Iceland Travels

July 25th, 2014, 1pm

When I want to compare it to another city, I have to say, “Well, it’s like Monterey and Oslo and Portland and Oakland and the Central Valley all mixed together.” Which is to say, Reykjavik is not like anywhere else at all.

Reykjavik is a small big-city. There are old suburban areas, startlingly new modern buildings, quaint downtown streets, and quiet industrialized sprawl on the outskirts near the harbor. There are amazing murals, barren 2,000-year-old lava fields that are covered in bright green moss, tourist traps, and genuinely cool local bars. Compared to Oslo, food and drink are cheaper, and the nightlife actually has a pulse (Warning: if ever in town, do not try the Opal salmiakki vodka. It tastes like liquefied Halls cough drops). Almost every night I’ve been out, it’s been pointed out to me that so-and-so is from the band Vök, or from Samaris, or Mammút. There’s a high concentration of artists and musicians here. And, despite hearing several complaints about how many tourists there are in town, the locals here are very nice.

One of the first trips I took was a trip out to the Hengill geothermal area. My guide was a very pale tow-headed man whose father had been a shepherd and knew the lava fields and sheep paths well. We spent most of our time out there sitting in the shallow geothermal stream, whose water temperature was that of a hot tub. The air of the entire area smelled of sulfur (as does the tap water in general here). I was actually more interested in the tour after we left the stream. The fog cleared and revealed the surrounding waterfalls, bubbling bluegray clay pits, continuously issuing pillars of steam, and wandering sheep. There were streams of water bright orange and green from the various minerals in the earth. Our guide was careful to make sure we took safe paths. There is a tradition of naming a hot spring or clay pit after someone if they happen to fall into it (and the burns are pretty severe) and this is not the sort of fame I’m after.

Our guide also told us of some Christmas folktales involving the awful Grýla, and her mischievous children, the 13 Yule Lads. My guide told us that as a young boy his parents would warn him that if he wasn’t washed, in his PJs, and ready for bed on Christmas Eve, Grýla would come around with her huge black cat, swoop them from home, and boil them alive for her stew.

Her 13 sons would wreak havoc on the days leading up to Christmas, and each Yule Lad had an affinity for different things: one likes to eat skyr, one likes to slam doors at night (my guide said this was every kid’s favorite), one likes to peep through windows (creeper), one likes to lick pots, another likes to lick spoons, one has peg legs and likes to mess with sheep… I was unsure about why there was a pattern of licking kitchen utensils. On the 13 nights leading up to Christmas, if the child had been misbehaved they would get a potato. My guide confided that he did, in fact, get two potatoes in his life, but he never told his parents about them.

(Speaking of folklore: Elves live in the stones here. They often make it difficult for folks to build near their rock homes. Project teams have to receive the signed paperwork of elf-mediums stating that the elves are safe and have relocated to some place new. I’m not joking.)

On an unrelated note, I’ve also visited some museums, including the contemporary branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum. My favorite piece found there was titled “Guð” (“God”) by Ragnar Kjartansson, which showed a big tuxedo band in front of pink satin stage curtains, like they had just stepped out of a 1940s movie. The lead singer, in a way that was reminiscent of Thom Yorke, sang over and over again: “Sorrow overcomes happiness.” There are clips of it online. Google it immediately.

Ahh, the Phallological Museum—how could I not go to a museum completely devoted to showcasing the different penis specimens of the world? They even had a room completely dedicated to folklore penises, including an elf (of course), a Hidden Child, and of Thorgeir’s Bull. It was a short trip, expensive for how small it is, but hilarious. It was one of the few things for this trip that I felt was a “must-do.”

My time here, compared to my time in Oslo, has been very unplanned and very short. I experienced a sudden bout of homesickness, like I had accidentally walked straight into a telephone pole, when I saw a sign that said: “This Must Be the Place.” It reminded me of the Talking Heads song, which made me so homesick it was all-encompassing and if I wasn’t constantly distracting myself, I was sitting around depressed stalking my friends on Facebook.

My trip total is almost over. Tomorrow is my last full day in Reykjavik, and then I will have three days left in Oslo before flying back to the States. I’m fairly excited to see everyone again.



All this heat under

the ground aging the forest:

grey streak through your hair.

Sanna, Chris, David Wade and Christine said thanks.

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Avren Keating

Your Non-Binary Ambassador of Love. Poet, teacher, music lover, and food enthusiast.

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