Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


OK, so my big trip I wouldn’t talk about last time: Reykjavik, Iceland. I flew out on the 15th and got back a week-ish later after an overnight in London. Iceland was… an experience. Interesting. Not the best place to go if you have seasonal affective disorder or love sunny weather, especially in April. But it was an experience.

The bulleted list:

  • This was, as always, a last-second trip with very little planning. I actually booked the trip three weeks before leaving, and then did very little aside from buying the Rick Steeves book and checking Duolingo and finding out they don’t even have a course on Icelandic. I did obsess over camera gear and bags a bit, and I started throwing a few things on a google map, but even the day before I left, I felt like I was completely unprepared.
  • So, SFO, hauled out my big suitcase, an REI backpack with all the camera gear in it, and my regular laptop bag. The camera gear consisted of my DSLR, an SLR, about five lenses, that Olympus pocket camera, and a dozen rolls of 35mm in a lead-lined bag.
  • First flight was to JFK, five and a half hours, leaving at noon. I had no desire or ability to sleep. I vaguely worked on a paper for school, but this was a flight too short for sleep or settling in, and just long enough to be annoying.
  • Spent an hour and a half on the tarmac in thunderstorms, and got worried I’d miss my flight, but looked it up, and we were taking the same 757 I was just on, so no big deal. The main problem was the Delta terminal has almost no food, and it all closed about ten minutes after we landed. I got the very last burger and last fries off the grill at Shake Shack, and that was not advisable. I threw out the inedible hockey puck after eating half of it anyway, and hoped I could fill up on power bars and Sonata tablets on the way out.
  • The flight out was delayed a half hour every half hour, and instead of 23:00 we left at about 02:00. It was another five and a half hours flight time. The plane was half empty, and most people tried to sleep, but I never can. I nodded out for a half hour, then watched the sun rise over Greenland.
  • Keflavik International looks like a Star Wars rebel base built on a moon. The inside looks like a minimalist furniture maker from Germany designed a ski lodge for Ikea. I sprinted past the old people, and got through customs in two seconds. Went to the restroom, brushed my teeth and changed clothes, and when I got out, there was my suitcase.
  • Had some confusion on the car rental and had to get a new one at Avis. They told me 19 times not to let go of my car door when I opened it, because the wind would rip it off. I thought that was cute… until I got outside. It felt and looked like I was on another planet. Insane wind, and the temp wasn’t that cold, but it was just… weird. It looked like it was much colder than it was. Maybe it was something about the sky.
  • They gave me a little Mazda 2. I drove out and realized this was the first time I ever drove a car in a foreign country, except for Vancouver, and that doesn’t count, because they filmed X-Files there. I didn’t understand any of the street signs. Nothing was in English. Everything was in metric. The speed limits were insanely low. The highest speed limit in the country on the highways way out of town is 55mph. In cities, it’s like parking lot speed. There are cameras everywhere enforcing this with absurdly expensive tickets.
  • Went to a little cafe in Keflavik. I quickly realized everyone could speak English, but nothing was in English, and nobody would converse with me, a lot like Sweden last year. When they said “viltu langan blað með ýmsu skrifað á” to me at a million miles an hour and I said “what?” they would say “receipt?” but that’s about it. Anyway, got a great donut and a grilled ham and cheese in this little strip mall bakery, and realized I was about to be awake for some insane amount of time, like 36 hours.
  • I stopped off the highway before the bakery, got out to take pictures. I know I keep saying this, but it seriously looked like they terraformed Mars in some Ray Bradbury novel and I had a Mazda hatchback there.
  • I still had all this time to kill before I could get to my hotel, so I went to Kringlan mall. It looked like a Westfield mall, 180 stores, lots of wood, high ceilings, and packed on a Sunday. There wasn’t a single vacant store. Lots of tan tiles, no 00s-era all-white blanding like a Simon mall in America. It had a grocery store and a Hagkaup, which is a hypermart that is like if Ikea competed directly with Target. There were a lot of hardlines stores, which was odd. They had a Sbarro pizza. It was all incredibly confusing on no sleep.
  • The hotel was this weird no-staff thing where they email you a code. It had the tiniest bed I have ever seen in my life, like when my father-in-law bought my nephews “big boy beds” when they were four. It was seriously only about thirty inches wide. Nice Euro shower. It was in a neighborhood near a hospital and some commercial property, like past the suburbs. Close to the car dealerships. At least there was a Hagkaup a block away.
  • Abolutely no food around, so I stumbled into a Lebanese falafel place. I don’t speak Arabic or Icelandic, and the one guy working didn’t speak English, so there was lots of pointing. Awesome falafel, though.
  • Absolutely nobody takes or expects tips or gratuity in Iceland. They think it’s insulting. Everything is cashless, too. I never got any paper money, and used a card for everything.
  • I blacked out on the first night at like 19:00. I woke up refreshed and ready to start the day, then opened the shade and realized I’d been asleep for maybe three hours and the sun was just setting.
