04.15.11: now it can be told {the official iceland recap}

101 in 1001 {II}: 001 visit iceland [completed 03.24.11]

a break in skyr-eating to survey airport sculpture

to the blue lagoon, cont'd.

the approach, cont'd.

blue lagoon, first full view

blue lagoon, i will be back for you

joe, a geothermal power plant

the sole JFK-to-keflavik flight lifts off each night at half past eight, touching down in iceland's snow-covered lava fields at just before half past six in the morning. if you're able to sleep for the five hours it takes to get across the atlantic, my hat's off to you; i had a vampire epic to read, northern lights to very nearly see, an indie band to try to identify,* and brennivin to drink,** so joe and i staggered out of the baggage area with a day and a half of wakefulness under our belts. i addressed this by wandering between a little cafe in the terminal (for strong coffee and skyr, stupendous icelandic yogurt which is to the thin, tasteless american stuff as crème fraîche is to tofu sour cream) and magnús tómasson's jet nest sculpture (in iceland jets hatch from eggs, of course). after three hours, the morning's first bus to the blue lagoon collected our remains from the cafe and shot us across the moonscape.

i realized, as cairns and rain swept past the windows, that i hadn't gone to iceland for any of the reasons i've been giving you for the past eight years; i went because i wanted to be awed. i wanted fine, baffling, alien things. seasoning our trip to the blue lagoon with sleep deprivation was probably overkill, but it worked like a charm. when i rejoined the morning on the lagoon deck, shivering and freshly traumatized by the nordic nudity i'd just left behind in the ladies' shower, i felt like a lucid dreamer. those pools deserve every bit of hype they get and then some; stepping into the blue lagoon, where your arm in front of your face is barely visible on a cold day, is a bit like walking out of your body.

you reenter it, of course; you stub your toes on the uneven silt beneath you, and you clench with giggles as grown men glide by you with faces full of geothermal mud (available in pots at the edges of the lagoon) like solemn slumber party crashers. you realize that just about everyone else is making out, for the blue lagoon is essentially a massive hot tub. you visit a craggy old steam cave unironically; you haunt the magnificent geothermal waterfall, where hot water pummels your back like a troll. (you refer to it that way: "i'm going to go back and get pummeled by a troll again.") you drink red wine, though your eyes keep crossing with fatigue and you're wearing a bathrobe and it's not yet eleven in the morning. you reach your swanky hotel looking a bit like a troll, as the minerals in your hair make it stand on end. you sleep the sleep of the dead.

boss house en route to the bus station

overpass stencil en route to the pearl

pond, cute homes, goose


joe, reykjavik, the bay

we returned to life at dusk, which could be the perfect time to meet reykjavik; it's a city of thoughtfully-executed rooftops, and the sky sixty-six degrees above the equator takes its sweet time darkening into night. the streets are full of bears. the restaurants are small, twee, and almost universally excellent; we had our first real meal at an unassuming fish and chips restaurant near the harbor that ornamented its walls with a few smooth stones on the mantel, tucked a collection of handmade toys in the corner for diners with children, and offered us gluten-free biscotti with moss (nearly all food is slow food in reykjavik; it's easier to produce most things than it is to ship them over from mainland europe or the americas). we had our last meal there a week later.

reykjavik is a city for walking, and we were on our feet and aimless for most of the week; we'd anchor each day with a goal or two (on friday it was to bring sketches to my tattoo artist and crawl all over the local street art; on saturday it was to recover from the night in with duty-free rum via icelandic nachos and to try to trick joe into eating fermented shark at kolaportið, the celebrated weekend flea market). the latter was my goal, not his, sadly. i found a surplus russian navy jumper for like 3500 krónur, though, and that's better than watching your husband throw up hákarl anyway. well, probably. i know you won't believe me when i say that the nachos were fine, but verily, they were; the local understanding of corn chips left something to be desired, but the peppers were appropriately bitchy (they grow 'em feisty in england, too; well done, countries with largely bland food!) and the cheese probably involved skyr. as we ate said nachos joe started to remark on how very cute reykjavik was; he was interrupted by the passage of two small hairy ponies below the restaurant window, led by mini-halters along the city center sidewalk.

on monday we decided to take a proper spin around the coast.

en route to mýrdalsjökull





mýrdalsjökull is the southernmost glacier in iceland, and its fourth largest (our guide was very interested in glacier rankings). the caldera beneath it, katla, last erupted in a magnificent way in 1918, which is why the land on the way to the solid ice is so lovecraftian (several ravens heckled us as our little band moved across the black rock; like bears, ravens were everywhere). the solid ice is receding quite rapidly, but that which remains is still formidable stuff; we clambered up its side, despite our guide's thin cries about crampons, and felt like ticks on the side of a massive sleeping thing. until we started to slip back down, that is, when we felt like americans who were going to disappear into mýrdalsjökull, "bing bang boom," as we'd been warned in a heavy lithuanian accent a few days earlier.*** mýrdalsjökull's glassy undersides wept effluent in little geode-caves all over the field.



