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Black Lamb

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Where the #&£$! is the @ key?

November 1st, 2005

BY LANE BROWNING

It’s not where it’s supposed to be, at least on computer keyboards in Reykjavik. Nor in Hestakráin, or at Efri-Vik (pronounce that “Every week”). No one in the Internet cafes could help; eventually a fellow American discovered by trial and mostly error that you could hit shift control right bracket and get an @. We were on a horse farm somewhere near Flúdir by then and I’d spent lots of krónur trying to e-lert friends and mother stateside. Last they’d heard, I was in Minneapolis waiting out a ferocious plane-chewing thunderstorm and panicking about ill health. But I landed in Keflavik without incident, and despite a first-night landlady who channeled Bette Davis in The Nanny, I was hale and peripatetic.

What did I do in Iceland?

puffinI didn’t eat roasted puffin but I watched an inept tourist on a high cliff sweeping a long-handled net along the edge in hopes of snaring a live one. That’s how you catch a puffin; it’s very low-tech but requires practice, and the clown-beaked birds aren’t suicidal. They mocked him, I swear. I did fall into a puffin nest or, more accurately, puffin burrow: they dig deep forked things with one angle for egg, the other for excrement. A young one is called a puffling: charming!

I did eat the national dessert, skyr, which is basically curdled sour cream mixed with milk and dowsed with sugar. A wee precious strawberry provides color. They love sour milk in Iceland, even put it on their cereal (the milk cartons have children’s stories on them, rather than photos of missing children). They also love sheep’s blood pudding rolled in lard and sewn up in the stomach; and they are simply mad for slátur (half-boiled lambs’ heads), seal flippers, rotten shark (really really really rotten), and pickled ram’s testicles. They wash it all down with lots of beer (seventy-five years of prohibition left them very impatient), rivers of Coca-Cola (highest per capita consumption in Europe), and the emblematic Icelandic spirit brennevín (“black death”). The Icelanders eat/drink this stuff, but I did not, which by local definitions means I never visited the country at all. Certainly I cannot be considered an honorary Viking.

But I did speak Icelandic with Sig (I practiced before leaving the States), who was delighted but who responded with a stream of unintelligible jabble out of which I plucked only “One nine three two,” his way of communicating the year when a lake was discovered. He was right out of a picture book, though, with his white beard and weathered face; and it turns out that’s literal truth: in a distant gift shop, browsing through a volume about the country, I saw a full-page photo of him, the man who drives the tractor across the straits to the headland nature reserve at Ingólfshöfdi.

I drank spring water in Iceland. It comes right out of the tap, Perrier on demand; if you want nonbubbly H2O water you have to buy it in a store, and it ain’t cheap. In fact, nothing is cheap in Iceland: sandwiches are about nine dollars; soup is fifteen dollars a bowl.

Great soup, though.

Wait, I misspoke. Hot water is cheap in Iceland. It’s free, in fact; because of the geothermal springs underlying The Rock (as my guide Ólafur called it), water heaters are nearly non-existent, and the scalding stuff just billows out of the showerhead. Rejykavik streets are heated, too, in winter, by giant subterranean tubes.

I didn’t see litter in Iceland. When you live on an island (and that’s where the name comes from, not from anything to do with frozen water) you monitor your refuse, because every yard is your yard. Note to fellow earth dwellers: we all live on an island.

I saw no forests in Iceland. I have a doctorate in tree hugging, so I was aghast at the dearth of fronds, needles, limbs, twigs, trunks, branches, snags, and boughs. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and unmoored. Eight years ago Iceland launched a forty-year reforestation program, which means that periodically along your path you will see trees just shy of a decade old, huddling in little carefully cultivated clumps beside the one-lane roads or against the flat terrain. Even though the climate is conducive, the trees look orphaned and shocky. I wanted to rescue and relocate all of them to my verdant homeland.

There’s no crime in Iceland. You don’t perpetrate in a country where everyone is on a first name basis; even phone books list only first names. Everyone is someone’s daughter or cousin or former in-law. Besides, criminal acts are complex and distracting, and Icelanders are extremely practical, rooted in basics.

I saw tiny cars in Iceland, for the most part. Wee Toyotas and Volkswagens and Nissans puttering politely through the streets. Outside the city (what’s called “inland”) one finds larger four-wheelers. We drove for many many kilometers without seeing any road signs.

“How do you know the speed limit?” I asked the driver.

“Common sense,” he said after a moment of puzzlement.

I saw no stop signs, just subtle triangular notifications that an intersection loomed. Given that Icelanders don’t pack handguns, you needn’t fear combat at a four-way stop if you nudge your bumper forward before it’s your turn. No one will offer to clean your windshield for a dollar, either. A dollar? That’s about sixty-four krónur, or was when I was there. I made a small profit exchanging my money at trip’s end, having spent about thirty dollars U.S. during my entire trip. No souvenirs and no photos; I might be the first and only Iceland tourist sans camera, and I never felt the need for one.

