The Wilds of Iceland

RoadToward the end of our week in Reykjavik, we rented a car in order to do some exploration of the Icelandic countryside. The laid back, urban atmosphere of the city was pleasant enough that I could have enjoyably spent the entire visit in Reykjavik’s cafes, clubs, museums and restaurants; but it would have been a shame to miss out on the spectacular natural scenery for which the country is so well known. Our trip the first day would take us along The Golden Circle; a tourist route that loops eastwards from Reykjavik, leading travelers to a number of popular destinations, including þingvellir (the site of Iceland’s original parliament), Gullfoss (a spectacular waterfall), Geysir (the site of numerous – you guessed it – geysers), and Keri∂ (a volcanic crater).

When we arrived to pick up the car, I was surprised at its high cost. It was then that I was informed by the young man who helped us that in Iceland there is a 25% tax on just about everything. This is nothing compared to the income tax rate, which, he told me, runs between 40 and 50%! Nonetheless, Icelanders are well taken care of by the government, I was assured, as they all have full health coverage. Coupled with the low crime rate, the absence of pollution, and the uncrowded living conditions, this probably accounts for the fact that Icelanders are among the healthiest and longest lived people on the earth, with an average life expectancy of about 83 years.

After our very healthy attendant transferred the keys of a Ford subcompact rental car to us, we were off and headed toward our first stop.  The roads in Iceland are generally well maintained, though sometimes quite narrow, and there was little traffic to get in our way. There are speed cameras, however, and it was nice to have a GPS system that was able to warn us of the approach of such hazards. The car’s GPS navigating system did, however, keep leading us in false directions; something which quite possibly could have been the result of the Norse god Loki playing tricks on us. But by not slavishly listening to the machine, and by using common sense, we arrived at our first destination without too much delay.

pinveller cliffsþingvellir is a place that instantly inspires awe due both to its topography and its history. It is situated in a rift zone where the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates meet. There are rugged cliffs lining the valley, beneath which the world’s oldest parliament, the Alþing, first convened in 930AD. Waterfalls cascade over the rock walls, filling pools in which witches and other law breakers were once drowned for their offenses. Beheadings took place in other locations. Upon the Law Rock, the Law Speaker would recite the laws of the land from memory and others would make announcements, level charges, and raise issues of importance to the Icelandic people. Law RockStanding there now, one can imagine what this place might have looked like when it was crowded with thousands of people from across the island, gathered here for their yearly meeting, setting up a temporary village of tents and booths in which they would stay until departing home with news and legal updates. At one such meeting in the year 1000, hostility between the native pagans and Christians broke out, and the Alþing was split into two adversarial groups threatening to tear the nation apart. Oddly, the decision as to whether Iceland should remain pagan or become a Christian nation was left to the pagan Law Speaker who, after sequestering himself for one night, decided that the people should become Christians, but that pagans could still secretly practice their faith. This was one of the major turning points in Iceland’s history; but whether it was a turn toward progress or toward decline depends, I suppose, on one’s perspective.

GeyserWe spent an hour or so wandering the landscape of þingvellir before hitting the road, this time heading for Geysir. Loki was apparently still with us, as yet again the car’s GPS system kept insisting that we travel in the opposite direction that our map told us was correct. Ignoring the computer, we continued east and eventually arrived at our intended destination. The landscape at Geysir is a bit unsettling, as there is steam and bubbling liquid gushing out of the ground’s surface everywhere that you walk, making it feel as if the earth beneath your feet might just explode at any minute. And explode it does. Periodically, as we waited next to one of the especially large pools, an enormous blue dome would form on the water’s surface and – WHOOSH! – a jet of steam and water would shoot into the air, soaking some of the assembled tourists and simply delighting others. All of this, of course, is a symptom of the geothermal activity that is an ongoing part of Iceland’s evolving landscape, where new islands periodically emerge from nowhere and volcanoes like Eyjafjallajökull halt air travel all across Europe. Or maybe, as the vikings believed, the gods actually are at work behind the scenes, shaping this landscape according to their mighty wills.

