Sunday, 31 July 2011

American Idiot

Below is a fav performance by American Idiot. Phenomenal!

Heading to Bristol again :):)
South West England is the best place to be everrr!

Thursday, 28 July 2011


Reposted from July 2008: An odd and deep fog is settling over Reykjavik this evening, muffling sounds and blocking the lovely midnight sunset from sight. That reminds me of something my Amma Ásta once said to me, "I don't understand it when people say the sun has finally come out; the sun is always there. It's the clouds that come and go."

So the sun is glowing warm and bright behind the evening's fog, as it was around midnight last week when I spotted this group of teenage visitors walking the path along the bay, enjoying the last rays of the day.

No fog for us these days except possibly regarding, once again, the future of Iceland on the international front. If you haven't already, go check out our facebook page for some idea of a few of the issues now on the table for our little mighty island.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


I've spent a fair bit of time this year taking groups of young Americans to former concentration and extermination camps: Dachau, Theresienstadt, Mauthausen, Westerbork, Treblinka and Auschwitz.  I'm just back from a very in-depth two week holocaust study tour in which we had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with two holocaust survivors.

I was going to blog specifically on what it was like doing these tours, but conversations on Twitter and the shooting in Norway made me feel that it's more important to talk about what I see as the lessons arising from the holocaust and the reason I take kids to these places.

The infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau watch tower

Disney in Reverse?

I have been taking groups to the above camps, as well as Buchenwald, Bergen and Sachsenhausen, since I was at college.  I've had my moments of doubt.  I've wondered if this isn't some kind of "Disneyland in Reverse" - these are places to tick off a list and be shocked/upset, rather than thrilled/delighted.  The Let's Go entry for Munich apparently says "If you only have a short time in Munich, visit the Hofbräuhaus and Dachau!" - which confirms just this concern.  There's no question most people can learn just as much, if not more, in the Washington Holocaust museum or the Imperial War Museum than they can visiting a former camp.

However, people learn differently, and for some an actual visit to a place will bring things to life in a way that books, a film or a museum cannot. If 10% of the 2000 students I've taken to a camp have learned something new or been touched by what they have seen, then I guess it's worth it despite my periodic reservations.

Treblinka: 850,000 Jews murdered. "Never again" to precisely what, though?
The Holocaust in a Vacuum 

But WHAT do they learn?  There is no doubt people will go to these places and see what Germany did some 70 years ago and be horrified and upset by it.  How much, though, will it be seen in an historic vacuum, in a country they don't live in, committed by people for the most part long dead?  This is where people like the Anne Frank House and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles come in - people who are determined not just to limit this to a history lesson, but to try to make a connection with our lives today.

My recent lovely group at the Auschwitz International Memorial
I hold an in-depth talk on prejudice after the visit of the camps with my students.  I have thought long and hard on how to angle this.  I don't want the holocaust seen in a bubble.  I tell everyone on my bus, to think about their own prejudices and to think what the word means.  Put simply it is seeing people as members of groups, instead of individuals, and prejudging them on that basis.  It's not enough for me to take the standard liberal line, either, to just say that prejudice exists, that we have to stop it, and that can only begin with ourselves.  There's a lot more to the story in my opinion than that.

One of the most persecuted groups in EU today
Fact Based Prejudice

What we liberals don't like to admit is that prejudice is often based on fact.  I am asked by kids whether it is true that if a gypsy child comes up to them in Rome or Prague that they will be trying to steal.  What do I say to that?

The facts are, yes, you are probably far more likely to be pick-pocketed by a gypsy in these places than by a non-gypsy.  If a blond Scandinavian child stands next to you on the metro, do you move your bag? Almost certainly not - yet let's see how you react if it is a poor looking gypsy kid.  Further, is it prejudiced to comment that around 90% of convicted felons in Texas are black? It's a fact. Should we pretend it just doesn't exist?

I've thought long and hard about this.  To hide behind a simplistic "all prejudice is wrong" lesson is not enough for me.  It leaves too much unanswered and doesn't get to the essential message that needs to come out.

