Christopher Buckley, the author of "Steaming to Bamboola," and John Tierney, a writer at Science '82 magazine, left Washington this summer with two ambitions: to relive that once-traditional rite of passage, the Grand Tour, the elegant, leisurely trip to Europe that young American men used to take just before the deadly onset of maturity; and to pay for as little of it as possible.
After arduous preparations -- dispatching oleaginous letters of self-invitation to everyone they knew -- they arranged a two-month voyage from Iceland to Greece that required them to pay for only one night's lodging (there was simply no one in Venice to send an oleaginous letter to).
This is the first of their dispatches. Readers may conclude that Mr. Buckley and Mr. Tierney are in no immediate danger of being overtaken by maturity.
IT IS NOT customary to begin a Grand Tour in Iceland. Now we understand why. In the course of a week in Iceland, most of which resembles the wrong side of the moon, we nearly drove off a cliff, got trapped in two freezing rivers during flash floods, thoroughly humiliated ourselves, our gender, and our country, barely escaped from a violently protective Icelander, and inspired the wife of a ranking diplomat to call us "a couple of lazy louts." But this was not the worst of it. The worst was the hakarl.
"It's a traditional Icelandic delicacy," explained our host and old friend, U.S. Ambassador Marshall Brement, as we sat down to lunch on the first day. Now we knew enough about Icelandic delicacies to be slightly concerned, having heard about the last Christmas at the ambassador's house. It featured the traditional riupa, rock ptarmigan smothered in cream sauce--of which each guest took exactly one bite.
After an awkward period of silence, the ambassador's wife, Pamela, rose. "Let's get this out of here," she said, choking on the smell, and running upstairs for fresh air. So you can understand why each of us decided to begin with just one piece of hakarl, a tiny, harmless-looking slice of light meat about the size of a sugar cube.
Tierney immediately began making the kind of noises that send prudent dining companies ducking for cover. It took him six peristaltic gurgles to get it down. Buckley was more picky. Half his piece landed on the official china of the U.S. embassy, in slightly altered form.
What did it taste like? That can't be described. We can only say what hakarl is: a dead shark that is buried in the mud for six months, at which point it is deemedready to be eaten. As to who eats it, that too is hard to say. Every time we bragged to an Icelander about having tasted their great delicacy, we drew strange looks.
"That's disgusting. How could you eat it?" asked Margaret, an Icelandic stewardess who came to a formal dinner at the embassy our first night. She knew of no Icelander who ate hakarl, at least no one under the age of 60. This immediately raised our estimation of the country. She explained what young Icelanders do enjoy: going to a place called the Laera Gja, which is best left untranslated. It is a long trench at the edge of the runway of Reykjavik's airport, three feet deep and filled with bubbling geothermally heated water. Drunken revelers traditionally go there for late-night nude bathing. We immediately suggested that Margaret and a friend take us there after dinner.
"No," she said, "it was closed last week. There was some trouble one night when a fire brigade went there to exercise."
"Exactly what kind of exercises do you do in this country?" asked Tierney. Margaret only giggled.
There were the usual diplomatic toasts after dinner -- vows of undying friendship between Iceland and America, instructions from a captain of Reykjavik industry to "the two young men visiting here tonight to carry back the news to Washington that this embassy has never been in better hands than it is today." Then the two young men were asked what news they brought from Washington.
"Well, there's actually a lot of talk now about the latest scandal," said Buckley. ''In fact, there's a joke making the rounds."
A loud harrumph came from the ambassador's end of the table.
"Interesting weather here, wouldn't you say, Chris?" said Tierney.
"Very," said Buckley. "Why the wind this morning. . ."
"Tell us the joke," said Reykjavik's captain of industry.
"Actually, it wouldn't translate," said Buckley. "You see, there's been a sex scandal about congressional pages, who are young students who work in the Capitol, and -- well, it just doesn't translate."
