Glimpses of Iceland: A Brief Foray into the Land of Fire and Ice – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
As I glanced out my airplane window, I saw a landmass that could be best compared to a moonscape: a vast sheet of black, jagged volcanic rock, covered with layers of pristine white snow, jutted up into the sky. This view marked my entry into Iceland, the “Land of Fire and Ice.” In the course of an hours-long layover that I would have in the country, I was able to explore the capital city of Reykjavik by foot and briefly experience the wonders of this truly otherworldly land.
After our plane landed, I hopped on a bus headed towards Reykjavik. The view from the ground level was just as astonishing as the bird’s eye view. We passed by seemingly endless craggy ridges of dark volcanic rock that were covered by meager layers of grass, moss, and lichen. An occasional pastel-covered house or two helped break up the monotony, and after what seemed like an eternity, we saw a congregation of these houses gathered over the horizon– we had reached Reykjavik! The wide spaces, charming dollhouse-like buildings, and abundant parks and green areas gave this city of 200,000 people a breezy, small-town vibe to it. On one street corner, you could be perusing through shops and restaurants, and a short distance away you could easily meander to Reykjavik’s embassy row. Reykjavik’s relaxed, accessible atmosphere made it stand out from most global capital cities, which tend to be frantic, congested, and heavily urbanized megalopolises. My glimpses into store and restaurant windows gave me clues to Iceland’s sense of national identity. The city displayed a lot of Viking souvenirs and regalia, which spoke to the fact that this group first settled the island more than a thousand years ago. Even the national language, Icelandic, pays homage to this heritage. Due to Iceland’s geographic isolation, the language maintained many aspects of Old Norse, and many Icelanders can even read centuries-old Old Norse sagas with relative ease. In contrast, its North Germanic counterparts, such as Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, began to stray away from Old Norse due to linguistic and cultural interaction with their surrounding countries, and today these languages differ significantly from their ancestral language of Old Norse. Reykjavik’s buildings also nodded to its rich mythological and cultural traditions. Window-shops had troll and elf statuettes, which signified how important these creatures are in Icelandic folklore (in fact, many Icelanders today believe that elves are real!). Place names like “Loki’s Place” revealed the influence of Old Norse mythology in Icelandic society. Several places of worship scattered throughout the city also showcased the role of belief systems in Iceland. Christianity, especially Lutheranism, had a key role in Icelandic history, as it served as the dominant religion for hundreds of years after the Vikings converted to it from paganism. Other buildings and institutions highlighted how different religious traditions, as well as atheism, are starting to gain a more prominent role in modern Icelandic society. Lastly, the city displayed a deep reverence for the natural world. The ocean, green areas, and surrounding mountains all converge together to create a natural landscape that harmoniously blends in with the urban one. Many of the local crafts and everyday items in the city were made of natural materials, such as wood, wool, sod, and lava rock. Even many of the city’s artistic motifs incorporated natural themes, such as puffins, sheep, and fish designs. All of these seemingly small details proved to be highly reflective of Reykjavik and Icelandic culture as a whole, and they all helped me form a strong impression of the place during my stay there.
Although I was only in Iceland for a limited amount of time, I found it an absolutely enchanting place. I appreciated how I was able to glean many details about Iceland’s history, cultural traditions, and relationship with the natural world just by walking in and looking around Reykjavik. Nevertheless, I realize there is still much more to learn about the country, and I hope I will someday have another opportunity to explore Iceland for a longer period of time and discover even more of its unique aspects in the process.
Marin Ekstrom serves as an assistant managing editor for The North Star Reports
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Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Ellie Swanson and Marin Ekstrom, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.
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39 responses to “Glimpses of Iceland: A Brief Foray into the Land of Fire and Ice – by Marin Ekstrom. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports”
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This is a delightful glimpse into Reykjavik. I have had a number of friends travel there, and they too were astonished by the setup of the capital. While Iceland is rather geographically and linguistically isolated, would you say that has effect on it’s participation in the global sphere? And as I ask that question, I can think of dozens more to ask about the societal and cultural landscape of Iceland.
