Can the secret to the country’s happiness be found in its communal pools?
On a frigid February day in Reykjavik, I stood bare-¬chested and dripping wet just inside the dressing room at the Vesturbaejar pool, facing a long, cold walk to the outdoor hot tubs. My host was stoic, strong, a Viking. I was whining.
“I just don’t want to go out there,” I said. “How do you make yourself do it?”
“You must, to swim in the pool,” ValdimarHafstein said with a shrug. He is a folklorist at the University of Iceland who studies the country’s pools. “Kids hate it, too. I have to haul my kids kicking and screaming.” I took a deep breath and tried to think of warm things. Wearing only a Speedo bathing suit — I had packed three, in honor of the island’s reputation as one of the company’s most avid markets — I stepped onto the deck. It was a few degrees below freezing.
Imagine the feeling you get when you hold an ice cube tight, that combination of sting and ache, except imagine it all over your nearly nude body. Battling my long-¬ingrained instincts never to run at a swimming pool, I fell into a kind of brisk walk-trot, aiming for the large set of interconnected hot tubs in the center of the complex. I’m sure I looked ridiculous. The good news: I’d never been less concerned about my appearance while wearing almost nothing in public.
Small snowflakes glittered in the sky, which at 4 p.m. was already darkening toward dusk. I reached the largest hot tub and sank to my chin. For one glorious moment, I felt my mind go blank: There was just my body, my big, stupid body in its stupid bathing suit, enveloped in warmth, the cold wind on my ears only heightening my delight. Behind me, Valdimar ambled across the deck, saying hello to a neighbor in another hot pot.
Every Icelandic town, no matter how small, has its own pool. There areramshackle cement rectangles squatting under rain clouds in the sheep-strewn boonies. There are fancy aquatic complexes with multilevel hot tubsand awesomely dangerous water slides of the sort that litigious American culture would never allow. All told, there are more than 120 public pools — usually geothermally heated, mostly outdoors, open all year long — in Iceland, a country with a population just slightly larger than that of Lexington, Ky. “If you don’t have a swimming pool, it seems you may as well not even be a town,” the mayor of Reykjavik, DagurEggertsson, told me. I interviewed him, of course, as we relaxed together in a downtown hot tub.
These public pools, or sundlaugs, serve as the communal heart of Iceland, sacred places whose affordability and ubiquity are viewed as a kind of civil right. Families and teenagers and older people lounge and chat insundlaugs every day, summer or winter. Despite Iceland’s cruel climate, its remoteness and its winters of 19 hours of darkness per day, the people there are among the most contented in the world. The more local swimming pools I visited, the more convinced I became that Icelanders’ remarkable satisfaction is tied inextricably to the experience of escaping the fierce, freezing air and sinking into warm water among their countrymen. The pools are more than a humble municipal investment, more than just a civic perquisite that emerged from an accident of Iceland’s volcanic geology. They seem to be, in fact, a key to Icelandic well-¬being.
This past winter, I visited Iceland and swam in 14 pools all over the country. I found them full of Icelanders eager to discuss what role these underwater village greens played in their lives. I met recent immigrants to the Westfjords town Bolungarvik as they mingled with their new neighbors, their toddler carrying fresh handfuls of snow into the hot tub and delightedly watching them melt. I saw Icelandic parents splash with their kids to calm them before bedtime; I talked to adults who remembered that ritual from childhood and could summon the memory of slipping their still-warm bodies between cool sheets. I heard stories of divorcing couples splitting their local pools along with their possessions and retired couples bonding by swimming together every day. I watched four steaming septuagenarians swim laps in a northern Iceland pool while the sunrise lit up the mountains behind them and an attendant brought out foam cups of coffee balanced on a kickboard. “I think the swimming pools are what make it possible to live here,” the young artist RagnheidurHarpaLeifsdottir said. “You have storms, you have darkness, but the swimming pool is a place for you to find yourself again.”
For centuries, Iceland was a nation of seamen who regularly drowned within sight of shore. One local newspaper reported in 1887 that more than 100 Icelanders had drowned that winter alone. In 1931, a boat carrying four farmers capsized while they tried to row a panicking cow across Kollafjordur fjord. Three of the men died; one, who had studied swimming, survived.
Incidents like this fostered an enthusiasm for swimming education. At the time, the only place to learn was a muddy ditch downstream from the hot spring where the women of Reykjavik did laundry. Inspired by that hot spring, and using a heavily mortgaged drill that had been brought to Iceland to search fruitlessly for gold, the city soon tapped the underground hot water generated by Iceland’s volcanic underbelly. Iceland’s first geothermal heat flowed into 70 homes and three civic buildings: a school, a hospital and a swimming pool. The national energy authority offered no-risk loans to villages across the country to encourage geothermal drilling, and within a generation, the ancient turf house had nearly disappeared from Iceland, replaced by modern apartment buildings and homes, all of them so toasty warm that even on winter nights most Icelanders leave a window open. With hot water flowing through the country and a populace eager to take a dip — swimming education was made mandatory in all Icelandic schools in 1943 — pools soon popped up in every town.
“Because of the weather, we don’t have proper plazas in the Italian or French style,” the writer Magnus SveinnHelgason explained to me. “Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, so we don’t have the pub tradition of England or Ireland.” The pool is Iceland’s social space: where families meet neighbors, where newcomers first receive welcome, where rivals can’t avoid one another. It can be hard for reserved Icelanders, who “don’t typically talk to their neighbors in the store or in the street,” to forge connections, Mayor Dagur told me. (Icelanders generally use patronymic and matronymic last names and refer to everyone, even the mayor, by first name.) “In the hot tub, you must interact,” Mayor Dagur continued. “There’s nothing else to do.”
