Michael Mann is the EU Ambassador to Iceland and such he has immersed himself in Icelandic culture and society. He has a lively presence on social media, he is constantly out and about, meeting people and traveling around Iceland. One of his recent projects was to organize the cleaning of Icelandic beaches as a part of #EUBeachcleanup project.
Thank you Michael for agreeing to this interview. Can you please give my readers a bit of a background about yourself and the work you are currently doing in Iceland?
I’m 51-years-old, British, married to a German and we have a six-year-old son and a five-month-old daughter. I also have three sons from my previous marriage. We’ve been living in Iceland since September 2017, and we love it! It’s a beautiful, wild and quirky country, the people are incredibly friendly and down-to-earth and I love my job.
As Ambassador, I run a Delegation of seven people. We have four ex-pats, myself, an Irishman, a Swedish lady and a Finnish lady, and we have three Icelanders. Our job is to be the eyes and ears of the EU in Iceland and to represent it in its relations with Iceland. So we report back to our headquarters on important political developments, we deliver important diplomatic messages to the Icelandic government, we ensure close cooperation with Iceland on areas of common interest, like foreign policy, climate change and Arctic policy and provide back-up and intelligence to our colleagues who come here to negotiate, for example on fisheries or agricultural trade.
I think it’s also important to make sure that people here are well-informed about the EU, so I write newspaper articles and we organise public events, where we set out our polices. I often speak to groups about the EU, especially groups of students. We also organise cultural events, like music concerts, and sponsor others, such as the RIFF and the Stockfish Film Festival. We also cooperate as much as we can with the Embassies of the seven EU Member States who are based here. It’s a really enjoyable job, made even better by my fantastic colleagues.
Before coming to Iceland, I was the head of Strategic Communications at the EU’s foreign service. Before that, I was a Spokesperson for the EU. I started my career as a journalist, specialising in EU affairs … although my first job was as deputy editor of Potato Markets Weekly!
What, if anything, has struck you as peculiar about Icelandic culture or society that you haven´t found in other countries?
Iceland is unusual – in a positive sense – in many ways.
I find Icelandic people very down-to-earth, honest and completely unpretentious. Even the most important people are very modest and unpretentious. I find that very refreshing.
The country is also very egalitarian, genuinely so, and it’s a lovely place to bring up kids. It feels very safe and secure. I suspect it’s good to be a woman here, and yet I don’t think the men feel that things have swung against them either. Icelandic society seems very at ease with itself.
For a place with such a small population, the Icelandic cultural scene is incredible.
Everybody seems to be able to sing, and many people are in a band – or actually several bands at the same time.
I went to a fantastic gig recently at the Harpa: the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, two adult choirs, a children’s choir and ‘Viking’ Metal Band Skálmöld. It was fantastic, and the best thing was that the audience was comprised of a total cross-section of society – from seriously tattooed metal fans to grannies!
I must also say that the Icelandic film industry is unique. You have an amazing array of very quirky, and often quite dark, movies. The latest I saw was ‘Under the Tree’. I can’t imagine that film being made anywhere else. With my work hat on, I should also say that Iceland contributes to the EU cultural fund, and many excellent Icelandic films have benefited from this funding.
What I also like is how people set up little cultural centres in places where you wouldn’t expect to find such a thing.
You describe yourself a swimmer on your Facebook page. Are you a fan of Icelandic swimming pools and if so do you have a favorite one?
I love swimming. It’s the best form of exercise. And exercise is very important in my line of work, which doesn’t involve much movement and often involves eating! I travel to Copenhagen every year for the 2 kilometre race around the Christiansborg, but I’m hoping to do a longer race sometime soon.
I try to swim as often as I can, and Reykjavik is just perfect for that. Even when we travel, I always have my trunks with me, because every town seems to have a pool.
Having been brought up with indoor swimming pools, I absolutely love the outdoor pools here, and I’m always amazed how many there are. I particularly love swimming when it’s snowing. That is an amazing feeling.
I don’t really have a favourite. The closest to where I live is Vesturbæjarlaug. I’m a member of World Class, so I swim most often at Seltjarnarness. If I really want to test myself, I’ll go to the 50 metre pool at Laugardalslaug, which is also the most fun pool for our kids and always a cool place to take visiting friends.
You must be really busy with your work but I wonder if you have had the chance to travel around Iceland. If so, do you have any favorite places
I’m lucky enough to have been able to travel both privately and for my work, and I’m also lucky enough to be married to someone who loves to travel.
This country has so many fabulous places that it would be unfair to pick particular favourites.
Last weekend, I went to Reykjadalur at Hveragerði. It’s pretty amazing jumping into a hot river!
We enjoyed going into the tunnel in the Langjökull glacier, and we still want to go into a volcanic crater.
Snæfellsnes Peninsula is great: it’s kind of like a microcosm of all the different things you can see in Iceland in one area.
I liked Husavik very much when I went there for work, and I plan to take my family there for whale-watching. And some of the sites around Akureyri, especially the volcanic mud, are great.
The Hvítserkur sea-stack in the North-West impressed me. It just appears out of nowhere. And I personally prefer the Secret Lagoon to the Blue Lagoon. It’s a little piece of paradise.
And who could forget Iceland’s incredible waterfalls? It’s really hard to pick a favourite.
I could continue for hours! This really is a spectacular country … I feel very privileged to live here.