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Posted on Jul 16, 2016

Have you ever been to Iceland?

This summer is the first time I’ve ever taken the kids to Finland. We found some cheap flights via – it only cost us $3000 for all three of us to fly. That’s a good deal, considering the usual price is about $1500, which for our little family is prohibitively expensive.

This screamin’ deal was with Iceland Air. The route was Vancouver-Reykjavik-Helsinki with a 19 hour layover in Iceland. I could’ve stressed out about the layover, and surely would have if my kids were younger. But my kids are now 5 and 9, and sooooo much less trouble than even just a year ago. They are old enough that we could enjoy a day in Iceland without running me ragged (physically, of course, because let’s face it – they’re going to drive me mental no matter WHAT age they are!!)

Iceland has been in the news quite a bit in the past few years, what with the whole volcanic eruption, the new Iceland Air routes to Vancouver, and of course the video of them singing after the soccer match that went viral. Other than knowing the capital is Reykjavik and it is Bjork’s native land, I knew very little (okay, nothing) about Iceland. Despite an aggressive marketing campaign by what must be an entire fleet of social media experts, I had paid little attention to this country. But the campaigns must’ve worked, because a little spark of curiosity blossomed when I knew we were going to have a brief stay there – I was just handed an incredible opportunity! I can learn a LOT in 19 hours!

The only problem I could foresee was that my children would be exhausted. We flew out at 4pm on Wednesday, and the children were unlikely to sleep on the plane (they tend to stay up till past 10pm during the summer months.) If I was unlucky, they would fall asleep 6 hours into our 7 hour flight. Ugh. Nothing like carrying dead weights through the airport!

I decided it would be best to get a room for our stay. Easier said than done! Hotel rooms were in the neighbourhood of  $250 per day (the cheaper ones) and even a hostel would run us $130 for one night. Ho. Ly. Crap. I checked Craig’s List for vacation listings. There were many! There were even some that were $90 per night! I emailed several asking if we could rent the room for just the one day – I’d happily pay $100 even though we were only going to stay for 15 hours! By about the 3rd email I realized that I kept emailing the same person. All of them were run by the same management company! One that was apparently on vacation themselves, because they never got back to me. To this day they haven’t replied. Huh.

With a minor change in my search words, I stumbled across a person who had a room for rent. The email sounded friendly, and it was NOT run by the management company. I sent an email enquiry. The reply was quick – they were looking for someone to sublet their flat for the winter, and someone had already booked the room for the day that we would be there. They asked for more information to see if they could help me out somehow.

For some (or maybe most), such a request would send up red flags. But I have a really reliable bullshit-ometer, and my alarm bells were not going off. So I told them how I would be there with two young kids, how we were all going to be too tired to enjoy Iceland if we didn’t get to sleep for the first part of our stay. Again, the reply was immediate: the person who had booked the room was on a mountain excursion, and was expected to arrive later that night – 7 or 11, depending on which bus they caught. We were welcome to use the room that morning, and if we needed to nap before leaving for the airport that night we could use their personal bed.

DONE! What a lovely, generous offer! We agreed that $95 USD was a fair price considering the outrageous prices elsewhere. Then our host offered to meet us at the bus, show us around, give us directions, etc. Amazing! I gratefully accepted. Others would be hesitant to bring their children someplace strange and sleep in a stranger’s home, but I’m all over it! I am always offering up my own home to strangers, in fact one will be staying there when we return from Finland in August. I expect only good things from people because that’s what I offer: a safe place to stay, a helping hand, tourist information.

We got off the plane in Keflavik around 6:30am. Immediately we started to shiver. It was c-c-c-cold! I dug out our sweaters and we turned up our hoods and huddled for warmth as we waited for our bus. Luckily it was heated! It was clearly summer – mid July for crying out loud – but all the locals were wearing fleece with a winter jacket. And a toque! What the…?! The locals spoke a language that sounded Norwegian or Swedish, but was completely foreign to me. The bus ride was quiet as we all took in our surroundings – barren lands speckled with jagged volcanic rocks and little vegetation. Fascinating.

As we neared Reykjavik, the scenery became more human – buildings, cars, even some greenery. It wasn’t a bustling metropolis by any means, but there are only 120k people living there, and only 320k in the entire country. And we were about to meet a local who was going to show us a side of Iceland we would not see from the aiport, or even on a tour. Sure, we could take the excursion to a glacier or to the volcanic caves, but I didn’t want to see the touristy side – being among the locals is the best way to get a feel for ANY place!

When we got off the bus, our host Henry was there to greet us. He threw open his arms and embraced us in his warmth. Hugs all around! Henry is Chinese and has lived in Iceland for 20 years. He told us that in his 20 years there, the highest temperature he had ever experienced was 17 degrees. SEVENTEEN DEGREES!!! The HIGHEST!!! I was dumbfounded. Speechless. Wow.

Henry walked us to his flat (a block away) and showed us to a tiny two-room apartment with a teeny kitchen and a wee bathroom. Henry took his shoes off before entering the apartment, so we followed suit. Then he put on slippers indoors, and always removed them before entering a bedroom. The rental “bedroom” was the largest room, what was probably the living room at one time. It had two beds – a Scandinavian-style single and a double – and had asian art on all the walls. The room was tastefully furnished, nothing fancy but really homey.

