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.