The Coffee of Civilization in Iceland

The thing that’s striking is the coffee. I am talking here about Iceland, the strange and wonderful and small—three hundred and twenty thousand people—country from which I have just returned, having sapiently bored students at a fine writer’s retreat. The account of a richly complex foreign culture, based on a two- or three-day trip–beginning with the taxi from the airport, including the meeting with the minister of economics (always surprisingly young, and always with a degree from Harvard or Stanford)—is one of the least attractive of all American journalistic modes. In this case, though, I’ll indulge just a little because, although a newcomer to the country, I am an old-comer to the culture: my mother-in-law, still with us at ninety-five, is as Icelandic as could be and, although Canadian Icelanders are not exactly the same as the homespun kind, they are still almost indistinguishable from the natives. When my wife, Martha, recites the names of her grandparents to curious Icelandic strangers, they nod appreciatively and wrinkle their brows, rather as someone might who shares a common background in a small town in Wisconsin: if I don’t know them, I know folks all around them. Indeed, she and our children were referred to throughout our trip as “Western Icelanders,” not, as I’d assumed, because her family had originally emigrated from the west of Iceland but because “Western Iceland” is the Icelandic shorthand for Canada.

Martha, more important, was coming home to a land long dreamed of, since all Icelanders share her almost desperate sense of the centrality of coffee to existence. She has a fetishistic relationship to coffee, which she drinks in an impossibly thick brew from early morning until shortly before she goes off to a sound sleep at midnight. After dinner, she timidly asks if anyone wants coffee, real coffee—and, despite the hysterical rejections in this age of frazzled nerves and pervasive decaf, makes a pot, from which she drains a cup or two. In this, she is exactly like her mother, the only person I have ever met who would order a cup of coffee before dinner at a good restaurant, just to get in the mood.

This is Icelandic in the extreme. In the Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s great Icelandic novel “Independent People,” a peasant wedding is celebrated with everyone having four or five cups of coffee, as others peasants in other lands might drink flagons of mead or ale. (A five-hour sightseeing bus trip is interrupted at hourly intervals for coffee and Icelandic doughnuts.)

What is astonishing and illuminating is that, between cups, no Icelander talks much or at all about the most obvious thing about the compulsive coffee-drinking – that it is a triumph of trade. The beans have had to come from very, very far away to fuel what one proud Icelander called “this barren and isolated little island,” with considerable difficulty and at what must have been at times immense expense. As best as I can discover, the coffee trade to Iceland began in the late eighteenth century and has never really ceased, surmounting all the difficulties of long voyages and iced-in harbors. According to the Nordic Coffee Culture blog, coffee arrived in Iceland precisely on November 16, 1703, “when Árni Magnússon – a scholar and collector of many highly valuable Nordic manuscripts – acquired a quarter of a pound of coffee from a friend.” (How Árni acquired it, or what the friend was doing with it, is unexplained.) By the mid-nineteenth century, it was central to the country’s sense of itself. Martha finally found her holy grail, the ideal café au lait, in a cozy old coffee house called Tiu Droppar.

One might even see the Icelandic coffee cult as one case of a too-little-touched-on aspect of the human comedy: our tactical amnesia about trade. We tend to abstract and accent the unpleasant or disconcerting aspects of trade while domesticating the bits that seem essential to us. In “ David Copperfield,” there’s an old lady who spends all her time drinking tea and decrying foreign travel (“Let us have no meandering”) while other nineteenth-century English characters drink huge quantities of French and German wine, calling it by peculiar English names, hock and claret, while seeming to forget where it comes from, too. The scene of the Englishman boasting of his cellar while he damns the frogs is not an infrequent one in the English novel.

All of this comes to mind when one talks to Icelanders, as one must, about the recent economic history of their country, which touches again and again, sometimes with misleading simplification, on issues of interdependence and insularity. Iceland has travelled from one of the worst financial collapses on record, in 2008, when all the banks that had over-loaned went under, to a striking recovery, with growth having returned at a neat clip and the big bubble in finance having been replaced by hopefully more sustainable booms in fishing and tourism. Iceland got used, in the bad years, to receiving tumid little lectures from outsiders on how such simple people allowed themselves to get caught up in a big, bad world beyond their ken—though the truth is that, while Iceland obviously did silly things with banks, they were the same kind of silly things with banks that the masters of civilization were doing in downtown Manhattan. The big difference was that the Icelanders switched gears faster and got over it sooner and, for good measure, put some of their bankers in jail.

