In Focus: Privately Owned Tourist Sites

privately owned tourism sites iceland

Many visitors to Iceland may be surprised to know that some of the country’s most popular tourist sites are located on privately-owned land. Icelandic law ensures that the public can access sites of natural or historical significance, despite them being in private ownership. But all those visitors require infrastructure, both to protect the site itself and to attend to the visitors’ needs, and the state and local governments have a role to play. Icelandic authorities and private landowners share a duty to ensure accessibility, safety, and conservation at such sites, but the execution of these duties varies greatly from one tourist attraction to the next. 

Kerið 

The volcanic crater lake Kerið lies in South Iceland, not far from the popular Golden Circle route. For years, tourists have stopped at the site in between their visits to Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. In 2008, controversy erupted when Kerið’s landowners announced they would begin charging entry to the crater. Many locals considered it absurd to put a price tag on a natural site, believing it should remain accessible to all without a fee. 

While the decision to charge entry was reversed due to the amount of backlash it received, a fee was eventually instituted at Kerið five years later, in 2013. At that time, CEO of Kerfélagið Gunnar O. Skaptason stated that the public perspective toward charging entry to natural sites had changed. “This is something that everyone has been waiting for, because this money will be used to improve the infrastructure around Kerið. So this is actually nature conservation.”

A glance at recent Google reviews of Kerið seems to support Gunnar’s assertion: most mention the beauty of the site but not the entry fee. One reviewer that does mention the cost writes that it’s “cheaper than a coffee.” Another states: “I didn’t mind paying for entrance, because I see what they do with maintenance of the trail.” Despite collecting fees since 2013, Kerið’s owners have yet to install a public washroom at the site. This could be due to zoning permits: RÚV reported in 2019 that Kerfélagið had received permission to build more services at the site, but the pandemic has likely delayed construction.

iceland tourism private land
Kerið crater

Geysir

In a way, entrance fees were the instigator for the Icelandic state’s purchase of the Geysir geothermal area. Originally owned by a farmer, the area was sold to James Craig, a whiskey distiller and future Prime Minister of Ireland, in the 1890s. Craig was the first to charge visitors an entrance fee to the site, until he relinquished ownership to a friend, who dropped the fees. The land changed hands a few times, until it was given to the Icelandic state by film director Sigurður Jónasson in 1935. That was only the geothermal site itself, however: the surrounding land still belonged to private individuals. 

In 2016, after landowners attempted (in vain) to institute an entry fee once again, the state decided to acquire the surrounding land. Owners stated that they were forced to sell the land under threat of expropriation. It wasn’t until 2020 that the site was officially protected.

Fjaðrárgljúfur

Long under most tourists’ radar, Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon in South Iceland exploded in popularity after it was featured in a Justin Bieber music video in 2015. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of visitors to the canyon doubled. The existing dirt trails were turned to mud by the increased foot traffic; visitors stepped further and further off the paths, causing damage to the surrounding flora. The site has been closed for weeks at the time in recent years to allow the flora to recover.

The canyon and surrounding area are privately owned. One of the properties, encompassing some 315 hectares, was put up for sale six years ago. In June 2022, Icelandic media outlets reported that a buyer had been found. As Fjaðrárgljúfur is on the Nature Conservation Register, the state had pre-emptive purchase rights to the land. This means that if they chose to do so, authorities could step in and take over the purchase. In the case of Fjaðrárgljúfur, the government decided not to step in, but the Environment Minister signed an agreement with the to-be landowner that is expected to ensure the canyon’s protection. 

Until now, no admission or parking fees have been charged at the canyon, but a government notice implied that a parking fee may be implemented, adding that “the collection and disposition of fees that may be charged for the parking of motor vehicles shall be in its entirety used to develop services, operations, and infrastructure for those travelling in the area.”

