Category Archives: MUSINGS

Iceland – a re-cap..2016

How to start when talking about Iceland. The people? the history? the landscape? the towns? So after my 2016 trip I have already posted 4 blogs in chronological order which can be found earlier on this site. But so much remained to be said.

I was, and am still – after 8 months – totally captivated by Iceland…so familiar yet so exotic. At times I felt I had journeyed to Middle Earth; at other times I thought I was observing a very modern society. New suburbs about 10 years old brought a note of the familiar, as did the heavy 5pm traffic flows. We passed satellite towns of smart new developments and ate at restaurants the peer of some of the best in large international cities.

The population is so small and the challenges of nationhood so large, that the country is fascinating. It punches far above its weight on the world stage and just this week voted for compulsory equal pay for men and women.

Since this week Is International women’s day, it is worth mentioning that Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women Founded in 1983, the Women’s List helped increase the proportion of female parliamentarians by 15%] It disbanded in 1999, merging with the Social Democratic Alliance and left a lasting influence on Iceland’s politics: every major party has a 40% quota for women, and in 2009 nearly a third of members of parliament were female, compared to the global average of 16% for women average of 16%. (from Wiki)

To jog my own memory now and in the future, I have simply cherry picked some facts that stick with me:

LANDSCAPE

  • The country is awesome with volcanic ranges, long fjords, waterfalls, geysers, bog lands, lava fields – some of it beyond description.
  • The volcanic country is rich in geo-thermal activity. Managing this has lead to Icelandic energy experts being sought after around the world and this expertise responsible for a significant contribution to the national income.
  • Iceland has a third of the world’s lava flow with an eruption on the south coast around every 2 years.
  • 24 species of whale swim off the Iceland coast and a polar bear had swum there from Greenland the previous week – only to be shot for his trouble. (In the interests of research and of safety we were told.)

 

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THE CAPITAL

  • About 240,000 of Iceland’s 330,000 citizens live in the capital,Reykjavik.
  • More than 2 million tourists pass through Reykjavik annually, that is more than 6 tourists for every citizen.
  • Parliament Square is the home of the Allthing (the Parliament), a surprisingly small and unpretentious building with a smart extension – surprising until you remember that the population is only 330,000, less than many local authorities/cantons in the western world.
  • Here in 2008 the people gathered to demand action on the financial crisis when the State took over the banks’ debts. In November that year, what is now known as the “pots and pans” revolution happened. People used these cooking tools to generate noise in the square. The police kept the calm. People started dressing in orange to signify peaceful protest.
  • Harpa Hall the concert hall, was being built on the waterfront as a convention centre, hotel etc. by a bank which went bust in 2008. The government bailed them out and this huge cultural centrepiece was completed by the national and city governments. 1.7million visitors a year enjoy this standout building of geometric glass shaped panels. It is a beautiful, imposing building even if perhaps out of scale with the town.
  • Hallgrim’s Church was commissioned in 1937 and took 41 years to complete. It is said to be designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.
  • There is a settlement museum in town showing where the first houses lay under the foundations of the current town.
  • The National Museum has an artefact which is believed to be of the god Thor, one of the few remaining signs of the pre Christian culture.
  • The pedestrian area is lively as in many sophisticated tourist towns.
  • I enjoyed watching the crowd at one posh restaurant, the Grillmarket, where there was one entrée of 3 sliders filled respectively with puffin, minke whale and lobster. I sat at the bar watching dish after dish of minke whale leaving the kitchen. I enquired of the meat the girl next to me was eating. I was told it was the best horse in town.
  • Wine like most things in Iceland was expensive There were Australian wines: – a Wolf Blass President’s Selection at17,900 IK a bottle ($195) and the familiar old quaffer Jacob’s Creek cab sav for $359 (gulp).
  • Coffee was $5.90 in most places and glass of Spanish wine about $16.

 

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HISTORY

Early history

  • Icelanders have been here for 10,000 years; while Vikings settled the country, Celtic DNA is also present.
  • The Icelandic sagas tell the story of the tribes who settled here as early as 874AD.
  • The first parliament in the world, the Allthing, is said to have begun with the 930AD and then annual, meeting of the 13 Icelandic chiefs in the impressive fields at Laws were read and codified at these gatherings.
  • Christianity arrived in 1000AD and in 1262 the tribal gathering then pledged to Norway’s king. The Allthing was not revived until 1843.

Modern history

Our guide Bjarne (more later) described the recent history of Iceland as the 4 revolutions:

  • Mechanisation. In1902 the first boat with a motor appeared, then the first taller, then the fishing industry was mechanised as were the farms
  • Population explosion. In18990, 13% of people lived in towns larger than 50 people. In 1923, it was 50% and by 2000 only 6% of people lived in rural areas.
  • Energy revolution. Hydro plants were established selling to aluminium companies and the growth of energy knowledge stimulated the export of the expertise.
  • Bank revolution. Around 2000 peopled started to believe Iceland could become an international monetary centre. Government sold the banks to private investors and banks underwrote overseas investments. Local development boomed (some say with the import of eastern european labour including new influences of drugs and criminal elements. By 2008 with the GFC people realised things were wrong and the demonstrations for reform began.