Dirty, Lazy, Dishonest Poles - or the famed Polish Plumber?

Instead what I like to do is to highlight two examples of prejudice in action.  The first is personal to me: Poland.  I grew up with stories about the Poles: very negative ones.  My German family had lived in the mixed population area of West Prussia until 1945.  According to my Omi and her sisters (people whom I loved and respected) Poles were broadly dirty, lazy, dishonest people.  This is nothing new: Germany has a border with Poland and the mutual dislike between the nations goes back a long way.  There are plenty of German jokes: "Auto gestohlen? Schon in Polen!" (Car been stolen? Already in Poland!) - "Come on holiday to Poland: your car will be waiting for you". 

Then the Poles started arriving in Britain, particularly post-2004.  Here was a nation without a history of preconceptions about the Poles.  The ones we Brits encountered tended to be hard working young people.  I'm aware that in some (more economically deprived) areas there has been a great deal of feeling that Poles are taking jobs away and there are negative stereotypes coming in... however, the broad middle-class refrain in the UK I have heard repeatedly is that of the famed Polish Plumber, or of "Bobski the Builder".  These people are in fact *great*.  Employ a Pole: they're hard working, honest, decent people - so much better than lazy British tradespeople.

Let's just pause for a second.  Does something ever so glaringly insane occur about all this?  How can two actually very similar countries (Germany and the UK) have diametrically opposed prejudices - one extremely negative and one very positive - about the exact same group of people: the Poles?  There are plenty of anecdotes, perhaps even hard facts and figures, that would back up both of these opposite viewpoints in the respective countries (car thefts in Germany went up 400% post 1989 from 40k to 160k and many cars were in fact taken to Poland).  Let's continue.

Prohibited from US hotels: Ebony Express
Being Treated like a Human

I also once read a thought provoking novel about a young black GI from the Deep South.  He went to Germany in '45.  This was the most racist nation on Earth... towards the Jews and the Slavs that is.  Sure, Nazi racial ideology considered Blacks to one step up from apes - but there was broadly no ingrained history of this amongst the population at large.  The GI was in fact welcomed - German girls thought it exotic to have a black boyfriend.  He was an object of attention, of flattery.  He was well off, he was well fed particularly in comparison to the suffering post-war Germans.  Literally for the first time in his life he was treated with dignity by the broad mass of white people.

(The same is reported of Olympic Champion Jesse Owens, who in Berlin in 1936 was able to ride on trams, buses and enter hotels and restaurants - all of which were prohibited to him in many parts of the US.  On his return to New York, he actually had to ride a freight elevator in the Waldorf Astoria to attend a reception in his honour).

In the novel, upon the GI's return to the US he was again treated as a sub-human, was openly called "nigger" and put in the position of having to leave a shop if a white man came in. When a letter and photo from his German girlfriend was discovered, he was lynched.

Prejudice Creates a Reality

Where is this going?  Well, imagine how that fictional (but sadly representative) GI felt to be treated like a person for the first time in his life.  Reflect on how that must have changed his relationship to everything and everyone around him.  It's impossible for most of us to put ourselves in his shoes.  But also think about the young Pole, who in Germany is treated to centuries' worth of negative stereotyping and pre-judgement about how he will behave.  Bring him to Britain where he's welcomed and where he's actually the subject of positive stereotyping. 

The more I've thought about this, the more convinced I am that prejudice not only confirms a view of a group of people, it is so powerful it can actually *create* one.  Of course not every Pole who comes to Britain will work far harder and more honestly than he did at home because people like him; or every Pole in Germany will steal a car because Germans tend to think negatively of them.

Think of this though: take a child, put him in a room.  Tell him every day for years "you are amazing! you're talented, you're loved, you can do anything".... take another child and hammer home the message "you're stupid, you're an idiot, you're dishonest, you'll never amount to anything". Watch the results: it's not inevitable, but there is a broad likelihood of the outcome in both cases of what will be "created".  Repeat with a nation of millions, a race, or an entire faith.

