A mountain dweller in the Þingvellir valley

Visit Iceland.

No, this article does not have a typo in its title: it is the actual spelling. Last week I was kindly invited to present at an internet marketing conference in Reykjavik, and had the subsequent pleasure to discover a tiny, little part of that obscure country over the week-end. I say "obscure" because if many people have heard about Iceland through its impact on global air traffic or the worldwide economy, too few have had the opportunity to actually visit this country. And it is a shame.

As a local idiom says, "there are many wonders in a cow's head" and since I am not that mad myself, I want to share some of the wonderful facts which seduced me in the three days I spent there. Just an early taste to completely convince you that this should absolutely be your next travel destination. Question/Answer style.

Was JRR Tolkien an undercover Icelandic?

I must admit I got inspired from the very first moment I headed to Iceland. The national air carrier, Icelandair, had the interesting idea to share some random facts and figures about about our destination. Well, not that random as they are intended to fight against the cliches associated to Iceland being just bunch of glaciers with seasonal northern lights...

One of these statements struck me: "50% of the population believes in elves..." My immediate conclusion was that the other half of the population must be the elves themselves! My only previous encounter with this country was indeed through Bjork, and you must acknowledge that she is nothing but an average human. Her musical and graphical universes are eerie, and her innocent baby face capable of moment of fury is very close to these agile archers from these fantasy novels.

Interesting enough I was able to prove that Icelandair statement right on our second night. We met then local artist, who envisioned a multi-acre theme park plugging its visitors into the legends of Atlantis, Vikings, Elves, Middle-Earth, etc. Here a roller coaster goes through a cryptonic cave; there a White Tower faces its dark alter ego... His vision, enriched every day for decades to most insignificant details, only awaits a patron and a location to be turned into a reality. And for those who may think this is a crazy idea, let me remember you that his visionary castles are not visited by over-sized mice and ducks wearing gloves and dressed up like pupils, so who is mad?
Party at the Farmhouse - Reykjavik, Iceland 3/11/2010

Can Icelandic make an impact?

The problem with having your very own niche language and alphabet is that you are a challenge for the rest of the world. I was afraid that beyond Reykjavik and Eyjafjallajökull my Icelandic was pretty rudimentary. My 17-month old son keeps on saying "bjork, bjork" but I am not totally convinced that he is fluent either... It might just be that he does not like what we cook him for dinner.

Anyway, all this was before we were explained that Geyser, which means "eruption" in the local language and was referring to a specific place where hot, sulfuric water was sprayed at over 17 m in the air, has now become a generic term for all these eruptive water sources. In the process Iceland managed to add its contribution to the global thesaurus... A performance that Moldavian people still work on.

Joke aside, I could not avoid but finding the following situation really ironic:

This active Geyser, located a few meters away from the eponymous original, is called Strokkur. It erupts roughly every ten minutes. Roughly... So tourists gather around, all cameras out, waiting impatiently for the early signs of the next round. A ripple here... click, click, click... Missed. Someone shouts: "I saw a bubble, here it comes". Click, click, click... Missed again, fortunately we are now in the digital world. And when you are about to give up, without a warning, a jet of steam and water droplets pop out of the ground, catching short the most inpatients. By the time the latter have their SLR out, it is too late: the water is back to its pseudo still appearance. I could not avoid thinking that the locals must have named that geological wonder after the grumble of frustrated French tourists. As a matter of fact, Strokkur really sounds like "c'trop court", the French for "It's too brief!"...

Who else could invite The Grim Reaper at his table?

Iceland is geologically hyperactive: geysers, volcanoes, rifts... It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to understand why some see an analogy to hell in this lanscape. But that morbid thought find an echo on the table of locals too. If you visit Iceland you are bound to have to face the Grim Reaper either in liquid or solid form.

Unmistakeably called "Black Death", the national spirit is made from fermented potato mash, flavoured with caraway seeds... And it seems to be the best remedy to the strange aftertaste that the other local culinary pride leaves in your mouth at first bite: rotten shark. Yummy, and cheers... So here is another amusing picture I could not avoid but taking:

Is that me of the local lifeline really looks like... a bottle? Drinking to forget that you have a piece of degenerating sea predator melting in your mouth? I can buy that.

Is everyone on steroid on that island?

When I said that I knew nothing about Iceland beyond Bjork before this trip is not totally true. As a regular reader of this blog you probably know that I have a heavy TV consumption, especially when it comes to sports. Well, sometimes at night you land on these awkward programmes called "Strongest Men in the World" whereby long-haired giants in lycra outfits try to pull tractors or lorries with the strength of their only right ear... It seems that Icelandic excelled at that exercise as they were trusting the podiums. And if half of the population were elves, the other half may be giants.

This assertion was supported by the birth of a baby amongst our friends. The mother happens to be Icelandic, and the little one, born three weeks after ours, was almost twice heavier at three months, without extra fat. It was just a big, solid, massive (promising Icelandic) baby.

Well, when we toured the southwestern side of the country, I realised that not only babies were super-sized. Cars were too:

In my previous trips I have seen many all-road vehicles, but that is the first time that I could see monster trucks used as everyday cars, and not stunt vehicles. This picture probably does not pay tribute to the scale of the wheels, which turns these 4x4 cars into glacier-ready touring vehicles. In fact, they are so big that I could stand by the car and check the chassis without having to bend my knees. Iceland may just be the paradise for arthritis-struck mechanics.

Habla espanol?

And finally I could not finish this humoristic review of my visit to Iceland without sharing this brilliant point of view from Oscar Carreras, a fellow presenter at the above-mentioned conference. As you can tell, Oscar is a Spaniard and when we, the Spanish and the French visitors, talked about our Icelandic hosts, it totally made sense: constantly late, tactile, apparently disorganised or even messy... but genuinely friendly and welcoming. They were hardly representative of the typical North European behavioural stereotypes, i.e. distant, to the point, straight, rigourous... The Icelandic are simply latin Vikings. They are the Spaniards of the North!

And I will leave you with this provocative thought, because that is my greatest take-away from these three days. Iceland is a beautiful country with many natural wonders to enjoy, but its greatest asset is its people. In France, we have this idiom about the inhabitants of the northern regions which I think is even more relevant for Icelandic (after all they live even more North): "these people have in their heart the warmth they don't have outdoor".

More photos about that short stay in that stunning country can be seen here.

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