Monday, 28 July 2014

Tinta - the character of Iceland

One of the delights of Verdian opera is how each individual opera has its own 'tinta', its own musical and dramatic colour. The mixture of frenetic eroticism and melancholy in Traviata, the savagery and ostinato of Rigoletto, the splendid trumpet tones of Aida.

Force travel into a couple of weeks' summer holiday and all you get is one tune. You visit Iceland and you see a waterfall, a geyser, a rift, in ten-minute slices, and then it's back in the bus. You don't waste any time. It's like listening to Verdi's greatest hits - 'La donna è mobile', 'Va pensiero', 'Caro nome' - but you don't get any of the story, any of the tinta.

Spend a little longer, wander around on your own, resist the packages, and you find something else. The tinta of the country. In this case, Iceland. Stranger than I thought it would be.

  • Icelanders all tell a good story. I suppose the long winter makes them good at storytelling if there's not much else to do. Ten percent of Icelanders are said to have written a book. I was told about the Asbyrgi Heatwave - "if I Google myself, there's my name, and the temperature," the petrol store owner at Asbyrgi told me - about the father who crashed his son's car ("it's meant to be the other way around. So he had to offer me a job in his company to pay for it"), about the outlaw who scrambled up into a cave in Thorsmork and the young partiers who followed ("my father used to go up there, and I think maybe so did my mother, in summer... and I was born in April, so..."). And I suspect, based on the various stories I heard, that Icelanders are far more eccentric than most nationalities. Put another way, they don't seem to have a particularly entrenched concept of 'normal'.
  • Odd museums. Yes, there's a Phallological Museum in Reykjavik (I didn't go). And there are museums dedicated to singular aspects of Icelandic life, such as volcanoes, earthquakes, sheeps, whales, and Icelandic writers no one outside the country has ever heard of. But there are also places like The Nonsense Museum, featuring, for instance, a collection of Police Caps Of The World, and another collection of sugar cubes and sachets. Another sign of Icelander's slight eccentricity. They tend to go their own way. (Come to think of it, that's how the country was founded, by Vikings 'going their own way' instead of staying in a mainland devoid of opportunity; and Icelanders continued to strike out on their own... that's how Greenland and America were discovered.)
  • Icelanders don't let living in a cold country cramp their style. They love swimming, for instance; and though that's partly because they're lucky enough to have geothermally heated water, I found at Nautholsvik beach in Reykjavik that sea swimming is increasingly popular, even though all the water temperature was just 12 degrees and most of the swimmers were sporting insulated slippers to guard against cramp. And they love icecream. If there's ever a north-south war in the country it will be between supporters of the Valdis ice cream parlour (Reykavik) against fans of Brynja (Akureyri). They don't wait for good weather, as we do - I've seen people walking down the street eating ice cream in the rain. A lady in the hot tub at Nautholvsik explained that to me: "If we wait for good weather to eat ice cream, well, then we never get to eat it, and that would be a shame!"
  • Geographically, or geologically, Iceland is a country that hasn't been finished yet. Mountain rocks drip with moss as if they've been doused with lurid green icing, and it's still half liquid. Rivers change course as the whim takes them. River islands ooze with mud, and sometimes seem almost as liquid as the rivers, so that you're not sure whether you're walking, skiing on the slippery mud, or actually swimming - a sort of weird Icelandic hike-triathlon. New islands appear; Surtsey is younger than I am, but a national park ranger told me "it may not last much longer; it's getting smaller all the time," eroded by wind and sea. Vegetation has only a tenuous grip on the soil, rock, sand. I saw a nasty pouting little fumarole spitting petulantly near Landmannalaugur, and I thought to myself, "that's the personality of the landscape". Or one of them, at least.
  • There's not much variety. Native fauna is limited to the Arctic fox; reindeer have been introduced from Norway, Icelandic horses came with the Vikings, and mice are illegal immigrants. Even bird life is limited, despite the fact that Myvatn teems with waterfowl; there are only two native birds of prey (the merlin and the gyrfalcon). Food can be very similar; meat, potatoes, meat and potatoes. Icelandic life seems to be a continual struggle against dullness. Fortunately, that's a struggle that most Icelanders manage quite successfully.
  • On the other hand the country has other inhabitants. Many Icelanders still believe in the hidden people; trolls, elves, Yule spirits. After hiking the country for a while I could see why; you keep seeing rock formations that look just like people, so that the landscape seems inhabited, yet as soon as you turn and look directly at such a thing, it seems to disappear.
  • Colour. A thing that struck me about Iceland is that the colours of the landscape are so garish - incredible vivid green of moss, bright white or ochre mud in the fumaroles, turquoise water, blindingly luminous ice, though these colours are so often shot through with the black of lava or volcanic sand, giving the landscape a sort of melancholy even on a bright day. And then Icelanders like to set their dwellings apart from nature by painting them in a palette of oxblood, skyblue, primrose yellow, with bright white detailing.
  • Humour. Much Icelandic humour seems akin to Norfolk humour - rather dry. There's a lovely graffito in Stöðvarfjorður showing a boat full of fishermen on the end wall of the house harpooning a lively whale on the front wall. What they don't know is that the whale has got its own harpoon gun - and a bright red missile is headed straight for them. In Reykjavik harbour, I climbed the little turf mound called 'Thufa' on its spiral path - and burst out laughing when I realised the little wooden house on top was inhabited by three ugly-looking fish that had been hung up to dry. 
  • Self-reliance. That's another thing that got me - Icelanders aren't good at goodbyes.You can have been chatting for a while, and they'll just get up and go. They're quite self-sufficient. There's not a lot of asking permission or deference or you-go-first kind of politeness. (On the other hand, when you're really in the shit, if you ask for help, you'll get it.) Perhaps it's telling that Iceland's single Nobel Prizewinner, novelist Halldor Laxness, called his best known book 'Independent People' - and as he shows, independence is both a blessing and a curse. You notice it in the townscape, too - even in central Reykjavik, houses have a little fence to cordon them off, and often, a neat garden.
  • Informality. The ranger who took the morning tour of Thingvellir (starts at ten from the church, very highly recommended) told us we couldn't go and knock on the prime minister's door and ask for a cup of coffee, "because he's not there at the moment. But if he was, yes, I have told people to go and ask for a coffee, and he's made them one and had a little chat with them." Icelandic society is less equal than it once was, due to the changes brought about by stock market boom and bust, but no one stands on ceremony. (It's difficult to, I suppose, when there are only 300,000 of you, and you're related to about half the rest of the population.) I was told by one musician not to be surprised if Sigur Ros turned up to a small gig in a bar - that's like Placido Domingo singing 'Knees up Mother Brown' in a pub in London after his Royal Opera stint, except this is Iceland, so it isn't.
 That's a glimpse of Iceland's unique character. Which has a lot to do with landscape. And a lot to do with history. And equally, a lot to do with some quite fascinating people.

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