A Chat With Iceland’s New Ambassador

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Icelandic Ambassador Bergdís Ellertsdóttir. Photo by Didi Cutler

Warm and welcoming, Bergdís Ellertsdóttir obviously enjoys her job. In fact, the ambassador of Iceland to the U.S. says with a smile, she has loved every one of her jobs.

Her impressive career led her at a very young age from advisor on foreign affairs to the prime minister of Iceland to director of international trade negotiations, chief negotiator on Iceland-China free trade issues, ambassador to the European Union and the Benelux countries, ambassador to the United Nations and, finally, to her current post in Washington, D.C.

The first woman to hold the position, Ambassador Ellertsdóttir presented her credentials to President Donald Trump on Sept. 16, 2019. She is thrilled that her embassy is in Georgetown, “a very special place which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.“

The ambassador is accompanied by her husband and two sons, aged 13 and 15, who attend the British International School. The younger boy loves the neighborhood’s parks, she said. Two older daughters, aged 22 and 24, are back home in Iceland.

In addition to her native Icelandic, the ambassador speaks German, Danish and English. She loves to meet people and finds Americans extremely friendly.

She first came to the United States when she was 16 years old as an “au pair” for a family in Maryland. Back then, she remembers, people knew very little about Iceland, not even knowing where it was. Now, she points out, most people know more. Recently, at a café in Georgetown, she overheard people at a nearby table talking about their trip to Iceland.

Tourism has become Iceland’s most important source of income, its remarkable growth illustrated by the fact that 700,000 U.S. tourists come every year — a stunning statistic given that the country’s population is only 350,000. Whale watching, majestic waterfalls, geysers, the northern lights and the Maelifell volcano are among the most popular attractions. And, she pointed out, there is a direct flight on Icelandic Air from Dulles to Reykjavik.

The U.S. is Iceland’s biggest trade partner. The export of fish is particularly important. Iceland is proud of its program of environmental sustainability, in which scientists work closely with the government to regulate how much fish can be extracted from any one area. This keeps the fish population stable and healthy.

Iceland also prides itself on its innovations. When I asked the ambassador about Icelandic companies located in the U.S., she proudly mentioned Kerecis. Located across the Potomac in Arlington, Virginia, Kerecis pioneered the use of fish skin in tissue regeneration. Rich in Omega-3 oil, fish skin facilitates the healing of wounds and burns.

Marel, another Icelandic company, develops and manufactures machinery to extract everything that can be taken from a fish, whether for food or medical purposes; almost nothing is wasted.

Ellertsdóttir went on to say that Iceland is a member of the eight-nation Arctic Council and is chairing it this year. The council works to protect the environment, particularly now with global warming and the melting of the Arctic.

As our conversation was coming to a close, the ambassador stressed that the United States was its most important partner and that we share many values: the importance of human rights, the need for global disarmament and the compelling work toward peace.

Leaving the embassy, I was sorely tempted by the lure of a direct six-hour flight to see the country’s spectacular topography, as well as — if Icelanders are as warm and welcoming as the ambassador — to experience its special brand of hospitality.

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