Sprint from the changing rooms, reach a hot tub and step in. Imagine yourself in your bathing suit, enveloped in warmth, the snowflakes or the blizzard wind on your rosy cheeks only heightening the enjoyment of the moment. All around you people are chatting or stretching their aching limbs or sitting still with their eyes closed, lost in silent meditation.
Everywhere you go in Iceland, you will find a neighborhood pool. Just follow the sign for a sundlaug. Most are geothermally heated, with outdoor spaces for swimming or soaking in a hot tub. Pools are seen by Icelanders as their civic right; they are communal spaces where you come to meet your friends, where you rest after a stressful day, where your baby, barely a few months old, takes her first swimming lessons.
They are for all-family affairs, school friends’ outings, ‘get away from it all’ refuges; public places to be alone, much like coffee shops in large metropolitan cities. When darkness covers the land for 19 hours in winter and the winds can be so unforgiving, hot tubs may as well be key to Icelandic well being.
In fact, you could say they kept Icelanders alive throughout the centuries. Take Snorralaug, a small hot spring pool in the village of Reykholt in western Iceland, thought to have been used by locals as early as the 12th century. One can imagine them soaking in hot water, talking about this and that, much like the Icelanders do today. Snorralaug was first mentioned in the writings of Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), poet, historian, and chieftain who used the pool and had a private tunnel that connected his house to it.
What you’ll notice in the hot pool is that people talk to each other. A straw poll among native Icelanders revealed that the most common topics are current affairs and politics. Regulars chat about what’s happened during the day and inevitably get personal: someone is buying a new home or is sick or is separating from their spouse.
Communal activities get organized: last year, I ate a pickled ram’s testicle and picked through a seared sheep’s head (reader, I even chewed on its eye) at a poolside buffet party celebrating þorrablót, a midwinter festival during which sacrifices were offered to the gods in pagan Iceland. I was in my swimming suit.
You are sure to hear amazing stories, too.
Coming to a pool in Iceland helps you focus on your body and look inward. Rules of etiquette, tradition, common sense and cleanliness demand that every visitor takes a shower naked next to strangers. Foreigners are easily identified by trying to have a wash in their bathing suits, but shower room attendants and fellow Icelanders (always so direct!) demand that they undress like everybody else. By stripping, we become all the same, king or pauper. Only our inner selves remain. We see other humans of all ages, stretch marks, sagging, perky, fit, pregnant, post surgery, in the flush of youth, in the declining years. It is a more honest way of living and makes you more accepting of yourself, others and helps you find beauty literally in every body.
Try local pools, try natural hot springs that overlook the valleys and the mountains, some secluded, some extremely popular, especially after a long drive. Go to as many as possible and one day you will surely achieve that emotional state of contentment and relief that every native Icelander feels when they immerse themselves in a hot tub.
By Svetlana Graudt
Svetlana was born in Moscow, where as many as nine million people use the metro every day. After 12 years in London she moved to Reykjavik for love. Svetlana loves cities and reading long articles in The New Yorker.