10° 40' N, 61° 30' W

Friday, October 08, 2004

Reykjavík Diary: Day 1

The introductory video on Icelandair flights begins with telling you that their service begins when you buy your ticket. Well, Iceland sort-of began for me on the aircraft, when I noticed how mature the flight attendants were. As a sort-of analogy, British Esquire writer Tim Moore says that in other countries getting on TV involves years of slaving before you get an entry-level break, whereas in Iceland, because of the small population, all you have to do is fix your hair, walk down the street and you're set. On this flight was somewhat similar. Flight attendants are expensive to train, and given the requirements (e.g. speaking Icelandic) are probably hard to replace. Because of this, regardless of what turmoil hits the airline industry Icelandair staff probably have little reason to fear for their jobs, and some clearly could work into their fifties. The flight attendants were pleasant, but they seemed distant, like a lot of Icelanders I was to meet over the next four days.

I was unable to sleep on the flight (I am almost never able to sleep while flying) and I saw the rain begin on the approach into Keflavik airport; it barely stopped for the next three-and-a-half days. This may be diificult to conceive, but Keflavik's terminal is beautiful, with stone cladding and nice wood finishing--very good Nordic design. It's a pleasant place to wait on a flight, as I understand many Scandinavian airports are.

The coach into Reykjavík is expensive, though it dropped me at the youth hostel, my home for the next three nights. Nice building, good facilities, expensive breakfast. I couldn't check in until 2 pm (it was just after 9 am), so, in order to fight jet lag I bought a 48-hour tourist card at reception and ventured downtown in search of museums; the rain made me not want to walk around outdoors much.

On the bus to downtown I asked for directions to the National Gallery. They thought I was asking for the National Museum so we went straight past it. I ended up at the University of Iceland--down the street. At the National and University Library, which, despite its austere exterior was very nice inside (a recurring theme in the capital), I sent email to friends, had my second cup of tea for the day and bought a poster. I then departed for the National Museum, across the street.

The first thing to be said about Reykjavík is that it looks (but is not quite) very, very spaced out, and the dearth of trees does not help. The university campus does not look like much, and being right next to the domestic airport does not help. The never-ending rain also did not help brighten things as you move from building to building. In addition, in the vast windswept streets I did not notice any umbrellas; later on I would only see tourists with them, and they quickly learnt their lesson.

The National Museum was impressive, though I was only able to face it after drinking a large pot of tea in its cafe. (Oddly, coffee does not keep me up, but tea does.) The interactive displays were almost more interesting than the artifacts, telling you about the history of Iceland and how it became united and then submitted itself to the authority of the Norwegian (later Danish) king, and later on about the violent Reformation and later independence from Denmark. For a small, underpopulated place, Iceland has a lot of history, a lot of it very, very violent. If you look at them today, though, Icelanders seem to be so reticent as to be incapable of it.

I got lost in the rain looking for the National Gallery, and when I finally found it there was a function in progress. Joy. So I walked around Lake Tjörnin to the modern Rådhus, or City Hall. Nice building, with an amateur photo exhibition and a very large relief map of Iceland in the foyer. It was here that I started to realise that Iceland has, in large part, surrendered itself to tourism. Every tourist destination has racks of very informative free leaflets, guidebooks and maps not of where you are (there were none of those) but of Reykjavík and all ofIceland. As you walk around more it seems as if you could book tours from any little shop. It was not tacky, but made the place seem a little less exclusive.

After another 2 cups of tea I left the Rådhus and took a walk to the Hafnarhus, part of the Reykjavík Art Museum, stopping for a pylsur (hot dog) on the way. The stuff in there mostly did not impress me--Icelandic artist Erró's political works were an exception. The posters in the shop were cool, though. (To the uninitiated, I collect museum exhibition posters, even for shows I haven't seen.) I then made my way back to the National Gallery, having another pylsur along the way. On the way I walked past an excellent outdoor photo exhibition on contemporary Icelanders as well as the Alþing (parliament--pronounced Althing). Unlike its previous location at Þingvellir, the present day Alþing, while pretty, does not look like a great seat of power.

The National Gallery is very small, with only four exhibition rooms. The art was quite good, though; the shop less so. It was in that shop that I bought the single most expensive poster I have ever gotten--1500 kronúr, about US$20. Exhibit posters are normally good bargains, and Iceland was proving to be an exception.

After leaving the gallery I made my way to the main street, Laugavegur, which was kind of quiet. I returned to the hostel after buying postcards and stamps. (in this small country, stamps are more expensive than postcards, it must be said.) In my hostel room I met Marco, a German who was in Iceland for 4 weeks to, well, teach German. Marco was typical Deutsch--very fastidious and precise. He was nice, though, and he accompanied me to the swimming pool next door. Unlike him, I had no intention of swimming; I just wanted to sit in a hot tub, and the public pools are one of the new cheap things to do Iceland. (Free entry, as for the museums and for bus travel earlier, was included with my tourist card.)

First, though, you had to shower.

I had read about this in my (excellent) Footprint guide, and experienced it both in Stockholm and at the Blue Lagoon on the way out, but you still have to prepare yourself for stripping and bathing naked in front of others. No one pays attention (well, almost no one; more shortly) but it takes some getting used to, especially as there are attendants to make sure that you used the (free) body shampoo and cleansed the designated areas on your body. (Water is untreated and unclorinated inIceland--everyone boasts about how pure it is--and that's why you must bathe with shampoo.) Still, the pool was nice, with the heat compensating for the rainy, cold day.

While sitting in the hot pot, a man entered and started to watch me intensely, not with interest, but sort of like a scientist examining a new and previously unseen specimen. I paid it no mind, really. Later on, after the post-pool shower, the man walks up to me and starts talking in Icelandic. I protest in English that I don't speak the language, and then he asks me in English where I am from. I tell him the Caribbean. "Ah!" he says. He tells me of his visit to West Africa, and that I look very different to them. I explain that, with some mixing and adaptation I am the descendant of West Africans. "How can that be," he days, "you look so different". I repeat explanation. Then he starts getting nostalgic about a time years ago when Iceland had few tourists. (?)

He was sort-of pleasant, but I was tired of being an anthropological specimen. I fled to the hostel in a light drizzle, to read and sleep. It had been a long 36 hours.