“This isn’t the type of place you go to get a tan,” I thought to myself as I trekked across the black sand beach of Reynisfjara – this was unlike any of the beaches I was accustomed to visiting while growing up on Long Island. At that point, I had been in Iceland for six days and was still in awe of its overwhelming beauty: waterfalls seeming to shoot out of the sky, rolling hills that more so resembled green waves tumbling into various directions, hot springs, fresh air, and…more waterfalls. This was a place I knew I’d come back to many times again, regardless of if the next departure and arrival of my trip would be in my mind or in person.
Why I went to Iceland is another story. I was working at an amazing tech startup in the middle of Manhattan, and loved what I did with a fierce passion. However, the City itself can sometimes get to you – New York City is often referred to as a “Concrete Jungle” for more reasons than one. Instead of hearing the squawks of tropical birds, you hear the honking of steel and iron beasts. The canopy of a rainforest is traded for buildings that cause you to almost break your neck as you attempt to gauge their heights. And, due to the collective hustle and bustle, it’s very easy to feel like you’re always behind there; that there is never enough time to do everything you need to do. This was why I wanted to go to somewhere isolated, unique and happy. Fortunately, Iceland’s reputation preceded itself.
Upon arriving, I was greeted by the country’s personal concierge: rain. As I hurried to figure out how to get to my Couchsurfing host’s flat, I asked a taxi driver if he could take me. He told me that he could, but that it would be better to walk since it was so close. Before I realized that I should have thanked him, I stood with my mouth half open as I stared at him. I was caught off guard because that was the first real and tangible sign that I was in the right place, the right country. If I had been in many other cities, the taxi driver would have gladly taken my money no matter how short of a distance.
How to be Icelandic
After braving more rain and a type of wind that felt specific to Iceland (it seemed to cut me with every harsh change in direction it made), I eventually arrived at my host’s flat and rested a bit. “What would you like to do?” she asked. I didn’t want to be rude, but couldn’t hold myself back from saying, “Do? What is there to do when the weather’s this horrible?” I wasn’t aware that what I said was funny, but she began to laugh to herself. After the spell ended, she said, in a matter of fact tone, “If we Icelanders never went outside because of the weather, we would stay inside for our entire lives.” In other words, she was saying, “Man up.” With that, I began my schooling in the ways of the Icelandic and learned that bad weather means nothing; if you want to go somewhere, just dress appropriately and go. And go I did.
After being in Iceland for a few days, I started to notice many subtle (and not so subtle) differences between the small Scandinavian country situated between the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and other countries I’ve visited. One being how flat the society is. As I walked down Bankastræti with my new Icelandic friend, I marveled at (finally) seeing a luxury car: a new Porsche Cayenne with lime green rims. The weird color choice aside, I was taken aback by how I hadn’t seen a single luxury car until that moment.
Make no mistake, Iceland is wealthy. In 2015, International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave it a ranking of 10th highest GDP per capita in the world. For perspective, in 2015, the GDP per capita in Iceland was $50,855 USD and was $9,055 in Russia. In fact, Iceland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world – in 2015, it was ranked second lowest with a rate of 2.06 deaths per capita vs. a world average of 32 per capita. However, it was none of this that I thought about as the green-rimmed porsche drove by. What blew my mind was that my friend knew exactly who was in that porsche, what he had done to earn it and his rank within the social strata of Iceland. He was Kari Stefansson, the man who sequenced almost the entire Icelandic population’s genome, which led to major breakthroughs in finding and preventing disease within the country. In the States, who ever knows when a celebrity, political figure or athlete is driving down the street with the exception of when they have a caravan of cars or police escort? Granted, there are a few eccentric individuals who make it a point to be known – cue Steve Jobs’ silver Mercedes that frequently occupied handicap parking spots and lacked a license plate.
As my time in Iceland went on, I became increasingly aware of just how inclusive of a society it truly was. After walking around Reykjavik a bit (not a big place, doesn’t take long), my friend brought me to Vesturbæjarlaug – one of many public pools and series of hot tubs that the Icelandic ritually visit before / after work with friends to unwind. In the States, we pray to the almighty bar for a brief respite from the hustle and bustle of life. In Iceland, people study the liturgy of the almighty pool.
Before even entering the building, my friend pointed out a patron who was leaving. She said that he was Daniel Ágúst Haraldsson from the famous Icelandic band Gus Gus. I’d never heard of Gus Gus, so I didn’t care that much. But, I did appreciate that there was a semi-famous person leaving the pool I was about to enter and found it interesting at the very least. After I showered (very, very nakedly in front of other people), I headed out to meet my friend who was enjoying a nice dip in a 30° C pool. It’s important to note that this was September and it was pretty damn cold. She urged me to get in the pool and said that it would make everything better. I was reluctant, but was eager to continue my lessons in the ways of the Icelanders. To my relief, the pool did actually make everything better.
As we sat there, she pointed out a few notable people in my view: the first man to come out as openly gay on television, a professional soccer star who became a sports commentator and someone else whose name and claim to fame I’m forgetting. The point is that she said seeing A-list celebrities in Iceland is very normal. As my joints began to loosen up and the steam of the pool created a dreamlike texture, she told me tales of showering with the likes of Bjork, and seeing people converse with the president (not the prime minister...who knows what he was up to) in that same pool as if it were an everyday occurrence, which it undoubtedly is. Imagine the parallel scene: You’re in your local bar and see [insert name of famous basketball / football / baseball player here], [insert name of famous rapper / musician / singer here] and [insert name of famous political figure here] all having everyday conversations with other patrons as if everything were normal. They’re sharing drinks, laughs and having civil discourse about current events and no one bats an eye or is fawning for a selfie with them – what a wild world that would be. What a more equal world that would be.
Thank you, Iceland
To say the least, the country offered much more than I anticipated. I encountered a society that wasn’t centered around judgement, a people who were genuinely happy and content and an overall atmosphere where less actually meant more. I danced the night away in downtown Reykjavik, laughed my tail off at a comedy night hosted by Gaukurinn, heard the chants of“ÁFRAM ÍSLAND!” outside of Loft Hostel after the Icelandic football team drew with Kazakhstan, camped (for the first time ever) in Vîk, swam in a pool cut into the side of a mountain (Seljavallalaug), and did much, much more including getting a speeding ticket on the Ring Road (I’ll pay it, I swear)! But much more important than what I did and saw was what I felt.
To say that Iceland was everything I was searching for would be an understatement. The country, people and elegant language (I understood 0%, but it sounded elegant to me) made me feel as though I found a second home in the world, which means a lot given that I’ve done my fair share of traveling. So while I will be back many, many more times, all that I can say for now is, Thank you, Iceland.