Reynisfjara

If there is one issue that stands above all others at Iceland’s tourist sites, it is undoubtedly safety. The country’s climate and natural features can create danger that visitors may not expect or be prepared for. That has been the case at one of South Iceland’s most-visited sites, Reynisfjara black sand beach. While the site’s basalt rock formations and black pebbles draw visitors in droves, its dangerous sneaker waves have claimed several lives, despite extensive signage warning of their danger. What makes managing the site even more challenging is that authorities must negotiate with not just one, but several landowners at the site.

reynifjara beach in iceland
Reynisfjara beach

Reynisfjara landowners and local authorities have been discussing installing additional safety infrastructure at the beach, such as a flashing light and a gate that could be closed when conditions were particularly dangerous. Both parties have accused the other of delaying such developments. Jónas Guðmundsson, a project manager at Iceland’s search and rescue organisation ICE-SAR accused some landowners at the site of hindering efforts to set up a warning system. One representative of the landowners denied the accusations, but expressed doubt about the effectiveness of the proposed equipment, asking if police officers stationed at the site had not been able to prevent tourists from approaching the waves “how was a gate supposed to do it?” Landowners say a government committee set up years ago has dragged its feet on the issue.

It’s clear that the more parties are involved in the decision-making process, the more cumbersome the process of installing necessary infrastructure, even when safety is at stake. The installation of a flashing warning light at Reynisfjara has since been approved by all parties, but not before another tourist death occurred at the site last June.

Fagradalsfjall

Iceland is volcanically active, meaning that many sites have the potential to become tourist attractions overnight; and magma does not distinguish between private and public land. When the Fagradalsfjall eruption began in March 2021, locals (and international visitors, once pandemic restrictions allowed), streamed to the Reykjanes peninsula to witness the spectacle with their own eyes. 

iceland tourism volcano eruption
Fagradalsfjall eruption in 2021

The eruption occurred on private land, roughly a two-hour hike from the nearest road. It goes without saying that there were neither washrooms at the site nor a place to park – minimal infrastructure that needed to be ensured in order to preserve the surrounding environment. In May 2021, after clearing unpaved lots and installing port-a-potties at the trailhead, landowners instituted a parking fee of ISK 1.000, stating that proceeds would go toward building up infrastructure in the area. The government also agreed to contribute finances toward building up necessary services at the site. Tension arose, however, when the lot’s owners announced that they would be willing to sell the property and the brand-new volcano – for the right price. Government representatives stated they would protect public access to the site and that investing public funds was out of the question if any new owners planned to operate the site for profit.

Eruptions pose huge planning challenges for landowners and authorities: they are difficult to predict, attract huge numbers, involve significant danger, and constantly change the very landscape around them. Hiking trails at the Fagradalsfjall eruption, for example, were regularly closed or modified as they were cut off by lava. The eruption stopped in September 2021, and visitor numbers slowed down to a trickle. All development plans at the site came to a halt.

Lack of policy?

If there is anything the above stories show, it is that Iceland’s government lacks a cohesive policy when it comes to entry fees, access, and funding of necessary infrastructure at popular tourist sites. Decisions appear to be made on a case-by-case basis, and are largely reactionary: infrastructure is not created in anticipation of increased traffic, but only once that traffic is already straining the limits of the site in question.

The issues that affect the operation of tourist sites in private ownership touch on larger issues connected to land ownership in Iceland in general. In recent years, such discussions have touched on the consolidation of properties, for example, which would give wealthy individuals disproportionate control over natural resources in Iceland. Government policy may need to be clarified in regards to the responsibilities of landowners, particularly when it comes to natural resources or natural wonders located on their property. 

While Icelanders, and Icelandic authorities, have a sense that most, if not all, natural sites should remain free and accessible to all, they are also not opposed to charging fees in exchange for services, particularly if the funds collected go toward nature conservation and necessary infrastructure. This type of administration has been successful at sites like Víðgelmir cave, where private owners have both increased access to the site and ensured it is well-conserved. Fees don’t seem to deter foreign tourists or locals from visiting sites: and likely seem minor compared to the cost of their accommodation, dinner, or rental car. In fact, travellers often seem happy to take part in protecting the areas they are visiting.

Emaciated Horses Spur Review of MAST’s Supervisory Role

Horse in Iceland

The National Audit Office will launch an assessment of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority’s (MAST) monitoring of animal welfare, RÚV reports. The decision follows, among other things, reports that the desperate condition of roughly twenty horses in Borgarnes had been reported to MAST without any immediate action being taken.

