When I got back to the States a couple weeks ago, I found a copy of the magazine Islands from 1985 on my desk. Apparently my dad found it in The Archives (the name my siblings and I have given the upstairs linen closet, which has never actually been used as a linen closet because it has always been filled with old magazinesand limited-edition 7-Up bottles and Pee-Chee folders of basketball statistics) and noticed it contained an article about Iceland, so he set it out for me.
It was surprisingly similar to contemporary travel writing about Iceland, focusing on the country’s primordial natural beauty, opportunities for outdoor adventures (the journalist and photographer went on a glacier trek with an Icelandic guide), remoteness, and sheep.
But there were also a few noticeable differences:
The population has increased from 240,000 in 1985 to 330,000 today
The Blue Lagoon was still something of a local secret, an unglorified pool of runoff from the nearby power plant, still years away from becoming the overpriced, overpublicized tourist trap that it is today
Hallgrímskirkja had not yet become the dominant symbol of the Reykjavík skyline (it was completed the following year, 1986)
Most important and alarming, though, is that apparently skyr, Iceland’s now-famous dairy product that resembles Greek yogurt (despite technically being a cheese), used to be eaten with shredded lettuce.
Skyr. Með mjólk, sykri, og salati. Af hverjuuuuuu?!
Why did this happen? And why have I never heard about this before? Was this farmer just messing with this poor gullible journalist, or did this actually used to be a thing? Iceland, please explain yourself.
The drive from Patreksfjörður to Ísafjörður was the longest and gravel-iest of the trip. We backtracked east to Flókalundur and then took Route 60 over the mountains. The road is gravel, yes, and there are some mildly terrifying sheer drop-offs and sharp turns, but the weather was splendid and we only met a handful of cars along the way. The scenery was spectacular and had me constantly slowing down (even more, that is; I was already granny driving) and saying “wow!” repeatedly.
I took a few photos from the (stopped – safety first!) car, but none of them do the views justice.
After a couple hours of dusty driving, we were rewarded by the sight of the Westfjords’ most spectacular waterfall: Dynjandi.
Dynjandi (“thundering”) is actually a series of waterfalls, the largest of which is called “Fjallfoss” (“Mountain Falls”). The smaller falls all have names too, but I am too lazy to look them up.
Here’s a charmingly shaky video I took (with my bright pink point-and-shoot camera) that shows what a marvelously beautiful (and windy) day it was:
We took a nice long break at Dynjandi, and we were far from alone. That’s the strange thing about driving in the Westfjords; you can drive across the mountains for hours and meet just a few cars along the way, and then all of a sudden at a place like Dynjandi there are dozens of cars that seem to have materialized out of nowhere.
We continued on past Dynjandi and made it to Þingeyri, where the road is paved once again (my mother was thrilled). From there it was smooth sailing on to Ísafjörður. Well, almost. Just before Ísafjörður you have to drive through Vestfjarðargöng, a long tunnel (about 6 km, I think). After dozens of one-lane bridges, my mom, when she saw the upcoming tunnel, said, “well, as long as it isn’t a one-lane tunnel.” As the sign (which was in Icelandic, of course) came into view, my eyes alighted on the word “einbreið.” “Well, actually, Mom…”
I vaguely recalled having gone through this tunnel back in 2012. Thankfully, heading east, we had the right of way; westbound traffic has to use a series of pull-outs to yield to eastbound traffic.
We arrived in Ísafjörður around dinner time and checked into our AirBNB accommodation (which was incredibly easy to find – such a welcome contrast to our experience in Stykkishólmur). I mentioned to our hosts that we were planning to go to Tjöruhúsið for dinner and they asked if we had a reservation. “Uh… no,” I said, realizing it had never even occurred to me to make a reservation. This is Iceland, after all.
Gurrý immediately offered to call the restaurant for us, and thanks to a last-minute cancelation, she was able to book us a reservation for about ten minutes later.
Dinner at Tjöruhúsið is an experience. Tjöruhúsið and the surrounding buildings are some of the oldest in the country, built by the Danes in the 1700s. The neighboring Turnhús is now home to a museum, and Tjöruhúsið is home to what I think I can safely say is the best seafood restaurant in the country.
