Icelandic Reflections

I’ve always been a proponent of visiting new places, seeing new sights. This past week I was in Iceland for work. A year and a half ago I was in Iceland for vacation. I choose Iceland for vacation because I wanted to go somewhere that was cold and dark and would aid great sleep. I also wanted to see the Northern Lights. To my delightful surprise, I discovered that Iceland has the most comfortable beds of anywhere I’ve slept in the world. To my dismay, I never saw the Northern Lights.

When I learned that the team had chosen Iceland for the team meetup, I booked my ticket. There wasn’t the excitement I feel when traveling somewhere new. There was the excitement of the opportunity to spend several days with the team.

Once I landed, there was something comforting about being in a city I had been in before. Reykjavik is an easy city to know (not such an easy city to spell). I knew the streets, where the main shopping street was, where the cute pond with the ducks were. I knew where the post office was and where to buy stamps. I remembered the grocery store. I remembered the church and the amazing views you could see from the top of the tower. And with all that knowing, there was still much to discover. We ate at new restaurants. We visited new pubs. We stayed in a new neighborhood.

Some of my favorite moments were:

Drinking a polar beer (not bear!) and sharing stories with Krista

Observing the beautiful graffiti on the sides of buildings

Approaching the formidable Hallgrímskirkja and watching a group of theater students pretend to sword fight and behead each other in the snow

Climbing the tower at Hallgrímskirkja and taking in the expansive views of Reykjavik

Observing quirky sites around Reykjavik, like this sweater covered tree

Viewing the swans and ducks on the pond by City Hall

Enjoying a few hours at the Blue Lagoon before returning to the US, eating Skyr, watching giant snowflakes fall from the sky, and most of all, spending time with colleagues that I respect and admire and don’t get to see nearly often enough.

The Blue Lagoon

I walked outside, shocked by the icy air on my bare arms and legs. I gently, hurriedly, made my way tot he steps entering the lagoon, heeding the “slippery when wet” signs. I dipped one toe into the milky blue waters. Ahhhhhhh. Warmth. I quickly lowered myself in.

I leisurely swam from patch to patch of the lagoon, enjoying the varying temperatures, pausing to float in those that were especially warm. While floating, I noticed the winds picked up and were blowing me, with increasing speed, across the lagoon. I stood and faced the wind. Icy pelts greeted me. Hail! Hail? Hail.

I turned my back to the wind and submerged my body up to my chin in the warm waters. I avoided turning my face to the wind to avoid the stinging of the hail. The contrast of the warm soothing water and the icy stinging hail stones was exhilarating. Up to a point. then it just hurt.

 

Once again, I ordered the tasting menu. This time at Einar Ben. The waitress brought me the first course, a marinated meat over frisee. I took a bite of the meat. It was marinated, and juicy, and tender, and utterly delicious. I didn’t remember there being beef on the menu, so I summoned the waitress.

“What is this?”

“The whale.”

“The whale? Like the fish?”

And as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted with all my might to pull them back, make them not said. I knew a whale was not a fish. I knew it. But for some reason, I thought a whale would taste like other animals from the sea, like fish, for example.

She cocked her head. “No, not like the fish. Like the mammal.”

Mammal, fish, whatever the class. It was the best dish I ate in Iceland.

Dinner at Vox

The amazing tasting menu, accompanied by wines from Spain and South Africa.

Upon arrival: house-made potato chips, pork cracklings, and herbed skyr; country bread with caramel infused butter

Amouse-bouche: sugared sea kelp over langoustine liver cream with bits of ice crystals

Appetizer one: langoustine stuffed with scallops with pickled rose petals and an herbed oil infusion

Appetizer two: slowly cooked, lightly salted cod with ceps (mushrooms) and baby potatoes in a mushroom broth

Entree: Lamb fillet and lamb shank with mashed potatoes and assorted root vegetables

Pre-dessert: moss and berry sorbet with caramel cream with iced brown sugar crumbles

Dessert: strings of fresh apple over soft brown cheese, cream, and ice cream, doused with apple juice

Walking on Glaciers

Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! Crunch!

Was the sound the cramp-ons made as we walked across the glacier. With each step, we dislodged small kernels of ice, gently tumbling, making xylophone-esque sounds as they fell.

Ting! Ting! Ting! Ting!

