A member of British Parliament once referred to Iceland as a revolver pointed at the back of the head of the person not holding the gun. I think the war games of the North Atlantic during the Cold War era prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt. That, and Britain “invading”, quite unceremoniously, during WWII, as later did America, under NATO. Of course, America recently left just as unceremoniously, but that’s another topic for another entry.

Iceland is a land founded by Vikings, who let’s face it, weren’t the nicest people to roam the planet, and the atrocities Icelanders inflicted on each other during the Icelandic Civil War of the 13th century, could give anyone in their right mind nightmares for a month. But modern Iceland is a land of peace. Icelanders maintain a policy of neutrality. I believe the closest they have ever come to actual conflict as a modern nation was during The Cod Wars with Britain in the 1970’s, and not to belittle the seriousness of it, but I’ve seen scarier hostilities between drunk Maine lobstermen over cut lines to lobster pots.

So how is it that Iceland evolved from the fearsome Viking warrior to peaceful fashionistas in European shoes and hip eyeglasses? Time? Isolation? Cold climate? All of the above? They certainly value peace. Life is short, winter is long, and if you’re all going to get through it, you better learn to get along. And they have. It’s an impossibly old culture by American standards. 1,200 years. They certainly know who they are and what they value as a nation. As such, predictability in itself is something that holds value. America, by contrast, is a very young country and our national values seem to change to with the political season. The one constant we hold is freedom, but the greater question is: are freedom and peace necessarily compatible? This is something Icelanders want to know.

Sailor Man and I had the numerous occasions on the trip to speak with Icelanders about politics and I couldn’t help but be struck with how keenly tuned they are to the American presidential race. Of course it’s naive of me to feel that way. Despite the present turmoil in our country, the US maintains the ability to lash out, much a like wounded animal. And Iceland, positioned as they are in the world, in the middle the very cold and lonely Atlantic, certainly doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of that transaction. Really, who would?

As anyone who reads this blog regularly can attest, I have more than just a passing fascination with Mr. Vladimir Putin and Mother Russia these days. I made a point of asking Geir, parish priest at Snorrastofa, what he thought about Russia claiming ocean floor that is dangerously close to Iceland, and illegal Russian military flights over their airspace, and what feels like a resurgence of the Cold War. Was he concerned about the Russians? His answer was no. Russians are Russians and you can always rely on a Russian to behave as one. Interpret that as you may, I’m not touching it. Americans, however, are highly unpredictable and he feels more wary of the US and its actions than anything Putin might throw at Iceland.

I think he has a point. I have to admit I have trouble recognizing what I thought was my home country many times over the last seven years. But again, America is young. Sure, we fought for freedom as an independent nation over 200 years ago, but then we fell apart not even 100 years after that. Did we really unite over our own Civil War? I think the Civil Rights Movement would say otherwise, as would the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. I think we have periods of brilliance, such as WWI, WWII and the Marshall Plan, but then we fall apart over Vietnam. We start crawling out of that hole and then fall right back into another. Yes, we make mistakes, unfortunately, they’re enormous and have global implications.

Most Americans may not know this, but through NATO, American has been responsible for Iceland’s defense since WWII. So if we’re going to do something to muddy the waters, they have a right to be concerned and certainly ask questions.

And questions I was asked! A lot of uncomfortable questions! But I’m certainly not complaining. I enjoyed the discourse. Everyone needs the chance to view their country through another country’s eyes. Stretch the brain a bit. Of course, it provides no real answers, just more questions. I just hope that’s enough in the meantime. And I really hope I didn’t accidentally renegotiate some international treaties that one night we had waaaaaaay too much to drink out in Budir. Because I vaguely remember agreeing to something and woke up with a strange pen on the desk the next morning. Iceland is like Erie in that the degrees of separation is not 6 as much as it is more like a degree of 1. You have to be careful who you speak to.

And for the record, for any Icelander reading this, you certainly can’t rely on just the opinion of this American. I mean, come on, I came over there to hunt trolls, see rocks, scream “Immigrant Song” at inappropriate moments, and see the Phallological Museum (which disappointingly moved out of Reykjavik…damn guidebook). How seriously could you possibly take me? I’m as “brilliant” as the next person after a few smart cocktails, but really, get that grain of salt out…please…

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