Back to the Country - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Back to the Country

Words by

Published August 11, 2006

The Grapevine offices have relocated, closer to the centre of downtown Reykjavík. We are also undergoing some staff changes. Still, it may come as a surprise that of all the employees at a magazine dedicated to Reykjavík, a magazine that published a book about Reykjavík, only one of twenty stayed in town for the biggest holiday of the summer, Verslunarmannahelgi – and I stayed because I had obligations at the city’s music festival.
As I write this editorial in our massive and empty office then, looking out at confused tourists who can’t find any Icelanders in downtown Reykjavík, I have to acknowledge that there has been a cultural shift in the last few months. Icelanders have rediscovered their own countryside.
Visitors might be stunned to believe that anybody here could ever forget the countryside – the lava moonscapes, the moss fields, the waterfalls, even the gentle hilly slopes of Iceland do gentle hilly better than anywhere else in the world. Compared to the natural beauty the countryside has, it doesn’t make sense that, last summer and the summer before, so many more Icelanders could be seen choosing the claustrophobic interiors of crowded concert halls and bars in Reykjavík than the countryside. But they did. At least more so than this year.
When I was an avid hiker, I would ask why no Icelanders wandered around their own country. The reasons I got made a certain amount of sense: 1) The króna was far too strong, and it was cheaper to fly out to Copenhagen than it was to drive out to Akureyri or the Westfjords and pay for gas and guesthouses and restaurants. 2) There was no tradition of going out for real exploration, just car camping and summerhouse travel with board games and TV watching. 3) Rich, snobby people had taken over the countryside with SUVs and fishing rights, a point bemoaned repeatedly in this very newspaper.
Then there was a large set of protests regarding the industrialisation of rural Iceland, kicked into gear by an enormous concert at Laugardalshöll on January 7th, and reaching what looked like a high point with the Election Day protests this May. Both of these protests took place in Reykjavík, and both were bolstered by local artists, among them Sigur Rós.
The protests had limited effect – they severely damaged one political party’s credibility, the Progressive Party, who have been shouldered with all the blame for mismanaging Iceland’s natural resources (though, curiously, their policies are still followed, even as they leave office).
Beyond the single issue of complaints over flooding a natural wilderness area, though, the protests seem to have at least had one remarkable effect – no matter their political view, the population of Iceland is now at least conscious of their landscape, and of the possibility that its pristine beauty isn’t permanent. Iceland has rediscovered one of its greatest resources.
So, with this issue, we present more information about life away from Reykjavík. In part we were following Sigur Rós, but we also found other inspiration. In a feature I’m especially proud of, Haukur Magnússon presents the problems facing a small town in the Westfjords, Flateyri, known in Reykjavík mainly because of the devastating avalanche that struck the town 11 years ago. I am especially proud of Mr. Magnússon’s feature because it serves as a reminder, now that we are falling in love with small-town Iceland again, of how much has to be done to preserve the character of this country, of how much responsibility we are avoiding by sticking to Reykjavík as the end-all be-all of Icelandic culture.

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