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.

Neither ice cold, nor in Alex

We arranged to collect our Lybian visas from the consulate in Alexandria. The paperwork was processed in Tripoli, and inevatably took longer to come through than it should. We quite enjoyed not doing much and hanging out in art deco cafes. Llwelyn, instead of feeling that not having read the Alexandria quatet diminished his enjoyment of the experiance, was so taken by the atmospheare he decided he could write his own book about the city. Slightly after we got board our paperwork came through and we skipped of to the consulate, like lambs gamboling en rout to the abatour. much to our suprise the conulate told us to fill in some forms and come back next week.
Our visa service provider assured us the wasnt anything to worry about so we hopped on a bus to Siwa, an oasis anoyingly close to Lybia, where we cycled around looking at ruins qnd cooling of in guide-book-blue springs.
Prehaps you can see where this is going; the consulate said Tripoli had revoked our visas. We spoke to our visa providers in Tripoli, who confermed everything was OK. Over the last week, which we spent in Alex waving forms outside the consulate, we have hered every single plausable exscuse for them not stamping our 400 doller visas into our passports. weve had a good range of totaly unbelivable reasons as well.

After six days of consulate fun we were overcome by rightious anger, bordam induced mania and the realisation that we couldnt imagine life without daily consulate bothering. Obviosly we needed to escape, so booked flights to Tunisia. I was worried about how quickly Id become compleatly ok with boardom and routien. Then as we booked our flights we noticed the meal options included a bland food option. If the are people out there who find a standad airoplane meal too exciting I have a long way to go before turning into a total drone.

Tunis seems strange after Egypt. Somehow by seeming so European its very forign. Things seem to shut at night; people drink alchool in the streets, the ice cream is kick ass. But then when we returned to our hostel after a spot of shisha in the old city a weding was underway in the hostals commen room. We escaped it into a Gaza solidarity thing where we were molested by drunks. It seems like Tunis has multipal personality disorder; but it could be that anything other than the Lybian cosulate is too confusing for me to deal with.

Sorry about the spellng and punctuation. This keyboards been compiled by someone who values originality in key placement, the keys stick, the punctuation marks are disguised as other kinds of punctation marks and the spell checker is in French.

Egypt Vs Syria. 3 differences.

Egypt finds American wrestling hypnotic. I never saw a Syrian cafe with wrestling on TV.

Syria doesn’t have the idea that one can where flip flops outdoors. This is reflected in the language, they call them slippers. Syria is as surprised to see ‘slippers’ in the street as we would be to see some one whereing their pink, fluffy numbers on a bus. The only person in Egypt not wearing flip flops is Llwyelyn, who says he’s traveling so lightweight he can’t take any.

In Syria women were everywhere. Even in early June one saw rich girls in posh cafes and students flirting with each other, despite the revolution turning into a war. Cairo has women. Aswan and Luxor have children or mothers, nothing in between. Hear in Alex their are trendy young things, but even so womens hair surprises us in a way it didn’t in Damascus.

God, Syria, Freedom

Imagine Monday night in Damascus. Someone’s playing gitare on the balcony. I’m crushing garlic and dancing like a loon with the guy cutting the onions, our arak is on the side. The head chef is requesting a malbrour light and changing the music. We haven’t had cooking gas for almost three weeks and we’re happy to be hanging out together. Inevitably over the food the conversation turns to politics. My Arab friends don’t have time for any news other than their own, and we’re arguing if it’s just the Middle East that’s going to hell in a hand cart.

‘Mate,’ I say. ‘Half of Spain’s under twenty fives are unemployed.’

‘Yeah, well that’s just economics. It’s only us that are doomed, cus only we have too much religion.’

Just then the chanting in the street started. ‘Allahwakbar, Alalahwakbar.’

 

We’re all tripping over each other running out on to find out what’s happening. The protesters change to ‘something something Syria, something Freedom,’ which rhymes in Arabic. We can’t see anything, but it sounds like maybe 50 people shouting. The Syrians over that night are both vaguely pro government, but even they look excited. On of the Iraqis was practically joining in. Our neighbours all either went out on to the balcony, or slammed the shutters down. Less than two minutes later it’s over. Since it became obvious that the regime had no compulsion about gunning down unarmed masses protesters have hit one street for a very short amount of time, then dispersed and reassembled somewhere else before anyone can phone security. There’s nothing new, except that we live 5 minutes away from the president.