Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

Our trip finished in Reykjavik where two-thirds of Iceland’s scanty population lives. At first glance, the capital city looks like a model town designed by Disney. Cute homes brightly painted and immaculately maintained. Clean streets. Well behaved, helpful people. Charming squares and parks. I say at first glance because I did see a few street people—a “crazy” ranting at full volume, a person looking as wasted as anyone I ever see in New York, some graffiti—but such sightings were rare. At third or fourth glance, Reykjavik appeared to be a model small city.

          The city has remarkable architecture, but the dominant structure is the church that sits on a hill in the center of the town. Iceland has a state Lutheran church, which was adopted centuries ago in good Christian fashion after the Catholic bishop or archbishop was slaughtered. The country, however, guarantees freedom of religion to all. (The guide told me that outside of Christmas and Easter, only maybe twenty percent of Icelanders went to church once a month.)

We often saw traditional-looking churches with picturesque steeples in the countryside that might hold seventy-five people if packed. These buildings were well maintained on the outside. In my forays, I did not find one that was unlocked, and I could only peer into the windows, but the interiors also looked in good shape. Often adjacent to the church was a small graveyard, and I would wander through them looking at the headstones, thinking about the lives and the grief of those who did the burying. We visited one church far removed from other habitations. While my traveling companions took a hike to the sea, I wandered on paths in the hummocky, mossy countryside. I stopped and listened. I could hear no human noise, even distantly, a rarity in my life, but I concentrated on the overlapping bird sounds for ten minutes, which is close as I have gotten to meditation in a long time.

Countryside Church. Picture by AJ

          The Reykjavik church—Hallgrímskirkju—was different. It’s large and cavernous, created in a modern design with a soaring bell tower seemingly held up by structures that mimic the natural basaltic columns seen throughout the countryside. The interior is unadorned with comfortable pews. The windows were clear, not stained glass, that let in lots of light.

Hallgrímskirkju. Photo by AJ
Hallgrímskirkju. Photo by AJ

The church has a remarkable organ, so remarkable looking that we came back for an organ concert that was part of a first-Saturday-of-every-month series. I was reminded in reading the bio of the organist, Kitty Kovács, of the many different lives there are and how hard a musician’s life can be. She was born and studied music in Hungary. She had won prizes around the world and moved to Iceland in 2006, first working as a piano teacher. Since 2011 Kovács has been an organist at a church unknown to me and as a teacher at a local music school on the Westman Islands, which sit a bit off the southern coast of Iceland. I don’t pretend to know much about organ music, but to me it was a wonderful concert that showed off the range of the instrument and the depth of her talent.

          Danish is a required subject in Icelandic schools, and at least to this tourist, almost everyone also seems to speak English. But the native language is Icelandic, which is a descendant of what was brought to Iceland by Vikings more than a thousand years ago and bears a relationship with modern Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. However. for almost all its history, Iceland and its language have been essentially isolated from the rest of the world. The guide said that Icelandic is sometimes described as Old Norse, the language of Scandinavia but without a millennium of evolution.

          I am not good with languages (an understatement), but on most trips I pick up some basic things—good morning, good night, thank you, you’re welcome, etc.–and decipher some words on signs and menus. Not in Iceland. I would ask how to say something and try to repeat it, but my effort only brought a little laugh and another enunciation of the phrase. I never could hear the difference. The written language seems to have some sort of mark over or through every third letter, and there are letters that seem almost recognizable—a “p” or “d” for instance—but they aren’t and don’t sound anything like what I think of as a “p” or “d”. Double consonants seem to be pronounced much differently from single ones, and so on. The guide was asked, “If you wonder why Iceland is not more important on the world stage, did you ever think your language held you back?” There was no reply

          The language is maintained within Iceland’s small population, but few outside of Iceland speak it, and it will be interesting to see what happens to the language as time goes along. More and more foreigners are living in Iceland, but my guess is that many if not most of them manage by using English and don’t learn much Icelandic.

          Icelandic names, however, fascinate me. They don’t have traditional family names. Last names are the father or mother’s first name with the addition of the Icelandic equivalent of son or daughter added to it. If a Robert Johnson has a son named Tom, the child’s name is Tom Robertson, and if Tom has a son named Barak, then it will be Barak Tomson, so on. The result has made Iceland seem like a friendly place because first names are used, not the last ones. If you met the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Jakob’s daughter), you would address her not as Ms. Jakobsdóttir, but as Katrín. Even the phone book is alphabetized by first names.

Independent People on an Iceland Journey

          Iceland is that island on my map that is a little to the right of Greenland, a bit further to the left of Norway, and on a northwest diagonal from the Faroe Islands. (Until recently, I was not sure whether Iceland was east or west of Greenland, and I was unaware of the Faroes.) Two facts I heard over and over on my trip to Iceland is that it is located in the North Atlantic and that it is small, both physically and in population.

