A Postcard from America - The Reykjavik Grapevine

A Postcard from America

A Postcard from America

Published April 4, 2008

Photos by
GAS

Greetings from America!
The weather is lovely here! About 4°C and sunny with just a bit of wind, and the Current Threat Level is only at yellow, according to the Department of Homeland Security; smack dab in the middle of A-OK and everything being totally fucked.
So I’m feeling pretty good today. Started off right: got a cup of Starbucks coffee; glanced at the day’s forecasts of economic stagnation; found out there’s only an “elevated” chance that the country will be attacked by terrorists today; and marvelled at the sunny upstate New York weather which, according to the Weather Channel, is exactly the same for Reykjavík today.
It’s been a week away from my Icelandic way of life, and so far I’ve become only superficially readjusted to the American lifestyle. When I go out to get a cup of coffee these days, I not only drive, I drive through a drive-through window, as Starbucks has abandoned the façade of its Europeancoffee- house-allure in exchange for home-grown American expediency.
But on the domestic front things haven’t changed as much and as often as the National Threat Level in the nine months I’ve been away. Basically, I no longer need to use power adapters for my American devices, and when I don’t watch TV, I’m not watching 70 channels instead of just not watching 3.
But things in America do tend to happen on a bigger scale than I’ve become accustomed to. The roads, the cars, the penalties, the portions, and the breadth of the average ass all seem to be expanding before my eyes, but my prejudices towards the American lifestyle are fading. When I first got here, stopping at a rest area on the highway drive home from Kennedy airport, I felt it was my duty as a born-again Reykjaviking to be scornful of what I labelled as the symptoms of a distinctly American consumerism. Everything on the menu of the only available restaurant, Burger King, their giant containers, along with the range of pre-packaged and over-processed crap sold in the convenience store, all seemed like vile symptoms of Americans’ attitude, of their innate excess-ridden and unrefined tastes.
But the evils of consumer culture are distinct from the evils of everyday people. I myself had just been on a road trip in Iceland where I more or less ate nothing but French fries at rest stops for three days straight. The American friend who was visiting me at the time had never in his whole life consumed so many French-fries in such a short period of time. Icelanders drink Coke. They shop in malls. They watch television and absorb advertisements. In this rich country, they are definitely bitten by the consumer-bug. But the scale is much smaller and our borders are well taxed.
As someone who has been educated primarily in the U.S., with consequential practical and intellectual ties to it, and as a born Icelander with a primarily Icelandic family, I am liable to defend both sides in prejudiced arguments. The bug of Icelandic national pride is an easy one to catch because of its sheer novelty. A nation so isolated, both by its location and by its language, can’t help but navel-gaze. But as mother Iceland continues to grow as a fiscal and pop-cultural presence in the world, and as the world continues to shrink to the size of a laptop or a portable phone, she must learn to embrace those who have and will influence her back.
The question of influence is everything. For journalists, it is the Holy Grail in any story or interview. The drive to consume has begun to blur the lines of influence, hanging like a parasite on our cultures, pushing us away from what we need, to what we want, or to what we don’t want but think we need. As a partial American, I see that the U.S. has that fight to fight. Its hodgepodge of cultures is being united under the flag of consumer culture, and they must fight it just as Icelanders ambitiously fight prejudices regarding the scope of their influence with regard to the smallness of their size and population.
As I seek to understand and acknowledge my influences, I am happy hanging somewhere undefined in the middle, somewhere about halfway across the North Atlantic Ocean. What makes the question of influence so exciting, after all, is its distinct complexity. A lifetime’s worth of writing, perhaps.
For now I will say I miss the smell of Reykjavík, the cold fresh evening air, and my friends.
I will be back with the spring.
All the best.
VALA

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