“February is the worst time for storms,” Reykjavik local.
The title of this article comes from a draft review of my comedy performance in Reykjavik. That gig was on Monday February 19. As the week in Iceland continued I took extra notes and created something of a travel blog, or travel novella. Read on for a review of the comedy night, a quest to see the Northern Lights, and a few tips on what to do in Reykjavik.
Day 1, Saturday 17
Iceland’s international airport is fine. Outside it there statues of people appearing in a circle, looking slightly lost. As a tourist arriving this is something in Iceland to immediately relate to. I felt I would like Iceland, but would Iceland like me? I had a spot at a comedy show, tickets to a Northern Lights tour, a map, and a friend to tour with. What, if any of it, would go exceedingly well?
The bus from the airport was easy to find and ride, and it takes about 45min to get into town. Booking ahead probably makes it cheaper, but I only followed my sister’s recommendation on the company I used as she usually checks costs thoroughly. My friend Zoe, who I was to share accommodation with, bought her bus ticket on her flight. It didn’t seem to bother her. Little usually does.
Zoe has fiery-red dreadlocks and works at a gold mine. Things that get in her way either fall down or get vaulted. I’m a skinny writer/comedian/student, who occasionally works at the gold mine reception desk. We shared an Airbnb apartment for ease and to split costs. There were hiccups with this though.
Reader of this site will know I’ve had issues with Airbnb in the past. This time’s accommodation was organised by Zoe, and credit to her it was a great location. It was near shuttle bus stop 8, near my sister’s family accommodation, and conveniently near the magnificent Hallgrimskirkja church and the main shopping strip.
Those are positives. Also the house looked good. Bright red. The picture we had for our section of the house showed it painted a dull grey, so happy colours were a plus. Many houses in Reykjavik are painted brightly to help offset the misery that can come with the cold and dark months of the year. Being so far north, Iceland can experience days of mostly darkness.
Zoe and I were to have a small room in the house. One bedroom, a bathroom and a lounge/kitchen. At Zoe’s wish I was to take the bed. She would slumber on the couch. A colleague at work suggested this was because Zoe didn’t want me to “…roll onto bed with her.”
What an odd suggestion.
I replied with, “I could kick her off the couch if I wanted.”
The colleague laughed, but then maintained a hard line that our sleeping arrangements in separate rooms was inappropriate for an unmarried non-couple. Fact is Zoe has a long term boyfriend. He is built like a Viking (a tour guide later said that Thor in the movies should be played by a big, red-headed man with a beard and strong features. Not a metrosexual blonde. Zoe’s boyfriend looks like the tour guide’s ideal Thor). He approved of our sleeping arrangements. He knows me. I’m a skinny writer/comedian/student. I pose a threat to pencils, sandwiches, and moody people. A bedroom and a couch is A-Okay.
However we didn’t get a bedroom and couch.
The bedroom didn’t have a door. It was more of a kitchen/lounge/bedroom. The couch folded out to a double bed. So basically we had a dormitory with two beds big enough for two. To be honest that proved to be a better situation. Zoe could sleep in more comfort – since I had already moved into the bedroom when the fold out couch was discovered. This also meant we could discuss matters into the night. For example, on the first night we played the role of school children on camp.
“Gosh I hate Mrs. Marsh.”
“Ooo I have her for art class. She’s terrible.”
“Such a bitch. Do you think her and Mr. Richards are doing it?”
“Gross. They probably are.”
However, before the fun of bedtime and rumours about fake people, Zoe and I explored the hubbub outside with a random walk. Firs thing we went to find was Hallgrimskirkja church, an amazing structure. My notes recorded it as a cathedral. In size it impresses as a cathedral. The internet says it is a church, so let’s go with that.
Hallgrimskirkja has the size and clean architectural lines that give it an intimidating and welcoming feel. It is uncomplicated by its confidence, with a presence that fits into its surrounds while also dominating them. I know it would be uncool to do this, but I could spend an afternoon looking at Hallgrimskirkja, perhaps from a café because just starring at it from a bus stop or street corner would appear like I was planning something that was not a wedding.
From there we walked the streets, navigated vaguely by my map. This map use would prove to be my minor excitement. Each opportunity to obtain a new map from a bus company or tourist site filled me with joy of, “Oh, isn’t this laid out well.”
Zoe did not find the process as appealing. I imagine many would agree with Zoe, but when the street names are clearly marked within the road width with minor pictures of the things you’re looking at to help orientate the reader, golly gosh that is fun.
Anyway, as we had both arrived in the afternoon it was getting dark, and after a fruitless attempt to orientate ourselves with the apartment building my sister was staying in, we found some food from a late night supermarket called 1011, or that’s as far as I could identify it. The locals probably had a name for it, but as we were to discover the locals don’t shop there if they can help it.
After a period in the 1011 where Zoe called out Icelandic product names to me in a funny voice, and the locals joined me in a confused starring at her in reply, we bought supplies for cheap meal at our accommodation, ate, and then we stepped out into the cold again, rugged up in a way that required planning.
It would prove that whenever we said, “Let’s go see if we can find..,” it took another seven minutes of wrapping clothing and tiring of boots before anything else happened.
And so after a wander of streets, appreciating of architecture, we sauntered towards, and found, Hostel Kex. A building that seems to have been reclaimed and remoulded into a hip and funky hostel with a large front bar. All of which is two flights of stairs up from a wooden panelled door that has Hostel Kex on it, if you look.
I’m unsure what the building was beforehand. It could have been a fishmonger on the ground floor, with officers for fishmongers on the five levels above. I know that sounds like a lot of fishmongers, yelling at each other about using squid ink in the photocopier, but fishing is a major business in Iceland, so obviously it must therefore be possible.
Anyway, we had our drink. Enjoyed the setting of a bar covered in musical instruments, reclaimed furniture, books, and boardgames, with windows overlooking a bay surrounded by massive snow covered mountains (which we saw earlier in the day but which were unsighted at this hour). Then we went home to argue about Mrs Marsh’s fake art classes, and slept off our hours of travel. Tomorrow would be a full day in Reykjavik.
Day 2, Saturday 18
We awake. Both of use alive and well. The previous night, before sleeping, Zoe revealed her main reason for preferring my bedroom to have a door.
“I sleep walk,” she said. In the recesses of my mind I knew this, but had delegated it as an unnecessary piece of information to remember. That was, until now.
“Oh yeah,” I said.
Zoe soothed the situation by stating that she did not believe it would happen during this stay, and that she was unlikely to sleepwalk out the door into the cold. The lock was a bit tricky. Even awake I found it difficult. A semi-conscious me got into the house later that night, but I would imagine a not fully lucid me would decide that jimmying the lock to get out into snow would not be worth the same effort as a drunken me finding a way into warmth.
Still, Zoe felt it important to issue her sleepwalking warning. For this reason I spent some of the nights thinking, Oh, I hope she doesn’t get up and wonder who the hell is sleeping in the bed. She might go and construct a pickaxe from shards of ice and a plank of wood, and proceed to slaughter me.
That’s not a kind of thing a room-mate should do, but it’s still a possibility.
Just consider the Bates Motel.
Anyway, during the night I did wake and seeing a shadow above my bed I worried. Three times this happened in the first night, and then twice the following. The shadow was from a coat on a hook. In hindsight I should have moved the coat, but my fear probably obscured pre-planning. Aside from that we awoke alive and well… with a little less sleep for me than desired.
Today was introduction time.
Zoe has never met my family. As you know, Zoe and I are not a couple. I repeat. Not. A. Couple. Sleeping in the same room, technically, and going on holiday together seems to confuse some people. I have found it doesn’t matter what you say to people, once they think something it can be hard work to convince them of actual facts.
Try explaining the many, many ways we can prove the moon landing to people who, “Aren’t too sure.” (Not sure about moon landing? Read here: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2004/02/19/1048346.htm)
SO! After more bumbling to find the location, Zoe and I knock on the door of my sister’s apartment and meet her family. I’m later told that my sister (whose name is removed here due to privacy request) says that she, “Approves” of Zoe.
We’re not a couple!
Anyway, after a discussion we all decide to go to the Aurora Museum on the otherside of Reykjavik. This is because, dum di la dum, we are all to see the aurora borealis this night. This phenomenon, considered one of the wonders of the world, is also known as the Northern Lights. It occurs regularly, from what I can gather, but seeing them is difficult. Like most things having a clear sight of what’s going on is important. For example, imagine you’re at a football game and someone’s head is in the way. If that head is cloud cover and the game is the aurora borealis then that analogy makes sense.
With the decision to learn something about the sight before seeing the evening’s event, we went with map in hand towards the museum. This walk looked about fifteen minutes on the map. In life, through ankle deep snow, sometimes knee deep if you stepped wrong, it took half-an-hour.
Earlier this morning I went for a run along Reykjavik streets and through the main park. It was lovely. It required some short footsteps on ice but it was enjoyable to see frost and snow and ice while jogging along. The walk with two children and three adults required stepping around muddy, cruddy brown snow. It was not as enjoyable. But I got to use a map.
Sadly the Aurora Museum itself was not as entertaining as the trip to see it. Imagine a child had some Clag glue, access to the internet, and an autism type interest in the Northern Lights. That’s this museum display. I did get a snap-band with an image of the Northern Lights on it, because they were giving kids free gifts and the snap-band wasn’t cool enough for some French child to want to keep, so I picked theirs up from a table. So there was a plus.
Snow began to fall and the wind kicked up. With scarf wrapped around ears and gloved hands in pockets, we followed my sister’s husband out towards the pier. For some reason it was considered the place to go to get a good photograph. We had a snowball fight, but no great pictures. It is worth noting that I discovered that snowballs are best thrown when they are a packing of fallen snow, rather than a clump ice.
En lieu of a photo of this pier area I’ll describe it.
Imagine you’re surrounded by warehouses. Mostly slabs of concrete with square windows. The footpaths are layers of white, and under the snow is a mix of ice and water. Your foot will break through the snow surface into water or onto ice. Ice is likely if there is concrete underneath the snow. Otherwise if there is soil it will form a muddy sludge.
On the otherside of the warehouse buildings is a bay. On there is a crossing of wires and poles, as boats rest after fishing. They don’t bounce on waves, despite the wind. They have heavy hulls. Painted white and grey. They rest, and not planning to go anywhere. Leviathans that need not shift for anyone. Maybe think of them like elephant seals, for a more comical image. Rows of elephant seals basking in the daylight, resting before movement in the morning darkness.
The wind thuds against the body. Everyone is coated. Thankfully it only cuts through at exposed faces. Zoe is not wearing a beanie or any head covering. She now has snow fall onto her skin for the first time in her life. I too look at these descending flakes.
In my experience snow is nothing more than tiny drops of white. Like a rain that melts on impact. Icelandic snow is fragile crystals of peculiar shapes. Each one a couple of millimetres in diameter. They land and hold their form. I tried to move some but they break easily. To compensate I raised a hand to catch some. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Maybe the colliding with a moving hand split some into pieces, but a few were finally caught. These flakes were beads of iced water, linked into hexagonal parts at right angles. Geometric shapes clumped onto each other in no clear order.
The look in shape a bit like Iceland’s Harpa Concert Hall.
Harpa is another marvellous building in Iceland. Its marketing symbol is a series of pitching forks, circled to represent a classical snow flake. As observed a snow flake is never a classical shape, and neither is the Harpa.