 

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Thought to be the only found idol from the pre-Christian period.

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Along the escapement at Thingvellir where the world’s first democratic parliament met

ECONOMY

  • The economy relies mainly on tourism (30%), fishing (20%), aluminium smelting – enabled by cheap energy (30%) and export of alternate energy expertise.
  • Tourism is seeing a year on year increase of 20%
  • Fish has dropped from 60% of the export economy to 20%. The main fish export is cod but mackerel (which were never seen in Iceland until a few years ago) are now appearing in large numbers.
  • There was a building boom here between 2000 and 2008 preceding and in part generating the Icelandic fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.
  • Now after 9 years, the debts are paid and young people who went abroad are being encouraged to return. There now seems to be more new building happening although the few Icelanders I spoke to were wary, working harder than ever to set themselves up and hoping the cycle was not on repeat.
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Geysers bring tourists and geothermal expertise

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Puffins are a drawcard for the tourists

PEOPLE

  • Settlement is in a number of towns scattered around the coast and many months of the year are spent in constant darkness so like most of Scandinavia and Greenland, inhabitants suffer from the “dark depression”.
  • Between a quarter and a third of Icelandic men are admitted to an alcohol addiction centre during their lifetime.
  • Iceland has more authors per capita than anywhere else in the world
  • the national sport is swimming and recently Iceland has punched far above its weight in soccer.
  • There is a gene in Icelanders that can be found in the Irish and Scottish Celts but the jury is out on whether this came from the women the Vikings stole as wives or whether it is that carried by the Norwegian Vikings it is not known. Suffice to say that there’s a bit of Irish in the Vikings and in the Icelanders.
  • While there are 5 political parties, the recent emergence of the Pirate Party seeking full transparency and open access to government accounted for 40% of the vote, a first in Europe.
  • Whatever the genetic material, I found the people direct and friendly, possibly with a dry humour and certainly they have shown a passion for their politics – all of which sits well with my own Irish background

Our guide Bjarne described the Icelandic character as:

  • Curious about the world because of the island home
  • Hard working , strong and courageous because of the harsh surroundings and the power of natural forces
  • Kind to each other because it is a small society and living is hard
  • Opportunistic, competitive and sometimes greedy (he cited bankers and fishermen
  • Stoic

Our guide personified for me the direct, reserved, dry humoured, knowledgeable, strong person that I began to think was the Icelandic character.

For much of this information I am grateful to Bjarne an impressive man, one time a sculptor then an arts administrator and now a wonderful guide. He had a wonderful face.

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My cousin, Smacka

My cousin, Smacka, was cremated last week. Two things stood out about his overflowing funeral of some hundreds – what it said about him and the resonances of family it stirred in me.

First those resonances, the context for my being there:

As I get older I am drawn more to see the full cycles of my life; and I see more circles close.

The extended family grew up in a series of working class semis in Crow’s Nest. I lived in the house of the matriarch; my nanna. Smacka and his family lived a walkable distance away, as did a few of nanna’s other daughters and their families. Families hanging close is a common second generation custom.

The first generation huddled even closer together. In the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century almost every street in Miller’s Point housed someone who shared my DNA or married into it.

Smacka was the better part of a decade older than me, the younger of 2 brothers, a chalk and cheese duo. Barry the older was quieter, more studious, sometimes ill. Brian (Smacka) was a knockabout kid. He could have been a prototype for Ginger Meggs. Both boys, as befitting an Irish Catholic heritage, went to Marist Brothers at Mosman and discovered football.

I think it was he who pushed me, aged about 8, out of a rowing boat 100 metres from the beach at Balmoral. It was sink or swim and I learnt to dogpaddle. I still have small grainy black and white pictures of those family picnics. Now I take my own grandchildren there – 5 generations have played on the same sands.

At 18 Smacka as he was already known (a nickname which perhaps gave a hint to his personality), did what someone with that name might do – he joined the police force.

I remember the family consternation, the uproar, the criticism. The sons of a working class Irish family never became coppers. Coppers, it was rumoured, had to sign a pledge that they would even put their own mothers in jail if they did the crime. I remember becoming concerned for my Aunty Ruby, Smacka’s mother and the gentlest kindest of my aunties in whose kitchen I often sought comfort.

I lost memory of him from then on although I do remember going to his wedding. Ruby, dear Ruby, came to help me with my babies in the year before she died.

About 30 years later, I got elected to a position that some, not me, might consider to wield some power. Smacka got in touch. Could he visit? The time came and there he was on the doorstep with the boss of the local police region and a slab of beer, come to discuss matters of mutual interest.

Another 25 years passed and about 9 months ago the oldest of the cousins died. Spurred by sentiment I decided to gather many of the remaining cousins to lunch. Smacka and his wife came.

There he was on the doorstep looking ravaged by time, by the many cancers he had beaten, croaking through the voice box that had replaced vocal cords removed after cancer of the throat. And by his side was the Esky of beer that I presumed accompanied him to all social occasions.

He spoke little though that afternoon, a few wry comments. But he was there part of my childhood returned to me passingly before he died.

