When you’ve been to a destination 4 times and really love it, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking you know it well. That’s why Chapter 5 of The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner was so valuable. It answered many questions about things I had wondered about, even experienced. Knowing that it was one of the happiest places in the world, Weiner went there to find out why. Iceland has about 100 earthquakes a day, is just below the Arctic Circle, and is cold and dark for much of the year. You would think that Icelanders would be gloomy, but they’re not.
Weiner went there wondering why extremely cold places produce happier people than warm ones, like tropical islands. He quickly concluded that life is easy in warm climates but cold ones like Iceland require cooperation to survive. “Everyone must work together to ensure a good harvest or a hearty haul of cod. Or everyone dies. Together.”
On my first trip there, I knew about Iceland’s reputation as a place of serious alcohol partakers, but everyone seemed sober and steady and, as I walked around, I saw no drunks or places to either buy or imbibe alcoholic drinks. I finally found out why in Weiner’s book. On page 144 I learned that Icelanders value sobriety during the week “but it’s perfectly acceptable to drink yourself comatose on the weekend.” He discovered that if you sip a glass of Chardonnay on, say, a Tuesday night you’re a lush. He calls this phenomenon bracketed indulgence and notes that Iceland banned alcohol during a Prohibition similar to and at the same time as the United States. Prohibition was abandoned as unworkable in the 1930s, but the ban on beer lasted until 1989. Why? While ordering an expensive beer, Weiner discovered why. Since alcohol is so expensive, Icelanders figure if you’re not getting drunk you’re wasting money, and he learned in a bar that people on weekends start drinking at home to get what he calls prelubricated before going out to drink socially because its much less expensive that way. Iceland is a costly destination, which I knew about and expected, because so much has to be imported.
I have read some Icelandic books and have spent time in its National Library, but I did not know until I read Weiner that being a writer in Iceland is about the best thing you can be. No matter your job, everyone here is either a writer or a poet or both, and the government supports them with generous grants.
I did my share of slipping on ice and got up to be in a swimming pool with locals at 6 am, but I never heard anyone use the common word halka. This is their term for flying ice as in what you do outside, as in slip and slide. I knew that last names came before first names and that women’s names ended with -dottir (daughter), but I didn’t know that everyone in Iceland is literally related to everybody else.
And on and on. When the 300,000 natives greet each other, they usually say komdu soell. This translates to “come happy.” They are indeed a happy people. One thing causing anxiety, however, is how to welcome millions of visitors.