Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Posted on 6/11/03


Due to the randomness and unpredictability of Iceland Air’s “Lucky Fare” program (Motto: “You’ll be lucky if our call center agents know what the hell they’re talking about”), I did not stop in Reykjavik as planned. This was especially painful as I had an exhilarating itinerary planned for Iceland that included, eating puffin (“Tastes like ostrich!”), visiting the arousing Icelandic Phallological Museum and thorough exploration of the rumor that Icelandic women are super easy. With there being only about two hours of dusk this time of year (notice, I didn’t say “night,” as it is never truly dark in Reykjavik during the peak of the summer solstice), accomplishing all of this and more in a two day layover on my way to Norway seemed perfectly realistic to me. Alas, I was forced to fly straight into Stavanger and I am being reduced to writing a piece on Iceland from the dim, spotty memories of my prior visits.

I have been to Reykjavik twice before. My first stay was a sad, semi-conscious flash of a visit. I had just finished nine days of staggering around London, during which time there was a wicked transit strike that inconvenienced me greatly. After walking further in nine days than I had in the two prior years, my dogs were barking and the cumulative cider hangover that I was sporting was making even basic motor skills a challenge. Nevertheless, I managed to do what every tourist should do in Iceland and take a dip in the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool/health spa/kick ass photo op about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. If you’ve missed out on the Iceland tourism promotional blitzkrieg that has ensued in the past five years, you might not know that pretty much everything in the country runs on the steam power produced from the numerous underground lava pools and semi-dormant volcanoes. One of the bennies of sitting on top of all that natural steam is that sometimes an opening forms under a body of water, the steam rushes through and subsequently makes that body of water hotter than cheese curd lard. Needless to say, you have to be careful where you step when you are wading around in the Blue Lagoon. There are several unpleasant hot spots that can sneak up on you suddenly and inflict serious injury on a guy or, as one Englishman so eloquently put it, “Aiiiiigg! I almost cooked me M&Ms!!!”

In addition to being really, really hot, the lava based goo that coats the bottom of the Blue Lagoon boasts “a unique combination of natural minerals, blue green algae and white silica mud” that can purportedly rejuvenate and revitalize your skin and provide numerous other intangible benefits. The Blue Lagoon ad team has parlayed these elements into a Disney-esque theme park. While the geothermal pool is far and away the main attraction, the Blue Lagoon also offers spa services, massages, UVA+B light skin therapy treatment programs, a conference center that boasts a “fine dining” experience with fresh Icelandic ingredients and a gift shop that features bath, face and skin products manufactured from the Blue Lagoon mud.


While I have a few reservations about the limitless uses for Blue Lagoon mud (Mix it in chocolate pudding and you have a gritty, but effective aphrodisiac!), I have to say that four hours of floating around in the pools erased the lingering, torturous leg strain and foot cramps that I suffered during the nine previous days of hoofing it around London. I was relaxed, warm (despite the 40-something Fahrenheit air temperature at the time) and feeling comfortably numb. If you manage to get to the lagoon during the day time, you get the added treat of the jaw-dropping view from the edge of the pool. There are paths and viewing platforms provided all around the Blue Lagoon for people to admire the endless lava fields that stretch into the horizon in every direction, giving one the feeling of having just crawled out of one’s Mars rover. Turn around and you are staring down into the steam belching, blue crater that is the Blue Lagoon.

In addition to not having the energy to pour my own cocktails, my first trip to Reykjavik was hindered by the fact that my hotel was not actually in the city. Whatever you do, DO NOT let them trick you into staying at the Loftleidir Hotel! This place, although it looks large and comfortable in the pictures on the web site, is actually located on the outskirts of Reykjavik, next to a small airport! This huge geographic mistake makes it difficult to nearly impossible to get into the city where the real action is located. If you get stuck at the Loftleidir, you either have to cough up the bling for a not-so-cheap cab ride or stand around for half the afternoon at the bus stop that is conveniently located right in the Loftleidir parking lot, but is not-so-conveniently serviced by actual buses only twice an hour during peak times. Off-peak you see a bus every other week, or so it seemed at the time. For all intents and purposes, you are trapped at the Loftleidir and you miss out on most of the fundamental fun of being in Reykjavik.

