9 January 1999 - Iceland, the Perfect Beginning

Iceland was the perfect place for us to begin our three-year journey around the world – the country offered us a postcard view with each turn we drove around a mountain, and the Icelandic people were generous and helpful; well beyond anything I could have imagined.

The women I met were smart, attractive and eager to share their stories with me. Icelandic women keep their names after marriage (their surname is derived from their father’s first name with “dottir”, which means daughter, attached – for example, one friend we made is named Gudny Karadottir and her father is Kara). Children out of wedlock are common and Icelanders do not look on single mothers with contempt or disgrace. When I interviewed the president, I asked him about this, and in all honestly, I don’t think he liked my question. He answered that women are encouraged to be individuals, even keeping their names when they marry, and all mothers – married or not – are admired and respected.

By and large, the female Icelanders were brunettes; not the blonde, blue-eyed Icelandic stereotype Westerners seemed to have perpetuated in film and television. (Iceland has the highest percentage of brunettes of any Scandinavian country because the Irish started settling in Iceland during the early centuries of the country’s development.) One of the women I interviewed in Iceland, the co-owner of Eskimo Models, told me most of her top models, hired by British and French Vogue, are brunettes, with olive-colored skin. She blamed the false Icelandic stereotype on beauty pageants and several recent Playboy spreads.

I never found great shopping in all of Iceland, but I did notice that the women don’t forego their feminine appearance just because the weather is wretched. Even when the temperature stood at 0 degree C, many of the Icelandic women wore open-toed sandals, and in restaurants and clubs, they wore dresses that revealed bare shoulders and legs. Perhaps I am just too practical, but I never embraced this, instead draping myself in tights, boots and a sweater on outings.

One moment that will never escape me occurred in the gym in Reykjavik. I realized several people were pointing at Jim in amazement (and amusement) as he read The Financial Times while riding the stationary bike. The club members thought nothing of watching television as they exercised but reading while on the bicycle seemed to be lunacy to them. Each time I saw people smirk at Jim reading on his bike, I laughed inside thinking they would be reading on their bikes before too long.

The best part of my workout came after the sweat when I relaxed in one of the hot tubs. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when a club employee asked if she could rub my shoulders. I moved right to her eagerly. After several minutes of massage, she offered a mud mask for my face, and I accepted with pleasure. Needless to say, I took advantage of this service on each occasion to the club. On our last visit, Jim even had the mud mask and loved it.

We had to exercise often since the food was so fabulous everywhere we went. My best Icelandic meal came on the 1st of January when we stayed at a farmhouse in the southeast. When we arrived, the lady of the farm replenished us first with tea and sweets, and later with dinner of local lobster, lamb, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, peas, bread and sweet butter. For dessert, I ate every mouthful of a sinful pastry creation filled with pudding and fruit.

We enjoyed another extraordinary meal, thanks to our host Hallgrimmur Gunnarsson, at Hotel Saga in Reykjavik. To start I ate lobster, which was the best I’ve ever eaten, followed by monkfish, meatier than any I’ve ever had, and for dessert, I savored the best white-chocolate mousse ever created. Jim’s entrée included goose and venison. Judging from his plate, he felt just as I did about the food. Plus, our view from the restaurant, which is perched atop the hotel, was perhaps as extraordinary as the food.

As Jim has commented throughout our journey in Iceland, fishing is the life-blood of the country, and after eating extraordinary redfish, arctic char, monkfish, lobster, halibut and cod, I can say without question, Icelanders do fishing very well. On the 9th of January, out for drinks with new friends Jonina and Stefan, we sampled several different fish served on toast. The second-best food I ate in Iceland was that single piece of salmon I tasted that night. On top of toast, the salmon was thin with a dollop of sour cream and caviar – all of this sprinkled with sea-salt. I have always thought salmon was overrated until that evening.

By the way, the club Jonina and Stefan took us to, Rex, is the only private club in Reykavik – opened just a few months ago. I note this because there is a new breed of money entering the city adding to the vitality and energy of the place. Most of the people we met at Rex derive their money through financial dealings, mainly in the stock market. This club is a new phenomenon since shares on the Icelandic stock market began trading less than 10 years ago.

One last note on Iceland: when Jim and I drove from Egilsstaoir to Akureyri on the 8th of January, we witnessed one of the most peaceful and beautiful moments of my life. As we reached the peak of a mountain just before descending to Akureyri, I looked around, and in front of me, there was a narrow fjord and beside me were two mountain peaks covered in unblemished snow. (As a child I made snow angels, rarely though in North Carolina, and the untouched Icelandic snow on that day begged me to leap out of the car and flap my arms and legs to complete a proper snow angel!) Plus, Beethoven’s 9th was playing on the CD player in our car. Emotions welled up inside of me and I felt a brief moment of perfection and harmony.

My hope is many more of those perfect moments along our journey. Now we are off to the moors of Scotland.