Icelandic trees and elections

Autumn is pretty much over, which is a shame because it was nice while it lasted. When I’m working out of the Breðholt office my commute takes me through Elliðárdalur Park, home of Reykjavik’s salmon river, complete with waterfalls, and lots of feral bunnies with attendant carrot wielding Icelandic children. I’ve enjoyed watching the poplar trees go from mainly green to pretty much bare over my time here.

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It’s not Waterloo Bridge, but it has it’s charms

Both Man Bun and his boss, who I’m told was a TV journalist my parents would be excited by if they were Icelandic, have told me that whether poplars in particular and afforestation in general are good or not is THE the generational divide. They told me this separately, and must be 30 years apart in age. Man Bun is too reasonable to really lay into the tree haters, but TV journo left me unsure of his commitment to impartiality. Apparently poplars grow too tall & destroy the lines of the landscape, obscure the view, precipitate neighbours’ disputes, and are non-native anyway.

It’s illegal to cut down trees older than 30 years old, making forestry a rare area where youth are overcoming the status quo. The city planting is mainly rowan, which I love, but I’m either underestimating how passionate people are about poplars or Man Bun & TV Journo are in denial about Iceland’s biggest social cleavage; the election is on Saturday.

The government fell when it emerged the Prime Minister and head of The Independence Party, which has governed off but mainly on since Iceland split from Denmark, had tried to cover up the fact his father had written a letter to ‘restore the honour’ of an unrepentant convicted paedophile. Bright Futures left the ruling right-wing coalition, and new elections were called a year and a day after the previous ones. These had been held because the Panama Papers’ revelations about the then PM collapsed the old coalition, headed by the other right-wing party, the so-called Progressive Party.

The current prime minister was implicated in both the Ashley Madison scandal and the Panama Papers. Everyone I know hates him, but his campaign video of him making a cake is the most liked in Icelandic political history. The old PM is also back with a new party, complete with acidic new logo, and is polling very respectably despite the circles I role in finding people liking him incomprehensible.

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If you google ‘horse vector’ this little pony is the first thing that comes up. 

The volunteers for the project I launched on Wednesday are optimistic the Left-Greens will finally overtake the Independence Party, who drop their share of the vote at every election, as the largest party. The office is doubtful, and don’t think they are left enough or green enough anyway. One of the volunteers, who comes across as completely reasonable and not in any way a conspiracy nut job, said it doesn’t matter if the Independence Party fails to get a single vote, all the judges and police chiefs are party members.

The Establishment certainly manages to protect its own when it comes to sex crimes, this is not the first controversial ‘restoration of honour’ for powerful men convicted of rape and pedophilia. Meanwhile an Icelandic newspaper has been banned from publishing on the current PM’s financial dealings in the run up to the collapse by the Reykjavik District Commissioner. This is controversial as the election will have happened by the time the courts examine the injunction, and the Commissioner is a member of the same party as the PM.

The flip side of Iceland’s low professional standards is how can-do almost everyone is, and how easy it is to get involved in things. My other boss H is standing for Bright Futures, the guy who shares our Breðholt office is on the list for the Pirates, someone who volunteers on our refugee hikes represented first the Social Democrats and then Bright Future in the Alþing before deciding he’d done his time, and pretty much everyone seems to have run for president. Working at an NGO does self-select for an interest in current affairs, but people are personally invested to a greater degree than at home.  

Everyone in my office has suddenly started working more effectively to create more time to sit around chatting politics. Man Bun & The Pirate in particular have been absolute babes about doing it in English, I think partly out of gratitude for the amount of what is more properly their work that I’m doing. It all pretty cosy when we rock up, which is nice as we arrive just as the sun rises, the park is now icy and its dark again at six thirty so you really need to enjoy the not quite winter days. 

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Stalking

When I brought a ten trip pass to Reykjavik’s climbing wall I was surprised when the guy on the desk asked if I knew my kennitala, the Icelandic equivalent of a national insurance number, had been processed.

The kennitala is the first thing we enter into our database when we are adding a new volunteer. This is connected to the national registry, saving me the tedious task of entering their name and address but blowing my mind.

I tried processing someone with bad handwriting and, no matter what numbers I used, I kept on getting a ‘kennitala doesnt exist error’ message with no way to proceed.

