I’ve been back for a few days, actually, but decided to stay offline for awhile longer. It’s taken some time to get my head in a space where I can process everything I’ve seen and experienced during the 5 days my husband and I were in Iceland celebrating our anniversary. The country touched me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. On day three, I was still thinking how amazing Iceland was, but that I probably wouldn’t ever come back, as we’d done so much and I figured there couldn’t possibly be enough left to warrant another trip. There are so many other places I want to visit that it’s rare I consider backtracking. But on day four, I realized we’d only touched a tiny portion of all that Iceland has to offer, and by day five when it was time to leave, I knew that there was nowhere else on the planet I’d rather visit again than Iceland.
As overdramatic as it sounds, I feel as though I left a piece of my soul behind in Iceland. Or maybe, more accurately, in Iceland I connected with a piece of my soul that I never had been in touch with before, and now that I’m back in the traffic and noise and fast pace of New York City, I feel a bit lost and disconnected. I can’t stop thinking about Iceland: looking at pictures of it, reading about it, reminiscing on it. The feeling is similar to when you’re away from someone you really love and miss dearly: there’s a quiet ache inside you that returns whenever a memory is provoked.
Iceland, in a word, was other-worldly. As we traveled around the country, the landscape changed dramatically and quickly: we spent about 30 hours in the car and never did we have the same type of view for more than three or four minutes. Our surroundings would go from fjord to glacier to volcano to lava fields to grassy highlights to steep cliffs to black sand beach all within a few miles of driving. It was absolutely indescribable. For people like my husband and I who think the ideal vacation consists of experiencing natural wonders, Iceland is just unparalleled. There’s no where else on earth you can see the things that we saw in such quantity, from dramatic waterfalls around every bend to the hot springs and geysers that bubble up out of the ground in the most random places.
The Icelandic people are also remarkable. They were far more aloof to tourists than what we normally experience when traveling. Only once were we asked where we were from, and no one ever asked what we do professionally or even how we liked Iceland. At first, I found that off-putting, as we love to chat with locals wherever we go and here I felt as if we were intruding on them. But later I realized that their aloofness is really a sense of contentedness. Often our conversations when we travel center around the locals’ questions about life in America, but the Icelanders seem to have no fascination with understanding outsiders’ ways or being anything like us. Though they never brag, the Icelanders are secure in their own identity and love their culture. We didn’t talk to a single Icelander who expressed a desire to one day move somewhere else (other than those who felt they had to temporarily for financial reasons.) I’ve never been somewhere–including any town in America–where the young people are so content with their birthplace and want to remain there forever.
And why wouldn’t Icelanders want to stay? The tap water is among the purest in the world, coming right off the glaciers. The food is incredible–the dairy and meat products come from the animals living in the open land and fresh clean air, and you really can taste the difference. Produce is grown in greenhouses and is therefore pesticide-free. Icelanders spend their free time soaking in geo-thermally heated pools and hot springs, which are good for the skin, joints, and muscles. I’ve never felt healthier than when we were in Iceland. There is no traffic anywhere at any time of day. No one is in a rush, no one yells, and there’s not a single piece of litter to be found in the streets even in downtown Reykvik…it’s pretty much the polar opposite of NYC. People work, and then they relax. They hang out in the community pools (all geo-thermally heated and comfortable no matter what the outdoor temperature), they have a drink (okay, usually many drinks, but you get my point), they write poetry, they create music and art, they play chess, they enjoy their friends and family and the beauty of their country. The Icelanders we talked to described it as a “good standard of living.” I would describe it as a good life, period.
Of course, Iceland isn’t paradise in every sense. Though the Gulf Stream prevents the country from having brutally cold weather, the wind and rain can be fierce all year long, and the short daylight hours in the winter must be absolutely brutal. The income tax rate is high (after all, Icelanders have to pay in some way for the cost of college, health care, and all the other subsidized programs they enjoy) and the cost of living is astronomical. The prices for food and gas in Iceland make Manhattan look like a bargain, and rent in the capital city of Reykjavik is sky high. It took a great deal of planning to make this trip affordable. (A great airfare + hotel package, traveling off-season, and making sandwiches every day for lunch instead of going to restaurants were our solutions. And one day, we teamed up with another couple we met there to share the costs of driving around–we paid for the rental car, they paid for the gas, which was $9 a gallon. Ouch.)
One of the best things about Iceland, though, was that the major attractions in the country were almost all free and easy to access. In other places we’ve traveled, getting to see something like a waterfall was a six hour adventure that involved traveling over potholed roads and hiking uphill for hours, plus paying a ridiculous sum to a tour guide to take you through the area which was dangerous because of either crime or wild animals or unstable landscape–sometimes all three. In Iceland, everything we wanted to see was no more than a few yards from a main road. Most of it was on private property, and we were allowed on the land with no admission fees. The Blue Lagoon was actually the only site that we paid to visit. Amazing.
Every time I travel, I return with a renewed sense of the importance of a digital detox. In New York, it’s incredibly common to see people walking around with their “faces in their phones”, as my husband says. If you get in an elevator or otherwise have 30 seconds of time to yourself, you must immediately pull out your phone and check SOMETHING, anything. The mentality here is that you must always be busy, you must always be producing, you must always be trying to be the best and have the most. I, too, get caught up in that mentality sometimes, and it’s good for me to be reminded that things are not that way in so many other parts of the world.
These are the lessons I’ve brought back with me from observing the land and people of Iceland: there’s no need to rush everywhere you go. Time is not money: in fact, time is far more precious than money could ever be. There is no place for envy in a contented life. Make your contributions to the world without worrying whether you are the best or considering the competition. Each person has a valuable role to play in the community. Find the beauty in your surroundings and take it in. Connect with the people who matter most to you. Breathe. Create. Enjoy each day.