Trolls or just Rocks?
Icelanders believe their country is populated by hidden races of small people such as trolls and elves, who are responsible for bizarre rock formations that are dotted all over the country.
I do have to agree that these formations look pretty unusual - like some one has been standing in lava fields stacking up piles of various size rocks.
I have also read that they say some of these odd rock formations were actually trolls that were caught at sunrise doing something evil and were therefore turned into stone....
The stone piles in the photo are located in a lava field in the middle of nowhere, on the road between Vik and Skaftafell. Very strange!
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How silly did we feel in Iceland in our tiny hire car.....when the locals were driving scary looking 4WD's crossed with monster trucks!!
Take a look at the photo for the typical type of vehicle we saw in Iceland. HUGE tyres are a must, which makes sense due to the arctic conditions for most of the year, coupled with the fact that many of the roads are unsealed.
Some of the cars we saw were pretty funny - looked like they had taken a standard "city 4WD" and added the largest tyres available. Everywhere we went we saw troops of these cars, though I must say they did look a little out of place on the streets of Reykjavik!
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Sex and that sort of thing
The Icelanders have a fairly liberal attitude towards sex. It seems that this has always been the case and is not just a modern attitude. The reason for this is explained generally as the fact that Anglo-Saxon puritanism never quite made its way over there due to its remote location. According to Richard Sale, a British travel writer, the Icelanders "view sex as a fun activity to be indulged in often rather than something to be done with the lights off".
This attitude is apparent in that condoms can be purchased just about anywhere, even from cab drivers. Many shops have an "adult" section which is seen as being quite normal. There are also several erotic nightclubs located among the usual shops and restaurants in the city.
The Museum of Phallogy is also located here which reportedly houses over 80 penises from more than 30 species of mammals. I did not go there, but I kind of like the fact that it exists.
Another intersting thing is that Iceland has the highest birthrate to single mothers in Europe. Having children out of wedlock is not stigmatized in this country, it is instead viewed as commonplace and normal. I read someplace that the explaination for this was that Iceland has a long history of single women raising children due to the fact that so many men were lost at sea on a regular basis. Whether or not this is true, I can say that I did see quite a few women with babies who appeared to be alone.
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In order to protect the interests of Iceland's dairy farmers the Icelandic government does not allow any dairy products to be imported into the country. As a result of this, Iceland has its own version of almost every type of dairy product you can imagine, though many of them are really not very similar to their counterparts in other countries. They make their own version of cream cheese for example, which is nothing at all like cream cheese but more like runny sort of gluey stuff that is kind of salty. Better is the Icelandic version of yogurt which is called skyr. Skyr is not like the yogurt you are most likely familiar with because you have to drink it through a straw but it tastes really good!
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The Icelandic Language
The first time I saw anything written in Icelandic was a few years ago when I stumbled onto the Icelandic version of Iceland Air's website. To be honest, at first it looked to me like something that one would find scratched on the inside wall of cave rather than something that is read and spoken in the 21st century. And it is true that Icelandic is an ancient language. Unlike the languages of the other Scandinavian countries which remsemble German and each other much more than they do anything else, Icelandic has evolved directly from the ancient language of the vikings due to the country's isolated location. The language contains letters which are not found in any other language which are supposedly evolved from viking runes.
Because virtually no one who is not a native Icelander can read or understand Icelandic almost all Icelanders speak both English and Danish. Signs and menus are all multilingual and most bookstores sell books in both Icelandic and English.
However, I did find it useful to know a few words in Icelandic. Here they are:
gódan dag = good morning
gott kvöld = good evening
opid = open
kaffi = coffee
te = tea
fisk = fish
sími = phone or phone #
timi = time
ýtid = push (as in door)
gyaldeyrir = atm
sódavatin = sparkling water
vin = wine
já = yes
nei = no
takk fyrir = thank you
bjór = beer
fjall = mountain
kannski = maybe
bless = goodbye
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Proud to be the modern counterparts of an ancient race, Icelanders are the only people left in the world to still use patronyms, or to follow the custom (once common in the viking world) of giving children a Christian first name and "son of" or "daughter of" + the father's first name as their last name. In Icelandic these are: "son" and "dóttir". For example: Steinn Úlfsson = Stone son of Wolf, but he could have a sister named Marta Úlfsdóttir (Úlf's daughter).
