Jón Gnarr book launch – Foyles, London

London’s premier bookshop Foyles held a launch event on 4 September to celebrate the UK release of Jón Gnarr’s book “Gnarr – How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World”. The book covers the story of Jón and the Best Party’s surprise election to the office of mayor of Reykjavík from 2010-2014.

At the Foyles event, Jón was interviewed by Zoe Williams from the Guardian in front of an audience of approximately 200, followed by audience questions and signing of the book.

As you can imagine I was very excited about this event – Jón’s public appearances in London are few and far between.

Empty chairs on stage!

Pre-show set up

In terms of the questions, for me, there was a bit too much emphasis in the beginning on questions Iceland’s financial crisis and bankers, although I do appreciate that much of the book is set during this timeframe and some people may not have heard some of the details. Jón really came alive during some of the more varied questions from the audience members and proved again that there is much more to him than being a politician. People were laughing more and more and it all became a bit less serious. Throughout, he really considered his answers. Below are some of the highlights of Jón’s answers – please note that what follows is not a complete transcript and is only what I could capture at the time.

 

Photo courtesy of @DanThompsen

Photo courtesy of @DanThompsen

On why he decided to go into politics:

In a financial crisis, things like theatre and arts are the first to be cut…I was doing a standup show and came up with the idea on stage. It was funny, just saying you would promise anything. Then people started saying you should really do this, I would vote for you and doing the thumbs up sign. We made that the symbol of the Best Party, it’s the international symbol of friendliness.

In the early days, I was the comic relief of the whole thing. But maybe we were in deep shit because we were too ignorant. I would think of the phoenix from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. We would laugh at my stories and then laugh again when the media tried to interpret it. ‘Is he that stupid? Yeah, he is…’

It was the middle of the pots and pans revolution. We channelled it in a more positive way.

On whether the Best Party was a critique of neo-liberalism:

This was one of the main reasons why we were in the situation, the privatisation of banks. Capitalism – I like some of it. I like Apple. If you have a new iPhone out I will read about it. There is a serious downside to capitalism if not regulated.

On the campaign:

We made our campaign song Simply the Best – I said I was friends with Tina Turner on Facebook and people believed this. The video became an instant hit. Specialists were asking how much it cost. We used a Canon and it didn’t cost anything except our time, we had no sponsors.

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On the first day at work:

I knew very little of contemporary politics. I had never been inside the mayor’s office. I didn’t realise it came with loads of people. It’s more than office, it’s a workplace! I imagined I would be sitting alone with a phone and someone would call me. It was a big surprise.

Early days in office:

I was not prepared for the severity of the city. I thought it was a mindset problem then realised the problem was first and foremost financial so I had to try and understand it. We had to consider things like special fees for electricity and hot water. This was very important in Iceland, feeling of why should we pay for it when hot water is coming out of the ground everywhere? There had been no change in rate for 20 years – why should it cost anything? Well, it’s not that simple, there are pipes and engineers…people in government didn’t want to ask for things that would make them unpopular.

The media left me alone for 100 days. My first interview was really confrontational. They asked what I was going to do about something and I said ‘I don’t know’…I mean, I can check and get back to you… it was so awkward. I felt humiliated and so stupid. After that people came up to me and said ‘thank you – that was so brilliant – politicians never admit they don’t know, they lie.’ Even in failure was victory!

Entering into politics is like going into a hostile alien territory because everything is so hostile.

Photo courtesy of @RenZephyr

Photo courtesy of @RenZephyr

On tourism and the Icelandic mindset:

Iceland is a very strange culture – we went from fishermen/farmers to being a banking nation and when all that collapsed it now changed into tourism. To be happy in Iceland you have to be quite adaptive and opportunistic. This may be part of that. It can also be seen as opportunism. This was somehow part of the mentality and success of the Best Party.

On social networking:

Social networking is huge in Iceland – there are 350,000 Icelandic accounts on Facebook! (note – this is more than the population) Most of our campaign was through Facebook and YouTube. Other parties campaigned through the newspaper and not on social networks. All politicians in Iceland are on Facebook and Twitter now.

