Iceland & Greenland 3/7/2020 - 3/21/2020
Thursday 3/19/2020 - Meeting Roger and Hak-Ye for Coffee in an Empty ReykjavikWe woke up at 8:45 a.m. and went downstairs to breakfast. We made ourselves coffee and had toast, ham, cheese, and yogurt. There were only a handful of guests in the dining area, all socially distanced. Only 10 guest rooms are occupied at the hotel. Post-Brexit UK does not yet have travel restrictions, and UK tourists continue to arrive in Iceland even as all other international tourists are leaving. A British couple said good morning to us, and said that they arrived several days ago. They were excited to visit the Blue Lagoon, taking advantage of the lack of crowds.
It seemed strange to us that we were so desperate to get home safely, and others were just heading out on holiday, trying to take advantage of low fares and decreased tourist presence. It just seemed like a bad idea, karma-wise. Not to mention that the thought of sitting in a communal hot spring during a pandemic, no matter how beautiful the surroundings, made us shudder. It sounded like a vector for contagion.
After breakfast, we went back upstairs to the room. I was eager to see people's reactions to the massive Facebook update we had posted last night. Line and the guides had friended us, and we had tagged them in the post. They had liked the post and photos. This then caused Flavia in Tinit to friend us! We were so happy to be connected with her, since I had not had any of our "business cards" with me when we had visited her house. Social media can be so great at bringing (and keeping) people together.
But of course social media has the power to divide as well. Reactions to my post weren't all rosy. I found a very negative comment from a Danish person who lives/works in East Greenland. She called us "very inconsiderate" and "extremely thoughtless" for having visited in the first place, because it put the vulnerable, isolated population of East Greenland at risk for COVID-19 exposure. This criticism cut to the quick, as it was something that we had been concerned about ourselves.
When we had left home (and even when we had left Reykjavik for East Greenland a week ago), there had been no warnings, governmental or otherwise, advising against travel to anywhere other than China. The WHO guidance for travelers at that time was to practice hand washing / hand sanitation, and to isolate yourself if you become symptomatic. There had been no available evidence indicating asymptomatic transmission. We were not sick, and we had not knowingly encountered anyone who was. Our trip was still scheduled, and the U.S. was allowing travel to everywhere except China. So we had decided to continue as scheduled. It was the decision we made based on the information that was available to us at the time.
By the time the global situation had developed to a point where it was becoming obvious that more stringent measures were necessary to contain spread of the pandemic, we were already in Greenland. Flights only run once a week to Reykjavik in this season, so we couldn't have left if we wanted to. When social distancing rules were enacted in Greenland, we abided by them.
Greenland had reported its first case of COVID-19 in Nuuk, the capital, on March 16 (three days ago). They believe that it was imported by a resident who returned home to Nuuk after vacationing in Italy. Nuuk is not accessible from East Greenland by road; an ice sheet separates the two coasts. We felt extremely guilty for having potentially inadvertently exposed our wonderful guides and hosts to infection. [Luckily, this was all hypothetical, and neither we nor anyone we were in contact with became ill.]
I wrote a very polite response to the commenter, explaining the time line of our travels and expressing regret if we put anyone at risk. I explained that, hindsight being 20/20, if we knew then what we knew now, we may have made a different choice. But we only have the information available at the time. I explained that the situation escalated after we had already entered Greenland. Without a crystal ball then, or a time machine now, all we can do is apologize and sincerely hope that all we left behind in Greenland were footprints.
This experience shook me a bit. I was hurt because they were framed as personal attacks, and anyone who knows us knows that we are very thoughtful and mindful of the impact of our travel. We would never knowingly put anyone else in danger just to give ourselves a holiday. We abide by the rules...but in this case the rules hadn't yet caught up to the situation at the time. This is a new virus and the world is figuring out how to respond. We were heartened by public and private messages of support from East Greenlanders that we had met (and some that we hadn't).
We had originally bought tickets to the symphony at Harpa tonight to see the Iceland Symphony Orchestra perform Igor Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Kurt Weill Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, and Mozart Serenade no. 10, "Gran partita". As expected, all public performances have been canceled due to the social distancing measures in place. Craig and I found this kind of funny. We had also had tickets to the symphony when we visited Reykjavik last year. We ended up unable to use them because we returned from our Snaefellsnes excursion too late in the evening. We had planned to make up for it by attending a concert on this trip. Best laid plans...
The symphony's web site said that tickets could be applied to future performances, or refunds could be obtained at the box office. We didn't really want to go to the box office and require human interaction when we were trying to self-isolate as much as possible. We had bought the tickets online, and Craig suggested that I contact the box office by e-mail to request a refund. Within 5 minutes I received a friendly response from Harpa's box office management, including a full refund. This was a nice respite from the online trolling.
As much as we just felt like sequestering ourselves in the room for the rest of the day, we started to get hungry at around 2:30 p.m. Armed with hand sanitizer and wipes, we decided to go on a mission for hot dogs. We had not visited our favorite hot dog stand yet this year, and what better way to social distance than to eat standing around outdoors rather than in a restaurant.
Today was a sobering day in Reykjavik. Laugavegur Street, which is normally crowded with tourists, was virtually empty. The few people who were out (walking their dogs, etc.) kept distance from others on the sidewalks. Most people were wearing earbuds, and did not make eye contact. Things had really changed within the course of a week!
We wanted to visit a bookstore or two to see if they had any maps or books about Greenland, and also to see if Ragnar Jonasson's latest Icelandic noir books are available here in English translation (they are still awaiting publication at home). As we entered one bookstore that we had visited last year, we found a small table with a bottle of hand sanitizer and a box of disposable gloves, with a wastebasket nearby. We sanitized our hands and I put on a glove to browse safely and single-handedly. There were a few other customers, but everyone kept a distance from one another. We didn't find anything we wanted, so I disposed of the glove, washed hands again, and we continued our walk toward the hot dog stand.
