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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
... and takk for reading this Blog About Iceland. We know you are a very busy and important person, but Iceland would really like to be your friend on Facebook, on Twitter, on Vimeo, and on Flickr. It would also like you to read its tumblelog, learn Every Single Word in Icelandic and get to know Icelandic Bands that Are Not Sigur Rós.