The Undiscovered Country
We flew into Iceland in the middle of a dark, misty morning. Suffering a bit from jet-lag, we ambled through the quiet, Kevlavik Airport and managed to grab a bite to eat before boarding the Flybus for the 45 minute ride to Reykjavik. On this bus were mostly young, loud Americans who always seem to be auditioning for some kind of reality show. There are several attempts at being funny and witty for all to hear. It's a bit of a "groaning" experience like being forced to watch 'Big Brother', or some other crap show, but I just roll my eyes and remember that I too was once like that.
The landscape outside our bus window was starkly white with mountains in the distance. Extremely beautiful, the road to Reykjavík begins to sugar my mind with the waking-dream that we are actually on Mars heading to our capsule-home.
The founding of Iceland is credited to Lief Erikson. There is a tremendous statue of him (gift from the U.S.) in front of the imposing Hallgrímskirkja, the largest Lutheran parish church in Iceland. Although new discoveries suggest that some Irish monks may have landed on Iceland before him. You are a real monk if you went to Iceland in 700 A.D. Whom or what were they going to convert?
The Hallgrimskirkja and Leif Erikson.
We arrive in Reykjavík early in the morning and cannot check into our place for several hours. We find a nice bakery and sit back to enjoy coffee and freshly made croissants. The waitress is nice enough to let us just sit back and wallow in our smoggy dream-state trying to figure out what to do for the next few hours. Andrea learns from cousin Marleen (via FB) that we could go swimming in one of the local thermally-heated pools which are cheaper to use, open early, and cater mostly to locals. We find one within a short walking distance (Sundhöll, which happens to be the oldest public baths in Iceland) and it isn't long before we find ourselves swimming in the indoor pool. There are only a few locals around at this time and the water is comfortable. The hot tubs are just outside and require about 5 steps to get to. Let me just say that those 5 steps from the inside to the tubs outside was the most shocking of experiences. The instant you go outside you are hit smack dabbed with 20 degree weather plus cold wind. Each subsequent step is an incredible mixture of freezing cold and wind enveloping your body since, after all, you are just wearing a bathing suit at this point. All one can muster is a groaning "Ohhh.." coming from somewhere deep in your disconcerting soul's voice. Finally we step into the hot tub and "YES" it is very, very nice and warm and we immerse ourselves quickly as the shock lingers in our minds.
Maybe I was still affected by the trip to Kennedy Space Center or perhaps the death of Spock but whatever the reason, I've been thinking about outer space quite a bit lately. The idea of going to Mars, which once seemed like real science fiction, is appearing more and more possible. Perhaps in 50 years, it could be a regular thing for tourists to hop a 2 month ride to the Red Planet on some kind of Space Cruise Ship. They would arrive on Mars via space shuttle style, then transfer to a high-tech bus that whisks them to their small Martian abode. They would take excursions via bus or space suit to see some of the most extraordinary views on Mars. Then it's another two-month journey back to good old Earth.
Iceland has been opening its arms to more and more tourists. That is probably more out of necessity since their financial crash. Banks here overbought, oversold and generally put others' people money at risk which shook not only Iceland but the rest of Europe. Perhaps this is why you don't see Icelanders smile? Nonetheless, the excursions are convenient, affordable and well-designed. Most of the time, we are on warm buses traveling through amazing terrain and mountains. You don't even need to bring much warm clothing or shoes as there is a convenient rental place where you can pick up an ideal jacket, shoes, pants and even gloves to wear while visiting. The jackets are thick and it often
feels like you are putting on a spacesuit but you will cherish how warm they keep you.
It is still very hard to imagine how the first settlers managed to survive here over 1000 years ago. The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to have been a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson. From Wikipedia: "According to Landnáma, he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in the southwestern peninsula, now known as Reykjanesskagi. There he settled with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjavík (Cove of Smoke) due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth." Most of the history is based on the 'Book of Settlements' written some 3 centuries later. So you imagine there would be discrepancy. In any event, the journey and settlement of Iceland must have seemed like another planet to these ancient people. The wonder, the fear, the bravery, the deaths, the births, the battles taking place in mind and body (and all the feelings that come with that) are timeless elements in any journey-story. How could they be any different when we eventually set off for Mars?
We finally check into our Icelandic apartment which is like a spaceship; small with all-white walls and furnishings straight out of Ikea's Spaceship Collection. The bathroom is about the size of a small walk-in closet with the quintessential spaceship shower. While inside, we wear our all black, tight wool underthings that strike a fun, spacey contrast to the all white interior. An Apple TV dominates the room providing all entertainment and connection to the world. I can easily communicate with the Project Manager working on our new winter home in Mérida. The rooms are comfortably heated yet have many windows that let you watch the snow fall as you drift to sleep. If it weren't for the bright moon above, it certainly would look and feel like you are on another planet.
