Mark, Mary, and I spent the last few days in Iceland. All three of us really loved this place.
Admittedly, Iceland has its drawbacks. For one thing, it’s expensive. A thousand kroner equals about $8.00, and a typical menu item in a restaurant starts at about 3,000. Ouch. At least the food is good! And for another thing, Iceland is cold. Duh. At least there’s no false advertising in the name – take that, Greenland. But do bring your warm clothes if you come. Of course the local merchants would be thrilled to sell you cozy togs here, but paying the ensuing credit card bill might require taking out a second mortgage on the hacienda at home. I did flirt with the idea of buying a knitted wool stocking cap that had knitted Viking horns on it, but I managed to resist. Literally, cooler heads prevailed. (And yes, I know that Vikings didn’t actually have horns on their helmets.) We also skipped visiting the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is exactly what you think it is. FYI, they advertise a section featuring trolls and elves. We may have to go next time we’re there.
Even with these drawbacks, Iceland is still a great place. You know why? Because it’s funny. This is the quirkiest, funniest country I’ve visited. Consider the airport serving Reykjavik. It’s called Keflavik, which to my untutored ear sounds like either body armor or something a powerful expectorant brings up. Keflavik is a nice Scandinavian airport; it’s clean and efficient and has lovely blonde wood floors. But it’s also a funny airport. The night we arrived, I made my way to the snyrtingar (the toilet, to the uninitiated) while Mark waited for the bags to come down the belt. When I walked out of the door, I was startled to see that a giant puffin head (bigger than I am) was hanging upside down from the ceiling. (How did I miss this vision on the way in? All I can figure is that I was very motivated at the time.) Since I was getting over a cold and had downed a bunch of cough medicine before the flight, I figured I was hallucinating. But Mark saw it, too, along with the crash marks that had been painted into the ceiling around the bird. Okay, here’s a clue that this is not your average airport. Looking around seemed like a good move at this juncture. No more wildlife met my eye, but I did see a sign that caught my attention. “Where are the locals who were on your flight? They’re in the Duty Free Shop, buying booze. SHOP LIKE A LOCAL!” Sure enough, lines of people in parkas had filled shopping carts with beer, wine, and spirits and were waiting in lines to check out. It’s the first time in decades I’ve been tempted to shop in Duty Free.
Tired and amused, Mark and I boarded the bus to Reykjavik. Mary had arrived earlier, and she guided us to the apartment we had rented. The apartment was unusual in one respect: the light fixture in the living room was a life-sized plastic horse. The lamp emerged from the horse’s head, and the switch was a balky step-on button on the floor. To say this was random and not a little startling understates the case. The light also made for some interesting conversations. You don’t often say “Dammit, I can’t get the horse to turn on” in this lifetime.
Next day’s wander turned up even more evidence of Icelandic humor. One restaurant offered a 10% discount on food to anyone who meowed 10 times while they ordered. The password to another restaurant’s WiFi was whatisyourpassword. The ATM we used proclaimed “Hi! I’ll be your tomato today.” And even the anti-littering signs had some snark to them. One such sign stood at the amazing geyser field, which included Geysir, after which all other geysers are named, and hot pots of bubbly, steaming sulphuric water. The sign enjoined visitors not to throw coins into the geysers. “The geyser doesn’t need your money. It’s not good luck, and it’s littering. If you want to get rid of your money, give it to someone else.”
What causes this humor to bubble up like the Earth’s offerings from the cleft between the tectonic plates that run through the country? Perhaps it’s the fact that the population is small (about 360,000 in the whole nation, which is roughly the number of Icelandic horses in the world – fun fact) and confined to an island. Everyone seems to know everyone, and you’re stuck indoors with them through a long, cold winter, so you’d better find a way to cope. Or maybe it’s because the original settlers were not toe-the-line folks. In fact, Iceland’s first permanent settler was a fellow who was banished from mainland Scandinavia because he killed someone. He packed up two boats with assorted household goods, family members, and livestock, made a quick run by Ireland to pick up extra slaves, and settled in on Iceland’s shore to make a home. In fact, most present-day Icelanders are descended from this family and the other original few who joined them. Dating is made less complicated by an app where you can check out a potential sweetie to see how closely related you are. Apparently if you make it to a second date, which traditionally is to go soak in a hot spring together, you’ve decided that the connection is sufficiently remote to be acceptable.
