Expanding Worldviews: Iceland

One of the things that I like about traveling is the inevitable expansion of my worldview.  Invariably, I pick up little tidbits of information that I never would have had the reason to learn if I had not traveled to a new destination.

Here are some Iceland facts that learned along the way to whet your appetite for your Icelandic adventure:

Films made in Iceland

Life motto from Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Life motto from Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The mild climate, paired with long light-filled days, where sun sets for only a few hours in the summer, are only two of the many reasons that make Iceland the ideal filming location for movies and television.  Iceland also has a variety of settings, from the winter landscapes used for HBO’s Game of Thrones, to the black sands used to represent the beaches of Iwo Jima in Flags of Our Fathers.  Iceland has waterfalls, other-worldly moonscapes, geothermal sites, beaches, idyllic countryside, volcanoes and glaciers.  Most recently, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty filmed in Iceland using different landscapes to represent the Himalayas, Afghanistan, Greenland and, of course, many points throughout Iceland, including the violent volcanic eruption scene.  Another big draw for film producers is the 20% rebate on production costs incurred while filming in Iceland that is offered by the Icelandic government.

Here are some films that were filmed, at least in part, in Iceland:

Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway due out in 2014

Noah, with Russell Crowe due out 2014

Oblivion (2013)

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Prometheus (2012)

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Batman Begins (2005)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Gay friendly

I took this for my daughter, Kiki
I took this for my daughter, Kiki

While en route to Iceland, I read in one of the guidebooks about Reykjavik Pride, Iceland’s annual gay pride event.  It said that the six-day festivities draw 100,000 people from all corners of the globe.  A little quick math made it clear to me that, being a country of just over 300,000 people, Iceland is very gay-friendly.  In fact, Iceland is home to the first openly gay head of government, former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurardóttir.  Registered same-sex partnerships have been legal since 1996.  In 2010, the Icelandic parliament passed a bill removing the “opposite-sex” distinction for marriage, allowing for same-sex marriage and thereby extending marital rights to same-sex couples.  Discrimination is prohibited by the constitution.

Reykjavik Pride
Reykjavik Pride


Icelandic Horses - photo from National Geographic
Icelandic Horses
Photo from National Geographic

Iceland has it’s own special breed of horse known (of course) as the Icelandic Horse.  All Icelandic horses are purebred descendants of the horses brought over by Nordic settlers over 1,100 years ago.  The Icelandic breed is shorter and stouter than horses that are commonly seen in the United States, resembling what might be considered a pony.  Because of its isolation from other countries, Iceland has very strict regulations to protect their horses from diseases that exist outside of Iceland.  Once an Icelandic horse is taken out of the country, particularly for championship horse shows in mainland Europe or North America, it can never return to Iceland.  Likewise, importation of any type of horse, Icelandic included, is prohibited.

 Labor unions

While traveling though the majestic scenery of Þingvellir National Park on our not so majestic tour bus, the tour guide explained that most of the little cabins that we were seeing were owned by Icelandic labor unions as vacation homes for their members.  She said that 80% of Icelanders belong to labor unions.  She said that the unions keep the workers happy with delightful perks such as vacation cabins and education benefits.  Although I couldn’t confirm her statistic, while looking into it, I discovered that the tax rate in Iceland is roughly 37%.  Union dues are 1-2% of wages and are paid by the employer.  Workers and employers are also required to pay into retirement and disability pension funds at 4% and 8% respectively.  Icelandic workers are also entitled to 24 days holiday, providing they have worked for for at least a year consistently, though not necessarily for one employer.

 Cashless society 

My grandfather lived all around the world throughout his life and one of the things that was passed down to me after he died was his secret stash of mostly mint condition paper money from each of the countries in which he lived.  Whenever I travel outside of the US, I bring home a little money to add to my grandpa’s collection.

Kronur for my collection
Kronur for my collection

The Lonely Planet Iceland guide had mentioned in its “money” section that, “Iceland is an almost cashless society where the credit card is king.”  I didn’t give that a second thought until late in the evening the day before we were set to depart.  I realized that I didn’t have any currency for my collection.  The guidebook was right.  We hadn’t needed cash in the four days that we had been there.  Everywhere we went accepted credit cards, regardless of the amount.

To remedy the situation, I stopped by an ATM in Reykjavik.  My currency conversion skills failed me however, and when I made my withdrawal I inadvertently took 10 times the amount that I needed.  Luckily, the shops were not averse to accepting cash and I happily ended up with a beautiful wool sweater AND some Icelandic Kronur coins and paper money for my collection.  In Iceland, there is no distinction between “dollars” and “cents.”  Kronur are what we would consider cents and as the prices go higher the numbers get astronomical.  There are no decimals, which is how I made my conversion mistake.  I was able to exchange the remainder at the airport without a fee.

