Iceland

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Left On The Road in Iceland

 

            I’d never hitchhiked before. I emptied my bank account so I could leave Manhattan and find raw nature–a place where the land was more alive than the people. My aunt’s 10-page letter from Iceland, with tiny sentences squashed in and around printed photographs of Icelandic horses, turf houses, and glaciers, became my beacon for adventure at 23. My landing point was the Reykjavík city hostel, where I worked for my stay. That idea disintegrated after a week, the moment I became ill. It wasn’t only New York, I was becoming sick in every city. A young hut warden from the highlands saw me in our shared 6-bunk room and strongly urged me to hitchhike. I didn’t want to. All I thought of were horror stories of murder… I just couldn’t do it, and there was nothing I wanted to return to in America either. Certainly to venture into the complete mercy of a land and its people had to be more fulfilling than shriveling up in a lifestyle I was already miserable with. Some form of death was eminent in the decision to stay or hitch around the countryside. I could feel the pressure of the pioneering heartbeat of Iceland at my back, and beating through the words of my hostel bunkmate. “Oh, Icelanders are very curious people,” she said. “They’ll want to pick you up just to talk to someone new. Don’t be surprised if they want to give you phone numbers of friends.” She laughed and thought my fear was part of an American upbringing. “Trust some people you’ve never met before!”

 

            I lay awake the night before I hitched out of Reykjavík, picturing the events of the next day and practicing putting my thumb up and out.

 

            Three-fourths of the way around Iceland I’d discovered that over half of the main road, The Ring Road, was made of rubble, and a car would only pass every hour or so. On one particular day in the east of Iceland, a mail woman drove me two hours to her last stop. She dropped me past a mailbox, far from any farmhouse, and next to a running river. I was one-and-a-half hours from the nearest town…in both directions. The afternoon fog had started rolling in, so I couldn’t tell if I was near the ocean or the mountains. As the fog grew thicker, it became a cloud of silence, drowning out any noise in the distance. I jogged in place to keep warm for the first two hours, and in that time I’d heard three cars pass.

 

            The weather was unlike the late spring snowstorm, which had blanketed the expanse of lava fields straight to the horizon on the morning I landed in Keflavík. The sheer white light of Iceland’s sun had then stunned the rapid pace of my New York City brain, when my mind had seen itself as hazy and dirty. The land was pure. However, in the fog, the reverse conditions were becoming true. I stood waiting on the side of the road with bags at my feet, straining to see the rubble of a path out in front.

 

            The billowing clouds of fog started to look like giants emerging from dusty shadows. I stood still. Would a giant or elf instantly appear, as they did to the many Icelanders I’d met? My senses still didn’t seem to be in communication with nature and the invisible world, like the country dwellers of Iceland. I kicked at the hard, cold dirt under my feet, as if I could make it feel my frustration. I should be able to wield a magnetic psychic power too, I thought. I should be able to make a car pick me up! Tears started melting my cheeks. I was more scared than ever and what was it worth? I’d hitchhiked solo around Iceland with a strong sense of faith I’d be fine, even embracing the chance that something bad could happen. Faith was the only guidance I’d had to hold onto. And it was supported by the overpowering beauty of a trusting, independent people–my drivers and friendly acquaintances. My eyes dried as my thoughts came to a halt. But oh, the landscape! Purple, black, orange, gray, tremendous, and bewitching, through which something inside me remembered that there was so much more power in the forces which cannot be seen. My senses widened as my doubt was left on the road. And there I stood, emptying doubt to the bottom of my gut. I started to see my inner landscape, that I was full, vast, and a possibility for greater creation. It was genuine bravery. Whether a car came or not, I knew I had everything I needed. I looked out as a car slowed to a stop.

 

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Jökulsárlón

Christina van Deventer

When I first came to Iceland I had barely entered adulthood. I was young, unemployed and scared to death of the gaping hole that was where my future was supposed to be. Thus far, everything had been pretty much pre-ordained. I would go to school, have certain kinds of friends and when I grew up I would go to University and study something that would sound more important than it was. In my mind that something had always been Music. I´d been schooled in every aspect of it since I was little, naturally I would want to see it through to the end. But I wasn´t going to, because for me, like for so many other teenagers, the future was untreaded territory in which anything could happen. That was why, mere weeks before I was about to start Music studies back home in South Africa, I found myself in Iceland, chasing a different future.

