What happens when Iceland, an island nation with 330,000 residents, starts welcoming 1.2 million tourists a year? Feargus O’Sullivan, of our sister site CityLab, explains:
This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself.
You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness.
An Atlantic reader feels the irony:
When I first went to Iceland in the ‘60s it was not unusual to find attractions like Gullfoss to be virtually free of visitors. In contrast, on my most recent visit, lines of people shuffled past key spots with just enough time to get their selfie. Now I am sorry that I kept telling everyone just how great Iceland is.
William Edward Mead, writing about Iceland’s literary culture, was shocked at the barrenness of the landscape, finding it distinctly “unfavorable … to literary fertility” and other scholarly pursuits. “The country is little better than a desert,” he wrote. “People with so little to make life attractive might be pardoned if they were to sink into a stolid indifference to everything but the struggle to keep alive.” Yet the beauty of such harsh, isolated country is also evident in his description:
The only inhabitable portion is a narrow strip of pasture land extending like a green girdle round the coast and up the deep, narrow fiords. The interior of the country is a howling waste of sand and ice, traversed by darting glacier rivers, and utterly incapable of supporting more than a few scattered inhabitants. […]
The farmhouse where I spent more than a fortnight [is] distant a day’s ride on horseback from Reykjavik. Behind the house rises a naked, precipitous ridge of basalt, a quarter of a mile high, sweeping in a magnificent unbroken curve from the bold headland that juts into the sea to the upper waters of the Laxá. Before the house stretches the long, narrow fiord, swarming with sea-birds that circle endlessly about the double cascade foaming down from the river into the sea.
It’s a place that takes its romance from its solitude—and Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who visited Iceland in 1936, captured that lonely beauty in his poem “Journey to Iceland.” Iceland, to Auden, with its “sterile immature mountains” and “abnormal day,” is a place for travelers who want to reject the world—a kind of alternate reality, whose purity rubs off on people.
For Europe is absent: this is an island and therefore
Unreal. And the steadfast affections of its dead may be bought
By those whose dreams accuse them of being
Spitefully alive, and the pale
From too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.
Auden later revised that stanza to read “this is an island and therefore / A refuge”—a small change, but a telling one. After all the only truly solitary journeys are imaginary ones; the mind is the most isolated country of all; and the best place to get away from people, tourists or otherwise, may be the refuge of your own thoughts. As Auden closed his poem:
Again the writer
Runs howling to his art.
You can read the full text of “Journey to Iceland” (or listen to Auden reading it) here, and you can see some of its sights for yourself:
A reader, Dave, responds to Rosa’s note with some fond reflections on Iceland:
It is hard to capture just how big and beautiful it all is. We hiked, drove, and mountain biked (with an emphasis on mountains), around Iceland. We saw fields of basalt with sharp-edged mountain ridges that seemed to be made of a single solid rock, covered in moss. We saw tens of thousands of acres with a single tiny road in, one out, and no other sign of humanity: no telephone poles, lines, pavement, agriculture, litter. We came upon waterfalls that would be the wonder of any Colorado resort town but are unnamed, flowing over unnamed ridges into unnamed basins.
Coincidentally one of my friends is currently in Iceland and just posted several photos and videos of waterfalls, including this one:
Then there is the water. It is a force of nature, wonder, energy, and culture in Iceland. It rains, then pours down into rivers, makes up the glaciers, and is heated by ingenious people, then piped by above ground aqueducts into the towns, where it heats lovely, neat homes. And it heats public pools that make your college gym look like a swamp puddle. These heated pools and saunas were worth the trip entirely.
And the water tastes like water; in many places you can drink it from the basin of that waterfall. When we came home, our filtered water tasted of metal and chemicals.
Then there are the miscellaneous: A jewel of a city, Reykjavik, where you can eat fish, horse, shark, and whale. Or have great Pakistani, decent Ramen, and awesome bread, and go to bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, stores of all kids. It’s the smallest biggest city outside Reno, full of Brits, French, Germans, Japanese, and Americans. And the natives: fun and lighthearted, but intellectually curious and fearless. Seemingly they are all industrious, beautiful, individualist and possessing what I'd call an American spirit.
For these and other reasons, if you ever get the chance to go: go.
Another reader who went is Rebecca Zicarelli, and her dispatch and photos will make you want to follow in her wake:
We just got back from Iceland. It’s a beautiful place.
Iceland is the newest landscape; it’s where the North American and Eurasian continental plates recycle back to the raw stuff at the heart of our planet. It’s also the oldest modern culture (if the rule of law is your metric of modernity), based on an agreement in the year 930 that just happened to be signed where the walls of this continental-plate collision rear out of the ground.
