Why I Went to Iceland

IcelandAir’s “Surtsey” pulls into Gate 2 at JFK’s Terminal 7, ready to take another load to Iceland.

People often ask me why I went to Iceland. Ever since my wife, Sarah, and I have traveled together, every international destination (sorry, Canada, but you don’t count) has taken us south. New Zealand took us to 45 degrees south.

This time, we’ll go north. To spitting distance from the Arctic Circle.

Iceland.

We tell people our destination. They ask "why? What are Iceland’s attractions?”

Honestly, if I have to tell you, you probably won’t get it. But I’ll try, anyway:

Scenery. The place has volcanoes, glaciers, massive slabs of hardened lava – some of which are younger than I am. Explosion craters. Post-apocalyptic remainders of geological wrath. We love these things. No, Iceland is not a lush tropical paradise of cocktails sipped from coconut husks. Only 1 measly percent of the island is arable. It’s stark. Parts of it are are visually indistinguishable from Mars. Others look like Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. [Edit: Since I went to Iceland, the country has provided many scenes for Castle Black and areas north of The Wall in A Game of Thrones.]

Solitude. You can hike four hours without seeing another living creature. And that’s on the country’s premiere hiking route, the Laugavegur. I drove from Lake Myvatn to Húsavík in the north part of the country – and saw a mere handful of vehicles. Most of the route was unpaved. Outside the capital, the main highway aka The Ring Road, is often just one lane.

Novelty. Yes, most people speak English in Iceland. They have a high standard of living, and you’ll find all the modern conveniences. But you’ll see the interesting little differences. Like the language. Iceland’s language has been largely untouched since Vikings landed on its shores 1,000 years ago. They work to preserve it via the Iceland Language Council, which scrupulously adds words as-needed rather than letting foreign words invade willy-nilly. Iceland is modern, but it’s thoughtfully developed.

This adventure starts with a trip to New York’s JFK airport.

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Stjarnan FC Soccer Fans the Highlight of First Day in Iceland

stjarnan FC fans
Stjarnan FC fans bring the noise and show the Fram fans how it's done.

Want to make friends in a foreign country? All you need to do is embrace its sports, and you’re well on your way. I first learned this in Costa Rica when I became a Saprisista. And I continued the tradition during my latest trip. Hours after touching down at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland, I wound up next to a wild bunch of fans supporting Stjarnan F.C. (pronounce it as “startna,” pretty much), a team in the Úrvalsdeild (Icelandic premier league).

My wife and I had just introduced ourselves to another Icelandic tradition – lounging around in hot tubs. Afterward, we were walking along when I noticed a group of people outside a stadium.

Since there was a red-bearded guy wearing blue and white facepaint, I figured he would be the one to ask “Hey, what’s going on here?” So I did, and soon had the info that there was a Monday night match about to start. And he offered a free ticket, on one condition: “You must support Stjarnan!”

Who am I to argue with a bearded, face-painted dude wielding a 6-foot-tall staff topped with a skull? So support Stjarnan we did! I bought a second ticket for Sarah, and into the stadium we went.

As it turns out, Stjarnan only got promoted to the top division a few years ago. At gametime, they were ranked in the middle of the league table. Meanwhile, their opponents (and the hometeam … aiiiy!), Fram, were ranked first. But the Stjarnan fans provided most of the spirit on display in the mostly empty stadium, which is called Laugardalsvöllur. Organized cheers and songs from the Stjarnan faithful largely drowned out the Fram supporters, even in their own 10,000-seat grounds!

Even going down two goals did little to silence them. And they added more noise when a Fram player was sent off late in the game, allowing Stjarna to score a goal. They pressed for the equalizer as the clock ticked, but weren’t able to level the scoreline.

Still, I adopted Stjarnan as my Icelandic team. I searched all over the city on a wild goose chase for a Stjarnan shirt. Each store seemed to refer me to a different place, but I was completely out of luck. I wound up with an Icelandic national team shirt instead, but I still will try to find some way to get a Stjarnan shirt.

One thing that surprised me is that Icelanders are really into soccer, but they disdain their own premier league clubs, unfortunately. Instead, most seem to follow English teams – especially Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

I’ll admit there’s a gulf in quality – but I think everyone should show some pride for their hometown sports clubs. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the best league in the world, or the worst: Your home is your home, and you have to support the local teams! One thing I did really like is that the rivalry between fans was really friendly. They just wanted to cheer on their teams, not battle each other (unlike Saprissa and Alajuela down in Costa Rica, for instance).

Here’s a video – if you know any of these characters, pass it along to them and tell me who they are. I’d like to hear from any Stjarna fans. Your team has a fan here in the U.S.!