She’s back, and this time it’s personal

Posted in:Lost and Found Department & People
Annie Rhiannon Atkins in front of a waterfall
Image: Conor Horgan

It’s been almost three years since I’ve lived in Reykjavík, and now I’m back for a holiday with my other half, Conor, an Irishman who has always wanted to go to Iceland.

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Of course he has always wanted to go Iceland: tell anybody you used to live here and they’ll say “Really? I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland”. It must be the exotic name — nobody keeps up that look of awe and wonder when I add that I have also lived in “Wales”.

“Remember to take your shoes off whenever we go into someone’s house,” I instruct Conor, on the bus from Keflavik airport. “And you have to shower naked at the swimming pools. And there’s no Icelandic word for ‘please’ — so just say ‘takk’ a lot instead.”

Conor looks out of the window at the endless fields of black lava. “It’s a good thing we’ve got your fluent Icelandic for this trip,” he says.

"I'm too pleased and flabbergasted to care that I've been identified by my poor grasp of the language. Somebody remembers me! Iceland is a small country, I know, but all of a sudden it feels like I'm coming home."

Oh. Um, about that ‘fluent Icelandic’ thing. Well, that may have been a slight exaggeration — dating back to when I’d needed to impress him, and hadn’t foreseen the day we’d be on this remote island together where I could be tested. But I don’t let on. I can probably manage the bare minimum of Icelandic required to get in a taxi and order some food when we get to Reykjavík.

Once we’re settled in our rented wooden house I sit up on the windowsill and call the pizza–place down the road. It’s snowing outside, and dark, although it’s not even four o’clock yet. I run through the shoddy Icelandic in my head as the phone rings. Pizza is pítsa, right? Luckily, Icelanders aren’t the chattiest of people, so I doubt I’ll have to fend off any unexpected and potentially confusing questions.

“I’d like to order a large pizza with olives and mushrooms,” I say, confidently, to the girl who answers the phone. Conor looks suitably impressed. He had wanted garlic oil, too, but I don’t know the word for it, so I had lied and said garlic? Are you crazy? Garlic hasn’t made it to Iceland yet!

“Can I take your name,” says the girl on the phone.

“It’s Annie,” I say.

“And … your last name?”

An unexpected and potentially confusing question. Icelanders never ask for your last name; there aren’t enough people in the country to justify needing it — even the phonebook is listed alphabetically by first names. But I handle it smoothly all the same. “Atkins,” I tell her.

“Annie! I knew it was you!” she screeches, in perfect English. “I could tell by your grammar!”

It is my ex–boyfriend’s little sister on the other end of the phone. I’m too pleased and flabbergasted to care that I’ve been identified by my poor grasp of the language. Somebody remembers me!

Iceland is a small country, I know, but all of a sudden it feels like I’m coming home.

*

*

Icelanders are, for the most part, relatively shy people. Or are they just “aloof”? I’m not sure which, but it’s true that they rarely engage in conversation with strangers. It took me nearly a year to become a part of any kind of a social circle when I first moved to Reykjavík. “So, don’t expect to go making any friends on this trip,” I warn Conor, helpfully.

By the end of our third day in Reykjavík Conor has made seventeen friends. I know, because they keep smiling and waving at him on the street. “Who are these people?” I ask him. Oh, just some guys he met at the Aikido club he visited, and look, here comes Jón Þór, the tattoo artist he met yesterday up near the church. Hi Jón Þór! Hmph. Maybe it’s not the Icelanders, maybe it’s me who’s been shy — I mean, “aloof” — all along.

“It must be your Irish charm,” I say, later, as we soak at the pool. It’s dark again already and I’m hoping for more snow — there’s nothing like sitting in the hot–pots with snowflakes melting as they land on your face.

I loved living in Reykjavík, it was perfect: a city of brightly–painted houses only the size of a small British town, and yet its capital status means it has all the culture you need: museums, cinemas, theatres, art galleries. Not that I’m interested in culture on this trip, of course. What’s the point of being on holiday if you can’t relax and enjoy yourself? I don’t want to go traipsing around town, I’m only on my fifth latté! And anyway, I feel it’s more important to educate Conor on some of the finer points of Icelandic living: sitting around at the pool like natives and then in candlelit bars, talking about very important things and drinking coffee.

“Try this,” I say, pushing a small carton of chocolate–flavoured milk towards him as we warm up at a café. “Isn’t it the best thing you’ve ever tasted?”

Conor humours me and pretends that yes, it is the best thing he has ever tasted. “It’s amazing,” he says.

Good. Kókómjólk is not just a chocolate-flavoured milk drink; it’s a chocolate-flavoured national institution. Although, soon it will have to be the second best thing he’s ever tasted: because tomorrow we’re leaving Reykjavík and heading for the sticks, where I will introduce him to wind-dried fish.

*

Driving around Iceland is like driving through the pages of a geography book. In one day on the road you can see glaciers, lava fields, black sand deserts, volcanoes … and the occasional flat green field gets thrown in free, for anybody who might be missing home.

