I just spent a few weeks in Iceland, and here's what I found interesting:
If I had to describe the landscape in only two words: “mossy lava”.
Much of the country looks like the lava had just recently dried, cracked open, and grew some moss. Endlessly fascinating. This little video doesn't show it well enough:
Everyone under 30 is in a band
This is a phrase I heard often: “Everyone under 30 is in a band,” or is doing something creative and artistic in some way.
I never found out why it has such a creative culture, though if you've got any good explanations, please let me know, because I think it's fascinating how this became the norm.
A few musicians I met with said peer pressure challenges you to do something unique, like being in art school. Nothing really felt like it was being done for commerical gain. Just creativity for its own sake.
Very comfortable life
Though Iceland is about the same size as Britain, it has only 320,000 people, as compared to Britain's 58 million people. People kept saying, “Everyone knows everyone here,” or, “It's a small-town life.”
Iceland is one of the safest places you'll ever go. My first day, in a crowded bar, I saw 5 guys leave their table to step outside for a smoke, and one of them left his expensive iPhone in the middle of the table, unattended for 15 minutes. When I mentioned this to my friend, he said, “Oh that's how you show that you're coming back to that table.” When I said, “But someone might steal it,” he laughed and said, “This is Iceland!”
I heard many stories from people who had never locked their car or door. Someone told me that in the town he grew up in, they've asked people to stop leaving their keys in the ignition, only because a drunk teen recently took someone's car out for a joy-ride and got pretty hurt.
According to the Human Development Index, Iceland has the highest level of economic and civil freedom and is the “most developed country in the world”.
The ground is about to explode!
Everywhere you go, little holes in the ground are steaming or bubbling. A constant reminder how volcanically and geologically active this island is.
See this video for an extreme example. (The geysir hits me at the end, and it's damn hot!)
Ancient letters þ and ð
When my ex from Sweden heard someone speaking Icelandic, she was fascinated. She said it was “the ancient tongue”, like a 1000-year-old precursor to Swedish. She could make out some words. Turns out this is because Icelandic is a mostly-unchanged version of ancient Norse language, since they were isolated on this distant island, whereas Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian all came from Old Norse but changed over the years.
Even now, they develop new vocabulary based on native roots instead of borrowing from English.
Icelandic also uses some ancient letters no longer used in any other language:
, called “thorn” (þorn, really), looks like a p, but it's pronounced “th” as in “thing”.
, called “eth”, a d with a line through it, is pronounced “th” as in “the”.
These aren't rare, they're everywhere, as you can see here if you have the fonts installed, or read more on Wikipedia.
Everyone in Iceland speaks English with a gorgeous accent with rolling “r”s. Many also speak basic Danish in a way that's understood by Swedes and Norwegians.
No family names!
Remember in Lord of the Rings, how everyone would introduce themselves like, “I am Gimley, son of Gloin” or “I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn”. Well in Iceland, that's what their names really say!
If your name is Sarah and your dad's name is Eric, your name would be “Sarah Erics-daughter” and your brother Jeff would be “Jeff Erics-son”. Get it? (The actual spelling would be Ericsdóttir and Ericsson.)
Since there are no family names, you do not have the same last name as your parents or even other-sex siblings. Because of this, everyone is called by their first name, even politicians.
An interesting contrast from Japanese and many other cultures where people are known by their family name. Read more at Wikipedia.
My friend's wife told me about her 5-year-old son with a previous boyfriend, current daughter with current husband, and she said she has two siblings each with different fathers, concluding, “This is very Icelandic.” Sure enough, my friend told me his family's story is about the same.
I had read a New York Times article about this last year, so I was prepared for it. Single mothers are very normal. Many women have a baby with a boyfriend, with no pressure to get married, then may often have another baby later in life with a longer-lasting relationship.
That said, it felt like such a family-friendly place. Maybe it's the safe-and-cozy feeling the whole country gives, but it feels like a great place to raise a kid.
Of course with so many glaciers, there are waterfalls everywhere. Here are a few I saw in one single day. Of course I'd always run to the bottom to see how close I could get, and always got completely soaked from the mist.
Crystal clear water
The water that comes out of the faucet in any building is some of the best spring water in the world.
Tourists over the last 10 years started asking for bottled water, to which the Icelanders would have to explain that tap water is cleaner than bottled water : putting that perfect water into a plasic bottle would make it worse! Eventually they relented and started putting the tap water into plastic bottles for the tourists at a huge markup and hopefully a good laugh.
Most of the hot water for Reykjavík (the biggest city) comes from the big lake an hour away, where the water is heated with geothermal/volcanic help, and piped into everyone's homes, already hot. Instead of a water-heater in the home, like most of us are used to, they have a water-combining device that combines the super-hot incoming water with the separate pipe of cold water, to make usefully-hot water for showering and washing.
Now when I saw that lake, the water was so freakishly clear that you could see 20 meters down just standing by it, so I knew I had to go in....
The American continental plate and the Eurasian continental plate meet in that clear lake, and you can go scuba diving in the 20-meter (60-feet) deep fissure between the plates.
Though the water is an icy 2-4 degrees C, and I didn't know how to scuba dive, I knew I wanted to go in, so I took lessons for a week (also in icy water!), and did my very first dive in this fissure.
At one point, it's so narrow I could put one hand on America and one hand on Eurasia. Very cool. A little video of the before-and-after of my first dive is here:
Jökulsárlón: the iceberg lagoon
Finishing with the most breath-taking thing, Jökulsárlón is the name of the place where the biggest glacier reaches the ocean. The water makes huge icebergs break off the glacier, but they're trapped in a lagoon with a narrow entrance out to sea, so you can take a little boat through hundreds of these amazing blue-white icebergs.
Click here to watch this video in high-definition for full effect, or watch the lo-fi version below: