First Impression

14. February, 2020

Before I visited Iceland, it wasn’t really real. It was a never never land that existed only on the internet; covered in mountains, draped in lush greens, and wrapped in waterfalls and mists. The proximity of Icelandic to the ancient language of the Vikings, and the mingling of Iceland’s history with epic literature and mythology spoke to my (not so) inner nerd. Last and not least, there was the promise of adventure: glacier hikes, ice-climbing, caving, riding shaggy Icelandic horses across volcanic wastelands, and snorkeling in a rift between two continents, filled with crystal-clear glacial meltwater.

I arrived early in the morning, before it was light. The sun came up while I was in the airport shuttle to Reykjavík.  Lava fields rose and fell around me like a restless sea of mossy waves.  It was mid-September, but the thick moss was still a bright, milky jade, dotted with specks of darker emerald and broken here and there with jagged cracks of exposed rock.

Reykjavík on an autumn morning is a mellow, golden colour.  That is deceptive: it is much cooler than it looks, and the breezes that blown in from the sea are both very clean and very fierce.  Walking to the apartment where I would be staying, I was surprised and delighted by the warmth of the sunlight on yellow leaves and old, white houses, despite the bitingly brisk, clean wind. It was also very quiet.  Apart from the wind, hardly anyone was awake yet.


I was staying in a little top-floor apartment in an old house near the University of Iceland.  A large window set into the sloping ceiling looked out across the downtown.  There was an old-fashioned stove, skyr in the fridge, and most important, a container of coffee with an enormous wooden scoop.  That made me smile.  Whoever owned the place drank as much coffee as much as I.

I mentioned that the wind was strong on the way to my apartment, but as I discovered later that day, it gets even stronger, closer to the ocean.  Standing on the shore behind Harpa, Reykjavík’s opera house, I found that the wind was so strong that I could lean into it and let it keep me from falling into the waves below.

Across the bay from me, Mt. Esja wore her usual crown of wispy clouds. I have learned since then that Esja is an Icelandic woman’s name.  That sounds right to me. Esja has always seemed as much like a splendid and dignified queen as a mountain can.

One more thing surprised me that day:  the downtown is as walkable and charming as a small town.  Everything is much closer together than it looks on the map.  Ten minutes after I left Harpa, I was on the other side of downtown, watching a line of cars stop to let a cat cross Reykjavík’s main commercial street.

What else is there to tell?  The coffeeshop I discovered that day, originally Kaffismiðjan and now Reykjavík Roasters, remains my favorite.  They roast their own coffee and fill the sitting area with old, comfortable chairs.  The outdoor, geothermally-heated public pools I discovered likewise remain the only way to recover from jetlag.

On my first day in Iceland, I fell in love: with the lava fields, the moss, the wind, the sunlight, Esja, the sea, and silence.  I have not recovered since.  As is typical of love, I don’t really know why it is there.  Just that it is there.  Luckily I am not the jealous type.  I’ll share with you, I promise.


Isabella is Japanese by birth, Canadian by adoption, American by admission, and previously resident in India and the UK. She likes Icelandic cats and Icelandic ice-cream, but not at the same time.