Flateyri And The Fate Of Small-Town Iceland - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Flateyri And The Fate Of Small-Town Iceland

Flateyri And The Fate Of Small-Town Iceland

Published August 11, 2006

As anyone who’s spent a minimal amount of time in the Westfjords will tell you, the mountains’ ancient presence is great, colouring every moment of every day with their lumbering presence. And although their shape and form has stayed much the same during the last few millenia, recent developments in man’s war against nature have made their mark upon them, to the extent of changing the area’s topography; new ideas bulldozered into age-old hills for humanitarian purposes, effectively altering the populations perception of the eternity that lies above them.

One of the first things a visitor to the small town of Flateyri in Önundarfjörður (pop. 306) is bound to notice when there is a huge, man-made triangular formation lying in the mountain directly above it. During summer, seemingly random fields of the purple lupine-flower on each side of the contraption form in the shape of wings, making the whole look suspiciously like a decapitated angel when viewed from the town centre or across the fjord. This is the Flateyri avalanche guard, a device that took close to two years to complete at a cost of nearly 440 million ISKR. Financed by the state and undertaken by contractor and politician Gunnar Birgisson, it’s construction began in the summer of 1996 and was completed by the end of 1998. Those unfamiliar to local history might wonder why such great lengths were taken to secure Flateyri’s admittedly small population from the threat of avalanche, while the knowledgable do not.

Flateyri And The Fate Of Small Town Iceland - Julia Staples 2006

The year 1995 was a bad one for the inhabitants of the northern Westfjords. January 15, following a long bout of heavy snowfall and general bad weather, an avalanche struck the small town of Súðavík, demolishing 20 houses and killing a total of 14 people. The event came as a shock to most Icelanders, serving as a reminder of just how dependent they still were on the mercy of nature.

Much grief and soul-searching followed, not the least by inhabitants of the Westfjords, who now were suddenly thrust into the position of having to justify their living in what came to be seen as an extremely unsafe, even uninhabitable, area. The worst, however, was yet to come.

On the morning of October 26 that same year, another avalanche struck, this time devastating the equally small town of Flateyri (now a mere 30-minute drive from Súðavík). Some 500,000 tonnes of wet snow build-up crept from the ravine Skollahvilft (literally: “Demon’s gully”), destroying close to thirty buildings and killing 20 people.

Following the devastation of the town, close to 100 people left for good, many unable to cope with harsh memories of tragedy and others suddenly left with no reason to stay. A hundred people moving away may not seem a lot to the average New Yorker, but for a town that in its heyday counted about half a thousand inhabitants, it was tantamount to losing a limb.

Selfoss will be a relief
Flateyri’s inhabitants are known around Iceland for their jolly demeanour, hard-working and -partying attitude and resourcefulness. One of the few (if only) Icelandic films entirely shot and produced outside of Reykjavík was made by Flateyri folk (Í faðmi hafsins, 2002), they’ve spawned several nationally regarded musicians and writers and have boasted of a cultural life greatly exceeding the town’s tiny population.

Growing up in the neighbouring town of Ísafjörður, which has more than eight times the number of Flateyri’s inhabitants, I can safely claim to have admired and at times envied the people of Flateyri for the atmosphere they managed to maintain for so long. Having worked there as a professional fish-gutter through two summers, half a decade ago, I was used to thinking of Flateyri as a fun and lively place, brimming with energy and ideas and its surrounding Önundarfjörður as one of the most beautiful fjords in the world.

Imagine my surprise when researching this article. Visiting Flateyri for the first time in two years, on a Wednesday afternoon in late July, I was all but shocked by its seeming deadness. The weather didn’t help; grey skies and heavy clouds can become oppressive when juxtaposed with the fjord’s massive mountains and this, combined with the fact that throughout the course of two hours spent there, I did not observe a single person walking the streets, made for a bleak view of the town. It seemed positively depressing.

