The Spoked Traveller | Trolling Around Iceland
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Trolling Around Iceland

Trolling Around Iceland

Oh look, it’s troll toilet paper,” says the Icelandic travel guide pointing to the giant hay bales wrapped in white plastic.

A survey last year revealed that 60 per cent of Icelanders believe in trolls. Construction crews will often build roads around bumps for fear of disturbing a “troll” house. At least this is what I discovered before visiting Iceland.

I was researching Icelandic popular culture for a lecture on board a week-long cruise. Invited on behalf of Western’s Alumni Relations, I spoke to alumni throughout North America about travel writing, which I teach in the Writing, Rhetoric and Professional Communication department at The University of Western Ontario. But it was the lecture about Icelanders that wowed and surprised me.

When you live on an island of only 300,000, you’re bound to be unique. And it’s not just because you live near dormant volcanoes, but that is part of it. This is a place where the government has select poets on salary, where isolation has spawned more writers per capita than anywhere else in the world, and, of course, it’s a place where residents have been known to hold back erupting volcanoes.

On one of our port stops, we docked on the island of Heimaey on the south coast. In 1973 when the volcano Eldfell erupted, about 5,000 islanders used 40 giant water pumps to pump sea water onto the oncoming lava in attempt to stop its flow, but not before the volcano devoured 400 homes, some of which are currently being excavated in an exhibit called “Pompeii of the North.”

It was eerie peering into windows of homes – strewn coffee cups and tips of chairs and furniture peaked out of a pool of black lava – where families fled in the middle of the night.

The earth is still warm on the top near the mouth of the volcano — not surprisingly. Women from the town bury bread batter a meter deep then come back hours later for a fresh loaf.

When our cruise boat wasn’t docked, I often just sat outside my room watching the walls of rock and mountains pass by. Every so often I might see a lone farmhouse. I tried to imagine what winters must be like in that house with only a few hours of light a day. “It’s not uncommon to see a man fixing his roof in the middle of the night – Icelanders work a lot in the summer to use every hour of the day when they have light,” says our guide.

Passing by random clumps of land — tiny islands often a result of nearby volcanoes — the land looks lonely.  Some rock formed from the lava flow looks similar to the inside of a cave — dripping magma until it cooled in mid-drip – while other islands curved and flowed and sunk like a collapsed soufflé. Swooping in and out of tiny boreholes on the island, I can see the famous puffin.

One day we took a rubber dingy out to see them. I always imagined puffins larger, but they’re not much bigger than a seagull. They’re also fiercely loyal says our boat guide.“They will mate for life. If something happens to that original mate, they find another, but if the original returns, they ditch the new mate and go back to the original.”

Icelanders also have their own idiosyncrasies — so I was told. Walking around Reykjavík, where one-third of the population lives, stores were full of funky local clothing designer creations and trends I haven’t seen in Canada. Their experimental electronic music is also off the charts.

Stopping into a record store, I talked to the retro looking manager wearing an Iron Maiden shirt; I asked him about musical trends in Iceland; apparently electronic reggae is popular right now. He remarked that musicians make their own trends here: “They are very spontaneous. Most musicians here experiment with sounds and try not to compare themselves with other countries.”

I got that sense seeing teens wearing outdated hairstyles — mullets anyone? I wondered: Are they behind the times or ahead? Hardly matters on an island. Trends are for people who follow — I don’t get that sense here.

You can certainly see that in Icelanders lack of hero worship. “If an Icelander saw a famous actor walk down the street they wouldn’t necessarily go crazy and ask for their autograph,” says Alana Odegard, a reporter for The Iceland Review and a Canadian who married an Icelander. “No one puts them on a pedestal. It’s their job and that’s what they do. It doesn’t make them better than anyone else.”

This makes perfect sense: Their land doesn’t look like the rest of world so why should they?

 

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