48 Hours (Alone) in Iceland

I arrived at the Keflavik airport on a Wednesday, in the late afternoon. After collecting my suitcase, I purchased a ticket for the Flybus, which would take me the 45 minutes to Reykjavik. The sun had started to set as we boarded the bus. I already started worrying that I wouldn’t be able to get my bearings once we got to the city. I hate my arriving anywhere unfamiliar in the dark.

I was hungry, so I ate one of the British candy bars I bought at Heathrow on the bus. I stashed the wrapper inside of a plastic bag inside of my backpack, sat back, and tried to  catch some scenery through the bus window. I was in an aisle seat, so this proved difficult. We drove down a long road flanked by large street lamps for what seemed like forever. By the time we reached Reykjavik’s bus station, the sky had gone from purple to black. There, I boarded a van that would take me directly to the hostel where I would stay for two nights.

The van dropped me off in front of a fast food drive-in, which was directly across the street from the hostel though I didn’t realize it at the time. I walked up and down the block, past a Dominos and an apartment building, looking for the entrance. Finally, I saw the modern wooden rectangle of the door. The sign posted next to it directed me upstairs.

I checked in at Kex Hostel easily. I was sure I had fucked up my reservation somehow, or that I would get there and the hostel would have no record of it. But it turned out that I did, in fact, have a room and that was a huge relief. I hadn’t stayed in a hostel since I studied abroad in 2007. My experiences were varied. (Berlin was wonderful, Amsterdam and Strasbourg were pretty OK, Rome was abysmal, Geneva was such a fever dream of a trip that I honestly have no memory of where we stayed.) Kex was a delight. My private room – I thought this best since I was traveling alone and also, I’m no longer a poor student – was comfortable and adorable. The bar-restaurant on the main floor was convenient and actually very good. It was also centrally located, which I would realize once I left to explore.

the bar at kex hostel

the bar at kex hostel

I ate an early dinner downstairs. The whole time I felt uneasy at the thought of leaving the hostel to explore Reykjavik in the dark, but I only had two days and two nights to do everything I wanted to do. I eavesdropped on the group at the table next to me, two young American men who had approached three young Australian women. They were trying to get them to go on a car trip around the Golden Circle the following day. Even though the guys seemed annoying – one of them spent at least five minutes pompously explaining the research he did on white blood cells – I was jealous of them, having people to do things with.

It was only 7 o’clock when I left the hostel, but it felt a lot later because it had been dark for so long. I’d mapped out a few bars that I wanted to try on my phone, though first I thought I would find a power adaptor so that I could charge my phone when I got back. After two or three blocks, I found myself on a sort of main street, which all of the bars were on or near. One of the larger tourist shops was open, so I popped in to look around for an adaptor. I came out empty-handed and figured I might have better luck in the morning.

Though I walked into the highly recommended Lebowski Bar, I couldn’t find a seat and it seemed a little too rowdy for my situation, a woman out for a drink on her first night in a foreign country, with only her book for company. Instead, I headed to Kaffibarinn, a quiet bar in an old house, just down the way. I ordered a beer from the very attractive bartender and parked myself at a candlelit table nearby, where I opened my book.

I read very little at the bar, mostly because I couldn’t help but people-watch while I was there.

kaffibarinn

kaffibarinn

The patrons around me were mostly Americans. I learned that they were all a) married, b) in their thirties, c) in Iceland because they found really cheap flights, and d) completely unable to control the volume of their voices. I didn’t dislike listening to them talk about what they had done so far in Iceland and what they “did” with the “lives” back home. I did dislike how a few of them spoke about Iceland like it was some kind of all-inclusive resort, nothing more than a playground for tourists.

So while I was listening to all of these Americans blather on about their jobs back in Colorado and how they met their wives junior year at Texas A&M, I noticed a really rad thing, which was a communal cheeseboard in the middle of the room. Anyone at the bar could just get up and grab some free cheese and fruit. For free! I wasn’t hungry, so I didn’t try anything, but I still thought it pretty noteworthy. And then, I got pulled back into listening to the Americans, but only because one particularly loud woman had started talking to the hot bartender, asking him all sorts of questions about his life.

