When we had just registered on the exchange web-site, I had a feeling that the whole world is now in our pocket! I started writing letters to the owners of the most beautiful villas and large houses at the shores of the warm seas. In our priority list there were Southern France, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Can you imagine my surprise, when I didn’t receive an answer or received phrases like “Sorry, but we had already made an exchange for this Summer”, “We are searching for something in the other countries”. As a result I made several conclusions. First one: You have to secure options for July – August minimum in half-a-year in advance (sometimes there is a last minute chance, but it’s pure luck). Second one: There are so many of us who are willing to travel to the Mediterranean beaches that the whole sum of all exchange web-sites won’t be enough.
Iceland? Sounds beautiful too!
One day I received the letter from the family living in Reykjavik. At first I wanted to send them a polite refusal, but than just out of curiosity I visited their page… There was a picture of a big, cozy, modern house and the photos of tundra and sugar-loafs, geysers and waterfalls, glaciers and dwarf birches. For me this was my childhood that I spent on Chukotka, in the very Northen part of Russia. In this opportunity I saw a chance to take a quick glimpse to my childhood and to show it to my own children!
That is how we opted in favor of Iceland instead of Spain or Italy. We were quite anxious because it was our very first exchange. Our friends happened to be in the same situation, so we cheered each other up by numerous emails, phone calls and Skype sessions. As a result we booked the tickets and started to pack up our trunks. The weather promised to “gratify” us with July heat of 11-12 degrees, so we had to change beach slippers for a couple of warm jumpers.
Hello, strange house!
Our Icelandic friends generously left their car at the airport (we took the keys at the information desk). My brave husband drove into the Icelandic night and 40 minutes later we parked near the attractive house in the Reykjavik’s suburban area. What anxiety it was to open the unfamiliar door and enter an unfamiliar house! You feel like the movie star, for real… But almost immediately you begin to familiarize oneself by checking the rooms, opening kitchen cupboards and brewing coffee. It was funny to find in the fridge of our Iceland friends the “convenience food set” identical to which we left for them: cheese, frankfurters, yoghurts, milk, juice for kids and the bottle of wine for the tired parents. Naturally we could use all things that we found in the house and in the kitchen. This means we didn’t have to buy oil, cereals, flour, salt-pepper and other stuff that are necessary in the house. We always had breakfast at home, and often would cook a dinner. All that helped us not only to save money on food, but also to continue to treat the kids with healthy food, which they were used to.
The following morning brought us even more joy. Kids found many toys, books, movies and music in their room and started to create there an atmosphere suitable for their age. Elder daughter found guitar and music that are suitable for her grim teenager status. Happily, there was a trampoline in the garden on which children had fun every day. In our first morning I tried to find a teapot but with no success. I had a feeling that Icelanders are fans of coffee and don’t tolerate tea much. The coffee making machine stood on the visible place so I boiled water either in it or in the saucepan on the stove. We found a file with detailed instructions about the house, some information on where is the best place to buy goods, where is the nearest pool (Holy Site for the Icelanders!), how to find small local cafes and where to order pizza. Of course there was the list of sights to see and tricks about how to save on that. This was like a great surprise for us in that whole home exchange thing. You don’t have to surf the internet or read travel guides because all information that you may need has already been prepared by the house owners, so you can dive into the local life from the first day there and feel yourself like aborigine instead of the shy tourist.
A little bit of history
Iceland is a small country with population of 320000 habitants only and one third of them live in Reykjavik. This city is the most northern state capital in the world. Celtic and Norwegian immigrants started to settle in this country as early as IX A.D. One of the first settlers to build a farm on Icelandic land was Ingolfr Arnarson and the place was called “Smokey Bay” for the pillars of steam from nearby hot springs. Since those times Reykjavik had been under the rule of the Norwegian Kings, Denmark and withstood the attacks of berber pirates. Iceland is proud to have one of the first parliaments which had met through all this centuries in Tingvellir, from 930 a.d. Only at the beginning of XIX century, in 1845, it had been moved to Reykjavik where the country’s government had been already based.
