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Iceland

4/8/07

You think I got a lot of funny looks when I told people I had booked a trip to Ghana?  Shit, you don't know the HALF of what happened when I told kids that I was going to Iceland to hang out for a long weekend...boy, this shit was comedy!

First, some background.  My (former, God-knows-where-she-is-now) friend Lucy Altounian went to Iceland a couple of years after we got out of school, and came back with some pretty wild stories of beautiful sights, beautiful people and beautiful nightlife...and, for about the last seven or eight years, I have trying to trick people into going to Iceland without success.  Last year, I got close...I pitched this to a lot of people, everyone seemed interested, but when push came to shove, only my friends Dave Lee and Dave Wonnenberg showed sincere interest in going.  We shelved it, but then over the holidays, I basically came up with three options for trips--Spain via Iceland, Cyprus via Iceland, and Buenos Aires--and told folks I was trying to make it happen for the spring of '07, and after the dust cleared, we settled on a long weekend just to Iceland.

Friends, I can say now what I've known for years and now have the visual evidence to back up--you need to get your ass to Iceland if you can get the money together to make this puppy hop.  You will note that money is one of the key themes throughout this essay, maybe more so than any other trip I have done so far; pound for pound, from a day-to-day perspective, it can be shocking how much things cost.  But, I prepped the team pretty heavily in advance that this would be a costly three-day trip, and I think we embraced this with open arms.

Speaking of the team, our cast of characters:

The ladies (L to R) and their trip signature line:

Meg Cooch, aka Moist--"Is this whole trip going to be dirty?"

Mandy Taylor, aka Da Pimp--"Before this weekend is out, I'm gonna hook those single guys up with somethin'!"

 

 

 

 

The guys (L to R) and their trip signature line:

Dave Wonnenberg, aka Dave B or The White Guy--"You guys going to Iceland next week?  Shit, I'll hang out!"

Gordon Stokes, aka The Continentalist or The Cougar Killer--"Hey Juergen, how much for a ride back to Kerkagar?"

Dave Lee, aka The Financier--"Ahh, Iceland...we're still alive!"

Justin Bell, aka Coach or Timberlake--"This is the greatest thing in the history of anything, ever!"

Wim Taylor, aka Nightlife--"I got KRÓNURS!!!"

 

And now, without further ado, the trip!  (If you hate words but really like looking at attractive people, click here to go to our trip pix.)


Iceland Fact Sheet

  • Population: 306,000 (75% of which live in the capital city of Reykjavik)

  • Industry: although I can't confirm the percentages, "most" of Iceland's money generation comes from the following three things: tourism and the service industry, fishing and fishing products, and aluminum

  • Time zone: GMT (four hours ahead of EST)

  • Languages: Icelandic, English

  • Temperatures:  28-36° F in winter (low/high); 48-57° F in summer (low/high).  In other words, generally, it is colder in NYC, Boston, and Chicago during the winter than it is in Iceland; summers are not unlike summers in San Francisco's downtown area.

  • The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) takes place from September to January, so no, I didn't see them on my trip.  Also, in winter (December through mid-March), daylight is from roughly 11 AM to 3 PM.  In summer, daylight is around 20 hours from May to mid-August; in June, some parts of the country have 24-hour daylight.


Not Your Mama's Swimming Pool

Here's how my travel guide described the various geothermically-heated swimming pools in Iceland:

"The swimming pool is to the Icelanders what the pub is to the British or the coffee shop is to Americans."

As such, upon landing in Iceland on our first day via Icelandair (you can get from BWI to Reykjavik in about five-and-a-half hours; from Boston, it's about four-and-a-half hours), we checked in around 11 AM and dropped our stuff, took a quick nap, then headed off to Laugardalslaug, Iceland's largest outdoor swimming complex.  They've got a 50-meter lap pool, four "hot pots" (hot tubs), a regular pool with a basketball hoop that is not for lap swimming, and a three-story-high waterslide.  Because of the weather (it was about 40-45° F outside for the whole trip), it's important to make that run from the changing/shower room indoors to the naturally-heated water outdoors quickly, but once you do, you will NOT be disappointed.  The water ranges from 84° to over 100° in the hot pots; it's a lot like hangin' out at a hot tub on your deck in Lake Tahoe during the winter, except you can sit in this water for hours because of the natural essence of the water and the total lack of chlorine.


Wim, Justin & Dave hang with five future NBA stars...Iceland-style!

