66° North to the Land of Fire and Ice: My Visit to Iceland
Iceland is a country like no other, eleven percent glaciers, eleven percent lava fields; it is truly the land of “Fire and Ice.” Traveling there this week, I expected the weather to be freezing cold, but it was actually quite mild, around 55 degrees. They get snow, but it doesn’t last. Locals told us there hasn’t been a white Christmas for the past six years. Despite its high latitude close to the Arctic Circle, it’s warmer than Sweden!
The terrain is vast and rugged, black lava rock for as far as the eye can see. The absence of trees gives the impression one has landed on Mars. There are forests, only they’re not what we usually think of as forests. The trees, mostly birch, are low-lying densely gnarled scrubs. The Icelanders have a saying: If you’re lost in a forest, stand up.
Icelanders have a good a sense of humor, but don’t expect to see it right away. They take some time, like Swedes, to warm up and unless spoken to (or paid as a tour guide), they don’t readily offer up their opinion or advice. Our tour guide said it’s normal for Icelanders to bump into one another and not say, “Excuse me.” It’s not a phrase Icelanders use. And unlike Swedes, Icelanders don’t know how to queue. They will push ahead for their turn, not forming any sort of line. I guess when you live in a country with so few people, queuing is not a custom that evolves.
Iceland is the least populated country in Europe, with only 320,000 people, all related to at least the seventh cousin. Everyone can trace his or her lineage back to the first settlers. In April, Apple released an iPhone App that allows two Icelanders to tap their phones together and view how they’re related. I hear it comes in handy at nightclubs where singles congregate. Better to know if that blond-haired guy with the baby blues is your cousin before making any moves.
Icelanders call everyone by their first names. Even the Prime Minister is referred to by his first name. This is because last names are derived from the first name of the father. For example, if the father’s name is Jon and the daughter is Sophie, when she marries, let’s say Axel Stinson, she remains Sophie the daughter of John, (only it’s written together like Sophie Johnsdaughter, but in Icelandic Jónsdóttir.) You can have a family of four and all the members will have different last names. It’s confusing just to explain how confusing it is.
Icelanders are big big coffee drinkers and they hold the world’s record for consumption of Coca-Cola. There are coffee shops everywhere, most of them attached to bookstores, which is another love of Icelanders. Maybe it’s the long winters (all that time to read), but Icelanders have the highest literacy rate in the world, 99% of men and women over the age of 15 can read and write. Pictured here is one of our favorite bookstore cafe’s. It’s here that I picked up a copy of Independent People, by Halldor Laxness, an Icelander and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1955.
So if life is so good in Iceland, why aren’t more people living there? That’s what I kept asking myself during our amazing four-day stay in downtown Reykjavik. The town is the capital and heart of Iceland’s cultural, arts and civic life.
Pictured below is The Harpa; opened in 2011, it is home to the Opera, Symphony and Icelandic Ballet Company. Built to appear like a kaleidoscope, the exterior and interior surfaces change shape and color as you move around inside and around outside the building.
There’s a legend (as with most Icelandic history), that in 870 AD a Norsemen, looking for a place to settle, cast two high seat pillars into the ocean and waited for them to come ashore. They rested along the banks of a place where steam rose from hot springs, therefore he named the town Reykjavik, meaning Smoke Cove. Those Smoke Coves were a result of the high concentration of volcanoes in the area.
Today, geothermal energy powers 90% of the country with an extensive underground piping system (2,500 kilometers of pipe, the largest network in the world), that brings hot water directly from the source to individual homes, ingeniously heating roads and sidewalks along the way. Icelanders pay about a dollar per day for all of their hot water and heating needs.
I will admit, the hot water did have a funny sort of smell, like rotten eggs or cooked broccoli. It’s from the high sulfur content. But at that price, I could handle a bit of stink in the shower. The cold water comes from a different source, glaciers. We found no need to buy expensive bottled water while in Iceland, not when the most amazing fresh cold water comes straight out of the tap. It’s the reason beer makers say their brew tastes so good–beer made from glacier waters.
I have a lot more to tell about this amazing place and pictures to share. I hope you’ll come back for the next post when I’ll talk about crossing the American Tectonic Plate, Little Geyser, No Man’s Land and our two life changing days at the Blue Lagoon. Here’s a picture of what’s to come.