Iceland is the only place I’ve ever visited that sparked two diametrically opposing thoughts almost instantly:
1. “What the fuck is this place?”
2. “I feel so at home here.”
You’ve probably heard that Iceland is Mars-like, which is true. The natural landscape is basically a screenshot from a fantasy videogame — there’s craggy lava fields that stretch on for miles, glaciers, bright blue geothermic pools, waterfalls, and beautiful green hillsides scattered with red farmhouses and happy, bouncy sheep. You’ve also heard that Icelandic people are tall, blonde, and gorgeous. That’s true too, for the most part. They’re also warm, friendly, and self-deprecatingly funny in the way that people living in an environment that’s fundamentally inhospitable to our species tend to be.
I scheduled a two-day stopover in Iceland on my way home from a week traveling alone in Switzerland. I didn’t love Switzerland (more on that later) and was excited to experience somewhere new. Maybe that’s part of the reason I felt so exhilarated to be in Iceland, or maybe it’s because I arrived in the middle of a sleet storm and I had forgotten to bring a waterproof coat. Either way, as I rode the bus 45 minutes from the airport to Reykjavik, I couldn’t stop whipping my head back and forth to look out all the windows, smiling like a maniac the whole time. I’d barely been in Iceland twenty minutes when, looking out the bus window at the choppy gray ocean, I saw an orca breach the surface, flip over, and slam back down into the water. I was worried two days wouldn’t be enough time, but if we continued this unforgettable-sight-every-twenty-minutes trend, well, maybe it would be OK.
I got off the bus at the station on the edge of Reykjavik and started walking in what I hoped was the general direction of the Airbnb apartment I’d rented. All I had was a few turn-by-turn directions and the address. The rain/sleet mix got progressively heavier as I walked past a picturesque lake filled with swans, then a viking cemetery. It wasn’t long before I was not only lost, but soaking wet, and keenly aware of growing hole in the bottom of my boot that was threatening to sink my right foot. After 20 minutes of aimless wandering, I flagged down a family out on a bike ride and showed them the address. They pointed at the apartment building I was looking for — luckily I was only a few blocks away.
After dropping off my stuff, I headed back out toward the city center, eager to explore despite my disintegrating footwear. Every street was lined with square houses painted in bright colors that made the city look like a life-size Monopoly board. Despite the cold, I noticed many homes had strollers parked outside their front doors. A subtle peek revealed that they did indeed all have real, live babies in them, bundled up and sleeping soundly. I’d read about this practice in Nordic countries, where parents believe the cool, fresh air is good for their babies’ health. I made a mental note to take more outdoor naps when I got home.
Continuing into the city, I walked past yarn stores, coffee shops, hipster bars, and a museum dedicated to penises. I stopped at a sidewalk craft market and bought a lava rock necklace for myself and a puffin hat for my mom. Down by the shipyards on the edge of downtown I stumbled across a single food cart called, simply, the Lobster Hut. “Why not?” I thought, and ordered a cup of lobster bisque topped with whipped creme fraiche and ate it while sitting on a curb, getting pelted with freezing rain. You never forget a meal like that, even if the food is just so-so, but that piping hot bisque, with big chunks of fresh lobster and a creamy tomato base — oh my god, it was a religious experience.
Warmed and energized by my impromptu meal, I walked to the waterfront to look for whales. No luck, so I consoled myself at a little basement bar that was running a 2-for-1 special on red wine. I got out my journal, sipped my discount wine, and eavesdropped on a couple on a first date at the table next to me, confirming that there is no language barrier to sweet, fumbling awkwardness. I’d been in Iceland for a few hours now and still hadn’t stopped smiling. “There’s something about this place,” I wrote in my journal, “that makes me feel alive, like there’s light running through my veins. Every minute here holds a new surprise.”
Then I bought myself a bright orange wool hat I thought was $15 but my bank statement would later reveal to be $60. Point. Made.
On my way back through the town square, I noticed a tiny cart with a sign that said “HOT MINI DONUTS.” Between the pouring rain, the hole in my boot, and my stressful travel day, I felt like I deserved a treat, so I wandered over. Standing behind the counter was a truly enormous man. His biceps tested the fabric strength of his shirt and his head was connected to his body not by a normal human neck but a gigantic mass of muscles that sloped down into his shoulders. He looked like he had been carved out of granite. When I walked up, he was talking on a cellphone, which looked extra tiny in his gigantic hands, and, when combined with the pile of mini donuts on the counter, exaggerated his size to an almost comical degree.
