Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Joint Study, the Blue Lagoon, Cancun, and Svið:

University of Iceland…Wow.
I paid a visit to the University of Iceland and had the opportunity to learn about the University’s programs and engagement with the rest of the world.  I was so proud to learn that the University of Colorado and the University of Iceland will soon be offering joint PhD degrees, that the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school has a longstanding partnership with the University of Iceland, and that Stanford University will fund one Icelander´s participation in a summer study program annually.  This only scratches the surface of the range and depth of the University of Iceland.   No doubt we will find many additional opportunities to expand and deepen the university's ties with its American counterparts.  As we say in the States, this is a win-win for both countries.
The HS Orka and Blue Lagoon partnership
During a brief visit to the HS Orka power plant and to the Blue Lagoon, I had the opportunity to learn from management about the vision of their companies.  HS Orka is making every effort to minimize waste and reduce CO2 emissions.  It is a company with a very strong entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to redefine itself in socially responsible ways.   The plant is a longtime partner with the Blue Lagoon, a very successful enterprise that seems to have defied the economic crisis with a sound business model that has enormous potential.  Both enterprises are privately held and appear to be very good examples of business models that offer great hope for Iceland’s future.
Some good news from Cancun

It was great to hear that the international community agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries cope with climate change.  The Fund will establish a framework to reduce deforestation in developing countries and a committee to promote international cooperation and action on adaptation.  While some may not be satisfied with the outcome in Cancun, it is significant progress and consistent with President Obama’s commitment to find a new path on climate change.  No one said it would be easy.

My first encounter with Svið: a draw.
I had been preparing for that fateful moment when I would confront my first dish of Svið.  It happened a couple of weeks ago and I would characterize the encounter as a draw between my aversion to eating a sheep‘s head and the tastiness of  traditional Icelandic cuisine.  Icelandic cuisine scored a goal to the extent that I liked the meat and will eat it again; I believe I scored a goal for asking that the plate be presented in a way that did not look like a sheep‘s head.   I realize this is not the real Icelandic experience, but it is a start.

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. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, Iceland’s björgunarsveitirnar (Search and Rescue) and a bit of controversy

While the weather is turning colder in Reykjavik, the tempo of activity at the Embassy has picked up with gusto.   The Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, recently made a brief stop in Iceland and shared with us and government officials his perspectives on the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico.  You would think that there is no connection, but there is:  President Obama asked Secretary Mabus to look into the economic impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with a view towards restoration and recovery in the region .  He told us that the economic impact on the livelihood of fishermen and the tourist industry was devastating and that we have a responsibility to ensure that any extraction of natural resources in the Arctic region be undertaken responsibly.    It is clear that the United States and Iceland need to work together to deal with this and other issues.
Secretary Mabus’s visit was followed by the Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James G. Stavridis, who visited Iceland as a guest of the Icelandic Government.   The Admiral clearly noted that Iceland remains a very important partner of NATO.  We certainly agree with that; our commitment to our bilateral Defense Agreement with Iceland is unshakable, as is our commitment to strengthen our security cooperation.
Ambassador Arreaga with
Iceland Search and Rescue Member
This past week marked the annual fundraising campaign conducted by Iceland’s Search and Rescue Team (björgunarsveitirnar).   Before coming to Iceland, I learned that the björgunarsveitir had arrived in Haiti within the first 24 hours of the devastating earthquake and that they saved many lives.  We are also grateful to the team for evacuating many American citizens from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.   Like many great institutions in Iceland, the björgunarsveitir is the product not of government but of active citizens who volunteer to serve others selflessly.  It reminds me of the spirit of volunteerism in the United States.   I know that many colleagues in the Embassy (myself included) bought the traditional key chains from many björgunarsveitir volunteers selling them on street corners.   They deserve our support.
And speaking of similarities, I was invited to speak to a university class about the mid-term elections, foreign policy, and Icelandic-American relations.  I must confess that while I enjoyed meeting the students, I didn’t have an easy time of it.  I was asked many tough questions on many different subjects.  Some of my answers were met with skeptical looks and more follow up questions.  It reminded me of classes at some of our top universities in the United States.  Young people have a way of reassuring us that our future will be in good hands.
The last few days also brought us a bit of controversy produced by sensationalist press reports about our efforts to protect our employees (American and Icelandic) and our visitors to the Embassy.  It was useful  to listen to opinions on the subject which ranged from interesting to very thoughtful.    We regret that this has caused unease and concern among some citizens and diverted attention away from important issues.    Our policy is for these programs to be conducted in full compliance with applicable local laws.  The U.S. stands ready to answer any questions the Government of Iceland might ask us on this or any other matter.
 One of the benefits of the cold weather is having the opportunity to enjoy Iceland’s famous swimming pools.  There is nothing like getting into a hot pot in the middle of a cold blustery evening.  I highly recommend it.