Ant Hill (18): 23hr/day alone in his Wisconsin Cell
Once society produces a view that entrenches itself in a social-economic reality, particularly over a space of time, very real effects are seen.  Young black men in Texas, or Gypsies in Europe, face massive prejudice and lack of opportunity in education and furthering themselves.  Their position in society and the chances they will become criminals have *nothing* to do with their skin colour, "racial make-up" or ethnic group. Instead they have *everything* to do with what we, ourselves, in society have constructed.  We could choose to discriminate and create prejudice on equally obvious features such as height, or famously, as 60s Iowa teacher Jane Elliott proved, eye colour.  (please click on the link, it's worth the short read).

The prejudice can rapidly take hold and becomes a vicious circle: a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Yes, kids, you are more likely to be robbed by a gypsy kid in Rome.  But don't expect me to just say "watch out for gypsies!" - instead you're going to get a long talk on why this is the case.

He's blond: must be a lone wolf or just "mad"
Double Standards

Now to Norway.  I and many other tweeters pointed out that there is a glaring double-standard about the way this story was reported and commented on.

When a Muslim terrorist acts, it is automatically perceived by much of the press and the public at large as part of an assault on our values, our culture, our "way of life".  It must be an organised attack for which the entire Muslim world and Islamic faith is somehow responsible.  If it is a white Christian however, it automatically must be the act of a "loan wolf" or a "madman".  We saw the same double-standard with Pastor Terry Jones and his Koran burning.  We are easily capable of separating these men from the good mass of people who attend church in our village - in fact we never even make the link at all.  Yet when an extremist Muslim kills, he is never simply "insane".  Images of screaming clerics from Iran are splattered on our screens and we are crudely led to believe that 1.6 billion people want us dead because their faith demands it.

It took me multiple attempts to try to point this double-standard out to three right wing people I speak to on Twitter.  I'm still not convinced any of them accepted it. (One actually called me a "massive cock" which is always pleasant).

A "Misogynistic, Homophobic, Medieval Death Cult"

This brand of Islamophobia is really quite new.  Of course the West has a long history of conflict with Muslims from the Crusades through the sieges of Vienna, but this specific vilification of the Islamic world is definitely recent.  I remember general racist jokes at school in the 80s; I remember prejudice towards non-whites as a kid (one of my teachers in Hampshire even quietly told me once "It's not Jews you have to watch; it's Blacks and Asians")

This specific hatred of Muslims though, as opposed to all Asians, is quite recent in my lifetime and seems to have come from no where with frightening speed.  It was building slowly in the 90s; now since 9/11 it is growing throughout the Western World.  It is far from just the English Defence League participating in it - there are it seems plenty of more mainstream people who would dismiss EDL as "drunken yobs" yet who share highly negative and blatantly prejudical views of Islam.

 Badshahi Mosque, Pakistan
One of the three on Twitter actually went on to describe Islam  as "a misogynistic, homophobic, medieval death cult" (and yup, she was referring to all 1.6 billion of them).  A more stupid, sweeping, prejudicial statement is hard to imagine.

Yes, all three Abrahamic faiths have ingrained elements of misogyny and homophobia (though the Koran is actually less explicit than the Old Testament on this).  I would not want to be gay in Iran; equally nor would I want to be in "Christian" Uganda.  I do not draw inferences about ALL Christians on the basis of one individual, one church or one country. 

I tried over the space of hours to point this out and asked her if she believed all inhabitants of Egypt, Malaysia, UAE and Turkey were really members of a "medieval death cult".  She answered with the example of the woman CNN reporter who was attacked in Cairo.  Yes, well I was once subject to homophobic abuse in London; should I therefore prejudge all 7 million inhabitants; or better still 2 billion Christians?  Many of them (1 billion Catholics for example) have anti-gay views propagated by their faith hierarchies, after all.  Evidently she could not get past the image the tabloid press has put in her head of all Muslims being like fundamentalists in Iran - she cited "screaming clerics stoning women".

