When I picked up my first copy of the Reykjavik Grapevine while on a tour of Iceland, I had this staggering, overwhelming thought that went something like: “Quit your job, move to Iceland, never look back, and write for this wonderful rag full-time.” So taken was I with the country of Iceland in all its beauty, friendliness, charm, and ceaseless winking wit, that throughout my trip I had this unformed urge to just move there and see what happened.
Alas, I had bills and friends and a career back in the States, so instead I wrote a travelogue called ‘Tales of Iceland or Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight,’ which juxtaposed a detailed account of my adventures (and misadventures) with my friends Trin and Bojo with all the great stories we heard during our travels. This included but is not limited to: meeting a raging drunk Kiefer Sutherland, interviewing Jón Gnarr, hiking glaciers, drinking, women, drinking, socio-political and economic commentary on the island nation, hidden people tours, and drinking. Not knowing what I’d write or how I’d even begin, I ended up with a document that simply proved to myself what a potentially life-shaping experience it can be to travel to a place you never before could conceive of in your imagination.
Since then, Trin and I have teamed up to turn the ‘Tales of…’ brand into a series. Right now, we’re in Quito, Ecuador, gathering interviews and experience in one of South America’s most interesting and often overlooked countries. Our ambitions for these books are simple: we want them to be entertaining as hell, riotously funny, occasionally offensive, dark, hopeful, dreamlike, challenging, and a quick way to inspire people to get out and travel. Even if it doesn’t inspire them to travel, maybe it will inspire them to see the world in a different way.
As I write early on in ‘Tales of Iceland,’ these books are not intended as travel guides. Travel guides and travel gurus are virtually everywhere, overflowing bookstore shelves (or Amazon servers, I guess). What we’re trying to get at is the peculiar, hilarious, unyieldingly strange and wonderful underbelly of modern travel, warts and all.
Of course this means acknowledging that we may be full of shit and as soon as a big corporate publisher comes along and offers us 3,000 USD and a lifetime supply of skyr in exchange for the trademark we will sell out faster than an Icelandic banker (boom!). But for now these are books coming straight out of my brain, gleefully profane and meant for raw consumption. Hopefully, we will soon add other writers to the mix. Hopefully, we will soon sell many more books. Hopefully, we will soon be placed on the watch list of autocratic regimes from Russia to Venezuela because we really love free expression—it helps you talk about politics, history, justice, environmental rights, and penis jokes.
The Grapevine was kind enough to include an excerpt from Tales of Iceland, which will give you an idea of just what exactly this book about Iceland is all about.
Why anywhere? It’s unclear how the places we wish to travel get stuck in our heads as destinations on a kind of epic, global to-do list—most of which will never get done before worms are sucking out our eyeballs. I know that stored in my imagination I have a panoply of countries, cities, vistas, monuments, spider holes, canteens, hallowed grounds, and myriad other Planet Earth destinations I’m always telling myself I’ll get to eventually. God help us if interstellar travel ever works out and suddenly we add multiple planets and solar systems to that to-do list in our to-be memory.
With Iceland, however, I remember the exact moment I decided I had to get there. I was in college and Quentin Tarantino was on Late Night with Conan O’Brien raving about his New Year’s Eve experience in Iceland. “Supermodels working at McDonald’s,” was the phrase that understandably stuck with me. Previously, I knew basically nothing about the country except that its capital city was Reykjavík and it wasn’t as cold as Greenland.
[This is the one piece of knowledge-that-shouldn’t-count-as-knowledge everyone retains about Iceland: that the Vikings switched the names of Greenland and Iceland in hopes of tricking everybody as to which place to call home. Historically, this is probably kinda-sorta accurate in the superficial, elementary school-level way—as roughly accurate as, “The founding fathers were all great men.”]
Tarantino—spastic, emphatic, and on Conan to promote the release of a film he’d produced that served the sole purpose of allowing viewers to watch young people get sadistically tortured to death—planted a bug in my brain that never wormed its way out. I was a college kid who enjoyed getting drunk and attempting to sleep with beautiful women, so how could his endorsement not stick?
[Sooo much has changed since those days. For instance: Now I have this weird patch of hair that grows out of an otherwise hairless quadrant of my abdomen and I’m terrified to shave or pluck it for fear it will expand or coarsen. It’s a totally different world.]
That movie he was promoting was called Hostel. I remember sitting in the theater watching this film where outlandishly beautiful women lured young kids into torture chambers to get their thumbs cut off and their thighs drilled full of holes and their eyeballs pulled out of their sockets. As they screamed, I kept thinking to myself in icy-cool-blue lettering with mist rising around the edges: Icccccee-Laaaaaand.
