I’m generally not the type of person who finds symbolism in the world around me.
On the rare occasions I display even a vague awareness of my surroundings, I am more likely to infer the arbitrary workings of coincidence than I am to acknowledge the possibility of a deeper, allegoric significance.
So it was that, when exploring Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park, I felt strangely disconcerted. The feeling was difficult to explain, but the closest I could muster was that I seemed to be walking through a metaphor.
I was at the site of the world’s first democratic parliament, the AlÞing, located in a vast rift valley marking the boundary where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are ripping apart.
Nearly 1,100 years earlier, Icelanders from all over the country would descend upon this site to argue their case, to express an opinion, and to vote.
Today, as the setting sun played majestically with the late November scene, the tranquility defied the seismic forces wrenching at the Earth’s foundations just below my feet.
I had found my metaphor.
In 2016, beneath the veneer of our quiet, disinterested lives, powerful forces of hatred and ignorance tore at the narrow fissures in our differences. On either side of the continental divide, now fading before my eyes in the gathering dusk, the citizens of two great democracies, that less than a lifetime ago had combined to save the world from tyranny, voted (in chronological order) for irrelevance and isolation. The Earth trembled as we split apart along the fault lines of our prejudice.
Transfixed by the scene, I continued to gaze into the distance as, with an almost cinematic poignancy, darkness fell.
At that point, if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and insisted I had been looking at fake geology, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
As the tectonic plates separate, Iceland is getting bigger with each passing day. It kind of needs to.
Iceland’s surface area will, however, need to expand at a considerably quicker rate than a handful of square inches each year to continue to accommodate its burgeoning number of visitors with the same ease it managed just a few short years ago.
From 2014 to 2016, tourist numbers to the country increased by 82% (from 970,000 to 1,767,000). This growth was fueled in large part by a staggering 173% increase in visitors from the United States.
For the first four months of 2017 – not exactly the most hospitable time of year to visit the country – tourist numbers have increased by close to 60% compared to the same period in 2016. At this rate, Iceland is on course to attract nearly three million visitors this year; almost ten times more than its number of residents.
This kind of exponential growth has consequences; one of which we encountered at our destination for the night.
Departing Þingvellir, we drove the short distance to the small town of Laugarvatn, where we had booked to stay at the Galleri; a small gem of a hotel on the eastern edge of the town.
With typical Icelandic hospitality, one of the owners inquired of our dinner plans for the evening and offered to make reservations for us at the nearby Lindin restaurant, which we had selected based on the recommendation of our faithful Lonely Planet guide.
Following a few words in his native tongue, his furrowed brow betrayed the obvious lack of comprehension coming from the other end of the line. Finally, as a resigned sigh began to relax the lines on his forehead, he had to switch to English to make the reservation.
You can call it the price of progress. A nation of only 330,000 people can’t possibly do all the jobs associated with a tourist trade that attracted over five times that number last year. Consequently, Iceland has no choice but to import the labor needed to sustain this vital industry – and Icelandic language fluency is hardly a regular feature on the resumés of job seekers.
However, before you rush to blame the forces of economics and minimize the significance, how would you feel in the same situation? Imagine sitting in your North Carolina hotel room and having to speak Spanish to place your room service order; or Polish in your south London flat when you need a plumber.
Over the next few days, the consequences of growth – and its associated price tag – would reveal themselves in multiple ways. For now, our minds switched to the plan for the evening.
After a dinner of reindeer burger (and a shot or two of Brennivín) at the Lindin restaurant, we walked the 100 yards or so to take the waters of the Fontana steam baths.
A fraction of the size of the sprawling, tourist trap that is the Blue Lagoon, Fontana certainly attracts its share of visitors (we, after all, were four of them). But, with only four small wading pools, a steam room, and benefiting from a peaceful location on the northern shore of Laugarvatn lake, unlike its loud, unruly cousin, Fontana retains the capability to deliver on the postcard image of relaxing in an Icelandic steam bath while the air temperature freezes your nose off.
On that evening our peaceful reflections were interrupted by a young man’s loud and ignorant musings on celestial mechanics (click here for the full story). Although we found it annoying at the time, upon reflection it was a fitting conclusion to the day’s symbolism.
Over a thousand years ago, people from all over Iceland travelled for days to this area to participate in their democracy. They were engaged. They wanted their voice to be heard as leaders were elected and laws were made that would shape their lives.
It can only be hoped that our own prospects for encouraging productive civil discourse and active participation in society are not solely in the hands of the type of people, oblivious to their apathy, who proudly announce to the world that they don’t know how the sun works.