The ideal Icelandic hot tub, which takes the shape of a circle, finds its prototype in Reykholt, West Iceland.
It’s there, on the historical property of writer, historian, and chieftain Snorri Sturluson, that a wooden doorway, leading from an underground passageway, baked into the side of a green hillock, opens up onto a short stone walkway. This walkway leads to a ring of more stone, in the middle of which sits a pool, fed by a hot spring, and dug into the ground so that it’s level with the Earth. While the current iteration of the pool is based on a contemporary mason’s guesswork, historical records show that Snorri Sturluson bathed in a pool of this kind, and, perhaps – looking out onto the vault of heaven – philosophised on the origins of life:
“And the spirit of Fimbultyr moved upon the face of the deep,” Snorri wrote in the Prose Edda (the world’s most complete source for Norse mythology), “until the ice-cold rivers […] came in contact with the dazzling flames from Muspelheim […] and Fimbultyr said: ‘Let the melted drops of vapour quicken into life’.”
Indeed, there is a special kind of vitality born at the intersection of heat and cold, a quickening of the soul that is familiar to all those who have descended into the warm waters of an Icelandic hot tub on a cold winter’s day. This feeling of vitality, of rejuvenation, forms a not insignificant part of the appeal of Icelandic pools, for the tubs – at least to any mind unnaturally preoccupied with historical throughlines – always seem to hearken back to Snorri’s pool in Reykholt.
And not without reason.
The first public pool in Iceland to feature a hot tub was Vesturbæjarlaug in West Reykjavík, which opened in 1961. The outside area was conceived of by architect Gísli Halldórsson, who drew upon the design of Snorralaug for the pool’s two hot tubs. Their dimensions are precisely equivalent to Snorralaug, and tubs of this kind were originally referred to as Snorralaugar, or Snorri Pools.
Filmmaker Jón Karl Helgason, who recently released the excellent documentary Sundlaugasögur (Swimming Pool Stories), grew up going to Vesturbæjarlaug. He was six when the pool opened and would accompany his father to the pool every day after school. This father-son routine persisted until Jón Karl graduated from high school.
Things were different back then.
“Because there were so few changing rooms, you were only allowed to stay for an hour at a time,” Jón Karl explains. “You’d be handed a coloured bracelet when you entered, and at regular intervals, the pool guards would yell something like: ‘Everyone with a yellow bracelet must get out now!’ My friends and I, however, were quick to game the system. We’d collected all the different coloured bracelets so that we could stay as long as we’d like.”
As Jón Karl notes, the phases of many an Icelander’s life are neatly mirrored in their evolving relationship with the pools. “It begins at six or seven,” he observes, “during mandatory swimming lessons in elementary school. From there, the pools become a kind of playground. Then they serve as convenient venues to bring boyfriends or girlfriends, or to meet your friends. And then, later in life, you bring your kids along.”
I add one overlooked phase of his narrative, the libertine twenties: “When the pools were the perfect place to recover from a hangover.”
Jón Karl laughs. “Yes, it’s good – going to the pool the day after.”
A brief history of Icelandic pools
The tagline of Jón Karl’s Swimming Pool Stories reads as follows: “The Russians have their vodka. The Finns have their saunas. And the Icelanders have their pools.”
But unlike those first two, Icelandic swimming pool culture is relatively young. It began in the early 20th century, when a national awakening to the inordinate number of drownings among fishermen was taking place.
A newspaper article anticipating the founding of the Lifesaving Association of Iceland (SVFÍ) in 1928 noted that 1,754 Icelanders had drowned during the first quarter of the century, most at sea. The authors pointed out that other seafaring nations had long since established similar associations: the English in 1824, the Danes in 1852, the Norwegians in 1891, and the Swedes in 1907. “We are lagging behind,” they observed.
Besides the establishment of lifesaving associations, swimming pools were also a way to prevent deaths at sea. Their construction began at around the turn of the 19th century, so the natives could learn to swim. Some initially opposed the initiative by the rationale that teaching fishermen to swim would only serve to “prolong the agony of drowning.” But as more and more pools were constructed around the country – usually around sources of geothermal heat – and as swimming lessons grew more common, deaths among fishermen grew less and less frequent.
These days, drownings off the coast of Iceland are almost unheard of. Modern technology and improved weather forecasting has, of course, played a significant role in this regard, but it would be unwise to discount the effect of swimming instruction in Iceland. As the headmaster of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre in Iceland once noted, swimming instruction accounts for “a total of 800 minutes per year in Icelandic primary school.”
“It’s ironic to think that more people currently drown in our swimming pools than at sea,” I remark somewhat hesitantly to Jón Karl, aware that as a child in Akureyri, he witnessed a drowning.
“I must have been five or six,” Jón Karl recounts. “I wasn’t actually in the pool myself; my mother had gone for a dip, and I, standing on the edge of the pool, fully clothed, noticed a young girl, wearing a red bathing suit, lying motionless on the bottom of the pool. I called for help, and my father immediately dived in after her. He tried to resuscitate her. But to no avail. It was a distressful experience, which later engendered a sense of care when it came to my own kids.”
The great equalisers
Jón Karl began shooting Swimming Pool Stories in 2013.
Filming took much longer than expected for he would often visit the pools where he intended to shoot three or four times in order to establish a connection with patrons. (He visited nearly 100 pools). It was only when he had become something of a patron himself that he felt confident enough to bring along equipment to record audio. Then a small camera – then a bigger one.
Most of Jón Karl’s interviewees were over 80 (eight of them have died since the film was released) as he wanted to focus on those individuals who had been visiting their local pools for decades.