Icelanders typically will go to the pool often, in some cases three or four times a week, to soak in the various pools, hot pots, and sauna or steam rooms.  On the day we showed up, Laugardalslaug was relatively quiet, with a couple of groups of kids, some random travelers and a few locals; this quickly turned into an awesome 4-on-4 pool hoops game, where three 12-year-olds played on my team against Wim, Dave Lee and two other kids...naturally, these kids spoke pretty good English, and one of the kids had nicknamed himself "King" because his favorite player was Lebron "King" James.  Comedy!  (The waterslide action didn't hurt, either--man, I was already getting that "I need to buy property in Iceland" feeling, but more on that later.)


"3 AM Eternal"

Much like the seminal dance track from The KLF back in the day, Iceland's nightlife works like this pretty much every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night:

  1. Eat dinner around 8 or 9 PM, go home, nap for two hours.

  2. Get up, shower, pre-party in your hotel, domicile or automobile backseat.

  3. At about 1:30 AM, consider leaving...but, really leave at like 2 or 2:30 to go out.

  4. Around 6 AM (or later), consider grabbing late-night chow before going to bed.

I was aware of this situation--very similar to my times in South Beach--even when Lucy first told me about Iceland all those years ago, but in doing research on how things work in Reykjavik, the stories had all been true...these cats don't do it early, they do it late...and, in the summertime, where there are only like three or four hours of darkness, this can lead to major issues with insomnia if you aren't careful, because what this means is that it's getting dark when you go out at 2 AM, you're in clubs/bars for four hours, and when you come out, the sun is blazing overhead.

Yeah.

The nightlife in Reykjavik on Fridays really can be summed up in one word--"runtúr", or literally "round tour", which basically means that rain, sleet or snow (in our case, it was raining on our Friday night), Icelanders go from bar to bar to club to bar to club, going just long enough to have maybe a drink or dance to a few songs, then it's off to the next place; imagine a pub crawl where about a couple thousand people are going from place to place, and most of the bars really are on or just off of one street in downtown Reykjavik.  It was cool watching some people see their friends and just high-five them as they crossed paths on the street, kind of like you did when you saw a buddy on the way to class back at college...this was lovely, and even in the rain, all five of us currently in town (Dave W. and Gordon didn't get to town until Saturday) had a blast watching the stylish, beautiful people of Reykjavik--both young and old--get their shimmy on until the wee hours of the morning.


The Financier gets his proverbial swerve on

And when I mean stylish, I mean stylish.  I had read in my travel guide that guys will typically dress up a bit when they go out, so I advised the team accordingly and they did not disappoint throughout.  Guys on Friday night were almost all wearing either collared shirts with ties, collared shirts with no tie but blazers, or shirts, ties and sweater vests or full sweaters, and these are the locals that I'm talking about...The Financier went balls to the wall on Friday night, looking like a man that you do NOT want to fuck with, and our love lady duo of Mandy and Meg didn't disappoint, either.  Certainly, you can get away with wearing the kinds of bar & club gear you wear here in the States, although going with that vest, Cocks hat and jeans look is a BAD move in Iceland.


Take a Left on Brćdraborgarstigur

Saturday, once we had a full squadron of highly-trained professionals, we decided to make our excursion to some of the touristy natural wonders of The Golden Circle, an area east of Reykjavik that includes three distinct landmarks: Geysir, Gullfoss, and Pingvellir.  Opting out of a guided tour that would have run us about $90/person, we instead rented a seven-person 4x4 minivan (the Hyundai H-1, bitches!!) and did the driving ourselves...for the cool price of $240 for the rental car, plus gas at about $6/gallon.

Like I said, Iceland ain't for cheapskates.

Navigating Iceland is a bit tricky because, much like the title of this section indicates (that's a real street west of our hotel location in town), the Icelandic language is fucking ridiculously hard.  Outside of languages that just use symbols for their words, Icelandic is the most difficult language I have encountered in my travels.  Not that I've been everywhere, but this is three times as tough as Czech was, easy.  Icelandic is so ridiculous that I didn't even bother buying a phrase book, because I knew nothing good would come from that.  Of course, it helps that 99% of the people in and around Reykjavik speak near-flawless English.

(Strange irony: as hard as these words look on paper to an English speaker such as myself, hearing the Icelanders speak to each other was a very cool, very smooth process of communication, and the words really roll off the tongue well if you are versed in the pronunciation.)