In the XX century, the country saw rapid development. During World War II Reykjavik was a strategic base for British and Americans patrol ships. In 1944 Iceland became an independent state and Reykjavik became its official capital. Now the country is mostly independent, a little bit detached, yet generally integrated into European Society but prefers to live by its own rules and laws. Historically Icelanders are used to living on their own and survive on their resources. Thermal springs are used to heat houses (no heat-only boiler stations and thermoelectric plants), there is a plenty of fish in the sea, tourists attracted by the brutal natural beauty of Iceland (Aurora Borealis and dances of whales are mind blowers!), so it is rather possible to live there.
Reykjavik days are still and quiet but in the evening it turns into a big party place. City’s nightlife, with its bars and clubs, luring young people from the whole Europe, and many of them fly there for the weekend only for that purpose.
There is so much to do in Reykjavik!
We lived the lives of common Icelanders for 10 days, in a typical house. Became acquainted with our neighbors. Frequently visited nearest swimming pool centre. Chatted friendly with the guys from the pizzeria, where our friends usually order pizza. Went to the supermarket to buy some goods once in several days. All the while we, of course, visited sights. We spent one day just walking around the capital. Actually, you can do it in several hours. We drove to the waterfall and to the place of the first Parliament in Tingverill, stood in excitement while geysers swelled and wallowed in front of us, tasted a funny tundra berry – crowberry, played chess while having a cup of coffee in one of the city’s cafés and tested a set-menu in one of the best restaurants in the city. Swam in the waters of famous “Blue Lagoon” and dressed like Vikings in a historic museum. We even marked our presence in the local zoo – Katya liked seals so much that she decided to share her juice with them and threw her favorite orange cup straight into the seal’s pool. We have to call zoo workers for help and disappoint seals because they so happily played with our cup. Also, we found ourselves in the climax of a European gay festival. The festival was very exciting, noisy and colorful, but we decided that it’s too early for our kids to get acquainted with that side of life, so we didn’t participate much in processions and sought solitude in the Saga museum (Wax shapes of Vikings, history of Iceland in legends and themes from the middle ages). Unforgettable impressions!
Economy must be economical
Iceland is a very expensive country for the travelers. Hardly we could afford to go there as ordinary tourists for 10 days, renting a house and a car. Approximate prices for the hotels and apartments with at least two rooms (for two adults and three kids) started from Euro 2500. Back then we didn’t know about the great service of airbnb.com, where you can find more reasonable housing prices. The car rent price (without a car you can’t see much in the Reykjavik’s surroundings) starts from 800 Euro. So only on housing and a car we saved something around Euro 3500. That’s why we could afford to have a dinner in a café (simple lunch costs minimum 50 euro), to buy tickets for various adventures like whale safari (price starts from Euro 50 for an adult ticket), and to get acquanted with charming Atlantic puffins (Euro 35 for an adult ticket) and visit “Blue Lagoon” (Euro 45 per person).
By the way, we had an unexpected saving on the tickets. At first return tickets for the five of us cost something over 1000 pounds. But, a few days before the departure the airlines representatives contacted us with a request to take a later flight. Our initial variant was to fly on a Friday morning and we were offered to take an evening flight, which meant the arrival in the unknown city nearly at midnight and looking for the house in darkness and obscurity. At first airlines offered us free tickets to the “Blue Lagoon” and a free visit to one of the prestigious fish restaurants. But we were fussy, because our youngest traveler wasn’t even two years old yet and we didn’t want to break her routine. Finally they persuaded us on conditions of full refunding of the flight to Reykjavik, I.e. they reimbursed half of the tickets cost and our flight to Iceland was free of charge!
In the next article I will tell you about the sights of Reykjavik, geysers and waterfalls, “Blue Lagoon” and the most interesting places for kids, about whale safari and our trip to the marvelous Atlantic puffins.