Monthly Archives: April 2016

ICELAND

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A lot to say- little of which concerns imprudent former PM Gunnlaugsson, toppled by a whopping demonstration that aped the toilet surge at Glastonbury after an especially long set: driven, yet contained, enabling a sense of relief in the end.

130 volcanoes. Panoramic lunar landscapes. Population of 27.

Visited by those in the first throes of romance, mascara shunners, and 19 year-olds welded to cans of beer. 

Breathtakingly, stupidly beautiful, so that friends want to wrestle your camera off you on your return and stamp on it- then you- repeatedly. 

For the uninitiated, a few tips…

PENURY

Iceland is possibly the most expensive destination on earth, giving the thumbs up to Japan.

It starts when you buy a bag of cashews at the airport and try desperately for a currency conversion different to the correct one that implies the nuts have spanked 34% of your budget and you must ration them at 8 per family member, per day. 

Later, when you buy petrol, you’ll pull over in a panic to execute a Santander statement check after Babylon has failed to confirm if ‘fjillar’ (or similar) is Icelandic for ‘full tank’, as you thought, or ‘fuel season ticket’, as it would now appear.

By the end of your holiday, everything will seem incredibly cheap, as you’ve squeezed through your own financial birth canal into a virtual Tamara Ecclestone delivery room.

FAKE ATTRACTIONS

A little known fact about Iceland is that its best known tourist attractions are man-made.

This is because natural beauty isn’t enough for idiots with ruck sacks; we need a pamphlet and a ticket in order to cross items off a bucket list that’s more like a crater hole seeing as, in the grand scheme of things, we’ve done precious little with our lives.

A fine example of this is Thingvellir, Iceland’s original ‘parliament’. (The clue is in the lazy naming.)

All manner of delightful line drawings depict tufty little make-shift houses with moss on top and hairy Viking-type characters heaving around canvas and stones on their strong shoulders.

There’s a gift shop in 50 shades of grey, with architectural lines, and someone’s had a lot of fun putting together a re-enactment video, with the above drawings set to Sigor Ros, and facts rendered convincing by nicknames such as ‘The Law Rock’.

Seeing as the ‘hard’ evidence is a board platform built in 1998 around a cliff face, it’s largely a question of faith.

Nevertheless, tourists just lap up any info that chucks around some AD dates, so all is well.

Likewise, the geysirs.

Long since passed their spontaneously-exploding heyday, the modern versions are pump-operated and heated by the thermal underwear of social media-savvy elves.

Timed to climax on the dry mackintosh jackets of Americans asking ‘Is this, like, all there is?’ at the entrance, they drench their victims to give them something material to whinge about on the monster truck home.

Not, however, before they have sampled a party bucket each of liquorice ice-cream topped with a delicious ice magic crust that is petrified hot chocolate, and a handful of strangely unsatisfying local maltesers known as noa kropp.

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NARCISSIM

Selfie sticks against Icelandic landscapes: the most spectacular scenery on the planet, with your shitty little face in front of it. 

BJORK

No one knows what to do with her, the tiny wide-mouthed elephant in Iceland’s room.

Is she cool? Does anyone remember The Sugarcubes? If she tried to snog Lady Gaga would they crash head gear?

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HOT WATER (natural)

Geothermal pools are springs heated by groundwater in the earth, invariably surrounded by calming stones and the invigorating sounds of the elements.

Nourishing for mind, body and spirit, it’s yoga for well-intentioned sloths.

Immersion in the great outdoors even in the depths of winter is a glorious thing; add a steam pool spell to disinter your deep-seated bacteria and you’ll peel off years, along with the layers of dead skin. 

One catch is the eggy smell generated by the sulphur.

When a dog next expels air from its bottom you can flip this around by being transported back to your Nordic travels.

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HOT WATER (less natural)

The Blue Lagoon (or The Blue Magoon, if you are 6) is a lava field whose mineral-rich waters offers a complete spa experience.

Alternatively, it is an industrial-sized bath filled with people who have been diverted on their way back to the airport for reasons that seem to remain mostly unclear to them.

Scores of clay-faced hominids drift aimlessly around in bikinis and flexed pecs watching others doing the same, wondering if anyone’s going to be the first to ask- you know- what the actual f*** they’re all doing there.

At any given moment at least one pretty 20-something blogger can be found trying to capture a selfie on her now-slimy iPhone, while elsewhere young men use the disguise of the milky water to try to wet hump their girlfriends as they block from their peripheral vision the gawping Cleethorpes couple on a long weekend anniversary trip of a lifetime.

