Reykjavik Death March

On the morning of our arrival, the temperature in Reykjavik was a bracing -2 C with 90% humidity. Combined with the wind-chill factor due to a stiff breeze, the apparent temperature was, to use a meteorological term, “butt cold.” As we quickly discovered, the best survival stratagem in this kind of weather is to rush frantically between heated indoor spaces. Happily, Reykjavik is equipped with a surplus of cozy street-side cafés that are happy to sell you a $5 cup of coffee, usually with gratis wi-fi and unlimited lingering time included in the price.

Needless to say, the bus driver dropped us off several blocks from our hotel; also, our room wouldn't be ready until 2pm – but the hotel was willing to hold our bags for us until then. We gratefully dumped our stuff and set out for a day of surrealistic, sleep-deprived sightseeing.

Truth be told, I don’t remember much about the museums and cultural sites we visited that day; I was so weary that I could barely keep my eyes open, and my most lucid memories involve sitting in a café drinking coffee, glad to finally be able to feel my face and limbs. Our hours of lingering afforded plenty of people-watching opportunities, and I began to drink in the culture and language of Iceland. Here are a few brief notes.

Kids act like miniature adults. In one café near a progressive middle school, we sat through a 10am recess throughout which the shop was swarmed by happy youth. They’d pay for a sweet bun or a cup of coffee and sit at the tables, happily gossiping or paging through the morning newspaper.

The language is an artifact of the 10th century; guttural without being harsh, full of popped R’s, lisped S’s, and long vowels. The phonetic alphabet makes heavy use of characters that withered from English in the middle ages, such as eth (ð), thorn (Þ) and the ae-dipthong (æ). I can barely understand spoken place-names and small numbers; anything beyond that is simply impossible.

Nonetheless, looking at signage, it is impossible to escape the feeling of a shared linguistic heritage. Stores become opið in the morning and lokað at night; passengers are requested to remain in their sætum while the bus is in motion; luggage storage is undir the seat.

Eavesdropping on conversations, I am awestruck at hearing the language of the Vikings. Icelandic language has changed so little over the past 1,000 years that even a schoolchild can pick up Egil’s Saga or the Settlement-Book and read the original text without any trouble.

The national identity is fiercely proud and individualistic. Icelanders regard themselves as enlightened, egalitarian, stoic yet ingenious. To a degree, this is true: their literacy rate is 100%; gender discrimination is virtually unheard of; they use their sole natural resource of geothermal energy to great effect, fulfilling all of their electricity and water needs and growing enough greenhouse crops year-round that they are technically self-sufficient.

To the outsider, Icelandic society also seems insular and perhaps a bit brooding. Four hundred years of neglect under Danish rule have left them mistrustful of outsiders. State-sanctioned monopolies control air travel, banking, and alcohol distribution. There are few immigrants, and most businesses are owned by native Icelanders. Racism has become a minor problem as the number of immigrants has gone from none to very few.

I’m sure that my impression is partially due to the brevity of my stay – four days isn’t long enough to get to know a person, much less a country. However, I can’t shake the overall impression that Iceland wants to be a wonderful place for you to visit, and then to leave.