Iceland – What’s in a Name, Anyway?
Some destinations are easy to write create a story and sell it hard or just long. Although short in length, winter’s about. Their magnificent scenery, natural wonders or history practically scream out a tale to be told. But despite Iceland having all that splendor and more, it’s not the elephant in the room (whale in the harbor?) that requires addressing first.
Shakespeare was correct when he chose a rose to illustrate that any given object or place cannot be fully expressed by name alone. But when that name has “ice” in it, followed by the motto “land of fire and ice,” people naturally expect a lot of frozen water. Yet glaciers only cover about 12 percent of the country’s land mass. Many other countries far surpass that amount, and often do it in a much more spectacular fashion.
So how in the world did that name get stuck on this island? There are competing stories, but no clear front-runner exists. When faced with such an obvious disparity, many countries might create a story and sell it hard or just chose to ignore the issue altogether. Iceland instead has chosen to embrace the humor in the situation, holding a contest to find a descriptive moniker more consistent with reality. Although none of the submissions, including front-runners “Isle of Awe Land” and “Best Place to Grow a Beard Land,” will result in a name change, the undertaking says a great deal about these upbeat and positive Icelanders.
Once one is informed about Iceland’s lack of iciness, the next logical question pertains to the weather, which does in fact exist. Due to strong Gulf Stream currents, the climate is much more temperate than its location just below the Arctic Circle would suggest. During the summer days (a whopping 20 hours long, at their peak), temperatures range from the lower 50s to mid-70s. Even in winter, it’s usually well above freezing despite days that are just 4 or 5 hours long. Although short in length, winter’s unusual daylight has a romantic twilight quality and the nights, although long, vary little in temperature from day. This, along with the frequent northern lights displays, has increasingly made Iceland a winter destination. No matter the season, however, the one constant is that the weather is inconsistent. Changing quickly and sometimes frequently within the same 24 hours, it’s often joined by some sort of precipitation (usually rain) and wind (especially in the south). While this weather might sound less than ideal for travelers, the result is that people focus little on hair and style and much more on seeing the country and interacting with its people. Never one to relish traipsing around in inclement weather, I actually found the climate, although rather strange, oddly refreshing and a nice change from the heat and/or humidity we’ve experienced elsewhere.
While speaking of the peculiar, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Icelanders do not have common surnames within a family. A man with a first name of Jon would have male children with an added “son” to that as a last name (Jonsson) to show each was Jon’s son. His female children would add “dottir” (Jonsdottir) to signify that they were Jon’s daughters. Those children’s parents (Jon and his wife) would have last names that neither matched each other nor their children since both parents were a son or daughter of different fathers. The result is that residents call each other by their first names. This might not be overly confusing in a small town (there are many of those), but a city or large school system is another matter. And forget about making sense of a family tree!
Although tales of Iceland’s odd food are abundant, most meals consist of fish or lamb (Iceland’s most abundant domesticated animal), with potatoes and vegetables (often imported but increasingly grown locally in geo-thermally powered greenhouses). Thin slices of dark rye bread are often offered, and ice cream and chocolate-covered wafer bars are year-round treats. Foods worth ordering are plokk skur (a crowd-pleasing sh fillet stew with white sauce), Brennivin (caraway-flavored schnapps) and Skyr (a creamy and mild yogurt cheese). On the list of foods most visitors won’t be trying are Icelandic horse (more like majestic and sturdy ponies), puffin (cute sea birds smoked to taste like pastrami, but look like liver), smoked sheep’s head served either whole (blessedly without the brain) with sides of mashed potatoes and turnips or cut up in aspic to create a strong-smelling head cheese, and finally Hakari (fermented, then dried shark cut into cubes), which smells distinctly like urine.
Another bit of strangeness? Icelanders believe in elves and trolls (really!). Realizing that tourists might find this a bit odd, many guides mention it almost in passing and focus primarily on a group of 13 prankster Yule Lads. Functioning somewhat like a cadre of “elves on everyone’s shelves,” these fellows promote good behavior and tidiness in the weeks leading to Christmas in order to receive gifts and treats rather than a potato (a more appropriate punishment for bad behavior than a lump of fossil fuel in this country of clean renewable energy). But in truth, all Icelanders believe that “hidden people” (elves and trolls) coexist with them in an alternate universe of sorts. Most of them have a story of a friend or relative who has caught a glimpse of these beings (not related to a long night spent in a pub). Convinced that these otherworldly folk live in the rock formations and lava fields scattered among the lush green hills, the government steers roads and building projects around (not through) those spots lest any disturbance of supernatural forces bring about misfortune. Less a fearful worry than a “hedging ones’ bets” respect for things that can’t always be explained, some people have even constructed small dwellings in the hills for use by their otherworldly neighbors.
Along with Iceland’s unique and appealing oddness, there’s also much to see and do.
Foremost is the scenery created by the prolific geothermal activity in both the north and south. The turbulent interaction between the two tectonic plates (Eurasian and North American) that create the mid-Atlantic ridge, a major fault line that Iceland sits atop, has created a broad range of sites. There are more than 130 active and inactive volcanoes, vast lava fields with gnarled formations, bubbling mud pools, mineral hot springs, steam vents and even geysers. Iceland is the only place on Earth where the rift between tectonic plates is visible on land; it also occurs in a place of great historic relevance – Pingvellir National Park, also known as Thingvellir National Park, site of the world’s first parliament beginning in 900 A.D. The steep straight wall of the North American plate served to amplify each clan’s elected representative’s voice in their work to create laws and make decisions. Visitors today can walk along this rift, which grows an inch in width annually as these plates continue to drift apart.
Beyond this dramatic scenery, Iceland is also home to more than 30 species of whales and 60 percent of the world’s puffins, with numerous opportunities to see both. There are also stables to ride Icelandic horses, scuba diving in one of the world’s top dive sites (Silfra Rift), bathing in outdoor hot springs, hiking on an inland glacier, visiting geothermal greenhouses and power plants, and even touring the world’s only waterfall with a 90-degree turn (Gulfoss).
Iceland’s population centers offer much to see and do as well. The southwestern capital of Reykjavik has strikingly modern architecture inspired by Iceland’s blocky basalt formations in its Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral and the honeycombed glass facade and interior of its Harpa Concert Hall. The domed Perlan Museum allows visitors to explore ice caves, experience interactive glacier displays and dine on excellent food all while surrounded by panoramic views of the capital. Iceland’s fourth-largest city of Akureyri (18,000 residents) lies at the base of one of the world’s longest fjords, which is encircled by dramatic snow-capped mountains. Its location, which offers the best shopping and art gallery experiences, also delivers warmer temperatures and close proximity to the geothermal and outdoor pursuits in the north. Even though tiny Isafjordur (the largest city in the western fjords) may only have 2,600 residents, it offers dramatic landscapes in a city filled with museums and colorful wooden houses built by 18th- and 19th-century fishing merchants. This city’s warm welcome includes a map displaying each city building, site of interest and home (all remarkably accurate in both color and style).
So is Iceland a destination to add to your future travels? Absolutely! And its people? Although any attempt to summarize all 335,000 residents could never characterize every Icelander, we found them to be some of the nicest people we’ve ever met — exceedingly friendly, resourceful, hard-working and straight-talking. They even speak excellent English, a consideration when a language has an abundance of vowels and consonants bearing little relationship to phonetics.
Our time here has prompted my own submission to the renaming contest. Although I don’t suspect that it will garner a groundswell of excitement or calls to make a change, it sums up the experience pretty well — Niceland. In this day of negative rhetoric and worldwide problems, nice sounds mighty good to me.