I would be curious to look into their political atmosphere, specifically relating to public policy. With it’s rather small population I wonder what it’s social programming looks like. In addition, Iceland has not had a standing military since the 19th century, and thereby is the only NATO member to not have a standing army, interesting. Do you think Iceland has pulled this off merely due to their population, or is there something else going on here?
Marin, thank you for a very well thought report on the beautiful island of Iceland! As I read your report I could only imagine the beauty you experienced in Reykjavik! During this Fall semester at CSS, I have been intensely planning for my study abroad trip to Ireland in the Spring. As I have been look for the cheapest airfare, I noticed something quite remarkable about Iceland Air [Ireland’s own airfare company]. Every single fight to get from the US to Europe was cheaper through Iceland Air. It was incredible, and I found the reason behind it. Iceland Air is a couple hundred dollars cheaper because there are small 2-3 day lay overs to get from the US to the continental block of Europe. Iceland Air wants people to explore their country and experience their culture much easier and more affordably. After this excellent report on the Land Fire and Ice from Marin, who wouldn’t want to travel and experience cultures all around the world! The importance of traveling is not to simply say you’ve been there, but the fact that you can say that you have experienced the culture and have a deeper understanding of how other people across the world live their lives. Getting in touch with different cultural perspectives is what helps us individually find compassion for others. Traveling to Iceland would be amazing to experience other cultural perspectives, but this idea can be seen at much lower level. For example, the cultural perspectives of West Duluth compared to East Duluth are significantly different. Let’s challenge ourselves to delve into other cultures!
I’ve heard a lot of great stories from friends who had layover in Iceland. They all left me with a passing desire to visit the place, but especially after reading your descriptions of old Norse culture and language, I would consider a visit a must. Islands are unique in the sense that they preserve a particular culture by keeping the influences of the others away. I had always thought of Icelandic as a primarily Germanic language. I was surprised to learn of its sharp distinction from other Scandinavian languages.
I find it extremely intriguing that their language has remained so similar to how it was in the early days of Iceland. However, I am wondering if this could bring about any set backs to the Icelandic people, with their lack of a modernization to their language. Just from reading this passage I can tell Iceland has a very rich culture, through your brief experience there you have already gained a good base knowledge of the country, which tells a lot. From reading this I even find myself gaining an interest in traveling to such a magical place.
Marin, you do an absolute fantastic job of painting a picture in my head of what Iceland looks and feels like. You really make it seem like a beautiful place. You make an interesting point about how the language has ties to old Viking language partly because of how isolated Iceland is. I’m not very familiar with Iceland but after reading your article it sounds like a place everyone needs to see! Thanks for sharing your experience.
I liked how you described the landscape to the moon. A vast, barren landscape of dark volcanic rock with snow covering it as far as the eye can see. It seems like you only had a short time to explore the country but it made quite the impression on you. I have read in articles in addition to this that Iceland supplies over 85% of their power with renewables including many geothermal sources. So your title calling it the “Land of Fire and Ice” is how they power their country. It was also neat how you compare the capital to a small city feel just because it seems very peaceful and joyous from what you described.
I am incredibly jealous of your layover in Iceland! Last year, I had the option to have one as well on my way to Finland, however, due to funding I missed out. How descriptive you are in describing the city is much more than captivating. I’ve always admired Iceland’s natural beauty and preservation (from afar of course) and have dreamed of the day I’d get to visit. It really is no wonder why the Vikings chose to claim the beautiful land as their own.
I am also a fanatic when it comes to languages. Icelandic is one that I’ve loved since a child, mostly due to the fact that it is the single closest spoken language to that of Old Norse, which you’ve stated. Isn’t it fascinating that these group of people grew up learning basically two languages simultaneously? Another trait I am very jealous of.
