Travel Diary – Iceland, Day One
Now I understand why there was no need for a big plane. It’s barely 5 ½ hours from New York to Reykjavik. I was just starting to sleep for the overnight flight when the pilot announced we were landing. This may be the first time I have ever wished a flight was longer.
I’m headed from Keflavik airport into town, and wondering how Iceland got its name, and for that matter, how Greenland got its name. It’s as if when these countries were born, a nurse mistakenly switched their names in the nursery.
“Ice”-land manages to be green yet almost treeless.
The ‘earth’ isn’t earthen at all; it’s all lava with low-lying verdant growth. In a well-worn patter the driver brags that NASA has tested its moon vehicles here, and it’s easy to believe.
Greenland, on the other hand, which you can hardly avoid flying over on any North American flight to Iceland, is whiter than a bleached polar bear. I’ve flown over Greenland often, and usually seen only an endless expanse of white. This time, my spectacular view of “Green”-land from the plane featured mountain peaks swimming in what appears to be mile-deep snow.
As I near the hotel, I ask myself the time-honored, stress-inducing question that we all ask ourselves upon arriving in a new country: “How much do I tip?” Thankfully, my Frommer’s guidebook to Iceland is handy. It turns out that tipping is essentially unheard of here, which puts Iceland in the same favored category as Japan. However the concept of tipping might have begun, it’s morphed into some sort of supersized obligation that I find bewildering at best. Why not just pay for appropriate standards in a restaurant or a taxi and be done with it? Don’t get me started.
I have enough time for a quick breakfast and then it’s straight to a meeting with the conductor. The Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit has stepped in at moment’s notice due to a cancellation, and is naturally eager to discuss the Brahms with me. These so-called “piano rehearsals” are an essential way for conductors and soloists to feel out each other’s interpretations. Normally, however, I do these when I’m awake.
Having discussed the Brahms successfully, and not having the energy to practice more, I realize that I still have twelve hours of daylight to contend with. (I was told not to expect sunset until sometime after 11pm.) I was in that jet lag state where it was getting increasingly difficult to make decisions, so I chose an easy one: I hopped on a bus to the number one tourist resort in Iceland: the Blue Lagoon.
If you go to the Icelandair web site, you see a mountainous backdrop fronted by a blue-tinted lake, and a guy standing in the water with a lot of white goo covering his face. Given the recent eruption of Eyjamultisyllabikull, it’s a pretty strange image: one imagines that you’re looking at some poor schlemiel who went out for a swim and got covered in volcanic ash. It’s not exactly encouraging to potential tourists.
In fact he is standing in the Blue Lagoon, an enormous hot spring on a bed of lava rock, teeming with a special chemical silica that reputedly has enormous benefits for the skin. You can feel this white mud on your feet as you wade through the blue pools, and as an added convenience, they scoop it up and put it in buckets so that you can smear it over your face as a mud mask. Apparently this chemical does something called “exfoliation”, which I believe is Icelandic for “makes you look idiotic.” So there I was, standing in very hot blue water, looking just like the guy in the Icelandair ad.
I loved visiting the Blue Lagoon. There are steam rooms and very serious saunas. You can stand under a dangerously powerful waterfall that will pummel your shoulders into submission. But my favorite part was the shower. It’s a great idea that they insist that you take one before entering the pools, but as a special gesture to those of us with more Neanderthal backgrounds, there is a helpful diagram to show the specific areas that you should apply the most soap! Thank goodness; I was planning on concentrating on my left elbow.