Last week I think we established fairly conclusively that Iceland is an odd little country, at least as far as food is concerned. How else can you explain a place where they habitually eat whale steaks, puffin burgers, and bits of rot-cured shark? (See Oddities in Iceland, Part I).
But that’s not the half of it. Iceland’s oddness extends way beyond the table. Indeed, in my short four-day visit there this quirky island presented me with so many oddities I have had a tough time editing them down to a manageable list. Here is the final selection.
Oddity One: Bursting Day
Not only do the good folk of Iceland eat a wide assortment of weird and wonderful foods, they also have several special events and national holidays specifically devoted to the subject of eating them.
Firstly, Icelanders are pretty proud of their gargantuan pre-Christmas buffets, where they pass the night gorging on an all-you-can-eat spread of Icelandic specialities. Remember though that at Christmas time in Iceland, the night can last for weeks…..
Once recovered from this festive feasting, Icelanders move on to the porrablot, essentially the exact same thing as a Christmas buffet, only held all through January and February, and often described as “Icelandic food orgies”.
Then there is an interesting Icelandic holiday known as “Bun Day” (bolludagur) which comes around each year just before Lent. On this day children are allowed to sneak into their parents’ bedroom wielding a small decorated paddle, and give those pesky parents a thorough spanking. And if the prospect of being spanked by your own kids wasn’t bizarre enough, the rules of Bun Day prescribe that the longer and harder the kids wallop their parents the more they are rewarded, in the form of little custard-filled buns – one for each smack landed.
But for me, the greatest Icelandic food holiday has got to be sprengidagur, which is held each year on Shrove-Tuesday. Literally translated this means “Bursting Day”, and on this marvelous occasion Icelandic tradition holds that one should eat as much yellow-pea and smoked lamb soup (saltkjöt og baunir) as one possibly can. Like the name suggests, true aficionados will take this task quite seriously, and will continue guzzling the soupy-stew to the point of being sick, and bursting.
A country that takes time out to celebrate gluttony: odd, yes, but who couldn’t love a place like that?
Oddity Two: Hi honey, fancy IKEA tonight?
OK, one more Iceland food related oddity, and then that’s it, I promise.
On the outskirts of Reykjavik there is an IKEA megastore. Nothing strange about that of course – half the world these days has an IKEA megastore located somewhere on the outskirts of town.
However, where IKEA Iceland makes a sharp left turn onto Odd Street is in the fact that Icelanders often don’t go there to buy furniture. Instead, it turns out that what they really go to IKEA for is its tantalising Swedish cafeteria food (meat-balls, hot-dogs, etc).
You see, according to official statistics, IKEA’s canteen is the most popular restaurant in Iceland, both in terms of the number of annual visits, and the volume of food served. On average each and every Icelander will visit IKEA for a feed not just once or twice a year, but a staggering eight times.
So the Reykjavik IKEA is permanently packed with families out for dinner, friends meeting for a bite after work, and youngsters out on dates (this presumably means that if things go well, they can then repair directly to one of the twenty different bedroom options nearby…). All I can say is that when you’re in a place where teenagers head to IKEA for a fun night out, you are in a very odd place indeed.
Oddity Three: Fjárfestingarfyrirtæki
No, this is not the Icelandic word for an annual festival of farting. But this is a real Icelandic word, believe it or not. It means “investment enterprise”, otherwise more commonly known to the rest of us as a humble company. And proving beyond a shadow of doubt that Iceland is home to what has to be the oddest fucking language on earth.
Partly this is because Icelandic is prone to massive, virtually unpronounceable compound words. And partly because this fully fledged self-contained language, maintained by not one but two government-funded bodies (the Icelandic Language Council and the Icelandic Studies Institute) is spoken by only around 300,000 people. That’s less than the population of the Eastern suburbs of Sydney, say.
But mainly Icelandic is odd because it is unlike any other language in the world. Non-Icelanders tend to assume it is similar to Nordic languages – Finish, Swedish etc. And indeed, Icelandic is officially classified as an “Indo-European language of the Insular Nordic branch”. But this means nothing in practice, and even those from Scandinavia roll their eyes in utter bewilderment at choice Icelandic words like landbúnaðarframleiðsl and hæstaréttarmálaflutningsmaður.
