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Iceland: Land Of Stark Beauty And, Lately, A Run Of Bad Luck

A bird's eye view on the flight from Iceland to Greenland.
Philip Reeves
A bird's eye view on the flight from Iceland to Greenland.

NPR correspondents are gathering material for a summer series about the Arctic. The race has begun to exploit the far north's potentially vast deposits of oil and gas. They're reporting on the impact of the work being done there.

Philip Reeves this week set off for Greenland and filed these notes about his journey, which included a stop-over in Iceland.

Life can be hard in the barren north of this planet at the best of times. In the last few years, it's been particularly tough for the few hundred thousand people who live in Iceland, perched on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

The island, once one of the world's most prosperous nations, is still recovering from the economic catastrophe of 2008 that brought its banks crashing down, and left the former prime minister facing a criminal trial.

That crisis was followed, last year, by the eruption of a volcano, creating a huge cloud of ash that played havoc with air travel around Europe. A few months back, another volcano erupted in Iceland, sending another huge plume of ash into the skies, although this time the disruption was less severe.

This run of ill luck has placed this remote European nation in the crosshairs of the international media. As a result, Icelanders are feeling battered and bruised.

"We do guess we're some kind of symbol or microcosm of the global crisis and will as such be studied and wondered about by journalists," says the Reykjavik Grapevine newspaper. A free copy is provided on my flight from London to Reykjavik, Iceland's capital.

But, says the paper, "lazy journalists are prone to generalizing instead of trying to paint a larger more nuanced picture." It pours particular scorn on what it terms "lazy, generalizing lay-over guys." This is a reference to foreign correspondents who drop by for a night, on their way somewhere else, and fire off a hasty dispatch packed with stereotypes.

In Iceland's case, these tales speak of an island full of hardy folk, descendants of the Vikings who these days sit around knitting woolly grey jumpers with the texture of pot-scourers, or lounging in steaming sulphur-reeking springs, listening to heavy metal bands.

My final destination is Nuuk, the tiny capital of Greenland. My stop-over in Iceland is just one night. I am, unarguably, one of those Lay-Over Guys.

The paper's correct, of course: first impressions usually do lack nuance and are sometimes plain wrong. But they can also provide a refreshing snapshot of a place, taken before the eye becomes jaded. So here are mine.

Our plane glides in over a luminously blue sea towards Iceland's international airport. Below us is a large flat plain, an empty charred and mottled-looking plateau of rocky volcanic land fringed in the distance by mountains still patterned with patches of snow.

There is a striking absence of trees. But there are sudden, startling pools of color — masses of purple lupins, waving in the breeze. Wisps of steam rise from some far-away hot pools. As we land, and disembark, it is hard not to gasp at the stark beauty of the place.

The taxi sweeps along the wide and empty bone-white highway that leads from the international airport to Reykjavik. There's no train to the capital. In fact, Iceland has no trains at all, says the driver.

From afar, the city has a toy-town look, as if built by Enid Blyton. There are sparklingly neat houses, painted in bright primary colors — reds, blues, yellows, clustered around a bay.

On this afternoon, the city is bathed in brilliant sunshine. It's so sunny, in fact, that we arrive to find almost everyone seems to be in t-shirts and dark glasses.

Enjoying the late-day sun in Reykjavik.
Philip Reeves / NPR
Enjoying the late-day sun in Reykjavik.

Afternoon slowly turns to evening. In downtown Reykjavik, crowds of people sit in the pub courtyards, reddening beneath the unwinking sun, happily downing pints of lager. Night hardly falls in this northern place, at this time of year. The afternoon, and the beer, and the sunshine just go on and on.

Inside the bars and cafes, the waiters still dutifully light the candles on the tables, to mark the official end of the day. Reports are going around that Iceland is considering a new anti-smoking law under which cigarettes would only be available on prescription. Judging by the crowd sitting outside on this summery evening, the doctors will be pretty busy. Many of the drinkers are merrily puffing away.

The guidebooks say you can eat some pretty interesting things in Iceland. Singed sheeps head. Smoked Puffin. Cured Ram Scrota. "Hákarl" — that's shark that's been buried underground to ferment for several months. Whale, of course.

None of this is available in the bistros I drop into, so I end up taking a more conservative option, and dine well in an Asian noodle bar.

Night zings by. The sun is again high in the sky as this Lazy Lay-Over Guy heads for the domestic airport, this time to catch a Fokker 50 plane, heading for Greenland — with some even more spectacular views from the air:

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Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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