As I walked last night along the main highway that passes through the Hjaltadalur Valley, making my way by moonlight reflected on snow, I reflected on my first 100 days in Iceland and how I have adjusted to this exciting new life.
It is hard to look around Iceland and not be captivated by the scenery no matter where I am. I have been captivated every day since arriving and the scenery never gets old. While hiking in Iceland, I cannot help but be aware of the landscape. Without the distractions of being on the lookout for snakes and mountain lions (a normal part of life in my home-state of California), calling birds, or hordes of insects (my life in Oklahoma), one is much more aware of the plants, the mountains, and the silence that abounds. My only hope is that the scenery does not become a background fixture as I settle in further during my stay!
One of my favorite places to walk is the forest behind Hólar University College where I live. Now in the winter, I hike with snowshoes to balance myself atop the 5-24 inches of snow and ice that has accumulated. I am on the lookout for Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) while treated daily to glimpses of the rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) in its white, winter colors, and glimpses of a resident owl that is one of only three owl species in Iceland. So, it is either a long-eared, short-eared, or snowy owl! Its preference for the forest habitat and winter coloration suggests long-eared.
I must admit, I found food to be expensive after saving at chains like Wal-Mart and Aldi in the U.S. The benefit is, however, that nothing is wasted, and you learn to live within your means (especially as a student on a limited budget). This may be one of the reasons Costco has done so well since opening in the spring of 2017 in Iceland. I splurged on the $40 membership to stock up and indulge in a little taste of home such as Costco pizza every few months! If a four-hour trip to Reykjavik is not feasible, there are other local options. Fall was the season of sláturtíð, the time when lambs are slaughtered after being gathered from their summer homes a couple of months earlier. The local store then features a big sale and is the best time for locals to stock up for the long winter. Horse meat, beef, chicken, and even fermented shark are also locally available.
Fruits and vegetables are also a staple in Iceland because of the flourishing green houses that abound, although some fruits/vegetables are shipped in such as the avocados from South Africa or Mexico. The local market in Saudárkrókur is typically where I shop during the week and my basket is filled with the same items each week (because of my select diet -o.k., my pickiness!): coffee, chicken breasts, rice, Tabasco®, bell peppers, lettuce, cheese among a few other items). A typical week of groceries may cost $100-120 for a single person. But be sure to get there by 7 p.m. during the week, when the store closes and 4 p.m. on Saturdays. If you get tired of the same old food and want to head to your local restaurant or fast food, your choices are limited. The closest thing to fast food in Saudárkrókur is fried chicken, hamburgers, and fries at two local gas stations, which are not bad to satisfy a craving. Each day locals flood the grocery store for lunch from 11-1, where the butcher counter is transformed and offers premade pastas, and hot foods including grilled chicken, fish, and French fries.
My drive from Hólar University College to the lab in Sauðárkrókur where I work, is a short 31 km drive (25 minutes at 80-90 km/hr). This drive, however, can take me an hour because I am always compelled to stop to take pictures of the pastoral landscape dotted with sheep and horses in all directions. This is because I might not be able to get that same picture ever again (the amateur photographer’s dilemma).
The work day in Iceland is shorter than the U.S. We typically arrive around 8:00 a.m., have breakfast, drink coffee. At 10 a.m. it is break time, more coffee and on Fridays-cake day! This is where each week, someone is selected to provides cake or breads to share with everyone. Noon is lunch, and everyone takes their full one hour, and no one sits alone. In fact, everyone, everyday has lunch together. Our large fully stocked kitchen is perfect for cooking your lunch or big holiday dinners!
Leave your shoes at the door
I have also adjusted to standard living practices in Iceland. A customary practice is to wear inniskór (inside shoes), usually slippers, to avoid bringing things inside on wet and dirty shoes. This is standard practice in schools, workplace, and even in the lab where I work. To embrace my surrogate country, I practice this same tradition. It does seem practical when you come into the office in boots covered in snow but try giving a serious scientific seminar in your slippers!
At home, I love making my bed in Iceland. Most beds are a simple duvet and cover—no flat sheet! And no need for a blank because the duvet and cover provides all the necessary heat you need. Making my bed takes 10 seconds-fluff the pillows and fold the duvet lengthwise voilà! This was standard at all the hotels I have stayed in, too and I have to say, I will carry on this tradition when I return to the U.S.
In Iceland, it is common for households to only have a washing machine. No dryer although the “drying rooms” are quite adequate for drying clothes. My apartment came equipped with a drying and storage room, where, with radiators, clothes dry in less than a day—but be sure to open the windows throughout the house for airflow to alleviate mold growing in the seams of the window. Mold prevention is why you will often find heaters blasting and windows open. I will spare you any pictures of my laundry drying!
The dark times
Winter has been both a challenge and a blessing. The trade-off for nearly perpetual darkness (only 3 hours of light and no sun in the valley) is the scenery. (See last week’s article). The benefit as a scientist is you cannot be out doing field work, so you get all that much-needed writing done. It does, however, put a damper on my field work which will be remediated soon as the light (by the time this article is published) is already growing. In the coming months, this darkness will be mitigated for by the reciprocal “light times” where, in the land of the midnight sun, (as Iceland has affectionately been referred to) the sun will hover higher and longer on the horizon. This will give me the opportunity to work or take in the majestic scenery around the clock!
This is just a glimpse of my life here in Iceland. I will say however, that I appreciate the slower pace of life and make sure my day is scientifically productive but counterbalanced by a walk to experience nature’s majesty, which is impossible to ignore because it surrounds me every step I take.
Coming soon: Elves and trolls in Iceland, the power of women in Iceland!