Postcards from Abroad: Reykjavik, Iceland
Imogen is an English literature student spending her third year studying in Iceland. She prefers drawing to writing these days but needs to blog about Iceland because it’s so interesting. She misses Leeds but doesn’t want to wish her time abroad away and is staying in the moment. When her head isn’t in the clouds, it’s be buried in a book, sketchbook or napping on the bed.
Iceland is an incredible and bizarre country. I’m going to start by explaining its best aspects to give you a sense of how spectacular it is.
First off, the Northern Lights. The prospect of seeing them was one of the main reasons I chose to go to Iceland for a year abroad. It is early in the season but I am fortunate enough to have and a few sightings, it is honestly something really special. They are like coloured ribbons of smoke spilt across the sky, dancing, separating and reforming. Being unpredictable and elusive makes a sighting all the more rare and thrilling. Chasing the lights one night with friends left us enthused, flushed and giddy. I felt like a child who has just been visited by Santa Claus. Magical.
Secondly, I don’t think there is anything as heavenly as soaking in a natural hot spring. Apart from maybe when you can do it with a beer in hand (some of the commercial lagoons have bars). This is my second favourite gem Iceland has to offer. Groundwater heated by the Earth’s crust makes for an awesome outdoor bath. Geothermal water is also used in Iceland’s swimming pools which include lush hot tubs. I am getting in on the Icelandic habit of visiting swimming pools frequently. Never for exercise, just for blissful bathing.
I am attending the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, the capital city. This is where most of Iceland’s population live, two thirds in the Reykjavik region. Yet Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with four-fifths of the land being uninhabited. I am trying to get out of the city and travel the country as much as possible because it is so rewarding. Iceland’s landscape is nothing short of amazing. Before term began I spent August in the Westfjords surrounded by the breath-taking mountains and coasts. I was able to visit a cliff that marks the most Western point of Europe and watch adorable puffins. On a road trip along the south coast I visited a glacier lagoon, a waterfall framed by basalt rock columns and drove along almost deserted roads surrounded by moss covered lava fields. During a weekend hiking in the highlands our cabin was graced with the presence of an Arctic fox, Iceland’s only native mammal (google them – they’re unbelievably cute!).
Life in Iceland is sublime but also strange. Living through the extreme conditions of a volcanic island with no nearby neighbouring countries has resulted in a quirky culture. For example, a popular tourist destination here is the Icelandic Phallological museum (the penis museum!). It has specimens from whales, elephants and even an elf. This was of course an invisible phallus as elves, according to folklore, can only be seen when they wish to be.
Icelanders are famed for their belief in elves and as far as I can tell it is true. I had to interview an Icelander about this for an assignment and sure enough she believed in ‘the hidden people’. There is a rich tradition of Icelandic folklore and Icelanders are told these stories growing up, many being about the hidden folk (aka elves). The belief surfaces most often when it comes to respecting the environment. Not wanting to disturb the hidden people has stopped roads being built through lava fields or boulders being moved during construction. Some may not admit to believing, but most do not disregard the hidden people.
Despite their predisposition to believe in elves and ghosts, Icelanders are a very practical nation. For example, they have no word for ‘please’. Plus, Icelandic people are really friendly. A massive rainbow was painted on the ground of one of the main streets for Reykjavik Pride in August. There is a bar in the centre that says on the outside “If you are racist, sexist, homophobic or an asshole, don’t come in.” I think this best represents the kind of attitudes Icelandic people generally have. The men do tend to look a bit like Vikings – they are large, beardy, often ginger. Scandinavian women are stunning and have killer cheek bones. I have fallen in love with the Icelandic accent (it’s so soft and musical). Definitely a brilliant nation to live among.
The population is only 320,000 (while the number of sheep is well over double this). I have found the small town vibe to be comforting. It counteracts the potential a year abroad has to feel scary or lonely. Iceland quickly felt like home to me. The streets of Reykjavik are lined with the gingerbread style houses that have brightly coloured corrugated iron rooves. Nearly everyone you see is proudly wearing a Nordic sweater hand knitted from Icelandic sheep wool. There is very little crime and the city has a comfortable aura of safety.
Of course aspects to living in Iceland are tough. I’m not going to deny these but my friends and I have adapted and found ways to combat the difficulties.
Heartbreakingly, alcohol is expensive. There is a state monopoly on selling alcohol and it can only be bought in the pricey government shops. By this point in the semester we have tracked down some cheaper bars and happy hour spots for half price beer. But the best way around this costly booze predicament is to stock up on duty free. Lots of friends and family have been keen to visit me as an excuse to see Iceland and have arrived well equipped with airport liquor gifts.
Another big difficulty is the weather. True, it’s shit. But a lovely consolation is that energy and electricity are produced abundantly and cheaply here. I can blast the radiator all the time and have super long hot showers without feeling guilty. Everything is renewable, using the geothermal heat that is a result of Iceland’s geological position over two tectonic plates. Oh how I wish heating had been as cheap last year in my damp Hyde Park house.
A lot of people took Iceland to be a weird choice for a year abroad destination. “You know it’s going to be cold and dark?” my Dad asked. Right. But as you can see Iceland has lot going for it. Though I picked it because I wanted to see the Northern Lights and I knew everyone spoke English there (an important factor when you’re as terrible at learning languages as I am), I hadn’t fully realised what a brilliant thing I had got myself in for. Now I am here I have fallen in love with this utterly unique country. I still have many months left of living in Iceland. I have got to survive the winter – queue endless “winter is coming” jokes – but I am excited to be here for long enough to really live Iceland beyond what a tourist sees.