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5 Facts About Iceland You'll Never See in a Guidebook

Insider Guides Culture
by Lydia Taylor Mar 22, 2016

1. People are even more annoyingly polite than we are

Being English, manners are our forte. However, Icelanders are so polite that they make us mild tempered tea sippers look like that drunk dude who shouts at a taxi driver at the end of the night. This is ever apparent in their patient approach to traffic: in Iceland, cars will stop to let you cross the road, and not just at lights or zebra crossing. Just anywhere, really. This unexpected etiquette will create some awkward encounters of “you go? I’ll go?” when you’re used to London Uber drivers trying to mow you down like they’re earning points, but it’s certainly a welcome surprise.

2. Babies are tougher than expected

It’s not uncommon in Reykjavik to see a baby in their pushchair left outside in the cold whilst mum is inside sipping a chai latte in one of their chic coffee houses. If you did this in the UK, you’d have social services called within 10 minutes. Apparently, it’s an old tradition and actually has some acceptable rationale, where back in the 20th century, a tuberculosis epidemic shook the country; as inside conditions were not great with poor ventilation and often muggy, the baby was left outside to get fresh air and sleep away. Whilst now they’re not worried about infectious disease, it is a long standing belief that little ones sleep better and longer wrapped up as a blanket burrito and left outside.

3. Everything smells like farts

Ok, so “EVERYTHING” is a little overreaction. But it’s undeniable that when you run a tap in Iceland, out flows a stench like rotting eggs mixed with hangover farts. At first, I thought it was dodgy plumbing, and we should have splashed out a little ore on our guesthouse, but it turns out the smell is caused by how uniquely fresh Reykjaviks water system is. The water in Iceland is heated by harnessing the volcanic landscapes geothermal energy, which then then runs straight to your tap. So whilst it is super fresh, it is also super sulphuric, making it smell like you’re changing the diaper of a baby grown on a diet of Indian food and asparagus. Check your guidebook: it may tell you about the unique water, but it’s sure as hell not going to tell you what it costs to get it.

4. Mary did not have a little lamb, because the Icelanders ate it

Food is generally expensive in Iceland. As the majority of ingredients have to be imported, dining out is pricey and there is no Maccy D’s to have a cheap late night indulgence. However, surprisingly, all the common meats of Europe are making less of an appearance on the menu in Iceland; rather than chicken and beef being standard cuisine, Lamb is a popular local favourite due to a tough variety of sheep who can stick out the fluctuating climates. You will also see some other guest appearances from Minke Whale (supposedly sustainably caught, though the ethics of harvesting such intelligent animals usually falls on deaf ears) to puffin, all of which are cheeper than mowing down on a nice beef burger.

5. Trolls may or may not live in rocks

Viking traditions and history are the key talking points on most tours, with stories of heroic voyages and surviving the harsh climate with feats of utter manliness. But a less known set of mystical beliefs underpins the culture too. Icelanders believe in the mystical presence of elves and trolls which live in the many of the large rocks which lie about the barren, volcanic landscape. The trolls guard the land and act as a warning to children not to wander too far from home. The ingrained belief has even caused new roads to be diverted and sparked rumours of curses and misfortune when a troll’s rock is moved. Further folk-lore legends have it that Iceland is also plagued with ‘Huldufolk’ or ‘Hidden people’ who originated from Adam and Eve when Eve hid her dirty unwashed children from God when he came down to visit. To punish Eve for lying, God hid the children as invisible people. Moral of the story: wash all your children and keep them safe inside your house. Hopefully that doesn’t put a damper on your family trip to Iceland.

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