A Nation of Peers: On Equality and Corruption in the Icelandic House of Cards

Iceland is the home of the largest glacier in Europe, countless elves, and social inequality. Not unlike other parts of the world, a persistent gap exists between the rich and the rest of us, and power and money get concentrated on the hands of those who know how to play – and rig – the game.

In Iceland, like elsewhere, wealthy folks have access to opportunities that others can only dream of. While some kids grow up in financial bliss, other kids can’t participate in sports because fees and the cost of team trips are too heavy for their low-income parents. Inequality takes the form of immigrants with postgraduate degrees working in manual labour because they cannot get access to jobs that match their skills and education and it presents in people with disabilities still having to put up a fight to get essential services properly funded.

And yet, Iceland has a curious characteristic that works in the favour of social equality: Proximity.

Our population is tiny. While Iceland is a decent-sized island (in fact, Iceland is 80% the size of England) the population is minuscule on a global scale (0.6% of the population of England). In addition to that, Iceland’s population is predominantly located in the capital area and in small towns and villages along the coast, while most of the country is taken up by mountainous terrain and fast-melting glaciers. Thus, we literally live right next to each other.

This physical proximity, along with centuries of relative isolation and lack of diversity have created a need for us to look up promising dating prospects in Íslendingabók to check not whether, but how related we are. Not surprisingly, in a society this small, political scandals and financial crises take on a personal tone. We cannot talk about “those people” who engage in corruption without talking about ourselves.

In Iceland, physical proximity translates to social proximity. The son of Jón the factory worker goes to class with the daughter of Jónas the CEO and they just might start dating by the end of 9th grade. On a dark winter morning, the Mayor of Reykjavík (Iceland’s capital) sits shoulder to shoulder with a retired teacher and a construction worker from Lithuania at one of the many outdoor geothermal hot tubs. Everyone must wash thoroughly without swimsuit before entering the pool, regardless of taxable income and offshore assets. And if you keep your eyes open, you just might spot the President on an evening walk on one of the many public trails along the shore. Perhaps you’ll have a casual chat, especially if your aunt was his classmate in college.

Without exception, Icelanders speak to each other on a first name basis. Last names are made up of the first name of one’s parent (typically the father, although some Icelanders have now started challenging that patriarchal tradition) with “-son” (son) or “-dóttir” (daughter) at the end. Although last names help indicate whose kid you are, referring to an Icelander by their last name does not make any sense. Similarly, having a doctorate degree does not mean you will be referred to as Dr. LastName and formal honorifics are simply not used, save for the president, who may get a “Herra” or “Frú” before his or her first name.

Creating and maintaining a rigid class hierarchy should really be difficult in a small and interconnected community like Iceland. Certainly there will be people who gather wealth, but lack of public reverence for the so-called elite and low or nonexistent fear of authority could work beautifully to our advantage.

The Icelandic House of Cards game is rigged. There’s no doubt about that.

Forget about learning to play it right. How about creating a whole new game?

It really is about time.

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Cultural Diversity in Iceland: Who Gets to Be Icelandic?

Cultural diversity in Iceland is a preschooler. So young and yet maturing oh so fast. In the past 15-20 years, a decent number of people from around the world have been settling down in Iceland to live, work, study, raise a family, make it through the dark winter days, and join other sunstarved Icelanders in savoring bright summer days three months out of the year.

Over 52.000 people in Iceland have some “foreign” background. That is 16% of the total population. Roughly half of those people have moved to Iceland without any Icelandic roots. Some have lived here for 55 years and some came six months ago. Some are Icelandic citizens, know the national anthem better than the average native 30-year-old, and speak fluent Icelandic, while others are still getting acquainted with Icelandic society and struggle with the impossible grammar (and the varying pronounciation of words with the exact same spelling…). And some are somewhere in between.

Then there are folks with roots in more than one place. Those who have parents from different countries and cultures, those born abroad with both parents of Icelandic origin, and those born in Iceland with both parents of international origin. And let’s not forget all those who proudly trace their Icelandic ancestry way back, but may not be aware their mama was conceived after grandma’s brief encounter with a French sailor back in the day…

Who gets to be Icelandic and who does not? How do we split each other into “us” and “them”, Icelandic and non-Icelandic? Do we define Icelandic-ness by country of birth? By citizenship? Icelandic language fluency? Skin color? When it comes down to it, many of us would struggle to define what being Icelandic really means. Do we want it to be a VIP party where only a selected few get invited? I sure hope not. Wherever in the world we may live, we are responsible for contributing to a healthy, peaceful, and thriving society where everyone is included and valued. If we shut the doors to our fellow community members, we all lose out.

A current TV program in Iceland, Rætur (Roots), is perhaps the first to point out the commonalities and differences of Iceland’s diverse inhabitants in a warm, engaging, and respectful way. Persons who at some point migrated to Iceland have shared their experiences and perspectives in personal interviews and these conversations may have done more to shake up the stale stereotypes of “immigrants” than any other single intervention I know of in Iceland. Talking to each other is so very different from talking about each other.

We – Icelanders of all backgrounds – have a precious chance to collaborate on building an inclusive and welcoming society. After all, it takes a village to raise a preschooler. Icelandic nationality defined in a narrow, exclusive way can never unify a diverse population. We are so much better together!

