5 Things I Learned in Iceland

27 April 2017

Kirsten Barkved Iceland Indaba Digital

Kirsten went to Iceland last month and was joined by hundreds of writers from around the world for the Iceland Writers Retreat. We asked her to give us her thoughts on her time in Iceland. Here is what she told us.

Before coming to Indaba, I had a really icky year (hereafter referred to as the Year of Ick). Like, take the definition of ick, multiply it by, 10 and then buried beneath its remains were the ashes from the explosion that was my life. Then me, six feet under.

But that’s not what this story is about. Sure, it’s part of it. But it’s also about how I overcame and also how I got to on my first ever international trip, learned some things about writing, travel, life, dating, and how to not miss a flight (which, spoiler alert, I did). And because I love nothing more than a good story and writing all the words about it, I’ve taken the liberty of oversharing it all with you here.

What follows is the harrowing tale of how I overcame The Year of Ick, found an amazing job, met cool people, and capped it all off with the trip of a lifetime. So, pass the wine and mute your phone, because last month, I flew to Iceland solo, my very first international trip ever, and I’m here to impart all my wisdom about being a 29-year-old travel virgin in a foreign country for the first time.

But First…

Kirsten Barkved Indaba Digital Iceland

Q&A Panel with some of the authors of the Writers Retreat


It wasn’t like I randomly spun a globe and pointed my finger on a country and said, “Wherever this globe stops, I will go”. I haven’t done that since I was seven, and if I did now what I did back then (cheat), I’d be going to Egypt to be a camel. Instead, I went to Iceland and befriended horses.

Last November, I qualified as one of the top 30 finalists of global writers for a Writers Retreat in Iceland. Me! Finalist! Top 30! Writers! Iceland! Excited!

And while I didn’t win first place, I was happy to just have been a finalist. Someone in Iceland thought my writing was top something. I felt like an international superstar. I felt validated. So, I did what any self-respecting millennial does: I humble-bragged on Facebook about not quite getting to go but still being a finalist.

Five minutes later, my boss, Jenn, called me up and said, verbatim: “What the hell are you doing? Let’s get you to Iceland!”

Thus, began the campaign to get Kirsten to Iceland (thank you Jenn, thank you Indaba, thank you campaign contributors and friends, thank you mom and dad for telling me I could be a Writer when I grew up even if it when you probably wanted to tell me to be an engineer instead).

So, I went. I wrote, I ate, I drank, got lost, befriended horses, met Vikings, went on a Tinder date, sailed the Atlantic, got drunk in a Blue Lagoon, turned 29, missed my flight home, and I did it all with a mouth full of metal.

Whether you’ve never been, you’re going soon, your friend went once, or you’re reading this because you have nothing better to do, below is a list of five things, in no particular order, that I learned during my travels in Iceland.


Writers are great and Iceland is FULL of Them

Kirsten Barkved Iceland Indaba Digital

Pictured: a bunch of lovely, awestruck writers, Eliza Reid (First Lady of Iceland and co-founder of the retreat), President Jóhannesson, and yours truly.


The number one takeaway from my entire trip is that Writers in Iceland are what pop stars in North America are: idolized to the point of obsession, minus people wanting to take selfies with them.

On Day 1 of the Retreat, we were whisked away for cocktail hour with Guðni Jóhannesson – the President of Iceland, who, by the way, was very nice, made Dad jokes, and had a firm handshake. I would make best friend bracelets with him.

During his address to us, President Jóhannesson spoke about the immersive literary history in Iceland; from Sagas to Nobel Prize writers, to modern day crime, how the landscape influenced authors such as Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and J.R.R Tolkien everything.

Today, Iceland is full of writers. In fact, Iceland has the most authors, most books published, and most books per capita in the world. In the WORLD! 1 in 10 people will write and publish a book. He also spoke at great length on how being a writer, i.e. writing a novel, in Iceland is actually considered a serious career, one that is not only celebrated, it’s encouraged.

This was refreshing for me in a myriad of ways. In North America, you’re not always met with high fives when you announce you’re pursuing a degree in the Arts. Similarly, when I tell someone I’m a writer, it’s usually met with an “Oh, and that pays the bills?” or “Oh, that’s interesting…why writing?”

In Iceland, though, when I told people that I’m a writer, I got “Oh, great.” Like I told them I was in Sales or Business; it was so common, no one blinked an eye. I didn’t have to spend half an hour explaining to a complete stranger why I didn’t choose something more lucrative. In Iceland, writing is a serious career choice that no one questions, and you’re sort of treated with a level of respect that I imagine NASA astronauts are when they tell people what they do for a living.

You can imagine the excitement on our writerly faces at having someone as important as the President validate our craft. Picture 100 writers, mostly introverts, giddy and intoxicated on free sparkling wine, bursting at the seams at being in a room with other writers, in a place that is not only steeped in literature, it, in fact, celebrates it.

