Iceland, Where Everyone Seems to Know Everyone

June 23, 2015 Updated: June 23, 2015

With its stunning landscapes, Iceland is a canvas for the visual artist, a blank page for the poet with sombre moods, a backdrop for filmmakers who create thrillers and fantasies alike.

This Nordic island country has a relatively small population of 325,000. Everyone seems to know everyone. At least that was my impression on a visit there last October.

On the red-eye Icelandic Air flight from Boston to Reykjavik, I dozed between scenes of the film “Of Horses and Men.” 

“It’s a tale set in the wild of Iceland, as a romance between humans, kindled by a bond with horses. It’s a drama in which horses and humans meet on equal terms,” a reviewer had written in the in-flight magazine. The horse is an Iceland motif.

The people, culture, and scenery are second to none. 
— Women's hockey coach Ben DiMarco

Arriving too early to check in, I left my baggage at the hotel and walked to a nearby café. Teeming with what appeared to be a regular coffee klatch of the fashionably dressed literati crowd, I immersed myself in the conversation.

A poster from the film I had just viewed on the plane was taped to the side of the counter crediting director-screenwriter Benedikt Erlingsson. I mentioned to an artsy-looking gentleman that I had just watched the film on my flight. He smiled, offered a handshake, and introduced himself as Benedikt Erlingsson.

My first few hours in Reykjavik seemed to foreshadow, I felt, a soulful and enlightening visit during the next 10 days.

Serendipidity

I travelled to Iceland to discuss the photographs from my book, “Twosomes,” on exhibit at the Reykjavik Museum of Photography. It was also an opportunity to reunite with Icelanders I had met happenstance in Tucson the previous year: musicians/singers Chris Foster and Bara Grimsdottir, who appeared in a concert sponsored by the College of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona, and architect Steven Christen, who spoke to students at the university’s College of Architecture. 

What a strange coincidence to meet these three in Arizona, then see them on their home turf. Iceland is serendipitous.

Steven, a Brit, met his Icelandic wife Margaret in architecture school in England. They bring contemporary design and a minimalist philosophy to their buildings, one of which is Reykjavik City Hall (opened in 1992) on the great pond in central Reykjavik. 

Bara and Chris, also an English-Icelandic couple, are regarded as the country’s finest traditional interpreters of the Icelandic rimur, a structured narrative ballad first written in the 13th century with no accompanying music. 

Now living in Reykjavik, the couple have written tunes for these ballads and perform in concerts worldwide playing on Icelandic stringed instruments—fidla and the langspil (in the zither family played with or without a bow), and the kantele and guitar. 

“It was pure fluke that we met,” said Chris explaining he had contacted the Icelandic cultural attaché in London to produce a traditional Icelandic music event in 2000. When the two met they immediately knew they were more than just in tune.

Ambassadors of their country’s rich heritage of folk music, this August Bara and Chris will perform and give workshops in Akureyri.

Akureyri

Akureryi, Iceland’s second largest city with a population of 18,000, is a six-hour drive northeast. The ride there through mountain valleys, farmlands, and tiny villages is a pioneering-like experience. One thing for sure: there is no road-kill along this mesmerizing, desolated, traffic-less landscape.

Located on the Eyja Fiord, Akureyri is a port town with airline connections to Reykjavik. It is an artists’ hub and a gateway to cultural and geological sites such as Siglufjordour, once the herring capital and economic force of Iceland; Husavik, a whale-watching center; and Myvatn, a birdlife habitat abundant with hot springs and unique rock formations.

Akureyri is home to the country’s first indoor skating rink built in 2000. English echoed in the near-empty arena the day I explored it; it was the low-pitch voice of an American male heard over the sound of skates gliding on the ice.

Ben DiMarco, 24, of Galveston Texas, is the women’s coach of the Skautafelag Akureyri (Akureyri Skating Club) hockey team. At Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, DiMarco played hockey and also coached the women’s team there during his last three years of college. After graduating he played semi-pro in Sweden.

From Sweden, he landed the current coaching position almost two years ago when the club was looking for a replacement coach who DiMarco met in Texas.

“The best part of this job is to get up every day and do something I love—and I love living here in Alureryi,” DiMarco said.

“The people, culture, and scenery are second to none. Life here has been a very easy transition from life in the U.S. The people are very friendly and willing to help. Everyone speaks English. Being part of such a tight-knit hockey club has allowed me to develop close friendships quickly.”

Friendships

The Icelandic-American friendship is a lasting one. Ask David Coughanowr, 54, who lives in Chatham on Cape Cod.

Since his first introduction to Reykjavik as a 12-year-old with his college professor father and family, Coughanowr has been there nearly 50 times. He bought an apartment in the city away from the bar scene and returns to his second home four times each year.

Coughanowr, a civil engineer a designer of septic systems, has travelled virtually everywhere in Iceland, and made many friends along the way.

“It’s easy to make friends there. People don’t have any fear of others. They have an openness, are hospitable, and really care for human life,” he said. “Yet they are very creative and eccentric, which I can identify with.”

On one of his trips to Iceland, Coughanowr bought a ceramic replica of an early 19th-century house that spoke to him. He tracked the actual house to Arbaer Safn, an outdoor museum in Reykjavik, and actually built a model of the 1846 Icelandic house on his property in Cape Cod in 2014.

Though it is 10 percent larger than the original, which housed a family of five, David’s house is sustainable with solar panels, aromatic red cedar, white oak flooring with no rugs, and pine walls. It has an open floor plan with a galley kitchen, a bathroom and office upstairs, and a sleeping loft. The lower level is open as a bedroom and work room, with a second bathroom.

“One neighbour enjoyed watching it being built, curious what other surprises were in store,” said Coughanowr. “I feel like I am an Icelander at heart born with an American passport.”


Cape Cod-based Mark Chester photographed the book “Twosomes” and has a forthcoming book and travelling exhibition titled “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape, Photographs of New Americans,” which celebrates diversity in his home state of Massachusetts. www.markchesterphotography.com

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