>Iceland, 05

>Due to the abundance of hot water in Iceland, it has to be used for something. Rather than stuffing every pool indoors and loading it up with chlorine, there are geothermal pools around the city. These lie between the decadent indulgence of South Korean jimjjilbangs and the dark, solitary of the pool I used at university. First and foremost, they have lap pools with lanes. Lap pools always reminded me of dancers or figure skaters, with their long elegant arms leading my eyes. There are swimming lessons, swimming competitions, and swimming teams. However, they also have hot pots–hot tubs–of varying temperatures. Steam rooms. Some have saunas or water slides.

Going to the pool can be a family thing, but plenty of adults go to relax, exercise, and socialize. They are not spas, not in the way I view them, but they are warmer than the pools I am used to in America.

On our first trip to the pool, we went to the largest in Reykjavik, Laugardalslaug. This was our first instance of Socially Mandated Group Nudity (SMGN). Without the pause I had seen from Americans abroad in the past, without the pause I gave the first time I stripped down in a foreign locker room, my (female) friends took off their clothes. We debated about how to arrange locks, and stuff, to minimize our commitment to them.

Then we showered.

All of the pools we visited had the same sign in them, imperative statements describing the procedure of washing “without a swimsuit” before entering the pools. Line silhouettes of people highlighted the areas of your body you need to wash. People–well me, and I assume others do this as well–struggle into their swimsuits while they are wet. They head outside, some people with confidence and arms down, and some people, like me, with arms wrapped around them, shivering from the cold.

In the winter, steam rises off the pools and hot pots like a mist or a fog.

Our first time at the pool, we all piled into a lane in the lap pool, swimming laps, talking, and playing. We explored Laugardalslaug, testing the hotpots and steam room, sitting in the rock pool. We explored individually and in small groups. We played in the kiddie pool.

MM and I, off on our own after a bout of lap swimming, looked at the water slide. I’d never been down a waterslide before, you see, and while the group excitement had carried me to this point, my overwhelming fear took hold.

“Kids do this,” I told myself as we made out way across the pool, climbed out, and, shivering, climbed the stairs to the top.

You see, as a kid I fell. A lot. I tripped over curbs. I fell off chairs and counters. I slipped on the ladder to our bunk beds and got a concussion as a small child. Before that, I fell down the stairs in our house. In first grade I fell off a ski lift, a traumatic event that had scared me metaphorically for life. I can’t walk on ice. I nearly broke my ankle last spring. Since childhood, fear has been a dominating force in my decision to do physical things.

And with fear inside of me, I climbed up the steps to the water slide, edging MM to go first. She didn’t. There was a short line, dominated by children, teens, and their parents. When it was my turn, I sat down on the slide and allowed the water to slowly carry me off to start. There were twists and turns, it wasn’t too fast. It was kind of fun.

Then it got dark. I reached out for the wall and found nothing to hold on to. I slid further. Faster. The slide twisted and turned. It got lighter and then darker again.

Then there were blinking LEDs.

I bust out of the end of the slide into cold air and then warm water. Before I could even rise to the surface, the person behind me exploded from the slide and landed on top of me. He picked out tricks to go faster, employing them to fly past MM on the slide. He apologized, to MM after she was there, and to me.

Breathless, MM and I reconnected, lost in how the slide had been -fun-. We recounted each moment, each twist and turn, the blackness and the LEDs, our words broken up with excitement. We went again.

As our other friends went, I picked up tricks from them to go faster. Limiting your body contact with the slide by lifting yourself up with your shoulders and heels. Balancing your head on your hair, or lifting your head off entirely, dropping it down flat right before you fall off into the water.

Other pools didn’t have slides, not like this one. Another pool, one I hadn’t gone to, looked like it did from pictures.