I hesitate to use the word buffet, since it carries such negative connotations, but that’s essentially how dinner was served. The line of people snaked around the long tables and benches that make up the dining room as we all waited our turn for seafood soup and bread. Then it was time for the main course – there were about ten side dishes, ranging from green salad to barley salad to plokkfiskur. And then the main attraction: a dozen gigantic iron skillets, each one filled with mouthwateringly delicious fish – cod, haddock, blue ling, wolffish, catfish, cod cheeks.
The dining room at Tjöruhúsið consists of just a few long tables, so it’s a communal dining experience. Our nearest tablemates turned out to be a family from Arizona who had just arrived in Iceland that morning. We also sat across from a guy whose two friends’ unfortunate car trouble and subsequent delayed arrival was the reason my mom and I were able to get last-minute reservations. (We expressed our apologies and our hope that the car issue would be quickly resolved, which it was – the friends arrived in time for dinner.)
After a cup of strong coffee (never a good idea at that hour, but hey, when in Iceland) and some Nói Siríus chocolate, we walked back to the car, full and content.
To the several people who recommended Tjöruhúsið – I owe you. Mmm.
After dinner, Mom stayed at the guesthouse while I wandered around town. Peaceful, calm, quiet, illuminated by the late-night sun… the perfect way to explore a new place, if you ask me.
In the morning, we had treats at Gamla Bakaríið (“The Old Bakery”) and wandered around the town a bit. We wanted to go to (what we thought was) the Westfjords shop (where I got my beloved Westfjords t-shirt in 2012 and where we planned to buy souvenirs for family), but since it didn’t open until 1.00, I suggested we drive up to Bolungarvík.
I had no idea what there was to do or see in Bolungarvík (if anything), but I knew it was just a short drive north of Ísafjörður, so I figured it would be a good way to kill a bit of time. It turned out to be the best little detour of our trip.
You see, when we drove into town, my mom noticed there was a church up on a hill. I drove up there so we could get a closer look and snap a few photos. There also happened to be a home right by the church, and a man outside in the garden. While I was taking photos of the surrounding mountains (and all the rocks that tumbled down the mountainsides last winter), my mom started chatting with the gardener. By the time I walked over there, he was inviting us in to see his house.
He spoke good English, but my Icelandic also helped a bit as he showed us around his house. We learned that he was a tæknifræðingur (which the dictionary defines as a “technologist,” whatever that means), born and raised in Bolungarvík. He lived and worked in Kópavogur for most of his adult life and had also lived in Sweden but moved back to Bolungarvík after retiring. He has a daughter who made the lovely quilt on his bed, and he has a son who lives in Hveragerði but was at Landspítali in Reykjavík after a recent heart attack.
Our new friend Siggi told us that he is 92 years old, and initially I thought have misunderstood him, because he is energetic and youthful and doesn’t look a day over 75 (Seriously, I didn’t believe it until I found this article confirming his age.) Despite his age, he still draws and paints, grows pears, and works in his woodshop. And, apparently, occasionally makes friends with tourists.
After saying goodbye to Siggi, we drove around the town a bit more. Siggi had recommended that we check out the avalanche barriers. Most towns in the Westfjords are nestled next to incredibly steep mountains, putting them at high risk for avalanches. In fact, 169 people have been killed in snow avalanches in Iceland since the beginning of the 20th century. After avalanches in nearby Suðavík and Flateyri killed 34 people in 1995, the government created a risk assessment process to identify which residential areas were at highest risk. A large portion of Bolungarvík was determined to be a high-risk zone, which prompted the construction of avalanche defense structures between 2008 and 2012. The structures are intended to keep snow from reaching the town and to redirect the flow toward the sea.
The most fascinating thing is that these structures, while serving a critical defense purpose, double as a recreational space: there are walkways across the dams that provide stunning panoramic views of the surroundings. Apparently the thought was that if the town’s landscape had to be significantly altered in order to impose these safety measures, the least they could do was turn them into something that can enrich people’s lives on a regular basis, not just potentially save their lives some day (not that this is a “just,” but you know).
Oh, and because the Icelanders are a people who greatly value language and names, it should come as no surprise that the town of Bolungarvík held a naming contest when the two dams were erected. The winning names? Vörður and Vaki (Guard and Watchman).
Besides the avalanche barriers, we also saw a woman out for a walk with her child and her cat. Seriously, she was pushing a stroller, and there was a little orange cat following her. We thought it was a coincidence at first, but then noticed that she kept turning around and waiting for the cat to catch up.
