Iceland is a pretty popular travel destination these days – primarily due to a trend toward adventure and outdoor recreation, but also thanks to great airline promotions sponsored by Icelandair.
I was in Iceland for ten days in early April to attend the Iceland Writer’s Retreat. The conference, which was held in Reykjavik and co-chaired by the First Lady, was fabulous. But April is better suited for writing than all those outdoor activities. It was rainy and cold in that way that seeps into your bones. During the four days that John and I went sightseeing before the conference began, we saw rain and snow blowing in every direction as well as waterfalls defying gravity and blowing up into the sky – more like fountains than waterfalls. (Iceland is notoriously windy.)
Nonetheless, Iceland inspired wonder and awe. First off, the geological activity is incredible. From the Mid-Atlantic ridge, the rift between the American and European tectonic plates which is basically a volcanic seam between the continents and moves about an inch per year, to the geyser (the one after which all others were named) which spews its hot water like a whale exuding water through its blow-hole like clockwork, to all the geothermal activity creating hot soaking lagoons as well as the country’s primary energy source, to its many active volcanoes, the earth in Iceland is definitively unstable, a sense of mayhem lurking just beneath the surface.
Yet the people are the epitome of stability in a land that bubbles, steams, and foments… A guide who took us up to a glacier in his red monster truck for a day of hiking (named Thorer) was telling us about the farming his family did, describing facts in detail that went back a few generations. He even drove us past the well that marked the original family farmland (they had to move because of volcanic activity). I asked him when his family came to Iceland (such a north American concept) and he looked at me confused. Like when was his family not in Iceland..? Just look at him, tall and strong and broad chested, Thorer was basically a direct descendant of the Vikings – I mean he can literally trace his genealogy back hundreds and hundred of years. And that is not uncommon in Iceland – the government set up a database that all Icelandic people can log into to see how closely they are related to each other (helpful when deciding whom to date). Because the national population of 330,000 has been the stability in the country – never really leaving or interbreeding. And in that way the people are much like the sheep – touted for being as pure as they come, never having interbred, producing some of the silkiest, fine wool in the world.
What will this new industry of tourism bring (now almost outranking fishing as Iceland’s economic engine) besides people in awe over the glaciers and waterfalls and bubbling hot springs? Tourists visiting from other parts of the world, from places that more resemble melting pots, might unfortunately look at Icelandic people as a curiosity… The sense of permanence in their dna even extends to the fact that Icelandic people have been valuable in medical studies because of the dependability of a control population. I just found the mindset that must go along with these deep roots fascinating.
The other thing that was of great interest was the desolation of much of the country. Once you leave greater Reykjavik, where at least two thirds of the population resides, the landscape is expansive and unfettered. Homes and small towns (really small) are spread very far apart. That’s why I’ve been fascinated by the proprietor of Fridheimar, seemingly a modern European businessman. We spotted him dining with colleagues in the restaurant inside one of his greenhouses.
He was an attractive, middle-aged man (no doubt a descendant of the Vikings) and fashionably dressed (thanks to the Internet? Or possibly his ability to travel abroad). He operates greenhouses in Reykholt (a 2 hour drive from Reykjavik). Because there is no sunlight in Iceland for a good deal of the winter, and because of the cold climate, vegetables are grown in greenhouses, where, thanks to all the geothermal activity, the interior lights burn brightly all year long. (BTW Iceland burns minimal fossil fuels) We visited Fridheimar where 20% of Iceland’s tomato consumption is produced.
Turns out that nice looking guy was an agronomist married to a beautiful horticulturist. The poster in the restaurant said they move to Reykholt (I would call it the middle of nowhere), had five kids and have been growing tomatoes and their business for fifteen years or so (they’ve even latched onto tourism opportunities). I can’t stop thinking about that family in the greenhouse. Maybe there’s a story in there wanting to be written, or maybe it’s the vision of five kids running around the long rows of tomatoes in the dead of winter that’s got my mind working, the glow from the greenhouses the only light for miles and miles and miles.
The restaurant inside serves –you got it – a short menu of tomato related dishes including tomato soup, pasta with tomato sauce, and a flatbread pizza covered with tomatoes. They also have about half a dozen variations of the classic Bloody Mary on the menu. All delicious, delicate, refined, and sophisticated. The food in Iceland surprised me most of all – I was sort of expecting something rugged like the landscape, similar to Ireland or England where they batter and fry the fish and eat a lot of potatoes. But the food in Iceland was one of the greatest surprises of all. Delicious, pure and healthy. John and I had one of the best meals of our lives at the seaside restaurant called Fjorubordid where their simple menu revolves around langoustine (Iceland’s tiny, incredibly sweet lobsters.) Worth a trip to Iceland for that meal alone.
So despite the rain, sleet, and snow, the rainbows were spectacular, and the people and the food were terrific. But note to self: if it weren’t for the incredible congregation of writers in April, I might prefer visiting in June…