From Iceland — Politics, Culture and Driving in Circles

Politics, Culture and Driving in Circles

Published August 17, 2009

Politics, Culture and Driving in Circles

“People are very private here. You need a local to gain their trust,” Piitaaraq explained in an attempt to quell my disappointment upon being shunned by a dozen individual locals I had attempted to speak with. “You need a man – I’m the man.”
Nuuk is an enigmatic place. There’s a cultural dichotomy in play that is natural and common place for those Greenlanders and Danes who live there but seems so isolating and exclusionary for visitors not familiar with that reality. Requiring a native to gain the trust of those with whom I wished to speak meant that I look
1)    too Danish or
2)    too foreign
for Greenlanders to want to speak with me. Just as I look too Danish to visit a lengthy list of bars I was given, scrawled in pen under the header: “don’t go!”
The politics of culture
There’s a push and pull in Nuuk between the Greenlanders and the Danes, with the former trying to secure their independence from the latter in any way they can. Even the once Danish street names have recently been changed to Greenlandic ones, something that some Greenlandic locals find confusing, according to Piitaaraq, a 29-year-old Nuuk local and employee of Nuuk Tourism who played host to the Grapevine during our time in Greenland’s capital. “The old politicians are getting on in age and are thinking ‘I want people to remember my name,’” he said. “But I think it’s rushed.”
At the time of our visit in the first week of June, Greenland was undergoing an election to put in place the government that would be the first national party to have control over judicial affairs, policing, and natural resources before June 21st (the cut-off date decided upon by the Danish government). This historic event seemed to affect everything we experienced while in Nuuk. The streets were decorated with signs of the change, with election posters covering every electric pole, lamppost and bus shelter early in the week, and spread over the concrete and strewn through the ditches post-election.
The elections and the debate over Greenland’s ability to adopt responsibilities that had previously been tended to by the Danish ruling parties was on everybody’s minds, and everybody had an opinion on the matter. Most of those who would speak their minds, through the trusted local Piitaaraq, seemed sceptical, having endured years of political scandal – misappropriation of funds and sex scandals, specifically – but others were optimistic that the young and educated politicians of the victorious Inuit Ataqatigiit party would be capable of fostering real and positive change for the nation. As Theresa, director of Nuuk Tourism stated, “a lot of politicians had a vision but they didn’t have the education to back it up. Now there’s a lot of young people, educated people, and that’s a good thing.”
Home is where 1% of the population is
Upon arriving in Nuuk, the housing is likely to be the first thing that leaps out at you. Idealized visions of colourful fishing cottages along the shore are immediately replaced with the reality of monstrous and expansive blocks of apartments, decaying façades and rusted balconies, dominating the city. Those quaint Crayola-colour wooden homes do exist, making for a picturesque walk around the old harbour, but direct your gaze away from the sea and the real Nuuk hits you with great force.
One of the apartments, Blok P, houses more than 1% of Greenland’s population. Now, Greenland happens to be the most sparsely populated nation per square kilometre in the world, but that statistic is still impressive. The long rectangular building appears to be somewhat of an optical illusion if viewed from one of its ends, as is seems to cover an impossibly long expanse of land in the centre of Nuuk, consecutive columns of rusted, laundry-strewn balconies disappearing into the horizon. It’s depressingly impressive, if ever such a descriptor could be sensibly used.
The block apartments throughout Nuuk, like many things in the capital, serve as a reminder of Danish rule. In the 1950s, when the Danish government caught wind of the cod boom and the big money that could be made from commercial fishing in Greenland’s waters, they ceased support to the Greenlandic villages surrounding the capital, thereby forcing their inhabitants to relocate to the city and take up employment in the newly constructed fishing factories, taking residence in the apartments. Whole villages were moved into these blocks, leaving behind their village lifestyles and Greenlandic tradition of sharing a family home with multiple generations so that grandparents could pass along their knowledge to younger generations; something that apartment life no longer facilitated.
These blocks are unsightly, bringing to mind images of Soviet times, all concrete, gloom and decay, but since they are the most dominant style of housing in the city centre a mix of people inhabit them. Theresa, a woman of Faroese descent who is married to a Greenlandic man, told us of when she first moved to Nuuk and was invited to a girlfriend’s home. When she heard that her girlfriend, a nurse by trade, lived in one of the apartment blocks she was sceptical about the visit. “When I arrived in the building, the hallways were dirty and covered in graffiti, but the apartment was so nice! Many different kinds of people live in those buildings, because it’s more affordable,” clarified Theresa.
It’s not all political
The residents of Nuuk are shockingly physically active, to the point of instilling shame in onlookers, such as myself, who huff and puff their way up an incline while impossibly fit locals jog past barely breaking a sweat. While gearing up to hike up a mountain not far outside the city centre, we passed several people jogging along the side of the highway (something they apparently do all year, regardless of plummeting temperatures) and, while descending from the bus to the base of the mount, witnessed some aerobically inclined Greenlanders running down the mountain.
Physical fitness was one common activity that all the young people I spoke with touted as one of the leisure pursuits they engage in most often with their friends. Marie, a local artist, listed running, hiking and going to the gym as three of the main activities that she and her friends get together for. “There are a lot of health nuts here, but then, there are also a lot of really unhealthy drunks to even it out,” she joked.
Others share Marie’s affinity for cardiovascular outings. Ruddie Motzfeldt, 21, goes to the gym with her friends to lift weights and play sports. Piitaaraq, our trusted Nuuk guide, is the epitome of physical activity, playing handball in the world championships and coaching two handball teams.
Making a stop beside a massive gravel field, Piitaaraq explained how excited all of Nuuk gets every August when the football qualifiers take place in that field. Though devoid of an actual football pitch or stadium seating, people come out in hoards to sit on the sloping rock face adjacent to the field and watch players from all over Greenland compete for a spot in the championship game. The rest of the year Nuuk is engaged in a bitter rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United fans, marking their turf with flags and posters in their windows.
Social life in Nuuk also revolves around the handful of clubs and bars, with the most popular without a doubt being Manhattan. This bar is massive and the music is loud. Manhattan is the only place in town where the young people can get their dance on and is said to be packed on the weekends, though nobody goes out until one a.m. and the bar closes at three. No matter if you only get two hours in at the club, because the after party is where it’s at, with many revellers continuing to get their drink on while driving around the city in search of a house to spend the wee hours of the morning.
Nicolas, a former bouncer at Manhattan, says that he rarely even makes it out to the bar these days since he and his friends opt to pile into his car and drive around in circles. “It’s so damn easy to take the car everywhere I go so when I go to the nightclub I don’t drink,” explains Nicolas, ever the responsible student.
What does the future have in store?
“Nuuk is pouring over with new possibilities every day, like a developing country,” Theresa espoused optimistically while taking in the city during a drive to her quaint blue home perched high above the city. She’s right. There’s no saying where Nuuk will be in a year or two, or five, or ten.
This is a place unlike any other I have visited. A place where tradition clashes with politics and where intensely different cultures are trying to find balance amongst themselves. Life in Nuuk is in transition, both political and cultural. It is undergoing a shift and it will be interesting to see how this northernmost of national capitals develops and grows in coming years as it continues to gain increased independence from Denmark.

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