On the Eve of Our Presidential Election, an Interview with the First Lady of the Most Peaceful Country in the World: Iceland

On the Eve of Our Presidential Election, an Interview with the First Lady of the Most Peaceful Country in the World: Iceland
The President and First Lady of Iceland. Photo by Hakon Broder Lund

For the sixth consecutive year, Iceland has placed first on The Global Peace Index (GPI). There is no doubt the small, Arctic island deserves this honor.

Frankly, though, I’m a bit envious.

Peace has been elusive in America, especially this summer. Like most Americans, I can’t wait for the election to be over. The process has been too long, too ugly, and too embarrassing.

So, on the eve of the election, I offer a diversion: my interview with Iceland’s new First Lady, Eliza Reid.

Eliza being interviewed on Icelandic television.

Eliza being interviewed on Icelandic television. Photo by Hakon Broder Lund

I met Eliza in 2008 at an Icelandic conference honoring participants in the Arctic Convoys of WWII. Eliza was one of the coordinators. Intelligent and vivacious, she is a brilliant writer, as well. This year, at The Iceland Writers Retreat which she co-founded, Eliza told me that her husband, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, had decided to run for President of Iceland.

I followed the campaign closely and was thrilled when Gudni won the election in June and Eliza, his lovely Canadian wife, became First Lady of Iceland.

MY INTERVIEW WITH ELIZA

The Winning Ticket: A Canadian/Icelandic Love Story 

Eliza and Gudni. Photo Photo by Hakon Broder Lund

Eliza and Gudni. Photo Photo by Hakon Broder Lund

How did you and Gudni meet?

We met at Oxford University in graduate school. We were both on the rowing crew and there was a fundraising event. The guys had a Styrofoam cup marked with their names. Girls bought tickets and wrote our own names on them, then placed them in different cups. The guys drew one name of a person they had to take to dinner.

I bought 10 tickets and put eight in Gudni’s cup. That’s how our first date came about.

You chose to learn Icelandic. I’m told it’s one of the reasons Icelanders love you. How difficult was it to learn? 

I don’t really have anything to compare it to, but once I had learned basic Icelandic I had to be quite diligent about asking people to speak Icelandic to me as much as possible. You don’t improve if you don’t practice.

Icelanders generally speak excellent English so it would have been easy just to speak in that language.

I also speak French.

CAMPAIGNING IN ICELAND 

A Short Season 

Gudni and Eliza Campaigning

Gudni and Eliza campaigning. Photo by Hakon Broder Lund

How long does an Icelandic political campaign last?

The election was on June 25, 2016. My husband declared his candidacy on May 5. Several candidates had declared before this, though all in 2016. One candidate declared after my husband.

Were there televised debates?

Yes, several of them.

Did you and Gudni have to declare a political affiliation?

No. Presidential candidates do not run on a party ticket, although some candidates have previously been affiliated with a political party. I think that the fact that my husband has never been a member of a political party was seen as an advantage.

Did you have to raise campaign funds?

Yes, but there are strict limits on how much individuals and companies are allowed to donate. I believe it’s about $3500. Everything is made public at the end.

What one issue were people in Iceland most concerned about during the campaign?

The role of the president is largely ceremonial. It has some role in steering the formation of governing coalitions, but there weren’t issues like, say, health care, immigration, or the economy that he would have had a firm stand on. Those are issues more for Parliamentarians, although the president can share his/her perspective. But of course he has his own view on the role of the president and how he/she works in Iceland. That is what people wanted to know about.

AFTER THE ELECTION 

The Life of a First Lady in Iceland 

You are a writer and a co-founder of The Iceland Writers Retreat. Will you continue on with that work now?

Yes, definitely. It’s something that I founded with my friend, so it’s my professional baby.

Being First Lady isn’t an official job and it’s very important for me to keep working on my own.

How has life changed for you? 

It has changed as little as possible, although there are unavoidable differences. We now live in the presidential residence, for example, and there are of course more people on “the team” involved in our day-to-day lives.

The presidential residence, Bessastadir, is about 15 km outside the centre of Reykjavik on a peninsula. It is comprised of a series of buildings, including one for official functions, and one where we actually live. There are staff at Bessastadir, including people who clean and cook. Our private home also has cooking facilities. I really enjoy cooking.

I still continue with much of my own work and although the children attend a new school (we are in a different neighborhood now), we try to keep their lives as much the same as possible.

We did get a second television, though. They were very excited about that.

Gudni and Eliza with their children

Gudni and Eliza with their children. Photo by Hakon Broder Lund.

How have your children adjusted to the change?

They are quite happy with it all and very adaptable. They often ask my husband whether he is rich and what kind of car he drives.

Our personal car is a 13-year-old minivan.

What do you and your family do in your free time?

Lots of different things, but the main thing is spending time together. We often go swimming in the many outdoor geothermal swimming pools that are so popular here in Iceland.

What societal issues would you like to take on as First Lady of Iceland?

I haven’t specifically taken on certain issues per se, but I continue to work to promote Iceland’s literary heritage abroad. I have also agreed to be an ambassador for SOS Children’s Villages. We shall see what else the future brings!

How do your responsibilities differ from that of the Prime Minister’s wife?

The prime minister’s wife doesn’t have any public duties to perform at all (well, I suppose she is able to if she wishes), whereas the president’s wife tends to take on more ceremonial roles e.g. opening conferences, delivering speeches, etc.

Eliza speaking on the campaign trail

Eliza speaking on the campaign trail. Photo by Hakon Broder Lund.

What do you think of Michelle Obama?

Clearly she is an intelligent, articulate woman who is passionate about the issues she believes are important.

 A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE 

Iceland’s Place in the World 

What would you like the world to know about Iceland and its people?

Icelanders are generally very open-minded and good citizens of the world. The stereotype is that they are fiercely independent, and I think there is probably something to that as well.

Iceland has accepted Syrian refugees, correct?

Yes. They seem to be settling well in the country.

What brings you joy?

Many, many things. I guess the most clichéd and obvious answer is my children.

What frightens you?

I never answer this question publicly.

Eliza and Gudni. Photo Photo by Hakon Broder Lund

Eliza and Gudni. Photo Photo by Hakon Broder Lund

 

**Read more about my love affair with Iceland and The Iceland Writers Retreat on my 9 Days in Iceland Page.**

***Contact me at vasilionlaura@gmail.com with comments or suggestions for future posts. Thanks for reading!***

 

 

 

 

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