Somehow, though, we still managed to offend. When one ambassador had us over for dinner, we thought we were being quite amusing in explaining how we drew up our Grand Tour itinerary -- namely, anywhere we could find a free room for the night. The ambassador's wife, who was already suspicious of Tierney (for not realizing that Switzerland is not a member of the Common Market) and of Buckley (for not knowing the major tourist attractions in Greenland), referred to us as "nasty" and "offensive" -- in addition to the aforementioned "lazy louts."
Our real diplomatic downfall, however, came at another dinner at the home of another Icelandic captain of industry. One of the dinner guests, a man named Sigfus, having heard about Margaret joining us for dinner, asked which of us had been her escort.
"I think she had eyes only for me," said Tierney playfully.
"She is my sister," said the Icelander.
"Very charming," said Tierney, adding, quite truthfully, "It was a quiet evening. Just a simple dinner."
"She is not available, you know," said the Icelander.
"That was obvious," said Tierney.
"Funny," said Buckley, rushing to his friend's defense, "that's not what she told John last night."
Icelanders are said to be quite open about sex. There's no social stigma to being born out of wedlock, for instance. At one dinner, a guest casually announced, "My wife is illegitimate." But there is an exception to every rule, and Sigfus seemed to be it.
"I don't like you," he said to Tierney, glowering.
"This is Buckley's idea of humor," Tierney squirmed. "Really, it was the most innocent dinner."
"Why were there bruises on her arm in the morning?" asked Buckley, digging into his gravlax.
"Margaret, I believe, is going to enter a convent," said Tierney.
"I'm not sure they'll take her now," said Buckley.
"I don't like you," repeated Sigfus, staring at Tierney and downing another Martini. After a long silence, he issued something a low growl and said, "I get violent at 11 o'clock."
Sigfus was about 6-foot, 3 and exceptionally beefy. It was about 10:30.
We left the dinner party mumbling something about diplomatic immunity, and were relieved to depart Reykjavik the next day on an expedition to the interior of Iceland.
It began well enough with a visit to Thingvellir, the place where Iceland's first parliament met in 930 AD. The various clans had decided to adopt a system of laws modeled on Norway's, so the chiefs elected a man to go there, memorize all Norwegian laws, and return to recite them to Icelanders gathered at Thingvellir. The most remarkable thing about this lawgiver was that he apparently fulfilled his duty perfectly.
We couldn't understand how, on the voyage back, he resisted the temptation to embellish Norway's legal code just a little -- with, say, a few statutes about mandatory contributions to the Lawgivers Pension Program.
The laws were delivered from a cliff overlooking one of the world's strangest valleys -- a desolate plain ringed by volcanoes, with the boundary between two of the earth's huge tectonic plates running down the middle. To the west is the same plate North America rests on; to the east the European plate; and in the center, in the "rift valley," molten rock from the inside of the earth is pushed upward, creating new land on each plate and slowly expanding Iceland.
What most impressed us about the valley, though, was a small pond near where the Lawgiver spoke. It is called "The Drowning Pool," and was used for centuries by Icelandic authorities to execute women convicted of adultery.
We hoped that Sigfus had not heard of it.
That night we camped at Landmannalaugar, where steaming water empties into pools and Icelanders frolic all night, smearing hot mud over one another and drinking something vaguely resembling vodka called "Black Death." We spent five hours soaking in the water, marvelling at the sky (it remained light all night, even after the sun set at 11) and at a young woman named Thora, whose boyfriend was an accomplished mud painter. At 4 a.m. we roused ourselves to climb a volcano and watch the sunrise. All this would encourage even the most world weary that life has meaning after all.
The next night, however, was different. It was miserably cold, rainy and windy, and we stopped at a lodge in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness, that expanse of hardened lava in mutant shapes that America's astronauts visited when they need a place to rehearse for the moon landing. The rest of our party was content to relax in the lodge; the two of us insisted on climbing a nearby volcano to reach the edge of a glacier. To get there, there was the small matter of a stream to cross.
