Hello from chilly, cozy, crazy Iceland
The Christmas season kicks off in early November in Iceland. Colored lights already brighten shop windows, and shelves are stocked with decorations and gifts such as these cute little boiled wool Santas.
"It's the time of the year when darkness sets in '' a waitress told us. "The lights help everything seem brighter.''
Hello from Reykjavik where the temperature is 28, and the wind chill factor is around 9. We can hear the wind howling outside our bedroom window, but we're cozy and warm inside Guesthouse Eric the Red.
Until the collapse of its banking system two years ago, Iceland was one of the most expensive countries in the world. For visitors like us, it went from being over-the-top expensive to just expensive, but the country has an almost unlimited source of hot water heat and electricity generated by geothermal energy circulating beneath its volcanos. With fishing in decline, and banking kaput, some feel Iceland's economic future lies in becoming the powerhouse of Europe.
"As they say in Iceland,'' Edda, our host, told us as she cranked up the registers in our room, "the only thing cheap is the heat.''
Reykjavick around 1 p.m.
It was almost dark when we arrived from Paris at 5 p.m. Iceland is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, at the edge of the Arctic Circle, so there's only about eight hours of daylight this time of year. The trade-off is 24 hours of daylight for a few days in summer. It's been clear and sunny, great for picture-taking, but high wind gusts have literally blown me down the street a couple of times.
Edda and her partner, Runar, run a very homey and wecolming 12-room guest house in a big home built in the 1930s. It's across the street from the Hallgrimskirkja church, a Lutheran church with a steeple that looks something like a rocket ship. Our room is around $85 a night, with private bathroom and a big breakfast designed to "last all day,'' important in this kind of weather. Laid out on the buffet table were cerials, homemade breads, cheeses, meats, smoked lamb, salmon and trout; tomatos; fruit; milk; coffee and tea.
Edda and Runar
Edda, 57, spent a year in Seattle has a high school exchange student, and still maintains lots of ties. Friends of some of her Seattle friends happened to be visiting in Reykjavik, so Edda and Runar invited us all to dinner.
Runar and homemade bread
They fixed Icelandic trout, a pinkish fish similar in texture and taste to salmon; a big salad with mango and avacado (imported); boiled potatoes and a dessert of homemade ice cream made by whipping, then freezing cream, egg yokes, vanilla, brown sugar and chocolate. It's been fun getting to know them and learn about a bit about life in Iceland.
Runar is a carpenter who used to repair televisions for a living. He recalls a time when there was no on TV on Thursdays and the entire month of July when the workers at the station took vacation. Iceland's a small country, afer all, just 300,000 people in a country the size of England, population 50 mlllion.
Until the economic downturn, there was full employment. A shortage of workers to fill jobs meant that many worked two jobs and/or long hours. Now, the unemployment rate is about 7 percent, and for the first time in her life, Edda said, she's in a position that feels strange for an Icelander: She knows that if she quit or lost her job, she wouldn't necessarily be able to find a new one, or at least one that she wanted. Still, she says she feels there were a lot of positive effects of the downturn. People have more free time too spend with family. They're more creative. She is taking classes to become a tour guide. A book called "Bliss'' cites Icelanders as some of the happiest people on earth. They do seem content.
Geothermal power plant, 9:30 a.m.
We spent our first day on an eight-hour "Golden Circle'' van tour of three natural wonders, all close to Reykjavik. Our guide, David Wellsbury of Iceland Horizon, picked us up around 9 a.m., and drove us though lava fields into snow-covered mountains, first to this geothermal plant, then onto a field of steaming geysers.
The sun rose around 9:45 a.m. We walked around as long as we could, but the wind was blowing hard, so we took a quick stroll around, and tried to catch the steam plumes rising.
We stopped at a volcano (There are at least 10 major ones and many smaller ones), a half-frozen waterfall, and then at Thingvellir National Park where the earth split as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates shifted apart.
Tom stands, trying not to look like he's freezing, as he puts one foot in two continents.
