Adam Gopnik, writing in the The New Yorker:
The account of a richly complex foreign culture, based on a two- or three-day trip–beginning with the taxi from the airport, including the meeting with the minister of economics (always surprisingly young, and always with a degree from Harvard or Stanford)—is one of the least attractive of all American journalistic modes.
When my wife, Martha, recites the names of her grandparents to curious Icelandic strangers, they nod appreciatively and wrinkle their brows, rather as someone might who shares a common background in a small town in Wisconsin: if I don’t know them, I know folks all around them. Indeed, she and our children were referred to throughout our trip as “Western Icelanders,” not, as I’d assumed, because her family had originally emigrated from the west of Iceland but because “Western Iceland” is the Icelandic shorthand for Canada.
She has a fetishistic relationship to coffee, which she drinks in an impossibly thick brew from early morning until shortly before she goes off to a sound sleep at midnight. After dinner, she timidly asks if anyone wants coffee, real coffee—and, despite the hysterical rejections in this age of frazzled nerves and pervasive decaf, makes a pot, from which she drains a cup or two. In this, she is exactly like her mother, the only person I have ever met who would order a cup of coffee before dinner at a good restaurant, just to get in the mood.
One might even see the Icelandic coffee cult as one case of a too-little-touched-on aspect of the human comedy: our tactical amnesia about trade.
Iceland has rebounded, in large part, one senses, because Icelanders are accustomed to sudden switches in destiny—the politician in the three-piece suit who represents the city of Reykjavík at a reception for foreign authors turns out to double as the bass player of a metal band called HAM—and are also accustomed to displaying coöperative behavior in the world’s least coöperative circumstances.
Culture counts, but a culture is never a reduced essence of something indigenous. It is whatever particular recipe of cosmopolitanism its people have produced. In America, the recipe is so multipartite that it produces Kosher Thai restaurants. In Iceland, it’s one part coffee to one part anything else.
And finally, this:
Going to a beautiful, remote place reminds us, above all, how relentlessly interdependent the world is and always has been in supplying pleasures that are, almost by definition, imports. Hope, Emily Dickinson says, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. Civilization, one might say, is the thing over there at the corner table, drinking coffee in a cold climate.
Heck, just read the whole thing.