Back in Ísafjörður, we were disappointed to learn that the Westfjords shop closed a couple years ago. The woman we spoke to told us that the guy who ran the shop lives in Flateyri and we should just go talk to him, but we were not convinced (our decision may or may not have also had something to do with the fact that we didn’t want to have to drive westbound through the one-lane tunnel).
So we said goodbye to Ísafjörður and continued on our way toward our next destination: Heydalur.
We arrived in Patreksfjörður with the hope of seeing relatives but with no actual plan. It is not really the Icelandic way to plan ahead. I’ve often heard the theory that Icelanders’ inability or unwillingness to plan ahead is tied to the uncertainty of the weather, and that even now, when modern technologies and conveniences can mitigate the harshness of weather to some extent, it’s still in their blood to wait until the last minute. But as the Icelanders say, “þetta reddast,” it will work itself out. And it did.
Our first morning in Patró, we had breakfast at the guesthouse and then set out for a little walking tour of town. We peeked in to Albína, the grocery store where I did the first week of my work experience, and I chatted with Inga, who I worked with in 2012. She was so kind and helpful and remarkably patient with me despite the fact that she was eight months pregnant at the time.
As we walked through town, I pointed out relatives’ homes, my favorite coffee shop, the place where this happened, the place where that happened. Eventually we ended up at our cousin Björg’s home for kaffitími.
Björg is the eldest of my host parents’ four children and she lives on the far end of town with a lovely view of the fjord and surrounding mountains. Coffee was poured, vínarbrauð and kleinur set out, and we started catching up in a blend of Icelandic and English. Names and places and family news swirled through our conversation like milk in our cups of strong Icelandic coffee.
My host mamma Hrafnhildur was out of town, but Sæmundur took a break from his work day to drop by and say hello. When I last saw him, in 2012, my Icelandic was so limited that we could barely communicate. There was definitely a solid language barrier between us. We would chip away at it steadily and eventually managed to make some cracks that let communication shine through, but it was labored. So I cannot adequately explain my joy at discovering that the barrier is all but gone now. From the moment he walked in and began speaking to me, I understood probably 90% of what he said (compared to maybe 10% three years ago), and, what’s more, I could express my own opinions, feelings, and questions with so much more clarity and detail than before.
My mother listened and waited with grace and patience as we chatted in Icelandic. To no one’s great surprise, Sæmundur insisted that she try his harðfiskur (Icelandic dried fish). And to no one’s great surprise, she was not a huge fan (the dog, however, loves it!).
Sæmundur headed back to work and Björg took us to see her sister Jenný on the other side of town (for the sake of perspective, please realize that this means a four-minute drive). Jenný’s daughter Auður was fearlessly friendly in 2012 but not so sure about me this time around. Still, we had a nice visit before Björg drove us back to our guesthouse to rest.
That evening, Björg took us to Tálknafjörður (one town over) to partake of the most beloved of Icelandic pastimes: hot pot sitting. If you follow the main road through Tálknafjörður and continue past the kernel of homes and the school and the swimming pool, you will soon come across a trio of hot pots nestled into the hillside overlooking the fjord. They are natural and rustic (which sometimes means they are rather slimy, but hey, it’s natural slime!) and two of them are painfully hot, but sitting in the not-too-hot pot and watching the sun sparkle on the fjord and dance on the mountains is glorious.
After a nice long soak, we met the family at a restaurant called Hópinn for a sort of family reunion dinner. We were quite a large group: Mom and I; Björg and her son Stefán; Björg’s daughter Sædís, her boyfriend Davíð, their toddler Sæmundur and newborn baby boy; Jenný and her husband and their daughter Auður; Guðmundur and Eygló and their two youngest daughters, Berglind and Dagbjört; and their second daughter Ástrós was working at the restaurant.
As I was perusing the menu, I noticed that one of the dinner offerings was hrefnusteik (minke whale steak) and I commented that I had never tasted whale. Before I knew it, Guðmundur had convinced Ástrós to bring a sample.
Sorry, people who walk around Reykjavík in plastic whale suits trying to get people to promise not to eat whale meat – I tasted it, and I liked it. But it was mostly something I felt I had to do once; I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to order a meal of minke whale any time soon.
