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Borgarnes, A Portrait of Rural Iceland

Snaefellnes peninsula at twilight
Snaefellnes peninsula at twilight
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BORGARNES, Iceland- Being linked across Borgar Fjord by the second longest bridge in Iceland, Borgarnes is just 60 kilometers up the highway from Reykjavik, but, in actuality, the city feels as though it may as well be on the other side of the country.

The big letters B-O-R-G-A-R-N-E-S were superimposed over an area shaded urban yellow on my little tourist info center map of Iceland. I had been out in the mountains for the previous week, and was craving a place to resupply, do some internet work, and, perhaps, meet some people and make some friends. Traveling by bicycle in Iceland is not the best way to meet people — There is nobody out there — as the country has one of the lowest population densities on the planet. This fact became all too apparent the moment I rode out of Reykjavik, whose boundaries are like some sort of frontier outpost: once you step beyond them you have gone beyond the auspices of civilization. Having been outside of the shelter of Iceland’s capital city for a week it was easy to feel a longing for some sort of urban scene — or at least some place where I could get out of the wind.

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Crossing the bridge into Borgarnes I felt a smile creep over my face — there were stores here, and lights, and traffic, and, yes, even people. And not just some stray person out in a field, riding a horse, driving a 4 X 4, or idiotically riding a bicycle, but people sitting around talking in shops, drinking coffee, shopping, jogging down the street, walking dogs, and doing all those amazing little non-essentials that an urban-scape has to offer. This is not to say that Borgarnes is cosmopolitan in any sense — it is just one main drag and a few parallel residential streets — and it can be only called a city in contrast to the surrounding countryside which is beautifully empty and magnificently devoid of any littering of commercial buildings. But as I rode into Borgarnes, I was in the mood for an environment change, and the contrast was feeling pretty good. I immediately considered staying for a few nights to engage in some urban delights.

Borgarnes, Iceland

Though Borgarnes was mentioned as Digranes in Egils Saga, the first modern building built here was not until 1857. Not surprisingly, it was a canning factory. A couple of decades later a trading house opened up, and settlement in the area sped up exponentially. Now boasting just under 2,000 residents, this city is an administrative and commercial hub if its region — and would pretty much be the last place worthy of a dot on the map until I got up to Stykishholmer on the north side of the Snaefellnes Peninsula, at least a week and a half of bicycle travel away. It was here in Borgarnes that I got my first taste of small town life in Iceland, and, to my surprise, I found it familiar.

Gas station hang outs in rural Iceland

Fjord from Borgarnes, Iceland

The Olis gas station in Borgarnes was hopping. All the kids were there, talking, hanging out on the tables, eating junk food. I arrived on a Saturday and seemingly everyone in this little city of a couple grand were out looking for something to do. Not finding much else to do, the kids gravitated to the gas station — which are often turned into hang out spots for the young and restless in rural Iceland. Craving such a social setting I hung out eating hot dogs, watching the scene before me. It then hit me that I knew this place, that I knew what it was like to be a teenager with nothing else to do but hang out in a gas station. I was one of them — I grew up there.

I come from an area outside of a small town in between Rochester and Buffalo, New York called Albion. There is no reason to go there, no reason to stay, the only excuse you can give for being in this places is that you are from there. Everyone who grows up Albion dreams of leaving, we all complained about how boring everything was, how our town “sucked,” we curse our parents for moving there or for growing up there themselves — as was more often the case. We had all the proper ammunition to lend an explosion to the spark of rural teenage angst. We craved the outside world, but, although there were never any physical barriers, there always seemed to be walls up hemming us in. We reacted harshly against the world that was before us — explicitly, implicitly, externally, as well as internally. We were from nowhere and we knew it. Many of us got into drugs and drinking, some found excitement in crime, others just made babies, some screwed all the Mexican migrant workers and then went nuts, some ate lots of food and got fat, some withdrew prematurely into responsible adult lives, others refused to grow up, and many — at least temporarily — tested the bounds of the world outside.

