4 dangers of driving in Iceland.

Posted on 05. May, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

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Danger zone by Bjarki Sigrusveinsson at Flickr.

Summer is on its way and along with it lots of people who plan to travel to Iceland. Some stay in Reykjavík and its close surroundings while others may want to explore the country further. Renting a car is the easiest and the most convenient way of traveling around and getting the know Iceland better, but there are things on our roads that may surprise you a little bit. Here’s what you need to look out for while driving in Iceland.

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Wind by ~helmar at Flickr.

Weather

Number one danger on Icelandic roads is no doubt the weather. It can change within a moment’s time from lovely and sunny to a horrific storm, and storms here should always be taken very, very seriously. A storm in Iceland is not just wind and rain, it’s enough wind to throw small rocks around, topple cars even, and rain may be more like a horizontal, unending wave of water than what usually passes as rain.

What to do:

Keep an eye on the weather forecast page (link) for these words: búist er við stormi (= a storm is expected). If one is in the area you’re in do not head out, at least not without asking a local person their opinion on whether or not driving in the oncoming weather is a feasible idea. If you’re told to not go, don’t go, Icelanders are likelier to play the danger down than up. They’ve also been here far longer than you and if they wouldn’t drive in it, then driving in it is a bad idea.

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Sign at the beginning of the roughest part of fjörður by Jennifer Boyer at Flickr.

Road conditions

Roads here may be closed at any time of the year for various reasons, some of them weather related, some road condition -related. Icy roads mean really slippery roads in Iceland, I’m from Finland and used to think I knew what driving on icy roads is like… and I was wrong, so wrong. At worst there’s nothing you can do, the car just gets entirely out of your control. Besides weather another danger can be the road itself, as roads here may not always asphalted and suddenly driving onto gravel can easily make you slide off the road if you don’t see it coming.

What to do:

Always check whether the road you’re planning to take is open and in driving condition. The easiest place for this is the Vegagerdin web page (link), where road conditions are marked by different colours. Don’t even consider a road that’s marked as impassable and reconsider roads that are marked as icy. If there’s a chain going across the road with a warning sign included the road is impassable, it’s closed, if you drive around the chain you have only yourself to blame when you get stuck in snow and have to call the emergency line for help.

For the latter problem you’re best off by having someone read a map and getting the latest published Icelandic map because gravel roads are well marked on them. Slow down a little when you see the change of road coming and you’ll be fine.

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Sheep by Atli Harðarson at Flickr.

Sheep

This is a summer problem only but quite a serious one. Sheep graze more or less wild, somewhere in the mountains or wherever they decide to go. They should be always fenced away from roads but fences can break, the sheep may find a way under or around them or just… do some sheep magic trick and somehow end up by the side of the road. Both Icelanders and tourists end up in these accidents so sometimes not even knowing of the problem won’t help, but it’s still better to be prepared than not.

What to do:

Slow down when you see a sheep by the side of the road. They may seem like they’re not going anywhere but right as you’re at them they spook and run under the tires. Be especially careful if you see a lamb on one side of the road and the ewe on the other, it’s almost certain that the lamb will run to its mum when it sees your car coming.

If you accidentally drive over a sheep you should try to find the closest farm and let them know. If a ewe dies it’s especially important that the farmer knows to get the lamb or lambs to safety.

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Law & Order by Helgi Halldórsson at Flickr.

Icelanders

Icelanders drive like mad. Traffic rules are treated like guidelines, speed limits are something for other people (this works both for drivers that want to speed and drivers that want to drive 50 km/h on an 80 km/h road) and signaling your turn is rare, especially when changing the lane. Everyone else on the road is treated as more or less a nuisance and the bigger your jeep the better.

What to do:

Keep an eye on the other drivers and be prepared for anything and everything. Do not trust the other drivers to stay on their lane just because they’re not letting you know they’re planning to change it. Keep a cool head and avoid doing the Icelandic thing – road raging. Another good thing to keep in mind is that Iceland has zero tolerance on DUI. If you have even one beer you have no business behind the wheel and the Icelandic police don’t take “I didn’t know” as an excuse.

On the upside most Icelanders are found in cities, so if you’re going to drive in the countryside all you need to survive is weather, road conditions and sheep! 😀

6 things Iceland doesn’t have.

