In December 2005, after an excellent week over Christmas in Sioux City, Iowa with my family we ventured off to Omaha, Nebraska to drop me off for the second leg of my Holiday Adventure. We arrived at what we thought was about 1 hour early only to find that the itinerary I held was incorrect and that my flight was about to board. I made it through security in just enough time to get on the plane and off we went. I listened to music for most of the trip to Chicago also meeting a very tall man named Jerry that played Professional Basketball for a team in Athens, Greece. In the process learning quite a bit about the euro-basketball leagues. Nice guy, I think he mumbled something about his contract being for 3mil but at the same time referring to it over and over as “decent money”. He grew up north of Sioux City and played basketball at Iowa State before attempting to go Professional. When he found that he wouldn’t be getting into the NBA his agent connected him with the team in Athens.
Then 2 hours to Baltimore, slept that whole thing. Had a mini pizza in O’Hare and fell soundly asleep with my face pressed up against the window of the plane.
Takeoff for the Iceland Air flight was a little messy. Some type of condensation came pouring out of the ceiling into my lap and eventually stopped at cruising altitude. A lovely African mother and child were sitting next to me. The baby was climbing all over me for about an hour and I didn’t mind, it was pretty cute. There was some healthy screaming but I was able to tune it out to the point of hardly remembering it.
Spoke of world travel with the lady to my left, Sharon (husband Bob). She worked for the DOD in London for 6 years. They had just refurbished a Victorian house on the eastern coast of Maryland and now they were off to visit their daughter in Yorkshire who had just had a baby.
Arrived at Keflavek airport in Iceland at 7am., not too cold.
Based on rumors I had heard about Iceland being extraordinarily expensive I purchased a 1/2 liter of vodka and a carton of smokes. After making my way through customs and out to the Flybus, coach service to the hotels, I sucked down several of my new Icelandic Marlboros and attempted to decipher how much this convenient conveyance was going to set me back. After boarding I attempted to stay awake to see the dark snowy countryside as we approached Reykjavik.
I always enjoy coming up on a city from a distance. There is a little something lost when you fly directly into the heart of a place. If you come in at night you get a good idea just how big the place is by the streetlights but when approaching by train or automobile you get a different sense as you come upon the cityscape. Note: Reykjavik really has no cityscape. I would bet the tallest building is about fifteen stories.
Upon arrival at the Hotel Bjork, I realize there are many more Americans than I that had this idea. This is when I start considering calling myself a Canadian. There was a group of about four guys that came rolling in off the bus. Loud, obnoxious, etc… After a wait I get checked in, acquire a smoking room, and head back down to the attached restaurant for breakfast. International breakfasts always intrigue me. For Iceland it appeared to be a variant of the British breakfast minus the baked beans and fried things. There were several types of breads and cereals, hard boiled eggs, a meat and cheese tray with one type of meat and one type of cheese, sliced and arranged like cold-cuts, several Jams, Tuna fish, tomatoes, cucumbers, and finally an assortment of juices, coffee, and sparkling water. Tiny European coffee cups and bowls. If Americans were constrained to such portions and options I doubt the collective girth would be as broad as it is.
And for this I paid roughly $16US or 800Kr.
This was my introduction to how expensive everything would be here.
After breakfast it was time for bed. The sun was not up yet and wouldn’t be for about two hours. When I woke again at 5pm the sun had already gone. Still I got up, showered, dressed and ventured out. A side note on the accommodations; the hotel was nice enough, attached restaurant and whatnot, but the room was very very small. Not too uncommon in European hotels I’ve found, but this one was just a bit smaller. The shower being the smallest I’ve ever been in during my travels. To get an idea it was about 2ft. by 2ft. square. To turn around and wash my back my nose was literally touching the glass door.
