Iceland: where representative government began

LAST year, while doing research in Germany, I could have felt forlorn when, during the Christmas vacation, German students and faculty alike swarmed to the warm and brilliant beaches of Greece and Yugoslavia. Instead, I could think of no better reason to head for Iceland. Actually, I could. I had been there before. I had made fast friends among its silent people, a people who live in the world's oldest democracy, the guardians of a cultural tradition unbroken for a thousand years and a language essentially unchanged since the settlement of the island nation by Norse rovers.

Having never been invaded or exposed to manifold or overwhelming cultural influences from without, any Icelander can readily trace his ancestry back to Viking times, to individuals with such colorful names as Thorkel Flatnose and Harald Bloodax. Most Icelanders are related to one another as well -- after all, there are only 220,000 of them.

I once mentioned to an Icelandic girl I had met in Germany that I had written a letter to Iceland's only Nobel laureate, the writer Halldor Laxness. ``Oh?'' she said, nonplused. ``He's my cousin.''

Perhaps, then, it's intimacy I wish to discuss. For only intimacy with one's culture -- especially when it contains as many pearls as Iceland's does, and especially when that culture is everyone's common experience -- can bring sophistication to the point of understanding that here, among us, is a prize worth nurturing, and, to a great extent, preserving: We will build no McDonald's here.

In Reykjavik, at night, small Icelandic children can be seen on the streets, without parental supervision, not causing mischief, and certainly not abandoned or runaway, for children are considered a national treasure in Iceland. They are there, rather, because it is as safe as their own homes.

Reykjavik's jail is usually empty. A couple of years ago Iceland experienced the first armed robbery in its history. The reaction of the victims was, quite simply, astonishment -- childlike, disbelieving astonishment.

I have a close friend in a city outside the capital. He recalled the sense of amusement among the Icelanders when then-President Richard Nixon visited their country in the early '70s.

He had moved through the streets, says my friend, surrounded by alert, spinning armed guards. This had baffled the Icelanders, as none of them could even conceive of the possibility of a threat. As a matter of fact, they didn't even turn out in any numbers to greet the American head of state.

After all, democracy is democracy, gray in its pure forms, perhaps, but democracy nonetheless, and Mr. Nixon was accorded the respect appropriate to another pair of feet on the island.

If it is true that the military in a democracy should be as invisible as possible, then Iceland has achieved the ultimate: It has no armed forces.

It does, however, have a small police contingent, and Icelanders gather on street corners to chuckle at them, because they can't march, although they try to keep in step, passing in gauche review before the smiles of Icelandic children.

The President of Iceland is the first freely elected woman head of state of a modern nation. She lives in the traditional presidential residence on a small spit of land called Bessastadir. My friend Gylfi took me there. Looking somewhat adobe in its rounded contours, it is a low, beige structure that hugs the earth. On that January day it glowed lambently in the half-light of the winter sun.

But there was something more remarkable than the architecture or the nature of the day. You see, there was a total absence of guards. We went right up to the windows and peered in, rubbing clear spots in the frost. The President wasn't home. So we went next door to the small chapel.

There, next to the altar, was a podium with a book on it. The book was one of the oldest printed Icelandic Bibles in the land. And it wasn't under glass, or buffered in an atmosphere of helium. It was just there, for everyone, and I touched it. Then I signed the register, under the ambassador from Denmark.

Soon President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will meet in Iceland. I must say that, all nationalistic prejudices aside, Mr. Reagan will have the edge if talk perchance turns to freedom and democracy, for he will have a powerful example at his disposal.

And if the two men but look about themselves, I hope they see the policemen who cannot march. And I hope that they, too, find this reassuring.

Robert T. Klose teaches at the University of Maine, Orono, Maine.

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