What you Can Divine about a Culture from Shoes (and other quirky things I learned touring Iceland)
By Stacy Brasfield
In Las Vegas, the women’s shoes were stunningly beautiful but completely impractical from my way of thinking. It wasn’t just the heel height, which was impressive indeed! It was how open they were! They weren’t even shoes, really, more like ornaments for the feet. The beautiful colors lured me in. There were so many possibilities! I’ve never seen so many beautiful, impractical shoes back home. There were stones for glitz and glitter, different textures, and long straps going this way or that. Marie Antoinette came to mind as I shopped. Imelda Marcos too. Even as I admired these works of art, I couldn’t help but imagine how rarely I would have the opportunity to wear a pair like these, even if I bought one. Obviously, they would not work in the winter, as open as they were. My feet would freeze! But even in summer, there is always a chance of rain! Ahhhhh! That does make sense now. Vegas is a desert. No rain. And it is practically an indoor city. There is virtually no reason to step outside. That’s when it dawned on me why West Coast women always seemed so well turned out. The weather! Sunny and dry. It’s so agreeable to fashion. No risk of an unpredictable shower to drench your fine fabrics or your beautifully adorned feet! No winter freezes! No snow — or worse, SLUSH!
Once a longtime friend of ours, Luis Baez, came to town with the San Francisco Symphony. We used to play clarinet together in Junior High and High School, and his music is so beautiful! We were his guests at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall when they played Mahler. It was such a special day! I wanted to look nice, so I wore a long gown and pretty shoes. It was early in the summer, so I didn’t need a coat or hat or mittens, just a pretty little wrap that matched the dress. It was a beautiful day, and we decided to go have a bite to eat after the show. Parking in D.C., however, can be an ordeal. Even driving around the block to find a parking lot can take longer than it takes to walk, so we left the car in the garage and set out to walk a few blocks to the restaurant. The men were fine, of course, but my shoes crippled me. I tried to tough it out, but the uneven terrain in these shoes was terribly painful! I begged for a taxi to take us the last couple of blocks. Even when the weather is agreeable, these types of foot adornment are completely impractical on D.C. sidewalks. East Coast footwear is much more sensible and much less lovely than West Coast footwear. Perhaps this is why East Coast women are viewed as more serious types.
The most traveled tourist path in Iceland is known as the Golden Circle. It may be the only place in Iceland that ever gets crowded. Our first stop along the Golden Circle was Thingvellir, which is known as a rift valley. It is simply majestic. It is along the dividing line or rift between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates, which are slowly moving apart. Iceland is North America to the West and Europe on the East, and on this land, Thingvellir, you can look across from one continent and see the other. As the plates have moved apart, the valley has filled in. So there is this wide expansive valley and a clean clear glacier river, with cliffs along each side — cliffs that used to be joined together. Thingvellir is the only site along the rift in the tectonic plates that is above ground and so clearly visible. It was absolutely breathtaking!
Our tour guide explained that where we were standing — in a canyon of the cliffs, admiring the view — was the first meeting place of the Icelandic general assembly, way back in 930 A.D. Representatives of the various regions met there to make decisions. They saw this as a way of establishing order in the land. Icelanders have a long history of listening to each other and being sensible about things — 8 full centuries before representative government was established in the UK or US! The assembly came together and set up camp annually on this rift valley at the summer solstice. It was through the assembly that the representatives eventually chose to abandon the Pagan religion in favor of Christianity at about 1000 AD, mostly for reasons having to do with commerce. They understood that two religions was at least one too many, and the country would become divided. This is actually another good story, but it will have to wait for another time. Our guide then showed us how the representatives could hold an assembly at that site and speak to a crowd without a microphone. The speaker would stand upon a rock platform above the listeners in the canyon and speak loudly toward the canyon rock wall which would reflect and amplify his voice so all could hear. Maybe I should get a rock wall put in along the back of my classroom! So, anyway, the assembly of Icelanders still meets today, but now in a building in Reykjavic, making it the oldest and longest lasting representative governmental body in the world. These stories impressed me very much.
Oh, before we leave Thingvellir, I would like to discuss the pronunciation. The “th” is not a soft sound. It is almost like a “t” sound, but not made with the teeth. It is made with the tongue along the roof of the mouth, and it is a hard sound. We don’t really have this sound in our language. The word is pronounced quickly, with a guttural growl in it, and for the double L sound, you block the air with your tongue and make it come out through the teeth on both sides, more like “yee” than “la”. Again, we have no English equivalent. To me it is as if the sound begins on the roof of the mouth then gets swallowed and spit out again between the molars.