The staff are numerous and futuristic in their efficiency as they patrol the eerie gathering, administering laser wrist tags and reassuring confused patrons- Carey Mulligan almost certainly waiting to make an entrance wearing a wry smile and a black latex bodysuit.

The package costs are tiered: to trade financial security for one week you get the white face mask and a welcome smile. For 2 months of sleepless nights, you get the green one, flip flops, and a robe.

The result is that the women with white faces can see whose fiances love them more, while Carey M makes a note of the next cheap intake to be ‘cleansed’ from this soft-skinned utopian society.

The experience is unfathomably tasteful given its scale, and very pleasant too, if a tad deflated by dozens of little ‘Private Luxury Area’ and ‘For Excellent People Only’ signs giving you a tiny clue others are having a better one.

In a side channel there are even oligarchs enjoying floating massages which, again, if you are 6 and gullible you might believe are dead people, marring what had otherwise been a lovely Easter break.

On departure, you feel like a very clean person who’s just been mugged (with a loofah gun?)

And, if you forgot to lather conditioner into your hair prior to your silica dipping you’ll wonder who has grafted Kerry Katona’s straw hair extensions onto your head, and when.

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COLD WATER (land)

Water from rivers fed by melting glacier ice falls bountifully down the craggy volcanic rocks with gay abandon here.

Powerful whether you approach from above, below, or behind, these tumbling cascades are endlessly mesmerising- unless you are under 35 years old, in which case exposure to your 50th prototype leads you to discover new swearwords.

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COLD WATER (sea)

Whale watching contains the central paradox presented by existence: whether to surrender to time-limited bliss, or attempt to memorialise a fragment of it- and the camera has muddled our greedy minds in the business of its resolution.

For, while there’s immeasurable joy in witnessing a silky blue humpback logging, ‘spouting’, and diving, there’s an equal spot of fun to be had watching, or partaking in, the grapple of long lenses, glove removal, and optimal orientation to snap the action.

Many fascinating guide facts and mammalian acrobatics later, the crowd will be found on the lower deck, side-swiping iPhones manically in search of the money shot, like so many whale fanciers on Tinder Aquatic, a cup of rum-laced hot chocolate in hand.

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SNOW

Now, time for a serious question. Apart from a helicopter ride, what would be the least wise activity to book in the land of £45 avocados? Snowmobiling? Bingo!

But, remember, by now you’re in Ecclestone world, and when in Rome it’s customary to do things only thrill-seeking non-Romans would consider. 

It’s a simple formula: you get dressed up in Tim Peake gear and driven to the top of a glacier, which is on top of the country’s 4th largest volcano, which is over-due to erupt by 50 years.

Then you get a brief lesson from Olaf about how not to ruin his machines with your crappy driving skills, and zoom around on Heaven’s sunlit snowscape, shouting at angels who can’t hear you to get out of the way.

Hands-down the most fun thing you can do with the most clothes on, it is worth every single mortgaged krona.

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LIGHTS

On arrival in Iceland, you pass through a chamber that gives you ABA.

At first you are grateful to get something for free that won’t sing Super Trouper at you.

Then, you realise it stands for Aurora Borealis Anxiety and you wish you could hand it back.

Symptoms include obsessive checking of specialist weather sites you don’t understand and the equivalent of 4 days shivering in minus temperatures outside your warm dwelling, staring existentially into the black, black night.

Elsewhere, the seriously afflicted chase around on tours, or don spongy headgear and earphones for a more complete floating experience.

Still, when they do make an appearance, the wait has been warranted.

Even in a more mildly dramatic version than the full National Geographic, the Northern Lights are ethereal, majestic, magical, and just about every other word you’d want to throw at fairies and alcohol- a shifting, phosphorescent and unadulterated wonder, filtered through breeze-framed silence.

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WEIRD THINGS

The Horses

These aren’t weird, but their ubiquity is; they are e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e, standing in little clumps, wearing funny hairstyles, trying to assert their larger-than-Shetland stature.

In brown, golden, and black, they do their best to look like something you want to paint rather than a creature who’s back you plan to break with your fat, tourist arse.

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The Language

Any tongue you don’t speak is all a bit Greek, but Icelandic is in another league.

There’s no discerning of sentence boundaries, and you’re not sure how much energy to put into the effort as the 27 natives mostly speak English anyway.

Certainly, they bandy around extra esses and ens like the Welsh splurge on effs, the overall effect reinforcing the Tolkien vibes, with a hobbit emphasis.

By extension, radio stations are curious. The antithesis of our overgrown slappable-teenage-twat-style, they sound like they’re broadcasting at the foot of a rainbow, drinking cloud juice.