It is a design of large blocks, maybe four or five of them, that fit onto each other with glass panels that can light up. At night these panels shimmer with an intention to replicate the Northern Lights.
At this point in the afternoon my sister received a message to advise us that there would be no Northern Lights tour tonight. The snow we experienced was part of a bigger storm, and so conditions were not going to be suitable. This put confusion into plans, and made disappointment for my sister and family. They would reschedule for Monday night, tomorrow. I could not do this as I had planned an appearance at a local comedy night.
With family to make decisions on their evening, Zoe and I ventured off to the Reykjavik Contemporary Art Gallery, called the Art Museum. This is a big building, with large halls and wide rooms. It reminds of a converted prison, but we could not find anybody who could confirm or correct this theory. What we did find in the Art Museum was a display by someone who had cut out pages from comic books and printed them large, some lemons on a glass plane on the floor, some mock vomit on a wall, a video of a women dressed as a cow dribbling paint onto a canvass from a pretend tail, and a replica of the Louis Pasteur experiment that disproved the theory of spontaneous generation.
All in all it was memorable, let’s be honest. A collection of really half-arsed work on display in a major institute. That’s memorable, or scaring. I did like the Pasteur reproduction, which was two glass bowls containing a protein fluid. In theory this fluid could sustain and develop life. Bacteria need only have access. By tilting the air point of one bowl it allowed contact to the air outside, the airborne bacteria, and so a scum of growth thrives inside. To disprove spontaneous generation no air and so no life was given access to the second bowl.
This experiment proved that micro-organisms live in the atmosphere. It helped Pasteur argue about the existence of yeast etc. I found this cool. Zoe found three sheets of blank paper framed behind glass a rather redundant display. The question the paper was asking, explained a wall card, was whether paper alone can be art. This isn’t a challenging question. The real challenge would be to draw something good on a piece of paper.
We left and found our way into town, passing a row of American, Irish and English themed bars. I decided to show Zoe the park I had ran through in the morning, so we took a turn, passed the last of the city shops, and by that segmentation we came to the park area. Here we saw a bunch of people taking photographs of ducks. These ducks were on the footpath. They were not simply seeking food but were seeking space as a small pond in the corner of the park was crowded with swans and other ducks. Larger ducks. Boss duck that didn’t want to get their feet cold by walking on the footpath.
“Zoe, follow me,” I said, and walked across a road and into the park area. With crunching of snow under foot we strode onto a great space of flat white. Children were building snow men and running with families. I stopped our walk ten metres from the park wall. Maybe twenty metres.
“You see that pond,” I said, pointing to the crowded swan and duck area.
“Yes,” she said.
“We’re standing on it.” I kicked the light covering of snow beneath us. With a couple of strokes a thick layer of ice could be seen. Ice doesn’t seem to appear on soil. It turns to sloshed mud.
“Oh? Ah! Oh yeah!” Zoe turned around to see all the families.
“On the map there’s a lake,” I said, and pointed at the map were there was a lake. “That’s covering this whole area. We’re standing on it.” I waved my arm. From the crowded recess of a pond to a distant bridge, and from the park benches along the side, we were standing upon a frozen lake.
“Do you want to make a snow man?” asked Zoe.
I must say it is quite different travelling with someone. Aside from family trips when I was younger I cannot think of a time I have had a travel buddy. I don’t prefer the alone time. My alone travels are merely the result of a situation I have constantly found myself in. Therefore my travel pictures are mostly ones of art work description cards that I plan to research later, and memory notes so that I can recall a location. The difference with someone joining the journey is not only the unexpected turns that come from a new mind on a subject, but that the travel pictures tend to become populated with an expression of emotion not just a scene.
In the middle of the city lake, on a thick layer of ice, I now have a picture and a memory of being satisfied with a lumpy and tiny snowman of irregular proportions.
I also have a memory of kicking the ice hard to test it.
“This is solid,” I said immediately before cracking into a lower level of ice.
Zoe and I looked at each other.
“Maybe not this part.”
We left the park for the house, needing to teeter and slip our way through winding and thickly snow covered streets. Once back we discussed options for dinner, rescheduled the Northern Light tour for Tuesday night, and left again to visit my sister’s family where, after a tete-a-tete between our groups, Zoe and I went to eat at an Icelandic restaurant called Cafe Loki. I recommend it.
The service at Café Loki was very kind. In fact I found almost everyone in Reykjavik to be very welcoming. There was one exception, and that wasn’t bad. It was when we found the cheap supermarket, called Bonus. This place was packed with people. Like the people the location had mounds of products dumped in racks. It is a warehouse style food market, with a long freezer section and a walk-in cool room for diary and meats. If that sounds depressing, it mirrored the people working there.
Most people in Reykjavik seem to enjoy some level of warm and friendliness in their jobs. Those at the Bonus seem to have less joy in their life. Not rude. I couldn’t imagine that. They just seemed worn out. I’ve worked long hours at low paying jobs. This experience is a reminder that resented lives exist everywhere.
Anyway, back to the cherry Cafe Loki. It reminded me of an Italian restaurant. Not for table cloth or vino, but because of the bar in the corner and the family feel. Plus the food was homely.
Later that night we were told we had eaten, “Peasant food.” The kind of rustic food the city folk don’t bother with. It was good though. Perhaps because of the simplicity.
Zoe had a lamb soup, which from her report was delicious. I had mashed fish, smoked trout and a lamb’s head jelly, all served on a local breads. It was excellent.
I’m trying to think of a way to describe the lamb-head jelly, since that sounds the most unusual of the meal, and all I can think of is to describe it as similar to a pate. Apparently a jellied meat is common in parts of Europe. Think of the insides of a British pork pie. The gelatine is basically fat, holding meat together. In this case because nobody likes waste, it’s holding together the meat off a lamb head. Nothing wrong with that.
