May 31, 2007
May 19, 2007
The flight to Keflavík International Airport felt quick, despite the cramped seating and tiny supper on the fully-booked (!) flight that followed a 5-hour wait in New York's JFK airport. Icelandair, a fellow passenger informed me, used to be like Finnair: comfortable, not too crowded, and relatively well catered. Now that Iceland's become a stop-over for most airlines on the way to Europe, though, there are more demands for increased passenger accommodation, and less money to spend on things like meals greater than tea-party scale. But I arrived safely, and -- unlike with Orri and Noah (instructor and fellow student) -- so did all my luggage, at the sprightly hour of 6:20 a.m.
After a solid Scandinavian breakfast (breads, meats and cheeses) with Orri's parents, I was deposited at my new apartment in the student housing block. I have my own room, but I share the apartment with Matta (Matthildur), a half-French, half-Icelandic student at the University of Iceland. After admiring the view from my window (see below), I unpacked and crashed for several hours.
The landscape here looks like the moon was put on the grill. The ground looks charred from the igneous rocks that make up Iceland; as I look at towering Mt. Esja, it's not hard to imagine that my apartment stands on what was once a bubbling lava flow. Over the years, vegetation has partly reclaimed the land, but it mostly consists of small shrubs, moss, grasses and tough flowers like dandelions. The trees in the town are mostly imported from like latitudes more densely forested than Iceland. In fact, as a museum curator told me yesterday, while some 25% of Iceland was covered by forests back in the day (1100 years ago), these forests consisted of a stunted species of birch. I was surprised to find out that it looks nothing like Finland. Except for the built environment. There's a distinct Scandinavian feel to the place.
To clarify: Iceland's a Scandinavian, and therefore Nordic, country. It used to belong to Denmark, but gained its independence in 1911. It's quite old for such a small island...while the rest of the world celebrated the millennium, Iceland was celebrating 1000 years of settlement. It has never applied to join the EU (the thinking being that Iceland could contribute more to the EU than the EU to Iceland), but it is part of EFTA -- basically, free trade between its members and, now, with the EU as well. Just no open fisheries. Iceland is pretty strong on that point. As well they might be...it's their biggest industry.
For example: The EU had a tiff with the US about airport security measures. And because they can't agree, they've instated a security point before you leave. And so has Iceland. I had to dump my water bottle (again) and re-radiate my carry-ons before leaving. (It's actually a nice airport; newly redesigned and light-filled.)
Orri's dad was kind enough to give us rides into Reykjavík; taxis are, like everything else in this country, ridiculously expensive. It's a 45 minute drive from Keflavík into Reykjavík, and that's the most barren land of all: Bare, black rocks for miles between the coast and the mountains, uninterrupted -- except for the abandoned US air base. But that's a topic for another post. Here's the gist of it: What would you do with a remote facility for 1600 people, in perfect condition, fitted with plenty of housing and abandoned only in October of 2006? (Clue: "make an 'international' university" should NOT be your answer.)
a good brief on Iceland's forestry: http://noltfox.metla.fi/pdf/Iceland.pdf