Sundhöllin, a more bare bones pool, has hot pots on the roof. AO and I went one day, later joined by MM and DH. The pool was smaller than others, but there was a proper springboard to dive off of. I can’t dive, though I wish I could. It was the only springboard we saw in Reykjavik. It was cold, and the wind blew bitter. We sat in the hot pot, just too hot for comfort, and watched the sun set. AO’s hair froze. By the time we got to Sundhöllin, we were used to trips to the pool. It was fun, but it didn’t seem special.

When we went to Laugardalslaug for the first time, it was January first. The buses weren’t running. We walked, in the cold, some four kilometers there, through the city center into what looked like the rolling suburbs, with car dealerships and strips of stores. The walk there took over forty minutes, the walk back, on a more direct route, took less time. Normally, the bus ran from down the street from the flat to Laugardalslaug. When we went a second time, we took the bus. On that day, it was so cold salt was thrown around the ground and it hurt to step on. The edges of the pools, the dangerous, blue frame, was frozen in places.

Sundhöllin, which we visited in our second week, was located past the Church, near the city center. It was an easy walk, but the trip wasn’t made specially, it was nestled between a trip out to cafes and the walk home for dinner.

Vesturbæjarlaug was the pool we went to the most. We considered it to be the closest, and a lot of us liked the feeling that it was “the local pool,” it wasn’t the biggest, or the oldest, but it was the one that felt the most like a place you go regularly. The steam room was hotter than the others I’d visited, but the sauna cost an extra fee and wasn’t all that warm.

Other people visited other pools. A group went to Blue Lagoon, and I think MM and MH went to Árbæjarlaug one day. There was a pool down the peninsula, NC told us, that also had a slide. I think he and some people made it out there, but I didn’t. When we first arrived, there had been an idea, a push, to try everything. As the days in the first week seemed to stretch in length, the pressure–on me–to do everything dissipated. Some part of my mind adjusted to the idea that I lived there and it wasn’t until it was getting time to leave when I realized there were a lot of things I hadn’t done. I say this content with what had happened, rather than remorseful over what didn’t. Sure, I would have liked to see a glacier or gone to Árbæjarlaug, but it’s okay that I didn’t.

Iceland, 04

I once saw a series of maps of the world done from the perspective of various groups. The maps, while they looked like real maps, didn’t have country names. Instead, countries were called by something they were known for. Something that expressed the perspective of another group. A map of China, from a US perspective, might be labeled “cheap stuff.” The US might be labeled “That War We Try to Forget” in the British version. Iceland was labeled “Björk” in one. “Wikileaks” in another. These maps picked idle things that had gotten Iceland in the news, idle things that reminded the rest of the world that Iceland does, in fact, exist.

When the incomprehensibly long named volcano went off here, planes all around the world were grounded. This reminded us that Iceland is sitting on a literal hotbed of geothermal activity.
The hot water in the country is free, brought up full of sulfur and natural heat. It’s used to generate power. To heat homes.
It’s also used for play.
Natural hot springs exist within the country. Some of them have been turned into tourist spots. Some o f them have been left alone. There are really too many to exploit them all in a formal way.
Some of them are just good hiking spots.
After being told about a creek that formed at the confluence of a cold stream and a scalding hot geothermally heated stream, we knew we had to go. We rented two cars for a few days. The contract was handwritten on a piece of torn out notebook paper. In one the radio didn’t work. In the other, well, I’m not sure what was wrong with that one, but it wasn’t insignificant.
We followed route one out of Reyjkavik. The landscape passed as the Moon: grey,

rolling, cold. We parked the car. The world outside looked cold and I wanted nothing more than to not be a part of it. Questioning why I even left my bed that morning, I forced myself out of the car. As a group, we crossed a small bridge over a trickle of water that we called a stream and set off.

