Across Northern Europe: Shining a Light On Iceland

There’s something nice about traveling in Iceland. There are a number of nice things, I’m sure, but one came to mind specifically as soon as I landed. This nice thing is nice if you’re a certain kind of traveler. Namely, the kind who maybe sometimes pretends to be a little poorer than you really are. We’re all that kind of traveler by month two in South Asia. That’s the traveler I was when I chose the 250 baht guesthouse in Bangkok and scoffed at the 500 baht room with aircon. I was pretending to be poor.

But there’s no need to strike a pose in Iceland because, friends, I am poor. On my yearlong trip I didn’t carry a tent and rarely camped but I’m glad I have one now. Even my slab of campsite grass is 520 baht (that’s US$13 if you’re not Thai) and a real roof would have run me about $100. Iceland is expensive, that’s what I’m trying to say. Iceland is small and homogeneous and cold. Those are cliches too. That last list hasn’t proven that true to me so far but the expensive thing is as true as an $80 entree.

Today I went to Gunar Haraldsson, the director of the Institute of Economic Studies at the University of Iceland, and asked him why everything was so expensive. “Because we’re rich,” he informed me.

So that settles that.

You don´t need me to come to Iceland to tell you it’s expensive and you don’t need me here to tell you it’s light all the time, but I guess I just did that too. There are about 20 hours of light each day and it has the effect of making the day very slooooow. It feels like you have time to do so many things, even though everything closes by 6pm and the main things you have to do then are walk around or type in the basement of a coffee shop.

Lonely Planet told me Icelanders are all in bands and believe in fairies.

“That’s Bjork’s fault,” Sevinn Bjornsson told me, blasphemously, today. He’s the editor of Iceland’s English language newspaper, The Grapevine, and he had a bone to pick with the woman who would have put Iceland on the map if it hadn’t already been there all distorted and lonely in the middle of the north Atlantic. He’s sick of tourists asking if Icelanders believe in fairies and assuming they are all in bands. She started that, he said. For the record he has fifteen friends in bands, and one who believes in fairies.

I will now segue from fairies to ferries. They run from the main island to the Westmann Islands and I want to be on one this weekend. On the first weekend in August “all the rules in Iceland change” and “Iceland is not Iceland” according to the girl at the tourist information office. That’s because the whole country goes camping for a long holiday weekend and the most out of control incarnation of the party is out on the Westmann Islands. Ten thousand revelers are expected and most thought to buy a ferry ticket more than two days in advance and won’t — like me — be compelled to make the three hour crossing at 2am.

Except no one goes camping the first weekend in August as it turns out. Not the economics professor, or the editor of the paper, or the girl at the tourist office, or even the girl at reception at my campsite. They all told me the whole thing was just too drunk and out of control these days. “And it usually rains,” Sveinn added.

So to recap: Icelanders don’t believe in fairies or go camping when they’re supposed to. They don’t all belong to bands or look the same. But they charge $8 for a local bus when you don’t have exact change. They charge $11 for a beer. They charge $40 for a ferry in the middle of the night to a campsite where the entire country (or no one at all) may be camping in the rain.

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.