On my way back to the U.S. in August, I flew through Iceland and intentionally took a flight with an 18-hour layover. That way I could take the 45-minute bus ride to the airport, spend the evening in the city, and take the bus back to fly out to New York early the next morning. Hey, when in Rome, right? Or rather, Reykjavik.
On the bus ride from Keflavik airport, I sat gazing out the window and words sprang to mind: desolate, stark, barren. The landscape as we wound through the empty countryside was a study in contrasts–dark rocks, frothy sea, bright green moss, softly grey-purple lichen. Nothing grew taller than the rocks themselves–no trees, no bushes. The coast was dotted with colourful fishing houses, and I couldn’t help but think that waking up here and walking out to this view would take my breath away. As we drove, I started noticing a pattern in the rocks as we skirted the coast. Every so often there would be a series of large boulders piled on top of each other in groups of three or four, like snowmen made of stone, and facing out over the wild, empty sea they looked like somber guardians. In such an alien and inhuman landscape, it was undeniably spooky.
When we got to town, I saw that the bus station was tiny and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Luckily the centre of tourism was just a 15 minute walk away. I was starving when I got to my AirBnB, having only eaten a small sandwich nine hours before and coming off a steep sugar high from the Fazer chocolates I had bought for my family (but of course had been sneaking from). They say you shouldn’t grocery shop while hungry, and I guess you shouldn’t buy souvenirs while hungry either!
I wanted some pictures of the foggy mountains before it got too dark, but I needed to eat something, and with my Icelandic spending money (conveniently converted from a handful of Swedish and Norwegian krona I had found at the bottom of my suitcase), I had 5500 krona, or about 35 Euros or 46 USD, enough for dinner, breakfast, and minimal frivolities.
On the way toward the edge of town I passed a truck called The Lobster Hut and decided to seize the opportunity with a bowl of their specialty soup, as an appetizer. It turned out to be a good pint of thick, spicy warm broth with big chunks of shellfish. The soup girl asked me if I wanted whipped cream on it, holding out an aerosol container exactly like the ones we use to top ice cream sundaes in the States. The older woman in the truck encouraged me to “live a little!” So I stood at a tall table by the cart and slurped down my soup with whipped cream so fast I burned my tongue.
Emboldened and warmed by my soup, I ventured to the seaside to take some photos, and then wandered into town. The combination of a week of heavy moving, eating sporadically, sharp change in temperature to the chilly winds in Reykjavik, and traveling in general told me I needed to eat something else very soon.
I wanted to take some pictures of town and figured I would see somewhere to eat along the way. Overall, Reykjavik is extraordinarily touristy, which I didn’t expect. I chatted with an American couple on my way to my AirBnB, and they explained that the cruise ships had just come in. There were a ton of Americans in town, and a lot of other tourists as well. The Icelanders all spoke perfect English and seemed unusually amenable to tourists. After getting harassed in Dijon (and we were even there on business!), I didn’t expect such a gung-ho attitude to tourism.
It was downright enthusiastic; the Icelanders didn’t seem to tolerate tourists as much as cater to them, with the town centre streets lined with boutiques and restaurants, souvenir shops full of pelts, sweaters, mittens, hats, trinkets made of elk horn, packets of seasoned sea salt, beautifully carved wooden bowls and spoons, and little vacuum-sealed packets of fermented shark that you could buy to taste on the spot. I can only assume they come with a photo op like they do on rollercoasters, to capture the moment your taste buds realize what you’ve done to them. And then there were the Christmas shops with trees in the windows decked all over with red and gold and wooden ornaments, toy Santas, nutcrackers, a giant sculpture of some kind of old witch in the middle of the sidewalk, and even a mailbox to send your letter directly to Santa.
So as I wandered through town thoroughly amused, I found this old church at the top of the hill–a sign nearby said the hill was called the Neighborhood of the Gods. The church looked like a giant set of organ pipes, and there were a lot of other tourists around taking pictures like me.
On the corner I saw a welcoming-looking yellow building with a big sign that said Cafe Loki. Cute. A glance at the poster told me the menu looked palatable and the prices reasonable, and at that point I was so cold I would have gone in anywhere just to warm up. I walked in to see that the ground floor was a casual cafe with the resturant on the upper floor. It looked like a little bistro but felt like a diner, if that makes sense.
