Is travel a window or a mirror? Or both?

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Field Notes

It’s late. I’m sitting in a restaurant, eating puffin. I’m looking out over the harbour in Akureyri, Iceland. And I feel like I’m at home.

Not because of the menu. But this place is really Iceland’s Corner Brook. Let me give you a few of the similarities:

  • They are similar in size
  • There is lots of snow
  • They feature ski hills and plenty of year-round outdoor recreation
  • Both were industrial towns, and while their economies have diversified, the mindset is slow to follow suit
  • They are both regional service centres
  • They have both seen the addition of a university within the past several decades
  • Both are only starting to understand the economic value of their post-secondary sector
  • They are both the second-largest cities in their respective province/country, and so they have that “second city” perspective
  • Both drop off their cruise ship visitors in an industrial area
  • Both have seen a recent flowering of cultural activities
  • Both have a healthy love-hate relationship with the capital city area

Indeed, whenever I spend time in Iceland, it strikes me that this is what NL might have been like had the Vikings stayed. As a result of geography and ways of life, our cultures and values intersect. 

For example, I can’t remember the number of conversations I’ve had this visit about the obsession of our respective governments for mega-projects, and the actual benefits and costs of such dreams.  Having just gone through a major social upheaval over a decision to build a hydro-electric dam to service an aluminum plant, they were very intrigued by stories of Muskrat Falls. 

All of the raw materials for “their” smelter are shipped in, and the final products are shipped out.  Iceland is just selling electricity.  But the price of the electricity for the aluminum plant is tied to the world price of aluminum. Economists have shown that the hydro-electric plant will never be paid off, given the arrangements.

A fine antidote to this kind of magical thinking is a book by Icelander Andri Snaer Magnason called “Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation.” It outlines how the whole drive toward a very narrow view of “economic development” has not only ignored a thousand years of tradition and culture, but also has not worked. Since Iceland’s economic collapse in 2008 (caused by the banks, largely), the economic rejuvenation is among small and medium-sized enterprises.  Among entrepreneurs. It is actually despite the mega-projects. There is much in that wonderful book that makes it sound like Magnason is writing about NL.

Much can be learned from others.  Not just from those very different than ourselves. Sometimes we learn from those who have been dealt the same hand we have, but have played it differently.

“Bless” [good-bye] from Akureyri, where the red light at stop lights is in the shape of a heart.  Thus, reminding us of warm loving-kindness as we wait for our turn to drive.  Sometimes it is the small things that make a big difference.

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