Stefán Þorleifsson, 90-year-old sports instructor and gym coach, is sitting on the couch in his two-storey house in Neskaupstaður. He has just been asked what makes Icelanders the happiest nation on earth.
“I doubt there is a simple answer to that, my friend… how people came to that conclusion, I can’t imagine… all I know is that I’m happy,” he says, going on to theorise as to what it is that makes Icelanders so gratified.
“Isolation has been good for this country. We haven’t had much outside interference, and we also have no army, no military conscription of any kind, that certainly says a lot… but I don’t know,” he speculates, seeming to come to the conclusion that Iceland’s complete lack of armed conflict is the cause. “Honestly, though, I don’t know why people are happy in Iceland. All I know is that I like it here in Neskaupstaður,” he says, smiling.
And well he should. Neskaupstaður is a pleasant town. It is a remote hamlet sitting contentedly on a characteristically tilted embankment of the eastern fjord of Norðfjörður, a finger of ocean snaking its way between two green mountains. A lazy waft of fog drifts across the fjord the entire time we’re there, bringing with it a sense of well-being or familiarity, a warm blanket bearing a lover’s scent or a cup of something hot after a trek through a blizzard.
The town itself seems prosperous enough, having regained a large amount of the population it lost 10-15 years ago in the urban rush, thanks to the nearby Kárahnjúkar construction project. Everything is well-kept and fresh-looking, but easily retains a very distinct form of small-town comfort. The houses are simple, practical and as colourful as everywhere else in Iceland, with their apparent age ranging from 30 to 60 years.
Stefán is, of course, old enough to remember when things were quite different. Born in 1916, when the town itself was just 21 years old, he was the fourth of 15 children. Times were tough and poverty was rampant, especially in the isolated fishing towns of the east and northwest. The fishing was good, but the thirties saw much of Iceland’s rural population move to Reykjavík, and Neskaupstaður was no exception. Its population today is only 1,534 people, and yet it is the most populous of the eastern fjord fishing towns.
“Yes, we were poor back then… a lot changed, with the (Second World) war,” Stefán tells me, relating a common sentiment. “The war really put us ahead.”
The playful rural socialist
We didn’t really know what to expect from a 90-year-old semi-retired sports instructor and gym teacher. He had at that point been described to me by acquaintances and relatives as a “remarkable man, quite unlike anyone you’ll ever meet,” and “playful, like an overgrown kid,” but also as a “serious mind, and very opinionated.”
Smári Geirsson, head of the City Council, had this to say: “One thing you should probably know about (Stefán)… he’s a country man, and a socialist, a sort of ‘rural socialist’… he’s, what, 90 now, and he’s still coming to City Council meetings, offering his opinion on a lot of things. He’s definitely not a conservative, I can tell you that much.”
When I ask if it’s true about the playfulness, Smári replies, “Oh, sure. He’s just playing around. All the time.”
Although greatly befuddled by the seemingly contradictory information, I suppose the one thing I should have taken note of was the fact that despite his being officially retired from his job as a sports instructor and gym teacher, he is still an avid golfer, skier, swimmer and badminton player, and in great shape.
The soft forcefulness of Stefán’s handshake instantly confirms to me that this is a man committed to keeping his body at its physical peak. He speaks in patient and well-measured tones as he welcomes us with honest, gentlemanly calm, never stuttering, never slurring or misenunciating a single word.
We are introduced to his wife, Bergþóra, who is herself in her 80s but also remarkably fit. She is feeling a bit run down today, but makes sure to greet us all warmly before retiring to another room. Stefán leads us into the living room, turns off a TV, after briefly showing off the massive number of sports channels he gets, and takes a seat on a couch. He is backlit anonymous-interview style by a large window overlooking his beloved Neskaupstaður.
We talk, plainly and fact-by-fact at first, but as we relax further, his answers become more definitive, his explanations more sprawling.
One thing about Stefán makes an impression on me almost instantly: his sincere humbleness. He has accomplished a host of impressive feats in his life, including the management of the town’s hospital for three decades upon the previous supervisor’s retirement, the founding of a senior citizens’ choir and senior citizens’ sports club, which he still instructs once a week, as well as a weekly dance class at the old folks’ home that he helped build. He was the gym coach at the local elementary school for 34 years. He has also been in charge of the renovation of the town swimming pool, chairman of the golf club and an avid campaigner for the construction of all sport venues in the town, including the golf course and recently rebuilt football pitch.
All that, aside from being in better shape than men one-third his age, would be enough to turn the most easygoing of old-timers into pompous, self-righteous gits, yet he speaks of them all as if he were recounting an embarrassing slip on a curb the previous day.
“I just felt it was my civil duty to take over that hospital. It wasn’t even open to discussion, really.” His plans for Neskaupstaður’s future are also noteworthy.
On a recent visit to the Faroe Islands, he was greatly impressed by the elaborate system of tunnels and causeways that connect the craggy archipelago’s various townships. He explains to us, in great detail and with much enthusiasm, an elevator for cars that bridges two of the tunnels together.
“When you go to the Faroes, you really get a sense of how far behind we Icelanders are when it comes to transport. I think that if we had a system like that here (the eastern fjords), we would be much more connected, and all the towns would be easier to get to.” It would seem surprising to hear such radical thinking from a 90 year old, but Stefán has already surprised me so much at this point that it’s almost invigorating just to hear him speak; you’re constantly on your toes and ready to hear the next thing he says. This man should be running the country. True, he might not be able to kiss ass well enough for politics, but anyone so deeply committed to his home deserves to win on charisma alone.
