What Makes Icelanders So Creative?
It’s perhaps an understatement to say that Icelanders are a quirky nation. But what makes them so eccentric? What shapes Iceland’s creative culture? Is it the weird daylight hours they keep, or the amount of space they have to play in? Do they take creative energy from the volcanos that spout above their heads or the boiling water that bubbles under their feet? In a week spent visiting Reykjavik and the Children’s Cultural Festival as a family, one of our favourite games was playing ‘spot the difference…’
Going for a walk with my cat…
A young Icelandic man dressed in a suit is going for a walk along Hverfisgata, the high street in Reykjavik. But this being Iceland, he’s not doing it in a conventional way. In his hand is a bunch of balloons. We’re talking hundreds of balloons; filled with enough helium to take a small cat into the clouds. Funny that, because in a basket below the balloons is a small cat. What’s strange about it all is the cat doesn’t seem to think this is unusual; it sits happily purring in the basket. The onlookers don’t think this is unusual; they give the cat an amused glance and then carry on queuing for the bowling alley. The owner of the balloons clearly doesn’t think this is unusual; he’s just off for a pint with his cat.
I think this is unusual.
Dismembering dollies for my shop…
As the children chase balloon man down the street hoping for a stroke of the cat, Stuart and I do a double take at a clothing shop. There’s nothing strange about this shop apart from the window. Someone has pulled apart a selection of dollies and placed the limbs all over the display to the point you aren’t sure if it’s advertising sparkly dresses or accident insurance.
I think this is unusual.
Going dancing in daylight at midnight…
Apart from the cat, and the dollies, the high street is quiet. Most Icelandic revellers don’t bother going out until midnight. Then they emerge on mass for their traditional weekend pub crawl, past the offices of adventure companies offering whale watching tours, and restaurants offering whale steak tapas. It’s getting dark now, but in a few months, they’ll be dancing in daylight at 5am.
I think this is unusual.
Does Iceland breed eccentrics?
I don’t know why I’m surprised by the quirkiness. After all, I grew up watching Bjork on Top of the Pops. (In case you’ve been on the moon for the last thirty years, the talented and charmingly bonkers Reykjavik singer is Iceland’s most famous native.) But during our week at the Children’s Cultural Festival I notice that this country seems to breed eccentricity. It’s a way of life. The place oozes creative culture.
As a family we are often seen as different from others. At home we are known as the weird biking family and as we ride past the smart French, German or Italian people on a tandem and triplet on our summer trips, we often feel vaguely embarrassed at our difference. But here, we feel at home. We sense that if we turned up with the kids riding in a wheelbarrow the Icelandic people would respect our fondness for gardening tools and point us towards a shed with a hot pool.
Playing spot the difference
But what makes the Icelandic people so different from other, more conservative nations? What’s at the root of their quirky character and the sparkle in their eyes? After a week in the capital, I may not know the island, but I have formed my own opinion of the place and here are my top 8 things that make Iceland the country it is today.
8 things that shape Iceland’s kooky and creative culture
1. The magical folklore
It’s no secret that Icelandic people believe in elves. Artist Sigrun Einarsdóttir laughs about the Icelandic practise of bending roads around alleged elf settlements for fear of provoking the wrath of the little people, but agrees it’s something of a religion here. She’s familiar with the folklore of elves; her latest designs for kids include an elf tree-house filled with fairy creatures. For her their magic is an inspiration.
The interest in elf culture permeates many parts of society. Magnus Skarphedinsson runs an Elf school in Reykjavik (for humans not elves) and several locals run elf tours around the magical enclave of Hafnarfjordur.
It’s said that half the population are convinced elves are real, but even those that aren’t might be inclined to hedge their bets. There are numerous reports of bad things happening to anyone that disrupts the lives of the supernatural little guys, and when you stand on this eerie lava, or on mud flats that bubble and boil under your feet, you can’t help but wonder. In Thingvellir National Park as I looked down on the first parliament in the world, I wasn’t thinking about human politics. I was imagining the council of elves, trolls and ogres, taking place in a parallel universe. I bet they would have sorted out the banks.
2. The yawning space
If there’s one thing Iceland has in buckets, it is space. Just over 300,000 people live in Iceland and most of them are packed into or around the capital. Much of the rest is uninhabited or uninhabitable. There are many hundreds of kilometres of gravel roads and the first asphalt road outside the capital was only built in 1973. Apart from this scattering of people, the island is made up of deserts, mountains, glaciers, lava fields, wasteland, ice fields, and lakes. People living here throughout the centuries were hardy creatures, surviving (or not surviving) hunger, disease, economic problems and all manner of natural drama.
