Þingvellir - TuesdayApril302002
setting: east of downtown Reykjavik, Iceland
As part of our web-banner-click-initiated travel package to Iceland, we were promised free breakfasts in the restaurant on the first floor our hotel. Interestingly, for those keeping track of Hotel Esja's relentless nickel-and-diming, on the morning of our arrival we were told that if we wanted breakfast for that morning we'd have to pay extra for it, even though the breakfast turned out to be a completely unregulated buffet, the sort anyone could sneak into, especially someone staying in a room upstairs. In terms of customer service, Hotel Esja could learn a thing or two by examining the way the service industry is run in, oh I don't know, the United States. When charging for something gives your company nothing and makes a reasonable customer's experience unpleasant enough for him to mention it to another potential customer, it's best just not to charge for it. This is especially true in a purportedly four-star hotel. The breakfast spread, however, was lavish. There was a variety of breads, fruit, some sort of sliced cheese, an assortment of what people in the States call lunch meats, and even pickled herring. There were also thermoses full of coffee for each table. Gretchen and I have been finding the coffee surprisingly good in Iceland. Most of the other people having breakfast in the dining room with us this morning were, it was plain to hear, Americans. The Hotel Esja is, we were learning, a hotel built specifically for American tourists. Across the room at this one table sat a group of women from Brooklyn or Long Island. We could tell this because of the accent of the loudest woman at the table. Though middle age, she was considerably younger than the other women at her table. Perhaps because of this she was acting as something of a conversational prima donna, going on at length about trivial matters that caused her aggravation back home in New York - bridges closed and traffic delays due to 9/11 and that sort of thing. For all I know, she may have even gone off on a tangent about sherry glasses in the manner of the senile ladies in Clockwise. Her voice sounded exactly like one of Gretchen's maternal first cousins once removed. While I stayed back in the hotel room reading a poorly-proofread English-language coffee table book about Iceland, Gretchen went to an art gallery and bought a number of works, including a painting by Harpa Bjornsdottir, the artist whose metal sculptures we'd admired in the Harbour House yesterday. Hours before Gretchen and I had left New York, I'd received an email from one of my readers who actually happens to live, I'd forgotten, in Iceland. His name is Totil and he's a web designer, former dissolute street painter and world traveler. So today we, together with Gretchen and Totil's wife Auður, arranged to spend the day together. After meeting in the lobby of the Hotel Esja, Totil took us on a drive in a borrowed car out into the desolate region east of Reykjavik.
Totil, Auður, and Gretchen examine an Icelandic translation of a book by Mar!lyn F®ench.
After becoming accustomed to Totil's nonlinear driving technique, we sat back and enjoyed the scenery. Outside of its villages, Iceland's landscapes are void of most traces of humanity (and most things humans need to survive). Where the landscape isn't choked with recent lava (from the past thousand years or so), it looks like something you might see in Utah. The vegetation is restricted to a thin brownish grass and the occasional shrub, although rarely you'll also see clumps of evergreens planted in sheltered nooks. As for the mountains themselves, even in this late season they are covered with snow. Some distance out of town, Totil and Auður gave us the story on the few isolated houses we passed. First there was the residence of Auður's grandmother. It's being bought by the government of Iceland to be made into a museum to celebrate its former resident Halldör Kiljan Laxness, Auður's grandfather, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. Being as small as it is, Iceland is understandably proud of its one Nobel Laureate. But it turns out that Iceland has an unusually strong interest in literature. Indeed, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. This would make sense in a country where the great outdoors isn't particularly inviting for the great bulk of the year (for similar reasons, the Internet has proved especially popular in Iceland, Minnesota, and other Scandinavian countries). Not only is there much literature published in Icelandic, but there is a very aggressive effort underway to translate books from other languages into Icelandic and vice versa. This effort is so overextended, in fact, that it can be rather sloppy at times, as I noticed in the typo-infested text of that coffee table book I'd been reading earlier today. It took a little time for me to get my mind around the notion that, on a remote and mostly-uninhabitable island the size of Kentucky out at the fringe of the civilized world, there are only a quarter million people speaking a distinct language and maintaining a distinct culture against incredible outside pressures. The Icelandic capital Reykjavik, with roughly 100 thousand people, is only about twice the size of Charlottesville. And, having lived in Charlottesville and having worked to contribute to its local culture, I'm exhausted just imagining trying to support not just an indigenous literature, but a hypothetical language as well. For Iceland, the effort of maintaining such a tiny culture must take a disproportionate effort from its people. If this doesn't make sense, consider a culture with the size and pervasiveness of, say, American or (more generally) English culture. Its mass is so great that it can happily maintain itself without its participants expending any effort at all. People the world over naturally want to create content in English because that's where the paying ears and eyeballs are. Anyone creating content in Icelandic does so with the knowledge that only a quarter-million people are able to make any sense of it. When you consider the fact that nearly everyone in Iceland can speak English and could just as easily create English content, the fact that they are creating so much content in Icelandic testifies