Partway across the wooden bridge, NS paused and began to jump up and down on it. As the bridge rocked up and down, I shook my head, pleading for him to stop.
“It’s not far,” he told me. That was the problem, I explained. If it was deep, I would have fallen in and swam. With it being shallow, if I fell in I would have hit my head on a rock and drowned.
This sort of city kid mentality is a theme in many of my outdoor excursions with friends. My friends, lovely people, have a tendency to be lean people. They’re the kind of people with thin limbs and tight muscles that move underneath the skin, independently from bones and veins.
I was not designed for this sort of activity. Longtime readers may remember the fact that I have “a slightly round, soft-and-squishy shape.” In spite of nearly a lifetime of vegetarianism, a new found and serious dedication to my bike, I am what is politely referred to as “plus sized,” “full figured,” or “big.” However, my response to these outdoor adventures does not end there. I am scared of nature. Really, that’s it. Nature is scary. The countryside is scary. I do not know how to walk on ice. I do not know how to climb up things. I am physically ill equipped to deal with these extreme physical challenges, and emotionally and mentally unprepared for them as well.
My friends spend their childhoods climbing rocks and paying soccer. I read books and, uhh, read books.
While my friends, with their strong legs and sure feet, set off on an exciting adventure throughout this valley, nestled by mountains, dotted with heated pools, and full of everything they had dreamed of in Iceland, I trudged on behind, taking a slow steady pace with small useless steps. I weaved back and forth, between patches of mud to try and steer clear of the ice. Cold, unbalanced, and deeply afraid of falling, I slowly meandered forward, following the footprints of my friends.
And then EG noticed me, far behind.
My favorite person to go on outdoor adventures with is my father. When I am with my father and we’re hiking, I am his baby girl. We might talk about Serious Adult Things, but I am his little girl. He lets me set a pace. He takes every opportunity to teach me something new, either about the world around us, or about how to maneuver through it. He holds my hand if I am having trouble climbing down or over something. He talks me through things that seem impossible and scary to me. He sets a trail.
When EG slowed down, waiting for me, and talking me through difficult crossings, I looked at him and saw a man much like my father. He was concerned about everyone getting though this event.
And it was an event to get through. The weather was warm for January in Iceland.

The ground, wet from the air and recent rain, was an ongoing mud pit that sucked in your shoes and tried to swallow you. Our feet became caked with mud, covered in mud. It clung to our pants and shoes, catching a ride and trying to escape the ground that was holding it.
We reached a point where the path diverged. We could continue down the river of mud, or we could cross the stream we’d later swim in to a gravel path.
I sat down on a rock and took off my shoes and socks. I rolled up my pant legs. Nervously, gingerly, I placed one foot in the water.
And it was pleasant.
While I shivered and shook, my feet were warm. That warmth spread up and I enjoyed a leisurely stream crossing.
Putting my shoes and socks back on though, that was cold.
We celebrated my river crossing (as I was the first to do it barefoot) with squares of chocolate. As it melted in my mouth, I felt rejuvenated for the next part of the hike.
When we got to the stream, there were already people swimming there. We argued, all suddenly scared. Cold. Some people went for a walk, a few of us stayed, eased ourselves down by the water, and stripped down to our bathing suits.
Okay, I stripped down to my bathing suit. Everyone else still needed to change into theirs.
Through acts of careful balancing and towel manipulation, the flashing was kept to a socially acceptable minimum. When I stepped into the water, it was warm. It was warmer than downstream.
The creek itself was fairly shallow. People would find a spot deep enough and sit or lie down in the water. They would crawl up and down