So what’s the story? Well, 1000 years ago they spoke Norse in Iceland, which was the language of the Vikings, who had brought it with them when they colonized the island. Then, while the rest of Europe spent the next ten centuries linguistically evolving, Iceland was a sealed little bubble, having almost no interaction with the outside world. As a result Icelandic barely changed this whole time. Today it thus remains true to the Norse original, and completely different to everything else. An Icelandic child of 2013 can whip out his or her Kindle and not only read but fully understand the Sagas, Icelandic stories written in the 10th century. Which is pretty remarkable considering that most English-speaking kids can barely read fully formed words of more than three letters anymore (omg so tru lol), much less read Shakespeare or Chaucer in the original.
That said, perhaps I am exaggerating the uniqueness of Iceland’s language. A helpful man I met in a Reykjavik bookstore pointed out to me that Icelandic is, in fact, remarkably similar to Faroese. You know, the language spoken all over that other well-known global powerhouse, the Faroe Islands….
Oddity Four: Gnarly, dude
If you choose to name your country “Iceland”, there are certain things automatically conveyed in said choice of name. Like that it is a pretty cold place, and like that there is a lot of ice and snow there. So you go to Iceland pretty much expecting to see things like windswept landscapes, glaciers, and snow-capped mountains. If you’ve done some pre-reading you might also expect to see the occasional wide green field, a lava field or two, and quaint fishing villages hugging the coast.
But what you most definitely do not expect to see are cool surfer-looking dudes lugging surfboards around. Remarkably, however, this is not an uncommon sight in Iceland, especially along the southern coast. The reason, once you put the cold weather aside, is simple: Iceland is an island, with about 3,000 kilometres of pristine coastline, dotted with countless perfect beaches. Surfers get to enjoy crescents of black lava sand, huge breaks along the shore, and absolutely no-one in the water trying to steal their wave. Apart from the minor issue of hypothermia-inducing water temperature, these are dream surfing conditions, and so in the last five years the hard-core of the global surfer community has “discovered” Iceland. They have been arriving in ever larger numbers, equipped with super-duper hi-tech wetsuits that allow them to catch a wave, without freezing to death.
Oddity Five: The Israeli Connection
Regular readers of this blog will know that whenever I go somewhere new, I like to search out the local Jewish community, or see if there is an interesting Jewish angle to the place.
In the case of Iceland, however, this effort drew a big blank. There are apparently a hundred or so Jews in the country, who meet once or twice a year around Jewish holidays. One of the early fishery owners in Iceland was a Jew from Denmark, who came, saw, pickled some fish, and then left. But apart from this, there is absolutely nothing of any Jewish interest in Iceland – no synagogue, no Jewish centre, no organised Jewish community, and no Jewish history to speak of.
Yet despite this, there is one present day Jewish connection of note, entirely unexpected given that it is at the very highest possible level. This is Dorrit Moussaieff, a lady of Uzbeki-Jewish heritage, dual Israeli-UK citizen, born and raised in Jerusalem and fluent in Hebrew, German and French, who also just happens to be married to Iceland’s President. Ms Moussaieff lives in Reykjavik, speaks Icelandic, and promotes and represents Iceland at official functions, both at home and abroad. But she remembers her roots, and in interviews has said that she continues to observe Jewish rituals even in Iceland, like lighting Hanukkah candles.
Meaning the first lady of Iceland is Jewish, which more than odd is also unique, in that it is something no other country besides Israel can claim.
Oddity Six: Yoga, Iceland style….
We spent two days driving around the magnificent Snaefelnes Peninsula, accompanied by a specialist photographer-cum-tour-guide. He was a big burly fellow, with a shaggy beard and a mop of unkempt salt and pepper hair. We met for the first time in the hotel car park, shortly before setting off on the tour. I said: “Hi, I’m Eytan, nice to meet you, how are you today?” holding out my hand to shake his. To which he replied rather abruptly, without explanation or for that matter any apparent concern for normal social conventions – “pretty shit” – and then turned his back on me to continue packing the car. A great start…
Later that day I was snacking on biscuits as we drove along, and I offered him one. “No thanks”, he said, and instead pulled out a massive bunch of what he told us was his favourite snack food: raw parsley. He then proceeded to munch on large clumps of it, loudly and with much gusto, for the next hour. And then when done with the parsley, he whipped out a seriously long whole cucumber and noisily chomped his way through that, too.
He confirmed his oddball status towards the end of that day, when he pulled me aside during a walk and without warning asked: “you do know that I am world-famous?” A rather bizarre question, don’t you think, and I obviously didn’t answer it right, because he stalked off in a sulky huff when I said that I was, in fact, unaware of this.