I asked my boss Þ, who I will now refer to as Man Bun, what to do. He said it was no biggy, he’d find the actual kennitala through his internet banking. He logged in and discovered the are are three people with the same name as this woman in Iceland, but you also get a handy link to their house on Google Street View and only one of them lived in Greater Reykjavik, so it was easy to work out which one it was. Man Bun said she had a nice house, but I was too busy looking at him like he was the representative of a freakishly freaky society of freaks to really notice.

It was very obvious that he didn’t think using online banking to find the names, addresses and national insurance numbers of compleat strangers was odd, but I asked anyway. He said he had maybe taken a small risk and explained a record is kept of people who look up a kennitala, so if any money or anything goes missing the police know where to look. I asked about stalking, he said they have a law against that now. I asked about other sex crimes, he pointed out the majority are committed by people the victim knows. I asked about identity theft, he conceded that this is probably easier if you can find out everything about someone through your banking, but it didnt seem to be an issue. We looked at each other in a way that said ‘what’s your problem,’ we got back to work. 

Once you’ve found someone’s kennitala you can do all sorts of enjoyable things, like find how much tax they pay or how (not if, if you’re both Icelandic) you are related. Unwilling to let anyone  miss out on the fun, midwives issue your kennitala the day you’re born. The first six digits are your date of birth. Man Bun tried to find out how midwives come up with the next four numbers. I gather everyone thought he should focus on the birth of his second child, but he thinks the midwives are issued random number generators.

Despite Icelandic post people being able to look at your house through the banking app of their choice they won’t drop your letters off unless your name is on your door. I don’t know why they won’t take someone living in a building on trust, but they won’t. We didn’t realise this till after the post office had tried and failed to deliver our kennitalas, so it’s been pretty convenient that people have been able to fish them out of their banking so we can buy swimming passes and things.

Man Bun did say that all though he is completely fine with all this emotionally, intellectually he can see it is strange if you aren’t used to it. None the less he is as interested in my surprise as I am by his acceptance. He claims that one-third of Icelanders’ willingness to hand over their DNA to deCODE’s project synthesising the nation and cross referencing it to genealogical records is unrelated to their blasé attitude to privacy and is instead all about the t-shirt you get as a thank you. I don’t belive him, and got him on the defensive when he admitted vague privacy concerns had stopped him contributing his own genome. He rallied, and said it was only inertia and his inability to focus that stopped him overcoming his his worries about privacy. Of course deCODE’s research is really the best advert for a laid back approach to privacy around, I just dont share it.   

Working roughly 9ish till I feel like leaving

I’ve been surprised by how different the work culture is here. Facebook groups instead of mailing lists, and indeed facebook messenger as a supplement to work emails is obvious (I’ve been surprised to discover I find writing a work facebook post that’ll trigger a notification for my boss slightly more stressful than just cc’ing the same boss into an email).

The whole office sitting down to lunch together at 11:30, anyone who doesn’t actually have a couple more hours work to do leaving around three, and the lack of resentment displayed by the people staying till close is also pretty noticeable.

Icelanders are also far noisier in the office than Brits. They gasp a lot, which was initially a bit unsettling but seems just to mean they’re bord. They also make little growling noises while focused on their computers, say ‘eyea’ a lot and hum to themselves. It’s a little bit like working with a bunch of guinea-pigs, an impression Icelanders’ thick hair, round faces and little eyes do nothing to dispel, but luckily I find the noise endearing.

The real difference though is the lack of strategic oversight and a mechanism to ensure its achieved. I report to Þ, who’s great, on projects, while my fundraising stuff goes to H. Neither of them have any equivalent to KPIs, one to ones or quarterly appraisals. I didn’t notice while I  had these, but they turn out to be really useful. I don’t think we’d have ended up with Þ, whose project reports point out that he doesn’t know whether he is supposed to be making a big difference to a few people or a small difference to lots of people, not knowing if he’s aiming for depth or breadth if he had KPIs. I told him I think this is the key question, and its been dodged at every step of the command chain. He wasn’t entirely joking when he said I’d decide. 

If he had appraisals H would know how much money he raised last year, and how much he needs to make this year. His rather lax approach to fundraising is more understandable once you learn that we, Search and Rescue and the Icelandic equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous own the company that operates Iceland’s slot machines. Our core costs are covered by our vast gambling revenue, but the company, which is operated at arm’s length, is Iceland’s second biggest scandal this week; it has worked out it’ll be more profitable if it makes its games more addictive, and has taken steps to achieve the dream. My colleagues think running slot machines is wrong, but I don’t think they understand just how many of them would be out of a job if we relied on kids with tombolas, which seems to be our second biggest revenue source.

