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A Yankee Notebook

June 16, 2014


REYKJAVIK – Cold water comes directly from underground springs. It is pure and refreshing and perfectly suited for drinking. It meets all internationsl standards for pottable [sic] water.

This little notice – in English, yet – is pasted to the bathroom wall just at eye level and straight ahead of you as you sit on the john. Just below it is the explanation of a noticeable phenomenon.

Hot water. Geothermal water that comes from deep boreholes has a slight natural smell of sulphur. It is excellent for bathing and washing. Silver jewellery may tarnish if worn while bathing.

Our guide, a lovely blonde Valkyrie named Thóra Helgadóttir, puts a positive spin on the presence of sulphur in the water: “Wear in the shower the jewellery he gave you, and you will be able to tell for sure if it’s really silver.”

Icelanders have learned to live amicably with the prevalence and aroma of the sixteenth element. They’ve had to; the whole island nation is of volcanic origin. It sits astride the Mid-Antlantic Ridge, a chain formed of upwelling magma where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart, and is the only terrestrial expression of the submarine ridge. It features numerous “hot spots,” where superheated steam and water spew from below; several of its volcanoes are active; it experiences many tiny daily earthquakes and occasional sheep-killing building-shakers; and you’re likely to see small clouds of hot water vapor rising from the ground almost anywhere. Think of it as a 40,000-square-mile case of geological acne.

We spent two nights at Myvatn (“Midge Lake” – Thóra says Icelandic names tend to be prosaic, and pretty much describe the features they’re attached to. Midge Lake nails it.). Myvatn is a large, shallow lake formed some time ago by a lava flow that blocked a river. Both buggy and eutrophic (and sulphurous), it’s alive with waterbirds and waterfowl. Its fecundity spawns aquatic arthropods in uncountable gazillions, and no doubt accounts for the hearty salmon runs in that river, the Laxa (“Salmon River”; same root as lox). For a couple of thousand bucks you can get a day along its banks with a guide. Ernest Schwiebert, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope have fished there.

(Big deal. The hotdog stand beside our hotel has served, among others, Bill Clinton, Jane Fonda, and Elvis Presley.)

Myvatn appears to be surrounded by small cinder-cone volcanoes with their tops blown off. They’re actually “false craters,” created when molten lava flowed over pockets of subterranean water. When the water turned to steam with nowhere to go, it blew upward, leaving this moonscape. Which reminds me: Parts of Iceland are so lunar in appearance that America astronauts trained here for their forays on the moon’s surface. The island is four times the size of Vermont, but has half as many inhabitants. Vast stretches of the highlands and around the glaciers are uninhabitable.

The word, “America,” reminds me that Iceland’s stumbling economy was rescued during the Second World War by a tremendous influx of Yankee dollars and jobs at the American air base. Keflavik was a forward observation base for submarine patrols – the late Everett Wood, who for years manned the summer information booth on the Dartmouth green, described 14-hour flights in an armed PBY flying boat looking for U-boats – and later an airfield for nuclear-armed SAC bombers. Much as the Icelanders appreciated the economic boost, the presence of nuclear weapons on their soil was an unpopular step too far. Eventually the weapons were removed.

Thóra mentions that the dating scene in Iceland is somewhat complicated by the relative purity of its 1000-year-plus bloodlines. Before getting serious about someone, you are wise to check a government database, which will tell you if you are romantically involved with a cousin. This could be a major disappointment; Icelandic women are spectacular – as one traveler puts it, supermodels working at McDonald’s. An occasional redhead spices the pale Nordic homogeneity. He or she is most likely descended from Irish slaves kidnapped by the Norse as they swung by Ireland on their way to Iceland in the tenth century.

Then there are the huldufolk, or “hidden people,” who live unseen in crags and rocky places. Our bus driver, Gottlieb, swears he heard them once when as a boy he ventured into a canyon where he’d been cautioned by his grandmother not to throw stones. According to polls, very few Icelanders are certain they exist, but well over half are unwilling to say they don’t. They originated in the Garden of Eden, apparently, when one day God announced he was coming to visit Eve’s house and she had no time to clean up all the kids. She shoved the unwashed lot under the bed and, when God asked if the clean ones were all she had, she nodded. “What must be hidden from God,” said the old man, “will be forever hidden from men.” To this day, developers wishing to expand into areas where they are reputed to live, must deal with them – through intercessors, who may be able to persuade them to move– or be forced to change their plans.

A fascinating place: restoring forests extirpated by early settlers; arguing whether to supply cheap energy to aluminum smelters; enjoying the highest literacy rate in the world, with bookstores everywhere (and a beautiful blonde managing every one); naming their kids after familiar gods and saga heroes; and speaking an almost inscrutable thousand-year-old language. Bless bless.

Photo by Willem lange