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Travelogue: Honors Students Explore Icelandic Culture

By Christine Flanagan, MFA
Associate Professor of English

Published on June 14, 2018

Journal reflections written by USciences Honors students. All photos by David Broytman BMS'21Iceland honors students

Sixteen USciences Honors students traveled to Iceland in May for an educational and cultural experience they will not soon forget. Located just beneath the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s land mass is smaller than the state of Kentucky, it celebrates one of the world’s oldest democracies, and balances preservation of its vast cultural history alongside advanced technologies in sustainability.

Honors faculty Christine Flanagan, MFA, associate professor of English, Honors Program Director Stephen Moelter, PhD ,associate professor of psychology, and Kevin Wolbach, MS, senior lecturer in biology and assistant dean of Misher College of Arts and Sciences led this eight-day adventure. We landed in the capital city of Reykjavík, then travelled to the dramatic landscapes of the north near Akureyri before looping back to the famous Golden Circle and Vík í Mýrdal, along Iceland’s southern coast. Perhaps our most striking first impressions of Iceland were those of the landscapes we encountered.

Icleand Rocks

Reykjavík, Iceland has a lot of geothermal energy which gives the country a smoky appearance. (“Reyk” means “smoky.”) As I look out my window, there are uneven, cracked gray rocks. A lava field. There is a rough divide on the edge of these fields where the lava abruptly stops. The gray rocks fit together like a jagged puzzle, some thinly veiled with moss-like vegetation. There is no sand separating these large rocks from the ocean. – Alyssa Kearney PAS'20

iceland waterfallsThe waterfalls at Borgarbyggð were bright, baby blue accented with white tinges pouring over the sharp black lava rock and though loud, the crashing was quite soothing. The volcano at Grabrokargigar quite literally blew me over, both physically and mentally. The hurricane-like winds may have been scary considering one sweep and we would have been rolling down the mountain, yet I found it quite exhilarating, not to mention the view was spectacular. – Kayla Carraghan PharmD'23

Our cultural immersion began with three intensive sessions outlining the Settlement Era of Iceland alongside the vibrant mythology of the Norse. First, we visited the Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871 +/- 2, a museum documenting the settlement of Reykjavík. Then, on our drive north, we visited the Borgarnes Settlement Center, which recreates Iceland’s earliest days and introduces visitors to one of the best known heroes of the Icelandic Sagas, the “berserk” Egil Skalla-Grimsson. A quick visit to Snorrastofa Cultural and Medieval Center in Reykholt brought us to the home of Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s best known writer and scholar.

A remote island nation with little arable land for agriculture and no fossil fuel sources, Iceland has developed cutting-edge geothermal energy technologies to support basic needs.

iceland tomatoesThe Friedheimar Greenhouse was a beautiful example of Icelanders’ ingenuity. Thick green stems hang from the ceiling every foot or so. Bright yellow lights overhead illuminate the swollen sides of lime green tomatoes hanging in bunches. These plants make up 20% of the tomato market in Iceland. The piccolo cherry tomatoes are bright fiery red. In one bite, the juicy sweetness bursts across my tongue. Geothermal heat maintains the temperature of the greenhouse so the veggies grow all year round. Bees help pollinate the plants and special flies keep more dangerous insects away... It’s something Americans should consider as we are forced toward creating a sustainable future. –Laura Ciapetta DrOT'22

In Iceland, sustainability isn’t simply about natural resources: it is a reflection of Icelanders’ ethical values. Many of us were struck by the goodwill among the nation’s 350,000 people, by the way humans treat the landscape, and by the way humans treat one another.

iceland peopleIn a lot of ways, Iceland feels like a microcosm of a futuristic, utopic America. They have renewable geothermal energy, they have the latest technology to make everyday tasks even easier, and they have clean roads and buildings with minimal wear. Everyone is so nice and friendly; they have minimal crime solely due to mutual trust and respect. –Kavina Naik PAS'19

The USciences Honors Program places a strong emphasis on experiential learning: it is not enough to be a passive traveler. Thus, Dr. Moelter designed excursions that immerse students in a world beyond the tourist experience. To understand how the fishing industry shapes both cultural and economic life, we zipped ourselves into sub-zero thermal suits, climbed onto a boat, and sailed up the Eyjafjörður fjord at the edge of the Arctic Circle.

