Following are fun facts from our tour guides (Dooley out of Reykjavík and Matthias out of Húsavík) as well as personal observations while traveling in Iceland for a week:
The population of Iceland is 320,000 people with over 100,000 living in the capital city of Reykjavík. It isn’t unusual to be visiting with someone and discover that you have a common acquaintance. Iceland is about the same size as the state of Kentucky. It is called Iceland because when it was first discovered, it was mostly covered with ice. Today, glaciers cover 11% of the island. It snows somewhere on the island every day with the glaciers getting snow throughout the summer.
The Icelandic language is a combination of Norwegian and Swedish. By the time Icelandic people are 15 years old, they can speak 3 languages: Icelandic, English and Old Norwegian, which is no longer spoken even in Norway. The Icelandic language is largely unchanged since its origin.
A strong part of the Icelandic culture is the Hidden People: the trolls and the elves. Both of our guides would point at various lava formations and ask if we could see the face of the trolls. Trolls only come out at night so if caught in daylight, they turn to stone. Hmm
The main industry is fishing followed by aluminum production. Tourism, which used to occur only in the summertime but is now year-round, is the third highest grossing industry for the country.
Native animals are birds, the arctic fox, and possibly polar bear. The only naturally growing tree on the island is a low-growing birch, similar to a scrub oak. It doesn’t get very tall and its wood is useless. Any wood used on the island is either imported or is driftwood which is continually washed ashore by the ocean. There is a recently enacted law requiring the farmers to fence off all their land (which can be quite expansive). They use barbed wire attached to ‘posts’ that are pieces of driftwood of varying sizes.
90% of the homes are heated by geothermal sources; hot water also comes from geothermal. The hot water in our apartment smelled like sulfur; thankfully, we didn’t emerge from the shower smelling like sulfur! 🙂 Icelandic children grow up swimming outdoors year round because the pools are heated by geothermal.
80% of the island is privately owned while the government owns the other 20%. Therefore, many of the tourist areas are privately owned. An entrance fee isn’t collected from each visitor and it’s not clear (to us as tourists) who pays to build and maintain the roads from the main road to the various tourist sites. We asked both of our guides about this and their responses were rather vague.
Before leaving Reykjavík, our tour guide Dooley pointed out important city sites, one of which was the phone company. Iceland wasn’t modernized until the late 20th century. When someone wanted to place a phone call, they walked to the phone company and told the operator, who would then make the connection to the person being called; you stood inside the phone company to make your call because individual homes didn’t have phones. Dooley did this many times and he is about 55 years old. Today, Dooley uses a smart phone. 🙂 Iceland has a high rate of internet usage and wi-fi seems to be readily available in populated areas.
It wasn’t until around 1970 that people began to buy and drive cars in Iceland. Until the banking crisis of 2008, it was common practice to purchase a car from abroad off the internet and have it shipped to Iceland. The Ring Road, the only paved highway around the entire island, was completed in 1974.
Income tax is 42%-50%; fewer than 1/3 of the population pays taxes. There is a 24% sales tax. The banking crisis of 2008 was devastating to Iceland with the value of the Icelandic kroner dropping 200% while the cost of goods and services tripled. McDonald’s and Burger King left the country at that time (2008) because they import their products and the cost to continue doing business would have been prohibitive. (There was only one McDonald’s on the entire island and it was located in Reykjavík.)
There are some Icelandic laws I find unusual. The strangest one is related to the naming of children. New parents have to submit the proposed name to the Naming Committee for approval before actually naming their child! While we were visiting Iceland, there was an article in the newspaper about a mother from the U.K. and a father from Iceland whose children are named Harriet and Duncan. Iceland will not issue passports for these children because their names weren’t approved by the Naming Committee and they are impossible to pronounce in Icelandic!
Another unusual law involves flying the Icelandic flag at a private residence. According to our tour guide, it is allowed to be flown privately if there is a death in the family (flown at half-staff) or a birthday. Flying the flag simply out of desire or to show patriotism is forbidden.
Traditionally, Icelanders don’t have family names; their last name is the name of their father followed by ‘son’ or ‘daughter.’ For example, Gunnar’s daughter Helga would be Helga Gunnarsdóttir, while Gunnar’s son Jón would be Jón Gunnarsson. We saw numerous examples of this on the headstones in the cemetery. People are listed in the telephone book by first name!
We visited Iceland for a week in mid-July which is summertime. Because Iceland is so far north, it didn’t get dark at all while we were there; it appeared to be twilight throughout the night. In Reykjavík, the temperature was in the mid-50°s Fahrenheit (13°-15°Celsius) with rain every day but we also saw the sun briefly every day. This is normal summertime weather. The day we spent in the north part of the island was warm, sunny and dry. Our guide in the north told us that was normal summertime weather for that part of Iceland. When Icelanders travel, they go to warm sunny areas such as Spain and the Canary Islands.