Standing behind the reception desk of a hotel in south west Iceland, the clerk was being as polite as his utter bewilderment and exasperation would allow.
He was wearing the expression of someone who has just suspected he is the victim of a prank. His haunted eyes scarcely blinked as they flitted around the room, apparently in search of hidden cameras. It could only be a matter of moments before someone with a smile and a microphone burst through a nearby door.
The source of his chagrin, a hotel guest whose accent was cringingly familiar, stood in front of him. Although she had her back to me, her movements betrayed an increasing agitation.
As I moved closer, I realized what they were talking about.
I couldn’t miss this. Ensuring that I remained within earshot as the conversation continued, I found the hotel restaurant’s dinner menu nearby and began to study it with the concentration of a chess master.
“Yes, but it is cloudy tonight, Madam”
“But I wanna see ‘em”
“I understand that, Madam, but there really is nothing I can do about that today.”
“But I really wanna see ’em. That’s what I came ‘ere for innit”
Retaining his composure, he took a deep breath and, summoning what little strength he had left, replied, “I will, of course, let you know if the weather changes and the prospects for seeing the northern lights improve later tonight.”
At that moment he caught my eye. I can only hope the raised eyebrows of my “is-this-conversation-really-happening?” expression conveyed my genuine sympathy for his plight.
In that one glance, we both seemed to know that what he should have said – and was probably desperate to say – was …
“Oh, I see! Why didn’t you say so to start with? Well, if you really want to see them, let me just flick this switch under my desk. This simple action will remove the heavy blanket of clouds and simultaneously create the perfect atmospheric conditions to allow you to wander outside and bask in the wonder that is the aurora borealis.”
Of course, had he said that, the hotel guest – hearing neither sarcasm nor mockery – would probably have said, “Aw-right. Cheers. Fanks a lot.”
The moment passed.
Later, as I reflected on the incident, my initial amusement disappeared. Then I was sad. Then I despaired for the human condition.
Are some people really that oblivious to the world around them? Is there a pervasive, overriding expectation that we’re entitled to something just because we’ve shown up?
I hope not. But the signs aren’t promising.
In isolation, perhaps the memory of this incident would have faded. However, just a couple of days earlier, while we were basking in the tranquility of a geothermal pool and gazing in awe at a night sky decorated by countless stars, the peace was broken by the kind of shrill voice that occasionally leads nearby owners of similar accents to claim Canadian citizenship.
A young man, talking to a couple of female companions, appeared perturbed by the dearth of daylight in Iceland in November.
As is the unfortunate trend in such situations, his increasingly nonsensical musings on the subject were only matched by the rising volume of his voice. Building to an animated climax, he finally exclaimed:
“I, like, don’t understand how the sun works.”
Rather than greeting his pronouncement with the rolled-eye, frosty silence it so richly deserved, his companions simply laughed along.
But it’s not funny.
How has this kindergarten level of ignorance not only become socially acceptable, but something of which to be loudly proud?
I had to wonder, had he read on facebook that a politician’s policies were responsible for reducing the people’s access to daylight during winter, would he have believed the story? Thankfully, even if he did, there’s no cause for alarm; the other party’s candidate has promised to make the sun great again.
Of course, one individual demanding to see the northern lights when it’s cloudy or another claiming to be unaware of celestial mechanics is not, on its own, going to send humanity tumbling towards disaster. But they are symptoms – indicative of the entitled, ignorant and simple minds of today’s normal.
Yet, we still stand idly by. We don’t question the paradox of political promises to restore the nation’s exceptionalism while those same would-be leaders appeal to – and drive down – the lowest common denominator of intelligence. We don’t object when every educated person is seen as a potential enemy. We don’t protest when the ability to simultaneously accept more than one idea is decried as elitist.
History may not look kindly on 2016, but perhaps it will record it as the year that shocked us out of our complacency. Perhaps it will be seen as the watershed year after which the ability to formulate and defend a coherent opinion became fashionable, when we learned to question rather than blindly accept a dubious story, when pluralism finally triumphed over bigotry.
Let history show that, when faced with these hard truths, we came together to blow away the clouds of entitlement and ignorance … and were rewarded with a spectacular light show.
9th December 2016
“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation”
– Walter Cronkite