As a child, much of what I knew of Iceland was what I had gleaned off of D2: The Mighty Ducks. Consequently, what I knew of Iceland boiled down to two things: 1) Iceland is covered with green, as opposed to Greenland, which is covered with ice, and, 2) their Junior Goodwill Games hockey team is full of pricks. These days, admittedly, my small store of knowledge has not grown much. From what the Internet tells me, it’s really far away, really small, and it isn’t in the news a lot. Its people seemed to have traded in the bloodlust of their viking heritage for the peaceful joys of listening to Björk and Sigur Rós while shearing sheep. They climb mountains and ride bikes and knit. They use way too many consonants and way too few vowels. They eat fish and seem really, really nice.
In defense of my ignorance, though, Iceland seems to be doing its best to not only refrain from dispelling those sweeping generalizations, but embrace them as well. Through Icelandwantstobeyourfriend.com, an initiative of the Icelandic Tourist Board, and its affiliate Twitter, Facebook, etc. sites, the country–referring to itself in the first person, always–comes across as almost sickeningly sweet. There’s a sense of an affected quaintness in its deliberately fractured, bumbling English. It invites you to come over in your clever human flying machines (if you’re not doing anything else, of course, as Iceland will be the first to tell you that it isn’t very important) and walk all over it (it does not profess to know why we enjoy doing this, only that we seem to) and look at its sheep and horses, or to check out its music and moving pictures elsewhere on the Inter-nets. But if you’re too busy right now, well that’s all right as well, as it will remind you that it is an island, and islands don’t tend to go anywhere. Then, with a “Bless, bless,” Iceland apologizes for wasting your time.
And the funny thing is, this works. Despite an excessively cynical post-human world where haters will gleefully hate and everything–regardless of how earnest and unironic–is regarded as pretentious and disingenuous, Iceland’s self-deprecating, solicitous mien is somehow so damned disarming that you’re almost angry when it posts yet another instructional video on how to make plokkfiskur: Enough, Iceland! I already fell in love with you! Stop being so cute!
On a cultural level, this works because it taps into the zeitgeist by openly defying it. Despite its open facetiousness and outward impression as a mecca for ennui-stricken hipster youth toting handmade toques, Polaroid cameras and existential angst who want nothing more than to get away from mainstream society, Iceland’s sense of agelessness, its security in its identity and history, runs counter to the mercurial, minute-by-minute diaspora of media-managed lifestyle trends and popular culture. Its appreciation and celebration of the simple, bucolic pleasures in life are an antidote to the preternatural weariness afflicting the fashionably jaded and the desperate hedonism of the aggressively modern. In many ways its pastoral charm acts as the antithesis to everything we simultaneously loathe and depend upon in our wired little world.
Of course, Iceland’s perceived humility and honest self-appraisal compels on the larger, global level as well. It is not a powerful nation, so it finds itself free of the fear that afflicts powerful nations, free of that self-fulfilling prophecy of paranoia–the desire to accrue even more power to guard it from that fear. How rare is it to see a country so uninterested in a dominant position on the world stage? How wonderful to see this playful, irreverent bearing as opposed to the joyless, plutarchic swagger of the military and financial superpowers; a country whose self-assurance stems not from the size of its guns or cities or GDP but from simply being aware that it is a nice place in which to be. And while the same can be said for nearly any small country with a tourist-driven economy, the difference here is that Iceland … well, Iceland wants to be your friend.