June 7, 2015 by kittynh
Twelve Things They Don’t Tell You About Iceland…
I recently returned from a week-long visit to Iceland, and while I did some online research and planned my trip, I discovered that some important information is missing from the tourist sites and online reviews. Let me preface my advice with the overall comment that Iceland is wonderful, as beautiful a piece of nature as can be found on this planet; that the people are nice and mostly speak at least some English; and that they drive on the right-hand side of the road which for an American is a big comfort. I am not suggesting that you not visit Iceland—to the contrary! Please, do put it on your ‘bucket list’ and check it off sooner rather than later. But there are few things you should know first:
- You need a hat that ties down. I had packed for rain and cold; but nobody ever said that they should have named the place “Windland.” It actually wasn’t very cold when I visited (mid-May), 5 -8 degrees C (41 – 46 F) every day. It was just so windy that it felt much, much colder. Further, the hat I had bought for the purpose of keeping rain or snow off my head served only to get me exercise as I chased it down the street. Similarly, you need rain pants and a rain jacket even when it’s sunny, because if it won’t keep out water, it has no chance of stopping the Eternal Icelandic Wind.
- Icelanders haven’t got the hang of street signs. Seriously, you try to figure out where you are in Reykjavik, and you’re usually at the intersection of No Name and Not a Sign in Sight. Similarly, finding a speed limit sign is considerably more difficult than finding a free parking stall near a stadium on game day. Of course, even finding out what street you’re on is of limited usefulness because in Reykjavik all the streets have names, not numbers. ALL of them. And unless they are placed alphabetically by rune starting the root word, they have no demonstrable order. So even if you can locate yourself on a map, you still have no idea where your target is. Thus,
- You must have a GPS or the equivalent. If need be, buy a cheap cell phone at the airport (which is helpfully not in, nor even all that near, Reykjavik). If you rent a car, get the navigation system despite the expense. Not only will it help you locate what you’re seeking—most of the time—but it will often give you the speed limit! You also need the phone to call 112 for help when you get stranded on some road that has no name out in the hinterlands. All of Iceland except Keflavik (where the airport is) and Reykjavik counts as the hinterlands.
- You need to carry more cash than you expected. This is because many Icelandic merchants and especially automated devices like gas pumps do not accept American credit cards. They are designed for the European standard card with a chip and a PIN number. Outside of Reykjavik, you may need pay cash or even, for gas, buy a temporary card from the attendant to use at the pump. This takes some planning, since
- Things aren’t open much of the time. This is true of restaurants, grocery stores, museums, gift shops and, most importantly, gas stations. Readers who grew up in the 1960’s or before remember when grocery stores closed at 7 pm and gas stations only operated during “business hours”. Iceland transports you back to the days when it was assumed that everyone lived on a particular schedule. Why a country where you can readily discern roof tile colors at 10pm chooses to shut down all sources of sustenance and refueling hours earlier is puzzling, but that is of little comfort when you are trying to find a place to pee at midnight on your way back to Reykjavik.
- You never go anywhere without 200 kronur in your pocket. While exchange rates vary, you can get a rough conversion to US dollars by treating a krona as a penny. This is important, as in many parts of the country you have to pay to use the toilet—and you should know what you’re paying for convenience and a warm seat. A hundred and fifty or two hundred kronur seems standard. I can understand that the only inn/café/gas station/restroom for 80 kilometers in any direction doesn’t want to donate its facilities to every tourist driving by (let alone every tour bus); but if your change is out in the car, you don’t want to have to leave the warm lobby and step out into the cold wind to go hunt for change. Especially when you are full to the jawline with coffee, which you will be, because
- Iceland makes the best coffee you’ve ever tasted. I am struggling with how to feed my need in the States now, because all the coffee here tastes burned, weak, or both. Icelanders treat their kaffi as an essential part of life, and a joy as well. They usually put cream and sugar in it, which is understandable since it’s strong enough to remove oil from car parts—but it’s also wonderfully tasty. It tastes like really good coffee beans smell when they’ve just been ground. It’s so dense that you can’t see the spoon when you stir it, but you don’t really mind, because your taste buds and your cerebral cortex are doing a happy dance. (Your stomach lining may want a bit of that cream, though.) It also goes wonderfully with your skyr.
