It is hard to believe that it has been more than a year since we have travelled internationally. There was a move, a new job, multiple life changes and yet all within the United States. I mean, we took a small trip to Canada but that’s not all so different, really. More tea.
But Iceland, now, that’s an adventure. Typically the bleary eyed stop in the wee hours of the morning between point A and Sweden, now magnified to a glorious 2 days and then Sweden.
After the requisite preparations, the moving of cats, the cleaning of refrigerators, depositing trash and recyclables in their respective bins, we made our way to the airport. The usual hubbub that surround Seattle Tacoma Airport was well underway, with Arrivals clogging the path to Departures. Eventually we made it to our airlines, Icelandair, and surrendered our baggage, headed through security, and decided a bit of lunch was called for before the plane ride. The burger was fine, very soft which feels like a terrible way to describe a burger, and the tater tots were crispy.
Once we made it to the gate there was a slight delay as the attendants were double checking everyone’s boarding passes only to have a digital facial scanner when actual boarding came. It was my first experience with an at the gate scan of verification but it seems to be the way that security is going, everything will be biometric scans soon enough.
The flight itself was calm and uneventful. I caught up on my Pixar movies, watching Turning Red and Encanto, and sleeping though a good portion of the travel. It is a bizarre experience to watch the sun set once and then then to land in the dark at one’s destination, supposed to believe it’s 5:30 am and not 11:00 pm.
For reference, Iceland is so far north that in the winter the sunrise takes place at 11:30 am and sunset takes place at 3:30. Not that we would truly experience either as we landed in the midst of a snow storm that had blown in over night and had deposited several inches of snow and was not yet finished. The addition of fresh powder made every instance of carrying one’s luggage immensely more difficult, of which there were many. From the airport to the bus. Bus to bus depot. Bus depot to bus. Bus to bus stop. And fully the worst: Bus station to hotel.
Our first sights of Iceland were through the tinted windows of our noble transport, peaking through the panes to see the countryside, swathed in snow, turned sepia, looking alien and cold. Dirty splotches prevented pictures of cars struggling in the growing slush as more snow fell. Overheard conversations remarked about dry roads yesterday. For their part, our drivers were undeterred, delivering their charges despite the weather.
We were not dressed for the arctic tundra that welcomed us. Slogging through foreign streets in the cold in the dark was a particular low. Roller bags were not made for these conditions. After a wrong turn we did eventually make our way to our home for the next two days, the Canopy Hilton in Reykjavik.
The only problem being that the room was not ready. Naturally. It is just about 7 am at this point. No room in the world is ready at 7 am. They did agree to hold our luggage until a room could be readied so we switched to our heavy boots, donned hat and gloves, and wandered out to find some breakfast.
Reykjavik is not a particularly large town and has the same feeling of architecture as Stockholm, Södermalm specifically, though none of the buildings stand much more than 3 stories tall. Beautifully, there’s quite a lot of street art and murals decorating the facades, adding color and vibrancy to a dark morning.
A quick look at the map has turned up a cafe called Sandholt a couple of streets away so, in an attempt to establish normalcy and fight jet lag right away, we headed there. When we stepped inside, we were greeted by warmth, light, the aroma of fresh bread, and a line. Queueing is always in fine form in Nordic countries so we did our part and queued, letting the warmth come back to our legs and getting to look over the menu as we approached the head of the line. An American couple flying home to Kansas chatted a while with us while we waited, them leaving today, us arriving. They happily shared their travel tips and told us of what they had done and were just generally lovely.
With cheerful conversation the time quickly passed and we were quickly seated, water brought, orders placed.
I opted for a filter coffee and shakshuka with eggs and pork sausage, a comfort dish I’ve loved since being introduced to it in college. My partner had the chicken sandwich, ever a fan of lunch foods rather than breakfast fares, and an Icelandic tea of moss and black tea. portion sizes were very generous and everything was delicious. The butter, notably, was served on a rock which turned into a reoccurring method during our time in Iceland. I don’t know why but butter was reliably served on a rock.
Appetites satiated, it was time to venture out once more into the cold. There is a famous church in Reykjavik called Hallgrímskirkja, notable, in so far as I know, for its incredible architecture. A couple of blocks away, we set off into the snow, with our new destination in mind.
What would normally be a very pleasant and short walk became a blustery adventure in finding corners to step around and escape the biting wind. We were not alone in our pilgrimage either. Other dark shapes, the padded forms of similarly seeking humans, could be seen in the murk.
The church itself was imposing, tall, beautiful, and strange. Not like any other church I have seen and it seemed both like a refuge, from the winds and snow and cold, and frightening, the sublime, distinct from beauty.
Also, hard to photograph because you’re hands get too cold.
Fully chilled after our time in the elements, we decided to return to our hotel, hopeful a room would soon welcome us and we could take a much needed nap. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side so we found a quiet corner and tucked ourselves in for another warm up.
I’m honestly not sure how long we sat, hoping against hope someone would call or text and we could properly settle in. The jet lag was punishing. I dozed. My partner struggled.
It was concluded after some unknown period that we must either get up and walk or commit to sleeping on the sofa. We had spied from the bus on the way in a festive cat statue and decided it was as good a reason as any to get us out the door. It turned out to be a short walk from our hotel and the bracing air woke up our tired minds.
The city had decorated itself with various folk characters from Icelandic lore and the Yule Cat is one such character. Supposedly, the cat would consume children who had not received a new piece of clothing for Christmas. All those years getting socks, who knew someone was saving my life?
Have I mentioned how cold it was? We found a nearby cafe, housed in an old building, and ordered a round of hot cocoas to help thaw ourselves out. Are you seeing the theme yet?
A final push to see the humorously names art piece Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat was all we managed before trudging back to our hotel, having burned all the time and energy we could muster and desperate to lay down. This time was successful though and a room was procured. Nothing but a short elevator trip and a labyrinthine hallway before finding the joy of a warm bed and the sweet bliss of sleep.
The blaring of the fire alarm is perhaps the most efficient means of waking up from a jet lag nap although not the most pleasant. My brain was thoroughly incapable of comprehending the situation and I did briefly make my peace with probably dying in this fire that seemed to be threatening. Around the time I could put two thoughts together the alarm turned off and we dragged our beleaguered frames out to have dinner. Friends had just been in Reykjavik the week before and had suggested a gastro pub that was just a couple streets away.
The restaurant is quite small by American standards but make up for the limited space by having tables on three floors, each one stacked on the other with steep stairs connecting. The walls were decorated with an eclectic variety of images, historic military portraits, birds, landscapes. We were seated on the second level, our table light by a tea light, subdued wall lighting, and the pin pricks of light in the ceiling, the illusion of a night sky.
Rather than order individually, we opted to share a couple appetizers and an entree. We started with the fish tacos, tasty but very saucy, the Icelandic flatbread, with arctic char and aioli, and finished with the lamb, served with roasted vegetables and potato purée. By far the favorite was the lamb which makes sense as Iceland is rather famous for its lamb. It was perfectly cooked, the blend of flavors was well balanced, and the vegetables Al dente.
Afterwards, we took our time walking back homewards again, passing an ice skating rink, some night clubs, but nothing sounded better than a good night’s rest.