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Taking the Plunge in Iceland

Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 7, 2005; 1:00 PM

Jason Wilson had been to Iceland before. This time, though, he wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the people who inhabit the north Atlantic island nation. So, he decided to drive around Iceland and take a dip in as many swimming pools as he could. Remarkably, he persuaded a local poet to join him.

Wilson, whose article "Wash Thoroughly Without a Swimsuit," appears in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, March 7, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

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Wilson is editor of the anthology "The Best American Travel Writing."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Jason Wilson:
Hi everybody, thanks for joining me to chat about Iceland today. Thanks for so many positive comments. There are already a lot of great questions, so I'll jump right in.

Jason Wilson:

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Washington, D.C.: Jason, great article! Can you tell us, what is generally the best time of year to travel to Iceland?

Jason Wilson:
I would personally travel to Iceland at any time of the year. But I'm strange and I like it in January when it's dark for most of the day and snowy. And I also like the fall when the countryside is full of farmers rounding up the sheep for the winter. The summertime, however, is the most glorious, with sunshine for nearly 24 hours during most of June and July. My story, incidentally, takes place in May--and it snowed--so you always have the chance of dealing with crazy weather of some kind in Iceland. But even if it's snowing one hour, then next the sun may come out and it will be brilliant.

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Alexandria, Va.: I enjoyed your article tremendously. It's probably the only travel article I'll read all year. But I'm curious, your description of Iceland seemed wholeheartedly idyllic, are there any glaring downsides to an Iceland vacation?

Jason Wilson:
Iceland is idyllic for me, and I don't see any glaring downsides at all to travel in Iceland. I mean, you can't go there expecting great beaches or Italian or French caliber cuisine, so I guess it's not for everyone. I don't know if the dead of winter when the weather can be brutal and it's dark for much of the day would appeal to someone who's used to a warm Caribbean island. But for adventurous traveler, I'd have to say it's a must visit.

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Alexandria, Va.: Wonderful article in the magazine yesterday. Made me laugh out loud! You said that you spent an "eccentric" amount of time in Iceland when you were younger. How long? A month? A year? My husband and I are stopping over in Iceland for three days/two nights, on a Scandinavian holiday this spring, and we are definitely going to go swimming! Thank you again for the great read!

Jason Wilson:
I've never spent more than a month or two at a time, but I think it was the sheer number of visits--a dozen or more over a period of three years--that got me branded eccentric. But those people had never been to Iceland. And they were a little judgmental anyway.

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College Park, Md.: Having spent so much time in Iceland, what time of year do you think is best for a first visit? Not sure I'd be brave enough to drive in blizzard conditions to hit the best swimming holes. On the other hand, who could pass up a chance to see the Northern Lights?

Jason Wilson:
For a first visit, I'd say go in mid-summer or the fall. Touring in the summer is great because the days never end. You may find yourself hours away from your destination at 9 pm, but who cares? because the sun is shining like it's noon.

On the other hand, the fall is special--September is a time of the year when I've regularly seen the Northern Lights, particularly in the north, near Akureyri.

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Toledo, Ohio:
Dear Mr. Wilson:

I, too, was often accused of having an unnatural fixation about Iceland. I've been there four times and can't wait to return. I don't have a question but I do have a comment. On one of my trips, I took a bus around the "Ring Road" and stayed in Icelandic farmhouses across the country. I'd say it was one of the best trips I've ever taken. The scenery was fantastic, my hosts were gracious, the accommodations were wonderful, and the language was fascinating.
I believe these trips can be arranged through the Icelandic Tourist Board. Bless!

Jason Wilson:
It's strange what Iceland does to people who visit. I've met a lot of Americans who've not just been there once, but return over and over again. And none for the same reason.

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Waitsfield, Vt.: Jason, loved your piece. I've become involved with Icelandic culture and people by riding the extraordinary Icelandic horse. You never mentioned the horses in your piece, but your travels took you to the farmlands where excellent breeders are, and to Holar Agricultural College, where Americans go to learn how to be good trainers. Now, I know the horses don't hang out much in the thermal pools, but I'm curious whether they figured at all in your travels.

Jason Wilson:
Thanks. I don't have a lot of experience with the Icelandic horse, but I've seen many of them in my travels, and it's an amazing animal. I think it has a fifth gait that other horses don't have. From what I understand, they run wild in the pastures for most of their youth, for several years, and then are rounded up and trained.

