iceland part three

Concluding our three part series:

  • Heat, Part One. Hot water in Iceland stinks, literally. The entire island sits on bubbles of sulfuric water, requiring only a little drilling to summon to the surface. The amount of effort that the rest of the world puts into heating water for the home, a Reykjavik home has to put into cooling it.

    The result: cheap hot springs open to the public! I stopped by a public spring on Sunday morning, paying a mere 360 ISK and getting access to a swimming pool, a sauna and two outdoor hot tubs. Nothing beats the pummeling relaxation of sitting by a water-jet in 102-degree water, or lying perfectly still in a 107-degree pool with your head in the 35-degree air.

    One of Reykjavik's many halted construction projects

    One of Reykjavik's many halted construction projects

  • Come Back Later: Everything in Reykjavik except the bars and the restaurants closes by 7:00 on Saturdays and stays closed through Sunday. Check that: I did find a couple museums still open on Sunday, so I walked around and peered at some medieval copies of the Eddas.

  • Things I Bought but Didn’t Use: This being my first trip out of the country alone, I prepared more than I probably needed to. I left the security pouch (small sleeve that hangs on a cord around your neck for passport, money, etc) in my hotel room the whole time – I was in zero danger from pickpockets. I could have made some use out of the mini-tripod (not an actual Gorillapod, but similar), but there was enough precip. and wind at all times that I didn’t want to leave my camera alone. And I left the power converter/adapater in Boston: I had nothing on me that needed charging.

  • Half-Price DVDs: Hollywood insiders, or TV shows that depict Hollywood insiders, talk about the lucrative value of the overseas DVD market. Nothing drove that home for me more than seeing rows of DVDs for sale – in stores, in flea markets – of movies I’d forgot existed. Like Dummy, or career-killer Private Valentine (starring Jessica Simpson).

    No color filters used.  The sky and water are naturally this blue.

    No color filters used. The sky and water are naturally this blue.

  • Heat, Part Two: Get on the bus from Reykjavik to Leif Eriksson International at the right time and it drops you off halfway, at the internationally acclaimed Blue Lagoon spa. A natural hot spring, the spa’s chief attraction is a massive outdoor rock pool (at least 100,000 square feet) of milky blue water. The pool generates large quantities of thick silicate mud with documented results in alleviating psoriasis and other skin conditions. You can ladle a handful from one of many buckets stationed throughout the pool, or just scoop some up from between your toes.

    After yip-yip-yipping from the spa door across the open, windy deck, I plunged into the rock pool and lazed around. The mood’s like a cocktail party in the summer – over a hundred strangers in swim wear, wandering around in knots and making new friends. I waded around the perimeter, lingering in any pockets of extra-hot water that I found, before taking a quick break for a steam bath. Then I scooped out some algae-laden mud, worked it in my hands until it had the consistency of melting vanilla ice cream, and rubbed it into my face. After it hardened, I stepped under a deafening, sulfuric waterfall to rinse off.

    Then I did it all over again. I was like a cat in a sunbeam.

  • Parting Thoughts: You didn’t ask, but I gave a little thought to Reykjavik’s current economic straits. Nobody I talked to or saw seemed particularly desperate, but I never ventured too far from the city center. Downtown Reykjavik is a cozy nest of shops, bars and restaurants that all hinge on tourist dollars to survive. The locals don’t eat there: someone asked a coffeeshop proprietor where she’d go to eat around there, and she mentioned a pizza place.

    The entire city felt empty. Maybe the driving snow kept the marginal visitors indoors, but even on Saturday night Reykjavik never looked more crowded than Salem, MA. And while Reykjavik’s a small city, it’s also a global tourist hot spot and (until recently) a major center of finance.

    I can’t speculate as to causes or cures. Michael Lewis’s excellent article on Iceland sums up the economic climate better than I could. But, economics nerd that I am, I have to make one idle observation:

    Every place I went to took credit cards. Every single one. Every hotel, bar, restaurant, corner shop, museum, airport cafeteria and bus stop kiosk. Of the 10,500 ISK that I got on Saturday morning, I still had paper and coins left over when I left on Monday night.

    I’m not against credit cards, mind you: anything that reduces transaction costs eases trade, and thus lifts all boats. But running a business that takes credit cards costs money. Visa, Mastercard and American Express all charge merchant fees. This is why some stores (in violation of their agreement with the company, but shhh) require a minimum purchase if you use plastic.

    No one in Reykjavik did, though. If I didn’t already have the coins handy, I could have paid for my 260 ISK hot dog with American Express. That’s a $1.58 transaction.

    Lots of credit cards are a symptom of lots of credit. Economists have always touted the easy expansion of credit as a feature, not a bug, of Keynesian macroeconomics. Wealth on paper exceeds wealth in fact – banks write checks on houses they don’t own, and hand those checks to financiers who leverage them in speculative investments. Credit expands, until “the stock market multiplie[s] nine times [and] real-estate prices triple.

    Reykjavik could be a look into the U.S.’s future. Everyone acknowledges things are bad in the U.S. at the moment, but there’s still the fear that they could get worse. Pundits, investors and politicians all look for a warning sign that the economy’s about to make one last, tottering collapse. I’m not an expert, and my judgment is strictly anecdotal. But here’s a handy rule: when the one-man hot dog stands start taking credit cards, run.

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