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Credit collapse numbs Icelanders

By Paul Henley
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

I was warned that if you do not start Icelandic cold-water swimming in the summer, and continue regularly into winter to acclimatise yourself, it can be dangerous.

Ice swimmers
Ice swimming has become a popular way to relieve recession worries
True or not, it was a sound excuse not to join the seemingly mad Icelanders hurling themselves into the 3.5C (38F) water of Reykjavik harbour on a pitch dark November evening.

According to Isleifur Fridriksson, who oversees the facility, which is free and open to the public two nights a week, this peculiarly Nordic brand of masochism has never been more popular.

In August, before the national financial collapse with which most of the world is now familiar, only about 30 swimmers turned up here. Recently, there have often been over 100.

Mr Fridriksson puts the increase firmly down to the banking dramas and ordinary peoples' need to combat rising stress levels.

"My theory is that we are so fed up with these people in suits that we want to be where people are not wearing suits. And where is a better place than in the ocean, where you take off your clothes?"

As a regime it could help you forget most things - you venture into the icy night in swimming costume, psyche yourself up for a few minutes in a shallow outdoor hot-water pool on the dockside, run the 100m or so to the sea and then plunge in, screaming.

A middle-aged woman comes out of the waves looking very red. She assures me there is no better antidote to recession worries.

Bleak winter

You do not have to search very hard in Reykjavik - the world's most northerly capital city - to find personal disaster stories associated with the financial crash.

Almost everybody I talk to in the main shopping centre had a tale to tell. Unsurprisingly, there is not much shopping being done.

I know people who are having a nervous breakdown. Icelanders are sick and tired of this
Woman in Red Cross line
Some analysts are predicting that inflation will reach up to 30% this winter.

Jobs are being lost at a rate of up to 5,000 a month. In a country whose entire population is only 300,000, the impact is huge.

When the redundancy money runs out in January and February the impact caused by the economic collapse will be felt more keenly, as thousands more homes are re-possessed due to people falling into arrears on mortgage payments. Many of those monthly payments doubled overnight when the value of the Icelandic Krona crashed.

Red Cross food line
Most people receiving help with food have lost their jobs or their life savings

In a Red Cross hut in a working-class suburb of Reykjavik, weekly food hand-outs are suddenly more popular.

The organiser tells me that the idea that Iceland was, until last month, officially the fifth richest country in the world is "a joke".

Among the about 150 people waiting in line for bread, potatoes, butter and milk are single mothers recently made redundant and pensioners who lost their life savings overnight when the banks crashed.

"I can't even begin to imagine what it's going to be like this winter," says a 44-year-old woman whose disability allowance has just been cut.

"I know people who are having nervous breakdowns. Icelanders are sick and tired of this."

Little protest

A common feeling that an incompetent government and a tiny handful of greedy bankers have caused havoc for the majority has not yet translated into civil disobedience or even mass demonstration.

More than 60% of Icelanders live in Reykjavik but barely 2% of the city's population attended the latest weekly march through the city to protest at the mishandling of the economy.

But, beneath the appearance of everyday calm, cracks are showing. Police report an increase in alcohol-associated violence. A live-in refuge for women victims of domestic violence is busier.

"We also have increasing numbers of women calling us and coming for counselling," says Sigthrudur Gunnursdottir, who runs the refuge.

"I think it has to be linked to the economic situation of the country. And what has changed for these women trying to get away from a violent partner is that, whereas their main concern, before, was finding somewhere else to live, there is now no shortage of empty accommodation but almost no jobs."

Optimism

Lara Omarsdottir and her partner, Houkur Olafsson, are cheerful in the face of adversity.

There is a happy atmosphere in the rented, three-bedroom ground-floor flat where they live with their five children, despite the fact that both parents have lost their jobs within the past fortnight.

Lara, Houkur & family
I'm prepared to fight, to start again from the beginning
Houkur Olafsson
"It is ridiculous, really, the way Icelanders got used to having lots of things, to being rich on borrowed money," Lara says.

"We are going to change our diet, we are going to shop differently, we are only going to use cash, no cards."

"The worst thing is we just don't know what is coming," Haukur says. "I'm prepared to fight, to start again from the beginning. I just need a signal from my government about what exactly to do."

The Icelandic government has just announced that it has set up a commission to investigate joining the European Union - something that would have been unthinkable before the crash, but which is now favoured by the vast majority of the population, eager to welcome the luxury of a stable euro.

No deal will be struck on EU membership until agreements have been reached on guaranteeing foreign savers' deposits in the now infamous Icelandic banks.

But ministers in Reykjavik are no doubt hoping Brussels will be the light at the end of a very long-looking tunnel.

You can hear Paul Henley's report from Iceland on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents on Thursday, 20 November, 2008 at 1102 GMT. It was repeated on Monday, 24 November, 2008 at 2030 GMT.



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