His dedication is easily explained: love. Stefán loves Neskaupstaður. In fact, in his speech at the opening of the swimming pool, he said that “there is no better place to live. I’m absolutely sure of that,” he says, making sure I get it down in my notebook. His love is reciprocated by the townspeople, who do and should regard him as a pillar in a community where the people, by and large, sort themselves out. Most of Stefán’s own accomplishments were the results of diligent activism and much aid from an enthusiastic city council.
In fact, Stefán goes as far as to call Neskaupstaður a great example of the benefits of socialism. “I’m a socialist, that is clear, and I have been since I was a kid,” he says, suddenly decisive after his humble ponderings. He goes on to cite the state of affairs in Icelandic politics today as being “too obsessed with private ownership… people have forgotten that they have a right to affect this country. People aren’t allowed to own anything together anymore, it’s considered somehow old-fashioned… I don’t want it to go back to two or three people owning all means of production and essentially, all the people, like it was in the old days.
“I remember visiting (Soviet) Russia in ’51 and being very impressed by the system there, such as the high priority children and education were given. They had excellent facilities for sport and dance and other forms of recreation. And the schools were just great. I honestly could not believe that Stalin and those others were criminals, simply criminals, because they accomplished some interesting things. I remember when Stalin died, and Khrushchev and Brezhnev and those others came out and told us he had been a criminal and a murderer.”
A short silence follows, as Stefán stared off into space contemplating something. He then turns to me, adding, “I also visited Sweden and our other cousins in Scandinavia, and their system is exemplary, I think we have much to learn from them.”
You have to be hard on yourself
Stefán is, as stated above, from a large family. “It was all God’s will back then,” he says, offering his blessing to a woman’s right to choose before continuing. “I’m one of only two brothers left alive… it wasn’t long ago that we, all of the siblings still left, celebrated our 1,000th birthday.” He doesn’t dwell long on the subject, turning to happier memories of his father playing accordion while his mother taught him to dance.
His parents, he says, imparted on their children the value of maintaining an optimistic outlook on things and a can-do attitude, to which he attributes his general lust for life.
“You have to be hard on yourself,” Stefán explains in a slightly more reflective version of his measured, matter-of-fact tone. “You can never say ‘no, this is going to start tomorrow, I’ll do that later,’ you just do it,” he says, looking me directly in the eye as if seeing straight into my lazy, procrastinating soul.
Stefán got his first job minding younger children at age eight. He says it’s important for kids to have something to do, something to work for. “Maybe I’m just getting old, but it seems like kids aren’t disciplined enough these days. By that, I don’t mean that they don’t get scolded enough, just that they’re not told to show respect for others.” He says this last thing with a look of genuine speculation and concern on his face, rather than that of a judgemental grouch.
When asked whether his job as a coach gave him the opportunity to impart some of this on recent generations, he replies positively.
“It’s not necessarily just about teaching a kid a sport. You teach them how to carry themselves with pride, and to show respect to others, you need to teach them to be courteous, thoughtful, better people. You teach students to believe in themselves, that is truly your first role as a sports coach.”
When I ask him about all the sports and the activism, and whether that has made him happy, he thinks for a moment before answering.
“Partially. When I golf or swim, I forget that I’m old, and that makes me happy, but mostly I’m happy because I have a good wife, a good family and good children. I feel that’s very, very important, to care for your relatives and family. They bring you a lot of joy, and they make you forget you’re old, too.”
We wrap up the interview and Stefán stands, haltingly and frailly, and although he quickly recovers, I realise I have myself completely forgotten how old he really is. At first it seems appropriate to compare the interview to a conversation with a man 30 years his junior, but Stefán somehow seems even older, wiser and more sure of himself than that; his mind is like a reptile, never ceasing to grow in agility and power during the course of its life.
We summon Bergþóra into the room for a photograph or two of them together in the living room. They have been happily married for 60 years, and by the looks of things, they could easily be married for another 60. They joke, flirt and hold hands while selecting a place to pose for their photos, until Bergþóra realises she is wearing slippers she deems unfit for a photograph, and leaves the room to find a more appropriate pair of shoes.
Stefán looks on warmly, watching his wife trot out of the room with a look of deep affection on his face. He realises I am watching him and turns to me.
“It’s good to remember to care about the way you look at our age. You have to be careful you don’t lose respect for yourself as you grow older, because if you do that, if you stop taking care of yourself… If you forget to be a human being,” he says, eyes focusing on something I can’t see, “then life’s just not worth living anymore.”
It’s both humbling and ironic that I, a 20 year old, passed up the opportunity to go golfing with him, due to the fact that I was exhausted from a long day sitting in a car, whereas Stefán, 90, had gotten up excruciatingly early to do his morning exercise, which would have been followed by a trip to the swimming pool, had it been a weekday, and he was going golfing.
The Grapevine’s photographer, who accompanied him for a couple of shots of him in his element, bore witness to a man who has found not necessarily a purpose or reason for his existence, but a quiet, placid happiness, simple pleasures that at the same time seem so difficult and unattainable: serenity, complete serenity, and an impeccable harmony with one’s surroundings.
Man to man, they had a bonding experience. The photographer couldn’t help but ask what the secret to a lasting marriage was; Stefán replied with an answer that seems to define his outlook on life in general.
“Patience, thoughtfulness, and respect for the other person’s opinions. Don’t try to force your opinion on the other person.”
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by Sindri Eldon, with additional reporting by Óskar Hallgrímsson and Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir photos by Skari