GullfossOur next stop was the waterfall Gullfoss. Fed by a massive glacier in Iceland’s interior, the waters of Gullfoss thunder over the edges of two cliffs, creating a spectacular, ragged cascade of white chaos that spills into a deep river valley before rushing out of sight. Approaching the falls, my first impressions were formed by noting the tiny human silhouettes of onlookers appearing superimposed in front of the falls. Their bodies looked fearfully small and vulnerable; as if they might be swallowed up in a moment by the liquid maelstrom that thundered and crashed behind them. This was what Kant was referring to when he wrote about the experience of the sublime:

If we are to judge nature as sublime dynamically, we must present it as arousing fear…any resistance would in that case be utterly futile.

…consider bold, overhanging and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky and moving about accompanied by lightning and thunderclaps, volcanoes with all their destructive power, hurricanes with all the devestation they leave behind, the boundless ocean heaved up, the high waterfall of a mighty river, and so on. (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, §28)

Not just Gullfoss, but all of Iceland’s natural wonders are called to mind by this passage. It is a place of sublime wonder and fearful natural might.

KerioHeading back west, our final stop for the day was Keri∂, a volcanic crater lake. The singer Björk apparently performed a concert while floating on a raft here; an interesting and appropriately weird backdrop for her sort of music. We walked around the rim of the crater, which stands out against the surrounding landscape because of its deep red color. The rocks scattered around this place look just like the rocks people use to add a decorative touch to their yards and gardens back home. They are small, rust-colored and crunch under your feet like bits of hard styrofoam. And yet despite their delicate aesthetic appeal, they provide another reminder of the violent, fiery forces lurking beneath the surface of the land. Like some giant, angry asshole, Keri∂ is just one more place where Iceland’s liquid interior has spewed forth, drawing attention to the permeable nature of the ground on which we walk.

Our second day of car travel took us further south, along route 1 near the coast of the island. As we climbed over the volcanic mountains that separate Reykjavik from the lowlands of the south west, we were greeted by wide open areas of treeless plains where herds of sheep roam, and sometimes venture onto the roadways. Iceland was long ago deforested by the viking inhabitants who not only built their ships out of the native birch, but also their houses. As a result, the only thatches of tree cover that now exist are those that are part of a recent attempt at reforestation. These new forests are generally small and so organized that they are clearly the result of human intervention. An Icelandic riddle asks, “If you are lost in the woods of Iceland, how do find your way out?” The answer is: “Stand up.”

WaterfallWe passed through a variety of small villages on our hours-long journey across the wide open plains. Our destination was a place called Vik, and it turned out to be a much longer drive than anticipated. As another set of volcanic cliffs and mountains started to come into view, we took a break from our journey, pulling off of the main road and stopping at Seljandsfoss. Here we found a series of varying sized falls that cascade over the edge of the cliffs amid an emerald foreground of grasses and lush moss. I had to remind myself, as we stood beholding this picturesque scene, that we really were in a country called “Iceland” and not in the fantasy world of the Lord of the Rings!

Black Sand BeachOn the road again, we continued east climbing past a set of rugged volcanic peaks through which we could see the white and blue glow of an enormous glacier. There was something a bit scary about this sight. The fact that in broad daylight it stood out as if illuminated by its own power source, coupled with the understanding that we were only gaining a brief and fragmentary peek of something enormous yet mostly hidden sent a tingle up my spine and provoked a sense of dread, making me feel like I wanted to flee. Past this looming white presence we finally descended down into the town of Vik, where we parked and went for a short hike along its black sand beach.  The views out into the ocean from this location once again sent vaguely fearful shivers up my spine. Silhouettes of volcanic spires punctuate the horizon, jutting violently upwards like huge, jagged rock fangs. These menacing monoliths, I imaged, might be the remains of some sort of hidden lava rock monster, slain by the hammer wielding god Thor in an epic battle. This landscape, I realized, was starting to mess with my head. If I stayed here any longer, I just might become and Odinist.

ScogfossWe had 7pm reservations to go to The Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, and time was running short, so on our journey back west we made only one stop: Skogafoss, another waterfall. This one has an almost perfect shape, taking on the form of a large, wide and unbroken sheet of white that is an ideal backdrop for photographs. The falls flow into a rushing river, and the whole scene is framed by green cliffs that made me feel, once again, as if I was in the midst of a fantasy landscape. We lingered long enough to taste the cold waters of the Skógá River and commune with the earth sprites, who directed us westward, to our final Icelandic destination.