to how strongly Icelandic people feel about the maintenance of their culture. Since they're saving money by not spending as much on roads, energy, the military, prisons, and acute disease (God bless socialized medicine!), they have more resources to devote to Icelandic culture. And so an unusually large number of creative Icelandic people are working on maintaining and expanding that culture (our hosts Totil and Auður included). There will be more about this later. As our drive continued eastward, Gretchen and Auður were talking ceaselessly about literature. It's not often that Gretchen finds others with her voracious literary appetite (for example, I hardly ever read fiction), but she seemed to have met her match with Auður. We passed along the north shore of Þingvallavatn, a fairly large lake (in fact, the largest lake in Iceland) and continued to the base of a rocky bluff obviously formed by tectonic rifting. Here, beyond the several tour buses and uncomfortable-looking throngs of ugly Americans silenced by the wind, we could see the Oxarafoss waterfall, where the Oxara river (coming in from the west) crosses the Mid-Atlantic rift fault between the North American and Eurasian plates and feeds the Þingvallavatn at its northern end. This is a very important site for Iceland historically, because it is here that the Vikings created the world's first parliament, the Alþingi, in 930 AD. (I'm still puzzled why they would go so far inland to carry out their political business when Iceland's people restrict themselves mostly to the coasts.) Another thing Icelanders liked to do here back in the day was drown their unmarried pregnant women and behead their male criminals. As I said to Auður when I noted a vaguely uncomfortable tone to her mention of these things, "all countries have a bloody past." These days, the deep tectonic fissure pools have a silvery radiance in their dark shadowy depths from the coins of thousands of visitors. According to Totil and Auður, tossing coins into the Þingvellir pools brings good luck, as does the act of adding a stone to a cairn. We headed south along the west coast of Þingvallavatn into higher and higher mountains until the snow drifts came down to and at times even crossed the road. "This is the place where the people from Sweden got scared," said Totil, referring to some other friends he drove back from Þingvallavatn. Somewhere in those mountains we joined up with a geothermal hot water pipe which we followed for most of the scenic alternative route back to Reykjavik. Along the way our conversation changed to politics, particularly American politics and how things have been changed by both by the unparseable musings of George W. Bush and "the tragic events of September 11th." Our politics were all more or less in agreement, so we all delighted in raking the Bush over the coals, chuckling about what an absolute international embarrassment he's become. We all agreed that his bungled foreign policy, bombastic unilateralism, and diplomatic fiascoes have squandered all the international goodwill from 9-11. Concerning his ineffectual Mideast trip, Auður said that she's heard Colin Powell referred to as "Colin Powahless." Still, Totil claims he still runs into native Icelanders who vehemently support George W. Bush. And as for the United States itself, "Everybody in Iceland wants to be an American," he said with resignation. In fact, the first time Totil went to the United States (touching down in Seattle), he was dismayed to find it looked "just like Iceland." Though I've never been to Seattle, to my eye Iceland doesn't really resemble America. Sure, here and there you'll see some graffiti and McDonalds and Pepsi logos scattered about, but Iceland is just a little too new, clean, colorful, and color-coordinated to pass for the America I've seen. Totil and Auður took us to their office in Reykjavik because, in a temporarily semi-homeless state, they were waiting for a decision on an offer they'd made on a house. The office was in perfect agreement with Totil's claim that he and Auður have been working overworking lately, mostly designing and building Icelandic websites. They also have a number of side projects, including a children's book called Algj&oum;rt Frelsi which has its own Flash-based website. They're pulling their weight for Icelandic culture. We went to a bookstore somewhere in downtown Reykjavik and while Gretchen and Auður made a beeline for the English literature section in the "cellar," Totil and I talked about Icelandic book-buying culture. In Iceland, Totil told me, there is a tradition of buying books as presents for Christmas. Everyone does it, and they do it so reliably and that the Icelandic government has been able to levy huge taxes on books without much affecting how many are sold in the country. As Gretchen later pointed out, Icelandic books cost roughly twice what they do in the United States. When we came upon Gretchen and Auður in the cellar, they were sitting on the floor looking at the single shelf of lesbian/gay literature. Gretchen was taking the opportunity to introduce Auður to some of the genre's most important works and Auður was fascinated. "Maybe we should get a priest," Totil whispered in my ear. The tiny size of this section said something about Icelandic views on the subject; in New York the lesbian/gay section of a bookstore this size would fill a whole wall of shelves at the very least. Later, as we were leaving a coffee shop in downtown Reykjavik, we happened upon some kind of state funeral spilling out of the Icelandic Parliament building and into an adjacent church. Randomly in this crowd was Totil's young daughter and at least one other person he knew. On a whim, we all decided to go into the Parliament Building to watch the Alþingi (remember, it's the oldest parliament on earth) in action. The building itself was completely unremarkable and about the size of church. We climbed up a back stairwell and a guy at the top simply asked if we had cell phones. When we said we didn't, he let us through to the balcony. It was a simple little open balcony, not too different from something you'd find in an expensive horse barn. It had a good view of the floor. When we entered, the various senators and non-senatorial members looked up from their voting, evidently relieved