Thursday, August 29, 2013

The future is here and it is a Tesla!

Our friend Gísli Gíslason invited us to test drive the American-designed and made Tesla S, engineering marvel of enormous power, stealth, energy efficiency, and beauty. We drove to Hellisheiði and had a chance to experience a smooth, firm, silent ride and feel the raw power behind the vehicle. We returned to Reykjavik University where many marveled at the sight of the vehicle in front of the school.

While the Model S was designed for the relatively up-market customer, Tesla Motors is believed to be working on developing mass production vehicles at more accessible prices; if their models produced to date are any indication, there is every reason to believe that they will succeed. Electric vehicles provide Iceland with the opportunity to rely exclusively on renewable energy as most motor vehicles used in Iceland today rely almost exclusively on fossil fuels. We are naturally proud to see American technology taking a leading role here in Iceland.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Icelandic National League holds its annual meeting

Photo: Icelandic National League of Iceland

Photo: Fréttablaðið
We were honored by the invitation to speak at the annual meeting of the Icelandic National League (Þjóðræknisfélag Íslendinga).  This is a truly unique organization that aims at maintaining the connections between Iceland and the Icelandic diaspora that went West at the turn of the 19th century.The United States is proud to have welcomed those immigrants; over the last centuries many of them have made enormous contributions not only to the United States but to the world.  A case in point is Holger Cahill (born as Sveinn Kristján Bjarnasson), the Icelandic-born Director of the WPA Federal Art Project which introduced art to hundreds of small towns in America during the Great Depression. Like Cahill there are many other “West Icelanders” who have made great contributions to the United States, and the Icelandic National League is keeping that spirit alive.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Climate Change and the Arctic

We were delighted to sponsor the participation of Patricia Cochran, Executive Director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, at the Northern Research Forum in Akureyri last week.  She delivered a keynote speech in Akureyri on climate change, and then gave a lecture at the University of Iceland and visited the Center for Arctic Policy Studies in Reykjavik.  We invited Patricia to Iceland to share her unique perspective on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and the world.

She is an Inupiat Eskimo born and raised in Nome, Alaska. She has extensive experience working with Alaska Native communities and the Alaska Native Science Commission has helped give those communities a voice in national and international climate change discussions.  She has also represented the Inuit Circumpolar Council in the Arctic Council.  Her presentations gave us a lot to think about regarding the role of “Traditional Knowledge” in the shaping of Arctic policies. She made a forceful case that the indigenous people of the Arctic aren’t simply stakeholders; they are “rights holders.”

Culture Night – Another unforgettable Reykjavik experience

We were looking forward to this year’s Culture Night (Menningarnótt) with anticipation and the events did not disappoint. It began with the thrill of running a 10K race (my muscles are still sore) with a few thousand enthusiasts and it continued with the opening of our Residence in the afternoon.

We welcomed hundreds of visitors and among them there was a lucky group that got to listen to the performance by trumpet virtuosos Stephen Burns and Baldvin Odsson along with pianist Mattias Wager. They performed works by Telemann, Vivaldi, and American composer Aaron Copland.  We were touched by the warm comments of many of the guests who had never been to the residence.  The day ended with a spectacular display of fireworks at the harbor.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Trumpet and organ concert at Hallgrímskirkja

The Hallgrímskirkja Festival of the Sacred Arts hosted a fabulous program on August 22.  American trumpet virtuoso Stephen Burns teamed up with Icelandic wunderkind Baldvin Oddsson, and American organ virtuoso Douglas Cleveland to fill the church with the joyous sound of pieces by Telemann, Nicholas Bruhns, Julian Wachner, James Stephenson, Louis Marchand, and the all-time classic Vivaldi. Every seat of the church was filled.  The audience expressed its deep appreciation for the music with enthusiastic and extended applause at the end of the program.  Those of us who had never heard musical pieces orchestrated with a trumpet and organ were simply blown away by the performance and left asking for more, much more.  We were encouraged to hear that Burns and Cleveland might team up to produce a CD in the future. It would be well worth the wait.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Festival of Sacred Music at Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja is an icon in Reykjavik and a temple not only of worship to God but to music. Over the last few years we have enjoyed many concerts and performances at the church so when we learned that American virtuoso organist Douglas Cleveland would be performing at the 13 Arts (Kirkjulistahátíð), we jumped at the opportunity to support it.  The opening ceremony witnessed magnificent performances by the Schola Cantorum, the Festival String Ensemble, and Douglas Cleveland as well as a haunting dance by Sigríður Soffía Níelsdottir. The performance that stunned everyone was one of the doves released by Sigríður Soffía which landed on Mary’s head and stayed put until the end of the performance.