This photo is in Þingvellir, a national park where that government of rule-of-law was formed, looking down through the wall of the North-Atlantic plate the to the crack between continents and the plain where modern culture was born:
It’s a landscape of rocks thinly covered by moss, lichen, and small shrubs and trees. Besides the lifting of continental plates into mountains, the dominate feature is the seabed floor and volcanic rock eroding back into the ocean. The delicate landscape won’t survive too many footsteps.
Antiquities won’t survive, either. At dinner one night, a man who makes his living as an Iceland-adventure guide entertained his clients at the next table, and he spoke of this and the Icelandic distaste of saying, “No, don’t do this.” It’s a national ethic of being good stewards of the land, and one I loved. It was certainly lacking in the sign pollution that litters our national treasures proclaiming drug-free zones and don’t litter and don’t park and no dogs allowed and gun-free zone and on and on …
Laugarvatnshellar, a protected cave dug into the sand-stone/basalt layers in the south, is on the road between Þingvellir and Laugarvaten, and a likely stop on a Golden Circle tour. While Laugarvatnshellar was mostly used as a shelter for sheep and their shepherd (the cave has two rooms), families have made it a home as recently as the 1940s. Being here unsettles the soul; it’s easy to imagine being here alone through the dark winter or isolated here in the brief summer. There appear to be centuries of carvings inside the cave, and the urge to leave your mark on the wall is powerful.
But tourists aren’t such good house guests; they don’t have the Icelandic stewardship ethic, and easily give in to temptation to leave a mark. The tender moss is often trampled. At Laugarvatnshellar, centuries of carved runes and the slow-growing lichen that covers the walls are being scrapped off and replace with English-alphabet letters, cute hearts, and smiley faces:
There’s also a wool shortage now, created by the high demands of knitting tourism. I admit to participating; I was drawn there because of the wool industry, and I brought back a suitcase full of wool.
Keldur, the Viking heart of Iceland that lies in the plain south of Mt. Hekla, the volcano that shut European airports down in 2010, you’ll find the oldest buildings. Equally obvious, if you stop at the forest nursery before Keldur, is the massive effort to repopulate the landscape with trees and and hold back the eroding basalt with stone walls, you can read the fascinating story here; a Google Books chapter called “Tackling the Ubiquitous Wind.”
There are still lambs here, jumping over the stone walls used to hold back the desert of eroding sandstone and crumbling basalt. But the wind and the water are winning, and I question how Iceland can hold both her plants and the weight of our footsteps without instilling a better sense stewardship her visitors.
My last image is a new lamb, just a few days old, and its mother in front of one of the newer buildings in ancient Keldur—the church (part of that 930 agreement made Iceland a Christian nation, and the churches of each village are supported by the government).
Rebecca has more photos on her Tumblr. If you have your own anecdote from Iceland to share, please let us know (especially if you have a good photo from an airplane). Update from another reader, Matt, with fond memories of proposing marriage in that magical land:
I don’t have any pictures to share, as my (now) wife and I were in Iceland in September of 2000 before the advent of digital photography. She is involved in genetics and was in Reykjavik for work, where I met her for a few days.
I was immediately struck by the drastic changes in landscape in Iceland. You land at Keflavik, in the middle of a wasteland of volcanic rock, and a golf course is the only oasis of green you’ll see between the airport and Reykjavik. But when you arrive in Reykjavik you get the quintessentially neat, multi-colored homes of Iceland. Travel just a bit further to the east and you’re treated to the greenest pastoral hills and valleys you can imagine, many with sheep and Icelandic ponies scampering over them to add to the Shire-esque feel.
Our first full day together we went to the Blue Lagoon, where I proposed and she accepted. Our second day we hiked up the Reykjadalur trail north of Hveragerdi, where we passed bubbling pools of gray mud along a steaming river. At the northern end we heard the sound of a freight train passing, only to finally round a bend and see that it was a column of steam issuing from the side of hill.
Seriously, it’s like wandering from one dreamscape to the next, all shepherded by the nicest, handsomest people on the planet.
We’ve spent some time in this space praising Iceland and its precious natural wonders. But it isn’t all fun and Northern lights up there: A reader named Ellen Girardeau Kempler sends over a hilarious satirical essay she wrote poking fun at the country’s tourism boom. Kempler spent some time in Iceland for a writer’s retreat, prompting her to provide “my reaction to the relentless marketing machine behind the branding of Iceland as a tourist destination.”
