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.