He wrapped up his conversation in hurried Icelandic and then put his phone down and greeted me in perfect English. “What can I get for you today?” He asked, smiling.
“I’ll have the small order of mini donuts, please.”
“You’ve got it,” he said, using tiny (or were they normal sized? How could I know?) tongs to take 3 uncooked mini donuts out of the container and dropping them in a vat of oil connected to a robotic frying machine. I watched, transfixed, as the donuts traveled from the frying oil down a small conveyor belt and dropped into a bowl of cinnamon sugar, then tumbled into a paper serving container.
“Would you like caramel or raspberry sauce?” He asked, pointing to a display of condiments above the machine. I chose caramel. As he drizzled the tiny donuts with caramel and topped them off with whipped cream, he asked how my day was going.
“Great!” I said. “Really great. It’s my first day in Reykjavik and I love it already.”
“Welcome!” he beamed. “How long are you here?”
“Two days?! Why just two days?!?!”
“Because I’m just here on a stopover on my way home from Switzerland. I spent 5 days there but now I’m wishing I’d just spent the whole time here.”
The enormous man’s face twisted into a confused, pitying expression. “Why the fuck did you spend 5 days in Switzerland?”
“I don’t know,” I said, taking a bite of caramel-drenched mini donut. “It seemed like a good idea.”
“The Swiss are fucking boring,” he said. “They never laugh.”
And I laughed because, well, I’d stayed in an uber serious Swiss city where that generalization rang painfully true. The past 5 days had been a prolonged exercise in stoicism that felt torturous as the stereotypically perky, overly expressive American that I am.
“I feel so badly for you,” the donut man continued. “Five days in Switzerland?” He shook his head sadly, as if he could barely comprehend the tragedy that was my life. “Listen. Your donuts are on me today.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Gretar.”
I thanked him profusely and shook his hand. Compared to mine, it was like an oven mitt forged out of iron. Luckily his grip was gentle. “I’m Winona,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
For the next half hour I stood there eating free donuts and talking to Gretar about everything from his business interests (bodybuilding supplements) to his previous career as a celebrity bodyguard (“once you’ve guarded Tiger Woods, you can do whatever the fuck you want”) to his favorite place in America (Ohio) and his distaste for German strip clubs (“all the strippers are 60 years-old because Germans are afraid of change”).
He asked me what plans I had for my time in Reykjavik. I told him I wasn’t sure yet. “Maybe whale watching?”
He shook his head vehemently. “Have you seen a whale before?”
“Then you’re done. Once you’ve seen one whale, you don’t need to see more.”
“Fair enough,” I laughed. What do you recommend?”
“Well, the Blue Lagoon is a good choice, and you should go party downtown tonight, and you should go see the glacier.” An idea flashed in his blue eyes. “Oh! I’m going to call my friend Gregor.”
He picked up his phone and started dialing.
“Ummm…who’s Gregor?” I asked hesitantly.
“He’s my Slovenian friend who owns an ice limo company. I’m going to have him pick you up in an ice limo and take you to the glacier for half price.”
As delightful as that proposition sounded, I was traveling alone, and I’m pretty sure “Don’t let strange men pick you up in ice limos and take you to glaciers” was one of the safety tips I’d read before my trip.
“Uhh…I don’t know, maybe you can give me his info and I’ll just book it myself,” I stammered, not wanting to hurt Gretar’s feelings. “I don’t mind paying full price. Gregor needs to make a living.”
Gretar dismissed my protests with a jovial wave of his hand. “You’re a friend of mine now,” he said. “And no friend of mine will pay full tourist price for an ice limo.” He was beaming so brightly I had no idea how I was going to tactfully reject his favor.
“Come on Gregor,” he muttered, “Answer the phone.”
Please Gregor, I silently prayed, Don’t answer the phone.
In the end my prayers won out, and Gretar left a message on Gregor’s voicemail. He put his phone down, scrawled something on a napkin real quick, and handed it to me.
“This is Gregor’s number. Call him, tell him you’re my friend, and he will come pick you up for half price. I’m sorry I couldn’t get ahold of him for you.”