Not like the fermented shark I ate somewhere else. That was a bit like smelly cheese with a tough consistency.
Before the trip Zoe claimed she was going to eat more lamb head than me. She didn’t. I ate almost all of it myself. I offered. She just enjoyed her soup. She had a few meals of soup. It’s a common sight in restaurants. Icelanders seem to have an affinity with soup. I guess it warms up the body and makes use of minimal supplies. When you live on an island it is important to use all of what you have.
Deprived of the Northern Lights we finished our meals and went in hunt for night life. Well, not a heavy party type of life. A chronically solo history meant I was still dealing with how to manage a trip with someone else, not a party of strangers. So far company on a trip meant I had to make a bunch of decisions and hope the other person agreed.
“Do you want to go there?”
“And how about this?”
“Ok that’s a no then.”
Looking at a map and recalling a recommendation from a guide book, I lead Zoe to a bar called Kaldi. Here I cannot recount many memories. By this stage of the night I had had a couple of beers, and soon after arriving at Kaldi we befriended an Australian who had made a massive mistake in currency conversion and had far too much cash for his trip. As a result he decided to continually shout the bar drinks. I had some.
I remember an Icelandic woman who laughed loudly at my attempts at comic entertaining, and who was very insistent I should come visit her for a meal with her husband sometime. She held onto my arm a few times, and her mouth got very close to my face. I suspected the meal she wanted me to come to was not the only thing she wanted me to partake in with her husband. If you get my meaning… sex.
By the end of the night Zoe had drunk much of the establishment’s stock of cider and I had found my height had shrunk to be level with the bar top. We made our way home. Perhaps by map or by good judgement, and into our beds.
Separate beds I remind.
We are not a couple.
Day 3, Monday 19
Have I mentioned the stove top?
What a protracted issue that was.
It didn’t work, you see. Well, it did work. We could turn it on, but it wouldn’t stay on.
Zoe contacted the owner with an email that basically said, “It doesn’t work”
We got one reply that basically said, “Yes it does. It’s very easy.”
No further instructions.
After some head scratching we decided to apply a different pot to the plate. The second pot worked. It turned out that the pot provided was not compatible with the hotplate surface, and so the whole thing would switch itself off. I’m still baffled as to why this pot was in the kitchen. Surely the owner hadn’t put it there as a joke. What a sadistic thing to do. Aside from annoying house guests, the result was repeated emails asking what the hell was wrong with the stove.
The alternative is someone travelled to Iceland with it, and left it there as a prank on subsequent guests. Seems like a lot of effort. Carrying a useless cooking pot to Iceland and leaving it in an Airbnb rates highly on the originality graph, but low on the practicality plane. Maybe they could have just glued a wooden stick to the ceiling instead. Anyway…
Yep. I didn’t wake up in the mood for a run. Thankfully too, because Zoe and I had a long walk to Perlan this morning. This is a museum with an ice cave and interactive display about glaciers. It looked a fifteen minute walk on the map.
It took half-an-hour.
Sludging through wet, muddy snow, and up a path that was like hiking through woods on ice, but mercifully short, we came to the dome building of Perlan. Wind was biting our faces as we quickly found a recesses of the building. It was not an entry point. We’d arrived on the wrong side. Eventually we walked around and pushing through the rotating doors we felt shielded by the mock-ice environment. I felt such relief my visit was satisfying there and then. It was like when you take a shower after a muddy game of sport. All the crud feels like it is coming off, and you’re human again.
Anyway, a little dazed Zoe and I pay for tickets and get told about a tour starting soon. We separately investigate some very nice displays about how Icelanders feel about their environment, along with some pictures of the violent and beautiful landscape further out of Reykjavik, and then the tour started.
I’ll only say this about our tour. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if not for the awesomeness of our guide. She was having fun with the talk, like a little performance. As a result I forgot we were in an ice cave. That’s right. The tour brings everyone to an entry point. A door slides open with dramatic Tar-Darr, and you’re in a giant fridge shaped like a corridor. Pretty much that’s it. I feel from the tour you could travel hundreds of kilometres to the otherside of Iceland to visit ice caves carved into natural blocks of ice, or you can head a few kilometres away from the centre of town and visit a made one in town.
Now I’ve worked in giant fridges. They’re cold and my sweaty hands (long time readers know about my sweaty hands) stick to everything. This fridge was -3oC to keep the walls from melting. In a real ice cave, or as real as one can be, the temperature would be closer to zero. Water would occasionally drip from the ceiling, and then probably slide down the back of your neck. Yuck.
Anyway, the tour guide was fun. For example Zoe asked her about horses.
Our guide said something about how the horses are really great in Iceland and that locals eat them.
Zoe said, “Where can I eat horse?”
“There’s a place called Food and Drink. But go to the one with the Icelandic name. The other one sucks balls.”
It took a few seconds for me to twig that she said, “Sucks balls.” I’ve heard many swear words but an Icelandic accent cursing in English has a unique sound to it. Icelanders seems to roll their tongue over words. It’s more harmonious than an Australian smacking or English spitting or American cutting.
Soon after this Zoe said, “Hey Luke, can you take a photo of my head in a hole?”
The tour guide laughed.
I said, “I’m so sick of you asking me that.”
Zoe now has a picture of her head in an ice hole. This hole was made in the cave to mimic the kind of hole that would be naturally created by water dripping and washing through gaps in bigger ice caves.
After the guided tour we’re lead upstairs to a very good display about glaciers around Iceland and the world. You can see them melting and their impact over time. For the record I was not 100% sure what a glacier was. Basically it’s a slab of ice that could look like a massive river but the front half has been cut off, then there’s a slab like a dam wall, but instead of the dam wall being concrete it’s ice. So all the water behind it is ice, and there’s a trickle of a stream before it. That’s a glacier. Pretty cool.