Author’s Disclaimer: Brand Iceland is a tame and tourist-friendly destination created purely for marketing purposes. Any resemblance to the actual country of Iceland—home to a UNESCO City of Literature; a parliamentary system over 1,000 years old; a written history (as told in the Icelandic sagas) marked by battles with the elements and each other; and some of the planet’s wildest and most dangerous landscapes (including scalding geysers, pools and rivers; deadly rip currents; active volcanoes; yawning crevasses; unstable glaciers; moving tectonic plates; sheer, windswept cliffs; slippery mountain trails; volatile weather; and violent waterfalls)—is purely coincidental.
The advertising onslaught begins as soon as you board an Icelandair jet and plug your own headset into the entertainment console (conveniently available for purchase, in case you forgot). Before every movie, television show or musical selection begins, you’ll learn about souvenirs and tours you MUST buy. To promote the airline’s winning strategy of letting visitors stay in Iceland for up to seven days on their way to other destinations, you’ll be asked to follow them and tag your photos #MyStopover for a chance to be featured in the in-flight magazine.
Landing at Keflavik, you’ll spot familiar faces staring seductively from walls and shop windows, like the breathless, pale siren who whispers in the video ads, “Gee-SSSyr” (geysir—both the Icelandic word for geyser and the name of a clothing company). You’ll see highly enhanced, billboard-sized images of the moss-covered lava fields, blue-white glaciers, steaming geysers and soaking pools, rainbow-draped waterfalls, black sand beaches, bird-inhabited cliffs, glistening ice lagoons, shaggy horses, comical puffins, turf-covered houses, elfin-sized doors, shimmering Auroras and glowing (but never threatening) volcanoes you probably already recognize from such movies and television shows as Game of Thrones, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and many more.
Welcome to Brand Iceland, the destination marketing invention that powered a sparsely populated, mostly rural, rocky, windswept, northerly and geologically unstable island out of a paralyzing 2008 economic crisis. With a total population about the size of Cincinnati, Ohio, occupying an area about the size of the state of Kentucky, the island should have room for a high-powered tourist economy.
According to an April 2016 Businesswire report, tourism in Iceland has increased steadily over the last six years, and rose by 30 percent, to almost 1.3-million visitors, in 2015 alone. Visitation is projected to reach 1.7-million, or five times its resident population, in 2016. Tourism now nets more revenue for Iceland than fishing, its leading industry since Viking settlement over 1,000 years ago.
At about $1,000 Icelandic krona to every $8 U.S. dollars, bills add up fast. It’s not unusual to spend $50 for two beers and an appetizer during half-off happy hour pricing. In Brand Iceland’s capital city, my husband almost dropped his phone calculating the cost of a down jacket (cunningly crafted in the flattering, ultra-thin Icelandic style). It was $325.
If you opt to visit the tourist-mobbed Blue Lagoon resort, you’ll wait in line to pay about $40 for the standard, towel-free package, then receive an electronic wristband that opens and closes your locker and keeps track of extra-expensive charges throughout your visit (drinks, smoothies, food, massages). Even the wild, unpopulated and remote southern tip of the country is filled with shops hawking sweaters in traditional patterns, artfully loomed blankets, stylish bohemian knitwear and cosmetics made by a spa with a mysterious blend identified only as “Icelandic herbs.”
Over our ten-day stay for the Iceland Writer’s Retreat, we debated about what to bring back for dog sitters and family. We finally settled on bags and bars of licorice and chocolate, local porter (only available in six-packs), Brenivin (cumin-flavored Aquavit), a Viking-themed stainless steel cake cutter (made in China), lava earrings and photo books.
As we waited for our plane home, a young woman stood snapping price tags in the duty-free. “Now my sister will understand why I didn’t buy her anything,” she said. “She might even be proud of me for resisting.”
In case you don’t give in to touristic temptation as you tour the “Land of Fire and Ice,” most of the wildly expensive items you’ve seen along the way can be purchased online and delivered to your seat during your flight home. As is routine in this almost cashless society, an Icelandair flight attendant/salesperson will happily charge them to your credit card, along with the meal you are obliged to purchase en route. You won’t even think about the price for three weeks, until your shock-of-a-bill arrives.
When I spent two nights in Iceland last year on a unplanned layover, I could not believe the prices. Because it was such a short visit, I’d failed to do much research ahead of time, instead letting the exchange rate catch me off guard. At one point, I grabbed a bite at what seemed to be a middle-of-the-road restaurant in downtown Reykjavik, only to later find out the lunch entrée cost twice as much as I anticipated—$35. Ouch.
