My cronies, Madison and Amy
My cronies, Madison and Amy

It is very easy to be homeless in Iceland. An important word you should know if ever contemplate/find yourself in this situation is: sundlaug (swimming pool). Every town, even the smallest or most remote, has a sundlaug, naturally heated by volcanic energy and no matter how grey and drizzly the weather, freezing the fog, or after having spent a cold, cramped night vertically sleeping, wearing every single item of clothing you packed (including a Malian turban), in a 1999 Toyota Avensis, you will be more than happy to strip down and renew yourself in a rejuvenating sundlaug. Each sundlaug has a variety of hot tubs (hot, very hot, and ouch-that-freakin’-burns-but-will-hopefully-feel-really-good-later-after-soaking-in-extreme-pain!!!), a warm shallow pool in which to float and practice calm, deep breathing, and a big deep pool for playing “Marco-Polo” (we Icelandicized  the game to “Takk-Skyr” meaning “thanks-yogurt”, which are two of the only Icelandic words we had learned thus far).

Even before we saw the sundlaug sign, we felt the steam rising above the town like a halo. Unlike public changing rooms across Canada whose aroma’s waft like Port-O-Poddy, and are decorated in drain hair and filled with awkward, downward-pointing-eyed folks in their birthday suits, a sundlaug’s changing rooms will welcome you like a humid hug.

SUNDLAUG stylin'
SUNDLAUG stylin'

Icelandic Sundaug Changing Room Etiquette:

  • Get Naked
  • Wash your body thoroughly, naked
  • Greet the people around, naked
  • Have a friendly conversation, naked, with the naked folks around you
  • Smile, you’re naked!
  • Jump up and down, naked
  • Do a li’l dance, naked
  • Sing, naked
  • After completing the above steps you have permission to put on your bathing suit and enter the sundlaug area

Back at home, we worry about being naked. No, we are concerned about being seen too saggy, too wrinkly, pudgy in places that should be boney, with weird tan lines, or gasp no tan at all…!!! Being naked in front of others means surrendering our fragile, cotton wall of self-esteem and exposing the naked truth about what our bare bodies actually look like, and how we truly feel. The biggest faux-pas in sundlaug culture is to refuse to show, or even have the slightest embarrassment about letting it all hang out. Standing naked and proud will not get your stares here, but friendly, polite acknowledgment from equally naked passersby, just going about their sundlaug business.

"How gullible you are, what “fairy stories” your society believes in", laugh the Icelandic locals, "to that think that with clothes, accessories, and averting your eyes you can manipulate and avoid your bodies’ 'imperfections'". With their honest, even voices and looks of witty amusement, the locals in the changing room explain that bodies are bodies and covering up just takes extra time and difficult movements; we all look silly so once we embrace our silliness, than everyone is no longer silly; a naked Icelandic truth. My three friends and I, having shared everything else under the sun, now openly shared our butt-naked bodies with each other. Golly, what-d’ya-know, we all have the same parts! I wonder if I used to worry more about others seeing me naked, or others thinking that I didn’t mind being naked in front of them. Now I will bring back the silly souvenir of being naked and loving it.

After we had shriveled up like scrimsli (sea monsters) it was time to journey northwards, closer to Bildudalur in the untamed Westfjords. It was June 21, the longest day of the year, but in Iceland that just mean NO DARKNESS….LIKE, AT ALL! It’s wonderful to have no limit to the daylight; to know we can hike glaciers, drive through valleys of lava and struggle up mountains with the Earth keeping its light on, as though just for us, I laughed. From Husafell we explored Okjokell, the smallest of the three western glaciers, got howled at for trespassing by wolf-like sled dogs, hiked across frozen rivers, and down more rocky windy roads, etched into craters. The interior of this island is inhabited only sheep, elves and trolls. We weren’t supposed to be this close, not because our rental car agreement forbids us to, but I felt we should keep moving; Icelanders respect the unknown and preserve what cannot be conquered, leaving it to develop in its own mysterious way. My country would have set-up a Walmart here while citizens complained about it from the comforts of their homes, until eventually shopping there, buying discounted yoga wear with mild guilt.

Midnight, June 21st 2013. Northwest Iceland.
Midnight, June 21st 2013. Northwest Iceland.

There are definitely more waterfalls than people here. Did I mention that already? Tumbling water became welcome wallpaper to my backseat window. We pulled up to our next “campsite” at midnight on the longest day of this year, sunny and glowing. Though a nasty wind was blowing, and glancing around at the giant camper vans, with their steamy windows, we decided to bundle up, silly in our turbans, and curl-up in the car for a sheltered night. At least we knew that we could strip down naked the next morning, and bathe like we belonged here.

Waterfall #2967
Waterfall #2967

Iceland Trivia:

Where is the most appropriate place to schedule a first date?

a) Movie Theatre b) Scaling a glacier c) Sundlaug d) Bar in downtown Reykjavik

Yup C), sundlaug. Most successful marriages, friendships and business partnerships begin at the public baths.

To be continued...

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