The Summer of Jon

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Iceland

I flew out of Iceland yesterday evening in what I would term a winter storm. Winds were blowing about 50 miles per hour, the temperature was no more than 50 degrees, rain was blasting the airport, and because it is Iceland we walked about 300 yards in the monsoon to get to the plane. Once aboard I wondered if the weather was great for flying and then I thought, “This is summer weather for these pilots, this is nothing.” I was right, we took off like we were flying on a clear summer day in Seattle. Two hours later I was in Norway where there are more trees in a square mile than the entire country of Iceland.

Iceland is one of the stranger places a visitor can go. The land is one part of the strangeness, the strangeness of the length of days, the strangeness of the language, the strangeness of the food, and then there is the people. The Icelandic people are friendly, but they also do not hide their feelings. They tolerate tourists because without the tourist dollar the economic hard times would be even more difficult. The stunted trees of the country symbolize the people best, hunkered down against a hillside just surviving the wind and storms that blow through the land. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of hope in life, they deal with it by gritting their teeth and pushing forward. There is a Nordic sense of doom hanging everywhere. Men tinker on their homes preparing for the 10 months of bitter weather, women knit thick sweaters and probably don’t own a light summer dress, and kids wear their jackets without complaint. Everyone knows that July is when they can relax and take a deep breath, but no one seems to do that, they prepare for the next storm. They avoid being too happy about the present and focus on preparing for the bleak future. This general attitude makes the financial crisis even harsher for a people who are far more focused on the future than the present. The moments of joy are always tempered by the reality of a fate that has been a part of the Nordic heritage since they began telling stories in their strange pirate language. Pirate is probably offensive the these Vikings, although Pirates and Vikings have a great deal in common Pirates never settled a country or carried a heritage for thousands of years. Icelandic lore (along with recent history to support the story) said the Reyjakavik was founded when one of the Viking leaders, Ingolfur Arnarson, tossed a couple logs overboard somewhere out at sea and followed them to land. Where the two logs landed is modern day Reyjakvik. Leaving the founding of a city and nation up to fate (or in this case two logs and the tides) is not something that one can celebrate as grandly as one can if you are escaping religious persecution like the American lore (less supported by history the further we get away from it) but it says a great deal about who the Icelandic people are, they have been tossed about by the sea, but they deal with it. There is not a great deal of whining in this country, there is the Sisyphean attitude, and as we all recall, Sisyphus conquered his punishment by being happy in his endless task. I think Icelanders would be happy being compared to Sisyphus.

Questions about Iceland and Icelanders:
Are there any actual laws related to driving in the city? I was never sure if while standing at a crosswalk if I had the right of way. Some cars would wait, others blew right through, some waved me to go and then nearly ran me over. Sidewalks were often used as auxiliary portions of the road. Many of the vehicles were built like many of the off-road trucks in the US: big tires, lifted off the ground, and large enough for me to believe the driver was suffering from some form of inadequacy.

What’s the deal with beer? I bought a beer at a supermarket and the checker told me that it wasn’t beer. He then informed me that you could only buy beer at the wine store which was closing at 6 PM. I think he expected me to stop the purchase of my beer and dash downtown to get “real beer.” I talked to the owner of the Micro Bar about the beer situation and he told me that light beer is simply beer with 2.25% alcohol content. You can buy this type of beer at a store, but beer with a higher alcohol content must be purchased at the wine store. I asked if Icelanders drank beer, because to me the stuff in the can was horrible, I realize that it was light beer, but it was bad light beer. The beer at the Micro Bar was good and the IPA that I had there was as good as any beer you can get in the US. The owner of the Micro Bar admitted that the best beer in the world right now is in the US, but he wasn’t sure he liked the way we sold beer because when he lived in the US be spent a lot of time drinking too much beer because it was readily available. Good think we Americans could care less about getting fat. I think the general attitude of Icelanders (and this is a sweeping generalization) is that if you are going to drink then you should drink until you fall down.

What’s the story with the alphabet? I don’t even know where to start here. The language is a complete mystery to me. Everyone speaks English because no one else speaks Icelandic. I don’t ever want to suggest that the language should go away because so much of what makes a culture unique is built into the language of that culture. I only said one Icelandic word the whole time I was there, “Tak.” Which means, “Thanks” and is the same word used in Danish, so I was able to thank people but there was an additional portion of the thanks: Fyrre, or something like that.I was not confident enough to even try but it sounded like Tak Fear to me.
The rest of the language did not seem to follow the rules associated to any language I know. Somewhere in the past the Vikings that came to Iceland decided to do their own thing when it came to the language. I think the language is based on runes and therefore more like a symbol based language than a phonetic one, so if there is no basis for phonetics there is no way for me to figure out what is going on.

Do I look like an Icelander? Most of the time when I ran into people in Iceland they started out by addressing me in Icelandic. In a country as small as Iceland they say that everyone knows everyone, so I guess my twin is running around Iceland speaking Icelandic. I know some of you are thinking, “Wouldn’t it be natural for people to address you in their native language?” Sure, but I witnessed most tourists being addressed in English first. When my family stayed in German for a month I had people talk to me in German many, many times. I can understand that, we were away from the tourist areas but I do look like a German, probably because my ancestors come from the German/Dutch area in the north. (Good looking, smart people I assume.) What’s the best thing to eat in Iceland? For a quick, almost cheap bite, I think everyone should hit the hot dog place and get a couple dogs with everything (three sauces, fried onions, fresh onions). If you want to make your mouth happy then you must eat Plokkfisker with black rye bread. The bread itself is so good that I almost bought a loaf to eat by itself. White fish, cheese, butter, onions and potatoes have never tasted better.

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8 replies »

  1. The good thing about the “non-alcoholic” beer is that it less expensive. The real stuff is so expensive that you’re right, it is seen that you may as well drink a lot of it as what is the point of spending a lot to drink a little…

    • It certainly makes sense to regulate beer the Icelandic way, but it does stifle the craft beer makers. The price of a beer in Iceland is no longer shocking since I am now in Norway. I think I will be traveling dry until I reach Germany.

  2. Jon, I had to look up the sign and meaning of the word NAGRANNAVARSLA-means Neighood Watch. The drawing is center of town and in a museum. You didn’t comment on it.

  3. When I lived in Indonesia, people always assumed I was German or Dutch. When I asked for a reason they went in this direction, they replied, “You’re not fat enough to be an American.” I took that as a compliment 🙂

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