Iceland in the World Cup 2018

Iceland only formed their first men´s football association in 1947, three years after becoming independent from Denmark. Since then, a few talented souls have made careers as players abroad. The best known footballers were arguably Gylfi Sigurdsson and Eidur Gudjohnsen until 2018, but now a handful of faces from the national team have become international prodigies. Birkir Bjarnason has become the familiar face of 66°N; Rurik Gislasson has become a heart throb world wide, loved even by the enemy when Iceland tied Argentina in their first World Cup game; and Hannes Halldorsson the goalie definitely deserves MVP for that first game where Messi just coulnd’t get past him. Now, they have rewritten football history, becoming the smallest country to ever qualify for the world cup, and risen from being ranked 133rd to 22nd within FIFIA.

watching the World Cup games from Ingolfstorg

The World Cup hype started two years ago during the Euro 2016 qualification. We started by playing Portugal, Hungary and Austria. We tied Portugal and Hungary 1-1, but beat Austria 2-1 to make it into the quarterfinals. The newscaster reporting on the Austria game nearly lost hist sanity (and his voice) and this youtube video is definitely worth listening to: it gives you a glimpse of what every Icelander was feeling in that moment. Then we beat England 2-1, (that video is also a must see) another incredible victory, and France finally put out our unstoppable fire with a humbling 5-2 loss.

The World Cup in Russia 2018 crept up so slowly, but the hype never faded, and the planning and suspense was constant. 66°N designed special clothing for the games and Icelandair painted the plane into an Icelandic Flag that flew the team over. Both of our national airline carries made special schedules and flew direct routes to each one of the first three games. And a sea of Icelandic-blue fans flocked to the various stadiums in Russia to watch the games live, sing in the stands, and clap and cheer the ‘HÚH!’

The games started well: June 16 we tied Argentina 1-1, in an impressive display of defence. June 22 we faced Nigeria, perhaps with a bit too much offensive, underestimating their plans of kicking our butts 2-0. The Croatia game on June 26 was powerful, in fact, unbearable to watch, because we really had it. We played so well, and we had the chance to edge ourselves into the quarter finals if we had just sunk one of those goal attempts. It wasn´t until the last seconds of the game that we believed we weren´t going forward. However, watching Croatia make it to the final and knowing how we played them gives us all the more reason to be proud of Team Iceland and their first performance at the World Cup.

For the sake of Reykjavik´s very few reasons to congregate outside in the city centres and the prideful, social unity of a country over one sport we witnessed this summer, I sincerely hope we make it to every Euro qualifier AND world cup in the future. Thanks to the team for giving us such incredible representation, and even more reasons for tourists to keep flooding our talented little country.

Weird things about Russia

Like any other big, powerful nation, everybody has an opinion or some stereotypes about Russia. Many haven’t even been there, but from the media, movies, or Russian friends abroad, people still manage to imagine the place in a certain way. I expected a lot of things, but was also surprised by many.

1.) People don’t smile, barely ever, but when they did, it was you the warmest smile anyone could ever give. And if they laughed, you always laughed with them 🙂

2.) The average person doesn’t speak English, especially not in the transport sector, so you had to be lucky to have a hotel receptionist that could answer all of your questions or go to a fancy restaurant to get maybe one waitress who could take your order (or get onto google maps or google translate and work it out yourself which was an easy plan B with all the open wifi networks). However, when they did speak English, sometimes they wouldn’t stop talking, and you’d be checking in or putting in your food order for 45 minutes while he or she chatted your ear off.

I'm going deeper undergound

I’m going deeper undergound

3.) The metro stations and subway systems in Moscow and St. Petersburg where built to resemble theaters or palace halls more than public transport. There were crystal chandeliers and marble walls, paintings and statues, and all sorts of golden highlights. The metro is also super deep underground, which had something to do with Stalin wanting them to double as bomb shelters after WWII.

4.) The number of Churches, churches, and more churches… Orthodox and Christian, and the attached monasteries, was unbelievable. I swear we drove thru towns that had more churches than houses, and taller churches than any tree or building around. And some of them built in the middle ages, still standing, and preserved. Who has the time and money for all of them? But the artwork, inside and out, and all the golden domes, never got tiring, so thank God for them, whoever they are. But one weird thing that came up a few times was fluorescent or neon name signs added to the facade of some red-brick ancient church… which kind of looked like someone’s attempt to turn the churches into the red-light district.

5.) The European-ness of it all. Russia always seemed like an other-worldly place, an exotic country that is just as far away and strange as China or India, just in different ways. But Russia is surprisingly European, at least the places I visited, to the point that basically no cultural barriers were felt. They could maybe tell who wasn’t Russian by the way we dressed, but otherwise we had everything else in common.

