Iceland is home to political corruption, identity crises, driftwood museums, Viking sagas, low crime, bizarre naming practices, a French Revolution conspiracy theory and possible inbreeding.
Iceland is all the rage. I hear more and more people talking about the country as a travel destination. But there’s more to this interesting nation than icebergs, hot springs and the Aurora Borealis.
Here are some of the little-known facts about Iceland that my friends Shaun and Lindsay learned on their trip.
1. Icelanders take politics very seriously.
Lindsay: The people are really politically involved. The president was involved in the Panama Papers [a massive data leak that exposed how the wealthy exploit offshore tax loopholes, often for illegal activities].
There are 300,000 people in the country, and 20% of the population came out to protest in Reykjavik, and he resigned that day.
In our country, all the bankers that caused the recession got bailed out. Our guide told us that in Iceland, they built a prison and imprisoned them.
2. They have a bit of an identity crisis.
Shaun: That same tour guide said, “We don’t know if we’re American or European — but we just know that we are not Dutch.”
Even though they all speak Dutch, they are very resentful of the fact that they were once ruled by the Dutch.
A lot of Vikings from Norway stole Irish women, Irish princesses, and ended up in Iceland.
3. There’s not much wildlife.
Lindsay: The only indigenous animal in the country is the artic fox.
They had one type of tree and it covered 40% of the country when they first started colonizing. And then because it was so cold, they chopped most of them down. So they have hardly any trees anywhere.
Shaun: So, once they chopped down all of their trees to stay warm, they then started relying on driftwood.
Lindsay: There’s a whole museum for it!
Shaun: If you were walking along the beach and you found some driftwood, it was essentially yours, so long as you claimed it. If you couldn’t carry all the driftwood back, people started leaving their symbols or their mark on the driftwood.
4. Their original homes were made of unusual materials.
Shaun: A lot of the early homes and tools were built with driftwood.
Lindsay: One of our tour guides said that she remembers her grandparents living in one of these houses they made out of sod, mud and driftwood. They’re really small. They had an exhibit where we got to go into these actual houses they had moved there.
This was when we took the Ring Road to the south, where there were all the waterfalls.
5. There’s a road that goes all the way around the country.
Shaun: The Ring Road, the best I understand it, goes completely around the country. It takes very little amount of time to go around Iceland — I think it’s like two days.
There are a lot of fjords in the northwest section, and the south section has a lot of waterfalls and beaches. Everything in the middle is glaciers and volcanoes.
6. A volcano helped cause the French Revolution.
Shaun: The largest volcano, Helka (the only thing I could pronounce), is supposedly responsible for the French Revolution. It exploded, and all this ash went all over Western Europe and killed all the crops and decimated the livestock — a meter high.
The people revolted against those who were able to maintain their lifestyle.
7. They live in the shadow of death.
Shaun: When we were walking between the American Tectonic Plate and the European one, it wasn’t until then that I realized something about this country. People said they get asked why they live there. And they say, “Well, this is our home” — regardless of the fact that a volcano could explode or a flood could happen, and it may kill 40% of the population.
That is just part of being Iceland, realizing that any moment could be your last, and that you’d have to repopulate. Which sounds like it’s quite the process, because there are so few people there.
8. Families are very proud of their sagas, which are historic books.
Lindsay: Every person who’s Icelandic has access to these books. Icelandic people are obsessed with books — it’s always been a huge part of their culture.
Every family has these storybook sagas, and the government helps take care of them.
There are stories in the sagas — some of it is accurate, but some has obviously been exaggerated.
9. Icelanders don’t have last names. And they have to choose their kids’ names from an approved list.
Shaun: There’s a list of names that you can choose from. You can’t just make up a name for your kid.
Lindsay: If you want something off that list, you have to ask the council and get it pre-approved. And you don’t name your kid until he or she is christened. So the child doesn’t have a name for what could be three months.
Shaun: You’ll get a lot of Jóhann Jóhannssons. People say their first name, then say they’re the son of their mother or father.
10. They have very few police officers, Plus people park crazy.
Lindsay: We saw one policeman the entire time we were there.
Shaun: In Reykjavik, people will just straight up park on the sidewalks. They have no care in the world about where they should park.
But somehow, when we were going to the Northern Lights boat, there was a person who was getting a ticket for parking on the street. Maybe all the other people parking on the sidewalk didn’t get tickets ’cause they didn’t get around to it with their one cop.
11. But the country is one of the safest.
Lindsay: There’s virtually no crime. Maybe one murder a year.
And finally, I had to ask:
Do they worry about inbreeding with so small a population?
Shaun: My interpretation is, how could you not be? But no one really wanted to talk about that. And of course no one wanted to ask them, “Are you inbred?”
Well, that’s something I’ll put on my list when we finally make it to Iceland. –Wally