Anyway, wonderful food and good company. Mom especially enjoyed bright-eyed little Sæmundur, who is two years old and incredibly vocal. He kept pointing to his mamma (Sædís) and saying, “Þetta er mamma mín!” (“That’s my mom!”) I pointed to Sædís and said, “Þetta er mamma þín,” then pointed to my mom and told him, “Og þetta er mamma mín!” “Nei!” he exclaimed emphatically. “Mamma mín!” By the end of the night, I’m pretty sure my mother had learned the word “nei.”
After dinner, Björg drove us back to Patreksfjörður and we dropped by to say goodbye to Sæmundur and thank him for dinner (it was his very generous treat, even though he was working late and couldn’t come). He asked me which way my mom and I were driving to Ísafjörður the following day and pointed out the route with the shortest distance of gravel roads, cautioning me to drive slowly and carefully. And he insisted on paying to fill up our gas tank before we left, despite my protests that it was unnecessary. Sæmundur hasn’t changed much in the past three years as far as I can tell; he still works nonstop (his children say he can never retire because if he does he will die), and he still has a generous spirit.
The next morning, after we checked out of our guesthouse, we drove over to Björg’s house again. She had offered to drive us to Rauðasandur, one of my absolute favorite places in Iceland. But first we stopped at the pharmacy so I could pick up some earplugs, anticipating another battle against my mother’s snoring that evening. There was exactly one person working at the pharmacy, and about three people ahead of me, so it was a bit of a wait. When it was my turn, I had to ask for earplugs, because I hadn’t seen them anywhere. I didn’t remember the Icelandic word for earplugs, though, which means I outed myself as a foreigner immediately. “Hvaðan ertu?” asked the pharmacist. I told him I was from the States and the conversational floodgates opened. Turns out Ramón (as I should have known when I saw his name tag, not to mention when he started making conversation with a stranger – definitely not an Icelandic trait) is a fellow útlendingur, having moved to Iceland from Spain a number of years ago. We chatted about learning Icelandic and adjusting to life on this weird and beautiful rock. He told me he’d been learning Icelandic for however many years but “byrjaði að lifa á íslensku” (began living in Icelandic) a few years ago. Að lifa á íslensku… what a lovely turn of phrase.
Anyway, eventually I realized that Björg and my mom had been waiting for at least 10 or 15 minutes by now, so I excused myself from the conversation. When I got back in the car, I apologized and explained what had happened. Björg must have assumed that I was flirting with this guy (which I wasn’t, truly) because she immediately said something like, “Því miður er hann hommi… he’s a gay.”
The road to Rauðasandur is one of the more terrifying in the region and I was very happy that I was not driving. We parked by the camping area and took our time meandering over the expansive stretches of sand. Words can’t capture the magic of this place, so I will stop forcing them together and instead let the photos speak for themselves.
Back in town, we had lunch at Stúkuhúsið, the café where I spent entirely too much time and money in 2012. To my surprise, the owner, Steina, remembered me.
And sadly it was then time to say goodbye to Patreksfjörður, as we had quite a long stretch of (not always paved) road ahead of us to Ísafjörður.
Our time in Patreksfjörður was filled with family, just as I hoped it would be, and it was filled with little moments of affirmation that I made the right decision in choosing to move to Iceland and study Icelandic.
Language learning can feel like an uphill battle and all it takes is one difficult conversation to make you question your progress. At home, speaking with Ásta and the family, I can tell I’ve improved, but it’s less dramatic because I see them and speak with them every day. Seeing Sæmundur (and my other relatives in Patró and Tálknó) gave me the opportunity to see clearly how far I’ve come. It was a joyful and encouraging discovery.
Before I left Patró three years ago, I told Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur that I hoped to return to Iceland to study the language. Sæmundur was fully supportive of this, and as a parting gift gave me the money to buy the Icelandic-English dictionary I wanted. I hope that seeing how far I’ve come helped him understand how much their investment of time and hospitality has meant to me.
To all our relatives in Patreksfjörður and Tálknafjörður – takk kærlega fyrir okkur! ❤
After a lovely night’s sleep in the nuns’ guest room, I joined them for Sunday morning coffee and conversation. Since my mom was still at the guesthouse, we all spoke Icelandic together, and at one point American Nun said to Brazilian Nun, “Talar hún ekki rosa góða íslensku?” Brazilian Nun agreed, and then American Nun turned to me and said something like, “Þú hljómaðir svoooooo bandarísk þegar þú varst nýkomin” (“You sounded so American when you first came to Iceland!”) Uhhhhh takk, I guess?