Who was he this cousin of mine?

I suppose I am writing this not just as a hook for my own memories but as a statement about people we are connected with who can live a whole life, achieve milestones, show kindnesses and we are ignorant of it all. A book on the shelf that we never bothered to read.

Smacka deserves acknowledgement because from what I heard at his funeral he was one of the last of a kind. A bigger than life Irish Australian character, the knockabout bloke who loved his sport and would do anything for his mates, a bloke who read Banjo Patterson, played golf when too old for football and went to the Melbourne races. Mates everywhere.

“He was all ours of a weekend” one of his daughters said. She recalled great childhood experiences of long car rides to bleached beaches on searing summer holidays.

This man always had a wry crack. Perhaps it was the years in the police force (including in the old 21st Division, the CID and Armed Holdup Squad). or the natural reticence of men of his generation, that made him dry and non-committal?

For me the funeral held some surprises. The tribute from the large copper, a very senior officer, in full dress uniform with about 5 gold stars on each shoulder could not continue because it took all his energy to stop the tears from spilling down his face. He clearly loved my cousin.

Smacka, who had taken early retirement because of the cancers which took first his voice, had risen by that stage to Detective Inspector and the sentimental talk at the funeral was that he could have been Commissioner, other things been equal.

So all that was a surprise to me. The other surprise was the battered elderly man in a leather coat with his own voice box, crying in the row in front of me. After retirement Smacka and his wife took over the Laryngectomy Association. We were told there wasn’t a hospital in NSW he hadn’t visited to counsel some suffering soul.

So there you have it, a dry knockabout lad who loved his sport, his mates, his family;

who rose up in the old tough NSW police force;

who showed indomitable courage in the face of years of illness;

who spent the last 20 years counseling those similarly afflicted;

who was remembered by men crying at his funeral;

and whose family thought he would be best remembered with a poem by Banjo Pattterson and a song from John Denver.

He was a cousin of my childhood and I missed his life.

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The Street Where I Lived

A few night ago, my son and I checked out a well reviewed new restaurant. The food was tricked up Cantonese. OK. The space was very Melbourne- although we were in Sydney – high black ceiling with pipes laid bare, Chinois motif with touches of shabby chic.

The remarkable thing about it was the location in a wide street of dark empty commercial buildings with their closed lunch cafes underneath. This was the street, Chandos Street, Crows Nest, where I grew up.

Fifty years ago, before the inevitable (close to a railway station) re-zoning of perhaps 3 decades ago, this was a neighbourhood. This was a street of working class semi detached houses with a corner shop and a life being lived by a motley collection of characters.

As the cliché goes, it was like yesterday. I can still see them all, hear the laughter and the shouting, smell the crackers and taste the pennyworth of lollies from that corner shop opposite.

If my family was colourful, the working class neighbourhood was more so. Every Saturday afternoon (until school sport spared me) I ran down the back lane to give Mr or Mrs Wilbow, the local SP bookies, some coins wrapped in a torn off page of a school book with the name of the favoured horse written on it. The Wilbows also ran a hamburger joint at St Leonards and their son Bobby was a magician.

A few doors down Keith, around my age, lived with his parents; his father sold clothes props from the back of a horse and cart. I remember Keith being beaten with the horsewhip in the lane one night. No-one did anything.

I was not allowed to talk to the Peterson girls who were around my own age. I gathered from overheard whispered gossip and hearsay that the father, a garbage man, was suspected of having “behaving badly” towards his elder daughter under their house. Again no one interfered in another family’s business.

But it was the Targets who took the prize. They lived on the other side of the common wall and I learned much of my later colourful language by listening to their fights, ear pressed on the end of a glass held against the wall. Both Mr and Mrs Target were alcoholics and some nights she wouldn’t even make it rolling home from the pub a few blocks down. Mrs Target would have to be helped from her prone position in the lane to her gate.

Cracker nights a large neighbourhood bonfire would be piled high in the back lane. Catherine wheels spinning on rough paling fences, foolhardy boys lighting rockets in bottles, squealing jumps over Tom Thumbs going off. One year Mrs Target got right into the swing of it pouring kerosene over her husband’s clothes on the line and setting fire to them. I remember the drama when my family called the ambulance to them a few times.

New Years Eve we would stand on the front verandah banging away with the saucepans frightening the evil spirits away from the year to come.

There was always someone around in Chandos Street or in the lane behind. Kids playing cricket, telling questionable jokes, planning cicada expeditions, dawdling from school or just sitting on the rough grassy edges of the bitumen backlane in the searing heat.

On Saturday afternoon, the pigeons had to be coaxed into the pigeon house after a long race from some exotic country town and their times clocked.

Lives were lived; women walked up to The Nest to the haberdasher or the ham and beef shop; families drank innumerable cups of tea and men boozed; passions boiled over; curtains were drawn and gossip crafted.

Now I see the dark silhouette of a commercial streetscape, within it the lights of a new restaurant or two. Urban adaption is again rolling over this street of my childhood. How many decades I wonder before people live here again and will it ever be as colourful as it once was?

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