Akureyri, Iceland – My Alternate Universe Hometown

Flying in Iceland is a breeze and a pleasure. A taste of the glamorous days of air travel, when the stewardess wore smart suits and perfectly coiffed hats (the days before “flight attendants” was in common usage), complimentary beverages were served with a smile, and you leisurely walked out onto the runway to board the plane.

Yesterday I flew from the West Fjords to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city at just 17,000 people, and for the first time in my life I am revelling in the process of air travel! No grumpy employees overstressed by flight delays and cancellations and overbookings, no ridiculous menu of fees, no long lines to get through security. In a country of 300,000 people, flying domestic means showing up a half hour before your flight, checking in, joining the small group at the one and only gate, and boarding. In the space of when I arrived at the airport and found my window seat, 25 minutes had elapsed. No wonder we used to find flying the friendly skies so romantic and fun!

Just like my flight to Greenland, we flew in an old-school, but up-to-date modern, two-engine turbo-prop plane, with an engine on either wing and the propellers that warmed up one at a time. To literally walk on the runway, as you see your own checked suitcase being loaded into the cargo bay, and ascend the steps into the plane – I was in a 1950’s time-warp. Even my international flight to Greenland was just as smooth and relaxed, with the minor difference of checking in an hour before takeoff. Oh, the inconvienence!

I love Iceland. I love it here so much, and I don’t even know how to express why this love affair. Something to do with the humbling scale of Iceland’s mountains, volcanoes and glaciers? The reserved, but friendly people who are happy to sit with you in companionable silence for an amazingly long time, until your American chattiness sparks a note of interest and suddenly you can’t get them to shut up, as they tell amazing stories with a sly sense of humor. (And for the record, once I’ve got them talking, I never want them to cease. Icelanders are born storytellers!) The super strong coffee they drink as if water?

One thing is certain – the food has captured my heart, which surprises me. After all, Iceland is not usually known for its food. But I love the rich, full bodied coffee of their cafes and the hearty soup of the day lunches with freshly baked bread. Much of their cuisine centers around lamb and seafood, and I can attest to the quality. Lamb so tender, juicy, with fascinating combinations of spices and rubs and cooking styles. Even the ethnic food scene gets in on the act. I tried a Thai restaurant in Ísafjörður, mostly because the prices were cheap and the concept of a Thai restaurant in the most remote region of Iceland intrigued me. The Thai family who runs the place have reimagined Thai food using lamb, that most Icelandic of ingredients. Not a mind-blowing meal by any measure, but tasty and good.

The bakaries are to die for. Every imaginable pastry and bread sits under the display case glass, tempting you with fun names and creative braiding. I especially enjoy Vinarbrauð, literally “Friend bread.” A cardamon pastry pairing of chocolate and lemon. The ástar pungur are another star – chewy deep-fried cardamon balls with raisins. Yum…

But what I am going to lament leaving the most is skyr, that Icelandic version of yogurt that is thick and creamy, the perfect breakfast and dessert. I have skyr literally every morning and have sampled a number of skyr desserts, often with a crumbly crust and one of the local berries. Bilberry (a relative to the blueberry) is amazing with skyr.

Currently I’m in Akureyri, a wonderful little city with a flourishing artist community. When I first hit the streets yesterday, I knew instinctively that I had come home. This city is me. Laid-back, creative, content to sit all day in a coffeeshop reading or browsing the used bookstores. Artist’s studios and a summer-long art festival. Two warring movie theaters with films from around the world. And I fit like a puzzle piece. There are actually trees here! Green, taller-than-me, trees! The mountains are not as intense as elsewhere, but ever present like the security of a baby blanket. Clouds hover, but only lightly sprinkle on and off all day. Kids runs around with the soccer ball. I have found the Icelandic Portland. (Or maybe I grew up in the American Akureyri?)

My fibromyalgia has not been as troublesome as I anticipated, a wonderful blessing, but I have learned some lessons from trial and error. Lesson #1 – Horseback riding, at least anything above a slow walk, is completely out. My back still hasn’t forgiven me! Lesson #2 – Kayaking is a blast, but cramps up my legs something awful. This saddens me, actually, as I have loved every experience in a kayak. It’s a good thing I did not go on the full-day kayaking tour my German bunkmate Malte did, although I envy all his amazing photos of seals. Lesson #3 – always follow the locals in their daily patterns of rest and rejuvenation. This morning found me yet again at the local geothermal pool and I have yet to regret spending a couple hours soaking in various hot pots, attempting to banter in Icelandic with the locals. This particular pool was an eye-opener. This is the first week of school in Iceland and with the local school just across the street, all the PE classes were coming over to swim. I watched a teacher coaching his students through the crawl stroke and was informed by my fellow hot pot soakers that all PE classes are in the pool several times a week at all grade levels. Swimming is in their bones.

So much to share, so little time! (And krónur! Internet is expensive!) Tomorrow whale watching in Husavík, then off to the national parks of Iceland with all their waterfalls and geological wonders!

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About chronictraveler

Chronic Traveler starts as a dream, one that I thought I had lost, but that has slowly changed into a mission to realize and live that dream every day. In December 2007 I became seriously ill and the doctors did not know what was causing my illness. I had to stop teaching as my life tumbled into a never-ending nightmare of doctors, hospitals and tests. Finally, in May 2008 I was diagnosed with a chronic condition - fibromyalgia. I was only 26 years old at the time. I have had to give up teaching, and now work part-time at a performing arts center as I learn how to manage my condition and improve my quality of life. What helped me through the months of uncertainty and sickness, and continues to inspire me, was a new focus on what truly mattered to me: family, friends, gardening, the arts, and especially travel. I have always fed my soul by traveling, ever since I first stepped off the plane at age 16 in Kathmandu, Nepal to help with an orphanage's building project. Meeting new people and experiencing how they live and how they view the world infuses my life with a richness I was so afraid I would lose when the doctor first said, "You have fibromyalgia". This blog is my story, as I begin to forge a new path. I am embracing my life as it is, with the fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, and learning to do what I love regardless. It may mean I have to go slower and take more naps or breaks! But I am determined to learn how to travel and experience the world, and hopefully what I learn will help others like me who believe their medical condition stands in the way of their travel dreams.
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2 Responses to Akureyri, Iceland – My Alternate Universe Hometown

  1. inretrospect21 says:

    I’ve been wondering what the food would be like in Iceland! I love stronger coffee, but don’t want to always have to spend the money on Starbucks or an expresso machine because A) I don’t have the money and B) I don’t have room to store it. I also love lamb so it’s very interesting that they use it quite a bit.

    As for the air travel…I guess you don’t appreciate the lower population density of the country until then. It certainly makes flying more enjoyable. By the way, what are the temperatures like there when it’s summer for us? Does taking a dip in one of their natural hot springs help retain heat better?

    • chronictraveler says:

      Ooooohhhh, Iceland’s food. I am in withdrawal! You can get really good coffee in the stores to brew yourself, and some cafes have ábót (seconds) for their regular coffee, which can be just one refill or unlimited refills. Often, they’ll bring a French press with enough for 2-4 cups or one place brought a thermos. And the lamb is so good! Definately not cheap, but cheaper than here. The best way to try lamb affordably is the hangikjöt, thinly sliced smoked lamb they use on flatbread sandwiches.

      Summer in Iceland is July/August. The temperatures tend to range in the 50s/60s Fahrenheit, somtimes warm enough for a T-shirt, but usually chilly at night. SW Greenland is the same. I can’t say for the Faroes – I was there at the start of autumn and it’s a dramatically moody climate, on and off rain, sun, fog, so I pretty much experienced every season in one week!

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