One of the things that might strike you when you get to know the Icelanders is how diverse a career many of them have. When it comes to choosing how to spend their lives, linear thinking and planning is not at all popular. They like circular, square and triangular. Any shape that can take them away from their homestead and be sure to bring them back when they so choose. They want to have it all. They want to live in different areas in Iceland; they want to live abroad. They want to be regular citizens, teachers, bankers, etc.; they want to be artists, bohemians, free spirits. Quite many of them manage all of this during one lifetime.
That's why, when you meet the Municipality Director of Rangárþing eystra (the East Rangárþing), Ísólfur Gylfi Pálmason, you are also meeting a former member of parliament and a musician, a former athlete and a teacher. Born in Hvolsvöllur, within his current municipality, he has completed his circle (at least for the time being) and is now back home.
When asked what it was like to grow up in this tiny village next to ferocious volcanoes and proximity to the Highlands, the answer is: Simply beautiful.
The settler’s son
"My family was among the first to settle in Hvolsvöllur. Which means I am practically a settler's son," says Ísólfur Gylfi. "And, it was just great. What was there not to love? We were surrounded by fantastic nature; we had a good school and an excellent music school. Our sporting facilities were good and our social life diverse. And, there were nice people living in the village.
It felt good to be a child in Hvolsvöllur. During summer, we would fish in the Brooks, pluck flocks from fences and sell them to the Co-op. Hvolsvöllur had a town hall and when I was a kid Saturday night dancing was quite common there. On Sunday mornings, I would get up early to collect empty bottles scattered all around the hall. I would sell them to eke my pocket money – and sometimes I would even find money lying amongst the litter.
Like so many Icelandic children at the time, I was sent off to stay at a farm during part of the summer. It was invaluable. I was sent to stay at Hallgeirsey in Landeyjar, which is so incredibly short distance from the Vestmanneyjar that we could see their cars flashing even though we were separated by the ocean.”
The musical farmhand
“The farmer was a very talented musician which was fortunate for me. He had drums I could play whenever I found the time and later when I was a teenager; I got to play in a band. I still do. I just love music. Whenever I get a chance, I visit the old farmer. He is now 85, and we play music together. He has a Martin saxophone from 1914. Both the farmer and the instrument are still in excellent condition.
Ísólfur Gylfi left Hvolsvöllur to go to the Teachers College and then the Sports Academy. For six years, he was a teacher at the Bifröst in Borgarjörður school and then moved on to try something new. He was a personnel manager at a co-op store in Reykjavík before moving back to Hvolsvöllur to work as a Municipality Director. Not for long, though as he served as a member of parliament for two terms. Amongst his roles was to be Iceland's representative to the Nordic Council and a member of the Icelandic Chambers of Commerce. After the eight years in Parliament his beloved south Iceland was calling him back, loud and clear. He first returned to Flúðir where he was Municipality Director for six years, before returning to his hometown of Hvolsvöllur in 2010 to work as the Municipality Director of Rangárþing eystra. So, what have been the greatest changes in his hometown from his childhood?
"It is completely different. The population is much larger. In 2002, six neighbouring municipalities were joined into one. As a result, we have 1800 inhabitants living in a huge area, reaching from Eystri-Rangá to Jökulsá at Sólheimasandur, just east of Skógar. The area has been quite prosperous and today we have a very nice swimming pool, excellent sports hall, a modern pre-school, elementary school, and of course, a wonderful music school. We are a mere 100 km from Reykjavík with a much better road system from when I was a kid. As a result, it is very easy for us to enjoy all the best the capital has to offer and still enjoy our pastoral lifestyle.
This municipality is the most fertile agricultural area in Iceland. We produce more milk than any other area. The tourist industry is quite diverse, and some of the best-known tourist attractions in Iceland are within our area, e.g. Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Þórsmörk and Emstrur. Horse-breeding and training are very popular within the municipality, and we are party to the annual horse tournament of South Iceland. Last, but not least, we have the Saga Centre, which is based on one of the greatest Icelandic Sagas, Njáls Saga, that was set in our municipality. At the Saga Centre, one of the ongoing projects is the 90 m Njála Tapestry. Anyone can visit the centre to make a few stitches. It is a popular destination both for Icelanders and foreign visitors and already 45 m of the tapestry have been completed – in mere two and a half years."
Living next to Eyjafjallajökull
When asked what he likes most about living at Hvolsvöllur, Ísófur Gylfi says: "Well, all around us we have the most spectacular and diverse landscape in Iceland. We are next to the "unpronounceable" Eyjafjallajökull. When it erupted in 2010, we got endless calls from our friends abroad asking us to leave, to stay with them. But, we were never in any danger. We could simply sit by the window and enjoy the display.
It is a privilege for children to grow up here. All the basic family services are intact which is essential if you want young families to move to the area. Increasing tourism has resulted in an influx of young families who are benefiting the area a great deal. Our senior citicens are more of a part of the community than in larger towns and the capital area – which means, they are less lonely. Hvolsvöllur is a good place to grow up and to grow old. I am very proud of our community."