Coming back a few days later did not make for a better impression. Even though the sun was basking the town in a warm glow, painting it beautiful instead of grey, there still was no one to be seen. Flateyri’s famous (and only) watering hole, Vagninn, (“The Wagon”) had been closed for over a year. I passed a couple of Polish immigrant workers who wordlessly and promptly ran away from my greetings. A visit to the local gas station did not raise my spirits. The attendant, a girl of 24, who was born and raised in the town, save for a brief stint at beauty school in Reykjavík and as an au pair in Montréal, told me in an informal chat that she was moving to Selfoss.

“The town has changed,” she said, explaining that there was nothing left for her. Nothing to do during the evenings. Not during the day either, really. Way too many Polish and Filipino immigrant workers who can’t be bothered to learn the language and thus don’t participate in the community. She understands them, though, “[…] they don’t really need to blend in with us, there’s so many of them.” The only means of employment, save for the school and kindergarten, are working at the gas station, processing fish at the plant Kambur or gutting fish at the Flateyri fish market (my own previous place of employment for the course of two summers).

“The town is dying,” the gas station attendant told me, certain that in a few years’ time its population would be comprised of a mixture of those too old to leave and the immigrant workers who keep to themselves. According to her, summers are fun when the former townsfolk come back to party for a while, but mainly it’s drab and boring. Selfoss will be a relief for her.

Although one person’s view seldom serves to make up a complete horizon, the girl’s thoughts made me wonder if the town, and many others like it around the country (those without plans for huge aluminium smelting plants anyway), were indeed a thing of the past, doomed to suffer rapidly waning population numbers, quickly turning into burgs of nostalgia-addled summer cottages and minimum-wage-immigrant-worker-powered fish-processing plants.

The reason for the Westfjords (all of Iceland, for that matter) being inhabited in the first place stems from a convenient proximity to good fishing grounds; changing circumstances in the fishing industry (mainly due to the advent of the god-awful quota system and large freezer-trawlers) have effectively negated it to a great extent. So why should anyone choose to live there?

Couple that with the fact that the whole of Iceland’s remaining fishing industry is increasingly powered by immigrant workers who will accept worse work conditions and lower salaries than their Icelandic counterparts. Some of my correspondents in the Westfjords maintained that this could in part be traced to a shift in values during the past few decades; once, raising a family and providing for them through hard work until old age was deemed an acceptable and respectable pursuit. Now, Icelanders are raised to desire upward mobility and “making it”, whatever that means. “The fact is, once you’re working manual labour in the fishing industry, you’ve pretty much gotten your post and you’ll stay there ’til you either die or quit. There’s not a lot to work towards,” maintained one Ísafjörður-based friend who’s worked for various fisheries in the past, “People just want more these days.”

Flateyri And The Fate Of Small Town Iceland - Julia Staples 2006

Hidden nation
Halldór Halldórsson has, on behalf of a coalition of the Independence and Progressive Parties, been the mayor of the town of Ísafjarðarbær for eight years. The township has encompassed the neighbouring towns of Flateyri, Þingeyri, Suðureyri and Ísafjörður ever since they united in 1996, following a majority vote to do so. He maintains that while the avalanche of 1995 has been a large factor in the way the town has evolved during the past decade, there are other equally contributing ones.

“A year after the avalanches, in 1996, the tunnel to Ísafjörður was formally opened, cutting what was once a very unstable and oft-blocked route between the places in half, thereby redefining the whole area as one zone of employment. That same year, the towns were united. One of the effects of this whole process was that most of the smaller towns’ commerce moved to Ísafjörður – people vote with their feet and understandably opt to shop at the cheaper Bónus store rather than their local Kaupfélag – along with the town halls, etc.”

“By becoming part of a greater whole, those small towns forfeited some of the job versatility they used to have; what once were full-fledged towns with priests, town halls, mayors and doctors effectively became what may be regarded as ‘suburbia’ to the larger whole. People in Grafarvogur or Breiðholt do much of their commerce in downtown Reykjavík, for instance. This change of course affected Flateyri a great deal, for instance, and altered the options its inhabitants had for living and working there. These results were entirely foreseeable when the tunnel-digging and unification processes went in hand – had nothing been done, these smaller towns wouldn’t be in any better shape; they might even have been abandoned by now.”