stream. They would stand and move, shivering as they looked for new spots. In parts, we moved up to the confluence, where the two rivers met. One leg would be too hot, one foot too cold, but the rest of you would feel just right. A slight shift in position brought on new temperature sensations. As the water flowed and mixed, the temperatures changed. Pockets of warm and cold water would hit different parts of you at different times. Centimeters would make the difference in a part of you being comfortable or uncomfortable.
As it got closer to three, I got myself out of the water. I knew I would be slow going back, and I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of the hike back being in the dark. I would take the close to two hours of twilight and make my way back to the car, I announced. Everyone else was content at the idea and kept swimming.
In collecting a set of car keys I misstepped. The mud, in general, was so thick that it would go over the tops of your boots if you weren’t careful. This happened and my shoes filled with a slick, cold mud. I sighed and wiggled my toes, hoping this would be enough to keep them from freezing.
It was getting colder already at this point. Water was becoming ice along the path back. The wind picked up. As I went down a hill, I realized that I was not going to be able to stop if I wanted to. The wind was pushing me so strongly, the mud and ice lacked so much purchase, that I just tried to steer myself.
For not the last time time, I wished I was a kite with the ability to tack in the wind.
When I got to the stream that needed to be crossed, I looked at it and looked at my feet. Without taking off my shoes, I walked through it, allowing the warm water to clean the mud off and out of my shoes, filling them instead with a slight warmth that I hoped would help me enough. The rest of the walk, my toes stayed not painfully cold. The warm water coupled with the heat of moving, the insulation of my shoes, kept me going.
Along the rail, there had been a patch of snow, sloping down hill to a long drop down into the valley. By the time I reached it on my way back, it was ice. For several minutes I looked at this problem. I began different approaches to getting across it and always stopped, scared at how slippery it was. My feet wouldn’t find purchase.
Finally, having climbed up hill a bit, over rocks and moss, I found a place where it was rougher and I could ease my feet onto the ice and make my way, hesitantly, across. After I passed over it, I looked back at it. Suddenly it was much smaller. Undaunted by this, I raised my arms in the air.
“Celebratory drink of water and song!” I cried out to no one but the air.
After my sip of water, I started hiking again, singing to myself. The wind picked up, but I didn’t care. Suddenly the world was beautiful, in the twilight. I knew I would not die on the way back, I would not slip and fall and die. I would not freeze or lose consciousness, my friends unable to find me.
It was a liberating feeling.
I paused often, looking back over the hills and the way they came together. The way the sky and the colors mutated into one another. I realized, for the first time, that Iceland itself holds the myths in the ground. I could see where they came from.
In climbing into the valley, after you get past the first set of hills protecting it, the world transforms and opens up. It goes from the barren wastelands people talk about to a fairytale.
Before I left the fairytale, I stood, looking over the valley and internalizing the moment. I was alone. I didn’t have to share it with anyone. It was, in its entirety, mine. The wind, the sky, the way the mountains reached up, the way the green moss clung to the rocks and the rocks clung to the ground–all of this was mine.
Turning away from it, I walked back to the car, slowly, pausing to look at all the steam vents and interesting rocks I had missed on the way up.

Iceland, 03

Berlin, they say, is the place to be on New Years Eve. Everyone I know who has been there has a crazy story.

Remember the Fourth of July fireworks? It’s like that, but on -every street corner-.

We were on a rooftop with some really good beer. -Really- good beer.

There was techno. EVERYWHERE.

When I was in Mongolia, there was a video on MTV-Asia of a Moby concert from New Years Eve in Berlin. He played in the streets, the commercial claimed.

New Years Eve in Reykjavik has been likened to New Years Eve in Berlin, but without the techno. I would more consider it to be like a small town trying to emulate what they have heard about Berlin New Years, only to quickly give up the idea of copying and instead make it their own.

Our evening started with bonfires. We walked down the street to MC’s house, picking him up and increasing the size of our party with friends and friends of friends. Walking into a field, we saw the bonfire. Large wooden spools held together with what looked like rebar formed a sculpture that was lit. It burned and burned and burned. Embers emerged from the fire. One larger pile was surrounded by low flames, flowing rather than blowing in the wind. It was a lake of fire surrounded by glowing red rocks. The ground was frozen, but around the edge of the heat it transitioned into a sick, wet mud.

Some people set off fireworks around us. “It’s a communal thing,” SM told us. “We enjoy their displays and later they will enjoy our display.” Through the haze of heat, fireworks went off closer to downtown. They didn’t look real. The smell of explosives mixed with the salt from the ocean.

