Published June 27, 2003


The darkness is smothering the last rays of the sun, and the air is still grey and damp after the day’s rain. The scent of food from the neighbour’s house tickles my nose as I sneak out and carefully close the door behind me. Cautiously I look around and hope, no doubt in vain, that no one has noticed. For here, the walls have ears.

On a bench in a nearby park I sit down and pick up a book that I casually leaf through. I discern a soft thump as someone sits down next to me. Slowly and deliberately I put the book down before I look up. Next to me sits Jón, schoolmate and latest flame, but no one can know of the latter, at least not yet. This is the first time we’ve been out together since we met at a club 13 hours ago. He gets up, and I walk exactly 9 paces behind him until we are in what seems a fairly secure area. We then embrace and stare lovingly into each others eyes as the sun slides into the sea.
But this ridiculously romantic moment is disturbed by a desperate cry. We turn around, and see that there stands Gunna.
She is my niece’s best friend and Jóns ex, whom he broke up with 14 hours earlier. She is also the neighbour of my former boyfriend Siggi, whom I broke up with two days after I discovered that he slept with my best friend Dísa´s stepmother on my birthday. Dísa, as it happens, is also Jón´s half sister.
This is episode 1.129 of the soap opera The Icelandic and the Beautiful, which I, and all other Icelanders, are starring in.
The Icelandic and the Beautiful is a Reality TV program of sorts that I found myself cast into without remembering having ever auditioned and have, without so far realising it, been participating in since birth. The theme is typical of the genre. The place, in this case, is Iceland, a small community where everyone knows each other. On the face of it everything is as it should be, and everyone is a friend to each other. But underneath the surface there are shady goings-on just as in the foreign prototypes, and just as in the prototypes, friendships don’t always run deep.
Here, everyone knows one another and everyone is famous. To become a celebrity in Iceland it is enough to work in a fashionable nightclub or clothes store, or better yet, become a petty criminal or a bum always seen in the same spot, which is the surest way to become a Reykjavík Personality.
The reason is simple, it is a small community and we’re all one big family after having married our cousins for hundreds of years. The first thing an Icelander will ask another when making initial contact is who the other’s parents are or which school he went too, so he can be accurately placed in the part he’s playing on the set of the Opera. You can always find some connection between two people, even if they’ve never met before; for example they may have both gotten drunk with the same person on different occasions, or they both went to the same kindergarten together. In all probability, one will be the father of the child of the others wife, or at least the best friend of the man who is.
In Iceland, the fact that everyone has slept with everyone else might be more a reflection of a small population rather than promiscuity, although alcohol consumption does play a part. It is not uncommon to see girls limping home on broken heels or guys sneaking back in their rumpled suits the morning after the night before. These individuals often look despondent rather than proud of the previous evening’s conquests, knowing that within half an hour their secret will no longer be a secret. This is the greatest downside of the Reykjavík nightlife. If, due to despair, inebriation or temporary insanity, you happen to bed someone you wish you hadn’t, you can’t just sit back and hope you’ll never meet them again. You know you will, be it at the mall, on a bus, in a bar or, perhaps inevitably, at a family gathering. In any case, whoever the person in question, it’s bound to be a cousin, nephew, niece, brother, sister, mom, dad, or even grandparent of one of your friends. And as long as you’re a player in the soap, the stories will keep on accumulating, until your only way out is to leave the country and send your loved or not so loved ones a postcard from Bolivia or wherever it is you had to go to find the comfort of obscurity.
The actors in the show are at present 288.471 (last counted on December 31st), and the size of each ones role varies, although most people get to take centre stage at some point. The leading actress in recent episodes has been the charming Ingibjörg Sólrun, former Mayor and recent contender for the post of Prime Minister, who plays a mysterious woman driven perhaps by idealism, or perhaps just raw ambition. Opposite her is the manly and somewhat despotic Davið Oddson, current Prime Minister. Can he still be redeemed, or is he hopelessly corrupted by power? Their love/hate relationship has been watched closely, and people can’t wait to see how things develop, whether they will continue to be competitors or whether other emotions will spring to the surface and a tearstained ending will be in store. In other leading roles you will find the businessmen who carry the whole country bulging out of their back pockets, and who have played the bad guy parts quite convincingly. Every now and then, one of them is exposed and moved from centre stage to keep the crowd content, their role instantly being filled by a new face but similar character. The audience, of course, roots for the poor, frustrated artist who, however, as this is an ongoing series, never seems to win. Instead he spends his days at a coffeeshop, tormented and broken by the state of the world and his own despair. He shakes his head hopelessly while sipping his change out of a coffee cup, and remains in place as long as the pretty waitress, unaware of his angst, keeps giving him free refills.
Much work has been put into the costumes of The Icelandic and the Beautiful and high praise should be reserved for the costume designers. Most actors, in large and small roles alike, are very tastefully, not to mention expensively dressed. Great care has been made to select the appropriate uniform for each personality type, whether they wear Armani or trenchcoats, usually available in the same shops and at similar prices. Those who do not dress appropriately are unlikely to get the bigger roles, or indeed speaking parts at all. Even international viewers comment on the attention paid to dress regardless of natural obstacles, and this is a source of considerable pride to cast members, as this proves it is indeed the greatest show on Earth (per head, of course).
The Icelandic and the Beautiful looks set to run for quite a few seasons still, despite some people’s claims of lack of variety. It has gone from modest beginnings as word-of-mouth stories and gossip, to books from calf skin to print, and finally on to that greatest media of them all, television. Today, hardly anything happens that isn’t photographed, printed, published or televised. There are no secrets here, where everyone is friends with each other (or at least cousins), here, where the walls have ears.

Bergþóra Snæbjörnsdóttir

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