Iceland:  Land of Fire, Ice, and the $18 Toothbrush

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The Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, Iceland

Musings of a Viking/Wiking Wannabe

 I admit, most Americans don’t often think of Iceland as a vacation destination, but now that Iceland’s WOW Airline is servicing Cincinnati’s airport and advertising $99 tickets, I expect travel north, far north, will become more common.

Icelandic horses wear bangs.

Icelandic horses wear bangs

It seems, though, that it’s seasoned travelers who are motivated to go there.  In our Iceland Overseas Adventure Travel group,  all 16 were experienced travelers—in fact, so experienced, that Rick and I felt like we never get up off our couch.  Our compatriots had been to such far flung places as Morocco, Mongolia, Thailand, Tibet, Polynesia.

I am smiling because I have not yet tasted the shark. Sort of like sushi dipped in urine.

I am smiling because I have not yet tasted the shark. Sort of like sushi dipped in urine.

It takes very little to inspire Rick to travel, but I’m a harder sell.  I only agreed to go to Iceland because (1) two of our friends were going (2) it’s a two-hour flight to see our daughter in Norway, and (3) I wanted to put a push pin in a country at the top of our map.

Iceland was so much more interesting than I had imagined.  It is a cold place with warm people.  It has a diverse

A green and purple country--these purple flowers, lupine, were everywhere!

A green and purple country–these purple flowers, lupine, were everywhere!

landscape with deserts and beaches, geysers and glaciers.  As I reminisce about our tour, here are some thoughts that stand out.

You may not need a suitcase.

There is Celsius.  There is Fahrenheit.  There is Icelandic.  We did our research, really we did.  Multiple Internet resources assured us we could expect temperatures in the high forties and the low fifties.  So I packed a sweater, windbreaker, sweatshirt, sweater parka, poncho, gloves, long underwear, and umbrella.

This is how you dress for work if you are a lifeguard in Iceland.

This is how you dress for work if you are a lifeguard in Iceland.

What I didn’t understand was that the Icelandic wind and rain make 50 degrees feel like 10.  Every day I filled my backpack with outerwear to fit the weather forecast.  I soon ignored the forecast, knowing that rain and wind would probably be part of the day.  By the third day, I had transferred nearly everything from my suitcase bag to my backpack.  However, there were large parts of many days that were sunny and crisp.

Icelandic has ruffles.

This tiny population has its own language, and the people protect it fiercely protect it from English infiltration.

Our Viking Guides

Our Viking Guides

Because of this language purity, school children can read 14th century Icelandic text.

Apple even creates computer devices with Icelandic keyboards.  That said, every Icelander we met had excellent English.  Our guide could belt out an American song or reference a Seinfelt episode related to every occasion.  He joked in English, and had every American idiom in his linguistic toolbox.  (“I assure you, this will be an OMG moment,” he told us as he we drove to one of the many OMG attractions.)

I said to our guide, Beggie (left), “Icelandic sounds a little like Norwegian.”  He feigned offense at my ignorance.  He said that Norwegians don’t talk, they sing, that they have ski jumps in their sentences.  I had to admit he’s right about the Norwegian cadence which, to an American, sounds like every sentence is a question.

“If Norwegian has ski jumps, Icelandic has ruffles,” I retorted.  He looked puzzled, even as I pointed to the ruffles on my blouse.  You see, when Icelanders talk, every “r” in every word is trilled, as in, “rrrrrreally” and “trrrrrrue” and “therrrre.”

Why are there so few Icelanders?

There are only 340,000 Icelanders.  This is about the population of Cincinnati in a country twice the size of Ohio.

But life is not easy for Icelanders.  The interior of the country is uninhabitable desert.  It is difficult to grow crops, and much must be imported.

However, there is much to recommend Iceland.  The food is delicious, with a variety of delectable fresh fish, vegetables, and horse meat.  Yes, horse meat, which tastes like roast beef, not chicken.

Kids ride bikes and wander freely like American kids did in the 50s.

It is an incredibly clean country.  There is virtually no littering, and the electricity is produced with geothermal power.

The view of the pool outside my window, taken at midnight.

The view of the pool outside my window, taken at midnight.

And you would think their long winter nights (24 hours long) would fan the flames of Wiking passion.