Not speaking Icelandic has only been a minor inconvenience on getting up to speed with the office gossip. The failure to understand why we’re struggling to achieve whatever it is we’re doing has a lot to do with my presence here. Þ was worried about managing someone, and thought someone without much project experience or a grasp of the language would be useless, but his boss decided I was the solution and that was that.

Initially when I said clever things in the meetings that now have to be held in English Þ looked at me with the mixture of relief and gratitude I use for horses that didn’t behave as badly as I thought they would. Two and a half weeks in its hard to beleave we haven’t been a team for ages, and are doing a whole load of evaluations together. I get to do more of what I want because he is so grateful I’m not the nightmare he expected.

On the other hand H wanted the most experienced fundraiser he could find, but now he’s got me he feels threatened by that experience. Work clearly comes third to the master’s degree he’s doing and his role on the board of the party that brought down the government last week (our biggest scandal). He told me to put fundraising ideas into a word doc before he left for the field trip he’s been on all week. I think he’s going to be a bit surprised to get a SWOT analysis and fundraising strategy, with more ideas than you can shake a stick at, including recording donors and taking time to think about what worked before. He has gone further out of his way to be welcoming to me and the other non-Icelandic speakers than anyone else. I’m confident I’ll get him to agree to at least some of my ideas, he just doesn’t want to admit that anything is wrong. 

Mayonnaise in the Mid-Atlantic

The first processed food available in Iceland was Gunnar’s mayonnaise, first produced in 1960. As recipes in Icelandic cookbooks said you could make mayo with clean paraffin if you were out of cooking oil I feel confident saying it was a vast improvement despite having yet to try the stuff, and Iceland went wild for it. My boss says it was in everything, and that mayonnaise cake was particularly popular at confirmations. I gather mayonnaise cake is a giant club sandwich, filled with mayo & salad, covered in mayo ‘icing’ which then has piped mayo decorations on top.

I’d describe myself as wildly pro mayonnaise, but this is too much. I think my face betrayed my feelings, because my boss pointed out he wasn’t even born until 1989.

Gunnar, apparently, thought it would be nice to have some international recognition, and decided to break the world record for biggest mayonnaise jar. He commissioned a giant tub, but was very surprised to get a letter from the Guinness Book of World Records, saying that it didn’t count unless he actually put mayonnaise in it. Gunnar thought this was extremely wasteful, and that being big in Iceland was enough after all.

Apparently the mayo jar that could have been the biggest in the world is on a roundabout in Hafnarfjörður, my boss’s home town. I’m considerably more impressed than he is.

Libya with love

As we walked across Martyr’s Square the first time, as we looked for a hotel, I said something about how Libya had better be the epitome of kickass to justify the hassle we’d had to get here. Gerard said I was just making it easy for me to be disappointed. He was wrong. Libya is worth everything we put into getting here: the money, the week queuing outside the Libyan consulate in Alex, the flights up and down the Med, the lot.

 

Tripoli is an easy city to like, with its sea front and proper commercial ships overlooked by the coastal that forms the corner of the tumble down old city. It cleverly manages to combine feeling safer than Tunis with a bit of revolutionary excitement. Everything that could possibly have been painted with the red, black and green of the new flag has been, and there was a small protest in the square when we arrived. By the time we’d dumped our bags it had shrunk, but had some information signs that we checked out. The demonstrators explained they objected to a clause in the current draft of what will one day be a constitution allowing anyone who’d defected by the 20th of March, the day after Gaddafi attacked Benghazi, to hold office. They were all really friendly, interesting and pleased to see us. Unlike the people we talked to in Egypt and Tunisia they, like everyone else in Tripoli, all said the revolution had changed everything and were confident that things would improve dramatically in the coming years. Which is not to say; people aren’t concerned about the future. Everyone says Gaddafi neglected education, and worry about what that will do to the country. People say the Youth have no respect, and a Sufi mystic said the Salafis are bigots with too much power and confidence and not enough knowledge of Islam. But everyone is confident that whatever happens, it’ll be better than Gaddafi. The city feels like its celebrating, and has got out its biros to cross his (gormless) face of the one dinar note, and scratched Jamhariya, his name for Libya’s government, off the car licence plates. The odd burst of celebratory gun fire, fireworks and, worst of all, the sticks that go bang which kids throw all over the place has almost given me post traumatic stress, and I wasn’t there during the war, but Tripoli seems happy. No one, not even the people with touristy shops in the old city, tries to sell us anything. If the national museum wasn’t still dismantling the galleries about Gaddafi and cataloguing what went missing during the war the city would be practically perfect.