“I wanted people who could tell stories,” Jón Karl remarks. “People who had been swimming all their lives and who had become part of these pool communities. One of my interlocutors in the film, Hallgrímur from Þingeyri, West Iceland, told me that whenever someone from his group didn’t show up to the pool at the appointed hour – his companions would become concerned. I found that rather touching.”
Such “pool communities” have evolved all over Iceland, with people from all walks of life convening at their local pool at a fixed hour: Pottormarnir (a play on the Icelandic kenning meaning unruly boys, and the word for hot tub) in Hafnarfjörður; Morgunfrúrnar (Morning Dames) in Dalvík; and, perhaps most famous of all, Vinir Dóra (Friends of Dóri) in Vesturbæjarlaug.
Icelandic perception of swimming pools differs from what can be found in western literature, I tell Jón Karl. “Two things come to mind: the short story The Swimmer by John Cheever, where the protagonist decides to swim home by way of the private pools at the homes of suburbanites; and The Great Gatsby, where the titular character meets his death in a swimming pool. In both cases, there are connotations of wealth, whereas, in Iceland, the pools are equalisers. As the cliché goes: ‘in the pools everyone is equal.’”
“Yes, and admission to the pool is cheap – especially if you buy an annual subscription,” Jón Karl points out.
Perhaps the most notable example of this democratic intermingling in the public pools relates to Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s fourth president and the first democratically-elected female head of state in history. Even after she secured the presidency, Vigdís continued to frequent Vesturbæjarlaug, where every morning – still to this day – a group of pool-goers engage in a tightly-scripted regimen of exercises invented by Danish gymnastics educator J. P. Müller. Vigdís, as president, was not above participating.
In March of this year, Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir, Minister of Culture and Business Affairs, submitted a memorandum to the government concerning Iceland’s nominations to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The ministry’s two proposals were Icelandic laufabrauð (a Christmas season delicacy) and the country’s swimming pool culture.
“Swimming pool culture has been intertwined with the Icelandic national soul for many centuries,” Lilja wrote, “and has rarely been as vigorous as it is now. Many matters of national interest are discussed in the country’s pools, and it is a great honour for any intangible culture to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. And I believe that our swimming pool culture […] definitely belongs on that list.”
As noted by Lilja, the local pools are not only places of community, relaxation, and exercise – but also a venue for residents to engage in lively conversations about current affairs. In an article published in the New York Times in 2016, the writer Magnús Sveinn Helgason explained to reporter Dan Kois that because of the weather, the Icelanders “didn’t have proper plazas in the Italian or French style.” Furthermore, because beer was banned in Iceland until 1989, the country didn’t evolve a pub tradition in the manner of England or Ireland.
“The pool is Iceland’s social space,” Kois wrote, “where families meet neighbours, where newcomers first receive welcome, and where rivals can’t avoid one another.” Later in the article, Kois spoke to Mayor of Reykjavík Dagur B. Eggertsson who observed, “It can be hard for reserved Icelanders, who don’t typically talk to their neighbours in the store or in the street, to forge connections. In the hot tub, you must interact. There’s nothing else to do.”
There’s a family anecdote that sheds some light on just how engaging these tub talks can be. Some years back, my father went for an evening soak at the Suðurbæjarlaug public pool in Hafnarfjörður. Taking his place in one of the hot tubs, he became fully engrossed in what must have been a rather lively conversation with an acquaintance. At some point during the talk, a young man stood up from the hot tub and took his leave. My father’s acquaintance asked, “Say, wasn’t that your son?” My father looked at him as if he was half-mad. “No, no – he doesn’t look anything like that,” he replied.
The following morning, my younger brother met my father in the kitchen and commented in a rather ironic fashion: “Nice to see you at the pool yesterday.” I’m not sure who comes off as more eccentric in this story: my father, for not having recognised his own son at the pool; or my brother, for having recognised my father, but deciding not to greet him.
In Jón Karl’s documentary, one of his interlocutors remarks: “If there wasn’t a public pool in Þingeyri (a town in the Westfjords of Iceland), it wouldn’t be habitable.”
As a regular patron of the public pools, I sympathise with the sentiment, recalling a time when I was hunting for an apartment. Among the variables that I took into account was the property’s proximity to a public pool: If there was no pool within walking distance, then that strongly recommended against it. Luckily, it is rare, especially in the capital area, to encounter housing so far from a public pool so as to render walking unfeasible. As has often been observed, living in a place that’s within walking distance of a public pool is a kind of civil right in Iceland.
“I read somewhere that there are 127 concrete pools in Iceland,” Jón Karl tells me. “And if you divide that by 380,000 (the rough population of Iceland), that comes to approximately one pool per every 3,000 residents. I was also told that something like 80,000 admissions are tallied every month in the Laugardalslaug swimming pool in Reykjavík; and I once reviewed data indicating that five to six million admission tickets were sold to Iceland’s pools every year.”
This may seem like a large number, but a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation may suggest otherwise. I visit a public pool, mostly the one in Hafnarfjörður, four to five times a week. That amounts to over 200 visits a year. If a tenth of the population frequent the pools with the same regularity as I do, that would mean over 7 million admissions annually. (Not including tourists).
Whatever the exact figure, the public pools in Iceland continue to evolve; what began as dirty mud holes, dug for the purpose of swimming instruction, have gradually morphed into ubiquitous modern facilities, featuring concrete pools, hot tubs, kid-friendly areas, waterslides, and, most recently perhaps, cold tubs: where patrons sit, shiver, and meditate, surrounded by a community of individuals who come for various reasons, and with varying regularity, and who, in the event of a protracted stay abroad – usually come to miss the Icelandic pools.
Without them, Iceland wouldn’t be habitable.