Gunnar continued to scratch his chin. “Does your story have a title?” he asked.
“Þetta reddast,” answered Sigurd without thinking, then covered his mouth with his hand a moment too late.
“Oh,” said the disappointed blacksmith. “So, it does all work out well in the end.”
“I suppose it depends on how you define ‘well’,” said Sigurd, angry both with himself and Gunnar. “And whose point of view you’re looking from. Anyway, ‘Þetta reddast’ is just a saying. Don’t read too much into it. I promise it doesn’t work out so well for many of the people involved.” Damn, damn, damn, he thought. Every day brought another proof that he should have never started telling the story.
In a country as (un)liveable as Iceland in the past, a philosophy has formed that helped its people get through their lives: þetta reddast, which translates to “it will work out fine”. But the nation’s story is never finished. Similar to the Icelandic weather (if you don’t like it, wait five minutes), things get worse – true. But then they get better. Icelanders simply choose to focus on the latter instead of the former, which contributed, unlikely as it seems to be, to the recovery from the economic crisis of 2008. Things worked out so fine, in fact, that barely eight years later, Iceland’s economy was “overheating”, as its worried prime minister declared at the time. I remember reading this and scratching my head in confusion – surely economy couldn’t be doing too well? It wasn’t until I found out that the crisis was largely caused by the economic growth accelerating to an insane 12% in 2006 (compared to eurozone’s modest 2%) that I understood the PM’s fear. Between 2008–2012 the króna lost 40% of its value against the euro and the increases in import prices caused inflation to soar to double digits.
Pick preferred weather by turning either left or right
But as we all know, it all worked out fine. The crisis saved the country. The old was replaced by the new, as Iceland turned from a vault in which to keep savings to a tourist paradise. At least for now.
In 2017 when we first travelled to Iceland, the exchange rate of króna vs. euro was 125 to 1. This resulted in insanely high prices for tourists, especially when you dined in restaurants (I refer you to my blog posts about travelling to Iceland on a budget: part 1 and part 2). The country’s most expensive lunch was identified in a café in Húsavik, where a ham and cheese sandwich cost 1190 krónur – $11.30 or €10.20. The café’s owner, who inadvertently became the symbol of price gouging, defended herself by pointing out that the sandwich roll was in fact a ciabatta, and “furthermore, the sandwich contains ham, cheese, vegetables and sauce”. She felt compelled to add that she believed the sandwich was a good and generous meal (Source: Iceland Magazine, “Small town café in N. Iceland fights an avalanche of criticism over overpriced sandwich”). Her feelings were not widely shared. The generous meal’s price did not work out in her favour, or – in fact – in Iceland’s favour, either.
The growth rate when it comes to tourism has been dropping steadily over the last three years. Not only has the price gouging exemplified by the infamous sandwich scared the tourists off, but the booming economy caused the exchange rate to become less and less favourable (meaning that your euros or dollars bought you less and less despite unchanged prices in krónur). When I first saw that the tourism rate had grown by 38.9% in 2016, 24.1% in 2017, and was predicted to grow further by 15% in 2018, I couldn’t understand how this could possibly have been worrying. Then I found out that the actual increase in the number of visitors in 2018 was 5% rather than 15% and realised that ten years after the economic crisis one-third of the country’s economy is tied to the tourism industry. As of March 2019, the exchange rate of króna vs euro is 135 to 1, meaning that the effective prices for visitors from the eurozone dropped by 8% within less than two years.
Some of the problems can’t be blamed on price gouging – the rising oil prices affected the airlines, who couldn’t keep the prices low, as it was simply unsustainable. Unemployment in Iceland in 2011, right after the crisis, soared to 9%, causing many Icelanders to look for jobs abroad. In December 2018 the number dropped to 1.7%. An unemployment rate below 4% is considered to be negative, as according to research 4% of the population are people who are able to work but don’t want to for various reasons. The tourism industry requires more and more workers, more and more hotels, which simply aren’t there. This causes the prices to increase further. I would, however, argue that despite the government’s worries things seem to be working out well. Just not for the economy.
