People and Places

Rambles in Reykjavik: A Final Dispatch From the Road

Posted on March 11, 2013

We are back in NH now after a two day stop in Reykjavik, Iceland on the way home.  Why Iceland?  We flew Icelandair to Europe and had a stop there anyway, there was no charge for the stopover, and I’ve always been intrigued by it.  Turns out a two day stay was about all we could afford.  Iceland may be clawing its way back from The Crisis, as everyone there calls the recent recession that rocked Iceland particularly hard, but there was little evidence of lower prices.  This is the land of the $8 bagel, the $5 hot dog, and the $9 beer.  Car rental is about $250 per day and gas about 4 times our cost (we walked).  It was jaw dropping.

It was also jaw droppingly beautiful in a Nordic austere way, whether the moonscape of moss covered lava fields on the way in from the airport (not a tree or plant in sight), the snowcapped hills in the distance, or the city’s location on the sea.  With such a short trip we did not get out to the countryside and its geysers, hot springs, glaciers, fjords, and other untamed places.  We’ll do that next time after we take out a second mortgage and save up.  On this first visit we concentrated on Iceland’s charming capital of about 200,000 people (2/3rds of the whole country’s population).  Yup – this whole country is a third the size of New Hampshire in number. 

And it’s similarly quirky.  They kill and eat whales (minke whales, which they claim are abundant) and puffins.  Puffins?  They are just about the cutest animals alive.  Sort of like eating kittens or something, but Icelanders love them.  At the fabulous Grill Market restaurant, award winning chef Hrefna Saetran serves sliders of whale, puffin, and lobster.  I was tempted, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.  My girls would never forgive me.   Funny tee-shirt we saw: a whale’s tail breaking from the water and underneath, the words “Kill em all!”  Sort of thing you might see in the Mall of NH.  I think Icelanders share with NH-ites a similar independent and sort of wise-ass streak.

We had dinner with the incoming director of all graduate programs at the University of Iceland, a man blessed with an absolutely Viking name: Magnus Magnuson.  He was kind enough to patiently answer our endless questions over dinner.  Some Iceland fun facts (or at least notions in some cases)?

  • Their conservative party would be left of our Democrats.  They have free health care, free education including pre-school and college, almost free energy, the lowest income inequality, the highest equality rating for women. 
  • The average annual income is lower than ours, so they better have a lot of free stuff.  I’m still not quite sure I know how people afford to live there, but homes are very modest as are most cars.  We wandered into a flea market and it was packed while almost no one strolling Skolavordusterigur (yup, good luck pronouncing this main avenue’s name) seemed to be a local.
  • With one of the highest literacy rates in the world, until not too long ago there was no television on Thursdays and none in August.  About 10% of the population has published a book (a lot of self-publishing obviously, but still).  Concerts, opera, and the like are much more affordable than in the US.
  • They have historically been pro-USA until George W and now look more to the EU and their old colonial ruler, Denmark (with which they have a love-hate relationship).  However, they do miss our naval base and the thousands of jobs it created.
  • They mostly take a pacifist stance with no standing military, though they contributed some people to the Coalition of the Willing.  Idle whalers or some such thing.
  • A lot of blondes.  Over 90% of the population is native and descendants of the Vikings. I’m tempted to say that they are a serious minded people in affect (sort of a northern European thing really), but they party like college students on Spring Break.  It’s a source of national pride to hit the clubs on the weekend and stay up all night.  In fact, Reykjavik has developed a serious music scene, sort of Ibiza with ear muffs.  Our hotel was across from the city’s most famous hot dog stand, a little hut in a parking lot, and on Saturday night scores of young people lined up in the cold until after 6AM, many of them a little shaky on their feet.
  • Beer was banned until the 1980s.  Officials thought it would encourage excess drinking.  They may have been right.

Like I said, a quirky place.

We toured Harpa, the city’s new (2011) concert hall and conference center, a stunning glass faced design right on the water.  One part of the façade mimics basalt rock formations in intricate glass and steel blocks interlocked and lit up at night in changing colors.  The interiors spaces are light filled and vast and the concert halls are acoustical marvels.  Sound engineers can open panels to create more “boom”, lower heavy fabric panels for more muffled sound, and “tune” the halls as they need.


The main hall is painted in red, meant to suggest the lava core of Iceland’s frequently active volcanoes.  It’s stunning really.


