I always thought it would be difficult to get to Iceland and I was a little disappointed when I got there so easily after dreaming of going over many years. It seems the sort of place you should need three week to get to in a Viking ship, with the loss of a crew member or two, fighting over the last remaining chocolate biscuits. A place that emerges through heavy fog as you drift past the headlands and somehow miraculously find your way into Reykjavik Harbour, to discover bearded fisherman reviewing you suspiciously as the women dry cod on the shores. Instead you just buy a ticket on Icelandair, or some such flying venture, departing from New York´s JFK, as a stopover on the way to Paris. Mind you, it was not all smooth sailing, we fortunately didn’t loose anyone of the medium distance flight, but around four hours into the flight it became apparent that Iceland air was not going to serve me any free food, not even a dodgy pack of crackers with cheese, I guess it beat having to navigate the iceberg ridden arctic seas.
When I arrived in Reykjavik, cold drizzly rain greeted me, it was a late September evening, so really anything else would have been disappointing. A bus took us foreigners from the airport into Reykjavik, on what seemed like a 2-day journey, but what was likely around an hour. At the bus station I found a special phone to call some taxis, they were few and far between, and then this fancy Mercedes shows up and I was, “wow, a fancy Mercedes”. The driver opened to boot magically from within the car and I threw in my bags and then foolishly went to manually close the boot.
“Hey”, says the guy in thick Icelandic English, “do not touch the door, it is automatic, you could damage it”.
“Oh”, I said, “sorry”. I hadn´t realised cars in this price range could be destroyed by touching the boot. I was left thinking it was lucky it was holding up in the drizzle, being made of sugar and all. So I made a mental note to never get one of the delicate automobiles and to keep with my reliable VW Golf, with the boot I can slam shut. On entering the fancy untouchable boot Mercedes I asked, “Do you take cards?”. Of course not having whatever currency they use in Iceland on me.
“Under Icelandic law I am obliged to take cards, however we are one of the highest taxed countries in Europe, so if you have cash that would be preferable”.
As I was most likely leaning upon my credit for this trip, it was a choice between using my precious cash reserves on this whiny tax avoider, or keeping it for myself. Plus it was still raining, so I really didn´t want to stand at an ATM getting wet, I just wanted to be in a warm dry room.
The taxi driver kept mentioning the taxes, and how you never touch an automatic door of a Mercedes boot (at least thrice I think) – Mercedes guys you really need to fix that issue, or put a big warning sign on that says, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON´T TOUCH THE FUCKING BOOT DOOR OTHERWISE THE CAR WILL EXPLOED – he was not the happiest camper. Camping does suck a bit in the cold, drizzly rain.
After paying by card I found my way into the historic Airbnb I´d booked. It had wooden floorboards and creaky staircases, all that old European stuff you go to Europe for. My room was tucked away in the corner and had a slopped wooden roof which meant you couldn´t stand up except in the few metres between the door and window. I dumped my bags, and, as always with a new place I resisted going straight to bed and instead rugged up with a few more layers and a beanie and headed into the rain again to explore and find some sustenance. I don´t recall having anything particularly Icelandic that evening, perhaps just a burger. The buildings reminded me of the protestant reformation, if such a thing exists, they had a sound moral quality to them added to the practicality associated with a less-than-tropical climate – you know what I mean, slopped rooves, sturdy doors and windows and all that sort of thing. I couldn´t make out the colours very well in the lamplight but they looked mostly blues, whites and dark reds just like the Icelandic flag. I walked back through the streets, shimmering with street corner lighting, rubbing my hands and making a point of blowing steam from my mouth, still one of my life´s little pleasures, when the temperature drops enough.
The next morning I found a nice little French bistro, simply called Le Bistro, down on Laugavegur Street, where I ate Croissants and drank coffee served by one of the most charming, yet confidently masculine, non-ironic waiters I had ever encountered. He gave me all the time I needed to look out the window, watching all the people in sensible clothing – a mix of brightly-coloured synthetics and Icelandic wool jumpers. Though coffee and croissants at Le Bistro is the sort of bourgeois pursuit I am happy to indulge, I do consider myself a bit more Bohemian – apart from carrying around the array of credit cards, sending the children to a private school, and working in a boring 9 to 5 government department job to pay for it all. After the meal I fumbled around my change trying to work out the value of the different denominations, and what they might be worth in Australian dollars, or even Mexican Pesos, but upon seeing this the waiter waved his hand and said with a charming demeanour, “Don´t worry about that we are not in the United States, here in Iceland tipping is not customary and is not necessary”. Good-on-you economies where you can derive a living without having to rely on an additional 10-20% markup. I had paid in cash, so at least he could avoid some tax – the taxi driver could make up the difference if the roads needed repairing.
