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Kimmery's Guide to Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Velkomin til Reykjavíkur!

GETTING HERE: Unlike most of the people attending the Iceland Writers Retreat, who are flying Icelandair, I’ve somehow managed to book myself on a discount airline called WOW. We get off to a less-than-spectacular start with a three-hour delay. Once we finally board, however, the airline redeems itself with funky fuchsia carpets and an assortment of cheeky sayings stenciled onto the cabin walls, like some kind of airborne IKEA. Must be a Nordic thing. The captain makes a speech about how he is going to fly as fast as possible now—not to worry—and then the flight attendants come out and crack some jokes in their lilting Icelandic accents.

Either no one in Iceland is ugly or there’s no such thing as a discrimination lawsuit here, because the flight appears to be staffed solely by a platoon of gorgeous six-foot-tall blond Valkyries in their twenties. Wait, no, there is some diversity: a gorgeous six-foot tall brunette. Dressed in a retro-chic skirtsuit and pantyhose, my flight attendant also sports hot pink lipstick, three-inch heels, and a jaunty pillbox hat angled atop her white-blond chignon. I stand 5’8” and I’m relatively slender but this girl makes me look short and dowdy. I settle into my seat, a glowering frump in my brown Uggs and leggings, as my husband listens with unusual attentiveness to the safety card instructions.

(Travel tip: if you book a flight on WOW, try to snag a seat either in row 2 or row 10, as these are the bulkhead seats and the exit row seats, respectively. Also row 10 only has two seats per side, thus eliminating the dreaded middle seat. You’re welcome. Also: do not order coffee from the beverage tray: you will be handed a packet of brown granules and hot water, for which you’ll be charged $6.)

When you fly to Reykjavik you are actually flying to Keflavik, a smaller town some 50-odd kilometers away. My husband and I clear customs quickly, then stumble outside in the snowy air to find the Flybus. Do not even think about taking a taxi for the 45-minute ride into Reykjavik: it will cost seven million dollars and is less comfortable than the bus, which has cushy seats and wifi. You don't have to book ahead; there is an enormous fleet of these buses parked outside the airport, all marked with the words Reykjavik Excursions on the side, and for some reason, a variety of mustache designs on the front.

THE CONFERENCE: I’ve been to writers’ conferences before, but never one this international. Almost immediately, I meet people from Canada—a LOT of people from Canada—and all over the U.S., but also from Lithuania, France, Switzerland, England, Ireland, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Spain, and Norway. In all, there are more than twenty countries represented, which lends the conference an invigorating cosmopolitan feel. Despite the mishmash of cultures, we bond quickly: we are writers, after all; open-minded and inherently curious* about everything. That first day, I go to the conference sign-in, where I’m handed a swag bag. Writer Conference Swag Bags are usually stuffed with items like cheap plastic pens emblazoned with the names of local chiropractors. This one, by contrast, contains actual swag: gourmet chocolate, a fiction book, a datebook, a free city pass, expensive lotion and lip balm, a packet of good-quality sea-salt, and a small bottle of Icelandic booze (yeah!) I feel like I’m at the Oscars.

But it gets better.

“Don’t forget about the reception with the President,” one of the conference organizers says, handing me an envelope containing a formal invitation written in Icelandic. “The president of what?” I ask, thinking maybe we are going to meet the head honcho of a local writer’s association.

“The President of Iceland,” she answers, very chipper. “The bus rolls out in an hour.”

It turns out the Iceland Writers Retreat was founded by the First Lady of Iceland and her friend, who happen to be the women greeting the bleary-eyed conference participants. Lest anyone worry there is some kind of writing-related nepotism going on here, they assure us that the former President of Iceland—one not married to our conference organizer—also met with the conference in prior years too. The arts, I’m happy to report, are quite valued in Iceland.

We are bussed out to the residence of the President—a stately red-roofed house overlooking the sea—where we stand in a receiving line. This is very exciting. I task my spouse with getting a photo of me with the President, which of course I plan to post on social media as if to imply I am personally involved in some kind of high-level American-Icelandic summit. “Take lots of good ones,” I hiss, handing over my phone. “Yep,” says my husband, and subsequently snaps just one blurry shot of the back of my hair.

We all file into a drawing room and the President gives a speech. As he alternates between intelligent humor and articulate wisdom, I try not to wither into a ball of unadulterated President-envy. Someone hands me some champagne and that helps. After a bout of besotted applause, we all mill around checking out the scene. There’s a beautiful library, a grand entrance draped with what appears to be the skin of an entire polar bear, and a basement full of historical artifacts dating back to the year 900. I sip my champagne, chatting with some Oxford-educated Germans and an Italian woman living in Switzerland, wondering how I could have fallen into all this multicultural glamour. Champagne! Presidents! Writers! Happy!

