Iceland Hot and Cold: Travelling in a tourist-friendly country shaped by fire and ice
Reykjavik skyline: Iceland's capital city, Reykjavik, is shown in this photo taken near the city's docks on Sept. 15, 2014. (Josh Elliott / CTV News)
Published Wednesday, April 1, 2015 5:53AM EDT
I caught the best cold I ever had while visiting Iceland last September.
OK, so maybe I didn't catch it in Iceland. But my five-hour flight seemed to supercharge a cold I thought I'd recovered from. That cold turned into a nagging, strangling cough that plagued me through what was otherwise a thrilling trip north.
It also drove me to the most "authentic" moment of my week-long visit: a quest to buy cough syrup in Reykjavik.
First, a little context. Reykjavik is an extraordinarily tourist-friendly city. The streets are lined with welcoming souvenir shops, clothing stores, craft boutiques and fascinating restaurants. The food takes some getting used to and would be a nightmare for vegetarians, with lots of fish, reindeer, rabbit and beef on the menu, and very little vegetables to go with them. But Icelanders are very friendly and educated from a young age to speak English, so it's easy to parachute in without knowing any of the local language.
Nevertheless, there are ways to get off the beaten path in Reykjavik, and getting a cold is one of them.
I spent two days hoping the cold would go away before I determined it was time to find a pharmacy. Google directed me to one just around the corner from my hotel, a little store called Lyfja.
The Lyfja felt like a cross between a convenience store and a pharmacy, with a pair of young Icelandic women in white lab coats walking around to offer assistance to the patrons.
One of these women asked me something. I couldn’t tell you what she asked, but I can guess it was the Icelandic equivalent of "Can I help you with anything today, lost stranger?"
She asked me this after I'd already combed through two aisles of cosmetics, with nary a cough drop in sight.
I knew I was in over my head, so I confessed.
"I don't speak Icelandic, but I'm looking for some cough syrup."
She cocked her head in that I-don't-know-what-you're-saying kind of way, so I launched into a half-English, half-mime description of my problem. She responded by telling me in broken English that all cough syrup is kept behind the pharmacist's counter.
The pharmacist proved to be as poor at English as the other woman.
"Cough? You have cough?" The pharmacist was young, blonde, friendly and wearing a white lab coat. I prayed the lab coat meant she knew a thing or two about the common cold.
"Yes," I said.
She hesitated and turned to the wall of bottles and glass jars behind her.
"What about that?" I said, pointing to a jar that looked kind of like cough syrup. There were no familiar labels like Dimetapp or Benylin, but the glass jar I spotted looked pretty close in design.
She nodded, grabbed the jar and put it on the counter for me. The Icelandic medicine I chose based on its bottle shape was, apparently, the cough medicine I was looking for.
I took the bottle back to my apartment and tried a tablespoon of the stuff. It tasted faintly like an off-brand cough syrup, and it may or may not have done the trick. I honestly don't know whether it helped, or whether it was simply the placebo I needed at the time to ease my symptoms.
Either way, it calmed my cough and allowed me to enjoy my week in a country that feels like Europe lite – halfway between North America and Scandinavia, both in terms of culture and location.
I tried reindeer. I tasted rabbit. I loved the taste of Iceland's delicious goat's milk yogurt, skyr, and there was so much seafood on the menu that I found myself saying "lobster bisque, again?" by the end of the week.
And if alcohol is part of your definition of a good time, Iceland leaves something to be desired. Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1985, and the country is still learning to brew it well. Most of Iceland's alcohol is imported, and there's a hefty markup on beer and wine from outside the country.
But if Iceland lags behind on alcohol, it's far ahead in other ways.
Reykjavik's streets feature some incredible architecture, from the striking all-concrete Hallgrimskirkja church, to the dazzling modern glass structure called the Harpa on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
The sights are amazing, but so are the innovations that lie just under the surface.
Icelanders heat their homes, power their lights and drive their industry thanks to the lava that flows beneath the surface of their island, and the glacier ice that partially covers the top of it.
The country is shaped by fire and ice, driven by water and supported by some of the most innovative and eco-friendly technology in the world.
For more on what lies just below the country's surface, read my feature on the marvels of geothermal Iceland.
Josh Elliott is a CTVNews.ca writer who travelled to Iceland on a student grant from the Society of American Travel Writers.