Tunisia – not smelling of Jasmin

There is nothing like being proved right about something to make you like it. In Tunis, Sousse, Kairoun and Sfax the cities provided a backdrop to our disscussions about how they felt like like they were waiting for something. Consequently when on Friday our louage, as Tunisia calls the serveece, was stopped by a neat line of rocks across the road outside Metlouie we were not surprised at all. Protesters milling around, stopping traffic into the mining town in Gafsa governorate seemed to explain the atmosphere, rather than confusing us.

Tunisians are pretty keen to chat, and none of the people we talked to thought the revolution had changed anything. In Egypt we met people who were inspired by the revolution and others who were disillusioned with it, people who were determined to create a country worthy of its martyrs and people who thought the revolutionaries had already lost. In Tunisia only a group of students Gerard met thought anything had even started to change. The students from Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution started, who invited us to stay with them, were completely uninterested in politics.

We talked about all this as we waited on the road for a couple of hours, watching the police watch the townsfolk watch us before our driver decided to take us over a desert track. My boyfriend checked the news for us and read it to us over the phone. Like much of the south Gasfa province had been on strike the day before.

Tunisians have told us a lot (blue repels mosquitoes, the yellow doors in Tunis are on houses that belonged to money loving Jews) and we might now be able to explain the weird atmosphere in Tunisia, but we will never understand Tunisians obsession with complicated change manoeuvres. They have way more small denomination coins than Egypt, but instead of handing them over they will go to any lengths (while reckoning in thousands of milliems, in French) to work out a way of giving one a note. If you buy something for, say, eight dinar they’d definitely prefer to take 22 and give you a ten dinar note than accept a ten and give you two as change. Nor will we ever understand why they go to bed so early – we arrived in Tripoli, Libya on Wednesday and, since leaving the airport, have loved everything.

 

Drunk and Disturbing Me

We’re still in Tunisia, and I don’t really know what I think about it. Tunisians and I need to work really hard to understand each other’s Arabic, and they can’t believe it wouldn’t just be easier to talk French. The Tunisian old cities are similar enough to Damascus to remind me how much I miss Sham. It’s worse than being homesick because the Damascus I miss has been shot to shit, the people I shared it with scattered and scarred by the war. My relationship with Sham is in its Sinead O’Connor phase; obviously it’s over but Nothing Compares To You, Damascus. Our break up is still too recent for me to want to be impartial; I just wanna be in pre-war Syria.

So clearly I’m not fair to Tunisia. It’s probably amazing really. I’m swinging from loving the rolling hills of Cap Bon, backed the improbably blue Med and the medina’s narrow alleys, with doors and windows picked out in blues as unlikely as the sea, and thinking about Syria. But I don’t think it’s only that my second country has dumped me. Too many Tunisians just seem unloved, uncared for. So far only one person to come up to us after dark hasn’t reeked of beer. My Syrian friends drank, some of them allot, often cheep vodka outside, but it seems Tunisia’s public drunkenness is of a different breed. My friends enjoyed getting pissed. Simple as that. Both Syria and Egypt had an underclass for whom survival was a struggle, but somehow they didn’t seem as desolate as their Tunisian counterparts. I can’t think of a Syrian equivalent of the man who showed me and Gerard round a mosque today and smelt of alcohol, madness and neglect. Despite living on the edge of a refugee camp in an Iraqi suburb I saw one person in Syria combine hopelessness and booze. After two years it is literally shocking to see the pairing again. I discussed it with Gerard a, who made thinking noises. The boys not being as surprised as me (although they were pretty surprised by the toothless beggar who tried to kiss me at 10am) makes me wonder about Britain.

We’re in Kairoun at the moment which claims to be the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world. They’re wrong, Damascus’ Umayyad mosque is, but it’s still a relaxed, residential old city. I like it, particularly the well that’s linked to one in Mecca. A bunch of guys with a banging sound system have taken over the piazza between our hotel and the walls of the old city. They’re playing a catchy song about Jihad, draped everything with posters about spreading the revolution and are busy fund raising for Gaza. They’re having a great time. Tunisia is as changeable as my feelings.

 

Tunisia Map