In any case, the odd-ometer went into full overdrive on the second afternoon as we drove across a lava field. In between mouthfuls of parsley and cucumber, our taciturn guide casually passed me a coffee-table book of sorts, telling me that this was a collection of his most recent photographic work. I looked at the front cover, and when I read the title it was all I could do not to burst into laughter: “The Icelandic Naked Yoga Project”.
It turns out that some months before, our world-famous parsley-addicted tour-guide-photographer had come up with an interesting angle on the ancient Indian ritual of yoga, being to round up friends, family and random strangers, and get them to perform yoga poses completely in the buff. And to do this outdoors, in Iceland, in winter, in near Arctic conditions, all while being photographed. Amongst the more memorable images thus recorded for all posterity is one of a woman performing a full-frontal swan position knee-deep in a near frozen lake; another of a woman in a back-bend, half covered in snow; and another of a completely naked man crouched in the warrior pose, right up against the frozen ice wall of a glacier.
As if all this was not surreal enough, our tour guide then called out to me: “Can you figure out which two photos are of me?” I almost gagged just at the thought of it, and immediately tried to shut the book. But he was insistent that I go through it carefully and try to pick him out, and wouldn’t let up until I had. So with a great degree of unhappiness I can now tell you that the image of a fellow in naked horse pose is a very fine one indeed, albeit a little bit disturbing given the view of his very shrivelled private bits, dangling down for all to see….
Oddity Seven: All about penises
And while on the subject of dangly bits, we come to my favourite Icelandic oddity of the lot – a strange fascination with all matters penile.
I already mentioned in last week’s post that ram testicles stewed in their own scrotum are an Icelandic delicacy of sorts. That is, I think we would all agree, kind of odd. And I have just pointed out that otherwise entirely sane Icelanders seemed to have no qualms about whipping out their tackle and performing nude yoga in extremely cold settings. That is also without question pretty odd.
But now, consider for a moment a humble roadside gas station, in the middle of nowhere, Iceland. After a long morning’s drive, three Australian tourists and their guide walk in to buy a coffee. On the counter there is a coffee pot, there is a Pepsi dispenser, there are some chocolates and chips. Oh and by the way, there is a display rack selling condoms. And not just any old condoms, mind you, but individually wrapped “Icelandic Eruption” brand condoms, with a picture of either an erupting volcano or phallic-looking rock column on the front, and the slogan: “high quality condom from the land of explosions”.
Then you discover this is not a one-off aberration, these same condoms available seemingly everywhere in Iceland, including at countless gift and souvenir stores, in the airport, and even at the exit to Iceland’s premier tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon. In one particular gift store, to your great surprise you notice they are located right alongside a bunch of children’s toys. All of which moves things into the seriously odd category.
And then, just when you think it couldn’t get any weirder, you stumble across one of Reykjavik’s principal tourist attractions while strolling through town – the Iceland Phallological Museum. Yes, that’s right: a whole museum devoted to the sole subject of penises.
Here they proudly claim to house the world’s largest collections of penises and penis parts, including that of every single creature native to Iceland. There are over 300 different penises on show, in glass jars of formaldehyde or mounted on display, taxidermy-style. This includes a whole collection of whale penises, with the four-foot high penis of a sperm whale the undisputed star attraction.
In fact, the only penis not on display is that of a human – its empty glass display cabinet is the final exhibit, with the caption: “The Final Member?” above it. Apparently, in 2011 a human specimen was donated to the museum, but “detachment from the donor’s body did not go according to plan and it was reduced to a greyish-brown shriveled mass pickled in a jar of formalin. The museum continues to search for a younger and a bigger and better one”.
Hands down one of the weirdest museum experiences, ever. Thank you Iceland – it just doesn’t get any odder than this….
In case my focus on the weird and wonderful oddities of Iceland suggests otherwise, let me say that I thought that as places to visit go, Iceland was absolutely brilliant.
The scenery is magnificent, beyond description or superlatives. The people are warm and friendly. The food may be odd, but it is oh so good. The Northern Lights are a marvel unto themselves, as is the blue lagoon, where in freezing cold temperatures I got to float in a steaming bath in the middle of a lava field, while a guy in a wet-suit gave me a massage.
They say “good things come in small packages”. In which case Iceland is the ultimate small package, chock-full of all good things, and one of the most interesting places I have been to in a long, long time.
Iceland lived up to every expectation I had, and I’d go back there tomorrow. Odd or not.