Ingi and Eyrún
I’ve been putting off writing this, because it is my favorite Iceland story, and I wasn’t sure how much to include. We’ve also been relying on our photos the majority of our content, so if you are wishing we’d write more, here is a nice long post for you.
Part of our ethos of this year has been not pre-booking or pre-planning ahead too much. Free as the wind! Come what may! Adventure! In Iceland that didn’t serve us well, at least on an emotional level. It all worked out perfectly in the end, but it did make for anxious evenings. Something about being thousands of miles from home, watching the daylight weaken and not being sure about where you are sleeping that night is a little unsettling.
We did have the foresight to pre-book our first night and stayed in a simple little guesthouse in the center of Reykjavik. The next morning, we picked up our car headed for the Blue Lagoon. Afterward, we just started driving and ended up in a fishing village called Grindavik. We drove down the empty streets and wondered what to do next. Then we saw the flags of several different countries waving on a building and decided it looked like a friendly place. The flags turned out to be attached to Kanturinn.
The Simpsons were playing loudly on the TV when we walked in. It was probably 6 p.m., but Kanturinn was empty. I privately wondered whether we had stepped into a place everyone else knew to avoid, but the owner, Ingi, mentioned it would be very busy in the early morning hours. The walls were filled with photos of bands and people having a good time. Ingi took our order and explained to us that kantur meant “edge.” His family originally wanted to name the place in honor of his grandmother, but it would have sounded very similar to “Cocaine Inn” and that wasn’t the image they wanted to evoke. I ordered a heaping plate of noodles and vegetables.
Ingi said that there was a quiz show on TV, and that residents of Grindavik were competing against residents of Reykjavik. I thought he was asking permission to end the conversation and watch the program from his barstool the other side of the room, but when we said, “oh yes, please watch it,” he fired up the projector on the wall behind us. Ingi explained how he knew the Grindavikian contestants, and told us that one man who was representing Reykjavik was a top staff member for the mayor and also a member of the Icelandic heavy metal band Dr. Spock. (If you’re wondering how a person like that gets into politics, this is a great article.)
Ingi asked if we had tried the shark yet. We replied that we had not, but were willing to try it. Icelandic settlers did not have an easy life and survived on the bounty of the sea which they preserved with creative methods. One way they preserved shark was to gut it, bury it under heavy stones for a month or three to press out the liquid, then cut it into strips and dry it out for several more months. It’s called hákarl and Anthony Bourdain once described it as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. Ingi handed us a chunk on a toothpick and poured us each a shot of Brennevin. We both managed to thoroughly chew and swallow it. My urge to gag was mild and easily suppressed, but Tony didn’t even flinch. The Brennevin shots cleared away the hákarl aftertaste.
By this time, we were starting to feel that finding a place to lay our heads for the evening was more urgent. We could easily drive back to Reykjavik and stay either in the same guesthouse or at the backpacker hostel next door. But we were tired and weren’t sure if we wanted to drive that far. The guesthouses in the area seemed expensive, so we logged in to Couchsurfing.com to see if we could find anyone who was both nearby and miraculously online at the same time as we were. We came across one registered couch in Grindavik that belonged to a married couple who had good reviews and who indicated they would be ok with last-minute requests. (Note: A good Couchsurfer makes requests at least a few days in advance. It’s better for everyone.)
Since Ingi seemed to know everyone, we showed him their picture and asked if he recognized them. “Oh yes, the woman’s daughter used to work here. Do you want me to call her and ask if you can stay?” We declined at first because we weren’t sure if that would be considered rude, or if the person would appreciate us circumventing the Couchsurfing messaging system. But when he offered again a few minutes later, we said yes. So he looked up the woman’s phone number, had a brief conversation with her, and told us we were all set. He gave us directions to her house which was just a few blocks away, and ten minutes later, we were knocking on the door of a stranger.
Eyrún opened the door with a big smile and said, “please, be welcome.” I was feeling really sheepish about our lack of planning and how we might be imposing on her, but again she repeated, “please, be welcome.” So we were. Eyrún has a big family, and a huge dining table to match, but her husband was out of town for work and only she and her daughter were home. She made us tea and we talked about the sheep she used to raise up north and the differences between the Icelandic and American education systems. She also helped us with some Icelandic pronunciations and told us about her trip to Boston a few years ago. It was such a pleasant evening. We finally went to bed around 11, and left in the morning before she woke up.
We were very grateful for the foresight of Ingi’s father to put flags outside of Kanturinn, for Ingi’s friendliness to weary travelers, and for Eyrún’s kind hospitality. It was a great day.