From Iceland — MAN BITES SHARK


Published July 9, 2004


And then there are the huge green eggs spotted with black dots: seagull and blackbird eggs. I’ve seen them eaten raw before, right in front of the counter. Who buys these things? I felt compelled to ask. “Mostly old people,” says Hjalti Ásgeirsson, the young man behind the counter. “They’re used to it,” he says, “but I like them also.”

There are crowds around the stalls and transactions are surging faster than at a McDonald’s in Texas. This must be one of the busiest places in the city. Generally, each stall is run by one family who sells potatoes, breads or seafood that they produce or acquire themselves. Gunnar Eyjólfsson tells me that all the fish at his extensive counter comes from the work of just his family and their two boats. They have been selling fish in Kolaportið for ten years and most everyone in the family is a fisherman. “It’s always this busy,” he tells me.

I approach a gentleman standing behind a big plastic fish which hangs over his counter. His name is Hilmar Friðsteinsson. “The freshness here is unrivalled,” he tells me. “There’s not chance of getting something spoiled here. And you can’t get most of these things at the shops.” He’s been working at Kolaportið in one capacity or another for the entire fifteen years of its existence. Hilmar hands me a little beige blob on a toothpick and I can’t refuse. Initially it’s tolerable, almost tasteless, although I detain it in my cheek like a squirrel…I’m not sure why, I chalk it up to instinct. As I begin to chew, I am certain that this isn’t going to work out for me.
I decide to spit. This is obviously beyond rude, standing right in front of Hilmar, but there was no chance of coercing the blob down my throat. At this point Hilmar decides to tell me that what I am trying not to swallow is shark meat. I lean over the rubbish bin and attempt to let the shark go gracefully, to spit like a dancer would spit, if dancers were in the habit of spitting shark.

Unfortunately, there are strings hanging from my teeth, mostly in one hefty glob lodged between two molars. I try to pull it out with the toothpick, and when this fails, with my fingers.
And in this moment, with the monster hanging off my face, time starts to slow down. It’s like taking a great fall and knowing mid-air that you are going down, everything in slow motion. I realize all of my friends have walked away, except for one who is whispering “Okay, pull it together.”

And then Hilmar tries to pass me a dried fish chaser. But my gag reflex is kicking in.
Eventually I get most of the shark out of my teeth. It lands limply on the back of my hand, and then, with a can of Coke as my shepherd, I swallow the rest. A few people laugh and point at the girl grimacing and gulping a Coke, and meanwhile the shark burns my stomach, a good, honest burn like I have swallowed something really inappropriate, and the burn continues all the way home.

It’s an experience I needed to have, if only to prove how hearty and durable Icelanders are, and how cowardly my digestive system is. While I was cringing in discomfort there were lines of elderly women handing over cash for this stuff. As Hilmar told me, “Foreigners usually just buy salmon.”

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