REYJAVIK, Iceland –Mother Nature demands top billing in this country.
Even its name “Ice”land – tells you that an element of nature is more important than humans and that you’re going to have to pay attention to weather before you start thinking about the culture, or the history, or the quirkiness of the residents, of whom there are relatively few in a country roughly the size of Kentucky. There are approximately 319,000 citizens in all of Iceland. To put it into perspective, fewer than 1.5 million Icelanders have been born here throughout its history. (The population of Greater Boston is 4.5 million.) Here’s a different perspective: The number of Hell’s Angels in Iceland totals three.
We couldn’t take a 50-minute flight to the country’s Northeast region in September without Mom interfering and making a volcano spew smoke, fire and ash into the air for our entertainment. Volcanic eruptions happen here every two or three years, and while most are small and insignificant — “tourist eruptions” — others are much more serious. (That’s why “volcanologist” is one of the most important careers in this country.)
It seems as though everywhere you look, water is either cascading down in huge quantities from mountain precipices, or bubbling up from the ground, smoking with geothermal energy. Standing in front of Dettifoss, the biggest waterfall in Europe located in the Vatnajokull National Park, a rainbow is certain to intrude into the picture, upstaging the waterfall. This makes even those of us with little point-and-shoot phone cameras look like pros with our resulting pictures.
On a cold, quiet night in September (yes, under 40 degrees and still summer) we were told to get outside and look up into the sky to see a brilliant display of the Northern Lights. In one Iceland store we saw a summer dress imprinted with the same beautiful neon green Northern Lights pattern.
Everything in the Icelandic landscape demands star billing: Some Icelandic volcanoes belch bright orange lava, others produce violent white steam explosions called glacier bursts. The latter can cause massive flooding as the ice on the volcanoes melts. Then there are the earthquakes. There have been more than 3000 of them in the last month alone.
To compete with these natural phenomena, the human population tries to come up with ways to entertain the visitor with traditional books, music and museums (including, believe it or not, a museum dedicated to the penis) — but it’s hard for them to compete in a country with so much natural drama. Icebergs, glaciers, ice sheets, “table mountain” volcanoes, geysers above and caves below, lava fields, fjords and weird geologic rock formation constantly demand your attention. (Icelanders, by the way, believe that troll-like boys live in those rock formations).
Even Icelanders’ names have to do with the elements. Our guide to the northernmost town in Iceland was named Siglufjordur which means “shelter-from-the-ocean’s-winds-god-of-fertility-son-of-the-one-who-goes-into-battle-alongside-God.” And that was just his first name.
Icelanders don’t battle alongside God so much as they go merrily along with His gifts of nature, bathing in the geothermal waters, taking fish from the sea around them, using the hot ground as ovens to bake their bread, drinking from fresh, pure spring water and heating their homes geothermally.
Onl 16 to 18 million years old, Iceland is often referred to as a “baby country.” Compared to the rest of the world, it’s still teething — exploding and spurting and crying for notice.
After two weeks, my husband and I needed to go home and decompress from all the activity above and below the ground in this unusual country, where the performances continue non-stop and the curtain never falls. When we’re ready for more theater, well return to Iceland and demand an encore.