In desperate condition

On Wednesday, news broke that nearly twenty emaciated horses had been kept inside for the entire summer in a stable in Borgarnes. The condition of the horses was described as “desperate.”

Speaking to RÚV on Wednesday, Steinunn Árnadóttir – who also keeps horses in the area – maintained that concerned parties had filed multiple complaints with the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), but no action had been taken.

“They’re emaciated. They’re not allowed outside. They don’t see sunlight. They’ve been deprived of green grass. There’s a filly that I saw this spring, probably in May, that’s been inside ever since.”

Following these reports, the horses’ owner – who did not respond to interview requests from RÚV or other outlets – removed the horses from the stables under cover of night. RÚV reported that the person in question, who also keeps sheep and cows in other places in Borgarnes, had exhibited threatening behaviour to other residents.

The Animal Welfare Association of Iceland subsequently released a public statement calling for MAST to take action: “This isn’t the first time that MAST has responded unsatisfactorily to well-reasoned claims of poor treatment of animals. MAST has the legal authority to respond to such complaints without delay … it is clear that a thorough review of the authority’s supervisory role needs to be conducted.”

An assessment is launched

This morning, RÚV reported that the National Audit Office was set to launch an official review of the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority’s monitoring of animal welfare. The result of the assessment will be published in a report to Parliament.

Guðmundur Björgvin Helgason, a comptroller with the National Audit Office, stated that now was an opportune time to assess MAST protocols, especially in light of the reports of emaciated horses in Borgarnes.

“We regularly review possible assessments,” Guðmundur remarked, stating that administrative profiling of MAST had been undertaken in 2013, which was the year that animal welfare supervision was moved from the Ministry for the Environment to MAST. “So we’ve never had a point of contact with these sets of issues within MAST until now.”

The National Audit Office’s decision to launch the assessment was, in part, spurred by a few recent instances in which MAST’s supervisory role was criticised. “Which is why we felt that it was an appropriate time to review their role. If we come across any issues with regard to MAST’s supervision, we hope to shed further light on them.”

A brief update

The above-mentioned Steinunn Árnadóttir, who keeps horses in Borgarnes, spoke again to Vísir today, stating that a mare and her filly were still being kept inside the aforementioned stable in Borgarnes, deprived of sunlight. According to Steinunn, the owner had been forced to put his horses, which were malnourished and in desperate conditions, to pasture, but for some reason, the mare and filly were still inside the stable.

Summer’s “Finally Here,” Meteorologist Declares

A person riding an electric scooter by the Reykjavík city centre pond.

Speaking to Fréttablaðið yesterday, meteorologist Sigurður Þ. Ragnarsson announced the late arrival of the Icelandic summer. According to Sigurður, good weather is expected in Iceland over the coming days, and may even last a few weeks.

Warm weather may persist for weeks

“Summer’s finally here,” Sigurður Þ. Ragnarsson, known more familiarly as Storm Siggi, declared in an interview with Fréttablaðið yesterday; notwithstanding warm weather in North Iceland last week, this year’s summer has generally received tepid reviews. According to Sigurður, however, the weather is expected to greatly improve over the coming weeks – with warmth and stillness being the operative words.

“We see very warm air gathering in the upper atmosphere, especially to the north of the country, near eastern Greenland,” Sigurður told Fréttablaðið. “This is warm air that you usually don’t see this time of year. There’s also this pressure ridge building over the country, straddling the Atlantic, which would, if everything works out, push any low-pressure systems to the south. These two factors create warm, calm, and dry weather for the entire country, which could remain well into the middle of September – or even longer,” Sigurður remarked.

Sigurður added that many “noteworthy” and “exciting” developments were on the horizon over the next few weeks. “Yes, you heard right: weeks. One almost wants to say – Friday notwithstanding – that the summer’s finally here.”

Warm weather but no record-breaking heat

Although warm weather is expected over the coming weeks, Sigurður tempered expectations with the caveat that Icelanders would not see any record-breaking temperatures; whenever warm air accumulates in the upper atmosphere, wind is required to pull the warmth down to the surface.