I said goodbye to the nuns and met back up with my mom, who hadn’t slept so well – the midnight sun reflected on all the white walls and bedding in her room, she said, but more importantly, her c-pap machine (which helps her breathe and not snore at night) had broken. I was suddenly ten times more thankful that I’d accepted the nuns’ offer because I knew that if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have slept either.
We checked out of the guesthouse and had a few hours to kill before boarding the ferry that would take us to the Westfjords. Hint for travelers: there’s pretty much nothing to do in Stykkishólmur on a Sunday morning, so take that into consideration in your planning. We went to Bónus as soon as it opened, either because we actually needed something or just to kill time, I’m not sure. We had another parking lot picnic. We photographed the harbour:
And the weird spaceship church:
Mom learned a little bit about just how windy Iceland can be:
And we went to what might be Iceland’s cutest little café and ate what is most definitely Iceland’s most unbelievably delicious hjónabandssæla (a traditional Icelandic treat made of rhubarb jam sandwiched between layers of buttery oatmeal crust). Seriously, if you pass through Stykkishólmur, do yourself a favor and go to Sælkerahúsið for hjónabandssæla.
After we parked in the ferry line, I left my mom with the car and went exploring.
From my perch atop this viewpoint, I watched the ferry come in to the harbour, and soon it was time to board the boat (Ferjan Baldur, which runs from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur, stopping briefly at the island Flatey). Now, boarding this ferry was not like boarding a Washington State Ferries vessel. For one, all car passengers must board the vessel on foot, which means I had to drive solo into the belly of the boat. I was actually one of the very first to board, which sounds great, but meant that I had to maneuver the car into a very tight little corner. I survived, though, as did the rental car, thank goodness.
The crossing takes about two and a half hours. We started the voyage up on the main deck enjoying the good weather and scenery, then headed down below deck where my mom read and I took a nap. When the ferry docked at Flatey, we headed back up to try and snag some seats on the upper deck, and of course we ran into a relative – Ástrós, granddaughter of my Patreksfjörður host parents, who, ironically enough, had accompanied us on a trip to Flatey in 2012.
Somehow I managed to extract the car from the ferry without incident, and Mom and I headed to Hótel Flókalundur for dinner before starting the drive west along the Barðaströnd coast. I knew our two family farms were somewhere along this stretch and hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult to find them again, and it wasn’t.
The pink-orange glow of the late night summer sun guided us to Patreksfjörður and we arrived around 10.00. Our guesthouse was lovely but overrun with German tourists with whom we had to fight for the shower, but such is life.
We went to bed with no particular agenda in mind for the following day. (Notice I said “went to bed,” though, and not “went to sleep,” because neither of us got much of any sleep that night due to my mother’s malfunctioning machine, my inability to sleep through snoring, and a sad lack of nuns offering guest rooms.)
Anyway, the failure to prepare any sort of real plan for the next day was very Icelandic of us and happened to work out swimmingly, as you, dear reader, will learn in our next installment.
After my mom bought her ticket to Iceland, I started thinking about how we should spend the two weeks she’d be here. We would spend half the time in Reykjavík, I figured, and the other half traveling, but I was torn between two options: the Westfjords or the Eastfjords, the two regions where our family has roots. On the one hand, I thought, it would be fun to see the Eastfjords since I haven’t yet been out there, but on the other hand, it would be nice to visit the Westfjords for exactly the opposite reason – because I have been there so it would be familiar. In the end, I decided that someone who spent 28 years of her life with the last name Westford had to see the Westfjords, so I planned a six-day road trip from Reykjavík around the Snæfellsnes peninsula and through a good portion of the Westfjords. This was 110% the right decision. Choosing this route meant that I was familiar with the majority of the places we visited and also meant that we got to meet up with relatives. It also meant white-knuckle driving over unpaved mountain passes with sheer drop-offs on both sides of the road, but luckily the weather couldn’t have been better and the wild beauty of the region more than made up for the heart palpitations.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We began our journey by walking a few blocks from the house to a rental car office downtown. Now, here’s the thing about downtown Reykjavík: I know my way around quite well – on foot. But when I’m on foot, I pay minimal attention to things that don’t apply to pedestrians, like one-way streets and dead ends. This meant that traveling from the rental car office back to the house (a straight shot up Laugavegur on foot) was decidedly more challenging as a driver. Not to mention, I had only ever driven once in Iceland before this – from Patreksfjörður to Tálknafjörður with my host pabbi in 2012 – so encountering different road signs and having to think in kilometers was a bit disorienting. Anyway, we managed to get back to the house and after an hour or so of disorganized packing, we finally left the city behind.
