Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Saving Face in Iceland

We celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in 1992 with a camping trip to the Hornstrandir on the northwestern tip of Iceland. Once the home of the great Viking warrior-king Geirmund Hell-Skin, whom you can read about in the medieval Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), the Hornstrandir is now a nature preserve reachable only by boat. Preparing for our expedition, we had a lot of advice from our Icelandic friends—some of which we thought, for years afterward, had been a practical joke.

Waiting for the ferry to take us to the Hornstrandir, we set up house in the campground behind Isafjord’s summer hotel. With Bill and Susie, two fellow campers from Tasmania, tagging along, we went shopping to round out our boiled eggs with other nesti, a convenient Icelandic term for camping supplies.

Bill was a voluble storyteller. He went into great detail about the bear that ripped up their tent in Yellowstone, about how impossible it was to get alcohol for their Trangia stove in the U.S., about not being served in Northern Ireland, about how the Irish slaves brought to Iceland during the Viking Age were responsible for the storytelling genes that led to the medieval Icelandic sagas, treasures of world literature that I had been studying for twelve years. Bill was immune to cold shoulders. He ignored our hints that we wanted to be alone.

The town of Isafjord (population 3,500) edged the foot of a bluff, then straggled along a curving sandspit into the true Isafjord—the Ice Fjord—a harbor on one side, a bulkhead on the other. It smelled of fish and sea and diesel fuel. Founded in 1787, it had three stunning old 18th-century warehouses along its main street, a dozen ugly high-rises, and a jumble of cottages, among which we found a bakery, a market, and (unfortunately) a fish shop.

The best backpacking food, we had been told by a friend in Reykjavik, was dried fish. And the very best dried fish, steinbítur, could only be found in Isafjord. Dutifully, I asked the woman at the counter for steinbítur. They did not have any. I picked up a package of dried haddock instead—neatly bite-sized and vacuum-packed—from a bin by the register.

“Nú já!” the woman said, snatching the package from me and tossing it back into the bin. She spoke rapid-fire Icelandic to the old man beside her, whose eyebrows rose in admiration. I understood the gist of it, not every word: Tourists, apparently, did not often come asking for dried steinbítur. He called to a boy, who soon returned from the adjacent warehouse with a large, clear plastic trashbag stuffed with long, thin, dark strips of desiccated fish, mostly skin. It looked like leather straps. It was a kilo of steinbítur. My husband said we’d take the haddock.

“That’s trash,” said the woman at the counter, waving it away. “Taste this.” She broke off a bit of steinbítur for each of us. It was strong and tough and dry and fishy, like chewing sea-drenched wood chips. I’d had dried haddock before. Slathered with butter, it tasted like fish-flavored crackers. Steinbítur tasted like its name: Stone Biter. Like wind and sea and a long tradition of living off whatever you could catch. The Aussies said, No way, and left.

The old man watched me while I chewed. He was a thin, wizened sailor with sharp blue eyes under a blue watchcap. His face was wind-rough and sun-wrinkled. The woman was twice his size, sturdy and wide-faced, her motherly look cooling the more we dithered over how much of the stuff we’d have to buy to save face. For me to save face, that is. I’d done the asking. My husband, like the Aussies, didn’t want any at all.

We ended up with a quarter-kilo, a long stiff hose that would soon perfume all the rest of our camping gear. It was not enough. The three Icelanders shook their heads. We were idiots. Luckily, they could not know we would toss most of it onto a rock by the sea on the Hornstrandir, leaving it to delight the gulls. There was only so much of its penetrating fishiness I could take, even for tradition’s sake.

The West Tours website ( has all kinds of information on visiting the Hornstrandir Nature Preserve in Iceland. Getting to Isafjord is easy by bus or plane from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. I haven’t checked, but I’m sure the fish shop is still there, down by the harbor.

Photos: Me, musing, on the edge of a cliff (photo by Charles Fergus). The steep cliffs of Hornvik, from the West Tours website. Sunset in Hornvik-Hornstrandir by eir@si, found on Flickr.

Join me next Wednesday for another adventure at

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