Interview: Les Swanson, Iceland’s Honorary Consul in PDX

Back in January, I had the privilege of meeting Les Swanson, a Portland lawyer who serves as Iceland’s honorary consul for Oregon and Southwest Washington.  He and his wife Kris generously invited me into their beautiful home and served up delicious food and enjoyable conversation.  After a long delay (which was entirely my fault), my interview was published in the most recent edition of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  I am reprinting it here for those who may not have access to the L-H.  Enjoy!

Les Swanson: Iceland’s Honorary Consul in Portland

How does a lawyer of Swedish descent become a representative of Iceland on U.S. soil? It was something of an accident, said Les Swanson, the man in question who has served as Iceland’s honorary consul in Portland for the past twelve years. He was initially approached about serving as Sweden’s honorary consul, but when it turned out that position wasn’t available, he was offered the Icelandic position, which had been vacant for several years. Swanson took some time to consider and talk it over with his wife Kris, also a lawyer who just happens to love Icelandic horses, and said yes.

After a year-long process including extensive background checks and approval by both the Icelandic Foreign Office and the U.S. State Department, Swanson was officially appointed.

An honorary consul, Swanson explained, is an unpaid diplomat representing a foreign country in the U.S. Iceland has about 25 honorary consuls in the States. Swanson’s duties include issuing emergency passports, helping Icelanders in the area participate in Icelandic elections, assisting Icelanders who run into trouble with the law (although Swanson said he’s never had to do this), and generally representing Iceland with regard to culture, trade, politics and education.

Based in Portland, Swanson’s jurisdiction extends to all of Oregon as well as Southwest Washington. The most recent Oregon census shows around 1000 Icelanders or people with Icelandic ancestry living in the state, but Swanson estimates he has only met between 50 and 75 Icelanders during his tenure. His consul duties tend to be sporadic. “I might get three calls in a week about extending passports, [then] I might go for several weeks and not hear from anyone,” he said.

Swanson is often called upon to represent Iceland at Nordic seminars or present lectures on Icelandic history, literature, and politics for local organizations.

“I don’t claim expertise in any of these areas,” said Swanson, “but I’m widely read in literature and politics and political theory and history,” adding that his knowledge of Iceland has developed over the years and he continues to learn.

Since accepting the consul position, Swanson has traveled to Iceland several times. He remembers being struck by the “lonely, stark beauty” of the landscape on his first trip in September 2001. “It seemed magical to me,” he said. On the same trip, he met Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, who was mayor of Reykjavík at the time. Sólrún expressed interest in Portland’s progressive city government and later contacted Swanson to arrange a visit. The Swansons became good friends with Sólrún and spent time with her on subsequent trips to Iceland.

Swanson holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Literature, a Master’s in Philosophy, and a law degree. In his law career, he has primarily focused on trial work, particularly product liability and medical malpractice cases. Recently, he has been splitting his time between practicing law and teaching law classes at the University of Oregon and philosophy classes at Portland State University.

About eight years ago, Swanson began a scholarship program on behalf of the Oregon Consular Corps, of which he is a member. The Corps awards eight scholarships annually to junior and senior international affairs majors at four Oregon colleges. Swanson intends to continue supporting this program.

When Swanson turns 75, he must contact the Foreign Office and they will decide whether to extend his term or accept his resignation. In the meantime, Swanson said, he intends to visit Iceland a couple more times and continue discovering the magic of the land and culture he has grown to love.

Les Swanson and his three sons.
Les Swanson and his three sons.

Originally published in the June 1 edition of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  Text is mine.  Photo courtesy of Les Swanson.

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