Much like Iceland itself, it transpires.
The second indicator manifested itself as the plane drew to a halt. Amid the tumult of passengers standing up, the pilot added, very unobtrusively, a final rider to the usual airline-style welcome-to-country.
“You may,” he said nonchalantly, “wish to put your jackets on as it is a little bit chilly out there.”
And there you have it - the delicious Icelandic understatement still in our windblown ears as we clung to the rail of the icy stairs descending to the tarmac below, small flurries of snow swirling past us as we traipsed to the bus. A “little bit chilly”, in Icelandic terms refers to a -7 degree temperature, it seems.
Later that evening and the next morning we encountered this humour in all sorts of locations around Reykjavik: on walls, cafe blinds, T-shirts, tourist guides, menus and from the people we met and talked to. It’s a humour that would resonate with most Australians: a dry, obtuse view of the world moulded to understated observations bordering on gallows humour. Is it because, like Australia, Iceland is a country settled in the face of grim hardship that forces, in the grip of the realities, a wry humour as a means to cope?
There’s the first floor cafe terrace announcing it will only open when the ‘temperature reaches a toasty 5 degrees.’ Despite it being a mild winter by Iceland standards, I suspect that terrace would remain closed for a few weeks yet.
A little array of single gloves is arranged on the spikes of an unobtrusive entry gate It appears to be someone’s original advertisement for, I think, a speed-dating meeting. And there’s a random mural on how to tie a tie, just in case you find you need to be reminded. In Reykjavik, on the main street.
We happen across the ‘Iceland Phalllological Museum’ - yes, that is exactly what it’s about! - proudly advertising itself on T-shirts as being ‘Not for Pussies.’ Other, less risqué outlets cheerfully sell similar garments pronouncing “Don’t Mess with Iceland: We May not have the Cash, but we’ve got the Ash” I would have bought one, but the word ‘Mess’ was actually substituted for something less child-suitable.
Reading up on one of our destinations, Thingvellir (more on this fascinating place another time), we discovered a line about the location’s suitability, in the south west of the country, for a meeting point for ancient chieftains. The guide observes that those making the seventeen day journey from the eastern side of the island did find crossing the glaciers and rivers ‘problematic.’
A little bit down from the inexplicably named ‘Chuck Norris Burger Bar’ we are trying to buy orange juice. “Appelsinusafi”, we learn. Not to be confused with Apple juice , which is “eplasafi”.
“Yes!” the assistant happily explains in perfect English (all Icelanders learn English from seven years old). “The word apple entered our language twice and we kept both!” And why not?
Do walk around Reykjavik’s centre. It’s marked by the towering Hallgrimskirkja Church which affords quite exhilarating 360 degree views over the capital’s colourful roofs to the harbour, inlet, lava fields and crisp, clear, snowclad ranges beyond. This vibrancy of colour lends a wonderful energy to this subarctic city, home to two thirds of Iceland’s 350,000 strong population. Houses are coloured brightly, people wear colours (and occasionally even black,) buildings and installations are lit at night by colours, predominantly echoing those of the Northern Lights.
Mix these colours, the humour, the sharp air, the inconsistencies - the political incorrectness - and the snow together and the refreshing energy is there even in the long subarctic nights kept crackling with the boom of fireworks .(Icelanders love fireworks: selling them as fundraisers for various community organisations, they let off 650 tonnes of them each year.)
A soft, understated pulse running through the world’s most northerly capital city, warms you to its quirks even when it is “slightly chilly out there.”
And I haven’t even touched upon the geothermal hot-tubs in the snow yet….