A friend of mine just returned from Iceland. She knew I’d been there last year and asked me if I had any advice for her before she left. I plucked some tips from the following essay. I wrote it when Jeff and I returned to Noth Carolina and thawed out. Mind you, we went in April; her trip might have been warmer. Anyway, I’m hoping my (mis)adventures helped her. Particularly my experience at one of the public baths . . .
I never planned on visiting Iceland. I’d been accustomed to saying no when my husband, Jeff, asked me to take any trip with him. It didn’t matter if it was a full-on vacation, or a two-day junket. “Shell, do you want to go to Vegas with me for a meeting?” Um, no. “Do you want to join me in Colorado for–” No. “Do you want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with me next summer? Double no.
I don’t dislike my husband, it’s just my fear of flying is intense, and so is my anxiety over leaving my son. I have to admit though, that as the months went by last year I regretted passing up a “trip of a lifetime” to Africa. I knew I couldn’t let this trip to Iceland go. Which is ironic because after lining up help for my child I proceeded to dismiss it completely.
I didn’t think about what to pack, where to tour, or how to manage the cold. I didn’t have a coat because my daughter had taken them all, and I ignored Jeff’s warnings about dressing in layers. (Please, I’m a middle-aged woman. The mere thought of layers makes me sweat.) All I thought about was getting enough Xanax for each leg of the journey.
After a knuckle-biting flight we landed in Reykjavik. I could tell from glancing out the window that I was an idiot for only bringing a sweater. It didn’t matter that it was April—springtime to me—it was called Ice-Land for a reason. Jeff said it would be chilly, but he forgot the part about the wind. There are no trees in Iceland. None. The Vikings cut them all down, (bastards) and they didn’t even plant any conifers on the way out. It didn’t look like Sweden with its perky pine trees, it looked more like Mars, but grey. “This is a God-forsaken place,” I thought to myself as the plane lurched to the ground. However, the beauty of our flight attendants compensated for the naked landscape.
My first real Icelandic experience, (other than being knocked over by 30 mph winds) was thawing out in a hotel room warmed naturally by geothermal heating. It felt like you were sitting on a volcano. Which you were because the country is still rocked by lava. This is wonderful unless you’re someone like me who can’t sleep at night even in the most ideal situation. I’m like a bat. I need my room to be cold, dark, and damp. I fixed my problem by sleeping naked with a wet towel on me every night. (The front desk just stared at me when I asked for a fan.)
My husband slept like a baby. He powered through his jet lag and got up at 6:00 am the first morning to make a dry-suited scuba dive. He’d been to Iceland twice before but never had time to experience the Silfra fissure. It’s a crack between North America and Europe that was formed by the constant pulling apart of two tectonic plates. It’s a “geological wonder” and one of the world’s most popular diving destinations because in some of the really narrow openings you can touch both continents at the same time. Big deal. I had my own underwater adventure that day. I went to a fish spa and had my feet nibbled on for twenty minutes.
Our first outing together was significant. To me anyway. Jeff and I went to a public, geothermal bath. This is the way Icelanders relax, socialize, and ground themselves. No question, when you live in Iceland you go to the pool. Naturally I didn’t bring a bathing suit. When Jeff informed me the day before we left town that we were going to bathe outdoors my mind wasn’t on fashion. I packed a grey and black ensemble made up of a pair of his old running shorts and one of my faded black sports bras. I looked like something out of an Eastern Bloc travel magazine.
Jeff chose the same pool he’d visited earlier called the Laugardalslaug. (Don’t bother.) I felt a little uneasy as we went to our separate locker rooms. He was a veteran and understood the customs. Not me. When I entered the ladies locker room, which was large and completely full, I understood what my gut had been trying to tell me. I practically had to pick up my jaw from the floor when I saw that everyone—and I mean everyone–was buck naked. Pregnant women, old women, young girls, teenagers—everyone. And they were everywhere. I could barely stifle a gasp. I just stood there gaping like a Puritan who had just landed in a nudist colony. Not that there was anything prurient about it—quite the opposite. But my prudish Southern self wasn’t used to such complete nudity. “No way,” I whispered. “No way, no way.”
I proceeded to slink on all fours to the furthest region of the room and fix my eyes on the locker in front of me. There I was able to practice every slumber party trick I’d ever learned in Junior High. I pulled my skirt up around my neck, removing and added clothing as deftly as possible. I peeked over my shoulder every now and then to see if anyone was laughing at me. No one noticed, no one cared. And then I felt self-conscious about feeling self-conscious.
When I finally untangled myself from my clothing I snuck around trying not to look at anyone or anything. What I didn’t realize until later—and this is the truth—is that you’re required to shower before entering the pools. That’s why you got naked. You are to practice good hygiene before dipping in the natural, unchlorinated water. Jeff, being a man, left out this detail. In one of those I Love Lucy moments I crept behind the showers to avoid stripping down. This is a serious no no. I can’t believe I didn’t get caught by the guard. At least I’d showered that morning.
When I tiptoed outside there were hot tubs and pools everywhere. I saw Jeff and I beamed myself over to him because it was freezing. He chose what was supposed to be the coolest tub. Of course it was way too hot for my neurotic body so I just bit my lip and bobbed at the waist and pretended to enjoy the water. “Wow, it really is miraculously hot in here!” Jeff kept popping out of the tub to try different pools, so I was alone for a while. Finally, I started chatting with people. There were two Vikings to my right, a small group of Kiwis in front of me, and a consistent flow of natives bubbling about at all times. I heard some great Danish jokes and learned how to order beer in Icelandic. Not easy. Our Garmin couldn’t even pronounce the words. I left the tub only when my heart started doing flip flops.
Our final outing was designated for a different type of outdoor adventure. Geysers and waterfalls. I don’t really care much for scenery, but even I couldn’t help filming the barren, volcanic wasteland on our way to the country’s most famous and powerful waterfall, Gullfloss. I was practically blown away by its force, and I cursed myself for the 100th time for not bringing the right clothing. By the end of the day I was wearing Jeff’s orange Men-At-Work windbreaker, my black nylon sweater, a shtetl scarf over my head, (I definitely did not look like Grace Kelly in a convertible) some Icelandic wool mittens, leggings, and boots. And I was still cold.
By the end of a trip filled with waterfalls and geysers, public baths and fishcakes I didn’t want to go home. Yes, I froze my ass off in the wind, but the country’s naked beauty was well worth the head cold I earned a few days later. And I was blown away by something else as well–Iceland’s quirkiness. I’m sure we’ll go back, and when we do I’m going to bring a coat and a small fan. And I’ll be on my best, most compliant behavior in the locker rooms. I’m working on my nudity right now. Good thing because a trip to Finland–and its saunas—is just around the corner.