On his continued support of the LGBT community:

I have led the Gay Pride parade in Reykjavík dressed in drag. Last year I dressed up in the women’s national costume. I was afraid some of the older women who have strong emotions towards the costume would feel somehow offended and that worried me…in the parade I saw they were the ones who were most inspired. They were glowing. It was like “respect”! Inspiring to me. Genuine support is from the unlikeliest people.

On whether he had anything to do with the sudden proliferation of cycle lanes in Reykavik:

We designated money to it and were heavily criticised In Icelandic traffic law (outdated) there is no definition of a bicycle lane.  I saw it as an alternative form of transport that could save money.

On what he is most proud of from his time as mayor:

That I lasted the whole term. I was the first in a long time to do that. Also, that I don’t consider that I have changed. The experience has matured me and given me a deeper understanding of society and people in general but I have not changed as a person when many expected me to. I am also very proud of the work we did with difficult financial issues. If I hadn’t come along Reykjavík might have gone down similar path as Detroit.

Jón also touched on other topics such as the strong support from his family while he was in office, his visit from a Chinese delegation where he petitioned for the release of Liu Xiabo and comedian Doug Stanhope’s show at Litla-Hraun.

Following the talk there was an eager queue of people wanting their books signed.

Photo courtesy of @foyles

Around the room! Photo courtesy of @foyles

I always feel sorry for authors having to do this kind of thing but it actually means a lot to fans. Despite being terrible about self-promotion, I forced myself to mention the blog and he said he had seen it! I nearly died. Yeah, ok, he didn’t say he liked it but I’ll take what I can get.

So, is the book worth reading? Yes, even though there isn’t much new content if you are a regular follower of Icelandic news and social media. It’s still an interesting read which covers a time in Iceland which already feels a bit like history.

For those of you who want to know more about Jón’s time in politics, there is also a DVD called Gnarr which covers the election and early time in office in great detail. This is not easily available in the UK but you can get it on import from the US or Iceland.

Jón’s autobiographies are finally about to be translated into English and the first will be out in May 2015. I would also urge anyone who hasn’t seen his comedy to start with the great series Næturvaktin (again available as an import from Iceland) which should get you hooked enough to investigate further.

Thanks to Foyles for a great event! They have more signed copies of the book to buy here.

Race Review: Reykjavík Half Marathon 2014

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Last weekend, I participated in the 31st running of the “marathon day” in Reykjavík. The day consists of several different races – full marathon, half marathon, 10k, 3 km fun run and even shorter “Lazytown” run. I chose to do the half marathon over the full distance as the marathon field is actually quite small and I would find the second half of the race mentally hard to do without many other people around.

This is one of those races that I’ve looked at doing a few times and never have, so it was quite nice that things came together and I was finally able to do it!

Pre-race, you had the option of picking up your number at the Expo on the Thursday or Friday. (you could also pick it up on Saturday morning near the start, and it wasn’t crowded there so that would have been easily doable too) I was excited to visit the Expo, even though I knew the prices for running kit would be higher than in the UK so it wouldn’t really be worth buying anything. I was hoping to see more Reykjavík/Iceland specific shirts to buy, but I didn’t see any so saved my money! The number/chip pickup was straightforward and again not busy so quick to get through. All participants got the same t-shirt no matter what distance they were doing, which would be unusual at other races. Interestingly you could also change your race distance right up until the day before. It’s also the only race I’ve done where your number was just randomly assigned to you then and there (which would also be why you could change distances and get a different coloured number with no admin hassle).

Race T-shirt

I had also wanted to go to the Expo to get the pasta dinner advertised. I nearly walked past the 5 people who were actually eating as it turned out you had to pay for the dinner and the small portion was definitely not worth the price! Runners are quite superstitious about what they eat the night before a race and for breakfast so this suddenly caused me a problem. We ended up eating pizza along with several other runners as this seemed to be the quickest/easiest alternative. All was fine so this might become my new pre-race dinner!

