From Iceland — “Beware the Óvissuferð”

“Beware the Óvissuferð”

Published September 8, 2006

“Beware the Óvissuferð”

For the past few months I have been chronicling my immigration to Iceland, and the cluster-fuck that it has been, right here in the Grapevine. Lately, though, things have started to settle down. My family is preparing to move into our new flat downtown. We bought a tiny, old Toyota station wagon to cruise the countryside and avoid the butt-puckering gas prices. Our daughter started school, and she is making friends and quickly becoming fluent in Icelandic. I even got a “real” job. An internationally respected Icelandic company decided to take a chance on this gringo and offered me a spot on the production line. So, I was beginning to settle into a comfortable rut: then came the “Secret Trip.”
I had started my job a mere two weeks before the aforementioned trip was to take place. At first, the óvissuferð, or secret trip, seemed like a pretty nice idea; in return for the diligent work of their employees or to build morale, an employer rewards them with a mystery trip by bus to curious locations around the country. There are usually games and fun activities, and the evening is capped with a good meal. Because it was supposed to be secret, all I was able to discern was that the company would provide us each with three drinks at dinner and that we would need a swimsuit. So, basically, I knew that there would be a little drinking and that at some point I would be naked. What could go wrong?
Now, I have been on a few company trips in the States. They usually involved my co-workers and me walking to a nearby pizza place for a free lunch. Once, at a job I held in your standard office building, we ended the day early and all went bowling together. The company paid for the first game, the shoe rental, and they even bought everyone a Coke – and this was on a Tuesday! It felt like heaven. Man, I was so not prepared for the “Secret Trip”
There wasn’t much buzz around work in the days leading up to the trip, so it almost slipped my mind. At 1:00 p.m., about an hour before the bus pulled into the parking lot, everything changed. Suddenly, my workplace was in a frenzy. The women were changing into nice clothes and putting on make-up, people were pulling previously hidden beer cans out of their bags. They dragged two guys out into the parking lot and sprayed them down with a hose. About 50 of us gathered around the bus as they opened the luggage compartment with a flourish, revealing at least 200 cans of Thule beer and almost as many bottles of neon orange and green Bacardi Breezers. I stood there with my mouth open and no idea how to react.
“Are these the drinks for dinner?” I asked.
“If they last that long,” our manager responded.
The next thing I knew, people were crawling into the belly of the bus to get at the alcohol and somebody put a six-pack in my hands. I looked around for someone to share my treasure with, but everyone else already had their hands full. We piled onto the bus and headed out on our adventure, everyone singing between gulps. I realised that this was not going to be a quick trip to the local bowling alley.
Our first stop was just outside the city for some disk golf. This game is basically like regular golf, but involving a Frisbee-type disc being thrown at a chain-link basket. It is as boring as it sounds, unless you are with a large group of people that has been cut loose from work early and given enough beer to drown a whale (which, incidentally, I was). By the close of six holes I had downed two litres of beer, and discs were flying everywhere.
We then all filed back onto the bus and started heading out of town. Way out of town. I recognised the route as the way to the tunnel to Borgarnes. Sure enough, two pee breaks at the side of the road later, we were engulfed by the darkness of the mine. I have to admit that I have a slight fear of underground tunnels, and the thought of the roof caving in and me drowning on this bus with a bunch of relative strangers snapped me out of my beer-induced stupor. By the time we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were, I was feeling pretty sober. But this was a party, and if I was going to fit-in I would have to play catch-up, quick. Luckily, somebody brought a bottle of schnapps along for the ride, and they insisted that I take three hearty draws. I obliged, and before long I had forgotten all about the tunnel and had the sensation of only blue skies ahead. But first, I had another fear to deal with.
Being an American, I have developed a healthy feeling of shame about the naked human form. I was on the high school swim team, and I distinctly remember never seeing anyone’s penis… ever. We all showered together but we never took our suits off, and at no time did our eyes drop below nose-level. Since then, I have come to Iceland over a dozen times, becoming increasingly comfortable with the swimming pool culture on each trip. I even shaved my face once at our neighbourhood pool, naked as a jaybird. But this was different. These were people I knew just well enough to conjure feelings of embarrassment. I needed more drink.
It all happened so fast that my anxiety proved unnecessary. Before I knew it, I had run the gauntlet from the shower and was submerged in the greenish water of one of the hundreds of country swimming pools found around Iceland. We were throwing people in the water and jumping off the starting blocks, which seemed a completely absurd addition to this pool as it was only five feet deep at its lowest point. At roughly ten metres long, any race held in this thing would take about 12 seconds. By the time we crawled out I had lost two open beers in the water, but had managed to get enough down my throat that I wouldn’t have cared if the Pope saw me naked.
Back on the bus again and it was off to the tractor museum and cow house. While I couldn’t understand him, it was easy enough to tell by the rest of the group’s reaction that our local guide was both informative and entertaining. I have never driven a tractor and I don’t like cows, but it’s amazing how much fun all of that can be when you’re drunk. And everyone else was getting completely smashed right along with me! We were sharing embarrassing stories from our pasts. We were jumping over parked cars and stopping to piss in every corner available. People who worked next to each other were making out! We were taking over the countryside. We were not thinking about Monday.
The rest of the night becomes a cloudy blur of lapsed-cognition. I remember getting off the bus to go to dinner, but that’s about it. I have heard that the lamb was fantastic. Someone said that I got involved in a pushing match with some of my new colleagues and a group of locals. I am told that I sang Icelandic songs the whole way back to town. But all I know for certain is that when I woke up on the couch in my living room at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning I was lying on the plastic base of my son’s car seat and my head felt like it was under a truck tire.
Monday morning came. I, naturally in my mind, expected everyone to show up to work with sheepish grins on their faces for acting like complete asses in front of each other. How could our work life go on as it had before when we had said and done all of those ridiculous and awkward things?
Nobody said a word!
Two nights before, with the person standing next to me as I write, I had become completely drunk, shared stories that my wife hasn’t heard, been naked and defended my new peers in a street brawl. In some cultures that constitutes a common-law marriage. Here it was business as usual. It would appear that the óvissuferð served only to teach me (the secrets of my co-workers aside) how much I still have to learn about my new home.

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