Postcard From Iceland: Update from Reykjavik (real life candyland)

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The naturally colorful mountains surrounding the Jökulgil valley. — 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.

“This must be what it feels like to be a photographer for National Geographic!” I kept thinking to myself while sitting parallel to the warped window of a small, 20ish-passenger plane. I tried desperately to get the perfect shot, blindly changing my camera’s settings while avoiding knocking the lense against the plastic pane in the growing turbulence. My friend Alana and I shared a host family two weeks ago in Ísafjorður, and were lucky enough to meet a lot of their extended family as well. Our host mother’s brother, Sölvi, and his family live in Reykjavik, and have already made us feel more than at home in the city in the week that we’ve been here. Sölvi flies small commercial planes for Eagle Air out of a domestic airport in the center of Reykjavik, and he invited Alana and me to come on a tour of the southern coast of Iceland. Needless to say, we went.

The sky was bright and clear beneath the clouds, and Sölvi made sure that we got a great view of everything. The plane had about 12 passengers total, as people only wanted window seats, and we were lucky enough to both score window seats as well. We flew over all of the big destinations (I’ll use English descriptions to avoid confusing you with the Icelandic names); Gullfoss (one of the biggest and most visited waterfalls in Iceland), the Geysir, the biggest lake in Iceland, the rift that everyone thinks separates the diverging North American and Eurasian tectonic plates (the tectonic plates do diverge in the middle of Iceland, but there is no specific location where they slide apart; the rift is just a natural geologic feature), the glaciers Vatnajökull and Eyjafjallajökull (underneath which is the volcano that erupted in 2010 and disturbed air travel worldwide), and the uniquely colored mountains (one is blue!) surrounding the Jökulgil valley. We also saw volcanic craters, plenty of geothermal steam, more waterfalls, rivers, snowy mountains, and the active volcano Hekla. It was brilliant. It was also quite turbulent. At some point in the latter half of the one-and-a-half-hour flight, I stopped thinking about taking the perfect photo (and thus never succeeded), and began thinking that I finally understood the woes of motion sickness. Across the foot-wide aisle, I could see that Alana was having a similar experience. The combination of the cool air currents off the glacier, hot currents caused by heat attracted to the black volcanic earth, the uneven terrain, and Sölvi’s masterful way of staying close to the ground while circling to ensure that passengers on both sides of the aircraft saw each destination, created an array of light bumps, jiggles, tilts, and wobbles. After a while, pretending to be on a roller coaster became impossible, and I was mildly concerned about keeping my lunch.

Last week we were in Holt, a small, cozy reprieve before the city. In Reykjavik, we are staying in a hostel called Bus Hostel, which is a 10-minute walk from the city center and a 15-minute walk from the University of Reykjavik, where we’re taking classes for the next week. I’m staying in a room with five other girls from my trip, though the room is roughly the size of a double dorm at Skidmore. It’s cozy. And, it has made me more thankful for my housing situations elsewhere. Regardless, the city is fun and inviting. Besides looking at it from above, we’ve also had a lot of time to explore the streets of Reykjavik. We’ve eaten hot dogs at the same hot dog stand that Bill Clinton ate a hot dog at a lot of years ago, and among other activities, eaten at lots of other places inside in the city as well. My favorite meal in Reykjavik thus far was a jam-burger. (I’ve had more burgers on this trip than I think I usually consume in an entire year.) It sounds kind of weird, but it was great. You’ll either have to take my word for it, or make one. I recommend trying it though: a hamburger with arugula, melted blue cheese and brie, and a dollop of raspberry jam. It might have had some Icelandic sauces on it as well, but I haven’t a clue what goes into any of the sauces here or what to compare them to.

Alana and I have also been treated to a more local way of life in Reykjavik, with Sölvi’s family. They’ve had us over for dinner twice, which was extremely kind, and very nice. It feels like being on a family vacation when Alana and I are with them. We went to their house on the first occasion, in a little neighborhood on the outskirts of Reykjavik, where their preteen daughters are permitted to go outside at 10 pm alone because it is so safe. On Saturday, Sölvi drove us out to his wife’s parents’ vacation home, which is nearby the iconic Geysir. Sölvi’s wife, Sólveig, and two of their three daughters met us there, and we had a great time playing with the younger girls. We visited an Icelandic petting zoo, complete with turkeys, rabbits, ducks, rats, puppies, kittens, two parrots, and a rescued baby seal. It was undoubtedly a weird mix, but the girls loved it. We also went to a farm and had fresh ís (ice cream) while watching the dairy cows responsible for the treat graze in their paddock. It was a great day soaking up some much-needed vitamin D, followed by a great dinner of homegrown veggies and giant portions of lamb. Afterward, Sólveig’s mother proceeded to bring out a large fillet of smoked trout that her husband caught, and gave it to Alana and me as a gift. It’s very good. We’ve been eating it on toast! I am so grateful to have such a great bond with this family. I feel really lucky to have gotten paired with Annska and Úlfur in Ísafjor∂ur, and even more so that they introduced us to all of their wonderful extended family. I’m already planning a trip to come back and visit everyone, and have invited them to come and see the Vineyard as well!

It seems important to me to note the importance of Saturday for the majority of Icelandic children. Besides being the first day of the weekend, Saturday is also “nammidagur.” “Nammidagur” means “candy day” in Icelandic, and is based on an Icelandic TV show known as “Lazy Town” in America. Instead of eating sweets all week, the kids are encouraged to wait until Saturday, and are rewarded with half-price chocolates and gummies at most convenience stores. It seems like a really smart way to limit a child’s sugar intake, although Alana and I are not as disciplined. It’s safe to say that the majority of my group members and I haven’t been able to go a day without having at least one chocolate-covered biscuit (SIT Study Abroad supplies endless cookies), and Alana and I therefore went a bit overboard with the candy selection on “nammidagur” as well. There are just so many new, intriguing types of candy here to try! In the end, we had to give the second half of our spoils to the girls, so that we wouldn’t eat it all and make ourselves sick. They’re much better at rationing it than we seem to be. In general, I’m finding that Iceland is pretty big on sweets, and most chocolate has a surprise chunk of licorice in the middle, so if you plan to visit, enjoy the treats and “nammidagur,” and beware the licorice!