A rock theme seems to be emerging here. I guess geology is a little hard to ignore here in Iceland. I’m trying to break up the tourist resume posts with a little bit of reflection, and today I’m thinking about crowded little rocks. I’ve always had a fascination with isolated island nations, and have over the years been infatuated with Japan (before it was popular), Sri Lanka and now, Iceland. These places have developed almost in a vacuum, and external influences often become disproportionately significant and transformed beyond recognition in a way that is fascinating to me.
I think it’s a little easier to pinpoint inherent cultural traits in these places. Take for example, Japan and Iceland, which are remarkably similar (I see you raising your eyebrows – bear with me a minute). Both are small countries with challenging climates and unique geography that limits development to the coasts. As a result both countries feature dense urban developments separated by vast areas of sparsely inhabitated countryside. Both were further isolated for centuries (roughly the same ones) by artificial restrictions on trade and travel. Both nations approach ethnic purity, and speak languages that are useless in the outside world. Both have evolved from a medieval warrior society that nevertheless prized literature.
But could there be two more different cultures? Where Japan developed rigid and restrictive codes of behavior and elaborate class systems, Iceland consciously worked to develop an egalitarian democracy. In the interest of smooth social relations, Japanese prize politeness over authenticity with all but their closest friends. Icelanders will happily criticize their friends to strangers – after all, their opinions are already known and are taken with a grain of salt, being, after all, only opinions.
Appearances are so important in Japan. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” they say, and whatever rough edges or eccentricities you have, you keep them to yourselves and maintain a smooth surface to make things easier for everyone else. After all, the Japanese are all stuck on a crowded rock in the middle of the ocean, and they have to get along with each other to get along at all.
In Iceland, high school teachers wear Decapitated T-shirts to school and airline managers grow their hair long – or not. The metalhead manager may supervise a clean-cut folk musician, or report to a novelist. Everyone is just who they are. Everyone has rough edges, so everyone gets used to texture. After all, the Icelanders are all stuck on a crowded rock in the middle of the ocean, and they have to get along with each other to get along at all.