I asked him about the effects of replacing the diminished population with immigrant workers.

“Well, we are having some problems getting them to fully function and participate in the community, something which ultimately affects the quality of life in a place like Flateyri. There are a lot of jobs available, for instance the local factory Kambur produced more than 8,000 tonnes of products last year – in what’s now regarded as Flateyri’s golden age the town’s record was around 5,000 tonnes. So there’s a lot of work to be had in that field, obviously, but there are problems manning it – just the same as there are problems manning much of the service industry in Reykjavík. As a result, close to 90 percent of Kambur’s workforce is comprised of immigrants. Every house there is lived in. Such a large group of non-Icelandic speaking immigrants is however bound to group together and form a community within the community, to isolate, like experience has shown us. Some of the immigrants who choose to stay to themselves are raising funds for their families abroad and would thus rather stay inside and save their money, which is understandable. However, this obviously has negative effects on those who strive to maintain a social and communal spirit in Flateyri.”

“Integration has not gone as well as it should, not because of anyone’s hostility or closed-mindedness, but rather as an effect of the circumstances. We are working on ideas to solve this. Good work is being done in the schools, integrating the children, but we are having problems reaching the adults. As for the future of Flateyri and all of Ísafjarðarbær, I am confident that the unification process was a necessary step for all of the towns and that in time we will evolve into a strong and single-minded base whose inhabitants work, live and play wherever. For this to happen, our populace will have to start growing again. I am an optimist and am hopeful that in time it indeed will.”

Yes, of course there are the immigrant workers – what journalist Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson called “The hidden nation of the Westfjords” in a rather bleak Mannlíf article earlier this year. Some regard them as a problem for Flateyri and similar towns, stifling the locals’ sense of community by not wanting (or being able) to learn the language and participate in their events. There are a lot of them, too; although no definitive records exist – as Páll Ásgeir duly notes in his article, the census board regards them as Icelanders as soon as they receive their citizenship – people speculate that immigrants comprise up to (some say greater than) a third of Flateyri’s 300 inhabitants.

Bryndís Friðgeirsdóttir, a former schoolteacher and Ísafjörður councilperson, currently heads the Westfjords district of the Red Cross, overseeing charters spread all through the peninsula. Through her work the past decade, she has gotten to know many immigrant workers, informing them of their rights and duties, giving tips on how to work the system and providing help with various problematic situations that arise from time to time. She’s still at it. She met us just after assisting a Slovakian woman applying for a job at the Ísafjörður hospital. She says that resources for immigrant and migrant workers have improved greatly these past few years, especially due to the foundation and advent of the Fjölmenningarsetur (the Multicultural Centre) in Ísafjörður and its chairperson Elsa Arnardóttir’s tireless work to integrate it with local businesses and unions.

Still, there are problems in the treatment of immigrant workers that she says are “severely important to the native workforce as well.” Most recently, for example, she explains a “troubling development that needs to be dealt with is the advent of the so-called manpower rentals, many of whom treat their workers poorly and pay them badly. Not too long ago, an Ísafjörður contractor company discovered that their leased employees from Portugal were severely underpaid by their agency and were forced to take action.”

In our brief meeting, we discuss the possibility of employers requiring immigrants to vote a certain way, and the difficulty of the current system of binding work permits to employers, putting the immigrants entirely at the employer’s mercy. I ask what can be done to prevent further deterioration in the Westfjords.

“Well, first off, I think it is absolutely necessary that officials take measures to ensure that as many immigrants as possible learn Icelandic. I am not talking about forcing anyone to do so against their will, but certain resources are needed and it is important to help newcomers see that it is to their utmost advantage to speak the language. We need to put greater emphasis on this, along with better funding. Lest we forget, these immigrants pay their taxes to the Icelandic government – while someone like Björgólfur, (owner of Landsbanki, one of the wealthiest men in the world) does not. As for other options, the Red Cross has a highly successful model for adapting refugees into their new hometowns, based on “friend families”. When Ísafjörður received several Yugoslavian refugees in the ’90s, we set it up so that each family was put in contact with a similarly composed native one. Most of them still keep in touch even after all these years – I consider it a great success and think that similar tactics could work with worker immigrants in the smaller towns.”

