Sunday, January 31, 2010


They have a saying in Reykjavik: “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” Oddly enough, we had that same saying where I grew up in New York, and they have it here in Sussex, as well. And I would bet a few thousand Icelandic Kronas (about two pound fifty) that you have that same saying where you live.

However, nowhere is it more accurate than in Iceland. The days we were there were predicted to be cloudy with rain, but we ran the gamut from sunshine to thunderstorm, idyllic calm to gale force winds, and gloomy night to an unexpected display of the Northern Lights. (Unfortunately, they were so unexpected we weren’t watching for them and we missed it.)

Icelandic Observations:

For the most part, the climate was mild and agreeable, and aside from sneaking the Northern Lights in behind our backs, the weather only caught us out once and, being British, we coped well enough. For a land with “Ice” in its name, that’s not too bad.

Iceland is a pretty country, filled with dramatic scenery, active volcanoes and very few people. Only 300,000 in the entire country. That’s hardly as populous as a large town. They elect a president, but he’s more like a mayor.

Icelanders are justifiably proud of their country, but on occasion stray into “proud parent” territory, where they just cannot resist gushing about their precious, precautious offspring.

They openly talk about “the crisis” here. A lot. They were hit very hard and life has changed dramatically for them. But at least they fired their bankers; we gave ours bonuses.

Their money also took a hit (See above). While we were there, Icelandic Kronas were 200 to the pound (or 128 to the dollar). It’s sort of like currency, only worthless.

Their water comes directly from natural springs. It is the best tasting water I have ever had. They are very proud of it and hand it out free in restaurants. If you visit, drink it; it really is good and it is the only thing you will get for free in Iceland.

The hot water also comes directly from the ground. It is rich in minerals, velvety soft and smells of rotten eggs. They are very proud of this, too. (The minerals and velvet soft part, not so much the rotten egg part.) It really is fine water, but after you take a shower you smell like rotten eggs for a while, which is handy if you need to sneak a fart.

Icelandic Photos:

This is the Blue lagoon, where you can swim in warm mineral waters in a large, lavish lagoon. It is a must-do if you visit Iceland. Our tour included a dip in this wonderful water. Let me tell you, there is nothing like spending the morning with 30 strangers, all of you struggling to hold your stomachs in.

This is, believe it or not, a set of water towers; those silvery things at the right of the photo are two of the four huge water tanks. The Icelanders build some astounding buildings around features you normally wouldn’t want to visit. We also visited a geothermal power station that was equally lavish and visitor-friendly.

A view of Reyjavik from the observation deck off of the restaurant in the water tower.

There are many pools, both outdoor and indoor, in Iceland. All of them are heated with geothermal energy and people flock to them. Swimming is the second most favourite pastime of the locals, handball (no, not the kind you’re thinking of) is first. This was taken at about 10:30 AM.

Downtown Reykjavik at about 11 AM.

Leif Erikson, the Viking who discovered and colonized America 500 years before Columbus.

A visit to the Geysers; another must-see.

One of the many striking vistas in the interior.

This is one of the lava fields. It is not foggy, that is the ground smoking. The strange object in the background is a pumping station pumping super-heated water (300 degrees C) for the geothermal power stations.

One of the many dramatic views from the coastline.

Iceland has one of the highest literacy ratings in the world, and this is the best they could do graffiti-wise. Must try harder.

They seem quite fond of this style of sink in Reykjavik. They are rubbish. As you can see by the cake of soap balanced on the faucet, they are not shaped as God intended.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Coffee Nation

On our various travels, my wife and I have noticed that every country is either a coffee country, or a tea country, never both. I am here to tell you that Iceland is a coffee country. It’s the type of coffee country, however, that prefers strong coffee in teeny tiny cups, which suits neither of us.

It is also—though this may be just the type of hotel we booked (three star) or the fact that the economy is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy—the type of country that is rather economical with its coffee packets. The coffee and tea making facilities in our room consist of an electric kettle, two coffee packets, two tea bags and two sachets of powdered creamer. This precluded us from having a cup of tea at bedtime, so we resolved to stock-pile what we could by locking the leftovers in the hotel room’s safe and hopefully scoring some UHT milk and extra tea bags at breakfast.

