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State of Mind: Pass the Hákarl, Please

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As if coping with the craziness of the global COVID-19 pandemic weren’t enough, now comes the curious tale of our current ambassador to Iceland.

As we all remember from our geography classes, Iceland is a place of volcanoes and hot springs that is located in the North Atlantic, not far from Greenland and almost touching the Arctic Circle. Its early inhabitants were Vikings.

Whereas Greenland today is an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark, Iceland is an independent nation of slightly more than 360,000 people, and as such warrants a U.S. Embassy. Iceland is also a charter member of NATO.

In May of 2019, the current administration appointed one Jeffrey Ross Gunter as Ambassador to Iceland. Mister Gunter’s diplomatic foreign service qualification for the post is that he is a dermatologist from Los Angeles. The reasoning behind this I suppose is that dermatologists, especially those from the Los Angeles area, must be very good at diplomacy.

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But according to CBS News, Mr. Gunter apparently does not feel safe in Iceland. He has requested that he be allowed to pack a gun. He has also entertained the idea of wearing a stab-proof vest. And he has requested door-to-door armored car service.

This unusual attitude has carried over to his performance as ambassador. According to CBS, he has been unable to find a suitable Deputy Chief of Mission (DCMs are usually experienced foreign service officers who assist the ambassador). According to the report, the first candidate prepared for more than a year, including spending months learning Icelandic. But at their introductory meeting Gunter said he “didn’t like the look of him,” which is an odd comment coming from a dermatologist. You would think he would have been more like a plastic surgeon I once met who looked at me and made the nonspecific remark, “I can fix that, ya know.”

Gunter also reportedly berated another of the seven DCMs he’s had because he discovered that person was keeping snow boots under his or her own desk in winter. The State Department has begun running ads in Icelandic papers for persons interested in being bodyguards. And just recently, after attending a conference in Washington, Gunter refused to go back to Iceland, saying he wanted to work remotely from California and would not return unless ordered to do so by the Secretary of State.

Exactly why Mister Gunter feels so unsafe in Iceland is a mystery.

Perhaps it is because he comes from south California. The murder rate in Los Angeles is 7.3 per 100,000. That’s not bad compared with Louisiana, where it is 12.4, but it is twice as high as Vermont, where it is 2.2. But even Vermont’s 2.2 per 100,000 is a towering number compared with Iceland’s 0.3 per 100,000. There are many years in which there are no murders in Iceland and it consistently ranks among the three safest nations in the world, even though one in every three Icelanders owns a gun.

Iceland has no army, and the police, except for their SWAT team, do not carry guns. The prime minister does not have a bodyguard. There are no dangerous animals in Iceland, not even polar bears.

I’m tempted to chalk up Mister Gunter’s problem to the phenomenon of “culture shock,” which is a feeling of disorientation caused by being suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. Imagine being from Los Angeles and suddenly finding yourself in a society that has a literacy rate of 99 percent; where the people almost universally speak fluent English; where women by law are paid the same as men; where same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption are legal; and where everyone is allowed to practice their religion (just recently the capital city of Reykjavik provided plots for the construction of a mosque and a pagan religious center).

Sure, Iceland has its peculiarities, such as having infants safely nap in their strollers outdoors for hours unattended). And it has been involved in several “cod wars” with Great Britain, which Iceland won without weapons (they cleverly developed “underwater scissors” and cut the nets of the British trawlers so they lost their catches).

But I’m convinced Mister Gunter’s problem is the food. Coming from the land of avocados and In-N-Out burgers, adapting to Iceland’s fish-centric and pickled cuisine must be difficult. I’m sure you’re thinking, “You’re right, Lare! He’s probably afraid someone will make him eat lutefisk!” Contrary to popular belief, Icelanders don’t eat lutefisk. They do, however, eat kæstur hákarl, which is a national dish of Iceland consisting of Greenland shark or some other sleeper shark that has been cured with a fermentation process (read putrefaction!) and hung to dry for four to five months. Even I might want a weapon of some kind by my side if someone approached me with a plate of that.

Still, we’ve got to solve the problem of Mister Gunter before there is an international incident. He’s already raised the ire of Icelanders with his paranoia. Secretary Pompeo had best recall him before the Icelanders redeploy their underwater scissors.