"The road goes through the river over there," said one of us, pointing to the ford.
"Why don't we just head for the peak," said the other, who shall remain nameless. He drove the jeep straight ahead and into the water, emerging triumphantly on a mudflat in midstream. When he tried to continue he noticed that our rear wheels were three feet deep in mud. The jeep wouldn't move forward or backward. It did, however, continue sinking.
We emerged from the vehicle with absolutely no idea of what to do. There happened to be a witness to our situation -- the ambassador, who was standing on a hill near the lodge watching his jeep disappear. He was not amused. There was only one thing to do.
"Bjorn!" he shouted.
Bjorn Rurikson emerged from the lodge. He was the only Icelander in our group of seven, a professional photographer -- the best in Iceland, we were told -- an amateur geologist, an expert on the weather, a pilot, a former guide, an economist by trade, and a veteran of dozens of expeditions to the interior. The night before he had fixed our stove. Earlier in the day, when our clutch had broken 30 miles from the nearest outpost of civilization, Bjorn had fixed it.
We have never been as happy to see any human being. He waded across the river to us, looked at the jeep, and came to a decision.
"You two must be idiots," he said. "Why did you ever think you could drive across this?" Then he started laughing. "Don't worry. This is the kind of thing you'll remember."
As we stood by helplessly, and 30 people from the lodge gathered across the river to see who these crazed Americans were, Bjorn figured out how to dig out our wheels, maneuver another jeep into position near us, and tow our jeep back to dry land. To no one's relief, we two also made it back safely.
To show our gratitude, we promised Bjorn that we would repay him with a labor of our own, a modern Icelandic epic, the story of the rest of our trip: "The Saga of Bjorn the Good."
. . . And so they continued through the land, and Bjorn the Good told them many wise things, and showed them wondrous craters and birds, and fixed their tent. And on the fifth day the rains came. "Cans't thou take us home," cried Tierney the Feeblehearted, and Bjorn the Good said he could.
"On to Reykjavik," cried Buckley the Wretched helmsman, and lo he swerved off the road. "Fear not," he said to those who now cowered in the seat behind. "The edge of the cliff was at least one foot away." And Bjorn the Good shook his head in the lead jeep.
They drove on past hot springs and rushing streams and came to the river that flows into the Golden Falls, which be Iceland's answer to Niagara, and a sight to put fright into all men. And Bjorn worried, for the river was high and fast, but he droveth on. For Bjorn the Good had victory wherever he went.
But the river smote them, and Bjorn the Good and Tierney the Feeblehearted became stuck in their jeep in the center of the river. And lo the jeep began to move downstream.
"Andskotinn Sjalfur!" cursed Bjorn the Good.
"How far be those falls?" asked Tierney, who was now the Dripping Wet, for the jeep had filled with water. And the water was high, and exceedingly cold. But the jeep stopped, and they jumped out into the river, which was waist deep, and the rains continued, and even Gore-Tex the Parka could not keep them dry. But lo, a man of Germany, full of the Black Death on the opposite bank, espied them, and heaved a rope. And Bjorn the Good attached it, and Tierney the Essentially Useless looked on. And Buckley the Deeply Craven wept on the shore and feared that he would be swept away in his turn.
And so they were towed across the river, and looked back at the other bank, where Buckley the Left Behind sat wailing in his jeep. And Tierney Fairweather Friend shouted back: "We may as well split up here and meet back in Reykjavik."
And lo Buckley set up a great cry and cursed Tierney unto the sixth generation of his seed.
But Bjorn the Good, being good, would not leave them, and waded back across the great water and towed Buckley's jeep across the waters. And they continued on, and did it all over again at another flooding river. And they were cold. And they droveth on, and reached Reykjavik, and thanked Bjorn the Good and clasp him to their bosom many times, and climbed in the silver bird and left the Land of Ice.