Douglas Cleveland’s uplifting performance

The next day we attended an unforgettable performance by Douglas Cleveland, who hails from Reykjavík’s sister city Seattle. He selected pieces that demonstrated both his range and versatility. The program began with Mozart’s Fantasia in F Minor; a piece of impossible complexity originally written for a music box inside a clock. He followed it with Prelude and Fughe in E-Flat Major by C. Saint Saens, and with Kairos by Pamela Decker which one could easily imagine as the music that accompanied the creation of the cosmos. He closed the program with Elegy by Ken Yuki and Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 42 by A. Guilmant.   Both of these were at once overwhelming and exhilarating.

Douglas will be performing again on Thursday when he teams with two trumpet players, Stephen Burns from Chicago and Baldvin Oddsson. They will perform pieces by Telemann, Nicholaus Bruhns, James Stephenson, Louis Marchand, and Vivaldi.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meeting Mary Ellen Mark and Effi Ingólfsson

This past week Mary and I had the pleasure of meeting American Master Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, who were in Iceland to conduct a seminar on photography and film in partnership with Effi Ingólfsson and Inga Jóhannsdóttir. During an unforgettable dinner hosted by Effi and Inga and expertly prepared by the incomparable Áslaug Snorradóttir, we had the opportunity to meet a group of extraordinary students from every part of the globe and to see the fruit of their work the next day at an exhibit at Iceland’s National Museum. It was not surprising to see the results of the partnership between Mary Ellen and Effi as both are magnificent photographers. We hope to see a repeat of this seminar as it is an incredible opportunity for Icelandic photography and art students to learn from two of the best.

Joshua Redman shakes Harpa

Harpa has become the pre-eminent showcase for the performing arts in Iceland and in its relatively short existence it has hosted world class acts.  On Saturday night the Joshua Redman Quartet wowed the audience with an energetic concert that brought everyone to their feet.  The Quartet opened with its own version of George Gershwin’s Summertime.  He followed with a broad range of pieces composed by Redman and members of his quartet and even a piece by the greatest composer of all--Johann Sebastian Bach.

While jazz’s roots are American, we are delighted to see it embraced the world over and enhanced by contributions from practically every culture.  We are very proud to once again support the Reykjavik Jazz Festival and to bring to Iceland music that brings our people together.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Seattle – Iceland connection keeps growing

We welcomed representatives from Green River Community College who are visiting Iceland to explore collaborative arrangements with Keilir Insitute and with GeoCamp Iceland. We were not surprised that they were awestruck by Iceland’s beauty and that they saw enormous possibilities for cooperation with Keilir and GeoCamp. This potential cooperation would strengthen our educational exchanges and ties between the Seattle area and Iceland.  In fact, Margrét Soffia Björnsdottir will be joining the faculty of Green River as an artist and Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence for the fall 2013 semester, further strengthening a developing relationship.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Trip addendum -- An unlikely weather trifecta

During our most recent trip to the north we hit a most unlikely weather trifecta. On the first day of our trip we were in the Árnes area which recorded the day’s highest temperature in the country. The next day we were in Húsavik, which also recorded the day’s highest temperature of the country. The next day we were in Siglufjördur, which also happened to reach the day’s highest temperature in the country.  I thought that some enterprising travel operator could develop a tour around the concept of chasing the highest temperature in the country – a variation of American storm chasers.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reykjavik Pride Festivities 2013

This week witnessed Reykjavik’s world famous Pride festivities, a series of events meant to celebrate and promote LGBT rights. This year, the U.S. Embassy was a recipient of the Festival’s Human Rights Award from Samtökin ‘78 for its work in raising the profile of LGBT rights in Iceland and the rest of the world. It was an honor to receive this award and we are deeply grateful to the organizers of these festivities. On Saturday, as it has become our tradition, we participated in the parade where we saw many of our friends lining the streets.