The Hyundai H-1.  About the only unsexy thing I handled in Iceland

Anyway, with The Financier riding shotgun pulling our GPS duties and myself behind the wheel, we set off for our destinations.  Driving in Iceland is actually quite a breeze (although, you probably know this if you've been anywhere in Europe before--if you can't drive stick, you generally can't rent a car; they don't do shitty automatics over there unless you rent a "luxury" car); the roads are quite narrow and a bit bendy, but the sights are cool to take in, and there are plenty of roads that would require 4x4 capabilities if you plan on arriving in wintertime.

Geysir ("The Gusher") is the original--the first hot spring blowhole that other geysers have taken their name from.  It's cool to stand about 15 feet away from a real geyser that erupts about 30-40 feet into the air, but once you have seen it blow once or twice (it blows water into the air every few minutes), you're done and you can move on your way.

Gullfoss and Pingvellir are much cooler.  Gullfoss (The Golden Falls) was the natural highlight of the trip for me--a huge waterfall that runs along the inside of a canyon that, depending on the timing of your trip, will have two matching walls of ice that cover the basin, with rocks that you can stand on to admire the view from above.  Where you can park your vehicle, there's a stunning view of the entire canyon that provided some of the best pictures of the trip.  Venturing down into the canyon, you can stand literally three feet from the waterfall if you duck under the safety ropes and head over on the rocks--the COMPLETELY UNSUPERVISED ROCKS--to taste the fresh canyon spring.

Pingvellir's significance is twofold--first, it is the site where Iceland's first government was formed back in the tenth century, and the chieftains' meeting place which overlooks a huge valley is great spectacle for those that can imagine a community leader speaking to the masses with the backdrop of a huge canyon wall; and, Pingvellir's second true significance is that the rift valley that runs behind the parliament's meeting/speaking area is in fact the continental plate rift that separates North America from the Eurasian plate.  We got to Pingvellir so late in the day (after about five hours of driving) that it was hard to truly appreciate it for what it was, but even with that and a very gray sky, it is a sight to behold.  


The $42 Whaleburger and Other Tales of the ISK

The monetary unit in Iceland is not the Euro, but in fact, the króna (krónur is the plural form, or ISK for Island Krónur; Iceland is actually "Island" in its original form).  Besides flying to Iceland, which in "shoulder" seasons (March, April, October or November) will run you about $450-$500, everything else in Iceland costs a ridiculous amount of money considering what you are used to.  As of April 2007, the exchange rate we saw at most banks in Iceland--fucking do NOT exchange your money at an airport in either Iceland or the US, or at a bank in the US--was about 67 ISK to the dollar.

For example (and don't forget--in terms of food & drink, Iceland products are essentially all imported unless you are eating seafood):

  • Hamburger and fries:  $26.87

  • 16-ounce Viking draft beer:  $12

  • Price of our rental car:  $240/day

  • 8-inch sub and a Fanta orange soda:  $16

  • 8-ounce cocktail: vodka, cranberry, OJ:  $20.15

  • Slice of chocolate cake my first morning in Iceland:  $12

  • 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in downtown Reykjavik: $1,000,000 (approx.)

You are best off doing what we did on this trip--my time-honored tradition of "fire and forget", where you just whip out the total in ISK cash, or the credit card, and just realize that you are on vacation and that's what vacation is all about, the experience.  The Financier had one of the trip's funniest moments, when we had dinner on Saturday and near the end of an experience where we had just dropped a shitload of cash on a dinner for seven people, he just literally took out all of the ISK coins in his pocket and threw them onto the table, which led to us saying "It's raining KRÓNUR!!" for the rest of the trip.

Speaking of that dinner, I decided to sample something that I couldn't have back at home--whale.  Sure, it was $42, but everything else in Iceland costs a lot of money, so it wasn't the dough...I wanted to eat something forbidden in my homeland, and whale was the fucking ticket.  When you order something called "whaleburger", you are thinking like I'm thinking--a fucking meat-lover behemoth, a fucking monstrosity that is actually composed of real whale.