Even Bohemians need the basic comforts. I remember a scene in a movie based on La Vie de Boheme – look I´m not cultured enough to have seen the opera – where some dude dies as he´s burning his novel or something. As with him, I needed warmth, if it weren´t to be my last few days on Earth, So I spent some time trying to find some sensible clothing for myself. I´d left my one decent coat on a flight from Guadalajara, Mexico to New York, after carrying it around for four steamy weeks during the hurricane season in Mexico. I went for a black number which promised warmth to minus 5, wind and water resistance and a sizable tax refund if I kept the receipt and took it to some office at the airport before I left Iceland.
“I am so fucking bourgeois”, I thought to myself as I rejoiced in the promise of 25% reimbursement and my newly discovered powers of water resistance. Luckily at that very moment I came across the Reykjavik punk museum. The punk-in-residence was also a charming fellow, in that fuck-you-hippie sort of way. I spent an hour looking at the long history of punk, much of which lamenting what the world was like before punk – it really is hard to imagine what we all did prior to that yelly anti-society music. Earphones high from the ceiling, and I listened to the early days of punk in Iceland, and even contemplated a break listening to the ocean through the toilet bowl, but somehow thought it might be a ruse to capture us ex-hippies.
I know I wrote of my desire for bohemia, but, now that I am far from the angry Icelandic punks, I can admit the closest thing to being Bohemian were my hippy, at times pot-smoking, at others drug and caffeine free vegan, days where I spent six months of bio-dynamic and organic farms, on the dole in Ireland, spending less in that time that I had in the last six weeks. Proving the divide between hippies and punks might one day be healed, the punk-in-residence gave me a friendly fuck-you parting finger photo after explaining Reykjavik really didn´t get much snow, but that last winter there were a few days where there was enough to make his car disappear. I bet he didn´t drive a Mercedes.
I spent the remainder of the day watching people jump from the back of boats, looking at rock art, and visiting some History of Iceland Museum, all by the harbour.
I really don´t know if Anus is a popular Icelandic name, or whether Angus just couldn´t spell his own name. I felt an epiphany with the rock arrangers, the bleak climate, the rocks, it all made sense. If I had some weed I would have just spent the whole day with the little rocks on the rocks. Maybe you didn´t even need weed in this place.
The History of Iceland Museum, perhaps not its real name, I´m not bothered to even Google it at present, told an inspiring story of Vikings finding stuff, killing stuff, being witches, marrying people, killing more people, finding a best friend in Jesus, stretching witches on racks and then burning them, mum´s looking intensely into the eyes of their sons, seeming to tell them, “revenge my death, we are Vikings so even if it wasn´t foul play, it´s our duty. Plus this Jesus guy is like a super-hippie and he will forgive us anyway” and all the stuff.
I surprised myself on how much I could fit into one, mostly overcast and cold day, in Reykjavik. I needed to somehow top it all off, the rocks, the Vikings, the punks. Not to mention the smiley face walking signals. Though that´s somewhat disingenuous now that I´ve mentioned it. I went back to the Airbnb to do all that really bohemian stuff, like post to Facebook and Instagram, writing to loved ones, and organising a day tour to some famous nature places out of Reykjavik for the next day.
When you haven´t seen the sun for most of the day, you are not always clear exactly when night falls, but looking out my little window I could see the grey sky was now a definite blacky-grey. I went downstairs and collected my sturdy, sensible boots from the back door lined up next to the other resdents, And, following a chat with one of the owners of the Airbnb, chain-smoking in the courtyard, I searched for the end-of-the-day experience, knowing I would know what it should be when I saw it. And then I saw it, Icelandic tapas, like the first Vikings who made their way to the shore, I knew I could settle here and find the sort of sustenance I had been seeking.
The waitress offered me some advice on what to eat, suggesting, “you should try the minke whale, it is an experience you can not usually get outside of Iceland”.
I lacked the bravery and bravado of the Vikings, and sensing the outrage it might cause by posting photos with #Imeatingwhalemeatiniceland my cause I took the more hippy option of shellfish and other non-whale offerings, which of course came in jars.
After all these thousands of years of civilised societies developing pottery and other eating implements which are designed to be convenient ways of putting food on your plate and into your mouth, our society has now reverted to shoving things into jars. I kind of wish the punks would leave the poor hippies alone and instead attack the damn hipsters fascination with putting things in jars. Having written that, once I extracted the food from the jars, I found it to be amazingly delicious. And with that, I found myself ending a very satisfying day. Though to be honest I may always regret not having experienced taking minke meat from a hipster jar.