Monday, October 24, 2016

Iceland Day Four: The Pool

The one thing you must do on a visit to Iceland is swim, ideally in a geothermal pool, such as the Blue Lagoon. Apparently the Blue Lagoon is the most-visited site in Iceland, and it looks like it must be incredible. Since it's located somewhere between Reykjavik and Keflavik airport, you can arrange an excursion there either on your way to or from the airport, which was my original plan. I thought I'd spend my last morning in the Blue Lagoon and then take a bus straight to the airport.  But then I had second thoughts. I didn't want to spend my last hours in Iceland hustling out on another excursion. I wanted a leisurely cafe breakfast. I wanted to revisit some of my favorite places in Reykjavik. Also, I didn't want to spend my last day with tourists. (Sorry.) So I decided to visit one of Reykjavik's municipal pools instead.

I almost chickened out. I had done a little reading about Icelandic pools, so I knew I was in for a potentially awkward cultural experience. But then, I'd practically broken off all my fingernails cramming a towel into my already overstuffed backpack at the last minute before leaving Charlottesville. Was that effort going to be in vain?

The closest pool to my house, Vesturbæjarlaug, opened at 6:30 am, so on that cold Monday morning, I found myself walking through the dark and deserted Reykjavik streets. The temperature felt like it was in the thirties. I don't think it was below freezing, but then I did see someone scraping a car windshield.

So the thing about Icelandic pools is that they have very strict standards of cleanliness, which means you must shower, at the pool, without a bathing suit, in a communal shower, before swimming. I'd read that there are even "shower guards" who stand there and MAKE SURE you're actually washing yourself. It's not that I couldn't deal with the communal shower, I was mainly worried that the three whole blog posts I'd read about Icelandic pools hadn't fully prepared me and that I was going to commit some sort of unspeakable blunder, while naked.

I paid my 900 kroner ($8) entry fee and headed up the stairs to the ladies' locker room. Step one is to remove your shoes, just inside the door. There's a special shoe shelf that you put them on. Then you proceed into the locker room proper and select an empty locker. It will have a key in the lock that you wear around your ankle on a rubber band. Take off all your clothes at your locker and then proceed to an anteroom, where you stash your towel and bathing suit. Then you enter the shower room and wash up. There are signs, in four languages, showing you all the areas of your body that you need to wash. There are soap dispensers, so you don't need to bring your own soap, but you do need to bring your own shampoo and your hair is one of the areas you're specifically directed to wash.

It really wasn't as awkward as you'd expect. Everybody is just minding their own business, although the other ladies will greet you with goðan daginn (good morning). If YOU were in a communal shower with a bunch of other women would you be staring? Of course not. So the shower was fine.

Once that's done, you go back to the anteroom, dry off completely and then put your bathing suit on. I should mention that my bathing suit is a sexy, ruched, halter style, number that I bought at Anthropologie a few years ago. It looks like something Marilyn Monroe would wear and was nothing like the sensible athletic suits the other women were wearing, the pool population that early in the morning being somewhat elderly.

Properly attired, you leave your towel behind (the blogs say that while towels aren't forbidden, most people don't take a towel into the pool area) and head out to the pool. Barefoot and wet-haired as I was, the thirty-five degree temperature and half-frozen concrete pool deck were something of a shock. (In my anxiety about the shower procedure, I'd completely forgotten the fact that it was, by Virginia standards, winter.) There's a lap pool and an adjoining pool for general splashing about. There's also a huge modern hot tub, but I made a beeline for the smaller concrete hot pots, each labeled with a sign indicating the water temperature. The 38-40 C pool seemed to be what I was aiming for, and it was heavenly.  There were two Icelandic women in the pool and they said goðan daginn, and then continued their conversation.

