Life In Iceland

Hard Rock Cafť, Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland is unlike any other place.   It is a sophisticated and highly literate country and has a remarkably high percentage of beautiful women.  (Sorry Susanna, but I just had to fit that in.)  The small town of Keflavik has around 12,000 people, (if memory serves,) yet has the latest fashions and cosmetics from Europe.  The capital city of Reykjavik has nearly every type and style of restaurant imaginable.  One notable exception was barbecue---I had to wait until I got back to the states for that.  How many cities of fewer than 200,000 have their own Hard Rock Cafť?  On the other hand, how often do you really want a $13.00 burger?  Reykjavik also has the ubiquitous fast food restaurants like McDonalds, (serving the only McMutton sandwich Iíve ever heard of; we used to call it the Big Maaaaaaaaac,) Pizza Hut, Dominoís Pizza, Subway, and more. But why would you go to Iceland and pay outrageous prices for familiar food when you could eat a puffin instead?

Shopping in Iceland is like everywhere else.  Reykjavik even has a mall.  It is small by the standards of big cities, but it is wonderfully cosmopolitan.  One of the unusual things about the Kringlan Mall is that its anchor store is a grocer.  On Saturday Susanna and I would often drive from the Keflavik Naval Base to the Kringlan Mall and enjoy cappuccinos and crepes at KaffitŠr, (or was it Cafť Bleu, I forget.)  If you go there, you should try the crepes.  They are little more than an appetizer, but they are fabulous.

View inside the Kringlan Mall.  The mall has recently expanded, adding around 30,000 feet of retail space.

When Americans shop they go to the malls because thatís where the good shops are.  In Iceland the only advantage of the mall is that you are indoors.  As long as you donít mind walking a bit, you can find everything you want and need in the downtown area of Reykjavik.  You may want to check out some of the side streets, though, since getting off the beaten path is how you find those special places you end up writing home about.  If you want a preview of the shopping in Iceland go to the Iceland Review website.  (While you are there, check out the online Iceland Review news. For a time is was subscription only, but is now freely available.)

Icelanders mostly speak English, although their native tongue is Icelandic, a language very similar to Old Norse.  Some of the middle-aged and elderly adults might not be able to understand you, but most all of the shopkeepers and business professionals speak English.  (The children all are instructed in four different languages.  If I remember correctly, Icelandic, English, and Danish are required, and French or German are electives.)  Most of the shops in Iceland take foreign money, but trying to figure out how much something actually costs is part of the fun of traveling.  Iíve still got some of the money tucked away in a drawer.  Itís not much good here, but it makes a fine memento.

One of the nicest things about Iceland is that it is safe.  Itís small town America circa 1950s safe.  Parents park their prams on the street while they go inside and shop.  (Remember a women from the Scandinavian countries being arrested for doing that in New York?)  American women are so used to being afraid they donít even think about it, so freedom from fear is what they notice the most.  Susanna was surprised to discover that she didnít have to hug her purse and carry her keys in her hand as she walked to her car.  Soon she thought nothing of leaving me with my friends at Kaffi Reykjavik while she wandered from club to club at 2:00 A.M.  Icelanders are very honest, too.  I once left an expensive camera under a table at a club and when I returned the bartender gave it back to me.  You know the people are honest when even the drunks donít steal.

The nightlife in Iceland is quite restrained during the week.  As the Icelandic pop star BjŲrk---rhymes with jerk, sorry but she said it first---as BjŲrk pointed out, Icelanders donít understand the idea of having a glass of wine with the dinner meal; theyíd rather save it and drink it all at once.  This makes Iceland a nation of binge drinkers.  I spent many a Friday night with a group of friends at Kaffi Reykjavik, one of my favorite hangouts, and we had the entire place to ourselves until around 11:00 pm.  Suddenly taxicabs began disgorging passengers at the bars and nightclubs and the bands began to play.  Everyone arrives with a good buzz on and whatever drinking takes place in the bar is merely to keep the buzz going.  

