A Family Farmhouse (Dec 2015)
A two-storey farmhouse sits in a foot of snow up a winding road in Laugarvatn – a small Icelandic town of scattered houses between a broad set of hills and a T-shaped lake. The winter storm has just ended, the snow has settled after its near-horizontal, pummeling descent from the sky, and the stars shine brightly in the crisp air.
At first, the house appears empty – a sparse and silent wooden entryway opens to a switchback staircase. On the second floor, a handful of diners taste beef fresh from the cows and eggs straight from the chickens in their coop. A single waitress, no more than 18 years old, calmly shuttles food to and from the single occupied table.
Snæbjörn and Björg run their inn along with their two children and their spouses. Proud – yet not boastful – plaques on the wall share short introductions and a photograph of each couple. One daughter is strikingly Icelandic as the foreigner would imagine: blonde hair, bright eyes, pale skin. The other is a beautiful brunette with round, warm eyes.
The young blonde daughter, Día, is quietly arranging items at the check-in desk downstairs. It’s 8:30pm and she’s the only family member in sight. She has a slight though strong build. Her smooth hair is pulled loosely in a braid that grazes her left ear and lays across her collarbone.
She operates quietly and calmly. At first she seems shy and reserved, but with a small prompt she begins to explain the tensions of Iceland’s recent tourism push – a topic she clearly follows closely.
The debate is a passionate one: tourists flooding in from free stop-over flights and cruise ships have potential to bring in tens of millions of euros per year and businesses and the government are eager to benefit. The government is also hoping for a part – over the past few years it has increased tariffs and taxes on tourism-related profits from accommodation to transportation.
“People are always talking about the tourism tax, some people thing it’s a good idea and others don’t. This is the main political debate right now.” Día gives a wry smile.
On the other side, people are concerned that the taxes will ultimately hurt businesses, and that heavy tourist traffic especially during the high season will damage the very environmental sights foreigners have come to see.
“Many areas in Iceland right now are just open, anyone can go there. The land is not well protected, so it is easy to hurt.” As she explains the debate, she subtly devotes more time to the need to protect Iceland’s natural wonders, even though the family business itself depends on tourists. Still, it’s hard to tell for sure which side she stands on.
In the small, first-floor basement around the corner from Día’s desk, a freezer is filled to the brim with neat rows of homemade ice cream in biodegradable containers. Each flavour has been written in big, round letters on the lids in blue ballpoint pen. Looking through the large, adjacent windows puts one face-to-face with a dozen cows, grazing peacefully in roomy stalls, mercifully protected from the winter chill.