I asked her what she would "do" with the 1.6 million Muslims in Britain; her answer was that they must accept our values (including accepting guide dogs and the absence of "no gay" zones in our cities - actually thanks to us liberal lefties this is already the case by law); if not there are according to her plenty of flights to Islamic cities every hour.  She said we could also not accept Sharia law in our courts - has there ever been a serious suggestion we might?  She also talked about Islam's "PR problem"; I asked in return her how well the "Christian" West's PR image is doing in many parts of the Islamic world.

This prejudice is deeply deeply disturbing.  It's by no means the first time I've come across it on Twitter either.  It was explained to me by someone else on the basis that "in this case it's based on reality - Muslim extremists did attack on 9/11 and 7/7".  Yes, a small number of the 1.6 billion Muslims did attack and kill, motivated by hatred of the West.  It was also a Jew who shot Ernst vom Rath on 7 November 1938. I'm sure there were Germans back then who genuinely believed that Reichskristallnacht attack on the whole of Germany Jewry was "justified" on this basis.  9/11 and 7/7 categorically do not make all Muslims terrorists, potential terrorists, or supporters of terrorism.  How depressing that I even feel the need to state this in these terms.

War on Terror against Far Right Wing?

What I think we are doing, as a society, is driving an ever deeper wedge between "us" and "them." 1.6 million Muslims live in Britain.  All these negative, even hateful views, assumptions and prejudgements in the press, in conversation, by politicians, on Twitter, vilifying the world these people either come from or relate to will continue to upset, anger, and even in some cases, radicalise.  We cannot and must not answer hate with hate.

This operates on both on an individual level, and in my view, on the level of Western countries' foreign policy.  Norway lost, per capita, double the number that the USA lost in 9/11.  I so far (thankfully) do not hear cries to stamp out the far right with a "war on terror".  This is I suspect more thanks to the double-standard referred to above than any reasoned thought about whether such a "war" should be fought or could ever be won - and the consequences of the spiral of hate such conflicts create.  My "massive cock" ex-follower even denied in the space of around 10 frenzied tweets that Norway could in fact be labelled a terrorist attack at all.

Have We Learned Anything?

Eva Schloss, Auschwitz survivor, Anne Frank's posthumous step sister, and tireless, inspirational holocaust educator, asked me if in my view the world had learned anything from the holocaust and was now a better place.  My answer was broadly yes, actually quite considerably, but this new hatred, fear and vilification of Islam is to me the biggest threat we face going forward.  It is also one we are in danger of making much worse by the spiral of prejudice.  She agreed, though her assessment was perhaps less optimistic than mine.

Eva and I on our last night in Amsterdam
I come back to the fundamental lesson I have gleaned from the camps: we are horribly predisposed towards prejudice.  We should not simply pretend it does not exist, but instead understand how it comes about and the social reality it risks creating.  It should be tackled inside ourselves, and with others with calm and with reason.  We must never give up the fight.  If there is a war to be fought, this is it.

That is the message I want to get over to my students.  I actually hate going to the camps: they upset me immensely.  Again if only 10% think back to the day they visited a camp though and have learned this lesson from it, it will have been worth it.  There are enough external things in this world to make our life hard.  We do not need to add to them ourselves because of our stupidity, prejudice and lack of tolerance.  We do have a choice not to.

From Auschwitz: the lesson is far from confined to the holocaust

Sunday, 24 July 2011



On a weekend of loss and chaos a Kría, or Arctic Tern, soaring through the heavens seems a thing of purity and grace. This tiny bird may fly, in it's 30 year life span, nearly 1.5 million miles, an example of constancy that seems lacking in our mortal lives. As our world grow more complex we do right to look to the skies and marvel at the beautiful wonders that have for millennia inspired us to dream of flight. Ethereal, impossible, perfect, a bird symbolizes what we can be when we allow ourselves to believe that there is more to this existence than our earth-bound hurts and trials. Peace to the souls lost during these maddening times, and may their spirits fly high for us all.