Posted on 28. Apr, 2016 by in Icelandic culture

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Cuando los sueños se hacen realidad by Andrés Nieto Porras at Flickr.

Even though Iceland has many awesome things to offer, some things you might take for granted it just doesn’t have. This might come as a surprise on many occasions so be prepared in advance because occasionally our lack of something may have a huge effect on your stay. Iceland does compensate for what it doesn’t have with what it does have, but it’s still good to know what is not here and whether or not you should take that into account.

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Minør by Andrew Bowden at Flickr.

Trains

Public transport in Iceland means buses and buses only. There are no trains, let alone trams or underground trains, so just in case you thought to travel around using the public transport you may have to reconsider. Buses do take you around the island but they don’t run that often, are expensive and within Reykjavík often uncomfortable, and let’s not even talk about the connections. The connections don’t exist. My SO once considered taking a bus to work but gave up when he realized that a 10min drive would take more than half an hour on the bus and include one change of bus on the way.

If you’re planning on traveling on the countryside by bus, read the schedules carefully! Some days there may be a connection only halfway, so when you get to your bus changing stop you may have to wait for your connecting bus to the next day (I’m not kidding, if you’re traveling south coast further than Vík make sure you’re traveling on the right day or you’ll be stuck at Vík).

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Isn’t it amazing that Ronald McDonald never has gained weight by Steve Baker at Flickr.

McDonalds

When Iceland’s economy went belly-up McD jumped ship first and has never been seen again. Most likely they were only happy to go, considering how fiendishly complicated Icelandic taxation is in comparison to the American one. I assume that it’s much for the same reason that we don’t have Starbucks either.

We do have Dunkin’ Donuts, IKEA and Lindex though! You should have seen the queues when they first opened.

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Happy dog by scott feldstein at Flickr.

Rabies

Wait, that’s wonderful news right? Right? Well, yes, as long as you don’t plan to move in and take your dog with you. The quarantine period for your friend is long, lonely and expensive, you have to prepare well in advance for it, make sure all necessary vaccinations are taken and within the time windows given, and book a place for your pet at a quarantine station. There’s no way around it.

There’s also nothing to compensate rabies with, unless horrible fairytale monsters count. They can also kill you and much, much faster! Trolls, skugga-baldurs and skoffíns and many, many more.

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Royal Python by The Reptilarium at Flickr.

Snakes and lizards

Yup, we have none. Sadly this means you’re not allowed to bring in one either. What we do have is plenty of ground nesting birds and introducing any type of an animal that feeds on them might cause a disaster if it managed to escape.

This one we compensate by having a huge dragon/lake monster instead, but be careful if you happen to see it… it’s a 100% carnivore and occasional humans are an acceptable meal if old stories are to be believed.

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Viking by Hans Splinter at Flickr.

Vikings

No, Icelanders are not vikings by ethnicity, because being a viking was never an ethnicity… it was a job. Any person who decided to get on a longship and sail over to Europe was a viking, and once they came back they were no longer vikings unless the plan was to head out again. No one is going a-viking any longer (with the exception of some politicians, but even they rather take money out of the country than bring it in).  (This paragraph has been reworded a little for clarity, because Gina and Armann made a really good point in the comments section.)

What we do have instead are Medieval re-enactors! You can usually see them in any kind of a big gathering, holiday or a Medieval-related occasion, decked out in their best and teaching children the basics of axe throwing and sword fights. Best time to catch some of them is the annual Viking festival in the town of Hafnarfjörður right below Reykjavík at hotel/restaurant Fjörukráin (link).

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Light Night Show by Andrés Nieto Porras at Fllickr.

Aurora

Well, to be honest we do have aurora, we just don’t always have it. Summertime aurora cruises may be waste of money: first of all aurora are far more common during the winter and secondly it barely gets dark here during the summer. The night is nightless, so light that whatever aurora there might be would be completely light-hidden. Even in the winter there’s never any guarantee that they’ll be on, with aurora all depends on luck.

Instead we have a lovely night sky. Amazing all around the year when the weather’s clear, from the colourful autumn sunsets to winter stars to spring rainbows to summer light, the vast openness of this country and how far apart the towns are means that you’ll easily get a nice view. I recommend driving outside of the city for night sky viewing, especially the winter and Milky Way are a lovely sight!