          Apparently because Americans (I am in this group) cannot readily understand land mass numbers—Iceland comprises 102,775 square kilometers, that is, 39,682 square miles—small countries are often compared to the size of some U.S. state. When I was in Israel, the comparison was to New Jersey, which surely was the foundation for a joke. The analogy I heard for Iceland was Ohio, which comprises 116,096 square kilometers.

          Americans also seem to want the physical size of a place given in driving terms. Iceland’s Route 1, known as the Ring Road, mostly circles the island, and it is 821 miles in length. The Ring Road was finished only in 1974; before that many parts of the country were effectively isolated from each other. It is now paved and in good shape. Considering how hard the winters and springs are supposed to be, I was surprised to see no potholes. Except in some cities where it is wider and for some one-lane bridges and tunnels, it has two lanes, and the speed limit is the equivalent of 55 mph. You can do the arithmetic to figure out how long it would take to drive the whole thing.

          The population of places in my experience is just given as a number without any American comparison. Iceland has about 370,000 inhabitants, but let’s give some U.S. numbers. Ohio has nearly 12 million people, and the greater Columbus area has over 2 million residents. Wyoming has the smallest population of the American states, and it has 576,000 residents (and it still gets two Senators.)

          Just the name Iceland implies a harsh climate, and that topic seems to play a role in every one of the eight or nine books I have read set in or about the country. While Iceland does have prominent glaciers, the climate’s harshness, on the one hand, is overstated. For example, in Reykjavik, which is in the southwest corner of the Island, the average high and low temperatures in January are 35 and 27 degrees Fahrenheit. In Akureyri, the largest town in the north, they are 34 and 22 degrees. Much of the northern tier of the United States is colder. Where I grew up the average temperatures in January are 30 and 15 degrees, and Sheboygan is hardly the coldest place in the continental United States Iceland’s snowfall is also not spectacularly high compared to many places in the United States. Reykjavik averages 20 inches of snow in January, while Buffalo, New York, averages 27 inches. Even so, stories about towns isolated by snows are a common feature of Icelandic books. Snowblind, the first book in an excellent mystery story series by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates) is an example. I am guessing the isolation caused by snow results partly from the climate’s harshness but also from the sparsely settled landscape. Plowing the 800 miles of the Ring Road must take a bit of time.

          On the other hand, Iceland does not get very warm during the summer with average highs and lows in Reykjavik of 58 and 48 degrees in July. And on the third hand, Iceland, I am assured, feels colder than other places because of regular high winds. Icelanders seldom carry umbrellas because, I was told, the rain comes sideways, not vertically

          Iceland’s geology is another dominant topic. As I have confessed before, I have a block when it comes to learning geology, but I think I am doing better, partly because I went to a good Icelandic museum on volcanoes with outstanding interactive displays.

If I got this right, the distinctive geology has to do with tableware displays. Iceland is at the conjunction of two things I think are called textile dishes, although the one on the European side might be called the Teutonic plate. For some reason I don’t fully grasp, the table is slowly drifting apart, a centimeter or two each year. Perhaps it is because of the frequent earthquakes (100 a year). Or perhaps the earthquakes are caused by the drifting plates. Whatever. It must be for the same reason that the pictures on my wall regularly go out of skew.

You might think that the moving dishes and plates would cause them to fall off the table and smash into pieces, as no doubt—don’t pretend otherwise—has happened in your home. But no, the drifting allows stuff to come up from below, as if it were a dog in the cellar that darts through the opening when the door is opened. Apparently this dog comes up from the center of the earth, which only superheroes, Jules Verne, and trolls (there are many trolls in Iceland) have ever seen. That stuff I think is Magnum Bars, which I learned about on a trip to Turkey. A good treat, but then again, it may not be Magnum Bars since the stuff that’s oozing to the surface because of jiggling plates (perhaps they are spinning on rods like those frantic entertainers on the Ed Sullivan Show) is hot, not just warm, but hot, hot, hot, seriously hot. And when this hot stuff escapes to Iceland’s surface all sorts of things happen—most dramatically and significantly, volcanoes.

Volcanic eruptions are not one in a hundred-year events in Iceland. A volcano erupted without warning on an island just off the “mainland” in 1973. Luckily, the fishing fleet was in the harbor and safely evacuated 5,300 people. Seawater was sprayed onto the advancing lava flow to stop it from destroying the harbor. Another volcano did its thing in 2011, and yet another one erupted in 2014 for 180 days, which spewed large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the air, making it hard for many Icelanders to breathe. In 2021, a volcano near Reykjavik erupted attracting hundreds of thousands who hiked to watch it. In short, these eruptions happen with disturbing regularity.

(to be continued)