This shot, taken near Árni Grétar's hometown of Tálknafjörður is an essay in simplicity, and as evocative as the gorgeous ambient music he composes as Futuregrapher. Co-founder of Möller Records, he plays an integral part in advancing the ambient and electronic movement here in Iceland and abroad. Breathe deep, press play, and let his music help your own soul take flight.

One love

For more photos by Árni Grétar, search and follow "Futuregrapher" with the Instagram app.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


Grins like a besotted female because you just can't help it...
Out on a gorgeous weather in WSM

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


I might think I know the world, yet, there is an entirely different part of life I see here. Back home, I've done charity for the hospice children, children with HIV, abused children and orphans. To think that the sufferings of children was the worst thing ever, I was wrong.
BEING OLD is the worst thing ever.
Being old AND lonely is as good as death.

You know what I see on a daily basis?
The elderly on their disable machines, some with jittery hands trying their best to grip the pen to sign their prescription, some with Parkisons, some with dementia, some with poor eye sight..... and so much more.

- A 63 year old male patient with back pain in need of a heat rub:
"Sir, do you have anyone to apply the ointment onto your back?"
"No, I live alone." He already uses two walking sticks to walk.

- An elderly man with hearing disability wanting to collect his Rx:
"Sir, may I have your surname please?"
"WHAT! I don't want any cream!"
He yells at me and gets a burst of laughter from the other customers behind him who did not see his hearing aid.

- Yesterday, I had an interesting encounter. A lady in her sixties came to the pharmacy to collect her Rx. After that, my colleague told me to walk her to Mark's and Spencers which was situated opposite my pharmacy. It usually takes a couple of minutes to get to M & S, but with this lady, it took a good 10 minutes.

Every step she made, she paused suddenly when she sensed someone else was nearby.
"Hold onto me, dear and don't let go. Other people walk too fast and I am afraid they will knock me down"

One time, there was a slide bump on the street and she panicked.
"No, No, I am very afraid to walk on it" And she pulls me to a dustbin, puts just one finger on it and say, "There, you see, I just need to put one finger here for balance, and I am fine to cross."

I had a chance to have a little chat with her while on this 'trip'.
"Do you have family here, maam?"
"No, I live alone here. That's why I go to M&S because they know me and will take care of me until my taxi arrives to go home." She continues, "I have friends in Weston, but it is not nice to bother them."

After the past 5 weeks of working, I just feel that the elderly were definitely more fragile than the unfortunate children. Also, two is better than one. Your partner may have jittery hands or stutter when he speaks, but at least he knows there is always someone standing next to him to help.

I must say, What an experience!

Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare!

Monday, 18 July 2011


As in any city in the world, big or small, some of us metro types forget that there's views worth discovering in those drive-through-on-the-way-to-the-airport suburbs surrounding our glamorous urban lifestyles. Though this might cause me hassle, I'm going to admit that Kópavogur is that kind of place for me, though they do have a new and really cool swimming pool/gym and will soon have a full-blown amusement park in the Smáralind Mall (here you can read Alda's opinion on it's very dubious arial footprint) though I'm having a hard time finding links to back that fact up.

For now, we'll let this picture do, of a metal shop with a very creative owner in the old west bank industrial/harbor area, right across the waters from our lovely beach at Nauthólsvík.

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out

Sunday, 17 July 2011


Nobody knows
Keep coming back like a Boomerang

I just wish I didn't know

Monday, 11 July 2011


Note: technical difficulties! Some of our photos are dropping out, which makes me sad (I'll not point fingers, but it might be a Picasa issue...) I'm fixing it as we speak.
We'll leave our armchair-architectural opinions at the door and just note that many of you who have taken the trip to Geysir and Gullfoss (live webcam!) via Laugarvatn have passed by this church at Úthlíð. It was consecrated in 2006 in memory of Ágústa Ólafsdóttir by her husband Björn Sigurðsson and as such has charming sentimental value that may make up for its (for me) shockingly out of place appearance in the heart of Iceland's historical Saga territory.

