e-mail us
Discovering Iceland


Aerhaps you’ve taken one of Icelandair’s popular low-cost flights to Europe. The flight stopped in Keflavik, Iceland’s International Airport. You may have looked out the window and shivered. People outside were walking at a 45-degree angle against driving sheets of sleet. The old lava near the airport looked like the moon. You were glad to be going on to Europe.

If you had stayed over, the weather might have changed in two minutes. The sun, languishing on the horizon, might have produced a double rainbow that would make you whimper. “Iceland is a large watercolor in progress,” my friend Lois said on the second day of her visit.

Welcome to Iceland, or “Paradice” as the poet Eliot Weinberger called it, the only country, according to Amnesty International, that has no human rights violations of its own citizenry, and that sends their prisoners home for holidays.

Icelanders are a literate and internationally savvy people who like to banter with you. The 250,000 citizens have a healthful environment and a progressive government that protects their citizens from birth to death. There is universal education, universal health care, almost 100 percent literacy, very low unemployment, longevity, no pollution and a prosperous middle class.

Everyone is known by her or his first name, including the president, and is listed that way in the phonebook. They follow a system known as patronymics. An Icelander’s Christian name is followed by his or her father’s name and the suffix son or dóttir: Gudrún Pétursdóttir (Gudrún, daughter of Pétur). Relatives can therefore have many different “surnames,” which sometimes causes confusion to foreigners.

Iceland is as homogenous as the United States is diverse. The language, pure Norse, is the same as their ancestors spoke 1,000 years ago. Icelanders know their genealogy and their history from the first settlement, recorded in the Sagas. These are not the stories of kings, for there were none, but the stories of farmers and settlers. Peter Giersson, who owns a hotel in Borgarnes, in the heart of Saga country, can show you where each story took place, and where the most famous writer, Snorri Sturluson, relaxed in his still-steaming hot tub.

Iceland is not a closed society. They have welcomed many Eastern European immigrants recently, and people from Yugoslavia who face discrimination in their homeland because of ethnic intermarriages. The immigrants often work in the fish factories in the north of the country.

Fr. Jakob Rolland, parish priest at Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavik, talked about Iceland, his adopted country over coffee and cakes at the rectory. “Coffee is the eighth sacrament here. We can’t do anything without it,” he said. Rolland, from a mountainous region of France, has learned the language, changed his name from Jacques to Jakob -- “no one here could say Jacques” -- and taken out Icelandic citizenship. “I’m bound to this parish. This is my home now,” he said.

Iceland is a challenge for the Catholic church. The country converted from paganism to Christianity in the year 1000, by agreement of the Parliament. On their way home to the North, from Thingveiller, where the Parliament met, the leaders threw their statues into the Godafoss Falls, rather like that last pack of cigarettes you’ll ever smoke. There were a few holdovers, eating horsemeat, a little bit of sacrifice to the gods and a bit of infanticide. Icelandic people defend their heathen ancestors, arguing that life was very harsh in those times, and if people could not feed their infants, they had no alternative.

It was a Catholic country until the Reformation in the 16th century, when the Catholic bishop, Jon Aronsson, and his two sons were beheaded. “He is still regarded as a national martyr, a man who gave his life for his religion,” Rolland said. Now here’s a twist: In Iceland, priests were allowed to marry, but because Aronsson was not married and had two sons, he was denied sainthood, Rolland said.

The Lutheran church was established as the state religion, but in 1857, the Catholic church returned to set up a mission, with Sisters of St. Joseph and the Montfort Order of the priesthood. “Slowly the prejudice against the Catholics calmed down, and the Icelandic people regained freedom of religion again in 1874,” Rolland said.

There are now 3,500 Catholics in the country, “only a little over 1 percent of the population,” Rolland said. There are 13 priests in Iceland, three of them Icelandic. Four priests are traveling most of the time, visiting the immigrant population from Eastern Europe and the Philippines, who are in every community in the country except three. The present bishop of Iceland is Dutch, Johannes Gijsen.