I walked up and down Laguveger (sp) looking into the shops and restaurants, not sure which I should enter until finally I was hungry enough that I turned up a street to a restaurant called Vegamot. I walked in and was inspected by the people seated around the restaurant. I waited until a waiter came up and asked “smoking?” I said yes. There were no tables at the time so I sat at the bar between an older man and a younger woman until a table was available. I ordered a Cranberry Vodka and after a little translation on the Cranberry part I had my drink in front of me. Note: this one, “single”, cranberry vodka cost as much as the half liter of vodka I bought at the duty free shop in the airport. After receiving my drink the man to my right commented “I bet that is the most expensive cranberry vodka you have ever had.” To which I agreed (it was about $14US.) From there we began talking about where I was from, why I was there, what I did, and vice versa. His name was Julius (pronounced you-lee-yous) and he was a sound engineer. His job is to overdub children’s movies with Icelandic vocals. Apparently the movie industry has a nice little racket going with the children. First they release the film with only Icelandic subtitles and then months later they release it again with the actual Icelandic dialogue. Thus getting many of the same children back for a second showing. Films for older audiences do not get the overdub treatment. There is no market for it since most every Icelander over the age of 13 is able to speak English.
I ordered some variant of chicken and vegetables in a white wine sauce. It was a small portion, smaller than I’m used to anyway, but in all quite tasty. During my dinner we continued our chat and by the end of his second glass of red wine he was preparing to leave. We exchanged numbers and he invited me to come see the new studio he was putting together if I had time available the next day.
Eventually I finished my meal and pushed off to my hotel, deciding to save my money for the next few nights. The paltry poultry ended up being about $35US.
The bed in my small room was incredibly comfortable so I slept in rather late. I was awake off and on but had no real desire to get out of bed until the sun had almost gone down again. At this point in the winter the sun is up for roughly about 3 hours a day with an hour of twilight on each side.
I went for a walk remembering Julius had invited me to visit him at his new studio. He gave me a tour of the city as we ran errands to get materials for the studio. He also made a point to drive me past the home of the richest man in Iceland and the richest woman (they used to be married you know) and explain how they made their fortunes. The richest man had a stranglehold on the import/export for the countries produce and other foodstuffs. Apparently he has been accused of artificially inflating the prices and gouging the Icelandic people. Based on what I had seen at the local markets and in the bar the night before this was a very serious possibility. After spending some time watching the process he uses to overdub Icelandic onto English movies I said my goodbyes and left.
Again in need of food I wandered down Laugaveger to see what was still open. After wandering about for a bit I decided on pizza. I ate my pizza while sitting at the window that faced the street. There was a small amount of foot traffic as most Icelanders were eating in their homes at this hour. After finishing my slice and Coke I wandered further downtown to the center. I found a coffee shop and then a grocery store. I bought some cranberry to go with my vodka, along with an instant noodle and a pack of pepperoni. Thinking this was a more economical way to feed myself and leverage the vodka I had purchased at the airport.
After acquiring my supplies I ventured back to my tiny hotel room to relax and enjoy some fine Icelandic television while consuming my booze. I watched about four hours of TV, which could almost be one hour per channel, there were only 2 channels that were not in English and they appeared to be either public access or government stations. It was perfect background noise as polished off the better part of my ½ liter of vodka and snacked on my pepperoni.
At 10pm. I ventured back out to a couple clubs I had heard about. The first was Nelly’s where I found a group of 6 Americans that made me again want to announce myself as Canadian.
They were playing some kind of pop culture game similar to six degrees where one of them would name an actor and the next would have to name someone from a different movie that had worked with that actor. I attempted to engage them in conversation and found they wanted to have little to do with people outside their group. This is another benefit of traveling alone; you actually get to meet people outside the circle you brought with you.
Then choosing to distance myself from them headed down to Pravda which at midnight was still very empty. I sat at the bar on the main floor watching as the doors to the back room would occasionally open, displaying some kind of private holiday party that people were venturing into and out of. Thoughts of crashing the party were lost when I realized the attendees were all far better dressed than I was. The necktie is a common accessory for a night out in Reykjavik.