In tones somnambulant, gentle and earnest, they wrestle with a playlist that’s nine tenths Bob Dylan and two tenths whistling Nordic folk of the Christopher Guest genre, with the odd hit of Gene Kelly and Ella Fitzgerald (with a hard ‘g’) in the mix.

Plus the other station that plays Will Young’s c-sides and full-on cheesey pop from 2003.

THE CAPITAL

Now, for all that trouble to fabricate its main attractions, Iceland’s capital city represents an oversight.

‘X things to do in Reykjavik‘ lists tend to start and finish with the number ‘1’, namely an elevator zoom up, ooh,  50 metres into the pointy bit of (apologies) the most hideous 1940s church (‘Hallgr√≠mskirkja‘) ever consecrated.

From here you do, indeed, get a peachy view of the town’s colourful houses, old harbour, and the phenomenal contemporary showstopper that is the Harpa opera house building.

But hope not for frescoes and bell towers: this puppy is grey cement on the inside and struggles intensely to approximate anything like a holy atmosphere.

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The rest of the city, we are told, is all about the ambience, in that ‘she’s got a great personality’ kind of way. 

But a gem it is- quirky and creative, doing an arm wrestle with Seattle for thrift bookstores, nerd-cool skate stops, and foodie zones.

Fashion is second-hand and grungy, or scandi-clean- an aesthetic I love.

Take the slouchy slacks and trainers of Ellen deGeneres; make them navy; give them a designer aesthetic and interesting textures; and sneak in a metallic calf-length pleated skirt… then off you go.

First, grow your hair long and straight, and die it platinum grey with white highlights.

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TRADITIONAL CULTURE (FOOD)

Icelanders are as shackled to pickled shark, Black Death vodka, and puffin meat as Kylie is to The Locomotion: embarrassing, but it’s what they’re known for. 

The delectable fresh fish is the real talking point, obvs, although the lamb is worth a special mention too.

In the vegetable department, they start muffling into their sleeves and pointing at the organic rice cakes.

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TRADITIONAL CULTURE (SPORT)

Iceland’s national sport is Glima wrestling, an ancient martial art form that incorporates aspects of dance.

Opponents try to attain the title of The Glima King or Queen by flooring each other gracefully, gripping tightly onto each others’ oversized pants.

Somewhat unbelievably, it’s stupider in real life than it sounds and will be known henceforward- in our household, at least- as ‘Wedgie-fling’.

TRADITIONAL CULTURE (CLOTHES)

Iceland’s national costume is the yoked jumper.

As well as people, it adorns napkins, mugs, and new year’s resolutions.

It is literally impossible to wear in a cool way: if you are a man you become a sheep farmer, or Ben Affleck in a movie where he takes someone like Hilary Swank to an alpine lodge to shag her next to an open fire after a fondue.

If you are a woman, you look like someone who cries because they are single.

Don’t even think about trying to modernise it, or to make it ironic; it would be like shaving the outline of a Ginsters sausage roll into your hipster beard.

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HIPSTER CULTURE

I don’t know much about hipsterdom, but I guess its counter-culturalism makes it inherently close to what was once known as being very square.

If this is true, then hipster culture might have actually started in Iceland’s main city. Plaits, hairy jumpers and insouciance come as standard.

The best cafes make their London East End counterparts look like Starbucks.

There’s scant affectation here. You get the impression that large headphones, leg warmers, music-that-is-clanking-instruments, and coffee bean dust from the grinder is just how they roll.

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Borne of this theme, walking tours of the city are better booked through cute, subversive blogs than on the established websites.

By all accounts, this way you can bypass the history lesson in favour of a 2-hour trip around your leader’s favourite work-out venue and troubled personal life, all for the same cost as a long weekend in Venice.

Or, you can go it alone using a map of the city’s exceptionally rich street art as your compass.

The art form (deserving of a dedicated blog, d.v) is represented vividly and prolifically on every available public surface.

It’s fun, accomplished, maverick, or rubbish depending both on which piece you catch, your point of view, and whether you are a cleaner for the council.

Regardless, it’s the prevailing flavour of the city, and one not to be missed- if you had the opportunity to miss it, which you don’t.

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There’s no summing up Iceland.

But if you are lucky enough to be possessed of sound body and mind in this lifetime, not to sample it would be a crying shame (lack of off-shore bank accounts notwithstanding, of course).

No matter where you are and what you’re going through, somewhere in this land of ice there roars a ceaseless waterfall.

 

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April 7, 2016 · 12:04 pm