Iceland Made Me Feel Very Alive

I’m posting this piece retrospectively, a few months after writing my reflections on a ten-week trip to Iceland. No, we did not visit Eyjafjallajokull, though there was a time when I would have felt comfortable attempting to pronounce it.

Some places pull me in with some kind of emotional heart-connection, making me feel like they are a part of my soul and I need to live there for some period of time. Brazil did that for sure. I didn’t feel that way about Iceland, but I felt bowled over by it and intellectually it made me take attention. It’s a mystery wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a beautiful isolation. Iceland also has a way of making you feel very alive.

My friend Y. from Greece (but who lives in Berlin) and I met in Reykjavik for ten days in November 2009. We spent ten days exploring Reykjavik and the South Coast of Iceland, touring moss-covered lava, waterfalls, geysirs, and other otherworldly terrain and meeting as many Icelanders as we could. The idea was rather spontaneous. I proposed the trip to him over an email after finding an exceedingly cheap flight form Boston ($400 r/t), and I was shocked when he said yes. He travels often to places like Odessa and Edinburgh and has five weeks of vacation, so I suppose it’s not too shocking for a young European to make travel plans on the fly.

Y and I met at a couchsurfing weekly meetup in San Francisco a year before when  Y. was discovering the West Coast. We stayed in touch with an epistolary relationship about books—he was really interested in the Mormons and I had suggested Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven, a nonfiction thriller that also tells the history of the Mormon religion. So the trip was really a risk. We hardly knew each other but had IM’ed extensively and I just had a good feeling about him–a good egg.

So why Iceland? People ask that question invariably about any country. There are so many to choose from.

I’ve wanted to go to Iceland since my book group read a best-selling book The Geography of Bliss. The book is a combination travelogue-philosophical  investigation into what makes us happy, as the author, Eric Weiner, an NPR correspondent who spent many years covering war-torn countries, travels to Switzerland, Thailand, Bhutan, India, the Netherlands, and Moldova. The book is Weiner’s search for the happiest and unhappiest places in the world (for example, he finds Moldova miserable due to lack of any kind of national identity or sense of community.)

Iceland has repeatedly ranked as one of the happiest places in the world. Weiner theorizes that Icelanders are happy not in spite of their isolation and extreme weather, but because of it. Cold weather draws people together and makes adventurers out of them. Icelanders, per Weiner, derive happiness even from their language. Very few Icelandic words are recognizable— Icelanders don’t absorb English words into their vocabulary like the French or Germans or most languages do. They make them up on their own.  I learned, while I was there, that this was absolutely true. The Icelandic language is amazingly inscrutable to our eyes, hilarious to pronounce, but they are creative about coming up with their own words. And proud of it. For example, they don’t say computer. They have an Icelandic word for computer that is a compound, “numbers” and “future.”

Weiner also writes that Icelanders are exceedingly creative, and credits their creativity with a willingness to fail and reinvent themselves. A failure doesn’t necessarily need to be part of a success narrative, like in America, where we love to hear about all the rejections and disasters before the best-selling novel or IPO. Failure can be celebrated on its own terms because it means you tried something. How fascinating, I thought. That sounded like an ideal and liberating way to be creative. Weiner  called Iceland a nation of reinventers where people recreate  themselves with multiple careers, degrees, and artistic projects.

So I wanted to find out if Icelanders really were that happy and whether it seemed as creative as Weiner made Iceland out to be. And in the back of my mind, whenever I travel, I am wondering, How would I like to live here? However likely or unlikely that outcome may be. I asked most people we met if they agreed with Weiner’s theories and most of them said, Yes, that sounds about right. Reiner, a government employee we met one night in our hotel in Vik, a town of 350, was there to set up a weather station. He agreed that Icelanders have an entrepreneurial spirit. I told him Weiner’s theory about Icelandic embrace of failure, he said, “Yah, that sounds about right,” and he related it to what he called the large Icelandic ego. “With so few people, he said, you just go out there and do it yourself.”

Icelanders are not all that chatty. For example, it is not Brazil, where I meet people all the time, cab drivers or people standing next to me at a juice bar. I had at length conversations with three Icelanders: Elfa and Olafur, whom we met through couchsurfing.org and went out with on two nights, and Reiner. All of them bowled me over with their intelligence and knowledge.  I got the feeling that a nation with so much space breeds a feeling of distance too,  or  just, a don’t bother me feeling.

Iceland in November was bracingly cold but not too cold, and we had six hours of sun a day, from 10 am until 4 pm. The sun rose late enough to make us feel like we had been transplanted to a new reality but not so late we couldn’t do anything, although we did have to race against the clock on our road trip. December would be a different story when there are only four hours of sunlight a day.

A slide that lights up like a disco when you slide through it

Traveling in Iceland does make you feel like a bit of a Viking, in that you do have to be a little tough. It’s quite invigorating. I loved discovering their municipal pools. There are 170 hot outdoor pools and hot pots (jacuzzi-like things) fueled by geothermal water where people  gather to relax and socialize, even in the dead of winter. One pool we visited had a fanciful slide that light sup like a disco when you slide through it. How awesome is that, the government sponsoring disco water slides? Tiptoeing around in your bathing suit in -5C weather and then sinking into a 40 degree hot pot is an experience to be remembered.  Such invigoration.  Icelanders have a longer life span than most countries and some people credit the health benefits of their water.

I did see many bright-eyed women and men in their seventies and eighties at the pools as well as people in their teens and twenties.

