Final Tidbits from Iceland

Trip Start May 07, 2010
Trip End Sep 04, 2010

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

OK, well, the time has come to say goodbye to Iceland. It was pretty fun living here for five weeks. It was especially nice to have my own apartment and live a semi-normal life rather than the life of a hotel tourist. There's a few random tidbits that haven't come up in previous posts that I'd like to share.

On our last night here our teacher prepared some traditional Icelandic delicacies for us. These were blood sausage, sheep liver sausage, jellied sheep's head, fish jerky, and putrefied shark. He also poured shots of Brennivin, which people say tastes like vodka, gin, and Jägermeister. I thought it tasted a bit like rubbing alcohol. Missing from the feast were pickled ram's testicles because the local stores were sold out. These are the foods that Icelanders ate back in the day near the end of winter when everything else had run out and it was eat these or starve to death. Today, Icelanders celebrate Þorrablót in the month of February by eating these foods. Shark meat is poisonous, so if you want to eat it you have to bury it underground and let it rot for a couple months. Then it's fine to eat. The shark smell is really, really terrible. You can smell it instantly from about 20 feet away. You don't want to ever touch it or your fingers will smell for a few days. My friend Peter ate some in his apartment and he couldn't get the smell out of the apartment for 3 days. That's why we ate in the backyard, not that I actually ate any of it.

You can also get whale and puffin for $40 at this place to the right, but these are not traditional foods, these are for tourists. And I think you can buy them much cheaper down at the harbor, but you might have to take it home and cook it yourself.

Iceland has a lot of qualities that I saw for the first time in Sweden, which I described in this previous post. Iceland also has very few poor people. I did have scruffy men ask me for money a couple times in five weeks. But they didn't look or smell homeless. And if I walked similar streets in the United States I would have homeless asking me for money a few times per day, not a few times per month. I have a theory that maybe they just knew that tourists are used to giving money to homeless people in their home countries so they'd try to get some money out of them by pretending to be homeless. Despite suffering from a severe economic crisis for nearly two years, everyone in Iceland appears to have a higher standard of living than many Americans I know. And the lack of poverty also makes the country much safer. I walked around downtown Reykjavík at all times of day and night and never once felt unsafe. I think the United States could learn a lot from Scandinavia in terms of laws and economic policies. Preventing poverty really improves the lives of everyone in a way that I couldn't have even imagined until experiencing it myself.

On a lighter note, I found TV in Iceland refreshingly simple. There are 4 channels. Channel 1 plays a really random variety of stuff. Channel 2 was always fuzzy so I think it may be a cable channel that you have to pay for. Channel 3 is pay per view, which I never paid for. The price was about $18 and I didn't even know what you'd get for that. Channel 4 was usually a white man speaking Icelandic. Different men, but always a man and always just one. The few times it was in English the topic was religion. So I pretty much only watched channel 1. So really, there were 2 channels. And for someone that doesn't speak Icelandic, there's really just channel 1. So you just turn on the TV and see what's playing, and if you don't like it you turn it off. It was much nicer than when I visit people with 900 satellite channels and it takes me 15 minutes to scroll through and see what's on and by the time I choose something it's halfway over. In Iceland, whenever something worth watching is on, it's on channel 1. Eurovision song contest? Channel 1. Desperate Housewives? Channel 1. English movies? Channel 1. World Cup games? Channel 1. Simple.

I was all prepared to write about how there are no stop signs in Iceland. Instead of stop signs they use roundabouts or just tell one direction to yield. I always wondered why quiet residential streets at home had 4-way stops instead of 4-way yields. It seems nicer to just yield so you don't have to stop if nobody is there. And Iceland does that. So I was walking today and decided to take a picture of the triangles painted on the street that tell drivers to yield, and I saw an intersection that looked like it would photograph well. But as I got closer I discovered it actually has a stop sign. It's the only stop sign I've ever seen in Iceland. And it says stop in English, despite the fact that Google Translate tells me that the Icelandic word for stop is stöðva.

(About two hours after posting this I saw two more stops signs. So I guess they do have them in Iceland, they're just somewhat uncommon.)

The Icelandic government hires teenagers every summer to do landscaping and gardening type work on public property. Teenagers of a certain age range are required to do these jobs, though I'm not sure at what ages this happens. They are required to work 4 hours per day, Monday through Friday. So Icelandic teenagers have something to do while they're not in school and they earn some money. And since landscaping doesn't need to be done during the school year, they don't have to create useless jobs. Very interesting.

Iceland also requires that both new mothers and new fathers take maternity and paternity leave. Consecutively, not at the same time. And they pay parents while they're out of work. They used to just require that a parent take leave but not specify which, but now they require that both parents split it, because when it was mostly mothers using it, employers were reluctant to hire women of child-bearing age. Now that they're required to split it, it takes away the bias.
Environmentalism in Iceland is also different than the United States. Fresh water is not a scarce resource in Iceland. It just comes up from the ground, and they have way more than 300,000 people can use. And since it just goes back to the ground after the use it, they can really just use as much as they want with no consequences, no guilt. They don't even pay water bills, they just pay a fee of about $15 once per year to cover administrative costs. Water fountains, like this one, don't even have on and off buttons, they're just on all the time. Sometimes I took two or three showers per day, it was great. And all the power plants are geothermal power plants, so while you do still need to pay for electricity, it's cheap and doesn't pollute, which is great. And geothermal power plants require a lot of water, and have a lot of waste water. Which is all really clean, mineral-rich, hot water. So they usually build a spa nearby and dump the waste water into pools and hot tubs. Love it! Environmentalism is still important in Iceland, but it mostly just relates to fuel use and garbage.

Before visiting Iceland I was told by an Icelander that there are no bugs in Iceland. Awesome, right? But as I described in my post from Mosquito Lake, there are bugs, they just don't bite. Apparently, there's some confusion in the translations. In Iceland, the word "bug" means a flying insect that bites. They have a different word for flying insects that don't bite, and they don't have any flying insects that bite, so they say they have no bugs.

There are only 3 categories of fast food in Iceland. 1) hot dogs. 2) gas station food. 3) Subway. Really. Occasionally you'll find a Taco Bell or KFC at a gas station. But they have no other American fast food chains and no fast food of their own, outside of gas stations. I think this is the first country I've been to that doesn't have McDonald's. Oh and I guess some pizza places sell pizza by the slice, which you could count as fast food. It's pretty cool in many ways, but I actually missed fast food when I was working on my studio project and didn't want to take the time to cook.

Well, that's it. I'm off to Seattle now. But you should watch this video to see more great sights in Iceland.

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juju on

whale, shark and puffin :-( So sad. I'm glad you had a wonderful time in Iceland, but I'm sure you love the wonderful night sky of Seattle now too.


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