But you most certainly know more than me. I unfortunately have an illogical fear of horses and I can't ride them...it's my only fear in life...

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Bethesda, Md.: How is it one in every 10 Icelanders has published a book? That's an amazing statistic. Are these vanity presses? If not, what is their publishing industry like?

Jason Wilson:
I think it's a bit of statistical anomaly. Obviously, the great writers in Iceland publish more than one book and many people publish none. But Iceland does publish, by far, more books per capita than any other country in the world (I'm grabbing for the number but can't find it at my fingertips! sorry) And if you couple that number with life expectancy you end up with something like 1 in 10.

But Iceland, with a population of less than 300,000, leads the world in almost any random category "per capita": Most DVD players, internet connections, newspaper subscribers, Speedo bathing suits sold, Coca-Cola consumed, credit card usage, etc etc.

Once, I was at a fireworks display in Keflavik, and it was mildly impressive. But afterwards my friend smiled and turned to me and said, "You know, that was the most fireworks ever shot off in one night. Per capita."

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Washington, D.C.: About how many Americans live in Iceland. Is it a suitable place for Americans to retire, all or part of the year. Is there a contact point/blog for Americans who live in Iceland? How do prices of milk, bread, beer, wine, compare to prices in the USA?

Jason Wilson:
I'm not sure how many, but plenty of Americans (and British) do live there, mainly in Reyjavik. Prices of things like food and beer and liquor are VERY expensive. It's an island nation with very little produce grown and so everything is imported. A basic beer in a basic local bar, for instance, can cost over $7. But I've heard that apartments real estate there are affordable.

Maybe you could try going to www.icelandreview.com? That's an Icelandic magazine published in English.

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Del Ray, Va.: Thanks for bringing back memories of Iceland for me! The only place we swam when we went some years ago was the Blue Lagoon, which was fine, but your pools sound better. We did go to see Svartifoss and Jokulsarln(probably bad spelling, but the place just west of Vik on the SW coast where the icebergs calve off the glacier and float to the sea). Have you seen the movie "Cold Fever" about the Japanese man in Iceland? Written and directed by an Icelander, it's sort of "Lost in Translation" but with snow and hot springs and sheep cheeks for dinner. Anyway, thanks again.

Jason Wilson:
I really like Cold Fever! In fact, I always recommend it to someone who's interested in seeing what Iceland is like. It's a nice road movie and the setting becomes an important character in the story. Another good film by that director (Fridrik Thor Fridrikson?) is called Children of Nature.

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Watertown, Mass.: Nice article. So what's your opinion of the "Blue Lagoon" outside of Reykjavik? I thought it was pretty amazing for one's first taste of the bath culture but I was a little creeped out by it being attached to a power plant. Is it considered too touristy or not a bad place?

Jason Wilson:
I like the Blue Lagoon. Sure, it's touristy--I think it's the biggest tourist attraction in Iceland. But I like touristy places as well as off-the-beaten path stuff. I wouldn't be creeped out at all, by the way, about it being next to a power plant. The water, and the mud on the bottom, is supposed to be great for your skin.

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Rockville, Md.: Was this excursion inspired by the John Cheever story/Burt Lancaster movie "The Swimmer?"

Jason Wilson:
Yes it was--in fact I mention that in the article.

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Potomac, Md.: Nice article. Two questions. Were you just lucky in knocking on the right doors, or are people in Iceland generally quite friendly and trusting? Second, are icelandic girls really that hot? Thanks.

Jason Wilson:
Answer to question one: Yeah, people in Iceland are extremely friendly and trusting--though you must keep in mind that traveling with an Icelandic person probably helped ease things along.

Answer to question two: At the risk of covering material thoroughly explored by the nation's finest men's magazine...yeah, they're unbelievably hot.

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Washington, D.C.: Jason-

Thanks for a great article. I was able to travel to Iceland last summer for 10 days and fell in love with the Country. We did eight days of camping in the Southern portion of the country. The ring road drive was just beautiful. We tried to go inland to Mount Helka, but even in August a river had spilled over on a road and we decided not to risk it in our VW golf. Hoping to make it to the North next year.

I fantasize about the idea of moving to Iceland, but I do not know Icelandic. Do you know of any schools/organizations in the D.C. area that teach Icelandic?