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When Plans Fall Apart

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I have this habit of wanting things to go according to my plan. The plan can include something as simple as what I want to do on a regular Sunday or something as broad as major life goals I want to accomplish, ideally in a particular order. When making decisions, this means I often spend a lot of time thinking about possible actions and consequences, as if there were one “correct” choice to be made. This also means I don’t like when things change unexpectedly and I definitely don’t like my plans falling through. When my plans don’t work out, I find myself caught off guard. As if things were supposed to happen the way I wanted them to.

This habit has been curiously persistent. I have had life-changing experiences where my well-thought-out plans have completely fallen apart and yet I have found myself getting right back up to design new plans and become mentally attached to particular outcomes that – again – may never materialize.

A friend of mine listened recently while I shared my frustration about not knowing how to reach one of my big goals in life. When I was done talking, she looked at me for a second and then moved her glass and plate apart on the kitchen table, put her phone squarely in the middle, and said: “Let’s say you want to travel from this glass to this plate. Turns out the phone is in your way. It seems you keep bumping into the phone, over and over again! It’s like you don’t realize you can turn to the right and go around it… or turn left… or jump over it… or go somewhere else!”

Of course she was right.

Most of the time, there is more than one way from A to B.

Also, B is just one of many possible destinations.

In other words, there is no one right way to live my life. I even dare say there is no one right way to live yours either.

Life keeps taking unexpected turns whether I want it or not. Time after time, I find myself in the middle of things that were not at all on my agenda and the more I try to stick with my plan, the more frustrated I get when life does its own thing.

At one point in my life, when I had experienced a series of difficult events and transitions, I decided to help myself recover mentally by setting only one big goal: To be. The result was a year where I ended up feeling more alive than I had felt in a long time. It was like an adventure – starting each day with a sense of appreciation for being present and curiosity about what I might encounter. I decided that all I really had to do was to be myself, breathe, and be ready to accept whatever the day were to bring.

The following year I made a different agenda. Instead of planning to be, I planned to accomplish. Needless to say, this plan didn’t work so well. The more I chased after my goals, the less often I remembered to look up and breathe. And the more frustrated I got with my lack of “progress”, the more stuck I became inside my own head, worrying and thinking things over… and over… and over. It is actually hard to be present in the world when you are stuck inside your head.

It seems simple, now that I think about it. But knowing myself, I think this may be one of those lessons I need to learn a few times before I finally get it.

Where Have You Been?

ObservationsI love to travel. In my world, travel is an adventure that unfolds in ways I cannot anticipate. If given the chance, I prefer side roads to main streets, a homemade meal to a fancy restaurant, and a small village to a tourist resort. I would rather travel to places I’ve never imagined, than visit the same beach two years in a row, and I would rather make friends at a local park than hang out at a hotel bar with peers from home. To me, travel adds flavor to life and widens my horizon, regardless of where I go.

Most of my journeys have been freely chosen and enjoyable. I have been the obvious bad-mannered tourist wearing shorts and flip-flops in tiny sacred chapels, a guest in local homes, a student receiving language lessons from playful neighborhood kids, and the lost hiker who walks off to the right when map says left. Some of my travels have left me forever changed, with a new outlook on life and the world, and some have made me rethink my very identity to the core. And none of my travels have been terrorizing.

In Killing Rage, bell hooks speaks of different types of travel. The kind of travel that involves forced migration to places where one hopes to be safe from persecution, trafficking across borders without consent, displacement from one corner of a city to another due to gentrification, and movement from a community of color to white spaces where one becomes the Other whose worth and merit are constantly questioned.

Frightening journeys are not always counted as valid. The travel stories are not openly shared and there may be no pictures to verify the sights seen on the way. The traveler may not be greeted with warm welcomes upon return. There may not be a return at all. Those journeys require more courage and strength than any vacationing tourist could ever assemble.

And travel is undertaken even while staying put. A first-generation college student may find himself moving mentally away from his native community toward a classist academic elite and an international student may experience a gradual shift from her previous cultural identity to a multilayered sense of self. My therapy clients take on journeys back to times in life they would rather forget, passages from helplessness to empowerment, and treks leading to new points of perspective. To be brought along on those travels is an honor.

In a way, our greatest journey starts when we enter this world and the best roadmaps may lead us down dark and narrow paths we never planned to tread. And yet, on every road there are lessons to be learned.

We have all traveled. Learning each other’s stories can only enrich our own.

The Quiet One

The Quiet OneI have always been one of those who think more than they speak. The quiet, shy, introverted, reserved… Not exactly the life of the party. Missing opportunities to share my thoughts while waiting for others to pause long enough to give me space. Or not knowing what to share until later when I have chewed on all the information and points of view flying around in heated group discussions. On top of that, I accepted the message all too well growing up that kids (girls) should sit still and be quiet. So when the world called for initiative, assertiveness, and active participation, I struggled, more often than not. I used to see this as pure annoyance and character flaw.

Of course, I hadn’t yet read the book Quiet, by Susan Cain.

Fortunately, humans can learn, and I learned to speak up when needed and own my opinions. Talk, as well as listen. But what I also learned was to value this quieter way of being. First of all, we don’t all have to talk at once. Second, I am sometimes able to notice things in myself and others that often get lost in all the noise.

Being a foreigner in a giant country where I blend in with dominant groups due to my white skin and privileged social location has given me plenty to think about. I have observed people’s reactions to me and each other, systems that favor some and punish others, and my own biases, as I catch myself enacting what society has swayed me to think of those who are “different” in some way. This site will be an outlet for some of my thoughts on that. Culture, society, mental health, my work, and the ways in which all that blends together.