Surviving lockdown: What Iceland can teach us

    13 April 2020

    As I write, millions of people are still adjusting to the experience of a government enforced lockdown. With the outdoors patrolled by overzealous bobbies, anecdotes exhausted and Netflix’s Tiger King almost finished, the anxiety of isolation may be creeping in. Not so for me – a holiday I took earlier this year left me well-prepped for this sort of thing.

    Whilst attempting to visit my girlfriend in D.C. this January, I managed to lose my passport on the one-hour stopover in Iceland. With no way home and emergency documents potentially weeks away, my assigned border guard soon lost interest.

     Reykjavik in winter

    Reykjavik in winter

    “We’re not meant to let you in, but the airport closes soon and my shift is over,” he explained as he guided me out of the eerily empty terminal.

    “They say Iceland was named ‘ice-land’ to put off other settlers, you know, because it’s so green?” I sheepishly offered, provoking some parting advice:

    “Buy a better coat.”

    And so there I found myself; a would-be British holiday maker reduced in an hour to a semi-legal immigrant, stranded a thousand miles north of mainland Europe with little money and no gloves.

    Iceland holds many wonders – from the Blue Lagoon to Northern Lights tours. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford any of that, and so as a foreigner I experienced a rare thing – the Icelandic winter from an Icelander’s perspective.

    The first thing to report back on is the weather. Icelanders abandoned the Norse gods a 1000 years ago, and my experience indicates they’ve never been forgiven.

    The Aurora Borealis, Iceland

    Though the temperature readers don’t drop far below freezing, the piercing gales rolling in from the Arctic Ocean make it feel at least 20 below. Some locals lay down grit in a vain attempt to contain the ice, but this is soon whipped up by the wind into a cloud of deadly shrapnel. I was forced to break up the 5-minute walk from the coach terminal to my hostel to dart into a café after being hit by what I assumed were shotgun pellets.

    The sun made a sarcastic appearance every day at about 11 o’clock, and stayed just long enough to cast a nightmarish yellow hue across the bleak, plant-less landscape.

    Nothing grows. On the coach to Reykjavik I saw no crops, no trees, not even a hedgerow. It had never occurred to me to pine for hedgerows before I gazed upon that frozen desert.

    Excited to sample the local cuisine in a country without agriculture? I hope you take to rotten shark – I didn’t.

    Trapped indoors, and with pints selling for £10 apiece, locals have two obvious sources of escape: Sex and God.

    Sex is to be approached cautiously. The islanders have long had a serious problem with STDs – easily topping Europe’s leader board for prevalence of chlamydia (known locally as the ‘Reykjavik handshake’). Also sprinkled into the petri-dish is incest. With a population of 357,000 and no surnames, in-breeding has become such a problem that local students have invented an app, ‘The Book of Iceland’, to help residents work out just how much they have in common with their evening’s fancy.

    God, likewise, offers little respite.

    Reykjavík’s 244 ft ‘church’ (the population is 70 per cent Lutheran), shirks sinful popish conventions, such as ‘decoration’ or ‘beauty’. Instead, the architect opted to ensure his concrete monstrosity “reflects the harshness of Iceland”. I have to say he’s done a good job. The vast building’s cold and unadorned interior is less likely to give someone a reason to live as it is to convince them they’re already in purgatory.

    Icelandic church in Reykjavik

    Like chlamydia, architectural ugliness is endemic in Iceland. Though the country is the least densely populated in Europe, its immensely wealthy citizens nonetheless pile into hideous Soviet-style apartment blocks – presumably motivated by an overhang of Lutheran stoicism.

    To top it all off, the tap-water smells of wind – and not the arctic kind; we’re talking about a serious room-clearer. The locals are very touchy about this – when my long-suffering girlfriend (who joined me) tried to buy bottled water, a shop assistant practically threw herself between us and the shelf. “Our tap water is very famous,” she grinned. Unwilling to provoke conflict, we were forced to sustain ourselves with tea.

    All this left us with a mystery – why are Icelanders so damn happy? Survey after survey consistently rank the island in the top four happiest places on earth. Given the circumstances, it seems almost blasphemous.

    After a few 4-hour days grumbling about the price of beer, the answer presented itself. Bluntness aside, Icelanders are an incredibly friendly people.

    To get through winter, locals told us they keep active; busying themselves with a range of activities from knitting classes to games nights. Everyone seemed to know and look out for one another – a novelty to a visiting Londoner. As a result, Icelanders are the most likely people on earth to report having friends and family they can count on, whenever needed.

    These close networks don’t leave outsiders in the cold, as the islanders are also some of the world’s most likely people to trust strangers.

    What relevance is this to home-bound Brits?

    Icelandic winters, with their harsh restriction on outdoor activities and general grimness, in many ways mimic the challenges of COVID-19. For several months every year, Icelanders are forced to work together to survive, and the result is a tight-knit community.

    What social scientists call ‘social capital’ – the cohesion derived from a shared sense of identity, which often strengthened by common threats – increases people’s willingness to help each other out and pay for welfare. We need not only look to Iceland’s extensive redistributive system to see this; recall that the industrial bombing of World War II was immediately followed by the creation of NHS and the modern welfare state.

    Already, there are signs this crisis is provoking a surge in Iceland-style social participation in Britain; an army of volunteers delivering vital supplies, neighbours checking up on each other, local kids creating newsletters, and (most uncannily of all) messages of solidarity on social media.

    As Brits pull through this crisis, they may find themselves acting a bit more Icelandic.

    That being said, I’ve promised to book direct fights next time I fly to America.