- You want to buy skyr and eat it often. Skyr is a traditional Icelandic food that is technically considered a cheese; but it tastes like yogurt and cheesecake had a love child. The texture of skyr is like sour cream, and the flavor is somewhat like yogurt but without as much tang. Skyr is often sold or served with fruit mixed in, and it’s delicious that way. It is also served in larger containers as sort of a fruity milkshake. Skyr is made from skim milk and has much more protein than yogurt; it’s a health food that makes your taste buds and your body very happy. It’s surprisingly filling—one small container can hold you for hours—and makes a great breakfast. Or lunch; or snack; or bedtime treat. I don’t know what kinds of cultures are used to make it, but I know they make it highly digestible (even for those of us who have to be careful on our dairy intake).This helps keep your digestion moving, which you need because
- Produce is rare, expensive, and often ugly. Let me clarify that everything in Iceland is expensive, because almost everything has to be imported. They do grow lovely tomatoes and bell peppers (which they call ‘paprika’) in greenhouses, and the lettuce you can buy that was growing yesterday is delicious. As it should be, for $7 a head. Apples and bananas are imported and often look like they were tossed around in a ship’s hold for 2 months on the trip over. Root vegetables can be bought, but again, if you’re used to the variety and beauty of American produce, it’s a shock. Because of this, you get very small amounts of produce with any restaurant meal—your sandwich may have a cup of cooked shrimp in it, but there will be one lettuce leaf carefully cut and distributed across the entire sandwich roll. I’m not sure it’s possible to be a vegan in Iceland unless you are independently wealthy.
- Just because they speak English doesn’t mean that you can understand each other. I am pretty good at getting past accents, but even I occasionally had no idea what the person speaking to me had just said. This wouldn’t have mattered if there had been anyone else on the boat but the captain who had just spoken, me, and my equally bewildered travel buddy. If you’ve seen the Disney movie Brave, you know there is one of the suitors whose accent is so thick his speech is unintelligible. Expect to sometimes encounter that; and when you ask, “What kind of meats are these?” at the breakfast buffet, you may be met with a puzzled look, followed—after a brief consultation with the kitchen staff—by, “They are all pig.” (Given that Icelanders, like many people from challenging climates, tend to use all of animals they butcher, this was of limited comfort.) Also, the English they learn is British so the usual “lift” for “elevator” and so on is an additional chance for confusion.
- Reykjavik is covered in graffiti, even the nice neighborhoods. In all fairness, some of it qualifies as ‘urban art’ in that it is well-rendered and depicts entertaining or thoughtful themes; but some of it is phrases or perhaps names rendered in various styles, and some of it is, well, I think they’re sort of ‘balloon runes’. I don’t actually know, since my ability to read US graffiti lettering is limited, and my ability to identify the special characters in Icelandic (and they have a number of them) in non-standard typefaces is not good. I’m just saying, don’t think your vacation rental is in an unsafe neighborhood because there are spray-painted words or bears on skateboards decorating the walls. It’s just part of the Reykjavik vibe, and no one paints on the historic (that being, older than this country) buildings. And you can use these murals to help you navigate!
- You need to book a longer stay than you think. First of all, it’s a 7-hour time difference between Pacific coast time and Icelandic time; secondly, the hours of light and darkness will be significantly different. Whether you’re there in the spring or summer (when you can have16 to 24 hours of daylight) or visit in the winter to see the Northern Lights (when you may have little or no sun at all), it’s not like your light exposure at home. So your body will take a day or two to adjust. Then, to be blunt, you’ll want to see so much more than you thought you did! From the jaw-dropping majesty of Gullfoss—the enormous waterfall—to Strokkur, the geyser that builds so much power you can watch the water dome up before it shoots skyward; from the black sand beaches of Vik to the snow-capped mountains of Snaefellsness, Iceland is a visual feast. Scattered white farmhouses with herds of horses and sheep; enormous white breakers and scenic lighthouses, some on islets out in the fjords; ruins more than a millennium old and life-sized whale sculptures finished last year—the whole country is going to hold you breathless. So have another cup of that wonderful coffee, and plan on sleeping on the flight home. You’re in Iceland, and you’re going to love every minute. Unless, of course, you forgot your 200 kronur.
© Kitt Bradley 2015