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OPINION: Boundaries, borders and empires—oh my!

Bill Crane's Opinion Piece for Champion newspaper

“There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies. If there is a river or fjord to cross (and we shall meet with many) you will see him plunge in at once, just as if he were amphibious, and gain the opposite bank.” Author/scientist Jules Verne, from his novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

 Having recently returned from the land of fire and ice, I can vouch for Vernes’ bold declarations about the comparatively compact Icelandic horse. But much like its homeland—don’t let size fool you. This hardy, small Norse horse, packs quite a punch.

 And so can the plucky people of Iceland. The country’s name implies an inhospitable frozen tundra, but Iceland is far from being either. Icelandic pride also will have some quickly pointing out that Viking explorer Leif Erickson, born in Iceland, is credited with being the first European to land on and discover North America, at the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada.

As Erickson died at age 49 or 50 in A.D. 1020, he beat Christopher Columbus’ more widely heralded landing in 1492 by nearly 500 years. The United States gifted an impressive statue of Erickson to the people of Iceland near their capital’s city hall. 

Although a remote island, located inside the Arctic Circle, Iceland, nearly due north of Great Britain, is surrounded by the vast Atlantic Ocean and along with Ireland, Scotland and Norway–is affected by the Gulf Stream–keeping the southern parts of Iceland surprisingly temperate and mild. But drive 20-30 minutes inland and north, or to the base of one of the island nation’s many glaciers or active volcanoes and the place takes on an almost other-worldly feeling.   

And though it was the Vikings who discovered and originally settled Iceland, the island later became a territory of Norway, and still later Denmark. The Danes did not allow Iceland sovereignty until World War I, and Iceland did not gain full independence until the closing days of World War II. Iceland, like many parts of Scandinavia, remained neutral during the great war, though troops from the United Kingdom occupied their northern neighbor to prevent an invasion or takeover by the Germans.

 An economic hot spot of the 1990s and first decade of the current century, the Icelandic economic bubble burst in 2008, as a significant side casualty of the collapse of American financial markets and institutions. Well over-extended Icelandic banks imploded overnight, and the nation’s government chose not to step in. By the next day, the kronar, the Icelandic currency, became valueless. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided more than $2 billion in emergency loans, but an island nation, which imports most everything other than fish and geothermal energy, had to develop other access to increasing foreign capital investment—and fast.

 Iceland’s government quickly began operational subsidies of its two primary airlines, Icelandair and later WOW (a Virgin Airline-aimed discount carrier), to bring in tourists primarily from the United Kingdom and United States who still had cash in their pockets. Hoteliers joined the gambit, packaging up their inventory, and adding a nice hot breakfast, to lure travelers with a comparative bargain to most any other European destination.

 From burst bubble, Iceland is back to booming. Construction cranes dot downtown Reykjavik, as well as new hotels and related developments near the small nation’s wealth of historic and native cultural sites. Demand for employees in the tourism industry, now the nation’s largest, has also created a significant surge in immigration.  

 Iceland’s two-ship Coast Guard helped win the long fought “Cod Wars” over fishing-rights in the North Atlantic with Great Britain. Though Britain is a long way from the days of its own far-flung empire, it remains a major economic influence in the region. And though size still matters, this is another case and reminder that it is often more important what you do with what you’ve got.

 As I gleaned years ago on my first visit to Aruba, another impressive island nation, one can learn large life lessons from small countries. My Iceland trek well reminded me of the mind-and soul-charging benefits of learning more intimately about the history and cultures of other countries, peoples and empires. And if approached correctly and with an open mind, just another friendship or ally waiting to be formed.

Bill Crane also serves as a political analyst and commentator for Channel 2’s Action News, WSB-AM News/Talk 750 and now 95.5 FM, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can reach him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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