Thanks!

Jason Wilson:
That sounds like a great trip--I can see why you'd fantasize about moving to Iceland.

I think the University of Iceland has an intensive Icelandic language program for foreigners that you might consider, but I don't know any in the DC area.

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Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: Hi Jason,

I enjoyed your intro about Finland in the Best American Travel Writing edition you edited I think in 2003, so I recognized your name when I saw The Post piece on Iceland.

I don't think you mentioned much about Icelandic food in your pools piece. What did you think of it?

Jason Wilson:
Hey, thanks for recognizing! I've actually written at length about traditional Icelandic food in piece called "Dining Out in Iceland" that was published in the 2001 edition of the Best American Travel Writing. Let's just say that traditional Icelandic cuisine involves ram's testicles, lamb smoked in dung, sheep's heads, whale, puffin, rotten shark that has been buried in the sand for several months and diced. And many other interesting dishes.

However, in the past few years there are a lot of good local restaurants opening in Reykjavik, with lots of young Icelandic chefs learning in NY and Paris and elsewhere and then coming home to use the amazing local ingredients--the best lamb in the world, incredibly fresh fish, etc. You can get a very good meal in Reykjavik these days.

Of course, it may cost about the same as a down payment on a car...

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Silver Spring, Md.: Any thoughts on traveling to Iceland with a two-year old? My husband is going there in June for business and we've been thinking of making a family vacation of the trip. Any suggestions for activities for children in Reykjavik? Or any ideas for side trips away from the city that would allow us to experience some of Iceland's natural beauty without being too strenuous for a toddler? Thanks!

Jason Wilson:
I have a three-year-old and I would definitely bring him. People in Iceland are very child-friendly, and you'll see lots of moms pushing strollers around downtown Reykjavik.

Jason Wilson:
I think any child would love being out in countryside, hiking around and seeing the geysers and waterfalls and hot springs and picking wild berries, etc.

To me, any traveling with the child has more to do with the patience of the parents...

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Baltimore, Md.: So, how does one do Iceland on a budget? I seriously want to go, but it's seriously expensive!

Jason Wilson:
If you stick with staying in the more reasonable guesthouses and eat in the more modest restaurants, I don't think it ends up being that much more expensive than anywhere else in Europe right now--especially since Iceland doesn't use the Euro, but the krona.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for an entertaining Sunday morning read. It seems the airfare to Iceland is very expensive. I remember reading about $200 roundtrip fair a couple years ago to the capital city. How can I find good fair and at what season is the cheapest to travel there?

Jason Wilson:
Middle of winter is obviously the cheapest. I think, though, that you can still find decent last-minute deals on the web. Icelandair is however your only choice of airline...

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Arlington, Va.: I very much enjoyed your article. Been to Iceland twice -- in early July and mid-March -- both times were great. I was sitting in one of the hot pots in the municipal pool in Reykjavik with several other adults and no one talked. It had a Bergman quality to it. Yet, I was on the city bus and a group of high school girls were singing rock songs and laughing outloud. Sometimes the Icelanders seem very introspective and then very outgoing. Fascinating place and people.

Jason Wilson:
It's true. I think Icelanders may be less inclined to chitchat as small talk as we Americans are, but they are outgoing and personable all the same. Basically, there's no way to generalize about a nation's personality.

Though I can say that if you are doing the pub crawl around Reykjavik after 1 am on a Friday or Saturday, you will end up with lots of new friends who are very talkative and outgoing.

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USA: Did you get whaled on (so to speak) for U.S. foreign policy during your visit?

Jason Wilson:
No, not really, except in a friendly way. Frankly, I think there's too much hand-wringing among American travelers about this issue. I've found that many times, it's simply a topic that's brought up because someone really wants to speak with you. I always see it as an opportunity to give someone fresh perspective about what "being an American" is.

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Washington, D.C.: I have just returned from my second visit to Iceland in the past 13 months... just can't seem to keep away.

So your article was a wonderful and timely reiteration of what makes Iceland so special to those who are able to feel its magic.

The only downside: Maybe I'm selfish, but I don't want Iceland to be too discovered!

Jason Wilson:
I'm selfish, too, but I think it's way too late to worry about Iceland being discovered! The Icelandic tourist board already does a huge amount of promotion, especially in the DC area. Still, there are plenty of parts of the island where very few tourists ever go.