The second time I stopped in Iceland, I stayed at the Hotel Skjaldbreid. Great location, right in the heart of the main shopping and social area of the city, with a decent pub conveniently attached to the hotel for lazy lunches and random cocktail urges. The rooms each have a camouflaged mini-fridge (I stumbled upon it on the second day, while I was rooting though the room for any kind of distraction from the writer’s block I was having), tolerable beds, very clean Munchkin bathrooms and they serve an extravagant breakfast by Scandinavian standards. The only issue I had was that the ice machine was melting the ice almost as fast as it was making it. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled that they even tried. Finding an ice machine in a European hotel is about as likely as finding a sober Green Bay super fan. Then you have to factor in that I was in Iceland… It’s probably safe to assume that these people have to deal with enough cold as it is without chilling their beverages on purpose. Then again, I’m from Minnesota and even in the dead of winter, I can go through about two pounds of ice a day, so perhaps I shouldn’t assume anything.

With their minimal need for fossil fuels, the air pollution in Reykjavik is pretty much non-existent, except in the immediate vicinity of the night clubs where the internationally familiar stench of tinkle is ever-present. In fact, every surface in Reykjavik, like most of Scandinavia, is squeaky clean. Dropping your 3AM, post-club hotdog on the ground isn’t nearly as fatal in Reykjavik as say, New York City where even at the best of times, anything that touches the ground is a total loss, including money. While this pacifies my numerous germ phobias, one has to remember that this characteristic is simply the direct result of the unfortunate amount of moisture (rain, sleet, snow and oh yeah, ice) that these countries have to deal with for three quarters of the year. Like my beloved Minneapolis, much of Scandinavia is the greatest place on Earth for about two months a year. Beyond that, I’ll take the Mediterranean, thanks.

I was oblivious to the fact that anyone anywhere considered puffin food, much less a delicacy, until my neighbor on the bus to the Blue Lagoon enlightened me with her dinner menu from the prior evening. The conversation went something like..

Neighbor: “… then they brought out the plates of puffin…”
Me: “The what?”
N: “Puffin.”
M: “Puffin?”
N: “Yes, puffin.”
N: “Uh, yeeeeah…”
M: “Eeeww!”

I went through my usual new exotic food phases.

1. Completely grossed out
2. Consideration
3. Grossed out confirmation
4. Secondary consideration
5. Cocktail
6. Random raving to strangers (i.e. “Puffin! Can you believe that shit???”)
7. More cocktails
8. Summoning of false, drunken courage
9. Decision to give it a try
10. Sleep off hangover
11. Chicken out for two months and then decide to give it a try after it’s far too late

Ultimately, my gastronomic squeamishness didn’t pickle my dining experience in Iceland. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food that Iceland’s restaurants offer. Having been to Norway numerous times and being naïve enough to repeatedly try such ordinarily worry-free culinary adventures as “Chinese,” “French,” and “pizza” with zero success, I was convinced that Scandinavians couldn’t or possibly didn’t want to recreate these dishes the way they were meant to be served. If you walk into a Chinese restaurant in Norway and are greeted by an actual Chinese person, don’t get too excited. It doesn’t mean squat. While at one point these natives probably could have whipped up a Kung Pow chicken that could raise the dead, due the delicate Norwegian palettes that they need to cater to, they are forced to serve a plate of stuff that neither resembles, smells nor, God help me, tastes anything like what you might expect. After scooping in a few mouthfuls of your dish, desperately grasping for some taste, any taste, you might be tempted to request some hot sauce. Don’t. It’s hopeless. No amount of “super mild, potato-extract, luke-warm sauce” will save your ass. Which is why when I was served actual “Italian” food in Reykjavik and it tasted really “good,” I was so thrilled that I yelped with “glee” and did a little happy dance that cleared a 10 foot circle around me in the otherwise cramped restaurant.

Now, the real reason I was in Iceland. Babes. Tall, blond, curvy babes. And if you believe what you read, which you should if you are reading this, the rumors are true. There is very little subtlety in the motives of the average Icelandic woman when she is attracted to you. Especially at 1:00 AM on the street in front of my hotel on the first night.

