I was prepared for the soaring natural beauty of Iceland but not for what it taught me about the power of community.
This tiny Northern country, the size of Kentucky with just 350,000 people, a third of which live in the capital of Reykjavik, and the other two thirds in small fishing villages or in remote farms, has a long history of a rapid response citizenry seemingly prompted by the harsh winters and storms at sea. Icelanders don’t seem to question dropping everything to help a farmer, whose livestock go missing; to rescue travelers stranded by a snowstorm; or to mobilize to rescue a ship in danger.
Perhaps it’s the deep respect for nature that encourages compassionate living among Icelanders. They live in harmony with nature rather than in opposition to it.
Natural beauty reigns in Iceland. One can drive for miles taking in the jaw-dropping scenery of moss-covered mountains, waterfalls, and thermal pools, without seeing a single person or residence.
Iceland heats its homes from its natural thermal pools; sheep, unperturbed by predators, roam freely in the mountains and by the seashore (Locals are fond of saying, “Our lambs are marinated from consuming a diet of fresh herbs and seaweed.”); pollution is non-existent making for the purest air I’ve ever breathed and clean drinking water flowing from every tap.
Caring for one another has been institutionalized in Iceland. Until recently families sent children as young as 6 to work in farms over the summer, fostering a strong work ethic and independence. Today this practice has been modified to one where school children are required to perform community service.
Trust comes easily in a country with a very low crime rate and correspondingly a small prison population, which has been steadily shrinking. Guns can’t be purchased nor do Icelandic policeman carry guns. The President bikes to his office in the capital city of Reykjavik without a security guard in sight.
Mothers leave their babies in strollers outside coffee houses when they go inside to meet a friend for coffee. When I lost my hotel key the young man at the front desk told me, “Not to worry; it’s very safe here.” He was so confident that he didn’t bother supplying me with a replacement key.
Iceland is committed to growing their green economy. By 2030 gas-powered cars will be illegal.
Electric cars are becoming more visible. The country continues to harvest electricity from its natural geo-thermal pools. Farmers refuse to administer antibiotics to their cows or to feed their chicken’s hormones. One farmer told me that he gives a name to each of his 100 cows, creating a strong personal connection to each.
There are no fast food restaurants in Iceland aside from a popular hot stand in Reykavik which Bill Clinton made a bee line for during an official Presidential visit in the ‘90’s. The average Icelandic diet consists of local fish, lamb, dairy products and produce grown in greenhouses. Obesity is not a problem. I don’t know when I’ve been in a country that bears so many healthy complexions.
It’s no wonder that Iceland is the third happiest country in the world, out-ranked only by Norway and Denmark. However, it’s not all a bed of roses. In spite of free health care and education Icelanders have to contend with high inflation, which makes for expensive living. Many locals work two jobs to get by.
I left Iceland with indelible memories of its majestic landscape, bathing in the thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon, the captivating Puffin population, hikes in its glorious national parks, and to die-for yogurt, while treasuring my newly purchased red wool hat and grey and white traditional diamond-patterned sweater.
Most of all I will remember the deep caring Icelanders have for one another along with their very friendly manner. Iceland has inspired me to do my small part to make my local community and national community invested with a greater dose of compassion.