It should be noted that while Westfjord immigrant workers and the effects of their presence were among the focal points of Páll Ásgeir’s aforementioned Mannlíf article, even to the extent of drawing its title from them, he doesn’t seem to have interviewed or sought out a single one. Bearing in mind that a “hidden nation” is bound to stay hidden if no one ever looks for it, the Grapevine met up with some of them. They proved astonishingly visible and easy to find, a mere phone call away.

Brothers Edilberto and Edelito Villaespin (known to Flateyri locals as Berto and Lito), immigrated to Flateyri from their native Philippines some six years ago to find jobs, at the urging of their aunt who was working there. Previously, they had mainly made a living managing cock-fights, which are hugely popular in their hometown. They got jobs as fish-gutters at the local fish market and have been there ever since. I got to know them while working a stint there some years ago and although communicating with them was sometimes no mean feat (they speak in a mixture of poor English and Icelandic, although their skills have increased a whole lot since I shared a gutting table with them). They are friendly and fun to be around and welcome me to their rented apartment in Flateyri near midnight, after a long evening of gutting tonnes upon tonnes of catfish, cod and haddock. Also present is Lito’s girlfriend, one Steffell Lol Lissette Parilla, who is in her twenties and moved to Flateyri at the urging of her aunt last year. She works at Flateyri’s fish processing plant, Kambur, and has an invigorating smile, usually followed by an infectious laughter. I am promptly offered a glass of cola, which I happily accept.

Berto and Lito’s apartment is nice and tidy and smells pleasantly of exotic cooking (they are generally fond of Icelandic cuisine, although Lito professes to hate lamb), and I catch them during post-work relaxation, watching the Discovery channel and sharing jokes. They both look forward to next year, when they will have stayed in Flateyri for the whole of seven years, a feat which grants them full citizenship. They tell me that they might consider changing jobs afterwards, although they like gutting fish (which they refer to by the Icelandic word of “slægja” well enough, especially since their (and my) previous boss left. “Now Kambur manages the plant much better,” they tell me. “Old boss was always stressed and we maybe never get vacation or “pása”. Always “mikið slægja!” (more gutting). Now is much more relaxed.”

They inform me of recent developments in my former place of employment and complain a bit about the Polish workers, who they say don’t gut fish nearly fast enough, though some of them are very diligent. “Always out smoking, always pása!,” they say. “You remember Andrew? Always taking breaks. Some are very good, however. It is different.”

Upon first arriving in Flateyri, in September of 2000, they recall being unhappy about all the snow, as is the case with most arrivals from the Philippines, they tell me. They got used to it quickly enough, however, and now consider themselves natives of Flateyri and Iceland. “This is our home,” Lito says. “We like the smell of the air, the water is very good and also it is very peaceful. No trouble here.” According to them, there are now close to twenty Filipinos working in the Kambur plant, along with the three of them working as fish-gutters (the third one, Jerry, who can play any Beatles song on the guitar and frequently does so at parties, was busy this particular night).

They like to keep each other company, they tell me, and frequently have huge dinner parties and social gatherings within the group. They also regularly convene for basketball in the Flateyri gym and play ping-pong in the town assembly hall, which was renovated by a group of eager young Flateyri folk this winter, much to the Filipinos’ liking.

They also claim a love of the town festivals of Fisherman’s Day and the Flateyri street party (a legendary affair) and wish there would be more. They haven’t been to Reykjavík that much and do not seem excited about the place, their metropolitan affairs these days being limited to visits to the Ísafjörður slot machines when there’s nothing else to do.