After about an hour of watching the goings on of the bar I decided to follow people upstairs to another area that said “closed for private party”. I found that I wasn’t crashing the event so much as someone forgot to take the sign down when the “private” portion of the party ended. I stood at a tall table with my drink and playing with yahoo chat on my phone to some friends back in Portland Oregon when I decided (remembered) that I was in a foreign country for adventure not to give a play by play to my friends back home. I noticed some very American looking guys in a cluster and decided to engage them. I found they were from New York and were there for New Years, as I was. I asked one of the guys to take a picture of me with the most outlandish women I could see in the bar. He didn’t think they would go for it but agreed to take the picture just to watch me fail. The women ended up being a very nice lesbian couple from Miami. After the picture and some conversation the New Yorker, lesbians, and I ventured off into the night.
The rest of the night blurred into a drunken slideshow of several other bars and clubs. I remember getting the full story on how they ladies had met and where they had traveled. I remember it being a very interesting story which will unfortunately be lost. You can’t drink that much or eat that little and expect to remember every detail.
New Years Eve… The city had effectively shut down and I was reeling from a very nice hangover from the night before. I had resolved to stay in bed as long as I possibly could and sleep as much as possible, even if that meant sleeping right up until just before the countdown. About 4pm I received a call from Julius and chose to screen it. I wasn’t sure what he wanted but I was sure it involved me getting out of bed. Around 5pm I decided to take a shower and maybe look into eating something. While in the shower the phone rang again. Julius had left a second message. I listened to both messages. The first was a cordial “Brad, this is Julius, call me” the second was a little more strange. It started with a faded away slightly muffed “Brad, what the fuck is wrong with you…..” then into the phone “Brad, this is Julius call me as soon as you get this”.
I decided to return the call. Julius wanted to invite me to have dinner with he and his family that evening. He said he didn’t want me to be alone. I thought that was very generous of him and my sense of adventure said I probably wouldn’t get this chance again, so I agreed to join them.
An hour after our conversation I took a cab to Casa de Julius. Walking up to the door I could see him doing something over the sink in the window just to the left of the front door. When I knocked he didn’t even seem to flinch. I knocked again and nothing. So I stood and watched for a minute waiting for him to shut the water off thinking he might not be hearing the knock over the running water. A moment later he shut off the water and headed for the door.
He had a very nice home with lots of photos on the wall and audio/video gear lying around. I took off my coat and lay it on the back of a comfortable looking overstuffed chair. That’s when I noticed there were only two place settings at the dinner table. I knew at this point it was going to be a very interesting evening.
Julius handed me a full glass of red wine and began to tell me that this was going to be the best turkey I had ever had in my life. He drove this point home with the reasoning that this would be true because he was the “Best chef in the world!” Shortly after this speech he walked toward me and said in a soft calm voice. “You remember Pedro my painter?” he continued “I have a problem, I owe him four weeks back pay” At this point I’m beginning to think he is about to ask me for money, then “Well it’s not a problem anymore. You know why?” I said no. “because Pedro is in the oven, we are going to eat him!” I laughed the kind of laugh that comes when you are 85% sure that someone is joking with you and at the same time you’re considering how inappropriate the joke was and eyeing the door. The remainder of the time between that moment and sitting down to eat he would switch back and forth from Pedro to Turkey as our course for the evening.
When I asked where his sons were (he has 3 sons aged 17,19, and 22) and if they would be joining us for dinner. He told me that they hadn’t been invited but one was upstairs and another was downstairs. He then told me of his philosophy that you had to let them know how expensive they were every so often.
He continued to get up from the couch opposite the one I was sitting on periodically and do something with the food. At one point he was working on the potatoes with a large knife and then kind of hopped, turned around and proclaimed “HAHA! I’m the serial killer you have been looking for in Oregon and now I have you in my house!”
Again, uncomfortable laugh while thinking “yeah, I can take him”.