As soon as we were able, we left Albion. Many went to Buffalo, some to Rochester, a few went to universities out of state, some took jobs across the country, a couple bold settlers went to New York City, a bunch joined the various branches of the armed services. From growing up in proverbial “nowhere” we sought “somewhere” with a reckless thirst that was built into us from our eariliest years. Most of us eventually tasted that “somewhere,” but a very high percentage returned to the cloister of our little town, perhaps finding that being a somebody “nowhere” is of higher essence than being a nobody “somewhere.” Many of my old friends returned to upstate New York after moving away for a while to be with their families, friends, and to be, in a real sense, home — a passion that often lays dormant through the years of youth.

Like we would dream of Rochester or Buffalo the kids in Borgarnes seem to dream of Reykjavik — the capital city that is an hour by car and a world away. I could sense that desperation of these kids from “nowhere” hell bent to angle their lives towards “somewhere.” I found early on in my visits to rural population centers in Iceland that you can virtually ask any young person when they are planning on moving to Reykjavik and they will give you a date. Like my home town of Albion, many go, but many also return. But unlike Albion, mobility in Iceland seems far more ingrained into the psyche of the people. They leave their rural towns, go to Reykjavik, go abroad, return home, leave again, return again, on and on. But rural Iceland is not just “nowhere” in poetic sense, but in reality as well. Unless you are into raising horses, working in the fisheries, a hotel, a gas station, or at a geothermal power plant, there is not much out there in terms of employment. The bumf’ck town that I grew up 7 miles outside of — a place that is nowhere near being a blip on the map of the USA — is over twice as big as Borgarnes, Iceland.

Solstice celebration

Summer night party in Borgarnes, Iceland

I walked down to a little natural pier that jetted out to sea on the lee side of Borgarnes, and found hundreds of people standing there around a camp fire, in front of a bar, and in a field playing music, drinking beer, and the kids all had these little wooden cut outs of suns attached to sticks and similar patterns painted on their faces. It appeared to be a solstice celebration. I asked a teenage kid what was going on. He said, “It is for a woman named Braut who babysat a viking. We are celebrating her.”

I left this conversation feeling that I misunderstood something.

But, at any rate, it was evident that the celebration had a historical figure attached to it, a mythology, though I also suspected that it was also a solstice celebration — which occurred just a few days before. I sat back and watched the town drink themselves drunk and the kids run around with each other in packs. Groups of men would grasp each other by the shoulders, and sing — some had guitars. I watched, sitting at the edge of the foray, an outsider looking in — thoroughly entertained by the show before me.

Back to Olis Gas Station

I decided to spend an extra day in Borgarnes, rest up my legs, do some website work. I sat in the youth hostel working until I was kicked out. Feeling slightly distressed, I returned to the Olis gas station for a hot dog and a free coffee, compliments of an Iceland Search and Rescue team. It was packed with teenagers and young adults. I felt talkative and began chatting with the woman behind the counter who was putting both fried and fresh onions on my wiener. I told her what I was doing in Borgarnes, in Iceland, and an overview of my life on the road. She spent the past 11 hours dressing hot dogs, so I did not think she would mind the diversion.

She asked about the tattooing which covers my body. I obliged her with a rare explanation and showing — “I am a traveler, I can’t carry much stuff, so I collect pictures on my body as I move through the world.” This attracted the attention of the other workers in the gas station, and I found myself passing out VagabondJourney.com cards, learning names, shaking hands, making acquaintances.

The workers told me that they work 12 hour shifts for three days in a row per week. The rest of the time they have off. One worker was just beginning her work for the week, another was just ending his. “This is my last day, tomorrow I go to the horses, four days of drinking!” a younger guy in his early 20s proclaimed from behind the hot dogs.

“What do you mean, ‘horses?'” I asked.

“At Varmathid,” he replied as though I should know what he was talking about.

“Where?!?”

“It is about 200km from here, there is a big horse show every year, and people from all over the world go to it.”

I asked about this show a little more, thinking that I may write an article on Icelandic horse culture.

“It may be a little expensive for you,” the young guy spoke bluntly.

“How much is it?”

“Around 12,000 krona for the weekend.”

Yes, that was too expensive for me.

“Can you bet on the horses?” I asked, thinking it was some kind of race that would provide me with an opportunity to make my admission fee back (or at least scrounge around by the feet of drunks looking for accidentally discarded money).

