Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Keflavik presents: The Base. Part 1

Sooo... Finally will have some time to sit down and write a bit more about Iceland. During the trip I had loads of ideas for posts, most of which have been forgotten unfortunately. However, whatever I managed to scribble down is gonna be appearing in the following days/weeks.

To start with, a bit of  Icelandic history for those interested.

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Ever since Americans took over Iceland from the British after the II WW, the Base has been a source of dispute and controversies on the island, but has also influenced the local population a lot. It was estabilished around a 40 minute drive from the capital in the town of Keflavik, where the only international airport is located.

From what I read in the Reykjanesbaer Heritage Museum:

In the minds of most Icelanders, the Keflavik Base was primarly a heated political issue. For the local population, the US base was a major employer, and a neighbour. The Base was not only a military installation, but an autonomous community with its own schools, church, hospital, shops, cinema, clubs, radio and TV stations, newspaper, and all the accoutrements of daily life, workshops, workplaces. Everything was different inside the wire: electrical current, buildings, furtniture, currency - all was as it was in the US of A.
On May 30 1949 the first US military personnel of the Icelandic Defense Army arrived on the island. Extensive construction work began, to provide accommodation for the troops and their families, along with all the necessary services of a military base. Initially many of the personnel were billeted in nearby villages, but over time almost all were housed on the base. The Keflavik base operated continuously for 55 years, until it finally closed down on 30 September 2006 (..)

The Organisation Against Military Occupation was founded on 19 June 1960, symbolically at Þingvellir - the ancient parliamentary site and cradle of Icelandic nationhood. It later became the Organisation Against the Military Base. Supporters of the American military presence also made themselves heard, for instance by collecting signatures for a petition under the title: "A land defended". Local people too took sides in the debate: the Njarðik Youth Organisation, for instance, declared its opposition to the Base on nationalist grounds, with the slogan Iceland for Icelanders

So what were the Americans doing, while the Icelanders argued over their presence? The most noticeable sign of life on the Base was the regular roar of fighter jets taking off and landing: mostly on patrol flights to confront the opposition. Soviet planes ventured close to Icelandic air space to test how far they could go, and their US counterparts  "headed them off the pass".
Between 1980 and 1991 an average of 132 such missions were flown each year. The aircraft of the Keflavik base alone flew almost as many missions against Soviet planes as all the rest of the USAF put together (..)

Visiting the base was an adventure, just like going on a trip abroad. There was even a different smell. That was probably what sparked off my wanderlust. It was a special experience that I loved, comments Dagbjort Oskarsdottir, remembering her childhood outings to the cinema on the Base in the 1950s.

The nearby communities were influenced by their coexistence with the Americans. In the Suðurnes region around the Base, people were known for driving big American automobiles, and keeping up with the latest music, they had American TV and radio stations and in their homes they had American domestic appliances, furniture, even American foods and beer. They dressed differently from other Icelanders, in their American parkas and baseball caps, speaking both Icelandic and English - and sometimes a mixture of the two.
Decorating homes with strings of Christmas lights was unkown in Iceland until the Americans on the Base started hanging up lights during Advent. Their Icelandic neighbours followed their example and before long this had become a national phenomenon. The people of Suðurnes are still renowned for the enthusiasm with which they decorate their homes and gardens with lights at Christmas.

Why do I write about it though?
Cause I was staying in one of the troops' housing buildings, no. 961 :)

Also, I did visit a different, still operating, American Base a couple years back and I remember how surprised I was to see that it really was a piece of the US of A abroad. A big premises with proper lanes & avenues, stores where you pay in $ and get all American products, restaurants, gyms, a cinema hall..

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Actually, it's been suggested to me once that I should move somewhere close to one of the Bases and get myself a soldier hubby, preferably one that would be sent to a war zone, so I could collect the 200 000$ widow money and live happily ever after. How could I have not acted on such a perfect plan..? 

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