I did not witness Aurora borealis, drunken debauchery, or the legendary “most beautiful women on the planet.” I did not see fat people (other than tourists), homeless people, elves (many Icelanders believe in them), graffiti, or Starbucks (although I saw TGI Friday’s). I did not, to my vaporous regret, experience the “rampant groping” I had heard was widespread and accepted on public streets. I probably should have taken the initiative.

I also did not see mountains of books, even though Iceland publishes more per capita than any country on earth, nor did I notice an unusually high percentage of mobile phones, though Icelanders supposedly are more addicted to them than other Europeans. I certainly saw plenty of cell phones in airports, and none of them was mine.

I saw insufficient night during my week there in August; the sun retreated for only five of every twenty-four hours, and because the skies were overcast I saw neither stars nor moon, let alone the Perseids. I saw dogs with five toes on each foot (pro forma for canines in Iceland), horses with five gaits rather than three (although Bella, my Zen-like mount, never mustered more than an anemic trot such as I could have generated on my own sneakered feet), reindeer pelts that felt as improbably soft as the fur behind a baby rabbit’s ear, and acres and acres of puffin skeletons on mossy cliffs.
I saw an endless black beach bathed in rain, and basalt formations arching out of clear depths into the stark sky. I saw many sheep and goats (roaming free, but each privately owned and identified by a small ear cut, although the farmers can distinguish each one by its face). I saw the house where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 (it was haunted before then and remains haunted today).

Icelanders are not gloomy, although those in the urban region surely weary of tourists, who number some 300,000-plus (more than the country’s population) annually. The gotta-catch sites — the world’s original geysir, for which all others are named, and Gullfoss, Iceland’s Niagara, among others of the glacier/springs/lava/crater ilk — are privately owned, so you just wander forth and fall over the edge at will: no warning signs, no fees, no rangers, nametags, toll booths, or dashboard permits. The iceberg lagoon at Jökulsárlón, though, is right out of Disney, complete with tickets and long queues and chirping (but multilingual) guides. It’s so surreal you’d swear it was a Magic Kingdom construct and those icebergs were Styrofoam; but the water is a cold such as you have never felt.

Gas prices were six to eight dollars a gallon when I visited, but Iceland is angling to become the first fossil-fuel-free country, and you can pull over for a hydrogen fill-up already. A high percentage of the vehicles run on diesel fuel (bio or non-bio), and the air is so clean you could choke on its pristine purity. In the vicinity of the much vaunted sulfurous springs, though, you will choke on something else: Stay upwind!

I live in Oregon, so Iceland wasted its topographical tantrums — it’s one of the youngest, most active land masses on earth — trying to dazzle me with waterfalls, craters, glacier tongues (I kept my footing), beaches, and lava fields. What surprised me was the allure of the “indoor” sites and sights: the Viking house, the churches, the replicas of medieval homes, the greenhouse with its astonishing peppers and cauliflower, the folk museum with its Willy jeeps and achingly beautiful archival photographs.

And despite the assumptions of everyone who knew I was going, it is not cold there; the gulfstream bathes the air. Iceland is a mecca for golfers; there are wind-battered, tree-free courses even in isolated areas. Iceland is always in the top ten (once as high as No. 3) on the United Nations “Best Places in the World to live,” but good luck becoming a citizen. If an outsider does manage to navigate the minefield toward citizenship (seven years’ residency, study of Icelandic, etc.), he/she must adopt an Icelandic first name (no word on which name Bobby Fischer took).

Icelanders are very proud, very protective, and mighty insular; they don’t brook changes to their language (which is nearly as old as oxygen, and which incidentally gave American English four words), their landscape, or their population. Because their genes are unaltered since the Middle Ages, the ambitious DeCode DNA project, launched in 1999, was to track generations of health records for all 270,000 inhabitants, whose “pure” lineage would be a boon to biotechnology and medical research. But as this essay is going to press, 20,000-plus Rock residents are opting out of the government’s agreement, citing privacy issues and a veiled profit motive. They’re saying “nei.”

In fact, “nei” is sometimes an entire speech. One rap Icelanders have against Americans is that we “talk too much.” They live on a belching, spouting, rocking dollop of land that speaks via subterranean eruptions, alarming tectonic plate shifts, glacial fractures and slides, daily Richter tremors, marauding lava flows, floods, gales, and rioting geothermal ejaculations. Economy matters, and their respect of resources extends to conservation of lung juice: An Icelander will never ask “How are you?” unless he/she really truly wants to know.

When I returned to Oregon, I was grateful anew for the glories here, but I missed hearing German, Dutch, French, Finnish, and Icelandic spoken around me. I missed the challenge of baffling fixtures, peculiar currency, backwards door handles, odd expressions. But I basked in the embracing familiarity of my homeland, with its self-absorbed acquisitive capitalists and abundance of fresh fruits and furious motorists with battling bumper stickers.
And yes, I hugged a tree •

Posted by: The Editors
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