I made new friends–they were preexisting friends for others, but they were new for me. They passed around bottles of “Icelandic Schnapps,” as the English label on the bottle of lichen schnapps named it, and Topas, which has been likened to NyQuil, Robitussin, and mouth wash.Around ten, everyone went home to watch the comedy show. Every year there is a comedy show on Icelandic television. SM told us he needed to watch it “not because [he] like[ed] it, but because it was the only way to get the jokes everyone would be making.” Rather than watching the show, we failed to figure out how to make the television work for local stations. Instead, we drank and argued about when we should head into town.

Around eleven:30 we left for the Church. The Church is a Lutheran church towards the center of Reykjavik. It has, I am assured, a name, that none of us ever use. It is, quite possibly, the tallest building downtown. Climbing up the hill to the Church, our group separated. The sound of fireworks turned into bright explosions rising over the Church. SM and CS carried fireworks over their shoulders, like flags or guns. We stopped just outside of the crowd around the Church. The gold tip of SM’s rocket served as a rallying point like a flag in a battle field. We gathered. “Once we go in,” someone said, “we won’t be able to find one another.”

This was an introduction to the nature of Icelandic crowds. There is a dense gathering of people around the outside, but once you get close to whatever it happening, space appears. We have seen this in queues, at shows, and at New Years Eve.
We set down the fireworks we had been carrying and, for a moment, watched. All around us things exploded. In front, behind, to the sides.
It was like being in a war zone.
A happy, delicious war zone.
The clock on the Church said we had time, so we tore apart the fireworks packages like children. Like a birthday or Christmas. That intense, holiday fervor mixed with the almost feral desire that seems to seize people once fireworks become involved.
I first set off fireworks before the Fourth of July in 2008. It was after I graduated from University. In Pennsylvania, fireworks are like being a diabetic in a chocolate shop. We’re surrounded by them, but we, as residents, cannot purchase them or set them off. N, beloved, darling N, bought some and we went down to D’s family farm to set off mortars in the cow fields. That’s how I learned to set off fireworks. The careful positioning, the lighting, and the scurry away to what we assume is a safe distance. I also learned the soft, quiet fear that sets in in the moment between the fuse burning out and the firework exploding when you wonder, worry, if it will actually work and, if it doesn’t, how to deal with the possibly loaded bomb in front of you.
We organized the fireworks into piles. CS handed me a pile of rockets and SM pointed us to a bottle filled with water. All over the church yard were wide mouthed bottles filled with water that people used as launch sites. Everywhere, except behind us, others were setting off their own explosives with wild abandon. There was no organization. There was no planning. There was alcohol and beautiful, destructive chaos.
We set off the rockets. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

I mean, everyone else was doing it.
We got caught up in what was happening. We lost ourselves in the mad dash between the bottle and the supposed safe zone occupied by our friends. We lost track of the time. Everyone did. The year slid away unnoticed. Someone looked up and saw that the minute hand had moved past the twelve and that it was, officially, 2011.
The rockets sat in rest. We opened up bottles of champagne, “the most expensive from the Duty Free shop,” someone said, and hugged. We kissed. We yelled in the new year, minutes behind the world.
And then we went back to the fireworks. We set off our own and watched others. People used sparklers and flares to set off more fireworks. Sparklers lit sparklers

and lead to chain reactions. People who weren’t adding to the cacophony in the sky looked up, and even those hunched over fuses, lining up rows of smaller “children’s fireworks,” or balancing rockets into bottles would pause and lean back, staring at the sky.

