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Iceland: three short stories about my semester abroad

Hotel Holt

These two words come to mind when I think of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Have I ever slept at Hotel Holt? No. Have I ever been to Hotel Holt for any other reason? No. Have I ever walked past Hotel Holt? No. Well… once during my last week here and not exactly on purpose but for the sake of argument I have not. But still those pink neon letters in front of Helgrimskirke will (hopefully) never leave my mind.

Every morning or at around lunchtime at least I made my way to the University. And every morning I walked the same path. At one point I would walk around a corner between the Canadian embassy and an old graveyard. And every morning without fail I would be greeted by the pink neon Hotel Holt sign. Becoming more and more intense with the approaching winter months that would leave us with about 4 hours of serious daylight. Which has its pros and cons, for example you don't feel exactly guilty for spending an unnatural amount of time in bed watching movies but on the other hand the lack of sunlight does get your spirits down a bit. You should also know that when I say it is dark I mean it literally. I would wake up at 9am sometimes and it could as well have been 3am which is especially annoying on days when you have to write an exam at 9am. Said exam would be done around 10:30am or 11am and we would leave the room just in time for the sunrise. Anyway, the point of the story was supposed to be something else. The Hotel Holt sign is a very subjective symbol for Iceland. I doubt many associate that with the Land of Fire and Ice but that is the beauty of staying in a place long enough to look behind the typical sights.

Gone with the wind

Oh, the weather. I know about the phenomenon wind at least I thought I did. One weekend I went on a trip with some friends and we had decided to drive through the middle of the country up to the north. Apart from endless landscapes that looked like we were alone on this planet and the planet was the moon we also passed some glaciers and mountains. At one of these less deserted places we went for a hike. It had been a bit windy and in hindsight I remember being warned by some Icelanders about a storm, but we went up to hike anyway. And at the beginning it was not a problem either, we had a beautiful view and ended up on a mountain with snow and really it was all fun and games until we realised that the wind had picked up some pace. At some point we were smart enough to turn around. For some reason I was the first to come up a little hill - mind you it was and would be the only time I was in the front of the group. Just when I came over the ledge the wind picked me up and I flew through the air for a couple of meters - witness to that were two of my fellow hikers and some bruises for the next week. For the next five minutes all of us sat on the ground to await calmer winds and laughed - which seemed more like a coping mechanism than actual enjoyment. For the rest of the hike we walked in pairs hunched over like the ringer of Notredame. Apart from a fly away glove that was heroically chased by one guy, some falling and persevering of extreme gusts of wind we made it back more or less safely and even ended up going to a natural hot pool afterwards. This hot pool experience was sobered by the changing in the freezing cold but still made for a nice change.

A humbling experience that makes for a good story which also sums up the weather in Iceland quite well. There were several days where I would be at university a lot faster because the wind gave me a push in the right direction though on opposite days or the way back, you'd have to work against the wind which might as well count as an exercise.

Apart from the earth I also have a new understanding of ice and more specifically icy roads. Towards the end of my stay in Reykjavik there was about a week when the walkways were covered in a sheet of frozen rain and pressed snow. It made me walk a lot slower than usually and one night when I was walking home from a friends’ place, I had to seriously stand in front of a very small hill for a few minutes just to plan my next move. This move ended up being me hanging on to a fence and pulling my self up. Boy, was I glad that it was dark and no one in sight.

Music Lovers rejoice

Nature, Fish and Wool jumpers are probably the most frequently associated words with Iceland and while they are certainly not wrong, I have come to appreciate Iceland for something else as well: music. For starters you should know that almost every Icelander seems to have a talent for singing or playing musical instruments and a significant number appear to have been in decently popular pop groups in the past. While this is impressive for most visitors such as myself the Icelanders seem rather unimpressed by such achievements. It is a refreshing change that Iceland does not have a celebrity culture like most other countries. This could either be explained by the small population in which most people know each other or have at least mutual acquaintances, or it could be explained that if such a culture existed almost every person could be counted as a celebrity. Either way it allows for a unique and down to earth music scene that is easily accessible and represented at any important event. One of the very first bands I heard playing was Vök which me and my friends loved from the beginning and we also developed some sort of emotional connection to them which I assume is quite one sided. Anyway, Vök is one of the defining aspects of my exchange to Reykjavik and was part of many evenings sometimes planned sometimes by surprise. Many cafes and restaurants are frequently visited by singer song writers, alternative bands and established musicians. These evenings are often characterised by an intimacy which might be caused by rather small venues or the size of the audience. But don't be fooled Iceland can also do big. The Festival Iceland Airwaves is internationally renowned and draws in people from all around Iceland and from outside the island. Iceland Airwaves is not your typical festival, you will not find yourself in some field, camping with your friends but in venues all around Reykjavik - cafes, the university, record shops, peoples’ backyards.

My personal favourite about the festival must be the off-venue option. The festival was during my exam time and since we could not go to all the concerts we had to decide whether we would buy tickets or not. In the end we didn't which might in hindsight limits the authenticity of this article. But do not worry, thanks to the off-venue program we were still able to see many artists for free that were also part of the official program like Vök - of course. And a friend of mine even got an ukulele from an artist insert name for free (well it did depend on her buying a couple of CDs from the record shop hosting the concert). All in all, Iceland is the place to visit if you are a music lover and they have offered the world several musical talents such as Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men and Björk and KALEO and many more.

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