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Life Now and Then (JB)

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Júlíana Björnsdóttir's picture

Living in the old part of Reykjavík City, every now and then I meet people with roots in the neighborhood, roots that go back to the days when the area was newly built. I have met an English gentleman, with whom we shared an evening of friendly conversation, who stayed in our flat with a family that lived there in the 1960s.

The other day, a woman with a man I presumed to be her husband, and couple of friends, stood outside my apartment trying to work out if it was where her mother lived in 1949, when the house was only three years old. At the time I was recovering from a severe weekend-long migraine and my brain was operating much slower than usual, and it only occurred to me afterwards how nice it would have been to invite her and her companions in for a look. So, to the daughter of Rósa Ólafsdóttir who stopped outside my place on Tuesday September 15 to look for the place where her mother, Rósa Ólafsdóttir, lived in 1949, feel free to stop by and take a look at your old home in Grenimelur. Feel free to contact me by email.

Being a bit of a history enthusiast, I enjoy living in a house with a bit of history. For Iceland, a house from the middle of the 20th century is considered to be among the older ones in the city. It’s lovely to know that the walls have been touched by so many generations of people who have gone out into the world and lived their lives in various locations. For some, it was but a brief encounter, but nonetheless one to remember; for others, a life-long adventure.

I often wonder what life in Reykjavík was like in those days. I can’t imagine it was easy, but then, again, I know for a fact that it was probably easier than it was in the early years of the 20th century—not to mention the centuries before.

Iceland has been haunted by poverty for so long that the ghost of poverty is always in the back of our minds. Chicken was a rare delicacy and apples a Christmas treat. These were the days when most children were raised by their mothers while their fathers worked long days to feed the family. Workdays were longer than now, and well into the 20th century, the only day off was Sunday. Even my father recalls those days when only Sundays were off. My grandmother raised all her children, sewed their clothes, cooked their meals, helped them with schoolwork, and after they were asleep, worked a few extra hours rather than sleep to get more done.

These days were not easy and it’s hard for the modern person, in light of our knowledge about our foremothers and forefathers, to not appreciate how much has changed. Children get to be children and play for most of the summer, rather than work. Young adults finish school and get to choose their education or lack thereof. Parents have daycare options (although for the modern person, there is need for improvements), and children have plenty of activities to choose from.

But there is still poverty in our society.

The generations now retired from the workforce are expected to scrape by on less than the minimum wage. So are people with disabilities. Students who have children get so little from the state-funded maternity and paternity leave that it won’t even cover the rent for a small student apartment on the university campus. My friend lived in a renovated garage and she paid more in rent than students receive during parental leave.

We like to believe that the ghost of poverty is behind us, but it really isn’t. There are classes among the classes that have a hard life. For their children, after school activities are not an option. Running out of money before the month is over, having no money at all to buy groceries, or gas, or other necessities, is the reality.

So, yes, we are inevitably reminded by the people in our lives that even though life in Iceland is so much easier than it used to be, there still is an economic divide between the classes; between students and the middle-class worker; between the rich and poor; and between the retired and the unemployed.

History is, after all, the ultimate judge of our society.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.