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Europe Wednesday, 12 August, 1998, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Iceland's modern sagas
Icelandic coastline
Iceland's rugged conditions have shaped a hardy, independent culture

In this programme, Crossing Continents visits one of Europe's wilder shores: Iceland. It's a rugged and hauntingly beautiful place, where for centuries tiny communities have scratched a living from windswept grazing lands and the richly-stocked sea. The Icelandic people are fervently proud of their homeland, their language and their culture, and the country has historically been one of the most isolated and homogeneous societies in Europe.

But now Iceland is having to confront its ambivalent attitude to outsiders, as for the first time in history it's playing host to significant numbers of foreigners - including contingents of European and American businessmen, the Thai wives of Icelandic sailors, and most recently an influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

Listen to the programme in full

Meriel Beattie and Yugo refugee Zhelka Popovic, Isafjordur, Iceland, 7/98
Meriel Beattie talks to refugee Zhelka Popovic at her workplace - a fish factory
Presenter Meriel Beattie meets some of the Yugoslav refugee families trying to make their way in the country, and examines how well they're fitting into Icelandic life. With almost no unemployment, no army of its own and one of the highest standards of living in the world, Iceland might seem like an ideal place to settle. But as we find out, it's no easy ride: local culture here demands that everyone, from ten-year-olds at school to refugees who've just entered the country, is expected to work at least one job and support themselves.

Meeting the refugees and finding out how they're adapting to life here, Crossing Continents travels from the capital Reykjavik to the remote, hardworking fishing villages where they've set up home - like Blonduos in the north and even further-flung Isafjordur on the rocky north-western coast. While they're happy to be here, many still feel isolated and wonder how much their neighbours really accept them. (You can read about this story in more detail in our 'Top Features' section.)

We also talk to Hans Gisurarsson, professor of politics, and Ingibjorg Hafstad, who runs education programmes for foreign children in Iceland, about how Iceland is coping with its new citizens. A new term, nybor, has been coined for those who don't have Icelandic as their mother tongue, and it's a slightly pejorative word. More pointedly, it's usually only used to describe those who look different. "Russians, Norwegians, Danes are not nybor", Ingibjorg notes; "the Asians, the Africans are... foreigners here are terribly isolated and have terribly few Icelandic friends."

Model in fishskin dress, Iceland, 8/98
Radical Icelandic fashion: a dress stitched from fish skin
Yet paradoxically Iceland is also one of the world's most 'wired' and globally-minded societies. In music, fashion and computer software, Icelandic creative talent is at the cutting edge; Bjork was just the beginning. We talk to Eythor Arnalds, of the internationally known software company OZ Interactive, about how he and his wife Moa, one of Iceland's most promising singers, are using technology to broadcast her shows all over the world via the Web and a system of software puppets which mimic Moa's every move. Why are Icelanders so keen on innovative technology? Eythor suggests that it might have something to do with the long winter nights where there's little else to do.

During the summer it's a different matter - but the same restless energy is channelled into one of the wildest party and club scenes in the world. At 4 am in Reykjavik the streets are packed with trendy (and drunken) revellers who won't hear of going home, but head off to the next party for more fun - and more drinks.

Birna Helgadottir and baby
Birna Helgadottir: "whatever it is, we'll cope with it..."
Finally, readers of these pages can also hear about one aspect of Icelandic life not covered in the programme as broadcast: the country's typically stolid and no-nonsense attitude towards single motherhood. Journalist Birna Helgadottir tells us how for Icelanders, motherhood is a badge of honour for any woman, whether married or not.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Birna Helgadottir on Icelandic attitudes, July 1998
explains Icelandic attitudes to motherhood...
Clubbers in Reykjavik - at 4 a.m.! July 1998
of Reykjavik's riotous nightlife...
Memory Cloud - Moa - 4' album version (c) Tommy Boy
hear Moa's song "Memory Cloud"...
See also:

22 Jul 98 | Europe
09 Feb 98 | Europe
03 May 98 | In Depth
Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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