We chatted with Henry for a good hour before we got to sleep because he was just so interesting!! He was a hiking guide in the “summer” and left every September to live in an ashram in India until May. He meditated by the ocean and collected rocks, which seems diopposed to his currency collection which he proudly showed us. Oh, that reminds me – I must send him an old Canadian $2 bill that I have in my collection!

Henry told us about the hot water – ALL of the hot water in Iceland comes from the volcanos. Um… what?? Apparently they have a system of underground pipes that brings steaming water from under (near? beside?) volcanos, and they even run under the streets to keep them clear of snow in the winter. Well, that’s bloody brilliant!! It smells like rotting eggs, but you get used to that pretty quickly. All of the energy in Iceland comes from wind or water power too – this little country has really figured out how to harness nature’s power. Very cool.

When we awoke from our 5 hour nap, we were pretty hungry. Being frugal, I was hoping to find a reasonably-priced restaurant. Nope. It is NOT cheap to eat out in Iceland! Henry suggested we get some groceries and save our money. I was totally on board with that – he lives simply and frugally, which is admirable even if unattainable. He walked us to the grocery store, where he pushed the cart and told us about all the interesting foods as we ooohed and aaaahed about the neat treats and expensive fruits.

After our simple meal in his tiny kitchen – the sweetest strawberries ever grown, some local Skyr yogurt which the kids devoured (high praise!), and some croissants – we were off to swim in one of the town’s public outdoor geothermal pools. It was a half hour walk, but it flew by as Henry regaled us with stories of his life and interesting tid bits about the town. My daughter commented about how we didn’t see ANY children on the streets. I recall seeing a few kids on bikes passing us on the way to the grocery store, but we didn’t see any parks or playgrounds, and no kids even walking on the streets.

When we got to the pool, we found all the children! This pool, probably like every other pool in the city, was teeming with children and adults alike. A steaming complex of geothermal pools each with a different temperature, heated by vol-freaking-canos! There were water slides, an obstacle course, toys, hot tubs, volleyball nets, etc. SWEET! You could easily spend all day here! But if you do, there’s something you need to know: get naked!

No, no, I don’t mean you SWIM naked, but you definitely have to be comfortable with being naked around strangers. If you’re not, don’t go. There are very strict rules that must be followed to enjoy these public pools, and there are attendants there to make sure no one messes with the rules. NO ONE! First, take your shoes off in the hallway and leave them in the cubbies provided. If you’re wearing your Loubitons (why?!) you can put them in a plastic bag (provided) and take them to your locker. Upon entry you are given a wristband which is used to lock and unlock your locker, and returned at the end of your visit.

Second, get naked. Strip off your clothes, put them in the locker, take your towel and bathing suit, and walk over to the communal showers. Leave your towel and suit in a cubby, and get wet. Then get soapy. Then rinse. If you want to use the pool, you need to be CLEAN! Nobody wants your toe jam in the water. When you are all clean, put on your suit and walk out to the pool. Enjoy.

When you are done enjoying the varying degrees of tepid-warm-hot pools, walk back into the change room and yup! Get naked. Shower. Use soap. Don’t shave in there, it’s not your bathroom. Dry off. Wipe your feet on the towel at the exit, and head to your locker. The floors of the change room are clean and bone dry, kept that way by respectful users who only walk on the floors with clean and dry feet. This is all familiar to me, having grown up in Finnish tradition and appreciating cleanliness and respecting customs. It was new to my kids, but they adjusted quickly and didn’t ask silly questions – I was so proud of them for not even batting an eye when having to shower naked with strangers!

After our pool visit, we headed back to the airport. We took a cab from the pool to the bus depot, where we ordered the most delicious fish and chips from a brusk but jolly chef who kindly fed us even though he was trying to close up shop for the day. He packed up our meal “real good” so we could take it on the bus and eat it at the airport. He rolled it up in Saran Wrap so that even WE couldn’t smell it, even though we were carrying it! Impressive! I think he may have thrown in a free juice too, though it could’ve been part of the meal package – I can’t read Icelandic. While we waited for our food, the kids and I watched fascinatedly as a man next to us ate a sheep’s head. Literally. It was one of the meal options, and you could see all the details cleary – there’s the jaw, there’s the eyes, there are the nostrils. The guy just chuckled when he noticed us staring – you MUST expect that when you’re eating a head at a touristy destination!

If you’ve never been to Iceland, you have GOT to go! It’s cold, some might even say it’s frigid. But when you meet someone like Henry who radiates warmth and good vibes, you can’t help but see the country through their eyes. He raved about how this country really takes care of all of its citizens, there are no homeless people (er… BRRRR!), and no one goes unnoticed. His only complaint was that since tourism really picked up in the last 3 years (2.5 million visitors last year, 3.5 expected this year, and up to 5 million next year), the prices of things have really jumped up. Hotels specifically, with a handful of new ones being built this year, but also hostels and Air BnBs, cabs, guides, etc. This mentality goes against his make up, and that’s why instead of just getting a room for $95USD, I got a tour guide, a humbling lesson in living simply, and a life-long friend.

I’m sure Iceland would’ve been okay to see without Henry, but I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to revisit. Because of our encounter with Henry, I’m lamenting that our next layover there is only 1 hour! I hope we get to stop over every time we fly to Europe. In fact, I’ll make a point of it!