The Icelanders started out as Catholics under the Norse (explorers from Norway were the first settlers). Later, they were ruled by the Danes who forced them to become Lutherans. The Icelandic Lutheran Church is the state church, and there is no separation between church and state. Above is the Hallgrimskirkja Church near our guesthouse. It's 240-feet high. We road the elevator to the top for views all over the city. The statue in front is the explorer Leif Eriksson, whom some credit with "discovering'' North America about 600 years before Christopher Columbus. Leif was the son of Eric, for whom our guesthouse is named. Eric too was an explorer. He sailed from iceland and discovered Greenland.
Starbucks not. Icelanders know how to do cozy, and they love their independent cafes. The Cafe Mokka, above, is the oldest in Reykjavick. We stopped here for killer hot chocolate with whipped cream. There are no Starbucks in Iceland, and McDonald's recently closed its restaurant in Reykjavk due to lack of business. I'm typing this now at a little upstairs cafe called Babalu decorated with pink flamingos, Flintstone knick-knacks and comfy sofas. One couple just grabbed a monopoly game from the shelf. Another woman is sitting in the corner knitting. Two young couples sitting across from us are discussing going home and making a chocolate cake. Judy Garland is singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'' More happy Icelanders.
Downtown Reykjavik looks like a small-town Lego village. Houses and buildings are square and sturdy, mostly either stucco or sheathed with colorful corrugated metal to protect against the weather. It takes only about an hour to walk around the town, with time out to stop in a few museums, art galleries and shops. Buying most anything is prohibitive. Icelandic wool sweaters sell for hundreds of dollars. The Value Added Tax on most goods and services is 24 percent, but all prices, including restaurant prices, include taxes, and there's a firm no-tipping policy. The social services safety net is still pretty good for locals, but the average income tax rate is 38 percent, and even with that, the government is starting to cut back on health care, retirement services etc. Alcohol is especially expensive (beer didn't become legal until 1989). Reykjavik has an international reputation as a party town, but from the looks of the crowd at the cafe where we're blogging, the economy may have taken things down a notch.
This young woman was dressed for a Saturday night on the town. She said that she and her friends go out once a month. They call it "Saturday night dress up.'' They start around 9-10 p.m. at a cafe such as the Babalu, then move on to a bar (for those who are 20 or older), or a private party. She and her friends planned to "go dancing until 6 a.m." I asked about her shoes. She said she designed them herself. Now that's creative!
Shark meat shop
Fish is by far the best thing to eat. Iceland imports almost everything, except fish, beef and lamb. Everyone raves about the hot dogs, especially those from a special stand which Bill Clinton patronized. Recently, farmers have begun to grow vegetables in geothermal-powered greenhouses. We had an excellent (but expensive) meal our first night of salmon over Asian noddles and grilled vegetables. The shop above is in a flea market held weekends on the waterfront. The speciality is dried shark called hakarl, prepared by burying it in the ground for six months to remove the toxins. It's supposed to have an especially nasty taste. We'll see. Runar makes his own, and wants us to sample his which he says must be eaten with Brennivin, or "Black Death,'' a clear alcolhol made from fermented potato pulp, and flavored with caraway seeds.
One of the our most interesting meals was at a small seafood restaurant called Saegreifinn. Kjartan, 71, above, is the owner. His specialty is lobster soup. Whale-meat kabobs and sea cucumber soup were also on the menu when we dropped in Saturday afternoon. We decided to share both the lobster and sea cucumber (which Kjartan said is supposed to "work like Viagra.'' Unfortunately for Tom, I ate all the sea cucumbers before I passed the bowl to him.
Reykjavik's recently-elected mayor is a professional comedian. People seem to like him. He ran as a member of the "Best Party,'' and urged people to vote for him because he wasn't a member of the worst party. His platform included requiring all the town swimming pools to provide free towels, the thinking being that they could then legally qualify as "spas,'' and perhaps attract tourists as well as locals.
These smiling green lights were no doubt in place long before the new mayor came into office. Iceland, with all its economic problems, is far from paradise. But, no question, the Icelanders I've met do seem like happy people.
Posted by Carol Pucci at 10:30 AM