The sun glistened over the ridges of the glacier. We explored sink holes, ice blue from the lack of air. We climbed over wide gaps, a result of the melted ice from the summer. We examined shallow puddles with layers of intricate sheets of ice frozen on top. As we meandered across the wide expanse, I thought, “This is heaven on earth for me. Exactly.”

The Elusive Northern Lights

“Don’t you see them?”

“No.”

“Right there. A glimmer. Look.”

I squinted my eyes then opened them wider. I focused on the area he was pointing to. And I didn’t see anything.

“Here. Let me take a picture. Then maybe you’ll see them. Sometimes the lens of a camera sees more than the eyes of a human.”

But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted the full, techni-color, dancing across the sky, visible to the naked eye version of the northern lights.He snapped a digital photo, the lens open for a quarter of a minute. He brought the display to me.

“See? See? Right there – do you see a bit of green?”

Again, I squinted. I turned the display to the left and to the right. I really didn’t see anything. But also didn’t want to appear to be contrary.

“Maybe…”

“Wait! Let’s go to the other side of the mountain!”

And we were off. From one side of the mountain to the other. To the observatory hill, where NATO used to have operations. Through the tunnel, to a lookout spot high on the hill. And always the same. He claiming a slight glimmer, me dubious. In each new spot, we’d get out, walk around in the freezing temperatures, look from the mountains to the sea and back, then get back into the car. And watch. And wait. And watch. Then drive to another spot.

After several hours of this, he suggested we call it a night. Disappointed, I agreed. Oh, northern lights.

The Glacier Lagoon

My guide, Odinn, greeted me at the small hotel in Hofn. “I will show you the northern lights,” he confidently assured me. That was good. That was one of the reasons I had chosen Iceland for vacation – a desire to see the magical northern lights, patterns dancing through the sky.

“What will you do until tonight?” he asked. I must have had a questioning look upon my face, because he suggested I rent a car and drive to some of the nearby national parks in order to see more of the landscape. I sat there, perplexed. I had purposely chosen this particular tour because it said transfers, guides, and tours were included. I don’t like to drive. Driving tends to make me very sleepy. I had not planned on driving while in Iceland.

I asked about the glacier hike that was included as part of the tour price. Odinn laughed. “Oh, no, not a glacier hike. A ticket to the Glacier Expedition. That’s a museum.”

So, not what I was planning, I rented a car. And set out towards Jokulsarlon, hoping to see the majestic glaciers and the smaller floes at the glacier lagoon. Despite the cold, the sun shone brightly. As I drove along the main highway, the ring road, I didn’t encounter any other cars.

I saw the sign pointing towards the right. Jokulsarlon. I arrived just in time for a boat tour. It was one of the boats on wheels, those amphibious vehicles that go from land to water to land. As the boat prepared to enter the lagoon, a smaller zodiac boat prepared the way for us, breaking the fine layer of ice that had formed on the surface.

A thought suddenly struck me: Wasn’t this how the Titanic sunk? And I paid for this?

After a few moments of mentally preparing myself for survival if I were to end up in the icy waters of the lagoon, I began to enjoy the ride. The light danced between ice floes, some dark, some white, some icy blue, some tiny, some large, some housing seals, others floating gracefully through the lagoon. It was an incredibly calming experience, on a boat, with only a few other people, in the middle of an expansive lagoon, listening to the ripple of the water and the distant calving of the glacier. Even though it wasn’t what I had planned, it was the perfect place to be.

Day 1

I wandered throughout the narrow streets of Reykjavik. The residential streets were lined with picture perfect houses in bold colors – deep reds, vibrant blues, evergreen greens. I meandered through the city center, noticing an abundance of restaurants and yarn shops. A fine mist turned into a heavier drizzle. I ducked into a cafe, welcoming the opportunity for a cup of tea and time to read my Icelandic mystery, Jar City. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more relaxing way to start a vacation.

For dinner, I visited The Fish Market, a restaurant recommended to me by a colleague who had recently visited Iceland. I ordered the tasting menu, thinking I would taste small amounts of several culinary delights. Three hours later, more than satiated, I left the restaurant, having consumed:

  • crab legs with a herbed sauce
  • BBQ ribs with salmon salt
  • watermelon and avocado salad
  • sushi
  • grilled salmon over mashed potatoes with a porcini broth
  • pan-fried cod with Israeli couscous
  • slow roasted lamb with crisplings
  • dessert sampler of blueberry cobbler, chocolate cake, ginger souffle, mango sorbet, berry sorbet, and tropical fruits

Not a bad way to start a vacation.