Like every great story, mine starts with a boy. We´d met in Chicago and pretty soon his arctic world collided with the sunny, multi-cultural world to which I belonged. Iceland was where we´d see if the relationship was worth pursuing.

I arrived around four o´clock in the afternoon in freezing mid-December temperatures and pitch black skies. Great, I thought. I paid all my savings to come to a country where the sun won´t come out for the entire time I´m here.

On my first day in Reykjavík, it rained. And it was dark. Only for an hour did I glimpse the dusk, which turned to dawn for a short while before the darkness was ushered in once more. No, not darkness, blackness.

Luckily, inside my boy´s family home, things were going swell. I could tell I was liked and the feeling was mutual.

In my first days in Iceland, we went to see all the usual touristic spots. The Golden Circle, Hallgrimskirkja in downtown Reykjavík and the lighthouse in Seltjarnarnes. We fed the ducks at Tjörnin, we did the walk down Laugavegur and we even went to Grasagarðurinn, Reykjavík´s botanic gardens, although, it being winter and dark, there was little to see.

Meanwhile, I was having a lot of hot chocolate to wash away all the strange meals I was being fed. Skate, prepared in ammonia on Þorláksmessa (23rd December), whole-roasted Ptarmigan on Christmas Eve, salted foalmeat, whale-steak and various types of fish, all of which I hadn´t even known existed. Thankfully, I managed to talk my way out of having hrútspungar (ram´s testicles) and hákarl (cured shark), and out of drinking Brennivín.

While I was having a great time with what I hoped would be my future in-laws, I was slightly disappointed that it hadn´t yet snowed, since I´d never had the privilege of seeing snow before. This little admission convinced my boy to bring me to a glacier where there was always snow. Except, we couldn´t go on top of one, because it would be too dangerous in winter. So we did the next best thing. We drove from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón for the day.

We set out from Reykjavík at around nine in the morning, all the while praying there wouldn´t be any snow cancelling our plans along the way.

We stopped for something to eat at Kirkjubæjarklaustur, possibly the most enchanting town in all of Iceland, and headed past the Elfhomes towards Jökulsárlón. Thus far, we´d seen a lot of grass against backdrops of black and white; snowcapped volcanic mountains that would make any picturebook look bland in comparison. Soon, however, the landscape took on a new dimension. Mountains fell away, making space for endless stretches of black sand. Black desert, I thought, because it seemed like nothing would be able to survive out there. Along the road, these black deserts started reaching into the ocean. Where colour lacked, contrast certainly didn´t. Finally, I saw a glimpse of Svínafellsjökull, a tongue of the greater, more well-known glacier, Vatnajökull.

´We´re almost there,´ my boy said. Not long after, he pulled over the car.

It was a bit of a hike, one on which I saw nothing but more sand. Then, coming up on a hill, the world opened up around us.

´Welcome to Jökulsárlón,´ he said, leading me downhill towards the water.

I couldn´t stop staring. It was looking at heaven, or something godly. Blue ice floating in water so still it had the appearance of polished mirrors in the dusk. Yes, it was dusk already, because we´d been driving all day. Five minutes later, everything was shrouded in darkness, but we´d seen what we´d come for and my future had started taking shape. I couldn´t leave what I´d seen behind forever, so I didn´t. I never completed my studies in music. I did, however, make Iceland my home.

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I remember seeing a doco as a kid on the Aurora Borealis. I was mesmerised by the dancing rainbow of colours moving across the sky.

‘One day I’ll go there, I’ll see the Northern Lights,’ I told myself.

Twenty-five years later I arrive in Iceland in the dark of night. On the ride from the airport I look out the window searching the skies but they are dark, there’s no moon, not even a star and no Aurora Borealis.

In the morning I find my window framing a wide bay of black water topped with white-caps whipped up by a wild wind, encircled by snow-capped mountains, bright against a pale winter sky.

I walk out onto lava fields and breathe in, filling my lungs with cold, fresh air as I gaze at the stark, flat panorama; a bleak yet stunning foreground to the spectacular, white mountains. The wind whips at my hair and plays with the thick grey clouds overhead.

I wander across the lava and to my delight it is not the barren landscape I was expecting. The rolling hills, grey-black, rippled and cracked are full of life. Grasses and minute plants grow everywhere. Tiny flowers, smaller than my fingertip bloom and the soft, carpet-like moss is thick and warm against the chill wind, a perfect place for trolls to nap.

