As we arrived in Akureyri I could tell this city was going to be even less full of things to do than Reykjavík. But even so, I’d found so many things to entertain myself with in Reykjavík that surely going to a small town would be fine, and Akureyri does not disappoint.
However, my stay here in Akureyri is a bit different than the CouchSurfing type of thing I’m used to. I’m staying with a host family, volunteering as an au pair (essentially) and as extra help in the restaurant they own on the bottom floor of their home. In exchange for free food and accommodation, I work anywhere from 0-5 hours a day, 5 days a week, with weekends totally off to explore. But it’s even better than that!
In the past week, I’ve become part of the family. We cook dinner and clean together, sit around and watch TV in the evenings, and talk a lot about how our cultures differ.
For instance, one of the first things I did when getting here was wash my hands in the kitchen sink. Evidently, that’s super gross here. Also, there’s no usable word in Icelandic for ‘please,’ so their way of being polite is just saying ‘Thanks.’
For the first day I worked here, I was sure I was doing something wrong, or that the family hated me, before Kristín (the mom) explained that in Iceland no one is used to saying ‘please.’
The house I’m staying in is nestled between the mountainous walls of Eyjafjörður (‘the fjord of Islands,’ though there aren’t that many islands in it). For those who don’t know what a fjord is, it’s essentially an area where the sea/ocean cuts inland and is bordered by mountains or cliffs and has been formed by glacial erosion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fjord). And for those confused about the letters in the Icelandic alphabet, here’s a quick guide:
æ – like ‘eye’
ð – like the ‘th’ in ‘this.’ English used to have this letter a lonnnng time ago. It’s called ‘eth.’
þ – like the ‘th’ in ‘thorn.’ English used to have this letter as well. It’s literally called ‘thorn.’
ö – A sound that doesn’t exist in my dialect of English. It’s sort of like the ‘u’ in ‘put’? Or the ‘ir’ in Queen’s English ‘bird.’
(j is pronounced like y in ‘yeah’).
ll – like ‘tl’
Congratulations! You can now read Icelandic sort of maybe.
The frosty weather that had plagued Reykjavík wasn’t such a concern for the first couple days here, so it was the perfect opportunity to go hiking. The fjord’s ‘cliffs’ here rise up from the river on the east and west sides, so instead of seeing the sun set over water, the sun rises over one peak in the morning, and a peak on the other side in the evening.
During the summer months, however, the sun rises and sets almost completely on the north side where the river runs out to the ocean. Grettir, Kristín’s husband, showed me an incredible picture on his phone from last summer in which the sun hung right above the water, in between the mountains of the fjörds. I’ll see if he can send me that photo.
The day I spent hiking was quite a thrill. My host family owns a couple of dogs that literally followed me miles from the house as I made my way up to the highest part that I could get to before the side was totally glazed with ice.
It took a lot of effort to walk through the snow as high as I got, but coming down was much easier…
That night, I was treated to my first ever experience seeing the northern lights. Unfortunately, there was a windstorm coming in from the south (one of the worst ones on record in Iceland, actually), so there was a ton of cloud cover that made it much harder to get them on film– not to mention that I had to lay down on the ice to keep my tripod from moving.
By the time I was done photographing, the right side of my body had melted into the ice and I hadn’t even realized because the lights were so novel and exciting.
Fortunately, this family actually has a dryer (as opposed to most other families in Europe that I’ve seen, who just have a spin cycle on the washer and a hanging rack).
The next day, we explored the town and bit, went to the mall for some grocery shopping…
And visited the Christmas Shop. The REAL Christmas Shop.
This shop runs all year round, selling Christmas-themed goods and even updating the sign on a daily basis so everyone knows how long it is until the next Christmas.
Instead of having a Santa Claus, Icelandic tradition has 13 ‘yule lads,’ which I would describe as halfway between what we called Santa’s elves and underwear gnomes, because most of them like to steal things…
My favorite is Bjúgnakrækir, who likes to steal sausages. I watched a short film about him on the plane ride to Iceland. Don’t judge me. But each of the Yule Lads brings you a small present on the days leading up to Christmas Eve when you get the big present. Here, there is technically no Santa Claus. If you’re a bad boy or girl, you get potatoes as your presents, or sometimes
We also happened to see some (baby?) seals hanging out in the river on the way to town! That’s another first for me!
On another trip into town, I did some of the more touristy things solo. After pooping at the local hostel…
I walked up the stairs to the local church. The church was built in 1940 by Guðjón Samúelsson (Guð means ‘god,’ jón comes from a name meaning ‘YHWH is gracious,’ and Samuel means ‘God heard,’ and the ‘son’ part obviously just means ‘son of.’ Talk about a one-track name…). Evidently walking up the steps and counting them is something everyone should do when visiting Akureyri, and I’m almost positive I counted wrong at 111.
One of the fun things about traveling is that it feels like the whole world is your playground. Almost nowhere is off-limits. As a direct result of this feeling I often find myself in places that are barred from entry, or sneaking through gates to get a better peak at things, or generally being a nosy explorer. In town I ran across a sign that said ‘ENTRY FORBIDDEN,’ but all that was behind it was a dock and some old machinery plants, so I went in to get a better look at a waterfall across the river.
It reminded me of the time I jumped over the wall at the Gardens of Versailles. But at least I got a better look at the Waterfall!
Another cool thing about Akureyri is all the hearts you can find in random places. They’re on walls, in windows, and some have even replaced the red stoplights here. In 2009, when the economic collapse hit Iceland quite hard, the people of Akureyri decided to place these hearts around the city to remind everyone of the things that matter: love, family, friendship, trust. I thought it was really sweet, and didn’t know about it until I googled why there were hearts in totally random places.
Before heading home, I made it to the Akureyri Museum, which currently has an exhibit with maps of Iceland from between the 15th and 18th century. Downstairs was an exhibit on pre-industrialized life in Akureyri.
As an added bonus, the museum worker was impressed enough with my Icelandic that she invited me to come back for free in a few days when they would have a new exhibit open. Or… at least, I think that’s what she said. We’ll see.
Hitch-hiking is super easy here as well. A guy that must have been at least 70 picked me up about 5 minutes after throwing my thumb in the air. He didn’t speak any English, so we had a really choppy but hilarious conversation for the 15 minutes it took us to get home. I confused him a little bit because I kept saying he could drop me off at the bridge, but I kept using the word for ‘port,’ bryggja. But we got it figured out. Hip-hip hoorah!
The wind storm that was so bad, by the way, it had literally broken all the ice on the river and piled it up on one side.
Other than exploration, the work has actually been pretty fun. I’ve mostly just been vacuuming, doing dishes, and helping with some food preparation. One of the many benefits of this is that I get to snack constantly on everything to make it tastes delicious. AND IT DOES.
We spent a few hours one day making mint chocolate roses, ginger shots, superfruit/vegetable juice smoothies, and dehydrated… uh… vegetable/fruit/seed bark? I’m not really sure what to call it. But it’s delicious. And my digestion has never been better!