Published July 1, 2014
If you’re a carbon-based life form, you probably need water. If you’re a perpetually dehydrated carbon-based life form, like me, then you probably need a lot of water. And if you’re a perpetually dehydrated carbon-based life form who recently moved to Reykjavík, also like me, then one of the first things you probably noticed when you got here was the unmistakable whiff of sulphur almost every time you turned on a faucet.
Maybe your first glass of tap water in Reykjavík had the fine bouquet of a batch of rotten eggs, or the masking scent of a match struck in closed quarters. Maybe it was the stench of the Yellowstone caldera on an afternoon picnic at Old Faithful. I still recall the smell coming off of my first glass: a trace of frigid iron mixed with the acidity of decaying organic matter. It wasn’t overly strong, but it wasn’t too appetizing either.
If any Icelanders are reading this, they’re probably gnashing their teeth by now, so let me get my caveats out of the way. Yes, I know it’s supposedly only the hot water that smells like sulphur, and that you’re all very sure that the cold water smells like cold water. And yes, I know that the smell isn’t indicative of anything unsafe, and that the water is perfectly potable. And yes, I know that according to the scientific literature on the subject, Icelandic tap water is about as clean as water can be, and that it presumably originates from melting glaciers that formed centuries before the Industrial Revolution introduced all those invisible poisons into our hydraulic cycle, wrecking our taste buds along the way.
Icelanders are incredibly proud of their water. According to a recent OECD study, a full 97% of the country’s population is satisfied with the water quality. I’ve been encouraged multiple times by locals to go drink water straight from streams in the countryside, because “you can do that here.” (Where ‘there’ is, and what you can or can’t do there, is always politely left unsaid.) Based on the way Icelanders talk about their water, you might think it best suited for washing stains of ambrosia and nectar off of cherubs’ bums. And in all fairness, the pride is well placed. I have yet to encounter Icelandic water that tastes anything other than watery. So far, so good.
There’s more to a drink than just taste, however. For starters, there’s also what it does to the inanimate objects it comes in contact with. Wine stains your carpet purple. Spilled beer makes your floor sticky. And the hard water that comes out of faucets in Reykjavík, if left unchecked, cakes tiles and shower doors with a thin, hard crust of cloudy minerals. This is ultimately harmless, almost quaint. But the pleasures of drinking, like eating, are also largely about smell too, and there’s nothing at all quaint about being greeted by sulphur every other time you draw a glass from the tap. If you turn on a faucet at just the right (or wrong) moment, what you get is essentially a miniature upside-down geyser, including all the damp, acrid odours but minus the steam, gawking tourists and awkward cheering after a big eruption.
Speaking of eruptions, there’s another noxious aspect of Reykjavík tap water that needs to be mentioned: what it can do to your internal plumbing. I recently tagged along with a group of four other American tourists for a Sunday-afternoon drive around the Golden Circle, and on the stretch between Þingvellir and Geysir one of our fellow travellers excused himself sheepishly for something that hadn’t even happened yet. “Um, guys… I uh… drank a lot of water during breakfast this morning, and it uh… smelled a lot like sulphur, so I’m sorry if I uh… get a little gassy.”
The poor man had good reason to be worried. Sulphur is a well-known cause of flatus, and while I haven’t conducted a comprehensive survey on this topic (and highly doubt I would get many people to answer my survey questions if I tried), I suspect many visitors to Iceland experience an uptick in flatulence shortly after putting back their first glass of water. For anyone spending the entire day driving around the frozen countryside, this is particularly unfortunate. It’s bad enough when someone farts in a car under normal circumstances, but Icelandic water can give this scenario a truly hellacious twist—enough fire and brimstone to knock down the roofs onto the heads of all the sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah. Or, as Sartre was once badly paraphrased: Hell is other people’s indigestion.
Then again, this isn’t Hell we’re talking about—it’s Iceland. Homes here are powered by geothermal energy, not gastrointestinal energy. Mountain streams run clear, not yellow. And the tap water has a refreshing good taste. Seriously, it really does, even if it smells funky sometimes and has you playing the gut flute more than usual. So drink it. Drink a lot of it. Slap some natives on the back and yuk it up with them about how fortunate they are to enjoy such a great water supply. Just whatever you do, before drinking from the tap, let the water run cold for 10 seconds or 10 minutes or however long it takes to get rid of the smell. And if you’re planning to spend a day in the car with friends, please, please, please, drink responsibly.