When the boat comes in

Posted August 29, 2016

When the boat comes in

Which town doubles in size in one day? Relax. This is a fascinating real life event, not a Brexit campaign scenario.

Ísafjörður is a small town in the Westfjords, Iceland. It is also a stop off point for cruise ships, the largest of which can carry over 4,000 people. That's almost twice the entire population of my home town, afloat on the ocean. The thought blows my mind. 

When the ships are berthed in the fjord, they dwarf the town buildings. The MSC Splendida that sailed in on the Friday of my first week's stay is a colossal 18 decks high. But what's more intriguing than the scale of the ships are the personalities on board. Small shuttle crafts ferry the passengers to shore. Within an hour the Ísafjörður locals are dealing with a influx of bemused British and Americans, both with varying expectations. That's when the fun starts, if you're a people watcher, like me. 

The Americans are easy to identify: they're the ones wearing rugged trainers, branded outdoor wear and baseball caps. The Brits are dressed as if they've just stepped out their front door but someone has called them back and told them to put a coat on ... just in case. These coats are clearly designed to withstand British summer showers - a jaunty Seasalt raincoat or a Marks and Spencer jacket - not the icy air temperature of the fjords, which must come as a shock.

If the choice of clothing doesn't immediately reveal any clues to the nationality of the wearer, body language definitely will. The Brits are little islands of polite curiosity, quietly observing their surroundings. They walk folded in on themselves, as if they're afraid to take up too much pavement space. By contrast, the Americans stride into town, bringing their presence to wherever they arrive. They 'own' the sidewalks and are all about expansive gestures and loud enquiries as to where they can find the nearest post office - why are they so obsessed with buying stamps?

I spend time in Ísafjörður each summer and practically every time a cruise ship arrives, it rains. I'm used to seeing groups of bedraggled tourists, dressed in identical rain capes (a standard issue of all the cruise ships in case your M&S jacket isn't as showerproof as promised), braving the mizzle, full blown shower or torrential downpour. Did I mention the wind? A few naive souls bring their umbrellas. Once opened, they last about twenty seconds before being snatched away or decimated by an Arctic gust.

My favourite spot for observing tourists is the Bakarinn coffee shop and bakery which is where I'm seated today. It's fun listening to one American after another trying to order sandwiches of their own concoction. I know they won't get far. That's because the only options are ham, cheese or ham with cheese. What always follows is a very polite face off, with the staff repeatedly explaining what is actually on offer. Eventually the penny drops: when Icelanders say 'this is our selection', they mean it! Meanwhile an English woman places her very precise order of two coffees, two jugs of hot milk and two glasses of water. "All at the same time?"asks the bewildered waitress.  

Every tourist wants to try a traditional cake and the staff are frequently asked if there is something they can recommend. I can answer that one. A typically Icelandic cake includes either blueberries or rhubarb (I've seen both growing wild here). Or you can choose a doughnut. End of story. All delicious, by the way. I should know, I've tried them all.

Picture: MSC Spendida in Isafjordur, Iceland

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