6.) Russia loves Italy and Italian everything – especially art, fashion, wine, and food – cheeses especially. The best restaurants had Italian chefs or Italian inspired cuisine, and many of the palaces from former great rulers had the footprint of Italy’s earliest beginnings of the Renaissance.

7.) From the tiny countryside villages to the downtown core of Moscow, traveling around Russia was super safe. I had a small fear of the gangster or mafioso type, a hard-faced Russian undergrounder or some super-rich armed men in black, but we only saw a lot of nice black cars with drivers for some very pretty business people. People were also incredibly honest, and I wasn’t cheated once for a bus ride or cornershop purchase, even if I handed over 10x too much money accidentally.

8.) You can rent a horse outside the downtown bars in Moscow. I met a woman riding around at midnight by almost walking into her on the sidewalk outside Pinch restaurant, and she wanted to let me pay to ride her horse around downtown that night in between the nightlife taxi traffic and sidewalks full of party people. It didn’t seem like the best idea at the time, but now I regret not doing it.

the countryside homes

the countryside homes

9.) There are villages in the Golden ring whose economy seems to rely solely on teddy bears. From tiny to life-sized stuffed bears, you can buy them from each and every house on the side of the road from at least 2 different villages that I saw. And some of those village houses were barely standing, tilting on such an angle that you thought the ground must be on a hill you didn’t feel.

10.) Russia and rabbits… I don’t know what it is, but they like rabbits, a lot.


What to do in Russia

I’ve been trying to go to Russia for many years, but never made that many attempts. Once Icelandair had a sale to St. Petersburg for a little over €100 each way and I spontaneously bought a one way ticket there. Of course I found out soon after I needed to apply for a visa with an invitation letter and a return ticket, so that didn’t work out. I once had a 16 hour layover in Moscow on my way from Iceland to South Korea, but I didn’t manage to talk any of the immigration officers into letting me thru border control, even if just for a day. But I did manage to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet, which was helpful when I finally made it.

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

There’s a food festival which started not so long ago called Foodiez of Moscow, and Thrainn the chef participated last year. So he’d been through the visa process and knew a lot of good chefs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We each got an invitation letter from an Icelandic meat importer in St. Petersburg and then the visa was set. So now that I was finally going to visa, what did I want to do?

For starters, I wanted to go everywhere and see everything, but being the largest country in the world, that covers 11 time zones and isn’t exactly tourist loving (and speaks a language I don’t understand), I was a little restricted. And with only 2 weeks, I had to focus on the small area between Moscow and St. Petersburg, or, the ‘European’ part of Russia.

Moscow's Kremlin

Moscow’s Kremlin

Most guidebooks will tell you to do the same thing, and I don’t have much to add except the order which we did them. Moscow, you have to see the old fortress, called the Kremlin, which is full of exhibits, museums and orthodox churches, and the Red Square where you’ll find St. Basil’s Cathedral, a church that looks like its made of candycanes and came from Disneyland. The Golden Ring is a chain of cities northeast of Moscow, which we visited counter clockwise and skipped the more industrial cities. Vladimir was nice, Suzdal and Rostov were nicer, and Sergiev Posad wasn’t necessarily the nicest, but by far the busiest and most touristic.

Peterhof garden

Peterhof garden

The only other travelers we shared our kremlins, parks, museums and churches with were people from Russian speaking/former Soviet countries, and a thousand Chinese tourists. The latter always traveled together in large groups, usually touring by bus and magically managing not to mix up with the other dozen or so Chinese groups wandering the same sites.

The timing couldn’t have been better, since summer had just started but many trees were still filled with colourful spring blossoms; the sun was shining and the weather hit nearly 20°c every day. Even the big cities still had tons of parks and green spaces, and rivers and water fountains, so everything seemed lush and alive. Some gardens were to die for, and even charged entrance, but it was worth every ruble to see Catherine´s Palace garden and Peterhof Palace garden.

Catherine the Great's palace

Catherine the Great’s palace

Both those palaces are day trips from St. Petersburg, and can be taken with a boat, ferry, train or bus, and it was always fun to try a little of every transport form. After renting a car for the Golden Ring and backpacking the rest of the way, we had managed to ride the speed train, the local trains, long-haul buses, ferries, trams, local buses and the subway. Stops and stations usually had Roman letters, but it was definitely helpful to be able to read Cyrillic and try to phonetically sound out the words we saw to the words we heard. We stopped half way between Moscow and St. Petersburg, lengthening our trip from only 4 hours on the fast train to 7.5 hours of half fast-train and half local train or bus, but it was worth it to visit the medieval town whose kremlin was on the beach!

so many gold-domed churches...

so many gold-domed churches…

Some other stereotypes I had to fulfill were to drink vodka, trying as many types as humanly possible (you could probably stay in Russia for a year without trying the same vodka twice). I also wanted to see a Russian ballet and some Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff symphonies. We watched Chopiniana in St. Petersburg, and just the Mariinsky theatre itself was worth the visit (think of something like Teatro alla Scala in Milan). We saw a Prokofiev piano concert and the opera La Sonnambula in Moscow, at different theatres and only two of over a dozen available.

