Category Archives: Why I Go

My Advice: Go, Don’t Go

White Icelandic Horse

“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.

All in for the Turf Museum!

All in for the Turf Museum!

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.

Don't ever diet here

Don’t ever diet here

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.

Swept away?

Rare, oh rare sunny day in Reykjavik

Rare, oh rare sunny day in Reykjavik

Welcome to Iceland

Keflavik airport

Just before midnight

Arrival in Keflavik is always a dreary affair. Maybe it is because we arrive just before midnight, but it is eerily quiet for an airport even though four flights have deplaned at about the same time. And even though the sun is on the horizon and it is the longest day of the year, the light is gray and dusky. The airport is efficient, however. Our luggage arrives on the baggage belt by the time we walk there. At the passport check, they ask us the usual questions with poker-faced officiousness: How long are you staying? Business or vacation? Iceland has a population of 320,000; last year it had 800,000 visitors. But all this attention to their country seems to leave Icelanders extremely apathetic. When Bev steps up to the passport booth, she tries to awaken them with a loud, “Hello!” Then they take an especially long time looking at her passport, flipping the pages back and forth. “It’s like a book of Iceland, with one trip to China,” she says cheerily. Their response is deadpan. It means nothing to them that we suffer from Icelandophilia.

What welcomes one to Iceland are the billboards. They are friendly, pretty, and culturally informative. This year it’s a campaign of Icelandic sayings. At least the tourist industry is trying.

Ha ha, the Skyr joke

The Skyr joke

Everything Nice

Everything Nice

Of course, my favorite, favorite

Of course, my favorite, favorite

The geographical placement of the airport is not exactly welcoming either. It is on the western tip of a rocky, brown, inhospitable part of the Reykjanes peninsula. Nothing but volcanic rocks, the famous lunar-type landscape on earth our first astronauts practiced on. This is the first looksee of the country and it is not pretty. Certainly no green and pleasant land. Just hardscrabble lava turf and a scattering of rough grass.  And rain. Did I mention the constant rain?



I got into a conversation on the plane with a woman who sheepishly admitted that she had been to Iceland three times already and people can’t understand why she keeps going back? “Welcome to my world,” I said, “This is my 8th trip.”

So upon arrival my enthusiasm always wanes for the country, “Um, why am I here again?” Why this otherwise forgotten island thrown up by volcanoes in the North Atlantic ocean? I hear my husband’s pesky voice in my ear: “Why can’t you be obsessed with Italy?”

Bev and I meet up with Kat, Esther and Beth coming in on the Boston flight. We all look a little flight fatigued and disheveled. Kat goes off to pick up our rental car and we wait, and wait some more. We buy yogurt and chocolate covered cookies at the airport foodmart. An hour or so later Kat comes back with a set of keys. “We had to get an SUV; I hope all our luggage fits.”

We stuff, push, jam our bags in the back of a Lincoln SUV and slam the hatch door shut. The latch catches and we cheer. Then the five of us, with the overflow luggage at our feet or on our laps, head merrily to Reykjavik. And I mean merrily, too. All of us are talking at once, in a voluble banter.

–Kat explains about the snafu at the car rental place. The station wagon we reserved was too small but the people who reserved the SUV thought it was too big, so we switched. “It all worked out. See, the universe takes care of it.”
–Beth talks about her equine-assisted psychotherapy, and the influence of the positive psychologist Tal Ben Shahar.
–Bev talks about her tai chi trip to China last year, which segues into Esther talking about Iyengar yoga. “Finding the perfect balance is nirvana,” she says.
–There is a brief aside on why Kat and I like Game of Thrones so much.
–Then we’re on to people we know in common.
–Bev talks about the necessary ingredient of friendship: “a measure of grace.”
–Beth says [friendship] is “like energy attracting like energy.”
–Esther, apropos of nothing I can remember, declares: “I have hypomania. I do!”

The engine light is on and the brakes grind and squeak, but Kat assures us, “the car rental guy said that was normal.” After a short pause of concern, we pick up where we left off.

And the dreary landscape gets softer and greener. A farmhouse on the coast is illuminated by a burst of two a.m. sunshine. Beth says emphatically, passionately, “I can’t believe I’m here, you guys. This is so beautiful.”

And it is. Truly wondrous.

I am with this group of women I travel with every year to Iceland, and my heart is full of deep affection for them. Hurtling toward Reykjavik with lousy brakes and an intense camaraderie, there isn’t anywhere else I’d rather be, or anyone else I’d rather be with.

Truly wondrous

Truly wondrous

Why I Go

“Why do you keep going?”

Someone asked me a week before I was to take off for the seventh time to Iceland, Why do I keep going back? What’s the draw? Why don’t I try someplace new? We were in a noisy New Haven restaurant with the clatter and clang of dishes and forks, and the convivial loudness of a drinking crowd. I was with work folk, whom I’m fond of, but Iceland is my other life, far removed and, in this context, more like my secret life. I didn’t want to explain, why do I go? Not then and not there. I love my life, but I go to get away from it.

Why I Go

I go for the light, lavender and misty in the twilight of the midnight sun. I go for the friendship of a group of women, where for a week we don’t talk about home or problems or politics or news, we talk about horses and riders and horses and rides. Someone who mentions the national debt or say, the problems of public education or health, is shunned. Literally. Or in Kathryn speak, “Let’s not go there. Let’s not be negative.” Those topics are for our ordinary lives. In Iceland our lives are extraordinary.Why do I go? I go for the vistas, for the desolate northern beauty of the Arctic, and the feel of being in an outpost at the edge of the world. I go for the riding, without which, it would be a spectacular trip but it wouldn’t be an adventure; because mainly, I go for the horses. I go so I can trek up to twenty kilometers a day, follow the tundra to the dunes of the Arctic Sea to gallop on the black lava sand. I go so I can cross a tidal lake, Lake Hop, where for twenty minutes I am in a temporary dream state caused by the cold water splashing like metal light against the horses’ steaming breath as they trot and canter the knee-deep shallows. Then as we get out of the shallows and into the deeper water, I knot my reins and drop them on my mare’s withers so she can stretch out her neck without constraint. Leaning forward I grab her mane, so that my face is thick in horse hair, my breathing and my mare’s breathing are matched. I hitch my legs up so that my feet hit the back of the saddle, as my mare plunges into the deep water and the movement goes slow motion. I think when I die this is how I want to enter the other world, on the back of a horse that is swimming. I am reminded of the Celtic belief of the transparency between this world and the next, the thin wall separating the two, and this is the closest I will ever get to that, and the thinnest the wall will ever be for me. I have ridden my horse into a myth. I have touched for one brief icy moment the other side. And most importantly, it has let me enter.My regular life is full of work and routine and caretaking and good citizenship. My Icelandic life is time out. Life warped from another dimension. This is why I go.