From Iceland — Reality Bites

Reality Bites

Published August 17, 2015

Haukur Már Helgason
Photo by
Baldur Helgason
What do multi-level highway interchanges, cheeseburgers and donuts have in common? No, this is not about the police.

Discordant harmonies

Discordant intersections. That’s the verbatim translation of an Icelandic term curiously popular among the country’s city planners and in news reports around the turn of the century. If my internet doesn’t fail me, in English the thing is better known as an interchange: when intersecting roads lie, one over a bridge across the other, with all the slip lanes and grade separations needed to make as smooth as possible whatever left and right turns a driver might fancy. Smooth in the sense that going through the ideal interchange one driver never has to halt for another—never has to acknowledge other drivers’ existence, noticing them only as this vague abstraction surrounding him or her: traffic.

Variants include, I now learn, the roundabout interchange—a well-known favourite in Iceland’s suburban municipalities—the cloverleaf interchange, the stack interchange, the cloverstack interchange, and the turbine interchange, not to mention the diverging windmill, the divided volleyball and the full diamond varieties. From above they all look like intricate mandalas or swastikas. (Europe’s first interchange opened for traffic in Schkeuditz, Germany, in 1936, which seems worth mentioning just to slander these engineering marvels, yet unfair and irrelevant enough to keep within parentheses.)

In any case, Icelandic reporters referred to all the variants by one term: “mislæg gatnamót.” The question posed by planners was always: how about we add one? The eventual answer was invariably: let’s.

The term’s history up until now is short but, let’s say, fascinating? Bear with me.

The rise and fall of the interchange

Through the print media archives of, we learn that the term “mislæg gatnamót” made its first modest appearance in print—thereby entering the Icelandic vocabulary—in 1983. It appears one time the following year, never in 1985, once in 1986, two times in 1987, and a vigorous nine times in 1988—only to drop below half of that while the Berlin Wall was coming down and the Soviet Union disintegrating: five, six, five. In 1992, then, the term seems determined to succeed, making twelve appearances, ascending to seventeen in 1993 and a staggering forty-two in 1994.

Throughout the latter half of the 90s, the term’s appearances remain rather steady, until the year 2000, when “mislæg gatnamót” makes a huge leap, from 34 to 95 instances in a single year. The word stays at around 100 appearances per year throughout most of this century’s first decade—until, that is, 2009. Following the example of the króna, “mislæg gatnamót” falls from grace even more drastically than it rose: from 2008’s 105 instances in print, the term crashes to a negligible 19 appearances the year after. It hasn’t recovered since.

In other words, post-2008, such construction projects have not been in vogue. Interchanges are a boom thing, communal conspicuous consumption. Luxury goods. City planners and engineers may disagree and point to some marginal utility value these mandalas have. Nonetheless, I would contend that this is not why they were built.

Conspicuous construction

The difference between an Hermès handbag and any ordinary backpack is not that you can stuff more things in the former, or that it lasts longer. You buy the Hermès to signal your participation in a certain storyline. That goes for secondhand clothing, too, although, if you do buy secondhand by choice rather than necessity, you’d probably call it “vintage”—and you wouldn’t be engaging in “recycling” as much as “upcycling,” a term coined to imprint the same classist differentiation on used used consumer items as the term “expat” (you roaming, free spirits of the West) did on migrants (poor bastards). In any case, the story you tell yourself and others may be one of an environmentally conscious aesthete, who appreciates “life’s true joys” over and above well-marketed luxury. It may even be a true story, so to speak—it’s a story nonetheless.

Back to the point: which narrative does a small society, a country populated by just over 300,000 people, enter by cramming its inner city and suburban areas full of, practically speaking, superfluous, intricate multi-level interchanges? The same, I reckon, as when its people stand in line overnight for those colourful, edible circular objects assumed to be pastry: the world of every story on TV, ever.

The mirage of The Real

As a child, I lived in various places around Iceland. Súðavík was one—a village of 250 inhabitants at the time. Núpur by Dýrafjörður was another —a boarding school back then, two mountain crossings away from the nearest supermarket. Wherever my parents roamed for work, dragging me with them, one thing remained stable: TV. And whatever series or film was on TV, certain things were shared by most of them: tall buildings, busy people, fast-food franchises and heavy traffic passing through multi-level interchanges. Whereas life felt mostly like waiting, TV provided the answer to what we were all waiting for: city life.

The cities these shows were filmed in probably varied: Seattle, NYC and Washington all exist on TV. Even Munich was there. Oh, and Dallas made a significant contribution. Most often, though, it was probably LA, home of the eternal traffic jam.

Sitting in a car and cursing the insane traffic while taking the wrong turn because you have to read the signs to realise which right turn will take you to the left became a token, in our collective televisioned mind, of having arrived. There. In the actual world, the one on TV. As opposed to its waiting room, our homes.

The relief

The same goes for fast food franchises. Whether it’s McDonald’s, inaugurated in 1993, as Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson took a bite of the first joint’s first burger served in the country, in front of—appropriately—several TV cameras, or this month’s opening of Iceland’s first of a planned 16 Dunkin’ Donuts outlets: we know reality when it hits us, because we’ve seen it on TV. In that sense, every bite taken of the less-than-nutritious foodstuffs these places serve is a bite of reality, announcing our always long-awaited arrival.

McDonald’s left in 2009, explaining that doing business in Iceland didn’t really pay off. Reality is a fleeting thing— you must keep biting and chewing if you don’t want to find yourself back in the waiting room. Which is why those of us brought up by TV feel some sense of relief at the arrival of Dunkin’ Donuts (which people born and raised in stabler households with a firmer grasp on reality may not). Sure, other franchises operate in the country. Neither KFC nor Taco Bell are as trustworthy and stable signals of being-in-the-world, i.e. TV-land, as Dunkin’ Donalds and McDonut’s.

Put your money where your mouth is and vote with your feet 

Things have changed, however, since McDonald’s came and went. Most importantly in this context, a notable number of city-dwellers in other countries have come to the conclusion that their Los Angeles or Munich is itself nothing but a waiting room—that The Real awaits them in a place like Iceland.

The perceived mix of the rugged and the cute, i.e. the culture of no manners and the relative moral purity of the powerless and irrelevant, has become a highly marketable asset in its own right. I’m guessing here, but this might have to do with the ongoing change in the way we use media: an arctic fox swimming in a handmade pool next to a lone mountain’s waterfall, surrounded by a lava field under a dramatic cloudy sky, has a higher Instagram value than TV’s beloved highways and intersections, or anything involving the NYPD.

Whatever the underlying reasons might be, the consequence is confusion: during the late 20th century we all subscribed to the American dream, which to our best knowledge was all about getting stuck in traffic, waiting to sink your teeth into a donut or a burger. And now you’re all over here, in order to immerse yourselves in what? That other deaf, dumb and blind thing, what’s the word… nature?

“Wait a minute,” our collective subconscious goes, “you mean reality isn’t an imported good?”

If it is not, if reality was over here all along, do you think imports might hurt it? Exterminate it? That bland taste of baked, sugar-coated dust, is it the taste of nothing? And if we keep consuming it, will it eventually take over?

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