If you asked Eliza Reid, a Canada native, how her life would play out after moving to Iceland and marrying Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who formerly worked as a history professor, becoming the First Lady of her adopted home country would probably be one of the last possibilities she would have entertained.
“The Canadian media always asked me: Did you ever think, when you were growing up, that you would one day be First Lady of Iceland? Uhm, no, no I didn’t,” Reid said.
The release of the Panama Papers revealed corruption inside the Icelandic government related to offshore bank accounts. This led to public unrest and a series of protests, forcing Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson to resign in April 2016. Jóhannesson gained national attention after appearing on television amid the crisis as a pundit, and decided to declare his candidacy for the presidency. He assumed office in August 2016, and as First Lady, Reid was forced suddenly into the spotlight.
She shared her story at an event in Boston at WBUR on Thursday as a part of the annual, five-day Taste of Iceland Festival. The festival, which was first hosted in Boston in 2010, brought a comprehensive experience of Iceland’s culture to the city this past weekend, with events showcasing Icelandic cuisine, music, film, literature, and art.
Taste of Iceland was initially organized to celebrate Icelandair’s nonstop service between Boston and Reykjavik, said Kristjana Rós Guðjohnsen, co-chair of Iceland Naturally, the promotional group for Icelandic brands and tourism in North America that puts on the event each year, in an email. Since then, the company has seen support for its festival grow.
“Taste of Iceland in Boston has grown exponentially since its debut,” Guðjohnsen said. “In the past several years, we’ve added new events, including a literature discussion with Iceland’s first lady, Eliza Reid, and an art discussion. We’ve also seen increased participation from the Boston community each year, leading to larger and fuller venues.”
Reid, in addition to her new role as first lady, is also an accomplished journalist and writer. On Thursday, she spoke to a packed room about the Iceland Writers Retreat. The program, which will be held April 5-9 this year, brings writers from all over the world to Iceland. Participants hone their skills through a series of workshops with accomplished authors and go on excursions throughout Iceland meant to inspire creativity through the country’s unique and wondrous landscape.
Reid co-founded the IWR in 2014 with Erica Jacobs Green to share Iceland’s rich literary culture with others. But, as she comically admitted, the event also allows her to interact with some of her favorite authors.
“We thought that it would be a brilliant idea to bring people who like the written word to Iceland, and have them take workshops by writers who we wanted to meet,” she said.
Reid also touched on the importance of literature in Iceland, from its roots in the Sagas, which are historical narratives that recount the lives and times of Iceland’s early settlers in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, to the abundance of talented writers that hail from the country in the modern era. From ancient literature to more contemporary works, the written word is an important part of Icelandic society, she explained. Reykjavik was the first non-English speaking city to be named a UNESCO City of Literature after it received the title in 2011.
From Friday through Monday, Bostonians enjoyed a special Icelandic dinner menu at The Merchant, a popular restaurant in Downtown Crossing. The cuisine, which included arctic char, langoustine, free-range lamb and, skyr, a yogurt-like treat, was prepared by acclaimed Icelandic chef Sigurdur Helgaso. The meal was accompanied by craft cocktails made with “Iceland’s favorite vodka,” Reyka Vodka, and mixed by cocktail champion Kári Sigurðsson.
Although Iceland has a population of only around 330,000 people, the country has a vibrant contemporary art scene. Björg Stefánsdóttir, director of the Icelandic Art Center, led a discussion about Icelandic visual arts at the Kingston Gallery on Friday. She explained how Icelandic art has spread across the world, and how the Icelandic Art Center helps connect the country’s artists to the rest of the professional art community.
On Saturday, music from Saga Island took over the Middle East in Cambridge. A free concert entitled Reykjavik Calling featuring Icelandic bands Fufanu and Mammút, the latter of which won best album and song of the year at the 2014 Icelandic Music Awards, entertained the audience with upbeat Icelandic rhythms. Also part of the show were the Dirty Dottys, a pop-motown band based in Boston.
At the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square on Sunday, moviegoers enjoyed a diverse group of six short films at a screening of Shortfish, a portion of Iceland’s premier film festival, Stockfish. Transitioning from emotional and serious to comedic and lighthearted, the films addressed a wide spectrum of subjects, from alcoholism to a botched marriage proposal, and gave viewers a window into Icelandic culture.
In the future, Iceland Naturally hopes to expand the festival to other cities in the U.S. The organization put on the first annual Taste of Iceland Chicago in 2016, and generally hosts five to six events per year around North America, Guðjohnsen said. Following this year’s festival, however, she hopes that Boston-area residents came away with something about Iceland that peaked their curiosity.
“We hope that Taste of Iceland offers a little something for everyone,” Guðjohnsen said. “Whether you’re a contemporary art enthusiast, film buff or foodie, everyone who attends a Taste of Iceland in Boston event has the opportunity to walk away having experienced something new that they hopefully want to try again and learn more about.”
Featured Image by Leo Confalone / Heights Editor