carrying voice that is so much a part of American self confidence. “Would you like a tax refund?” the shop assistant asked. “No thank you”. “But its 700 krona!” (about £5.40, $8.10). “Thank you for telling me, but it won’t make me any richer and I couldn’t be bothered”.

I’ve no doubt Iceland prefers the second sort of tourist. And for Iceland a few tourists and wealthy makes more sense than a lot of tourists and poor. The American’s £5.40 donation to the Icelandic economy – which is what not taking your tax refund amounts to – is a largesse that the Brit in the Salvation Army hostel won’t be giving.

It does raise questions on whether tourism is to be regarded as an industry. I rather think the answer for Iceland that yes it is. The high costs in Iceland are almost exclusively for the things which tourists have to buy. Hotels are top notch prices – but no Icelander ever uses a hotel as they have relatives and friends everywhere. Excursions are expensive – but Icelanders have their own cars. Car hire is expensive – but no Icelander ever hires a car. Flights TO Iceland are expensive, but I’m gathering that Icelandair lucky fares and the like mean Icelanders travelling FROM Iceland get some decent deals. Alcohol is seriously expensive, but in a country where prohibition lasted from 1912 until 1989 I suppose this is inevitable. And maybe a consequence is that it keeps the lager louts out. Restaurants are expensive, but not many Icelanders use them. And prices in supermarkets – well, you get used to them. When you’ve just paid 299 ISK (£2.40) for a few lettuce leaves you jolly well enjoy them. Cars cost a lot - pretty much double UK prices, but then hoousing costs are quite a bit cheaper than Britain, so maybe it balances out. Icelanders might like to grumble that everything in Iceland is expensive, but they don’t do so badly. Tourists however are skinned alive. And if you see tourists as an industry, why not skin them alive?

At least it stops too many people coming, which keeps Reykjavik crime free and Europe’s last wilderness relatively undamaged.


Diglossia rules in Iceland. Even triglossia. Polyglossia. Everyone, just everyone speaks English. Most of the television is in English. Everyone is exposed to English for hours every day. There are lots of people here who speak better English than the English. Fluent, idiomatic, professional. To trump this linguistic excellence most Icelanders do nearly as well in Danish. And they can understand pretty much all the other Scandinavian languages. Faroese is the closest to Icelandic, and for this reason Icelanders seem to feel a special kinship to the Faroese people. The story is that when the immigrants were travelling to Iceland the seas were rather rough, and those who were very sea sick stopped off at the Faroes. So the Faroese are the closest relatives of the Icelanders. And if you speak Danish you can of course understand Norwegian (which, lets face it, is Danish, just don’t tell a Norwegian he’s speaking Danish) and Swedish. Oh, and most learn German at school. Linguistically this is an impressive list of languages. But it’s not a reason for Brits to bewail their linguistic ineptitude. Icelanders need to speak languages because no-one speaks Icelandic. Brits don’t because the world either speaks English or is learning it.

Learning Icelandic would be tough. Given that all Icelanders speak English, when are you ever going to speak Icelandic? The textbooks are not brilliant either. And Icelandic has a volume of grammar that makes Latin look a grammar-free zone.

Icelandic today is as near as we are ever going to get to hearing English as it was spoken a thousand years ago. The Brits and their descendants worldwide are of course of much the same stock as the Icelanders. And Icelandic, because of its isolation, has remained relative unchanged since the first Vikings pulled up their ships on Reykjavik sand in 874AD – while English has been bashed and battered over the centuries. Only two languages in the world have true English th sounds – English and Icelandic. And there’s no sound in Icelandic very different to the sounds of English. Sure, they’ve got a lot of grammar, but they are doing pretty much English things with it. And the vocabulary isn’t all that hard. If I wanted to learn Icelandic it would be possible. But bottom line is that much as I like Iceland I cannot think of any need to speak Icelandic. In Italy a few tourist phrases help a lot. In Iceland you either speak fluent Icelandic or you speak English.

For centuries people have been predicting the death of Icelandic. Now Iceland feels confident of her language, and proud of it. Icelandic is stronger than it has been since Iceland was a Viking Commonwealth. Everyone assumes that Icelandic is going from strength to strength.

Then I meet a couple of Icelanders – Valur (with a rolled final r, that English tongues can copy but English ears can’t really hear) and Jon. Mid to late 20s. English faultless. So good they are making the sort of mistakes that native speakers would make. Okay, they are good even by Icelandic standards, but they are not such a rarity here either.

There are no past examples of languages surviving the sort of diglossia that now exists in Iceland. None. Nought. Nix. Nil. Zilch. Not one. Icelanders love their language and culture, and will not credit that it is under threat. Yet every example from historical linguistics points to the demise of Icelandic. The chips are down for Icelandic. Within a hundred years it will be pretty much gone – that’s my prediction. Enjoy while you can.

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