28 October 2008


Somewhere along the way since my last post, it became winter here, with well-below-freezing temperatures, several snowstorms last week, and the glorious chaos that is the Icelandic approach to winterizing the roads (basically it seems to be "it'll melt eventually so why worry?" resulting in some interesting skating effects on the way to work). It's a bit harder to love Iceland now compared to the golden and seemingly endless summer, but there is a certain majesty to the sprawl of Esja all covered in white, the clear blackness of these Arctic nights.

In the past weeks it's become clear that the worst of what's happening here is yet to come, the unemployment, the inflation, the wariness of Iceland on the world markets. So far it really doesn't seem like much is different in the small corner of the country that I occupy. My friends are still all working and doing most of the things they always did, the choir goes on, the shelves in the grocery stores still stocked with a few spot exceptions reported, the plans for Christmas parties and annual dinners are in progress. Life as usual.

There have been the occasional story from this person or that of being unable to find Cheerios, or green onions, or my trip to Krónan last week that yielded not a single lemon. These stories of shortages usually are followed up by walking into a competing store and being confronted with a literal wall of Cheerios, or six boxes of lemons, so it seems to me that it's more the typical shopping experience here rather than a sign that the shortages are upon us. To further test the stories on the international wires against the experience here, I asked my hair goddess N (seriously, if anyone is looking for that perfect person to cut your hair in rvk, she's the one) if she was having trouble acquiring supplies for her salon, she said that she'd been worried about running short on hair color during the holiday season when everyone's wanting to look their best, but she'd had no trouble at all. It was even a British company providing her products, and they'd been very agreeable to working with them however and whenever they could pay.

So life goes on here, admittedly more frigid outdoors than before, but it remains cozy inside as I've turned to a more domestic style of life- it's all about baking and cooking and movie nights with friends lately, which has not felt like any sort of compromise in fun at all. It's the time of year that is more about those kinds of activities naturally anyway, and when you throw in a bit of musical practice and some concerts, it's hard to argue that the quality of life is suffering.

The one thing I've thought about a lot recently is how as an Icelandic tax payer I will be paying for the failures of these banks, but then I realize that as a resident of America my taxes there were going to things I didn't personally agree with, and that people worldwide are having their taxes siphoned off to pay for their country's banks collapsing. I guess that's how it goes in any modern society- you pay for things you don't agree with, things you never will use, but you also pay for things that you get to enjoy and take advantage of every day. Somehow it all feels more immediate here since we're all so much closer to the people who're deciding things, exposed to the winds of international forces much more than I ever felt I was in America.

15 October 2008

carefully, carefully

so apparently I have to be extrasupercareful what I write here, as both the Guardian in the UK and several other sources have picked up excerpts of my entries in the past few days. This location seems to be disinclined to believe what I write, but in spite of the article going round a few days ago about Icelanders in a panic over food, I'd like to once again say that people are NOT. The shops I went to two days ago (grocery store, gardening store, wine store) were all stocked as expected, were not overcrowded, and those that were there were obviously buying dinner and not supplies for two months. Of course the availabilities will change but people in general seem to be just carrying on with the usual stuff, working on supporting each other, discussing things, and getting on with life.

One TV channel has started an ad campaign reminding people that the best things about life are free- spending time with family, little kids dancing, cheesy stuff like that. They've opened an office for people to call if they're having psychological problems- trouble sleeping and the like. So what comes next? The threatened 75% inflation that one Dane mentioned? I really don't know and I really don't want to predict. One day at a time is all I'm working on.

And to those who've come here looking for me to be apologising to the British savers or somesuch, I'd like to point out that this blog has never been political in nature- it's my personal experience of living in this foreign land where I never worked in a bank, and where I do not have the right to vote. Of course I'm feeling for all of the people tried to be sensible with their money, who didn't take out huge unreasonable loans, or expect to be paid the rumored salaries of some of these bankers, and have lost their hard-earned money. People are hurting worldwide and I don't think that the finger-pointing helps the process of everyone getting on with their lives.

11 October 2008

two sides of the story

This morning dawned perfectly October so I strapped on my rollerblades and went out along my favorite route by the sea. A bright blue windless day, it was the perfect time to enjoy the autumnal colors of landscape- the orange kelp thrown up on the beaches, the wheated grass, the mossy color of the seaweed, peppered with eider ducks. Across the bay, Esja slumbered stoically, unchanged in the chaos. The best bits of Iceland are still here. I didn't come to buy a no-money down Mercedes jeep with a loan in Euros, I didn't come so I could spend my weekends in shopping malls, and most of my friends are not that sort either. We're here, going about our daily business, having coffee, preparing for new babies, going to work, reading, talking, swimming, running. In the meantime, I've been collecting info from anywhere and everywhere about what to do now, reading everything I can, absorbing Icelandic financial terms, quizzing my dad (a voracious newspaper reader and all around clever guy).

