Published July 14, 2006
As we were scanning the listings and PR statements on the atrocious movies being imported to this fair isle from America—the local cinema chain somehow imports only the most embarrassing of American titles—I came across one dumb ass plot synopsis that hit a nerve.
I wish I could be deep here and say the notion of teaching urban kids to dance made me realise that I should sell my possessions, (or possession, a computer), and join the Antonio Banderas effort to teach starving children the Tango. But no, I felt a connection with the plot line for The Lake House, the new Keanu Reeves vehicle. In that movie, Keanu has correspondence with someone under similar conditions, only two years ahead. Whoa.
Having left Iceland for a month’s vacation, my return has left me in a state of Keanu-like bewilderment. When you factor in general housekeeping, clean up, and business arrangements, I was out of the loop in Iceland for six weeks. In that time, in six weeks, Reykjavík got a new mayor, Iceland got a new prime minister. The issue that went to print as I left focused on the ruling coalition telling protestors that they could tear down their dam “in 40 years, when you get into office.” An extremely unpopular party managed to get into city government by parking a Hummer in handicapped spots and pointing out that they didn’t know how to golf. Now, six weeks later, that party is… dare I say it, humble. Their prime minister stepped down. They are changing their platform.
Six weeks ago, the Grapevine offices were quite different as well. We knew that we were losing one of our long-term journalists, Paul Nikolov. We knew we were moving our offices. We had a long, difficult summer to get through, and we had very few foreign writers, and we knew we had burned ourselves out putting together a guide book to Reykjavík and scheduling a concert series and coordinating our plans for rock festival coverage over the summer, and we knew we all needed to nap.
On returning, I found that Paul Nikolov used his retirement from the Grapevine well, and that he had started a political party. Proud as I was, I also got a few doses of humility handed to me when a senior writer at a major local newspaper, Blaðið, declared Paul the editor of the Grapevine, and the author of the book I had taken months to write. In fact, my first days back in Iceland were full of awkward phone conversations, emails, and confrontations, when people insisted that my name must be Paul Nikolov, and they had seen me on TV discussing my new political party. It would be one thing if Paul resembled me in the slightest. He doesn’t. Our only similar physical characteristic is that we both have all of our limbs, and we are both white.
Still, in that first week when people thought I was Paul, and that I had started a political party, I couldn’t believe the questions I fielded. A little more than two years ago, when Paul and I started working at the Grapevine together, Iceland was having an identity crisis, and we at the Grapevine accidentally tapped the well of discontent. We both wrote in an issue in which our friend, a black model who had moved to Iceland with her husband from Kenya, was put on the cover of the paper in the local national costume. At that time, there was a humiliating uproar. The younger Icelanders backed us up, conservatives grumbled, the Bishop of Iceland, to his credit, defended us, and a few people with mobile phones sent out death threats.
In the years since, I hadn’t expected change, and so I hadn’t seen it. When I took over as editor, web sites filled with chatter about me being an American, and therefore partial to Zionist or some other nonsense conspiracies. Conservatives wrote articles citing awkward translations by the Americans and used small errors to discount larger arguments. The media, which I tended to dismiss out of hand, covered the Grapevine only in the gossip sections, even though they routinely borrowed our feature ideas and research—sometimes being so bold as to call for specifics—without ever citing us. I had made up my mind that some things wouldn’t change.
And then, while on vacation, Paul started a political party. Honestly, had I known that was coming, I wouldn’t have come back. My false assumptions about the local culture being what they were, I expected, at the very least, some disturbing emails and SMS messages. Instead, the level of the dialogue taking place over Paul’s political party, has been even-handed, in fact, almost congratulatory. I realize that the media outlets here are motivated to change. The people in the streets who insist my name is Paul are polite and engaging. Not a word of spite has come my way, or, really, his way through me.
In any case, from what I’ve seen since my return, progress has come to Reykjavík, and our own former journalist has had the courage to test this progress, and the good fortune to find out it is genuine. In an interview I held with him for this, his last issue, he mentioned that he hoped to make Iceland a model for European nations on immigration issues. As much as the policies of the active government suggest this is not a possibility, the reception I’ve seen since Paul’s courageous decision suggest that the people of Reykjavík, at least, are ready to lead. I feel as though, having left for six weeks, I have returned to an Iceland six years in the future. Whoa.