“Hi, I’m a friend of so-and-so and she said you go to Iceland every year and I‘m planning on going and was wondering if you had some advice.”
I frequently get voice messages like this– on my landline yet– so I know they don’t know me. In my local social circle, I have become the de facto expert on Iceland, and I’m getting somewhat practiced at giving Icelandic-centric advice. Since it is my favorite topic of discussion, I feel instant camaraderie with said friend of friend. (You like Iceland? I like Iceland. Are you my new best friend?)
But I’ve learned over the years not to come on too strong, not to gush. I now temper my voice and enthusiasm, calm down the inner eccentric screaming, “I’m thinking of dumping my life and moving there!” and present myself like a reasonable adult. (Because I once had a two-hour conversation with an “advisee” and we talked ourselves into a frenzy about doing the annual Icelandic sheep round up, then hung up miserable– we both had to go to work the next day.)
And if someone is on the fence about going, that is, if they have not bought airline tickets yet, I start with a disclaimer: “I love it, but it’s not for everyone.” I do this because I once told my next door neighbor it was the best place in the world and she should definitely go there and she must, must ride the horses and, and, and… She came back unconvinced. “Eh? I don’t get it. It’s a strange place,” she said, “cold and damp and I had a bumpy ride on a nasty horse in freezing rain.” I said, “yeah that happens, you have to get through that part of it,” but I could see she thought I steered her wrong.
Basically my Iceland travel advice breaks down to recommendations, general impressions, and warnings.
Museums: I am a huge fan of turf museums (I know, who isn’t?). I always recommend a trip to these reconstructed houses of old. They are built into the side of a hill and covered with grass and dirt (thus “turf”). There are several of these museums around the country: Glaumbær, Holar, and Laufás are my favorites. Walking around in these cozy hobbit-like houses with earthen walls, it’s easy to envision the past, and the not too distant past either. They are dark, earthy little houses that smell of grain and the ages.
In the capital there are plenty of modern art museums. It’s a big art scene, much like the music scene, though not as portable. There is an artist collective—a huge renovated dairy barn — on the outside of Reykjavik that is divided up into about 20 separate studios for artists. The day I visited the sun poured in through the skylights and the entire place smelled of coffee brewing, oil paint and turpentine. I was told it was subsidized by the government. Really, the government sponsors artists? Maybe that’s why when I feel like dumping my life and moving I think of Iceland.
Currency: the króna. It’s a little like the Italian lira before they adopted the Euro; that is, you are dealing with bills of thousands and you have no idea how much it means. I have yet to figure out a trick to doing the conversion in my head. 10,000 króna isn’t a lot of money, at least I don’t think it is, but maybe it is. Whatever, I spend it with an alarming amount of alacrity. I recommend getting the app on your phone for easy conversions and debt prevention.
The people: They’re beautiful and it’s guaranteed to make you feel ugly. That’s just the way it is. There are a few countries like that in the world–Ethiopia, Argentina, Tibet, Thailand come to mind– that have an unfairly beautiful populous. Get over it. Don’t whine. Just gawk. Maybe in your next life.
Nota bene about people: Iceland was voted the #1 friendliest country in the world last year. Wait, whoa, what? I mean, maybe at 3:00am in a bar in Reykjavik with everyone blinded from alcohol, maybe someone will talk to you, especially if they mistake you for a goddess or troll. When I think friendly, I think of Dublin, where I walked down the street looking a little confused and people stopped to see if I needed help. That is friendly. But the street temperature in Iceland is tepid at best. Most of the time, when my friends and I are a little lost, which happens to be a regular, not unpleasant state of affairs, and we ask for directions, we get tetchy answers, or worse, an attempt at humor. For instance, we once asked a man where the horse show was, he told us, “Horse? I eat horses, I don’t ride them.”
That said, there was this one time when we met a friendly, charming, handsome, helpful, kind, handsome, charming man—oh Balthasar, will I ever get over you?
The food: Throw caution to the wind and try it all (yeah, sure, even the rotten shark). Make sure to eat at the roadside cafeterias (Nesti or N1s) along the highway. Stop at every bakery you pass and sample the goods (not hard to find since it’s spelled ‘bakari’). It’s not fancy food, but it’s fresh, local, tasty. Eat up. Gain weight. Don’t diet. Never diet there.
The language: It’s most difficult. I download language programs before I go. I listen to Sigur Ros, hoping the words will seep into my brain via eerie music osmosis. I try out the words I have practiced, but it only evokes blank stares or grimaces. I think Icelanders are like the French this way– they’d rather you don’t even try to use their language than use it poorly. But I do try, for instance, using the basic greeting, “Góðan daginn” meaning “Good day” – I will casually, quickly say it when walking into a shop. (My mnemonic for pronouncing this is “go-then, die-in.”) To which, an Icelander will reply with an abbreviated guttural sound something like “ga-dunk.”
Weather: In winter dress warmly for any type of weather. In summer, ditto. It always seems to be raining in Reykjavik, and the north always seems to be sunny. Occasionally it is so gloriously sunny I come back sunburned. And that’s just hard to explain.
A random warning: The hot water smells. Really badly. Like rotten eggs, bad gas. It’s just sulfur. And when you shower in it, it feels slippery, as if you can’t wash off the water. It’s like greasy glue on your skin. Enjoy.
While on the subject of bathrooms, I’ve never seen a tub – and what’s with the showers? There is no lip or edge to the shower stall and no doors, even in the nicest hotels. All you get is the shower head sticking out of a wall in a designated corner of the bathroom. There is a drain on the floor, but that’s it. The water floods the bathroom floor and slowly goes down a drain. I’m not one to use the hair dryer but after a shower I would be cautious— zip zip zowey, you know what I mean?
Drowning: Someone once told me the tide was so strong on the south coast that during a photo shoot, a model wading in the water ankle deep got swept into the ocean, never to be found again. This sounds apocryphal, but at least one person has corroborated it, and the visual is sort of hard to resist.
One of my friends I travel with every year to Iceland said, “Let’s keep it a secret, so it won’t get ruined.”
I agree, but it’s a little late for that, at least ten years – or a couple of thousand – too late. Word is out. Iceland is hot.
So my advice: Go, don’t go. If you go, don’t tell anyone. Shhhh.