I’m glad I got the brief chance to see Iceland, despite the high prices. The country’s scenery is every bit as alien and incredible as the hype makes it out to be. Just beware, young travelers. I quickly filed Iceland on my list of “places to visit again when I am older and have more discretionary income.”
Have a similar experience? Say hello. This reader did: “Apparently you can take Iceland Air to London with a 48 hour Icelandic pass, enough time to see some cool stuff and drink moss schnapps.” Here’s something cool he did, hopefully not with moss schnapps:
When Michaeleen Doucleff met parents from around the world, she encountered millennia-old methods of raising good kids that made American parenting seem bizarre and ineffective.
At one point in her new book, the NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff suggests that parents consider throwing out most of the toys they’ve bought for their kids. It’s an extreme piece of advice, but the way Doucleff frames it, it seems entirely sensible: “Kids spent two hundred thousand years without these items,” she writes.
Doucleff arrives at this conclusion while traveling, with her then-3-year-old daughter, to meet and learn from parents in a Maya village on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; in an Inuit town in a northern Canadian territory; and in a community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. During her outings, she witnesses well-adjusted, drama-free kids share generously with their siblings and do chores without being asked.
Adored guru and reviled provocateur, he dropped out of sight. Now the irresistible ordeal of modern cultural celebrity has brought him back.
This article was published online on March 2, 2021.
One day in early 2020, Jordan B. Peterson rose from the dead. The Canadian academic, then 57, had been placed in a nine-day coma by doctors in a Russian clinic, after becoming addicted to benzodiazepines, a class of drug that includes Xanax and Valium. The coma kept him unconscious as his body went through the terrible effects of withdrawal; he awoke strapped to the bed, having tried to rip out the catheters in his arms and leave the intensive-care unit.
When the story of his detox became public, in February 2020, it provided an answer to a mystery: Whatever happened to Jordan Peterson? In the three years before he disappeared from view in the summer of 2019, this formerly obscure psychology professor’s name had been a constant presence in op-ed columns, internet forums, and culture-war arguments. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in 2018, sold millions of copies, and he had conducted a 160-city speaking tour, drawing crowds of up to 3,000 a night; premium tickets included the chance to be photographed with him. For $90, his website offered an online course to better understand your “unique personality.” An “official merchandise store” sold Peterson paraphernalia: mugs, stickers, posters, phone cases, tote bags. He had created an entirely new model of the public intellectual, halfway between Marcus Aurelius and Martha Stewart.
A new study of the city’s program that sent cash to struggling individuals finds dramatic changes.
Two years ago, the city of Stockton, California, did something remarkable: It brought back welfare.
Using donated funds, the industrial city on the edge of the Bay Area tech economy launched a small demonstration program, sending payments of $500 a month to 125 randomly selected individuals living in neighborhoods with average incomes lower than the city median of $46,000 a year. The recipients were allowed to spend the money however they saw fit, and they were not obligated to complete any drug tests, interviews, means or asset tests, or work requirements. They just got the money, no strings attached.
These kinds of cash transfers are a common, highly effective method of poverty alleviation used all over the world, in low-income and high-income countries, in rural areas and cities, and particularly for households with children. But not in the United States. The U.S. spends less of its GDP on what are known as “family benefits” than any other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, save Turkey. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program spends less than one-fifth of its budget on direct cash aid, and its funding has been stuck at the same dollar amount since 1996—when the Clinton administration teamed up with congressional Republicans to turn it into a compulsory-work program. Those changes sliced into the safety net, allowing millions of people to fall through.
Why was the New York governor’s reckoning so long in coming?
Updated at 12:00 p.m. ET on March 3, 2021.
Cable-news shows treated Andrew Cuomo like a living legend this summer, thanks to his supposedly superlative handling of the coronavirus pandemic, yet his past few weeks really have been the stuff of myth.
But which myth? Is he Icarus, flying too close to the sun in his premature attempt to claim credit for New York’s public-health prowess, only to have his wings melted by the heat of scandal? Is he Oedipus, brought low by his determination to eclipse his father? Or is he simply Zeus, a powerful man prone to wrathful outbursts and sexual misconduct?
The New York governor finds himself in a perilous position right now, though it is not yet clear how perilous. Cuomo’s COVID-19 approach no longer looks quite so good. Compared with other states, New York hasn’t obviously outperformed, and if not all of that is precisely Cuomo’s fault, it does make his decision to publish a book claiming credit back in October seem unwise. Worse are revelations about the number of deaths in New York nursing homes, especially after a top aide privately acknowledged that the administration had covered up the toll.
