Arrival in Reykjavik

Jet engine over North Sea

The Little Engine that Had Better

I wrote in “Wednesday, technically” because we’ve lost some time, flying westward. After a very long flight we touched down in Keflavik Int’l Airport, a daub of architecture in the middle of a broad field of volcanic rock and tough, stubborn grass. Immediately I was impressed with how clean and efficient the structure looked, inside and out, like a very elegant construction of European art (or, at times, a very expensive IKEA project right out of the box). The customs officers were gruff but polite; we changed our money at some cheerful yet official-looking kiosks; we decompressed with a cup of coffee. I have no fine tongue for coffee so I defer to my wife’s expertise and sensitivity (she didn’t care for it).

Keflavik Int'l Airport

The most elaborate out-of-the-box airport I’ve ever seen.

On our way out of the building, we weren’t sure where to go next: we had to catch a shuttle bus that would carry us into Reykjavik. An older man and woman were talking, both past middle age but healthy and energetic, just the sort of condition that makes Americans question their way of life. They were employees of the airport and were taking a break—this is only notable because most American airports would retain workers in their late 50s and 60s for some kind of background labor or support, not customer-facing roles, which would be allotted to younger people with trendy appearance qualities. So far, I was amiably disposed to Iceland and my (new, untested) theory of its ageist inclusiveness.

By way of small talk they asked what brought us to Iceland, and we explained that we were on our honeymoon. There was a moment’s pause, they looked at each other, and then another pause. Recovering first, the man asked us, “Why Iceland?”

Shuttle bus from airport

Frazzled and uncertain, we shuttled from Keflavik to Reykjavik.

We boarded a very comfortable charter bus and rolled out into the countryside. Flat, arid, and I could just imagine the kind of winds rushing over this landscape directly from the Norwegian Sea: this would’ve been far from a cakewalk for even the hardiest explorers/pillagers pulling up in battered sea-faring crafts. Heading west by northwest on Reykjanesbraut/Hwy 41, we passed through a few small towns and industrial centers. If you look on a current map, the route looks nearly barren of settlements, but occasionally we found outposts of colorfully painted, corrugated steel houses and very clean, efficient-looking businesses for everything from auto repair to furniture sales. I was so impressed by the elegant graphic design of the signs and storefronts, it would momentarily make me forget that, in living here, you would necessarily invest in thermal underwear and heavy jackets impenetrable to high winds and resistant to water.

Charter buses

Charter buses beyond a very rugged landscape.

As well, in every town, there was a collection of SUVs. We admired how clean—everywhere, in every town and city—Icelanders kept their vehicles, but part of my heart felt sad that the infection of impractically structured, fuel-inefficient behemoths had spread to this small but proud island. SUVs bring and create more problems than they address; from my perspective, they are a landmark in an landscape of intellectual dishonesty. Someone has to be quite ill-informed and/or lying to themselves about a lot of things, in order to think an SUV is a good idea.

Roadside caerns

Some say these caerns are installed to weigh down the spirits of angry vikings.

Our charter bus reached another station and from there we disembarked, only to load up into a smaller shuttle bus. We few passengers on this one barked our destinations, the names of various hotels, to the driver and we scooted into Reykjavik proper with him. For this week abroad we stayed at a hotel above a bookstore, and the hotel was actually a series of small apartments you could rent for short periods—maybe there’s nothing that differentiates that from a hotel with very large rooms and kitchenettes, but it felt different. It felt nice to come back and crash in a place of one’s own, and not a bland, homogenized, inoffensively designed room like 200 others like it in the same building.

Downtown Reykjavik

It’s a brisk, windy day to take in the sights of Reykjavik.

