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. 

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.