In fact, for a people descended from a murderer and other assorted Vikings, Icelandic folks seem to have been pretty laid back for a long time. Take the example of the transition from worship of Odin, Thor, and company, to Christianity. About 1,000 years ago, the question arose whether the islanders should bow to the will of the Norwegian king and convert to Christianity. At the annual assembly of the Althing – the world’s oldest representative assembly, which still meets today – the chieftains opted to entrust the conversion question to Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi Thorkelsson, then the Lawspeaker. (The Lawspeaker was the fellow who stood on a rock at each Althing and recited a third of the laws each year. In comparison, I used to know a few of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by heart and mumble “lives in being plus 21” when anyone mentions future interests, which thank God isn’t very frequently. If you’re not a lawyer, don’t worry about that last bit.) Thorgeir retreated under an animal hide for a day and came out to proclaim that Iceland should be Christian, but that people could practice the old religion in private if they wished. No wasteful war of religion for these folks! The one exception was a brief war between Catholic and Lutheran forces around the time of the Reformation. The fighting Lutherans prevailed, in case you’re interested.
Other than that, Iceland has operated pretty much without an army, except when current events dictate otherwise. In the early 1800s, for example, the British threatened to invade Iceland. The target country mustered a few hundred men armed with weapons, including halberds, scrounged up from the Middle Ages. When the Brits finally showed up, Iceland’s supply of gunpowder was so low that the island pretty much bagged its self-defense. Likewise, in 1855, the king tried to organize an army and even gave 280 rixdollars to buy guns (I’m guessing that’s about what we spent on lunch at the mineral springs at the Blue Lagoon), but the army disbanded within a few years due to lack of interest. Before the Brits invaded in WWII, the country almost managed to finish training 60 officers but pretty much failed to put together enlisted men for them to lead. Everyone went home, except the British, and pictures suggest that it was quite a jolly occupation. The only shooting war in Iceland’s recent history was the Cod Wars, which were fought against (who else?) the British in the 1970s. These wars lasted for a total of about 20 months between 1958 and 1976 and focused on fishing rights in waters claimed by Iceland. Apparently a few boats rammed each other, and the occasional potshot rang through the air. Honestly, I’ve see worse at fraternity parties, but I’m sure it was traumatic for all involved.
One catchup note is appropriate here. I earlier referred to the Althing, or the parliament. Interestingly, it used to meet outdoors, in the area where the North American tectonic plate is pulling away from the Eurasian tectonic plate. It’s since moved inside, which seems like a good idea, but I like the imagery of trying to keep a people together in a world that is literally coming apart under your feet. In Icelandic, the assembly is the Alþingi. The letter that looks like a p that could play in the NBA is a thorn. Along with the eth, or ð, it’s a letter pretty much only found in Iceland these days. It all has something to do with Old English and voiced dental fricatives, whatever they may be. I have grim suspicions that it’s related to lives in being plus 21. Suffice it to say that there are lots of ways to write the th sound in Icelandic. My personal favorite is ð, because to me it looks like a 6 that had too much Viking beer, a brand I recommend, and has put its cap on at a tipsy angle and is now headed for home but in the wrong direction. At least it’s not singing “Nights in White Satin,” like a fellow we passed in the street at 7am last Friday. We were going to breakfast; he wasn’t.
Eventually, like our singer and my friend ð, we had to head home. Mary left early on Friday, and we left late. And at the same airport with the puffin head in baggage claim, we took the picture attached to this blog post. In it, I’m roasting in the pot of the trolls Leppalúði and Grýla. (There’s a sign inviting you to do this, I swear!) This duo roasts naughty children. In what is perhaps the first instance of fashion police, their cat eats people who have not received new clothing on Christmas Eve. Their baker’s dozen of sons are known as the 13 Yule Lads. They run around the countryside stealing food, but they make up for it by leaving presents at Christmastime for good children who’ve put shoes on the windowsills. Naughty children get potatoes instead of presents, which is not much to write home about but beats getting roasted by Mom. Just saying!
So now you’ve had a brief introduction to Icelandic humor. It may not be unique to this country; we read in one restaurant that Norway’s first airplane hijacking was settled when the hijacker traded his weapon for more beer. But this country is great, and I hope you now understand why Iceland really is my tomato.