Rolland said his Icelandic “is not fit for print” and always has an Icelandic person check it for grammar. “Their language and culture are very important to them,” he said. “The weather is dreadful and the cost of living is high. They only stay here because it is their culture.”

Recently Rolland has been listening to tapes of Halldor Laxness’ books as he travels. Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel laureate, died a year ago, at the age of 95. His last book Days Among the Monks about his sojourn in a monastery in 1920 was published in the 1980s. Laxness also wrote Independent People, the story of everyman, and The Atom Station about the conflict in Iceland over joining NATO.

When Laxness accepted the Nobel Prize, he paid tribute to his family and to “that community of 150,000 men and women who form the book-loving nation that we Icelanders are.”

“My thoughts fly to the old Icelandic storytellers who created our classics, whose personalities were so bound up with the masses that their names, unlike their lives’ work, have not been preserved for posterity,” he said. “They live in their immortal creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape. For century upon dark century those nameless men and women sat in their mud huts writing books without so much as asking themselves what their wages would be, what prize or recognition would be theirs. There was no fire in their miserable dwellings at which to warm their stiff fingers as they sat up late at night over their stories. Yet they succeeded in creating not only a literary language that is among the most beautiful and the subtlest there is, but a separate literary genre. While their hearts remained warm, they held on to their pens.”

Travel information

Icelandair is the only carrier serving the country; fares go from $800 in the summer, to $500 in winter, lower with special promotions, including hotels and cars. Phone: 1-800-223-5500; Web site: http://www.icelandair.is/interpro/icelandair/ipbwi2.nsf/pages/front

Iceland Tourist Bureau is on the Web at http://www.icetourist.is. Or call the bureau in New York at (212) 949-2333, fax: (212) 983-5260. Ask for “Iceland A to Z,” a good planning tool.

Where to stay:

There are at least 15 hotels in Reykjavík, including the elegant Borg and the four-star Saga, and one at each stop on the main road if you are making a driving circle around the country.

Guesthouses are a modestly priced alternative. Solbakki (Sunhouse) in Hveragerdi, a hot spring and greenhouse area 40 miles from the international airport, is one. Phone: (354) 483-4212, fax: (354) 483-4012. Its rate is about $30, including breakfast. Icelandic breakfasts are a full meal: cheese, cold meats, fruit, cereal, toast, eggs, and sometimes caviar and herring.

In Reykjavík, try the Guesthouse Isafold, Barugata 11, 101 Reykjavík, a large sea captain’s house on a quiet residential street, on a hill above the harbor. Phone: (354) 561-2294, fax: (354) 562-9965. The rate is $50 per person, including breakfast. The owner, Gunnar, enjoys repartee. When one woman asked what kind of weather to expect, he said, “What do you like?” The weather does change every 10 minutes, from hailstones to rainbows.

Population and climate:

Half of Iceland’s 250,000 live in the capital, Reykjavík. The others are scattered throughout small coastal towns, fishing villages or the other major city, Akureyri, on the North Coast.

The interior, which bubbles, steams, erupts, comes together and moves apart, is uninhabitable. Iceland is a living geology lesson. There are no trees to speak of in Iceland, and they like it that way -- they like to see the far-off landscape. There is little wildlife, a few foxes and small rodents. An occasional unfortunate polar bear has drifted over from Greenland on an iceberg, unwelcome because they kill sheep. They are likely to be shot.

Temperature in Reykjavík is usually moderate, in the 40s to 50s. The North is warm in the summer and fiercely cold in the winter. The wind is wild throughout the country, sometimes over 50 miles per hour.

Background research:

Daily News from Iceland is a Web site that offers many links: http://www.centrum.is/icerev/daily1.html

Independent People and The Atom Station, books by Halldor Laxness.

“Children of Nature” and “Cold Fever,” two films by Icelandic filmmaker Fridrik Thor Fridriksson.

Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavík has a home page at http://www.vortex.is/~catholica/endex.html with information about the history of Catholicism in the country.

-- Bette McDevitt

Bette McDevitt is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, and a member of the Thomas Merton Center.

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999