Monday, November 1, 2010

Congratulations to the Icelandic handball team

First of all, I must confess my ignorance of handball rules.  However, I can honestly say that I was glued to the television screen during the last 10 minutes of Iceland’s match with Latvia.  It was an unrelenting fight for the lead which Iceland finally took over and kept.  Hearty congratulations to the team and best wishes for the upcoming games, which I will watch.   All of this happened while I was visiting the Akureyri region where I had a chance to see a very unique and beautiful part of Iceland.  I was most impressed by its people, their outlook, vitality, resilience, and optimism.

I found that Iceland’s ties to the U.S.  are everywhere.   Let me start with Vilhjálmur Stefánsson.   Here´s an Icelander born in Canada and educated in the United States who advanced the world´s knowledge about the Arctic.  His expeditions and books are the foundation of our knowledge of that region and his legacy is enormous.  The Arctic Institute named after him and located in Akureyri is one of the world´s leading research institutions on Arctic studies with extensive links with U.S. universities.   A similar story is in the making with the recently established School for Renewable Energy Science (RES).   The school’s founding director is an accomplished Icelander educated in the United States who is making the institute a world leader in its field.  How great it is to see the result of decades of cooperation between our universities and the free flow of ideas between our people.   It is well worth maintaining and expanding them.
Ambassador Arreaga at the
Hof Menningarhús

The Hof Menningarhús is a building of stunning beauty, functionality, and a gathering place for artists, academics, and the area’s citizens.  It was interesting to learn that the Rocky Horror Picture Show has been running quite successfully in the theater.  I am optimistic that we can work together to bring American artists to perform in that magnificent center.

Economics, economics, and economics

During my visit and conversation with citizens, farmers, fish processors, businessmen, and local officials in the region, the common thread in all the discussions is apprehension about the current economic situation but also a healthy degree of optimism about the future.  While there is understandable impatience about the slow economic recovery and widespread debate about Iceland’s application to the European Union, almost all interlocutors conceded that it is too early to pass judgment on that initiative.  Everywhere I went there were signs of Iceland’s creativity and entrepreneurship at work:  The newly opened tunnels to Siglufjörður could bring new opportunities to the region; the world-class Samherji plant in Dalvík is thriving; the Bruggsmiðjan micro-brewery in Árskógssandi is growing; the Orkey biodiesel production plant makes use of waste; the Holtsel Farm outside Akureyri strengthens the family farm; and the thriving whale watching industry in Húsavík attracts tourists and generates economic activity for the city.  I heard from several Icelanders a rather convincing argument:   when it comes to whales, there is no better job-creating industry than to welcome thousands of tourists to Iceland to enjoy watching whales in the wild; it has excellent growth prospects and enhances Iceland‘s image to the outside world.   It is hard to argue with that.

Overall, it was an excellent trip and a great introduction to Iceland’s diversity.  While I regret missing a whale watching trip owing to weather conditions, I had more time to visit Húsavík’s wonderful whaling museum and to learn more from Icelanders I met.  I will definitely return to the area.