Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Iceland

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

Don't go to Iceland in November. The sidewalks are slippery and it snows and it is freezing and you will probably get very lost trying to find attractions that are closed. Also, you will be jet-lagged when you arrive. Practical wisdom suggests that the best way to combat jet lag is to stay awake until bedtime in your new time zone. Unfortunately, practical wisdom holds little power - for me, at least - over fatigue. Once we landed and found our hotel, we managed to stay awake for forty-five minutes before the walls started melting and the darkness closed in. We woke in the late afternoon, walked outside, and spent the next few hours slogging through the first snowfall of the Iceland winter. 

I was not discouraged. Icelandic tourist information is full of reasons to travel to a cold, dark, out-of-the-way island in the middle of winter, but the primary reason is the rocking, all-night party scene. This I wanted to see, mostly to compensate for my first class lack of rocking, all-night party ability. So despite a disappointing first few hours, we grabbed a late dinner and searched our Let’s Go Europe 1999 for a hip nightclub.

If you are paying close attention you will notice that our guidebook was two years out of date. Being budget travelers, we decided that there were no significant developments in tourist information since then, so we skimped on an updated travel guide and prayed for accuracy. For reasons that would become clear (the hard way) throughout our travels, skimping on our guidebook was a profoundly bad idea.

We found a club with a sufficiently Icelandic-sounding name, Gauker A Stong Vettingahus. Roughly translated, this meant “don’t even think of showing up before 1 AM.” When we arrived at 10 PM, the place was deserted. The club had three levels of dance floor and a total of eleven people in it, including staff. We grabbed a couple ten dollar mixed drinks and walked every square inch until 1:30 AM. We gave up and walked out, exhausted and jet-lagged, at the exact minute the crowds picked up. As we left, we had to fight our way through throngs of hipsters trying to get their evening started. The line outside the club, full of beautiful young Icelanders standing in the early morning snow, stretched for two blocks.

Not all was lost. We slept very well and woke at 10 AM, just in time to see the sunrise. Our goal for the day was to visit the Blue Lagoon, one of the premier natural attractions in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon was a steam-filled outdoor hot spring that we saw on lots of Iceland brochures. It was blue, foggy, and smelled of sulfur. In spots, it was literally boiling hot. The surrounding landscape was volcanic and desolate. It was a unique, creepy patch of Earth. Adding to the strangeness, we were alone except for a couple staff in the adjoining space-age spa and a single life guard in a dark, shadowy structure overlooking the lagoon. We pruned our fingers and toes for a few uneventful hours, showered, and boarded the next shuttle back to Reykjavik. Then things got interesting.  

Our driver was bent on setting a land-speed record for commutes between the Blue Lagoon and downtown Reykjavik. In addition to traveling very, very fast, the sun had set hours ago at mid-afternoon, making our trek very, very dark. The roads were unlit, curvy, and icy. And our chauffeur liked to play chicken with oncoming traffic. I spent a white-knuckled half hour worrying about whether or not we’d go skidding into the barren, rocky roadside while Karie, exhausted and in a spa-induced coma, slept in the seat beside me. Our travels were off to an odd start, but we had survived. Only six months and thirteen days to go.

With our final day in Iceland, we wanted to see some of the beautiful, non-lagoon scenery surrounding Reykjavik. We were told that the roads were now too icy and nobody in their right mind would trust one of the local madmen shuttle-drivers in such conditions. I agreed.  

We had no backup plan but our hotel room was much too small to sit in all day. It was still snowing and the city was deserted. We should have taken the hint and stayed inside like everybody else, but we did not want to waste a moment of potential tourist fun in Iceland. So we set out in search of the National Museum and Viking House, attractions our tourist map identified with extra large icons, making them very hard to resist.

As it turned out, the Viking House was very difficult to find. We stumbled on a building that appeared to match the location of the icon on our map, but when we went inside it was filled with teachers and small children and smelled like tater tots. Feeling awkward, we quickly retreated and gave up our search. The Viking House may have been next door buried beneath the snow. We will never know.  

Not easily discouraged, we began a search for the National Museum. We found a building that matched the location on our map and looked very much like a large, dusty museum but it was unmarked and closed for the season.  

Iceland is a truly gorgeous country with fantastic natural attractions for many months of the year. But it can be a challenging destination in winter unless you are a nocturnal party person attracted to tall blonds with fully exposed noses.