ArticleA Friendly Recluse
The adjective in the title might be misleading if applied to historical personalities: there is little, if any, evidence that any of them was particularly friendly - and, at least, some evidence to the contrary…
A legend has it that in 871 a Norwegian Ingolfur Arnarsson killed a man who was close to the current Norwegian king. Fleeing the king’s rage, Arnarsson had to sail out into the billowing sea and head for the unknown. His flight lasted for days, and then he saw an island. To decide where to land, he released two big poles and followed them until they touched a solid ground. Steam was rising all over the place, and the unwilling pioneer named the place “A Steaming Bay” (“Reykjavik”, in Old Norse). Centuries later, Arnarsson’s poles found their way onto Reykjavik’s coat of arms.
Legends are best when they are tempered by facts – and the latter is a domain of historians and archeologists rather than tale-tellers. Based on archeological evidence, it was established that, in fact, the island in the middle of the Atlantic had been pretty well known to the Nordic people by 871. They had discovered it around the beginning of the 8th century – most probably, by drifting away from the course and stumbling upon it in a storm. Judging by the fact that no settlement appeared there for almost two centuries, the first Vikings on the Icelandic soil must not have liked the land that much – barren, cold and inhospitable as it surely was. Arnarsson seems to have had no choice but his solitary voyage is just another myth. He must have been involved in a political strife in Norway, lost it, and fled with a retinue of followers, but he did by all means know where he was going. Not that his knowledge rendered his journey less adventurous.
Time often offers a different perspective, and nowadays people in Iceland prefer to recount their past with a tinge of humour. As per one tour guide, “the first Icelanders came from Norway but only the most courageous of Norwegians braved the sea and the uncertainty – and even some of those became seasick on the way and had to be left on the Faroe Islands. When the men finally reached Iceland, they immediately faced an obvious problem: there were no women among them. Norwegian women simply wouldn’t participate in such a reckless adventure – so the settlers had to find a substitute somewhere”. Here the guide would pause and ask “Are there any Brits on the bus?” If there were none, he would continue: “To find women, they decided to raid a neighbouring country and kill its men. They opted for England, and indeed brought many English ladies to Iceland. Naturally, they chose the most beautiful ones – and since then, Icelandic women are among the prettiest in the world. In the meantime, England has never recovered!” Another pause and a coda: “So now you see that our country is populated by the most courageous men and the most beautiful women. Will anybody argue with me? No, not even the Norwegians (there are always some of them on such a tour)? They are just too timid to argue!
While beauty is completely subjective, and courage isn't really known until tested, Icelandic friendliness is in plain sight, and it must be the noun of this article title that is responsible for it, first and foremost. Unlike familiarity that occasionally breeds contempt, isolation can easily result in healthy respect augmented by a grain of curiosity. By staying away from other people (after the women-kidnapping incident, that is) and minding their own business, Iceland made sure that no nation had any reason to complain about it - and many nations gradually came to regard their remote “neighbours” as natural trade partners and even potential mediators in case of a conflict. Fast-forward to the 20th century, not taking sides in the Cold War turned Iceland into a natural neutral ground for both parties to meet and try to settle their differences in a peaceful way. That resulted in two historic Russia-USA Summits - in 1972 and 1986 - the former being known as a Chess World Championship Match…