This article from Sprudge’s lead writer concludes our special Back To School Week series:
WBC 2010, Marco Uber Boiler party, Picadilly Circus (“the worst part of London”), around 11:30 pm. All the pubs are closing, I’ve been enjoying the open bar for around 2 hours…and I notice a small contingent of Icelanders standing around nearby. After a brief introduction:
“I’ll be in Reykjavik for a day on my way home! What should I do? Can you recommend a good hostel for me to stay in?”
(much discussion in Icelandic)
“You should talk to Sonja”.
Sonja Björk Grant is the co-founder of Kaffismiðja Íslands, a roastery and cafe in the 101 district of Reykjavik. She’s been involved in international coffee culture for a decade as a trainer, organizer, certified judge, and roaster. She took one look at me on the streets of London, someone she’s never met before in her life, drunk on jetlag and Smithwick’s lager, and said:
“Would you like to stay with me? But not in my bed! Wait, you are not a chainsaw maniac, yes?”
I was able to assuage her fears with copious references, and it was settled – a business card, a phone number, and a place to stay in the Reykjavik 101.
The bus ride in from Teflavik Airport feels like you’re taking a trip on some kind of moon buggy cruiser. Everything is hard scrabble, gray gravel scrubland, with the cold North Atlantic lapping all around you. Somewhere beyond those mountains are more mountains, and glaciers, and hotsprings, and polar bears. There’s culture shock, and travel shock, but for someone accustomed to the Pacific, to trees, to evergreen all around, Iceland invokes a kind of landscape shock. I’m trying to write in a notebook, but all I can come up with is “it’s so beautiful”, with an underlined note below that reads “elaborate“. I’m still trying.
Off the bus in the 101, around the block and up the hill away from the sea, there sits Kaffismiðja. Sonja runs her cafe with Ingibjörg Jóna Sigurðardóttir, known to friends as “Imma”, and it’s the kind of warm, small, and perfectly situated space that suggests you’d want to know the people inside. It’s a bridge between the past and future of coffee culture in Iceland; microlot single origins are served on intricate, classically Nordic pieces of china, walls adorned lovingly with the various accolades, accreditations, and advertisements for upcoming community events. Kaffismiðja pulls off a communal, second living room atmosphere baffling in its duality; this is very much where Icelandic couture designers meet each morning, and where you’re most likely to run into members of Sigur Rós or Múm, but it’s also exactly the kind of place where new moms from the neighborhood stop three times a day, to show off babies in cute baby socks. There’s something perfect about that.
When I visited, Sonja and Imma were offering three distinct single origin espressos. This alone is enough to set Kaffismiðja as equal or better to any espresso shop in America. I was particularly impressed by their Indonesia Selebes, perfectly balanced between earthy and sweet, and the Kolombia La Primavera, an Acevedo 100% Caturra sourced via direct trade that made me think of buttered toast with marzipan. Kaffismiðja proudly displays information about their producers in-shop, not just about beans and farms, but also the farmer’s lifestyle, family history, success at recent COE auctions, and plans for the future. It amounts to a remarkably intimate relationship between roaster, producer, and customer.
And then we went out. I consumed puffin, salt cod, Icelandic “black death” schnapps, and fermented shark meat – a culinary recap of every Food Network special ever filmed in Iceland. Then on to bars, and bars, and more bars. Turns out that Reykjavikings love bar crawls, and that everyone there knows Sonja. Some thoughts from a journal, although my writing starts to get a little blurry as the night wears on.
Every culture has their own unique toasting phrase. In Iceland, people say “Skál” before taking a shot. You’re required to look your toasting partners in the eyes while doing so, and if one fails to perform this part of the custom they are said to be burdened with bad sex or no sex at all for 7 years. It makes for this delicously awkward, suggestive moment of eye contact between old friends, strangers, and potential lovers.
Beer is a relatively new option for Icelanders, as brewed beverages were outlawed until 1989. Despite its relative newness, or perhaps because of it, beer is a big deal in Iceland. They have a wide array of selections, some so profoundly micro as to be served in unlabeled bottles. Icelanders celebrate “Beer Day” on March 1st of each year, and Sonja participates as a judge for beer festivals in and around Reykjavik. My favorites were Thule, the beloved swill beer of Iceland, and Skjalfti, a caramel ale from the Ölvisholt Brugghús brewery. What elsewhere might be referred to as a “brewpub” or “tavern” in America is known in Iceland as an “olstotes kormarks”. This means “beer living room”, which is awesome and should be adopted everywhere immediately.
Favorite Icelandic catch-phrases:
Because Iceland has very little forest vegetation, Icelanders say “If you need to know where you are in Iceland, stand up!” Also, “afram med smjorklikid”, which means literally “get on with the butter” – a colloquial way of saying “hurry up!”
Scrawled on the bottom of my last page of notes is a single sentence: “Reykjavik is really cool“. I have no clue when in the evening I wrote this, but truer words were never drunkenly jotted.
The next day I rode one of Sonja’s bikes through the 101 and got woefully lost. It didn’t really matter that much, because Reykjavik is relatively tiny and the 101 is even more compact, but it made for one of those “what if I miss my flight” moments. This failed to produce terror in me, but rather, gave me a feeling of zen; I found myself hoping that the volcano would explode again, trapping me in Iceland indefinitely.
I’d make the most of it.
Special thanks to Sonja, Imma, Sarah and Liz.