When I was in Alaska with my dad a couple weeks ago, and we were on that 12-hour train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks, I was chatting with the people sitting across the aisle from us, and they asked if I had ever seen the Aurora Borealis before. I said no, but that I had tried to see them when I was in Iceland a few years ago, and they hadn’t cooperated. My dad perked up when I said that, and interrupted and said “You went to Iceland?” I said yes. Pause. Skeptical look from Dad. And then he exclaimed: “In your dreams!”
That’s right. My own dad called shenanigans on me.
Either he forgot about my Iceland trip, or maybe my mom just never told him where I was, I don’t know. But he didn’t believe me. So, Daddy, this one is for you.
A few years ago, I had to go to Germany for a memorial service for my German mom (the matriarch of the host family I lived with for a year when I was an exchange student in Germany in the 80s). At the time, Iceland Air flew between San Francisco and Frankfurt, and would let you do a stopover in Iceland for up to a week without charging you extra airfare. (They still do allow stopovers on the way to Europe, they just don’t fly out of SFO anymore.) So, I stopped in Reykjavik for a week.
Iceland is groovy and strange. In the best possible way. There’s steam coming out of the ground everywhere, and glaciers on the horizon. Two-thirds of Iceland’s residents live in and around the city of Reykjavik, and they all believe in fairies, but they call them “hidden people.” They have hydrogen-fueled cars and buses that cut greenhouse emissions by over 50 percent.
There’s a revolving restaurant and a Viking wax museum–“The Pearl”–under a big, blue glass dome on top of some massive tanks that hold natural, geothermically heated water that heats the city’s buildings. How awesome is that?
There’s a really vibrant art scene that is weird and wonderful, if a little dark. There’s a kind of a seafaring-depression-disembodied-baby-appendage theme happening, that takes a few days and more than a little alcohol to get used to.
The people of Iceland are all on a first name basis. They even refer to the president of the country by his first name. To be fair, the population of the whole country is about a third of San Francisco’s, so they might actually all know each other. But really, it’s because Iceland’s culture has a naming convention that indicates the immediate father–and nowadays, sometimes the mother–of the person, rather than the family lineage name.
So, a person’s last name is their father’s first name as the prefix, and the word “son” or “daughter” as the suffix. So, for example, because my aforementioned dad’s name is Henry, my name would be Quin Henrysdaughter, or in Icelandic, Henrysdottir. If my mom, whose name was Carole, had been a single mother, I’d have been Quin Carolesdottir, if she was a feminist and didn’t want to follow the traditional patronymic convention. If I had a brother named, oh, say, Theotis, his name would be Theotis Henrysson or Carolesson. Get it? Okay, so, since that is not especially helpful in identifying people by family line, and since so many people have the same first names, folks just kind of go by their first names in Iceland and leave it at that. I kinda love that.
The music scene is epic. It’s not all Björk and Sigur Rós–not that there’s anything wrong with either of them, I love them both. But if you want to go sample some really unique, indie musicians, who aren’t imitating whoever the last big thing was, go to Reykjavik, preferably during one of their music festivals. There are several, including “Dark Days” during January, when the sun never comes up. Which explains why some of it sounds like this:
I discovered that little gem by giving a music store clerk my American Express card and telling him to pick out six cd’s for me that represented the latest from the local music scene, and he gave me this one by Mugi Mugison (so, if you recall, that means Mugi’s dad was named Mugi, too). Don’t feel too bad for me, though, because that clerk also introduced me to Emiliana Torrini long before she broke out internationally, and the group Leaves, who are eery and dreamy and lovely and always put me in the mood to make soup (I would post a video for you, but all the videos I can find are geographically blocked. If you want to have a listen, start with the album “The Angela Test,” if you can find it).
There’s a big geothermic power plant outside Reykjavic, and the runoff from the plant sifts through the volcanic rock of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and bubbles up to form a hot springs lake called Bláa lónið, or Blue Lagoon. The water is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and is very rich in silica, which clouds the water and forms a thick, silky, white coating on the sharp lava surface. It feels kind of like bathtub caulk to the touch, but you can scoop it up and smear it all over your face and body. Which people do.
They go there specifically to cover themselves in that muck, and let it dry to chalk on their skin. There is even a skin clinic at Blue Lagoon, as the silica mud is supposed to be great for psoriasis and such. I don’t know about that, but I can tell you, that weird, milky blue lake was ethereal and spooky, and I had to soak in it until I turned into a prune. It was seriously one of my favorite parts of the trip. They have massage therapists who will come out into the lake with floaty rafts for you to lie on, and massage you in the water. Oh, and the hot dogs at the snack bar were ridiculously good–they put those crunchy french fried onions on them and stick it down with curry ketchup (trust me, it was better than its sounds). But, really, the best place to get those special Reykjavik hot dogs with the crunchy onions is a little kiosk down by the docks. I kid you not, the line at that place at midnight is so long, you’ll kick yourself for not buying two when you finally get to the window, because when you taste how amazing they are, you’ll have to get back in that line. That made more sense in my head, sorry. The hot dogs are good, okay? Really good. But I digress….
Outside Reykjavik, icy, crystal clear rivers and streams runoff from glaciers and cut through a vast, open plain where the site of the first Viking congress at Thingvellir is preserved. The ground opens up to give way to the veils of a giant waterfall that falls down, into the earth, instead of off of a bluff above. The crater of a live volcano forms a punchbowl for a preternaturally marble green lake. It’s a land of incomparable and curious beauty.
Iceland’s heavy volcanic activity is due its location right on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the European continental plate meets the North American continental plate. The plates are spreading apart, and new earth is literally bulging up from the crack.
You can walk over a rickety bridge from one continent to the other. The day I was there, the bridge had a camouflage net over it, because Clint Eastwood was filming “Flags of our Fathers” on the beach, and they couldn’t very well have me in my purple and green coat and giant blonde pony tail skipping across a white bridge in the background of what was supposed to be World War II Iwo Jima. Although, in my humble opinion, that movie could only have benefitted from a scene like that. Just sayin’. Whatever.
I still crawled over the bridge on all fours, though, just so I could say I crossed a bridge between the continents. Now that I think of it, I’m going to have to watch that extremely long movie again, and keep an eye out for that bridge. Just in case. You never know! At least, this time, I can watch it on video, so I can pause it and go to the Snyrtingar.