Car on a bridge in Iceland

We’ve decided to drive east on highway one, along the south coast to Kirkjubaejarklaustur. And when I say we’ve decided, what I mean is, of course, I’ve decided. Despite being the one doing all the driving, Conor doesn’t really know where we’re going; I’m going to surprise him. Kirkjubaejarklaustur is a remote one–horse town with no distinguishing features — unless you count a post office and a supermarket as “features” — but about a hundred kilometers beyond it lies a glacial lagoon, with icebergs. Yes, icebergs. One minute we’ll be cruising the desolate ring–road happily singing along to Leonard Cohen and the next minute, look: a glacial lagoon! Personally, I’m very impressed by icebergs, and I want Conor to be impressed by them too.

The south coast is my favourite part of Iceland; especially the vast expanse of black sand that stretches from Vík past Skaftafell. It’s a myth that it’s dark around the clock in the midwinter, but it’s true that the daylight we get on the road is limited to just three solid hours of sunrise and sunset. By the time we reach the glacier, the sky has clouded over and the icebergs are fluorescent blue, sitting quietly in the grey of the lagoon. Conor is impressed. We walk a little way around the shore, taking more photographs, before abandoning nature to get back into the warmth of the car.

Conor Horgan at Jökulsárlón in Iceland

“I wonder if there’s wifi,” says Conor, checking his iPhone. He needs to put his pictures up on Facebook, immediately. Needless to say, there doesn’t seem to be a wifi signal at the edge of Jökulsarlon glacial lagoon. Iceland might be super–connected, but come on, we’ve barely passed a farm in the last two hours, never mind a glacial internet café.

“We could keep heading East, as far as Höfn,” I suggest, tracing my finger across the map. Alright, it’s true, I need to put my own pictures up on Facebook immediately, too.

Conor studies the map and we do the math. It’s getting late, and rain is lashing against the car. To keep going now — and then later all the way back again — would mean driving for hours in the dark, on a deserted road, just to get to a tiny eastern town that might not even have an open bar.

“Alright,” we agree. “Let’s go.”

Predictably, Höfn is shut down for the night when we eventually roll in; just the shadows of fishing boats in the harbour and a closed food store that tells us: “this is it: the town centre.” The streets are damp and bleak and I am tired and hungry. It’s hard work being the passenger.

A map of Iceland showing Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a big glacier and a village with lobster and internet

“Let’s find some dinner,” I say to Conor. He looks doubtful. Any hope of net access is long gone — at this point he’d settle for a coffee and some of that wind–dried fish I’d promised him. But suddenly, around the corner, stands a wooden cabin: fairy–lights in the windows and an OPEN sign in the doorway, like Christmas has come early. Inside is a warm but empty restaurant: candles flickering on the tables, and a waiter watching the Arsenal match on a flat–screen television. We can hardly believe our luck: within twenty minutes he’s brought us both the password for the internet connection and two plates of grilled garlic lobster.

Like I was saying; Iceland: it’s super–connected.

Annie Rhiannon Atkins worked as a graphic designer in Iceland for four years, from 2003 to 2007. During that time she met some interesting people, visited some interesting volcanoes, and spent far too much money on interesting cocktails in 101 Reykjavik. She now lives in Dublin, Ireland.

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32 Comments

mary Posted Feb 21st 2010 18:40

You make me want to go back to Iceland. It’s a magical place.

Rosie Posted Feb 21st 2010 21:38

Loved reading this Annie!
What a talented lady you are x

blackwatertown Posted Feb 22nd 2010 09:45

Excellent. Let’s all go. Are idiosyncratic guides laid on as standard?

rockmother Posted Feb 22nd 2010 10:31

This is great and reminded me how much I love Iceland too and felt so at home when I filmed there. I didn’t want to come home as I liked being there and made good friends.

Colette Chillmaid Posted Feb 22nd 2010 16:11

It all brings it back… Lovely memories.

Leifur Posted Feb 27th 2010 12:47

I really like how you tell the story. I would like to read a travelling book written by you!

Stenheart Posted Feb 27th 2010 13:27

I LOVE ICELAND! Im so glad you took your trip there! and I agree totaly , it feels like coming home. You may want to go back to Iceland ==) Hope you guys had a great trip!!!

Susan Hodgson Posted Feb 27th 2010 13:41

Love your story – Iceland is magic.

Mirela Posted Feb 27th 2010 14:10

Thanks for the flashback, Annie. Can’t wait to come back there again..

Deb Bradley Posted Feb 27th 2010 14:51

Beautiful piece that means lots to anyone who’s ventured outside Reykjavik. The last paragraph sums up our experiences of many towns and villages in Iceland – my husband and myself had a good laugh at this; it brought back many fond memories.
When are we all going back?

antonella Posted Feb 27th 2010 15:20

Every time I read stories about Island, grow up my desire to go there!..thank you..for make me dream and immagine to be there!!

Charlotte Frantzdatter Johansen Posted Feb 27th 2010 16:17

I know exactly where that little wooden restaurant is – it has saved me too once or twice 😉

Matt Posted Feb 27th 2010 17:17

Reminds me so much of my own road trip around Iceland…
But i went round the WHOLE ring so it was double awesome!!

