by Henry Lane Hull
“What is it about Iceland that attracts our children?” Those were the first words of an email that my cousin sent me last week upon my having written her that the Younger B.E. had spent 12 days touring the island nation. This week her son and his family are there renting an RV to travel around to see the terrain, also for 12 days.
These days Iceland seems to be the hottest tourist destination in the world. For many, myself included, it served for decades as a point of transit for the cheapest airfare to Europe, as Icelandair, formerly Icelandic Airways, used Baltimore’s Friendship Airport as its American hub, with the European hub being Luxembourg. That route required a stop in Reykjavik before proceeding on to the continent. The motto of the airline was, “We’re the slowest, but the lowest!”, a reference to the low-cost fares.
On one of my jaunts to Europe I decided to stay over in Reykjavik for a couple of days to see what I could of the island, but I was by no means the intrepid, consummate tourist that the Younger B.E. and others have been. One of Reykjavik’s many hostels served as my base of operations, and to this day represents my sole hostel experience, not a bad one, but I tend to prefer more traditional accommodations.
For much of the 20th century the Prime Minister of Iceland was Olafur Thors, who served five terms in office. In 1940, he appointed his brother, Thor Thors, as ambassador to the United States. The ambassador stayed in Washington for the rest of his life, rising to be vice-dean, and then dean, of the Diplomatic Corps in Washington. He was a popular figure in the nation’s Capital and in New York where he served as the Icelandic representative to the United Nations from 1946 until his death in 1965.
Iceland is a small country with a population of under 340,000, most of whom live in Reykjavik. The Icelanders know that their two cash cows are fishing and tourism, consequently nearly everyone speaks English fluently, and many speak other European languages as well. The geysers, volcanoes, lava beds, waterfalls and ocean vistas are the country’s great attractions. I was not as venturesome as the youth of today, doing all of my touring on a comfortable bus, rather than backpacking, hiking and swimming in the lava pools. Another friend of ours, now in her 80s, is currently in Iceland, bird-watching, a practice she has pursued all over the world.
From my visit and from my airport stopovers, I have concluded that Icelandic is a language I never should be able to master, it being a combination of numerous letters that sound quite harmonious when spoken by the natives, but overwhelming when they confront foreigners.
In Reykjavik the National Museum and the Saga Museum are worthy of protracted stops. The former tells the visitor in encyclopedic detail the story of the Vikings. The latter showcases the story of the sagas, the tales of the early settlers who came to the island and the conflicts that ensued among the first families in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. These were initially oral accounts that were not written for several centuries, and they constitute the bedrock of Icelandic literature. English translations are available and provide interesting background reading prior to visiting the country.
Upon her return last week the Younger B.E. announced that we should be taking a family vacation to Iceland next summer. Personally I had not included another visit to the island on my current bucket list, but after seeing her photographs and hearing her descriptions, I am thinking, “When should I start packing?” but with certain qualifying conditions.
After the B.E.’s return home, I am equipped more competently to answer my cousin’s question with which I began this column, and I look forward to sending her a postcard next summer, written under the brilliance of the Northern Lights.