Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Land of Fire & Ice

I think I've put off this post for so long because I don't want my summer abroad to be over.  Reykjavík, Iceland was the charming conclusion to the bold and daring adventure I lived last summer, the beautiful punctuation mark of my journey.  I want to hang onto it, and maybe part of me is still reluctant to acknowledge that it's really over.

Seeing that it's been four months since I returned to the United States, though, it's high time I suck it up for the sake of posterity.  You're welcome.
In suit of my misguidedly late night, I slept on my hosts' couch into the early afternoon.  My host was at work by this time but I met his girlfriend just before she left for her university classes.  With the apartment to myself, I unpacked my towel and hair products to make use of the shower.  Prior to acquainting myself with the fountain of running water, I had been completely unaware that Icelandic tap water has an incredibly high sulfur content... which means that showers smell like rotten eggs.
A Note on Couchsurfing *
By the time I left the European continent, I was completely broke.  Moreover, I had read that everything is quite expensive in Iceland, and my stay there would cover seven nights. There was simply no way I could even charge that amount of money to my credit card.  I found my solution in
Beginning with the infamous two-mile trek I covered in my last entry, I stayed (for free!) for three nights with a young couple in their late twenties who had been generous enough to send me a message after I'd written about my need for a place to stay.  This allowed me the time to meet with my next host in person before staying with him for the remaining five days.
*I don't wholeheartedly endorse staying with strangers in foreign places, I have to admit that the idea turned me off when I first heard of it, and I wouldn't encourage it just anywhere.  However, Iceland does have some of the lowest crime rates in the world, so it was a pretty perfect place to couch-surf.
After showering and doing light research on the best deals for Reykjavík, I ate a meager breakfast of Swiss chocolate (purchased in Zürich's airport) and a handful of pistachios (from the package that had faithfully accompanied me through the entirety of my journey) before heading out to the bus stop.  The weather was misty and chilly, and it took me a good ten minutes to reach the place the Fly Bus had dropped me off just hours before.  I paid my bus fare and rode for about twenty minutes until we reached the city center.  I easily located the the tourist office, where I purchased a Reykjavík Welcome Card.  My hollow stomach prompted me to search for food to my liking, which manifested in the form of a tiny sushi restaurant where I treated myself to a Rainbow Roll and surfed the net.
Rainbow Roll, 1,800kr
For all of its unique attributes, Iceland is not known for having a specific "food culture" of its own.  According to locals I met during my stay in Reykjavík, this is largely due to the fact that Icelanders spent most of their history merely surviving.  Food was a scare necessity rather than a form of cultural expression.  "Traditional" foods include: whale, dried shark, ground horse, and puffin.  Sushi happens to be in vogue now (which makes sense due to the country being an island), but the most popular Icelandic food is an Icelandic hot dog.  I didn't believe it either at first, but I found this to be very true.  
The Reykjavík forums on had several social gatherings listed alongside a few personal requests by fellow surfers to meet and explore the city together.  Before I left my hosts' apartment, I had agreed to meet Cl, a student from Barcelona who was visiting Reykjavík after volunteering in a rural part of Iceland.  She met me at the sushi restaurant and we spent the next two hours walking around the city and exchanging travel stories.  Cl had been on a walking tour of Reykjavík earlier that day, so she filled me in on the history and significance of several sights around town.
The weather in Iceland changes from hour to hour.
I parted ways with my new Catalonian friend and went in search of the hostel where a group of couchsurfers and their hosts were gathering to meet locals and travelers alike.  The best thing that came out of this meeting was meeting K, a girl my age from my very own state of Minnesota!  Minneapolis, to be exact.  K and I had both just arrived in Iceland and were equally intrigued by the locals' description of the spectacular waterfalls located a few hours away.  We exchanged information and the two of us agreed to hitchhike* together the next day.  (*Like couch-surfing, I do not necessarily endorse hitchhiking everywhere.  The locals assured us that hitchhiking is extremely common and safe in Iceland).