While the proximity to the sea gives Reykjavik its seaside atmosphere and maritime history, when you look to the horizon, it’s lonely. From parts of the island there’s nothing between you and the arctic. Miles and miles of blue, blue, space. Miles of thinking time and space to be inventive. If you want to check out some of their more creative exports; read the work of the Nobel Literature Prize winning writer Halldór Laxness, or listen to Bjork’s new Biophilia album.
3. The pressure cooker landscape
It feels like every metre of this place has an underground phenomenon just waiting to burst out of the surface. It turns an everyday picnic into a bit of an adventure. The whole island is one big lava extrusion; a giant pitted crag with more crags jutting out of it and geological plates that rift and separate its surface. The earth is literally being pulled apart underneath you at a rate of up to 2cm a year.
Meanwhile Mother Nature explodes here regularly like a teenager with PMT. Magma chambers bubble beneath, regularly spewing liquid rock through volcanic spouts to reshape the landscape; there’s volcanic eruptions of some kind here on average every four years. And then there’s the geothermal water cannons; geysers jetting out boiling water and mud pools spitting gloop.
The Icelanders have got used to all this over the years, and are very creative with how they use their natural resources. They heat their homes with the geothermal energy. They utilise the run-off of hot water from their enormous geothermal power plant in the south of the country by creating one of the world’s bluest and most relaxing open air pools ‘The Blue Lagoon.’ And even the small villages have open air pools with volcanic views. How can this moody, foot stamping natural world not inspire a fiery temperament in its people?
4. The historic stories
Iceland is big on ‘Sagas’ – historic stories that go back to before 1000 A.D., when the Vikings went a-wandering and stumbled across this strange land of ice and fire. The Sagas have shaped the identity of natives over the centuries as oral family histories were passed down from one generation to the next. The Saga Museum in Reykjavik tells today’s visitors some of the key stories about how Iceland came to be populated and it’s one of the more bizarre attractions we’ve ever visited. The waxwork statues are less Madame Tussauds and more house of horrors; one of them even seems to breathe. Our kids are enthralled and they’re particularly drawn to the figure of a woman being burnt at the stake whose eyes hold as much drama as the famous Eyjafjallajokull volcano.
5. The topsy turvy light
In the summer it’s light all night and in the winter it’s dark for much of the day. Personally this would drive me nuts, and while the Icelandic people just get on with it, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t have some impact on their psyche. And in this topsy turvy world, heavy curtains must take on a monumental importance. I wonder if there’s a black economy in black out blinds?
6. The culture
The locals are masters at channelling their exposure to nature into art. There are galleries dotted all over the main city. Home interior shops are filled with volcanic and earthy colours; high street fashion is dominated by highly patterned jumpers using local wool, and on street corners there’s a mix of edgy sculptures and guerrilla knitting.
Karen Maria Jonsdottir who organises the Winter Light Festival and the Advent Festival as well as the Children’s Cultural Festival says that when you strip away everything else, culture is all that’s left. “We are culture.”
Icelandic people really seem to value culture and are constantly experimenting. Although there are less people in the country than in our home county of Cumbria they have a Concert Hall that can give the Sydney Opera house a run for its money in terms of size and architectural daring.
Reykjavik is packed with bizarre museums including the phallological museum (look it up!) with an exhibit from every mammal that lives on the island.
7. The sea
In Iceland, fish are friends not food. But then again they are food as well. There’s barely a restaurant in the city that doesn’t have great fish on the menu. And the sea is lush with Minke and Humpback whales as well as dolphin and porpoise. Wherever we walk in Reykjavik, we seem to end up back at the sea. Or a fish restaurant. Or on the sea, in a boat, watching a Humpback spout water only a few metres away. The sea provides life, and a contact with nature that the rest of us don’t have. What better teacher of character is there than nature?
8. The cold
It’s called Iceland. Of course it’s going to be cold. That’s all part of the experience, and part of the character of the place and its people. And there are some great things to do with the cold here like dog sledging or driving on a glacier. Pack an extra jumper and get out here before global warming melts it.
This post is part of our Iceland Season. We visited Reykjavik in April for the Children’s Culture Festival, then spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike. We’re grateful to Visit Reykjavik, Icelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival.
Read more from our Icelandic Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:
- Looking for the Source – preview post
- First impressions – arriving in Iceland
- Not your usual Golden Circle tour
- Culture and happiness – at the Children’s Culture Festival
- Letting go of the reins – Icelandic Horse Riding
- Making music with a carrot – Contemporary Music for Curious Children
- Does a happy revolution sound like this?
- Whale watching or whale eating – what’s would rather you do?
- Spin but not as we know it – the Icelandic art of marketing
- Posts from our Adventure Islands Season in Iceland and The Faroes