Blue LagoonThe Blue Lagoon is situated in the midst of a lava field near the airport where we first arrived a week before. The road leading to the spa is cut into the rock, and after parking, you approach the complex on foot, walking down a pathway lined by volcanic rock walls. Once you check in, you strip down, shower, and then enter the geothermal spring. The spring is nestled among the lava rocks, and although the waters are not treated with any chemicals, they nonetheless radiate a bright blue sheen that is a consequence of the minerals naturally flowing from the geothermal vents. The temperature of the water varies according to how close or how far you stand next to the various vents, ranging from 98 to 104 degrees. There is a sauna on one side of the spring, a bar on the other, and stations located all around where you can get facial treatments like mud and silicone masks. The place is crowded with people, mostly lounging, some splashing about. My wife and I found a comfortably cozy corner of the pool and spent the next hour and a half taking in the rejuvenating icelandic waters. Once my fingers were turned to prunes, we exited the waters, showered and then headed back to Reykjavik for lobster sandwiches.

Seeing the natural wonders of Iceland has helped me better appreciate why and how it is that the mythic tales of pagan gods might have first been generated and perpetuated. Standing next to a gargantuan, and still moving, rift in the earth, watching a boiling spout of water shoot into the sky, or seeing the white and wild chaos of waterfalls spawned from glacier melt, I felt chronically aware of how vulnerable I am, and how I am subject to forces beyond human control. Even today, the unstable geology of this island makes one feel very small and helpless. In the days of the vikings, when there was no science of plate tectonics or geological evolution, this land must have really felt as if was full of gods at war with one another. It still does.

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PCA in Reykjavik

icelander-flag-graphicMy first impressions of Iceland were not exactly what I anticipated they would be. Before arriving, I had heard about the awe-inspiring natural beauty of this land, and of the exciting atmosphere of its capital city, Reykjavik. However, on the bus ride from the airport to Reykjavik, I was not so much awe-struck as I was curiously mesmerized by the harsh and unfamiliar landscape that whizzed by outside of our windows.  It was captivating, but in a strange and barren sort of way. Nowhere were there the waterfalls or jagged cliffs that I had heard so much about. Instead, there was a vast expanse of what appeared to be hardened lava floes, cracked and bubbled up here and there like a poorly installed carpet of dark, undulating signrock. The Atlantic Ocean lapped at the edges of this landscape, pooling in ragged bays alongside the shoreline. There were small collections of dreary looking houses, gathered together in what I imagined were tiny fishing villages, and there was an incongruously situated golf course nestled in between the otherwise stark lava rocks. It looked like the surface of the moon, but with water, people and golf.

When the bus rolled into Reykjavik, we were greeted by block after block of grey concrete buildings that lined wide, nondescript roadways. It looked like a warehouse district except for the fact that there were major luxury hotels along the route. There were also old, decrepid tenement buildings of the sort common in the UK. Construction cranes hovered over these neighborhoods indicating that there was a great deal of new development going on. My first thought was, “What an ugly city.”

Graffiti

Articulate Icelandic graffito.

After checking into our hotel – The Grand Hotel, Reykjavik – we walked toward the downtown area. The walk took us along streets that were almost abandoned. There were very few people, very little traffic, and no visible businesses. There was a great deal of graffiti, but hardly any litter on the streets. I was beginning to wonder what all the hub-bub about Iceland was about until we hit Laugavegur street and entered the city center. Suddenly the place was bustling. There were bookstores, bars, restaurants and cafes. It was starting to feel like the vibrant place that I had heard people talking about. And indeed, over the course of the next eight days, I would come to really appreciate the charm and excitement of Reykjavik.

The occasion for our visit was to attend the 2015 international meeting of the Popular Culture Association. My wife and I were both making presentations on the results of our separate research projects from a previous PCA writer’s workshop that we had attended in New York City in 2013. The conference itself was to last only three days, but we were staying in Iceland for a week, intending to explore this exotic country famous for its waterfalls, puffins, volcanoes and viking heritage.

reykjavik view

Reykjavik as seen from the top of Hallgrímskirkja.