There is a freedom here, this place is a real adventure. But there is also a freedom to believe and I embrace their old stories with childlike glee.

I see elves small and fairy-like peeping from behind flowers and peering between blades of thick, yellow grass. I imagine Vikings arriving on black rocky shores and dusky, pink sunsets with silhouetted trolls lumbering across the horizon.

I take the long drive to the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. Here icebergs broken off from the glaciers float down the river, slow and silent, like ghost ships sailing out to sea.

Ice is scattered over black, sand beaches. Chunks as big as cars emanating a cloudy aqua are battered by the rough grey surf. Smaller pieces, clear and glassy, glitter like diamonds in the soft afternoon light.

I could spend hours here, days even. Each piece of ice is different, like the snowflakes that fell a thousand years before to form them, unique and individual like precious gems.

I lay on the ground, snapping away with my camera at a small slab of ice. I get in close and can see every crack and bubble. I hear footsteps crunching on sand behind me and stand up to find a man looking quizzically at me. I give him a small, awkward smile and walk off.

When I turn back he is on the ground, photographing my piece of ice. I shake my head with a smile and continue to click away; some birds, a seal, the mountains. I wonder if he sees what I see or if he’s wondering what the hell I was doing down there.

I join a tour for a glacier walk. I strap metal spikes to my boots, don my helmet and grasp my ice-pick with a grin. Impressed with my outfit I step onto the ice, listening to the crunch of each step as my spikes dig in. We walk across frozen waves, step over deep clefts and tap away at the crusty white surface to reveal the blue glow of the glacier beneath.

Here the elves are different, they are thin and willowy with long silver hair. They are 100 metres tall and stroll gracefully through the mountains and across the glaciers.

The nights come early and we are driving in darkness as we head back to Reykjavik. I’m with friends I met only days ago, but we talk and laugh as if we’ve known each other for years.

Suddenly one of them starts yelling.

‘Stop! Stop the car!’ he says as he points excitedly out the window.

We pull up on a little side road and pour out onto the gravel. A bitter cold wind belts us and my arm is jerked hard as the car door is almost pulled from my grasp. The whole car shakes from the wind’s ferocity and the temperature is below zero, but we barely notice as we shout and jump and crane our necks at the sky.

In the sky to the north we see a cloudy green stripe. It spreads and moves, becomes more solid, grows brighter and the colours shift from deep greens to bright yellows. Soon it reaches the southern horizon too and there are parts that have a powdery look like they’re falling, giving a depth to the sky that makes it looks so amazingly large. The smile I have is so big my face hurts and my lungs feel ready to burst as I watch.

About the author:  Kelly Benson lives in Melbourne, Australia. She is a keen traveller both at home and abroad. She has spent time in over 30 countries with her most recent trip including a month in Iceland and a month in Sri Lanka.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

Inspired to go to Iceland now?  WSGT found these great travel books and travel accessories to help you along the way!

Lonely Planet Iceland:  The worlds #1 travel book for Iceland

Canon Powershot Camera:  The world’s leading brand and a great introductory camera perfect for beginner photographers.

Travel stories for inspiration:  A great book comprised of stories of travel

 

DCIM100MEDIAThe van from Reykjavik barrels through countryside best described as English moors meet the moon. Mossy volcanic rocks jut from the ground at one bend, yet around the next turn lie rolling green hills and snow-capped peaks. The sun is only just inching above the horizon, even though it’s past 10 a.m.

So far I’ve loved my midwinter visit to the harsh land of Vikings – that is, until our driver reminds us that the water we’re about to swim in is 2 degrees Celsius. Suddenly, I wonder if I should have gone to the Caribbean instead.

I am on my way to snorkel across the continental divide in Silfra, a glacial freshwater lake.

We park beside a cliff crowded with divers. “After the tour, you can jump from here,” our guide tells us, “Straight into a hot spring.”

“Really?” I ask. Heights aren’t my favorite, but hot water sounds much better than the almost-frozen lake.

Our guide laughs. “Kidding. Is freezing here too.”

Drat.
I follow my fellow intrepid adventurers to a mismatched pile of gear. Putting on our suits takes more time than the dive itself, which will only last 30 minutes (“any longer and you’ll freeze,” they reassure us). We squeeze into dry suits, which have tight seals at the wrists and neck to keep our clothes dry in the water. Cramming my head and thick curls into the three-inch wide neck hole takes several attempts and a strong-armed assist from the guide, but after a few contortions, I’m ready to go.