The menu was confusing, a series of a la carte options which all came with herring, some “plates” and special main dishes. I eventually chose the benignly named “trout with salad.” I could have, should have been more adventurous, and I usually am. There was fermented shark , jellied lamb head, and “four flavors of herring,” but that was just about 3 flavors of herring too much for me at the moment. At this point I was cold, tired, and overhungry so I figured I would play it safe. Everything came with “bread ice cream,” so I was resigned to that culinary adventure, at least. I would soon learn that if I wanted plain fish I should have chosen the herring.
When my food arrived it looked nice, although what I had thought would be identifiably trout was instead something looking exactly like layered carrot cake. It was made with dense malted rye cake and smoked trout layered with a very thick cream. I tried each component separately and while the cream was a bit too rich after my shellfish-and-dairy appetizer, the trout was incredible. Truly, if you like good fish, you have to visit the Nordics. There’s something–maybe it’s the cold waters–that makes the fish sweet and full of flavour, and when it’s preserved, they cure it and smoke it naturally. You won’t find fish dyed pink in the great frozen North.
When I tried the rye cake, I had a strange flavour memory. It took a moment but I realised it tasted exactly like mämmi. I guess there are only so many flavours in the world, and some are bound to be repeated. On top of the cake was a rosette of smoked trout and a sprig of dill that did little to cut the richness of the cake.
The salad was boring in comparison–overdressed and topped with soggy feta chunks. I had been a bit wary of the “bread ice cream,” but it turned out to be the best part of the meal. Rye bread had been crumbled into a simple homemade vanilla ice cream, giving the same effect as mixing in your cake with ice cream, but less sweet and more malty. It was delicious. To warm my hands, I had two cups of Loki tea, made from birch, moss, lichen, tundra weeds…. something like that. It was mild and earthy, and cleared my palate except for a pleasant lingering smokiness from the trout.
I wandered a bit more, until my hands went numb from the biting cold wind, and around 10.30 wound up back at my AirBnB. I’ve mentioned before how I’ve really enjoyed my AirBnB experiences so far, and how I think it’s a really excellent way to allow people on a budget to travel and get to know the locals. In Reykjavik I was staying with a large family who rented out their attic to travelers at 15 euros a night. I had to climb up a narrow ladder that had been nailed into the wall and slept on a mattress on the floor. That probably sounds horrific to some people, but to me, that’s traveling! And it’s the best way. Whether it’s a 7th story walkup in Paris or a cube-shaped Escher house of stairs and ladders in Reykjavik, these things make the interesting stories.
I had intended to warm up, relax, maybe take a shower and write some, but I ended up just falling asleep. I woke up around 2.30, which, at 3 hours later, is when the late summer sun would start streaming through my window in Helsinki. The attic had a skylight and I saw through the rain and mist that it was the same twilight grey it had been all day.
The next morning I was gone by just before seven. I love traveling in the morning when hardly anyone is out yet. I had a jaunty walk through the residential part of town, down to the little valley where the bus station stood out stark, white, and lonely looking in front of the rocky horizon. I bought a muffin and a banana and boarded the bus, sitting on the opposite side so I could look out over the mountains on the way back to the airport.
I had plenty of time before passport control opened, so I had a coffee and a granola bar which I noticed came from a bakery I had seen in Reykjavik. I chatted with an American mom of two young boys when neither of us could work the latte machine, and I decided that tourists who go to Iceland can’t be of the bad sort.
Halfway over the Atlantic, the PA system sputtered on and the pilot nonchalantly announced that we should look out the windows to see icebergs and mountains on the southern tip of Greenland. It was so clear that I could see the snow caps on the mountains, rings of iridescent blue surrounding the icebergs, and even fishing boats leaving thin white spirals behind them in the sea.
When I landed in New York, it was just after noon and my internal clock told me I had lived through a whole day already on the other side of the world. Jet lag has never bothered me much though; if anything, I’ll get it the wrong way around and wake up far too early. I was hungry, and on my way into the city I indulged in my little traveling present to myself: a thin bar of dark chocolate with Icelandic sea salt.
Maybe it seems like most of my souvenirs and travel stories are about edible things, and they are. I’m not a traveling food blogger, just someone trying to experience the world in ways that are most meaningful to me. I’ve said before that I think sharing food is one of the purest ways of sharing culture, tradition, sharing life.
I’ll be back to Iceland sooner than later. I’m dying to hike those stunning cliffs and then I can eat all the strange fishes when I have time to really savor the experience. But for now I can remember these little snapshots that mean so much, and I can be taken back to those moments with a little sprinkle of sea salt.