On a quest for a new year’s aurora
Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.
Who: Stephanie Holcombe (the author) and her friends Caitlin Hayden and Erlingur Erlingsson, all of the District.
Where, when, why: We decided to travel to Iceland to celebrate the new year in December. Erlingur originally is from Iceland and currently is in Washington as a diplomat. Caitlin, a friend of mine from college, is his wife. They wanted to visit family on New Year’s Eve, and I wanted to kick-start 2017. I went on a hunt for the aurora borealis (the northern lights) because it felt to me like a grand showcasing of the power of the universe that would put little ol' me into perspective. The universe is way bigger than what showed up in my life in 2016.
Highlights and high points: Of course, the highlight was seeing the aurora borealis. (And on a cloudy night, at that!) It is most visible between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., so I was about one hour outside the city standing in the freezing cold, on the windy plains of Iceland in the middle of the night, wistfully looking up at a black sky. Soon, to my amazement, there were dancing, lapping waves of green light filling the dark.
I also went hiking on the Solheimajokull glacier, which was a beautiful, blue, solid chunk of ice that is now, sadly, rapidly receding. I went with people from Icleandic Mountain Guides — who were aware of the effects of climate change and taught our group about the rapid changes they have seen in the past few years. Average recession: 15 centimeters per day! Next year, the group is planning a new entry point onto the ice because of melting of the path that they now use.
Cultural connection or disconnect: I really connected with Skyr, a smooth, delicious, addictive (at least to me) cheese that is akin to super-smooth yogurt. It is jampacked with protein, has very little fat and is thought to have been a part of Icelandic culture for thousands of years. I think I ate a pint of it daily.
Biggest laugh or cry: For me, it would have to be the bathing culture. Hot geothermal baths are ubiquitous in Icelandic culture. People soak and bathe as a routine part of the Icelandic day. Geothermal soaking pools in the ground are scattered throughout the countryside; in the city, there are many paired with large Olympic-size pools, saunas and steam rooms. It is a beautiful part of the culture in how it encourages people to take the time to relax and rejuvenate.
However, North Americans — who have such a discomfort with showing skin, public bathing and nakedness in general — definitely need the signs throughout all the bath houses explaining the proper procedures. First, you must take all your clothes off, including your bathing suit, and shower. (There are bathing facilities for each sex.)
How unexpected: The darkness definitely was surprising. I knew in my mind that the winter daylight hours were shortened, but it was another thing to try to adjust my sleeping schedule to the new time zone with near-constant darkness. (Daylight starts around 11 a.m. and ends around 4:30 p.m.) I felt like I never saw the sun while I was there. It was more dim winter light, mixed with rain, snow or sleet, depending on the hour. I found myself sleeping 15 hours the first day, never waking up before 10 a.m. and sometimes not going to bed until 6 a.m. This was good and bad; it kept me on my East Coast time clock, but also meant that I was watching a lot of Netflix!
Favorite memento or memory: I loved eating Iceland’s creamy langoustine soup. I knew that seafood was one of the major food sources for the country, but this soup, a smaller, sweeter cousin of the American lobster bisque, was a dish that I did not expect to have. Erlingur, being the local, knew exactly where to take us for the best of the best. We drove an hour outside Reykjavik to Fjorubordid, a family-owned lobster restaurant on the sea. With the rain and cold outside, the lobster soup and local restaurant vibes made for the quintessential reason that you travel — to learn and appreciate the places locals already know about and love.
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On her way for some langoustine soup, the author spends some quality time with an Icelandic horse.