Before I went to Iceland, I’d heard more than a few Americans comment on the friendliness of the Icelandic people. While I was there, I found the people I encountered to be polite, responsive, and tolerant of tourists. I think this tolerance is often mistaken for friendliness. When I saw Americans act “friendly” in that sort of stereotypically open, overbearing, and sometimes prying manner some of us possess, they weren’t treated with disdain as they might be in other European countries. I think a lot of Americans project “friendliness” onto Icelanders when it’s really that Iceland has a culture of decency. Icelanders aren’t popping up like magical elves every time you get lost to give you directions, but from what I observed and experienced, if you approach someone with a question, they’ll probably try to give you a good answer. But who really knows, I was only there for two days and I also am so unfriendly that roughly fifty percent of my friends have said that they were “scared” of me before we became friends.

Anyway, this woman was talking to the bartender and eventually I heard her say, “Wait, are you American?” And it turned out that he was from Seattle. She asked him how long he’d been in Reykjavik, how he liked working at the bar, and finally, why he was there in first place. “I have a child here,” he said. That was the first of three times I heard him tell his story to American women that night. Before she went back to her table, the woman told him he had “kind of an Icelandic accent.”

***

view of volcanoes from the shore in the morning

view of volcanoes from the shore in the morning

I woke up at 7 o’clock the following morning. I’d gotten back to my room at 10 previous night and stayed up to finish that book I wasn’t really reading at the bar. (It was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and I highly recommend it.) I wanted to get an early start because I had a lot of sightseeing to do and also needed to charge my phone before going on a bus tour of the Golden Circle that afternoon. However, when I woke up, it was pitch black outside and my entire body still felt tired. I went back to sleep until after 9 and was outside by 10, just as the sun was rising, on the hunt for a power adaptor. One of the hostel employees had directed me to a camping supply store just down the street, which she said would have power adaptors.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the camping supply store. Also, nothing was really open? Like, things were starting to open, but nowhere that looked like it might sell power adaptors. I ate breakfast at the first café I could find. I had a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino and a wonderful view of the only other patrons, a Spanish-speaking couple, canoodling across the room.

I went back to the same tourist shop I had gone to the night before, because it was one of the only things open, to see if I had possibly just missed the power adaptors. I looked all over the store and finally approached the counter to speak to a clerk.

“You don’t have power adaptors, do you?” I said, stuttering. She told me they did and pointed off to the side. I turned around. “Wait, where?” She pointed again. “Here,” she said. And then I saw them, in a large display, literally six inches in front of me, slightly to my left. I thanked her, assured her that I was a huge idiot, purchased a power adaptor, and left.

Then I had to find a place to actually charge my phone. I ended up in a bar that smelled like

inside harpa

inside harpa

stale beer and espresso. I ordered an Americano, parked myself in a booth with cracked vinyl seats, and plugged my phone in under the table. It was taking forever to charge and I was nervous about time. I had wanted to do at least one activity that morning before my bus tour. I ended up waiting until it got to 50% before unplugging and heading to the Harpa concert hall. I just hoped that the bus would have outlets.

Harpa opened only a few years ago. It’s a gorgeous building and stands out from the rest of the city’s architecture. Once inside, I couldn’t stop taking photos of the glass panels. The views from the upper floors were worth the trip alone, but I also enjoyed the small shops on the main floor, especially the small outpost of the record store 12 Tonar. With not much time to spare, I headed back toward the hostel where my bus would pick me up, stopping on the way to grab a few snacks for the road.

***

The bus was more of a van and I quickly found that it did not have any electrical outlets. I was the first person to board. The driver who would lead our tour checked my name off of his list. “Flannery,” he said. “Is that Irish?” I told him it was an Irish name, but that I was American. He smiled at me approvingly. I later learned that many Icelanders believe they are descended from people of Irish origin who intermarried with Norse conquerors.