What was also pretty great was the dome restaurant. We could have paid hard earned money to go walk on a balcony. However I was not feeling inclined to subject myself to more ice winds and squinting yet, and so we sat with a great view from under the dome in warmth. When leaving we got lucky as a regular courtesy bus had arrived to drive tourists back though town to the Harpa. This allowed a much drier and quicker walk to our next tour, a walking tour of Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is unique. I’ve been to a few cities around the world. Tokyo is one example of a place that gets sculpture wrong. They have big objects there. Slabs of things that I think they confuse with being good things. In many ways size is not the keystone to quality.
Along many streets in Reykjavik there are terrific sculptures. I often stopped to walk into a park or across a street to have a closer look. Always saying to Zoe, “I think it’s this way,” then looking at the sculpture, pulling the map up, and saying “No, actually it’s up here.”
Why the distraction? I’m not used to travelling with people. I don’t know how much they’ll understand my staring curiously at new things attitude.
Aside from house painted bright colours, Reykjavik also has many murals painted on houses. Think of it like graffiti but public art that is requested by the home owner. Occasionally there are pop-up little works, if someone plastering little figurines on street signs is a pop-up art work, or half a plastic cow in a backyard can be called an installation, but none the less Icelandic people are trying to spruce up the place to distract from any annoyance they have of icey walks and snow blizzards in the face.
Inspired by falling over, Zoe and I invented a game called Local or Not.
Basically you watch people walk along, and if their foot slips on some ice and their face doesn’t register the loss of balance, then they’re a local. By day four I was getting used to it, but then I went for a long slide – thankfully not on my arse, which ruined my calm composure.
“Iceland is not a practical place to wear high heels,” said Zoe.
Then we saw someone wearing heeled boots. We couldn’t tell if they were a very new tourist or very confident local. We didn’t stalk them to gain more information. We did comment how we hadn’t seen any old people with walking sticks. Probably safest for them to order home delivery everything.
Anyway the walking tour showed us one of my favourite things about Iceland.
“There is a politician who has very right-wing views that I really don’t like,” said our tour guide, Oluf, while we stood outside a major ministerial building that didn’t have any guards. “I see him in the street all the time. I really want to yell at him, but I don’t. That is not how we do things. We’ll let him get on with his day. Then I will go home and write a letter. We will not stop people in the street, but we will write about it later.”
“Is that because it is too cold to stop someone in the street?” I asked.
The guide laughed, but the point was about attitude. Per capita, Iceland has more writers and book readers than anywhere else in the world. It is one of the UNESCO Cities of Literature. I’m told it is tradition to receive a book for Christmas, and Icelanders stop that afternoon to sit and read. Quaint. It’s not the same in Australia, were we play cricket in a driveway or backyard, bowling beemers at the youngest child’s head – at least that’s my memory. Iceland has a simpler view on fun. Much of it indoors.
As a tip the Einar Jonsson sculpture garden near Hallgrimskirkja is very much worth the visit. I would not have known to look if not for the tour guide, and it has some terrific works to visit for free. There is also a famous hot dog stand which is frankly not amazing. Americans have a long history in Iceland. This is because their own army is minimal and with threats of wars Iceland decide to align with a foreign power. Their choice was between England and America. Being logistically close to England, they probably had some familiarity with the English. They chose America.
The tie with America might explain the hot dog stand, and the many American themed bars, and the number of Americans living in Reykjavik. Yes, while touring Zoe and I met one other Australian and a couple of Brits, we met many Americans. They also featured heavily at the comedy night called Come Talk Funny.
The night is billed as all English language, so tourists and locals can come along and have a free comedy night. I booked a spot months in advance and it went ok. I mean not great or terrible. Just okay. I feel bad because the organisers were kind to fit me on, and they said I did good and that most of the night was a little flat. Which is half true. The crowd picked up at points. They had some great acts, but sometimes getting the crowd to respond is the real challenge. They felt comfortable to laugh at sex talk or with a vocal act on stage. Considering I’m not a “personality” on stage or talked about sex I did okay. I just wish I did better.
I mused later that some of my material requires an understanding of situation. An Australian accent might have slowed this understanding, along with understanding of context. There was a moment when I delivered a line that got a chuckle, but from previous gigs I knew it should have got a bigger laugh. For this reason I stalled. I looked to the crowd with a mixture of annoyance and expectation. A full audience laugh then came. In a way it is a lesson in creating delay in delivery.
But since the audience was from Iceland, America, England, Ireland, Australia, China and probably elsewhere, I think the attraction to sex and vocal humour is because it’s obvious. Not necessarily easy. A comedian that tried smut failed. It’s just the topic can work everywhere. I did sex and relationship material in Manchester two weeks beforehand and succeeded. Maybe I should have done that content. Maybe there’ll be a next time.
Anyway I was hopeful to meet some of the comedians to talk bollocks, but as friendly as they were Zoe and I only really chatted to one of them. A guy who works by day as a walking tour guide, different to the company we had.
Aside from the Harpa and Hallgrimskirkja he did not seem to care for things in Reykjavik, believing that everything worth seeing in Iceland is outside of the city.
I dispute this. As a foreigner I appreciate this city. It has a low density with a high level of icons. The town I live in has nearly the same population as Reykjavik, but where I live there are less resources and a lower popularity of arts. Obviously the difference between the towns is that Reykjavik is a capital city, but I do appreciate the size and beauty they have in their city.
Still, the comedian tour guide made an argument that when in Iceland, one should go to Snaefellsnes. A nearby town with waterfalls, peaks and Ice shelves. It has everything worth seeing in one destination drive.
“I don’t want to drive here,” said Zoe, as she was staying longer with unplanned days, she would be the only one capable of using a hired car.
“A 17 year-old can drive here,” said our comedian friend. “You can drive here.”
