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Not by the book

Canada
Ottawa Citizen
21/08/2010
By Harriet Zaidman

Ancient Icelandic lore is full of elves, trolls and huldefolk -- hidden people, says Jonas Thorsteinsson, our tour guide through Reykjavik's Old Town. But after the country's economy collapsed in 2008, the lore was updated.

Today's huldefolk aren't tiny beings hiding in rock crevices -- "They're our bankers," he jokes, "hiding from the hot sun in the Cayman Islands, using financial documents to keep from getting burned."

Thorsteinnson, who lived in Ottawa for five years, leads free daily walking tours each summer through Iceland's capital city, but there's nothing typical about his patter. For the price of a voluntary tip, groups of 25 get a myth-busting "dialogue" that includes Thorsteinsson's passionate opinions about the people and politics of this tiny island nation.

At a statue of the founder of modern Reykjavik, Thor-steinnson debunks the story about Skuli Fogeti's "patriotism." In fact, Fogeti was a paid agent for Denmark's king when Iceland was a province of that country. Thorsteinnson says Fogeti organized the civic infrastructure so Danish businessmen could make higher profits.

On a recent tour, Thor-steinnson's alternative approach to history kept everyone engaged, despite a constant drizzle. A promise of 90 minutes stretched to two hours of interesting information. He fields all questions, assuring us that if he doesn't have the answer he can call his mother -- "a 70-year-old with the Internet."

Iceland's economy buckled after mortgages owned by offshore lenders came due on overvalued properties.

So, as well as showing us the oldest house in Reykjavik, Thorsteinsson takes the group by a house that sits unsold; people have lost their jobs and homes, and thousands of Icelanders have emigrated, a sobering toll on the population of less than 350,000.

The crisis has had other ramifications. The mayor of Reykjavik is a professional comedian. "His only election promise was to bring a polar bear to the city zoo," says Thorsteinsson.

The voters' unconventional choice was a reaction to old-guard politicians that many blame for ruining the economy, Thorsteinsson says, as we go through the building out to The Pond.

This large, natural lake in the centre of the city is perfect for family picnics and concerts, but it no longer freezes over in winter for skating as it did when he was a child, a sign of climate change, he says.

Icelanders are proud of their democratic tradition, which goes back to the 10th century.

At Althing, an unimposing stone building where the country's parliament meets, Thorsteinnson tells us with a measure of pride that their current president is an openly gay woman, "the first (such president) in the world."

Thorsteinnson rails against his government's decision to sell Iceland's abundant hydro electricity at cheap rates to Alcoa, an aluminum giant that has built a smelter in eastern Iceland to process bauxite that it ships from Australia.

It's environmentally irresponsible, Thorsteinnson says.

"The government should be using our renewable energy to develop electric cars and reduce the country's need to import expensive oil."

Thorsteinnson -- who is an artist and photographer as well as raconteur -- voices his opinions at home, too, where he says the conversations are spirited. As the secretary to Iceland's minister of foreign affairs, his wife is highly placed in the government.

Thorsteinsson conducts his tours in English and brightens up when he hears there are Canadians among the crowd.

"I lived in Winnipeg for three years in the 1990s," he says. "Then I moved to Ottawa for five years."

He may sometimes sound cynical, he admits at the end of the walk, but says he sincerely wanted to raise his two sons in Iceland, his homeland.

Virtually free of violent crime and drugs, Iceland is the only country in the world where the president's home phone number is listed in the white pages, he thinks.

"And I hope it stays that way," he says.

He puts his hat on the pavement and it's quickly filled with kroner.

Harriet Zaidman is a Winnipeg writer.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.

    

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