Taking a shower in Iceland was a marvel to me. The hot water had a sulfur smell which was less than desirable, but you can theoretically take as long a shower as you like–the supply of hot water there is natural and endless. The water is set on a dial in the shower where you can select an exact temperature. I’ve talked with other Scandinavians who didn’t find this so unique, but to me, this was very cool!

During my ten days in Iceland, my mind was constantly trying to reconcile the tiny population with the amount of culture, media, and infrastructure to show for themselves. Only 300,000 people lived on this large landmass in the North Atlantic, and two-thirds are clustered in the Reykjavik area.

How could so few people have created what such a beautiful and smart society? Iceland’s higher education is almost free and there are seven universities in a country of 300,000—a truly astonishing ratio. Some say Iceland is the most literate nation on earth; it publishes more books per capita than any other nation.

Books are advertised on television during the Christmas season–I gasped one night when we were watching TV on a stormy night in the countryside and book after book ad came on TV in between American series.

Iceland values lifelong learning. We took a “free” bike tour through Reykjavik one frigid morning.  The free part is a trend in Europe. The idea is that you tip at the end what you think the tour was worth. Our bike tour guide leader has earned seven degrees, a mix of bachelors and masters. He told us the average age at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik is 40. That was always my fantasy, really, that college would be spread out over a lifetime, and not just concentrated in four years for 18-22 year olds who are really just there as a waystation between high school and self-sufficient adulthood. There is no tuition  for Icelanders—just an administration fee of $300 a year. And this in the country where the government went bankrupt last year? From my American eyes, things don’t seem so bad.

And now, in no particular order, here are some of my favorite things from ten days in Iceland:

Swimming pools everywhere!

Laugardagur swimming pool: the largest public swimming pool in Iceland. Not only does the complex include four hot pots with ascending temperatures, sauna, steam bath, and very affordable massage ($60 for an hour), there’s a completely awesome waterslide that lights up with colored lights when a kid (or an adult) swooshes through it. I love the fact that waterslides could be publicly sponsored.

Seafood kabobs at the Sea Baron. We stumbled on the Sea Baron one afternoon after missing our bus stop in Reykjavik’s City Center. The Sea Baron is a small, casual, quirkily decorated seaside restaurant famous for its lobster soup, and its kebabs of familiar catch: cod and scallops, and, more exotic to foreign eyes, mink whale. (Side note: according to our bicycle tour guide Stefan, the 50% of Icelanders who are opposed to serving whale are not opposed for moral reasons, but because they fear serving it will alienate environmentally-conscious tourists. Eating whale is part of the Icelandic tradition.) The food is served on Styrofoam and customers sit at short benches on stools. The décor is not for the squeamish, you must be comfortable with a stuffed seal hanging from the wall. We ate there twice and Y. even wanted to go back a third time.

Snowmobiling on a glacier

Snowmobiles!


A tourist booklet from Reykjavik Excursions intoned, “Do not leave Iceland without seeing a glacier.”

With that kind of marketing copy, how could we disobey?

The highlight and also the lowlight of the trip was snowmobiling on the glacier. Driving onto the glacier in a huge 4. X 4, swathed in a moon suit to protect the skin from all the elements., was a spellbinding experience. The white clouds met the white snow at the horizon,  and it really felt like we were on top of the world. The snow whipped diagonally across the earth. It was impossible to speak. Then we got out of the cars. It wasn’t so peaceful as we emerged into what must have been 75 mph winds and mounted our snowmobiles.

I drove since Y. doesn’t even drive a car. But that didn’t exactly work out. My hands were too cold, I was overwhelmed by the wind and elements. After ten minutes I tipped over our snowmobile by going too fast during a turn. It didn’t hurt me and I thought it was kind of fun for the worst possible thing to happen, but Yiannis got a little more trapped and he wanted to drive afterward. I was relieved. Great, take the wheel, all I could do was manage my iceblock hands! Snowmobiling was one of those uber-intense experiences. Not exactly what you would call pleasurable because it was so cold but stunning nonetheless.

The Blue Lagoon

The next day's excursion was warmer


The Blue Lagoon is the most famous tourist attraction in Iceland. Per Lonely Planet says, as Disney World is to the U.S. and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Blue Lagoon is to Iceland. But I would beg to differ, because the Blue Lagoon is actually a sensual experience. It is a tourist attraction that is actually a-w-e-s-o-m-e.

The Blue Lagoon is a huge geothermally heated spa made up of two-thirds sea water. Americans told me it would be amazing. Icelanders gave me looks of fatigue when they talked about it. Just for tourists, too expensive, and it ruins your hair for three days, they said. It costs 23 Euros, far more than a typical sauna, hot pot, swimming pool.

We saved the Blue Lagoon for our last day and didn’t expect much. It’s on the way to airport.

The locker rooms were super sleek and hi-tech, and the pools themselves are a wonder, with volcanic rocks rising up around the edges. The waters were milky white with silica mud in boxes that you could smear on your face. Supposedly it’s great for your skin. But the best part was the part of the pool where mud covered the floor. You could literally lie in this mud—and I’m not talking normal mud—it’s lighter and feels better on your skin. When lying in the mud, I have to take liberties and say it felt like my whole body was having sex my surroundings. The mud that felt good.

The downside of the Blue Lagoon: the waters did leave their mark on my hair. My hair turned into a small hay bale. Elfa told me her hair recovered after three days and I read the same thing on some Internet forums. My hair didn’t recover for a week, and in the end, I got a haircut to get rid of about an inch. The Blue Lagoon was worth it though—just once.

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