How true this statement was, was to be tested the next day.
Day 4, Tuesday 21
“Takk, takk,” is what our tour guide would have you believe is Icelandic for, “Thank you.”
I don’t believe it.
I found saying “Takk” was enough to have one Icelander thank me with of nod of appreciation, and another reply with a rattle of Icelandic sentences that, since we were only passing each other, sounded pleasant.
My suspicion is this. By saying “Takk, takk,” an Outlander – aka someone not from Iceland, the speaker is reinforcing an Icelandic word. Thus drawing enough attention to it.
It’s like a baby saying “bye, bye,” because they’re trying to lean how to say it and they want you not know that they’re making an attempt.
It can be a problem learning words from a foreign land to use when visiting. In Bonn, Germany, once I replied to a question with a German answer. It just so happened I knew the words to the two parts of the topic. The problem was that by answering with German, I was then assumed to know much more German. This was not true.
Anyway, “Takk” means “Thanks”, and “Yow” is the pronunciation for “Yes”. Those are the two Icelandic words I learnt. Considering everyone I encountered spoke English fluently, and you’re reading this in English, those words will get you a long way in Reykjavik. As a point of interest, as a solo traveller I have always feared trips to lands were English is not a primary language. I don’t want to be unable to speak with people because of a language separation as well as a social one. However travelling here, with someone, it was a surprise to me how easily Zoe, a frequent traveller, was able to just ask total strangers questions in English. Locals always were able to answer, but I felt I had to do a “Sorry do you speak English?” dance before asking anything. I stopped this following Zoe’s lead.
But Zoe and I were not to stay in Reykjavik today. We weren’t going to drive ourselves either. We had a tour bus trip around the Golden Circle.
This trip takes in some of the nearest and greatest sights of Iceland from Reykjavik. Since we didn’t exactly mingle with the other tourists, I can only advise that most of them seemed to be American and English, with a few French and Japanese. I mention this to give a scale of the bus size and to advise that it was one of many buses on the circuit that day. Truly, Iceland is a tourist destination. They have horses, puffins, varieties of fish and lamb for themselves, and glaciers, geysers and waterfalls for the rest of the world. Or so it seems.
Our first stop was at Thingvellir National Park. Now, the tour guide spoke in a confusing, wandering manner that I struggled to follow, and Zoe shared my perplexed reactions. At one point I asked her about the location of tectonic plates at Thingvellir and she began an answer that rolled around to talk about stuff I think was related to the scenery. Let’s say she had been given a script by the company, and rather than just say she didn’t understand something, she turned any topic into a muffled translation of a script on a similar theme. My sister and her family recounted a series of identical stories that they were told by their tour guide.
So anyway Thingvellir is a National Park that has a local name spelt with a “thorn”, using an ancient letter that looks like “Þ” so it is actually spelt Þingvellir. I like to tell people that Þ is the letter sign writers were meant to write when they first wrote things like “Ye old”, because instead of a “Y” it was supposed to be “Þ”, but because of a difficulty written language a “Y” was used. Therefore because Þ is pronounced with a “th”, this means that while modern people say “Ye old…” historically they would have said “The old…”.
As fun as I find that, it’s got nothing to do with Iceland.
Þingvellir is a wondrous sight. There is a passage between rock walls that I believe it is a section of a tectonic plate, sticking out of the earth’s surface, broken in two. Two plates of the Earth’s crust run under Iceland, the source of some 100 volcanoes that simmer below and above land in this country. The two rims of plates that might (or might not be) be visible in Iceland are many kilometres apart. So tourists with goals of standing on the Eurasian plate and the North American plate must leave disappointed.
Equally to say many Icelanders may have left Þingvellir disappointed. The park is the sight of Iceland’s first parliament. Arguably the longest running parliament in the world. Here, on a mound before a rock, now marked with the Icelandic flag, is where in 930AD Icelandic tribes came together to agree on some rules. This was when 6,000 people lived on Iceland. It was agreed that a war between tribes could wipe out many of the country’s people, and if anyone wants to trade well that’s a lot of expertise lost. So the fields at Þingvellir they gathered once a year, perhaps taking a month to get there, to agree on laws, have skirmishes on disagreements, and hang people they didn’t like. Unless you were a woman. In that case you got drowned in a very lovely stream.
“What laws would they make?” Zoe asked me.
I stood before the rock, just as the Law Sayer would have stood. The Law Sayer was an important role as they would recite the laws of the land. A position that existed for hundreds of years.
“Law number one,” I said towards the land before me. “Wash the rice before boiling it, to remove starch. This will make it not clump.”
Zoe had taught me the key steps to making fried rice the night before.
“Law number two. Don’t cook the whole way through, as you want it to take up some oil, so only part cook the rice, like three quarters.”
We’re not a couple, but after all these years I’ve lived with someone both female and not related to me. For the first time I’ve received information I can carry on and use later.
“Law number 749. Can someone learn how to read and write. Law number 749. Can someone learn how to read and write. I might have said that one before.”
From the beautiful and historic Þingvellir, where people died, government was formed and conducted for over a thousand years, and the Earth’s mattress below the covers can be seen moving a few centimetres a year, we travelled to Gullfoss Waterfall.
I said before how Icelanders have their flora and fauna for themselves, with some export, but sell the world tourists their nature. I write that as if implying they don’t personally view their iconic land.
Perhaps this opinion is best explained by the high level of tourism, and so the swamping of foreigners to the sights. This is not to say they locals don’t care for them. Quite the opposite. Gullfoss Falls is a magnificent glacier caped waterfall, appearing as a cut where the Earth has pulled itself apart under a lake, with water dropping into a chasm with a spray of force that sometimes produces a rainbow. This sight exists because of the work of Sigríður Tómasdóttir. She battled against those wishing to dam and turn the force of Gullfoss into a source for a power station. She raised awareness of this natural wonder and preserved it for all people to be awed by.