“This wind isn’t in our forecasts, so we’re not expecting any records to fall, but, nevertheless, unseasonably warm weather. It’s worth mentioning that whenever you have this persistent low-pressure zone hovering over the country, cloud cover becomes difficult to predict – especially if the sea breeze comes into effect,” Sigurður observed, adding that the weather should begin to improve over the weekend.

“I’m on cloud nine, for my own part, with the prospect of an Indian summer – in the capital area, as well. It’s actually all of Iceland that will be experiencing this pleasant weather for roughly two weeks. If everything works out, this will also help to extend berry and mushroom-picking season, and may even extend the harvest time among potato patches.”

Keflavík Pt. 3

keflavík iceland
keflavík iceland

Langbest

The noon traffic is picking up inside Langbest, a fast-food restaurant in the Ásbrú neighbourhood of Keflavík, which has been a fixture of the local food scene since 1986.

Langbest serves pizza, hamburgers, and chicken wings – and it’s owned and operated by Ingólfur Karlsson, a jovial, bearded fellow, who sits us down in a corner booth and lets us in on his secret. Consistency.

“We’re at about the third generation of people eating here,” he says. “It’s become a kind of tradition. People grew up here, and they come back here for something familiar. You could say that it’s seeped into their subconscious.”

As I dig into a bowl of chicken wings, jab my fork at the salad – Langbest’s most popular dish, it turns out – and nibble at some pizza, I understand the appeal. Not to mention all the history. Near the entrance, there’s a wall of photos from the time of the naval station.

The building, which also houses a hair salon, was constructed in 1957 and consecrated by famed army cheerleader Bob Hope. It was initially christened “The Viking Mall,” a shopping and community centre that later came to house a rotation of fast-food restaurants: Wendy’s, Subway, All American Food. Since Langbest opened in 2008, the kitchen’s remained almost unchanged. Every now and then, a former soldier drops in.

Ingólfur recalls opening his doors one morning, and an elderly gentleman and his wife walking in. The two of them sat awhile at a table in the back. Ingólfur walked over and clarified that if they’d like to order, they could come on over to the cash register.

“I know all about that,” the man replied.

The man’s name was Thomas F. Hall, and he was the former Commander of Fleet Air Keflavik and the Iceland Defence Force, he explained: the one who had spent the first five-dollar bill at the original Wendy’s – the same five-dollar bill that had been pinned to the kitchen wall in remembrance of the act. When the naval station closed in 2006, Thomas Hall had returned as part of a special closing committee. After all of the military’s equipment had been packed up and readied, he had sat on the aeroplane and awaited its take-off – when he remembered that five-dollar bill. He sent a soldier back to the base to retrieve it. It was the last thing they took.

Ingólfur began working at the naval base mess hall at the age of 15 and stayed there for 12 years (he worked five years for the navy and seven for the air force). When the army left, he got laid off, but by that time, he had been operating Langbest in downtown Keflavík for almost a decade. Not long after losing his job at the base, he was called into a meeting with Kadeco and invited to open a second Langbest in this building. Ingólfur agreed. He spent almost ISK 60 million [$436,000] on renovations, and when Langbest opened its doors in Ásbrú in 2008, the banking collapse was in the offing. He operated two Langbest restaurants between 2008 and 2014 but closed the one in town during that latter year.

Langbest in Icelandic is a compound word made up of lang, meaning, roughly, “way” (as in “way better”) and best, meaning, well… Asked about the origins of the name, Ingólfur recalls that it derives from an argument between the original owner of the place, Axel Jónsson, and his brother, a waiter. His brother wanted to give the restaurant an Italian name, but Axel, the chef, disagreed. During their argument, they continually said, “No, it’s way better to…” And so the third brother, overhearing the argument, interrupted: “Why don’t you just name it Langbest?”

“If you paste the name into Google Translate you get Second to None – which is a great name for the restaurant,” Ingólfur observes.

“If you have to eat at other places in town,” I ask, “where do you go?”

“I like Issi’s Fish and Chips. His fish is good. Fresh. Consistent.”

Issi Fish and Chips

Jóhann Issi Hallgrímsson has an impeccable beard with a moustache that curls up on each side toward his rather striking eyes. He’s serving fish and chips from his food truck in Fitjar (which is, technically, outside this article’s purview, given that it’s not in Keflavík).

