Who Are We? And Who Needs to Know?

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The other day in a meeting on the future of rural Iceland, a fellow turned to me and said wearily, “We don’t know who we are – are we Europeans? Are we Scandinavians? Are we Vikings? Are we Icelanders?” 

“Why settle with just one?” I thought.

Iceland is a young country, in many ways. Geologically, the earth is still shifting, there is fire under the ground (and occasionally above) and steam billows from fissures in the rocks. On the human side, there is no good evidence of long-term habitation until about 874 AD (except for stories of Irish monks coming here for meditation retreats; I guess Ireland in the 400s was too noisy!)  Within a half century, Icelanders had already set up one of the first long-standing parliaments run by and for the people – the Alþingi.

Though they were later ruled by a colonial power for centuries, this endearing and independent spirit remained. Well, this independence may not seem so endearing if you’re a European banker or a member of the British fishing fleet (look up the Iceland-Britain “cod wars” if you’re interested).  But any time people take precedence over abstract notions like “the economy,” I’ll buy the T-shirt.

Iceland may be going through their own confederation debate at the moment – whether to join the European Union as a member. The whole question of whether the EU would allow them to join is not even under discussion. They simply assume that Europeans would be daft not to welcome them.

One Icelander explained to me that if they joined the EU, they’d have to adopt some of the European rules and regulations. But he assumed that Europeans would also have to adopt some of Iceland’s rules and regulations. That is their idea of sharing and negotiation.

But their romantic independence is tempered by a gritty realism. They dote on their Icelandic Horse (and don’t ever call them “ponies” – I did once and got a stern lecture). However, when one of them is too old to work, it ends up in stew to feed the family. 

The country has a very “green” practice in terms of energy – the vast majority is renewable, from geothermal and hydro. It is way ahead of any other European nation in sustainable energy use.  But they also hunt and eat whales, much to the chagrin of many in the environmental movement.  (Minke Whale steak is quite tasty. I had one, and then paid for it with my Greenpeace Visa card – just to irritate as many as possible). How can a “green” country support whaling?

Long may their identity be in question. Like us, where would they be without the wonderful art and music and film and writing that has come from labouring over the unanswerable “who are we?”

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