Every year, we at the Grapevine like to look back and reflect on some of the hottest, weirdest, and most delightful news stories that dominated the headlines. This year is no exception. So here, again, we bring you: the Year In Review. Wax nostalgic with us and relive that glass case of emotions the news brought us all throughout 2015.
The year started off with some long-awaited news for immigrants and asylum seekers alike—namely, the creation of the Immigration Appeals Board. Designed to be an independent body that reviews cases rejected by the Directorate of Immigration, the board had been a long time coming. In theory, it was to make things run more smoothly. In practice, the Board soon reported they were backlogged with cases pending review, claiming a lack of funding and manpower to meet the demand. A step in the right direction, nonetheless. January also saw a crucial step in Jón Gnarr finally getting his name legally changed to Jón Gnarr in Iceland’s National Registry, as he had his name legally changed in the US while serving as a guest professor at Houston’s Rice University. This proved to be a laughably simple, easy and financially painless ($100 USD, to be exact) process that puts our local bureaucracy to shame.
In this month, a comparatively easy-to-pronounce volcano, Holuhraun, finally stopped spewing crap into the sky. Having dominated headlines throughout 2014, it might not have been as spectacular or confounding for anchorpeople as Eyjafjallajökull, but we were still glad it finally wound down. Holuhraun would have the last laugh, though, as it came to light later in the year that the sulphur dioxide it had been puking up was very likely responsible for killing off a great number of sheep. At the time of writing, reports are coming out that the area is rumbling again… so send your prayers to our sheep. Undeterred by our geological shenanigans, tourists in this month generated enough revenue to make tourism the largest industry in the country, beating out such perennial heavyweights as fishing and banking. In fact, in 2015 tourist numbers crossed the one million mark, with final numbers showing four times the population of Iceland visited the country in this year alone.
Perhaps jealous of all the attention #FreeTheNipple was getting, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson sent a letter to the EU announcing that Iceland was no longer seeking accession. As the matter had never been put to a parliamentary vote, many Icelanders were upset by this side-stepping of the democratic process, and organised protests at Austurvöllur to voice their displeasure. In the end, the EU grudgingly accepted that Iceland just wasn’t that into them, while leaving the caveat that if we changed our minds, we could totally hit them up anytime for Netflix and chill.
This month had one dominant theme, and that theme was general strike. While trade unions engaging in work stoppages and strikes is not an unfamiliar phenomenon in Iceland, it’s been a long time since so many unions vowed to engage in them. In fact, tens of thousands of workers were set to walk off their jobs, in fields from wholesale food service, to the tourist industry, to general labour. The show of solidarity, and just what kind of impact all these people clocking out would have, would lean on management throughout the year. Even public opinion rested solidly with the workers, which isn’t always the case. In the end, many new collective bargaining agreements were drawn up, while others are still pending.
Whaling season began, again, and while this would end up having consequences involving the hacktivist group Anonymous later in the year, there was one big story this month: changing the clocks in wintertime. Iceland bears the distinction of sharing in common with Russia and Belarus the refusal to set clocks back an hour in the fall and forward an hour again in the spring. Everyone from the Directorate of Health to members of Parliament hotly contested the pros and cons of the practice. Not even our readers could seem to agree whether “spring forward, fall back” is a wonderful way to just adjust your circadian rhythm with the sun, or a horrible tool of oppression from those damn farmers. Spoiler: we haven’t changed our clocks.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories of the year happened in June, when two sisters attempted to blackmail the Prime Minister. What did they want? Money, of course. What did they have on him? That’s the bizarre part. The pair contended they had proof, in the form of emails, that the Prime Minister took an active part in the purchase of magazine DV by media company Vefpressan. You see, Vefpressan is owned by one Björn Ingi Hrafnsson, who used to be a Reykjavík city councilperson for the Progressive Party. Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, as you know, hails from that same party. Oh, and Björn Ingi had just broken up with one of the two women. But more importantly, this month also saw a grassroots movement started in the unlikely Beauty Tips Facebook group: #KonurTala (Women Speak), wherein numerous women came forward to speak candidly about abuse they had survived. The movement caught international headlines, and spawned similar campaigns in other countries.
