The University of Iowa

Kate Struckman-Johnson, Place of Study: Reykjavik, Iceland

December 4th, 2019
 

Kate Struckman-Johnson is a third-year anthropology and creative writing major from Vermillion, South Dakota. Kate is studying this semester in Reykjavik, Iceland, on the University of Iceland Exchange program. 

 

 

Seasonal Affective Disorder: SAD and Abroad

I was not expecting Iceland’s (in)famous seasonal depression to hit me as hard as it has, even though I had been warned by everyone and my university about the effects that limited sun exposure would have upon my mental health. At the time I am writing this blog post, the sun rises after 10:00 a.m. and sets before 5:00 p.m. Several times a week I go to school and return home in near or complete darkness, and on cloudy days the sky only lightens to a dismal gray. After listening to the suggestions of those around me, I have been taking Vitamin D supplements since October and trying to keep my mind occupied with various activities, yet I remain affected.

And it is not just the lack of sunlight that is causing my mood to fall. I have only weeks left in Iceland, and the inevitable end of my time in this country has become borderline distressing for me to think about. The country of Iceland may seem barren, muted, and isolated to some, but I have had the privilege of living here for over three months now, and the vibrancy of both the environment and the people within it is much easier for me to see.

There are also unexpected challenges that come with study abroad outside of North America that I did not expect. Any troubles associated with foreign languages and new cultures have faded in comparison to the knowledge that, in two weeks, I am going to be an ocean away from all of the European, Middle-Eastern, and Icelandic friends I have made this past semester, and I honestly don’t know how I’m going to deal with that when I get home. It was easier when I left home because I knew I would be seeing all my friends and family four months later, but, with this group, I have no idea how long it will take before we get to hug each other hello again. I think my heart may be breaking a little bit. This was an inevitability. Unless I made a strong effort not to, I was going to form bonds with the people I have spent the last three months with, and those bonds would tug when I left.

Something that has helped me was looking through photos for this blog post. There are photos upon photos stored in my phone and laptop reminding me of all the fun I’ve had this fall going on adventures, studying, and just having quiet moments with all of my friends. I think I’ll make a photo album when I go home.

Things and Places in Reykjavik That I Accidentally Got/Went to for Free

Fermented shark.  

There are varying opinions about eating fermented shark; some think of it as a way to trick tourists, and others think that learning about the fermenting process that poisonous Greenland sharks must go through to become edible will give tourists an appreciation for the lives of Iceland’s settlers. I went to Reykjavik’s only flea market, Kolaportið (only open on weekends), and I saw the tray in the picture to the left and had to take my chances. Obviously, everyone has their own opinions, but the only good thing I can say about fermented shark is that I’m glad I got a free sample instead of having to pay for the temporary death of my taste buds. 

Reykjavik Art Museum 

Though visitors normally need to pay for tickets at the front desk of Reykjavik Art Museum, I got lucky on two different occasions, to my utter confusion. The first time was on Culture Night, so the art museum had decided to make entry free for the day as part of the festivities that were taking place in one or two of the rooms. The second time, I visited with my dad and had money ready to pay for a ticket, but they only had one exhibition open at the time, so they told us to just go up the stairs for free.   

(Some) Music Performances 

The weekend after orientation at my university, the city of Reykjavik celebrated Menningarnótt, or Culture Night. For one Saturday in August, the whole day and night are dedicated to celebrating Icelandic culture, and they go all out. That day, I ventured out of the nest I had made of my bed to enjoy some of the public music performances I learned were happening all over the city. At 11 that evening, I listened to the final notes of a band play as a fireworks show exploded into existence over a nearby building. 

Free Samples of Smörgåstårta at an Icelandic Sandwich Cake Competition 

This one is partially related to the last point. One of the activities taking place in the art museum on Culture Night was a Smörgåstårta Competition, which explained the large crowd of people in one of the performance halls. I got to eat free sandwich cakes and take a selfie with a man wearing a bread beard. 

The First Floor of Hallgrímskirkja 

Hallgrímskirkja is one of the largest structures in Reykjavik, and, because of its placement on the largest hill in the city, the church towers over every other structure in the vicinity. When I first arrived, I often used it as a marker to figure out where I was in the city. Tourists can pay to climb the stairs or take an elevator to the top of the church’s tower and enjoy a spectacular view, but I opted in favor of absorbing the intimidating presence of the giant organ on the first floor.  

Einar Jonsson’s Sculpture Garden 

Going into his house costs money, but if tourists really want to see Jonsson’s work, all they need to do is walk around the corner and through the gate into his free sculpture garden. His sculptures provide a unique view of mythology and the human condition, and I enjoyed all of them. 

Art in General 

Please enjoy a photo collection of the fabulous murals, sculptures, and street art of Reykjavik. 


 

Bring Your Bathing Suit: On Icelandic Swimming Culture

At five o’clock in the evening on a cloudless day in mid-November, the temperature lingered around 2o C (35.6o F) according to Google. The night before, my Swedish friend had contacted our group chat on WhatsApp. Everyone had been a bit stressed out with assignments and papers, and he proposed taking a few hours to relax in the swimming pool closest to our university; Vesturbaejarlaug (“west-town-swimming pool,” if my attempt at breaking down the name is correct). The open-air thermal pool was popular among locals, professors, and foreign students alike, and it was open until ten in the evening.

This sounded perfect to me.

I learned quickly after my arrival that swimming culture in Iceland differs wildly from America. One of the first things my new roommate (a summer resident from Lithuania) did was bring me to Nautholsvik geothermal beach. There was a warm pool and a steam sauna, but the real attraction was the artificial pool of seawater that was slightly warmer than the ocean just beyond the beach’s sea wall.

On this occasion in mid-November, my friends and I met up outside the university bundled up in our hats, coats, and scarves before setting off. I did not go to the swimming pool as often as my friends did, so while they swiped their season cards I paid for a day pass, and we separated to go to the changing rooms.

As an American, I was surprised to see other women completely at ease walking around in the nude on the way to, from, and within the shower area. Nudity is completely normal within the walls of the gendered changing rooms. I would not have been shamed if I wished to wear a towel and closed the curtains for one of the two cubicles in the open shower area, but I figured that I would do as the locals did in an effort to fit in (and the freedom I felt was invigorating; seriously, I have never felt uncomfortable in a changing room). Showers, with their soap or yours, are mandatory before entering the pool. Obviously, I was not forced to take a shower, but it’s basic decency here to have a clean body when entering the pool.

I had no desire to wait for my friends to leave the men’s changing room; the temperature saw to that the moment I stepped outside. It’s usually a mad dash for the water anyway, and we had agreed to meet at one of the hot pots—these can range from 36-44o C (96.8-111.2o F). What followed was two hours of relaxation, with a few attempts at pretending to be a local. Not by trying to speak Icelandic, but by trying to endure the hottest and coldest pools for more than a minute. Every single time I tried, I failed completely, which singles me out immediately as a foreigner. It is common knowledge that old Icelandic men have a supernatural ability to plop themselves right into both of these pools—they usually go back and forth from the hot pots to the cold pool all evening—without so much as a wince, and my friends and I want to be on their level before we leave at the end of the semester.

I’m going to call it right now; there is no way I’m going to make it.