I jumped out of our car to take a picture while Óðinn, being an inquisitive five year old, decided, against my strict council, to see if he could take a run around the interior (literally.) Before I knew it I had followed him in and was actually comforted by how warm and comfortable the church is, with a large portrait of Ágústa on the south wall and a colorful modern tableau of Mary, Baby Jesus and a content-looking cow above the altar (painted by the architect, Gísli Sigurðsson, former journalist and brother of Björn) all framed with that natural wood so common in summer houses around the countryside. Before my little klifurmús could climb the final ladder up the bell tower, I was able to snap a few more pictures, have a short moment of silence, and gather him back out into the car. I'm glad he dared to try the door and entreat me to join him inside. Now I have much more respect for a building I would have simply written off as a roadside oddity otherwise.

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out.

Friday, 8 July 2011


Once again, the secret world of our often very barren island shows through in macro. Here, an incredibly well-designed creature, only a centimeter in size, rests on a tiny bloom. This close to the arctic, far from the giant sequoias of California and the lush tropical flora of more southerly volcanic islands (which, beneath their foliage are surprisingly similar to ours) it's small things that hint at Nature's tenacity. Sit, while here, and let your eyes begin to decipher the seemingly endless expanses of low growth that just greens the hillsides of Iceland. You'll soon discover that, almost fractally, what you see is a microcosm of diversity, though sometimes mere millimeters in size.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


It seems fair to warn you, dear reader, friend of Iceland, and/or potential visitor that on your travels out to the countryside you will be seeing quite a bit of this: stark moors, plus barren arctic deserts capped by grey skies. And it may very well be windy to boot. A huge swath of land between Fljótsdalshérað in the east and Akureryi in the north is, frankly, discouraging and mind-numbing tundra-scape. Some people love it, and some pretend to, but I'm pretty sure the majority of us find ourselves wondering how long we'd survive if our cars died and no one ever passed by that way again (sometimes you can go a good fifteen, twenty minutes without seeing another car, even in high traffic summer.) 

So be warned: always let your hotel/guesthouse/the internet in general (tweets! fb!) know where you're going and when while you are traveling the countryside here, bring some good happy tunes with you (an iPod jack or CDs for your rental car is a must: there's no-to-poor radio reception for great stretches of the main highway!) and plenty of chocolate, snacks and water. Anything to keep you alert, awake and  in a good traveling mood. The sameness of the landscape can mesmerize and you want to be sure to stay focused and on the road! Your destination is most probably an amazing natural wonder, well worth journeying to. Just be prepared for lots of "nothing" in between.

Or you can just do like Jon Bon Jovi * just did yesterday, and rent a helicopter to take you about ; ) 

*This link shows you just how "imperfect" google Translate still is with Icelandic. We're working on it!

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out .

Saturday, 2 July 2011



Yes, you can go on a dogsledding adventure here in Iceland! On a glacier in the summer time! I haven't done it myself, but I have been to the top of Langjökull glacier on a snowmobile and what you get from there are stunning views out over southwest Iceland, into the highlands interior and out to the Atlantic beyond. The sledding companies also offer dog trolley excursions to places like Surtshellir, which is a fantastic and cave/lava tube that has been used and written about and visited since the first settlement era in the 9th century. You can still see remnants of very old encampments up on the ledges lining the tube, as well as little ice elves that populate the cave floor. Here's a sweet song by our internationally acclaimed sigur rós from the stunningly beautiful documentary Heima played on a marimba made out of slate/scree in Surtshellir.   

Christian, a resident of Berlin, has been sharing his photos of Iceland on our facebook page wall (which you are all welcome, and encouraged to do : ) and so I asked if I could use one them. It was difficult choosing one from among his many excellent shots but this one seemed most in tune with the Iceland Eyes vibe.  

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out : )