Words: Benóný Ingi Þorsteinsson & Eldlilja Kaja Heimisdóttir
When driving to Bessastaðir we were very nervous that we were going to be meeting the President of Iceland at his home! Walking into Bessastaðir was quite an experience. The main door opened automatically as we approached and a woman greeted us and took our coats. We wrote our names in a guestbook with a very fancy pen. Everything was so fancy and we were just wearing our everyday clothes, which felt a bit clumsy and silly.
When Guðni arrived, he was very friendly. After a couple of jokes, we walked into a library full of old books. We asked how many books were in there and Guðni guessed there were 120! We were brought sparkling water in fancy glasses and started asking our questions.
Is it difficult to be president?
Sometimes, and sometimes not. Sometimes I have a little bit too much on my plate, but I have wonderful people around me at my office and in Bessastaðir. I have a wonderful wife and family that support me in everything, so with their help I manage to enjoy this role, which is an enormous honour every day. It can sometimes be difficult, but then we just have to face those difficulties.
What made you decide to run for president?
When it came time to decide if I wanted to be the president of Iceland or not, the stars were all aligned in a certain way. When I thought about it, I felt I had experience, knowledge and a background that could be useful to the office. I thought I should be able to serve this office in a manner that the nation could be happy with. So when all these factors were put together, I realised it would be better to regret doing something rather than regretting not doing it. So I decided to run for president and I‘ve never regretted that decision.
Do you have any goals as president, and what are you doing to reach these goals?
I set a goal for myself every day and that is to serve this office as well as I can. To treat everyone I meet with the same respect, whether they are heads of state or children interviewing me — everything is just as important and interesting. Some tasks are more difficult than others, and some subjects are more interesting. For example, we just started a general health award, where we encourage people to take care of their physical and mental health – that’s something I’m proud of and an issue I deeply care about.
Another project concerns speech technology in Iceland. I want us to ensure the role of Icelandic in the digital world, so instead of grabbing our smartphones and saying: “Hey siri, what time is it in Los angeles?” We could say: „Sæl Embla, hvað er klukkan núna í Borg Englanna?“ We need to be able to speak Icelandic in the digital world we’re living in now. We are seeing progress in that regard, and I’m proud of that.
When I put my head on the pillow at night and think to myself, “this was a good day,” that‘s when I’ve reached that goal.
What’s your favourite Icelandic food?
Pan-fried trout, and pancakes with whipped cream for dessert. When I lived abroad, the first thing I did when I came back home was to get plokkfiskur at my mom’s house, so that would also be on the list.
“When I put my head on the pillow at night and think to myself, “this was a good day,” that‘s when I’ve reached that goal.”
What‘s your favourite cartoon?
That would be Mulan. A close second would be The Lion King. My eldest daughter watched those two a lot as a child, so I have fond memories of those films.
What do you miss most about the time before you became president?
I miss not having time to research history, which was my profession before. So if I was forced to complain about anything, it would be not having enough time to pursue that interest.
Can you go anywhere without being asked to pose for photos?
Thankfully in Iceland, I enjoy the fact that people I meet everyday are polite. If teenagers or others want to pose for selfies with me, they ask politely, and if I have time, if I am not running to another place for example, I am happy to take a photo.
Do you have any power as president?
Yes and no. As the first article of the Icelandic constitution says: Iceland is a republic with a parliamentary government. That means that members of Alþingi set the law and the ministers in government exercise executive power from day to day.
It is not a presidency like in the United States. The president of Iceland is not as influential politically as, for example, the president of France, so the role of president in Iceland is a bit different to these countries.
On the other hand, a president can step into the political field and have influence. They can decide to refuse to sign a new law, putting the vote to the Icelandic nation. They can have influence when a new government is being formed in Iceland.
They can also have influence in an indirect way. I could decide to speak about a certain issue during the president’s New Years’ Address, which a lot of people listen to every year, and in doing so, the president is deciding that issue is worth discussing. I can’t decide whether a school should be built in Borgarnes, or a road should be paved around Eskifjörður, or a law should be set about a certain issue. But the indirect influence the president has is still significant and should not be underestimated.
I was a student in Fossvogsskóli when mould was discovered and then the same thing happened in my home. Now I’m 14 and I have lost my health and all my belongings. We haven’t received any help or compensation, but if our house had caught fire, we would have been insured, and received health care to help with the aftermath. What can you do for people like my family who don’t have the health or the means to help ourselves? Your voice matters and people listen to you.
Mould seems to be becoming an increasingly more common issue in Iceland. For example, Just yesterday there was news of mould being found in Álftanesskóli, so one of my children along with their class had to be relocated to another school building.
I would think it should be that people should be able to be insured for these mould problems, and I would also think we should face the fact that this seems to be an issue on the rise.
But, I cannot help specific families and decide to use my power to help individuals. That wouldn‘t be right and I would be creating false hope by nodding my head to such wishes. So I can‘t solve the problem on my own, but now that you have raised the issue in this interview, and I have answered the way I did, you have raised awareness about the problem, and we‘ve discussed that it seems to be an issue on the rise in Iceland, so maybe that‘s a small step in the right decision.
What’s your favourite country, excluding Iceland?
That would be Canada, as my wife Eliza is originally from Canada. Her family all lives in Canada, so our family takes trips to Canada as often as we can.
Canada is a wonderful country.
What is your favourite team in the Premier League?
As a child I supported Manchester United. But then I lived in England a long time and added a few teams to my favourites, so every weekend I could be pretty sure my team would win. Aston Villa, West Ham, Southampton, Reading, Coventry City, Hull City and Grimmsby Town. So as I said: I’d always win!
Do you use the Bessastaðir church, just outside?
I don‘t go to church often, I‘m not a member of the Church of Iceland, but I enjoy going there once in a while, for example at Christmas. I also attend the confirmation ceremonies at the church, where I enjoy meeting teenagers at that moment in their lives and addressing them as president. So, I‘m not a regular church goer here but attend once in a while.
When you live here, in Bessastaðir, do you ever feel really at home? Can you buy your own groceries and do normal things like that?
We have a lot of assistance. I have a housekeeper, I’m driven between places by the President‘s driver, so I have that privilege – but then I also go to the store myself in between or drive the kids to their after-school activities. I’m going to recycle cans later, for example.
Living in Bessastaðir is of course very different to any other residence I’ve lived in, be it a student dorm, a rented apartment or my own apartment. All of these places have their charm. This chapter in my life entails me living here, so I try to enjoy that while I can. But I understand asking this question, it seems strange not to live in a place you can call your own. Bessastaðir doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the Icelandic nation: I am just a guest here. But as long as that lasts, I’ll try to enjoy it.
Watch Benóný and Eldlilja interview President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson on YouTube.com/@TheReykjavikGrapevine.
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