The Icelanders party like screaming Canadian, spring breakers in Cancun every goddamn weekend. Right about the time that people in Minneapolis are usually being shooed home the Icelanders are just getting warmed up. If you show up at any night club in Reykjavik before 1:00 AM, you better be able to entertain yourself, because you will be sitting there alone with one bartender and a bored bouncer who is likely to ask you curtly, “Why are you here so early?” After 1:00 AM however, watch the hell out! Icelanders pile into the bars and clubs by the bus, taxi, and car-load, already ripped to the tits. Alcohol is taxed like a bastard in most of Scandinavia and in Iceland the drinks get more expensive as the night wears on, hence a couple rounds of drinks after 1:00 AM could almost make your car payment. I had learned these drinking tips during my first stay in Iceland, so I came prepared with two bottles of duty-free vodka which I dipped into at about 11:00, after finishing up the bulk of the productive writing for the day. A few cocktails later, I sauntered out the front door of my hotel, with yet another drink in my hand and was almost immediately knocked down by two women. After a couple slurred words, they hooked my arms and lead me to the their favorite club. At this point I was mentally reviewing the rumors about the Icelandic women and I was unsure of what to expect, but my curiosity quickly wilted away after we sat down at our table. The blonder of the two immediately grabbed my hand and with a beautiful shit-eating grin on her face placed it firmly in her crotch and then crossed her legs for good measure. The night just got more depraved from there. If you’d like to hear about it, buy the book.

The basic Icelandic night-out schedule goes as follows:

9:30PM: Get ready.
10:00PM: Begin consuming anywhere from three to 12 cocktails.
12:30AM: Get on the bus
1:00AM: Arrive at the club
1:05AM Find the recipient of your affection
1:06AM – 3:00AM Dance like idiots in between performing minor, public sex acts over in the corner
3:02AM Take a whiz. If you’re feeling generous, buy a couple $15 cocktails for you and your partner
4:30AM Start thinking about leaving
5:17AM: Find your jacket
5:30AM: Go to the hotdog wagon, stand in line behind 342 other drunks to get your requisite post-club hotdog with the works
6:15AM: Find a taxi. Decide where you’re going to spend the night
6:45AM: #### (Sorry this part has been edited down for content, length and because my parents are probably going to read it.)

If you have the strength to actually leave your room the morning after, you will see Reykjavik’s main drag in a rare state of complete filth. Cigarette butts, food and even clothes everywhere you look and the stunning spot down on the corner where it appears several dozen people competed in the World Glass Breaking Championships. Otherwise life in Reykjavik has returned to normal for six more days until they kick out the jams all over again.

The isolation of Iceland has given these people a special bond, like they are all part of a huge, but exclusive club. They have their own language, their own power source, their own government (the oldest in all of Europe) and they have a weird, quiet, pride as a result. Too quiet. In fact sometime you have to pull teeth just to get them to cough up a complete answer about anything.

The Icelanders working in the service industry are not prone to volunteering information or even good vibes for that matter. This makes for very stunted customer service skills that you should be prepared for. If you walk up to the desk guy at your hotel and greet him with a smile and a friendly “hello,” you are likely to only receive a blank stare and silence in response. He’s not being rude, he just doesn’t feel the need to return the sentiment and apparently this is perfectly normal behavior.

Information is given out dutifully, if not sparingly. I learned the hard way, you need to ask about every, little detail when you are questioning an Icelander or you are going to end up muttering to yourself like I did on a surprise 45 minute bus ride in the opposite direction of where I needed to go. After waiting for the bi-weekly bus in the parking lot of the Loftleidir in pouring rain, I was so thrilled to see the bus that I became momentarily lax in my usual interrogation of Icelanders when seeking information. When I asked the bus driver, if he was going downtown, he quietly replied that he was. Relived, I slogged onto the bus and blissfully collapsed into a seat. The bliss cloud quickly cleared however when instead turning toward the city, the bus driver swung around to head out to locations unknown. After a brief wait to give him the benefit of the doubt, hoping that he was simply taking a bizarre shortcut, I clamored to the front and said, “I thought you said you were going downtown?” to which he replied, “I am.” I was more than a little beside myself as I made my way back to my seat while he pulled onto a busy thoroughfare heading even further out of town. It finally occurred to me that I had forgotten to ask him when he was going to go downtown. Of course he was going downtown! But since I failed to ask when he was going downtown, he didn’t feel obliged to add the part “… after I take you on a lengthy tour of the southern suburbs.” So, technically it was my fault for not asking a complete question.

These gripes aside, I really do enjoy Iceland and I was crushed when I realized that I was not going to be able to make it last week, not only for more exhaustive, fact finding and research on the female thing, but I dearly wanted to see the place in the summer. With my self-diagnosed Seasonal Affected Disorder giving me so much trouble in the winter, I think I would have really dug all of that sunlight. If anything, it would have really improved that effing bus ride.

Nevermind that, I’m going to get my Arctic Summer Solstice dose of day light next week here in Norway when I resist all urges to head straight for Ibiza and instead go north to Bodoe to rendezvous with a pack of unicyclers with even less sense than I have as they unicycle up the skinny, northern part of Norway for “fun.”

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