Not only must you interact; you must do so in a state of quite literal exposure. Most Icelanders have a story about taking visitors, often American, to the pools and then seeing them balk in horror at the strict requirement to strip naked, shower and scrub their bodies with soap from head to toe. Men’s and women’s locker rooms feature posters highlighting all the regions you must lather assiduously: head, armpits, undercarriage, feet. Icelanders are very serious about these rules, which are necessary because the pools are only lightly chlorinated; tourists and shy teenagers are often scolded by pool wardens for insufficient showering. The practice was even the subject of a popular sketch on the comedy show “Fostbraedur,” in which a zealous warden scrubs down a reluctant pool visitor himself.
That one of the buck-¬naked bystanders in that viral video, Jon Gnarr, was later elected mayor of Reykjavik demonstrates that Icelanders are quite un-¬self-¬conscious about nudity in the service of pool cleanliness. This was made most clear to me, perhaps, in a dressing room in the town Isafjordur, where a chatty liquor-¬store manager named SnorriGrimsson told me a long story about the time a beautiful Australian girl asked him to go to the pool but then revealed that she doesn’t shower before swimming. He mugged a look of comic horror, then brought home the kicker: “It was a very difficult decision. Thankfully, the pool was closed!” I could tell this bit killed with his fellow Icelanders, but my own appreciation of it was somewhat impeded by Snorri’s delivery of it in the nude, his left foot on the sink, stretching like a ballet dancer at the barre.
“It’s wonderful,” an actress named Salome Gunnarsdottir told me in the pool one evening. “Growing up here, we see all kinds of real women’s bodies. Sixty-¬five-¬year-¬olds, middle-¬aged, pregnant women. Not just people in magazines or on TV.”
“It’s so important,” Salome said earnestly. “You get used to breasts and vaginas!”
As a journalist, I will never forget the uniquely Icelandic experience of shaking hands with handsome Mayor Dagur and then, just minutes later, interviewing him as we each bared all. (In the tradition of politician interviews everywhere, an aide lurked nearby, in a manner I would call unobtrusive but for the fact that he was also naked.) I admit I found this disconcerting at first, but eventually there was something comforting about seeing all those other chests and butts and guts — which for the most part belonged to normal human-¬being bodies, not sculpted masterpieces. And that comfort extends out into the pool proper, where you might be covered — only a little, in my case — but are still on display.
But near-¬nudity, by encouraging a slight remove from others, also allows the visitor to focus, in a profound and unfamiliar way, on his own body, on its responses and needs. Despite its being a social hub, the pool also cultivates inwardness. Results of a questionnaire distributed by Valdimar’s research team suggested that women in particular go to the pool to seek solitude. According to women I talked to, most everyone respects the posture of aquatic reverie — head tilted back against the pool wall, eyes closed, mouth smiling a tiny smile of satisfaction — that you adopt when you come to the pool wanting to be left alone.
SigurlaugDagsdottir, a graduate student researching the pools, speculated that the sundlaugs’ social utility in Icelandic communities derives in part from the intimacy of the physical experience: In the pool, she said, you can “take off the five layers of clothing that usually separate you from everyone else.” As such, the pools are a great leveler: Council members in Reykjavik make a point to circulate among the city’s sundlaugs, where they often take good-¬natured grief from their constituents. The filmmaker Jon Karl Helgason, who is shooting a documentary about Iceland’s pools, said, “When people are in the swimming pool, it doesn’t matter if you are a doctor or a taxi driver.” His girlfriend, FridgerdurGudmundsdottir, added, “Everyone is dressed the same.”
On the way from Reykjavik to Keflavik airport is the Blue Lagoon, a luxurious hot-¬water spa that is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations. There, for 40 euros, you can shower in private stalls and float in mineral-¬rich water — discharge from the nearby Svartsengi power plant, which uses turbines twice as tall as a man to generate 75 megawatts of electricity and 150 thermal megawatts of heat for the surrounding towns.
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My final day in Iceland, I turned off the highway just after the Blue Lagoon and instead drove into one of those towns, the port Rekjanesbaer. The lobby of the town’s pool is dotted, fittingly, by a series of porthole-¬like windows. The woman working at the desk charged me nine bucks and asked, “Is this your first time in an Iceland swimming pool?”
“Nope,” I said with some pleasure.
The familiar signs in the showers were supplemented by notices in Polish, targeting the new wave of immigrants who have found work in Rekjanesbaer. I snapped on my Speedo, steeled my courage and exited the warm lodge into the chill. The 36-¬to-¬38-¬degrees-¬Celsius hot pot was full of enormous men with Bluto-¬type physiques and also a small girl in a pink ruffled bathing suit. The largest of the Blutos rose from the water, picked up the girl and carried her, giggling, to the family pool. His biceps sported a tattoo of a roaring bear consumed by flames.
Her friends, all in their 20s and pregaming for a Saturday night out in the bars, nodded enthusiastically. “Especially pregnant women,” Helga Gunnhildursdottir agreed. “You can see: Oh yes, she really got quite big.”
This time I didn’t approach anyone, didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t speak at all. I concentrated on what I could feel: the water pressing lightly on my skin, the wind prickling my beard. All around me was the soft white noise of a community. The conversation; the connection; the freedom, within that flurry of sociability, to withdraw and simply be within yourself. It called to mind something a Ph.D. student named KatrinGudmundsdottir told me on my first day in Iceland. She was describing a certain ineffable emotional state to me, a native Icelander’s sense of comfort while immersed in her neighborhood sundlaug. When I thought of what she said, a perfect G chord strummed inside me. “It’s not exactly like you’re happy,” she had mused. “It’s that you know how to be in the swimming pool.”
The sun was low on the horizon, bright but evanescent. The only other thing in the crystal--blue sky was the contrail of a jet, pointed to the west. I closed my eyes. I was in the pool.