Þingvellir

Þingvellir

We drove around Reykjavik, picking other tourists up, before getting on the road. I was the only person who was not part of a male-female couple. As we drove out of the city, our driver-guide told us about the history of Iceland and the city of Reykjavik, as well as basic facts about the island’s geography. We drove for a long time before reaching Þingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament, founded in 930. There, we were given about 45 minutes to explore. I walked on a path between some huge rocks, eventually finding a spot where I could view the whole valley. The wind was really strong – our guide had noted that Iceland really should have been called “Windland” – and I worried about falling rocks. I felt, not for the last time, like I was on another planet.

Once our party was back on the bus, we drove a much shorter distance toGeysir, to view the

geysir hot spring area

geysir hot spring area

geysers. I had never seen a geyser before. I was just as impressed with the atmosphere of the park area, the red dirt and the steam rising off the ground, as I was by the actual geyser eruptions. I spent a lot of time trying to capture a geyser eruption on my iPhone camera, with very little luck. And then my phone died before my battery was really drained because the cold wind zapped all of the power. I walked around the park, watching other people get dangerously close the geysers, even though there were signs everywhere with warnings about the extremely high temperatures of the water and statements about how far the closest hospitals were from the park.

The sky turned a darker gray as we drove to our final destination, the Gullfoss waterfall. The couple in the seat in front of me – a man wearing Willy Nelson braids and a bandana tied around his head and a woman with frizzy, graying hair who looked very cold – started chatting to me. I found out that they were from Oregon and had already been in Iceland for a few days and that it had been much colder when they had arrived, in the mid-twenties. (It was in the mid-forties, though the wind made it feel colder outside the city.) They weren’t sure how they would spend the rest of their time. I suggested horseback riding, which I’d heard was a thing to do but wouldn’t be able to get around to it myself. The woman shook her head. “It’s way too cold for that,” she said.

trying to take a selfie at gullfoss

trying to take a selfie at gullfoss

The Gullfoss waterfall was by far the largest waterfall I’d ever seen. Since I’d been able to charge my phone in the rest area at Geysir, I was ready to mark this occasion by taking some selfies. But I guess Willy Nelson Braids saw this and felt bad for me, so he offered to take my picture for me. I handed my phone to him, he took two photos, and handed it back to me. I was hoping they came out well so that I could post them on Instagram, maybe get a new profile photo out of this experience. However, when I looked at my camera roll, I found two photos where I’m smack in the middle of the frame, obscuring the waterfall. Also, my eyes were closed.

***

I was back at the hostel by 6 pm. I changed quickly and decided to hang out at the bar downstairs for a while. I figured I could have a beer while I charged my phone and did some more journaling. My plan was thwarted by one of the young American guys I had seen the night before, chatting up the Australian girls at the table next to me. He asked if he could join me and I didn’t really see the point in turning down a potentially interesting experience, so I said yes. It turned out that he was a professional surfer on his way to Bali. He was training to be a firefighter in some beach town in California, but in the meantime, was traveling around the world surfing wherever he could get sponsored. I figured he was in his very early twenties. To me, he seemed young and carefree in a way that I had never been and will never have the opportunity to be again.

His friend joined us a little while later. They had only met the previous night, at the same bar, and had ended up driving around the Golden Circle with the Australian girls they’d chatted up. The second guy was a little bit older and a little bit more square. He was a medical researcher who lived in Queens and got excited when I said I also lived in New York. But our conversation about New York fizzled quickly once I realized we had literally nothing in common other than the city we lived in.

They asked me what I was doing for dinner and I told them that I was planning to go to a restaurant that had been recommended to me called Grillmarkadurinn. They invited themselves along. I didn’t say no but I wasn’t necessarily enthusiastic about them joining me. We all went upstairs to get our coats, but when we met again, they had changed their minds. I assumed they had looked up the restaurant, which was on the pricier side. They decided to get hot dogs from a stand instead. We walked to the harbor area together and parted ways there.

