Last week, I was on vacation. Yes, vacation. I’m going to take them. My top priority is (and will continue to be) my kids, and they don’t see enough of their goofy dad. It was wonderful being able to spend several days with them straight, no phone calls, no social media, no nothing. And I mean nothing. For most of it, we were in Iceland on the side of a volcano—practically one of the last places on earth where you still can’t get a signal. But let me tell you, it was great!
In defense of vacations
One of the many things I’m thankful to my mother for is making sure (no matter the circumstances) we took a family vacation every year. These were not lavish excursions: a cooler full of peanut butter and jelly, and seven kids in an old Suburban. But it was more than just goofing off by the motel pool and collecting change for the pop machine. She wanted us to come home a little smarter, a little better, with a broader understanding of the world and our place in it. And we always visited interesting places that helped us do that like Rushmore, Gettysburg, Seneca Falls, and the Lincoln Memorial.
So why did I choose Iceland for our summer vacation this year? You might be thinking, there he goes again, fancy pants McMurray jet-setting—what a jerk! Well, I’m not a cruise ship, theme park type. Long, excessively plush vacations make me stir crazy and my mind fuzzy. And I think my mom’s history themed trips programmed me to use my time off for self-improvement as much as relaxation. I've always been fascinated by the Icelandic Sagas, especially the stories of Leif Erikson and his journeys to North America. And I noticed you can purchase a ticket pretty darn cheap (as cheap (or cheaper) than a round trip ticket to Florida) out of Toronto—remarkably short flight too. So off we went to "the land of the midnight sun where the hot springs flow and the cold wind blows."
After all, could there be a more fitting place for the Supervisor of the Island of Vikings to visit than another Island of Vikings?
Going to Iceland is like seeing the dawn of time
I’m afraid that I may be currently suffering from the malady of exaggerated tourist enlightenment. Traveling to Iceland (even on my brief trip) really did change the way I look at the world. I hope my wife and kids will recall the experience as fondly as I will, because Iceland—even in summer—is quite a demanding place. I dragged them over and through a 1,000 miles of black sand beaches with crashing white waves, mountain snow showers full of blue lightning bolts, and steaming cracks in the earth fulminating hellfire.
I don’t want my colorful words in the last sentence to give you an impression that Iceland is inhospitable. It's rugged, but open and magnificent. I'm afraid that no matter what words I choose to describe I will still come up short of describing the landscapes we saw. I’ve been lucky enough to visit dozens of countries and most of the 50 states. And I have even had the incredible experience of living, totally immersed in other societies. But oddly enough, these experiences have made me, to a large extent, bored by travel. Having wandered so far, it takes a lot to get me excited about wandering any further. But seeing Iceland literally took my breath away.
Who knew such things existed! And just a few hours away! But it’s not all sky blue pools of volcanic water and glaciers. Maybe most beautiful of all are the Icelandic communities of simple, colorful, Scandinavian homes clustered together (so beautiful in their efficiency), full of warm people with stories of yule lads and sea monsters to share. Think Tolkien meets IKEA. It’s a very interesting place.
Not just natural beauty—fish plants
A few days later, I was standing with a hair net on, in a protective jacket, on the floor of a massive fish processing plant. I know, this setting is a dramatic transition from the glorious Icelandic landscape I described above. But I unexpectedly hit it off with the owner of the plant, and after a few laughs, voila! There I was, standing among loads of dead fish listening to the proud owner show me her operations. Even more than being on the side of a Volcano, it was definitely a “Where am I? And how did I get here?” moment.
But the place was clean! And it was incredibly well maintained by a small army of cheerful staff. A clever man once said that, “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” Maybe I’m romanticizing the plant. I'm sure it's hard work. And I know we have plants full of just as genuine and hard-working people all around us. But I can also say confidently that you’d struggle to find any group of people as joyful and engaging while pushing along piles of fish sludge down an assembly line. “Man!” I thought, “Even this place is great.”
Why is everything so good?
I asked the owner, “Why is everything so, well um, good?” It was an awkward question, but the owner smiled knowingly—sensing my intent. You see there are only about 300 hundred thousand or so people living in the whole country of Iceland. The second largest city is smaller than Grand Island. And despite its beauty, it sits by dangerous volcanos and for much of the year endures cold, snow, and ice—the type of cold, snow, and ice that makes Buffalo seem downright temperate. I kept thinking, “Whoever really did first settle this place must have been pretty darn fearless.”
Yet, in Iceland today almost everyone is bilingual or even trilingual. And every home I visited was so clean and well maintained. Small towns, with not more than a few thousand people, are full of community centers, skateboard parks, and life. And here's the other thing— it's full of visitors. It seemed half the people you met were from somewhere else, all there to kayak, hike, and bike. Yes, I’m sure Iceland has its social ills, but you could not walk away (even after a brief review) without being deeply impressed, and rapt with more than just a beautiful landscape.
Over the course of our conversation with the owner of the plant—over fish guts—she explained to me how the economy used to be heavily dependent on the presence of the U.S. Army base. She explained that after recent economic trials (and the closing of the army base), fishing (her business) remains important. But she explained that Iceland’s future and current promise lies in geothermal (clean) energy and tourism. “We welcome the world,” she said.
I told her about some of my challenges as Supervisor. I also told her that I was trying to bring some of the same fresh ideas I had seen in Iceland to Grand Island. She said that their own much smaller town had a “young” mayor too (I’m not that young, but I’ll take it). “When he first started talking like you do, some people wanted to string him up,” she exclaimed. “It’s the same story on Grand Island!” I explained. Her daughter (who, incredibly enough, is the (tough as nails) former Ms. Iceland who now runs the plant kitchen) looked at me through her own hair net and said, “Keep pushing!”
I am not saying Iceland is a model society. But when it snows this winter in Buffalo, and the latest furor is brewing at town hall, I’ll check the weather in Iceland, see that it’s much colder, and remember those hearty, creative people among the glaciers and fog—working, smiling, and welcoming the world. I will also think of those mighty black, mountains, full of lava and smoke, slowly, but ceaselessly, pushing and changing that beautiful country. And I will remind myself to keep pushing too.
With warmest regards,