What I learned about the United States while visiting Iceland for Christmas in 2014
A layer of salt burned through two layers of mink oil, staining the right toe of my leather boots. The stain looks like the Aurora Borealis. For the first seven days of my 2014 Christmas vacation, I loved my fur-lined boots with new hardened soles. In the last three days even Dr. Scholls couldn’t save the relationship. I am unsure how many miles I put on them because all the road signs were in kilometers. The left shoe weathered walks through icy downtown Reykjavik, Iceland, Akureyri, the Golden Circle and Seattle a little better for some reason.
So why Iceland for Christmas? Even the Icelanders asked my wife and I this question. We saw the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was largely shot in Iceland (even during scenes not set in Iceland) and we knew we had to go to this magical place. Except Walter Mitty went in the summer.
What’s the difference between Walter Mitty’s summer trip and our winter trip?
About 20 hours of light.
We arrived two days after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. That means dawn lasts from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., sunrise lasts from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., high-noon, if you can call it that, is at 1:30 p.m., sunset is from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and dusk is from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. It’s pitch black between 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 a.m. the next day. The sun rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest. This has the incredible bonus of making almost every photograph appear that I snapped it in a 10-minute window of perfect orange and pink sunset light. But it also makes everything just not quite bright enough to give you vitamin D.
Apparently the summer is 23 hours of high noon broken up by an hour of sunset and sunrise.
This made it difficult to know what time to eat dinner and we always wanted to nap (and often did on the bus). Everyone also flips between a 24-hour clock (mostly on signage) and a 12-hour clock (mostly aloud) so we frequently converted times to 24 hours then subtracted 8 hours to know if our friends were asleep or awake. Time travel is difficult and makes you hungry at weird times. Luckily I didn’t bring my watch.
If you didn’t follow any of the last three paragraphs then you just got a sense of what it all felt like.
So what did we eat at random times of the night?
Their food is pretty much like ours, but not as sweet and made with better animals.
Icelanders eat a lot like Canadians. They seem to really like hamburgers and mayonnaise. Reminds me of Lake Tahoe, where so many hamburger stands litter the area, you’d think cows fall from the sky. But they don’t (sadly) and in both places, cows don’t really like the cold. Yet, the restaurant, Hamborgarafabrikkan (just sound it out real slow and then rush through it) was a really fancy hamburger place. But we didn’t go there, nor did we go to KFC, Subway or Dominoes.
Instead, we ate at Sushi Samba, a Japanese and South American fusion restaurant that serves exclusively Icelandic dishes. Reno could really use one of these. I ordered the Icelandic feast:
- Pan fried arctic char
- Coffee and lime infused grilled minke whale
- Smoked puffin
- Reindeer mini burger
- Grilled lamb fillet
- White chocolate skyr panna cotta
I’d like to take a moment to talk about skyr. There exists a spectrum that begins at milk and ends at cream cheese. In the middle we’ll say is Yoplait yogurt. Next is Greek Yogurt. Then skyr. I want it all the time now. I will probably order a case of it from Whole Foods and then you can try it too.
Later, I ate filet of horse. It was amazing. Shut up, all animals are precious and cute and all animals are edible you evil chicken murderer. Sorry…
Speaking of horses…
That transition makes me kind of a dick but so did eating the horse filet on the same day I took these pictures. We stopped on the side of the road between Reykjavik and Akureryi (an 8 hour drive north through the tundra) to spend time with a herd of Icelandic horses. Icelandic horses are unique because they have an under layer of fur in addition to their hair. Locals told us no one uses horses for work anymore so they’ve kept them as domestic pets for the last 100 years.
Icelandic sheep similarly adapted to the cold with more intense wool than their warm-weather counterparts. Icelanders make amazing woolen goods out of this unique resource. Sweaters made by the Handknitting Association of Iceland protect wearers from the below 0° C temperatures and snow with very little additional layers. I now own two sweaters and a beanie.
What’s the weather like anyway?
Warmer than Reno.
But snowier and wetter. The island is in a tropical zone created by wind and ocean currents. That keeps it warmer. The lack of sunlight and high humidity maintains a mostly consistent temperature throughout the day compared to our swinging desert madness.
We still dressed in ridiculous layers, keeping us toasty warm the whole trip. Only during a super jeep (badass 4WD church van) and snowmobiling excursion around the Golden Circle, Iceland’s equivalent to Yosemite National Park, did we experience uncomfortable winter cold through our boots and gloves. Then we visited the geothermal resort, Blue Lagoon, and it made everything better. I’ll let a handful of photos add context to that messy description.
Photos are better than words.
But sometimes the weather is too much for even the Icelanders. In classic fashion, we almost got stranded in Akureyri when rain and wind added to the already ice-covered roads. We thought we were going to drive 8 hours back to the airport starting around 5 a.m. until the roads read “Impassable.” Which, as it turns out, not even Icelandic people will attempt. So we ditched our rental car and hopped onto this little guy for a 45-minute flight back south.
So far this doesn’t sound that alien like your headline promised…
Fine, here’s the part where we ended up on a different planet. Two mountain passes on the drive to Akureyri surrounded the car in bright white roads, ground, mountains, clouds and sky. The only thing that pierced the white were stark black metal power lines. In the above picture, taken later in the day, the same thing happened, except the sky turned a bright overwhelming pink, casting pink and purple all over the snow, creating the feeling that we either transported to Venus or driving inside a painting.
But in many other ways, it was very familiar. In a country of 320,000 people, it feels a lot like Northern Nevada. English is spoken as a common language between Icelanders, Asians, Swedes and other people from around the world. Everyone used an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy and fiddled around on Facebook and the English Pub and American Bar (yes…that exists) were filled with all the same looks, feels and booze we’re used to seeing in the U.S.
The only really huge difference we weren’t prepared for was…
Christmas is a really big deal…unless you’re a tourist.
In the United States, we think that we think Christmas is a big deal, but large businesses stay open, we shop like mad and the next day is a clusterfuck of merchandise returns and not caring about other people again. In Iceland, Christmas starts promptly on Jesus’ birthday at 6 p.m., Dec. 24 and if you’re late, then you might as well not show up. No frankincense and mir for you. And then almost nothing opens until Dec. 29 because everyone is full and tired from all the eating and drinking on the three days of Christmas. Oh yeah, they celebrate Boxing Day too, which traditionally was a British holiday for all the servants to celebrate Christmas, but must just now be an excuse to take another day off.
As a Nevadan and a journalist, I’m not used to the idea that restaurants and stores close or people go home for the holidays. I feel dirty now, like I’ve sullied Christmas for the last 29 years. I would not go to Iceland for Christmas in the future unless invited to someone’s house for a week of eating, sleeping and reading.
I really want a new tradition at home. I want presents from my employer on Christmas (or I want servants). That’s the real lesson here, Americans are terrible at taking time off and spending time with each other. Boxing Day sounds awesome.
In any case, it was a nice quiet Christmas filled with adventure and lots of wonderful Swedish people and rowdy Brits (kind of explains why Americans are so loud, the snobby Brits are just our older brothers).
But the vacation wasn’t quite over until after a quick three-day trip in Seattle.
But I’ll let the pictures show you Seattle.
For more photos, check out the full Flickr album of our trip.