Issi grew up in nearby Grindavík and operates Issi Fish and Chips with his wife Hjördís. The two dated briefly during grade school before splitting up. They found each other again 20 years later, got married, had kids, and founded the company Tralli (named for his grandparents’ dog) in 2016.

“None of this would be possible without her,” Issi says, with a glint in his eye.

He’d actually founded the business while working another job. As the two roles grew more difficult to juggle, Issi was called into a meeting with his former superiors. They began to reprimand him until Issi interrupted: “I’m gonna have to stop you; I have to give notice.” The meeting ended on amicable terms, and Issi’s been his own boss ever since.

keflavík food

Like for most people in the business, COVID was a setback – but the volcanic eruption in 2021 provided an opportunity. As soon as he heard the lava was flowing, Issi revved up his food truck and headed off toward the volcano. He parked his truck at the trailhead, knowing that the people would come. Despite spending a month there, and, in his own words, making a good buck – he never bothered to visit the eruption itself. He was too busy frying fish.

Although he has no direct connection to the naval base, he agrees that it had a big impact on the fast-food culture in Keflavík. When he lived in Grindavík, he used to compete against the Americans in basketball. It wasn’t so much the sport that was thrilling, but the oversized pizzas that they used to serve at Wendy’s. “Not to mention the Dr. Pepper.”

Issi’s grandfather, Jón Kristjánsson, was the first Icelander to open a fish and chips joint in Iceland (as far as he knows). It was in Akureyri, North Iceland, and was called Matarkjallarinn (the Food Cellar). It burned down in 1942. The family has since joked that the old man had gone out to drink with British soldiers and forgotten to turn off the frying pan.

Issi attributes the popularity of his food truck to the freshness of his ingredients. He gets all of his fish fresh from the ship Þorbjörn in Grindavík. He says he’s meticulous about cleanliness: regularly replacing the oil and keeping the sieves clear. He laments the rising prices of ingredients and says that some fish and chips vendors in the UK have closed their doors, as opposed to raising prices.

Asked where he eats in Keflavík, he says that he’s a regular at Pulsuvagninn.

Pulsuvagninn

Pulsuvagninn is, undoubtedly, the most famous fast-food joint in Keflavík. It’s operated by Vilberg Skúlason – called Villi – who was born in 1957 in Blönduós, North Iceland and raised in the south, in Selfoss. A trained meat processor, Villi came to Keflavík after being persuaded to come work at the now-defunct Víkurbær, the first supermarket in town, by its owner.

Pulsuvagninn first opened its doors in 1977. It was originally owned by “a few local boys,” Villi explains, one of whom had spent time in Denmark – from where he borrowed the famous hamburger recipe (it’s marinated in a special oil and served with red cabbage). In its heyday, Pulsuvagninn was a little shack on wheels that solely offered a hot dog with everything and soft drinks from a soda fountain.

food in keflavík

Villi and his wife took over the hot dog truck in 1980, and the hot dogs and original Danish hamburger have remained unchanged. Along with his wife, Villi operates Pulsuvagninn with Inga Hilda Gústafsdóttir, whom he met in 1978. When Villi bought Pulsuvagninn, Inga was working at a school cafeteria, but Villi persuaded her to come work for him. She now owns a share of the truck.

“She’s absolutely indispensable,” Villi says, with Inga standing next to him, in the staff quarters in the back of Pulsuvagninn. Inga explains that, these days, staffing is the toughest part of the business. “We’ve been forced to recruit younger and younger employees. All the way down to the 10th grade,” Inga says. “We used to employ housewives, but now they’re all working at the schools. People seem to be a lot better off – they can afford to work less. I understand it, of course, but the trend’s been problematic for us, nonetheless,” Villi observes, adding that some of the younger generation haven’t “learned to work.”

Pulsuvagninn (The Hot Dog Cart) is spelled with a u instead of the more widely-accepted y (Pylsuvagninn), which sometimes inspires criticism from language-sensitive customers. Villi recalls someone once stopping by and finding fault with the spelling, before replying in English – when asked what size of fries he wanted – that he wanted “medium.”