Although the Filipinos in Flateyri like to stick together (many of them are in fact family), they still consider themselves a part of the community when asked. As Berto told me: “This is our home. We have many Icelandic friends, many Filipino friends and Polish friends. I have a Polish girlfriend in [the neighbouring town of] Suðureyri, she works for Íslandssaga [the Suðureyri fish processing plant] and I went to her home in Poland for two months, for vacation.” Berto tells me his girlfriend doesn’t know a lot of English and that their communication mostly takes place using their limited Icelandic skills or through pointing at words in the dictionary.

The three do, however, disapprovingly tell me that some immigrant workers seclude themselves, stating that many of them like to stay in watching TV after work, being tired and all. They complain about the lack of a place to meet other townsfolk after the Vagninn pub closed and get excited when I tell them that it is in the process of being opened again due to the hard work and effort of some of the locals.

We talk for a long time, trading jokes, horror stories from the fish-gutting industry and slot-machine tips. They like it here and plan on staying for a long time to come.

Flateyri And The Fate Of Small Town Iceland - Julia Staples 2006

Missing nation
And then there is the generation of Flateyri folk now in their twenties and thirties, the one that seems almost entirely missing from the town. This is not limited to Flateyri, of course, most if not all of Iceland’s proud small towns have experienced a huge drain of young people during the past few decades, with young people going off to Reykjavík or even further to seek an education and staying there, whether it be for lack of suitable work in their hometown or other reasons.

Georg Rúnar Ragnarsson, 24, was born and raised in Flateyri, save for a brief stint in Ísafjörður in his pre-teens. He left the town for Reykjavík to pursue further studies as an engineer and mans the Viðey ferry for a summer job.

“Growing up in Flateyri, I didn’t really envision ever moving away. I always supposed I’d be a sailor there. All of my role models were. I think Flateyri is probably one of the best places in the world to spend one’s youth, tonnes of kids hanging out, playing unsupervised in the streets, a lot of life in the town and a closeness to work-life that you probably miss out on in places like Reykjavík. Everybody was real close.”

“The town is rather drab these days, and that kind of troubles me. I remember it being so vibrant and full of life, even a few years ago. I guess it comes in waves? Kids my age don’t come to work there during the summer like they used to. My hope is that Flateyri will once again find its glory… I would very much like to go back, and if I find a suitable job, I probably will. At heart, I am a Flateyringur.”

When asked about the immigrant workers, Georg says he has no qualms with them and counts many of them as acquaintances. “You try to be friendly, inviting them to after-parties and such, often they come. I guess some of them keep to themselves, although that is understandable in a way, and maybe some of them are a little afraid?”

Ultimately, Ragnarsson has a positive outlook on the future of Flateyri, telling me that “Flateyri has a bright future ahead of it. There’s always someone doing something cool over there, some artists recently bought a house there and are remodelling it, and I hear that Önni [more on him later] is building a professional studio there. Yeah, I think that we’ll see people building new houses in Flateyri soon enough.”

Halldór Gunnar Pálsson currently works as manager of the Skífan record store on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in Reykjavík. He is 25, born and raised in Flateyri and, like Georg, really loves the town. “Man, Flateyri was the best place to grow up in, at least for a kid like myself. In those days, we had 50-60 kids roaming the streets without parental supervision every night, looking for mischief and often finding it. And the whole town was very lively. You have to understand that in those days, before the tunnel and our joining Ísafjörður, we had a thriving main street. A post office, bank, bakery, two convenience stores, a video store, a bookstore and pub.”

“The town’s population counted 500 people back then, and we had a lot of migrant workers from Australia and South Africa who were there just for the thrill of it, as opposed to saving money like I guess some of our current ones are. They went out drinking and spent their money freely, participating in every activity. The immigrants now are busy keeping their families back home fed while the Australians were just young people looking for adventure. Flateyri was a world in and of itself, especially during the winter when communications with the rest of the country were often severed. Driving to Ísafjörður on a whim was not plausible back then, the way it is now the tunnels are here.”

