My second visit, I had decided, was to be a winter one. Christmas 2010, in fact, just a year and a half after my first visit. It was in fact to be the longest break in between trips to Iceland but at the time I wasn’t to know this. I had originally loved the place so much in the summer that I thought a real test of my adoration would be to go back when it was cold. The 2010 winter in the UK had already been unseasonably cold and with temperatures of -10 back home in Belfast just before I left Iceland would have to be pretty cold to put me off the place. I hadn’t really admitted it to myself at this point but I was already thinking about moving there permanently. This was to be a test of how much I loved the place.
One day’s snowfall at Heathrow had brought the world’s busiest international hub to a complete standstill and my concern at never making it Reykjavík was huge. Eventually Heathrow crawled back to life like a stinking drunk coming around just before last orders and on the 23rd I flew south to London before heading on my way back to the far north.
Being forced to wait for four hours standing in a freezing cold tent outside where the taxis normally drop you off made me feel sorry for cows. The UK’s biggest and best had received a couple of inches of snow and hit 3rd world conditions.
I tried pickled herrings and smoked lamb on the flight to Keflavík, quite a revelation. Best food I’d had flying I think, their Christmas platter really hit the spot. It was never going to be as cold as Britain in Iceland and I wasn’t fazed once by the weather there during my stay. Cold yes, but unreasonably so, no. It snowed rather heavily on Christmas Day but the rest of the time it was warmer than Belfast which is a bit of a joke at Northern Ireland’s expense
The hotel I was booked into over the five nights of my stay was actually closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so I was moved to a five star monster of a hotel just around the corner free of charge. The Grand Hotel Reykjavík was a complete delight and one of the best Xmas treats I’ve ever had.
I am frequently reminded in life of something I once heard a DJ say on air in Sydney. It’s not how you fuck up, it’s how you recover. The situation at Heathrow and the subsequent shambles in Northern Ireland over the water supply when I returned would make me think of these words over and over again.
I found a couple of Arnaldur Indriðason’s novels that I’d been unable to track down in the UK and discovered that there’s a bunch of his stuff that hadn’t been translated yet. I got some cool shirts from Dogma, a cheap jersey from Dressman and spent quite a bit of time looking for restaurants that were open. This proved to be a bit of work on the 24th and 25th but also led to me finding some great places to eat. The variety of food here is brilliant, from Nepalese Curry Houses to Slovakian Burgers and the lobster tails at Café Paris; anything you might want. The busiest place in town is still the best hotdog stand in the world where you could get two dogs with everything for 560 krónur. That’s a great lunch deal.
They reckon that about 30% of the population has a university degree. (That’s because tertiary education here is so cheap it may as well be free.) Figures that the rest of the world would struggle to ever match. Educating your population or giving them the opportunity to become educated can only ever be a good idea which hopefully will lead to many more. Universities in the UK can now charge up to £9,000 a year per student. Funnily enough hardly anyone can afford to go to university. Those that do wind up with huge student loans. The universities are full of rich kids from overseas and when British people do get degrees half of them will want to leave to find a job.
They also say they say that Iceland has more good looking women per capita than anywhere else in the world. Between the fact that they’ve had three Miss World winners in the last 27 years and only have the population of Cardiff and the women that I’ve seen in my two brief visits I would struggle to argue with that statement. Nor would I want to try.
Small populations seem to care about stuff more too. A guy in the shop where I got my jumper asked about the trapped miners in Greymouth. Not something you’d expect people on the other side of the planet to know was going on let alone give two hoot about.
He also said that from what he’d seen in movies that New Zealand looked a bit like Iceland. Like the rest of the world he had seen The Lord of the Rings movies. An astute observation that I’ve often contemplated myself but always felt a bit odd talking to people about. Just in case they thought I was talking rubbish. Anyone who’s been to both countries though couldn’t help but notice the similarities. There are of course many differences too. Both countries lie on geographical fault lines. Iceland’s is much bigger than ours. Both countries have geothermal activity but it presents itself in slightly different ways.
New Zealand has hot springs, geysers and bubbling mud. Iceland has the famous Geyser area where the name came from. The way Iceland harness their huge amount of geothermal power is the main difference. They have thousands of geothermal bores that keep everything in the country warm. Greenhouses where they grow all their vegetables. Hot water pumped into homes and businesses for radiators. A vast array of heated pools around the country. They even keep the footpaths in the middle of Reykjavík free of snow and ice with pipes of hot water under the pavements.
The black sands of the southern shores of Iceland could almost be New Zealand along with the organ pipe rock formations. The mountains and glaciers in Iceland have their counterparts in the South Island albeit on a much reduced scale. A lot of the dramatic scenery from the Lord of the Rings movies could have been shot on the other side of the world too.
My two nights at the biggest hotel in the whole country were very nice as was walking home in the snow on Christmas Day. My favourite memory of this stay though was on the evening of the 23rd on Laugavegur the main shopping street. Groups of people singing carols on the street which was car free for the night and others setting up stalls to stand there in the cold and give away free hot chocolate to anyone passing by.
The best of the lot though was a motorcycle gang; the Sober Riders MC, with their soup kitchen giving away soup to anyone at all. Some wanted it to keep warm that night, some probably really needed it this year more than most. That’s what Christmas in Reykjavík looked like to me. People looking out for each other, you don’t get that in too many places anymore. “Have a jolly, holly Christmas”.