We also partnered with the organizers of Reykjavik Pride to screen two films.  At the beginning of the festivities, we screened “Brother Outsider:  The Life of Bayard Rustin.” At the final event on Sunday, we screened “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement,” a moving story about a couple’s long struggle.  One of the stars of this film, Edie Windsor, launched a lawsuit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.   The directors of this film, Susan Muska and Gréta Olafsdóttir participated in the screening and a discussion afterwards.  It was a full week that put on display the values shared by Icelanders and Americans and a demonstration of what our partnership can accomplish.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Blönduós-- an interesting crossroads

On our way back to Reykjavik we stopped in Blönduós to see Bjarni Stefánsson, the District Commissioner (Sýslumaður)--an important official in Iceland's legal system. We had a good visit to discuss the latest developments in the area; we also had the opportunity to taste Hrefna's fabulous rhubarb and blueberries cake. The town also hosts very interesting textile and sea ice museums.

Skagaströnd marches on with optimism

During our third visit to Skagaströnd we found optimism and a thriving community.Tourism visits are 30% higher this year, geothermal hot water and fiber optic Internet service are arriving later this fall and the NES art residency program continues to attract talented young artists from all over the world.  We gladly accepted the opportunity to have a taste of modern cod fishing and went out into the bay with captain Sigurjón, who let us pull a few fish and gut them!  In the evening, we attended a fascinating presentation of the work of many of the artists in residence and were intrigued by their concepts and creativity.

The Northern Coast - A place of immense beauty and magic

Siglufjördur on the north coast epitomizes a great blend of Iceland's history and natural beauty. The Herring Museum brings it to life eloquently. The town's fortunes are improving and its future is bright thanks in large part to the efforts an American-Icelandic investor.

Driving along the coast on the way to Sauðárkrókur one comes across Lónkot--an idyllic spot on the coast across from Drangey (an imposing island in the middle of Skagafjördur). There we met Pálína, an effervescent and multi-talented designer/chef/classical dancer, who prepared a fabulous Arctic char dish and introduced us to the work of Sölvi Helgasson an Icelandic artist from the 19th century.  We never cease to be amazed at the wonderful surprises hiding all over Iceland.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Akureyri -- Iceland's Arctic capital

We paid a visit to three institutions in Akureyri which are dedicated to either the study of the region or to the advancement of Iceland's interests in the Arctic. The venerable Stefansson Arctic Institute continues to make great strides in advancing Arctic studies and strengthening links to other academic institutions. The newly established Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network is building a platform to bring together all Icelandic entities engaged in Arctic matters.

The most recent addition is the Arctic Services/Eyjafjordur Business Development Agency which is a consortium of some of Iceland's top business and engineering firms dedicated to establishing a base of services in support of Arctic investments. The United States is ready to partner with all these institutions.

Húsavík prospects looking up

My first official stop on my trip to the north was a visit to Húsavík's Mayor, Culture Museum, and Whale Museum. The Mayor was cautiously optimistic about the region's future in light of possible investments by European firms. He noted the continued growth of whale watching and interest in further investment in tourist infrastructure. The Culture Museum recently received a national award for its exhibits highlighting the connections between nature and the Icelandic way of life over the last 100 years. The
Whale Museum was thriving with tourists interested to learn about these noble giants.

We love their recent addition which teaches and engages children on the preservation of these gentle and beautiful creatures. There is no question that whale watching is an enormously important industry in Iceland. It is thriving and generating much needed jobs and other economic activity.  I am pleased to note that the U.S. National Science Foundation has partnered with the Culture Museum Director to teach children about archeological research in the area, and that an American couple donated a significant amount in support of the Whale Museum.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Summer in Sprengisandur

This summer we decided to travel north taking the Sprengisandur road. We were lucky to have a bright summer day with practically no clouds. The first stop was Gjáinn, a little oasis in the middle of a highland dessert, where the waterfalls, rock formations and vegetation could easily be called paradise.

The road takes you next to barren yet spectacular mountains, lakes, and right through the middle of mighty glaciers (Hofsjökull, Köldukvíslarjökull, Tungnafellsjökull, and of course the biggest of them all Vatnajökull). I would highly recommend this trip to anyone willing to take a bit of punishment on the kidneys. It is unforgettable.