Days pass differently in Iceland than they do in other countries I’ve visited. At this point in the year, Iceland is just beginning to see the sun again for more than a couple hours a day, and the total darkness that eclipsed everything here for three months has fortunately passed. Now, there are about 11 hours of sunlight– though it might be better to describe 6 of those hours as evening twilight. Right around 1pm the sun hangs low and red in the sky and casts everything in this odd, yellow-orange half-shadow that stays until the sun actually sets around 7. The result: I am sleepy all day, thinking nighttime is just around the corner and waiting several hours for the go-ahead to get in bed under a giant, fluffy duvet and curl up as the wind and snow howls angrily outside.
Whoever said Iceland is actually the green country (as opposed to Greenland, which is supposed to be icy) was entirely incorrect, at least during the winter.
After flying out of Oslo and making it to Reykjavik (the Kevlavik airport, actually, which is half an hour west of the capital), we had to fly around in circles for an hour before the snow was sufficiently removed from the landing area. It was a really bumpy ride each time we passed back through the storm, but people remained calm, and when we landed, everyone clapped for the pilot (this seems to be a very common practice among Europeans).
The bus directly to the city seemed to be the cheapest way of getting there– the neighboring Kevlavik showed very few signs of life and no one was going to pick up a hitch-hiker next to the airport on the middle of a more-or-less uninhabited peninsula. It costs $13 or so. Fortunately the exchange rate between USD and ISK (Icelandic kronur) is pretty good right now (1 USD = 137 ISK), making a lot of things significantly cheaper here than in Oslo. They’re still pretty expensive, though.
My hosts informed me that the bus would take me directly to a bus stop not far from their home, but when we reached our last stop, I got off and asked the driver where the ‘BSI’ bus stop was, which was where I was supposed to have stopped, and he told me it was a long walk- maybe half an hour- down the main drag. Then I saw the big letters on the bus that read ‘GRAY LINE,’ which was specifically the bus I was told not to take from the airport, and felt pretty stupid as I walked more than two miles to get to where I was going.
The cold actually wasn´t so bad at that point, but the wind was annoying and of course directly blowing into my face the entire time. If you ever come to Iceland, make sure to plan for a LOT of wind. Despite all the trouble and having to ask for directions several times, the captivating purity of the landscape and the clear sky made for a brilliant first day in a new country. There would be time to explore later, but now I needed to meet my hosts and be social after an extraordinarily long and stressful day.
Many of the houses in Reykjavik are constructed from concrete made from volcanic rock and ash because there’s so much of it here (the whole island is basically made of it) and because it’s quite resistent against wind and water. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to paint, so there’s many grey buildings and very few colorful ones in the newer areas. Just rows and rows and squares and more rows of grey, punctuated by bright yellow or red or green block houses with large windows and shining interiors that provide little rays of hope for the rest of the surrounding neighborhood.
Several hours later than I intended to, I walked through my host family’s front door.
They had just prepared dinner and invited me in happily. We exchanged greetings: Sæþór (pronounced SIGH-thor) had been my CouchSurfing contact and introduced himself first as their excitable 5-year-old dog of unknown pedigree, Óskar, jumped up and down on me, whining for more attention than the hugs and doggie kisses he was already getting in. Sæþór is originally from Virginia (but decided to leave his American name behind), out of a conservative religious family who remained stateside when he married his husband, Ágúst (pronounced OW-goost and originally from a small Iceland town not far from Reykjavík). Together with their son, who is now four months old, they make the most adorable family I’ve ever seen.
”I’m so sorry I’m so late. Today was insane. I missed my flight this morning, took the wrong bus to Reykjavík, got lost on the way here… yeah. Blah.”
”That’s no problem. Are you hungry?” The smell of grilled chicken and fried vegetables was more than inviting enough to pull me in.
”I could eat.”
Sæþór is an amazing cook. Before his son was born, he ran a home delivery bakery business, delivering baked goods on his bike in the city. But after a while, it didn´t seem feasible and he had to focus on other things and raising his son. Ágúst grows a ton of different herbs and vegetables in little pots in the house before moving them out to the green house he’s set up in the backyard. The vast majority of Iceland’s energy is derived from domestic, renewable sources like geothermal energy and hydroelectric power, making hobbies that require a lot of electricity (for heating lamps and space heaters, for example) very, very cheap. He also tends to rabbits in the back and wants to sell them, but Sæþór would rather eat them. However, Ágúst described eating their rabbits as ”tasting like murder.”
I had to call it an early night that night and spent the next day preparing for an interview with Ragnar Ólafsson, the pianist for Icelandic indie band Árstíðir (pronounced HOUR-stee-thih-r). They had just released an album two days prior, so I was working on translating some of the songs into English so I could ask actual questions and not just be like, ”Hah, what does this mean?”
To see that post: CLICK HERE
The next day, I finally had some time to really explore Reykjavík. Frist, Sæþór and I jogged with the baby in an all-terrain winter stroller (bad-ass, right?) to the grocery store to get some things. After working at a call center and sitting on my butt in an office for several months with little exercise, this was quite difficult, especially given the crazy wind pushing us in all sorts of unfavorable directions (into traffic, for example).
