When this is written, Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is crawling with foreign media. Many, it seems, are looking for drama: the destitute banker sitting on a curb in his pinstriped suit, the family with ten children that has lost everything in the bank collapse and doesn’t know how they’re going to survive, stooped people waiting in line outside supermarkets that are empty of food.
Instead they’re finding that life in this island country, which has been hit harder than most by the global economic crisis, is pretty much as it always was. Things cost the same as they did two weeks ago. Gas went up by about ten kronur at the pumps last week, then went back down again. Despite rumours of food shortages, supermarkets are stocked with food – both foreign and domestic. And while the inevitable fallout is already upon us with the accompanying job losses and such, Icelanders are dealing with this whole economic collapse with a surprising amount of equanimity.
The first two weeks of the collapse were crazy. For normal citizens it was a full time job just to process all the information coming our way. For many of us it was like an immersion course in global economics. Unsurprisingly, productivity plummeted and workplaces more or less came to a standstill. Nobody really knew what was going to happen in the next hour or the next day so keeping the wheels turning was difficult. Everyone was talking about the crisis, checking the internet, listening to the latest on the news. Hungry for information.
Now that the dust is settling, the focus is on how we can rebuild our society, and there is an enormous amount of optimism. Unfortunately, this is not what is being portrayed in the foreign media. I came across an online article a couple of days ago in which the reporter was going on about how the only people smiling in Reykjavík now were the tourists, which is a complete misrepresentation and in line with the sensationalist angle many media outlets – even the supposedly highbrow ones – are taking. Yes, certainly people here are walking around with a more grave expression than often before, but nobody is in hysterics and everyone I have talked to has a lot of hope for the future. In fact many people feel that what is happening is a Very Good Thing. One woman talked about how pleased she is about what’s happening – that the greed and envy and full-out derangement that has characterized this society over the past several years is disappearing. And this despite her car payments having doubled because she has a loan in a foreign currency and our national currency has devalued so much. In her words, “I can’t wait for Christmas this year … fewer presents, less stress, and people just enjoying being together and nurturing each other. Cultivating what really matters.”
Cultivating what really matters. A return to basic values. That’s the prevailing emphasis around here these days and yes, it is a Very Good Thing. A few short weeks ago the media was still glorifying our “Tycoons” and doing features on people who decorated their massive concrete homes with cold fixtures and soulless minimalist furniture. What we get now is stories of people sticking together, helping each other, like the employees of the nationalized Glitnir bank who on Friday met outside in the parking lot for a massive group hug. There’s also the story of the husband and wife who both worked for Landsbanki bank and both lost their jobs on the same day … but one of them was quickly re-hired so the family would have at least one breadwinner. Newspapers urge people to be careful of what they say around children and the elderly, and a front-page headline in daily Morgunbladid on Saturday read: “The psychiatric ward is not inundated” – contradicting a report a week earlier that the psychiatric ward at the National Hospital could hardly cope with the influx of new admissions.
So while many media outlets only focus on the gloomy aspect of what’s happening here in Niceland, I find it almost impossible to list all the good, positive things that are happening. Education authorities are making sure children have a secure place in the preschools even if their parents default on payments. A crisis committee is being set up to help people who have lost their jobs. Mortgages are all being taken over by the state’s Housing Financing Fund and those who can’t make mortgage payments can apply to have them halted for the time being. People are being urged to come out and talk about their job losses and even their financial difficulties, because it will help them and others – the message being that there’s no shame in it, ESPECIALLY not now. I could go on.
Many MANY people here talk about the exciting times ahead – that’s we’re on the brink of building a new society, a New Iceland, and that this constitutes a wealth of exciting opportunities. We have good, solid resources: fish in the sea, heat in the ground, copious amounts of energy, a beautiful country with myriad opportunities in tourism, and an excellent workforce: a nation of well-educated and hard working people, many of whom are now out of work and who can use their expertise to help rebuild our economy and much of the infrastructure. After all, this is not the worst that we have endured: on two or three occasions in the past the Icelandic nation has been close to being entirely wiped out by calamities much worse than this, such as volcanic eruptions and the bubonic plague.
This is not to minimize the difficulties that some people are dealing with, particularly in the short-term. It’s probably hardest for those who have lost their jobs, who have mortgages or loans in foreign currencies, and people currently studying abroad, who cannot even transfer money from Iceland [as foreign currency transfers have been temporarily suspended] and may have run out of funds. It’s also a bit of a pain for those travelling abroad who want to buy foreign currency at the bank but have found there is a limit and they have to show a ticket to prove they’re going abroad [this is what it was like here 20 years ago, so there is a certain element of nostalgia!].
On the whole, we’re survivors up here. We’ve had to be, merely to survive the centuries of isolation coupled with a harsh and unforgiving climate. Plus we have a good sense of humour, a healthy dose of unconcern, and we get on with things – without too much drama.