from their tedium by our fresh faces. On seeing Auður, a few of them actually waved at her. Not only is Iceland a sovereign nation, but it's also (more or less) a small town. I'm familiar with the look of politicians in America, with their studied conventionality and deliberate youthlessness. By comparison, the members of the Alþingi looked almost hip. They were surprisingly young and fashionable. The Alþingi is comprised of about sixty people, two thirds of whom were present today. An older gentleman at the front of the room was reading from a list of items, and the members of the Alþingi were voting Ja or Nei using electronic push buttons. The votes were being tallied immediately and displayed on a little electronic map of the floor, a far cry from the way things worked back when they gathered at the Þingvellir. Amazingingly, the Alþingi was voting at the rate of about one vote every five to ten seconds; it was bizarre to see democracy being carried out so swiftly. Most of the members seemed to be in agreement, though there was one cranky member in the back corner (stage left) who kept voting Nei when everyone else voted Ja. Totil explained that they were working unusually quickly because it was nearing the end of this session and they were trying get work done before the holiday. Iceland is still socialist enough to celebrate May Day. After we left the Parliament Building, I kept thinking about how casual that had been. We'd just walked in and, after passing through no security whatsoever, were allowed to hang out during a particularly hectic session of the national legislative body. I realized that because of its small-town scale, Iceland can enjoy an openness and freedom that Americans will never know, no matter how much we thump our chests and rally like zombies around our flag. Further underscoring the small-townness of Reykjavik, we randomly ran across Totil's former wife (the mother of his daughter) as we were driving down Suðergata. She was on foot and we offered to give her a lift, but she was apparently already where she needed to be. For dinner, we went to the fancier of downtown Reykjavik's two Indian restaurants, Austur India Félagið. It's on Hverfisgata Street and has two Chinese lions out in front. The food is great, but I think they could do with burning a little less incense. Gretchen and I were thinking about sampling Reykjavik night life tonight, and Totil and Auður were recommending that we stay up until three or four and watch how drunk people can get in Iceland, especially the night before a holiday (May Day). "They'll be a few fights," Totil assured us, adding, "Yeah, it can be dangerous sometimes." Having seen the tranquil heart of Reykjavik, I found that very hard to believe. But even Charlottesville can get crazy when people get drunk, and what with the depressing weather and lack of winter sunlight, it's hard not to become an alcoholic in Iceland. (I'm curious as to what sort of toehold the Mormons have managed to achieve here. Evidently not much.) Due to jet lag, my energy had been flagging since before we toured the Parliament Building. So Totil and Auður dropped us off at the Hotel Esja so we could get rested up before undertaking a crazy night on the town. For their part, they've actually managed to give up drinking altogether, hard though that must be every dark Icelandic winter. So we bid them adieu and ducked into our web banner hotel. By now Gretchen was determined to somehow finagle use of the Hotel Esja Jacuzzi. So she went up to the woman at the desk of Planet Pulse (the hotel's spa) and said something like, "Look, I know that pool admission only costs 200 kronur in Reykjavik, and did you know the Jacuzzi would be free in any self-respecting American hotel? So I think you should let us use it for free." After a little negotiation, the Planet Pulse woman agreed to let us in for 500 kronur each. It turned out that one of the reasons Planet Pulse was so expensive (at 2000 kronur) was that it came with a massage (unless you're cheap like we were). We saw several people getting their massages (simple sit-down massages, nothing special mind you) right there in our Jacuzzi and I realized, shit man, if I learned anything from Bathtubgirl, it's how to give a back massage. So when the professionals cleared out I gave Gretchen a massage and she seemed perfectly delighted with it. I didn't really like the Planet Pulse set up too much. It was a romantic candle-lit room outfitted with two Jacuzzis, a steam room, and a shower. Since there wasn't a pool, there was no colder water in which to immerse, and that's essential if you want to recreationally cycle your body temperature. The weak substitute for the colder pool soaking phase was to take a cold shower, but getting that to feel anything other than unpleasant proved impossible. Gretchen got to talking to a young couple from with thick Wisconsin accents whose trip to Iceland had begun by clicking on a web banner just like ours had. They'd flown in from Minnesota and their flight had taken only a half hour longer than ours because of the way great circle routes work. We'd been sort of displeased with Hotel Esja location out on the east end of Reykjavik, a bit of a hike from downtown. But the couple from Wisconsin said they actually liked the location of Hotel Esja because it's closer to some sort of big shopping mall further to the east. We couldn't imagine why anyone would come to Iceland with the intent of shopping, since everything seems to be more expensive here, but then again, it's impossible to measure the irrational excesses of the American consumer impulse, especially when it's competing with cold and barren volcanic landscapes.
We never did make it back into downtown Reykjavik. It was easy enough for us to imagine the drunks spilling out of the Viking Helmet Bar at four in the morning and beating the shit out of one another. In the middle of the night, Gretchen and I woke up and chatted and joked about things. Somehow I got to talking about Greenland and the strange Eskimo languages they speak there. "They probably have this one vowel that can only be pronounced while gargling walrus fat," I declared. Gretchen immediately burst into laughter, proclaiming that to be the funniest thing she'd ever heard.
View a gallery of pictures from this adventure.