5 stubborn presidents of Iceland.

Posted on 21. Apr, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

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Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson by PopTech at Flickr.com

The president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, has been in the news this week a lot after he announced he would run again in the next elections. He’s already among the 20 longest ruling non-monarch national leaders currently in office so his decision has raised some eyebrows over here, especially since it came but a few months after he announced he’d be stepping down. Even so Iceland actually has always had a tendency to choose a president and stick with that one for a while, so perhaps there’s nothing out of ordinary happening here after all. 😀

Let’s have a look at all five presidents that have ruled Iceland since its independence in 1944.

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Sveinn Björnsson at Wikimedia Commons.

Sveinn Björnsson

Sveinn actually started ruling Iceland long before his first election as president in 1944: between years 1941-1944 he served as Regent of Iceland. As the first president ever he was only elected for one year, but at the following two elections he was unopposed. Who knows how many times he would have been re-elected had he not died a year before his third term ended, making him thus far the only president to die in office here in Iceland.

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Ásgeir Ásgeirsson at Wikimedia Commons.

Ásgeir Ásgeirsson

Ásgeir, the second president of Iceland, sat in office from 1952 to 1968 which is 16 years in total. He was the first president ever chosen by popular vote; Sveinn before him was first elected by the Alþing (= parliament) and for the two following terms chosen for lack of opponents. Like Sveinn, once in office Ásgeir was chosen for three more terms uncontested.

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Kristján Eldjárn at Wikimedia Commons.

Kristján Eldjárn

The third president was originally assumed to be Ásgeir’s son-in-law Gunnar Thoroddsen, but despite his popularity he lost to Kristján Eldjárn. Kristján took the office from 1968 to 1980 when something unprecedented happened but before we go to that, let’s look at Kristján. He was an archaeologist by education and hosted a popular tv show from 1966 to 1968 discussing some of the National Museum’s artifacts, which had made him quite well known by the time he ran for presidency. His two following terms he, too, was unopposed, it’s almost like Icelanders just liked to see a president do a trial run and if found acceptable, keep him. Or her, since what happened after Kristján decided against running a fourth time and devoted his life to academia –

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Vigdís Finnbogadóttir at Wikimedia Commons.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

– was Vigdís. She was the first democratically elected female president in the world, and like the previous three took the office for quite a long time, 16 years in total (1980-1996) which makes her the longest serving female president in the world. Unlike the others she was the first Icelandic president to be contested during her rule, once, in the 1988 elections that she regardless won by a landslide. After her last term she, too, decided to step down.

Other interesting details about her life include her f.ex. being active in protests against the American occupation, although this was some ten years before she became the president. She’s also Iceland’s first single woman allowed to adopt a child, and interestingly while she was running for presidency for the first time she was also a divorced single mother! Currently she’s a UNESCO goodwill ambassador.

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Ólafur Ragnar by Michael Wuertenberg at Wikimedia Commons.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

We’ve finally made it from all the way from WW2 to the present moment and we only needed five stops to get here. Ólafur’s the most stubborn office sitter of them all with 19 years under his belt and plans to have some more. He’s ran twice uncontested, three times contested, then in January this year announced he’d be stepping down after his last term… and recently changed his mind when our PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson caused massive political instability to the country by his part in the Panama Papers scandal (link).

Ólafur is the first Icelandic president to wield the presidential veto power, causing the Independence Party to try to campaign for removing that power from the president. For most part the position of the president of Iceland is largely ceremonial so whether it’s Ólafur Ragnar or someone else probably doesn’t make a huge difference (aside of his by Icelandic standards unusual tendency to veto). Time will tell if he’ll be chosen for the sixth term, if he’ll even be contested, I know that the general feel of Icelanders after his announcement was an automatic “ok, so he’s in for one more term”. Maybe Icelanders just really don’t like to change their presidents often. 😀

spring

Meanwhile Iceland has entered summer as of today. This year 21st April is Sumardagurinn fyrsti (= first summer day) which is a national holiday based on the Old Icelandic calendar (notice that the blog post is from a few years back, Icelandic calendar’s months start at a different date + same week day every year). It starts the month of Harpa and means that now, finally, the winter is definitely over and won’t be seen again before mid-October when Gormánuður begins. All snowing that might happen in between is summer-snow!