Our trip finished in Reykjavik where two-thirds of Iceland’s scanty population lives. At first glance, the capital city looks like a model town designed by Disney. Cute homes brightly painted and immaculately maintained. Clean streets. Well behaved, helpful people. Charming squares and parks. I say at first glance because I did see a few street people—a “crazy” ranting at full volume, a person looking as wasted as anyone I ever see in New York, some graffiti—but such sightings were rare. At third or fourth glance, Reykjavik appeared to be a model small city.
The city has remarkable architecture, but the dominant structure is the church that sits on a hill in the center of the town. Iceland has a state Lutheran church, which was adopted centuries ago in good Christian fashion after the Catholic bishop or archbishop was slaughtered. The country, however, guarantees freedom of religion to all. (The guide told me that outside of Christmas and Easter, only maybe twenty percent of Icelanders went to church once a month.)
We often saw traditional-looking churches with picturesque steeples in the countryside that might hold seventy-five people if packed. These buildings were well maintained on the outside. In my forays, I did not find one that was unlocked, and I could only peer into the windows, but the interiors also looked in good shape. Often adjacent to the church was a small graveyard, and I would wander through them looking at the headstones, thinking about the lives and the grief of those who did the burying. We visited one church far removed from other habitations. While my traveling companions took a hike to the sea, I wandered on paths in the hummocky, mossy countryside. I stopped and listened. I could hear no human noise, even distantly, a rarity in my life, but I concentrated on the overlapping bird sounds for ten minutes, which is close as I have gotten to meditation in a long time.
The Reykjavik church—Hallgrímskirkju—was different. It’s large and cavernous, created in a modern design with a soaring bell tower seemingly held up by structures that mimic the natural basaltic columns seen throughout the countryside. The interior is unadorned with comfortable pews. The windows were clear, not stained glass, that let in lots of light.
The church has a remarkable organ, so remarkable looking that we came back for an organ concert that was part of a first-Saturday-of-every-month series. I was reminded in reading the bio of the organist, Kitty Kovács, of the many different lives there are and how hard a musician’s life can be. She was born and studied music in Hungary. She had won prizes around the world and moved to Iceland in 2006, first working as a piano teacher. Since 2011 Kovács has been an organist at a church unknown to me and as a teacher at a local music school on the Westman Islands, which sit a bit off the southern coast of Iceland. I don’t pretend to know much about organ music, but to me it was a wonderful concert that showed off the range of the instrument and the depth of her talent.
Danish is a required subject in Icelandic schools, and at least to this tourist, almost everyone also seems to speak English. But the native language is Icelandic, which is a descendant of what was brought to Iceland by Vikings more than a thousand years ago and bears a relationship with modern Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. However. for almost all its history, Iceland and its language have been essentially isolated from the rest of the world. The guide said that Icelandic is sometimes described as Old Norse, the language of Scandinavia but without a millennium of evolution.
I am not good with languages (an understatement), but on most trips I pick up some basic things—good morning, good night, thank you, you’re welcome, etc.–and decipher some words on signs and menus. Not in Iceland. I would ask how to say something and try to repeat it, but my effort only brought a little laugh and another enunciation of the phrase. I never could hear the difference. The written language seems to have some sort of mark over or through every third letter, and there are letters that seem almost recognizable—a “p” or “d” for instance—but they aren’t and don’t sound anything like what I think of as a “p” or “d”. Double consonants seem to be pronounced much differently from single ones, and so on. The guide was asked, “If you wonder why Iceland is not more important on the world stage, did you ever think your language held you back?” There was no reply
The language is maintained within Iceland’s small population, but few outside of Iceland speak it, and it will be interesting to see what happens to the language as time goes along. More and more foreigners are living in Iceland, but my guess is that many if not most of them manage by using English and don’t learn much Icelandic.
Icelandic names, however, fascinate me. They don’t have traditional family names. Last names are the father or mother’s first name with the addition of the Icelandic equivalent of son or daughter added to it. If a Robert Johnson has a son named Tom, the child’s name is Tom Robertson, and if Tom has a son named Barak, then it will be Barak Tomson, so on. The result has made Iceland seem like a friendly place because first names are used, not the last ones. If you met the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Jakob’s daughter), you would address her not as Ms. Jakobsdóttir, but as Katrín. Even the phone book is alphabetized by first names.