I strap on fins, mug for the camera, and splash face-first into the glacial lake.
My face and hands, outside of the dry suit, flood with ice water. Immediately, I think of all the other places I could be. Back in my comfy hotel in Reykjavik breakfasting on creamed herring (which tastes better than it sounds). Or down the street in one of the city’s many bookish cafes, curled up beside a roaring fire with a novel.
Too late now. So, like our guide instructed, I take a deep, slow breath and start to count. By the time I reach 10, I’ve forgotten all about the cold.
I am in another world.

Underwater, the rocks appear red at the surface, fading to light brown and murky blue farther down. Through fissures and sun-spiked caverns, I catch glimpses of the distant sandy lakebed. Yellow February sunbeams pierce the waves ahead.

To my left is Eurasia. On my right, America. Below me, a 25-meter trench, which appears so deceptively close that I am sure I can touch the bottom with my fin. A little water leaks through my numb lips into my snorkel, and I sip it. Delicious. Bottled “glacial” water has nothing on this. This is the real flavor of glaciers – almost tasteless, yet instantly refreshing.

Visibility here is 150 meters, or 500 feet. To put that into perspective, if you scuba dive on a reef in the Caribbean, you’ll usually be able to see around 300 feet in any direction. “Crystal clear” takes on whole new meaning in Silfra.

Our guide told us earlier that we’d forget about the temperature once our trip began. I’d chalked that up to the misguided opinion of a crazy Viking, but he’s right. As I hang suspended, I forget everything except the beauty of this place, mesmerized by the maze-life caves beneath me. Occasionally, when I remember I have a camera strapped to my arm, I wake up to snap a photo.

Thirty minutes pass in the blink of an eye. Before I know it, we’ve paddled all the way across the circuitous trench to “the lagoon,” a shallow green pond at the end of our journey. Other swimmers yank off their gloves and hoods, eager to hurry back to our warm van and the hot cocoa that awaits us. But when our instructor heads for thecliff-diving spot, a few of us join him instead. I find myself right back at the edge of the freezing water I just escaped.

Hot chocolate can wait.

“One at a time,” he says, “And don’t look down.”

He leaps gracefully, landing feet-first with no splash. When he pops back to the surface, we line up on the cliff. I’m last. Plenty of time to watch the other divers take running leaps, or tiptoe off the edge, or in some cases panic and give up.

Finally, my turn comes. I inch to the edge. Don’t look down. Of course, I immediately do.

Yikes. That’s high.

But hey, when in Reykjavik, right? I throw out my arms and jump. An instant later, the water hits me, rushing up my nose and into my eyes.
I surface, grinning like a crazy person. “Can I go again?”
Vikings, eat your hearts out.

About the Author:  Ellen Goodlett’s mission is to travel to the most otherworldly places she can find on this planet, since trips to Mars aren’t yet feasible. She writes both nonfiction articles and science fiction novels inspired by her adventures. When she isn’t jetsetting, she lives in New York City with a stereotypical amount of cats.

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Glacier icelandAnd I have something to expiate;

A pettiness.
(D.H. Lawrence: Snake)

Often what we regret is being small-minded – trying to show the other person that we are right, better or best. That simply doesn’t work in Iceland provided you look up from your own path at what is all around you.

Iceland is one of only eight places on earth where the Mid-Atlantic Rift rises above the ocean – by far the biggest and most dramatic of these emergences. It also hosts visibly the collision of the American and European tectonic plates.

Stand at the ancient Althing (Law Rock, site of Iceland’s Parliament from 930 to 1799): at your back is America, towering in a sky-high rock wall marching to each horizon. In front of you is the bridge to Europe across a bottomless rift filled with the clearest water there is. This is the meeting of the Old and New Worlds: Chaucer meets Steinbeck, Bach meets Aaron Copeland, Marc Chagall meets Walt Disney. No room for small-mindedness.