ALSO apparently I left my scarf, pair of kung fu shoe/slipper things, pair of socks, underwear, and two shirts back in Oslo. Apparently I don’t even know what I’m doing. Somehow I’ve managed to hold on to everything electronic, though.
We jogged back past some of the more colorful parts of Reykjavík and shared an Icelandic easter egg back at home for calories.
The easter eggs here are a big deal; they contain candy and often have licorice (an Icelandic favorite) and various chocolate-covered fruits, as well as a fortune! A lot of the time, they’re bought as gifts for a love one. Sæþór had bought Ágúst a professionally-made one for nearly $70 one year!
My fortune: ‘It is difficult to fly without feathers.’ You be the judge.
Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland (HATL-greems-keerk-ya… should I bother with pronunciations here?) and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, like a beacon for lost Americans to find their way. Or maybe that’s just me.
In the middle of downtown there is a large pond that freezes over, and the locals will play soccer and other games on it. Crazy!
The main shopping street in Reykjavík is Laugavegur, where there are a ton of cafes and shops to entertain tourists from other parts of Iceland and abroad.
After only a couple hours of exploration, I needed to go to the grocery store to get more things to make curry for my hosts. This is when a horrible blizzard came through and totally wiped me out.
The snow started first. Off in the distance, there were dark clouds that glided easily over the sun to block out more light than they should have, and were much faster-moving than more friendly clouds…At first it was alright with just a light sprinkling of snow. But then the snow became tiny deadly little pellets that shot into my eyes as I was walking down the street, and as they fell, the wind hit. Having come from Missouri I’m quite used to strong winds in Spring during tornado season, but this wind had a mind of its own which could be seen in the directionality of the snowfall. No matter what direction I turned, I couldn’t get the wind at my back and was forced to run headfirst into it for half an hour as I blindly stumbled down the busy main street.
When I started to feel chill through my clothes, it was obvious something was wrong. My pants had been entirely soaked through and my coat, despite my constant brushing it off, was now three times as heavy. The pellets had now evolved into regular snow mixed with freezing rain, which wet everything I had and helped snow to adhere and melt further into my things. By the time I had made it to the store, it was obvious that even my rainproof backpack cover would do no good on the way back home. Snow had blown into the cracks between the cover and the backpack and were melting rapidly to make a soggy mess.
After a great deal of trouble finding all the food I needed the walk back sealed my fate. Everything was soaked through.
Luckily, I’d left my other clothes at home, but there was no second pair of shoes to use, no second coat or jacket or hat, and for some stupid reason my travel towel was sitting in the pocket on the outside of my backpack where my water bottle normally goes, so that was dumb.
Back at home, it was a relatively calm night. I sat around in my sweatpants and left everything ot dry after ringing it out in the tub, and I mixed up the sugar and salt in the naan bread so it turned into saltrock, but the curry was alright.
But then the cutest thing ever happened. The little one got to eat porridge for the first time in his life, which ended up being mostly a porridge bath. But it was really sweet watching his dads (dada and pabbi) take turns feeding him. The world needs more visible same-sex parents. I sort of can’t wait to raise a kid, especially after watching the adorable dynamic here for four days.
On my last morning in Reykjavík, I had to take a bus to another bus to get to Akureyri to start a WorkAway volunteer position. Part of the reason I´m able to travel so long this time is because I´m ‘working’ at certain places in exchange for a bed and free food. Akureyri will be a three-week destination in the hopes I get to see the northern lights from the north side of Iceland, right next to the arctic circle, nestled in a beautiful fjord called Eyjafjörður (´the island fjord´). Instead, like a dunce, I took the bus in the wrong direction and missed the one going to Akureyri. Kristín, my host in Akureyri, texted me a phone number from a website called samferða, which is the rideshare website for Iceland. I sent a text, he called me back, and I was on my way (and I saved about $60! Sometimes it pays to get lost).
Svenni was my driver and was born in Akureyri, but was studying law in Reykjavík. His wife and their two children remained at home while she practiced medicine. Before actually leaving Reykjavík, we visited his car mechanic to install a radio in the land rover. There, I explored an abandoned hut, enjoyed another ice storm, and met Katharina, the mechanic’s friend from Switzerland.
She offered me cofffee and biscuits and we discussed travel and Iceland and language, and she gave me her address and invited me to come stay with her in Switzerland! Score!
And then we were on our way.
For whatever reason, the weather was infinitely better on the drive up than it was in Reykjavík. Others have described to me that traveling through Iceland is like walking on the moon, and I’d say that’s an understatement. I’ve never seen such a wide area of pure white with only the tiniest amount of black and yellow poking through where rock and grass have somehow found their way out to the light. Every few minutes you’ll see a small group of Icelandic horses gossiping with each other, the Atlantic twinkling and churning under the force of the coastal winds beating everything against red and black volcanic rock barriers, all the while following ice-covered roads that follow the path of dramatically rising mountains changing colors with the angle of the sun, and rivers of terrible beauty that lead out to their death in the brush-stroke fjörds.
There are a lot of abandoned houses in the north of Iceland where its inhabitants left over a hundred years ago to Canada to search for something better. Apparently living by the arctic circle was bad for farming and livelihood.
Five hours later, as the sun was actually about to set, we made it into Akureyri. Svenni wished me luck and drove off as I walked into an international school, ready to start another Icelandic adventure.