I bring up the avalanche – surely that must have been the key factor in the town’s changing character.

“In such a small town, you know everyone. It doesn’t matter if it was family or not, you know and love everyone. And it really hurt. It really hurt and was a great loss to every Flateyringur. Last year, when ten years had passed since the tragedy occurred, one inevitably got to thinking about it again. Of course it affected us greatly, as did the tunnels and unification to Ísafjörður, although I probably didn’t give that much thought at the time.”

“I guess the townlife would probably be a lot different had the avalanche never occurred, although there are a lot of towns that share Flateyri’s current circumstances without ever having an avalanche. Mentally, it would be different. A lot of people can’t envision living there in light of those events and that certainly makes a difference. On the other hand, it really brought us close as a community. There is a special bond between us. Maybe it’s best not to speculate.”

Pálsson also says that he is quite happy that the town is hosting the number of immigrant workers that it is, even though he would be thankful if they participated more. “I guess we have both. There are Poles there that I have known since I was a teenager who participate greatly, then again some of them only plan on staying short term to save up some money… If there’s 50 foreigners living in the 300-person town of Flateyri who stay to themselves, that of course makes a difference, much the same as if there were 50,000 foreigners in all of Iceland who kept to themselves. I would very much like for some of our guests to participate more in our community and on occasion they do and I think it’ll only increase. The kids in the schools learn our language and have Icelandic friends, I think it will all work out in the end.”

With all this, I ask him if he, a young native of Flateyri, will return.

“The only reason I ever left was so I could attend the FÍH music school. I am still a citizen of Flateyri, both mentally and legally. And I intend to live there again. There are of course limited job opportunities, I’ve held nearly every job you can in Flateyri without being in the fishing industry – and I’ve worked most of the fishing industry jobs too. Most of them involve teaching. But here’s what I think: If we indeed plan on living there in the future, it mostly depends on ourselves.”

“We have to create our own opportunities, and there is a lot of will to do that and a lot of things working in our favour, such as cheap housing. You know, Esso planned on closing their convenience store. Some people from Flateyri pooled their money, bought it from them and are now operating it. The same is happening with the Vagninn pub, which was bought out by a coalition of townsfolk that is now in the process of renovating it. There is a lot of will to live over there and that is important and encouraging. No one is handing you anything in Flateyri. The government’s all but written us off, but we do things for ourselves instead and that is going to have to be the case if we are going to continue to inhabit the place.”

“Of course, most people aren’t interested in manual labour in the fishing industry any more. That’s understandable, I’m not and I won’t pretend I am. But there are a lot of other options – as if it really matters where your computer’s located when writing this article, for instance. The thing is, we have to do it ourselves, and I think we will. Take my older brother Önni for instance, he’s 29 and lives there with his wife and two baby girls. He makes a living teaching in the Ísafjörður music school, produces records by local musicians and is currently in the process of financing a recording studio in Flateyri. That’s enterprise!”

Halldórs older brother, Önundur Pálsson or Önni as he’s known to the locals, is indeed an enterprising man, the type of person Flateyri will need if the townpeople’s dreams of restoring it to a former glory are to come to fruition. He lives in a lovely house there (which features what he claims to be the worlds most northern Bonsai-garden), along with his wife of two years, Sigrún Svanhvít Óskarsdóttir (originally from Sauðárkrókur) and their two young daughters. The couple is 29 years of age and met six years ago in Reykjavík, where they were studying. Asked about his plans to install a recording studio in an abandoned whale-oil tank, he replies “I think it will work out very well. You see, a few years ago everybody went to London or New York to record their album, the trend right now is retreating to the countryside. And I really feel we have a lot to offer here, beautiful surroundings, a lot of peace for working and a top of the line studio, equipped with any- and everything you need. We plan on being fully comparable to the most expensive studios, while keeping it cheaper and offering a lot of chances to do things differently. We are thinking of naming it “Whalestone Studios”, the house we’re building it in was used to store whale-oil 100 years ago.”