This practice results in pretty much everyone in a nuclear family unit having a different last name, as women do not as a rule change their names when they marry. Because of this the Icelandic telephone directory uses FIRST NAMES to list people rather than last names. I took at look at it, and it made no sense to me at all, though I have to say that I find the fact that patronyms are still used here to be most admirable. I like it.
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Heat and Hot Water
Hot water for bathing, washing, and home heating systems in Iceland is geothermal, meaning that it comes directly from the volcanicly heated water in the ground. Homes are heated by pipes which come in from the street where the geothermal water is piped in along with other ultilites. Water for washing comes in the same way and it is DAMN HOT. I warn you of this. It is much hotter than any water you will find coming out of a faucet anywhere else. The water also smells a lot like rotten eggs because of its high sulfur level. It is perfectly safe to drink and wash with, though most locals drink only bottled water.
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Up until 1989 alcohol was banned in Iceland. The government belived that this was necessary in order to curb alcoholism in the country, which is high because of the long dark winters, but of course that approach never works. Today you can buy beer and other types of alcohol in restaurants and government-run stores but the taxes are incredibly high.
There is a locally made beer which is very good called Viking that I recommend. The only liquor made in Iceland is called Brennivín which is distilled from potatoes. It is tough stuff, not for the faint of heart, so of course I bought a bottle to take home with me!
Icelandic currency is in kroners just as currency is in Denmark, though the name is where the similarities end. I found using Icelandic currency to be endlessly confusing, never being quite sure how much I was really paying for anything (in US $ at least). There are somewhere between 10 and 13 Icelandic Kroners to 1 US $, so if you want to buy a sweater that costs $100 it could be anywhere from 1000 and 1300 kroners. I just gave up after a while. However, Iceland does have some of the most stunning and beautiful coins I have ever seen. All of them feature incredible artwork of sea creatures on the backs them, everything from cod to whales, dolphins to flounder. I kept a bunch of coins as souvenirs, though I have no idea what they are worth!
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Two kinds of smell in Reykjavík.
There are two kinds of distinct smell in Reykjavík, the hot-spring smell (hveralykt) and the money smell (peningalykt). I put this tip it under customs as this is quite characteristic to Iceland.
Our hot water is geothermal water straight from the earth and it has quite a distinct smell of sulphur, some say it smells like rotten eggs, but we all know what sulphur smells like. I would say it smells like a fart as I have never encountered the smell of rotten eggs. But that is what you get when you turn off the hot water tap. I had never noticed it until foreigners started talking about it. It started bothering me a bit when I got a sulphur poisoning after visiting a geothermal area in the North of Iceland during a strong wind which blew the fumes straight into my lungs. After a while you get used to the smell of the water and don't notice it anymore. But some days the smell of geothermal water is very strong in Reykjavík, so much that we have to close our windows. But the good thing about geothermal water is that you can stay in the shower for a long time and the water never runs out. I have heard the insult that Icelanders smell of sulphur from the water, but that is not true.
The other smell - on certain days - we call "peningalykt" or money smell. That smell is a very strong fish smell, coming from factories extracting fish oil from capelin. Because although the smell is strong - strong, but not offensive - I would say, then this means that we are making money from export of the fish-oil. Now these factories have closed.
So be warned - sometimes there is a rotten-egg smell in Reykjavík and sometimes there is a fish-smell here as well. But this is only from time to time :)
You don't have to leave a tip.
Leaving a tip here has never been a custom in Iceland. I have accompanied many VT-ers to restaurants here and all of them are surprised that they don't have to leave a tip. Some of them have even found it insulting to a waiter not leaving a tip. But I have told them that leaving a tip is equally strange here as not leaving a tip abroad.
Being raised here in Iceland I have always found leaving a tip a strange custom and I never know how much to leave. But that is only because we are not accustomed to this.
But I have been thinking about this, maybe you should leave a tip in restaurants, especially in foreign currency - seeing that there is a big crisis here and foreign currency restrictions ;)
But, no, leaving a tip is not a custom here.
Austurvöllur square - on a sunny day!!!
Austurvöllur square - our haven from the northern wind!
