“I Don’t Speak Icelandic”: A Reykjavik Re-cap

I had a lot of expectations for this trip. Boring ones mostly. I expected this experience to be more anxiety inducing than it was. I expected more routine, more growth, more introspection, whatever. Boring expectations.

In all practical senses, I was actually completely unprepared for this. All my energy went into planning our four days on the trail and almost none of it went elsewhere. There were several brief moments of panic where I realized that I was in fact, in a country where I did not speak the language, didn’t know my way around town, and was largely alone (as Rob had spent his first four days at his conference during the day).

Everything I have ever known about myself points to evidence that I am not a person who would enjoy such an experience, and yet, I have always loved the feeling of being in an unfamiliar place surrounded by people I have no intention of interacting with. I’ve just never done it in a foreign country.

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I spent a disproportionate amount of my first several days here convincing myself that I am in fact, the kind of person who can travel to Europe and actually leave my hotel room and interact with people. It was hard, why was it so hard? Why is interaction hard no matter where I go?

In the states, talking to people is hard because I’m a callous person who has no patience, but here it’s hard because… I don’t speak Icelandic. Which had literally never occurred to me until the first morning we were in Iceland, Rob had gone to the conference, and I was totally alone.

Spoiler alert: EVERYONE speaks English here. Everyone. Not just most of them. Not just a little English. Every person on this island is fluent in English. Only once did someone greet me with anything other than English.

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This fact took exactly two days to actually sink in. Before coming here I had this idea of the world that everyone hated Americans and even if they did speak English they would roll their eyes at you for coming to their country and not speaking their language. Turns out, it’s only Americans who do that (spoiler alert number two)

I did eventually make my way out of our tiny hotel room in an attempt to order food. I would very quickly learn that the cafes here potentially play even more of The Shins than they do in the US. I’m still blown away by how much of our culture has invaded the rest of the world. I successfully ordered my first meal at a vegan restaurant called Vinyl (aptly named as they always have vinyl spinning) and wondered how it is that I always manage to find the place that is playing Talking Heads records and making housemade almond milk matcha lattes. I must be a magnet. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

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Either way, it helped me get over this suspicion that everyone would hate me for being American. The people of Iceland are among the most friendly people I have ever met in my entire life.

By the time that sank in a little more, Rob was done conferencing for the day and ready to some touristing so we ventured down to the shore and checked out the famous Harpa concert hall. He was excited because it is made of polytopes. Dork.

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That was plenty of touristing for us so we went back to doing what we typically like to do on vacations– which is trying to live like locals, at least as much as we can, and feasted on a dinner made entirely of fish which would quickly become habitual for our time in Nordic countries. It was then that I realized it was not worth it to try and photograph food while we were here. Restaurant lighting is bad and fish is typically un-photogenic. What’s a foodie to do? Write this travel piece anyway I suppose…. life will go on…

I was feeling more adventurous by the middle of the second day. Maybe it was the Viking style breakfast from Cafe Loki…

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If there is anything you need to know about me, it’s that my Swedish heritage did not set my tastebuds, so I was kind of amazed that I was even willing to try anything with pickled herring. That’s what I like most about vacation– it pushes me to be more adventurous. Plus, I’m big on the theory that trying new things produces serotonin so even if you don’t really like the thing you’ve tried, you’re brain still convinces you that it was a positive experience. (Also, pickled herring is another one of those things that doesn’t photograph well, so please enjoy this whimsical photo of Rob taking in our view from the cafe.)

I spent a good amount of the day discussing and thinking about this theory as I decided to make the venture out to the sculpture park. It didn’t seem so far at first. I was wrong.

Roughly 4 kilometers later, I had finally gone as far as Reykjavik’s shoreline would take me which felt approximately a million miles away from anything. At least there was a nice view.

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These purple flowers are everywhere which (among many other factors) made me feel like I was in a fairytale the entire vacation. Whimsical is the only word I could think to describe Iceland. Of course, than changed slightly on our 55km hike, but I digress. It’s pure magic. I still can’t believe the landscapes.

The definitively best part of Reykjavik though? The cats.

The best moment of my life occurred outside of Reykjavik Roasters, whom I could probably write a whole blog post about on their own. We went there every single day to spin more Talking Heads albums and drink cortados until we felt like locals.

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The most welcoming of all the Reykjavik residents though, was the cat who came and sat in my lap outside of the coffee shop.

I don’t know you, but I’ll love you forever…

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Aparently, cat owners let their felines roam the city quite freely, leaving an abundance of friends for me to meet in our short time there.

Best part of the country? Well… that’s a hard call to make…

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Our third afternoon took us just south of Reykjavik on a bus tour with 50 mathematicians. I married into an alright profession I suppose.

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We toured several small fishing villages, saw some geysers, and visited the continental divide where a piece of America and a piece of Europe are rotating away from one another one centimeter per year.

At the bottom of their first lighthouse we visited is the smallest cafe in all of Iceland so of course we squeezed in for a cup of tea before heading to the smelliest place I have ever been (the geysers).

I know it looks cool, but imagine walking through a cloud of one million eggs that have been rotting since the beginning of time. That is what all geothermal water smells like in Iceland. My eyes were burning by the time we left.

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I fortunately managed to regain my eyesight in time for dinner, which was at another small fishing village whose name I have of course forgotten. It was a lovely three course meal complete with lobster bisque, braised lamb, endless bread, and bottomless wine (which was dangerous as it had all been paid for already)

Upon returning to town, we decided we hadn’t had enough to drink so we found a piano bar downtown and listened to some live music over a gin and tonic. We’re livin like locals now!

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Thursday was our last full day in town before taking a bus to the middle of nowhere, so we frantically ate all the things we hadn’t had an opportunity for, and pet all of the cats.

We also saw the national museum which was nice but uneventful as far as photos and blog posts go. The big takeaway is that Vikings are badasses. Now you know.

We spent some more time at our favorite coffee shop and strolled past the sea one last time, trying to capture just what it was we loved so much about foreign travel.

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“I think it’s mostly that when I’m somewhere unfamiliar, I get to watch people and imagine whatever I want to about what kind of person they are and what their life is like– and that can somehow extend to me.”, I said. “I’m already in this new place, I’ve come this far– I might as well keep going with it.”

It was the first time I had really been able to explain why, in spite of my asocial nature and aversion to crowds, I somehow thrive in the most foreign of environments.

I was about to take this insight out on the trail with me as we embarked on our first international backpacking trip, and by far the craziest thing I have ever done. Why? Why do I do these things? I was thinking.

Because I can.

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Life had already become cozy in Reykjavik, but I was starting to realize that cozy isn’t really what I as after on this trip.

Trail stories to follow in a later post… for now, I’ll leave you with more cats and ridiculously photogenic buildings in an attempt to share with you just how magical this place was for us. As always, photos and even words seem to fail in doing justice to the actual experience and I’m coming to be more and more comfortable with this fact the farther the experience gets from me.

Where photos and words fail, we will always have our own special memories of this amazingly unique, too beautiful for words place.

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