Adventures in Icelandic Swimming

I’ve heard the maxim “Iceland is green, and Greenland is ice” a thousand times, but that doesn’t change the fact that Iceland is cold. I mean, we are getting into June now, and the best way to describe the temperature is “January in Texas.” That doesn’t even take into account the extremely high winds. Is it as cold as it could be? Not even close. Is it too cold to go swimming? You would think!

Surprise: swimming is a favorite pastime in Iceland – for some, a daily pastime. There are pools in even the smallest of towns (great example: the 800 person town of Hvolsvollur where I am living), most equipped with slides, hot tubs, and diving blocks. And they aren’t always indoor! They are heated from natural hot springs and used at all times of year.


Day three in this Arctic wasteland (I exaggerate – there’s only snow on the mountains right now), and I got my first taste of Icelandic swimming. It was interesting for a multitude of reasons.

First of all, I’m from the south. I’ve been swimming my whole life, but the typical swimming experience involves blisteringly hot weather and somehow-still-chilly water. Swimming cools you off. The part of you underwater is delightfully cool, and the part above water is quickly burning to a ripe, red crisp.

Switch all of that in your mind. Imagine walking out into fifty degree weather with freezing wind whipping around you, wearing nothing but a bathing suit. The pool water is warm, but not to be confused with a hot tub. It’s just warm enough for you to be comfortable in it and not want to put any part of your body out of it. I spent the majority of the time sunk low enough that I could just barely get some air into my nostrils. It’s actually a really awesome feeling to be warm in the water and cold out of it, except that eventually you have to get completely out of the water so you can, you know… leave. Apparently, staying forever is frowned upon.

Let’s go back a bit though. There’s a process to going swimming in Iceland that America has only barely touched upon and probably will never successfully implement. I’m not sure if the water is chlorinated, but if so, it’s very slight, and they like to keep their pools clean, so showers are absolutely required prior to entering one. I’m not talking about removing your cover-up, rinsing quickly under a spigot, and then jumping in. I’m talking full on, soap involved, completely naked showers. Yep. Wasn’t expecting that.

Here’s how it works: when you enter the recreation center, you take off your shoes right at the door (we do this at my host’s home too, and I’m guessing its because of so much snow and rain – soggy, muddy boots trekking across the floor would not be fun to clean up after). Then you go to the shower rooms – one for men, one for women. We have a three-year-old boy, so he tags along with us to the girls room. You get a red shopping basket to put your belongings in, or you choose a locker-like closet against the wall. And then you strip. The old, the young; everyone. No qualms about it. Showers are around the corner (think junior high girl’s locker room style), and everyone just strolls in, takes care of business, puts on a swimsuit, and leaves. My host family actually brings shampoo and soap with them, and after swimming, they go ahead and full-on shower there. Hey, why not? Might as well save water at home.

So I’m not exactly what you would call modest. Growing up in a big family meant you never got the bathroom to yourself. Dance recitals called for quick-changes on the side of the stage. During college as a theatre major, I perfected my quick-change skills by stripping as I ran down the hallway and never actually utilizing the dressing room. As a costumer, I was constantly present when people “dropped trou” for fittings. I really don’t mind being nude in front of women, even if they are strangers. However, I’ve gotten used to realizing that other people might be uncomfortable if you start ripping your clothes off in front of them, and I try to read the room before doing so. I know that the general stereotype is that Europeans are far more comfortable with nudity than Americans, but from what I had seen so far, I was sort of assuming that Icelanders leaned more toward the British in this area… you know, a little more closed off. Or rather, clothes on. Sorry, some puns are unavoidable.

There’s always that moment when you are asking yourself, “Wait, is this for real?” And that is usually followed up with, “Oh crap, how long was I just standing here staring while I tried to process this?” It’s like my brain takes a few minutes to catch up with what’s going on and accept the fact that if everyone else is comfortable showering naked in front of each other, then you don’t have to feel awkward on their account. I caught up eventually.

Next time, I’m bringing my shampoo. And my razor. “I don’t have to shave because it’s cold outside and my legs will never show” just got washed down the drain.

Bonus perk to this whole experience: already group-showering in the afternoon really took the awkward edge off of Mister Three-Year-Old walking in on me in the shower that night.

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