When the polio vaccine was declared safe and effective, the news was met with jubilant celebration. Church bells rang across the nation, and factories blew their whistles. “Polio routed!” newspaper headlines exclaimed. “An historic victory,” “monumental,” “sensational,” newscasters declared. People erupted with joy across the United States. Some danced in the streets; others wept. Kids were sent home from school to celebrate.
One might have expected the initial approval of the coronavirus vaccines to spark similar jubilation—especially after a brutal pandemic year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism.
If the party doesn’t pass new protections, it could lose the House, Senate, and White House within the next four years.
The most explosive battle in decades over access to the voting booth will reach a new crescendo this week, as Republican-controlled states advance an array of measures to restrict the ballot, and the U.S. House of Representatives votes on the federal legislation that represents Democrats’ best chance to stop them.
It’s no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary. To many civil-rights advocates and democracy scholars I’ve spoken with, this new wave of state-level bills constitutes the greatest assault on Americans’ right to vote since the Jim Crow era’s barriers to the ballot.
The GOP has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
We are living in a time of bad metaphors. Everything is fascism, or socialism; Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Republicans, especially, want their followers to believe that America is on the verge of a dramatic time, a moment of great conflict such as 1968—or perhaps, even worse, 1860. (The drama is the point, of course. No one ever says, “We’re living through 1955.”)
Ironically, the GOP is indeed replicating another political party in another time, but not as the heroes they imagine themselves to be. The Republican Party has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
I can already hear the howls about invidious comparisons. I do not mean that modern American Republicans are communists. Rather, I mean that the Republicans have entered their own kind of end-stage Bolshevism, as members of a party that is now exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.
Focus on prioritization and process, not the assignment itself.
So much of the homework advice parents are given is theory-based, and therefore not entirely helpful in the chaos of day-to-day life. People are told that students should have “grit.” They should “learn from failure.” But it’s hard to know how to implement these ideas when what you really need is to support a kid who has a chemistry test and two papers due in the next 48 hours but seems to be focused only on Instagram.
Some parents manage to guide their kids through these moments with relative ease. Others hire tutors. The large majority of us, however, are stuck at home alone, trying to stave off our own breakdowns in the face of our children’s.
While reprimanding your child for not having started her homework earlier may be your natural instinct, in the midst of stress, it will only make her shut down or lash out. In our experience as teachers, tutors, and parents, the students who feel terrible about procrastinating are more likely to have anxiety and negative feelings that will only fuel their continued procrastination. So instead of admonishing your procrastinator, take a deep breath and try to figure out how she’s going to manage the tasks at hand. Help her make a realistic plan to manage her time. Try to model understanding, even when you’re upset.
Colonizing the red planet is a ridiculous way to help humanity.
There’s no place like home—unless you’re Elon Musk. A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship, which may someday send humans to Mars, is, according to Musk, likely to launch soon, possibly within the coming days. But what motivates Musk? Why bother with Mars? A video clip from an interview Musk gave in 2019 seems to sum up Musk’s vision—and everything that’s wrong with it.
In the video, Musk is seen reading a passage from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot. The book, published in 1994, was Sagan’s response to the famous image of Earth as a tiny speck of light floating in a sunbeam—a shot he’d begged NASA to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft take in 1990 as it sailed into space, 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Sagan believed that if we had a photo of ourselves from this distance, it would forever alter our perspective of our place in the cosmos.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Slumdog Millionaire. Parasite. And now, Minari. For years, Asian performers have been overlooked for awards, even when they star in critically acclaimed films.
Only when he began editing Minari did the writer-director Lee Isaac Chung see exactly how much his cast had done for the story. The film, about a Korean American family starting a farm in 1980s Arkansas, was inspired by his childhood, but Chung told his actors he didn’t want them imitating anyone he knew. So instead, they brought their own interpretations to the characters and made Chung’s tale theirs, too. “It’s easy when you have these actors, and every take is good,” he told me over Zoom last month, chuckling. “You have nothing bad to work with.”
Yes, Chung is overflowing with praise for his cast, whom he thanked in his acceptance speech after Minari won a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film on Sunday. But he’s concerned that one actor isn’t seeing enough appreciation: Yeri Han, who plays Monica, the anxious wife of Steven Yeun’s idealistic Jacob. “In the editing room, she was the one who we were always centering our emotional story around,” Chung said of Han. “It’s her face, it’s her looks, and the way she picks at a bedspread because she’s upset. These little, subtle things that we knew: ‘This is making the film what it is.’” He paused. “And unfortunately, it’s invisible.”