HLADIR, Iceland- Swimming is part of Icelandic culture. Whether it be in pools or in hot springs, it is said that most Icelanders go swimming at least once per week. I was not aware with this national fixation on swimming when I first began traveling in this country — sure, I’d heard of the thermal pools and all that — but the shear amount of swimming pools, some of which in very remote locations, and their popularity quickly gave me a good clue as to the importance of this activity in Icelandic culture.
Iceland is an island country, it is surrounded by the sea, almost the entire population lives within walking distance from the ocean. But the coastal waters are too cold for swimming, so Icelanders solved this riddle of nature by building heated swimming pools near the beach.
“Would you like to swim now?” a 30 something Estonian guy running the campsite in Hladir asked me after I paid up for my site for the night.
I thought about it, having not really considered the possibility before. In the context of my surroundings the very suggestion of swimming seemed rather surreal. <em>Why would I want to go swimming at an outdoor pool on a cold, cloudy day at a place that is in the middle of nowhere on the banks of a fjord?</em> Then I asked myself what else was I going to do there.
“Sure,” I replied, “I will go swimming. Why not?”
I was camping at a pool. This seemed like an odd place for a campsite to me at first, but this arrangement is very common here in Iceland. A pool is built out in some remote no man’s land and Icelanders show up in droves to swim in it — like pilgrims flocking to far away sites of watery worship. It is often the case here that hotels and campsites exist solely to give people a place to stay so they can use a pool, rather than a pool existing as a side perk of a hotel. In Iceland, the pool seems to be of primary importance, accommodation a mere side note in comparison.
So I went to get a pair of shorts out of my tent, which was set up in a field outside of the building that housed the pool. It was my impression at that point that people generally go into swimming pools in bathing suits, but you must bathe before going in completely naked. As I walked back into the pool building the Estonian yelled out for me to make sure I shower before bathing. Icelanders are serious about this point: you must shower — and shower well — before going into the pool. This needs to be full on showers — not just a rinsing spurt — and also must demonstrate for anyone who could be watching that you fully scrub all the essential locales. You are monitored in this — sometimes by a guard, sometimes by a video camera. If you do not scrub all of your pertinent spots up to Icelandic standards you will be sent back into the shower to get it right. No joke.
Luckily for me and my bathing habits I was the only one in the shower. In fact, I was the only one in the entire building. The showers were in the basement and I could hear the innards of the place groaning, creaking, echoing. The floor and walls were stark white, each sound came off as a startling bang. I was waiting for the tattooed Russian gangsters to show up and for the movie to begin. I washed, I scrubbed, scrubbed again, they never showed so I slipped into my shorts, and climbed up the stairs and down a hall to the outdoor pool.
The sky was grey, it was friggin’ cold. I jumped into the sauna, nobody else was around, I massaged my sore legs. Up until that point I did not realize how sore my body was from two days of cycling. I mashed, elbowed, and soothed my leg muscles. I was feeling good in that hot tub. The contrast between the cold grey sky, the brisk wind, the warm pool, my sore appendages, and the act of simple relaxation all balanced out.
I tested out the pool. It was warmer than the air, nicely heated. I dunked my head under and made a joke to myself that Icelanders go swimming because there is no wind under water.
The entire place was to myself. I could not believe then that anybody would drive all the way out to this middle of nowhere swimming pool. There wasn’t even a town here, just a gas station, a whale processing facility, a church, and an intersection with a gravel road. I got out of the pool, dressed, and headed back out to my tent.
I found the Estonian standing outside smoking a cigarette. We were around the same age and were the only humans in sight.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Waiting for all the people to show up,” he replied.
I laughed, thinking that he just made a joke. He didn’t. I went for a bike ride and returned to find the campsite rocking, and the pool full of laughing, smiling Icelanders. The weekend invasion had began, and tents went up all over the once barren field, and the campers and RVs arrived in droves. In the matter of an hour I went from being the only one there to just another happy camper. Having swam, I paid my daily dues in Iceland, and it was time to cook, write, exercise, and sleep, all while the swimming pool came alive with a hundred smiling, laughing, Icelanders.