After that, a whole bunch of shit happened.
I graduated from college, I traveled the country, I moved to Chicago, I got a job, I published my first book, I quit the job, I traveled some more, I wrote more books, I saw Hostel II. Through it all, I never really considered traveling to Iceland; it just sat in the back of my mind, unrealized. It’s strange the way that opportunity arises in life, the way forces can coincide and align. Here is the unremarkable story of how I ended up actually going to Iceland, but first you have to know about a couple of friends of mine, who will both go by bastardized versions of their last names.
[Although I’m about to do a really terrible job of protecting their identities, and by the end of this you should easily be able to Facebook both and follow them on Twitter.]
“You’re not leaving us in suspense are you, you sonofabitch?”
—Trin, to Bojo when Bojo said aloud that he wasn’t sure if he would take a shower in the morning.
To understand my friend Trin, it’s really best if you’ve seen the two NBC sitcoms 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Trin is kind of a hybrid of Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger, and Jon Hamm as Liz Lemon’s two-episode boyfriend: this incredibly handsome dude with black hair, bright blue-gray eyes, a concoction of dark Greek and Italian features, strong build, resplendent smile.
[Of course I’m comfortable enough in my sexuality to call another guy’s smile “resplendent.” I also have a Sarah McLachlan song on my iTunes—“World on Fire”—so eat me.]
Like Jon Hamm on 30 Rock, he’s this handsome guy who just does not understand that his handsomeness gives him great advantages in life. From women to work to socializing, the indefatigable aura of swoon produced by the red-giant star of his handsome carries him across the universe with rainbows trailing. He never seems to understand that it’s not normal for a guy to walk into a bar and have every attractive woman stumble over themselves to talk to him. He just can’t comprehend that for the rest of normal-looking-guy humanity, smiling resplendently won’t cause panties to dissolve in moisture across a 50-mile radius.
Yet the great (or terrible, depending on your perspective) thing about Trin is that his good looks do not manifest in his personality as arrogance and entitlement and cruelty the way they can in certain people. Like Chris Traeger, his optimism and love of life are the two most prominent qualities to his personality. He’s just a really, really nice guy. A really nice guy, who played center for his high school football team, studied engineering at Georgia Tech and worked as a consultant for IBM. To be sure, all this could be totally obnoxious. Everyone knows a person who’s just too annoyingly kind and great and perfect to the point where you think it’s either bullshit and he’s a child molester or, even worse, not bullshit. Luckily (or unluckily), Trin has just enough of an edge to round him out. He’s funny but in that really weird way that makes a person refreshingly normal. For instance, his farts smell like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, and he giggles every time he births one.
In 2011, Trin decided he needed to try something new; he’d been at his job at IBM for five years, and he got to the point where, “I was either going to keep going along, heading down that path or I was going to try to do something I always wanted to do.” He went to his supervisors and told them he wanted to quit, and they gave him a seven-month leave of absence instead—as if that had nothing to do with dropping that resplendent smile, the stupid, beautiful fuck.
“We should have told them we’re not typical cruise-ship D-bags. We’re on-land D-bags.”
—Bojo, on how we better could have seduced two cruise ship dancers we met in a coffee shop, who, we figured, were probably only impressed by good-looking D-bags on their cruise ship.
I don’t think I exchanged more than five words with Bojo during the first six months I knew him. The guy is preternaturally quiet even when surrounded by his best friends. At parties, he can blend into the conversation and stand without saying a word for so long that you wonder if he’s had a stroke. For someone who enjoys talking out of his ass so much that it’s kind of a waste my mouth is located on my face, this is beyond my ken. Our mutual friends and I often wonder what he’s thinking about in these moments, if he’s actually deep in thought about the ether-bound mysteries of the universe or if he’s just humming in his head to the Rawhide theme, “Bojo-Bojo-Bojo! Bojo-Bojo-Bojo! Bojoooo!”
But then you get to know the kid and slowly discover that not only is he an incredibly intelligent guy, but he also has that weird sense of humor, with an innate ability to say something so perfectly goofy and irreverent at the exact right moment. I always tell him that he likes to save it up, to say nothing for two hours of a five-hour car ride and then hit you with the off-the-cuff remark at the precise moment you’re least able to resist it. Taking it back to NBC sitcoms, he’s Costanza making the one crack at the boardroom meeting, throwing up his hands, and leaving the room. He also recently grew a full, dark, jealousy-inducing beard, which one of my female friends in Chicago observed made him my second hottest friend (guess who took first?).
