Eliza Reid: The Canadian Girl most Icelanders want as their First Lady

Eliza Reid
  • The vivacious Eliza Reid is very much her own woman; an entrepreneur, a writer, a mother of four, with a Master’s degree in modern history from Oxford University
Thursday, 12. May 2016

The vivacious Eliza Reid is very much her own woman; an entrepreneur, a writer, a mother of four, with a Master’s degree in modern history from Oxford University – and quite an asset to her husband.

As the Icelanders prepare to elect their next president in six weeks time, surveys already show Guðni Th. Jóhannesson to be a clear favorite, with 70% support in a recent poll. A well-grounded, no-nonsense family man with a fantastic sense of humor, it came as little surprise to meet his wife, the Canadian-born, Eliza Reid. One couldn't help but think: What a perfect match!

Eliza was born in the beautiful city of Ottawa to a teacher and a homemaker sporting Scottish ancestry. At the age of ten, Eliza and her family moved to a hobby farm just outside the city where they raised sheep (Icelandic sheep as a matter of fact), chickens and turkeys. Eliza and her two younger brothers were raised there, surrounded by working farmers in a 160-year-old farmhouse where her parents are still living. After completing a bachelor's degree in international relations at Trinity College, University of Toronto, Eliza left for England to pursue a master's degree in modern history at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. And, as fate would have it, meet her future husband from Iceland. When asked how they met, the answer reveals a resourceful lady who knows her own mind.

Eight tickets in a cup

"Our names were drawn together for a blind date," says Eliza. "Well, that is the short version. Guðni was studying for his doctor’s degree in history and I for my master's degree. At the time, we were having a fundraiser for the rowing team – where we were both rowing. The guys on the team all had these cups with their names on them, all arranged in a row. The girls got tickets with their names and were supposed to put them in different cups. The guys would then draw one ticket from their cup and ask the lucky girl out on a date. I had ten tickets and instead of putting them into ten different cups I put eight of them into Guðni's. I liked him a lot and thought I would tilt the balance a little in my favor. I refrained from putting all ten of my tickets into his cup, as I didn't want him to think I was some crazy stalker. Well, he drew one of my tickets and took me out to this very nice Italian restaurant the very next day. I was duly impressed. I had expected a kebab or something simple. We were, after all, students."

Life is not about looking back

Twenty years on, Eliza is living in Iceland and might be on her way to becoming the mistress of Bessastaðir, the presidential residence. When asked if she misses Canada, she says she would naturally see more of her family if she were living in Canada. "After living most of my adult life in Europe, and thereof thirteen years in Iceland I have come to cherish my Canadian heritage. But, the world is so small it 's hard to miss anything. I can watch the Canadian news, read the Canadian papers, be in close contact with family and friends via the Internet. Anyway, life is not about looking back. You make your choices, get on with life and enjoy what you've got. With four children at the age of 8, 6, 4 and 2, I have a lot to enjoy. My life is here and I love it." But, what was her reaction to the idea of Guðni becoming the next President of Iceland?

"People have jokingly mentioned to Guðni for a long time that he should put his name forward to becoming president. Until now, he hasn't taken it seriously. But, I think it is great. Guðni is straightforward and fair, and I think he would be a terrific president. Of course, it was a joint decision, and I totally support him. We have different personalities but the same values and priorities. We are both very grounded and complement each other."

Carving out a career

Since moving to Iceland in 2003, Eliza has been quite prolific. She has been the editor of Icelandair Stopover, Icelandair's in-flight magazine, since 2012. For some years, she was a staff writer and a freelance writer at Iceland Review (a quarterly specialist publication on Iceland) a freelance writer for Reykjavík Grapevine and Atlantica (the former in-flight magazine for Icelandair) from 2005-2008. Eliza's primary interest is travel writing, and she has published numerous travel features and contributed to several guidebooks. In April 2014, she was named a Top Travel Guide Contributor by TripAdvisor's FlipKey blog. She is also a regular commentator on Icelandic current affairs for foreign media. In 2008, Eliza launched her own company, Dudo, providing services as an editor, writer, and marketing consultant and has, in fact, been a marketing consultant for many of Iceland's largest organizations, as well as a project manager for successful international conferences in Reykjavík. In 2014, Eliza launched her next project, Iceland Writers Retreat, which has been immensely successful and popular http://www.icelandwritersretreat.com.

