Hayley’s year in Iceland

Posted in:Foreign Exchange Department & People
Hayley's shadow looms over Snæfellsnes
Image: Hayley Dunning

Whenever people ask me what it was like to live in Iceland for a year, I look them steadfastly in the eye and say: “It was the best year of my life”.

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I first visited Iceland with my family when I was 16, and fell in love, determined to return. If I’m honest, I based my final university choice in England on the fact that the course offered a year abroad in Iceland! I worked hard, and finally my dream came true: I moved to Reykjavik at the end of August 2006, for one academic year studying Earth Science at the University of Iceland.

Earth Sciences students at the University of Iceland pose for a group photo in front of an old Iceland farmhouse
Earth Science students of the world unite in front of an old Icelandic farmhouse in the summer of 2006. (Photo: Hayley Dunning)

Reykjavik is a wonderful kind of city, it has everything a capital city should do; theatres, cinemas, museums, concerts (the Iceland Airwaves festival in October is unmissable); but with a lot less people. This gives it a calmer and safer feel than your average capital city; children are a much more visible and bubblier presence, and no place is ‘far’ to get to, even an escape to nature. Public transport is efficient, and in general, everything just works in Reykjavik. In fact, the whole country works, which is something of a miracle in itself, considering it has a population less than 320,000. Heck, they even have their own X-Factor! But even such talented folks as these need help from abroad, and Iceland has many immigrants, giving it a truly international atmosphere.

"During my year, I had countless adventures. I camped in the yellow rhyolite hills of Landmannalaugar, bathing in the hot springs, and lying on the cool grass in the night. I took a boat on a lake at the front of a glacier, and weaved between stolid icebergs. I walked behind a waterfall. I watched whales, I experienced a whiteout, I hiked in lava fields and I soaked in a hot tub under the Milky Way."

During my year, I had countless adventures. I camped in the yellow rhyolite hills of Landmannalaugar, bathing in the hot springs, and lying on the cool grass in the night. I took a boat on a lake at the front of a glacier, and weaved between stolid icebergs. I walked behind a waterfall. I watched whales, I experienced a whiteout, I hiked in lava fields and I soaked in a hot tub under the Milky Way. I saw an Icelandic film that made me cry and an Icelandic play that made me laugh.

And I did all this on a student budget! Who said Iceland was an expensive country?

Despite all these fantastic experiences, the question I get asked most often is: “What about the darkness? Isn’t it depressing in the winter?” For most people I know, lack of winter daylight didn’t depress them, but rather caused an involuntary hibernation. But two things make up for this lack of vitality: the winter light, when it is around is just beautiful, a constant dawn/dusk; and in the summer, the light is constant, and your energy flows along with it. Although it can make you feel terribly guilty, stumbling out of a club in the early hours to be struck with broad daylight, as if you’ve regressed to a teenager and defied your mother by staying out all night.


Some of Hayley’s photos from Iceland on her Flickr stream.

But, while we’re at it, let’s bash out some of the other questions I get most commonly asked:

“Is it cold?”

Yes, but not as much as you might expect. After all, it is still under the influence of warm oceanic currents. The coldest I experienced was probably -15°C (which is nothing compared to my new home in Canada, which, at 10 degrees latitude further South, plummeted to -35°C this winter).

“Did you see the Northern Lights?”

Yes. Trust me, if you stay through a winter, you will see them.

“Did you learn any Icelandic?”

Er, well, not really. A few basic phrases yes, but to be honest it was disarmingly easy to get along without it. Of course, learning the language is a bonus (not to mention it delights the locals), but all the courses I took at the university were taught in English and many of my friends got jobs in hotels, supermarkets and restaurants without being anywhere near fluent in Icelandic.

“Did you try the rotten shark?”

No, although I had the opportunity. Unfortunately it was drowned in a shot of the particularly lethal Icelandic spirit ‘Brennivin’, which is not really my thing. I did try a couple of other ‘delicacies’ though, such as boiled sheep’s head and whale burger.

Askja, the building of the University of Iceland's Earth Sciences department
Askja, the building of the University of Iceland’s Earth Sciences department in Reykjavík. (Photo: Hayley Dunning)

But while there was a lot of fun and adventure, I was there to study, and in the end this also contributed to it being the best year of my life. Volcanoes are a large factor in Iceland’s landscape and culture, and studying them was essential. Much to my surprise, I came top of my class in volcanology. As I looked at the paper with my results, I thought ‘Hey, I enjoy volcanology, and I guess I must be good at it, so why not make this my speciality?’ And I did.

I’ve returned to Iceland twice since that year: once to research the volcano of Eldfell (on Vestmannaeyjar, the Westmann Islands), and afterwards to present my findings to an international conference of volcanologists. There isn’t a doubt in my mind I will go back again and again.

Hayley Dunning is a very nice person who studied Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland in 2006-2007.

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1 Comment

Mia Posted Nov 7th 2010 09:38

This is absolutely AMAZING! As a kid I’ve dreamt about being a volcanologist, but I ended up being a Graphic Designer AND a (stull studying) Ethnologist 🙂 Maybe it will lead me to Iceland as well one day…I hope so 😉

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