The President praises us and tells us how important our work is. We’re eating it all up. We’re shoulder to shoulder clutching our champagne flutes, hanging on every word. We laugh. We cheers. We drink. We are inspired and are released into the wild like a pack of thirsty hyenas where the energy is collectively understood: we want to write, we want to take off and feed our muses! Instead, we shuffle onto a bus, fall asleep in our seats, too jet lagged to do anything but think of sentences we’d like to write tomorrow in the land that is full to the brim of others who plan on doing so.

Nothing is Free; Everything is Expensive

Kirsten Barkved Icealnd Indaba Digital

One of Two Beers I had at the Blue Lagoon. Only two because everything is expensive.


Two things I knew for sure before flying into Iceland. One was how beautiful it was going to be. The second was that everything was expensive. Naturally, since Iceland is a small volcanic island just miles shy of the Arctic circle, where they have to import anything that isn’t grown locally.

On the night of my birthday, some friends from my hostel were trying to barter the bartender at a local pub called Lebowski (Dude, I know). Behind the bar was a wheel that you could pay ISK 1,800 to spin (roughly, CAD $23) and wherever it landed, you won something: more drinks, shots, food, a Viking husband, whatever.

After getting the pub to sing me happy birthday, the guys left to try and convince the very tall, very blonde, very babe-like bartender into giving me a free spin. Moments later, they returned to our table, defeated. Apparently, even if it’s your birthday, even if you’re Bjork herself, even if you’re on your deathbed and you want just one last free spin at the Lebowski, you’re out of luck, because according to the bartender: “I don’t care. Nothing in this country is free.”

In the end, we paid 23 bucks to spin the wheel, but we won 4 beers!

So. Be prepared. Food is expensive. A beer will cost you $14. Bananas are readily available but will still set you back as much as a Starbucks latte with all the fixings. But don’t let that detract from your agenda of general merriment. Budget, limit yourself to one to two drinks a night, eat those bananas, and by all means, spin that wheel.

Tinder: More than Just a Dating App

Kirsten Barkved Indaba Digital Iceland

Horses before bros.


I Tindered my way through Iceland because I’m an adult and I do what I want. And since I have no shame, I’ve decided to share with you a few handy things I learned while navigating the underbelly of dating whilst abroad.

I’ve been single by choice for a while, mostly because dating is exhausting but also because I’m really really busy building an empire over here. I write at work, I write at home, I stop mid shower to run out and jot a sentence down. Also, I have a dog who is great and takes up a lot of my free time. Like, when I’m not telling him how good he is, coordinating our outfits, or serenading him with Celine Dion or Bonnie Tyler, I’m very busy staring at my computer screen thinking up sentences to write but not actually writing them.

I just literally don’t have time to date.

In Iceland, however, I broke my dating lazy-ness. Which was nice and great and I won’t tell you anything beyond that because I do enjoy keeping some things to myself.

Except for this: Tinder, or the dating app of your preference, is a great tool to use abroad, if not for international romance, then to meet locals and unlock their city secrets. Because who needs Guidebooks or Google when you can Swipe on the collective dating machine? If I hadn’t have talked to one really cool guy from Iceland, for instance, I wouldn’t have gone to go to the club where Bjork hangs out. Which is now a great anecdote for when I want to casually feel all kinds of cool and also pretentious: “Oh, that’s nothing, we went to this place in Reykjavik, it’s where Bjork hangs out.”

Tinder is also a great way to meet others who are also travelling. I met one guy from California, who got me out by talking to me about my dog (I can likely be convinced of anything if you proceed the conversation with my dog). We kept it platonic, and when I got there, I met 3-4 of his friends, also travelling. We talked Vancouver, Iceland, if they had tried goat testicles (a Traditional Icelandic cuisine), and the one thing all foreigners talk about when they’re in Iceland: how expensive everything is. We were later joined by a group of friends (also met through Tinder), and we all chatted about future travel plans, Justin Trudeau’s six pack, and whether Canadians really say it “aboot”.

My point being: Tinder is a tool you can use at your platonic or romantic disposal. It’s great for having conversations with someone you would never otherwise have met, a meal at a restaurant you might not have looked twice at, or get to a hip, underground pub that you would never have been cool enough to discover. Change your profile to: “Here for a week, help me find the best goat testicles?” and see where the night takes you.


Get Out of the City

A very windy, very cold Birds eye view of Reykjavik’s downtown core.


Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is where our Writers Retreat was held and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more unique city (not saying much, since I’ve never really been anywhere, but if you’ve been to Reykjavik, you’ll know what I mean). If the distant mountains and stunning blue Atlantic hugging the city doesn’t thrill you, the charming, quirky colours of the downtown core will. Picture cobblestone sidewalks lined with bright yellow, red, and blue buildings that all house diverse businesses and storefronts. I spent a LOT of time walking down their main streets, stopping into cafes to write and people watch. I could have spent a week being a cultural sponge in the city alone. But I was mindful that even though I had 10 days, I wouldn’t even scratch the surface of what Iceland had to offer. And what it has to offer is its incredible landscape.