black sand beach


from mýrdalsjökull we drove to vik and reynisfjara, a black sand beach beside reynisfjall. reynisfjall is iceland's version of northern ireland's giant's causeway, and reynisfjara is where i had my equivalent of joe's moment with the ponies at the icelandic mexican restaurant; as we pulled up to the beach, the sheepdogs at a farmstead a mile away spotted us and began leaping down the mountain. it was like a direct challenge to the antrim coast: "oh ireland, how charming it is that you have a finn mccool legend to pair with your good-looking hexagonal basalt rocks! snorri, RELEASE THE PUPPIES."


icelandic moss

iceland phones it in again




the missus behind a waterfall

there are treasures and gold buried behind skógarfoss, our first waterfall of the day, as we learned from þórður tómasson, the ninety-year-old proprietor of the nearby folk museum. as his young german co-curator explained, þórður opened the museum because local farmers kept giving him old heirlooms and tools, and he wanted to preserve the memory of how icelanders lived for most of their history. he also clearly enjoyed performing before a crowd: he plucked away at a mysterious two-stringed instrument and sang for us when we arrived, he pulled out what looked like a couple of massive tops and showed us how to spin both wool and horse hair, and he played us out of the museum with a thumping rendition of "auld lang syne" on a creaking organ. the turf houses were also þórður's turf, if you will, as were the mysterious tiny houses and jawbones on the hillside beyond skógar. no treasure behind seljalandsfoss (the second waterfall), alas, but we were able to hike behind it; as you can see, it's heartbreakingly unattractive.

the brave little farm pictured between the two waterfalls stands at the foot of eyjafjallajökull - that is, the volcano that stranded poor cara and nye when they were to come out to new york this time last year. i was prepared to take a long hike and rough it up on their behalf, but our guide disarmed me by wandering off to speak with a man on a tractor and coming back to explain that he'd just spoken with the farmer: "it so happens that he is hauling ass from the volcano right now!" (icelanders pronounce sh as a hard ss.) "this is four hundred pounds of ass he has here, and he has done this since the volcano started spewing ass in the eruption. if you come here and feel some of this in the bucket, it is some of the finest ass in iceland."

i'd like to say that we rounded out our survey of natural wonders by seeing the northern lights - they were, after all, what i'd been most excited about seeing - but the balmy march weather had no interest in our yens. on sunday the sky was full of clouds and the tour was called off; on monday night we rolled out with a coach full of pimply american coeds and spent three hours crisscrossing southwestern iceland, stopping every five minutes or so when the spotter "suspected auroral activity." we drank weird crowberry liqueur on the sly as christian rock limped out of the stereo and the coeds turned restless and rude, and when we were finally invited to climb out of the coach and squint at what had seemed like a faint smear of light before a wall of rain swooshed across the highway, we were already too late (and half of the tour got lost at the side of the road). weather forced a cancellation again on our last night; no northern lights, unless you count the smear. i was disappointed, but i've decided to regard the failure as a last gift from iceland; i'd known almost immediately that i'd want to come back, and now i have no choice. our favorite concierge at the hotel maintained that we should come back for new year's eve: "we go crazy for fireworks," she said. "we're broke, but what we have we spend on fireworks." it does me good to know that you're out there, iceland.

{full photo set here.}

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you heard fm belfast? would you recognize them on a plane?

02 what's your dream destination? why do you want to go there?

03 could i convince you to eat fermented shark?

04 do you trust ravens?

05 do you think prometheus's liver grew back every day because it was eaten by an eagle every day, or was he just some sort of daily liver generator?

06 giants v. puppies: who will win?

07 so you're the proprietor of a museum. what do you exhibit?

08 so what about the tattoo, huh? wait, no, that's a question you'd ask me. the tattoo gets its own post.

*the lanky icelandic guy and sweet-faced girl sharing the awkward bank of seats in front of the exit door with me were on their way home from sxsw, according to the performer passes on their bags; he spent most of the flight composing on his laptop and fielding assorted CDs ("brian eno and david byrne!") from an older manager type who kept visiting them from the swankier saga class section at the front of the plane. turns out they were fm belfast.

**brennivin, incidentally, is tasty stuff, if you're the sort of person who likes herbal spirits and doesn't mind giving flight attendants the impression you're an alcoholic.

***Our Lithuanian Friend was amazing; we met her in an artists' collective in a basement on laugavegur and were pinned for an hour as she explained how to prevent alzheimer's (memorizing poetry, picking up additional languages, and taking shark oil), how to approach glaciers (never without GPS), why celebrities love iceland (because everyone's too polite to try to talk to them, though they do call their friends on their mobiles: "guess who is at next table? HA-reeson ford! he is eating SAL-mon!"), and why joe should start taking shark oil. (he did.)

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