We couldn’t go in, of course: it was too early in the morning. Few things were open, so my wife and I dragged our suitcases around, over well-maintained sidewalks and rattling over cobblestone avenues. The morning was that pale grey shade of overcast that implies lots of light and makes your eyes hurt if you look up at it, but it’s not sunny by any measure, and the aforementioned Norwegian wind was whistling down Laugavegur St. at high velocity. When we took about as much of it as we could stand (being made vulnerable by jet-lag and inadequate sleep), we slipped into a hotel that was serving breakfast. It looked like it was for guests only, so we kept our heads down and tried to act nonchalant, which was hard to do when we were clearly hauling our suitcases around and stared at the menu in confusion.

It was a lovely hotel, it looked like: the dining area had Western tourists from several nations, all taking their time over their breakfasts. One wall (and I’ll have to check my wife’s photos because there’s no way I wouldn’t take shots of this, though I can’t find any in my collection) was deep blood-red and covered in tin Mexican religious adornments and luchadore posters. This would not be the last time Icelanders would surprise me in their range of interest and familiarity (hint: the bizarre ingredients of the “traditional Icelandic hot dog” or the unlikely sauces that come with nachos at the popular local Mexican chain). They have a very strong national pride—moreso, the conservative faction here—but they also celebrate aspects of world culture in a gesture of warm friendliness (or maybe restlessness from being locked up on a frigid island). It’s very easy for someone who knows nothing of Iceland and very little of sociology (that would be me) to form rampant and chaotic theories as to why people here do the things they do. It’s best to shut up about them, however, and pen them in a little book no one else will see, for later review.

Breakfast, being a few pieces of cheese and bread and a little fruit, totaled ISK 1,500 (a little over USD 15): nearly everything here is imported from overseas. That meant everything was going to be more than twice as expensive as we were accustomed to, a fact that slapped us in the face promptly upon arrival. We adjusted our thinking and planned to be as frugal as possible. And the owner of this hotel, upon learning we were not patrons, tacked on a little not-staying-at-my-hotel fee to our bill, which we just had to swallow. I asked him about finding traditional Icelandic dining in the area and he was fairly gregarious about recommending a couple reasonable places. I couldn’t recall them later and we never went, but that, at least, was nice of him.

Having killed enough time, my wife and I trudged back into the inhospitable weather and found it had calmed down a bit. Single-man maintenance crews were out on various street corners with their trucks, bearing insulated tanks of hot water for spraying down the sidewalks and gutters. Apparently that’s how they wash down their city every single day—wouldn’t work for something as large as Manhattan, obviously, but when your city is only 13.5 kilometers at its widest point and enjoys unlimited geothermic resources, it’s a reasonable practice.

Kitchenette

A compact and efficient kitchenette/closet.

The proprietor of Room With a View (our apartment) was dumpster-diving in front of the building. Not a grimy practice: there had been a large party (or some construction, as my wife believes) the night before and he was picking out serviceable items in good condition. I didn’t pay attention exactly to what, being tired and a little chagrined at the cost of our breakfast, but I let our friendly and fashionable young host take us up a vintage elevator to our room. We were greeted with a colorful, whimsical interior with a huge bed, an extremely efficient kitchenette, and a hot shower. Patiently we listened to his overview of the apartment and thanked him for his service before collapsing on a red-and-black cowhide bedspread and passing out for an hour and a half. Afterward, when Rebecca took her shower, she discovered two notable things about the water:

  • There was, as I said, a practically unlimited supply of very hot water, due to the geothermal power plants. You could turn on your shower, leave for the day, and come back to find scalding water running unabated.
  • The volcanic-heated water had a high sulfur content: it turned my wife’s silver necklace into something more resembling brass. This was alarming to her but I found it hilarious.
Tarnished silver necklace

“I’m sure it’s not ruined. I’m sure it’ll return to normal.”

After our reasonably refreshing nap, Rebecca and I went downstairs to the small Internet café on the second floor of the bookstore. It was pretty convenient to take a short elevator ride down to a pleasant, brightly lit bookstore, all done in blonde wood. We were feeling pretty ragged from our trip, but the nap, a shower, and grounding our spirits back down with a cappuccino helped restore some of our humanity.

