Iceland is full of quirky things that bring a smile to your face or at times, make you think or say “huh?” Over the course of a month or so, I discovered many quirky, fun, amusing and interesting things, most of which brought a smile or made me think about the world in a different way, which is so much what travel is about, at least for me.
Here is my top 20 list of quirky things, a list which keeps growing so there may be a Version 2 or 3 of this article at some juncture. Bear in mind as you read through this, particularly if you’re Icelandic, that most of these quirky things on the list were shared verbally so if there are any errors, feel free to reach out and let me know in addition to posting in the comments.
1. Iceland’s Hidden People: In Iceland, people believe in elves, otherwise known as Hidden People.
Regardless of where I went or who I talked to, the subject of elves, trolls, and “hidden people,” came up. Tale after tale, the folklore around them was rampant. Apparently 10% of the population don’t believe in them, 10% adamantly believe in them and 80% are not really sure and think there could be ‘something’ to elves. Stories included construction companies which made a detour around larger rocks to avoid hurting or disturbing any Hidden People who might be living inside.
In 1982, 150 Icelanders apparently went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for “elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets and AWACS reconnaissance planes and in 2011, elves (also referred to as huldufólk) were believed by some to be responsible for an incident in Bolungarvík where rocks rained down on residential streets. Some Icelanders have also built tiny churches to convert elves to Christianity. And so, the stories unfolded along the southern shores, in the West Fjords, in the very north and even on the outskirts of Reykjavik. That was then and in June, I found the same unfolding of stories time and time again across the country.
2. The Islendiga Mobile App: There’s a mobile app that tells you whether you’re related to a person or not. To put this into perspective, remember that there are only around 320,000 people living in Iceland so the population is very small.
It’s an Android app that was built by a team of students from the University of Iceland as part of a contest to find creative uses for Islendingabok, which a website aimed at the same thing and is fairly comprehensive. The idea is to cross reference other names to see if you’re related and the joke is, “before you kiss on a date.” Additionally, you can access all the information on the online database, which will include reminders for your relatives birthdays. Says the Associated Press on the incestuous piece of it, “Most Icelanders share common descent from a group of ninth-century Viking settlers, so really, the danger probably lies more in kissing your second cousins.” We’d call this quirky and funny, but also downright useful.
3. Phone Book Listing Directory: I was told about the phone book directory verbally by several people so hopefully Icelanders can flesh out the details in the comments. There’s a phone book that lists people alphabetically by first name (not last) and there’s also a directory where you can look anyone up by their cell phone number called Ja. Why this is particularly useful has to do with #4 on this list.
4. Voice Mail: For some reason, people don’t use voice mail. When I first heard this, I thought they were kidding, but if you call someone and they don’t pick up, chances are they will probably call you back when they refer to the missing number. When I asked for the logic behind it, there wasn’t any really, other than it wasn’t a cultural thing that Icelanders do. So not productive I thought but also amusing unless you actually need to get a lot of things done quickly. That said, it’s somewhat logical in a country where everyone seems to trust each other….and know each other.
5. Painted Cars & Trucks: It’s not as if you find brightly painted cars and trucks scattered throughout Reykjavik or the country but I saw them enough to raise an eyebrow. In a country that is mostly rural, cars and trucks with this much colorful energy simply stand out when you see one. Creative and most definitely quirky!
6. Whale & Puffin Everything: You’ll likely think of whales when you think of Iceland but what about puffins? I didn’t even know it was a bird until after being in the country for three days. Puffin stuffed animals and toys are everywhere and hard to miss. Puffins are nothing short of adorable and while some people eat them, I find them too cute to dare. Below is a shot I took of one in the West Fjords, another part of the country that stole my heart.
While there’s also plenty of whale stuffed animals, you can order whale on many restaurant menus and even buy it in the supermarket. While this may fall into the more interesting category than quirky, I’d also add it to the yum and must try category. Be sure to pick up some whale jerky in the local grocery store for nibbling on your long trips into Iceland’s nature wonderland.