Mountains, towering volcanoes, glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, black lava riverbeds, geysers – Iceland, outside of the city, is the perfect setting for any kind of story inspiration; no wonder Tolkien was so taken with it. I was lucky enough to tour around Southern Iceland through the retreat – we were treated to The Golden Circle, which takes you on a 300-km route to the 3 most popular attractions: Gullfoss Waterfall, Thingvellir National Park, and the Geysir hot spring area. I also paid for a horse tour (I want to be an Icelandic Horse when I grow up) and a whale watching tour, where we saw porpoises and dolphins!

While on Tinder (ah, again, so much more than a dating tool), I asked a few locals where their favourite go-to hikes were that were within a half hour radius. Because Google is good for some things, but Tinder has all the men with first-hand knowledge and also beards and winky emojis.

I never got the chance to get to all of them, because I had already pre-paid for some tours that had already taken up most of my agenda, but the ones I did get to, I will not soon forget their beauty – the contrast of greens, browns, and stark black lava fields while gazing down at from a mountain top.

So my top tip for anyone going to Iceland is to spend more time exploring the countryside. The city is amazing, the nightlife is fun, but there is nothing that compares to feeling like you’re the only person in the world standing in a sea of moss. The wilds of Iceland’s eerie beauty makes me feel like I finally get what Bjork is singing about.


Kirsten Barkved Iceland Indaba Digital

Being cold at Thingvellir National Park.

Getting Lost and Then Found in a Foreign Country

I have never felt more at home, at peace, or calm than being lost and all alone in Iceland.

To know me is to know that I am 100% a creature of habit, comfort, and control. I like what I like and I have carefully crafted a lifestyle that is cool with my anxieties and quirks. A trip of this magnitude – travelling solo, my first ever international trip –  threw that all out the window.

Instead of my daily routines and comforts, I would have to rely on the unknown instead of the known, on being outgoing instead of a hermit, on relying on myself to make quick, assertive decisions rather than pondering over everything with careful deliberation. All of this likely sounds irrational, but to me, it is a strategy I’ve employed to avoid the hurt I learned from the things I lost in the Year of Ick

I thought I would hate it, the unknown. Being in a place where I was a stranger, didn’t speak the language, couldn’t read street signs, I should have felt lost. And I did. But I loved it.

Even when I couldn’t understand the street signs, even when I missed my flight home (the irony is not lost on me that I went to Iceland to write at a Writers Retreat only to misread my ticket home), even when I was Wifi-less, map-less, wandering solo, cold, and with zero sense of direction along the coastline. I loved feeling like I could go anywhere, be anything, do anything. No one knew me. I could remake myself into whomever I wanted. What an incredibly liberating feeling it was, waking up every day and only doing what was on my agenda, with no one who needed me, no one who knew me, and nothing to narrate my life other than my own desire to have my curiosity satiated.

Not to mention, being lost and alone forced me to confront fears and worries that, had I been in Vancouver, I might not have addressed. The little voice in my head that said, “What if something goes wrong?” was tempered with “Well, you’ll have to figure it out, girl, cause you’re on your own now.” Which was empowering, if not blunt.

Equally as empowering was the idea that I had “made it”. I had crossed this invisible finish line in what was, to me, the longest, most exhausting race of my life (so far). The prize not only being a breathtaking trip to Iceland, but this shiny new person I had discovered along the way. That I was not the product of something bad that happened to me one time one year ago. That, indeed, I was and am capable of anything.

Somehow, this trip became a transformative symbol for my life. I took the anger and pain and sadness I didn’t realize I had been holding onto and shed myself of it, tossing it like a pebble into the Atlantic, and finding, in the place of that anger, pain, and sadness, someone new. Not better. Just stronger. Stronger because of the things she lost. I don’t know why it took me 5,748 km, an 8-hour time change, and being alone in a foreign country to feel completely lost (physically) but very much found in every other way. But maybe sometimes you have to travel to another country, get lost, miss your flight, and spend a lot of Kronurs on expensive Icelandic beer (of which I drank a lot) to find yourself (of which I did).

I came to Iceland to write. But Iceland turned out to be so much more than that. I came away with ideas and inspiration. I came back with the beginnings of sentences for my novel, stories, and work. I found friendships and romances and horses. But I also found myself. It’s an experience that forced me out of my comfort zone and into, as the Pinterest quotes say, where the magic happens. And happen it did.

I still have more words to say about the actual Writers Retreat – follow us on social to stay tuned for more!

  1. Janice Halstead

    I loved exploring Iceland, as a place and an experience, from Kirsten’s unique perspective. This is a great article! I love the photos too. Iceland is somewhere I have always wanted to go.