Monday, November 29, 2010

Art, Air Rescue, and Arrival of the Holiday Season

Thanksgiving with Fulbrighters in Iceland

I had the pleasure of attending the Fulbright Alumni Thanksgiving dinner where I had the opportunity to meet an impressive group of Icelanders educated in the U.S. and Americans being educated in Iceland.   Attendees included an environmental scientist, social scientists, political scientists, composers, a concert pianist, artists, journalists, and humanists.  It occurred to me that the dinner was an opportunity to look at the U.S.-Iceland relationship through a magnifying glass.  These individuals represent the strands that make up our relationship and make it strong.  The Fulbright program is a hugely important program not only because it benefits both countries but because it makes contributions to the world at large.  I am certain that in the future we will hear about the contributions that Fulbright Alumni  (Icelandic and American) at the dinner will make.    After all, since its inception the Fulbright program has produced 46 Nobel Prize winners.   We must not only preserve but strengthen the Fulbright program.

Discovering Kjarval and others at Iceland’s magnificent Listasafn

Ambassador Arreaga (left) with Listasafn Íslands Director
Halldór Runólfsson (right).
I visited Iceland’s National Gallery and not only found great art but fascinating nuggets about the American journeys of some of Iceland’s greatest artists.  Let me start with Nina Saemundsson, a wonderful sculptress whose Niall’s head is at once haunting and beautiful.  She is also responsible for the angel that rests on the awning at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.  There is also Einar Jonsson, who went to the United States and returned to Iceland to become one of its greatest painters.  There are many more artists, that we will explore in return visits, but the one that immediately stood out was Johannes Kjarval whose range is absolutely amazing.  I learned that he was more than a painter, he was a man that was well ahead of his time.  In 1948, he wrote a letter to Morgunblaðið to propose that whaling should be stopped or at least limited, suggesting that a whale preservation ship be built so that people can watch, admire and study the creature.   His words said it all:  “Er nokkuð frjálsara, óháðara og hlutlausara en sjá hvali fara stefnur sínar á flötum hafsins.”

Half a century of cooperation with Flugbjörgunarsveitin í Reykjavík

This past weekend, I had the honor of giving a few congratulatory remarks to Reykjavik´s Air Ground Rescue Team on the occasion of their 60th anniversary.   Volunteer rescuers are an amazing group of people whose altruism is a lesson to all of us.  I know that some members of this team participated in the rescue efforts in Haiti and many other countries.  Each of them deserves our respect and admiration.   The celebration was a good moment to reflect on the half a century of cooperation between the United States and this wonderful group of Icelanders.  Starting in the 1960s, American soldiers and airmen trained with the Icelandic volunteer rescuers and not only did they learn from each other, but together they accomplished the ultimate:  the successful completion of rescue missions that saved lives.   I had an overwhelming sense of pride knowing the great things that our people can accomplish when they work together.

Christmas Tree Lighting

Iceland has so many lovely traditions.   I have to say that walking over the frozen Tjornin on my way to the official lighting of the Christmas tree downtown is a  Reykjavik tradition that I enjoyed immensely.