Thai Keflavík

The first time I saw the Grammy-nominated band Kaleo was at the Night of Lights festival at Thai Keflavík. JJ Júlíusson, the band’s frontman, belted out Vor í Vaglaskógi at least twice that evening, on account of popular demand, before the song had actually been released.

JJ and Magnús Heimisson, the owner and manager of Thai Keflavík, are “cousins” (JJ’s stepfather and Magnús’ father are brothers). According to Magnús, Keflavík residents spend something like 30% more than capital area residents on fast food. Hoping to open a food hall in Ásbrú, Magnús has recently been delving into the books of restaurants in the area – and some of the numbers, he says, have been quite astonishing.

“Pulsuvagninn, for example, unbelievable revenue! Makes me wonder what the hell I’ve been doing all this time.”

thai food keflavík

Digging into some Pad Thai, which is fantastic (the wife and I sometimes make special trips to Keflavík on account of it), I ask Magnús about the nature of his clientele.

“Icelanders? Foreigners? Thai people?”

“Mostly Icelanders. Thai people cook at home – they know how to make Thai food.”

“What was COVID like for you?”

“Shit, man. We were in our death throes. But it was good, ultimately, because people wanted to support local restaurants. Last summer was the biggest summer since we opened 16 years ago. Even without the tourists.” Magnús also mentions that the eruption helped, as well as quarantining tourists ordering delivery.

As far as the food hall in Ásbrú is concerned, Magnús is excited. He’d like to preserve some association with the naval station.

“Not that I’m going to open an army-themed food hall, but to keep some elements that pay homage to the history. Some of the locals would like to forget all about the naval station era. But the younger generation should take pride in their history. Besides, the tourists love hearing about it.”

Oriento

Oriento is a family business situated in downtown Keflavík that opened its doors in August of 2019. The family, comprised of parents Mohamad Chikh and Natalia Bujorean, and their two children, Mahmoud Chikh (called Memo) and Nahla Chikh, moved here in 2017. They lived in Innri Njarðvík before relocating to Ásbrú and then settling in Keflavík.

Mohamad is Syrian and Natalia is Moldovan. They met in Greece, where they lived for seven years leading up to the economic crisis in 2008. They moved back to Syria until war broke out and they fled to Iceland. Memo, their son, sits with his parents at a table in the back of the restaurant and translates. His sister’s off today.

keflavík food

“What do you think of Keflavík?”

“It’s okay. It’s a little bit boring. For any kind of diversion, you need to go to Reykjavík.”

“Do you go often?”

“Not really. Not to mention how expensive gas has become.”

As I taste the lamb Souvlaki, which is rather good (I’m so full at this point that food has lost all meaning), the family appears a little worried that our interview will cut into time with customers.

“It’s the second of the month, so we’re quite busy,” Memo says. “Yesterday was crazy. They just kept coming. No breaks.”

I learn that Memo’s father has worked here every day since they opened their doors three years ago, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 AM, without a single day off.

“I think the only day he took off was Christmas Day last year – because no one else was open,” Memo observes.

food keflavík

“And how long is he going to keep this up?” I ask. Memo turns to his father.

“He doesn’t know. We’re trying to find staff, but it’s been difficult. Most people want to work off the books (svart, or black, in Icelandic), but we can’t do that.” He says that some people collect unemployment benefits and then work off the books to supplement their income.

I ask Memo what his father’s going to do when he finally takes a day off.

“Sit in the sun. Either that or close the restaurant for a week and rent a summer cabin.

keflavík iceland

But he worries that if he closes people will become upset.”

“I think most people will understand if he takes a few days off,” I reply.

The conversation turns to more troubling aspects of their business. Oriento’s been robbed twice since the family opened its doors. They have photos of burglars’ faces, but the police haven’t done anything.

“They can’t catch them – or they don’t want to,” Memo says. “I don’t understand it. The last burglar took money from the cash register, and we knew the person who robbed us before that.”

Memo explains that they found the culprit on Facebook – a familiar face to the police. He was a friend of a former employee, who had probably known that his father was saving up money, which he kept at Oriento, to open a restaurant in Reykjavík.

Memo regularly visits Langbest. It’s the only fast-food place that he really likes. “The food is just good. It’s got a lot of variety. It’s not expensive.”

