Iceland: a clean, cool land with culture and style. Snow-washed jeans are `in,' as fashion shifts like the weather

THIS is a strange, barren, wild land full of irony, with wonderful and sometimes frustrating surprises. I arrived in Reykjavik on April 23. Stores, schools, banks, and museums were closed. A national holiday, I was informed. Leif Ericsson's birthday, perhaps?

``No, sir, it's the first day of summer,'' said the receptionist at the Hotel Loftleidir.

``You mean spring,'' I corrected her politely.

``No, summer. Our summer,'' she insisted.

``But it's only April,'' I mumbled, stamping the snow from my icy, damp loafers. Either this was a cruel joke or the best public-relations job I had ever come across. But then perhaps Iceland has to resort to some slightly devious ways to counter its chilly name.

Tourism in Iceland has been climbing about 12 percent a year recently, and for good reason. If you've had it with palm trees, Iceland offers a definite difference - an unspoiled, clean land with a comfortable, quite sophisticated capital city. And there's lots of space to camp and view the hot springs, volcanoes, and glaciers.

Iceland is something of a misnomer. Greenland, Iceland's giant northern neighbor, really deserves the title.

Not that this island midway between Europe and North America is any tropical paradise. You won't see a palm tree on your 45-minute drive from the ultra-modern Keflavik International Airport to downtown Reykjavik. In fact, you most likely won't see any trees at all. Although ancient sagas describe much of the island as heavily forested, today the few trees are mostly those brought here for landscaping. Trees are not all that's missing. There are no railroads. Over 50 airstrips serve the land. And there are about as many dogs in downtown Reykjavik as cows in Manhattan.

``It's not that we don't like dogs,'' said one of the city's 87,000 residents. ``We don't like dog owners who don't clean up after them. When I lived in Amsterdam, I couldn't let my young kids play in the parks, they were so filthy.''

You won't find that here. If you want a dog within this city, you pay dearly for the privilege. And you clean up after it.

That brings up another thing Iceland has little of: pollution. Reykjavik may mean ``smoky bay,'' but the air and water here are as crystalline as Baccarat. At night, you can practically touch Venus, and those who can afford a license can fish for salmon in a river that runs through the city.

``And tell them that we don't have Eskimos here, either. Or polar bears,'' a member of the tourist board insisted.

Although the country celebrated its bicentennial last Aug. 18, little survives that suggests its age. Early settlements built of wood and sod had no chance of surviving the relentless winds and harsh winters.

The oldest livable buildings here are made of corrugated steel. With rippled, painted sides and roofs and delicate lace curtains, they are surprisingly attractive, contrasting colorfully with the cement stucco condominiums and office blocks built today.

Fancy white lace curtains decorate practically every window. These delicate scrims provide both privacy and natural light for the living quarters.

People here, especially young adults, are quite stylish. Clothes with all the proper Italian, French, and American labels are sold in the better shops.

``Snow-washed jeans,'' a saleswoman explained, straightening the faded blue trousers on a mannequin. ``Stone-washed jeans are definitely last year. They are definitely out now!'' Fortunately, I had left my bell-bottoms back in Boston.

The weather here needs some explaining. Winter is long and dark, yet the temperatures will run a mite on the mild side, usually much warmer than, say, New York. Snowfall, too, is most often less than that of northern Europe. This is a gift of the Gulf Stream.

In Boston and Seattle, they kid, ``If you don't like the weather, wait a minute.'' Here in Reykjavik, they're not kidding. On a two-hour trek in Reykjavik, it rained, snowed, cleared, hailed, clouded up, and finally cleared again and, behold - a rainbow!

``It doesn't matter how you dress in the morning,'' a businessman said. ``At some part of the day, whatever you're wearing will be completely inappropriate.''

Another thing: The wind sweeps down between the glaciers and comes at you broadside across the legs. You might just as well leave your umbrella in the trunk of your car.

And if it gets too cold, you can always go for a swim in one of Reykjavik's outdoor swimming pools, heated by underground hot springs. Let it snow! Who cares? Just stay in the water.

The people here are polite and friendly without being overly outgoing. They can quietly argue everything from politics to pizza. Any topic of conversation is safe. Just don't mention that Christopher Columbus discovered America. They know that Leif Ericsson did. So best to leave that one alone.

Then there's that strange business about surnames. For the most part, they don't exist here.

Example: If Eric Jonsson has a son, the son's last name becomes Ericsson. Conversely, a daughter's last name becomes Ericsdottir. For the most part, people are listed in the telephone book under their first names.

So what to do on that snowy first evening of summer when I arrived? The museums and stores were closed, but the opera house was open. Yes, Reykjavik has an opera company (and two symphony orchestras, to boot).

Somehow, sitting in Reykjavik's warm, cozy opera house on that windy, snowy remote island on the first evening of summer, listening to ``A"ida'' sung in Italian - simultaneously translated onto a screen in Icelanders' ancient language - seemed the ultimate irony. Verdi would not have believed it. But I think he'd have loved it.

The only sour note was the price. A single balcony ticket cost more than $30. Much of the money, I figured, went for leg makeup. The amount needed to turn a troupe of more than 100 pale Icelanders into a troupe of convincing Ethiopians and Egyptians must be staggering.

Practical information

Everyone speaks English as well as the 1,100-year-old national language.

Being an island where most everything must be imported - and situated where it is - prices, especially in restaurants, can be outrageous. A simple and quite delicious dinner of pasta with cod roe as a starter, followed by a lamb entree - two of this country's most popular local foods - with no drinks except water, and no dessert - cost $46. Yes, it was a very fine restaurant, but be prepared!

Icelandair offers many enticing reductions on car rentals, tours, and domestic flights if you'll stay here longer than just to change planes.

For further information, contact Iceland Tourist Bureau, Skogarhlio 6, Reykjavik, Iceland. Telex, 2049, or Icelandair, 21 Penn Plaza, 360 W. 31st Street, New York, NY 10001; telephone 1-800-223-5500.

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