It’s raining pretty hard, as it has been on and off for the last five days, and the wind is whipping the golden grasses, which is all that really grows in Iceland. I’ve hiked and driven and made photographs in the rain, but on this last few hours I prefer to sip tea and watch the ocean from my Airbnb studio apartment before heading to the airport.
It gives me time to reflect on this trip. The first two days were pure touristy. My daughter, Hammy, and I arrived a few days before she would head off to a 8-day university program on climate change and geology and all things geothermal. She’s an environmental earth science student and a total geology nerd. She patiently explains the type of volcanic rock AGAIN, even though I still confuse basalt (the rock) with balsamic (the vinegar.) We part ways at 6 am Sunday, March 10. I get occasional dispatches from her: Repelling down a glacier. 5-hour hike up a mountain. Playing with Arctic foxes.
Only one of those I made up.
I strike out in search of inspiration: people and places and ideas that tourists don’t have time for and the guides won’t take you to. I found lots. A highlight of the trip was a visit with artist Michele Bird, whom I met on a Facebook group she started to help refugees in Iceland. There is so much need and so few resources. Though living 3000 miles apart, Michele and I were able to connect quickly and spend a day, a night, and the next morning talking art, collaboration, how artists make their way in the world, and what we can do to support the next generation. Her home in Borgarnes on a fjord is an artist’s sanctuary.
I know these trips sound like vacations. I will admit to enjoying a pint in a pub watching futbol, or savoring a local delicacy (vegetarian, of course), but I travel to learn, to expand my world, to recharge my art.
Here are a few things I take with me:
- Ice cream. Grass-fed cows, treated humanely, produce the best dairy products. It might surprise folks from warmer climes that ice cream is everywhere and enjoyed outside, in the winter.
- Chocolate-covered licorice. I’m only bringing home one bag. I will be looking for a source or importing it!
- Lava fields. Iceland is an island that is still being formed by volcanic activity. There are lava fields everywhere. The craggy black and gray rocks are covered with moss, sage green in color. The black rock, green moss, sometimes red iron soil, while snow, blue water — photographs cannot begin to capture it.
- Volcanos. They look just like other mountains. These tend to explode. The younger ones have an ominous “I just blew my top off” look to them, and they rise out of the golden fields.
- There are three times more sheep in Iceland than people. Don’t mess with the sheep.
- Icelandic horses are everywhere and attract a lot of attention. They are stocky, sturdy animals with long manes that cover their faces like a teenager’s unkempt bangs.
- Arctic foxes are the ONLY mammal indigenous to Iceland. There were not rodents until the ships came. Cats are everywhere and a bit wild, but not feral. Virtually no insects. No reptiles or amphibians.
- Drivers are courteous. The only time I heard a car horn was when a tour bus driver got annoyed by a tourist who left his car in the middle of the road to get out and get a picture.
- Icelanders love a traffic round-about.
- Police have very little to do. I saw only one cop and he was on a motorcycle. A local told me that’s the only time they see police is when it’s warm enough (above freezing) for the cops to “play on their motorcycles!”
- When the temp gets above freezing, a few hardy folks get out their shorts.
- The light changes minute by minute. Daytime, when it’s clear, the sun is harsh and bright. Late afternoon is the most golden I’ve ever seen.
- I have no idea what dawn looks like. Don’t even ask. Not a morning person.
- The aurora is magical, but it’s elusive. I was lucky to see it from my guest house one night when it cleared for a few hours and the forecast suggested strong activity.
- The weather forecast includes an aurora prediction.
- Aurora season is winter: November- March. If you want to see Northern Lights, you need to come when it’s cold and windy and wet and unpredictable. That’s the tradeoff. It’s worth it.
- The tundra is a real thing. Not that I disputed it, but it’s far more lifeless and unforgiving –and beautiful– that a Midwestern could have imagined.
- There are no indigenous trees in Iceland. The trees that grew here are really woody shrubs, no higher than a person’s waist. Evergreens and hardy deciduous trees have been planted by the millions, and are thriving, to secure the tiny bit of topsoil.
- Almost everyone has a greenhouse on their porch or yard.
- Iceland grows flower, berries, tomatoes, greens, peppers, carrots, potatoes and other small vegetables in commercial greenhouses. The tomatoes taste like mine from the garden in August.
- The water from the tap is HOT. All hot water in Iceland comes directly from the ground, heated by the geothermal activity below our feet. The homes are heated that way too. There is so much hot water that nearly every town has an outdoor heated swimming pool that is open year round.
- Everything is expensive. Stop grousing about it.
- Not all tourists behave well. It spans all nationalities. The locals are quite tolerant of them but wish some would stop acting like asses.
- Icelanders are so kind, they make Canadians look like rude Red Sox fans.
- This is a land of poets. Literature, history, tradition is referred. I haven’t seen a single television except in a pub. This is a country of literacy.
- The language is hard, but not insurmountable. Just try.
There is so much more. Iceland tugs at your soul. And now the rain has stopped. It’s unpredictable, too.