The fact that we were in a very large bookstore, stuffed with thousands upon thousands of titles, none of which I could read, was a source of amusement and frustration for me. In the States, we just don’t hear about writers from other nations unless they are exceedingly successful, financially, in their home nation. I read a message board in which some Chinese scholars found this a little insulting: they could quote Dickens, Twain, and many classic Western authors while people from the U.S. were almost entirely ignorant of seminal Chinese literature. Well, my ignorance is mostly due to being monolingual, partially due to a lack of financial interest on behalf of American publishers to wrangle the legal deals that would enable translated texts from the rest of the world to reach our hands and eyes. So here I was in an Icelandic bookstore, distinctly and unquestionably missing out on all the action.

At the café I composed my initial in-the-moment thoughts and covered the past day of action in my personal blog (this blog you’re reading is written in 2012 and purposely backdated). Once that was done we marched over the Information Center for Reyjkavik. A very cute and fluent young woman answered all our questions and directed us to pamphlets and literature to help us to decide what to do with ourselves for the next few days. As well, I picked up a few postcards and bought stamps to mail them back to friends in the States.

Exchange rates chart

Exchange rates circa 2008.

Rebecca showed me a little trick she did whenever touring another nation: she wrote us up little slips of paper with the current exchange rate on them, for reference whenever we went shopping.

It was just a handy visual reminder of relative worth and how our budget was doing.

We had lunch (unrecorded) at a place called Vegamot. This name had come up a lot in tourist literature and ads, as well as fliers around town. It was a small bistro/bar—the ground floor was clearly the dining area while the upstairs transformed into a dance club for Icelandic young adults with money to throw around. It was swank, it had guest DJs, and it was nice to eat in. I cannot for the life of me remember what I ordered, however.

The weather in general, we found, was cold and windy. Sometimes there were little particles of rain whipping at our skin at high speed, sometimes it was just windy with no content. Unfortunately, the predominance of this unvarying weather reminded me how stupid it was to forget my hat and gloves. Who does that? I brought a rain jacket, a field jacket, and even a thermal liner that goes in either. I probably left them stacked up on a handy shelf or small table near the front door. Regardless, I had to shop for new ones, and I found a very nice pair of grey gloves that almost matched a grey hat nearby, all made of Icelandic wool and all in a discount bin (still around USD 70), and I counted these as my souvenir for the trip. The name of this attractive store was Thorvaldsen’s Basar, one of the oldest shops in Reyjkavik.

Thus geared up, we took a walking tour of Reykjavik. Without historic reference, we studied the local architecture, all of it very interesting to us: tall, classically sculpted buildings of massive grey stone; single-floor residences sided in corrugated steel, painted white or in bright colors. It all looked Western/European so it wasn’t very foreign to us. Even though the words on all the signs and literature were Icelandic, they at least share an alphabet with us so it was possible to break the words apart, pronounce them, and recognize patterns in new phrases.

No matter which way we faced, we seemed to be walking into a headwind. Rebecca can tolerate many things but hard wind is one of her weaknesses. It makes her irritable and extremely uncomfortable. On this trip, however, we discovered by accident that she can tolerate any velocity of wind if she simply covers her ears! It was a freeing moment for her and I was glad she found some relief.

Segafredo Coffee

A suitable cup of coffee takes the edge off.

We went to Segafredo for coffee, a non-local chain. Once again, the deco was very bright and cheery, which only stood to reason: if the weather is so chilling and the skies are always so drab and almost stormy, of course you’d want buildings—inside and out—to be brightly colored and illuminated. Surrounding ourselves in a small, cheery environment like this helped us recover whenever we needed it, and the great Italian coffee was an indulgent pleasure all its own. One thing that was strange, though: we noticed many of the doors swing in when you enter a building, so you push them instead of pulling them, and that was a cognitive disconnect we had to adjust to. (I was fond of joking, “Don’t let the door break your nose on the way out.”)

Teenager parade

No one, in ten years, has ever explained this.

