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Immersed in Black and White

Posted on 7/14/2020 12:01:00 PM in Traveler Insights

Jane Barton is a nationally recognized graphic designer, illustrator, and portrait artist with a Master of Art degree from the School of Visual Arts at Syracuse University. Drawing inspiration from her home and her travels, Jane enjoys exploring the patterns of light and color. The following is an excerpt from her blog, detailing her time in Iceland.

By Jane Barton, 3-time traveler from Scottsdale, AZ

Black licorice, black lava salt, lava rock, obsidian, and dark, unobstructed skies. Black and white swans, sheep, and horses. White snow, milky lagoons, creamy Skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) and ... are you sensing a pattern here?

I just returned from a spectacular tour of Iceland, and black and white is everywhere there. Of course, there are other colors, too—green algae blanketing the black lava rocks; bright red leaves of blueberry plants cascading down the hillsides; vibrant yellow and orange foliage clinging to the few trees the Vikings left; and electric green Northern Lights. But mostly, there is black and white.

And those colors are a stunning background for the subtle and limited palette of this otherworldly island. Marshmallow-white plastic seals the bales of hay in the fields. Pink plastic indicates that the farmer is supporting breast cancer research. That’s just one example of the transparency and honesty you see everywhere in Iceland that is so refreshing and surprising at the same time.

Jane appreciated Iceland’s fish for being both delicious and easy to catch.

Besides the usual natural disasters—volcanoes are one—the 2008 financial meltdown hit Iceland hard. To remind them to pull together and cherish what they still had, several towns converted their red stop light circles to hearts. Seriously, how beautiful is that? You pull up to an intersection, see the red, heart-shaped light and can’t help but think about it.

Leif Erickson, who as any Icelander will tell you discovered America long before “that Italian guy,” opened the first Airbnb here when he rented out his turf house while he returned home for a brief visit. The hotels in Iceland are a huge step up from houses with turf roofs—everything has clean design and yes, you can even drink the water out of the tap. They’re rebuilding their economy with a growing tourism trade—last year they welcomed 1.7 million visitors to their island. By the way, the population is only 300,000.

I’ve lost count of the waterfalls and rainbows that are everywhere, along with bubbling mud and other worldly lava fields. This is a country with an extraordinary renewable energy system. When I told a friend that they have no army in Iceland, my friend asked why not. I guessed that it’s because there’s no gold or other precious resources to exploit, so until someone figures out how to steal steam, they should be pretty safe from invasion. Of course, the Vikings landed and Reagan and Gorbachev met in a little house in 1986 in Akuyreri to end the Cold War, but it’s been pretty quiet globally since then. Well, except when their volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, erupted and stopped air travel all over the world a few years ago. Again, natural disasters are the norm, not human ones.

Jane’s sketches capture both Iceland’s color and contrasts in black and white.

The name of the volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, reminds me of another nice thing about Iceland: everyone speaks perfect English, which is good considering my attempts to pronounce some Icelandic names. At the same time, they are very protective of their unique language. It’s considered a favor, not an insult, to be told the correct pronunciation of a word … even if you were born in Iceland.

I love the Icelandic pride—it’s charming, but somehow not off-putting. Perhaps the fact that their geothermal renewable energy programs make them feel independent and superior to others in the world. I’ll admit, it’s very impressive. Here are a few examples of Iceland pride:

  • They have the best ice cream, fish, horses, etc. Just ask them.
  • Bobby Fischer beat the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky in 1972 in Iceland and loved the country so much that he is buried in the little town of Selfoss.
  • Whales leap here.
  • Huge cod and other wonderful fish are so easy to catch—even I got one!
  • The sky dances with the Northern Lights so often that Icelanders don’t even look up at them.
  • Movies and TV shows are filmed in this exotic landscape: Game of Thrones and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for instance.
  • Icelandic Sagas are ancient stories handed down from generation to generation. They are frightening, sometimes cruel, but always have a lesson attached. If you point your smart phone at a city bench in Reyjavik, you will hear an Icelandic story/saga read aloud. Unfortunately for me and other foreigners, it’s in Icelandic.
  • Elves and trolls exist here. You’ve been warned.

I knew the fish would be wonderful, but I didn’t count on the bread and butter being so unforgettable. The butter is light and sweet and often topped by salty seaweed or black lava salt. The bread is often baked in an old washing machine tub, buried in a hot lava field for 12 hours and then … it’s really unbelievable.

The new concert hall, Harpa (named after a Norse goddess), is stunning. Glass panels mimic the Celtic columns that form in the lava walls and light up in a marvelous pattern each night. The main concert hall is a super-saturated red color, to remind all of the inside of a volcano. The Icelandic Philharmonic orchestra performs here with programs both classic and modern in acoustic perfection achieved by beautiful, undulating strips of wood on the walls that are adjusted to suit each performance. Icelanders are serious about their music.

I mentioned licorice in the beginning of this, but didn’t mention that they love it so much that they even put it in their chocolate bars, candy, and salted licorice ice cream. There’s no red licorice, only black, perhaps to remind them of the lava rocks and black plumes that announce a volcanic eruption. They are especially proud of the wonders of their spectacular landscape. ‘Enjoy the Nature!’ is a common Icelandic phrase.

“Before the eruption” and “After the eruption” are two phrases that are repeated over and over again. I guess if you live in a land with their history and the looming possibility of more fire and smoke, your whole psyche is affected. The black and white colors of Iceland color everything: the friendly, fatalistic attitude of the people; the landscape; and even the economy as tourists discover this mystical and wonderful place. If you ask an Icelander about the changeable weather, the food choices, the landscape, the elves … the natives explain over and over again, “It’s Iceland!” My understanding is that this means, “Go with it: Change and mystery are part of life! Enjoy the Nature!” Lesson learned.

Discover Iceland’s many colors—and perhaps black and white theme—when you join O.A.T. for Untamed Iceland.

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