It was serendipitous that I went on a 24-hour Snæfellsnes road trip with the girls a few weeks ago, because that meant that I actually sort of knew what I was doing and where I was going. More importantly, it meant that I knew which places along the way were worth a stop and which ones were more accessible for my mother (who is not a fan of long distances, steep trails, etc.).
We stopped at an N1 station somewhere along the way for a parking-lot picnic, then chased the glacier clockwise around the peninsula, stopping at a church here, a beach there, Mom squealing delightedly every time we saw sheep.
tailgating in the N1 parking lot
Anyway, here are some of the highlights from our trip around Snæfellsnes:
Arnarstapi is an old fishing village that sits along the southern coast of the peninsula in the shadow of Stapafell (which apparently has been greatly diminished due to quarrying and some of it lies under the runways at Keflavík Airport – thanks, visitreykjanes.is). We didn’t make it to Arnarstapi on the last trip because a car accident closed the road, so it was nice to get a second chance. Apparently there’s a lovely trail that runs along the cliffs between Arnarstapi and Hellnar, but we didn’t have time for that long of a walk. Instead, we just admired Gatklettur (the large stone arch in the photo below) and the lovely views.
We also admired this odd and intriguing work of art, which I later learned depicts the saga character Bárður Snæfellsás AKA Bárður Dumbsson, a name which makes me giggle immaturely every time I see it.
The black sands at Djúpalónssandur and Dritvík are expansive and beautiful. Mom didn’t want to walk down to the beach, so we admired the views from the nice even wooden walkways above, which was fine with me since the girls and I spent a couple hours exploring the beach and basalt columns and cliffs just a few weeks ago.
Built in 1903, Ingjaldshólskirkja is the oldest concrete church in Iceland. According to kirkjukort.net (a nifty website that provides location, photos, and historical information for every church in Iceland), Christopher Columbus once spent a winter at Ingjaldshóll and there exists a painting of him poring over a map with the priest, with the church and the glacier in the background.
In any case, this was one of mom’s favorite stops around Snæfellsnes, and I understand why. The church stands on a hill (hence the name Ingjaldur’s Hill), fields of lupine billowing in a breeze that comes off the ocean and across ancient lava fields, Snæfellsjökull looming above.
If you drive clockwise around Snæfellsnes, Grundarfjörður is the last town you’ll see before you arrive in Stykkishólmur. The distinctive, imposing peak Kirkjufell stands majestically over the town, and across from her is a charming waterfall named after the mountain (Kirkjufellsfoss). The girls and I didn’t take time to see the waterfall on our trip, so it was nice to have another chance.
Around dinnertime, we arrived in Stykkishólmur, our home for the night. I’d booked a guesthouse and figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to find in a town so tiny. Well, I was wrong. Using directions from the website, the map app on my phone, our eyeballs, brains, and common sense, we still spent about thirty minutes driving in circles not finding the guesthouse. Stykkishólmur is tiny, yes, but it also has a very odd layout with dead ends and weird little alleys. My mom and I were both tired and hungry and I was getting irritated when all of a sudden I saw something blue out of the corner of my eye. I know that blue, I thought. “Mom, I think that’s my nun!” I exclaimed, pointing across the street. Sure enough, there on the front porch stood “my nun,” an American classmate from HÍ who just so happens to be a nun and live in Stykkishólmur. I had hoped to meet up with her while we were in town, but I didn’t expect to run into her like that (although I really should have, because Iceland). Anyway, she appeared in all her blue-nun glory at just the right moment. We explained our embarrassing inability to locate our guesthouse, and she asked us for the address. When we told her, she pointed behind us to a house about two doors down and said, “That’s it right there!” Yes, I managed to book a guesthouse with a view of the nuns’ home.
this may have been one reason it was so difficult to find the guesthouse
American Nun kindly invited us over for dinner, and I think I may have said yes without even consulting my mother, because when a nun invites you to dinner, you say yes, you just have to.
