Postcard from Iceland: Homestay Edition

Alana Pollack and me, in a field of lupins. — Photo by Bella Bennett

Bella Bennett, a frequent contributor to The Times and rising junior at Skidmore College, will send regular dispatches from Iceland this summer.

The biggest adventure of this trip may have been the flight from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, to Ísafjörður (pronounced Isa-fyor-thr), a town of about 2,500 people in the Westfjords. We toured the island’s biggest power plant, Hellisheiði, before heading to Reykjavik’s domestic airport and boarding a plane with 100 seats. Being a Vineyarder, I was expecting Cape Air-size planes, so I was feeling totally at ease. The day was the best we’d had yet (every day since has topped the last), with clear, sunny skies. There was no security at the airport, and so long as you had an ID — whether it be a passport or a library card — you could board the flight. However, after 40 minutes of incredible views, the skies above the fjords began to thicken, and we soon spotted clouds between the 800-meter rock ledges. The airstrip in Ísafjörður is very complicated and hard to manage in opportune conditions, so after two attempts through pea soup fog, the pilot announced that the landing would be too dangerous, and we returned to Reykjavik for the evening. While it was not ideal, the airline put us up in a hotel, and we made the best of the night. At midnight, we watched the sun touch the horizon before beginning its ascent back into the sky (it does not leave the sky in the weeks surrounding the summer solstice), and in the morning, we had an easy, scenic flight back to the west fjords. This time, we landed smoothly.

After a general introduction to the west fjords by the president of the University of the Westfjords, we took our first official courses on renewable energy engineering and Icelandic language, and then met our host families. I may be biased, but my host family is the best. Another girl from my trip, Alana, and I share a family, and we are both having a great experience. I feel very at home. Our host mom, Annska, met us at the university, toting her 18-month-old son, Hugi, who is very cute and well-behaved (except when he is done with dinner, at which point he throws his plate to the floor — but I’ve noticed that this is common in that age group). Annska took us down the street to see the little town of Ísafjörður, which will be our home for the next week and a half. We got to know one another while eating a regional bread that translates best as a “soft pretzel” and chocolate milk (“kokomjolk” in Icelandic). When we got back to Annska’s house, we met her older son, Fjórdi, and his thoughtful friend Kim. After maybe 10 minutes of shyness, the boys handed Alana and me squirt guns, and proceeded to chase us around the backyard. Despite being surrounded by snowy fjords, the sun was shining, and it was a beautiful day to get soaking wet. (For the water war the following evening, we wore our raincoats.)

We have since had three days of classes, the first of which included a coincidental visit from the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland, Robert Barber. It was wild to meet the president last week, and the ambassador, who was friendly and interested in our group, spent at least an hour getting to know us all and answering our questions. As our third week approaches, I’m beginning to wonder which politician we will bump into next.

Our classes are more rigorous than I was expecting, but the point of this trip for me is not to study, but to learn. So instead of sitting at my host family’s table and trying to learn a semester’s worth of thermodynamics and another of chemistry in under a week, Alana and I have excitedly taken our host parents up on every offer of adventure. Just now, I went out fishing with our host mom and her brother, who is a fisherman by trade. On Thursday at 10:30 pm, just as we were taking out our notebooks to start our Icelandic language homework, Úlfur, our host father, came in and asked if we’d like to go for a road trip. Of course we said yes, even after he warned us that it would take at least four hours. Úlfur then brought out a map and showed us a large loop covering at least four of the fjords south of Ísfjördur, where we are staying. The drive was beyond words. Under the light of the always-present midnight sun, which sits low on the water and casts brilliant yellow, orange, and pink across the placid ocean and cloudless sky, we could see every rock and grain of sand, if in a rosier hue. We saw countless waterfalls, explored abandoned farmhouses, drove through at least seven foot-deep rivers of snow meltwater, drove down one-lane roads with 20 feet of snow on one side and sheer cliff into the sea on the other, and, maybe best of all, we walked under a natural snow bridge that formed around a waterfall. It was giant and magnificent.

The landscape feels incredibly alive here. Water flows out of the ground and leaps off the cliffs in sentient torrents; rocks sit at odd, lifelike angles all over the landscape, having fallen from the steep cliffs separating the fjords; and there are sheep and lambs and eider ducks and ducklings everywhere. These ducks are farmed by Icelanders because they line their nests with especially soft down, which the farmers collect and sell, replacing it in the nests with straw. Some of the members of my group have actually been able to assist their host families in collecting eiderdown.

When finally we returned home after this adventure, it was four in the morning, and our homework was sitting out on the kitchen table, waiting for us. Needless to say, our two three-hour classes the next day were supplemented with ample caffeine in the form of both coffee and chocolate, and we both napped after school.

The days here are so wonderfully long and full. When Alana and I woke up, our family (honestly some of the best people I have ever met) asked if we would like to go to dinner at one of the best fish restaurants in the Westfjords, Tjöruhúsið. I love our Vineyard fish, and we’ve got a slew of chefs who know the best ways to prepare it, but this restaurant was heavenly. It was buffet-style, and they had at least eight types of fish, cooked in a variety of ways, still sizzling in the frying pans. I have never in my life eaten five kinds of fish in a week, let alone eight in a night. It was incredibly good. Icelanders definitely know their fish. And now I know a few as well. Tonight at midnight, after another day of travel throughout the Fjords to Úlfur’s parents’ summer house, we left the house to go fishing. Although Ísafjörður has a lot of amazing wild fish, they farm trout and cod as well, so we were able to feed the fish in the floating farm, and then catch a few outside the farm. The sun sat low on the horizon, and the moon, which was giant, floated just above the fjords on the opposite horizon. It was quite an experience.

Afterward, on the way home, we encountered four loose horses on the road. Being in such a small town, where everyone knows everyone, we got out of the car and helped the pair of flustered Icelanders round up the horses. One of the owners appeared with a loaf of bread, attempting to lure the horses into the pasture. I have to admit, I thought he was crazy. Bread for horses? As someone who grew up in a horse barn, I could not believe it when the horses began eating slice after slice of wholegrain bread. Apparently Icelandic horses do not like carrots or apples, but they love bread.

Tomorrow we will drive to a neighboring town and help to feed a flock of lambs, owned by Annska’s friend, who have been rendered motherless after an especially cold spring. I have had a great time in Ísafjörður, and am already dreading leaving our host family behind next Sunday when we move on.