Luigi serving us on the chef's table at Pinch restaurant

Luigi serving us on the chef’s table at Pinch restaurant

If you also want to go to Russia for a foodiez trip, these are the must taste spots in Moscow, many of which turn into nightlife places on the weekends: Pinch, Twins, Uilliams, Ugolek and Severyane. If you want to try one of the top 50 restaurants in the world (#23 on the San Pellegrino list), try to get into White Rabbit, at the top of a city tower with great views of the city. In St. Petersburg, try Hamlet & Jacks or ‘Morojka for Pushkin’. With your meals, try some Russian wines, especially sparkling wine, which was much better than I expected. And for all of the above, its fun to try to sit on the ‘chefs table,’ where you are basically given settings and served on the kitchens service board.

2014 Travel Resolutions and Status update (and a rant on Russia)

My New years resolution is the same every year: travel more. And perhaps I like having the same one because I always manage to do so, or maybe I´m just too lazy to come up with a new idea. Although I also decided to be able to walk on my hands and do the splits in both directions as two other resolutions, but thats totally unrelated to everything.

I´ve taken more flights in the last couple weeks than there have been days in this year, so Im on some sort of right track… or I’m just unrighteously depleting my carbon footprint quota for this year. My 27th birthday is in a month and a half, and I’ll be just shy of 120 countries by then, so only 80 to finish in the next 3 years… that’s do-able, right? I’m kind of nervous since I tried to save some of the easiest and most accessible for last (ie. all of Eastern Europe) but also have about 10 completely unreachable countries (ie. Nauru, Tuvalu, North Korea), but then again there are more than 200 countries by some lists, so that leaves room for omissions.

My biggest failure to date is still not making it to Russia. I got close in 2009, when me and my friend Mike Reiter were in Helsinki and tried to figure out a way accross to St. Petersburg. It wasn’t possible then, but since then they’ve introduced have this 24 hr tourist visa thing that you can get in Helsinki to take the train over. Sigh.

behind that man (aka Mike Reiter) rubbing snow in his chest, is the river separating Norway from Russia, which we could never really see that well in the 24 hour arctic nights

behind that man (aka Mike Reiter) rubbing snow on his chest, is the river separating Norway from Russia, which we could never really see that well in the 24 hour arctic nights

The last week in Norway was also a big tease, since me and Mike Reiter met in Kirkenes to go dogsledding on the Russian border. We could see the lights of Nikel but couldn’t get over the river, a.) because it wasn’t frozen and b.) because we didnt have visas. We couldnt get visas, since you’re only allowed to get a Russian visa in your resident country, and Iceland’s Russian embassy was closed Jan 1 – Jan 8, the exact (and only) dates I’ve been home in the last 3 months. I was booking my travel to Asia over a month ago, and decided to fly through Moscow with a 16 hour layover, since I (though I) knew I’d be able to figure out a visa in the meantime, somewhere between Africa, Northern Norway, and my travel to Korea.

I flew to Norway Jan 7, and couldn’t do anything about it in Oslo. But, randomly, I met the ex-Norwegian ambassador in Russia in a bar in Tromso. He was old, very drunk, and had some secret man crush on Mike Reiter (he likes Ukrainian Jews), but refused to discuss any way that he could help me, except admitting that he definitely could and knew the “very friendly” current ambassador, but he didnt want to because he hated Russia and thought Moscow was the most dangerous city in the world.

So, long story short, I never figured out a legitimate (or illegitimate) way into Russia, so I boarded my 8 our plane from Oslo to Moscow knowing this was the closest I’d get to experiencing Russia for the next 24 hours. I’m not sure if it was psychological or not, but I was convinced the plane smelled like vodka. I spent the flight learning the phonetics of the Russian alphabet by using a map of the world with city names I could sound out.  Then I sat in the Moscow international airport for 16 hours, and although I couldn’t find any way out of it (atleast not with a way back in), somehow a bird had found its way into the completely sealed, glass-walled airport. The airport didn’t let on many Russian stereotypes, since the most notable things there were Costa Coffee, TGI Fridays, and hundreds of Asian commuters on their way back from Europe to China, Korea and Japan. Only the unfriendly faces of staff I met on the plane and at the airport supported the stereotype of that Russian coldness people always talk about.The weather was foggy, grey and cold to match, making an escape seem less appealing anyway.

I basically ended up going to Moscow to write blogs and eat lunch at TGI Fridays, which are very normal (non-Russian) things I would have rather done somewhere else in the world… But, now I can read Russian, I still have no idea what the words I’m saying outloud mean, but that will hopefully change by the time I actually make it into this god-forsaken tourist country… if I ever do!