American Nun lives in a home right by the church with Brazilian Nun, who had just the night before made a huge amount of homemade pizza, which we gladly helped them eat. The nuns told us about life in Stykkishólmur and there was never a dull moment in the conversation. I particularly enjoyed when American Nun told us about an Icelandic friend of hers who uses the expression, “I stone forgot!” (which is a literal translation of the Icelandic verb “að steingleyma,” to completely forget, and now that I’ve taken so long to explain this, anyone who didn’t laugh immediately definitely won’t find this funny).
blá nunna, grænn ís
pistasíubragðefni – það er lygi! it tasted like lime!
Anyway, after pizza, we enjoyed Icelandic ice cream bars and American candy (in honor of July 4, of course). The guesthouse had screwed up our reservation and given us a room with one bed instead of two, so the nuns kindly invited me to sleep in their guest room. I didn’t want to impose, but I also really wanted to sleep well, so I accepted, and slept in their basement guest room next to their basement chapel.
Takk fyrir okkur, nunnurnar mínar! Það var ógleymanleg heimsókn til ykkar!
My mamma is 68 years old and twice as Icelandic as I am. Her father, although he never once stepped foot on Icelandic soil, grew up in an Icelandic community in North Dakota, spoke Icelandic, and identified as Icelandic even as he embraced the country in which he was born and lived his life. After my Snorri trip in 2012, I returned to Washington and told my mother she had to come to Iceland. Her response was rather noncommittal – at least, it was until I announced my intention to apply for the Fulbright grant. Then her story changed to, “if you move to Iceland, I will come to visit you.” I don’t want to accuse my mother of anything less than full support of her daughter, but I’m not sure she fully expected that she would have to keep that promise just a few years later. But here we are, three years after my Snorri trip, almost one year after I moved here, and my mamma has come to Iceland for the first time in her life.
Mamma’s flight from Seattle arrived at Keflavík early Wednesday morning, so after sort-of sleeping for a couple hours, Flor and I woke up at 4.45 and stumbled up the street to catch the bus to the airport. We arrived a bit early and I caffeinated myself while we waited. I also put the finishing touches on this sophisticated welcome sign:
We ran into our friend Alix by arrivals, because Iceland. She was waiting for her best friend to arrive from Minnesota. We spent some time chatting and then all of a sudden my mamma emerged from the jaws of the automatic doors. After greetings, we headed to the beloved FlyBus and the journey back to Reykjavík began.
Tummies full of goodies from Sandholt, Flor headed to work and Mamma and I took some much-needed naps. In the afternoon, we went for a walk around the city and I started to introduce my mom to the streets and cafés and views and sights and sounds and people that make up my day-to-day life here. We opted for a low-key evening in, so Mom experienced her first trip to Bónus, I cooked soup, and we lounged around for the evening.
We took our time getting up and ready this morning and then headed out without any specific itinerary. We first stopped by the Fulbright office, where we had coffee and a lovely chat with Belinda and Randver. Then we walked down to Harpa and were pleased to see the sun emerge along the way. Of course, we ran into my teacher Ana, because Iceland, and then while we were sitting drinking coffee at Lækjartorg, we saw my friend Mike, because Iceland. We wandered down toward the Old Harbour and ended up getting fish and chips for lunch (for the record, Icelandic Fish and Chips is much better than almost-right-across-the-street Reykjavík Fish).
On the way back to the house, I was absolutely delighted to spot a red-headed Icelander sporting the world’s (well, at least Reykjavík’s) most magnificent purple jumpsuit, which Kelsey and I had seen several times at Gyllti Kötturinn and been oh so tempted to purchase. Seeing this woman totally own that purple jumpsuit as she strutted confidently up Bankastræti in the sunshine was truly a sight to behold.
After resting a bit at home, we headed to the day’s big event: the US Embassy’s Independence Day celebration, which was held at Listasafn Reykjavíkur – Hafnarhús (The Reykjavík Art Museum). Elliott had told me that this is the Embassy’s biggest event of the year, and he did not lie. They went all-out: red, white, and blue necklaces, top hats, and headbands; red, white, and blue balloons; the ubiquitous Obama cutout, plus a Lady Liberty one; an add-your-face-to-Mount-Rushmore photo op; good ol’ American barbecue food; a display of all fifty state flags; and more.
