mánudagur, janúar 29, 2007

the happy land

I met with NPR's Eric Weiner again on Friday after work, for a followup interview on happiness in the Land. He's not doing a radio bit on this, but he is coming out with a book on the happiest countries (and he wants you to buy it!). The second conversation I had with him was much better as he seemed to have settled in to the laid-back ways of Reykjavík after some more days here. The Friday-after-work meeting was in sharp contrast to one I had the night before with an instructor I had helped bring in to teach an investment-related class here. Like many Americans I meet here (mostly hot-tub tourists) he asked why I liked it here but then as soon as I began to answer, he cut in and tried to refute my reasons one by one. I have had now had variations of this conversation so many times with American visitors that I try to ensure the topic never comes up.

But today against my better judgment, and at the behest of some loyal readers, following are just five of the reasons I am happier in my life here than I was in my old one Stateside. These ideas are in no particular order or not even maybe the best ones. Just five off the top of my head:

I don't spend any time commuting. My new walk to work takes around 10 minutes. My old drive to work took 12 to 15, and several of my coworkers thought that was excessive and urged me to move closer to save some time.

I get five weeks of vacation, and I am expected to take it all. Five weeks, paid or unpaid, is the minimum here by law, and most Icelanders take 3-4 weeks of their annual vacation in July. This has the effect of shutting down the country. Hey, everybody's doing it! So when you come back from that, you don't have lots of emails or work piled up, because nothing has really been happening. In fact, my new employer has a policy that an employee must get their supervisor's permission to not take at least two consecutive weeks off in a year.

I don't see any signs of obvious poverty or "working poor" in my daily life. This is a big one. I used to come out of jobs in the States, be they in Boston or San Francisco or New York, and see homeless on the streets. But more commonly, just really beat-down-looking working people who were obviously struggling to make ends meet. Since I know that luck (in birth and in opportunity) played such a big part in why I was walking home from a six-figure job and they weren't, I felt a lot of guilt over this. I could have told myself that they were "just lazy", like my imported finance-instructor colleage told me last week, but I knew that in most cases that simply was not true. I don't see very much poverty in Iceland because there isn't nearly as much to see.

Life is quiet here. I'm not barraged by televisions blaring ads in my local supermarket. There is not a universally accepted idea of "today's fast-paced world" here. There doesn't seem to be a merry-go-round spinning at ever more sickening speeds. I spend Sunday afternoons in a café, reading the paper and talking to friends. People park their baby carriages outside the café, babies snoozing inside. Both the baby carriage parking and the spending time talking are considered acceptable behavior.

It's easy to get things done. I have always been able to find "the person" who can answer a question for me, because there usually is only one person. I don't ever spend time waiting on hold, or navigating voice-mail jail. Without trying, I know one of the 63 members of Parliament and could easily contact two more. I don't spend a lot of time queueing (Icelanders can't do this anyway, so good thing) or waiting in line, either. There's a sense here that all possibilities are open, and not just rhetorically.

In general, life here just feels happier. People seem more content. Kids play soccer in the streets, even downtown. Families take trips abroad every summer and sit around for coffee in the winter. So there you have it. Refute away, Americans!

laugardagur, janúar 20, 2007

the report returns

Gleðilegt nýtt ár! Happy 2007, and a belated one at that. Sometimes, as I learned this past month, the muses just stop singing for a little while. Indeed in the deep dark of an Icelandic winter, it can feel like I haven't really been fully awake for weeks. This year I feel like I've been dozing at least as far back to when my American readers were celebrating Thanksgiving. It's been a long, dark slog, this one.

But the light is returning. The other morning, walking down the hill toward my new job, I detected the faintest glow over in the southeast. It was 8:45 a.m. So things are starting to happen. The dreamy long midwinter's night is coming to an end.

And then last night, in a flashback to my halcyon days as a plugged-in local, I went out for a beer with an NPR journalist. He's in town for several weeks interviewing Icelanders (and me) about why we think Iceland is such a happy place. Every year when the "happiness" surveys hit the presses, Iceland always finishes respectably, usually in the Top 5. (American readers, hold your vitriol. I know it hurts to hear that another country might have a slightly happier populace. But hey, it's a big world.) So we talked and one beer became two, him frantically scribbling notes in a little Moleskine at various points. It was odd which of my comments would trigger the frantic scribbling and which didn't. And I realized just how hard it is to convey a whole culture and a lifestyle to an outsider who's in town for just a couple of weeks. There's just so much to convey and we really just scratched the surface. So it's back to the Iceland Report where over the past couple of years you, my faithful readers, have hopefully gotten a bit of the flavor of life in this happy land.