Önni is currently in the process of financing the studio and deciding exactly how it will be organized and set up. “We’ll open up soon enough. It’s exciting. We can offer our guests comfortable apartments, unique surroundings and an experience parallelled by no other. And since the tunnel opened, Flateyri is only an hour’s trip away from downtown Reykjavík. Two hours from Keflavík and thus five hours from London or wherever. It’s really that close. We are really intent on living here, and if that means making our own opportunities, then we’ll do that.”

Sigrún started off working in the fishing industry when arriving here. “It was like entering another country, really. I think there are about five Icelanders working in processing at Kambur right now. It really is different. That kind of job isn’t really feasible anymore, but like Önni said, we have to make our own opportunities.”

-Do you feel Flateyri has changed much in the past decade?  Has town life died down?

They say they don’t feel Flateyri has changed much in the past decade, and that the town life has far from died down. “What we have been looking at is a state of in-between which seems to be ending now. The town is at a crossroads. People seem to be waking up from a sort of slumber, tending to their gardens and increasing their activities. A lot of our immigrant workers seem intent on staying, bringing over their families and learning the language. That is a very positive development. Old Flateyri-folk are also coming over to relax and have fun. As for talk about the immigrants being secluded, it is really double-sided. You just can’t sit around in your house and wait for an immigrant to come a-knockin’ to get to know you and your language. It takes a lot of effort on both parts and I feel we are up to the challenge.”

 

“We are convinced that sooner or later, people will see the benefits of living in a smaller town like Flateyri. You can really do most work from here using the internet and other communications, getting between places never takes more than a couple of minutes and your kids can play safely in the streets. The cost of living is of course way cheaper than in Reykjavík – it’s not even comparable. Housing, transport, activities. That really makes a difference. The tunnel really changed everything for both good and bad, we probably wouldn’t be living here if it weren’t for it. The world is getting smaller.”

The new locals
But Flateyri is shaped mostly by the experience of the immigrant workers, who drive the economy. Michal Jerzy Kocinski, known to the locals as Mikki, is 20 years old and moved to Flateyri from his native home of Darlowo, Poland (a town slightly larger than Akureyri) at age 11. “I hated it here at first. My mom had been working here. She told me I was visiting for summer vacation and that was nice enough, but in the fall, when I told her I wanted to go home, she said I was already there. That came as a shock.”

“I attended the school that fall and it was awful at first. I didn’t understand the language at all and since I was the first Polish kid to attend the school, they didn’t really know what to do with me. I spent most of the Icelandic classes studying math. I communicated solely in English at first. And the snow and mountains were kind of scary. This was a lot of change for a young man like myself. Then I made some friends and they taught me the language – still do in fact. Always correct me if I misspeak. That’s a lot of help. But for me to learn the language, I guess it was a lot like teaching a baby to take its first steps.”

Mikki has lived in Flateyri ever since, save for a winter in the Sauðárkrókur dorm (“I did a lot of partying there…”) and really likes it. “I feel good here. I really don’t want to go back to Poland, except maybe to vacation. Flateyri is my hometown and I am one of the locals.”

An immigrant who came so soon after the avalanche and who has watched the town recover, Mikki has a much more optimistic view than those of us who knew the town before the avalanche. “Man, Flateyri has gotten a lot cooler since I first came here. Vagninn is opening again, that’s awesome; the community centre was refurbished this winter and looks really great. New floors, activities, it really is something. In my opinion, the town is steadily getting better. And I am having a lot of fun here, I know practically everyone in the neighbouring towns and we have a lot of fun driving around and meeting people.”

And then Mikki indicates that he truly has become a local. “I’d like to live here, but I plan on maybe moving to Reykjavík this fall, to try and ‘make it’. I’d like to rent an apartment, maybe get a job doing some construction. I’ve worked in the Kambur fish processing plant and am not interested in doing that for a living. Not at all. I am studying to be an engineer and have to complete nine months at sea to get my rights. I might do that soon, but I’d like to take a break and live in Reykjavík for a while first.”


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