Hippie Airlift (Exploring Reykjavik)

When I was in grade school Iceland was a distant land, stuck between two continents, that, our teacher assured us, was not all ace and snow.  But the odds of any of us getting there, unless one of us were stationed there as part of a NATO force, were slim.   But in the early 1950s Icelandic Airlines (later merged into Icelandair) got permission to fly into the United States.  It did not join the International Air Transport Association.  This allowed it to set its own prices.  In 1955 Icelandic Airlines reached an agreement with Luxembourg to fly into the Grand Duchy.  Luxembourg had not signed any international agreements.  This allowed Icelandic to fly from North America to Luxembourg via Iceland at substantially lower prices than other airlines. 

The airline bought some huge Canadian prop jet cargo aircraft, stretched them and converted them to passenger service.  The stretched Canadairs could fly 189 people.  In 1964 they scaled up their operations between New York and Luxembourg via Iceland.  The US allowed them to continue to have low fairs if they limited themselves to the slower turboprop aircraft.  The US allowed this because Iceland put pressure on the US which wanted to maintain its base at Keflavik airport (also the base for Icelandic.)   

Icelandic made the deal better by flying to other cities in Scandinavia and Britain, charging the rates set by the IATA cartel between Iceland and those cities and further discounting the fares between New York and Iceland.  Icelandic adopted the slogan “We fly slower but we fly lower.”  It became THE low-cost carrier to Europe.  Icelandic became the “Hippie Airlift” because so many young backpackers rode the slow prop planes that were often late — way late — and at times oversold.   

To encourage people to fly Icelandic, and to boost the local economy Icelandic offered free stopovers in Iceland (no increase in airfare) and sold one- and two-day packages with hotel and a tour.  That’s where we came in.  In 1968 Suzi and I were returning from a summer in Europe.  We went over by ship, and flew Icelandic home.  We had booked a 48-hour stopover, although we did not book the Icelandic ground package.  We made our own arrangements with a bed and breakfast.

Our two days became many more as Icelandic was constantly oversold.  Each morning we got a call from Icelandic at Mrs. Astrid Jonsdotter’s B&B asking us if we minded staying another day.  They would give us a per diem and costs for lodging.  This was a good deal for us because the B&B was considerably less expensive than a hotel and we pocketed a good deal of cash.  Our Peace Corps project had fallen through, so we had no reason to head home quickly.  This happened for 5 mornings until we got the call “Bad news, Mr. McClear, we have a seat for you tonight.”

We had planned to be in Europe for 3 weeks.  We learned of the project’s collapse as we were getting on the ship.  We stretched our three-week budget to more than seven.  We were broke when we got to Iceland.  The Icelandic Air per diem was generous. Mrs. Jonsdotter provided us with enough breakfast to get us through most of the day. but we had another source of food.  The US Ambassador to Iceland was Karl Rolvaag, former Governor of Minnesota.  His twins were classmates of mine at St. Olaf.  We showed up at the embassy so that Suzi could change the name on her passport, and we ran into Florance Rolvaag, the Ambassador’s wife.  She invited us to a reception for Icelandic students heading to the US.  At the reception she heard our story of extending our honeymoon so loaded us down with leftover food, (open faced sandwiches, and little cakes) and invited us back for dinner another night.  We had plenty of food so we pocketed the per diem. 

One day the airline offered us the “Golden Circle” tour which included a waterfall, a geothermal area with geysers, and the area where the North American and European Plates were separating, also the site of the world’s first Parliament in 930 AD.  Today the Golden Circle route is transited by big buses, (we did it again in 2017) there are coffee shops, gift shops, parking lots, fences protecting you from bubbling mud and boiling water, and thousands of people.  Then it was several of us in a large van with no barriers to exploring the geothermal wonders closeup.

Otherwise, we wandered Reykjavik’s the streets and stumbled onto the inauguration of the Icelandic President.  Every morning went to the neighborhood geothermal baths.  Mrs. Jonsdotter introduced us to a friend who knitted sweaters and we bought one for each of us and I stopped in a bookstore to buy a Penguin edition of a couple of the Icelandic sagas.  Even with those expenses I think we ended up with more money leaving Iceland than we had when we got there.  That wouldn’t happen today.

Reykjavik has had a tourist boom, but it is surprisingly similar to the city we wandered in 1967.  OK there ae more trees and they are bigger.  There are the same corrugated metal buildings, and some, although fewer, wooden buildings.  The vibe in 1968 was young because Icelandic was the “Hippie airlift.”  Downtown still has a young vibe, with a rainbow street and a “punk museum” (well, punk isn’t that young anymore, it just seems so to me.)  Although with cruise ships and a broader market for Icelandair some of that young vibe is really retro-young, appealing to boomers and leading edge gen Xers who want to think they are still young.    

I don’t understand why folks build cairns on the beach.

We stayed in a hotel in the center, on one of the walking streets.  The hotel was called “Room With a View.”  It was not so much of a view (although we had a nice sunset) as a soundscape.  A rotating group of musicians playing an assortment of instruments, including at different times an oud, a balalaika, a ukulele, and guitar was jamming for hours. 

And there is one wonderful addition, the stunning Harpa, a concert hall.  The architecture draws me in.  It has “cells” of glass.  Most are clear but some, at seemingly random intervals, are amber or purple.  The play of light is delightful.

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