“I will not sell my friend,” cried the board telling the work of Sigríður Tómasdóttir.
The bus tour continued from here to Geysir, a hot spring where water shoots into the sky with regularity. If that sounds like a geyser then that’s because this Geysir is where the English word geyser is derived from. When I say shoots into the sky, I am dramatising the burst. It is more like a burp followed by a fart. A cough followed by a shout. A firecracker precedes an explosion, for another dramatic description. All around this geyser are bubbling pools surrounded by snow heaps. As Zoe and I walked around the area it snowed once more. With these dots of ice fell we slipped and staggered up rises and along roped paths.
The snow did not relent. Following Geysir we stopped at two less famous sights, another waterfall and a historic church next to a mound house – a mud and hay building low to the ground which was common housing for the early settlers of Iceland. The snowing created a thick shield that our seasoned bus driver was able to navigate with expert skill while taking caution. A 17 year-old would have learnt much from the driver’s experience. In fact a 17 year-old in these conditions would have been wise to pull over and wait for clearer viewing.
“I’m not driving in this,” said Zoe with fair thought. It is wise not drive in a foreign country, on unfamiliar roads, on the opposite side to those in Australia, for the first time, in potentially snow storm conditions.
It was also a clear indication that once more our tour to the Northern Lights would be cancelled. Considering our plans for the next day, this ended my chance to see them. I was not perturbed. My motivation for visiting was more collective. The allure of travel companions, the remoteness of the sights, the uniqueness of the land. Zoe did get to see the Lights three days after I leave. She reported that the tea they served in the shelter was very expensive.
However this day was not yet done. Following the bus excursion Zoe and I made our way to an old bus shelter. On my map it looked a twenty minute walk. It took about ten.
This former bus shelter has been converted with kitchens and whatnot into a food court. A fine food court, with an excellent array. It’s close too, being just at the end of the main drag of shops, at the other end from the lake. Here we bumped into a local who had earlier served Zoe coffee, and I ate a wonderful fish dish. Iceland is known for its fish. This looked like a salmon but it wasn’t salmon. It tasted soft and wonderful, with some buttery dill drizzled on top. I’m not a food writer, but I did enjoy this meal so I’m recording it here, along with the food court name: Hlemmur.
So anyway we met this American barista who had stayed in Iceland for a woman. She told us, along with all of her friends, that our next plan for the night was a terrific idea, and I must tell you it was a highlight of the tour.
The local swimming pools is what Icelandic people do as a social norm. The pools are heated by the warmth of the volcanic Earth that Iceland lives on, and unlike the water at our Airbnb they don’t smell of sulfur.
As a point of etiquette, you must strip naked in your gender prescribed changeroom, with shoes stored in boxes just outside the rooms, prior to showering and heading into the pool. These changerooms are open areas. No consideration for a prudish disposition. You get naked with the muscular, flabby, wrinkly, skinny, and all in between. There’s no point in being worried about your body image. Nobody else is because everyone can see they are different and are about to do the same thing.
I wondered later if this contributes to why writing is respected in Iceland. Writing is an exercise of the mind in a country with a seemingly comfortable body view. At least Zoe and I mused on the positives of the open nakedness.
“There was a couple of English ladies in my changeroom,” said Zoe. “One was all, ‘Oh, Ah, Oh, I need to cover up’, but by the end of showering she had to get over it.”
And yes, so the etiquette is this, with much of it learnt from mimicking those speaking Icelandic around me; shoes on racks, strip naked, shower yourself clean, dry, leave your towel in a rack, put on bathers, then head out to one of the pools and baths.
Now, it is quite probable that once upon a time the men’s and women’s bathing areas were segregated. There exists now a stairwell that links the inside and outside bathing areas, with the men’s changerooms link to the inside and the lady’s linked to out the outside. Now they are joined, and there is no division whatsoever.
Both genders can swim laps in either pool, dive from the indoor boards, lay in the out door child depth pool, and have the timed waterfall drop from a funnel onto your back for a kind of water weight massage on the shoulders and back.
I guess the highlight, and memory that will stick of Iceland, is relaxing in the baths. Heated to body temperature or just above, it seems common place for locals to sit and discuss the day. We were told that in the morning most of the parents get in the pools and gossip. They find out everything that is happening in the city of 150,000. It’s better than listening to morning television for your news.
But while Zoe and I didn’t gossip about Mrs. Marsh or some other fiction, we did sit back and chat about the days gone as snow began to fall. The imperfect crystals of water dropped on us, holding shape in Zoe’s hair and kissing my shoulders as I stood out of the pool to welcome the sensation and catch sight of snow landing across the nearby street.
A delicate falling of snow while sitting in an Icelandic heated bath. There’s a memory to travel for.
After showering, drying, spin drying my bathers in a hand pressed device, and clothing up once more, I walked home with Zoe and then left her rest, as the warm bath had calmed us both to near slumber. However I had less time in Reykjavik so finished the evening making some notes that have become this overlong journal entry, while listening to jazz in Kex Hostel, with two ladies singing accompaniment. Following this I took a short stroll in the cool clear Reykjavik night, and it was back to the house to once more talk dormitory gossip with Zoe before sleeping.
“What’s Mrs. Marsh’s husband like?”
“Is she married?”
“Yeah sure. Sure she is.”
“But I thought she’s doing the nasty with Mr Richards.”
“The nasty? You mean not washing behind their ears?”
Day 5, Wednesday 22
Once more a treck though snow. A battering of wind. Sloshing of iced water. It seeps into and around feet. This morning’s walk was a force of will to battle conditions returned from yesterday afternoon. The conditions that blotted the sky for the Northern Lights.