In July, Iceland brought an end to a very old and largely unenforced blasphemy law, which—while making international headlines—made little difference whatsoever to the local culture at large. Leaked emails of the now-hacked Italian hacking team known imaginatively as Hacking Team showed an Icelandic cop trying to acquire some spyware, and he was none too pleased with being called up about it. But most of all, July will be known for tourists shitting all over the place. They shat in the street, they shat behind buildings, they shat in the moss and then set it on fire. It was pretty shitty. In fairness, there is a dearth of outdoor toilets in the countryside, which is something numerous tour guides have complained about, to the deaf ears of municipalities.
This month witnessed a stunning flight from custody that gripped national headlines, as a baby seal escaped from the zoo. Perhaps wanting to set an example for other would-be escapees, the seal was summarily put down, and fed to other zoo animals. Further afield, Iceland joined sanctions against Russia, already underway in the EU and in direct response to Russian incursions into Ukraine. Russia, predictably, in turn began boycotting Icelandic products. You may scoff, but that means fish, and lots of it. Mostly mackerel, too. While our local fishing kings were displeased, Iceland has stood fast by their sanctions against Russia, which continue to this day.
In a perhaps well-intentioned move, Reykjavík City Council elected to stop making city purchases of goods made in Israeli-occupied territories. The move was widely misreported as being made by all of Iceland, and being against all Israeli products. More importantly, the Icelandic government announced it would accept 50 Syrian refugees this year. This announcement set off a grassroots movement that would make international headlines, as author Bryndís Björgvínsdóttir started a social media campaign, #KæraEygló, imploring the government to accept a lot more, which quickly snowballed, gaining the support of several thousand Icelanders. Like always, misreporting in the international media was prevalent, as it was falsely reported that 10,000 Icelanders had opened their homes to refugees. While the outpouring of support was indeed tremendous, the government has still yet to announce any official change to their initial numbers.
As hard as it may be to believe, Iceland does engage in industrial factory farming. Factory farms were prominent in the news this month—pig farms in particular. The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority found that all of Iceland’s pig farms kept animals that suffered pressure sores resulting from a lack of movement, and at least one (so far unnamed) farm keeps pigs in stalls too small to even allow them to stand up. This has put Iceland’s pig farmers on the defensive, with every farm but one refusing to allow reporters to visit and film their grounds. It was also reported that thousands of foreigners are needed to fill tourism jobs, a story that still gets me plenty of emails and tweets from prospective job seekers. Stop. Please stop.
The Directorate of Immigration made news this month for the type of behaviour that has made the institution famous, er, infamous. And by that we mean regarding all foreigners as guilty until proven innocent. Yes, November saw a Vietnamese couple accused of having a sham marriage (an accusation that was revealed to be way off the mark), and the deportations of two asylum-seeking families: one from Albania, and the other from Syria. In fact, two Albanian families would end up being deported, to widespread public outcry, but would ultimately be granted citizenship. Someone else who sparked widespread public outcry: Justin Bieber. In a recent video, he was seen cavorting and gallivanting around the country. Most notably, it seems he also tromped through some naturally protected areas—some of which are covered with fragile moss that takes decades to grow—before taking a swim in the waters of Jökulsárlón. Tourism industry workers in Iceland were none too pleased with the example the young pop star set, and said so. Bieber has yet to issue an apology.
This month kicked off interestingly enough, as hacktivist group Anonymous launched a concerted distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack against numerous Icelandic websites. But they weren’t doing it for the lulz—their objection was to the hunting of fin whales. They managed to shut down many government websites for a number of hours, and have vowed to continue their campaign in other ways. For those of us living in Iceland, what really captured our imagination was the fact that we were getting snow. Lots of it, like record-breaking levels. You may find it hard to believe a place called Iceland doesn’t see a lot of snow in the winter, but in the capital area anyway, winters are more known for high winds and freezing rain. Everyone who doesn’t drive was very happy.