Friday, May 9, 2008

Day One in Reykjavik, Bonus Round

We lost a day in travel and neared Iceland on its Wednesday. It was clear sailing, but with an impenetrable layer of cloud cover far beneath us. As we began our descent, rippling patterns in the clouds were visible, at first like cheesecloth but then resembling a turbulent ocean. The closer we got, the larger and smoother the stratospheric terrain became, turning into a landscape of medium-sized hills crowded together, no space for anything else.

Soon we broke through the clouds and enjoyed a bout of ratting turbulence. Turbulence always unnerves me, no matter how great the airline's track record, no matter the weather or the location. It is far easier to envision riding into a flaming wreckage than to imagine a safe, uneventful landing, despite the fact that all I've known is the latter and have never experienced the former. We broke through the clouds and all there was to see was choppy, dark ocean beneath us. Even if we survived the crash itself, the water would surely do us in. And then the coastline arrived and I gazed across the fjords. Not quite as many fjords as would be up north around Isafjorður, but a good number. (What would be a "bad number" of fjords?) And then... wasteland. Lots of volcanic turf, volcanic slag sticking up through a scraggly, determined brown grass that doesn't take "no" for an answer.

That's all there was. Miles and miles of this, watching it all roll by as I listened to Radiohead's "Karma Police." Even after we reached the airport and drove from Keflavik to Reykjavik, there were still more miles and miles of this wasteland. I regarded it with AD&D gamer's eyes and tried to imagine how hellish it would be to ride a horse across. You'd have to dismount and lead very carefully, as I'm sure any jagged edge of slag would pierce the frog of your horse's hoof and cripple him, and then you're sunk. Even without that, your movement rate is cut drastically and it would take forever to get anywhere, and the wildlife is especially sparse so I don't know what kind of random encounters you could possibly roll, plus there are no trees and little vegetation, so you'd better have brought your own tents and rations because otherwise, hope you like grass and rocks.

We touched down under an overcast sky (so much sunnier above the clouds) and light drizzle. We taxi'd into the airport and unboarded. Disboarded? Disembarked? We walked through a terminal that looked like it had been designed by IKEA: lots of open space, blonde wood paneling, steel tubes, warm and dark colors. I thought the whole thing was gorgeous and very exciting. One thing I love to do in other countries is look at their advertisements, suss up the mindset that judges aesthetics and marketing appeal in a completely different context. They do love their yogurt, or rather a yogurt variant called skyr, and there were ads for it everywhere. There were also some cultural heritage posters that described the etymology of such names as "Baldur" and "Freya" with emotional, stark black-and-white photography of gorgeous, strong men and women. It was quite an inspiring entrance.

We claimed our bags, converted our money, and immediately ran over to a coffee kiosk. I didn't pay attention to the name of the chain at the time, but it could well have been Te & Kaffi, which we found everywhere. We ordered coffee to charge us up for the new day (it was six in the morning, local time), and Rebecca disapproved of the coffee product. Coffee's pretty much coffee, to me, and I was happy with it. I also wanted to blow a bunch of cash on exotic candy bars and questionable junk food, but being that the exchange rate was 71 kronur to one US dollar, I decided to play it very conservatively for a few days and get a feel for how much things cost. I would learn that everything was twice or thrice as expensive as in the States.

Asking around, we learned that we needed to buy a ticket for the shuttle out of the airport, so we bought one. This was our first experience with how fluent most Icelanders are in English, as they understood our little jokes and made jokes of their own: "You're taking a honeymoon in Iceland? ...Why?" The guy at the ticket booth had some good recommendations for us, including the Blue Lagoon tour right before our flight out of the country. Apparently that's a common thing to do, relaxing in these particular hot pools right before heading out again, and we looked forward to it.

But the guy driving the bus said that we didn't have a bus ticket, only a receipt. Looking at the little scrip of paper, it did seem awfully receipt-like. I pulled out some other paperwork that had been given to us, and he said that too was only a receipt. We ran back inside, panicked, and asked the woman behind the counter if she would please give us a ticket and not just a receipt for our purchase. I began to fear that this was where the "let's ruse the foreigners" money scam began. The woman explained that the first piece of paper was not a receipt but a ticket, and she came out from behind the counter to give the bus driver a dressing-down, and he came around to accept the paper as a ticket. We loaded up our luggage, boarded, and bused out of Keflavik Airport.

It was a 30-minute ride out of Keflavik, and we didn't go straight to our hotel afterwards. We stopped at another bus terminal and rode a shuttle from there to our hotel. Now that I think about it, we were just on the edge of downtown Reykjavik at this point and could have walked to what would be our second hotel in town from that location. I thought we were in some kind of suburb or related hamlet, but we really were practically in our destination now. There were a dozen of us on the shuttle and the driver deposited each of us at our respective guest houses, hostels, and whatnot. As it happened, Rebecca and I had rented an apartment for the first four nights. We saw an ad for a very nice looking place, called Room With a View, in the middle of downtown Reykjavik and it sounded like a fun alternative to a regular hotel room. We probably wouldn't meet other tourists, like we might at a guest house, but it was still a fun and convenient idea. Even before leaving we imagined we might save ourselves some money by making our own meals (the difference was negligible, it turned out).

