This is one of a series of short pieces about a foreigner’s impressions of living in Iceland, that could be run as a regular column. The Icelandic word for foreigner is “útlendar” (literally outlander) hence the references to outlanders.
I’ve been reading the Icelandic telephone book. That might sound an odd way of passing the time but it is a rather interesting document. I first came across it because I wanted to interview Páll Óskar, a local celebrity and Eurovision Song Contest guru, and after asking a few people how I might contact him, did he have an agent etc, I received fairly bemused looks and the reply, “Just look him up in the phone book.” Evidently being ex-directory is not a big thing here.
After getting thoroughly distracted by the uniqueness of a telephone directory listed by Christian names (there are some great names – Ebenezer Þorláksson) I chanced upon the only bit in English – “Instructions for the general public regarding natural disasters in Iceland”
Now this is brilliant; with all due sympathy to the tsunami victims you can’t help thinking that Thailand could have done with something a bit like that in the phone book. There are general instructions about evacuating etc and you don’t evacuate to anything as innocuous as a “Muster Point” or even “Community Centre; in Iceland if you have to leave your home in an emergency you head straight for the nearest “Mass Casualty Centre”.
There is no substitute for telling it like it is.
You are given strict intstructions as to the procedures to follow if there is say, a volcanic eruption, a disaster which is actually dealt with specifically. Interestingly enough you must “take measure to ensure that food will not be spoiled.” Talk about remaining calm under pressure.
Earthquakes are particularly thoroughly covered:
“It is good to memorize the words DUCK, COVER, HOLD to remember how to react in the event of an earthquake.”
A helpful graphic depicts “Ducking in the corner of a supporting wall, covering the head and holding on, if possible.” If possible? My point exactly.
The instructions are signed off in bold capitals:
ALWAYS BELIEVE THAT YOU WILL BE RESCUED. THAT WILL INCREASE THE POSSIBILITY OF BEING FOUND ALIVE.
Indeed. Another example of that straight talking, no beating round the bush, telling it like it is vibe again.
Coming from a country where a power cut is considered a disaster it’s difficult to imagine checking the fridge during an earthquake, so it is easy to picture a scenario of general chaos. But bear in mind that a massive eruption in 1973 nearly wiped out Heimay in the Westmann Islands. The eruption commenced at 2am on 23 January and lasted for five months spilling more than 30 million tonnes of lava over the town, destroying 360 houses and creating a brand new mountain. A third of the town was buried beneath lava flow, and the island increased in the size by 2.5 sq km.And the residents? All 5000 inhabitants were successfully evacuated to the mainland, bar one – a chancer who was trying to be opportunistic and looted the pharmacy.
Clearly they’d been reading the phone book, which worryingly for us outlanders devotes four pages to the Instructions for Natural Disasters in Icelandic, rather than the mere two in English.