Whales of Iceland

We reconvene on the bus. Across the lake, a snow-capped ridge of mountains beckons, their tips shrouded in a bank of low-lying silver clouds. We wind our way on the black road back to Reykjavik (pronounced Rake-Ya-Veek) and are feted at a restaurant in the city. Night falls and the literary stars emerge: our faculty, who take turns reading at the mic. They’re a flaming pack of overachievers: internationally famous New York Times bestsellers, film adaptations of their books starring household names, endowment recipients, fellowships, professorships at the world’s most prestigious universities, too many prizes and awards to list, yada yada. Chris Cleave! Carsten Jensen! Paula McLain! Madeleine Thien! Bret Anthony Johnston! So many more! To rub it in, they’re all nice people too: none of them display any alarm at hanging in a roomful of overzealous neophytes. We mingle and talk. While we are here, we will also be taken to see the Whales of Iceland exhibition (I was overwhalemed) and city hall.

Since there are bound to be a few non-writers reading this, I won’t go into excruciating detail regarding the retreat. Suffice it to say we enjoy ourselves mightily, make terrific new friends, hone our craft, laugh our asses off, marvel at everyone else’s brilliance, and engage in the kind of deep metaphysical discussions you typically find only in stoned people at universities at 1:00 in the morning.

Although—I do want to share the way my class with Meg Wolitzer (The Wife, The Interestings, This Is My Life) wraps up. Without warning, Meg asks us to write the first sentence of a new book and then proceeds around the room having us read them aloud. All writers know the crucial importance of that first sentence: it has to captivate, to set a tone, to hook a reader, to start a story. It’s hard as hell to write a first sentence.

The first person to read her sentence blows us away. And so does the next person, and the next, and the next. They’re lyrical and poetic, they’re heart-wrenching and lovely, they’re compelling and commanding. I cannot believe it: how has everyone managed to write such good sentences? Aren't there any crappy writers in here? Meg must feel the same way, because when she gets to the last person, an Australian woman, she ups the stakes. “No pressure here,” she lies smoothly, “but finish strong. Let’s have this be the best sentence in the history of sentences.”**

I worry this may have been too much but the Australian woman nods, unfazed. (You probably already know this but it’s difficult to faze an Australian, no matter what’s going down.) She rustles her paper and clears her throat. The suspense builds. This isn’t going to end well, I realize suddenly. This poor woman is going to deliver a prosaic glop of word-vomit in her nice unflappable Australian voice, and we are going to have to pretend we like it.

“I was wearing,” she reads, “entirely the wrong sort of underwear to outrun a pack of feral dogs.”

Boom! Mic drop. You cannot tell me you wouldn’t want to read more of that book. The room erupts with admiration.

HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY: Iceland is impressive, no matter where you’re from. An island roughly the size of the state of Kentucky, it’s perched at the top of the world, just south of the Arctic Circle between Greenland and the northernmost countries of Europe, and at this time of year—April—it’s still cold. The weather is notorious for sudden change: our guide tells us there are nine major weather systems,*** compared to three in much larger places, so the weather can go from raining to sunshine to blizzard in the space of a few minutes. And it does. Don’t even bother trying to figure out what to wear ahead of time. Just pack everything.

The topography varies from eerie to alien to unbelievably trippy. The entire place is a heap of moss-encrusted volcanic effluent which rose out of the ocean some 16 million years ago, making it one of the younger land masses on earth. For eons, no humans lived here. Then, somewhere over a thousand years ago, some insane Vikings piled into a wooden boat and set sail for the unknown. Apparently Vikings were even more laid-back about travel than Australians, who are famous for enduring multi-day flights without batting an eye. The Vikings made it to Greenland and Iceland, which, as everyone knows, should have their names reversed. Things did not end well for the Vikings in Greenland. But against all odds, they flourished in Iceland, gifting the modern-day country with swarms of blonds and redheads and a Nordic language where every word seems to have twenty-five letters.***

It is raining and cold as we set out on our first tour, the world reduced to four colors: black, green, silver, and white. On either side of the road, vast fields of dark volcanic rubble undulate into the distance until they reach the white-streaked mountains, the rocks coated with deep electric-green moss and dotted with patches of snow. We follow the road as it rises, carrying us into a fog that blots out everything.

Our guide tells us the ancient Icelanders used to navigate through the silvery shroud by building cairns—vertical stacks of rocks—pointing travelers in the right direction. In those days becoming lost was the least of your concerns; you also had to keep watch for the Huldufólk—the Hidden People—beautiful elven creatures who lived amongst the stones. Dim-witted nocturnal mountain trolls also roamed the island, continually managing to forget they’d turn to stone in daylight. Evidence of their addled memories litters the landscape everywhere you look.

