Almost Arctic - Adventures in the Northernmost Capital on Earth
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Boarding Passes? Check. Passports? Check. Luggage? Checked. Apprehension about not having traveled internationally since COVID? You bet. Excitement and unease existed together as we awaited our non-stop flight from Boston to Reykjavík.
When we booked our summer family trip to Iceland back in January, there was definitely some risk involved. COVID had made its rampant return to the Americas and Europe. We hadn't taken a family vacation in 3 years. Alyse and I hadn't been abroad since our 2009 honeymoon. However, for my 40th birthday I wanted to go bigger than a weekend in the mountains or the beach. It was time for a family adventure.
As you might have noticed by now, travel is always a tremendous teacher. If you pay attention, themes often emerge while away from home, and this one would be no different. For me, Iceland 2022 was about how things are more complex than they seem. About how places, people, or situations are capable of nuances we can't possibly comprehend. Life has taught me that two dissonant truths can exist simultaneously. Our feeble human minds cannot possibly understand the countless intricacies that make life what it is.
Lesson learned? Hard as it may be, accept complexity. Don't think for one second we truly understand something (or someone). Making things simpler than they seem just so we can wrap our heads around them is at best quaint, at worst delusional. In my opinion, it is ultimately placing too much confidence in our limited perspectives that can't possibly comprehend the incomprehensible.
Case in point: we arrived around midnight. It was still light out. The sun brushed the horizon, glowing from beneath some distant clouds like the image of a friend you haven't seen in awhile but whose smile you remember warmly.
An hour earlier we had passed over the southern tip of Greenland, one of the most forbidding-looking places I'd ever seen. The crumpled, endlessly mountainous expanse stretched away into the distance, crashing haphazardly into the frigid North Atlantic. If an independent country, Greenland would be the 12th largest in the world, more than a quarter the size of the continental US. Population: 56,000. From aloft I saw what appeared to be boats in rugged harbors, only to realize that there weren't any settlements in these parts. The floating shapes were icebergs.
Our Icelandair 737 squeaked on the runway of Keflavík Airport, and just like that we were abroad for the first time in well over a decade, and the first in Julia's life. International formalities were, fortunately, pretty straightforward. By the time we took a shuttle to the car rental office and made the 45-minute drive to Mosfellsbær (suburban locale of our Airbnb), though, it was approaching 1am. Thankfully, our middle-aged, bearded host Siggi was incredibly welcoming despite the late hour. We'd spent the whole day traveling, but it would be worth it. Tomorrow we'd begin our Icelandic explorations in its quirky capital city, the northernmost in the world.
"Can we park here?" I asked Alyse and Julia as we pulled our Corolla Hatchback into a space and squinted to decipher an Icelandic road sign. Perhaps the first instance of something being more complex than it seemed was the Icelandic language itself. Seeing it written, it was simultaneously beautiful and cringe-inducingly abstruse. Just when you think you've mastered pronunciation, a sound comes up that brings to mind a catfish bone lodged in the esophagus. Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that stopped world air traffic in 2010, is the oft-parodied word that no one outside Iceland can pronounce.
In any case, we had one day in Reykjavík and we weren't about to let umlauts and 16-letter words hold us back. (Side note: Icelanders speak English incredibly well - phew!). If I had to describe Reykjavík - which has about the population of Manchester, NH - in one word, it would be "quirky".
I would hardly call it classically beautiful in a European (or any) sense, with its smattering of historic buildings outnumbered by concrete-and-glass structures and corrugated metal siding. That said, there was something agreeable about a city of this size being the national capital. It was very walkable, clean, and safe, with surprises around many a corner.
Before lunch we stretched our legs at Austurvöllur, one of the main city squares. Despite being the high season for tourism, I would hardly call it crowded. The proliferation of blooming flowers belied temperatures in the low 50s and apathetic grey skies.
From there we proceeded to the Old Harbour, on the way back from which we began to be followed by a short, stealthy interloper. As we proceeded down the sidewalk, we then felt something against our legs. The audacity!
Before the trip, a very helpful coworker (who had honeymooned in Iceland in 2017) had recommended an intimate lunch place called Laundromat, which we eagerly entered as hunger was taking over.
After lunch, the walking tour continued. It remained cloudy and in the 50s but with peeks of sun - it felt more like October in New Hampshire, but it really was ideal for all the walking we did.
First we ducked into the Settlement Exhibition, a fascinating museum quite literally built around a site of archeological significance; specifically, the foundation of a Viking dwelling from around ~1,000 AD. While it mostly looked like a pile of rocks, exhibits surrounding it ensured that the imagination was free to picture that Vikings lived on this very location. A smattering of tools and other artifacts from the era rounded out this captivating post-lunch stop.
We attempted a bunch of family selfies in front of Harpa, the concert hall noted for its geometric glass panels. Only built in 2011, its striking modern lines earned it a European modern architecture award in 2013. If the exterior facade was striking, the ceiling when we stepped inside was even cooler, glimmering shapes welcoming a few more selfies.
Our legs were getting a bit tired by this point, but we had one more Reykjavík stop to make, at the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, towering 244 feet (and appearing far higher given its hillside locale) over the city. This concrete colossus took over 40 years to build, and despite its status as arguably the most famous building in Reykjavík, if not all of Iceland, it was only finished in 1986!
If you've been reading this blog long enough, or if you know me well, you'll remember that I absolutely love ascending to high points for stellar views. Doesn't matter if it's a hike or a 30-second elevator ride, I just love sweeping views of a city or a countryside. The tower of Hallgrímskirkja did not disappoint.
Looking through barred windows, the capital's urban sweep stretched out before us, backed by icy Atlantic waters and treeless ridges. It was impressive and almost beautiful. The true beauty came from the fact we had arrived safely and were abroad as a family for the first time ever.
Before walking back to the car after a long but satisfying day, I took a photo of Julia on the swings that perfectly represents the coexistence of vastly different realities. Layer one is that she's not quite a kid anymore, but far from being an adult either. There is simultaneously motion and stalwartness - a hulking, static stone church juxtaposed with youth's dynamic exuberance. Architecture and humanness in one snap.
Few moments, then, are totally pure - a picture shows one story, but there's more behind it. Who didn't feel well that day, who had to pee as they put on a smile that will live on for decades. Perhaps it's that very complexity that makes life what it is. Accepting the awkward, the unpleasant, and the downright bad as integral - if frustrating - parts of this kaleidoscope we call life.
There would be far more moments like this on the trip, especially as we ventured out past the safe harbor of the city to Iceland's dramatic, ceaseless ruralness. First though, it was time to get some rest. Sleep came eventually that evening, despite the sun's constant presence...