Bojo, also an engineer, worked in the suburbs of Chicago for a manufacturer, designing parts for big industrial firms like Caterpillar, which is about as outside of my understanding as IBM consulting or not speaking for an hour. His commute from the city took an hour there and an hour and a half back. This kind of daily slog meant he woke at 6 a.m. and rarely got home before 7 p.m. One can only keep up that kind of schedule for so long before either going crazy or marrying someone awful and moving to the suburb where he works. So Bojo applied to grad school and decided on the MBA program at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. This meant he too would be quitting his job, and it just seemed clever to quit before the summer began to join Trin for a few months on his trip. After an exhaustive search (you will quickly learn that these two are into researching things “exhaustively” before plunging in, which only begins to define the wonderful differences in our personalities), they found a cheap flight to Reykjavík on Icelandair.
Unlike Bojo and Trin, I wasn’t quitting a job or going back to school. I’d been underemployed for a year or more, was in the middle of working on my second and third books simultaneously and had just lucked into the fattest fiscal windfall of my life when I sold the movie rights to Publish This Book. Without going into the biography of this period too much, I’ll say that I basically used the cash to 1) stop scrapping for freelance gigs to focus on book writing for as long as I could and 2) take as many pretty girls out on dates as I could possibly fit into waking hours.
[This had its benefits and drawbacks. For instance, it got expensive to have four dates in a week, plus two weekend nights on the town that lasted till 4 a.m. in order to find fodder for more dates. It only dawned on me that I was going to blow through this relatively meager movie money way too fast when I bought an extremely pretty 41-year-old divorcée (who clearly was an adult person who made more money than me) $100 worth of casual drinks on a Tuesday night.]
I also wanted to use the money to take a trip somewhere I’d never been before, and when Bojo and Trin mentioned that they’d bought tickets to Iceland, I flashed back to that long-ago endorsement from the producer of Hostel. Within a few weeks I’d found a $600 ticket on Icelandair.
What This Book Is Not
Before we get to our story, we have to go over a few things this book is not so that no one is upset when they begin to understand that I have no recommendations for Reykjavík fine dining, nor do I understand how to say, “Which way is the potato farm?” or any other Icelandic phrase. I know nothing about Iceland other than what I’ve gleaned from my travels and read on the Internet or in this archeologically fascinating educatio-informatensil of our near past called a “bok.”
[My editor says the correct spelling is “book” but we will have to agree to disagree.]
This is not a guide. I know no other routes in Iceland other than the one I took, and I know no other destinations and sights other than the ones I saw.
If I had to classify this, I’d call it travel lit with a distinctly Markleyian flare—“Markleyian” being the definition of any weird little fucking thing that comes into my head stirred with narrative and sociopolitical whining.
There will be stories that have nothing to do with Iceland. There will be vastly inappropriate jokes about body functions and functions the body was never intended to undertake, and many of these will not be all that funny if you weren’t there.
This is also not a “backpacker’s guide” to shit. I did not live in Iceland for six months. I didn’t even have a backpacker’s backpack. I had a little rolly-type suitcase my mom gave me several years ago, which I wheeled around loudly over cobblestones looking very mom-like. My actual backpack I’d just gotten for free from a friend, and it drew me only because of its sheer number of pockets. For some reason I find multiple pockets a very attractive feature of a backpack, especially because my actual backpacker’s backpack, which I’ve lugged around on so many previous trips, is this Osprey with just one massive pocket for everything, so all your clothes, books, toiletries, and other possessions just end up in a savage muddle. Though they sell a lot of merchandise, I would gladly enter an Oxford-style debate to argue that Osprey doesn’t know dick about backpacks.
I took a 2-week trip and, let’s face it: if you’re a debt-loaded postgrad in this uncertain economy you probably have to parcel out your travels uneasily and even 2 weeks seems like a luxury of gargantuan proportions.
So if you’ve bought this book, just know that it will be a little foul. It will not teach you anything about Iceland that you can’t look up on Wikipedia. It may make you laugh, but people who claim in the first chapter that the reader will laugh are usually assholes. My hope is not only that somehow, someway this becomes the indispensable book that cool people read before or during a trip to Iceland, but that perhaps it inspires more people to travel to Iceland. All I can say with full credibility is that I went to Iceland and kind of fell in love with the place. This is how it happened.