Along with the lava lumps and the trolls, snakelike black tubes crisscross the countryside, occasionally jutting off in inexplicable angles. These are conduits from the geothermal plants, which supply a significant hunk of the nation’s energy. In fact, Icelanders are justifiably smug about their minuscule carbon footprint: almost 100% of their electricity comes from renewable sources, mainly geothermal, hydroelectric, and wind power. I’m no geologist, but something about their location at the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates makes the region, uh, volcanically active, which contributes to the abundance of natural resources. I carry on bravely throughout the tour, despite some hysterical news stories predicting one of the country’s volcanoes is about to blow at any second. There are also boiling hot springs and geysers to contend with, which practically makes me Indiana Jones.

Our bus lumbers down the other side of the mountain, and the landscape changes: now we’re in an area with warty tufts of tan grass and an occasional short tree.

(Q: What do you do if you’re lost in a forest in Iceland? A: You stand up. Heh heh.)

As we wend our way through the freaky terrain, our guide suddenly pipes up with a surprising announcement.

“Now,” she says happily, “you have the chance to see the Icelandic Whores, which were brought over by the Wikings.”

Icelandic Phallogocal Museum

I ponder this. It makes sense that the Vikings might have wished to import some women, since they’d landed on an island without any. Perhaps we are going to see some sort of prostitution relics? After all, Iceland is also home to the world’s largest penis exhibition, the Icelandic Phallological Museum, so we aren't talking about a nation of overly prudish people. However, we round a bend and there they are: a field full of ponies. Icelandic horses, as it turns out, are prized all over the world, and these remnants of the original Viking imports are the only kind allowed in the country. Okay. Moving on.

Skaholt, Iceland

After the horses, we continue on the Golden Circle tour, stopping at Skálholt, an episcopal see from 1065 until 1785. (An episcopal see is an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and this one was a major cultural center.) The thing that everyone remembers now about Skálholt, however, is the unfortunate fate of its bishop, Jón Arason. During the reformation, when Iceland shifted from Catholicism to Lutheranism, things got testy between Bishop Arason and his sovereign, King Christian III of Denmark. Iceland at this point was one of those feudal places with warring overlords and chieftains and vassals and such, leading to plenty of bloody battles. Bishop Arason, who was quite a character, got himself captured by one of his rivals, Daði Guðmundsson of Snóksdalur, and was promptly beheaded along with two of his illegitimate sons. There. Just writing this paragraph makes me feel as if I have penned Lord of the Rings.

Geysir Geothermal Area: Our bus pulls up a restaurant and gift shop, where we dine in style and then ogle a gorgeous array of souvenirs none of us can afford. (Side note: everything in Iceland is expensive. The currency is the króna, and the exchange rate is currently around one dollar per 111 krónur. I try to buy a soccer jersey for my son but it costs 17, 805.61 ISK—that’s $160! But, oh, the clothes! Such beautiful wools and furs and high-quality craftsmanship. I have to be restrained. If you want to shop in Reykjavik, the main shopping street is called Laugavegur and it's fabulous.)

Geysir area Iceland

Stepping outside to the geothermal area is like stumbling into a sci-fi film. Craters of steaming, bubbling blue water pockmark the ground against a backdrop of white-capped mountains in one direction and rocky moonscape in the other. Every five minutes one of the larger craters, Stokkur, blasts a sulfuric rocket of spray thirty meters into the air. This is also the site of Geysir, a more fearsome but infrequent eruption that lent us the English word geyser.

Gljúfrasteinn: We stop at the home of Iceland’s most celebrated writer, Nobel prize winner Halldór Kiljan Laxness. Since it’s an island virtually without trees or stone, architecture is not Iceland’s thing. Most houses here are an assemblage of short rectangles with riveted metal roofs, lending the settlements an air of impermanence. But this white-walled home is lovely. It’s nestled in a attractive valley, with a gushing river in the backyard and views of the ubiquitous mountains. To my delight, it’s also stuffed with more books than the New York Public Library. We settle in the living room and enjoy the heck out of ourselves as Hallgrímur Helgason, a charismatic Icelandic author, reads to us. If you don’t view a YouTube performance of his poem Suit and Tie, about the collective Icelandic shame and anger after the ghastly 2008 financial crash, you will certainly regret it. Then you must buy his book, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning. Worth it for the title alone, am I right?

pingvellir national park

Þingvellir National Park: The site of one of the oldest existing parliaments in the world—first assembled in 930 AD— Þingvellir also happens to be the junction of the North American and European tectonic plates, which are drifting apart at a rate of 1 centimeter per year. If you’re not the sort of person who gets worked up by continental drift, I believe Game of Thrones was filmed around here too. The breathtaking scenery is somewhat lost on my tour group, however, as an intense blast of Arctic rain and wind heralds our arrival. I snatch a few photos and bolt back to the bus, convinced I’m about to flash-freeze like like those poor dudes in the helicopter in The Day After Tomorrow.*****

The Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss and Gullfoss are a bunch of waterfalls. You really cannot capture the allure of such phenomenon with words like “a bunch of waterfalls.” Their height and magnificence is also difficult to capture in photographs, not that it stops anyone from trying. You will not regret a visit.