  • After a night of pseudo-sleep, I sat looking out the window, and realized that at least in my neighborhood, it resembled Anchorage, except remove everything American and redneck about it and replace it with culture from Denmark. The weather reminded me of Seattle in December: constantly clouds and rain, but only like 0.01mm of precipitation a day.
  • Monday: drove to Reynisfjara beach, about two and a half hours away. I found one of the problems was that there is no place to pull over on Iceland highways: two lanes, no rest areas, no parks, maybe an attraction every hundred kilometers. I saw a lot of beautiful desolation, but couldn’t really take pictures of it.
  • Reynisfjara is a black beach on the Atlantic. It was absolutely stunning and completely surreal. Black sand, black shores, black rocks, black mountains, gray waves that looked gigantic, coming straight from Antarctica across the world and hitting shore, creating this cold mist and fog everywhere. It did not look real, at all.
  • Second mall on the way back was Smáralind, a double-decker corridor mall, with a partial third floor of restaurants and a movie theater. It was the same exact layout as the old Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, if Scottsdale had been redone in the year 2300 by aliens. It also had a lot of durable goods, including an H&M home store, which I’d never seen. I asked someone about this, and of course the answer is there’s no Amazon in Iceland, and you have to go to the mall to buy cookware or a duvet. So it was basically like a mall in 1988, and you can guess how I felt about that.
  • Tuesday: went on this food tour where they bring you to five different restaruants. It was the guide, a couple from New Jersey, and a guy from Saudi Arabia. It was good to talk to people, but why did I fly 4500 miles to talk to someone about baseball stadiums we’d visited in the states? Anyway, the guide said there would be no freaky Icelandic food, and that was true until the very end. Lots of great lamb and fish stuff, a farmer’s breakfast, lobster tacos, ice cream, awesome, until…
  • Fermented shark. Hákarl. He brought this stuff out, little cubes on toothpicks in a glass jar. This was the stuff that Anthony Bourdain said was the single worst food he’d ever eaten in his life. He was correct. I had to eat it. It tasted like the worst piece of gristle you’ve ever spit out because you couldn’t chew it, soaked in cat urine for six months. Every attempt to chew it made it worse. I swallowed it mostly whole like a bad pill. I could not get the taste out of my mouth, and within a few hours, I was sweating what smelled like shark piss. Would not advise.
  • Stumbled to a KFC that night, which looked like someone looked at old videos a thousand years after the destruction of the world and decided to clone an authentic American eatery and got it entirely wrong. The chicken tasted like a Banquet TV dinner from 1989. People were putting ketchup on fried chicken. I only ate half of mine and left.
  • Wednesday: a three-hour 1:1 photo tour, which was largely in 47-degree wind and rain. Lots of shots and explanations about how almost all the big civic projects of the fifties were designed by one guy who invented Icelandic architecture.
  • Gave up and went to a Taco Bell for lunch. It tasted identical to one in the states. The Crunchwrap Supreme is available with bacon. The volcano burrito is still on the menu. That night, I also – sorry, ugly American – went back to the mall and ate at a TGI Friday’s. Largely identical, very weird.
  • Thursday – drove south and went to Krýsuvíkurkirkja, which is this black church in the middle of nowhere that looks like something out of a bizarre horror film. Also drove to Fagradalsfjall, the big volcano that just blew like a year or two ago, but there’s nothing to see unless you hike miles, and it was like 35 and pouring rain, so nope.
  • I drove back into town and stopped to get more Coke Zero and found an actual dead mall. It was more of an atrium with stores around it, adjacent to a grocery, but it looked completely abandoned, and had pink and white tiles and plants growing randomly everywhere.
  • Went to the Lemmy bar in town. I don’t know that Lemmy’s estate actually was in on this; it’s just a metal bar downtown that has really good waffles and bands that play on the weekends.
  • Last day: drove about two and a half hours to Snæfellsjökull, a giant glacier to the northwest.
  • Stopped at Bjarnarfoss, a big waterfall. It was cold and muddy, and you have to go up a trail and then basically climb on loose rocks and mud to get to the base of the waterfall, which was a huge pain, especially with two cameras. Beautiful view up there. And then on the way down, I slipped and fell. Didn’t go too far, but bashed up my knee pretty seriously.
  • Drove to Arnarstapa, this fishing town on the water, and found this little place that looked like a roadhouse that hadn’t been painted since 1950 that just said “ICELANDIC FOOD” stenciled on the wall. Went inside and it was all wood and picnic tables. I got possibly the best stew I’d ever eaten in my life, and this rustic bread that was just insane.
  • Did a bit of off-roading on the f-roads with the Mazda to see the glacier. They were open enough for me to get up there, although I did have one place where I got stuck and had to rock the car back out.
  • Dinner: ate at Dill, a Michelin star restaurant. It was like ten courses and incredible, but that lamb stew was just about as good.
  • Three-hour flight to London. I was stuck overnight, so I went to a Hilton connected to Heathrow, and slept six hours in a normal-sized bed. Then I had a brutal eleven-hour flight back after every possible inconvenience at the airport.

