One last day in Iceland…
After so many days of sightseeing and travelling around the Icelandic countryside we decided to give ourselves a day off to relax and just enjoy Reykjavik. We had a pile of laundry to do too (including all our thermal underwear!), and some banking and emails to catch up on, so today wasn’t nearly as exciting as the last few days have been. Still, it was great having a “day off” and wandering through Reykjavik, checking out all the souvenir shops and doing a bit of people watching. Having an occasional chill-out day is the key to longevity when it comes to this travelling thing, I think, otherwise we risk “burning out” and needing a holiday from our holiday! We didn’t take many photos today, but here’s a little reminder of where we are and the scenery around us…
Seems Iceland was ready for a break too; after the last couple of gorgeous sunny days we’ve had, the weather today was overcast, drizzly and cold. No gale force winds or dashing, icy rain like Wednesday, but still the kind of weather that makes you seek out cosy coffee shops and linger over hot cups of cocoa. And who are we to argue with the weather?! We visited one of Reykjavik’s cosiest cafes for our morning cafe latte, then just strolled through the Main Street in town. It was a great day for people watching as today was the annual Reykjavik Gay Pride Parade and the streets with packed with people in town for the party.
There’s a big concert on down at The Harpa tonight with lots of local bands playing (Iceland has a lot of live music on and a pretty funky music scene, with lots of alternative and folksy stuff on offer). We will, unfortunately, have to miss out on the party because we’re flying out at 7:00am tomorrow (which means a 4:00am wake up call – ouch!), but it was great to see all the locals out supporting the local gay community. Iceland is actually very “gay friendly” and generally very egalitarian; while much of the rest of the world is still struggling with issues of gender equality, racism and/or discrimination based sexuality, Iceland has had multiple female prime ministers (they even elected openly gay female prime minister!); they lead the way in terms of equal pay and opportunities for all races and across the genders; and gay marriage was legalised in 2010. People here generally seem very open, fair and accepting of everyone; the people of Iceland have in fact been one of the highlights for us – they are as wonderful as their country!
The Icelanders we’ve met have all been incredibly friendly, welcoming and seriously funny. They have the BEST sense of humour – it actually reminds us a bit of home the way they happily tease tourists, feed us tall tales about Iceland and make fun of us. I was discussing this with Johan,one of our driver/tour guides, the other day and his perspective is that Iceland can be so harsh, and people here have had to fight so hard to survive over the centuries that their sense of humour has evolved as way of coping with the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, glacial floods, freezing winters, famines, etc. In that sense Iceland really does remind us of Aus – I think the “Aussie larrikin” evolved out of hardship as well. For us it’s been great being somewhere where we can absolutely be ourselves, senses of humour and all, and not have our jokes fall flat on their face because nobody gets it, or worse, risk offending or upsetting someone with our jokes. I think any Icelander coming to Australia would similarly find themselves at home and socially comfortable. There are other similarities we’ve noted with Australia too. Not the landscape of course, that is uniquely Icelandic.
Even though the landscapes in Iceland and Aus are vastly different (almost opposites really), there are things about Iceland that remind us of home. Things like:
- The original settlers of Iceland were criminals, exiled from Norway. Like Australia, it seems Iceland was founded by convicts!
- The distances between things here are quite large, and there’s nothing in between places. Sure, they don’t have anything the size of the Nullabor, but we drove for hundreds of kilometres this week through desolate lava fields with not a village in sight. Then suddenly, after miles and miles of nothing, there’s mountains, a glacier, a volcano. Like Aus, it’s the contrast that blows you away.
- The isolation and desolation. Some of the small fishing communities we passed get cut off for weeks in winter, and some of the farms are so isolated that they have their own mini-geothermal plant supplying their electricity. That kind of self sufficiency and survival, despite the elements, definitely reminds us of parts of Aus.
Obviously Iceland is a hell of a lot colder, wetter, greener and windier than Aus, but we can almost relate to the landscape here. One thing Iceland does WAY better than home: they don’t have any bities! No snakes, no scorpions, no spiders, no deadly octopi, no crocodiles, no lethal jellyfish… nothing nastier than a puffin. If we could handle the cold, this would be paradise for us!
One of the things that made us fall in love with the warm, friendly, welcoming, funny people of Iceland even more is the way they speak. Icelandic is a beautiful language. It’s quite similar to Norwegian and Swedish in some ways, but with a lilt to it that is absolutely unique. The language has an almost Gaelic cadence to it, which would make sense as many of the earliest migrants to Iceland were Celtic thralls the Vikings brought over with them. Icelanders roll their “r’s” beautifully too; not like in the Mediterranean languages though, this is a warm, fuzzy rolling “r”, deep in the back of their throats. And when they speak English they carry the cadence with them and continue to roll their “r’s” in a way that makes English sound so lovely. The way Icelanders speak is PERFECT for storytelling; hearing them talk about their beautiful country and its history made us want to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate in front of a fire, with our feet tucked up under us all warm and snugly, listening to their stories for hours…
One of the other things we fell in love with while in Iceland was the food. Specifically, the lamb and the skyr (translation = traditional Icelandic yoghurt). The lamb here is soooooo tasty; Iceland has ruined us for lamb – no lamb will ever taste as good, nor be as tender or as succulent…. I have no idea what type of sheep they farm, but I DO know that we saw them everywhere, and they are seriously shaggy and scruffy looking. They are also seriously delicious. Skyr is also seriously yummy! Tarter and tangier than yoghurt it is made in a similar way but is fermented by totally different bugs to the yoghurt we’re familiar with and is much higher in protein. Apparently skyr was how the Vikings used to ferment their milk but it went out of fashion in mainland Scandinavia. Recently, however, Iceland has been exporting skyrto Finland, Sweden and Norway where it has been “rediscovered” as a health food. Finally, we love the idea that food here is often cooked “by steam” or “by earth”. That is, they stick your food in a pot or in some aluminium foil and bury it in the hot volcanic ground or suspend it over a geyser. This effectively slow cooks the food, making it very tender and tasty. Mmmmmm… tasty Iceland.
We have not loved some of the other traditional Icelandic foods so much. Like kæstur hákarl (translation = fermented shark). This seriously stinky meat is made by hanging Greenland shark meat up for 4-5 months, letting it decompose enough for the ammonia-rich meat to become non-toxic and edible. Apparently Icelanders still eat kæstur hákarl in February, when they celebrate mid-winter. They also eat fermented lamb and beef, which did not tickle our fancy much at all. Instead of curing with salt, the practice of preserving meat in fermented whey became dominant in Iceland. The lactic acid in the whey denatures the proteins, effectively preserving them the way acetic acid in vinegar preserves pickled vegetables. To our fussy modern palates it sounds horrendous, but these foods allowed the Icelanders to survive the long winters. Svið is another traditional dish we didn’t have the guts (literally) to try. This is half a sheep’s head with the brain removed, singed to remove the fur and then boiled. Not sure I could eat a sheep’s head with the eyeball still in there, staring up at me. Mind you, after 8 months of winter, if I was hungry enough, it would probably sound very tasty!
Alas, however, we have eaten our last meal of tasty Icelandic lamb (“earth” cooked), with skyr for dessert. Tomorrow we leave this wondrous place and head to Munich, ready to begin the Germanic leg of our journey. We have 6 weeks in Germany, Switzerland and Austria to look forward to now! We bid a very fond farewell to Iceland, and a grateful “so long” to Scandinavia in general – it’s been an amazing 6 weeks in the lands of the Vikings and we thank you from the bottom of hearts Finland/Sweden/Norway/Denmark/Iceland for a magnificent experience.