It’s been a little over a month since I returned from the land of fire and ice. I’ve blogged a lot about my trip but the one thing I’m not sure I’ve captured yet is what makes Iceland, Iceland. When I think about the country what comes to mind and what will stick with me for days, months, and even years afterwards?
Turns out it’s a collage of colorful images and sensory experiences. So that’s how I’ll present some of my strongest impressions to you.
The Christmas House shopkeeper in Akureyri who took the time to show us the small statuettes and tell us all about the 13 Christmas Yule lads (imagine a twisted version of the Santa story with multiple evil elves) and their pre-Christmas antics. After which, he reached above his head and, with a large carving knife, sliced off a piece of smoked lamb (what I might call leg of mutton), a traditional Christmas food, for us to taste. Next, he tore open a package of the unleavened bread they eat during the holidays, an Icelandic Matzah. The small store overflows with treasures. We found the Advent candles we love that you burn down until Christmas day, some adorable ornaments, and what we used to call a “kitchen witch” but in this country is Gryla, the Lads massive mother who reportedly eats children. Speaking of which, our new friend told us that naughty Icelandic kids don’t receive a lump of coal in their stocking because that’s “too expensive”. Instead, they get a potato! Learn more about the Lads here https://www.guidetoiceland.is/history-culture/the-icelandic-yule-lads-and-gryla
The East Iceland Heritage Museum in Egilsstadir is on the second floor of a municipal office building. When we arrived twenty minutes before closing time, not only did the young woman in charge kindly let us stay until we were done browsing through the two exhibits on early settlers and reindeer, she also told us about growing up in Iceland and why she still loves living there as an adult and is committed to preserving its history. The early settler display was noteworthy, but I was more enthralled with learning about the characteristics and nature of the East Iceland reindeer. Originally brought here as a food source, sheep and cows proved more popular so now the deer roam wild on this side of the country-summering up in the cooler areas (highlands?) and coming down the hill during the winters. Instead of avoiding car/deer collisions like we Americans must, the Icelanders need to watch out for the reindeer. In fact, she reported a whopping eight personal vehicular accidents involving reindeer. What intrigued me most with these hardy animals was that, not only are they rumored to fly (Ha!) but, despite their cumbersome appearance, they are fleet of foot and can swim long distances. Now that I would like to see! Icelanders continue to hunt and eat the deer (reindeer tartare is a menu item) today, along with using their products in fashion design and art.
One of the articles I read before visiting Iceland suggested we make an Icelandic music playlist to listen to as we drove around the Ring Road. Instead, we chose to listen to local radio. Something surprising about Iceland, given how rural parts of it are, was the excellent reception. There weren’t a lot of stations to choose from but you could always get one or two, no matter where you were on the Ring Road. Programming is mostly in Icelandic which gave us a different way to hear the language (and possibly absorb some words through osmosis!) In my head I’d thought I’d be hearing Bjork 24/7, or perhaps traditional music, as for many years Iceland’s isolation from the rest of the world allowed it to keep its musical traditions pure. However, we ended up listening to a ton of 80’s remakes-rerecorded songs from artists like Madonna, Duran Duran, and Blondie. That brought back some college memories and now those golden oldies will make me recall my Iceland vacation as well!
Smells are everywhere. Some pleasant, a few less so. The briny scent of the sea at low tide. The sulfuric/rotten egg stench of the thermal water. Seafood frying or grilling, lamb basting or simmering, bread baking. The ozone smell of an approaching rain shower. That horsey smell of hay, manure, and long hair. Just remember to use your nose wherever you go to enhance your experience!
This one was easy. My strongest feeling impression was during our last day when we took our first (and only) taxi to the Sky Lagoon. Though I had chosen to go to the popular Blue Lagoon by myself the last day of the conference and to Myvatn Natural Baths with Neil, I had heard good things about the newer Sky Lagoon. Especially The Ritual. Bathing culture traditions are integral to the Icelandic way of life and The Ritual includes seven steps alternating heat and cold (the fire and ice contrast continues!) Begin your journey by relaxing in the lagoon. Next take the cold plunge into a small circular pool for a minimum of ten seconds. Which might be all you can stand! Then warm up in the “best sauna in Iceland” while enjoying in a lovely view of the ocean. Step four is entering a cold, fog-mist room, followed by my personal favorite, the exfoliating Sky Body Scrub. Steam yourself for a few minutes, then shower the scrub off and mosey on back to the Lagoon, feeling simultaneously relaxed and energized. If this sounds phenomenal its because it is! I was glad I tried three different geothermal baths to get a taste of their differences and similarities. No favorite-each was special in its own way!
The common denominator in all of these sensory experiences was the people. Everyone I met was helpful, happy to answer questions and talk about their country, thoughtful and well-spoken, unpretentious and unassuming. In other words, the kind of people you like to spend time with. Their sense of humor, creativity, resilience, and unfailing politeness was the perfect antidote to the past few years. We all travel for different reasons; some of us to escape, some to explore, some to see how what they have compares to what the rest of the world has to offer. This time around I was lucky enough to do all of these on one island nation. For me, it was the perfect trip at the perfect time.
In other words, the raisin at the end of the hot dog!