Breakfast, it turned out, was a buffet affair with—I kid you not—a guard stationed at the tea caddy and a communal jug of milk that discouraged us from nicking any for personal use. So we left breakfast defeated, but upon leaving our room to meet up for the city tour later that morning, we ran across an unguarded maid trolley and helped ourselves to what supplies we needed. (Hey, Iceland owes the Brits billions of pounds in bad debts; they can take it off the bill.)

After the tour we were cut loose so my wife and I wandered up to Kringlan, Reykjavik’s answer to Bluewater or the Icelandic Mall of America. I have to say, for a nation that can boast only 300,000 inhabitants (that’s the whole country—Reykjavik has only about 120,000) it was fairly impressive. Before engaging in retail therapy, however, we needed a caffeine boost so we headed to the food court.

Now I am always chagrinned at my inability to speak a foreign language, especially when I hear the fetching young lady at the counter speaking Icelandic to the young men in front of me, and then smiling and saying, “Yes,” to me when I am forced to ask, “Do you speak English?”

I ordered two strong coffees in teeny tiny cups, then drew on my vast knowledge of the Icelandic language I learned during the five-minutes of instruction the tour guide gave us that morning, and said, “Tak,” meaning, “Thank you.”

The young lady smiled again and said, “I’m Polish.”

Now I could have made a witty observation accentuating the irony of me, an American, attempting to speak Icelandic to a Polish immigrant I mistakenly took for a local. Or, even better, I could have kept my mouth shut. Instead, I replied, “Then what are you doing here? I thought you were all in England.”

This is when I learned it is not always wise to joke with people for whom English is a auxiliary language. Her smile remained, but it faltered. If she spoke British, I’m sure she would be thinking, “wanker!”

Since I don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry,” in either Polish or Icelandic, I simply took my coffees (only 385 Icelandic Kronas) and retreated.

So much for a career in the diplomatic corps.

What I Learned at the Mall

For some reason, a lot of manikins in Iceland are left naked:

But the ones they dress, they dress with style:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Worst

Do you want to know the worst thing about being trapped inside the flat all day like some petty criminal with an electronic leg tag? I have nothing else to do but listen to the radio, and what I hear on the radio is often so incredibly insane it makes my head hurt.

For example:

During this crisis, I have been quite critical of the clean-up methods, and of a group of local people who are taking the council to task for not doing a better job. Four days after the snowfall, the sidewalks (excuse me, pavements) are still a dangerous morass of snow, ice and slush. The locals thought the council should have cleaned everything up and I was more of the opinion that people should have done more themselves.

In New York, if you have a sidewalk (in New York, they are ‘sidewalks’) running in front of your home or business, you go out and clean it off as soon as you can. This allows pedestrian traffic move freely and safely and it greatly assists in the general clean up.

In Britain, however, the law is, if you have a pavement running in front of your home or business, and if you clean it off, and someone then slips, you are liable, and you can be sued. On the other hand, if you just leave the snow, ice and slush lying there to trip up pedestrians and send them to the hospital with fractured wrists, broken legs or very sore bums, you are not responsible at all.

Can someone, anyone, explain to me how that makes any sense at all? Who is responsible for thinking up this tosh!

It’s the sort of thing that, for me, doesn’t so much address the mystery of how the British lost the Empire, but rather begs the question “How did they acquire it in the first place?”

Here’s an impromptu quiz based on some other tidbits from my reading and media viewing during my “house arrest”:

Question 1:

If you were faced with a formidable army, and all you had were 18,000 well trained, experienced soldiers (this would be the British Expeditionary Force at the start of WWI) would you:

A. Have these 18,000 soldiers train recruits in order to quickly build up an army of tens of thousands of well-trained soldiers?


B. Send your 18,000 well-trained, experienced soldiers headlong into machine gun fire to see what happened?

Question 2:

If you were engaged in the hunt for the fearsome German battleship, Bismarck, at the critical, early stages of WWII, and your battleship and the Air Force had it cornered, would you:

A. Provide supporting fire for the airplanes so they could get in close enough to deliver the coup de grace?


B. Try to shoot down your own aircraft so your ship could take credit for the kill?

If you gave the blatantly sane answer to either of those questions, then you have no future in British politics. On any level.

Now, granted, my two previous examples are a bit extreme, and the government no longer enjoys the opportunity to visit mayhem on the populace on that gargantuan a scale but, bless them, they clearly remain dedicated to taking out the population, one slipped disc at a time.