Every time I mentioned that I’d be going to Iceland for a 4-day weekend in January brought the same question with the same intonation with the same look: Iceland? In the WINTER???
Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis and the position of the island, the country is in the heart of the Jet Stream, which pushes warm air north. That means despite the fact that Iceland is farther north than Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, it is considerably warmer. In fact, there was little snow on the ground, and they experienced a “heat wave” while the rest of Europe suffered extreme cold temperatures. So, YES! Iceland in the WINTER!!!
It’s a 5-hour flight from JFK to Reykjavik, faster than JFK to LAX. However, unlike most days in Los Angeles, sunrise was around 10:30AM, and sunset was around 4:00PM for about 5½ hours of light. But due to the Earth’s axis, the sun never got higher than just above the horizon, so not really light, per se. More like kinda sorta lightish.
Icelanders leave their children unattended in strollers outside shops and cafes! The first time I saw a baby abandoned and alone in a buggy on the sidewalk, I pretty much freaked out, which probably identified me as a tourist. That and the fact that I’m not 20 pounds overweight and the color of wallpaper paste, as Icelandic women tend to be, shall we say…hefty and pale.
SUCH A SAGA…
Iceland’s isolation is due mostly to a clever misnomer intended to deter future settlers, which obviously still works as evidenced by the reaction from people who learned of my travel plans. As a result of this isolation, the modern Icelandic language has changed so little that Icelanders can read the original documents written 1100 years ago. As a literary freak who loves language, even I had to use a side-by-side translation when I read The Canterbury Tales thanks to the changes in the English language over the past 600 years. How remarkable that a living language can remain so unchanged in a millennium.
I visited the Culture House in order to view the Sagas, the original documents that serve as the foundation of Iceland’s literary tradition. They’re prose histories that recount the evolution of the Icelandic culture during the 10th and 11th centuries. Unfortunately, albeit in keeping with the theme of disappointment for this trip, the documents were being restored, so I wasn’t able to view them. I visited their Natural History room to hang out with some stuffed Puffin, and saw an installation of 100 years of Icelandic film-making. I know…who knew there were 10 never mind 100 years of Icelandic film-making!
Unsatisfied with the depth of history offered at the Culture House, I went to see an exhibit entitled “Reykjavik 871 +/- 2” in the basement of a hotel. The title refers to the fact that they cannot pinpoint the exact year that Reykjavik was founded, but thanks to a volcanic eruption that covered the land, they know it was within 4 years of 871, hence 871 +/- 2. As there are no humans indigenous to Iceland, the exhibit is an excavation site of a house from when the Vikings settled the country. The exhibit includes the structure (lots of dirt and peat and rocks) accompanied by several computer-generated video and audio installations to create a realistic interpretation of life and culture in the late 9th century.
CALLING ALL GENETICISTS
They say we all originate from a common ancestor, and Iceland stands testament to that claim. Clearly, Leif Erikson is the father of the country – in more ways than one. He must have been quite a playahhh!!! Iceland was founded by men from what is now known as Norway. Now, these men were undoubtedly strong and capable of tolerating harsh conditions, but perhaps not all that bright. How long do you think it took those brave jarheads to realize that, after departing from their homeland, forging on to settle a new land in boats full of men, that they would need to procreate? So, they made a minor detour and swung by the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland to “pick up” some women. They also threw in a few slaves for good measure. As a testament to the country’s historic seclusion, the DNA composition of modern Icelanders is approximately 60% Nordic and 40% Scottish, and you see it in their features. Let’s just say no one tans easily.
THE BLUE LAGOON
My visit to the Blue Lagoon falls among the most extraordinary in my travel experiences. It felt surreal to be in a bathing suit when it was 35 degrees Fahrenheit. The water originates from geothermal seawater, which also provides the hot water to Reykjavik. In fact, when you turn on the hot water in a public bathroom, it smells of sulfur.
I arrived at 11:00AM (just light enough), and among the first few people there. The water is a beautiful milky blue and it’s all built into lava rocks so the contrast of the blue water against the black rocks adds a dramatic effect. I put the silica on my face because it’s been proven to have anti-aging properties, and I’m obsessed with not looking old. I helped myself to some silica that caked the bottom and sides of the lagoon, because it makes for a good story, and is better than paying $70. To switch it up a bit, I used the sauna and steam, and then stood under the heaviest waterfall I’ve ever experienced. It was like a massage.
I had packed a sandwich for lunch, but someone at the café scolded me for bringing food from an outside source, so I packed up and went to the viewing platform to take some pictures. Then I headed to the bus where I ate my sandwich, and napped on the ride back to the city. It was a beautiful day – mostly sunny with big puffy clouds in the blue sky. I hoped that the weather would continue to remain clear, since it was my final opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis.