All day long there have been parades streaming down Laugavegur, and we haven’t understood what they represent. We were awaken by them from our nap: loud singing and cheering came from outside, but when we looked at the street we saw something strange. It was a very long, intermittent procession of teenagers, perhaps on the final day of school before a vacation, dressed up in various costumes. Yet they weren’t individually done up in costumes. Groups of them wore the same costume—a dozen Pink Panthers, a dozen Cats in the Hat, a dozen Cinnamon Toast bakers with huge asses (I’m guessing on this last one, because I don’t know what else it could’ve been)—but the pattern eluded me. Were they dressed up by grades? What store in town had so many Teletubbies, Care Bears, and grey wolf costumes in stock? Why that selection? And what the hell was this tradition about?

Whatever, it was fun and certainly topical.

I should note that, everywhere we went, we diligently photographed the very interesting Icelandic graffiti on buildings, inside car parks, everywhere. Sometimes it was small and crude, a couple punk symbols and text from a writer practicing very angry English, but more common were these large, splashy murals of sophisticated graphic design. I was intrigued by how carefully some of these artists had studied American graffitists, probably online… or perhaps the graffiti was brought over by backpackers and tourists? And it was safe money that banked on the Internet as facilitator.

My wife and I, in an attempt to brush up on contemporary Icelandic culture, watched 101 Reykjavik, a gritty independent film about one man’s quest to… do not much with his life. The protagonist, a momma’s-house-dwelling slacker, went to a couple seedy and raucous house parties, got physically intimate with a couple women, and made fun of some statues down in the main square. (We also tried to emulate that fun-making and determined the filmmaker’s camera must’ve been several meters higher than we could access, even standing on the back of a park bench.) It was a great movie, especially for people who wanted to quickly update themselves on the youth of Reykjavik, full of landmarks and attitude and a very important perspective.

Napping at the apartment

“You go on ahead. I’ll hold the bed down.”

Rebecca stayed at Room With a View to rest while I went out that evening, just to see what was going on. I had no illusions I was exotic enough to partake of the night scene, but I could watch things from afar, perhaps. I attempted to hit up the Irish pub, the Celtic Cross (gods know, every nation around the world has a few UK pubs). While it would be technically incorrect to say that it was closed, I couldn’t provide enough evidence to support the premise that it was “open.” The main room was completely empty, though I thought I was aware of people drinking out on the patio (who in their right mind would drink outdoors on a dour, inhospitable day like this? Who would build a patio in such relentlessly grim weather?). I stood at the bar and watched a bartender mill about listlessly, perhaps questioning the validity of his existence. If only he would’ve seen fit to meander a bit closer to me, I would happily have plied some substantiation to his role within the universe in the form of large and colorful bills from my wallet. Alas: bereaved of hope, he stayed away and ten (very generous, I thought) minutes later I left this unhappy den of nondrinking and antiservice, walked up to Cultura.

Sending mail

My second-favorite pastime is sending postcards to friends.

Cultura’s a little bar/café that dresses itself with a purposefully international air. My impression: the theme was intended to attract visitors from all parts of the world, not to make them feel at home with anything familiar, but to celebrate their different-ness and internationality in a place that seemed very open and multi-everything. But it was nice! I don’t mean to say it wasn’t nice. My tabletop was covered in marbles, like a mosaic but with spheres instead of flat squares lying flush, so I relied on my coaster to hold my drink: Leffe, a Belgian lager. I knew for a fact Iceland had at least two native brands but somehow I didn’t order them. That would come later. I did take this time—on the marbled tabletop, mind—to write out postcards to several friends and family members. I love postcards, I love putting crap in the mail, and… well, I don’t have any notes on what the postal rates are like here, so they must not have been too terrible. Malaysia is the best place to put postcards in the mail (half the U.S. rates) and Norway is the worst (five times U.S. rates). Iceland must’ve been comparable.

And I made up another joke: all the bars have a drink special, the one-for-two.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s