As Iceland is volcanic, eruptions happen regularly and spectacularly. In April 2010, the massive ash cloud above Eyjafjatlajökull captured the world’s attention and caused thousands of flights to be cancelled. Travel further along the coast road and you will cross a three mile bridge over a lava spill which advanced like Sherman’s army, flattening all in its path. The twisted remains of a strong iron girder testify to its strength, as if a troll toddler had screwed up a grey crumpled paper napkin. An active lava flow just keeps on coming, even if you spray it with tons of seawater from a high-pressure hose borrowed from the US Marines, as they did in 1973 on Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands off the south coast, in an attempt to stop the advancing lava from closing the entrance to the island’s only harbour. In this case, the lava did stop in time and the island habitation was saved.

Vatnajökull (Glacier of Rivers) can be seen from afar. 8100 square kilometres in area and 3100 cubic kilometres, it is the largest icecap in Europe by volume. Smaller glaciers ooze off the top like icing dripping down the sides of a cake. But they are not sweet and delicious. Their menace lies in their unpredictable surfaces, their hidden crevasses, their jagged edges – and their deceptive size, dwarfing those who attempt a glacial walk. A sign erected by families and friends commemorates Mathias Hinz and Thomas Grundt from Germany, “Missing since 01.08.2007, Svinafellsjökull”.

The isolated road makes it way round to Jökullsarion, a glacial lagoon filled with floating icebergs: blue, white and black castles seem to jostle each other in the icy water. Some rear up in monstrous, frozen ecstasy, while others slumber dreamily, their quiet threat hidden below the flat surface. Carpe diem: these are miniatures of the Titanic’s nemesis, so marvel at this grandeur before you yourself hit an iceberg.

Wise use of time can mean relaxing in the moment, connecting with creation in its immensity and its variety. There is no need consciously to put yourself aside: Iceland will do that for you automatically. The influence of this scenic majesty lasts long after you have left the packed Keflavik airport departure hall with its blaring announcements and stuffy, person-tainted air. It outlives the journey, the homecoming, the welcome: “How was your holiday?” and the uncomprehending stares when you try to describe the earth’s forge in overworked phrases such as “amazing”, “awesome” and “seriously stunning”.

A visit to Iceland is an incomparable way to spend time wisely. The demons of everyday living and the nice people that surround you are simply irrelevant when you step into that other dimension governed by the greatest forces on this planet. You have provided for yourself, forever, a private powerhouse of energy, available to you at any time, a universe-sized antidote to the petty, the banal, the boringly mundane, and hurtful gossip. Just as a lava flow proceeds slowly but unstoppably, wiping out unwanted clashes and demands, so spending time in Iceland flattens everyday tensions and conflicts, rolling out majestic evidence of how our planet was formed in the beginning, and how it is sustained even through the ages of ages.

About the Author: After enjoying a career as a high school English teacher, I entered the world of publishing. I regularly write chapters of school textbooks, and I co-edited and wrote chapters of St George’s Cathedral: Heritage and Witness, published in November 2012. An inveterate traveller in nearly thirty countries, I remember especially vividly Malawi, Russia, Australia, Scotland and Iceland. Find me on facebook at Judith Gordon.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

icelandI recently took a trip to Iceland – my first to that country. It was also my first solo traveling venture, as all my previous trips had me visiting friends. I was alone in a foreign country; and with that came all the liberation and all the fear of being totally on my own.

The entire trip had me filled with gratitude. Everyone who had supported me, financially or through simple encouragement; my travel-veteran friends who gave me tips about what to do and not do in Iceland. The family with the cozy apartment who had a room to let. The shop owners who answered my questions, the cafe workers who patiently waited while I counted out my money. These are the people who made Iceland for me.

Being a solo traveler, I was accustomed to being alone in the city, alone among people as I visited shops and museums. Alone in the crowd I was able to absorb the feel of the city. Reykjavik was friendly to loners. But then one day I journeyed out of the city and into the lava.

The map told me that I was in the middle of the lava fields of the Reykjanes peninsula. But really I was in the middle of an ancient ocean, under more sky than I had ever seen. The mountains in the distance, so far away, looked like another country.

Out here, my aloneness was nothing akin to loneliness. This barren plain of black rock was alive with every color. Moss and wild grass and scrubby little bushes all covered in berries. The thrill of seeing a wilderness like this enveloped me like the unceasing wind.

Gravel paths showed me that I was not the only one who came out here to take joy in this wild aloneness. Lava rocks ground to a powder crunched as I walked, louder than the wind. I wanted to walk forever, to follow the dark line made by bicycle tires in the gravel, and see where it took me.

I was filled with awe to be so alone. Filled with awe to be surrounded by so much life. Everyone who had walked these trails before me, from the first Viking boots to the bicycle tires of the man yesterday – they were all my companions.

