There are a few standard questions that every Icelander abroad should expect to be asked at every possible occasion:
“Wow! Iceland! Isn’t it cold there?”
“Do you know Björk?”
“So how many people live in Iceland?”
To the latter, my husband often replies, “Well, there’s me, Mom, my brothers....” and trails off to polite laughter.
Although in reality there are a few more people than my husband might have you believe (290,490 in 2003, to be precise), the smallness of Iceland, both a charming and stifling characteristic of the nation, is unmistakeable.
As an example, take my first apartment: We bought it from a woman whose father grew up with my father-in-law. The owner before that was a friend of my husband. My other half also used to teach our downstairs neighbour, and is currently teaching with the man who lived one floor above. Hubby is also in the same historical society as another resident of the building. It’s not that he’s particularly well-connected, I hasten to add, but just that this is typical in Reykjavík. Maybe that’s why foreigners sometimes complain that Icelanders don’t do introductions very often; you probably already know the person they’re talking to anyway.
The smallness of Iceland is best demonstrated with the Íslendingabók. In many ways, I think it is a symbol of modern Iceland: founded and reliant on centuries’ old traditions and record keeping, but exploiting the latest modern technology to make the most of both. The Íslendingabók, funded by Icelandic genetics company deCODE, is an online record, available by password to all Icelanders, which provides details of the family tree of every citizen of Icelandic origin born in this country. You type in your name and anyone else’s name (Björk and the President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, are always popular choices if using the system for entertainment purposes) and, hey presto, up pops a family tree detailing who your common ancestor is (there is always a common ancestor and the farthest back it would be is somewhere in the 17th century). It is possible to click on any one of the names leading to this ancestor to discover details of where that person lived, their profession, and the names and dates of their partner and children.
While the Íslendingabók was created for genetic studies, it can also provide hours of fun simply for the sake of curiosity and is a very useful tool for the youth of today. If someone meets an attractive, eligible young person in a nightclub, it only takes a few seconds to find out whether they are too closely related to go on the next date.
Cynics reading this article might point out the ethical questions raised by the existence of the Íslendingabók. How much personal information should remain private? Could it be misused by unscrupulous organisations? These are valid points, but, like many things in Iceland, they are unlikely to cause dramatic change unless something happens to shake the system.
For now, though, most are content to find out if that bully from primary school is really a third cousin….