From Iceland — Now & Then

Now & Then

Published August 21, 2009

Now & Then

I was last in Iceland on August 24, 2008. At the time the price of the US dollar had just risen to what seemed a whopping 80 ISK, and I remember deciding it exceptionally prudent to postpone the exchange of my Icelandic savings for as long as my college expenditures would allow.
In fact, I prognosticated quick recovery for the króna. Having taken a single microeconomics class in high school, being a financial sage as it were, I was confident that once the ISK had recuperated from its mild sick spell I would simply be able to retrieve my funds at a more suitable price.
I felt like an asshole, obviously, when six weeks later the New York Times homepage informed me that Iceland’s financial system had collapsed.
80 ISK doesn’t looks so bad to me now that I’m considering buying ONE FUCKING DOLLAR at 128 ISK, but as they say, that train has sailed; hindsight is 20/20; every path has its puddle; half a loaf is better than none.
It wasn’t long after the financial shit-storm began that I started receiving offers of sympathy and concern from an inordinate number of people around me in the States. These were people who, upon hearing some version of the news story, were suddenly eager to discuss with me the ‘situation’ in the motherland. The truth, however, was that being in the seemingly fortunate position of not owning or owing anything on the icy isle, the effects of the downturn on me personally were minimal at best.
In an effort to devise competent responses to the incessant questioning, I in turn began quizzing my Icelandic compatriots for facts and anecdotes. I read the Icelandic news sources and watched the television news online for hours a day. I scoured the international press for any mentions of “COLLAPSE” and “MELTDOWN” and “TURMOIL”. Yet despite my best efforts, the only conclusive detail I seemed to be able to lift from any of it, or anyone, was the vague but unspoken impression that things were more or less royally fucked.
When it comes to quantifying what has changed in Reykjavík, or in Iceland generally, since I was last home, the conclusion thus remains somewhat obscure.
If it wasn’t for the slightly elevated prices on foreign goods, the newly imposed limits on money transfers abroad, and the mild malaise that may or may not be settling over the general public for the time being, I wouldn’t know Iceland today from Iceland eleven months ago.
That this country is endowed with tenacity for self-perpetuation has never seemed as abundantly clear to me as at the very moment that I write this. The women at the table next to me are standing up to leave and as they do they smack their gum against their teeth in a self-congratulatory manner. Their smugness warms me as they move to put on their jackets with a sudden whirl of the stuffy and languid café air. I am in love with how they push out now against the door, submerging, fresh again, into the cool, late night air, as though they have just discovered the meaning behind the whole fucking universe and that the answer is in fact very amusing and ironic and haven’t we humans been acting so very daft and absurd these past couple of millennia?
Of course these women have not discovered the answer to life, the universe and everything. They are simply brimming with the distinct but delicate self-satisfaction that till now I privately considered a plague on the Icelandic character but that for the first time strikes me as not entirely hostile, central perhaps to the survival of it all.
I finish my own cup of coffee, and though it now costs as much as a cup in America in that bad way that forebodes trouble upon departure, it seems that Iceland, that Reykjavík is exactly the same as it’s always been. It feels as it ever has, delightfully, terrifyingly, like home.

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