By the time K and her host left, I wasn't exceptionally keen on hearing the Canadian conspiracy theorist brag (yet again!) about his semi-autobiographical crime novel so I left the hostel and explored more of the city, taking ample photographs along the way and keeping an eye out for affordable souvenirs.
Old Harbor
Opera House
Sunset Self-Portrait
It was after dark when I made it back to my hosts' flat.  We had a conversation about the differences between Iceland and America, I told him about my plans for hitchhiking (which he agreed was safe) and I went to sleep.  The next morning, I was up earlier and met K in the center before we headed over to the buses.  It was out plan to get out the the highway, and hitchhike from there.  It was lightly raining when the bus dropped us off, but we were confident that we'd be picked up in no time.  Icelanders did this all the time; how hard could it really be?
Rainy Toadstools
Well.  After fifteen minutes of no cars stopping for us, K and I decided to move to a different part of the road.  By this time, the rain had picked up and we were getting rather soaked.  We spotted a bus stop and took turns waiting in the shelter before a local finally had pity on us and informed us that it's illegal for cars to stop in a bus lane.  Oh.  By this point, the two of us were exhausted and decided to get something to eat.  Unfortunately, we were now on the outskirts of town and could see no restaurants in sight.  We spotted a vague collection of buildings and decided to walk in that general direction.  Thankfully, the two of us had a healthy Minnesotan sense of humor and found our situation pretty funny, albeit wet and cold.  We finally reached what we suspected was a restaurant which turned out to be a Hard Rock Café.  Somehow, this shook up my worldview regarding Iceland just a little... I mean, if I'm all the way in Iceland I'd rather have something a little less American, but we were cold, wet, and hungry, so we'd take it.  The food turned out to be mediocre and far too expensive and the TV was playing some of the worst music videos ever made.  (No exaggeration: we're talking The Beegees' "How Deep is Your Love" and Michael Jackson's "Black or White."  It was really that bad).

K and I eventually worked up the strength to revisit the pouring rain and parted ways at the bus stop.  I returned to central Reykjavík and spent more time exploring the city before meeting with the guy who had agreed to host me for the remainder of my stay.  (I felt better about staying with a stranger if we met first).
Reykjavík Cathedral and Leif Eriksson statue

Café Loki
Icelandic culture draws heavily from Norse mythology (not from Marvel comics, as some might assume...)  In fact, both of my male hosts had the middle name of Þór (anglicized to "Thor"). 
can hardly
be so terrible.
one will survive
C (my new host) and I met in a café and spent the next several hours chatting and getting to know each other.  C was born and raised in northern England but has spent a significant amount of time in Iceland because his mother is Icelandic.  He recently moved to Reykjavík with a level of permanence to attend art school and was the sole occupant of a flat right in the center of town.  Encouraged by his genuine, non-threatening approach, I decided to take him up on his offer and would bring my things to his flat the next morning.

I left my first hosts with a thank you note (which also explained that their cat had vomited on the sheet they'd covered my temporary bed with which is why I put it with the other soiled laundry) and rode the bus into the city.  With all of my luggage in tow, the *mostly* uphill trek to the Cathedral left me winded but I made it.  In addition to moving my stuff into C's flat, I would also be meeting with A, a local in his early thirties who had (via couchsurfing) offered to show me around and buy me a cup of tea after I'd requested his couch but found it unavailable.  I spotted him near the Leif Eriksson monument, we shook hands, and he helped me find the address C had given me.  At the flat, I unpacked my things (I even had my own room!) and C gave me a spare key so I could come and go as I wished.  A and I went out to tea and browsed a couple of book shops.  He has a PhD in nutrition (a fact I only realized much later, due to his very humble manner) but spends his free time writing and photographing various natural phenomenon.  His most recent photographic venture had been in Hungary, which gave us something in common.

It was incredibly windy by the time we left the tea house, so A drove me to the National Museum (admission was free with my Reykjavík Welcome Pass).  Because I would have to walk back to C's flat and because the rainclouds were so heavy, A gave me his waterproof jacket to use for as long as I would need it.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Gunnar's Daughter, a historical novel set in medieval Iceland and Norway.
The museum fascinated me; I was especially struck by the Viking age exhibit.  I got through as much as I could before it closed and decided to return within the next few days if time allowed it.

I mentioned this before, but the weather in Iceland really does change from hour to hour.  My welcome pass included a ferry ride to Viðey (a small island across the bay) but I didn't want to be stuck out in the open in the pouring rain.  Thankfully, when I went to the island (the day after "moving in" to C's flat) the wind and rain subsided during my two-hour jaunt around the island, so I successfully basked in its majestic beauty.
Viðey in the distance
Island Horses

I'd been hearing snippets all week about a free, open-air concert for the band Of Monsters and Men, which would be happening Saturday evening (the day I visited Viðey).  Unfortunately, my post-Viðey wandering had brought me back to C's flat too late to make plans with C, K, or A, all of whom had mentioned going to the concert.  Apparently, it would be held in a field outside of Garðabaer, a suburb of Reykjavík and while I knew shuttles would be available, I didn't know where to find those shuttles.  I decided to order a cappuccino in Café Loki (to avoid looking like a freeloading foreigner... I really just wanted wifi) and I asked the clerk if she knew anything about the shuttles to the concert.  Overhearing my question, a girl about my age spoke up "Are you going to that concert too?!, proceeding to introduce herself as Cy, an American student from San Francisco.  She was on the way back to the States after completing an internship in Germany and had no one to attend the concert with her.  I was only too happy to volunteer.

