Iceland: the land of resilience

Sitting on a ridge between the American and European tectonic plates that give rise to 30 active volcanic systems, Iceland displays a very distinctive character. With a tiny population of 340,000, the country is the only one that sent bankers to jail after the 2008 financial crisis. It has a world-class football team and tourism is booming.

 

Sagas

The Icelandic sagas recount heroic stories and family chronicles that took place during the Viking age when, in the 9th century, the island was first settled by Norse and Celtic migrants.The sagas include stories of the Vikings creating in 930 the oldest parliament in the world, the Althing, in the beautiful Thingvellir National Park; stories of Erik the Red, who established the first European colony in Greenland after being expelled from Iceland and stories of his son, Leif Erikson, who reached America almost 500 years before 1492.Locals remind you that Christopher Columbus travelled to Iceland a few years before setting sail across the Atlantic, which makes many Icelanders think that he had heard about America long before he “discovered it”. One thing is sure, surviving more than 1,000 years on the 66th parallel with low temperatures, high winds, regular rain and active volcanoes has been a matter of strong character and great resilience. In 1402 plague killed half the population, and again in 1494. In the 1700s, disease and famine returned before the 1783 volcanic eruption killed 30% of the Icelandic people. The country was under Norwegian and later Danish influence before it claimed its independence in 1881.And here it is, in 2019, ten years after a huge financial crisis, as resilient as ever.

 

Living in Reykjavik

Two things are really affordable in Iceland: water-hot or cold-and electricity, that the island produces in huge quantities through geothermal and hydroelectric means. Apart from that, expect prices similar to or higher than in Luxembourg, as almost everything needs to be imported, even wood. A can of beer costs up to €15euros for example, but do not worry, water is free in every restaurant! One of the reasons behind the beauty of the landscape is that you hardly see any trees, and when you do, they are hidden behind hills or look like a tiny version of normal trees. On the political side, Icelanders are very progressive. They were the first in the world to elect a female president in 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, andJ óhanna Sigurðardóttir was the first gay prime minister in 2009. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, they even elected Jón Gnarras Mayor of Reykjavik, a comedian who jokingly founded the “Best Party”and promised “Free towels in swimming pools” and “a polar bear in the Reykjavik zoo”.Talking about parties, Reykjavik is a great place for long nights. The city has a large choice of attractive bars and restaurants, but they seem very empty as locals find it cheaper to drink at home until after midnight when hordes of young people, and many bouncers, appear along Laugavegur street. Supermodels seem to be the”standard"type here, the atmosphere is electric and alcohol drinking, serious. What else would you expect from Vikings?

 

The Golden Circle

Luck plays an important role when visiting Iceland. Seeing the Northern Lights alone is worth the trip, but they appear only in winter!These green, mesmerizing waves appear only when you have clear skies–something far from common-and strong solar activity. You can check conditions on https://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/. It is not necessary to join a tour :just take a taxi to the lighthouse in Reykjavik or rent a car and drive to Þingvellir National Park, 40 kilometers from there. When it comes to visiting the island, hiring a guide is a good idea.They can take you to glaciers and other remote places in total safety. If you prefer to travel on your own, the GoldenCircle is a perfect tour to make in one day.Start early and enjoy the sunrise from your car. Head to Þingvellir National Park, where you can learn about the first parliament in the world, walk between the American and European tectonic plates and enjoy breathtaking views of the lake. An hour later, you reach Geysir, where water explodes every seven minutes or so and Gulfoss–the golden river-the Icelandic equivalent of the Niagara Falls. Some people return to Reykjavik directly, but you can go full circle by heading south towards Selfoss, where you will be able to visit the small Kerid crater and pay your respects to Bobby Fisher, the chess genius who wasted most of his talent and ironically ended up in the country where nothing is wasted.

A resilient economy

According to Pétur Haraldsson, CEO of Fidesta, the reason behind the collapse of the Icelandic financial system in 2008was a combination of a lack of experience of Icelandic bankers expanding very fast internationally and a natural tendency for locals to go at full speed when identifying any opportunity. Think about a hunter chasing prey after months of impossible weather. But Haraldsson also believes the aftermath of the crash was a great occasion for people to get back to basics: happiness and family rather than hyper-consumption, selfishness and luxury cars.The Icelandic krona lost 150% of its value against the dollar in one week.The country went back to exporting fish and, once again, it managed to ride the storm, helped, surprisingly this time, by Eyjafjallajokull, a tiny volcano that you hardly notice when you passit. Its eruption in 2010 paralyzed Europe but put Iceland on the map. For David Gudmundsson, a guide, Facebook was gaining momentum at the same time, drawing thousands of tourists from all over the world to Iceland to see the Northern Lights.And when Instagram emerged a few years later, the country got as much publicity as it needed, mostly for free. From 400,000 tourists in 2009, Iceland now welcomes more than 3.6 million of them and unemployment is at 2.7%. In the wake of 2008 they can ask,“Crisis, what crisis?”

 

Football

How can a country with a smaller population than Luxembourg play in the World Cup and beat England in the European cup? To solve this enigma, I met with Hàkon Sverrisson, the head coach at Breidablik training center, the best in the country. Under a big roof, hundreds of children of all ages practice here on soft synthetic grass.A 12-year-old goalkeeper was close to tears after his friends shot 20 times in a row into the top corner of his goal from 20 meters.The building was financed by the city and the cost per parent is only a few hundred euros per year. Students come almost every day and benefit from world-class coaching: each club in Iceland must have two level-A/B UEFA trainers or pay a fine, which shows in the quality of training. All sessions are highly structured, players are very respectful of their coach and they usea n app where they need to answer questions about their performance, strength, weaknesses and so on after every match.During my 60 minutes there, I met two parents that were ex-football professionals who played in Germany and England. The national goal keeper also popped in for a casual training session.A friend accompanying me wrapped it up nicely when we left: “This is an amazing self-confidence factory”.

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