“It’s OK Gretar.” I was smiling broadly, overwhelmed with a combination of relief and genuine gratitude. It was getting dark now, so I told Gretar I had to get going. I thanked him again for his kindness, shook his hand once more, and headed down the cobblestone road toward my apartment.
I’d only made it a few steps when Gretar called me back. “Winona!” he yelled urgently, and I turned around. “I don’t know how hard you’re going to party tonight, but take my word for it — you don’t want to be hungover on a glacier.”
“Thanks, Gretar,” I said. “I’ll take your word for it.”
The next morning I woke up, stuffed my swimsuit in my purse, walked to the bus station, and bought a ticket for the Blue Lagoon. My experience there warrants a whole essay of its own, but suffice to say it was very beautiful, very spiritual, and also very reminiscent of the Saturday afternoon pool party at Treasure Island Las Vegas, which I was not expecting. But yes, more on that later.
After spending half the day at the Lagoon, I got on the bus back into the city, my hair soaking wet and half-frozen. The bus was one of those huge double-decker tour buses driven by a jovial man who looked like Santa Claus, and it was supposed to go straight from the Blue Lagoon to the central station in Reykjavik. When we were about three-quarters of the way there, a young woman approached the driver and murmured something in his ear, pointing at a map. He nodded and took a sharp turn off the highway.
The road narrowed into a curvy residential street so small the bus took up both lanes. The driver zoomed along, whistling, whipping around roundabouts and sharp turns like he was driving a Fiat instead of a bus the size of a small cruise ship. Passengers started whispering, “Where are we going?” in various languages with varying tones of alarm. Then the bus stopped suddenly in front of a small brown house. The driver opened the door, and the woman who had shown him the map thanked him and got off the bus. We all realized he had just delivered her to her doorstep, free of charge.
Upon this realization, more people approached the driver with maps and addresses. He nodded kindly at each request and we embarked upon an adventure into the suburbs of Reykjavik, stopping at houses and apartments and letting people off; then into the city, stopping at hotels and hostels. Every street seemed tinier than the last, and I still have no idea how we didn’t hit a car, scrape up against a building, or tip over. “Where do you want to go?” the driver yelled out to each passenger, and wherever they answered, we went. I don’t know if this is how all buses operate in Iceland, but the over-the-top hospitality and flagrant disregard for the route gave me a pang of homesickness for Tennessee, where the official transit schedule is rendered irrelevant by a fleet of kind drivers who will basically pick up anyone who flags them down, anywhere. “Get on darlin’,” they’ll say, gesturing you aboard in the middle of an intersection.
Pretty soon I was the last person on the bus. I hadn’t spoken up about my destination because I had no idea how to pronounce the name of the street my apartment was on, and also because I wasn’t ready to go back there yet. These were my last few hours in Reykjavik, and there was still so much to do.
“Where are you going?” the driver asked me, making eye contact in the rear-view mirror.
“Can you take me to get a hot dog?” I asked on a whim. I’d read about the famous hot dogs in Iceland but hadn’t eaten one yet. No time like the present, right?
He smiled, nodded, and took a sharp right toward the bayfront. A few minutes later, he stopped in front of a tiny shack with a single picnic table and a faded Coca Cola sign out front. “Best hot dog in Reykjavik,” he said. I grabbed my backpack and walked out into the cold, rainy afternoon.
I stepped up to the window and ordered one hot dog and a Coke. The guy behind the counter presented me with a steaming hot sausage in a soft bun topped with fried onions and a trio of colorful condiments. It was juicy, bursting with flavor, sweet, salty, and delicious. Thanks to the rain, it was also thoroughly soggy by about two bites in. I loved it.
I scooped up my backpack and set off walking again, determined to see as much of the city as I could before the day ended. I walked for hours.
I took a picture of myself on my last evening in Reykjavik. The sun was setting, and I’d walked out to a rocky jetty overlooking the ocean. It was so, so cold. The rain was coming down harder by the minute, spray from the waves was hitting my face, and the hole in my boot had become so large I could wiggle my freezing toes all the way through the sole and feel the sharp rocks underneath. I was a thousand miles away from my closest acquaintance. I’d never felt so brave.
Even with no makeup, crazy hair, and on the verge of hypothermia, this is my favorite picture of myself. I look exactly how I felt in that moment: wild, natural, unpredictable, and completely, utterly alive.
Just like Iceland.