FOOTBALL OR FOOTBALL?
After returning to Reykjavik, I walked around the city, visiting different neighborhoods, stopping for a quick coffee because my ears burned from the cold. Honestly, Icelanders drink more coffee than any other country I’ve visited – including Italy, France, Greece, and Puerto Rico.
On my tour, I found a sports bar where they were showing American football. I walked in during the “ESPN-America” pre-game being shown on one small old TV getting reception from rabbit ears held in place with aluminum foil while the rest of the bar was glued to a soccer match. I enjoy soccer, but tend to watch major cups and rivalry matches, so the random equivalence of Pirates vs. Reds held little appeal. I committed myself to the pre-game, despite the poor reception and screen not much larger than an iPad, until the bar manager started playing God with the satellites, and changed the pre-game from the one measly screen. I smiled at him and said, “I guess I’m alone wanting the see the American football playoffs.” He looked up and replied, “No, there are others. I’ll put it on the big screen in a minute.” So, I ordered Viking beer (I’m not making that up) on tap, positioned myself in front of a good TV, and prepared to watch as the rest of the bar cleared out.
Interestingly, the game was between Dallas and Minnesota. I pointed out to the bartender how symbolic and fitting that the two teams playing were the Cowboys (America’s team) and the Vikings, and that here I was, an American, in Iceland, the country of Vikings. So, guess which team everyone cheered for? Yup. The Vikings. Go figure.
VDDS – VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY SYNDROME
I just coined that term as a joke, so if your evening news is interrupted by a pharmaceutical company pitching treatment, I want royalties. Perhaps attributable to the time of year and the fact that the country sees less than 5 hours of natural light a day, the only feeling I got walking around Reykjavik is sadness. I didn’t sense laughter or joy from locals. Granted, the country was still recovering from the collapse of the banking system and governmental upheaval that occurred in 2008, and graffiti tags bore witness to a certain sense of protest. But Italy is a country of constant political and economic chaos – especially pre-EU, and the Italians ALL have such an “amore di vita.” It just felt so serious all the time. I later learned that in the winter, Icelanders experience “lost weekends” after crawling into a bottle Friday after work and emerging Monday morning. One thing is for sure, they know how to drink.
To that end, the girl at the hotel suggested that I go to Boston. Having grown up in Boston, I tried to make a joke with her, but she didn’t get it. Boston is a bar – imagine that. I ordered a (you guessed it) Viking Beer on tap to start. After I finished, and feeling full from beer, I thought about ordering some wine. I approached the bar to review the list when the bartender recommended one with the caveat “It’s the okayest, but I can’t promise anything.” I don’t remember the wine, but I really want to incorporate “okayest” into the vernacular. P.S. The bartender was wearing a vintage D.A.R.E. t-shirt.
I hadn’t eaten since lunch, so I was pretty hungry by the time I left the bar, but restaurants stop serving food around 10. I couldn’t even get whale, which is advertised every block, like the Icelandic version of Starbucks. So, I visited the convenience store and bought some sandwiches and chips, and lamented the fact that I couldn’t find beer or wine for sale anywhere! I really wanted to bring some Viking Beer back to the States!
YOU WANT SUN? OH, WE GOT SUN! JUST…NOT RIGHT NOW
I had planned on seeing the Aurora Borealis, obviously, but the weather never cooperated. So, for my last night in Reykjavik, I decided to sulk at a restaurant close to my hotel. Since my experience with food in Iceland to that point had been boring, I wasn’t expecting anything different than the under-seasoned and over-priced fare I’d been used to. Ha! The food was delicious, and the chef/owner created a remarkable space. It was beautifully decorated, boasting local artwork and magnificent crystals that she has found on glaciers over the course of her life, starting with one that she found when she was only 9 years old.
I dined next to a pane glass window offering a view of the mountain and the harbor, and my attention to the view inspired her to share a story that piqued my interest to return in summer. The position of Iceland and the earth’s axis make the winter a very dark time. However, the summer is a very light time, and the summer solstice (the longest day in the northern hemisphere) is unique in Iceland as there is only one hour of “night.” Her husband is a drummer, so he and his drummer friends line up along the promenade overlooking the harbor with the mountain in the distance. As the sun sets, they play their drums. Yet, since darkness never really sets in, the amber glow of sunset leads into the amber glow of sunrise.
Among the artwork were enormous photographs of the Aurora Borealis, just to rub it in. More conversation with the chef revealed that the photographer waited 12 hours to capture just 10 minutes of light. As disappointed as I was not to witness it in person, I felt happy to have met her, and to have gained some insight about Iceland not found in the guidebooks.