Cy and I arrived at the concert and I took in the view: it was breathtaking.  I'd venture to say several thousand people showed up but since it was outside, nothing felt crowded.  Cy and I even managed to make it up to the front of the crowd and enjoy the music as such.  What struck me most about the aura of the situation was that it welcomed families.  From what I've seen in the US, kids and hip concerts don't mix well: Either the music is enjoyable but the crowd behavior is grossly inappropriate for children, or the program is safe and aimed at children but the music is painfully lame.  Iceland is a very different world, though.  Parents brought their children (some were just babies) and the younger members of the audience seemed to enjoy the music as much as the adults.  I was awed because I could never, ever envision something close to that concert happening where I'm from.  It was refreshing to witness.   

The music itself was wonderful.  Prior to the concert, I'd only really heard a few songs by Of Monsters and Men.  (I also hadn't a clue that they were from Iceland).  I loved what I heard that night, especially their cover of "Skeletons" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which happens to be one of my favorite songs. 
I have never experienced anything like the venue of environment at Garðabaer.  From the free admission to the open-air stage smack in the middle of a field, it was gorgeous.
Concert Confetti
The concert ended at a decent hour so Cy and I spent a couple hours chatting at her hostel after returning to Reykjavík.  (I think one of my favorite parts of traveling was striking up friendships so quickly; I never had time to feel lonely!)  She had a more educated appreciation of the music, but we both had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The next day, K (my fellow Minnesotan) and I checked out the Reykjavík Flea Market and I finally tried a famous Icelandic hot dog.  They are really, really tasty.  (And this coming from someone who used to shun any and all red meat).  I think what makes them unique is the assortment of sauces and the crunchy onions sprinkled on top.  At any rate, it was a treat.  When K and I parted ways, I used my Welcome Pass to get reduced admission to the Volcano House where I watched two documentaries about volcanic eruptions and their impact on Iceland.  Fascinating stuff.
I used to hate hot dogs, but I've been converted.
Don't believe in the Icelandic pride for hot dogs?  Read this article.
The end of my week was fast approaching but my time felt well spent.  I had to make at least one trip to a thermal spa before leaving the country, though.  I told this resolution to C and his brother J (who was visiting for a few days) and they informed me that the spa down the block was as good as any.  C slept late the next morning but J was up in time to accompany me to the pool.  The hot water was an amazing change from the cold air in the outside hot tub.  While soaking up the hot water, I met D, a 19-year-old student from Bavaria.  (What's up with all the hunky young guys from Europe?  Seriously.  Also: I feel like these stories about chance encounters with strangers might come off as weird to my blog audience, but they really weren't, I promise).  Anyway, J had to leave but D and I agreed to meet by the Cathedral and walk to the National Museum together, where we joined K.  (See: safe, public places.  I know what I'm doing). 
With K at the National Museum
That evening (my last in Iceland) I went out to eat with A and a couple of his friends.  I'm thankful that I had so many conversations with locals; I don't think anything else could have enriched my understanding of Iceland in the same way.  Back at the flat, C and I planned our next morning (the inevitable goodbye) and he promised to get up early enough to send me off properly.

Bright and early, C and I left the flat to buy the delicacies he had talked up the night before.  I can't remember their Icelandic names (though I kept having C re-pronounce everything so I could hear the charming sound of the language) but the treats turned out to be some sort of orange soda and a pastry like a cinnamon roll.  C had to leave for his classes but not before a lovely goodbye which involved exchanging lists of film and book suggestions.  (Yes, I am a nerd and no, I am not ashamed of this fact).

My time at the airport was fairly nondescript as I filed through the line to have my passport stamped.   It was almost time to board the plane when I noticed that my scarf (the accessory that had accompanied me through this entire journey that had been a gift from my sister) was missing.  I tried to go back the way I came to look for it but the way was blocked off.  I spoke with the woman behind a desk and filled out a lost item slip as I quietly resigned myself to having lost the scarf.  My plane was boarding, I explained, and I was fairly certain I had left my scarf at the other side of the airport on the back of a chair in the food court.  She encouraged me to explain myself to the people at the passport station and go back for my scarf.  I knew I would be cutting it close but I ran back to the line, explained my situation, sprinted to the food court, located my scarf, sprinted back, waited to have my passport stamped before being waved forward by someone who recognized me, beelined past people on the broken escalator, and made it to the gate just in time to board.

I was going home.
On board my flight home.  The napkin says:
"In the year 1000 Leifur Eiríksson the Lucky sailed from Iceland to America.  He named it Vineland.
On his journey, coffee, tea and soda were not complimentary."