Brian Murphy Posted Feb 27th 2010 18:03

Annie – loved the blog. Its 23 years since I lived in Iceland but your vivid descriptions brought it all back to me. A wonderful and magic country with very nice people – thanks

Feodor Posted Feb 27th 2010 18:42

Actually, recently my wife told me a story about why Iceland is called like that. Here is the story: some king wanted to protect Iceland from his enemies and named it Iceland, and at the same time named Greenland. So he would tell to his enemies “Go to Greenland, it’s super green and nice, and don’t go to Iceland because it’s icy.”. So the king sent all the people he didn’t like to Greenland and protected Iceland. 🙂

Örn Úlfar Sævarsson Posted Feb 28th 2010 22:54

Excellent!

Hannah Imperial Cannon Posted Mar 1st 2010 19:27

I love your blog – I am half icelander … Meaning My mother was born and raised and I occasionally visit family and drive around with awe!

In two weeks I am heading out to do the VISIT. Now with my two children, Tristan 3 1/2 years old and Eva Soley 3 1/2 months old. Oh yes and my husband who once visited the country in hopes of meeting a beautiful icelandic woman … =)
What I love about my icelandic culture and family… We had a family reunion a few years ago to the visit the location where my Amma (Grandmother) was born. The house was gone, but the stove was sitting in the middle of this amazing field. It started raining (cold rain) but that didn’t stop the festivities. My uncles and aunts and many cousins just lit a fire on the store and roasted the BEST hotdogs and we all laughed at the weather. I mean – WHo does that except an icelander! hahaha!
I think we might take that same trip you took in this post!
Thank You for sharing this with us…

Lilja Posted Mar 5th 2010 18:12

I’m a “halfling” too… this post made me laugh because I’m not fluent in Icelandic either but I’ve definitely bluffed about that once or twice to impress someone… haha.

This made me miss Iceland soooo much! I really want to go back and drive the ring road with my boyfriend!

Sandie Posted Mar 8th 2010 07:20

I am half Icelandic as well…I lived there for over a year 03/04 and miss it so much. I would love to go back and show my husband around but it is a bit of a journey from New Zealand. I miss kokomjolk, kleinar, hotdogs from downtown Reykjavik and skyr…

Þóranna Posted Mar 11th 2010 09:48

Hey Annie,
Loved reading your article. And good to see your face, even if only on the beautiful photo. No chance of getting you back here from Ireland? We always need talented graphic designers, you know 😉
Glad you´re well. Will keep in touch on Facebook.
Lots and lots of love, Þóranna

Greg Posted Mar 22nd 2010 12:55

Beautiful post, very cinematic in fact! Good work.

Helga Sigrún Posted Mar 23rd 2010 23:37

Thanks for posting this wonderful story, Annie! You really brought some amazing memories back, I could literally see everything you described. I’ve never actually lived in Iceland for a longer time, I’m part Icelandic, but all the few-month-long intervals I did spend there will never be forgotten. I agree with the comment above, your travel book would be interesting 🙂
@Feodor – very true, heard that one – it’s a great idea hehe. Vikings were smarter than most people give them credit for 😉
Greetings!

Janine Posted Mar 24th 2010 07:26

I love this, I love stories like this! Thank you for sharing! Makes me want to go to Iceland now 🙂

tsduff Posted Mar 25th 2010 07:10

Hi Annie – haven’t read your blog in ages – glad to see you back on the rock. Don’t you miss it terribly? Hope you packed your “little friend”… LOL!

Dani Posted Mar 25th 2010 08:03

I have been there one time 5 years ago – and I always have to think of it, it is the most wonderful place…

annie Posted Mar 26th 2010 00:42

You are so pretty!

Minna Posted Apr 23rd 2010 19:04

Annie, your story brought up many memories from my visits to Iceland some 20 years ago: first two weeks trip by car around the country seeing everything you had to see from Iceland and then after one year returning for three month´s summer job at Iceland working in technical institute, isolating thermophilic bacteria from hot springs in the countryside. Amazing! When you once have experienced this one in a kind country, you never recover: you always want to come back!At least I am!

Scott De Buitléir Posted Jun 2nd 2010 15:49

This is a fantastic story! I cannot wait to go to Iceland – I’ve always been fascinated by the place!

dave Posted Jun 15th 2010 13:17

with the internet thing, you can get a little 3g usb thing and it’ll work around the whole country

karin hoppe Posted Oct 18th 2010 20:46

very very good. iceland is the greatest place in the word. i am in iceland every year, but only for a short time. if i could i would live there all the time.

Dagmar Posted Nov 10th 2010 19:56

Thanks for this fantastic text, Annie!
I live here as a foreigner now for more than one year and it is exactly as you tell.
But with the right humour it is the right country 😉

David Englund Posted Jan 19th 2011 23:36

Great story, I love reading about Iceland, I felt like I was in the back seat with you and Conor. Can’t wait to go this February!!!!

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