Here to stay

Eliza and Guðni moved to Iceland in 2003, after he finished his Ph.D. from Oxford and five years after they met. "I had resigned from my job in England," says Eliza. "I had no job in Iceland, I didn't know the language and had no connections. So I thought I might as well have no money either, and I went on a four-month trip around Russia, and Central and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Guðni was here in Iceland finding us a place to live. We bought a flat on Hverfisgata in the center of Reykjavík. I wanted to live in the center with easy access to cafés and restaurants and all sorts of happenings. I had visited Iceland several times before moving here. We had traveled around the country, and I had seen a fair bit of it. But, it is always different when you finally move, especially as I wasn't moving to see how it goes. I was moving here to stay. Guðni had a young daughter he had missed a lot while studying in England and he knew that as soon as his studies were finished he would return to Iceland to be as close to her as possible. So, it was never a question of whether we moved back to Iceland."

 At the time, Eliza and Guðni didn't have any children of their own, which gave Eliza time to shape her own future in Iceland. "It was important to me to be here as myself, not just as Guðni's wife. I'd worked in marketing before and wanted to get a job on my own merits, not through connections. Three days after arriving here I saw an ad for a marketing person in Morgunblaðið, the daily newspaper. I applied and got the job. I arrived here in August and two weeks later started studying Icelandic at the University of Iceland’s School of Continuing Education. It was an intensive course with lectures eight hours a week. After a year, I had gained a fair basis to speak the language. Through my job and Icelandic language studies, I built up a network with people who are still my friends."

Learning the language

Of course, Eliza's knowledge of the Icelandic language is excellent. When complimented, she says: "Well, from the start my mother-in-law, bless her, insisted on speaking Icelandic with me – which was immensely helpful. I also told people I met I was learning the language so, would they, please, speak to me in Icelandic. Gradually, it paid off. At the beginning when I was starting to speak very basic Icelandic it felt silly, but you have to go through it. You make a lot of mistakes, but you just have to get it out. You learn languages in stages."

Eliza and Guðni were engaged when they moved to Iceland and married in Canada in 2004. "I proposed to him, as a matter of fact," says Eliza. "I didn't want to beat about the bush, drop hints or anything. I am a direct person. It was quite evident that we would get married if I moved with him to Iceland, so I proposed. It wasn't a feminist thing or competition. If he had beaten me to it, then fine, but this is what happened."

Career and family life

In 2006, Eliza went to West Africa for two months while Guðni was writing a book and then they started having children "in a rapid succession," to use Eliza’s own words. Their children are Duncan Tindur (b. 2007), Donald Gunnar (b. 2009), Sæþór Peter (b. 2011) and Edda Margrét (b. 2013). "I had no ambition when I was growing up to get married and have four children," says Eliza. "You can't do that in Canada unless you are a homemaker or, say, a partner in a successful law firm and able to hire a nanny. Iceland is the best country in the world to have both a career and a big family. You can work full-time and be involved in your children's activities." When asked how it would affect her children if they were raised at the president's children at Bessastaðir, Eliza replies:

"It would be a unique opportunity for them. If we were in a big country, like the US, it would be quite a different concept to run for the head of state. Here, I am not worried about people being mean to them. If Guðni became president, they would have the opportunity to meet all kinds of different people, and it would be interesting exposure. Guðni and I are very grounded people, and our kids would not live in luxury. They would have a lot of exposure but still lead a normal life. The biggest intrusion is that they would have to change schools."

 A word of advice

After living in Iceland for thirteen years, Eliza has traveled all over the country, both on holiday and for her writing. Does she have favorite places in Iceland? "Oh, I have still to drive the two highland roads, but I've been just about everywhere else. As for favorite places, no, it would be impossible to choose. There are so many different things to see in Iceland. Indeed, if I were to give advice to those who plan to visit, it would be: Don't try to do everything in a week. It is much better to pick one area to focus on, and then come back to see more. And don't buy bottled water. The tap water is the best in the world."