Still, the arguments about what happened in Iceland post-crash are ongoing, and tend to break into two sides. One view is that Icelanders did the right thing: nationalized their banks, told their creditors that they were as much at fault as the debtors ever were, and refused to stop paying for a welfare state. Their currency took a huge hit, but their domestic economy has recovered, and it has done so without inflicting too much pain on the most vulnerable. The other view, argued with equal vehemence, is that a crash on this scale was still a crash, wiping out savings and jobs; that other small countries, more obedient to the International Monetary Fund and neoliberal dogma, have done still better; and that while telling your creditors to get stuffed may be plausible for a small country that German bankers still tend to treat sentimentally rather than censoriously—”Germany has a weakness for Iceland,” an economics professor in Reykjavík is quoted as saying in Der Speigel—it is not a good model for anybody else.

By far the most provocative explanation offered in Iceland for the Icelandic rebound is what one of their medieval sagas would have simply called the Miracle of the Mackerel. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, schools of mackerel, hugely profitable for the fishing industry, suddenly became abundant in Icelandic fishing waters. The mackerel miracle may or may not have something to do with global warming, which certainly is changing Iceland’s fragile climate, with the glaciers retreating at a frightening rate. This has led, once again, to a counter-narrative, held by the ruling Progressive Party, in which the retreating ice will only open up new farmland—and that, in turn, has been countered by the fear that the sudden enthusiasm of Icelandic volcanoes, explosive enough to actually shut down air traffic in a few recent instances, can be more tightly linked to climate change than any of the supposedly good stuff.

The one thing that a non-specialist might feel confident in saying is that a tiny, homogenous country of extraordinarily literate and heavily caffeinated fishermen probably doesn’t offer lessons easily applied anywhere else. Culture has a way of trumping the rational Homo economicus. Iceland has rebounded, in large part, one senses, because Icelanders are accustomed to sudden switches in destiny—the politician in the three-piece suit who represents the city of Reykjavík at a reception for foreign authors turns out to double as the bass player of a metal band called HAM—and are also accustomed to displaying coöperative behavior in the world’s least coöperative circumstances. (Icelandair seats everyone on a plane without a single boarding announcement, or division of the passengers into zones, or any of the rest of the American rigmarole: the line forms silently, people get on board quietly, and then the plane takes off.)

How much isolation, how much interdependence, is helpful for small lands—or for big ones? This takes us back to coffee. It would be a terrible thing if the crises of any moment detracted us from the deeper truth of interdependence. The cosmopolitan nature of civilization, which derives from trade, is always the single most startling thing about it. Culture counts, but a culture is never a reduced essence of something indigenous. It is whatever particular recipe of cosmopolitanism its people have produced. In America, the recipe is so multipartite that it produces Kosher Thai restaurants. In Iceland, it’s one part coffee to one part anything else. The globalized world—that is, one where a cosmopolitan permeability of peoples is the rule rather than the exception—seems the old and hardy fact about human existence, while the idea of the walled-off, unique nation, with its singular spirit, is the newcomer. (Not long ago I wrote something similar about an astonishing book on the Bronze Age, which described how King Hammurabi, of Babylon—the big guy with the Code—ordered a pair of shoes all the way from Crete, and then returned them for size.)

Self-conscious cosmopolitanism makes us uncomfortable, as with Calvin Trillin’s unhappiness when the airport in Kansas City began calling itself Kansas City International. But unconscious cosmopolitanism is the key to civilization—when you don’t bother to stop to think how much your way of life depends on distant places, intricate trade, and hidden chains of supply. Going to a beautiful, remote place reminds us, above all, how relentlessly interdependent the world is and always has been in supplying pleasures that are, almost by definition, imports. Hope, Emily Dickinson says, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. Civilization, one might say, is the thing over there at the corner table, drinking coffee in a cold climate.