Interview with an Icelander – Inside Tips on Travel to Iceland

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Gyða and her husband Ragnar

1) Can you tell me a little about who you are?  My name is Bergljót Gyða Guðmundsdóttir, although I usually go by Gyða. I was born and raised in Reykjavík, Iceland, but moved to the United States in 2011, along with my wonderful husband, to pursue a Ph.D. in school psychology. Most of my time is devoted to conducting research and working with students of all ages, i.e., children, adolescents, and young adults, which I really enjoy. Other interests include music, knitting (very Icelandic indeed), running, and being outdoors, not to mention spending quality time with family and friends.

2) If someone was visiting Iceland for the first time, what recommendations would you make for one great and interesting day?  There are so many wonderful activities from which one can choose! My list would probably include the following:

  • A visit to Perlan with a walk across the viewing deck to get a better feel for Reykjavik and its surrounding areas – on a good day, the view from there is spectacular! If you are feeling adventurous you could head out into the “woods” of Öskjuhlíð to explore some of the wildlife… Ha!
  • A visit to one of the public swimming pools (although there are also a variety of fantastic public swimming pools across the country). You can go for a refreshing swim and/or relax in the steam bath, sauna, or hot tub, while listening to locals discussing current events – some of the pools even have slides! Be sure to shower thoroughly without your swimsuit on before hitting the pool!
  • A walk to see some of the quintessential landmarks of Reykjavík, including Hallgrímskirkja, the Parliament Building, Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center, Laugavegur, and Skólavörðustígur, to name a few. If you happen to walk the recently gentrified Hverfisgata (parallel to Laugavegur) I would suggest stopping by Kling & Bang art gallery. There are also many other interesting art galleries and museums that you could visit, as well as cafés, restaurants, shops, etc.
  • If the visit takes place during the weekend, go to Kolaportið Flea Market by the harbor and try some dried fish (harðfiskur) and licorice. This is also a place where you can find knitted goods and various second-hand items.
  • There are so many great restaurants in Reykjavik, too many for me to pick out just one to recommend. Visit at least one of them for lunch or dinner; if you are a seafood gourmand, Iceland is the place to be!
  • If you visit during the summer, especially in June, and if the sky is fairly clear, be sure to stay up late enough to experience the midnight sun. It is one of the things that I have missed the most during my time away from Iceland. For some peace and quiet, I often drive to Grótta lighthouse at Seltjarnarnes myself, although it may have become a popular tourist attraction by now and not be so quiet anymore… not sure!

  3) What food items or restaurant should someone try in Iceland?  For a sugary treat, visit the nearest bakery and try out snúður með súkkulaði (soft cinnamon roll with chocolate frosting) and kókómjólk (chocolate milk), a favorite of many Icelandic children. If you find this combination too chocolate-y, snúður also goes well with regular milk or coffee. It’s heavenly!

4) Can you recommend any Icelandic films or books (that have been translated into English or that were written in English) that would get someone in the mood to go to Iceland? Icelandic films often deal with the cold, harsh reality of life, coupled with dark humor, and can therefore be kind of gloomy so they might not necessarily lighten up one’s mood… There are, however, several fantastic Icelandic films that I could recommend, including Metalhead (Málmhaus), Jar City (Mýrin), and Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins), which is a classic by now, and I have also heard Life in a Fishbowl (Vonarstræti) is supposed to be stellar, although I have not seen it myself yet. For a more upbeat and uplifting experience and for some Icelandic scenery I would recommend seeing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – many of the scenes were shot in Iceland, including the ones that are supposed to take place in Greenland and other places. Regarding books, Jar City is actually based on a book by the same title, which has been translated into English and the same applies to Angels of the Universe. For those interested in classic literature, Independent People by Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness is supposed to be exquisite (embarrassingly enough I have not yet read it myself, but it is on my list of books to read after grad school!).

  5) Can you describe an Icelandic cultural tradition?  One Icelandic cultural practice that people from other cultural backgrounds may find odd is that Icelandic babies typically are not named until several days, weeks, or even months after they are born! For example, I was born in January but was not named until April that same year. This practice tends to lead to a lot of nicknaming in the interim!

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