Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Iceland, land of too many letters

 For tonight's dinner, I jumped from down near the Tropic of Capricorn to up near the Arctic Circle.


In spring of 2005 my Dad announced that he had a business trip to Iceland, and my mom and middle sister announced they were going with him.  I told them to have fun with that.  But over the next couple weeks I kept hearing about these amazing places they planned to visit, and when Will said he could probably take 3 days off from work to take a trip I jumped at the chance to join the fun.

We booked so late we were stuck in the back row of the plane (in the seats that don't recline) for a 6 hour overnight flight.  We didn't sleep a wink, and then we landed at 6AM 5 time zones ahea of where we started in a place where (at that time of year) the sun never really sets at night.  Talk about effing up your circadian rhythms.

Iceland is eerie, beautiful, stark, and felt downright deserted to this DC metro area resident.  We spent our first day wandering around the capital city of Reykjavik trying to stay awake until normal bedtime.  Which for people in Iceland seems to be never as long as the sun is up.  I think you have to be at least a little bit crazy-nuts to live in Iceland.

We'd fit right in

SO many letters
I'm usually pretty good at picking up at least a little bit of a language when I go somewhere, but in Iceland I didn't even try because most of their words are so ridiculously long and difficult to pronounce.  I left only knowing 4 words: stora (big), litli (little), hraun (lava) and blaberjum (blueberry).

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral
Will and I only had a couple days there, and I was determined to see as much of the place as I could.  So we grabbed our map, hopped in the car, and I dragged everyone all over the place at breakneck speed.  We went to Þingvellir to see where Icelandic parliament (and pretty much everyone else in the country) met every year back in the 900's.

You can also actually see the edges here of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates above ground.  This little canyon is the dividing line, and it's getting infinitesimally wider every moment as the plates travel away from each other (the reason why Iceland positively boils with geothermal activity).

Speaking of geothermal activity, we also went up to see a couple "geysirs" (I probably don't need to translate that), which were awesome.

Just your average boiling hole in the ground

It looks lovely, but don't fall in

Then we continued up to complete our tour of the "Golden Circle" and took a gander at Gullfoss, a waterfall that is a pretty big deal.

After a totally relaxing night of bright sunlight and little kids playing ball in the street outside our window at 2 in the morning, I dragged my family off in the other direction to hike across this lava field:

then up the side of this extinct volcano, which is called Eldborg.

Standing on the lip of the volcano

Our Eldborg adventure gave rise to my favorite picture of my sister ever.  This, I believe, was the exact moment she realized that after scrambling up the steep side of the volcano she would now have to scramble back down.

Once we were all safely back to the car we kept driving for a REALLY long time out the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (yes that's really what it's called) to the little town of Hellnar.  At this point everyone was so exhausted they were just going along with whatever I told them to do, which is how we ended up in this tiny little restaurant eating delicious fish chowder.

Yes that's the whole restaurant, and fish chowder was the only thing on the menu
The view wasn't too shabby though.

Totally rad sea-cave out the front
Super-mystical supposedly magic glacier out the back
One of the many amazing things about Iceland is that it is SO jam-packed with natural beauty that a waterfall like this:

just sits on the side of the road ignored by most people. In America there would be a visitors center and a tour bus parking lot and expensive hang-gliding tours for a waterfall like this but in Iceland it's no biggie, we've got things like this all over the damned place.

When we got back to Reykjavik and tried to go refill our car at a gas station we were informed that it was after 11PM so the gas station is closed you crazies and yes, that is the sun over there in the sky, what's your point?

Our last day we stopped by the Blue Lagoon on the way out.  It's a place where super-hot water is pumped up from the ground, run through a geothermal power plant, then dumped out onto an old lava field.  Someone at some point decided to start pimping the fact that there are lots of minerals in the water and built a spa and little walkways around it and now people flock here to take a dip for the health benefits.

Plus parts of it are so hot you can get kinda boiled so, you know, watch where you swim or risk negating the health benefits by dying

My sister and I, being modest Americans, were extremely nervous about the enforced nudity in the required pre and post-lagoon showers.  To make matter worse we even happened across an article in an Icelandic newspaper (written in English obviously) about how Icelanders can always pick out the Americans at the Blue Lagoon and like to laugh at them for their attempts leave their bathing suits on in the showers.  We managed to skulk around until the shower rooms were empty and the enforcers weren't paying super-close attention, rinse off in 3.6 seconds flat in a corner alcove while staring fixedly at the floor, then run for our towels blushing furiously.  Stinkin' Europeans and their nonchalance about the naked human form.


I had issues trying to recreate a Peruvian meal yesterday because many of the meats we ate were from animals Americans consider pets.  And I had issues trying to recreate an Icelandic meal because we ate things there like whale and reindeer that I can't just stroll down to Common Market and purchase.  I should ask for whale at the fish counter there one day though just to see what they say.

Iceland IS an island though, and as such they eat a lot of fish, which is something that is easily available to me.  So I chose to recreate the seafood chowder we had in Hellnar for dinner tonight.  When we arrived in Hellnar we were hungry, tired and disconcerted from not having seen darkness in 4 days, plus I was ecstatic that after hours of driving I had actually led everyone to the place I promised and not off into the middle of some glacier as I think they suspected.  That delicious chowder was just what we needed to restore our spirits.  For tonight's version I used my favorite recipe for a light but amazingly creamy chowder (and don't worry, there's none of that pureeing potatoes into a grainy slop nonsense here) with a fish mix in place of just shrimp and paired it with some tasty whole wheat biscuits.  All I needed to recover from today was a pilates class, but my spirit was restored nonetheless :-)

And for dessert, skyr of course!

Kids love it!
We discovered this stuff our first day there and ate it every day for the rest of our trip.  I was despondent that it was not available in America until I discovered it a year later on the salad bar at Whole Foods.  I filled a carry-out box to the brim and gladly paid exhorbitant amounts to enjoy skyr once again.  A year or two after that they finally started carrying it in single-serve cups, and although it has sugar it is SO worth it as an occasional treat.  If you've tried Siggis and disliked it (or even if you've tried it and liked it) you owe it to yourself to try this brand (the REAL stuff) at least once.  Of course there are only about half of the flavors here that there are available in Iceland (my favorite is the yellow cup...I don't know what the actual flavor is but it's yummy) but beggars can't be choosers.

I had blaberjum-flavored :-)


Amber said...

What a great post. You are a great writer :o). I need to go back in time and post pictures of my travels to spice up my blog a bit because Lord knows that I don't get to go to any distant places these days. Thanks for inspiring me.

Sara said...

Thanks Amber! And yes, you should post about your travels! It has been lots of fun for me to relive my old trips and I'd love to read about yours!