Iceland the Myth

Trigger Warning to those in Ivy League schools: This might mess with your preconceptions of things you’ve never experienced.

There are about 330,000 people in Iceland (Rhode Island, by comparison, has a million), and almost three million sheep, about 10 per person, give or take. There is also a plethora of horses. They look really happy, but then I found them on dinner menus.

The tourist trade is by far the major industry and the country’s strong economy right now is driven by tourism. Everyone I know who’s gone there has recommended I go, and a great many who have never been tell me they plan to make the trip some day. So, when one of my global groups decided that Reykyavík was an ideal meeting place, my wife and I added some personal time and caught the five-hour flight on Icelandic Air out of Boston.

I’m here to tell you—and please don’t bother with nasty letters, because I don’t care if you’re upset reading a free blog, simply stop reading it—that the wonderful nature of Iceland is a bigger myth than that of Grendel.

Reykyavík is a village more than a city. The streets are narrow and usually one-way, the shops are small (and empty, the tourists aren’t buying retail) and it’s simple to walk the entire place in a morning. The airport, a former American base, was built for the military not the country and is a 40-minute drive through sheer nothingness. And therein is the problem.

Iceland has some true wonders. We walked through the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates; there are spectacular waterfalls; predictable geysers (though none as profound as Old Faithful); a volcano crater to walk around and a volcano to walk within; a glacier to visit and to go under; whale watching; geothermal heat capture; and puffins. All of that is about 10 percent of the country and the visit. All of the rest is hardscrabble and old lava, rock and scrub. The land is a moonscape of unalterably low interest. You have to travel through hours of that stuff in order to see the good stuff. And all of the good stuff you can do within two days.

There is no culture or style that we were able to identify. Clothing, even in warm weather, is dull to the point that we were prone to point out a rare, well-dressed, stylish man or woman. Stores full of tchotchkes abound in Reykyavík with the ubiquitous coffee cups, key chains, and, yes, obscene sayings. But I saw no great art, heard no great music, learned of no great performances.

And that leads us to the social culture. The Icelanders made a fortune in the original boom times, got clobbered in the world fiscal crisis, and all those farmers and herders who sold the farms and herds to become investment gurus soon went back to farming and herding. Now that the country is doing well again, you’d expect that the new resource, tourists, would be well cared for.

They are not.

The general level of service is that of Europe, in other words, “we’ll tolerate you if you tolerate us.” With rare exception, which we found in two places, the restaurants treat patrons the way beavers treat trees: get them out of the way and put them to use. Most of the time the restaurants have the exact same menus: arctic char, salted cod, lamb, and variations thereof and, I’m not kidding, whale, puffin, and horse. The service is begrudging and ungracious. We are a necessary evil. At our hotel, the first response when you asked a question of any kind was, “What’s your room number?” They will not answer questions at all if you’re not a registered guest, and I think they pay attention to your room rate in terms of quality of response. (We occupied their largest suite, and when I dutifully provided its number, the clerks snapped upright and clicked their heels as if I were a major general in the old British Army somewhere in Mandalay.)

In one restaurant, when diners asked the server for something after receiving their main course, the response was: “Think about anything else you may want right now so I don’t have to go back and forth between here and the kitchen another ten times!”

And then there’s Icelandic Air. They fly 757-200s, with 18 business class seats (no first class). There is insufficient leg room for this class of service and the seats fully recline, reducing room still further. On returning home, the airline inexplicably scheduled three flights leaving from the same gate area (to Boston, DC, Toronto) at the exact same time, and there is virtually no seating at the gates, so about 900 people had to stand around like, well, sheep and horses, while the gate agents fooled around with boarding. When I asked how long it would be before boarding, the severe agent told me “soon.” I was prone to cite my room number, but I realized it probably wouldn’t work here.

The “Saga Club” (business class lounge) is pretty good, but staffed by Icelandic Air Icelandic employees. The former prison guard at the front desk in Reykyavík Airport didn’t greet us, took our boarding passes, and then handed them back after hitting a few computer keys. No wasted time here on small talk such as “Welcome” or “Here’s how to find your gate” or “Thanks for flying with us” or “Please don’t steal the art work.”

The art work, by the way, comprises very large rocks placed at random. That’s it. Our hotel suite and the hotel public rooms had zero art on the walls. The effect is a starkness that brings the moonscape vacuum outside into the room. I don’t know if that’s the intention, but the result is relentlessly dull.

We spent one evening from 9 to midnight or so trying to find the Northern Lights in the countryside. Apparently, everyone out that night was unsuccessful. I’ve seen the lights once before and they’re breathtaking, but I suspect these days they’re doing what any really smart tourist would do—hanging out at the Amalfi Coast where the scenery is romantic, the food is the best in the world, and the Italians can make anything exciting because it’s all about amore.

            Iceland is an eponymous place.

 

© Alan Weiss 2017


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