101 Reykjavík*

We’ve been in Iceland for a week now. This is the house where we’re staying, though our incredible apartment doesn’t have any windows to the front so you can’t see it.

Three-story house in Reykjavík on a cloudy day

When we departed Scotland last Thursday we had a day of straight traveling that started with wake-up at 5 AM, and then: packing, leaving the yurt, breakfast in the Fort William station café, the 4-hour train to Glasgow, a taxi to the airport (after handing out our luggage, the friendly driver patted me on the shoulder and said, “Enjoy the ice cubes in Iceland”), lunch at the airport, a 2-hour flight, and then 2 buses from the airport to our apartment. The small plane was only partly full and we were surprised how many Americans and Canadians were on board. 

Mini language lesson printed on the airplane headrest

We chose Iceland because Icelandair flies inexpensively from Glasgow (it was even headquartered there briefly, after the 2010 volcanic eruption). It turns out to be quite a nice airline and an unofficial (perhaps even official) ambassador for the country. There were language tips on the plane headrests and in the inflight magazine, free brochures in the seatback pocket, and contemporary Icelandic music on the sound system. If you’re flying from North America to Europe (or vice versa), you can stop in Iceland for up to 7 days between legs of your flight without paying extra, and Icelandair runs tours from the airport (3-5 hours) during brief stopovers. It was nice to feel that we were going to a place that welcomes visitors  — especially when the nation in question has a distinctive culture, landscape, and language with which most people are unlikely to be familiar!

It was overcast and sprinkling when the plane touched down outside Reykjavík. A friend told me that the terrain around the airport is “like outer space” and it’s true: my first glimpses of Iceland were of sea, sky, and rocky shoreline, all drab and grey-brown. But in a weird way it felt like a continuation of the Highlands — as if the mountains and lochs of Scotland had been ironed out into flatter hills, most of the green sucked out, and the water and sky poured into a single giant backdrop. I think it’s because we spent so much of our Highlands time just wandering around being receptive to whatever we saw, so we were still in that state of mind. As it turns out, Scotland is the third nearest country to Iceland (after the Faroe Islands and Greenland), and the rest of Reykjavík is far more interesting and colorful. And since there are tourists everywhere, it feels just like Fort William or Edinburgh!

Harpa concert hall

The first couple of days continued overcast and wet, but since then the weather has become positively warm at midday — even in a thin cotton shirt I sweat walking around town — and still comfortable in the evening. When the sun is out the city looks especially inviting, with its soft colors and clean angles. It all looks very spacious and tidy, all the more so after the old, rain-washed grey stone of Edinburgh.

White and pale-blue house

The city covers the same area as Edinburgh, but the population is about a quarter the size. Even with all the tourists and the nightlife, it feels quiet here, and peaceful. Nearly every evening we’ve gone out to walk along the harbor, where there’s a paved path right next to the bay, with nothing to separate us from the water (Erik: “there is obviously a different culture of public safety here”). The sun doesn’t set till about 10 PM and every night the light is differently beautiful.

Modern sculpture of a ship, on the harbor at sunset

Already I like it very much here, though costs are as high as everyone warned us (especially food), and people (locals?) sometimes stare at us with a disconcerting fixity; I can’t decide whether that’s cultural or just plain rude, but I do not enjoy it. Fortunately most of our encounters are unambiguously friendly.

The Pride parade crowd on our first Saturday in Iceland. We haven’t ventured too far away from the downtown tourist center, near which we live, but here at least, everyone seems to speak English. Initially I despaired of ever learning any Icelandic, but happily I think I’m picking up some of the more frequently-used words, like daginn (“dye-inn”) for good morning/afternoon, and takk fyrir (“tahk feerir”) as one of the ways to say thank you. The hardest part is grocery shopping (“What kind of fish is ýsa?”) and remembering street names (“it’s on, uh… Skólavörðustígur”).

White mushrooms in blue plastic carton with label, "íslenskir sveppir."

We’ve been eating a lot of cheese, fish, flatbread and butter, and skyr — all of which are lovely — and thanks to geothermal heating, hot water is eco-friendly (and, due to the sulfur content, smells faintly of eggs). One of these days I will get myself a swimsuit and then go check out the famous Icelandic swimming pools, which are said to be the social hub of the community (there are even business meetings conducted in the hot tubs, so they say!).

Since we got here we have checked out an incredible watercolor exhibit, a few restaurants and bakeries, an old cemetery, and the city pond — photos next week! I’m glad we are here; I think we might even stay two months instead of the intended one.

Lisa on a rock by the harbor at sunset

*101 is one of the postal codes of Reykjavík and the one in which we live.