Pretty people, money and the weather – ask most people about Iceland and they’ll usually weave you a story around these three topics, touching on the freezing-but-beautiful environment (it’s Ice-land, right?) and how a round of drinks requires a small bank loan but, apparently, it’s worth it because the women / men are very good looking, with accents like Björk and model features all round.
But how do these barriers, or the perceptions of difficulties in moving to, and living in, Europe’s largest wilderness manifest themselves from the point of view of people who’ve made the move and work in industries common to Iceland’s newer generations? With an immigrant population of about 23,000 (7.6% of the total population), a figure that puts Iceland 154th out of 193 UN member countries in a recent World Population Policies study, newer residents form a significant part of the Icelandic people and their culture without swamping the economy. As a country, it’s in an enviable position compared to some European neighbours.
Ironically, the know-it-alls who trot out tired clichés about the country are not far from the truth, for as our three examples show, most people are lured to Iceland by something relating to one of the trinity of environment (and location), love or money and find at least one of these subjects to be a serious bone of contention, having made the move. The idle speculators aren’t far from the mark but maybe this is a universal truth about human migration.
Alex Zaklynsky, an American artist who was lured to the North Atlantic by his passion of art and the carrot of a residency with SIM (the Association of Icelandic Visual Artists), certainly agrees with the idea that money and the high cost of living is a major factor in deciding on a stay in Iceland. “The worst thing about living in Iceland and being an artist are taxes and if I could change one thing it would be to have lower taxes,” explains Alex whose gallery, The Lost Horse, is a model success story on how a mixture of artistic ability and entrepreneurship can pay dividends in a small country – if you could do two things well, rather than just the one, it’s likely that nobody else in such a small place will be able to match you. “There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here…” is how Ian Watson, another American now living in Reykjavík, accurately described the market for specialist skill sets, particularly in the fields of media and art. Work out your finances, find a niche, work hard at it and the chances of success are high – much higher than in most other capital cities.
But the focus on money and tax is also, to some extent, tied to the choice of job for someone making the move – learn the language (accepted as essential for working in Iceland for any length of time) and you could potentially find a cosy, well-paid desk job at a bank or energy company and such matters need never trouble your bank balance. But those with a more precarious income tied to the fluctuations of the creative economy will obviously find having a large percentage of your money taken by the government harder. Value Added Tax, levied at a mere 17.5% in the UK, is significantly higher at 24.5% leading to the number one observation about Iceland – that it’s an expensive place to live – having a greater impact on everyone’s lives as fuel prices and the current economic climate further drive up prices of everyday goods and services. This is particularly hard to stomach if the price of a painting, art installation, gig ticket or album isn’t raised to compensate but sticking rigidly to Iceland’s tax system, which isn’t too complex and has a number of incentives for certain industries, but a low tax allowance is vital to avoid sticky situations. Getting professional help is one thing that Alex Somers, a musician and artist who moved from Baltimore, USA, in 2005, recommends – he found starting his own business forcibly clarified the legal situation: “Since we started the publishing company – Moss Stories – we have to have a lawyer, so he does everything now.” Starting a company to release an album, organise gigs or publish artwork is a common way to channel creative efforts whilst keeping everything legal and above board financially.
Aside from the long-standing issues of tax and money, a problem shared by many Nordic countries, there are many positive things that lure people to Iceland (rather than repelling them). The first, as highlighted by the recent dalliance of former Manchester United footballer Dwight Yorke with an Icelandic model (she wisely dumped him), is that love and emotional attachment are hugely important. Walk around Reykjavík and the melting pot of accents and nationalities are, when casually surveyed, mainly due to that person meeting a boy or a girl sometime – a subsequent tale of long distance romance ending in a move to Iceland normally follows. Alex Somers is one such person (“I moved to Iceland in 2005 to live with my boyfriend”) and hundreds have made the same decision, particularly when their home country is the antithesis of Iceland, as is the case with America and other large industrialised countries. This gravitation must also be due to the many obvious attractive qualities (it’s unlikely Dwight Yorke was squiring his Icelandic lady due to her knowledge of the cod wars and whaling) that are manifested, in many cases, in a unique cultural outlook with a focus on art and aesthetics, the combination of which outsiders find fascinating and inspiring to be a part of.
Andreas Constantinou, a Cypriot who moved to Reykjavík from London to pursue a career in dance teaching and music, found this aspect of the country to be a strong draw: “Iceland has a thriving art scene, the overall society values its art and culture very much and I find this refreshing. Our surroundings can affect us hugely in our daily lives unconsciously.” Whilst Alex Somers, whose music and art projects, Riceboy Sleeps and Parachutes, have led to international recognition and well-supported international tours, also shares the view that Icelandic society’s heavy leaning towards artistic culture forms a major part of its attractiveness. “Everything feels possible here. If I have an idea for a project, I feel like I can really make it happen. All the artists and musicians I know encourage, support, and help each other develop their work, and that is so inspiring to me.”
One of the major factors behind this strong artistic culture is the multitude of funding, such as the Kraumur music fund, which supports artists and musicians in their efforts to widen their audience and further the spread of Icelandic culture. Such funding, generated by numerous government and institutional sources and corporate sponsors (see Alex Zaklynsky’s Landsbankinn-sponsored display in late August as a prime example), has paved the way for international recognition amongst the artistic community in Iceland and acts as an unofficial tourist board of sorts. Displays around the world, from London to New York, and the huge impact of Icelandic music over the past few years have made sure that the country is no longer seen as cold, in any human sense of the word. This worldwide perception has meant that whilst some people move to Iceland for the clean air, amazing scenery and quality of life, many others, such as our three examples, move here because, person-for-person, Reykjavík has one of the most interesting and progressive artistic communities in the world. And that’s after taxes and VAT.