After his little dance he went on to describe some of the secret seasonings he was using in our meal. One which was in a small yellow jar, he said was extra special; he told me it was “ape shit”. His sense of humor was starting to wear on me but my manners had not yet given way enough to say “thanks” and leave. Plus I had yet to determine if Pedro was for dinner.
His son came down to join us at just the right time. I was running out of conversational tactics to keep Julius talking. I spent as much time as I could talking to his son. Although conversation would sway into music and Julius started telling stories about the bands he was in or had produced.
After dinner and his son acting as a buffer for his sense of humor and my sense of comfort I thanked them both for a very interesting evening and made my way back out into the Icelandic night.
I went back to my hotel for a little while. The long walk got me centered again and allowed me time to reflect on what a very odd situation I had gotten myself into.
About 11:30pm I headed out to Hallgrimskirkja Church to watch the fireworks based on the recommendations of several locals and my travel guide.
On the walk I was walking near a group of people and decided to find out where they were going. They were looking for a bar and I told them about fireworks at the church. We all walked up in the direction I thought it was eventually finding other large groups of people walking in the same direction.
You could hear the noise all around the city. In fact it had been periodic for the past several days. The little pops and sparkles of fireworks were now a symphony of war. Seriously, the sheer number of fireworks being set off of the roofs of the city was enormous. The entire skyline was fireworks. The church itself was a warzone. There were 3ft tall children walking around with 3 foot long sparklers. Bottle rockets as we know them in the US were nowhere to be found and in their place where huge rockets with payloads that easily measured 5 inches. These too were being carried about by children no older than 10 years old. Top it off with everyone having open alcoholic beverages in hand and you have an American parent’s nightmare.
In all, it was truly the most amazing fireworks display I’d ever seen made only better by finding out later that the fire departments are the ones who sell these fireworks to the population. I love traveling to other countries.
Afterward Josh, Sean, K and I headed to Vegamont to meet up with some other travelers they had met at about 1am when the bars were starting to open. Again the night deteriorates into a slideshow blur of several other bars and clubs and people giving up and going home somewhere around 9am. Note: there were still lines out the doors of these clubs.
Slept all day until about 7pm then got up to get some Thai food. Ran into Josh and Sean on the walk down they mentioned grabbing a last drink at Kafe B, which could only mean at midnight.
I met them at the bar for a couple beers. As soon as they left another couple from London sat down, Susan and Josh, They stayed far longer than they anticipated chatting with me. I took a picture of them then we decided we all wanted a picture together. So we decided to ask a nearby couple, or we thought they were a couple, to take our picture. The couple, now Sebastian and Magmeda, moved closer to us and we joined them for a drink. Talking a while until Susan and Josh decided to leave and I sat with Sebastian and Magmeda until the bar closed. They then invited me along to a friend’s house, I can’t remember his name, for after-bar drinking. It was an excellent experience. I also met two Icelanders who now live in the US. Karen and another whose name I’ve forgotten. Karen lives in LA and the other lives in Philadelphia. Karen has spent time in Iowa even in Iowa City and Des Moines. Small world.
Smaller world, it so happens that Magmeda is Bjork’s (Icelandic popstar) babysitter. Sebastian was telling me about how very nice, but very weird, Bjork and her husband are.
Sebastian is a gay Parisian fashion designer that has lived in Iceland for 2 years. Now he teaches design at the local university. He moved to Iceland after visiting once and liking it so much he decided to stay. During our initial conversation we were talking about how amazing the fireworks were and that I do pyrotechinics on the 4th of July back in the states. He started describing how he wanted to do art with fireworks but very very small fireworks. He loves the colors.
I can’t remember the name of the guy who lived in the apartment, but he was a fisherman, a musician, and a father. He was leaving in a couple days for a 40 day fishing expedition. Side note: around 70% of the population of Iceland is involved in fishing in some way. He is also the guitarist and signer for a band in Reykjavik. We convinced him at one point to get out his guitar and play something for us. What he played I liked, I even got it on video.
