The word Iceland is poetic and mysterious. All Icelandic words sound like they have magical powers, intended to be tossed off in rapid, low mutters by wizards and elves, written only in fancy script on scrolls made from the skins of sea monsters. Let’s play the language game! Guess the recipients of these Icelandic names: Grimsey, Thingveller, Eldfell, Strokkur, Vatnajokull, Gullfoss, Hagkaup, Vik.
Despite having all of Sunday free to get from the Olympic stadium to Gatwick, we almost missed our flight to Iceland. We wanted to buy sleeping bags and hiking shoes, yet ended up spending 2+ hours in some shop in Kensington. British people already have the advantage of sounding professional and smart even if they’re going on about the dumbest things, and this phenomenal Kensington shoe salesman was a case in point. After subtly criticizing our existing shoes and making Sherlock-Holmesian inferences about our lives based on our feet, he explained foot mechanics and had us submit to measurements and experiments wherein he determined my left foot is supinated, thus requiring special shoes! I declined, to his grief for my extremely rare foot problem. In contrast, Dilip almost bought orthopedics from this guy. “Dilip, do not buy those 80 Pound orthopedics from this camping store dude. We came here to get sleeping bags.”
By the time we were back at our host’s place and heading to the train, the automated tube ticket machines were closed and we faced an endless line to buy them from humans. Luckily we found 2 others going towards Gatwick so we all split a cab. We then ran from the Gatwick express to the airline. Sadly we missed the check-in by 5 minutes.
For every normal person who does not read confirmation emails from airlines: Icelandic Air does not allow online check in. There is a 90 minute window 45 minutes before the flight during which you have to be physically lined up at the desk at the airport to check in. We arrived 40 minutes before the flight and the lady hastily escaping said without eye contact, “Everything’s closed, and no more flights tonight.” My powers of seduction failed, as always when I am annoyed. My mother was always good at getting strangers to break the rules for her but, alas, I’m not as consistently immediately charming to stupid people. I blame this on having been an unfashionable nerd in a strange land from ages 10 to 13- this must’ve put in a subtle kink in my mass appeal, whereas my mother never had a moment where she wasn’t universally admired by idiots and geniuses alike.
We ran to another desk and after gasping, “Can we make a run for the flight despite being 5 minutes late for checkin?” the guy’s phone rang, he nodded, and sent us back to the desk from whence we came. We then checked in and got on the flight. My only explanation for this is that it’s the airlines modus operandi to give everyone minor freak outs before allowing them to check in anyway. Maybe it’s their way of teaching everyone the important lesson of reading emails from Iceland Air.
Before arriving in Iceland, I knew little about it. Some seductively simplistic, ultimately nonsense article by Michael Lewis about Iceland had given me nondescript expectations of a place somehow surreal. On top of that, Bjork was so annoying in Dancer in the Dark (maybe bc Gondry wasn’t directing? Gondry was MIT’s cool artist in residence who’d party at Senior House) I swore off her music forever. However Lewis was right about one thing- no one in Iceland listens to Bjork either. Anyway, this is the real deal about Iceland:
At the airport, magazines are $20. Blond, tall people are beautiful, but there are only 300K of them. All people in the service industry look like massive supermodels, with gigantic yet perfectly formed fingers and eyeballs. One Icelandic person could probably give an average person 1.6 whole-body, perfectly poreless, skin grafts (I filed this information with other creepy facts: if I want the best quality skin or probably any body part, Iceland’s the place). The people who served me food and checked out my groceries were all golden gods. On an unrelated note, I bought a lot more whale meat than needed (it’s totally tasteless and deep blood red. May be a scam- who would know?).
In Iceland, there exist several sides of several fluffy goats that are black. The big-headed ponies with stubby legs and feathered bangs stomping around in people’s yards waiting to bounce you around the mountains can also be eaten cooked with thick pony sauces in local restaurants alongside puffins and delicious baby seals. The fish, though fresh, is heavily salted and served with dark, dense bread. Random stores stock gloves made of Arctic foxes and other soft, furry animals.
Iceland lacks diversity of flora and fauna, even more so than Ireland. No native trees exist on Iceland so all the trees you see are neatly and meticulously planted by humans. There are no mosquitos! There are no roaches (except as pets??)! Iceland is one of my favorite places so long as the no-pest thing lasts. My love of nature is conditional. I like natural beauty, but nature that’s too vibrant can easily become an overabundance of annoying animals: I like space and I don’t like bugs touching me.
When you leave the giant ring road encircling Iceland, you’re at once lurching on unpaved rocks that’ll lead you to some natural wonder like a spring or waterfall. We saw stinky geysers with boiling water running in rivulets on the steaming ground under our shoes, hiked on a glacier sliced with sky blue crevices (“kull” where my toes froze in my vibrams (I never bought hiking shoes, remember!)), had our hair swept crazily by the wind on a black sand beach, walked behind an icy waterfall (“foss”), and picked up hitchhikers from a silicon mud hot spring to Reykjavik. The phone GPS was wrong regarding several locations so we did a fair bit of grinding over mountains of volcanic rocks.
After trying some airbnb’s in the rest of Europe, in Iceland we roughed it and slept in the car. I love camping in cars- that’s my level of nature loving right there. I like getting out of the house, but I don’t like getting all the way into a tent, so cars are perfect. Also, I often strategize about how to be an efficient homeless person and this was an opportunity to put some ideas to the test.
It drizzled the first day but was sunny after that. The drizzle was benign and light, somehow suiting the landscape and bringing out all the lichens’ colors. The infrastructure is amazing for such a small country- there were Subways, no garbage, and cozy streets patrolled by prim, sedate, fat-tailed cats- probably nicer than most of the places in Europe or America. For a country where in August it’s still light at 11pm and light again starting at 4am, the Hagkaup 24 hour stores are awesome. They have aisles full of everything from American cereal to knitting equipment (there were 2 aisles full of yarn). After cramped, dusty Europe, it’s a relief to find a place that’s more like America. The tiny, closed-in-the-afternoon, closed-after-7pm, charge-you-for-plastic-bags, pharmaceutical-less, 1-type-of-apple European grocery stores become tiresome so fast. Apparently everyone in Italy is so busy enjoying life, drinking wine and coffee, having long, animated conversations while smoking cigarettes and having sex that there are zero enterprising immigrants manning 24 hour pit stops. Outrageous! Italy: not for me. Iceland: 5 stars!