Thursday, April 22, 2010


Before I was 18 (when I went to Bavaria and Austria for a week upon graduating from high school), I had spent all but a few hours of my life in the United States (those few hours were in August 1998 in Victoria, Canada, on a ferry day trip from Washington state's San Juan Islands, no passport necessary, the world had just learned the name of Osama bin Laden several days earlier after the embassy bombings in Africa and the US border control and customs officials were worried about two things - Cuban cigars and counterfeit Beanie Babies). I was no travel addict or international politics buff, and certainly was not obsessed with Europe yet. The countries I most wished to visit were probably Australia and New Zealand and Ecuador (Galapagos Islands) because of their cool animals and geology, but running closely behind them and in my mind perhaps the leading candidate for my next jaunt abroad was Iceland. WHFS 99.1 FM, my favorite radio station, was constantly playing ads for weekend getaways with an Icelandic airline which flew out of Dulles or BWI. This was the land of Vikings, hot springs, and a really cool music scene, home of alternative music's queen of strangeness, Björk. Reykjavík is fun to say.

A year after that first excursion into Europe, I spent the summer in Alaska, where I learned another Icelandic word: Jökulhlaup. This was the standard term for an ice-dam lake, a unique phenomenon whereby a stream runs into a glacier, can't move and so starts a lake at the side of the glacier, which every now and then had enough water to actually float the glacier an inch or two. This happens annually in McCarthy, Alaska. When it does, the dangerous, cold, fast river at the end of the glacier gets faster and more dangerous. Back when McCarthy and Kennecott were at the center of the world copper mining industry, they would have to rebuild the rail bridge annually because the jökulhlaup would take it out. For decades they just had a zipline over the river, five years before I went they installed a bicycle bridge with good concrete pillars, but you can still only drive to McCarthy in the winter when everything is frozen.

But I digress. Iceland has always seemed a cool, unique place to me, and I assume to many others. But to many Europeans since 2008, it has been a cursed source of evil. British and Dutch citizens and communities lost their savings when Iceland's ambitious banks, whose assets ultimately amounted to more than 10 times the island's GDP, went bust in the crisis. The national governments protected their citizens, but then expected Iceland to pay them back. The Icelandic people objected to this. The government of Geir Haarde (a SAIS alum) fell, a left-wing coalition emerged led by the world's first openly gay head of government, the very cool Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland applied for European Union membership, then the basically ceremonial president jeopardized that possibility by exercising a veto for I think the second time in Icelandic history and putting the government's debt-repayment deal with the Brits and Dutch to referendum. It lost.

Now comes the volcano, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull which grounded Europe by darkening the skies with ash, keeping thousands of travelers from their homes (I enjoyed Gideon Rachmann's piece about this), preventing Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Nicolos Sarkozy and others from going to Lech Kaczynski's funeral, hurting the airlines, and frightening the ponies and puffins of southeastern Iceland. You've read about it since I'm a little late getting to writing this, so just enjoy these pictures from Foreign Policy and The Boston Globe. They're awesome!

I wonder if Thor is angry about the Brits using anti-terror legislation to freeze Icelandic accounts, or about the worldwide weak banking regulations which got us all into this disaster, which caused his people to suffer especially (although not as much as Latvians and some others). I'm hoping Björk does a concept album about it all. I've designed the cover for her already.

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