Iceland is called Iceland for a reason. 10% of the country consists of glaciers, and the other 90% is snowy volcanos with little regard for European air space. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, “Iceland is actually green land, and Greenland is ice land,” but don’t listen. They’re attempting to lure you to their country without sufficient winter wear so they can sell you very expensive coats.
In fact, Iceland’s entire publicity machine is geared toward making the country sound comfy/cozy, as opposed to freezing/oh-my-god-it’s-coldy. On Icelandair, the planes have cute names (“Grabók, the Friendly Volcano”), and the seats’ bibs announce “The most incredible thing about Iceland is…” and end in a variety of predicates, including “The prime minister is listed in the phone book” or “We have no army, navy, or air force [but don’t tell Germany].” Only when you land in Iceland and promptly lose all feeling in your toes, do you realize that something more perfidious may be afoot.
According to legend, Iceland was discovered by Ingolfur Arnarson in 871 AD when he tossed part of his chair into the North Atlantic Ocean and vowed to settle wherever it washed ashore. The fateful shore was Reykjavik, and settle he did. From its chair-based beginnings, however, Reykjavik has since grown to 200,000 people (200 kilopeople), which is two-thirds of the country’s total population. Consistent with its quaintness, the city has only 67 prison cells, so if you’re planning a crime spree, bring 68 friends, and you’ll be unstoppable.
I had but one companion, my friend Maggie, so while crime was not a possibility, we instead partook in more traditional Icelandic past times, such as people watching and hypothermia. Fortunately, the people are terrifically friendly! For instance, take our AirBNB host, Kyle, a yogi with a cockney accent and manifold abdominals (cf. Exhibit A). After meeting us at the Hallgrímskirkja Church (whose architecture merges the Chrysler Building with Reimann Sums), he welcomed us into his home with espresso, yogurt, and Cocoa Puffs. But despite his hospitality, Kyle was not originally from Iceland. How did we know, you ask? The telltale surname.
In Iceland, last names are generated programmatically and patronymically: take your father’s first name, tack on an “s” to make it possessive, and finally add “son” if you’re a boy or “dóttir” if you’re a girl. (My dad’s John, so I’d be “Greg Johnsson.”) Such a naming schema simplifies schoolyard insults considerably. For example, “Maggie, your father is a giraffe” becomes “Maggie Giraffesdóttir,” or “Greg, you’re a mama’s boy” becomes “Greg Bethsson.” However, since last names vary between immediate family members, the Icelandic phonebook is alphabetized by first name. So if Icelandic parents follow the example of the Yellow Pages, one expects to meet many children with names like “AAAAAAndrés.”
Like most spaces in Reykjavik, Kyle’s apartment was very small and efficiently used. So much so, in fact, that it resembled the Ikea version of Transformers: the couch became a bed became a workspace; the hallway mirror folded out to reveal cleaning supplies; the laundry basket collapsed into two-dimensions. But where the entire apartment was maybe 300 square feet, the bathroom was only 4 by 4. You might think it impossible to fit a functional bathroom into this space. And you would be right.
In Iceland, I hiked 40 miles; I scaled mountains in gale-force winds; I forded ice-cold rivers in my skivvies. My most difficult feat, however, was washing my face in Kyle’s bathroom. Given the limited space, the sink basin starts flush against the wall and protrudes just six inches. Above the sink is a medicine cabinet that’s four inches deep. Therefore, courtesy of math, you can fit only two inches of your face above the sink at any particular time. So to wash your face, you have to turn your head to the side, smoosh your cheek against the medicine cabinet, and splash water upward. Then you detach your face, turn the other cheek, and repeat the process. For a visual aid, imagine a pool party in a straightjacket.
With space at such a premium, museums in Reykjavik generally consist of one room, densely packed with exhibits. For the Saga Museum (“History Brought to Life!”), that room is inside an abandoned water tower that’s capped with a gigantic glass nipple. In one display, a Viking uses fire to forge some metal; in the next, he uses the metal to impale someone; in the next, he uses the fire to ignite someone else. Hence the Viking motto: waste not, want not, murder frequently.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum is also a one-room affair, whose mission is to “house the world's largest display of penises and penile parts.” Exhibits include cabinets full of whale penises (Moby dicks?) and appliances constructed therefrom, as well as a room dedicated to the adventures of an anthropomorphic penis named Elmo.
What Iceland lacks in space, it makes up for in natural resources. 85% of the country’s power comes from geothermal or hydroelectric sources (hot dam!), and geothermal energy is also used to heat the vast majority of Icelandic households. From a practical standpoint, this means when you take a shower or wash your hands, the hot water comes directly from a geothermal spring, rather than a water heater, so it smells of sulfur. And ultimately so will you.
These natural resources also fuel Iceland’s main tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon. From its humble origins as the waste water pool of a nearby power plant, the Blue Lagoon hit the big time in 1981 when people discovered that it could cure psoriasis. Since then, the site has blossomed into a full-fledged spa, and pilgrims journey from across the world to bathe in its palliative waters and order from its poolside bar. If the waters alone don’t suffice, the Lagoon also provides ladles that you might scoop its healing mud upon you. Or you can buy the mud in the gift shop, pre-ladled and packaged, for $80 a pop. It’s the perfect way to tell a friend, “I love you, and I think you have leprosy.”
Although Iceland and Icelanders live in such symbiosis, only 20% of the country is inhabitable. The other 80% consists of active volcanoes and treacherous glaciers, and it’s reachable only by foot, helicopter, or sheep. It was there, in that unforgiving, mutton-strewn wilderness, where Maggie and I would spend the majority of our trip.
Exhibit A: Our AirBNB host. Really.
Maggie and I in front of the Hallgrímskirkja Church. Not pictured: the Icelander who's mortified to be taking this photograph.