On sunny summer days sun-starved Icelanders flock down-town and Austurvöllur gets crowded with people, more crowded than the photos I add show. It is a tradition to go sit on Austurvöllur on sunny days and there you always meet people you know. Old and young people alike, mothers with young children, drunks and yours truly gather there and sit on the grass or on the benches. Why we chose this place over other much more attractive parks is not fully known, but the shelter from the northern wind is one theory, the closeness to the cafés and bars is another, but for as long as I can remember this has been the most popular place in the sun.
The only problem with this park is that homeless people and drunks have taken it over. Of course they have to be somewhere, but when the square is filled with people and the drunks pick a fight and the police has to come and intervene, then we who are sober cringe, especially when there are tourists around. Young mothers with their children frequent this park and it is somewhat surreal seeing these young children play in the grass next to the drunks. But there is no solution to this problem, or so it seems, and this will probably continue to be like this.
Once I was sitting on a bench there reading a newspaper when a drunk, who I gather "owned" this bench, sat next to me and then fell asleep on my lap. I don't mind them, but I don't want to be close to them when they start picking a fight.
Austurvöllur is the park opposite Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament.
In the olden days Austurvöllur park used to be much bigger and farmers visiting Reykjavík on business used to camp here during their visit.
Here is a webcam of Austurvöllur square.
Don't get startled if you see an unattended baby-carriage (or what seems like an unattended baby-carriage) outside in front of cafés or shops. This is very common here in Reykjavík and around Iceland. As babies we sleep outside in the baby-carriage, this is almost a rule here. We bundle the babies up and leave them outside our house, even in minus temperatures, maybe this custom is to toughen up the babies. But this makes us oblivious to a draught later in life, I think, and most of us want to sleep with an open window. Is there a correlation? I think so.
But I know that some foreign guests here get startled when seeing an unattended baby-carriage outside a store or café, but don't, they are ok. I remember a Scandinavian woman leaving her baby-carriage outside a café in New York and she got arrested for it. So this custom might be approved in Scandinavia as well?
What I don't like though is when they baby is left unattended in the baby-carriage in front of a store and wakes up and is crying its lungs out, that always bothers me.
The photo I add I found in one of our news-papers. It is of me and my girlfriend in Café Paris and two baby-carriages outside the window. Written under the photo is "conversation between baby-carriages". These were not our baby-carriages and we hadn't even noticed them there ;)
Icelandic women's fight for equality - Women's day
This day is called Women's Day Off - in Icelandic "Kvennafrídagurinn".
Every year since 1975 women in Iceland have flocked down-town Reykjavík on the 24th of October to remonstrate against women getting lower pay for the same kind of work here in Iceland. 30.000 women showed up in 1975, to everyone's suprise, kudos to these women!
But nothing really happened, pay equality is still common here in Iceland. On Women's Day Off in 2005, 50.000 women showed up and it turned out to be the largest Icelandic outdoor rally in history.
In 1975 women walked out of their workplace at 14 o' clock, in 2005 they walked out at 14:08 - this means the time when women have earned the proportion of the pay a man would for the whole day a women works. In 2010 both 24th and 25th of October were dedicated to the rally and women walked out at 14:25 (66% of what men earn).
It takes courage to stand up from work and walk out on this day and now everybody can do that. Immigrant women, who have not lived in Iceland for a long time, have a harder time doing this than Icelandic women, who are accustomed to this day now. They might fear that they will lose their job if they leave the workplace early.
It is surprising to me that women still get lower pay, we have had a female Icelandic president, a female mayor, men and women share the household chores and Icelandic women are very liberal - so what is this thing about lower pay for women than men???
So if you are ever in Reykjavík on the 24th of October you may expect the city center to be filled with women.
Women around the country also walk out and rally in their own hometown.
I add the link to the website of Women's Day Off. They have photos there from the first rally, which I remember vividly, being 10 at the time :)
The Mighty Cod
Iceland's economy is based on fishing. It is from their fish, which they sell to the rest of Europe and the US, that a large part of the country's wealth comes. On any given early morning in Reykjavik you will notice the moment you go outside that it smells like fish. This is because of the close proximity of the harbor to the downtown and the thousands of pounds of fish which are unloaded there each day.
It is good to note also that fish makes up a large part of the Icelanders' diet and any visitor who wishes to save money on food while in Iceland should also eat fish because it is usually the cheapest thing on most menus. Many restaurants offer all-you-can-eat seafood buffets for a set price which are very good deals.
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