Ohhhhh! Phhhhhhh! Hahahahaha. Professor Haraldur Sigurdsson is showing images of his ventures into the erupting volcano at Bar∂abunga, climbing into the bomb craters to fetch rock samples, and wading through the ash with lightning cracking in the clouds behind him. We’re at the annual convention of the Society of American Travel Writers in Reykjavik, where Arctic Encounters is hosting a session on the contrasts of culture and volcanoes in Iceland, and the audience is vocal in its response to the explanations about the effects of volcanic ash on airline engines and to a compelling animation of the effect of the 2010 eruption on flight paths.
Here we have met writers and PR professionals from across the USA and Canada, walked around Reykjavik with an excellent Irish guide, Kevin, and, we must admit, we have had the privilege of sitting in Kristin Loftsdottir’s hot tub while gazing at the Northern Lights dancing across the sky. But more importantly, we have been participating in the convention, attending the media marketplace and learning about how the public relations professionals and tourist board representatives recruit travel writers to visit their destinations, and how the journalists are ‘pitching’ to set up trips to sites they hope to write about.
We have been extremely well received, and convention participants have been welcoming and friendly, engaging us in conversation from breakfast on throughout the day. Perhaps this is because these journalists are rather sympathetic to our methods – they understand that we want to talk to people, and that we will take notes and write them up later. In that sense journalists and ethnographers use similar methods, and one of the most experienced writers here tells us that he sees his travel writing as a kind of anthropology. He’s fascinated by culture – what is it, how do people live, how can you understand them – and he has lived in different parts of the world (including nine years in India and as many in Mexico), led by a fascination with understanding how other people live.
Fortunately, Kristin Loftsdottir is here to speak to everyone about Icelandic culture, asking what gets the privileged position of being defined as ‘culture’, and how the notion of Icelandic culture has been discussed, before and after the economic boom. Using pictures of flags made of broken cookies, ancient maps and Icelandic children with blond hair blowing in the wind, she shows how Icelanders were historically represented as barbaric and primitive peoples in European travel accounts from as early as the 16th century. Icelanders have been working to correct the misrepresentation of Iceland ever since (Kristin cites an example from 1593), giving rise to nationalist accounts of how sophisticated Icelandic people deserved to rule themselves. An image of the prime minister eating the first burger produced by McDonald’s when it arrived in the 1980s raises a shocked laugh from the audience, matched by the titters about McDonald’s leaving again at the end of the economic crash. The response to the gravity of the banking boom personified by a few ‘business vikings’ is less light-hearted. Fascinating, though, is the array of metaphors and symbols that fed into the idea of Icelandic progress. Sari Peltonen, another presenter, demonstrates this in a different way, introducing the Icelandic Design Centre that promotes Icelandic design and architecture, joining the other Scandinavian countries in their promotion of design, another way that Icelanders can find a new way to work and live now that banks are no longer the promised road to international prominence. Katrin Anna Lund and Michael Leonard are here too, representing the Icelandic team of Arctic Encounters and being the perfect hosts to the other members of the team.
Arctic Encounters will be hosting another event at the convention, and will be heading out to explore Arctic tourism in its Icelandic incarnation, so keep checking the blog.