Have you ever noticed how soothing it is to listen to people speaking in a foreign language? Nothing is required of you. You can just let the words flow around you like music. This fact is doubly true when the speakers are two 70-ish women speaking Icelandic.  The only words I could understand were "yes" (sounds like "yow") and "no" (sounds like "nee"). It was like watching someone knit, or take tray after tray of fresh cookies from a hot oven. For a few moments I was about as relaxed as I've ever felt in my life, when suddenly I was gripped by a new worry.

On the railing above my head was a sign depicting a woman's head with long hair and a word that clearly meant "forbidden." The two women in the pool with me were wearing bathing caps. Were bathing caps required? I peered over the edge to observe the other women and all were wearing bathing caps. There are signs in four languages with illustrations, admonishing you to wash your crotch before swimming, but this little tidbit is kept secret until you're actually in the water? The two women in the pool with me seemed unperturbed that my long, outlander hair was clogging their pool's filter and on further reflection, I decided (hoped) the sign was saying that it's forbidden to put your head under water. (Eventually I did see a woman without a bathing cap.)

I walked over to the modern hot tub for a change and drifted horizontally from the edge while gazing at the curiously purple Icelandic morning sky.  I switched back to my original hot pool to take advantage of its super strong air jet. I'd been walking ten to twelve miles a day and my legs were sore. There are ropes hanging from the railing so you can lift yourself and let the air hit wherever you need it to. There's also a cold pool (8 C /46 F) if you're into alternating between two extremes, which some people claim has health benefits. How is any of this better than a hot tub in the United States? First of all, the absence of a suffocating chlorine smell is certainly a plus. The air jet is about a million times stronger than anything I've encountered in the US. Also, I liked the novelty of using an outdoor pool in the winter and the Icelandic cultural vibe.

But here's where things got weird. Two older men sprinted across the pool deck, yelling in Icelandic. They both got into the hot pool next to mine and all was quiet again for a few minutes until the two men got out of the water and started yelling again. The women in my pool also started yelling and got out of the water and I saw that everyone was exiting all the pools and heading toward the two men. I got out of the water too, because I'd been planning to leave, but now the entire pool population, about twenty people, was gathered between me and the exit. Under the shouted direction of the two men, everyone began to exercise; a sort of brisk Viking yoga of lunges and toe touches and jumping jacks. I looked around wildly and didn't see a single person in any of the pools. Was this compulsory? I couldn't possibly walk past the crowd to the exit. I attempted a half-hearted lunge with the crowd, but then fancied one of the men was glaring at me, so my Marilyn Monroe bathing suit and I slunk back into the pool, wondering if we'd be trapped there until I missed my flight and how I'd explain that to Jon. "I had to stay an extra day because a gang of Vikings were doing calisthenics and wouldn't let me leave the pool."

At any rate, the exercise session lasted only about five minutes and then everyone streamed into the hot pools. For a picture of this ritual, scroll through this article. A little poking around Google has since taught me that poolside exercise, even in the snow, seems to be a thing in Iceland. Indeed, it has a name: Müllers-æfingar. IIcelanders do have the longest life-expectancy in Europe, so maybe there is something in this.

I reluctantly left the water and headed back to the locker room for another quick shower. There are hair dryers you can use, and even a nice large makeup mirror; handy if you're going straight from a swim to your job. I left the pool, in search of breakfast and feeling faaan-tastic.

There's still a bit more of my Icelandic trip to write about, although much of it will be about the disastrous journey home. I hope to get that post written this week and not drag this out any longer.


  1. Thank you so much for this post! Cultural norms are so inexplicable.

    "I had to stay an extra day because a gang of Vikings were doing calisthenics and wouldn't let me leave the pool." I laughed out loud!

    From my inexperienced point of view, my thought was, "How could it NOT be in the thirties? It's Iceland."

  2. What a combination of wonderfully soothing and bizarre! I laughed out loud at your description of the Viking yoga exercising. What a riot! I cannot imagine how confusing that must have been. I loved all of this--from the way you capture the lazy listen to the women talking around you to the sudden panic at the swimming cap. I am so amazed by this trip youtook.