Iceland boatThe rocking feeling of being at sea made me feel at home. If I could forget about the frigid winds or the giant thermal suit I was wearing, it felt like I was on my grandpa’s boat fishing in the Atlantic Ocean… When I’ve gone whale watching in the past, it was not uncommon for these beautiful creatures to swim under the boat and surface on the other side. So when the minke whale was on the left and people swarmed the edges, I moved away from the crowd and watched from the right side. Before long the whale surfaced in front of me. I saw its spout first, then its bumpy back, then its tail before it dove deep into the sea… Then, two humpback whales were swimming side by side and we were able to follow them for a long time. They came to the surface and blew air out, making a satisfying hssss sound before submerging once again. –Jenna Kwiecinski BMS'20

Iceland groupWhen we were given the chance to fish, I thought why not give it a try. What do you know! I caught a huge cod, 15 inches long and the biggest of only two caught on the boat. It still brings a smile to my face just writing about it. I do wonder, though, are there any restrictions on fishing in Iceland, especially since this is their staple? Is this resource being depleted? I was quite shocked and slightly heartbroken when they slit the throat of my fish. To top it off, I even had a little piece of raw cod—RAW. – Carraghan

We ate lunch in the quiet fishing town of Hauganes before meeting the unforgettable Elvar Reykjalin, owner of the Ektafiskur salted cod production facility. Little did we know that our tour of Elvar’s business would include the invitation to “enjoy” a traditional Icelandic delicacy: Kæstur hákarl, or fermented Greenland shark. Once we ate it, Elvar told us, we would earn official membership into his Rotten Shark Club.

iceland fishFishy Friday. This place had a very distinct smell; it reeked of fish. [One worker] sliced and diced a fish, getting large filets, and even cutting out the cheeks. When he cut the eye out and he [Elvar] put it in his mouth, I knew this man it wasn’t 100% sane… Next came the shark [kæstur hákarl]. As I bit into the tofu-like chunk of meat, my mouth was filled with possibly the worst tasting food I had ever had. It was weirdly chewy and half-frozen. I swallowed it, basically whole, in the hope I could keep it down, even though every fiber of my being was screaming for me to spit it out and or throw up the contents of my stomach. But I really wanted that [membership] card. –Brooke Braddock DrOT'22

Other memorable adventures came from our direct interaction with the landscape, like when each of us stood—quite literally, with one foot in North American and one foot in Europe—above fissure separating the two major geological tectonic plates separating the continents.

icelandKnowing that both plates meet and converge at that very spot and that I could stand on both the European Plate and North American plate was an unbelievable occasion. With a step of my foot, I could be in both continents, gazing at the marvelous terrain in front of me. –Kunal Kadakia BIO'21

We have our coffee shops; the UK and Ireland have their pubs; Icelanders have their community, geothermally heated pools, a year-round staple of Icelandic culture located in every town. We sampled a few of these pools, including one just hours before we boarded our plane home—inGrindavík’s famous Blue Lagoon.

iceland geothermal

This activity has some rules across Iceland since the water is kept clean with no use of chlorine or other chemicals. The process followed: I walked in, paid, then left my shoes off outside the locker room. Since it was my first time, I was pretty uncomfortable (cough, American) so I wrapped myself in a towel and walked into the open showers and washed with soap like required. I put on my bathing suit and was ready to go outside. We had been cold all day walking around and I couldn’t believe I was going out almost entirely exposed! But it was fine. Slightly cold while walking to the water, but I chose to go in the 38 degrees Celsius water. When we left, we walked home feeling all warm and cozy. —Elizabeth Sauers PharmD'22

“Though we travel the world over the find the beautiful,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “we must carry it with us or we find it not.” Echoing Emerson, Brittany Rickard wrote, “Journaling with everyone each night has given me a new appreciation…This trip has helped me learn more about myself.” Our far-flung travels, it seems, bring us more fully back to ourselves.


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