Everyone from the National Orchestra to Bjork plays there and while the decision to continue building amidst the economic meltdown was controversial, it is the one true stunning piece of architecture in the country besides Hallgrimskirkja, the striking and if a bit odd looking all-concrete church that towers over the city.


The rest of the city is emminently accessible and human in scale, full of shops and places to eat.  There is a strong sense of design in Iceland, as there seems to be across Scandinavia.  While knitting remains a common handicraft and people routinely wear those famous Icelandic sweaters without a hint of irony, we saw lots of ultra-modern and daring fashion in the windows.  We spent a lovely time chatting with a young couple manning Eggerts Furrier, a PETA vision of Hell.


They met while learning to make hats and they talked about the attempt to keep Iceland’s craft industry alive and well.  Maybe one of most beautiful, but weird local crafts is the curing and tanning of fish skin leather.  They take fish skin and somehow prepare it and we saw it used as seams in some of Eggert’s coats, as whole coats and bags, and at Market Grill it was used as wall panels.


It came in different colors and was more suggestive of alligator hide than leather per se, but sort of crazy anyway (“Hey, I’m wearing salmon!”). 

We had a glorious two days in terms of weather, chilly but sunny.   But it’s pretty clear that weather in Iceland is serious, serious business.  It’s very common to see houses clad in galvanized metal, in all sorts of bright colors.


There are warnings for those setting off to drive in the isolated countryside.  Where windows hadn’t been washed you could see rain streaks…..sideways.  In fact, a local commented that the rain often comes in in that way, driven sideways by gale force winds.  Unpredictability seems the other theme, with sunshine followed by sudden rain followed by snow squalls followed by sunshine, all in one day.  Icelanders all seem to have that ruddy “we’ve been out in the weather” look and from what we could tell even the most fashionable clothes featured wool and Goretex.  A big if declining part of the economy still depends on fishing and those fishermen must be awfully tough to brave these seas where the Arctic and Atlantic oceans come together.

But what seafood!  At Fish Market, another glorious Hrefna Saetran restaurant, I had the best king crab legs ever.  These were done with a hot chili aioli and may lead the 2013 Most Memorable Dish List so far in this young year.  The fish soup at Grill Market was almost as good.  If I lived in Reykjavik, I might wear fish skin pants and eat the king crab legs at Fish Market every night.  I would have used up all my savings within three days, but what a way to go into bankruptcy.  There is a near absence of things like salad and vegetables in Iceland this time of year, but there is some pretty wonderful eating to be done.  The single best ingredient (as opposed to dish)?  Butter.  One review of Grill Market said the butter there might be the best one would ever taste.  I think that could be the case.  Sourced  from a local dairy farmer and seasoned with Icelandic sea salt and accompanied by a seaweed colored salt for sprinkling, it is hard to describe how it was so good.  Creamy, salty, rich but not heavy.  I’d put that butter on cereal.  Seriously.

As we waited for our bus to the airport I finally succumbed to that hot dog stand, Baejarins beztu.  Bill Clinton ate there, after all (though Bill doesn’t exactly set the bar for culinary excellence; he’d eat anywhere), and I had to see why people lined up all day and night.  So I ordered the dog with all its fixings: raw onion, fried onion, remoulade sauce, ketchup, and mustard.  It was pretty darn good.

 It was “wish I had ordered two” good as I eyed the long line and my watch seeing if I might have time for a second.  Alas, there was no time, but if I had forsaken the whale and puffin, I had at least eaten Iceland’s most famous hot dog.  I see a lot of salads in my future….

So that was our Icelandic adventure.  We packed a lot in on this little Spring Break vacation.  Berlin and its complicated glories, Oxford and its quaint and historical charms, and Reykjavic (I’ll say Reykjavic instead of Iceland because I think the country’s real glories are in its natural places and not really the city) with its beguiling quirkiness.  I say this every time, but by the end of the trip we are eager to return to NH and family and friends.  We have a passion for travel and revel in in the complexities of how other humans live and organize their lives and cultures, but we are of ours and in our travels we see much we’d like to improve on and much we are reminded to value.  Tomorrow is back on campus with colleagues and students and the work that gives meaning to the day.  Maybe that is the real gift of travel.  To awaken a wonder at how other people live their lives in the small details and to reawaken wonder and appreciation at how we live ours.




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