Tuesday, July 15, 2014

falleg ísland

So. I'm a little stunned right now.

You know how they said Iceland is incredibly beautiful? And you'll never want to leave? They were right. Only a little under-appreciative, if you ask me.

It started out on the ride in from the airport, which isn't even the most scenic part of Iceland. Doesn't matter. The rocks jutting out of the ground, the mist rising over the hills - it looked like a land carved by the gods themselves. The colours look so bright that they can't be real. The whole place seems raw, in a very primal way. I can certainly see why they filmed Game of Thrones there. Since my Scandinavia iPod playlist does not cover Iceland (I neglected to fill up on Bjork and Sigur Ros beforehand), I put the show's theme song on instead, and it fit perfectly. Iceland is a land well-suited to the epic.

Reykjavik is a lovely city, totally safe, very clean, with fascinating architecture and lots of funky design, sometimes verging on the dilapidated, though if I had to deal with Icelandic weather I probably wouldn't repaint either. And I think it's part of its charm, really. It has a very similar vibe to the funkier parts of Vancouver, British Columbia. Or maybe certain spots on Vancouver Island. Completely modern in every way, but very conscious of nature and its power.

What strikes me most about Iceland is its uniqueness. It's not quite Europe, it's not quite North America. It's just sitting there in the North Atlantic, doing its own thing. There's nowhere on earth like it. I imagine its isolation has something to do with it. The Icelanders I've spoken to really give the impression that they've cultivated it deliberately, of course. This is one country that's fiercely proud of its culture.

Getting from Copenhagen to Reykjavik was actually my easiest city transfer so far, probably because there are airports involved rather than bus stations. Walk five minutes from my hostel, hop on the Metro, walk five minutes to the airport, get checked in, cram yourself onto one of those weird discount European airlines that charge you to breathe (actually, WOW Air provided pretty competent no-frills service, and it got us there intact, so that's something), take the FlyBus directly to your hostel. Pretty smooth all around. My hostel is nice - the rooms aren't quite as good as some of the other places, but it has a relaxing bar and really cool decor. The first night was, of course, the World Cup, and so I joined everyone in the standing-room-only bar to watch Germany win. (Everyone there was slightly pro-Germany, though we had a ton of sympathy for the sad Argentineans the screen kept showing - and by the time the match was nearly finished, I think most people were team "just-score-a-goal-already".) It was pretty cool to watch the usually professional Angela Merkel jump around gleefully like a five-year-old on Pixie Sticks.

Monday morning, I got up and went to Reykjavik's most infamous attraction. Don't kid yourself. You know what it was.

Honestly, it's not as ribald as it sounds - if anything, it's more of a nature museum than erotic. The whale and walrus specimens were pretty darn impressive, though, and I could hear a lot of giggling. From the other tourists, of course.

I wandered along Reykjavik's main street, stopping in to get coffee and look for souvenirs, then met up with a walking tour for a quick guide to the city centre. Our guide was pretty knowledgeable and funny, and he showed us a lot of weird things that most tourists wouldn't figure out on their own. Reykjavik's downtown is very pretty with a distinct style, and small enough to be managed in one day pretty easily. The entire country is only slightly larger than the region surrounding my hometown!

It happened to be Bastille Day, and in the middle of downtown Reykjavik, I wound up celebrating my first French national holiday.These two French guys had opened a bistro and were celebrating their restaurant's first year. They had a free French buffet! So instead of whale meat and puffin, my first luch in Iceland was frog legs and coq au vin. Can't say I minded. After that, more wandering. I headed up to Hallgrimskirkja, this gorgeous Icelandic church. I know I ranted about Orthodox vs Catholic vs Protestant design earlier, and the Protestants came out losers, but when you think about it - there is a lot of beauty in simplicity. A concept all of Scandinavia seems to have embraced, incidentally.

The next day started early with a trip up to Thingvallir National Park (my computer doesn't do Icelandic characters), home of the Althing and a bunch of waterfalls and geysers. However, I had a slightly more specific purpose in mind. I was going to snorkel.

Now, most of you think of the Bahamas or Hawaii when you imagine snorkelling, and are probably looking at me like I'm insane. Add that to the fact that it was my first snorkel trip ever, and you're probably wondering if I have a death wish. The trip took us through Silfra, a rift near a large lake which basically divides the European and North American plates. At some points, you could literally reach your hands out and touch both continents at the same time. Though you probably shouldn't because of rock slides. The tour company took great care to warn us about the extreme conditions, terrifying everyone present (no one had ever done drysuit before), but the truth is, it really wasn't a big deal. The water is extremely cold - around two degrees Celsius - but the drysuits and undersuits kept us so warm that it was as if we had never entered the water. The gloves aren't enough to hold the water back, and of course there was nothing around the mask part, so my hands and face were numb and purplish by the end, but overall it was quite comfortable. There's a slight current, letting you sort of drift along and appreciate the beauty.

And Silfra is beautiful. The water is crystal clear (and drinkable!), and though there is little to no wildlife, the geological formations are more than enough to look at. I was particularly fascinated with the "now we're in Europe, now we're in North America" thing. And the divers' bubbles - they shone so silvery bright. Sometimes it was so deep that the locals called it "the Cathedral", other times the rocks were so close that we had to crawl. All the colours looked like Day-Glo, and the whole scene was bathed in bright blue. An Icelander told me later that the visibility was considered quite poor that day, as the great number of tourists had kicked up the silt. I never noticed. We were in there forty minutes, and it felt much too short, though we did finish off with some fun cliff jumping - still in the drysuit, of course. Add "snorkelling in Iceland" to the list of Awesome Things Rachael Has Done.

After the snorkel trip, I had to pack and make arrangements for tomorrow's flight. The truth is, my pace has slowed way down since the beginning of my trip. I'm tired. Every night for the past week or so has ended up in a haze, and at this point, I just want to curl up and sleep for a few days - not an option when you're visiting all these cool places. It'll be a relief to snooze in the back of the car all the way home from Winnipeg. I just hope I don't have to be nice to anyone. So today I was lazy, and I regret nothing. However, in the evening I managed to pop over to Harpa Concert Hall, the famous fishy-looking building that is responsible for a good chunk of Iceland's economic woes. What great cultural event was I to see? A travelling symphony orchestra? Maybe a serious Icelandic drama about a farmer named Magnus?

It was a comedy about becoming a proper Icelander, led by a "teacher" with a fantastic gift for physical comedy and a slight obsession with sheep testicles. Sometimes the humor fell flat, but overall it was a great quickie guide to Icelandic culture, including a tour de force 60-second rendition of the sagas. The Canadian jokes ran rampant. Iceland spends a lot of time making fun of Canada, as many of its citizens moved there way back when - my ancestors were among them. I guess you can say I got in touch with my roots - or at the very least, learned how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. 

This is my very last post from Europe. Tomorrow, I will fly from Reykjavik to Toronto, staying with friends for a couple of days before reuniting with my family in Winnipeg and driving on to British Columbia. Basically, I took the most roundabout route possible to get home. I'm exhausted and eager to be settled, but in the meantime, I've made some extraordinary memories. These great cities will stay with me forever - especially Stockholm, which is so dear to my heart. It's been a wild ride, folks, and Iceland was easily the wildest and most magnificent stop. I'm ready for my homeland - but saying goodbye to the Nordics is tough indeed.

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