Race day, it was an early start on Saturday. This was also a nice change for me as races in the UK are on Sundays which means they take up your whole weekend. The full and half marathons started at 8:40 with the 10k an hour later. After the bright sunshine of the previous day race morning was very cold during the standing around/waiting to go time. Most other people were wearing jackets and checking a bag in, while I walked down in short sleeves thinking it wasn’t that cold! It was! It was fun to watch the last minute preparations and finally we were allowed into the starting pens. With both sides of the road being used there were no long delays to the starting line. It was good to finally get going, although shortly after the start we pretty much came to a halt as both sides had to merge. Once we got going again the course was spacious enough for everyone for the rest of the race.

Don't you want to run here?

Don’t you want to run here?

You can view full details of the courses on the race website. Generally – the first few miles of the course were around residential streets – this was where the best support was with people playing instruments/banging pots and pans and really cheering the runners on. This was probably my favourite part of the course. Then we emerged by Harpa and went out along the seafront – I also enjoyed this bit as it was old familiar views but seen from a different perspective when running. Then it was the dullest bit of the course around an industrial estate, which also had the biggest hill (but still not a bad one), then back along the seafront to finish.

Half marathon medal

Half marathon medal

The finish area became quite crowded as many half marathon and 10k runners were finishing at the same time. The chip worn on your shoe also had to be removed here and where normally you would get two twist ties to put it on your laces, you had to actually unlace your shoe to put it on directly so it was taking people time to get it off again. We then funneled up a hill and left to end up back at the main race area.

Hafþór Björnsson, who ran with his daughter for charity

Hafþór Björnsson, who ran with his daughter for charity

Good things about the race – the size (not too big or small), great organisation considering high level of foreign runners, flat and mainly interesting half marathon course, right amount of drinks stations, good technical t-shirt

Improvements – some kind of meeting point area afterwards, twist ties for the chips, more of a goody bag – even if it means raising the price, sell more race specific merchandise at the Expo

Would I do it again? Probably not, but only because I think we were lucky with the weather this year and generally it would be pretty wet and windy (and I have enough of those kind of runs at home)!

That’s another item off the bucket list!

Guest post: A First Trip to Iceland

Last time we heard from Grace, she had booked her first trip to Iceland and was really excited about going. Now that she’s back from her trip, I wanted to see how it all went and if there’s anything other first-timers can learn from her experience. All photos below are from Grace’s trip.

How did you decide what time of year to go to Iceland and how far in advance did you book your tickets?

I booked my tickets about a month and a half before I left. Next time I’ll plan ahead better and book farther in advance – cheaper that way. I decided on October mostly because my September was way too busy. I wanted my first Iceland experience to still have some decent daylight, so I didn’t want to go later in the fall. And I knew that summer was the most expensive time to go, so I had already decided to go sometime after September 1.

Did you have to buy anything especially for your trip?
 
I should have! All I bought was a lined jacket with a hood – which I was very glad I bought! Wish I’d bought more sweaters/sweatshirts ahead of time, and some water-proof boots.
 
How did it feel when you were landing in Iceland?

My first thought was “Thank you, God, for the smooth landing.” I don’t mind flying – it’s the take-off and landing that gets to me.

Was the driving hard in any way?

Not really – just those infernal roundabouts. Traffic circles are a rarity in most places in the US, so I always feel like I’m jumping onto a moving carousel when I drive around one.

How did you choose your accommodation and was there anything special or unique about where you stayed?

I booked a room through AirBNB.com (unpaid plug for that website!) I stayed with a nice family who had a room to rent. Way cheaper than a hotel, and I enjoyed the homey atmosphere. The family’s apartment was situated above a bakery and candy shop, so that was fun.

What did you think of the food?

I ate at Subway a lot, because the shops were everywhere, and I knew what to expect from the food. Lame, huh? I did try some more traditional Icelandic salmon, and some lamb on rye, and enjoyed both.

Overall, was anything better than you thought it would be?

I guess I got lucky, but there was wet weather only one day that I was there. Full sun for two straight days!

There must have been some bad things too – did anything NOT live up to your expectations?

The street maps of Reykjavík were a tad confusing, so I got lost more than once – both driving and walking. Also, I wasn’t expecting the grocery stores to close at 6pm on a Saturday.

Do you think you will visit Iceland again, and if so, what would be the plan for the next trip?

