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15 things I’ve learned about Iceland

Photo credit: © Vivian Chan

Within 24 hours of being in Iceland, I was already blown away by how unique this country is. Not that other places do not have interesting things about them – on the contrary – but never have I been somewhere where within moments of arriving, I was hit with so many “really!?” moments. Coming away from our trip, these are the top fifteen things we learned about Iceland.

Top 15 Icelandic Facts:

  1. Hot springs and glacier springs are right in your taps.
    When turning on the taps, the cold water comes from the purest glacial spring water, while the hot water is heated geothermally and can be up to 83C. We made our morning coffee straight from the taps. Amazing. Nature right to your doorstep.
  2. Home of the world’s oldest Parliament still running today.
    Iceland’s Parliament that is still running today was formed in 930 AD. Parliament and Icelanders gathered in the valley of Thingvellir, between the North American and Eurasian continental plates every year until 1798. There was no written language then, and all the Parliamentary law was memorized by a law-speaker.
  3. The Prime Minister is a woman, and she’s gay.
    The political leaning of the country has swayed strong left after the recent financial collapse of the country under the rule of the right-wing party.
  4. 90% of houses in Reykjavik are heated by geothermal springs.
    Iceland has managed to harness the power of their harsh environment and today, 90% of houses in Reykjavik are heated by geothermal springs. The only form of energy that uses fossil fuels are modes of transportation: cars, boats, and airplanes. By 2030, Iceland aims to have eliminated all fossil fuel dependency, even in their modes of transportation. They have already started switching their public transport buses to hydrogen energy, and is one of the most technologically advanced nations in the area of geothermal technology.
  5. Iceland was formed by volcanic activity.
    Iceland is an island that was formed from volcanic activity in a hotspot along the Mid-Atlantic rift, and continues to grow today. The plates drift apart 2 cm every year. There are seven hotspots such as this around the world.
  6. Iceland is made up of volcanoes.
    Because Iceland was formed by volcano, all the mountains you see are actually volcanoes. Some inactive, some active and one currently erupting: Eyjafjallajokull.
  7. Iceland’s eruption of Katla in the 1700s may have had a hand in causing the French Revolution.
    The volcanic eruption that caused global environmental changes in the 1700s is believed by some to have been a causal factor in the French Revolution. The ash cloud dispersed throughout Europe and as far as Japan, and blocked out the sun for months, causing a lot of crop failure. In Iceland, it was also a main contributor to why there isn’t a lot of advanced vegetation in Iceland today. Between the human harvesting of trees on the island for houses and ships, and the remaining dying due to the ash cloud, all the indigenous trees of the country were wiped out.
  8. Before anything else can grow, the delicate moss must break down the volcanic rock.
    Moss is the first and only vegetation that is able to grow on volcanic rock. Moss breaks down the rock into habitable soil for other plant species, but it takes tens of thousands of years. Removing moss from rock – like the thoughtless humans who write their names in the moss on the side of a rock – means no moss will grow there for another hundred years. A permanent kind of graffiti. Other parts of the world have coral reefs, Iceland has beautiful green moss (that is grey when dry).
  9. Elves!
    10% of Icelanders firmly believe in elves. 10% firmly disbelieve, and 80% are undecided about the existence of elves. It sounds strange at first, but upon coming here – there is such a soulful, eery, mystical magic about Iceland that I think it’s almost hard to imagine NOT believing, even a little, in elves.
  10. Strip clubs in Iceland have recently been banned.
    Enough said.
  11. Icelanders congregate at the swimming pool.
    Swimming pools and their geothermal hot pools are a way of life for Icelanders and their communities as cafés are for the French and pubs are for the British. Swimming is mandatory for school-age children, and the pools are community gathering places. If you visit one, make sure you read up on pool etiquette first.
  12. In Iceland, all names in the phone book are organized by first name.
    This is because all last names are given according to “son / daughter of” – and this gets fairly complicated. Everyone is listed in this way, even the President.
  13. Tipping is not required or done in Iceland.
    No matter what your taxi driver says…
  14. Icelandic is an ancient language.
    It hasn’t changed much since the Nordic vikings brought it to the country. At the time, all of northern Europe spoke a universal language; however, through the years while European languages evolved to how we know them today, Icelandic remained the same, preserved on the island in near original form.
  15. One of Iceland’s delicacies is putrified shark.
    Hákarl, or putrified shark, is exactly as it sounds: it’s rotten. But the greatest part of it has nothing to do with its decomposed state, but with the origins of this dish. Hákarl is made from basking shark that is believed to be an ancestor of prehistoric filter-feeding fish, and didn’t evolve to have kidneys. As a result, its meat is toxic. The only way to eat its flesh is to let it rot… for months. The fish is then hung out to dry… for years. The longer it airs out, the less putrid it smells. Hákarl is usually served with a good, stiff spirit and looks like a cube of cheese. Too bad it smells strongly of  ammonia – or in simple terms, as relayed to us by our guide – “piss”.


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