Earlier in the day, we had been walking when we saw a child with a set of the lines of small red pipe like fireworks you see on Chinese New Years. He also had some small cherry bombs. We stopped our walk to watch him as he lined them up carefully, positioning them in such a way that they would set off one another. Right before he lit them, he looked up at us and smiled. He struck his match, set the fuse, and then backed up. He was wearing safety glasses. He was an inspiration.
We tried to mimic him with our bucket of smaller fireworks: butterflies, cherry bombs, black cats, sparklers. We didn’t succeed. Surprisingly, only one person was hurt.
AO was hit by a fallen rocket. One intended to go up that instead fell down and launched itself sideways. It wasn’t ours. The green fire shooting straight at him caused the rest of us to run while he stood there.
It hit a bottle of whiskey in his pocket.
It was less than an hour after midnight when the fireworks had all but stopped. A van playing Ride of the Valkyries, unofficial but inspired drove around the Church.

The bars were set to open at one:30–they would close at seven, we were told. We debated staying out in the cold. We argued about going to bars, or stopping by someone’s hotel. We decided to go back to the flat we rented. With an even larger crew than we arrived, we went home.
Of course, the drinks came out. We blew through bottle after bottle. People brought wine. People brought Icelandic drinks–beer and liquor. We had our own supply, from the duty free shop that had been attacked methodologically by the people who exited the plane with me. The man in the wine section there had explained to me that drinks from Duty Free were about 80% cheaper than those in the country proper. SM asked if we minded a few of his friends coming over. We didn’t. They brought more friends.
Before we knew it, we had a party.
One by one we checked out for the evening. Our last Icelandic guests left by seven am, when the bars were closing.
SM had told me, of New Years Eve in Reykjavik, that “if you can survive it, you can survive anything.”
(Photos are CC-BY-SA by Mika Matsuzaki and Christine Spang. Photos of fireworks themselves are by Nathan Trachimowicz, copyright 2011)

Iceland, 02

The largest cafe chain in Iceland is Kaffitar. It’s co-owned by the national barista champion. They have seven locations. Cookies there cost as much as drinks. This is to say something about the cost of cookies, not the cost of drinks.

Though, there’s something to be said for the drinks too.

At Starbucks, a chai latte costs about $3.50, or about that as far as I remember. A chai te with mjolk costs about 350 krona. For an extra fifty, you can get it with soy instead of milk.

This is close to two bucks.

My chai is served in a tall glass. Soy milk foams more than regular milk. The barista, a friendly man who likes to chat, wears a scarf around his neck and smiles. He frowns at the glass.

“Take care of that,” he says. I take a few sips of the foam. He pours more drink into the glass, making sure it is full.

“Here is some allspice and some cinnamon,” he picks up grinders that hold whole cinnamon and whole allspice in them. “They will be good in the chai.” He grinds some of each into the glass.

He turns away but pauses to watch while I take a sip.

Iceland, 01

I was in a room with four naked men.

This isn’t as exciting as one would assume it could be. In reality, they were, much like myself, snuggly wrapped in towels that tucked into themselves. Upper legs flashed when people moved. We stood around, taking turns jumping into the shower with its tempered, frosted glass. Someone would walk in and slide the door close. Their towel would go up over the top. The water would go on and the smell of sulfur would float and spread, filling the room.

After everyone showered, we went back into the sauna.

On the day I arrived in Iceland, we decided to hit up our first geothermal pool. Excitedly, we practically ran to the nearest pool. When we got to the door, we saw it was closed.

Distraught, broken, we forced ourselves to calm down and consider our options.

MZ and C pointed out that the guest house they were staying at had a sauna. Lazily, a few people went home. The rest of us climbed the hills of Reykjavik to Our Place, a guest house that had a sauna.

It was mid afternoon and twilight. As we walked, we watched the sun begin to set. When we got there, we sat around while the sauna heated before trundling ourselves off downstairs to the sauna room.

The boys went in, stripped, toweled themselves, and walked into the sauna. After they yelled that it was safe, I went in, stripped, toweled myself and opened the door to the sauna.

I was simultaneously hit by a fistful of hot, dry air and the image of four of my friends, towels wrapped around their waists, lined up like hens on a fence.

Not knowing what else to do, I laughed.