I arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland on Friday morning. Given that I didn’t travelogue my life and journeys in Mexico, South Africa, or anywhere else I’ve been recently, I figured I should give it a shot this time around.
I have a very bad habit of opening Hipmunk, entering a random city and looking for cheap plane tickets. I’m not sure what provokes this in me, but I do it rather relentlessly. However, Reykjavik was not cheap, at least not 3 weeks in advance. The cheapest ticket from where I was in the US was asking for over $4,000 per round-trip ticket. Somehow, booking separate flights knocked the cost down by thousands of dollars–but was a terrifying gamble given the possibility of the first flight being significantly delayed or cancelled. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and I ended up getting a painless and cheap trip to the land of vikings.
Anyway, here is my list of things they don’t tell you about Iceland before you go to Iceland, with photos which may or may not be relevant to the things being discussed:
- Flying to Iceland is eas[y](ier than flying to Paris, Frankfurt, Zagreb, or Barcelona). The flight from JFK to KEF is 5 hours–or 6 awkward naps while watching episodes of Modern Family.
- It may be 6:45AM at Keflevik Airport, but every damn person in the airport will have a minimum of 3 beers or 3 glasses of wine in front of them. These viking folk drink like they can’t get their freshman 15 to stick. [edit: I think this is more likely to be a result of the fact that alcohol is available tax-free in the airport unlike the government monopoly stores you will find all over Reykjavik]
- You will have a hard time finding vanilla extract in Reykjavik. This is because they keep it behind the counter at grocery stores to deter booze-hungry thieves. There also seems to be no baking soda. It’s kind of amazing of an experience to realize how much we rely on brand to recognize things, like say the orange box of Arm & Hammer baking soda. Icelandic packaging is kind of adorable though.
- Despite #3, there is practically no crime in Iceland. People will leave their bicycles unlocked anywhere. There are less than 200 prisoners in Iceland total.
- When you eat the fermented shark, you are eating rotten shark that has been fermented in urine. People will say this tastes and smells disgusting. It didn’t taste wonderful to me, but it didn’t make me retch or anything either. I chased mine with a shot of Brennivín, which Icelanders refer to as “Black Death.” It didn’t taste great either, but it also didn’t taste bad.
- Puffin breast? It tastes like liver. It tasted better to me than the kind of liver I ate for Menú in Perú (I’m not a gigantic liver aficionado), far less of the chalky aftertaste.
- 7. Despite the old saying that Greenland is ice and Iceland is green, I’m sad to report that Iceland does experience snow. It’s sort of a charming snow though. Basically, imagine Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole, and spread it out into an entire town and you will have Reykjavik.
- Icelanders have very unique Christmas folklore. Their Christmas season starts in early December and lasts through January 6th. Instead of a single Santa Claus, they witness what are called the 13 Yule Lads. The Yule Lads also have a mom named Gryla and a Yule Cat. Most of these characters are more malevolent than anything. For example, each of the Yule Lads makes an appearance every night for 13 nights, doing different things like licking pots and slamming doors. If you’re good, you get presents. If you’re bad, they put rotting potatoes in your shoes (kids are supposed to leave their shoes in the window for this).If you don’t get new clothes for Christmas, the Yule Cat will come and eat all of the food in your house so you won’t have anything to eat for Christmas. If you’re really bad, Gryla will come and eat you.
- There’s like 4-5 hours of day light here in the winter. The sun rises between 10:30 and 11:30 and sets between 3:30 and 4. You’d think this would be entirely depressing but Reykjavik has astounding night life and being able to see the sun rise and set every day is kind of awesome. It works kind of well with the Christmas-y feel of the city. The snow, the Advent candles in every window, a glowing fading sunlight that makes the streets twinkle a tiny bit.
- Iceland is part of the EU but it is still using its own currency, which is somewhat confusing due to its conversion rate. 1 USD is 124.5 ISK. Being told that your lunch is 1,800 Krona is always a tiny bit alarming. Reykjavik is entirely cashless from what I can tell. That is, you can get cash from an ATM but I can’t think of a single place you would need it. I did overhear someone saying you could barter with a few “herrings” which sounded cute.
- Eating out in Iceland is expensive!
- Fortunately, I’m Paleo so I am cooking quite a bit and food staples in Iceland are not quite as expensive… it’s about on par with what my groceries cost when I lived in Portland and Austin. The cool news is that things like coconut flour cost maybe $3/kg instead of $10. Vegetables are cheap and learning vocabulary from shopping at the grocery store is also rad. For example, the word for beet is the words red and earth. I also learned that the word for funeral literally translates to “earth journey.”
- We like to think it’s fish, but Icelanders are very proud of their hot dogs. They top them with a brown mustard called pylsusinnep, cronions (crunchy fried onions), and a remoulade. There is also a gigantic language debate amongst Icelanders about the correct word to use. Some people say it’s “pylsa” (which is what I have seen plastered all over the city) while others will argue that it’s “pulsa.” The people who argue the latter claim that by saying “pylsa,” you are saying “hot canine” instead of “hot dog.”
- Icelanders don’t really perceive Americans as foreigners in the same way they do other people. That is, they don’t see us as being “exotic” or far removed in the same way that many other countries often do. I mean, most other countries have huge exposure to American culture but often not quick and easy access to interact directly with Americans–Icelanders easily have that luxury every day. We have such a long, long history with the country. Everyone here… and I mean everyone… speaks English fluently. Even though we are an ocean apart, there are more Americans visiting and living here than from other European countries.
- Icelanders have some pretty tasty Christmas beers and quasi-alcoholic beverages. One of them is called Malt og Appelsín, which is a combination of two drinks: Maltextrakt (a low alcohol beer) and Appelsín, an orange-flavored carbonated beverage. The idea of it sounds horrible but the execution is actually quite nice. There are a lot of other Christmas beers that are popular, but so far this is the only one I’ve tried.
- The water here smells like sulphur. That’s because Iceland is all geothermal energy. I was expecting to get used to it, but I really haven’t. It smells weird. I haven’t washed my hair yet either and I’m kind of nervous about it because my hair is very thick and curly and I know sulpher is terrible for hair, but especially terrible for hair like mine.
- Hallgrímskirkja (the church) is huge! We’re staying in an apartment on the street just south of it and it towers over our street. It’s 220 feet tall, the 6th largest architectural structure in Iceland, and it took over 40 years to build. On top of all of that, it is visually stunning and is a major navigational landmark in the city. If we are ever lost (and oddly, I often am, which I normally am not in other places), all we have to do is look for the church and head in its direction.
- The Iceland Phallological Museum is a real treat if you’ve been wanting to see water-logged whale penises.
I haven’t gotten to explore a lot of the stuff I want to quite yet because of the weather, but in the coming week and likely the next few weekends, I’m hoping to explore some of the geothermal pools, do a glacier hike, visit the huge waterfall, whale-watch, and visit the lava caves.
’til next time!