So why so few Icelanders?  I have concluded that there two disincentives to procreation:

First, there’s the risk of unintentional incest.  ( If you live in the west side of Cincinnati, where everyone is related, I don’t need to explain this.) The largest city, Reyjkavic, has a good size population of 120,000, but the next five biggest cities are considerably smaller.  I know you’ll think I’m making this up,  but there is actually an Incest Prevention Icelanders use.  Our two guides demonstrated the “bump” feature of the app:  They literally bumped their phones to determine how they were related!  You bump before, you know, um, bump.

icelandair-hotel-akureyri (1)There is a second reason the population is so small..  In each of the beautiful hotels we stayed, there were always separate beds with separate duvets.  You could push them together to make a king size bed, but any conjugal chumminess . . .well, think of shifting tectonic plates

A thimbleful of water

Skjálfandafljót Foss (Waterfall)

Skjálfandafljót Foss (Waterfall)

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The water is literally spewing from the ground and tumbling off mountains.  Sadly, melting glaciers are flooding parts of the country.  And Iceland is an island, for heaven’s sake.

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And yet, there is only a thimbleful of water in the toilets.  To further conserve water, you must choose between a big flush or a little flush (which is not always a straightforward decision, right?)

Big flush or little flush?

Big flush or little flush?

 

And while we’re on the subject of bathrooms, it takes a wiking’s courage to bathe.  If there’s a bathtub, you have to lift your leg over a side that is hip high, but once you get in, it’s so narrow, you can’t figure out how to get out of the thing.

And what is with the half shower door?  I guess a wiking would think nothing of wet toilet paper.

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An $18 Toothbrush

I was clutching my $8 snack bag of Doritos in a convenience store when a woman in my travel group clutched my forearm and pulled me over to the aisle where she’d found an $18 toothbrush.  It was not Trump’s gold-plated toothbrush.  It was not electric.  It did not come with a little tube of toothpaste or a spool of floss.  It was just a tootbrush.

Our kids have lived in increasingly expensive cities:  Chicago, Washington D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Oslo. We’ve gotten accustomed to not-Cincinnati prices.  But Iceland takes the prize.

Our tour included all our lodging, transportation, and most meals, so I don’t know how much each thing cost.  When we booked the tour, the price tag shocked me.  How could this be?  But now I get it.

Eric the Red and Other Nice People

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We went to Eric the Red’s turf house, where we were told as many as 25 people would sleep, sitting up.  But there were comforts:  a roaring fire; fur blankets; a box of bones for the kiddies to play with.

My new Icelandic girlfriend

My new Icelandic girlfriend

My favorite experience in the 10 days of our tour was our meal in an Icelandic home.  Our hosts were a mom, her two children, and the son’s girlfriend.  They prepared a scrumptious dinner of roasted chicken, pureed vegetables, homemade ciabatta bread, and rhubarb cake with unsweetened whipped cream.

The family spoke, and joked in, impeccable English.  The father, who was not there, is a German teacher in the local school.  The mother, a dancer who has performed all over the world, told us she was old, “a dinosaur.”  The daughter was on break from her dance studies in Spain.  The son, a social worker, has a band, and his girlfriend, from Talinn, Estonia, is a metal artist.  The family had recently spent months studying music in Cuba.

Spending time with this family confirmed my belief based on years of travel experience:  People are more the same than different.  We love our kids, we take pride in our homes and our countries, we are curious about each other, and we want to live in peace.

And we’ll pay any price for a toothbrush if we need one.

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The One:  My Daughter’s Love Affair With a Viking

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9 Comments

  1. Once again you have painted a picture of your experience with your words, making it easy for me to imagine being there. My neice just recently took advantage of the cheap plane fares to Iceland…she enjoyed her time there.

  2. Someday, your great-grandchildren will read your columns, and think what a fabulous gal their great granny was–and they will be right!
    I love this piece. You are a wonderful travel writer, and if I were the editor of Travel & Leisure, I’d hire you and pay you to travel the world.

  3. Loved reading this Sandy. Fun AND informational. I want to go to Iceland now!

  4. Iceland, here I come….but only if you lead the way, Sandy! You made the place come alive.
    Wonderful piece…

  5. What a fascinating journey! I know an Icelandic man here in Cincinnati. He married an Irish American women and they have 3 children. I know the family because our children went to Seven Hills with them. Her has taken each child on a solo journey to Iceland when they reached a certain age (can’t remember which age). I remember meeting his brother, named Thor — the first Thor I’ve ever met!
    From reading your descriptions, we can all understand how Bjork came to be! It sounds like an almost mystical place.

  6. I love this, Sandy! Thanks for taking us along with you!!

  7. Well another reason for less procreation might be $18 toothbrushes, I’d have made my kids use theirs until it was small nubs of bristles and I can’t imagine feeding teenage boys with snacks costing $8 a bag. Great story Lingo, you always nail it.

  8. This gave me an interesting perspective of Iceland. It takes a hardy person to survive a 24 hour night. It was bad enough having an 17 hour night in England in winter.

  9. Loved reading this, Sandy. I can always hear your voice. So much I never knew and am happy to learn . Thank you.

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.

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