I’ll definitely go back! This trip I stayed pretty much in the city of Reykjavík, so I didn’t get out to see any waterfalls or volcanoes or glaciers. Next time I’ll book some day trips with a guided tour group so I can go see some of the Icelandic wilderness. Lots of beauty and nature in and around the city, though, so I didn’t regret staying in Reykjavík the whole time.

Anything else you’d like to add that might help fellow travellers?

I did Iceland all on my own – I didn’t book any tours, any group packages, nothing. I bought a plane ticket, booked my room, rented a car, and showed up – and had to wing it from there. My reasons for doing this were a) to save money (not sure if that actually wound up being the case), and b) because I wanted to explore things at my own pace.

I learned from this experience that if you’re going to travel solo (or as a couple or with friends) and explore a foreign city all on your own with no guides or assistance, Reykjavik is a good place to do it. It’s easy to get around by car, by city bus, or on foot (once you figure out the map thing). Everyone is very helpful if you have questions, and everyone speaks English. Most people use credit/debit cards, so if you don’t want to struggle with counting kroner and getting a wagon just to lug around all the heavy Icelandic coins, it’s no big deal – just use the plastic.

Booking a group excursion probably has its advantages, too, like saving you the trouble of trying to figure out Icelandic parking signs, and the bus driver actually knowing how to get to the waterfall/horse stable/volcano so that you don’t drive yourself and get lost in the middle of a lava field.

All in all, I loved my time in Iceland, and am looking forward to my next trip!

Grace normally blogs at StorytellerGirl. Thanks for the great guest post!

10 free things to do in Reykjavík

Iceland is expensive. I won’t kid you, even if you take budget flights and camp out, it’s hard not to spend more money than you want to. But even in the big city of Reykjavík, there is quite a lot you can do for free! It was surprisingly easy to think of 10 good things to do.

All of the  activities below are outdoors except for the last three, and some involve walking up to 30 minutes from “downtown” (a good way to get away from the lazier tourists!).

I’ve included links to other pages where I’ve written about some of these in more detail.

1. Watch/feed the birds at Tjörnin – one of the most popular places for tourists to go is “the pond”, it’s centrally located and full of interesting birds at any time of year.

2. Ásmundur Sveinsson outdoor sculptures – arranged outside a museum of his other works, these weirdly modern and smooth sculptures date from the 1930’s.

3. Walk around the harbour – some interesting sights lie around the main harbour area – the large exhibition hall Harpa, all kinds of boats, the flea market and some really scenic views across the bay.

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4. Viewing deck at Perlan – there is a viewing platform here that gives you a panoramic view from high above the city.

Maybe not on rainy days, though

Maybe not on rainy days, though

5. Hólavallagarður – historic cemetery with interesting graves, also unusual in Iceland for having many trees.

6. Nautholsvík – how would you live to visit a beach with golden sands, geothermically heated water and hot tubs? Such a paradise exists in Reykjavík, although small and man-made it’s worth a visit!

7. Solfar sculpture – this must be one of the most photographed bits of Reykjavík, and can normally be found with tourists draped over it in interesting formations!

8. National Museum of Iceland – this is only free on Wednesdays, and only during the quieter months of the year, so it’s worth double checking this before you go.

9. Harpa – love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. There are guided tours of the building, but you can also walk around quite a lot of the inside for free. The many windows and interesting light make it popular with photographers.

10. Hallgrímskirkja – you have to pay to go up to the viewing platform of the-church-at-the-top-of-the-hill, but can walk around the church itself for free. Someone was playing the huge pipe organ last time I did this, which was quite amazing to hear.

And of course, people watching and window shopping are always free and can also be fun ways to pass the time in Reykjavík.

Have you done any/all of the above? What great things have I missed off this list?

December “sunrise”

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It’s that time of year again where Iceland-blogs are full of tales of midnight sun, staying up all night, and photos highlighting the joys of seeing a place that is light at 3:00 in the morning.

As fun as all that daylight is, I’m realising that I may actually prefer the darker times in Iceland. It creates such interesting light conditions (ironically) and things are so well lit that the dark is not actually a problem. So, just to be different, here is a photo taken in December at around 10:30 am in a lovely cold half-dark.

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