***

I hadn’t made a reservation at Grillmarkadurinn but was seated right away, at the bar in front of the open kitchen. I’d never eaten a full meal alone in a nice restaurant before. I tried not to look at my phone and I thought it would be inappropriate if I took out my book, so I just watched the chefs in the kitchen and thought about my trip. I was sad that it was almost over – it was my last night – but felt ready to be back at home.

I ordered a glass of wine and was served rustic white bread with fresh butter and lava salt. For

mini burgers of lobster, whale, and puffin

mini burgers of lobster, whale, and puffin

my main course, I got three mini burgers of lobster, whale, and puffin. I had never tried whale or puffin before and figured it was the perfect time to do so. I didn’t love the whale; the texture, to me, was similar to tuna, which I’m not a huge fan of. The puffin, however, was absolutely delicious. (And so was the lobster.) I decided to get dessert, since I was feeling celebratory about having almost completed my trip, and ordered a plate of homemade ice creams, which were all wonderful. I was so full when I left the restaurant, I felt sick.

***

I got up around 8 the next morning to check out. I’d gone to bed fairly early again because I had quite a few things to do around Reykjavik before I left, but also because I literally could not have gone out even if wanted to after dinner, that’s how disgustingly full I felt. I ended up reading three New Yorker articles on my phone before finally falling asleep around 11.

I was able to store my bags at Kex and was out and about well before the sun was up. I ate

hallgrimskirkja

hallgrimskirkja

breakfast at Mokka-Kaffi, which I had discovered thanks to the New York Times’s ‘36 Hours in Reykjavik.’ (Between you and me, I modeled my whole trip on ‘36 Hours in Reykjavik.’) I ate exactly what they suggested: a waffle with fresh whipped cream. It was the best waffle I’ve had in a long time, though I should add that I’m not much of a waffle eater these days.

From there, I headed to the Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland which is also notable for its Expressionist architecture and its views of Reykjavik. I paid a small fee to take an elevator to the top of the church, where I took photos of the city, the water, and the volcanoes in the distance. The wind in the tower was incredible. I felt like I could have blown out one of the windows if they hadn’t had iron bars over them.

12 Tonar

12 tonar

Afterward, I stopped in a few shops in that part of the city, including Geysir, famous for its Iceland-inspired clothing and home goods. I was almost relieved to not have any room in my suitcase, otherwise I could have splurged and bought everything in the store. I also found the main location of the record store 12 Tonar, which was totally empty that morning. I had some fun looking through used vinyl in the basement, but was again stopped from purchasing anything by my lack of luggage space.

After that, I headed to Hafnarhus, which houses the Reykjavik Art Museum’s contemporary collections. There were only about five or six exhibits. The collection of controversial Erro works – which are displayed there permanently – were the most interesting to me. (Erro, an Icelandic painter and collage artist who works in Paris, has been accused of plagiarism many times.) I was alone almost the entire time I walked through the museum, which felt much different from my recent experiences in London museums, where I’d been pushed through every exhibit by other tourists.

in line for pylsur

in line for pylsur

I grabbed lunch at nearby Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a famous hot dog stand. Since I’m sort of a huge hot dog fan, I’d been looking forward to this moment. I ordered one hot dog with everything (raw onions, crispy onions, ketchup, sweet mustard, and a mayonnaise-type sauce) and a soda, using up the last of my Icelandic krona. I ate it while walking through a light rain on my way back to the hostel, where the Flybus would pick me up to go back to Keflavik airport.

***

Back at the airport – my third time there in ten days – I struggled to find a seat to wait for my flight. I’d picked up an English-language novel set in Iceland, Burial Rites, at the bookstore and started to read it while I drank some Kokomjolk, a brand of Icelandic chocolate milk. Though I was anxious to get home, I wished I could have stayed in Iceland just a little bit longer. In my head, I was already making a list of the things I would do on my next visit.

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