What an interesting tale of a beautiful place! I know of many people of who have visited Iceland, and it sounds like a really unique place full of rich history. I think it is really cool how much you were able to take in in such a short span of time. I felt this same experience in many of the towns I visited in Germany and Austria- there were a few times we had only a day to visit a major city like Munich- and I did not feel like I stayed long enough to get even a glimpse of what the city was like. That being said, Munich has a much bigger feel to it than what you are describing as your experience in Iceland. Thank you for adding another city to my travel bucket list!
Thank you for sharing! I found your description at the beginning of the article to be amazing. I found the part about their language to be interesting because I would not think that they would still have so many similarities from the original language. I love hearing different languages because in Canada I only really hear french and English.
Thank you for this beautiful account of your time spent in Reykjavik. I must say that I’m envious of you, Iceland is one of the places that I would really like to visit. It’s interesting how the language has stayed largely the same for nearly thousand years thanks to the isolated location of the island. I can as a Swede confirm that the other Nordic languages has strayed away from the Old Norse a lot compared to Icelandic; while there is a lot of mutual intelligibility between Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, Icelandic is impossible for us to understand even though some words are a bit similar.
It is also fascinating that such a small country can be so successful. Iceland consistently places in the absolute top in a slew of rankings measuring things such as happiness, equality, quality of life and HDI to mention a few. Clearly a place that would be interesting to travel to!
You use excellent language to paint a most illuminating picture of the wonderful landscape you explored! Iceland must be a ideal place to explore for those that are especially interested in history as my family is. The way you described the small town feel reminds me of Gig Harbor, Washington where the whole city is hidden in trees. Even the big stores like Target and Office Max are practically invisible from the main roads. Iceland is a great example of a city that has maintained a great deal of its historical identity despite globalization. Thanks for sharing!
I always find island cultures quite fascinating because of how isolated they can be from the rest of the world. Iceland was seemingly frozen in time after it was first settled, in regards to their language at least. While the culture in original homelands of the vikings changed due to interaction with surrounding culture, this was not true for Iceland. With essentially no other cultures to draw from, the viking language and traditions remained unchanged for much longer in Iceland than in the origins of the culture. Islands often show a glimpse into the past of the first settlers because once on the island, not much is there to induce a change in their culture. Thank you for the great article!
I enjoyed reading your article and it seems like you were able to get a lot out of Iceland in such a short time. Iceland is high on my list of places I want to visit because all I ever hear about is its beauty. My friend spent a few days there last summer and the hot springs and other areas he went with very blue water and many waterfalls looked spectacular. I enjoyed that the town you went to had a small town feel but also seemed very touristy. So often on vacation the areas people go to are overcrowded and that for me takes some of the enjoyment out of it. It seems to me that Iceland and the people there would be very easy going and that everything must move slower then the rest of the world. Lastly, I think it is super cool how since they having mixed with as many culture like you mentioned they have been able to keep some of the old Norse language and tradition.
I really enjoyed your article and the outlook on Iceland. As it is one of the places my grandma has gone, I grew up hearing stories of Iceland and its greatness. She talked about the hospitality and the pride in the Norse mythology and viking heritage. I am glad you got to explore on you layover, that is one of the ways to make the best out of a layover experience. I am glad that you could experience all of that just in the hours of the layover. Sometimes I think many places throughout the world are trying to become more western and in doing that they lose their charm and what draws people. I am glad they kept with the themes that have been important to them for the past thousand years.
I really appreciate how open minded and attentive you were when walking the streets of Reykjavik. We can really learn a lot from a little if we let ourselves! Your references to elves, puffins, and vikings as well as your beautiful description of the scenery make me feel like Iceland is a pretty magical place.
What was the food like when you were there? Did you get to sample any traditional dishes? What is the weather like?
I look forward to hearing more about your adventures!
