Monday, January 25, 2010

Arrival in Reykjavik, First Impressions

[This is my entry from 11 January 2010.]

The flight was awful. I don't know if it was because I wasn't in a flying frame of mind (whatever that is) or that it really was just awful, but we were so uncomfortable most of the time. There are worse things that can happen on flights, to be sure, but this one was awful because it was so cramped, and hot, and dry. It was like being in a sauna. The two small children (one yabbering, a younger one screaming and carrying on most the time) didn't help, and Robin's incredibly frequent coughing and throat-clearing left over from his Christmas flu also did nothing to help me as I tried to get some sleep.

As an extra bonus, on arrival at Keflavik airport, you get to go through the security rigamarole all over again. This is because, once you arrive in the airport you "mix" with all the people who have already cleared security. So even if you're staying in the country, I guess just in case you change your mind and hop on another plane, you must be cleared through security: take off your shoes again, take your computer out of its bag again, put your liquids in a separate container again, and have a friendly pat-down by the security guard AGAIN. Thankfully the line moved pretty quickly, but the inanity of this exercise is striking. [rant]Do they ever stop anyone dangerous this way? Has a terrorist attack ever been prevented through these checks? If a guy can still get on a plane with a bomb in his pants, I know it's an obvious question, but what is the point of these "security" checks?[/rant]

In fact, a minor note: I usually bring an empty water bottle with me into the terminal, and once through security I fill it up at a water fountain in the terminal (this useful tip given to me by my good friend Cathy Andrulis). When at JFK, after passing through security, I went to retrieve the bottle from my hand luggage, and I realized that the bottle was not at all empty and had about 10 oz of water in it. Maybe they're not as careful if you're leaving the country?

In any case, our minds dulled from the time spent in the Sauna in the Sky and a general lack of sleep, we had a pretty hard time making our way out of the airport. As if something in the air sapped our intelligence we wandered around a very quiet terminal and it took some amount of effort to even find the luggage carousel (when we finally did, it was only our bags sadly traveling round and round on the belt).

We took a very expensive coach trip (about $35 for both for a 40 minute ride) to get from Keflavik Airport to the bus depot in Reykjavik. We walked to our apartment, at Forsaela, from there.

The apartment is adorable. It is lovingly maintained and has a lovely entrance done with lights on the tree outside and in the garland decorating the window boxes. My heart warmed as soon as I saw it. As I walked past the kitchen windows with their pretty lights, I thought, how lovely if that was to be our kitchen. And it is! As with our wonderful cottage on Islay, I feel lucky to stay in such a lovely place. Two views are below:

Our hostess, Hlin, is very personable and has offered to help with any extra arrangements for tours, etc., that we may want to make. She instructed us that we must leave our shoes on the rack in the entryway outside the door to our apartment and don the slippers she has provided when inside.

Many people still have their Christmas lights and decorations up. It is fun to see how others in the world decorate for the holidays. Not that it's much different, but there are some cute departures: Santa in Iceland has a more Scandinavian physique (read, skinny) and a less full beard.

I had a lovely nap after we settled into the apartment; I had some of the best sleep I think I've had in weeks. Unfortunately, I slept through almost all the daylight, of which there was very little. When we got on the bus from the airport at around 8:30am and were walking to the apartment at around 9am it was dark as night. The streets weren't even busy and it was a Monday morning. Many shops open at 11am (sunrise is at around 11:30am). What do people do for work here? Why wasn't there rush-hour congestion?

Also, why are the houses covered in corrugated sheet metal? It's generally not very attractive (unless painted a lovely cornflower blue, like our apartment house) but perhaps it's long-wearing? Good for keeping out the elements?

Robin's first comment on starting out from the bus depot was "Iceland smells like farts." I thought the smell was from the sea; the smell seemed similar to the kelpy, salt-watery smell common to the seaside, but no, he's right, it smells like farts. The hot water smells like sulfur. Turning on the tap in the apartment, it's a bit strange to smell the "eau de sulfur."

After napping, we walked around the shopping district some. We bought some groceries; the grocery store was pretty rudimentary by our standards, even by those of the Scottish Co-op in Bowmore on Islay. The store here is called Bonus; their logo is a cartoon fat pig with money popping out of his spine. I find it unpleasant; he looks crafty to me. Here's a screenshot from their website:

I like that their refrigerated food section is an actual refrigerated room that you walk into: kind of the inverse of what we have at home. Neither of us is in the mood for elaborate meals, so we bought some basic staples: yogurt (Icelanders love their yogurt), bread, cheese, pasta, and what we thought was milk, but turned out to be a carton of yogurt. Robin tried to make the best of it by putting it in his tea, but that turned out to be a bad idea. Thankfully there was at least some powdered creamer left by a previous resident.

We walked around the main shopping district where there are lots of swanky boutiques; no sign of a collapsed economy here. We went into a couple bookstores to try to find an English-Icelandic dictionary; I thought this might be useful for signs and labels (everyone here speaks at least passable English). Even the teeny-tiny one we found cost the equivalent of about $30 (something that would cost about 6 USD). The exchange rate is currently about 120 Icelandic Krona (ISK) to the US dollar (compared to around 85 ISK when I was last here in the summer of 2001). I saw a beautiful knitting book, on sale for 15,900 ISK (about 132 USD). I couldn't believe the price could be so high. Surely it must be 1,590 ISK? Who would spend so much on a knitting book? The high prices are discouraging to me. I was expecting things to be priced more reasonably than this.

Of amusement: we passed a (closed) sex shop while walking through town. Their URL is included on their shingle: Cute.

We've been seeing lots of cats around. Since I am a cat magnet I guess this shouldn't surprise me. We've already seen three or four, including one who said hello as we were walking from the bus depot (what better welcome than one from a cat?). They all seem very tame and friendly and have collars with tags. It's heartening to see that people here seem good about keeping up with their animals.

Tonight we took a walk to the harbor area where we thought it might be darker to try to look for aurora. It was a bit overcast though. No aurora to be found.

We spent the rest of our time today at the kitchen table poring over our guidebooks, brochures, and maps, most of which we picked up at the airport and bus depot, trying to work out what to do and where to go (the picture below shows the spread). It's hard to work through all this! The maps are hard to follow and the brochures don't give a lot of practical information; for example, how to take the bus to the Blue Lagoon. This and the extortionate book prices we encountered earlier are making my head spin. Thankfully we have an adorable apartment and lots of cats to meet.