The Awful Truth

Iceland -- the source of quality

Published May 13, 1996 8:59AM (EDT)

My friend mo and I decided to go to Iceland, because we were going to London and Iceland Air had a deal where we could stop over for two days in Reykjavik for an extra hundred dollars. A bargain! we thought, because it involved two days at Iceland's "finest hotel," which we envisioned to be some kind of palatial rustic ski lodge made of rocks and antlers and logs and moose tissue, with flags and shields and horns o' plenty filled with milk chocolate and gift-wrapped cheese. We would sack the mysterious womb of the Nordic North! We would wipe the blood and sleet from our handlebar moustaches and sing Viking drinking carols in lusty operatic baritones! Our sleds would be pulled back to the hotel by great hairy goats while we lay swaddled in thick rugs and drank great, steaming gulps of sweet, buttery alcohol from the skulls of great warriors.

Besides, we heard they had a flea market on weekends and we got terribly excited about the possibilities of buying old Icelandic rummage: floorlamps shaped like the Norse goddess Freya with whale oil spilling out of her breasts, carved out of petrified manatee, or coffee tables made of Lucite with the smiling corpse of an ice troll preserved inside. We would return from our shopping expedition laden with exotic objects we could sell for thousands of dollars back on the streets of New York.

At JFK Airport we were surrounded by all of these Sammy Hagar Icelandic people with huge, boxy, square heads. Think of Viking sculpture and you think of big, square blocks of wood hacked with hatchets and sharp rocks to represent big chins and triangular noses, with fearsome dents for eyes. It turns out that this wasn't naive, interpretive folk art but actually a fairly photo-perfect account of what these people actually look like. The widest heads I'd ever seen. The hand span of a nine-year-old child between each eye. Jutting brows, jutting chins, extremities jutting out all over. Aryan totem pole people with rock-'n'-roll perms.

Iceland Air wasn't exactly the Concorde. We were intimidated by the Nazi-experiment stewardesses with big blue plastic eyes and fangs -- a battalion of stainless steel Heather Locklears with permanent migraines. They looked like they'd smile the same tensely stretched, diamond-tooth, saw-blade smile if they gave you a bottle of cognac and a pillow or if they disemboweled you with the jagged edge of a broken tea cup. We ordered the "vegetarian menu," which consisted of some pucks of fibrous beige matter and a soft, tube-shaped mound of something we thought was soy cheese but turned out to be vegetarian waterproofing sealant. The seating arrangements in tourist class had a roominess reminiscent of the Middle Passage. Some suffocated quietly, others lost the use of their limbs. We drank "Viking" beer. We did not watch "Jumanji."

At the Reykjavik airport, we were greeted by big posters: ICELAND -- THE SOURCE OF QUALITY. Outside were children in bathing suits, their bare feet prancing in the snow. Colorful bird relatives of the Great Auk. Wool.

Iceland is made of volcanos and glaciers. It looks like the surface of the moon, if the moon had been left out of the refrigerator for too long and was starting to fester. Iceland, chew-toy of Thor's dog, whose toothmarks pock the landscape alongside the jagged, volcanic crevasses that form the cold vulvas of old mother despair. Not a vacation spot. A forbidding tundra suitable only for mammoth and the brave, ruddy Inuit.

You realize after a few minutes that the pride of Iceland is its sheep, which they dissect in innumerable ways to make sweaters and hats and mittens and mutton and all manner of dumb things made of wool, like torturous underwear that nobody could wear except Christian martyrs. Food is limited. Apart from mutton, there is smoked fish and this substance known as "skyr" which is a thick white yogurt paste they are trying to make exciting with the use of racy advertising fonts. But in Reykjavik, you actually get a choice of cuisines. You have the choice of Chinese, or Italian. For music, you have the choice of Björk, or Björk.

We were horribly excited to go to the flea market. We got up hours early and left the Hotel SAGA, which was sort of like a Hyatt Regency you'd find in pre-Lech Walesa Poland. Vast empty banquet halls with people sitting at huge round tables, huddled together against the emptiness, taking turns at the mutton and smoked fish buffet. They were out of skyr.

The flea market took place in a big empty building like a gutted gymnasium. It was a grievous and tearful disappointment. Old Avon cosmetics. Malcolm X T-shirts. Terrycloth hair ties. Thin, cheap brown and gray leather jackets with elastic waistbands and space-age padded shoulders that only Eastern European plumber guys wear. Vinyl and orthopedic nurse shoes. Everything covered by a thin layer of volcanic dust from lovelessness and neglect. I bought some terrycloth hair ties and some plastic bull heads that you stick in the top of open wine bottles, so that it looks like the bull is bleeding or vomiting wine from its mouth. Then we left, basically heartbroken and empty-handed.

The National Museum of Iceland was the most pathetic thing of all. When you're a kid it's perfectly fine to tape bugs and garbage and comic books to the wall and call it a museum, but when you are an ancient culture which just doesn't have much to offer, it's probably best not to even attempt it. In the guidebooks, the big excuse was, "Well, they were just so cold and hungry they didn't really have the strength or time or materials to do art, so here's this old spoon, and a chair, and a doorknob." There was also a retarded-looking fourth grade drawing of a guy in a big, black hat drinking watered curd and eating "sliced pickled ram's testicles, a local delicacy." And that was basically it, all contained in a building the size of a grade-school library. Mmmmm. Gelatinous discs of testicle. Source of Quality.

The best part of Iceland was a geothermal seawater lagoon in the middle of nowhere. Imagine wind whipping around your head pushing globes of rising steam, and looking up at a cold, white sky and leaning back in this warm, warm
water, with veins of super hot water running through it. The warm water fills up your ears and you hear nothing but the rubbery blowing of the wind hitting the surface of the water, and the water is white from the white silica mud and the sky is white and you're floating on your back looking up and all the white blends together and isn't separate, and you're in a wholly different dimension, floating, floating, with nothing in your head but the smell of sulfur. It made the whole deal worth it.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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