The trip – like the Sweden trip, I hit a wall a few days in and wondered why the hell I did this instead of just going to a resort in Arizona or something and relaxing. The whole trip was very gray and rainy and I was alone and nobody spoke English and the food was bizarre, and that was on top of whatever base depression I already had going on before I left. But I think by the final day, it all clicked. And after dinner, I was walking downtown in the golden hour, maybe fifty degrees out, a crisp cold, and it all just hit me, how much I loved it and how I’d miss it after going back home. It was an odd realization. I could never live there, and I honestly don’t know that I’d come back. But it was a perfect end to the trip.

(I need to get the photos sorted. It’s a bit of a mess, and I have a lot of film at the lab. I’ll get it figured out at some point.)


2 responses to “Iceland”

  1. Joey Junger Avatar
    Joey Junger

    It really does look like an exoplanet in that photo. And the church does resemble a place where some rural, isolated cultists would slaughter people, probably interloping foreigners. The last time I thought about that region (Norden) was when Fagradalsfjall was spouting ash before a big boxing match set to take place in Reykjavik. The fighters had to be helicoptered into the stadium. Crazy, but not any crazier than the “blackout” fights they held in London during the Blitz. On your next trip, go to one of the three Scandinavian countries instead—definitely Finland first. The people there are more hospitable, and it has more of a charm, less of an alienating vibe, than Iceland.

    1. Finland is a thought. I think Denmark might be next – one of my tour guides split his time there and had great things to say about it, and we had a foreign exchange student from there when I was a kid, so I have some interest in it. Honestly I think the next trip though is going to be something short and relaxing, and maybe I won’t pack anything. Use hotel soap and buy clothes at the closest Target for the week.

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