Justin Duke

48 hours in Iceland

9.28pm

Hurling across the Atlantic 1 buried under my peacoat and an Iceland Air blanket. Watching The Great Gatsby and taken with two things:

  • the bizarre juxtaposition of hip-hop and the requisite Jazz Age posturing 2.
  • the idea that Fitzgerald could write This Side of Paradise at 21 and The Great Gatsby at 26 and die at 44, drunk and unaware of his impending legacy.

So taken, too, with his aura of bow-tie existentialism, and I keep on pausing and rewinding to the following quote:

I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

7.30am

I stumble my way through Keflavik International Airport, which is by far the cleanest airport I’ve ever been to. I’m torn between my desire for caffeine and my desire for a bed, but I end up grabbing an americano on the way out. Even bolstered by caffeine, I am baffled by the slight differences in my surroundings: the exit signs are green instead of red.

The LCD map of the airport flickers between Icelandic and English, and it takes an embarassing amount of time to orient myself – but I find an ATM and a bus depot which can drop me off at my hostel.

I am alone in a new country. The sun rises lazily as my bus drives down the isolated coasts of southwest Iceland, passing small fjords and cottages situated on the coastline. I should have taken more pictures here: most of my mental effort was spent keeping my eyes open.

8.42am

The bus drops me and two other passengers at our hostel – Kex. The entrance is vaguely sketchy – an unmarked wooden door – and, somewhat cautiously, we enter, ascending the stairs.

Shit, this place is awesome:

We spend 1.400 on an Icelandic breakfast buffet. The rooms are unavailable until the afternoon, so I team up with the aforementioned two passengers – errant university students, spending a week at the hostel before visiting friends in Scotland – to explore the area a little.

9.01am

We arrive at Harpa, a magnificient concert hall finished two years ago.

9.53am

Walking through the streets of old Reykjavik – everything is so relentlessly charming. The streets are cobblestone and the houses are painted in mild pastels. We see a magnificient church in the distance and meander towards it: it is Hallgrímskirkja, dedicated to the poet Hallgrímur Pétursson. The main cathedral is silent and holy: for a few coins we take an elevator to the steeple, which has a perfect view on all sides.

12.31pm

Back at the hostel, I recover with a beer and a cup of coffee. I meet a fellow William & Mary grad – class of ‘06, she is here with her husband who is here on business – and am reminded of what I miss most about the college: an overwhelming sense of casual serendipity. That spirit is alive and thriving here.

5.30pm

After a hot shower and a necessary nap, I awake to discover that a beer festival is occurring downstairs. It is the 25th anniversary of Iceland’s repeal of the prohibition of beer, and the cultural significance is outweighed by the fact that all of the beer is free. I sample around eight microbrews, and grow attached to a coffee stout (the name of which I immediately forget). I meet two study abroad students from Miami; a half-dozen Australian refugees; a Portugese pre-law taking a gap year. I am roundly mocked for overuse of y’all.

(I didn’t take many pictures, which I regret – but they would have been blurry.)

9.22pm

After dinner – which was more of a respite from the beer than anything else – I meet more friendly faces playing Kings. Nice to see that some drinking games transcend nationality. We decide to go out clubbing in downtown Reykjavik. I remain unconverted to the ways of the club, but I’m tipsy and unwilling to relinquish the magic of the day.

8.30am

An early alarm wakes me for a trip to Blue Lagoon, a massive geothermal spa in Grindavík. On the way there, the driver regales us with facts and anecdotes about how the waters are rich in silica and known to cure all sorts of diseases – and, of course, the lagoon has a line of skin care products.

The thing is a glorious and beautiful hot tub, and I spend three hours lazily drifting from hotspot to hotspot.

12.20pm

A late brunch of yogurt, toast, lamb, and lots of coffee.

3.09pm

An impromptu trip to Kolaportið, Reykjavik’s flea market. It is smaller and more narrow than I would have hoped, but I’m spoiled by Pike Place. A few families sell wool sweaters, and my desire for one is outweighed slightly by my desire not to spend 24.900 ISK 2 for a sweater.

One of the vendors there is selling shark meat, and she entreats us to try a sample, prefacing it with a bit of alarming advice:

“It’s better if you don’t smell it beforehand. And chew lightly.”

Nervously, I pop it into my mouth.

4.17pm

On our way back to the hostel we stop by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur 3, a famous hot dog stand apparently visited by Bill Clinton.

7.22pm

Sitting at the hostel bar, drinking a copper bock and catching up on emails for the first time all weekend. Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard comes on over the speakers. This feels like some sort of platonic ideal, and I so badly want to stay here forever.

Later, above the ocean

There are times where life feels like a massive novel, packed to the brim with meandering subplots and unnecessary detail – and there are times where life feels like a loosely related collection of short stories. Right now, I align with the latter, even if I cringe a little at bookending this post with literary comparisons.

I drift asleep on the plane, REF->SEA, enconsed in scenes and symbols – the signficance of which I am not yet cognizant.


  1. It might have been the Pacific. I have no idea which oceans are which. [return]
  2. A better writer would make a joke about Jay-Z and Jay Gatsby. [return]
  3. Roughly translates to “the best hot dogs in town” [return]
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