Iceland turns out to be different from any other place that I have visited, and this explains my initial feelings of disenchantment. There are no descriptions that can adequately prepare you to appreciated the country’s unique mix of the spectacular and the mundane; the high-minded and the weird. The total population of the country is somewhere around 300,000 people with a bit more than a third of them living in Reykjavik. Seven Reykjaviks could fit inside of one San Francisco, and so it is no wonder that the city feels sparsely Streetpopulated and far from hectic. It took me a while to get used to the laid back pace. Coupled with almost 24 hour sunlight, I felt as if we had forever to wander around and not worry too much about time. I hardly slept while we were there; not because we were rushing from place to place, but because night never forced us indoors. Instead we spent hours wandering about, looking at museums, eating, drinking, listening to bands and relaxing in geothermal hot springs. Despite my initial perplexed impressions, when we were getting ready to leave for home, I felt as if I was turning my back on paradise.

PrikidThe food we ate in Iceland was, for the most part, really good. We had a couple of early morning meals at a place called Prikid, which is supposed to be one of the oldest restaurants in Iceland. The atmosphere was very comfortable and laid back. Downstairs is a small, dark bar crowded with friendly hipsters, while up the steep and narrow staircase you enter into a dining area with windows overlooking the main street. Rap and rock music played in the background, and the wait staff were all very attentive and good humored. The first day we ate there, both my wife and I had “Truck,” which is a plate of eggs, pancakes, potatoes, bread and bacon. During our second visit I had “The Breakfast of Champions,” which consisted of eggs, bacon, camabert cheese, bread and a cup of skyr, the delicious Icelandic form of yogurt. While it was fairly sedate during the day, when we passed this same place later in the evening, loud rap music blared from the interior and a line of muscle-bound security guards monitored the entryway. These are the two faces of Reykjavik: calm and laid back by day, but loud and full of energy at night.

author

Einar Mar Gudmundsson speaking to the PCA.

Seafood was the main fare that we had for our dinners, including Icelandic cod at the Scandinavian Restaurant and Bar, Langostino at Mar, lobster sandwiches from a food truck called The Lobster Hut, and a delicious piece of salmon at Idno. This last dinner was hosted by the conference organizers, bringing together all attendees to socialize and to hear a hilarious talk by Einar Már Gudmundsson, the Icelandic novelist and essayist who wrote Angels of the Universe. All in all, I had no complaints about Icelandic food, though I did not try the boiled puffin or the mink whale, two controversial dishes that apparently are more popular among tourists than locals.

The night life in Reykjavik is very energetic, with the streets, bars and clubs becoming packed with revelers by around 10 or 11 pm. Beer, which was banned until 1989, is very expensive, costing about 9 or 10 dollars a bottle, so it is apparently the Icelandic custom for people to do most of their drinking at home before going out on the town. When they do hit the streets, they are well lubricated and ready for a good time.

Bar11

Inside Bar 11.

Thinking that there was going to be an experimental music performance on the Thursday after our arrival, my wife and I wandered over to Bar 11, a place that would feel familiar to anyone who frequents punk rock or biker bars like the Zeitgeist in San Francisco. The interior walls are all painted black and adorned with pictures of skulls and coffins. The bartenders are all bald men with plenty of tattoos, who nevertheless are friendly and welcoming. When we arrived and asked about the night’s performance, we were informed that it was not experimental music that was on the schedule, but experimental stand-up comedy! I’m not sure how I got those two things mixed up. Maybe because I had (and still have) no idea what constitutes experimental stand-up comedy. As it turns out, the show was in Icelandic, and so neither my wife or I could understand what everyone else was laughing about. Retreating upstairs to a dark corner of the bar and sitting beneath a poster adorned with skulls, we passed the evening talking and listening to a looping tape of songs by X-ray Specs, The Adverts, and other classic punk rock bands. At around 1am in the morning, we wandered out of the bar and made our way along the waterfront back to our hotel. At that time in the morning, it looked like dawn was about to break, and once I fell asleep, it did.

show

Goth Girls Don’t Give a Fuck at Dillon.