Your description of your brief time in Iceland is compelling. The descriptions make me want to travel there and surround myself with its landscapes. I also found your mention about Icelandic intriguing. I think languages are really cool. The fact that Icelandic hasn’t changed much from Old Norse is amazing to me! What a rich understanding of Old Norse texts people who are native Icelandic speakers must have that those of us who are not could only dream to access. It would be a wonderful opportunity to be taught the Old Norse texts from native Icelandic speakers.
Wow, this article really got my attention and your trip to Iceland sounds amazing! The capital of Iceland sounds like a amazing city to visit especially of the design of the buildings. I did not realize that some people in Iceland believe in elves even though they don’t exist. Part of this might be due to the Viking heritage and history which plays a big part of Iceland’s culture. The way that you described Iceland’s landscape just sounds stunning of the mountains mixed with the ocean and green landscape. Personally, I hope to visit Iceland one day and be able to experience the natural wonders mixed with the history of the people.
First off, thanks for sharing your story. It was truly interesting. I think the fact Iceland has been able to preserve its culture so well is extraordinary. I think Iceland’s isolation has definitely helped. It is sad to see how many cultures have lost much of their ancient traditions, culture, and language, just because of socializing with other cultures. It is nice to see Iceland has been able to preserve so much history. I did wonder whether globalization has or can help with the amount of culture and history being lost in other cultures. On one hand, globalization can help expose many more people to history and traditions not well known. However, then culture appropriation can become an issue. On the other hand, globalization could cause the culture to change and lose some of its history by being exposed to other cultures.
Iceland has always been one of the places that i want to go to the most, for a lot of the reasons that you talk about! I think it is so cool that they have been able to keep their history alive in how they have continued their older traditions. I think it is part of their distance from everywhere else that does allow them to keep their traditions, unlike those that are next to Europe that you listed. I also love how they have places named after the Gods in Norse mythology, because it does make them even closer and harder for them to lose their traditions. I really am glad that you got to experience a place like Iceland, i just think it is such a cool place to go.
Hi Marin, thank you for this article. Even though your time was very brief, it seems you were able to soak up a lot of culture in the city of Reykjavik. I find it fascinating that just through gazing into shop windows you were able to catch glimpses of such culturally significant artifacts. I didn’t know that the Norse language was still in existence, much less utilized by everyday people. While considering the traditions and regalia of Vikings, I wonder if the Icelandic people are annoyed by fetishization of Vikings in Hollywood. Considering their historical importance in the Icelandic culture, do you think it is okay for us to portray the Vikings as if they are independent and don’t have modern descendants? Is the disconnect we see between Vikings and modern Icelandic people due to isolation (location in the world)?
Thank you for sharing your experience abroad! Your time in Iceland sounds really cool. I think Iceland is a really awesome place and I hope to visit and adventure there one day. I love talking about old Norse legends and history with my dad because he has always had an obsession with the Vikings and their history. I hope you continue to travel and write about your experiences!
Just to get this out there I love mountains, but I like visualizing from afar I am not much of a hiker. Therefore, reading your article was very intriguing, you capture the environment of Iceland and its capital city Reykjavik, so beautifully. The connection that you have made about the isolation of the country and its current usage of an old dialect is very captivating to me. Language in itself is very mesmerizing and learning that Iceland still uses an old dialect is new and intriguing to me. This makes me wonder what are the different sources that drive changes in languages? For instance, I speak Swahili but for some reason whenever I go back to Kenya I am made to feel like I cannot understand the language. Words often change and are used differently even in just an annually span. Anyway, it was really nice to hear about your experience in Iceland. Thank you for sharing.
As one of the comments above, your story was compelling. All I know about Iceland is that 3 of the top women in CrossFit are from there. So I have seen videos here and there about it, but your story had more details. I like how you went and explored while you had the layover; I think the sense/feeling of something brand new is what drives all of us to be curious. It is a good feeling!
