Adventures in Iceland

Chapter 1 - The people (or Boredom)

Already in the airplane, while looking at an Icelandic news paper, one gets a first clue that nothing is going on in this strange country. In the front page they show every day a picture of the biggest fish which was caught in the previous day, held by a smiling Icelandic fisherman. On the TV main evening news program, you'll always see some pictures of fish/cows/sheep. One day the television report showed Icelandic people in sterile uniforms, wearing masks (like doctors in a sophisticate heart operation). As we cannot understand their language, we have to guess about what is the reportage. Tali says in triumph - "They talk about an Hi-Tech factory, maybe like the one we have in Israel that produces the micro-chips of Intel".

I doubt it.

Then the camera zooms out and we see that the people are working in a fish factory, probably cleaning the fish ("fiskur" in Icelandic)... The uniforms are for avoiding the dirt, the masks - because of the smell... We promptly decide to call the fish industry in Iceland (which makes more than 90% of Icelandic export) Chai-Tech (חי-טק). Chai in Hebrew means - animal.

In fact, fishing is so prominent in Iceland that we expect to find good fresh fish for sale. We look for it in the supermarkets, but find only frozen fish, (delicious) fresh smoked salmon and pickled herring. So we go early in the morning to the port, assuming to find a local fish market - but without success. Puzzled, we ask the first woman we see where she gets fish from. "In the supermarket" she replies. "But we mean fresh fish" we try. "Oh, I just ask my husband to bring some from his night catch". Then we realize that as there are so many fishermen in Iceland, you are most probably married to one, and if not, some of your neighbors are...

In capitalistic countries such as the USA, money is the ultimate power that makes things move. In third world countries it's hunger, and in Iceland - boredom. Excluding Reykjavik (where 170,000 people live), there are only 100,000 inhabitants in Iceland. Looking at the inhabitants to square Km ratio, it is like having 20,000 inhabitants in Israel, while in Israel there are 6,000,000 inhabitants (300 times more !). This means that Iceland is practically empty. I dare say - deserted. The villages are scarce, isolated and small. Binyamina, the small Israeli village of 5,000 inhabitants, where Tali comes from, if in Iceland, would be considered one of the largest 10 towns in the country. Add to that several months of almost complete darkness in winter (Iceland is almost touching the Arctic Circle) and very bad weather and you get a sure recipe for boredom.

The ways to fight boredom are diverse:

You can buy candles of all sizes, shapes and colors in order to illuminate the cold dark days of winter. In fact the demand is so high that candles can be found in every store.

The candles compartment in the supermarket.

You can go to one of the many public open-air heated swimming pools. But stop! before jumping to the water you need to get undress, take a shower with soap, and wash your hair with shampoo. In the beginning we try to skip some of the ingredients of this clumsy procedure, but always there is around an Old Icelandic fellow to remind our weak Levantine memory what to do. Now, in Tel Aviv, we enjoy very much to enter the pool without doing any of it... sometimes we even enter the pool sweating strait after a several Km jogging ! After swimming a bit we use to relax in a Jacuzzi. First we choose the colder Jacuzzi pot (~38C) and then gradually move to the hotter ones (up to 41C). Swimming pools in Iceland are part of their culture, as is the McDonald hamburgers chain in the USA, or a falafel stand in Israel. Swimming pools are found almost in every village of more than 100 inhabitants. The opening hours are long, and in our opinion they are a successful way to "kill" an hour every day.

A public open-air heated swimming pool in Reykjavik.

In the remaining 23 hours in the long dark days of winter the Icelanders go to all kinds of parties where life music is played. First thing that attracts our attention is their will to dance. Everybody is dancing, youngsters, their parents and even the grandparents ! we see it with our own eyes ! That is a nice aspect of the parties. The less nice part is the drinking (not of water !) As the night progresses, at around 3 a.m., the alcohol content in their blood rises high above the Everest, and they literally start to collapse. Disgusting. The government tries to decrease the phenomenon by imposing sky-high taxes on drinks (a pint of beer costs 10US$) but without much success.

Another way to make the time pass on is to spend the money in stupid slot machines (like in Las Vegas). These machines can be found in almost every eatery (such as in gas stations). While spending an evening in one, we sit with our faces in front of such a machine. We are amazed to see that the machine is busy all the time. A bored middle age woman spend there a large amount of money, which is sad, but still acceptable since she is mature enough to decide for herself. What we don't like is what we see happening with a 9 years old boy, wearing a wet rain coat, cold from the rain outside, who works as a newspapers distributor. This boy gets inside, gives the eatery owner his newspaper and then stands in front of the machine for 5 minutes, loosing his (most probably) daily salary.

Some people can't fight the boredom even by these negative ways. We sleep one night in an isolated farm called Osar. The farm is located in northern Iceland, where the winter aurora can easily be seen. The area of the land is few square kilometers, they have several hundreds of meters of private sea shore as well as a private river. The scenery is awesome: seals are swimming regularly just 50 meters away from the shore, and sometimes lay on the beach. Snow-capped mountains can be seen even in summer time.

...they have several hundreds of meters of private sea shore...

There are two buildings in the estate, each one has 2 floors. Because of its remote location, the value of the farm is less than of a 1-room apartment in Reykjavik. The owners are a mother and her son. The son, who has graduated in Reykjavik university in agriculture, decided to continue working in the farm with his mother. He lives with his old mother, cows, sheep and the dog.

Tali with one of the owners of the hut.

During the summer he decides only in the morning what to do during the day. The day we stay there he decides to use the wood the sea has brought with the tide in order to fix the fence. His mother is painting the fence of the private cemetery they own, where the father is buried. The son, who has very few social opportunities (is he going to find a girl-friend one day, we wonder...) decided to open a youth hostel in the old farm house, from which he can earn some money, and talk with the tourists. The youth hostel business is much more profitable than agriculture. One night for one couple costs about 35US$.

The youth hostel business is much more profitable than agriculture.

In order to earn that amount of money from selling sheep, he needs to sell about 22Kg of sheep meat (about 2US$ per Kg) to the supermarket, which sells it to the customers for 15US$ per Kg... These Icelandic sheep are quite peculiar. They walk always in three, they like to lie on the road (maybe because it's warmer than the grass, and when they are scared - they start to run extremely fast. We decide to call them צביבשה (half gazelle, half sheep). One average sheep eats during the winter one full circle of straw. In the dark winter the son doesn't have much to do outdoors, and all 3 of the family (the mother, son and the dog) spend it indoors together. In the evening we had the farm house for ourselves - we put the old records of Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen and spent a romantic evening.

One average sheep eats during the winter one full circle of straw.

Another Icelandic way to fight boredom is to join one of the touring clubs. These organizations mark walking trails and organize walking tours during the days. In the nights the members sleep in mountain huts that they have built themselves (another time consuming hobby...). The mountain huts are very luxurious and in our opinion the best we've seen in the world. They serve both for comfort and emergency, and because of this reason they are never locked. There is an emergency stock of candles and fuel as well as maps, books,playing cards, bible, guest books and even GPS coordinates of nearby huts. We find these organizations as helpful as the Israeli SPNI (Society of the Protection of Nature in Israel). The main activity is naturally during the summer, but even in plain winter they do something. For instance they are used to celebrate the Sylvester in the wood, sitting around bonfires singing and drinking...

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Last modified: Wed May 30th 17:05:00 IST 2001