Mother Nature must be breathing a sigh of relief. The constant influx of tourists causes damage to Iceland’s wild nature. The signs indicating “no entry” are casually ignored, as are signs declaring “danger” or even “extreme danger”. What you should remember when visiting Iceland is that its inhabitants are not the type that requires the word “HOT” on top of a cup containing a hot beverage you just ordered. If anything, it’s the opposite. See below for a photo of a barrier separating an extremely sharp cliff in Arnarstapi from the roaring ocean. When you see an actual sign saying “danger”, it translates from Icelandic to “you will die in horrible pain and very slowly, compared to the places where we didn’t bother with signs because your death will come quickly”.
Tourists seem to take this as a challenge – similar to how they do with brennivín. Picturesque wedding photos are taken on dangerous cliffs, places that have been so destroyed by tourism that they will require many years to recover are entered illegally, and don’t get me started on The Justin Bieber Effect. ICE-SAR – Iceland’s rescue service – does not go out of work. Most tourists are rescued and fined, complaining about how awful and surprising it was to get stuck in that lovely spot they’d found once they passed by the three big signs stating “EXTREME DANGER, DO NOT ENTER”, or that the waves hitting the famous black beach at Vík ruined their wedding photos, which they staged in that spot, having decided that “RED ALERT” was some sort of mild suggestion. Those people seem to interpret “þetta reddast” as “we, personally, are going to be fine”.
One of the early readers of Storytellers remarked that it wasn’t exactly Nordic noir, but she found it a “dark” novel. A conversation, which I read with great interest, developed – the Nordic noir fans were debating whether the horrors of Scandinavian nature lend themselves to dark and disturbing prose. It had never occurred to me, even though I’ve spent enough time in Iceland to know that Mother Nature does her best to kill people there. Half of the roads get shut down regularly – so what? They are reopened soon enough. When the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano caused a disruption to many international flights, it didn’t last long. The passengers who missed the flights and the airlines who lost tons of money were absolutely furious. Icelanders shrugged apathetically (except perhaps the management of IcelandAir). Volcanoes are things that erupt sometimes. Then they calm down. What’s there to get upset about?
Icelanders don’t commit enough crimes to keep their police busy. I sometimes joke that Arnaldur Indriðason, the author of the Detective Erlendur series, is responsible for at least 500% of the criminal activity. The first time ever that one person was shot by the Icelandic police was December 2, 2013, when the tear gas proved not to be enough. The police academy was shut down on September 30, 2016 – the education of future officers takes place at the University of Akureyri these days. Most of the crimes are, sadly, committed by the tourists. From 2007 to 2017, the number of visitors per year increased from 500,000 to 2.2 million, while the number of police officers dropped… brace yourselves… from 374 to 307. In the whole country.
Iceland does not have an army – and never had one, unless you include the Coast Guard and customs. Its policemen are not armed, except for small batons, with the exception of a special squadron (I dread to think how many people are members of it) trained in the use of firearms. I greatly recommend taking a look at the Icelandic Police Instagram, filled with terrifying scenes such as eating ice cream, kissing fish, or taking selfies. Things seem to work out fine by themselves, although personally I am very concerned about the health of the fish-kisser.
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I am aware of the fact that I – a tourist – am complaining about the stupidity of the tourists. Luckily, a vast majority of the millions that visit the country manage to memorise the few rules that are in place. Don’t go to places you were told not to go. Don’t drive down the roads listed as “this road is unsuitable for driving”. Don’t litter. Don’t even think of touching the moss. Don’t draw enormous penises (this is not a joke) in craters. I mean, this country has a penis museum, isn’t that enough? Also, get off my goddamn lawn and stop making this noise that the youth of today calls music! (But enough about Justin Bieber.)
The tourists are both the saviours and the nuisance of the country. Eventually even the most irritating ones go home (þetta reddast), to be replaced by new ones (þetta reddast). The rising prices of oil, ever-changing exchange rates, the fact that the Icelandic authorities only realised recently that the latest inventions in transportation, such as (gasp!) trains, might help increase the number of tourists further – all this might cause the unemployment and tourism growth rates to drop further or rise again. And since things are what they are, a drop in the number of tourists is going to cause the tourism rate to go up again. Why worry?
As I’m writing this, the new season of Game of Thrones is just about to start. As long as the series is being broadcasted, people will flock to see The Wall, also known as Thingvellir. Once this particular boom ends, something new will happen. Þetta reddast does not indicate an actual ending. As long as the politicians fail to set half of the planet on fire and freeze the other half… things will continue to work out fine, even if we don’t exactly know how. In the meantime, let’s have a pint, shall we?