[Earlier this month, I traveled to Iceland for the first time, a nation with recently discovered historical connections to the Americas. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied the culture at the heart of those ties, leading up to this special post on a few takeaways from the trip itself!]
Three things I learned about America while traveling in Iceland.
1) Not so rugged: “Rugged individualism” has been one of the myths at the core of American identity for centuries, but in recent decades has been challenged by another narrative: that we’re an overly litigious nation, prone to take offense and sue at the slightest mishap. I’ve always agreed with that second hyperlinked article’s arguments that our litigiousness is greatly exaggerated, but I have to say that Iceland shifted my thinking somewhat. Time and again we were presented with extremely hazardous situations and settings, ones that came with no warnings or “at your own risk” statements of any kind. Given that some of them (like the mighty Skógafoss waterfall, which featured a narrow outcropping high above the fall on which visitors could walk with no railings of any kind) are also among the island’s most highly touristed areas, I can’t imagine that there aren’t at least occasional accidents and deaths, yet it seems no one has sued as a result of such tragedies. At least when it comes to signage and guidance, Iceland feels far less litigious than America.
2) But much more inclusive: In many of the same places I was also struck by a very different side of Iceland and its attractions, however: their complete inaccessibility to disabled visitors, or even those who might not fit the criteria for a disability but have mobility issues of any kind (such as the elderly). To name just one example, the beautiful walk behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall seems at first to be relatively accessible, but then turns (again, with no signage or warnings of any kind) into a scramble up slippery, steep rocks, one that requires a great deal of mobility to complete without significant danger. Iceland doesn’t have its own version of the Americans with Disabilities Act, of course, so it’s not under any legal obligation to make such public spots accessible—and it’s fair to say that in many cases such accommodations simply might not be possible. Yet in any case, traveling in Iceland made me proud of the steps America has taken to become more welcoming and inclusive for disabled Americans and visitors, perhaps especially in our public and shared spaces.
3) A model of collective memory: On a very different note, I was extremely impressed with the ways Iceland remembers one of the main subjects of my week’s posts: the sagas, and the collective stories and histories they present. We visited a number of museums dedicated to the sagas and their contexts, including my personal favorite the Saga Centre, and found that they did an excellent job highlighting the sagas’ complex, even contradictory elements: their fictions and storytelling yet their relationships to history and geography, their influences and imaginations, their role in shaping a national culture and identity and how scholars have both challenged and validated their details, and more. While America doesn’t have a single body of texts that parallel the Icelandic sagas, it’s fair to say that much of our early literature has performed similar communal roles—and thus that a prospective space such as the American Writers Museum (for which I’ve been honored to work as both a scholarly advisor and a blogger) could learn a great deal from how these saga museums have contributed to Iceland’s collective memories of its literature and culture.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Icelandic experiences or perspectives you’d share?
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