But it was about eight in the morning and nothing was open, least of all our apartment. The Room With a View is a tiny space between two buildings, with a clear glass front door that shows there's nobody in the lobby, next to a plate with a dozen buttons and no labels beside them. We had no freakin' idea how to hail the proprietors, nor whether they'd even be awake at this time of day. Sleepy and irritable, we extended the tote handles on our suitcases and trudged down the sidewalk in search of a café in which to chill and get breakfast while we waited for everything to open.

We did find a bistro with huge, decorated bay windows but no door. There was no door. There was no way to get into this restaurant from the street, until we realized it was attached to another hotel whose entrance was a bit to our left. We went in, the concierge at the front desk seemed unconcerned with our presence, and we guiltily slunk into the dining room. It was decorated in a kind of Mexican style, one wall being covered with lucha promotional posters, the opposite featuring a display of tiny tin religious trinkets and emblems. There were no menus but a couple people were eating at another table: Rebecca scouted around and discerned that it was a buffet-style breakfast. There were two young women in black shirts and skin-tight black jeans, as is the fashion now in America, hustling plates and silverware from the tables but they too ignored our pleading glances. Rebecca, cold, tired, and hungry, suggested we just go ahead and grab some food and pay when someone happened to demand it. This sounded fine to me. We got coffee, juice, and skyr; I made a little sandwich with cold cuts, sharp cheese, and a stout white bread, where Rebecca helped herself to fruits and cheese. We were both quite impressed with skyr, actually: smooth and creamy, somehow denser than regular yogurt, and plenty flavorful. We would end up buying skyr several times throughout the trip, and apparently it's on sale in the States but only at Whole Foods along the eastern seaboard. As far as we know.

The guilt became too much for me and I stood at the bar in the dining room; the two women dutifully ignored me and avoided my gaze, so I went back to the concierge. I asked him the price of breakfast and he assured me it was free for hotel guests. I confessed we were not staying at this hotel but at one down the block. He seemed to swallow something else he was about to say and instead told me two breakfasts would be 1,500 ISK (approx. $19.44). Actually it was 1,600 ISK but he could see I was struggling with the foreign coins and shaved 100 off. This would happen a few more times throughout our vacation, I'm pleased to note. Having settled up, we left and returned to our apartment building, thinking of how else we might attract the attention of the landlord.

As it happened, we found him dumpster-diving right in front. That is, we walked past two men picking through a dumpster (which was there for a building under renovation next door) who apparently found a box of cargo pants still in the wrapper, and one of them noticed us puzzling at the front door of the apartment. He introduced himself, let us in, and showed us our apartment. It was a cute little place, dark wood and white walls, and the strangest artificial cowhide comforter in red and black on the bed. This was actually a selling point to Rebecca, it looked so garish and unbelievable we had to experience it. I can say it lived up to our expectations, though I think it was synthetic while Rebecca believes it was real (if dyed). We took pictures of the place to express our delight with such a cute little living arrangement, then promptly collapsed in exhaustion on the bed and napped until noon, which was an hour later than we'd agreed to. We didn't want to sleep all day, but we were too exhausted to go on much further. Once we woke up we showered and changed. Rebecca noticed with horror that the hot water changed the color of her silver necklaces: being geothermally heated, the water contained a lot of sulfur and tarnished her silver to a yellowish brass appearance. I thought it was cool but Rebecca was alarmed and I promised her I'd polish it all back up to normal once we got home.

Beneath the apartments was a large bookstore that divided itself into tiers, into half-floors. Our apartment had a door on the second floor that opened right up into the uppermost level, being educational texts and a Te & Kaffi café; half a flight down was another level of books; half a flight, magazines and CDs and the front door; half a flight more and you're in a lower level of novels; down the last half-flight of stairs and you're in a kind of basement with toys, children's books, and luggage. I waited in the café with Rebecca's Mac, logged on and entered my first Iceland-based blog entry. I was impressed with how rapidly everyone switches from Icelandic to English: I approached the counter to order, the man greeted me incomprehensibly, I said, "Hello," and he immediately switched gears and asked what I'd like in English. I had a macchiato while I waited for Rebecca to come downstairs, and then we would go to the Information Center to figure out the tours we'd take over the course of the week.

More later...


Kristen said...

By the time you're done writing these entries, my wanderlust is going to reach a fever peak.

P.S. Dude, you must've really taken the long way around to Iceland: the international date line is in the middle of the Pacific, yo.

Christian said...

Gaah, good point. I'm proud that I was able to remember which ocean I was flying over, anyway. My mom used to taunt me over getting that wrong.

I've added some pictures to the entry, too. Maybe a lot of pictures of foreign culture will help take the edge off your wanderlust. Or heighten it, I always get that confused too.

Anonymous said...

This is all so cool.