Gullfoss Waterfall in southwest Iceland

Above the fray

Eight days in Reykjavik — not on top of the world, but close

Barry Friedman
6 min readAug 4, 2017


(First appeared in The Tulsa Voice)

“Better weight than wisdom a traveller cannot carry”
— Viking proverb at Reykjavik airport

To have been there then

As protesters streamed onto the streets in their thousands — on one occasion throwing snowballs, eggs and yoghurt at the parliament — the role of special prosecutor was created to look into rumours of epic financial wrongdoing.

This was Iceland in 2008:

After Iceland’s three largest banks fell in the space of three days, the currency collapsed, the stock market fell 95 percent and nearly every business on the island was bankrupt.

The country then did something unusual.

As real wages fell 11 percent from 2007 to 2010, the government did not take a hacksaw to social services, but instead raised taxes and also offered debt relief to the country’s mortgage holders. And Iceland did what no other developed country has seemed particularly eager to do: It jailed a bunch of bankers.

They threw food, the Icelanders did, then raised taxes, increased social services, and found their better angels.

We didn’t do that in America. We blamed the victims.

Remember Rick Santelli, the man often credited with igniting the Tea Party movement on February 19, 2009? Santelli, reporting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for CNBC, called people in the process of foreclosing homes “losers” and said government would be promoting “bad behavior” by helping them. Investors and traders within earshot cheered on the floor.

Read that again: they cheered.

The operating principles of the big banks is a cesspool of greed, ethics and criminal intent and they give a very bad name to free market capitalism. During the housing bubble Wall Street was considered the heart and soul of free market capitalism, but when they were in danger of total collapse they fell on their knees as socialists, begging the government and tax payers to bail them out.

And we did.

As things improved in America, in large measure due to the stimulus package against which the captains of industry criticized (after, of course, slurping from the government teet), they became unbridled capitalists again, telling us regulations were too tough and American exceptionalism hung in the balance. Soon, they got the legislators they wanted, Donald Trump was elected president, and Dodd-Frank, designed to prevent such economic calamities, is being de-fanged.

We decided our better angels were moochers.

“Honey,” I said to Melissa last November. “Iceland jailed the bankers.”

“What did we do here?” she asked.

“We apologized for burdening them.”

“Let’s move.”

“Let’s go visit.”

“Yeah, right.”

Melissa turned 40 last December. I had the birthday boots she wanted in the cart on Amazon — nice boots, expensive boots — boots worthy of a 40th birthday present. But they weren’t Iceland.

Boots don’t get you tears in a downtown restaurant over a birthday steak.

Everyone who has been legally residing in Iceland for six months automatically becomes a member of the Icelandic social insurance system, regardless of nationality. The insurance contains health care that includes: hospitalization, maternity clinics … midwife assistance in cases of birth at home, dental and orthodontic treatment for children, people over 66 years, and pensioners; transport costs and travel costs, nursing in the patient’s home, aid apparatus, physiotherapy.

The revised Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will leave 23 million more people uninsured in 2026 than if that act, also known as Obamacare, were to remain in place.

In Iceland, they cover midwives.

We have these conversations —

“What about men having to purchase prenatal care?” Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) replied. “Is that not correct? And should they?”

Reykjavik has narrow streets, small buildings, and bike lanes. On their currency, they have large women in big hats or large bearded men in robes. There’s no tipping, tax is included, and there are small glass bottles of Coke and salmon sandwiches made on soft pretzels in shops that double as bookstores with tacky Viking tchotchkes in the windows.

You don’t — can’t — know a place when there’s a return ticket somewhere in your room, when your hotel serves croissants and bacon and fruit and, yes, yoghurt in the lobby every morning, but there’s something infectious about the calm of this place.

A waiter we met, let’s call him Arnie, bitches about politics, rents, tourists. He could be working anywhere in Tulsa.


“Do you even think about insurance?” I ask.

“No,” he says, “that I don’t worry about.”

Healthcare in America: That I don’t worry about — said no one ever.

There are no tuition fees at public universities in Iceland. However, you will have to pay a compulsory, non-refundable registration fee. In most cases, the registration fee ranges from 100 EUR to 250 EUR.

According to Make Lemonade, there are more than 44 million borrowers with $1.3 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. alone. The average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt.

The music they play during the breakfast buffet here at the Suggi Hotel in downtown Reykjavik is gorgeous and melancholy, like the musicians are all sitting by pristine waters, under the Aurora Borealis, strumming on Norse instruments and humming along with ancient spirits. The Northern Lights, as it turns out, aren’t visible in May and the days are filled with 20 hours of light and nights that never come. When you’re sitting in Iceland, across from a girl with platinum hair who’s smiling back at you, you find yourself forgetting about time, anyway, as well as Facebook and Jared Kushner and wonder, instead, about the shots of castor oil you just drank and the chocolate croissants you plan on stealing for later.

Everyone speaks English — sure, it’s an accommodation to tourists — but nobody’s Icelandic sense of self appears compromised. In America, we bitch when listening to “Para español, presione por favor el número 1.”

America is a punchline here, the fat before-photo of a loud, obnoxious relative who elbows his way to the table then spits his food. When their country’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was found to be connected with — not charged, not convicted, just tainted — the Panama Papers, he was forced to resign.

Mention Trump here and they shake their heads. Criminality it gets, craziness it fears. Europe knows from despots. You sense America has let them down.

We have.

In the elevator the morning Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France, a German woman said to her husband, “France voted for the future. America voted for the sewer.”

The incident shocked the nation, as headlines told of the death of a 59-year old man who was shot by police in December 2013. That man himself had shot at police when they entered his building. According to local sources, the man had a history of mental illness. Still, the police believe they could have done better.

“Is Terence Crutcher’s death his fault?” Kevin Gray, assistant district attorney asked during cross-examination.

“Yes,” Shelby said.

We went to the Blue Lagoon, essentially an enormous hot tub filled with a cacophony of languages and large guests you’ve seen naked in the mandatory pre-shower. It was about $100 per person for this shvitzthat formed at the base of a geothermal power plant. As the smell of sulphur lingered in the car and rain started to fall on the way back to Reykjavik, I thought, “Geothermal. Not fracking, not coal.”

In Iceland, they feed the hungry:

Everyone is welcome, and the cafeteria is visited by anyone looking for a free meal, a place to sit and read the paper or a place to meet with friends.

In America, we play word games:

“Let me ask you this bluntly: Is every American entitled to eat?” Scott Simon asked.

“Well, nutrition obviously we know is very important and I would hope that we can look to — ” [Adrian]Smith began.

“Well, not just important, it’s essential for life,” Simon interjected.

Smith conceded that nutrition is essential to life.

“I think we know that given the necessity of nutrition, there could be a number of ways that we could address that,” Smith answered.

Months before we got here, I wrote the editor of an Icelandic alt-weekly about the place, the voices, the job prospects.

“I read,” he replied, “and watch ‘The Daily Show’ and its descendants to get my dose of U.S. politics. There isn’t really an Icelandic ‘viewpoint.’ We’re a wildly different country, running on really inverse principles to what guides U.S. politics, and a sensibility and culture that fosters political decisions that would never fly in the U.S. We don’t have any kind of army, we don’t have any qualms with socialist institutions like public schools and public health-care, and social/progressive issues like abortion and homosexuality are never election issues … We trust our readers to compare and contrast by themselves.”

And throw yoghurtIce