Saturday, March 08, 2014


We're standing in a frozen fjord, staring up at the Northern Lights when a woman's voice echoes off the nearby glacier:
"Oh, I'm glad I put on that pair of Janet's socks."

Iceland is all about the tours. Genuinely, since they blew up their banks, it's a massive source of income. And they do it very well. The Icelandic temperament is endlessly polite and patient, so they're very good at putting up with us. They're also excellent farmers, especially brilliant with cattle. And cattle's what we are.

People often refer to tourists as cattle, but in Iceland it's a perfect description. In order to "experience" the "real" "Iceland" you must "do" lots of trips. Coaches come, coaches go, and wheelie luggage trails through the snow. In a tell-talle moment, a tour guide says "The Icelandic horse is very friendly, very trusting, and very flavoursome". The idea of not spending a day on a tour of some sort is almost unthinkable. Why not spend an entire morning on a trip to a hydroponic garden? After all, it's what our hosts want us to do. The Icelandic horse is very friendly, very trusting, and very flavoursome.

Curiously, the Icelandic tomato is not flavoursome. They are the most lovingly grown tomatoes in the world (yes, we did go on the hydroponics trip). We learned that they are grown by a ridiculously beautiful family, kept warm by geothermal springs and doused in computer-controlled hydroelectric light. They are tended by bees and pest-eating insects. These tomatoes are loved. And they taste like... well, tomatoes that have never seen sunshine.

Tourists are as excellently tended as tomatoes. If the tomatoes could complain their grievances would be listened to and dealt with with the same endlessly patient determination that saw some Icelanders seize on the lunatic genius of growing tomatoes in the dark.

Tourists behave awfully in Iceland. It's almost like they know that the country has fallen on hard times and is taking in paying guests to make ends meet. We've come into your home and we're going to criticize the decor.

EXAMPLE 1: The Tourist Information Office
American Mom: "I want a private tour."
Icelander: "This is an excellent coach trip."
American Mom: "Well no. You see I must have a private tour for just me and the boys."
[As she speaks, one of her boys runs around the shop, licking lava. Icelander pushes forward a different coach trip leaflet with a patient smile.]

EXAMPLE 2: The Blue Lagoon Spa
American Lady: "Is there shade?"
Icelander: "This is an open-air spa."
American Lady: "But I must have shade. I cannot be in the sun."
Icelander: "Then of course there is shade."
[It is, I should point out, a cloudy winter's day. It is snowing]

EXAMPLE 3: The Northern Lights
Tour Guide: "Welcome to our Northern Lights trip. As you know, the Northern Lights are not a natural phenomena and we cannot guarantee that you will see them. Also, they rarely look as you would expect in the photographs. So tonight, we may very well see nothing. Finally, they are over 100 kilometers away and your flash works over a distance of 3 metres. So please do turn your flash off. You will simply spoil other people's ability to see."
[The tour bus decants in a dark field. People get off and take lots of photos of the darkness. With the flash on. Then complain that they can't see anything.]

Actually, the Northern Lights was a fascinating experience. Almost like being on a UFO spotting coach tour. Half of us came away convinced we had seen something. Half came away thinking they never existed. For the record, I saw some very slightly green dancing clouds. I got very excited at one point, but it turned out to be a lorry reversing. Considering a blizzard was coming on, it was amazing that we saw anything at all - even a distant lorry's headlamps.

I took a picture on my iPhone. This is a genuine photo:

And yes, I had my flash turned off.

Don't think I didn't have a wonderful time. The best thing about Iceland are its people. Seeing in them the Aryan ideal, Hitler sent a top Nazi to recruit the country, but he gave up in disgust, reporting that they preferred getting drunk, watching Sherlock Holmes and having a bath to conquering the world.

Reykjavik itself is a WEIRD capital city - kind of like a Milton Keynes industrial estate with the world's biggest Christmas Market. It snowed constantly and magically. Endless little cafes were everywhere offering warm, nutty coffee. If you're used to the London experience of cafes, it's worth going to Iceland just for the peace. You will be surrounded by immaculately-behaved toddlers. The children are amazingly brought up. Prams are neatly parked outside little art galleries, while inside mothers and museum attendants squat gossiping as children crawl curiously around exhibits.

All the notices politely asking parents not to let their children do things (like jump in geysers, lick the cakes or steal things) are written in English. With a puzzled tone of "But why would you do this?". Iceland has invited the world into its home, and is patiently baffled at how the world behaves. "Please do not put cheese in this toaster" reads one. "Please do not unplug this fridge for your laptop" read another in a cafe. But it will work out fine in the end. The Icelandic horse is very friendly, very trusting, and very flavoursome.

One final note: Icelandic men are both absurdly hot and have ludicrous names. One guide was called Bjarthur (pronounced "Bea Arthur"). And here's Iceland's top wrestler. Of course he's called Gunnar.


Rob Stradling said...

Please keep going to places. We have nearly as much fun as you do.

ani said...

I went to the Peter Blake 'Under Milk Wood' exhibition today. The opening lines of the play, "It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black", were represented by a black, blank picture. The dreams of Nogood Boyo (who dreamed of nothing) were likewise represented by a black, blank picture. I think perhaps your genuine photo is a masterpiece.

Skip said...

Who'd have thought I could do minimal?