Then, the sandwich came out.  I could tell that my six companions (all of whom seemed to want to order the whaleburger, but actually possess compassion for their fellow whales and didn't want to see them served up on a fucking bun) were intrigued when it arrived, as was I...and then, I pull off the top bun to see a couple of piddly, one by one-inch square pieces of meat sitting there on a huge bed of lettuce and tomato with a big order of fries on the side.  I wanted a lot of meat!  Shit, if you had told me that whale was a fucking delicacy, I wouldn't have ordered it!  Shit, didn't they have to kill a FUCKING WHALE in order to present me with this sandwich?  You can't tell me there wasn't EXTRA FUCKING WHALE available to put on my sandwich!!!!!

Anyway, you're probably wondering just one thing, and to be honest, whale tastes like either liver or slightly dry steak, depending on who you talk to.  Hey, you gotta try some new shit, right?  Why not whaleburger?


The State of the Natural Blonde (All 6'1" of Her)

Let me be frank--I am very, very happy and satisfied in my current dating situation with Meg.

Let me be frank again--I am very, very glad I did not go on this trip as a single man.  If you like statuesque, bronzed women who are naturally, nearly fucking blindingly blonde, trim and outdoorsy, where the only real downfall is trying to decipher the pronunciation of their names, stop reading the essay and get your ass over to Reykjavik stat, pronto, NOW.  I had heard this before leaving for this trip from Men I Trust, and from my recollection of speaking with Lucy about this all those years ago, and from recent internet research...the women of Iceland are attractive and aggressive, and they have a certain fearlessness in talking to exotic American imports (read: minorities of all shapes & sizes) that makes this the kind of trip you go on if you, ahem, like to make new friends.

Meg and Mandy dispute this to a small degree, but the five men on the trip recognized signs that you don't see here in the States that menfolk can do well for themselves while on holiday in Iceland.  Especially if you like your women tall and cut and good to go from a partying perspective.  Like all places, there were some women like this, and others who reminded you of killer moms with names like Helga who spend their week bench pressing BMWs while making multiple rounds at the buffet table.  But, in downtown Reykjavik, at the airport, working at any establishment that would cater to tourists and restaurants in general, hotties were readily apparent.  (Strangely, one place where these 6'1" blondes were NOT hangin' out--Icelandair flights.  The stewardesses on my flight both to and from Iceland were actually a little rough around the edges; they didn't take the British Airways/Virgin Atlantic approach of hiring supermodels from the homeland to wear those skimpy stewardess outfits.  Intriguing.)

The men of Reykjavik were more of a mixed bag (Meg agreed with this), but I didn't get the feeling I did when I went to Italy four years ago; even a straight guy could tell there were handsome men floating around everywhere in Rome.  Iceland presented a wide palette of tastes for the discerning straight female; there were a lot of taller men around, but nothing that made you think Kenya or Norway or places like that.  Looks-wise, I thought the men (and, I think the ladies agreed on this point) were okay, and I didn't get the sense that the "game" the average Iceland man possessed was all that solid; again, Italian men seemed to be king in this area.


Polar Opposites / The Only Black Guys on the Island

Six months ago, I was in Ghana, which was black, black, and black all over.  Iceland--no doubt about it, the polar opposite.  From the weather to the geographical situation to the cost of living to nearly every imaginable category, Iceland is 100% different than it was to be in Ghana.  As such, there are at least a dozen different essays that I could write about the comparison between the two...however, there is one point that really does intrigue me when it comes to race:

In both places, I stood out like a Hokie at a classy party.  A Yankees fan at Fenway.  A quarter in a stack of pennies.  For wildly different reasons, Ghanaians picked up on the fact that I was a gringo pretty quickly; in Iceland, the stares Wim, Gordon, and I got (and, to some degree, Dave Lee as well) were mainly ones of curiosity, ones of "Holy shit, look poppa--a Negro!!  Cool!!" and not ones I remember getting at a random McDonald's outside of Atlanta one year, near Macon--"Holy shit, look poppa--a Negro!  Can we get the shotgun?"

So, as a result, you get a bit more of a rock star feeling when you are in a place where racism is basically out the window (trust me, I know that racism feeling, and I didn't get that feeling at all during my trip to Iceland) and not many folks like you come to visit a particular country.  Dave Lee, Wim and I took it to the point where we decided to use made-up background stories if anyone inquired as to who we "really" were because we were getting so many stares; Dave, The Financier, was a Chinese real estate magnate in town to scout new properties to add to his portfolio; Wim and I were two hip-hop stars who were in town to promote our group's upcoming second album, due to drop in August.  (Wim and I had a bigger problem--we never did figure out what to name our group, or for that matter, what our stages names would be.  Details, details, details.)