Whale & Puffin on the Menu

Two of the things that I was surprised to find on menus in Iceland were whale and puffin.  Every locale has its regional culinary delights.  I had heard about the putrified shark “Hákarl” from Anthony Bourdain.  I had read about the fermented ram’s testicles and singed sheep head.  I had not anticipted the whale and puffin.

My entire exposure to puffins before arriving in Reykjavik was watching them splash around their enclosure adjacent to the walruses at the Point Defiance Zoo.  In Iceland, they are part of the culture.  Iceland is home to 60% of the world’s breeding puffin population.  It has the world’s largest puffin colony.  No doubt, because of their abundance they have found their way into the food culture of the Icelandic people.  I like to experience other cultures, but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Like puffin, Minke whale can also be found in abundance in Iceland.  Whaling is a very controversial topic throughout the world and is not without controversy in Iceland.  Part of the controversy is whether or not whale consumption is an integral part of the culture or a tourist gimmick.  Many animal rights organizations suggest that if tourists would not partake in its consumption then the demand for whale meat would diminish and disappear.  I don’t like to take sides, but I skipped the whale, too.


Taking advantage of its natural resources, Iceland has used geothermal energy to heat greenhouses since 1924.  Despite the climate, Iceland produces crops such as potatoes, strawberries, bananas, cucumbers and flowers for domestic commercial purposes.

 Lazy town

Skyr + Lazytown = Frozen Treats
Skyr + Lazytown = Frozen Treats

The children’s’ show, Lazy Town, previously shown in the United States on Nickelodeon and Nick Jr., was created by Icelander Magnús Scheving.  He is the 1992 Icelandic Men’s Individual Champion in aerobic gymnastics.  Magnús portrays the show’s “athletic superhero” Sportacus. Fifty-two episodes were produced between 2004-2007, all of which can be blissfully viewed on your seatback entertainment system while flying on Icelandair.


Although Icelandic is the primary language of Iceland, while traveling in Iceland it is not likely that you will encounter anyone that does not speak English.  Denmark ruled Iceland for centuries thereby, Danish is also taught in schools.  Danish is unpopular among school children, having lost favor to the more practical English.

Patronymic Surnames

My first exposure to patronymic surnames was a few years ago while doing genealogical research in Danish records.  Patronymic names are derived from the father’s first name.  In my research, for example, Niels Jensen was the son of Jens Sorensen, who was the son of Soren Christiansen and so on.  In my experience, the system made family research very difficult.  Over time, Denmark and other Nordic countries instituted laws to create inheritable surnames.  Iceland’s patronymic tradition remains.  Boy children inherit the suffix “son” such as Jon Sigurdsson, son of Sigurd.  Daughters inherit the suffix “dóttir,” such as Björk Sigurdsdóttir.  Icelanders refer to each other, either formerly or casually, by first name.  The phone book is listed alphabetically by first name, and to distinguish individuals with the same name, occupation.

Nordic design

A lot of the places that we went in Iceland were reminiscent of being trapped in a life-sized Ikea.

The Keflavik airport is beautifully modern.  It is sleek.  It is functional.  It is clean, albeit crowded.  It is the only place in the world where I have seen hand dryers built right into the bathroom sinks! (Check them out here!) I think that is pretty fantastic.

Find the flusher…

Our Icelandair hotels, both recently remodeled repurposed mid-century buildings, were refreshingly simple.  I love simple!

In fact, our toilet was so simple that I couldn’t find the flusher, but that’s another story.

My American ignorance had prevented me from realizing right away that the modern design that I was seeing everywhere was a direct result of Iceland’s place in the world as a Nordic nation.  Scandinavian influence is everywhere from the breakfast buffet, to the gregariousness of the people to the architecture and the furniture.

On one of our last days in Reykjavik, as I was taking in the panorama of the city from the clock tower at Hallgrímskirkja, I had a déjà vu feeling.  I hadn’t actually lived that moment before, but I had seen the colorful red roofed buildings silhouetted by the ocean, cloudy skies with fishing boats in the harbor.  I had seen this scene in the countless hours of Rick Steves shows on Denmark, Norway and Sweden that I had watched.  Taken into perspective, I could see the Scandinavian family resemblance and it made me love Iceland just that much more!

It is these little bits of a culture that feed my desire for travel.  While traveling, I never know what new morsels that I will learn that will be the breadcrumbs that lead me to my next adventure.

And so I end with this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes,

Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea

Go out, explore and find new ways to expand your mind, your worldview.

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