A Land of Fire and Ice
Article and photos by: Stephanie Gabel
Reykjavik in the middle of January has a sort of macabre, eerie, mist all the time. The streets though well lit are shrouded by cloud cover and night; sunlight just doesn’t reach that far north in the winter months. Somehow, the town bustles through rain, through forty different types of snow, through biting wind and cold. Geo-thermal activity is harnessed to heat everything, including the streets- the snows and rains evaporate off the brick, off the concrete, creating a low fog. The streets are narrow. Quaint buildings from the turn of the century and earlier are set between buildings of modern design. History is set in the most central of parks and gardens. The Althing has no security. There are hot springs and public baths in every corner of town. The culture is tangible, and warm.
Outside of Reykjavik the land is continuously green, the hills and rocks and lowlands are covered in mosses and lichen that makes the landscape look surreal. There isn’t a single tree. It feels like a different planet, yet still feels like home. There is a welcoming yet hostile feeling off the road, almost as if something is watching you from far away and out of sight. The rogue waves will crush you and steal you out to sea, but their white foam is so calming on the black beaches. The volcanoes can cause so much destruction, spewing smoke and ash into the atmosphere, grounding flights and halting motorized travel, yet they are the source of the country’s power and heat. The glaciers, beautifully turquoise and blue, hide deep cravasses that could swallow us all. The mountains are stoic, standing tall, dark and foreboding the distance. The fjords are limitless on the western coastline and awe-inspiring. Everything is driving distance, after all the island is small.
Back in the capital, walking the streets, ducking in and out of shops, and speaking to the many different nationalities of people I realized how few Icelanders are actually in Reykjavik, and everyone spoke English. I wanted to learn, hear Icelandic stories, fairy-tales, and hear the language spoken. I have never been so heart broken. I connected with a university student who happened to also teach English at one of the universities in Reykjavik. I thought I would be meeting with an Icelander, and though he spoke most eloquently in both English and Icelandic, I was disappointed to learn that he was actually from Italy. I did learn a lot about the linguistics of Icelandic from my new Italian friend, all hope was not lost.
I was fortunate enough to experience Thorrablot, the midwinter festival in which sacrifices were made to the Gods, Thor in particular. Among the foods served at this festival are boiled lambs’ heads, fermented Greenlandic shark, blood sausage, liver sausage, and soured rams testicles. This festival is not for those with weak stomachs. Shots of Brennivin are usually taken after eating a bit of the Greenlandic shark, and dark rye is served to cut the taste of sour ram's testicles. If bravery is lacking, fear not, in Iceland the fish is fresh, and the hamburgers are extremely juicy - good food is plentiful. Minstrels serenade the tables and the whole experience brings attention to the distant past. I left with a feeling of fulfilment in honoring the Gods.
Really, Reykjavik is just like any major European city: anywhere you go you can get a cup of strong, hot coffee, and fresh meals. You can go shopping and buy books, or clothes, or whatever you fancy. The city’s public transport is really, truly, efficient and inexpensive. Though transportation is about the only inexpensive thing on this island, on multiple occasions I spent roughly $25 on a hamburger with fries and a drink. I spent a good amount of money on this trip: on food, on Icelandic sweaters and blankets, but mostly on books.
It’s rather impressive that such a small island has one of - if not - the highest publication rates for literature. Intrigued, I bought books, sagas, poetry, prose, picture books, even a book on how to knit with Icelandic wool. All I wanted was to learn, so it was up to me to get myself the answers I craved. I devoured most of the Icelandic sagas, consumed the myths about the Hidden People, gorged on information about the Althing and first woman Prime Minister, obsessed over poems, and fairy-tales...
I feel like this is the best way to experience a new country, I didn’t only do the tourist things and see the tourist sites and crowds but I sat in quaint coffee shops and in the city parks to absorb everything I could in the way that I could. And now, my heart yearns for a return trip to pick up where I left off.