When you wish upon a stone: days 851 — 870

Thoughts on Iceland

I’ve just finished recovering from the second big trip of my adult life, this time to the land of ice! Ten days with my parents, first in Akureyri and then in Reykjavik. Iceland is… special. Terribly young in many ways, yet with a history and culture that stretches over a millenium. Black sand deserts and lava flow deserts, stark mountains, glaciers and waterfalls and steam vents, that’s Iceland.

I’d taken a few strolls through Reykjavik via Google Maps, so I didn’t expect the same cool architecture I found in Brussels or Amsterdam. Everything’s super young; the oldest building may be the Prime Minister’s residence / office which is… late 18th century, I think? Almost everything else I’ve seen is much more recent. Still, though it mostly feels very suburban, Reykjavik does have a certain charm. Won’t find anything like Brussel’s frilly neo-gothic cathedrals, they’re too Lutheran for that, but can you honestly tell me Hallgrímskirkja isn’t cool? Clean lines, a geometric columnar design apparently inspired by basalt stacks, and an equally clean interior. Yeah, the lapsed Catholic in me wants excess and pomp and, like, flying buttresses and stained glass roses, but I could definitely get used to this.

Iceland also has a lot of lovely public art, though some of it understandably goes over my head. For example, I’m not sure what to make of Sigling in Akureyri. This statue of Thor in Vík is much more straightforward, as is this memorial to a semi-mythical Viking settler. In Reykjavik someone deconstructed a Viking longship down to its very bones—the repeating three-pronged element is likely a nod to the Helm of Awe, a symbol I’ve seen all over the place in gift shops, and only now got around to googling its name.

But really, it’s Iceland’s natural wonders we came to see, and oh baby were there a lot of them! Waterfalls like Goðafoss, Dettifoss, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Systrafoss and Gullfoss. Jökulsarlón, aka “Glacier Lagoon”, a lagoon filled with little icebergs we got to see up close; the Diamond Beach, just downstream from it. Cliffs covered in screeching birds. Scraggly forests. 11PM sunsets.

Some locals aren’t happy. Iceland has built a lot of infrastructure in the last few decades, but a lot of it seems to be just for the benefit of tourists. And they’re coming in in droves, sometimes with little respect for local cultures, knowledge of what’s where, how to get around, and how not to harm ecologically sensitive environments. A good example would be those hundreds of folks in big-ass cruise ships that may go whale watching but otherwise don’t contribute to local economies. This is the best of bad situations, I hear; after the financial crisis 10 years ago, Iceland could have actually sold off some of its land, but chose to sell off views of it, and the tourism industry massively took off. So it could be worse, but not everybody’s happy about turning Iceland into The Iceland Experience™.

Unlike my other trip two years ago, I brought home very few souvenirs. A photography book (The Selection / Úrvalið, by Einar Falur Ingólfsson), a fridge magnet, a novella (Gunnar Gunnarsson’s classic The Good Shepherd, aka Advent), and… two smooth little black stones; one I took from Reynisfjara, one from Djúpalónssandur. Actually I might have taken it right after I took that kelp photo. I’d originally taken two stones from Reynisfjara, but I gave one to some trolls. No, not the kind that live on the internet and yell at people, the kind that live in stony wilderness and help people. Hey, even if my wish doesn’t come true, at least I’ll have a connection to Iceland—and I may swing by in the future, to see how the trolls are doing.

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