Before midnight the most popular clubs are full and have waiting lines.  When people get to the front of the line they pretend not to have booze hidden inside their coats and the bouncers pretend not to notice. Very civil, actually.   At precisely 3:00 AM the bars all close and people are thrown out into the street where the party continues.  Now those hidden flasks and bottles are quite handy.  Around 5:00 AM people begin finding their way back home, but not by driving.  The DWI limit is 0.05ppm, so one beer puts you over the limit.  The penalties for DWI are very severe, so be sure to do what the Icelanders do and take a taxi home.

Should you find yourself in Iceland on a weekend and are below the age where young girls think youíre old, check out the Astro.  Iím over 40 now, and well past being interesting to young women, but when we were there the Astro was quite a happening place.  The Astro was picked by a stateside television crew as part of its series on the most beautiful women in the world.  The chosen costume of the stylish young women at the Astro leans more to short skirts than plunging necklines, so sitting near the stairs can be quite a treat.

Kris ordering more ďcheapĒ beer for Susanna and Eric.

Nordic custom is that the government is the sole source for alcohol.  It is taxed quite heavily and is very expensive.  I had a favorite little place I used to go where the beer was relatively inexpensive---$6.00 a glass.  One thingís for sure, the military doesnít pay me enough to get drunk on $6.00 beers.  [These were 1994 prices. Adjust upwards accordingly.] As you might expect, home distilleries are quite the thing.  People stay home and get drunk with their friends, then head out for a night on the town.  Iíve been told it is illegal to run a home distillery, but usually people only get in trouble if they attempt to sell it and deny the government its tax revenues.   Young people are quite bold about drinking homebrew, and the police pretend not to notice as long as the kids are drinking it out of soft drink bottles.

A peculiar thing about Iceland is that they all learn to swim in school. Although the oceans and lakes are too cold to swim in, they use geothermally heated water to provide comfortable open-air swimming in any weather.  The pools are usually ringed with hot pots, which are like Jacuzzis without the bubbles.   Most of the pools have steam rooms and saunas, and many of them have tanning booths as well.  At a few of the larger ones you can get a massage, a mud bath, or a facial.  Many elderly people spend several hours a day in the hotpots, relaxing and swapping stories.

Swimming in Iceland exposes you to some peculiarities about Iceland.  First, you are required to thoroughly shower before entering the pool.  A sign on the wall points out those areas of the body requiring particular attention and a shower attendant watches to ensure you follow the rules.  American men are used to gang showers, but American women often find this unnerving.  Another peculiarity is that the locker rooms are not off-limits to young children of the opposite sex.  Parents will bring their toddlers into the showers with them and showering in front of young girls is not something Iím used to.  You can imagine how American women react when young boys are brought into the showers.  I noticed some other oddities---Icelandic women wear modest one-piece bathing suits while the men wear Speedoís.  When I went to the Blue Lagoon I could tell the Americans from the Icelanders simply by the bathing suits.  (I could tell the German women from the body hair, but thatís a story for another time.)

For general tourist information such as finding a guest house or renting a car, see the following hyperlink:

If you want to find information about what to see or do in Iceland, visit the following links:

For the best site on Iceland, visit Virtually Virtual Iceland.

Should you ever find yourself in Reykjavik, simply pick up a copy of ďWhatís On In ReykjavikĒ magazine.  In it youíll find nearly everything youíd ever want to do and a map showing you how to get there.  We never went anywhere without it.  You can also find a lot of tourist information at City Hall.  Itís right by the duck pond in the center of town, so you canít miss it.

Make a point of seeing the Volcano Show.  It is not a terribly sophisticated operation, but the operator, Villi Knudson, is quite a character. He and his father have spent their lives filming the vulcanology of Iceland. Villi Knudson is married to an American woman, and has a special place in his heart for Americans.  Buy one of his documentaries and show your support for his work. [The website for the Volcano Show has been dead for several years, so I deleted the dead link. I hope what is true of the link is not also true of Villi Knudson. I recently came across this link describing the Volcano Show. I also found a Dutch blog about a trip to Iceland in 2004 that makes reference to the Volcano Show and contains one of the few and the best pictures of Villi Knudson available on the Internet.]

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Last edited on January 21, 2006