How to spend a night in Reykjavik if all you could afford were the hotdogs
I haven’t really been to Iceland, so why the hell am I writing a definitive guide to Reykjavik? Although technically, I have, just not enough to say I have seen Iceland– but I already love the country. Unlike Budapest or Seoul, where there are disclaimers underneath my professions of love, I can see myself living there. That guttural, impossible language? A population with a zeal for elves? State sanctions on pineapple pizza? Vikings? Unbelievable topography I appreciate as a geology geek? Please, let me be one of you.
But maybe not. You don’t want an idiot- I miscalculated the dates of our tickets with Wow Air- an airline that lives up to their name; they made me say “Wow! I should’ve read the fine print.” But I have no complaints, since we paid zero baggage fees after layering all our clothes, looking heftier than a German Christmas market tree. Fitting because we came from Berlin, and for the 3,000 km journey- all the while knowing we are imposed a severe carry-on weight limit- I lugged a take-out container filled with gelatinous pork feet and sauerkraut from our dinner the night before.
If I hadn’t messed up our tickets, we would’ve rented a car to get around. Sadly, that wasn’t an option for us, given the short time we would spend in the country. We had no choice but to buy the most expensive bus tickets we’ve ever used in our whole lives. It’s cool though, I made some money as a guinea pig for science the month prior our trip so I knew what I signed up for. But I just wanted to do so much- Blue Lagoon, The Golden Circle, hunting for Auroras, and it broke my heart to not be able to do any of them.
Still, because of our dogged determination to make the most of our trip, we made it our life’s mission to eat Icelandic hotdogs. For real, even Condé Nast implores you to, and you should trust them because they have an accent aigu on their e and that’s just so fancy. Of course, as are we, granted that it behooves me to mention our utter delight at Baejarins beztu pylsur’s price of only 450 Icelandic kronas, because only the best is good enough for us and Bill Clinton. Unlike the exorbitance of those tiny plates of fermented fish and its accompaniments sold in Iceland’s numerous fine restaurants (as fine as an establishment that serves fermented fish could be,) we easily afforded 3 hotdogs, maybe even 4, but I wanted to save room for ice cream- yes in January, thank you gulf stream!
We had ample time to walk around Reykjavik, despite daylight hours being a depressingly short 6 hours long. The whole sky looked like it was perpetually stunted at dusk, with a blue Nashville filter. It’s a sweet consolation for me to say now that even if we didn’t get to see the Golden Circle, going around the city centre felt somewhat like doing the Iron Circle, -because you know, iron unlike gold is a cheap metal- but the irony is that it was actually more expensive to be surrounded by all the shops, since geological marvels like the geysers in Haukadalur don’t have an inherently capitalistic drive unlike this Geysir we spotted downtown.
I am a miser of the coupon cutting variety, but I don’t feel the pinch as much as I seem to let on, some things are just really worth saving up for, like ice cream. But the sticker shock is real, and not just because ISK has so many zeroes- almost everything* in the country is very expensive, but why wouldn’t it be? Iceland is literally a mound of dirt, violently regurgitated by hundreds of thousands of volcanoes. Its nearest neighbour is Greenland- and you know what you can’t find in Greenland? A salad. Also- people, these places are so empty, there’s no wonder Icelandic lore placed so much emphasis on the huldufólk– stuck on a cabin during yet another blizzard, I’d also wish for some tiny magic men to offer me gold, furs, and most tempting of all, lard- for some reason, ask Árnason’s Fúsi, he made fat seem so desirable that on my next trip I’m stuffing my bag with Crisco to use as currency.
*fresh, tasty water is free and electricity is very cheap
My impression of Icelandic folks is quite great. We were lucky to score an Airbnb at about a quarter of what a hotel or even hostel would charge, discounted with ambiguously legal referral codes. It was in the working class neighbourhood of Rauðarárstígur, just a leisurely walk from the bus station. It was also not far from the harbour, where on a good day like the one we had, you could see Mt. Esja. At the end of the promenade is the Harpa- a beautiful glass building that should’ve been a bank but became a concert venue instead, making art majors all around the world say suck it business school bros. In the stretch of the breakwater with polished lava rocks sits the Sólfar- or the Sun Voyager sculpture which overlooks the Kollafjörður fjord, it is charming to see it besieged by the Asian tourists that come by the busloads, maybe they are the Vikings of the Modern World. And then there’s this peculiar statue, reminiscent of something I can’t quite put my finger on, but somehow the thought of a völva popped in my head. The v?lur, or many völva (plural) are also called fj?lkunnig or a know-it-all, so of course we’re talking about women. They are a prominent figure in Norse mythology, because they have magical abilities, a völva can choose to protect villages from harm or invasion. Now, the statue is made by Johann Eyfells and he named it Islandsvardan- the closest this word comes to is svartan, or black island. But then again, I don’t speak Icelandic so the nuance is lost on me, but I can appreciate a well hidden wink when I see one.
After the harbour, we walked to the nearby Hallgrímskirkja Church, that is also just minutes from the apartment, which you remember is near the BSI terminal. Entering the Church is free, because only Montréal has the audacity to charge people that want to enter a religious site. Being a Lutheran Church, it had stark white walls, an imposing pipe organ, the cavernous ceiling. It represented the Protestant movement against the opulent Roman Catholic Church so I appreciate the noble and austere aesthetic. Going up the tower will cost you about 2 hotdogs or ISK 1000, but it is such a splendid view. From the snowy billows to colourful buildings and the impossibly blue waters, I almost didn’t mind the metal bars.
But of course there’s also the people. We didn’t meet a lot, but those that we did, had only one question, “HAVE YOU TRIED SKYR?” and even before going I was pretty excited about it. It has a cult following and it’s touted as a superfood so when we had some at the apartment, I was stoked! But then I put it in my mouth– and hmm, it wasn’t what I was expecting. I can say that it’s not that I don’t like it, it just wasn’t that good– oof. No, the reverse, or whichever sounds less offensive. It was pretty sour, but bland-sour, and it had the viscosity of a gelatin mixed with spackling paste. My culinary opinions have no merit though, I basically subsist on a diet of pure sugar and too much rice. So I would eat Skyr again, on top of a cake, or mixed with lots of strawberry compote.
All in all, even though short, I am still so grateful. Before going to Iceland, we already know of its beauty, but we didn’t imagine that there was so much of it that even the two hour bus ride from Keflavik to Reykjavik- passing through volcanic fields draped by lichen and moss- would feel so magical. I played my favourite Sigur Rós song, Hoppípolla, during the our ride to the airport. I’ve loved it for about a decade now, and whenever I listen to it now, on the train, while reading, or just because I want to hear it, I get a reminder to take note of the little things- the tiny rebellions that I saw Icelandic people do, like their yellow and red fire hydrants, calling oranges Chinese apples, the massive slides on geothermic public pools.
I can’t not go back- it’s like a gnawing itch at the back of my head. I am patient though, we already know we will go during the late summer or early fall and finally go an epic road trip so we can do a photo tour in Iceland hopefully catching the Aurora Borealis because there’s just too much cloud cover during the winter, driving is dangerous and the weather is erratic. So the next time during warmer days we’d even spring for the luggage fees so we can bring a tent! I’m already excited.
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