Eva Collins : Photographs and Writing

Words

ICELAND – THE HOT SPOT FOR COOL PEOPLE.

My friends urged me to take a thick jacket because even though I was going into the northern summer, “the place is not called Iceland for nothing”.
I took the jacket, which took up half the suitcase, and never wore it. In August, the twenty degree sun was hot, the skies were blue and the parks were full of sun bakers.

In fact, by northern standards, even in winter, Reykjavik is not that cold.
The temperatures don’t drop much below minus twelve degrees and winter’s the time when the stunning Northern Lights (the Aurora Borealis) race across the sky on crispy cold and still evenings.

I learned that one of the most relaxing places to see this heavenly display is from steamy tubs at outdoor thermal pools. All over the countryside I witnessed plumes of steam rising from the ground, hot springs bubbling and geysers shooting into the air. This natural energy comes from volcanic passages reaching deep into the centre of the earth.

‘We’re really grateful for the free hot water,’ a shopkeeper told me.’ It’s piped underneath the streets in winter, which keeps them free from ice.’
Mind you, the price tag for this free geo- thermal asset is volcanic activity. There is an eruption somewhere in Iceland every five years or so. Last time it was Mt.Hekla just outside Reykjavik, which erupted in the year 2000, though that didn’t seem to bother the locals I met.

I wondered around Reykjavik, a small and charming town lying between a lake and a busy harbour where cargo boats come and go exporting local fish and importing fresh vegetables and grain. I was surprised to see houses built of thin corrugated iron; however, their metal walls are heavily insulated to keep out the cold.

I saw no sky scrapers, no traffic jams, and no jostling crowds. As I strolled around, I felt safe knowing that there is virtually no serious crime, with the annual national murder rate falling below five!

But I was impressed by the smart boutiques, galleries, book shops, cafes and trendy bars. I chose from Italian, Indian, Japanese and French restaurants. The more adventurous gourmet might like to try traditional Icelandic taverns which serve whale, puffin, cormorant… putrefied shark and …ram’s testicles.

Night clubs throbbed with music; from punk rock through to jazz and funk. Expensive alcohol does not seem to deter clubbers from rocking on till the early morning hours. Like nearby Scandinavian countries, the government does its best to discourage alcoholism by extremely high taxes, but with limited success.

The country’s small population of 600,000 is boosted by a large foreign work force.
In restaurants I often overheard my native Polish being spoken by waiting staff and the concierge at my hotel was Filipino.

Darkness fell around nine pm. However, in June and July, there are almost 24 hours of daylight. If you are a golfer, you can come in summer for the unique experience of midnight golfing close to the Arctic Circle. But even in summer the weather can change suddenly: when the warm Gulf air meets the cold Polar seas, it results in fierce, wind-driven rain. That’s the time when the locals not only don their raincoats and hoods, but need to shield their eyes from the piercing ‘horizontal rain’ which hits the ground at a sharp angle.

On the weekend, I headed out of Reykjavik to the famed Blue Lagoon, which sits in the middle of a black moonscape lava field. An open - air aquamarine pool, its hot seawater comes from as deep as 2000 meters below the surface and is claimed to have healing properties for skin ailments, asthma and arthritis. I lounged there with warm marshmallow mud oozing between my toes. The biggest delight was my massage: as I floated on a rubber mattress with the sun warming me from above and the warm water from below, a masseur stood behind and gently massaged my neck and shoulders. Bliss!

Iceland is a paradox. Although considered the cleanest country in the world (mostly geo-thermal energy is used), it is the most environmentally degraded place in Europe. I was struck by the bare landscape and paucity of vegetation. The poor top soil is the result of Viking deforestation and allied with strong winds and volcanic eruptions prevent trees from thriving. So, it was particularly pleasing to see trees growing in some of Reykjavik’s streets, sheltered by the city’s buildings.

I found the language fascinating. The odd combination of consonants makes it hard to comprehend, let alone pronounce. So, it was hardly surprising that I struggled to remember street names and places. My hotel was on Kringlumyrarbraut Street and one night, when the taxi driver asked for my address, I could remember only the first letter! Fortunately, like most Icelanders, he spoke English and understood my directions.

Things got particularly sticky when I tried to look up a new friend’s phone number.
I met Gudrun Halldorsdottir, who lived with her brother Jon. Jon asked me to ring him, but didn’t tell me that his sister’s surname was taken from their mother’s first name (Halldor) whereas Jon being the son of father Einar was called Einarsson.
But there is another twist: even had I known Jon’s surname, I’d be foolish expecting it to appear before Gudrun’s. In Icelandic telephone directories, people are listed by their first names!

I found the Reykjavikians friendly and courteous and wondered whether their good manners are the result of the way English is taught at school. I chanced upon a bikies’ rally and chatted with some fierce-looking modern- day Vikings. I had to stifle a smile when each sentence they started was with the word, ‘Indeed’.

They asked me what brought me to Iceland.
‘I wanted to see what the end of the world looks like,’ I replied.
‘But madam,’ they laughed, ‘it is indeed you who comes from the end of the world!’