Anton's Mamma Mia

Anton Narváez was born in Chile. He studied boat building in Denmark before moving to Iceland in 1967. He opened his first restaurant, El Sombrero, in downtown Reykjavík in 1984. Four years later, he constructed Argentina Steakhouse – one of Iceland’s most famous steakhouses – from scratch. Over the next 35 years, Anton would open eight more restaurants.

In 2019, he had planned on opening his eleventh and final restaurant, Mamma Mia, at Garðarshólmi (constructed in 1909) in Keflavík. But while renovating the house, he died suddenly from a heart attack.

Prior to starting the project, he had approached Eyrún Anna Gestsdóttir, called Eyja – whom he had met in Kaffi Duus some years earlier – if she’d manage the restaurant. Upon his death, Anton’s son pulled out of the project, and the building stood empty for three months.

Sitting across from me at Anton’s Mamma Mia, at a table next to the window – it’s probably the smallest restaurant in Keflavík, a total of eight tables, or 28 seats – Eyja recalls how her mother’s death in 2016 altered her perspective on life.

“Life is so short, in the end, and you should do what you want to do. If you fail, you fail – but at least no one can accuse you of not having tried.”

Moved by this epiphany, Eyja approached Anton’s family and received the green light to open the restaurant on her own.

“Anton had wanted to call the restaurant Mamma Mia, but I got permission from his children to call it Anton’s Mamma Mia, to honour his memory,” Eyja remarks.

“Has owning a restaurant been what you expected?”

“Darling, no, sometimes I want to go in the back and shoot myself!” Eyja goes on to explain, with a kind of salt-of-the-earth bluntness that’s thoroughly charming, that opening a restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic was a challenge, although she wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Anton’s Mamma Mia specialises in pizza. I ask her if the recipes originated with Anton.

“No, the menu is mine. My baker Sigter helped me with the recipes. When it came to naming the pizzas, I cracked open a beer and improvised.”

Eyja was born in 1976 and raised in Reykjanesbær. Her mother’s father was an American soldier from Oklahoma.

“Did he and your grandmother have a long relationship?”

“There was no relationship. I never met my grandfather. Nor did my mother – but she bears his name: Combs.”

“Any plans of going to Oklahoma, tracking down your family?”

“Nope. I’ll be here. Focusing on this place.”

Nauseous from the day’s gluttony, I dig into a 9-inch Combs pizza (with garlic, bell peppers, onions, lobster, shrimp, Camembert, and arugula) and enjoy it. As far as that’s possible.

Mass Resignations at the University Hospital

landspítali hospital

Fourteen emergency-room nurses completed their final shift at the National University Hospital of Iceland (Landspítali) yesterday, RÚV reports. The departures are “a cause for worry,” Director Runólfur Pálsson stated, although he remains confident that brighter days lie ahead.

“A long time coming”

Speaking to RÚV yesterday, Soffía Steingrímsdóttir, who’s been employed as an emergency room nurse at the National University Hospital (Landspítali) for almost eight years, explained why she and 14 of her colleagues had decided to quit their jobs:

“It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been trying to call attention to stressful work conditions and the threat to the safety of our patients for years now. Over these past two years, especially – where conditions have been unacceptable.”

According to Soffía, the 14 nurses who completed their final shifts yesterday will not be easily replaced; experience and competence only come with time. A similar number of resignations are expected to be tendered next month.

Trying to break the vicious cycle

Speaking to RÚV, Runólfur Pálsson, Director of the National University Hospital, stated that hospital administrators would do everything in their power to reverse this trend. “The work conditions are extremely difficult. There’s a lot of stress, which means that people resign, which leads to staff shortages, which makes things even more difficult. It’s a vicious cycle that we’ve been trying to break.”

Runólfur stated that he was hopeful that resources designed for patients who have completed treatment at the hospital but cannot leave on account of disabilities would help lighten the load: “And we’ve been waiting for hospital and rehabilitation rooms, which we hope will be available in September. We have high expectations for these new facilities. They will help lighten the emergency room’s load.”

Soffía stated that the nurses were sad and disappointed that no measures were taken in response to their resignations: “I certainly hope that I haven’t completed my last shift at the emergency room, that I’ll return when an acceptable work environment has been created.”