“Maybe,” the kid replied, “but it is not very common.”

It then became apparent that this was not a race, but a prissy horse show where they trot around in circles for judges. It seemed pretty wussy to me, but this kid was talking all about the excessive partying that happens there. The other workers picked up his refrain. They told me how much fun it is to be there. The kid who was telling me about the show was really into horses: he grew up with them, rode them, owned them, took them to shows — but not the one he was telling me about, this year. Like so many other people in the rural stretches of Iceland, for these gas station employees, raising horses was a way of life — they were just working at the Olis to pick up some extra cash.

The young guy offered me a tin of tobacco. “Do you want some Icelandic tobacco?”

I opened the tin to find it full of tobacco that was so finely cut that it was nearly dust. It was not chewing tobacco, nor was it smoking tobacco, nor was it some strange sort of Scandinavian mouth tobacco that has the consistency of clay that I got sick from once in Budapest.

“What do I do with this?” I asked dumbly. I figured that it was a better course of action to ask for a demonstration than pretending that I knew what I was doing and stuff the tobacco in the wrong orifice.

“You suck it up your nose,” I was told. “Like this.”

The young guy took a pinch and gunned it cleanly up his right nostril.

Oddly, in all my travels this was the first time I was offered nasal snuff. I took a pinch of it and sort of awkwardly snorted it up my nose. The gas station employees waited for my reaction. It burned a little, not too bad, I felt the nicotine “hit” immediately. Not bad.

“This is 10 times more powerful than cigarettes,” I was told.

Another worker in the shop came and joined our conversation. He produced a syringe from his pocket. I expected him to show me track marks up and down his arm and inquiry as to whether I would like some too. But this was a silly thought, for not even in the most back water stretches of Appalachia do people shoot up tobacco — yet.

“He uses a syringe,” I was told.

“How do you use the syringe for tobacco?” I asked.

The new arrival demonstrated, pulling up on the plunger and sucking up a bit of tobacco before blasting it beneath his upper lip.

“Cool.”

I did not ask to try. Instead, I told the workers at the gas station that I was riding my bike out around the Snaefellness Penninsula. “What is it like out there?” I asked.

“It is borning,” one of the workers keenly responded.

“Why is it boring?”

“Because there is nothing there.”

The woman who I began talking with earlier jumped in with words of opposition. “Yes, there is something there,” she proclaimed, “there is a cave.”

“OK, there is a cave,” the workers concurred. “But it is still boring.”

I then left the gas station as they closed for the night and began walking through the streets of Borgarnes. I went back to camp, sat on a little hill looking out to sea. I did not feel like sleeping. I wanted some action befitting a population center. I think I may have been feeling a touch of my old youthful desperation. The night was bright and clear. I went for a walk back to the city. On the other side of town, I again met the sea — an orange of the sky was falling upin the silhouettes of mountains on the Snaefellnes Peninsula standing in the near distance. This was where I was riding to, boring or otherwise.

Snaefellnes peninsula at twilight

On the walk back, I watched the cars passing by me, I looked inside at the people. It was around 1AM, I wondered where these people could be driving to at this time on a Monday morning. Then I noticed something: it was only four or five cars with the same people in them that kept passing by. They were running laps, the car’s occupants were either in conversation or were staring vacantly out into the distance. They keep driving by, going to one end of the main street, spinning through a roundabout, then driving back all the way back to the other end of the main street, turning around in a parking lot, and then going back the other way again.

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I use to do this too, with my friends as teenagers in rural America. We would drive around vacantly, listening to music, talking. On garbage days we would sometimes get ambitious, pick up trash cans from the passenger’s side window, drive fast, and then throw them at the nearest mailbox. Rural excitements. But these kids in Borgarnes did not seem to be as big of assholes as we were. Two cars chased each other in an automotive version of cat and mouse, and the rest of the people in the cars just drove listlessly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

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I would randomly meet up with the young guy from the gas station who was going to the horse show a few weeks later in Reykjavik. He had moved to the capital city, he was working as the doorman of a club.

Video from Borgarnes, Iceland

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Europe, Iceland, Western Europe

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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