Gin and fish heads, and a side of mud


Where: Reykjavik, Iceland

Plate of food: Looking back on my trip to Iceland, I don’t recall the food as a highlight. In fact, I don’t recall the food at all. This may or may not be due, in part, to the fact that we usually went to dinner slightly inebriated. I’m going to ask you to hear me out on this….

We had been told on good authority that alcohol is very expensive in Iceland. We had also been told that most locals drink at home before they go out, as a money-saving technique, you see. With this in mind we came through duty free with a bottle of gin and a bottle of Bailey’s. Let our trip begin!

I am going to tell you now that drinking a number of gin and tonics in your hotel room before heading out to dinner feels very, very depressing, particularly when that hotel room is as welcoming and luxurious as a shoe box. But at least we were thrifty!

My point is that I don’t remember the food we ate, however, I remember a food that I couldn’t bring myself to eat: dried fish heads. These are considered a snack food in Iceland – think of that the next time you reach for your pretzels. They are found in every lunch box, gym bag, briefcase and on every party platter…..or at least that is what I like to imagine. Truth be told, fish head snacks have fallen on hard times and are not as popular as they once were. How strange.

Just outside of Reykjavik, we saw the fish heads drying on open-air racks; all tethered together in long clusters dangling from wooden beams. The odor surrounding these racks was so powerful it brought tears to our eyes. I was desperate for a photo, but as soon as I cracked the car door open, I recoiled as if I had been struck…by a fish head. Not be deterred, I sent my husband out to take the photo. What I hadn’t considered is that in the time it took for him to sprint to the racks, take the photos and dash back (all while holding his breath), his clothes and his hair had rapidly absorbed the stench. I might as well have piled bunches of half-dried fish heads in the back seat. Just imagine for a moment being a car rental company in Reykjavik: “Ragnar, this one drove past the racks. Better put an extra air freshener in!”

Feeling peckish?

The best: Without a doubt, Þingvellir National Park is the best of the best. This is the birthplace of the world’s first parliament, where, as early as the 10th century, Vikings met to discuss laws. The park also contains a huge rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. I am not normally an avid fan of geology (I spend too much time drinking in my hotel room to care), but this is a truly wondrous sight.

From our vantage point we gazed out across a massive lead coloured lake to snowy mountains, shrouded in low clouds. Nearer to us were flat plains, mossy and barren, with a cluster of simple timber buildings marking the sacred site of the Viking parliament. Behind us was the rift: enormous, stunning, and unsettling in a way . There was something odd about walking through a gap between two of the Earth’s plates – plates that normally should be out of sight far below ground. It was as foreign as seeing the bones in a compound fracture.

Why am I standing like that? Never mind. Look at that rift!

Þingvellir’s beauty is derived from its powerful history and its imposing natural setting. It is a place to reflect and to be reminded that our moment in time is really very small, very impermanent. Nothing like Continental Drift to really put things in perspective.

The beauty of Þingvellir

Story that needs to be told: We decided to visit the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa, near Reykjavik. The photos on the brochure showed exceptionally fresh-faced Icelandic couples blissfully soaking in the naturally therapeutic waters, their blue eyes all the more striking because of the Blue Lagoon signature mud masks they had smoothed on their skin. That would be us, we decided.

It turns out we are neither fresh-faced nor striking.

We paid our money and were directed to locker rooms to change. Being a good Canadian girl, I looked for a curtain or a stall or a broom cupboard as a place to change into my swimsuit. There was nothing but plastic benches and tiny metal lockers. What now? Apparently the generously proportioned German lady beside me saw no issue with the set up. Well, when in Reykjavik…

Amongst the women and children in my locker room, there was great confusion: when do we shower, where do we get the mandatory flip flops, how do we lock our things away, and so on. It was less spa-like and more ‘your first day of swimming lessons when you are 11’. I followed everyone through the glass doors out into the freezing cold. My instinct was to rush toward the warm waters for relief, but no one is allowed to rush for fear of slipping on the wooden boardwalk around the natural pool. So we were all reduced to slowly shuffling in our one-size-fits-all flip flops while braving subzero temperatures and wearing the heartiest of fabrics – nylon. Once we reached the warmth of the pool, though, we could appreciate the scene around us. Steam rose in wisps above the milky water making people and voices disappear. It felt otherworldly and mysterious which is really the best way to describe Iceland as a whole.

Plunked at various points around the pool were mud stations, buckets of geothermal mud that you could apply to your skin to cleanse and rejuvenate. I tried some on my face and hands, but I must report that I did not end up looking even vaguely Icelandic (although it felt lovely). As I watched men and women come through the mist, like ghoulish apparitions, their faces smeared with white mud that was dripping pitifully off their chins and earlobes, it suddenly dawned on me: this must be a great source of entertainment for the Icelanders. “Ragnar! When you’re done airing out the car, you should come see what these loons are doing with the mud!”

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.  Susan Sontag


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