'That is not something to be proud of,' said Oddny, with a brisk smile, 'but the fact is that Icelanders don't stay in lousy relationships. They just leave.' And the reason they can do so is that society, starting with the parents and grandparents, does not stigmatise them for making that choice. Icelanders are the least hung-up people in the world. Thus the incentive, for example, 'to stay together for the sake of the kids' does not exist. The kids will be just fine, because the family will rally round them and, likely as not, the parents will continue to have a civilised relationship, based on the usually automatic understanding that custody for the children will be shared.
Reykjavic, Iceland, May 2008: City Councillor Oddny Sturludottir tells us why Iceland is the best place in the World. Photograph: Ari Magg
The comfort of knowing that, come what may, the future for the children is safe also helps explain why Icelandic women, modern as they are (Iceland elected the world's first female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a single mother, 28 years ago), persist in the ancient habit of bearing children very young. 'Not unwanted teen pregnancies, you understand,' said Oddny, 'but women of 21, 22 who willingly have children, very often while they are still at university.' At a British university a pregnant student would be an oddity; in Iceland, even at the business-oriented Reykjavik University, it is not only common to see pregnant girls in the student cafeteria, you see them breast-feeding, too. 'You extend your studies by a year, so what?' said Oddny. 'No way do you think when you have a kid at 22, "Oh my God, my life is over!" Definitely not! It is considered stupid here to wait till 38 to have a child. We think it's healthy to have lots of kids. All babies are welcome.'
All the more so because if you are in a job the state gives you nine months on fully paid child leave, to be split among the mother and the father as they so please. 'This means that employers know a man they hire is just as likely as a woman to take time off to look after a baby,' explained Svafa Grönfeldt, currently rector of Reykjavik University, previously a very high-powered executive. 'Paternity leave is the thing that made the difference for women's equality in this country.'