After a few hours of much needed sleep, we hoped on an excursion bus to go see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. This kind of thing was on neither of our bucket lists but we had to go see them because we were so close. Just like we had to see Chichen Itza because we were a few hours away so we had to go see the Lights weather permitting. Fortunately, tonight was clear but since it was near the end of the season for the Lights, they were not as luminous as they would be in the middle of winter. Nonetheless, it was an incredible thing to see and adds yet another layer to the fascination with Earth and Space.
The tour includes a snack with hot chocolate and a kleinur, which is an Icelandic doughnut (or maybe an Icelandic beignet).
After the whirlwind first day, we pass out in our space pod and snooze as the stars float above us.
The next day is as cold as the previous but we strike out in our spacesuits to do the self-walking tour of Reykjavik. There are some similarities to Mérida, Mexico. But just a few. We did see a clothesline here and some sidewalks and streets are crumbly.
The water here is some of the best in the world they say. True, the fresh cold spring water jets out of our faucets as does the hot, geo-thermal water with a bit sulfur smell. You can drink straight from the faucet. Just be sure to let the cold water run a bit so that there is no hot water smell. The water sources here are limitless and wonder how it can help California as I watch on the international news about yet another bleak drought forecast there. Maybe Iceland will eventually export some of its great water around the world? I would still wonder how 'limitless' it really is though.
We visited the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, located on the waterfront. It is the new home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera, which opened in 2011. The glass facade covering the entire building, was designed by renowned visual artist Olafur Eliasson. There is a local pride in this new structure. Andrea loved the geometric-shaped glass and George liked the borg-ship quality.
A few handy tips when visiting:
Know how to say "Thank You" and "Very Good" in Icelandic. Just knowing those two things go along way, particularly if you don't look traditional Icelandic. When you say the words properly, it actually throws the locals off a bit. lol "Meyh Got" means "Very Good" and can be used in many circumstances.
The food here has been delicious. I'll let Andrea write about that....
We've had really good food here, though I think it's a little expensive. We had a delicious 'pizza of the day', and a half carafe of red wine at a nice Italian restaurant. The pizza had chicken, red onion, tomato, and pesto, and it was loaded with flavor! The waitress also encouraged us to have dessert, who are we to argue that? It was a little chocolate cake with a warm filling, topped with vanilla ice cream, cookie crumbles, and raspberry syrup on the side of the plate. The next day we had breakfast at a cute little place and the menu was simple wit only like three or four choices. Most people were ordering the 'truck' which has eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast, and pancakes. It sounds like a lot, but the portions were just right. I had that minus toast. Again really good food and nice service.
Since our place has a fridge and cook top, we picked up a few things at the grocery store. [yogurt, apples, a wrap sandwich to share, a small bag of kleinurs, juice, and a couple energy bars] We always try to do this as it helps offset meals a little, and it's always interesting to shop in markets in different countries. (I even noticed a nice selection of hair dye kits which I will post about later when I need to color my hair.) So back to food... next, we went to The Laundromat Cafe (love those!) We did a load of laundry and had another good meal. I had a tasty veggie burger, and George had a caesar salad that had lots of chicken in it. This is a productive way to have fun doing your laundry. We were warm, enjoying a nice meal, and writing part of this blog post on their wifi.
Downsides? The people don't smile at all but that doesn't mean that they are 'mean' or 'angry'. I think they don't smile because the cold face muscles just can't get it together to make a smile. When I try to smile, I find it a hard thing to do and gave up quickly because my face was so cold. But the service here is excellent and everybody we spoke with was friendly and helpful to us in one way or another. One cafe went out of their way to provide us with some hot chocolate powder that we could take home with us for later use. And even though tipping is never expected, they still provide excellent, friendly service to you.
Iceland is also one of the few countries who still hunt whales. They say they only hunt non-endangered kinds of whales and impose a yearly quota on kills. Nevertheless, this aspect of the society is concerning. However in many ways, Icelanders can be compared to the Native Americas of N. America who felt hunting buffalo was an important part of their identity. I can respect the need for the native Icelanders to stick with their language and their way of life even though many people in the world might not agree with some of their customs. To Iceland's credit, they are embracing more of a holistic approach to the environment and strive to keep the ocean water cleaner and provide healthier food. I just thought I'd add these tidbits to give you an overview.
Icelandic history is fascinating and very bloody. Religious strife helped forge much of the culture and strong imagery is apparent wherever you walk. Iceland is actually quite a lovely place even during this time of the year. Greenland, located to the west is much more unbearable to humans and many people died because of bad information. The names give to both lands had more to do with greed than what they actually were. Don't get me wrong. There is plenty of Ice in Iceland but it is a naturally beautiful place with ample resouces. We both look forward to coming back in the Summer to see the real green. Did you know Greenland was named to fool ancient people so they would stay away from Iceland's resources? The moral of that story is to never assume a place is great simply because none of your friends have returned from there!