Iceland, the land of contrasts. The land of fire and ice, to be sure, but also a land of modern cities and unspoiled nature. The restaurants and shops and historic buildings of Reykjavik can entertain, inspire, and not leave you lonely.

I would tell you to go to the lava fields of Iceland if you want to be alone. And in the lava fields you will find that you are not alone after all. With the history beneath your feet and the future in the sky and all around, you’re never alone.

About the Author: Grace Robinson is a writer of fantasy, and a fan of arctic places, world music, mythology, and linguistics. She is a world traveler and author hopeful. Grace currently lives in Virginia with two rabbits and a lot of books. Find more on her blog.

“It’s like we’re driving to the moon.”

Despite their utter impossibility, my partner’s words almost seemed true. As I looked out the window of our rental car at the vast expanse of dark lava-encrusted valley stretching out around us, I felt the weightlessness of space around me. I had never seen earth like this before. It wasn’t just the expansiveness of it all; it was the contrast of land laid black by heat buttressed against the interminable rise of white ice. Yes, as far as I could tell, Iceland could have been the moon.

For my partner and I, the trip to Iceland was something between one small step and one giant leap in the course of our life together. To some extent, we had always been travelers of a sort, regularly wandering beyond the edges of what was familiar to us geographically or culturally. However, in the months prior to our trip, we had become mired in the details of our daily lives; the ceaseless minutiae of our days had gained weight with unexpected sorrows and losses, keeping us bound in one place like quicksand. Our limbs were heavy as we perused the shelves of our favorite travel bookstore one late winter morning, gliding our fingers gently along the spines of those little tomes of possibility until they landed in unison somewhere amidst the I’s.

“Why not?” We asked ourselves.

And that is how we ended up driving to the moon.

We drove until we reached the edge of the Skaftafell National Park, a popular destination for travelers during the high season that seemed almost desolate at the time of our late May arrival. Located in the southeastern part of the country, the national park draws many who wish to hike up to and along the edges of icecaps formed some 2,500 years ago. My partner and I gamely set out to join that club, strapping our backpacks on our backs and beginning our ascent.

In the earliest part of our climb, we passed a small handful of fellow hikers. We joined another couple in dipping our toes in the ice cold glacier water spilling over the basalt organ pipes of the Svartifoss Waterfall and ate lunch under the unseasonably warm sun, surrounded by the playful laughter of kids chasing one another through the rocky ravine at the base of the waterfall. As we continued on our hike, the minutes between passing other people stretched out longer and longer, until there were no more sounds of the distant chatter and upcoming footsteps of passersby, and we were acutely aware that we were alone.

The soft green grass that had been worn into a marked path had long given way to hardened terrain that peeked out beneath large swaths of snow. A heavy mist lay over us, casting a light and refreshing chill upon our bodies as we walked. Our legs burned with our efforts, so unaccustomed had we become to trekking long distances. We didn’t even know how long we had been walking; there are no hours in a day where the sun never sets.

As I sat on the jagged landscape, resting my legs while looking out over the edge of a rocky peak on to the grey ice-coated glacier below, I felt wholly consumed by the vast and surrounding stillness.

There is incredible freedom in a moment of pure quiet; the calm before life springs back into action and anything is possible.

My partner and I looked at one another with the contentment of shared understanding in a moment. We felt the weight of our known life begin to lift from our shoulders. The zero-gravity of the unknown filled us as we began our descent back to our car with newly lightened steps guiding us through the snow and mist back to our terra firma.

Later that evening, as my partner and I we filled our new found weightlessness full of langoustine and beer at a local eatery, we languished in the excited expectation of what lay ahead of us.

“Where shall we go next?” He asked.

“Everywhere.”

About the Author: Toni Trapani is mother, partner, law nerd, sometime traveler, everyday armchair traveler, and someday writer. She tries to stay connected to the world in 140 characters or less at twitter.

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Lake and Rock Formations

Iceland is one of those places where it is hard not to come over all transcendentalist. You have an inspirational landscape like nothing on this earth; from remote farmhouses set in lupine fields, to volcanic craters, glaciers, ice-blue hotsprings, black beaches and sand deserts, and to a decidedly urban bustle in Reykjavik, all rubbing along as comfortably as such disparate elements can. It’s location on a continental rift means that the earth is very much alive and in motion. Icelanders are suitably proud of their untamed environs and will encourage you to go and be awed by Mother Nature.