There were available parking spots everywhere in the city center. Cars on the road were few and far between. The normally bustling area near Bus Stop #3 was deserted. It looked post-apocalyptic. As we approached a crosswalk, we heard voices. We turned to see Hak-Ye and Roger from our Greenland trip frantically waving to us. They also had been wandering aimlessly today, overwhelmed by the surrealness of the situation, and also having a couple days to kill before their flight home.
They invited us to join them for coffee. This sounded great to us, but we were starving and still wanted to grab some hot dogs first. So they accompanied us to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. At first we questioned whether it was even open. We passed the place every day last year, since it was right next door to the hotel where we had stayed. We had never seen the place without a massive line outside, even in foul weather. But today there wasn't a soul around.
We approached the cart and found that it was indeed open, but business was slow. They had enacted rules whereby you place your order several meters from the employees, and you only approach the credit card machine when they are safely out of the way. We each got their special...2 hot dogs with everything, a Fanta, and a Prince Polo candy bar for 1000 ISK (roughly $7). This is one of the best deals in town, and it was delicious as usual!
As we were eating, Hak-Ye photographed the birds who regularly benefit from hot dog crumbs which fall to the ground. With so few people out and about, they were not able to scavenge much. So the employees tossed some bread out for them. A man pulled up in his pickup truck and was shocked to be able to park right next to the hot dog stand. He was very surprised to find that we were the only other customers, as he also has never seen the place without a long queue out front.
When we were done with our lunch, the four of us walked the short distance to Te & Kaffi. We found a place to sit where we were not too close to other diners and then went up to the counter to order. Like all restaurants, they had a bottle of hand sanitizer on the counter. I ordered a Swiss mocha for Craig and myself, along with a big chocolate chip cookie to share. Our coffee was delivered in to-go cups, and they were using disposable plates and utensils to try to avoid spreading the virus via dishes and flatware.
We really enjoyed chatting with Roger and Hak-Ye. They are seasoned travelers and talented photographers, and we have visited many of the same places. They showed us some amazing photos of beautiful Swiss mountain landscapes which are basically right in their back yard. We spent about two hours in the cafe together before we went our separate ways, with a promise to meet again tomorrow at 3 o'clock at the same place.
Craig and I then went to another book store to browse around. I was teased by seeing the newest book by Ragnar Jonasson, my favorite nordic noir author. However, it was in Icelandic. Guess I'll have to wait for the U.S. release after all. So close and yet so far!
This bookstore was huge, with four floors. In the basement was a children's section. The floor was painted as a chutes and ladders board. I was delighted to see some Barbapapa puzzles and games, as this character is quite nostalgic for me and friends Tyson and Alison.
We also saw Moomins merchandise. We had been unaware of these Finnish characters until a slightly inebriated visit to a bookstore in St. Petersburg, Russia.
We were unsuccessful in terms of finding any maps or books about Greenland, but we bought a small puffin figurine and an I Love Puffins magnet. The cashier was sporting a goth aesthetic, even down to her black disposeable gloves.
Although we weren't extremely hungry yet, we decided that it was now or never for dinner. Once we went back to the room, we wouldn't want to go out again. We decided to go to Vitabar, a small neighborhood bar and burger joint that we had visited last year.
I offered to look up its address, but Craig was confident that he could find his way there. I was doubtful; last year we had gotten a little lost while looking for the place and had gone a very roundabout way. Craig insisted that this only occurred because two nearby streets have very similar Icelandic names. I shouldn't have doubted his homing pigeon tendencies. It was starting to lightly snow as we saw Vitabar in front of us. Alright, I was impressed.
There wasn't a single customer inside; just an employee behind the bar. We sheepishly opened the door and asked if they were open for dining in or just take-out. He jovially told us that we should take a seat - there were plenty available. So we got situated at a table and ordered the same amazing burger we had last year, the aptly named Forget-Me-Not, which features bleu cheese. We got a large order of onion rings to share. Craig had an Einstok Toasted Porter, and I had a pineapple Bacardi Breezer.
We chatted with the man behind the bar and one of the servers whose shift had technically ended but wasn't in a hurry to get home to her empty apartment. They were quite funny and we had a great discussion about quarantine, politics, etc.
Although we hadn't thought we were very hungry, we found ourselves not fully satisfied post-burger. So we ordered a large order of fries along with another round of drinks. They have a very nice seasoning blend to add to the fries. By now, a couple more tables' worth of customers had arrived, and some people had arrived to fetch take-out.
When we were done, we walked back to the hotel in the light snow. The street were deserted. We had a gorgeous view of Hallgrimskirkja, with its stained glass window glowing. We noticed the food truck seemingly perpetually parked next to the church was not a hot dog cart as we had first suspected...it was Vöffluvagninn, a Waffle Wagon!
Waffles are big in Reykjavik, but we had never had one here. We suspected we wouldn't be going far tomorrow either, so getting a waffle right across the street from the hotel sounded quite promising.
We had enjoyed our nightcaps last night, so as we entered the hotel we once again stopped at the bar. We got two glasses of ice to finish off our bottle of Bailey's, and Craig got a Bondi beer. We went up to our room and I posted some of today's photos to social media. I also typed in some of the notes that I had taken in my notebook while in Greenland.
Social distancing is better with Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dogs
Coffee with Hak-Ye and Roger at Te & Kaffe
The empty streets of Reykjavik
Shopping in Reykjavik: Barbapapa, Moomins, cats, and nordic noir
Hallgrimskirkja at night