Both in Ghana and in Iceland, the locals seemed to go out of their way to make me feel welcome despite that gringo tourist look about me; this was decidedly not the case in certain other places, most notably Paris, where I still remember some of the looks I got in shops when I would drop some Frenglish on the locals and this was met with looks of disgust, anger, and getthefuckoutofourcountryism.  In other words, don't hesitate to go to Iceland because you don't look just like Sven; you'll have a great time over there, believe you me.


Milky Blue Water (or, The Greatest Thing Anywhere, Ever)

I had spoken with Meg's sister Beth and Beth's husband Michael prior to leaving for Reykjavik; Michael had this weird, dreamy look in his eyes when he talked about the couple's 24-hour stayover in Reykjavik a couple of years ago--not unlike a zombie, Michael seemed transfixed with the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's signature tourist attraction that features naturally-heated water in a salt basin near the major airport outside of town.  "I love the Blue Lagoon," Michael began, but then he kept looking up at the ceiling, saying "I love the Blue Lagoon" a few more times before either Beth or their newborn child snapped Michael out of it.

I had gotten similar reviews from other former Reykjavik travelers over the years, so I was certainly fired up to check out the Lagoon, even though the night before we saw it, we had gotten less than three hours of sleep before attempting to hit the site.  The Lagoon comes complete with an acre-sized body of water that is heated to nearly or above 100°, depending on the spot in the basin where you are sitting; the water is only 2-4 feet deep, so swimming is basically out of the question here.  There are massage rooms, a steam room, a kiddie area, etc.; with a cafeteria and a full-blown restaurant on the campus, you can make a day out of your stay.

Which is what you will want to do the second you sit down in the water.  Oh, sweet glory be, the Blue Lagoon is one of the truly great, truly soulfully relaxing events you or anyone else will be able to get their hands on.  Getting into the water instantly made me think of those old Calgon commercials ("Calgon, take me away!!!"); after sitting down in the water and staring at the steam rising off the lake and my friends all simmering in milky blue magic (the water isn't naturally this color; the Lagoon is apparently partially man-made, since it has a thermal power station that helps filter the water in and cool it to a reasonable temperature), we all thought about when we could come back to sit in the water just one more time.

Getting out and getting dressed certainly felt like what breaking a smoking or crack habit might be like; about fifteen minutes after sitting in the main hall outside of the Lagoon, I wanted to get undressed again to run back out there.  "I will come back here", said The Financier.  Or maybe it was Dave B. Or maybe it was me...I don't remember.


Epilogue

Meg and I got back to my apartment the Monday of the men's NCAA basketball championship game to see who would walk away with a national championship; like the end of all trips, I was psyched to be back in my apartment, and like clockwork, I was only half there while watching the game because a large part of me wanted just one more night back in Reykjavik.

There was a lot accomplished on this trip to Iceland, but there's a lot that we missed.  There's the Aurora Borealis, for starters; a few clubs were missed, and a couple of historical sights in Reykjavik were skipped as well.  There's literally a penis museum in town, too...I'll be sure to check that one out on the flip side, and in terms of outdoorsy activities, we only skimmed the surface of what's available in Iceland because between glacier walks, hikes, snowmobiling, horseback riding and other fun stuff, there would be plenty to do during another four-day trip if I decide to go back.  Hell, we didn't even get to see, or consume, puffin, one of the country's naturally-occurring birds that has a distinct look about it, in addition to being a fairly-decent appetizer, from what we hear.

And, of course, The Lagoon.

But if I go back, it would only be fitting to have The Crew come back for another jaunt over there, and this time, we would have to all be there for the same travel dates (we were scattered a bit this go-round).  The people always make the trips for me, and between our team and the wide array of locals we interacted with on the journey, Iceland is sure to be back on my list in the next two years, for sure.

I just have to remember to bring a whole lotta KRÓNURS!!!!

(Click here to go to the photo gallery straight away...)

 

Random Bellviews, courtesy of Bell and Longer Community Trust:

  • The Hotel Plaza: Opening Weekend

  • "Your skin is so soft...you see, I have a black boyfriend, and...": Opening Weekend

  • Dave Lee on the dance floor: Opening Weekend

  • Icelandic bacon potato chips, Reyka, paprika and chocolate bars: Opening Weekend

  • Making this the first of multiple Iceland trips:  Opening Weekend

 

justin@bellviewmovies.com


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