A few say that heads will roll and are extremely depressed, predicting massive fuel shortages and a dark and gloomy time ahead, others say that there'll be some unemployment (inevitable when the such a major sector collapsed), a lot of restructuring and some discomfort but the future's bright. Time for fish, time for manufacturing, time for increasing the farming production, time for getting on with things, doing what Icelanders know how to do and get creative. Maybe the þetta reddast spirit will prevail. I think we all have to hope it does, since there really is so much to love about this place.

I had a long talk with HK, an economist friend today, and she said it was high time this happened. The foreign labor that came to work on the construction sites will go home, and no longer be sending their incomes out of the country, the economy will have to diversify, the people get creative. There's been an incredible pulling-together of people here, as the nudd-pottur in Laugardalslaug is full to bursting every day, people talking about what's happening, what should happen, what we can do. Most people I know are NOT going crazy buying as much food as they can, most are not storing their cash under their mattress. It's wait-and-see mode for now. The scale of activities at work now is such that we can only watch and keep doing our usual stuff, praying that the credit cards will still work when we go to pay the grocery bill (so far, so good).

Of course, everyone's got a story of someone who did something foolish, taking out a loan in foreign currency to buy stocks in one of the now-collapsed banks, only to then lose his job at said bank, someone else who invested their entire life-savings in a single bank, also to find themselves penniless. There's stories that the suicide rate over the weekend was alarmingly high too. But as HK pointed out, these are the things that every economist learns first off to not do- don't take out a loan in another currency than you're earning, don't put all your eggs in one basket. We may have all gotten by in the past by not being economists but maybe now it's time to start a bit more, be a bit more careful.

I would also like to point out that in spite of what it may have sounded like in my last post regarding the Iceland-for-Icelanders group, this was a small, much derided group, and not at all the general feeling of the populace. My experience with Icelanders continues to be a positive one. I've got some wonderful Icelandic friends here, and the people I work with are the sort to be truly proud to stand beside. The team spirit where I work is excellent, and after my boss spent an hour and a half yesterday explaining various economic ins and outs, the future of our company, and all the great ideas he had, I could only think, "this is worth sticking around for".

09 October 2008

october freeze

Yesterday morning was one of those beautiful magic-light and pink clouds that make me remember why I love it here. It's hard right now, since the chaos that has hit the international news is unfolding here around my ears. Just like with the earthquake a few months ago, I've been getting questions from people all over, asking me if we're bankrupt, if I'm ok, so here it is.

The thing is, for the time being, life has not changed so much in the daily activities. I am sure it will but the extent of the change is still totally unknown to us. It's pretty evident that the building boom was not sustainable as it was since there is not enough population to own and live in all of those apartments, and now that's the same problem that's going on with the banks that are simply far too large for the GDP of this country. There are just not enough people or money here. I knew it wouldn't last but didn't realize that they way it would collapse would take everyone down so severely.

A few months ago there was a big rumpus over a group called "Ísland fyrir Íslendingar" (Iceland for the Icelanders), an anti-immigration group that said Iceland should only be for the Icelanders. At the rate things are going here, they will get their wish. It started with the architects, most of whom are returning to their home countries or moving on to other places, and now others are going. The amount of savings and effort lost in the blink of an eye is phenomenal, and the blossoming exchange rate is pinching the budgets of the students to the extent that many will be unable to afford living here on their stipends if they are paying off loans in other currencies. One guy I know owns a house in his home country that he is paying off in ISK. If the exchange rate continues to spiral, he too will have to leave.

The whole thing has the effect of being in a movie- these events are so large scale and so unbelievable, the consequences so far-reaching and staggering. News all over the world has been picking up the story that the country is bankrupt, that people are panicking and stashing food and everything. I've sensed a certain schadenfreude, like "we may be dumb but at least not as dumb as those fool Icelanders." That may be true but the news I'm hearing all over the world is not really much more wonderful. Banks are collapsing everywhere, and as they do they take even more institutions down. Iceland's not alone in this and in some ways is the canary in the coal mine.

This country may be poorly located in terms of its remote location and dependencies on imports, but we do at least still have heat and electricity, fish and dairy and vegetables. Hopefully there will not be starvation and freezing this winter. If worst comes to worst (and what exactly that means remains to be seen), I will lose money, of course. Enough to hurt but nothing I can't recover. I'm lucky- I'm not on the verge of retirement and watching my savings dry up like a puddle on hot asphalt, and when I calm myself enough I remember I'm educated, healthy, I survived a move here, and I am not alone. Thanks to S and his practical positivity, thanks to my parents and their confidence, thanks to the few dollars I have squirreled away in the US, I'll get through this somehow.

So what to do? For the time being, I am still with job and home and at least one other compelling reason to stay here. My job has most of the customers abroad, paying in other currencies, and we just pulled off a not insignificant job in Norway with good success. We're moving to a brighter, nicer, more conveniently located office that I could take the bus to or even rollerblade or bike should it come to that.

I'm going to weather the storm for now, but if Iceland has now become so poisonous that nobody will trade or do business with it (based on the ratings of the country being so severely downgraded, and some people comparing the country to Zimbabwe, I can't help but wonder), I may have to update that plan. Hopefully should it come to that, I'll still have enough money to escape.