This quote from Laxdæla:
‘Þat hefi ek lengi haft í hug mér, at ganga suðr um sinns sakar; þykkir maðr við þat fávíss verða, ef hann kannar ekki víðara en hér Ísland’ – ‘I have long had it in mind to one day travel to the south; a man is thought to grow foolish if he never explores more widely than just here in Iceland.’
…it very neatly summarises what I and many others of my generation in Iceland were taught: that travelling, learning new things about new cultures, was an essential part of being a fully educated human. I’m not talking about tourism either. It doesn’t matter how long you stay in a country as a tourist, you will never learn as much about it as you would if you had worked or studied there. Which is why most British people I’ve met are very ‘foolish’—most of them think spending a week in Paris in spring makes them citizens of the world.
During the post-war period (post-independence really), living abroad for a time was also a necessity for many Icelanders (like me or my sister) because Icelandic universities didn’t offer any postgraduate degrees. If you wanted to be educated you had to go abroad. This made a core contribution to what makes current Icelandic culture (music and literature) so interesting: Reykjavík combines being a metropolitan-style melting pot of ideas from all over the world with a small town’s closeness, community, and empathy.
Living abroad was a revelation to me. I finally realised that Reykjavík is not a city but a small town—that I was just a small town boy whose intellectual horizons were much more limited than I had the capacity to imagine.
I, and others, have been worried about where Iceland is going. With the addition of postgraduate degrees to the local universities, the post-war trend of Icelanders going abroad to learn has been halted. With the increase in xenophobia (which many of the political parties and a lot of the media are stoking) there is more resistance to outside ideas and a more of a love of the parochial closed-mindedness that was the hallmark of Icelandic culture before the war.
It’ll be fine, of course. Iceland has survived catastrophes and natural disasters (volcanos, earthquakes, disastrous storms, etc.) that would have annihilated larger nations. We survived the man-made famines of Danish rule. We turned invasion and occupation into an asset. We have worked our way through more economic crises than any other Nordic country. Iceland will be fine.
But it’ll probably be much less interesting…