7. $9 Nature Condoms: Back to the quirky list. Ever see a condom individually wrapped in various colors and designs, all centered around nature? You know, Icelandic nature, meaning there’s volcanoes, fire and ice photos on the wrapper. Yes, really. They’re individually wrapped and cost around $9 a pop for one of these masterpieces. I found it hilarious especially since I saw this display at tourism gift shops but also at the petrol station rest stops along the main drag north. I even saw a display in a bakery. Quirky? You betcha and oh so amusing!
8. TV Ban: In the 1970s, there was not only no television on Thursdays but TV was banned during the entire month of July as well. Several people confirmed this and I had a chuckle when I kept meeting so many people in their thirties who were born in the month of April, nine months from July. One person told me it was because TV was under resourced while another said it had to do with decreasing the amount of time families spent watching it to improve home life. Either way, quirky, but like most things in Iceland, interesting.
9. Beer Ban: Prohibition in Iceland went into effect in 1915 and lasted, to some extent, until March 1, 1989, which has since been celebrated as “Beer Day”. The ban had originally prohibited all alcohol, but from 1935 onward only applied to “strong” beer which was with an alcohol content of 2.25% or more. What’s ironic is that beer was banned for longer than stronger liquor and alcohol even though a main purpose for the ban was to decrease the consumption of alcohol in Iceland. Go figure! Definitely on the quirky list! Of course today, everyone drinks beer and wine everywhere and as far as I know, hard liquor too.
10. The Quirky Mayor of Reykjavik: I heard about Reykjavik’s colorful mayor before I left for Iceland from folks I met on Twitter. A real comedian, Reykjavik Mayor Jon Gnarr dressed up in a full Jedi getup while casting his vote in Iceland’s election.
He’s been in power since 2010, and has been called the “most interesting mayor in the world.” He’s a former comedian, dresses in wild colors at times, is known to play “full out” at Gay Pride and has played in a punk rock band. He’s someone I wanted to meet while I was there, but we’ll have to leave that for a future trip. For now, I’m enjoying reading the countless quirky stories about him and hearing them from locals who claim that it was a joke when he ran for mayor and a surprise to him and his party when he actually won.
11. The Latins of the Nordic: I heard from a random person who read that the Icelanders have been referred to as the Latins of the Nordics. After being there for a few weeks, I could see why. While it has been awhile since I’ve been to Scandinavia, Icelanders have many of the cultural nuances that the Nordics possess, particularly the Norweigans, yet there’s a raw wildness about them that is just “nice” and frankly, sexy. The Latin force of this region? Sure, I can see it but then again, I personally found the Viking men in Iceland pretty hot.
12. Words That Screw With Logic: I realize that Icelandic is a different language and shouldn’t necessarily have any connection to the English language whatsoever. That said, how on earth does Appelsinusafi come to mean Orange Juice? C’mon, really? How do you expect me to learn a language with a crazy illogical twist like that? Then again, I’m still trying to pronounce the word Akureyri correctly, it took me a week to say Snaefellsnes without adding ten more S’s and don’t even get me started with Signyjarstadir, Stykkisholmur and Arnarvatnsheidi in the west.
OR, how does “Flatbaka” sound instead of pizza? Or “Nautakjöt” in stead of beef? Or “Veitingastaður” instead of Restaurant? Or “Leðurblökumaðurinn” instead of Batman? You get the idea.
13. Descriptive Words & Phrases: I was constantly told that Icelanders have many more ways to say the same thing we might say in English, adding more texture and depth to an idea. I love that notion since frankly, I think that English has become very bland and watered down, at least in the west. I was told on a long van ride that there were over forty words to describe the weather and a friend tells me that there’s nearly 50 words to describe snow.
14. Unique Words For Things: Speaking of words, I was also told on another long van ride that they don’t necessarily create a translation for a new word, but they come up with one that means something unique for them. This is hard to translate how it was described to me so let me give you an example. Said a local man in his forties, “TV set is Sjonvarp, which essentially translates to something along the lines of vision throwing or vision thrower. Simi, which is a phone means a “line” or a “thread” so by using the word “Simi” for telephone, it is referring to connecting people via a rope (aka a telephone line). Far Simi means a mobile line more literally.”
