Eliza Reid, 42, is the First Lady of Iceland. From the Ottawa Valley, she started an Icelandic communications firm in 2003 and co-founded the Icelandic Writers Retreat in 2014. A University of Toronto graduate, she married Guðni Th. Jóhannesson in 2004; he was elected president in August of 2016.
I wanted to become a lawyer by watching Street Legal, [then] maybe a diplomat; I always admired and respected the work diplomats undertake; sometimes it’s misunderstood and unappreciated. I went into international relations at the University of Toronto; my aunt took me to dinner on Queen Street and I looked out the restaurant window – to the Street Legal office.
I did my master’s in modern history at Oxford University, and met my future husband studying. In the UK, I got a job with a lot of travel, which I enjoyed. When I went to Iceland, it was important to get a job on my own merits. I worked for a software company in sales and marketing. After a year [I was] laid off – as is often the case, it’s shocking and discouraging but ends up working out. I started freelancing and travel writing, then opened my own communications company working for many organizations, private, public, big and small. I haven’t updated [my website] since becoming First Lady [in 2016], other than to imply I’m not taking on [work].
I moved here in 2003 with my fiancé. I wasn’t moving just to see how it would go – I would always have a connection and now we have four children. With some European royal families, I get to use my French a bit. I took Icelandic lessons, was very diligent in speaking and insisting people reply in Icelandic. I could write a book on silly and embarrassing mistakes I’ve made. As a family, we took the decision, quite suddenly, for my husband to run [for president]. I’d introduce him or answer questions; people could see I was invested in the society.
The president has a non-political role, comparing mostly to Canada’s Governor-General. Diplomacy shows that human contact is still paramount. Obviously, I’m not a proper diplomat but I have some exposure and opportunity – a great privilege – to represent my adopted country. Iceland’s a non-hierarchical society, egalitarian. There are similarities with Canada because we’re both northern countries with roughly the same population density, populations concentrated in strips with vast swaths of wilderness; both still understand the power of nature.
I joked for years that when I turned 40, I wanted to go to Paris with him. About six weeks before, nothing was planned so either I’d say, “It’s okay honey, I didn’t want to go anyway”, or “Fine I’ll organize it.” He declared his candidacy on my 40th birthday. Immediately after being elected, we got up in the night, on his birthday, to fly to Nice for the Iceland and England [soccer] game. We went back for the game against France – in Paris on our wedding anniversary.
Iceland’s first-ever men’s World Cup match is June 16 [vs. Argentina]. No furniture was harmed making that video [playing soccer] in our dining room; it was pouring rain out. We won’t be there. June 17 is our National Day; the president awards the Order of the Falcon, like the Order of Canada. The June 26 game is on his 50th birthday. We all joke, “Don’t schedule that conference, meeting or event in June!” Because we’re a small country, success is so much more accessible. Everybody knows a player, though they play abroad professionally. Iceland’s team doesn’t have arrogance; it has confidence. It knows the entire country – and others – are behind it. Our women’s team is also incredibly successful, qualifying for 2017’s European Championship, the third time consecutively.
I was speaking to students, saying how when you’re a teenager you’re a bit insecure. It’s so valuable and important to be comfortable in your own skin. When I was young, my mother often said, “You’re so capable.” It’s not a very sexy adjective but I thought, “Okay, I can do this, I’m capable.” If you develop that self-belief you can handle something or know where to get help, that gives you some sense of security. Maybe being told I was capable was the best advice.
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