Positioned as it is smack dab in the middle of the North Atlantic, Iceland could potentially get a bit lonely. But friendly, urbane and well-travelled country that she is, she’s made friends all over. Reykjavík, being especially extroverted, boasts many ‘vinaborgir,’ or “friend-cities” (also called “sister cities”) all over the world, and fosters these relationships in the name of socio-economic collaboration, cultural exchange, and international relations. But just like in real life, each of these friend cities, and friendships, are very different. Here are a few notable ones.
Winnipeg: The cool cousin
In large families, there’s always that one cousin who you actually like, not because you have to, but because, well, she’s super cool. Winnipeg is that cool cousin; she was Reykjavík’s first friend city, officially affiliating in 1971.
Located in the Canadian province of Manitoba, which is home to the largest Icelandic population outside of Iceland, Winnipeg is at the centre of “New Iceland,” the region to which over 20,000 Icelanders emigrated between 1870 and 1915. The Winnipeg-based University of Manitoba has one of the few Icelandic Language and Literature programmes outside of Iceland, and the city also has many active Icelandic and Icelandic-Canadian organisations.
Winnipeg hosted núna (“now”), a four-month series of Icelandic/Canadian music, film, dance, visual arts, and literary events, which was curated by “local artists with ties to Iceland” during summer 2013. Newly-elected Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð and his wife also made a visit to the city earlier this year, arriving just in time for Manitoba’s Icelandic festival.
These are blood ties, and they run deep.
Seattle: The supportive BFF
Good BFFs are one in a million: they keep in touch over long distances, are supportive of each other’s art, and share the occasional bottle of wine and get silly. So it goes for Seattle, Washington and Reykjavík. They became besties in 1986 and have been going strong ever since. And Seattle is a model best friend—she helped established the Seattle-Reykjavík Sister City Association (SRSCA) solely to support regular projects and collaborations between the two cities.
In 2008, SRSCA brought 18 delegates from Seattle to Reykjavík, visiting notable Icelandic companies such as LazyTown and DeCode, and hosting a reception highlighting Washington State wines. A few years later, SRSCA was invited to participate in Reykjavík’s 2011 Culture Night. Seattle brought along musical artists, puppeteers, local coffee and (more!) wine. And ever the overachiever, she also brought six members of the Washington-based Quileute Native American tribe, who performed several sacred ceremonies never before seen outside of their reservation.
These affirming collaborations are ongoing: Icelandic films are featured regularly at the Seattle International Film Festival and Icelandic musicians are often invited to perform in the “Mostly Nordic Music Festival” hosted by Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum. Best Friends Forever!
Vilnius: The foreign exchange friend
Studying abroad is all about getting to know new people and different cultures, about expanding your horizons and learning how to order beer in another language. The friends you make during your foreign exchange are friends who know you as your best, coolest self—the self you are when you’re open to everything and are far away from everyone who knows all your embarrassing childhood stories.
Vilnius, Lithuania and Reykjavík became friends in 2006. It was natural that the two would be interested in learning more about each other—as of 2011, there were 1,471 Lithuanian immigrants in Iceland, representing just under 6% of Iceland’s immigrant population. And Vilnius and Reykjavík keep in touch. In 2011, for instance, the City Theatre of Reykjavík travelled to Vilnius and also collaborated with acclaimed Lithuanian director Oskaras Koršunovas on an award-winning production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
Moscow: That one old friend who’s a homophobe
You know the story: you meet someone, bond over a common interest, and share some good times together. Maybe you don’t see each other for a while, but you keep up on Facebook. Suddenly, you notice that your old pal is, well, a raging homophobe. De-friend! Such is the case for erstwhile friends Moscow and Reykjavík.
The buddy bond was forged in 2007, when then-mayors Vilhjálmur Þ. Vilhjálmsson and Júri Luzhov spent four days together in Moscow, hatching all sorts of plans for the future, such as establishing a renewed aviation agreement and tourism-boosting initiatives, even developing programmes to combat youth drug abuse problems. In lieu of friendship bracelets, Vilhjálmur presented the Moscow mayor and his wife (both noted horse enthusiasts) with two fine Icelandic horses—the first Icelandic horses, in fact, to ever be sent to Russia.
But as best laid plans often go awry, nothing really ever came of Reykjavík and Moscow’s friendship after 2007; none of their ambitious collaborations ever came about. Then this summer, the relationship really soured when Russia passed its prehistoric anti-LGBT bill and Moscow cancelled its gay pride parade. These actions drew heavy criticism from Icelandic activists, as well as Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr, who proposed that the City Council officially end its relationship with Moscow, including all cooperation and collaboration between the cities. The Reykjavík City Council has agreed to reconsider the relationship, and is currently drawing up a proposal to either significantly alter, or completely end, the city’s relationship with Moscow going forward.
Sometimes tastes change; old friends become bigots. People grow apart, you know?
Moomin Valley: The imaginary friend
Most of us have had at least one friend who only we could see, and Reykjavík is no exception. After a particularly enjoyable trip to Finland in March 2010, Jón Gnarr reported in his online “Mayor’s Diary” that he wanted to name Moomin Valley as a friend city of Reykjavík. While this relationship is yet to be made official, the mayor has already established strong ties with the Moomin Valley residents, particularly Moomin Papa who, he’s reported, has given him helpful advice on such important topics as whether Iceland should join the EU.*
*True Fact: See Jón Gnarr’s 2010 “Welcome to Reykjavík” post on our website.