15. Banana Plantations: Did you know that Iceland has the largest banana plantation in Europe, made possible because of the volume and success of Iceland’s greenhouse energy? Oh so quirky and oh so very cool.
16. Dancing Around the Christmas Tree: At the holidays, people stand around a Christmas tree and dance, circling around the tree. When I went to college in London, my Danish girlfriend told me that her family also did this so I guess this is perhaps a Nordic thing. That said, it was one of those things that brought a visual smile when I heard about it for the first time.
17. 13 Santa Clauses: While we’re on the subject of holidays, did you realize that Iceland celebrates 13 Santa Clauses? Well, sort of.
“Well of course,” says Gummi, my guide for a day as we drove some 12 hours or so talking about Iceland’s history and culture. In fact, there are no fewer than 13 Icelandic Santa Clauses, called jólasveinar (“Yuletide Lads”; singular: jólasveinn) and their parents are Grýla, a mean old woman who drags off naughty children, and Leppalúði, who is apparently is not so mean.
As children, Icelanders are told the story of Grýla, the ogress living in the Icelandic mountains, who is evil in nature, part troll and part animal and the mother of 13 precocious boys otherwise known as the Yule Lads. Grýla lives in the mountains with her third husband, her thirteen children and a black cat except for each Christmas, when she and her sons come down into the towns in search of naughty children to boil in her cauldron and the boys in search of mischief. She can only capture children who misbehave but those who repent must be released. Wow, right? Each Yuletide lad has a specific idiosyncrasy and therefore, behaves in a particular quirky manner. Oh, this is most definitely on the quirky, amusing and I’ll add “endearing” list.
18. Bright Green Plastic Bags of Hay: On my first trip out of Reykjavik, it was drizzling so when I first saw a pile of bright green plastic bags heaped in the middle of a field, I ignored them, but then I saw them again an hour later so I asked my driver to confirm that they were in fact bags of hay. Indeed they are, he said. While I realize they have to do something with their hay, I was thinking barns might be a logical solution especially with so much land or at least a covered shelter area given how often it rains or snows. While there’s logic to the decision, they pop out of a field like a rollercoaster might on Volcanic lava. (Apparently someone wants to build one of those btw, so keep your eyes and ears open).
They also use a lot of white plastic bags as well which equally stand out. Below you can see them scattered across a field, but they are typically piled in a large bunch in the middle of a field.
19. Surnames: If you’ve spent any time at all in Iceland, you know about the naming structure for people’s names. Unlike western surnames, which are based on patronymic, reflecting the father’s last name, Icelanders use the father’s first name. A person’s surname indicates the first name of the person’s father (patronymic) or in some cases mother (matronymic). Take a look at the naming tree below. Note that Jon is the father of Olafur and Sigridur yet the children’s surname both reflect Jon’s first name, not his last name. Olfaur is the SON of Jon and so logically, his surname is Jonsson (son of Jon) and Sigridur is the daughter, so naturally she’s Jonsdottir, (daughter of Jon).
I happen to find this very cool although I can’t imagine it doesn’t get confusing from time-to-time, or at least it would if their population of 320,000 grew dramatically in size.
20. Shacking Up & Kids Without Papers: A number of times within the first week, I met people who had kids with one or two people but weren’t married to either of them. Many of these pregnancies happened in their twenties during an early love affair but then they moved onto another relationship but maintain custody together. It seemed to be such a common story, I started to ask people about it and many women and men didn’t feel the urgency to run to the altar, children on the way or not. That said, I met plenty of married couples as well and when I asked about that, a couple of people said, “it depends on the year. Sometimes marriage is in fashion and sometimes its not.” They were so matter a fact about it, which is one of the things I love about Icelandic culture and attitudes.
Then, there are just odd things you come across walking through the streets of Reykjavik from time-to-time.
Photo credits: Elves/Hidden People: DreamingIceland.com. Second shot of mayor in pink suit by Aleksandar Radulovic. Santa Clauses: IcelandNaturally. com. Bags of hay: themeeg.nl.
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