Our next stop on the Golden Circle was the Golden Waterfall, Gullfoss. In Icelandic “gull” means gold and “foss” is waterfall. So when people call it the gullfoss waterfall, they are saying gold waterfall waterfall. It’s kinda like an ATM machine that way. So the reason it’s named a gold waterfall is because in sunny moments, a rainbow develops above the falls, and the falls become the pot of gold beneath. It is very pretty, of course, as waterfalls and rainbows tend to be, but it was crowded, mostly due to the fact that I arrived on a tour bus full of people, who weren’t as enchanting as they had been earlier in the day, and it wasn’t sunny either. In fact, though it never got dark while we were in Iceland, it was rarely sunny. There was a perpetual threat of rain or mist. Our Road Scholar guide, Einar, said it rains about twice a day most days. He had a dark sense of humor, so perhaps he was exaggerating. Speaking of Einar, he was a national Economist, educated at the Imperial College of London. We were lucky to have him show us around as he had the backstory on so many things. As you can tell, I do love a good story. Whenever Einar gave us a number, like a date in history, or a meet time, he would always give the number with what we scientists call error bars. He would say, for example, “Let’s meet back at the bus at 11:15 plus or minus 5 minutes.” Or “this took place in the year 1000 AD, plus or minus 5 years.” I love this way of communicating clearly! Later I heard other Icelanders do the same too. It’s such a precise way of communicating the fudge factor, that I have never heard people use in the US outside of a science paper. My respect for the Icelandic culture shot up another notch.
Our 3rd stop along the Golden Circle was truly fantastic. Lunch! Oh, and the geysers, and the gift shop. I was feeling weary at this point, but in reflection the geysers were really amazing. I’m glad I plodded through. For lunch we had a big bowl of hot soup. Most of the group had something creamy, but I have trouble with dairy, so I was given a traditional Icelandic meat soup. I definitely lucked out with this. It was warm, fragrant and delicious. It was exactly what I needed to restore my stamina. Icelandic meat is uncontaminated with chemicals and the animals are allowed to roam free, as most of the island is rural. Isolated for decades on the island, they have not been exposed to the livestock diseases common in the rest of the world. The animals eat the natural heather and volcanic mosses, which gives the meat a nice gamey flavor. If a driver hits a roaming animal crossing the street, he or she is required to find the owner and pay him or her the value of the loss before they can continue on. The US livestock industry seems barbaric by comparison. The more I heard about the Icelandic culture, the more impressed I became.
Perhaps Iceland was given its name because of its ice, but I have to wonder also about the word “island”. Was the “s” always silent? Regardless, Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice for good reason. Glaciers and intense volcanic activity are everywhere. Maybe there would be more glaciers and ice, like Greenland has, but for the warmth of its volcanic activity and its location in the Gulf Stream waters of the Atlantic. Its climate is more temperate than you might expect for a neighbor of the Arctic Circle. Shockingly there are regular volcanic eruptions, and virtually the entire island is sitting on top of hot springs which pop up to the surface everywhere. It is interesting to me that this intimate connection with nature is a fluid part of Icelandic life. I wonder how different our lives would be if we weren’t so intent on hiding from the weather? Staying inside of our climate-controlled homes and offices may keep us comfortable, but at what cost? We hide from the winter chill, knowing the spring warmth will arrive soon, but does than prevent us from embracing the winter and enjoying what each day brings?
The word “geyser” in English comes from the old Norse geysa, which means to gush. The oldest documented geyser in English literature is the Great Geysir in the fields in the Haukadalur valley. While we were there we saw a rare eruption of the famous Geysir and many eruptions of the powerful Strokkur, including one double eruption. I was surprised at how close we were allowed to be — close enough to see the bubbling and swirling and then the rising of the giant balloon of gas which preceded the blast. The trails through the landscape took us past an other-worldly natural theme park of mud pots, steam vents and colorful mineral deposits. Can you imagine being the first person to walk through this enchanted valley? This land, the youngest I had ever walked, is full of mystery and magic, and you can enjoy it too — with hundreds of other tourists. It’s better than Disney, and it’s free.
Next there was time for the gift shop before we got back on the tour bus. Sometimes, I go shopping to shop, but when I’m not buying, a gift store is a museum to me. The items for sale can be another window into the culture. The fine wool sweaters made sense, given the abundance of sheep. Bottles of lava salts, mud bath minerals, lava stone earrings and wool mittens. That all makes sense. Icelandic licorice — strong candy for strong people! How fitting. Then I saw them — Shoes! Colorful, ankle high Rain Booties like I have never seen. I had to have them. How practical! Now, I am REALLY impressed with the Icelandic people. Iceland, the anti-Vegas.
Afterword: I have been looking for some cute, colorful ankle-high rain boots ever since I came home from Iceland, and they are not to be found here. I am really sorry I didn’t go ahead and buy them there. It just seemed unreasonable to spend $200 on galoshes at the time.