American travelers who think they have seen it all are mistaken if they haven't visited remote Iceland on the Arctic Circle during summer.
My wife and I just returned from a most enjoyable visit to this island-nation, where we lived in the 1950s when I worked at the U.S. embassy in Reykjavik. The changes were striking.
In the mid-1950s Reykjavik, Iceland's capital, was a small nondescript place except for the lovely view overlooking the "bay of fire," for which it was named. The city had only one major hotel, few restaurants, and mostly unpaved streets.
Today all that has changed. Reykjavik has nearly doubled in size and now resembles a small capital city with many hotels, fine restaurants, prosperous suburbs, and paved streets. The entire city is heated with thermal hot water from wells located about forty miles to the east. In the 1950s only the old part of town received this hot water.
After fish and fish products, tourism has become a major source of foreign exchange for Iceland. A third is the production of aluminum, which began in 1969 after a Swiss company built a large plant near Keflavik. As energy costs in Iceland are low, aluminum is a cost-effective industry. Recently another aluminum plant began operations at Grundarfjordur.
Another change is the proliferation of trees. When we lived in Iceland some forty years ago, few trees were seen anywhere. Those growing in a few neighborhoods stood no taller than ten feet. Today, as a result of a determined reforestation program, many trees stand fifteen or more feet in suburban areas. Even at our former house, a new tree had grown up and provided some shade at the front entrance.
What has not changed, however, is the weather. In summer temperatures occasionally get into the 60s (some Icelanders consider that a heat wave), but in winter the average is about 34 degrees. The wind always blows at 10-15 mph, often more. When it blows from the arctic north, the weather is clear and cool. When it comes from the south, Reykjavik gets rain (snow in winter) or cloudy days, as we experienced for several days.
The summer solstice, when it stays light the whole night through, is a time that tourists head for Iceland. At breakfast on June 20 we heard three Americans at a nearby table talk about flying to Akureyri on the north coast for a golf tournament. When I asked whether there was a indeed a golf course in that town on the edge of a lovely fjord, one of them replied: "Oh yes, and we play there tomorrow at midnight."
In that north coast town, located only thirty miles below the Arctic Circle, the sun dipped below the horizon for about twenty minutes on June 21.
Among the many new buildings in Reykjavik is the impressive Hallgrimskirkja, a large structure resembling the cathedrals of Europe. It is located on the highest hill in the city. On Sunday a young visiting minister was telling us about how many years it had taken to complete the edifice when he turned to greet a parishioner, whom he introduced as a member of "our large Icelandic family." He introduced her as the former president of Iceland. She added that she had been the world's first woman to be elected president of a country.
Outside, in front of Hallgrimskirkja, stands a tall stature of Leif Erickson who Icelanders claim was the discoverer of North America. An inscription, in English, commemorates the one thousandth anniversary of Iceland's founding as a republic, in A.D. 930.
Iceland is a small country, some 245,000 inhabitants, where three-quarter of the population lives in the southwest corner that encompasses the region around Reykjavik. The island was a part of Denmark until 1944 when it declared its independence. Denmark at that time was occupied by Nazi Germany and. Iceland was being defended by American troops. The country has long been one of the world's most literate nations and today most people speak English as their second language.
When my family and I arrived in Reykjavik in 1954, the country was intensely nationalistic and protective of its Old Nordic language and culture. It was relatively poor economically and heavily dependent on fishing and fish processing for its livelihood.
Another important source of income then was the American military presence at a NATO air base near Keflavik. At the time 3,200 G.I.s, mostly Air Force personnel, lived and worked on that bleak, wind swept, strip of land. The Air Force limited the tour of duty of its personnel to twelve months and didn't authorize families to accompany them.
As a result, many young Americans were absent from their families for a year. The Icelandic government exacerbated matters by imposing tight restrictions on the number of G.I.s who were permitted to visit Reykjavik. One reasons was the anti-military sentiment whipped up by leftist political parties. Another was the Icelanders' desire to shield their young women from the likable, free-spending Americans who were attracted to the lovely Icelandic girls.
Today this has changed. The U.S. Navy now has responsibility for the security of Iceland (which has no armed forces and few police) and it patrols the sea lanes of the North Atlantic for hostile submarines. Only a few Air Force F-15s are currently based at Keflavik, mostly to satisfy Iceland's desire for aerial protection. No restrictions are imposed on the travel of the 1800 American service personnel currently stationed there.
In 1961, I published a book entitled Iceland: Reluctant Ally which described the impact of Icelandic nationalism on the country's membership in NATO and on U.S. troops that were protecting this strategic island during the Cold War. Were I to write a sequel today, it might called "Iceland: Our Friendly Ally," because the relationship between our two countries clearly has changed for the better.
Icelanders are much more friendly to foreigners today, but the government continues to guard the purity of their old Nordic language. The educational system is outstanding and forms the basis of the country's high standards in science and technology, and the humanities. Although the country continues to struggle with inflation, it maintains an impressive standard of living.
When we arrived In 1954, Reykjavik had just opened a new national theater where we heard many fine concerts. On our return visit last month we were treated to another musical evening, this time a great performance of "Singing in the Rain," done in Icelandic. It was an impressive production, as good as many musicals one might see in New York or Washington.
In sum, Iceland is becoming a new, exciting tourist attraction. This is especially so during the four spring-summer months when daylight never stops, and when avid golfers can tee off at midnight near the Arctic Circle on June 21.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST