Random Thoughts About Iceland on Our Last Evening

One of the inescapable facts about Iceland; unless you possess an awesome camera with all the fixings and know how to use it, you simply will never capture the grandeur of the landscape. The mountains are so high, layered like chocolate layer cake and frosted with patches of snow in July. The glacial valleys are deep, most with endless streams meandering down from the higher glaciers, or tumbling down the steep mountainsides from the snow. Or wide rivers, heavy with alluvia from the glaciers, rush along to meet with the fjords.

A glacial valley with its inevitable stream. You can photograph something like this every five minutes.

Then there are the fjords, glittering in the sun or soft and sullen beneath the clouds. The lava mountains on the other side of every single fjord often have a necktie of white cloud resting midway between the ground and the peaks.

A necktie of clouds.

Then there are the waterfalls, which are everywhere, though of course, there are the faves like Gödafoss.

Gödafoss, the waterfall of the gods. (In this case, the discarded gods.)

The abundance and exuberance of wildflowers was overwhelming for a native Californian. Our brief wildflower season is lovely, but you have to go looking for them, and at the right time of year. The right time of year is critical here, too, but once the season is right, there are bushels of flowers almost everywhere you look.

The people here have been friendly and helpful without exception. Almost everyone speaks excellent English, and those that don’t speak it well speak it pretty well. People here love their country deeply. It shows in the way they talk about the beauty of winter, the knowledge of their past, respect for their environment.

Iceland is supposed to be the safest place in the world when it comes to crime. There are only 1.24 murders per year on average, none of them with guns, despite the fact that many people own guns. Largely, these are shotguns that farmers use if they have to put down an animal–there are no predators except for foxes. To qualify for gun ownership, you have to have a reason to own one, take a three-day safety course, and take a medical examination that presumably looks at mental as well as physical health. Sounds sensible to me. Even theft is uncommon, though not unheard of.

Iceland supports a permanent population of only 400,000. As the interior is uninhabitable, this population lives on the fringes of the island. Even so, it is kind of eerily devoid of people. Reykjavík, the capital city, is quiet and uncrowded outside of the tourist district. It’s kind of weird walking down deserted city streets in the middle of the day. Outside of the capitol, the habitations are mostly widely spaced farm houses, punctuated every hundred kilometers or so by small villages. VERY small villages. They usually have a gas station and maybe a tiny grocery store. The larger ones might have a hotel and/ or a restaurant–usually with great food. Food away from touristy spots was delicious, fresh, and healthy. Except for the potatoes, which are consistently incredibly good, if not good for you. The downside is that selection is often limited. Oh, well. Being limited to three choices isn’t so bad if all the choices are good.

On the drive from Akuréyri, we stopped for lunch at a random guesthouse in the middle of absofucking nowhere. Walking up, we were expecting a plain interior and a choice of salmon sandwich, chicken, and pizza. It was a real surprise. The interior was very Icelandic Modern with blond wood walls, abstract art, and hideous pottery lamp shades that looked like they were your child’s first clay project. It turned out all the plates, vases on the tables, the mugs, etc. had been lovingly created by the same unsteady hand (not thrown or cast), so that nothing sat square on the surface of the table, but wobbled slightly. The menu was presented as a clutch of loose sheets held together by a clipboard, which I suppose made it easy to change the menu quickly. Tom had salmon and I ordered shellfish soup. It was excellent, accompanied by home baked rye bread and butter.

The lamp shades look better in this photo than they did in person.

This restaurant kind of epitomized Iceland to me: isolated, an interest in esthetics and handiwork, focused on fresh, local foods well-prepared, and yet informal, eccentric and slightly makeshift.

There are sheep everywhere, often where they should not be. At Saudafell Guesthouse, which is a working sheep farm, our host Finboggi said he drives the sheep to the mountains every summer to graze, and leaves them there unattended. (In the old days, a dairymaid would have stayed with them.) I asked if he didn’t lose some of them every year, sheep being both stupid and unconcerned about their owners’ economic welfare. Finnboggi said yes, he did lose some every year, and shrugged in an unconcerned way. Just the cost of doing business, I guess.

Icelandic wool is different from your standard- issue wool. The sheep have evolved, as have the horses, to survive in this climate. Their wool consists of two types of fibers and the result is that their wool stays warm even when wet. You would think that Icelanders, who knit and crochet a lot, would prefer their home-grown product, but no. In most of the shops, the yarn I saw was imported. People are funny.

Mama and her babies, just chillin’ by the side of the road.

Iceland is volcanic, and the evidence is everywhere, from the great tongues of ancient lava quietly eroding into the valleys, to old cinder cones, to great fields of broken lava, to the occasional volcano that has blown its top, probably thousands of years ago like the one below. It must have been a hellish explosion when it went off.

It’s so easy to see how the mountain ripped itself open with a massive explosion. This is also a common sight in Iceland, which still has several active volcanoes.

I am sitting in Keflávik airport as I write, waiting for a flight to Copenhagen. Am I sorry to leave? Very. In a way, I feel as though I just scratched the surface of what Iceland has to offer.

“The Sun Voyager” by Jón Gunnár Árneson, sits on Reykjavík Harbor, commemorating Iceland’s Viking past. Please note the small children using it as a jungle gym. No one seems to mind.

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