By Tenzin McGrupp © 2001
"I never ever saw the northern lights..."
14 Jan 2001. 7:02 AM. Our flight from New York arrived at Kelflavik Airport which is located next to the US Air Force Base. Señor and I stood in complete darkness. No ice. No snow. New York was a few degrees colder when we left, and there was alot more snow in the big city. Wow, it's dark. Sunlight won't come up for another four hours or so, I thought to myself as I boarded a Flybus that will take us to our hotel in Reykjavik. The trip would take almost 35 minutes so I grabbed a window seat and tried my best to see what the Icelandic countryside looked like. Unfortunately, the complete darkness hindered any viewing whatsoever. Odd. There I was, in a new country, a new place, and I couldn't see a damn thing.
The ride from the airport to our hotel would turn out to be the lowlight of the trip. (I am happy to say that whatever badness we would encounter, happily ended on that bus.) Full of anticipation of being in a new place, and discouraged because I couldn't see any of it, I became irked because to make things worse, an elderly lady from Long Island, NY who sat behind Señor preceeded to annoy the absolute fuck out of everyone on the Flybus. I cannot and do not condone any acts of violence towards women. I deplore any such notions. However, for the first time in my life, I waned to get up and bitch slap this yenta back to JFK airport in New York. It's tourists like this woman that give Americans and New Yorkers a bad name.
I fought every bone in my body from turning around and saying something to her, in true New York fashion: sarcastic, cold, and condensending. But I held myself back, I'm a stranger, in a strange land. I'm supposed to be on my best behavior. It's bad enough this is someone's first impression of an American, and I did not want to add to the bad taste in their mouths by an random act of violence. Typical Americana. I just sucked it up and took her bullshit. Señor said she was talking about the Rabbi at her synagogue. All I heard her say was every single one of the roadsigns that she could read in the dark.
"Oh, Subway! I know that word! And Coca-cola, I know that one of course!"
"How about shutting the fuck up? Is that in your vast vocabulary?" I muttered in disgust.
Our bus couldn't have arrived at the local terminal sooner. We jumped out and got our bags to switch to a smaller mini-bus that would take us to the center of town and the historic Hotel Borg. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I was immediately hit with the largest gust of wind I'd ever experienced. It was relentless, blowing debris, small rocks, dirt, everything in sight all around. We found our bus driver and loaded our stuff on the mini-bus and took only Señor and myself on a five minute ride to Hotel Borg.
The Hotel Borg is an exquisite building, remodeled in the originally 1930s Art-Deco style. It's off a main square and just a block from the Tjiorn (lake or pond) in the center of town. It was just 8 AM, and our room was not ready. The lovely receptionist, whom Señor instantly had developed a crush, suggested we eat breakfast in the Palm Court restaurant adjacent to the lobby. I read that the Palm Court is Björk's favorite restaurant in Reykjavik, but I didn't expect to find her there eating Cheerios at such a dark hour.
When we sat down, we were very confused. Unlike in America, the service is absolutely horrible. Waitresses rarely come to you unless you tackle them and wrestle them to the ground and say, "Pardonnez-moi, may I see a menu?"
Of course, breakfast was a buffet, and it took us a few minutes to figure that out. There were a couple of tables of random European businessmen engrossed in coffee drinking and conversations. Our receptionist, to Señor's delight, came over and informed us our room was ready, so we paid for breakfast which was 1,000 Krona (KR). Breakfast buffet for Señor, and coffee for myself cost us $9 and $3 receptively. Wow, I couldn't believe how expensive it was, and it was just breakfast! I had not been in Iceland for more than an hour and I've already pumped a few thousand Krona into their economy.
The Hotel Borg is the oldest and most famous hotel in Reykjavik. I could never afford such luxurious accommodations, but thanks to my attorney, who wanted to be in the center of it all, we were. All the cool bars and clubs that were frequented by the hippest Europeans and that every travel magazine wrote, ranted and raved about were just a block away. In the basement of the Hotel Borg is one of the cooler night clubs in all of Iceland. The shopping district sits just three blocks away, and the duck and swan-filled Tjiorn was right around the corner.
I was amazed to read about some of the previous occupants at Hotel Borg. Christian X, the King of Denmark stayed there on numerous ocassions. Actress Marlene Deitrich, Anthony "Hannibal" Hopkins, and one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner all stayed there. Of course in due time, the literature to the Hotel Borg will eventually add the likenesses of Señor and myself to their celebrity list.
Our room was also furnished in an art-deco motif. A couple of well-known Salvidor Dali prints hung up in our black walls and we even had a black bathroom. We had two leather couches, and the best thing ever, a stereo with a CD player! I immediately walked over an jammed a little Grateful Dead for the people and ghosts of Iceland. I opened up the window as Bill Graham announced the band, and they began to play. "Ladies and Gentlemen, will you please welcome, the Grateful Dead..."
After a quick nap, we awoke to the first glimpse of sunshine. It was almost Noon, and we forced ourselves to get up, becasue if we stayed asleep, we'd probably miss the few hours of sunlight -- an average of four hours a day in January, so we motivated ourselves and walked over to the shopping district.
There is a ten block stretch of stores, shops, bars, restaurants and cafes, which is the center of shopping for Reykjavik. The first thing we noticed were the women, of course. Icelandic women are supposed to be the most beautiful in the world. I had heard the rumors, and yes, they are all true. I was amazed at the random beauties walking down the street and that working in the shops. I found myself ogling too much, and smiling even more.
Señor was on a mission to get some sort of jacket. We stopped at a few stores, and were disappointed because only guys seemed to work in men's clothing stores. Señor finally found a jacket he adored, and I preceded to give him constant shit over his new black, sleek, Euro-Trash jacket.
I found a casino, and noticed the few bits of Americana I try to phase out, like McDonalds, Niketown, and a Gap. We wandered into a few record stores, and I was happy to find some Phish, and of course the Grateful Dead. But much like in America, the hottest record sales were artists pushed through the huge media machine of MTV, like Limp BIZKIT, Eminem, and Britney Spears. Icelanders get MTV as well as many other American TV stations, so as one Icelander told me, "Reykjavik is more like America than Europe..."
We walked past a bakery called La Bakeri a couple of times, and I was enamored by the tall, long-haired sunflower-yellow blonde working the front counter. I just had to say hello. I wandered inside and began to gaze at the large counter displays of freshly baked goodies. As I fixated on a chocolate donut, I looked up and saw the girl staring at me, and she was more beautiful than I had seen her in the window. I asked her how she could stay so slim with all those pastries and cookies and chocolates in front of her all the time. She smiled. I melted. I ordered a chocolate covered donut, which cost me 230 KR, or approximately $2.75. She served it to me on a small plate with a tiny fork, and a napkin. Classy and pricey, but after a few bites I began to realize that this was the tastiest donut I've ever eaten!! Homer Simpson would be proud. I quickly jotted down a few words in my notebook as I finished my donut... La Bakeri, where the most beautiful woman I'd ever laid eyes on served me the greatest donut I'd ever devoured.
Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.