The Perks of Socialism
It’s been about a week since I arrived in Reykjavik, and already it’s been quite the experience.
From the very first day, I’ve had a bit of a tour guide in my housemate Stig, a Swedish/Polish designer who came to Iceland less than half a year ago with 2000 Icelandic Kroner (about $17) in his pocket and a few words of Icelandic in his vocabulary. Now, he speaks the local tongue so well that Icelanders are nearly always taken aback when they hear him, and his design business is flourishing.
Despite my initial jetlag (I arrived from Seattle, 10 days before that I was in Bangkok, and a week before that I was in Cambodia), I was able to stay conscious all day and enjoy the overview of the city, which started with a free lunch at a business that Stig is a contractor for.
This company is responsible for swapping out the internals of cars so they can run on methane instead of petroleum. There seems to be quite a movement for this conversion here, and I’ve heard the year 2050 tossed around as when they’ll be completely off fossil fuels in all aspects of life. Not too shabby.
But back to the free breakfast.
Apparently, the people at this company are able to come in every morning and enjoy a solid meal with their coworkers (“Including the President of the company,” explains Stig. He points at an adjoining table “That’s him right over there.”). I shuffled together a few stacks of bread, cheese and cucumber and felt recharged for the day. “They also have free lunch, and in the afternoon they have time to eat some cookies and have some coffee.”
My thought: “That’s a lot of time at work, but not working.”
And really, that has been the story of my time here so far.
Jaunting around town, I’ve found that the local aesthetics are right up my alley, and everything from the architecture to the fashions people wear to the way food is presented has a very different look and feel that I truly appreciate.
The way of life is also very different, with health and public well-being taking top priority (whereas healthy competition and meritocracy seem to be the overarching ideals in most American cities). It was a bit disorienting at first, because in all the traveling I’ve done so far, I can’t remember seeing a Socialist system working so well.
The Need for Entrepreneurs
But it’s not all butterflies and rainbows. The system does have some flaws.
A local entrepreneur, Haukur Guðjónsson of Bungalo.is, explained to me that there are a lot of talented people in Reykjavik, but they don’t really understand what it is to work hard the way an entrepreneur must to succeed.
Kids in Iceland generally start work earlier than in the States (most have jobs at age 15 or so), but they are mostly service-industry positions, and they do it so that they have spending money, not really to work toward a career.
The fact is, Iceland’s economy has simply kicked a lot of ass since they were liberated from Denmark in 1944, so a lot of the current generation of teens and 20-somethings have grown accustomed to a system that takes care of them, provides them with plenty of what they want a need, and generally protects them from having to work too terribly hard.
This wouldn’t be a bad thing (actually sounds pretty damn good to me), except that following the economic crisis in 2008, the Icelandic economy is still a little wobbly, and though the Kroner has reclaimed some of its former value, investors are still tending to look elsewhere and tensions are still a bit high when it comes to the future of the Icelandic infrastructure.
The solution – Haukur believes – rests with growing the entrepreneurial base in Iceland so that they can really tap into the huge stockpiles of talent that resides within the people.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a very good support system for people wishing to spend their time building businesses yet, and it remains to be seem if something really innovative will rise up out of the economic ashes.
Nipples and Aiming Higher
I went out on Saturday night to meet with up an American girl named Bullet and some friends that she had made last time she was in the country.
The Icelandic nightlife is fairly crazy, and over the course of the evening (and into the early morning) I saw an Icelander in a clean white suit light his drink on fire and suction the cup to his nipple, saw two jackets get stolen and had an older gentleman tell me that I need to ‘aim my cock higher.’
After arriving home at 5:30am and crashing for a few hours, I awoke to find Stig reminding me that we had a 1-year-old child’s birthday to attend.
Only slightly hungover, we popped a few Ibuprofen, stopped at the toy store and drove to a home not far away (nothing is TOO far away in Reykjavik) to deliver the plastic (and light-flashy) mobile phone we had procured for the birthday boy.
The party was lovely, and through bouts of conversation with a man named Roar (who is the father of the birthday boy, and in the process of building out his personal brand so that he can work on more of his own projects outside of work) I stuffed my face with his wife’s delicious soup and cake and discussed life and Iceland with the other partygoers while watching the kids scramble around, chasing each other and their toys.
At the end of the birthday party, I felt very contented. The people were wonderful, the food was fantastic and Roar had even given me his guitar to borrow for the duration of my stay: happy, he said, for it to get some use.
And now here I am, preparing to start my second week in Iceland, comforted by the knowledge that already I’ve been able to fall in with enthusiastic entrepreneurs, pleasant party people and friendly family folk.
I’m looking forward to meeting the rest of you, Iceland.