Icelandic National Day in Reykjavik



The arrival to Reykjavik seemed almost too serendipitous to be not magical. Just like that, we’d dropped out of thick clouds to see endless moss covered mounds; and the eccentric two pronged electricity poles sprinkled here and there were alien enough for me to muse that I’d landed not in pre-dawn Iceland, but on the moon.

The roads in Iceland include panoramic views (Jinchen Zou).
The roads in Iceland include panoramic views (Jinchen Zou).

Nevertheless, Iceland — at least its international airport — welcomed me as I imagined it would from watching its sunny, friendly tourist information video series titled “Ask Guðmundur.” Keflavik Airport switched out steel and concrete for warm wooden panels and glass, and with zero traffic it resembled a modern ski lodge more than an airport. After nodding to smiling faces at customs and admiring the impeccable style of every Icelander in the building, I found myself holding a cup of Skyr, thick Icelandic yogurt, handed to me by our study abroad trip leader, and more convinced than ever that Iceland might be the hippest place out there.

According to the Global Peace Index, Iceland is “the most peaceful country” in the world, with only one police shooting in recent history. The country is quite a model for sustainability with renewable energy (the theme of my studies here), as geothermal and hydroelectric power provide for almost all of its energy needs. Excepting the 2008 financial crash that ravaged Iceland’s economy, the nation felt like utopia.

Alas, my illusion did not last. On the very next day, June 17, Icelandic National Day, we headed into the heart of Reykjavik to participate in the festivities. On the way, our academic director informed us that we would be watching speeches given by the President and the Prime Minister. She explained that, particularly in comparison to the US, security around the heads of state in Iceland is minimal.. Iceland, with no standing military and a tiny population of around 330,000, has little to fear and little to protect against.

We arrived in the middle of the Prime Minister’s speech. True to the director’s words, the police, casually strolling through the people in the crowd, could easily be mistaken for security guards. The crowd was thin, but from behind the fencing outside the tent, it was difficult to see the Prime Minister’s figure. The sound of banging pots and a dull chant, however, rang quite clear. A short distance away, a group of protesters were raising their voices to get attention.

Independence Day protesters prove that Icelanders, too, can be dissatisfied! (Jinchen Zou)
National Day protesters prove that some Icelanders are dissatisfied with the country’s minimum wage (Jinchen Zou).

Angry Icelanders. This was a sight that ruptured the idyllic bubble forming in my mind of Iceland culture and society. These protesters, disillusioned by the empty promises made by the current government, demanded higher minimum wage for their labor, a cause championed by many others around the world. No longer did Iceland seem like a Nordic Shangri-La. I took heart in knowing that I’d started to build a fuller understanding of Iceland’s equally multifaceted, complex society.

A walk away from the city center took us through the shops and commercial areas. The overwhelming amount of tourists and cameras on the main street Laugarvegur tugged with the image of a lunar landscape imprinted in my mind from the previous day. The fog had lifted, though the sky was still overcast. At the end of the day, our bus, decorated with newly acquired Icelandic flags, drove away, passed by an aluminum smelter on the side of the road, and headed deeper into Iceland.