Skógar Museum: This includes some reconstructed old farmhouses and many artifacts from the 19th century. I’ll add: the tiny house craze apparently got its start here with the adorable turf houses of Iceland. A must-see.

Mýrdalsjökull Glacier: the tip of this glacier conceals a mighty secret: an active volcano called Katla. It erupts roughly every 40–80 years, and is now long overdue, with the last eruption taking place place in 1918. This is not a theoretical danger: in 2010 nearby volcano Eyjafjallajökull blew, wreaking worldwide havoc on air travel. I’m told when Katla erupts, the primary danger to Icelanders (and North Carolinian tourists) will be not lava but tsunamis resulting from the massive ice melt.

Reynisdrangar: Near the village Vík í Mýrdal, fabulous black sand beaches border the coast in the shadow of the mountain Reynisfjall. This area is famous for an assortment of basalt rock formations called sea stacks, leading to all kinds of folkloric legends about—you guessed it—frozen trolls. As if that isn't cool enough, my husband managed to snap a photo of a sea stack that looks like it could be the star attraction in the Icelandic Phallological Museum. If you catch my drift.

The Wonders of Snæfellsnes: A peninsula in the western region of the country with the usual conglomeration of glaciers, natural hot springs, volcanos, oceanfront cliffs, and weird topography. Snæfellsnes has inspired creative genius as diverse as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (based on the infamous Snæfellsjökull glacier) and Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (filmed in in the charming village of Stykkisholmur.) There’s also a famous rock, Gatklettur, and the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Mt. Kirkjufell.

The Reykjanes Peninsula: Here you can tour a geothermal plant, which is more rousing than you might think, especially if you’re a science geek. By far the most famous attraction in Reykjanes, however, is the Blue Lagoon. After a fifty-minute drive from Reykjavik, eventually you see a massive plume of steam on the horizon and you know you’re close. Welcome to one of the weirdest and most beautiful places on the planet: a geothermal spa set in yet another otherworldly volcanic rubble field. The spa is a vast, man-made crater filled with residue from the geothermal plant, which doesn't sound all that enticing but is actually renowned for its healing properties. Taking that concept a little further, there’s no chlorine in the water so strict hygiene is enforced: all visitors have to shower prior to entering. In the past, this entailed a communal naked shower with people barking at you to scrub your unmentionables if it looked like you were slacking off with the soap. Now, by contrast, some of the women’s showers have doors on them. After having three children and seeing approximately two trillion unclothed people in my career I don't have any delusions of modesty, so I skip the line for the closeted showers and go full-on au naturel.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

After I’m properly disinfected and re-suited, I make my way outside, goose-bumped and shivering, onto a ramp leading down to the pool. The water is a startling shade of blue, milky in some spots and iridescent in others. It’s warm and steamy and coats my skin like a gossamer blanket. At one end, there’s a bar where I can slather a mineral mask on my face and at the other there’s a bar where I can get a beer, and then I wander through the lagoon, floating under bridges and bumping up against lava mountains, the world obscured by the mist rising from the water. A light snow begins to fall from the sunny sky, so fine and ashy that I worry it’s some kind of nuclear fallout. It’s serene and hushed in here; although quite a number of people float in the spa, the sounds of their voices are absorbed by the water and their ghostly outlines are blurred by the mist. Perfect ending to my trip.

*i.e. inherently nosy

**I’m actually understating here: in my memory, Meg threw down the gauntlet to such a degree I was quaking in solidarity with the Australian lady. Also, it's possible she's English, not Australian. I am bad with accents.

***Whatever “nine major weather systems” means…

**** A word about the Icelandic language: Since only around 330,000 people live in Iceland, it is one of the least-spoken major languages on earth. That wouldn't be such a big deal (many Icelanders also speak English or Danish or other tongues). But imagine that you are a writer wishing to have your works translated into other languages. There are only so many people capable of translating from Icelandic into, say, Polish or French or Russian. There’s quite a backlog of translations needing to be done.

*****I’m a tremendous weenie, obviously.

Enjoy this travelogue? Read Kimmery's Guide to Costa Rica HERE and Kimmery's Guide to Rome and Florence HERE, or sign up for my infrequent but nifty book newsletter on the bottom of the homepage.

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