Before starting the quest this morning we stopped at our local Braud & Co bakery. This is a fabulous bakery. To wake in the morning and be able to walk almost directly across the street to get one of the best rolls/croissants/scrolls in the known world, is a luxury. So with a tasty treat in bag Zoe and I, later followed by my sister and her family, made our morning thirty minute walk to visit the National Museum of Iceland.
As as child I was frequently taken to museums. Now I find the collection of artefacts with plaques on their history to be quite relaxing. I don’t like a collection of items in my house very much. The less I own the better, but if someone else collects all the important and good looking things, and stores them in a big building with clear signage, that’s great.
Zoe and I talked to the manager of the museum. She gave us some great advice on where to have lunch, which was basically to head to the adjacent University were there is a cheap café and a very welcoming feel. I endorse the University as a place for cheap food and excellent soup. As mentioned before the Icelanders really know their soup. I’m not a soup person. Long time readers know of my sweating issue, but I didn’t sweat in Iceland. Maybe my body decided getting wet and frozen was not a good choice. I agree body. Being sweaty in wind and snow would have been a poor choice.
“Lot’s of people complain that there’s too many religious artefacts here,” said the Museum Manager.
Zoe and I agreed that there were a lot. However, “That’s all the rich stuff that only got used once a week,” I said. “I makes sense it is preserved and important.”
“Yes,” said Manager, glad we could see the logic in the displays of the early years of Icelandic settlement. “Also, the people were very poor. Anything they had they used until it broke, and would repair it until it was totally useless.”
The museum is laid out chronically. At one point there is a wooden mask. A child would have played with it. Holes for eyes and a cut wedge for a mouth. A piece of wood with an odd shape used for entertainment. This is across from a very fine military suit. The kind used by the Danish army. While the ruling Dane’s would polish their brass buttons, the local Icelanders would play with planks of wood. It is a credit that they express themselves in so many artistic forms now, seemingly with a demand for cultural activities.
The last display in the Museum is dress made of plastic. A modern replica of their traditional garb. Oddly though, no mention of the woollen jumpers and design that so many tourist shops push on the visiting market. I suspect the jumpers are a scam, as I saw no-one wearing one. I still bought some balls of lopi wool – lopi being the Icelandic sheep, for my Mum to knit with. She said she’ll make me a scarf.
So the Museum and University are worthy of a visit. Next on our tour agenda, via a stop in Mokka Kaffi for Zoe to have coffee and I to have cake and us both to break from walking, was the famed Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is famous as a geothermal heated bath with medicinal properties for people with rheumatoid diseases. This is owing to the siclia and sulfur in the mineral rich water. There’s also probably a lot of other stuff in the water. Again people are instructed to wash naked before and after the pool. Owing to the massive international contingent both Zoe and I found the majority of people kept some clothing on in the changerooms. They also preferred to shower and change is booths. Some people even wore t-shirts while in the Blue Lagoon pool.
Unfortunately I can’t say it was an outstanding experience. There was a frequent crowd of people, often to be heard saying things like, “Oh there’s a warm bit over here,” as everyone waded, stooped or paddled neck deep in the tepid water.
I suspect the constant movement of bodies in the large pool caused some loss of heat into the atmosphere. In fact a continue haze of vapour could been seen lifting from the pool surface. And it was this, the heat rising from a blue tinged mineral and human body rich water, against a surround of volcanic black rocks, that gives the Blue Lagoon a visual charm. The rock is built up around the edges as if the lagoon itself is a crater made by some meteoric impact. In fact it’s all man made. The heated water diverted from a power plant visible in the near distance. This uses geothermal springs to produce energy for the city, and diverts some warmth to the tourist spot.
It was an hour trip on a charter bus to the Blue Lagoon, and so an hour back to Reykjavik. As a world wonder it is an experience I would not recommend rushing to, so as to tick off the list of achievements. The pool in the city is a better location for mine. Also I hear there is a geothermal pool near Daylesford in Victoria, Australia, and one further south on the Mornington Peninsula, plus Hobart in Tasmania can sometimes see the Southern Lights – which is the same as the Northern Lights but only South, so maybe I will make these worthy of a holiday journal entry in the coming months.
No, while I don’t highly recommend the Blue Lagoon, there is much to Iceland to vote in favour of visiting. After I left the county, Zoe went for a horse ride and I hear terrific words about the quality and intelligence of Icelandic horses and the ride she went on. Despite a dump of snow occurring while they were on horseback she had an excellent time.
But as I have said, snow is a fact of life in Iceland. From the road to the footpath to the covering over the lake. It should not be expected when travelling that the weather and events conform to conditions at home. That would be dull. And as quoted at the start of this article, February is the worst month for weather anyway.
Still there’s an adventure in experiencing new conditions. In copying locals to identify their comfort in practices. I even find a joy in learning a new currency.
“These coins all look the same,” said Zoe once to a cashier.
“Yes,” the cashier agreed. “They’re very annoying.”
So on this my last night, with an incredibly early rise before buses and flights back to Australia, I took some satisfaction in leaving the Airbnb to walk the main street once more.
I didn’t even take a map.
Zoe and I passed some familiar statues, walked without slipping, and had a drink at our faithful Kaldi Bar. Here, once ten o’clock had passed and the pool houses had closed for the night, locals streamed in. For the first time on our trip Zoe and I were not surrounded by Americans, English, French or Japanese, or even Brazilians that we had met who were visiting for Game of Thrones tourism. No, we were in Reykjavik drinking among Icelanders, and feeling very comfortable in their city.
A beautiful city with architecture that Zoe described as, “Looks like it’s from Batman.”
“Gotham city?” I asked, thinking of the design from the Tim Burton 1990s movies.
“Yes,” she said.
And I agreed.
We could identify street corners, walk comfortably, and pay for drinks with leftover change. We’d become familiar with Reykjavik.