We left New York on Thursday on an Icelandair flight for Rejkyavik. Because I booked the flight through one of the cheapo online travel sites, I wasn’t able to take advantage of the airlines’ promotional offer allowing up to 7 days’ stayover for the same airfare when en route to Europe, but the flight to London had a 16-hour layover that allowed us to visit with the family of one of Dottie’s exchange student friends from many years ago. And how lucky could we get, to be able to experience this fascinating country, if only briefly, by staying in an Icelandic home with wonderful people.
Hildur and her parents and sister Hrun were the perfect hosts. Their father Thor is a real character–he worked for many years at the American naval base in their town of Keflavik, which is where the international airport is located, which may have something to do with his all-out love of America, and especially American cars. He has in the garage of their gorgeous home a 1968 Shelby Mustang, which he has actually brought to the States to show off at car shows! When they came to the States for Max & Dottie’s wedding in 2011, they drove a big car all the way from New York to Austin. Hildur and her sister both work for Icelandair, so they travel all the time, too. Thor built the beautiful house that they live in, which has thermal heat in the floor. The house looks like a log cabin! (That’s George having breakfast, with the family dog Dyggur, which means “faithful,” on the couch in the background.)
And what luck we had: we arrived at about midnight their time, and lo and behold–there were the Northern Lights! They said it was the first time it had appeared this season. The Aurora Borealis! I have always wanted to see this phenomenon. Magnificent. After a sleep (of sorts), Hildur quite kindly gave us a little tour of her island. Did you know that the entire population of Iceland is only about 350,000 people? That’s the size of Canberrra! And oh, so austere:
Most of the countryside, all volcanic rock, looks like this: rock covered in lichen or moss, or not covered at all. And punctuated throughout the steam rising from thermal springs caused by volcanoes.
This is the steam arising from The Blue Lagoon, the biggest and most tourist-popular of the many thermal pools Iceland has. Alas, we didn’t really have time to visit one, but perhaps when we come back through on our way home, we will. It would feel so good, I think. In the landscape, though, these belches reminded me of those old Muppets skits that were first on Saturday Night Live in 1975. And another lucky happenstance: Hildur’s father is a safety engineer at one of the biggest of the thermal plants that provide heat and electricity for the island. We were able to go into his plant to see the enormous turbines that use the steam to generate power:
Hildur also gave us a quick drive through Reykjavik, which is about 30 minutes from Keflavik, where they live. A pretty little town, where the President of Iceland lives in a relatively small house with no security. People can come up and knock on the door of their elected official if they want to. Iceland is also celebrating this year 100 years of woman’s suffrage, so they have a long history of equality in politics. The country has already had a woman as president, and the first openly lesbian prime minister.
This photo was taken atop a hill on which three water towers have been combined with a glass roof to create a lovely restaurant and scenic view over the city to the harbor. One senses the sea everywhere in Iceland; the air is filled with the scent of the ocean. In town, being the nerds that we are, we asked Hildur if we could see the town’s library. She took us to the National Library, which, if I understood correctly, is also the University Library, and also a lending library for anyone in the city. (We think there is also a public library, but we weren’t ever sure about that). And here we are, in our element:
In the library was this cute wooden sculpture by Aðalheiður Eysteinsdóttir, which the amiable librarian explained to us was of a well-known Icelandic philosopher Þorsteinn Gylfason who had taught at the University for years. Oh, I forgot to point out that nearly EVERYONE in Iceland speaks perfect English! Hildur said that when they were growing up, American TV shows were on all the time, and without any subtitles, so along with learning English in school from 5th grade, they had incentive to learn the language to watch “Flipper” and “Friends”.
The main architectural landmark of Reykjavik is the Hallgrímskirkja, named in honor of Hallgrímur Pétursson, a famous Icelandic poet and clergyman. It was designed in the 1930s by Guðjón Samúelsson, and took 38 years to complete. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Eriksson, designed by Alexander Stirling Calder, and presented to the people of Iceland by the U.S. Government in 1930 to commemorate Eriksson’s discovery of Vinland–that is, North America–in 930. Those Vikings sure kept it quiet….
Finally, Hildur drove us to the tectonic Continental Divide, the point in Iceland where two plates separate, one becoming the Eurasian Plate, and other the North American Plate. The landscape here shows a REAL chasm of rock divide. Hildur is proud of the fact that she resides on the North American side! But even in this barren landscape, vegetation occurs; these tiny flowers seem all the more miraculous for thriving here:
From all of this description, it’s obvious we liked the place. I want to come back to visit the waterfalls and the volcanoes next–and the little Iceland ponies! But mostly, we loved meeting again these lovely people in their home surroundings. Thanks, Hildur, for your generosity, and thanks to your fun family!