Periscope Depth

iceland part one

I didn’t know what to expect for my first international flight traveling alone, so I got to Logan early. I kicked my shoes off for the security line but, in the current production of TSA security theater, did not have to present my boarding pass. With several hours to kill, I had a few beers at Houlihan’s, chatting with an electrical engineer working for Dean Kamen. We swapped horror stories of driving in Boston weather. She won, having spun out on New Year’s Eve onto the lawn of the Goffstown, NH police station.

The currency exchange booth in the Logan Terminal offered every currency in the world except Icelandic kroner (ISK).

I talked my way into the emergency exit row, though I had to take a middle seat. Fifteen minutes before takeoff it looked as if I would have the row to myself. Then the smiling though heavily made-up air steward sat the biggest man I’d ever seen next to me. Picture Bobby before he lost all that weight, for those of you who know Bobby. For those of you who don’t: the man was at least a head taller than me and eight to twelve heads heavier. His belly spilled over the armrest. When my arm grazed against him it felt like I had just brushed too close to a fire. I had no idea how I would sleep, let alone sit still, for four and a half hours.

Then the flight attendant brought another man down, chatting with him in Icelandic. Everyone in Iceland knows each other, since the entire country has half the population of downtown Boston and most of them live in Reykjavik. The window seat was still open. “These two are friends,” she said, indicating the titanic man sitting next to me and the newcomer.

“Would you like to sit next to each other?” I offered.

“If it’s not a …”

“No trouble at all,” I said, shifting over one. “I assure you.”

I couldn’t get the window seat to recline, unfortunately. I slept for three fitful hours, aided by 10 mg of melatonin and the three Sam Adams from the airport bar, and then watched some Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother on the seatback TV. My verdict on HIMYM: silly and diverting.

First impressions of Leif Eriksson International: a product of the Industrial/Aquarium school of architecture that swept Europe in the 30s and the U.S. in the 60s. Expansive windows look out onto pitch blackness (at 0630 Iceland time) or, once the sun rises, the snow-covered lunar landscape of Keflavik. I went through another security sweep, this one with shoes on, and then got my first stamp in my new passport from a bored Icelandic guard.

LEI has a remarkably libertine attitude toward customs: walk left if you have something to declare; walk right if you don’t. I went straight for the Nothing line and two bored blonds in guard uniforms – one male, one female – gave me a quarter-second glance of disappointment then returned to their conversation. Call me a maverick, but Iceland might benefit more, given its current economic straits, from doing away with its Customs department entirely. Or maybe even setting up an anti-Customs office. “You will be subjected to humiliating search unless you’re bringing in $100 or more of trade goods, foreign fruits or international currency.”

I changed $100 U.S. for 10,500 ISK – brightly colored bills and a handful of nearly worthless coins. Enticed by the prospect of lucrative savings, I browsed the duty-free mart, which was open and bustling at 0700 in the morning. Sadly, not even the prospect of not paying customs duties, or getting a refund on any Icelandic VAT I spent in-country, made the liquor cheap enough to buy. It had to get made in the U.S. and shipped across the ocean first, after all.

Tired and still disoriented by lack of sleep, I bought a bus ticket to Reykjavik and stepped outside. A vicious horizontal wind checked my stride, bringing with it the icy smell of the North Atlantic. The sun creeped over the horizon as the bus trundled along, casting a gorgeous glow over the Icelandic countryside. I finally remembered why I came.

Part two tomorrow.