May 29 2012


Every time I visit Australia, the inhabitants proudly tell me how every living thing on the continent wants to kill me in horrible, awful ways. Now that I’ve visited Iceland, I can just laugh at them and tell them I’ve visited a place where the earth rises up and tries to kill you in horrible, awful ways. Here’s the first Icelandic word I’ve learned.

I spent all day yesterday touring the fantastic fabulous blasted landscape of Iceland. It’s beautiful stuff, but also stark and a little intimidating. Every place we visited seem to have a big “HÆTTA!” sign on it, and then you’d get closer and discover an abrupt cliff dropping off into the sea, or a bubbling mudpot reeking of sulfur, or clouds of steam (also reeking of sulfur) pouring out of the ground. No active volcanoes so far, but the residents all laugh and tell you there could be an eruption any time.

Another weird thing is that often the official signage on some dramatic deadly natural wonder will matter-of-factly inform you that this phenomenon can kill you, and by the way, it’s also haunted by a malevolent ghost who will kill you. I think they’re trying to make very sure that you won’t try to dip a toe in the superheated jet of poisonous gas squirting out of the ground, or something.

Anyway, it’s a lovely place, just not very cuddly.

The people are wonderful, though, so I’ll probably survive my week here. Also, they can take advantage of the natural phenomena in useful way. I also spent yesterday at the Blue Lagoon, a spa with geothermally heated pools and saunas. It was delightful.

It was so good I’m going to have to insist in my speaking contracts from now on that they include a day in a spa before I lecture. A day in a spa in Iceland. I think my next speaking engagement is in August, in St Paul, Minnesota. Boy, are they going to be surprised when I tell them I’m going to have to get there by way of Reykjavik.

I’m speaking at the university here tonight, and then I’m off on a two-day trip to look at more deadly beauty.


Skip to comment form

  1. 1

    Yes, Iceland is something else. Have you been to the fault line yet? It’s by far the strangest place I have ever visited.

  2. 2

    I was stationed there for a year 1982-1983, fresh off Momma’s tit. Sadly, I did not see nearly enough of the island because I was an 19 year old southern boy, fresh off Momma’s tit. I should’ve spend more time exploring and less time pining for home! But, it is most certainly a beautiful island with cordial, reserved people. There are no forests, just shrubs.
    The joke about Iceland: if you’re ever lost in an Icelandic forest–just stand up.

  3. 3

    We have similar signs in California – see, for instance, http://www.flickr.com/photos/57805236@N04/5692123580/

  4. 4

    Were you stationed at the AFB at Keflavik? And, not knowing the language, mostly confined to the area around the base until the end of the contract? That sucks!
    — — — — — —
    Do not forget the avalanches. They can take out whole communities, if the buildings are too close to a slope.
    — — — — — — —
    Iceland is too geologically young to have evolved poisonous critters:-(
    Also, I think the whole place gets buried under ice during ice ages, so there is only the time span of an interglacial for living things to adapt.
    Silicaceous trolls, like in Discworld? Maybe some Aussie could introduce some “interesting” wildlife?

  5. 5

    Have you been to the fault line yet? It’s by far the strangest place I have ever visited.

    Probably. The 3rd photo (with the rock and the gray sand) is taken on Reykjanes, where the Mid-Atlantic ridge ‘comes on land’. The area around the fault line there looks like that.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bridge_across_continents_iceland.jpg

  6. 6

    Great pictures, PZ. But re: the warning sign, I have trouble understanding the middle picture as anything but “Enjoy swimming with the giant mutant sperm!”

    Any alternative explanation is welcome. Please.

  7. 7
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    (with a little help from Google translator)
    Interesting that the Icelanders don’t need to be told that a surf (brim) is dangerous.

    And útsog translates literally to “outsuction”.

    That’s a word that is sorely lacking in English.

    (Also, mikið dýpi translates to “a lot of depth”. No mention of what kind of depth.)

  8. 8

    What impresses me the most is the temperature range on the right side of the sign -50 to 60 degrees C

  9. 9
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    Look at it more closely–that’s a + in front of the 50.

    Of course, that could trip up some ignorant US tourists (but those types probably don’t travel much to Iceland).

  10. 10

    You definitely should go there in winter some time!
    You would wonder how they get the streets and pavements to be free of snow and ice. They’re just heating it with water from the many hot springs. At least this is so in Reykjavik, I don’t know about Reykjanes, though.

  11. 11
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    Obligatory Scandinavia and the World reference: http://satwcomic.com/iceland-ain-t-right ^^°

  12. 12

    Cool. Thanks especially for the awesome pictures of the volcano. If the scent of brimstone sticks to your clothes, it may be God’s way of reminding you what eternal fun he’s planning for us heathen.

  13. 13

    You just wait PZ, we have some really cool stuff to show you when we hit the interior on Thursday and Friday.

  14. 14

    zadiginfinity @ 6:

    I have trouble understanding the middle picture as anything but “Enjoy swimming with the giant mutant sperm!”

    The third one appears to be “No pipe-smoking while swimming”

  15. 15

    Meh; Australia has all of those too, but the signs are only in Australian. Now Hawaii – that’s the place to be. You just walk along glassy fields minding your own business and suddenly you crash through the glass into a cavern below. If you’re silly enough to walk on warm glass you may find yourself cooked and eaten by Pele.

  16. 16
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I like how Icelandic has a single short word for “dangerous waves.”

    (I’m allowed to say that, aren’t I?)

  17. 17

    Don’t be a HÆTTA!

    Be a LŒVVA.

  18. 18
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    HÆTTAS gonna HÆT.

  19. 19
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    If you’re silly enough to walk on warm glass you may find yourself cooked and eaten by Pele.

    Or at least severely kicked.

  20. 20

    I wonder if it’s etymologically related to “heed” in “take heed”…

  21. 21
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    I wonder if it’s etymologically related to “heed” in “take heed”…

    Evidently not:


    Cognate with “hang” and “hanker”. (I’d love to know what the metaphor is that underlies the extension to “danger”.)


    (Disclaimer: I’m not a historical linguist, so I can only trust that these etymologies are accurate.)

  22. 22

    Wait. Iceland is real? Seriously?

    I always thought it was a fairy tale told to little conservatives.

    “Exercise responsible fiscal policy little conservative …

    Or the socialist liberal lesbians will take over.”

  23. 23

    Icelandic is a useful language to learn. It’s just Old Norse, the language of the Eddas. Of course, if you go around talking like Thor or Freya or Loki, you might sound a bit old fashioned, but you’ll be understood.

Comments have been disabled.