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Arlington, Va.: I read Njal's Saga, an early Icelandic literary work, many years ago in grad school. Provided great historical background. Can you recommend any contemporary Icelandic author(s)?

Jason Wilson:
I liked Reykjavik 101 by Hallgrimur Helgason--it's funny novel about a slacker named Hlynur and his adventures in the nightlife of Reykjavik. It give a youthful picture of contemporary Iceland. It was made into a great film a few years ago as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Do they have any downhill skiing in Iceland? Cross-country?

Jason Wilson:
They do have downhill skiing--there's a place fairly close to Reykjavik, but I can't remember the name. But Iceland is not a winter sports paradise like some of the other Nordic countries. I'm sure there are places to cross-country ski, too, though I've never been.

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Arlington, Va.: Iceland's quirks are very endearing. On my stopover, I took a tour of Reykjavik sponsored by the airline; it's the only place I've ever been where the official city tour included a visit to a working fish cannery.

Jason Wilson:
I've had so many quirky experiences like that myself in Iceland. Once, I stopped at a licorice factory that was operating out of an old schoolhouse in the remote East Fjords on this beautiful blue fjord. The sheep farmers out there in that area had decided they weren't making enough money with sheep, and so they'd started making licorice instead. The people were so nice and gave us a tour of the factory and then bags and bags of black licorice for our trip

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For the Toddler's Mom: By all means take your child into the country, but be aware that Iceland is not in any way obsessed with making the world safe for fools and small children. You will not find barriers surrounding the many waterfalls, geysers, hot springs and cliffs. Hold that little hand and pay close attention! That said, I can think of nowhere else where the landscape so stimulates the imagination of adults and children both. Go!

Jason Wilson:
This is very true for those among us who are clumsy as well!

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Reston, Va.: Is is true that phone books in Iceland are listed by first names, not last names?

Jason Wilson:
Yes it is. That's because Icelanders take their father's first name as their last name. So if your name is Halldor and your father is Gunnar, your name is Halldor Gunnarsson. And if your name is Ingibjorg and your father is Gunnar, your name will be Ingibjorg Gunnarsdottir. And women never change their last names when they marry. So it is therefore possible for a family of four (with son and daughter) to have four different last names.

You should see how pages of Jon Jonssons and Gunnar Gunnarssons there are in the phone book.

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Del Ray, Va.: Hi, We went to Iceland for a long weekend in December and it was great! As long as you don't mind dark days. We still got to hit the highlights, and I'm looking forward to returning. It's a quick flight -- and I think Iceland Air has some sales from BWI right now.

Jason Wilson:
I like the winter, too. The temperatures really aren't much different than New York. The only difference is there's maybe more chance of freezing rain, snow, high winds, etc. But the weather changes so many anyway that you're bound to have some relatively temperate days.

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Arlington, Va.: A great article -- and I loved all the photos.

Are there any active volcanoes on Iceland? The northern lights, an active volcano and a glacier would make it worth the trip for me!

Jason Wilson:
yes, there are very active volcanoes in Iceland.

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Washington, D.C.: Someone earlier asked about learning Icelandic, which is a fascinating language -- virtually unchanged since the time of the Vikings. However, it should be mentioned that most Icelanders speak English fluently.

Jason Wilson:
That is true. Thanks for mentioning that. Icelanders are extremely gracious about speaking English to visitors--not just Americans, but everyone. And the average Icelander's English would put many of us to shame.

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Alexandria, Va.: Great article! I'm a huge weather, astronomy, and geology buff, so a vacation to Iceland sounds like paradise! However, I eat fish, but no other meats. Is it possible for me to spend enough time in Iceland to see the sights without starving? I'm afraid of ending up going hungry in a small village because the only thing on the menu is sheep's testicles.

Jason Wilson:
I think if you eat fish, you will be more than fine. The fish in Iceland is outstanding and you can eat it at every meal, including herring for breakfast if you'd like.

And, by the way, sheep's testicles is generally only eaten at one time of the year--during a mid-winter feast called Thorablot.

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Jason Wilson:
Thanks everyone for all the wonderful questions. I appreciate the nice comments people sent on my article. I'm sorry I wasn't able to get to everyone's question. But I hope those who want to go to Iceland get to do it someday soon. It's an amazing place.

Thanks, Jason

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