Iceland is such an interesting country and I think some would be surprised to learn that despite its isolation and at times harsh weather conditions, Icelandic people have the highest life expectancy worldwide and the country consistently tops lists for highest quality of life.
The population is young (average age of 36), the gender gap is small (great place for ladies), and the country has one of the most productive economies worldwide.
In a place so isolated and sparsely populated (a population of 300 000 with less than 3 inhabitants per square kilometre), traditions are often well upheld which keeps Iceland’s distinctive flair. Here are some of the interesting facts about Iceland we’ve learned along the way, along with our own random little observations:
So this is why Iceland and I are best friends.
Icelandic people LOVE sweets. Every Saturday is “candy day” (nammidagur) where Icelandic treats are 50% off and people head to the candy shops for their pick from the supermarket’s 5-cent candy bin:
I figure if they eat sweets regularly and still manage to have the longest life expectancy, then there is hope for me?
And for my Polish family out there: for days Shane kept noticing Prince Polo chocolates were everywhere. I didn’t think twice of it, but then learned Icelanders are the #1 consumer of Prince Polo in the world (beating out the Polish), which leads to the joke that if people here stopped eating it, a whole town of Poles would be out of work.
It often seems that somewhere on the horizon you can see a plume of steam that will take you to a bubbling “hot pot” (hot spring), geysir or other geothermal treasure. There are even many hot rivers to bathe in if you just know where to look!
The only consequence of this is that sometimes there is an underlying smell of sulphur in the air or tap water. Also, some houses just use the natural hot volcanic waters as the hot water in their home – apparently this mineral rich water is good for you, and I can tell you it leaves your hair very silky smooth (I even made Shane feel it).
Incest? There’s an App For That
In a country with such a small population, how do you know that your weekend hookup is not actually a cousin? Thankfully someone created the app “Book of Icelanders” that checks your bloodlines with the slogan of “bump the app before you bump in bed”. Couples bump their phones together for the verdict.
A Land Without Trees
It becomes quickly noticeable that Iceland has few trees (and a few of you have mentioned you’ve even noticed that in the pictures). When we do see trees, or better yet – a forest – it almost stops us in your tracks! Apparently this isn’t because of Iceland’s weather or environment, but simply because when the Vikings first arrived they chopped them all down for building material and since they have been slow to grow back.
Speaking of landscapes, on our first few days of driving, I couldn’t help but notice that the “roadside weed” here appeared to be this purple Lupin, which literally lines the highways and sometimes even fills entire fields. It looks beautiful! But then I read that though they were initially planted to prevent erosion, they are now a problem and growing out of control…
And lastly, if you love waterfalls, Iceland will be your best friend. You can see numerous waterfalls in any direction, with many stunning ones as well as the biggest ones in Europe. I wouldn’t be surprised if after ending your trip here, you were even feeling borderline waterfall-ed out!
More Sheep Than People
Sheep are so prominent here you’d think they could be a pest; they greatly outnumber the people! There are sheep to be seen every few hundred meters, some even cuddled up to the side of the highway. They just stare at you as you drive by, unphased by your speeding car.
This is why Icelandic wool goods are so well known here and the thing to buy. Here is an example of the sweater I swear every person here owns and wears (I didn’t capture a picture myself, so here’s a google-found image from Lindsay Blatt):
The other animal you won’t miss are the Icelandic horses, unique to Iceland. They roam freely and are quite the site to see when they run along the horizon as the sun is setting. Apparently they have a few unique gait patterns, and if they are taken out of the country they are not allowed back (in order to preserve the purity of the breed).
First Name Basis
Naming here is unique, as children’s last names actually come from the father’s first name. An ending is then added meaning -son (son) or -dottir (daughter). For example, the son of Erikur will have the last name of Erikurson (“son of Erik”).
Despite this, Icelanders generally use first name basis for everyone (including teachers, Bjork, or even the President). Even the phone book is organized by first name only, separating people by occupation.
I think this is one of the only European countries where you see people drive huge all terrain vehicles, some with tires the size of your car. Moreso, it’s not uncommon to see a large SUV or truck parked in the middle of a narrow street in downtown Reykjavik:
As a random side note, since the streets here can be hilly, the hot volcanic waters are run through pipes under the roads to keep them ice-free!
Elves & Ghosts
Icelanders have a knack for storytelling to describe their strange and beautiful landscapes to outsiders. And with how magical and mystical their environment is, there is no surprise that dreams of trolls, elves, and “hidden people” are invented.
The fallen boulders in the field or the stones out in the ocean are a result of trolls turned to stone on exposure to daylight. Or the little caves among the lava rocks are the homes of elves. Spooks and “hidden people” are even sometimes the explanation for areas with high traffic accidents or damage to construction sites.
Fun fact: many people don’t know that the Lord of the Rings was inspired by these stories as J.R.R. Tolkien was a student of Icelandic folklore.