Iceland is one of my favorite countries to read about. I found this article very informative and knowing the fact that the country is able to preserve its culture is a very good thing to happen. One of the things that I found to be most interesting was that most of their arts and crafts are made from natural materials like wood and lava rock. I wish to go there one day to view its beauty and take in the scenes from the natural areas as well as the churches and other iconic buildings.
Thank you for this wonderful description of Iceland. It sounds like quite an amazing place. I found the information about the Icelandic language to be particularly interesting. I have witnessed, in secluded parts of the middle east, the effects that geographic isolation has played on languages, but never really considered an example of this involving Vikings and Old Norse. It was fascinating to read your descriptions of examples or cultural identity that you found in your short time there. I wonder how globalization and the increased travel will affect an area that has been so isolated. Iceland sounds like an amazing place to visit!
Marin, what an interesting piece about a glimpse into Iceland! I feel like Iceland is a country that is often overlooked because of its small population and isolation. This article shows that the people of Iceland thrive off of this! The ancient history of Iceland is obviously still extremely prevalent in their culture today, which is not something that is often celebrated in America and Europe. If I were to travel to Iceland, I would definitely like to learn more about their culture, as well as explore the mountains and forests that make up the rest of Iceland.
Marin, you have offered us a very detail oriented article. Your description of Reykjavik was splendid. It has sparked a stronger interest in me to actually do more research on Iceland and hopefully embark on a journey there. Specifically I really liked how you reference the history/legacy of Iceland. How you refer to the vikings settling there thousands of years ago. it is an interesting take, as most of these essays are about more modern experiences, it was refreshing to hear about the history of the county.
This article paints such a wonderful picture of Iceland! How lucky it is that you were able to have a long enough layover to go out and explore. I do not know much about the history of Iceland, and for some reason, I did not completely connect Iceland to the Vikings before reading this. I would be interested in learning more about the history of Iceland and the legends they believe there! I think it would be a great learning experience to visit there one day. Thanks for sharing!
I find it inspiring how Iceland has been able to preserve the culture! There is a lot of difficulties nowadays to keep culture and traditions alive. Many of the younger generations are moving on to better their lives if given the opportunity. I found it intriguing when you touched on the history of Iceland and Vikings. I started reading this article with no prior knowledge of Iceland’s history. I hope I get the chance to visit there when I go overseas this next semester. Thank you for sharing your story!
Iceland is one of the many countries I want to explore someday. My friend went to a 3 week vacation there by himself to explore the country and when he got back, he didn’t want to tell me what he saw and experienced because he said I just need to go experience it myself. He said it was probably one of the best trips hes ever done. He even offered to go back there with me because he loved it so much.
I think it’s awesome that you got to experience and interpret what their culture is like just by the scenery, style of the buildings, and different decorations they had like elves statues. The way you describe this city in your post is so mezmirizing. I had a good picture of what it looks like in my head! Although it kind of reminded me of a city I visited in Norway two months ago, especially when you mentioned trolls and the Vikings! I also didn’t know Iceland had volcanoes, so that’s awesome! What was the weather like?? Since you got a little taste of Iceland, would you go back again to explore more??
I was drawn to your article not only from its title but because I have always wanted to visit Reykjavik. The dynamic of the landmass from ancient volcanoes to the nature that has grown over it as well as civilization is simply amazing. I love that there are still beliefs in the myths that Iceland’s settlers once had. I have to admit my family is majorly from German, Swedish, and Norwegian decent and even my grandmother kept small troll statues around her house, so its always fun to read the tradition is still widely kept. I find it extremely interesting that many of Iceland’s inhabitants have been able to keep Old Norse so well preserved that they can still understand century Old Norse sagas. I completely agree this was in part due to the fact they are on an island that kept them separate and preserved in a way, verses their counter parts that developed on a larger landmass with many different civilizations within it. We recently covered topics on the beginnings of human kind, how far our ancestors migrated, and all the different creation myths that existed in Tignor et al.’s “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart,” (2018). It is interesting to me that as Tignor et al. explain, the first Humans often migrated into favorable lands that would offer sources of food and protection (p. 18, 2018). When looking at the land mass Iceland is formed from, large juts of volcanic rock, it seems to be inhospitable. However, Vikings sailed to reach this land and were able to adapt to life on it despite the environment. Although Vikings came centuries after early humans, it is amazing to think how far they had already developed to be able to travel so far and adapt to the climate and harsh winters that Iceland has. You had well written and presented opinions on your short time in Iceland that were very fun to read.
