Saturday, April 07, 2007

Beauty of the Beast

Originally uploaded by Flasher T.
Whenever I start feeling like I've got the hang of a new place, I ask myself if I'd enjoy living here. Answers are mixed: it was yes for Stockholm, which is a city I click with on an emotional level, and for London, which I want to spend time in at some point in the future. It was no for California and Israel, for roughly similar reasons - wrong climate and wrong mentality.

For all of Iceland's fundamental similarities to Estonia, I would not want to live in Reykjavik. It feels - and you must remember that this is in comparison to a campus town in an insignificant little country stuck between North and Eastern Europe - extremely provincial. It is a Scandinavian town, but it is viscerally a small Scandinavian town. Most of all it feels like Gjövik - the Norwegian community I visited back in high school. Gjövik's claim to fame is that it was involved in the Lillehammer Olympics, and it has an impressive hockey stadium hewn from a cliffside. Other than that it is a tiny, industrial town with a Main Street, a lot of ugly 60s-utilitarian buildings, and the obligatory Russian drug dealer.

Reykjavik doesn't have any old buildings. It rose to significance in the late 19th century, and before that it was nothing more than just another fishing village. For all of Iceland's proud history stretching back over a millenium, there is no medieval culture to be found; this is another aspect it shares with America. The island was isolated politically as well as geographically, with outside trade handled exclusively by Danes. We were shown today, as a special tourist landmark, a prominent merchant's home, preserved from 1765. As I have commented on an entirely different occasion, I have shat in toilets older than that.

Neither is Iceland a prominent source of Nordic design. Where Norway gathers its inspiration in the breathtakingly gorgeous scenery of its territory, Iceland's nature is only stunning - not pretty. The local specialty is wool, arctic gear, and jewelry styled on runes. The architecture, both in the capital and beyond, is a mix of traditional Scandinavian red-roofed cottages - nearly exclusively out of wood, which is a bit curious as there is decidedly no timber in Iceland to build homes out of - and post-war experiments with form-follows-function and quick-setting concrete. A wave of new construction in recent years has managed to produce no buildings of architectural significance or inspiration. Even the dreary Rotterdam was more exciting than this.

In the countryside, the impression is even more dire. As I mentioned, there are no naturally suitable places for habitats, so villages consist of a grid of bungalos dropped randomly into a bit of landscape. There are no fences, and in early April, no gardens. Our guide tells us it is a lot prettier in the summer, but I feel like I'm seeing the true Iceland right now. And the true Iceland, for a person born in a Hanseatic hub and raised among the lush forests of the Baltic, is an outstandingly depressing place to be.

It's a very impressive country to visit, but I absolutely wouldn't want to live here.


Anonymous said...

Never been to Iceland, but I have been to California. Climate and mentality vary significantly in the different parts of the state. I'd like to live in the San Francisco area someday...

antyx said...

It was San Diego county for me, so fair enough. I did visit Sacramento - did a bit of whitewater rafting, which was awesome.

I guess if I ever did go back to America, it would have to be either one of the big East Coast cities (NYC, Boston...) or San Francisco.


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