Thankfully I knew a few people there: Brian from the Embassy; my fellow Fulbrighters Scott, Sophie, and Elliott; Guðrún from the Árni Magnússon Institute. It was rather loud and crowded and I think my poor mother was a bit overwhelmed (but she was a good sport about it and incredibly patient while I talked). Not to mention, the room was filled with so many politicians and other public figures and just plain old imposing and important people that I felt incredibly undeserving of attending.
Case in point: right at the beginning I noticed that none other than Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was in attendance. Yes, the same Vigdís Finnbogadóttir whose election to the office of president 35 years ago was just celebrated a few days ago. I saw several people walk up and talk to her, so I decided I could do it too. I awkwardly introduced myself in Icelandic, explaining that I am a friend of Sunna from North Dakota, who I know had just met with Vigdís recently. Vigdís asked if I was a Snorri program participant and I said yes, I had been. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure what all I said, but I’m pretty sure it was awkward. In my defense, it was loud in there. But still. Is it bad to say that I hope she won’t remember me at all? In case we meet again, I’d rather pretend we’d never met and just start over, hopefully less awkward the second time around.
There was a brief ceremony: Gísli Einhversson (sorry, can’t remember his full name right now) sang the American and Icelandic national anthems and the Ambassador gave a brief speech. I felt like it was readily apparent that Icelanders do not understand the concept of military-related ceremony, as the majority of the crowd seemed largely uninterested and it was difficult for the presenters to hold the crowd’s attention (but that might also have had something to do with the complimentary alcohol). Anyway, during the ceremony, none other than Borgarstjóri Reykjavíkur Dagur B. Eggertsson and his splendid head of hair walked up right behind us. The universe was giving me a second chance, I thought, after I chickened out on June 17 and didn’t ask him for a photo after following him for like half an hour along the parade route. My stomach did flips every time I caught site of his beautiful curls. I can do this, I thought. You have to do this. But then the ceremony ended and he was talking to Important Icelandic People and started moving fairly swiftly toward the door and just when Elliott and I had agreed to ask if we could take a selfie with him, we turned around and the curls had disappeared. Two chances in two weeks and I still don’t have a photo with Dagur. I am ashamed of myself. I am determined to redeem myself on Menningarnótt. Stay tuned.
I did, however, finally get a photo with Rob Barber, thanks to Elliott’s genius networking skills.
Random note: I knew I was at a US event because there was a visible security presence; I was forced to display my actual invitation email (the reminder one wasn’t good enough); and we were not allowed to linger by the entrance after checking in but rather herded through to check our coats, shake Rob Barber’s hand, and enter the main party zone. Good ol’ American rules.
Anyway, it was certainly a memorable evening, and I will definitely go again in the future if I am lucky enough to receive an invitation.
Friday was our last full day in the city before leaving for our road trip. We walked up the street to Hallgrímskirkja and peeked inside (Mom was happy to hear and watch the organist play) but opted not to take the elevator to the top since it was so overcast. We walked over to the university so I could show her the center of my academic life and Flor just so happened to be in the neighborhood so she joined us. We decided to walk down to the Old Harbour and Flor treated us to a tasty late lunch of fiskisúpa at Kaffivagninn. Though it was quite filling, we managed to make room for the best ice cream in Reykjavík at Valdís.
On the way back to the house, we rambled leisurely through Vesturbær and through the cemetery on Suðurgata, which I have come to realize is one of the most beautiful places in the city. There was no one else around except a few teenagers doing some gardening work and a tall, rather distinctive-looking redheaded Icelander. Yes, the day after seeing Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and Dagur B. Eggertsson, we ran into Jón Gnarr (actor, former mayor of Reykjavík, generally well-known Icelandic dude), in the cemetery of all places. He seemed to be doing some sort of interview as he was speaking with a woman in English while another woman snapped photos, so unfortunately we didn’t get to annoy him by introducing ourselves. But after I convinced Flor that it was definitely him, she took a couple paparazzi photos. Just another normal day in Reykjavík.
So I think we managed to pack quite a lot into my mom’s first few days in Reykjavík before embarking on a six-day road trip around Snæfellsness and the Westfjords, which shall be recounted in annoyingly painstaking detail in the coming entries.