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. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Small windows into the Icelandic arts scene and some Icelandic soul food

The last few days have provided several windows into the vitality, traditions, and intellectual energy of Icelandic society.   Let me start with something of a great Reykjavik tradition.  I had the pleasure of joining a few of my Icelandic colleagues from the Embassy on a trip to Bæjarins beztu pylsur.  I have to say that it was one of the best hot dogs I have ever had, but the best part was experiencing a tradition that citizens of Reykjavik enjoy:  a walk on a chilly day, standing in line to get “eina með öllu” and standing in a circle with friends having a conversation while enjoying one of Reykjavik´s finest.  My only regret was that I didn´t have a second hot dog; next time.

Ambassador Arreaga with Tómas Jónsson
 The vitality and talent of the Icelandic arts scene is well known in the United States and this week I had a chance to experience it first-hand.  We were organizing a reception at the Embassy and decided that we needed to liven it up with some music.  Our Public Affairs section found Tómas Jónsson, an enormously talented 17 year old Icelandic pianist whose interpretation of American jazz artists was superb.  I believe we are going to hear much more about young Tómas in the years ahead.

I also had the pleasure of attending the opening reception and initial screenings of the Kvikar myndir hátíð.  This event was organized by Kinosmiðja (a grass-roots organization that promotes experimental and avant-garde filmmaking) in conjunction with the Reykjavik Art Museum and with our Embassy’s support.  I must say that the films were provocative but the most interesting part was sharing these movies with the audience.   Having also participated in the Reykjavik Film Festival, I can say that the film scene in Iceland is alive and thriving.

On a more serious note, my wife Mary and I had a wonderful opportunity to engage with two Icelandic fiction writers at a local café.   We talked about so many things (the impact of the economic crisis here and in the U.S., the publishing industry, a bit of history, the Icelandic literary scene, and much more).  It was one of our most memorable experiences to date and one that we want to repeat.

 Art is such a broad term and it covers so many areas that I know we will be very busy exploring it throughout our stay in Iceland.  It was a heavy week of art, deep discussions, and some Icelandic “soul food.“   We decided to take it easy this weekend with a bit of window shopping and coffee  on Laugavegur.   We needed a rest before our next experience:  Akureyri

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Economic Crisis and the Future

Over recent days, Reykjavík has witnessed demonstrations in which Icelanders of all ages and walks of life expressed their frustration and discontent with the economic situation.  I asked myself whether this was one of those bittersweet moments in a democracy:  on the one hand, citizens freely expressed their views without fear of oppression; on the other, it was an indication that people are still suffering the consequences of the financial meltdown of 2008.  These images are reminiscent of the challenges that the United States confronts at home.   Much has been written in the U.S. about the difficulties of the many households who are struggling to keep their homes, who have lost their jobs, and much has been debated about what the right formula is to address those problems.  While that debate falls outside the scope of this page, it might be useful to focus on some of the elements that Iceland and the United States share and which have a bearing on the future.

