George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 10 May 2007
That’s why I should go to Iceland
Alex Horne – 10th May 2007
Unbelievably, after almost seven months of fairly committed searching, we still hadn’t found a Canadian living in London. A week ago, however, I managed to stumble across two, both from Ottowa, who I’m planning to present as a pair; partly because it’ll be interesting to consider their different views of our capital, but mainly because I couldn’t face telling either of them that we didn’t need them. I’m not very brave.
First, however, I’ve got the small matter of Iceland to describe as Tara (Canadian No.1) has an Icelandic boyfriend – the magnificently named Thor, who I met (with Tara) in Notting Hill. I’d hurried down from meeting Petra (our Czech) in Golders Green but it’s fairly hard to hurry when you’re stuck in a bus stuck in a traffic jam on Ladbroke Grove so I arrived almost half an hour late. Thankfully Thor had found himself in a similar sticky situation coming north, so although we had less time to get to know each other than I’d hoped, at least neither of us was annoyed with the other’s tardiness, just with London’s clearly inadequate transport system. Still, if I’m here to proclaim the city’s enormous diversity of people I shouldn’t probably go on too much about the overcrowded roads…
Right then; Thor. As we walked from the station to a coffee shop (which was just about to close) then from that coffee shop to a pub (which was very much open), he told me that his uncle was also living here ‘for tax reasons.’ As I’ve outlined before (see Paraguay), I don’t understand money at all but apparently that’s quite a normal thing to do. ‘It’s like Norway’, Thor explained. ‘When we privatised our economy the finances of the country became much stronger and so it makes sense for people to live in places like this…’ To be honest, that might not have been exactly what he said but it was definitely to do with taxes and jobs and I think he used the word ‘haven’ but thankfully, when we’d sat down with our beers, we moved on to things that I could comprehend more fully. I.e absolutely anything that's not economics.
Thor has travelled around as much as anyone we’ve met so far, perhaps partly due to the fact that his parents sent him to work on a farm when he was five years old. ‘It was just for a few weeks’, he reassured me, ‘but it was a bit traumatic!’ He was laughing when he said this but I wasn’t sure if he joking or not.
He first left Iceland when he was eight, moving to the United States and growing up in New York. ‘There are many more Icelandic descendants in Canada than in Iceland’, he told me and we agreed that there are a lot more similarities between Iceland and Ireland than the spelling. ‘They’re both countries that are growing rapidly’, he said, ‘so there’s now as much immigration as there used to be emigration.’ In a movement that reflects the creation of traditionally offensive Irish (or Polish or Kerry or whichever place people mocked because it was smaller and different and people spoke funny) jokes, he told me that most Icelanders you meet abroad are from Reykjavik (like himself), while most Icelanders you meet from Reykjavik are from small towns dotted around the countryside. Come to think of it, that’s probably true of a lot of English people you might meet too; many who live abroad will be from London. And many who live in London will be from outside London – something we’ll find out for sure when we do the follow-up to this project, ‘One City in the World’, trying to find someone from London living and working in every country on the planet…
Thor would be an extremely handy contact for such a venture. As well as living here for seven months, he’s worked in Geneva for eighteen months, Bruges for six and the south of France for three. But above all these places, it’s Iceland he most thoroughly (a pun, sort of) recommends a trip to. ‘Yes, the beer is expensive’, he laughs, ‘but it’s well worth it.’ His girlfriend Tara (see Canada) made her first visit to attend his mum’s fiftieth birthday a few years ago and spent New Year’s Eve there too. ‘That’s something you really have to do once’, they both stressed. Ok then. You’ve convinced me. I’ll make sure we stick Iceland on December 31st in our world-wide itinerary.
‘She was so brave’, Thor continued proudly. ‘My whole family were there, half of them didn’t speak any English*. We had an open house party for eight hours – we even advertised it in the newspaper! That’s how we do things there.’
Sounds good. We talked more about parties and I learnt that Thor and Tara had met in Ottawa two and a half years ago at Halloween (‘That’s another amazing night’, they said. ‘Make sure you’re in North America on October 31st’. I reached for my imaginary 2008 diary again). Thor was working in the Icelandic embassy at the time (which certainly doesn't disqualify him from this project but did make me nervous); ‘they had these international celebrations every weekend there’, Thor remembered gleefully. ‘All the interns at all the embassies would turn up. It was brilliant’. Once more, I started looking forward to our own global gathering and made a mental note to get Thor and Laureen on our official board of organisers.
Thor looks as typically Icelandic as I’d hoped, by the way. Blonde and fresh-faced, a proper Viking. He’s proud of his ancestry too; when we got talking about Canada he pointed out that ‘the Vikings discovered Newfoundland – don’t you forget it!’ I should say that I was slightly disappointed, however, when he revealed that most people in Iceland actually dye their hair blonde. ‘Tara looks more Icelandic than most Icelanders’, he said, affectionately patting the knee of his admittedly Scandinavian-looking girlfriend.
‘It’s a very small place’, he went on. ‘Everyone is at least a sixth cousin. Market research firms often use it as their testing ground. It’s such a homogenised society, they know that if something works there it’ll pretty much work everywhere.’ Tara nods in agreement. ‘Everyone in Iceland has their family trees worked out so that you can see how you’re related to everyone else.’ That’s changing now, he says, as more people are attracted to the country’s burgeoning potential, but it’s still rare to see Africans or Asians walking down the street.
Unfortunately, London’s clogged bus arteries meant that already our meeting was drawing to an end as Tara and Thor had a dinner appointment with his opportunistic (in a good way, I think) Icelandic uncle and their nine year old nephew (‘he’s like a sponge!’ they both said, and I'm sure they meant that he absorbs the language, rather anything weirder). But before we went our separate ways I did discover that the street mentioned above would be not nearly as cold as I’d expected. I'm aware of the (not entirely true) story about Greenland and Iceland swapping adjectives to fool potential invaders but I still thought Iceland would be just a bit chillier than here. But, in another similarity between Ic/reland, the temperature in Reykjavik rarely dips below zero or passes 25 degrees centigrade. Ottowa, on the other hand, can reach 40 degrees in the summer and minus 40 in the winter. ‘People skate to work along the frozen canals’, says Tara and mine and Thor’s eyes light up. Now that’s how to get around a capital city.
*Thor’s grandparents don’t speak English either. It was only about five years ago that English became the main language taught at school. Before that it was Danish, a slightly impractical legacy of the colonialism that still manifests itself in the old Danish programmes that are still shown every day on Icelandic TV.