REYKJAVIK, ICELAND — One of the more memorable lines in a locally-produced play called “The Odd Couple” was about a minor character, a card player named Vinnie, who decided to vacation in Florida in the summer. I played the role of Vinnie, and during rehearsals often wondered who in all creation would even think of such a trip at such a place.
We did. Well, kind of.
That was when my wife and I opted for an eight-day trip to Iceland this month, February. And why would anyone travel there in this cold month? One day, when it hovered around freezing, here in Iceland, we found that even in mid-winter, temperatures one day were comparable to those in our own Las Vegas.
Please don’t misunderstand: The place where we landed, Reykjavik, Iceland, isn’t exactly Tampa or Miami; it does have periods of cold, mostly a constant drizzle. But regardless of the temperatures, we’ve yet to see the sun, except for a moment just before we landed, when the sun peeked through a cloud, thought about it for a moment, and went back into hiding.
It’s been both a challenge and an eye-opener to visit Iceland, an island the size of Ohio. The day we arrived, a fellow Icelandic Air passenger told us a version of how Iceland and Greenland got their names.
One version explains that those who settled here, in the 9th or 10th century, fell in love with the greenery and the invigorating climate. But the early settlers weren’t keen on sharing the as-yet-unnamed island. And wanting the tiny landmass all to themselves, the early arrivers named the neighboring land, just to the west, Greenland.
We agree that the place we’re in now isn’t exactly a huge chunk of ice; rather, it’s green, fertile and pleasant, at least for those who relish a 9:30 sunrise and a 5 p.m. nightfall.
The amount of sunshine isn’t the only concern for Icelanders and its surprising number of visitors. The airport here handled more than 6 million travelers last year.
Because we have a son, a daughter-in-law, and two young granddaughters in Copenhagen, we’ve come across many people who routinely speak two languages. Now in Iceland we are hearing so many languages and seeing people from every country in the world. To us it seems that Iceland is the place to be. Some Danes, who live near another country’s border, sometimes even pick up a working knowledge of Sweden or Germany, for example.
Impressively the education system in both Denmark and Iceland does a good job teaching languages since all the Icelanders we’ve met speak their native Icelandic, English, Danish and maybe other languages.
Bonnie and I learned early in our visits in Denmark not to bother asking people, “Do you speak English?” as a preface to conversation. Our daughter-in-law, Lisbeth, told us that asking such a question would be redundant, as “every Dane can speak English.”
What do people speak in Iceland? Well, they speak Icelandic, naturally, which sounds and looks a bit like the Old English language we studied in covering “Beowulf” and other poems in high school and college.
But nothing we’ve read on street signs and business signs gives even a hint as to what they say or how the words sound.
Unlike our experience in Denmark, when we asked for directions or struck up a conversation most people we spoke with in Reykjavik knew enough English to say, “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”
The city we’re in, Reykjavik, is about half the size of Albuquerque. It’s a busy city, one that made me vow never to try driving here. I’ve found no over- or underpasses, every main intersection being a roundabout, a complicated cloverleaf arrangement that allows drivers to turn right, left, go straight, or make a u-turn, usually without needing to stop.
Comparisons between Iceland and places in the U.S. abound. Our somewhat modest tastes don’t take us far. We’ve eaten out a bit and found that a meal for six (including two small girls) costs us about $140. A soft drink sets us back five bucks, and things like candy bars sell for three dollars. Most transactions we observed were by debit card, not cash.
It seems everything in Iceland is expensive, and that includes tours we’ve taken and museums we’ve visited. We swam in pools heated by geo-thermal energy. We rode a double decker bus. We visited the museums and learned about whales and volcanoes. Especially enjoyable was driving through the varied landscapes, which are so unlike New Mexico.
We also had some pleasant surprises, such as a cafe that sells only French fries and soft drinks, or the restaurants that sell only one kind of soup each day. That meal is poured into a loaf of bread shaped like a kettle.
The chef removes the “lid” of the kettle, pours in the soup, and serves the meal piping hot. At first it seemed the soup portions would be way too filling for our granddaughters, ages 4 and 8, but we thought otherwise, as June Bug and Ellen consumed the entire meal — and asked for more.
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Sara Harris, a frequent contributor to this column, came across an interesting typo in a recent Methodist Church bulletin. It read: “The church is asking for non-parishable food donations.” Apparently donors need to drop off the food items anywhere but at the church. To that we say, “parish the thought”!
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And John Geffroy chided me over the way I ended a recent column by asking readers to identify a plump young man at the nativity in Bethlehem. Geffroy wrote: “’Round John Virgin,’ Art? Really? We first-graders at St. Monica’s school in New York City were sure it went, ‘Round young virgin, mother and child.’ It was a nice, warm thought in December.”