Being that I’ve always wanted to travel to Iceland, you’ve made that want even more desirable through your report! Reykjavik has always interested me as the energy source of geothermal is uncommon in large scale. However, reading that some people can read Old Norse is mind boggling to me. The language development of both Iceland and Europe makes sense though; one is secluded with a smaller mass of people and the other is large and diverse. The next stop on my ever expanding travel list will be Reykjavik. (The Fossavatn ski marathon is held close to the city and has gorgeous scenery)
Thank you so much for sharing this story. It sounds like a majestic place. I find it interesting how strong there heritage resonates through there culture today. Because of this and you said how they have a strong connection to the natural world, how large do you think there environmental foot print is. To go with that what kind of changes are being made to combat global warming?
Thanks, Phillip Truax
Hello great post you have here. Iceland is somewhere i have never been too but somewhere that sounds like a very interesting place to travel too. Your post only makes me want to explore it to now, i had no idea all the history there but i now want to find out more about this beautiful place. From volcanoes to the small cities this place seems like a must travel to now for me. Thank you for educating me on a place that i have always heard a lot about.
Thank you for sharing your story! I recently also got the opportunity to travel to a new part of the world in which I had never been before. It was my first plane ride and I distinctly remember witnessing the beauty from the plane looking down over Japan and into the sunny scenery of the Philippines. Being able to immerse myself in another country was such an incredible experience that, by the sounds of it, you were able to experience as well. I was able to witness the beauty of the ocean, the greenery, the mountains, and the native people and their language. In the book “Worlds Together Worlds Apart” it is stated that the Roman Empire used roads to stay connected to a variety of lands and larger urban centers (Tignor, 267). To me, I find it interesting that the big evolution of travel today is airplanes.
Thank you for sharing your experience abroad! Iceland is on my list of places to visit, and you only convinced me even more that I need to get there someday soon. One of my favorite parts about traveling to a new place is noticing the important aspects of the culture there, like the troll and elf statuettes that you saw in the windows or the spaces of worship around the town. I think it’s amazing that we can still find original pieces of culture from places that existed thousands of years ago. For example, entertainment venues can still be seen from the Roman Empire. Specifically, the remains of the North African Amphitheater can still be found “in remains of the Roman city of Thysdrus, in North Africa” (Tignor, 2018, p. 265). Entertainment was an important part of culture in the Roman state, and “every self-respecting Roman town had at least two major entertainment venues” (p. 264).We are lucky that remains such as this one are well-preserved so that we can continue to learn about the culture there.
Hello! Thank you for your beautiful post about Iceland. I think it is something so special to be able to travel and see things from a different perspective. It made me think of a quote in our Tignor book about the crusades. “And when two cultures come together, as they did in the European crusades, their meeting offers a unique opportunity to see how the two societies view each other” (Tignor p. 382). I think that much like the crusades, any opportunity to exchange culture has a powerful impact on both parties involved. What a beautiful thing! Thanks for sharing!
I really enjoyed hearing about your experience in Iceland! I am planning on studying abroad in Iceland as well as Germany next spring. I have been to Germany twice now and had layovers in Reykjavik both times, however, I have never had enough time to explore the town and country. I only know a limited amount about Iceland, so it was great to hear your insight on the country. I did not realize how prevalent Viking culture is still today in Iceland so it should be very interesting to learn more about that when I visit.
Thank you for the great information!