The best way to do this is by car. At Hertz, we acquired an eco-friendly Renault and GPS, whom we swiftly named Juniper and Wesley. Wesley helped us navigate the otherwise incomprehensible Icelandic signage in an officious and supercilious british accent and Juniper reliably chugged along. Since what we were doing was not particularly intensive (ie: we pretty much stayed on the Ring Road) Juniper was great, but for the more adventurous summer traveller I would recommend a lucked out Jeep with some scary tires. A huge bulk of Iceland’s roads are unpaved, either they are gravel roads or ‘off-road’. If you have ever had cliché dreams about you, an open road and no one around for miles, Iceland is the country for you. I personally appreciated the eclectic late 90’s music selection on the one radio station that seemed to work 91.7FM. We split our car trekking into three days, one SouthEast to cover the Golden Circle, one SouthWest to Snaefellsnes, and one west to the Blue Lagoon.

the Ring Road

The Golden Circle is the most commonly covered tourist route in the country. It is comprised of Þingvellir National Park (pronounced Thing-Vet-Lhir), the Gullfoss, and the geysirs of Haukadlar valley. The first thing we noticed at Þingvellir was the fish-scale blue of the lake at the entrance to the park. The lake is surrounded by a volcanic field filled with strange rock piles. I am not certain if they are natural or manmade but they look like little fey houses. Further on is the rift valley of the mid-Atlantic plate with its basalt cliffs and the site of Iceland’s first parliament and correspondingly the countries first UNESCO site. It was frigid so we bolted like maniacs through the rift snapping as many pictures as possible in between the guest centre and the car. Wesley then led us to the Geysirs and the nicest vistor’s centre I have ever been too where we stopped for a lite touristy lunch and to try on some Viking hats in the gift shop. The geysirs were pretty active, a constant reminder of the natural turbulence Iceland faces. Our last stop for the day was the Gullfoss which was the one I was most excited to see, mostly because I love the mist that hides rainbows in waterfalls. I was not disappointed with the view complete with rainbow and ice shards. I felt like Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer’ all day.

Lake and Rock Formations

 

 

 

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at the Grey Cat

Reykjavik: Literary Cultures

Certain things strike you when you are in a city for the first time. In Reykjavik, I was struck by the amount of books. I found it unusual for such a small linguistic area. It wasn’t simply that there were bookstores (albeit an increasing rarity in some places), but there were also books in every café, restaurant and bar; neatly stacked on shelves, on table-tops, crammed into nooks and crannies. Our favourite brunch place, the Grey Cat on Hverfisgata was practically bursting with books of every kind. The flea-market was dominated by books. Even more unusually they were in Icelandic and not just native texts: Dickens, Harry Potter, every New York Times bestseller, you name it and it was there. Among non-anglophone cities I cannot think of another that has such a predominance of literature, even Paris eschews translations in favour of their native writers. Primary research on the topic revealed the Reykjavik is in fact the only non-english UNESCO City of Literature (http://bokmenntaborgin.is/en/). My question then became why?

at the Grey Cat

My first thought on the matter was with ¾ of the year spent in cold darkness story telling would be a good way to bid time away. Moreover, genetics studies in Iceland have revealed that a significant percentage of mitochondrial DNA is Celtic in origin, and everyone knows the Irish weave a good yarn. The Vikings themselves (which constitute a significant proportion of Y-chromosome DNA in Iceland’s populations) have a rich and imaginative mythology. Perhaps it’s a genetically ingrained disposition to story-telling that has left its mark on the population. That still does not explain the physical literature culture. Book making in Iceland dates to around 1,000 CE and the Culture House in Reykjavik has some of the best-preserved examples from this period, notably the Eddas and Sagas. Manuscript production in the period was rampant in Europe following waves of Christianization. These tomes were generally commissioned by aristocratic patrons that favoured Latin. Unusually Iceland has a low production of Latin manuscripts but a high production of vernacular Icelandic manuscripts. The National Museum puts forth this theory. Iceland was a backwater to the Norse empire, but it was stable and comprised of wealthy farmers. As non-aristocrats it is unlikely that these farmers would be versed in Latin, yet they could well afford to patronize manuscript production. What good is a book that no one can read? One can hear them reason.

Icelandic Barnes and Nobles