The first element that comes to mind is the educational level of our peoples.  Both countries enjoy some of the highest educational levels in the world.   Along with this, our nations share a culture that promote and reward creativity and entrepreneurship.  As we reflect on the complications and devastation caused by the financial meltdowns, it is reassuring to know that whichever formula our respective countries choose to address them, it will emerge from and be carried out by highly educated and motivated people. 

The second element that comes to mind is one I have already mentioned but that bears repeating -- our strong commitment to democracy.   Americans and Icelanders are fortunate to live in democracies where citizens express their views freely and openly.   We sometimes take this for granted, but it is important to recognize that this will be a critical element in finding the right formula to address the financial meltdown.  Among the cacophony of voices and views should emerge a solution tailored to our respective societies.   The flipside of this is that democracies sometime take longer to find solutions than its citizens are willing to wait for.

These reflections came to mind when I had the honor of signing a bilateral agreement on scientific and technological cooperation on geothermal research and development with the Minister of Industry and Tourism.  There is no doubt that this type of cooperation will bring a better future to both of our countries and to the rest of the world.  Iceland and the United States are world leaders in geothermal energy.  Our cooperation will facilitate the development of advanced, cost-effective geothermal energy technologies and accelerate their availability internationally.   We can view this agreement as a good omen for a better future.  I wish it would arrive soon.

This weekend’s weather was absolutely glorious to travel the Golden Circle.   A perfectly clear sky provided a wonderful introduction to the stunning beauty of the Icelandic countryside, the power and elegance of Gullfoss falls, the energy of Geysir, and the inspiration that the Þingvellir plain provided to Iceland´s founders.    The chill in the air was offset with a warm dish of svínakótilettur, capped with coffee and kleinur.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Beginning of a Journey in Iceland

It would be difficult, and I won’t even try, to describe the mixed emotions associated with the honor of being nominated to represent the American people in Iceland.   Suffice it to say that I was overwhelmed but at the same time determined to dedicate every effort possible to bring the American and Icelandic peoples even closer together.  Several months before my arrival, I began to read as much as I could about Iceland:  the land, its history, its language, its people, its geography, its culture, especially literature, and every bit of information I could get my hands on, but the more I read the more I realize that  I still have much to learn.   As the picture of an extraordinary country began to emerge, I realized that I was embarking on a unique journey of learning and sharing.   It didn’t take very long to realize that Icelanders and Americans share many values:  self-reliance, individualism, hard work, persistence, and creativity, as well as respect for individual freedoms just to name a few.   This helps explain why our ties run so deep and why it is so important to nurture and strengthen them.  In fact this reminds me of Secretary Clinton’s recent message to Icelanders when she said we are proud to be the first country that recognized Iceland’s independence.

My arrival in Iceland only two weeks ago was very auspicious.  President Grímsson let me present my credentials soon after my arrival when he also hosted a reception attended by many Icelanders and resident Americans.  I am grateful for that opportunity as it allows my colleagues and me to engage fully in those areas where we have common interests:  making the world greener, working together in mapping a strategy for the responsible and peaceful management of the High North, strengthening our capabilities to respond to humanitarian crises, working together to get our countries out of the current recession (the economic recoveries of Iceland and the United States are mutually reinforcing), and strengthening our longstanding security ties.

At the personal level, I’ve already experienced some of Iceland’s wonderful traditions, having been honored as a guest during the christening of Halen Alexander--a beautiful Icelandic-American boy and having tasted the best fish, butter, and lamb I have ever had.  I also saw two great Icelandic films (The Palace and The Last Ride) and shared a meal with Icelandic and American filmmakers during the International Reykjavík Film Festival.   The two weeks were capped with the arrival of my wife Mary and my son Luis, both of whom are extremely happy to be here.  As my Icelandic teacher taught me:  Allt sem éheyrði um Ísland áður en ég kom til landsins er satt og rétt.