Iceland- A recipe for disaster?
Ingredients for my one-week experience staying in an Icelandic restaurant: One excitable, sleep deprived and slightly hysteric sixteen-year-old girl. (Me!) One hurriedly packed suitcase - stuff with warm clothes, hats and scarves. A pinch of apprehension, a generous glob of condensed anticipation, a sprig of excitement (wild, if possible). Two heaped spoonfuls of nervousness, and a last minute packet of dried panic. Directions: 1.leave the girl to stew. 2. Add the panic, nerves, anticipation, excitement and apprehension. 3. Mix thoroughly. Serve on a plane three miles over Scotland.
As you have probably figured out by now, last Easter I had the opportunity to visit the country of Iceland. I had no idea what to expect – being an aspiring chef I obviously wanted to sample the cuisine but other than that I hadn’t the foggiest!
Having arrived, the first hurdle was the baggage reclaim carousel. I always find it such an ordeal- its worse on your own in a foreign country though, trust me. You know what I mean surely? You get off the plane happy, carefree and naïve (bless my innocence), smile at the airhostesses plastic smiles and sticky make-up. But the anxiety starts the minute I get into the room; I become convinced the tired, mild-mannered people I shared the flight with are actually scheming luggage thieves. That every single one of them is eying that carousel hungrily with the sole purpose of stealing my suitcase. So I stood there with a sharp, suspicious face, one eye watching the conveyor belt the other subtly scrutinising the people around me, trying to convey to them I am informed of their devious trickery. That they have picked the wrong person to mess with. I may appear to be a tired teenager eleven hundred miles from home, but in actual fact I am a trained ninja. Or something along those lines, at least. I made eye-contact with as many people possible, hoping to appeal to their humanity, like you’re meant to do with kidnappers and the like. Persuade them you are a person too. I’m just a teenager, you don’t want my bag! I suppose it would help if I were one of those organised people that manage to stand at the front, near where the bags come out. But no, by the time I had figured out where my carousel was (no easy task when they don’t even use a Latin alphabet, let alone English), I was stood squinting at the back of the queue, standing on tiptoe trying to spot my bag. But I was so convinced someone would take a fancy to my purple case filled with cookbooks and hats that I couldn’t bear to wait patiently for it to reach me- I ran to the front as soon as I saw it, panicking. Unable to breach the knitted throng of people crowding the carousel, I was left to watch the poor thing left to circumnavigate the whole hall a few times before I could rescue it. The last bag left- with the exception of a bag of greying golf clubs that frankly looked as though they had been abandoned there since the nineteen eighties- not a great start. But hey, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs! (Yes, I’m sorry.. I just can’t help the food related puns. It’s a weakness of my cheffy nature. I will try to stop).
Life followed pretty uneventfully for the next day or two. Well, not uneventful, being in a foreign country knowing no one was bound to be eventful – but smoothly, yes. I went to see the sights of the capital Reykjavik; the highlight was the cathedral. Huge, gleaming white stone, a jarring, pointed shape - strange for a cathedral but entirely fitting for the tiny, crazy country I was in. You went inside and it was silent. Not even the echoes of your own footsteps. It was completely white stone, the only sound were echoed whispers when people started talking. People didn’t talk much. They were awed into silence.
And then it was Tuesday! I had managed to secure a few days work experience in a seafood restaurant in the capital from back in England starting today. The first problem was getting there. I had been abandoned by Piotr; the person taking care of my stay, as he knew had plans for today. So.. How hard can it be.. Tentatively I stepped out onto the cold stone floor of the reception. The rain thundered down onto the pavement outside (more of that unsubtle symbolism, yes I know, but it really was raining. I honestly can’t help it if the weather empathises with me). Politely enquiring as to the whereabouts of the restaurant was my first plan. All well and good, until you remember the receptionist doesn’t speak English…Ah. Problem. Have you ever tried to mime asking directions to a seafood restaurant? I’m sure it should be on a charades card, because my artistic attempts at telling the story of a fish being caught and cooked and served to a customer, and then asking the directions around Reykjavik to get to the renowned ‘sjavagrillid’ (seafood grill) – yes I know its not exactly finding nemo but I had to be blunt- were appreciated by most of the lobby. Yet not one of my enraptured audiences knew what I was asking. Until the manager was summoned to watch my performance in reception (and probably transport me swiftly to a mental institution from the look on her face) where she asked me in English – in English yes you read it right, my shame and humiliation was unrivalled – what my purpose was. And proceeded to give me instructions to the restaurant, at last! (Word of advice; take time to sort out the currency of the country you are in. Krona is the Icelandic currency,.. so when my embarrassment peaked as I glimpsed a lady assuming I was a street performer and giving me money, then going over and finding it was 2000k, for a few short minutes I assumed she was a generous millionaire and I was very good at this and should go into business. No such luck. 2000 k is about 50p. ) Except… well, this might just be me, but when anyone starts to give me directions, my brain switches off. Forget being in a different country, forget its four degrees on a warm day, forget I really really reeally need to get there. I switched off. All the attention in my head went to nodding and smiling and saying ‘yes, oh I see’ at the appropriate time. It’s the same with when the waiter tells you the menu specials at a café, or when a clever person is explaining physics, or the working of your phone… Smile, nod and look attentive. Needless to say, I arrived at the sjavagrillid several hours late, having taken a rather large unintentional detour to get there.
But it was, well, amazing. I even cooked whale once... Not the highlight of the stay, but a talking point when I got home let me tell you. I wont bore you with the details of my time in the kitchen, except to say I met some fantastic people and witnessed some fantastic cooking and some truly inspirational chefs, even if the delicacies were like something you see in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’. Note to self, do not try he rotten fish again. Forcing ‘its lovely’ to a proud Icelandic chef through my glued together teeth whilst the kitchen staff snigger behind him at my attempts to be polite was one experience I won’t forget.
But at risk of going cliché, it wasn’t just the foreign kitchen experience that made the stay so incredible. It was everything – being away from home on my own for the first time, the scenery, the people, the geography. It’s the most incredible place I have ever been. My favourite trip was to a tiny remote beach on the east coast - huge rolling waves, the rock cut from the wave erosion into intricate hexagonal plinths ascending the rock face. There was filming going on when I went – not sure what for, but there were half naked models posing for fashion shoots in the surf. Needless to say, we photobombed. I wish I knew what they were filming so I could see if I was on it in the background!
But Iceland is an incredible place I would recommend anyone go to. I had an .. Eventful… experience, most of that due to going away from home for the first time on my own. I know whoever is reading this; you will have been told this by many other people many other times about many other places. ‘Its incredible’ ‘awe-inspiring’ ‘you have to go’ they’re all the clichés. And I’m not a travel agents, I can be honest. It’s not for the faint hearted. But what it is, is rewarding. Get the clothes, the kit; prepare what you’ll do and whom you will do it with. Its not perfect – its freezing, rains a lot (I mean it, a lot), the wind literally penetrates your skin and the language is these weird symbols that look like someone’s just thought, ‘I know, I’ll put an odd English letter into a load of spiky squiggles and challenge people to speak it’. But it’s worth it. There is so much I haven’t mentioned – I saw the northern lights there. Incredible. Literally, takes your breath away.. And not just because of the cold! See glaciers, geysers (huge spouts of water that erupt randomly from the ground every few minutes. YouTube it if you’ve not seen them before!), volcanoes, and more. So, it might have felt like a recipe for disaster before I left, but going on my own to a different country, and doing something I will probably never have the opportunity to do again... it was one of the best things I think I will ever do.