September 23, 2013

Iceland, 'The Way Life Should Be?'

Cheap energy, a young and hip population, universal health care, mild winters: By many measures, Iceland has Maine beat by a mile. But don't underestimate our foliage and bright blue skies.

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

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Tourists bathe in the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa and one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. The man-made lagoon is fed by the output from a nearby geothermal power plant. Superheated water is vented from nearly a mile below the surface and used to run turbines that generate electricity.

Photos by Tom Bell/Staff Writer

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"That's also why Icelanders catch immediately all new technology, all new waves in culture and fashion both from Europe and America."

On Saturday night, I had a beer with computer programmer, Orri Hafsteinsson, 29, whom I met while taking photographs downtown that night.

Like almost everyone I met here, he spoke English fluently. He painted a dark view of America as an intimidating security state that spies on other countries and its own people. I tried to shift the conversation to the most positive American images I could conjure – the natural beauty of Maine. I mentioned that the best visit time is October because of the fall foliage.

"Foliage?" he asked, "What is this word?"

"It means leaves," I replied. "Something you don't have because your country has no trees."

I pulled out my smartphone and showed him photos of my family hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine just north of Brownville Junction. His shoulders slumped.

I then clicked on photo of Main Street in Yarmouth, where I live, and his eyes lingered on the deep blue sky above the steeple of the First Parish Congregational Church.

"This is what the sky looks like when there are no clouds," I said. "It's blue."

He frowned.

Reykjavik is "mostly cloudy" 89 percent of the time, according to weather data.

"A day with a no clouds. How often does that happen here?" I asked Orri.

"In my whole life, I can remember five days," he said.

"Really? How did you feel to see a cloudless sky?"

He looked into his beer.

"It was like I was living in another country," he said.

Like Mainers, people in Iceland complain about being isolated, but they beat us on that one too. We may be isolated in the corner of the richest, most powerful country in the world – but they are stuck in the middle of the North Atlantic.

The next day, I flew home to face high energy costs, a shabby fashion scene, the world's most expensive health care system and a dysfunctional Congress ready to shut down the government.

At Logan, I was greeted by a police officer tugging on a German shepherd. The dog, which was sniffing everyone who passed him at the bottom of the escalator, let me go but lunged at a terrified young Icelander who had a sandwich in his backpack.

Welcome home, I thought to myself. Thank God the fall foliage season is just around the corner.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:



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Additional Photos

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The water in the Blue Lagoon is rich in minerals like sulfa and silica. Many people like to smear silica mud on their faces while bathing.

Tom Bell/Staff Writer


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