The following Saturday we spent the evening at a bar called Dillon, where we watched three tremendous synth/goth/punk bands perform. The advertised name of the show was Goth Girls Don’t Give a Fuck and it was held in conjunction with Slutwalk, a global event held to protest the idiotic comments of Toronto’s police chief who made a public statement saying that if women didn’t want to be raped, then they shouldn’t dress like sluts. The bands on the bill this night were Antimony, Kælan Mikla, and Börn. Crowded into a tiny, upstairs performance space, the audience gathered around, many of us standing on chairs and grasping onto the rafters in an attempt to catch glimpses of the performers. The onlookers were young and old; there were plenty of tattooed 20 somethings in spiked leather jackets as well as aging, middle-aged punks, some still sporting mohawks and dressed in ripped up clothes. There were also men and women who looked like jocks and business people. It was an interesting mix with no “sluts” in visible attendance! Neither was there any thrashing or slam dancing, although a young woman did fall face first onto the floor after losing her grip on an overhead beam. While all of the music was great, it was Börn that really stole the show. Their energy and emotion were invigorating, even if I couldn’t understand the lyrics. They reminded me of early Siouxie and the Banshees, with the lead singer’s lilting screams and shrieks evoking a feeling of spooky mournfulness and angry outrage.  They are now my favorite Icelandic band!

viking

A Viking takes on a polar bear at the Saga Museum.

In addition to the nightlife, Reykjavik has a tremendous number of museums and art galleries. We attended a wine and cheese conference reception at the Asmundar Sveinssonar Sculpture Museum, we visited the silly, but educational and fun, Icelandic Saga Museum, and we spent almost an entire morning at the National Museum and the National Art Gallery.

 

 

Elephant Dick

An elephant penis on display at the Icelandic Phallological Museum.

But by far the most memorable – because the most bizzare – museum that we visited was The Icelandic Phallological Museum, which boasts the largest collection of animal penises in the world! We chanced upon this oddity while walking down Laugavegur street and were especially amused by the fact that it is situated next to a store selling bacon wrapped hot dogs. Now that’s cross marketing! The museum is filled with preserved specimens of enormous whale dicks as well as tiny hamster and mouse dicks. There are jars of bear cocks, seal pricks, dolphin dongs, and horse wieners. There is even an elephant shlong that puts most of the other stuff to shame!  And while there are partial specimens of human genitalia, the museum is still awaiting the donation of complete human penises from a number of donors, some of whom have promised to hand over the goods before they actually die! What some people won’t do for attention. There is even a movie that has been made, titled The Final Member, that focuses on the strange case of these over-eager donors. I have to admit that my amusement turned to nausea when I began to really think about the reality of someone having his ding-a-ling removed just so that it could forever be displayed in a plexiglass jar in Reykjavik.

Church

Hallgrímskirkja

There are few existing high-rise buildings in Reykjavik, although it appears that there will soon be a proliferation of them. Along the same stretch of road as the ultramodern Harpa Music Hall there are a number of tall buildings in the process of construction on the waterfront. The rest of the city is low slung, with a great number of brightly painted corrugated metal houses lining the streets. Commanding the city from atop a hill is Hallgrímskirkja, a 73 meter tall concrete Lutheran church, consecrated in 1986, that resembles a space shuttle poised for launch. Taking the elevator to the top of the steeple you get panoramic views of the city, along with a sense of just how small and quaint Reykjavik really is. Out in front is a majestic statue of Lief Erikson given to Iceland by the US in 1930 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s “Althing,” the world’s oldest parliament. While Protestant Christianity is the most common faith in Iceland, apparently the second largest faith is comprised of Odinists, who worship the old Nordic gods. Wouldn’t it be appropriate, then, to also have statues of Odin, Thor and Loki squaring off with Lief Erikson for an epic battle? That would be cool.

Cemetery

Hólavallagr∂r Cemetery

The last place that we spent an extended period of time wandering about in Reykjavik was the Hólavallagr∂r Cemetery. This is a beautiful, well-groomed old place with monuments dating back to the 1800’s. It was an appropriate final destination for our time in the city; a reminder of human finitude amongst the distracting excitement of Reykjavik. What I found especially inviting, but unusual, about the place is how it sits nestled in a grove of birch trees, which offer complete shade as you browse and walk through the rows of graves. Ironically, the rest of the island has been deforested of precisely this variety of tree, and the ones growing here were planted long after the founding of the cemetery. Trees, it turns out, have prospered in a place of dead humans while they have perished where humans live. There is a message there.

The stunning sights and natural scenery outside of Reykjavik still awaited us. But I’ll leave discussion of that for another posting.