We listened to a fairly eclectic blend of American and Icelandic music. Magmeda was digging through the stack of burned CDs on top of the small bookshelf stereo system and plugging in whatever she found interesting regardless of whether the song currently playing was done or not. After many tries we landed on Leonard Cohen for the remainder of the visit.
Eventually we each finished the beers that we had carried out of the bar and it was time to go. Magmeda stayed and Sebastian and I started our long walk back. At this point Sebastian and I talked about the straight and gay singles scenes in Iceland. Apparently some of the rumors are true about some of the Icelandic ladies and the gay scene is mostly underground with very little to choose from. Not very different from small towns anywhere. We parted ways and I ventured off to my hotel. It was snowing then, and close to 6am.
The last full day of my time in Iceland was to be for seeing the sights outside the bars and restaurants. I would have reserved more time for this but since my main reason for the visit was New Years and the tours were all incredibly expensive, I decided one day was enough. And for that one day I wanted to ride one of the world renowned Icelandic Ponies.
On the bus to the Stables I met Katherine, Abby, and Allison. Two were from the US and one from England. We all had the same idea and had heard the same stories. That they were trained to have 6 different gaits, very smooth ride, etc…
After orientation and finding the right sized coveralls and boots we were led to where they kept the horses. I have never in my adult life ridden a horse and only remember looking upon the giants as a child. These horses were smaller and had far thicker coats than anything I had seen before. They are a closed breed only in Iceland and have been that way for 1200 years. Due, in part, to very old legislation stating that no horse may return to Iceland after having visited another country. Also, no other horses are allowed on the Island.
My horse’s name I believe was Vindish (sounded like windy with a V and some shh) he/she was one of the bigger horses as I was one of the bigger participants. It really was amazing to be on probably 800 lbs of muscle. He shivered once and I thought I was going to be tossed off. Then again, I frequently thought I was going to be tossed off. There were several times where Vindish tripped up his front legs and I envisioned myself trapped under all that horse. So I made it a point to try and steer wide around the shale corners especially when we were at a healthy trot. Speaking of which, a little basic instruction would have been appreciated about how not to ruin my chances of having children on this 2 hour excursion in the freezing rain. I tried as many different ways of finding a riding groove with Vindish but they all ended up with me losing rhythm and slamming my pelvic bone into the saddle again and again. After an hour I had no choice but to laugh and just go with it. Vindish took off into a gallop several times against my requests. It was a feeling of exhilaration (and quite a bit smoother ride) but it would only last a few seconds.
So after two hours, mostly trotting, I was walking funny and wanted a beer. Katherine was nice enough to buy me a beer while she had her cup of tea and we were joined by Abby and Allison. Days later I was pretty surprised at what was sore. My upper back ached the most and my testicles have long since come out of hiding. I would certainly do it again.
After the cold of the ice rain had subsided our bus arrived to take us to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a massive mineral hot spring about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. It was very dark and cold at this point and I was tired. Whether from bouncing around on a horse all day or from drinking the past nine days in a row, I wasn’t sure, maybe a combination.
But the Blue Lagoon was heavenly. The walk to it was long and cold but not as long or as cold as the walk back to the bus while still damp. The lagoon is about 100 degrees in the water while it was about 30 degrees outside the water. It has a milky blue appearance due to the amount of minerals in it and an interesting salty/sulfur/metallic taste to the water. The contrast of hot and cold was amazing. Some spots in the lagoon were warmer than others but the air above was uniformly just below freezing. So I would warm my head with the water when I could feel my hair starting to freeze. Otherwise I floated about with the assistance of the salt in the water while looking up at the stars, slowly feeling my face start to crystal while my hands and feet searched across the water for the least jagged surfaces.
I could not have imagined a better end to my holiday adventure, under the stars.
The next morning I began my journey home.