40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

#31: Seltjarnarneslaug

hot pot with a viewLocation: Seltjarnarnes, Iceland

Configuration: 4 lanes of 25 meters + play area and 4 hot tubs

Fee: 500 ISK (Icelandic kronur), approximately $3.49

Fees to Date: $158.74

On my last day in Iceland, I wanted to squeeze in a visit to one more pool. I’d heard that the indoor-outdoor complex near where Elisabeth was staying was good enough to rival Laugardalslaug, but unfortunately it was closed for the day due to water-slide upgrades and other construction. Instead, I headed north of the Movie Star’s neighborhood to Seltjarnarnes Sundlaug, a beautiful, Modern facility with great views of  the sea and downtown Reykjavik.  The water slide wasn’t too shabby either. Unfortunately, I didn’t take as many pictures as I thought due to user error, so you will have to go see this pool for yourself.

pool view

Seltjarnarnes is a tiny, independent municipality at the end of the peninsula west of downtown Reykjavik. It’s got a beautiful lighthouse, a striking church, and a lot of athletic facilities. The pool uses pumped-in seawater, and it was clearer than the other Icelandic waters pools I’d seen. The degree of attention to design here was impressive as well. Clean lines, the simple wooden sauna structure, the cool whites and grays on the pool deck, and the bright tiles in the locker room all made me wonder who had gotten this commission.

The four lap lanes were definitely the least popular thing going here–no circle swimming necessary during my leisurely set. Instead, people lazed around in the hot pots and shallow hot tub, which had the best view of all. Small groups of teenagers were by far the largest contingent, and most of them did not budge from whatever spots they had staked out for the duration of my visit. I can think of worse ways for teenagers to pass their time.

My pool buddies had all either gone home or busied themselves with other activities, so I felt a bit lonely and old among all the teens, and yet I was content to soak in the sun and the warm water while enjoying the perspective on Reykjavik. One thing that struck me consistently during my week in Iceland was how clean everything is. Air, water, and earth all seemed unsullied by the small population. My usually runny nose calmed down, presumably due the lack of air- and water-borne irritants.  I was also impressed by the laissez-faire attitude. Never did I hear lifeguards yelling at anyone, for example. Even the locker-room matrons held off on their shower critiques, despite the many warnings about hygiene. The ethos seems to be to provide water wings and, later, swim lessons, and assume that people are equipped to fend for themselves or bear the consequences. I occasionally felt tentative about dipping into an empty pool or trying a play feature, but it was all good–no harm, no foul. It’s a lot easier to have that attitude with only 300,000 people, most of whom are distantly related and know each other by first names.

I can’t recommend Iceland highly enough as a pool-tourist destination, nor can I wait to return.

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Not a Pool: Nauthólsvík Beach

beach elements labeled

Iceland is famous for its spectacular natural beauty and unusual geological events. It gave us the word “geyser” and recently halted European air travel due to a volcanic eruption, after all. Now that Icelanders have figured out how to tap into their geothermal energy, they occasionally mess with nature–and to excellent effect here at Nauthólsvík Beach (“beef hill bay”?), which hosted IGLA’s open water competition under the bright sun at 9:00 p.m. on Friday night.

Hustling into the water

Kathleen, me, and Janet following Sara from DC into the water. Photo by HelgiR of IGLA 2012.

Those following along know that my training focused on hot pots and the 400 IM. The third and final area of concentration was this event, a 250-meter swim in water that was supposed to be in the 40s. I’ve swum longer distances in that temperature out at Brighton Beach, so I knew that the trick was going to be getting in quickly rather than squealing and pausing with each step. Janet, Kathleen, and I practiced our speedy entries out at the beach this spring, and when it turned out that the North Atlantic water at Nauthólsvík was about 10 degrees F warmer than expected we were actually a bit disappointed.

Disappointment quickly turned to enjoyment as we were able to relax in the deep green water and enjoy the sights clearly visible along the bottom. My favorites were the pudgy starfish and large green plants that looked like ship propellers. The race went off in groups of just five, and the three of us were in the first wave together with two other women whom we’d met repeatedly in the green room prior to the distance events, so we didn’t have to worry about dodging other swimmers. It was practically a reunion at this point, and like everything else it was a ton of fun, enhanced by the same disco soundtrack we’d had at the Blue Lagoon.

hot troughBest of all, a hot trough awaited on the beach (seen at right in a photo from my return visit). It was huge and wonderfully warm and proved conducive to accomplishing my main diplomatic mission. My friend and teammate Richard, who was not able to join us in Iceland, appointed me as his Swedish ambassador to make contact with the Danes and enlist their help in planning a swim between Denmark and Sweden next summer. I ended up next to a few of the Copenhagen Mermates in the hot trough and easily conducted my business. Hot pots really do make the world go ’round in Iceland!

There’s a second hot pot closer to the water, and it is designed to be nearly submerged during high tide, so that its water spills out and warms up the seawater that is nearly enclosed with manmade seawalls. (The open water competition was not in this enclosed area but rather on the other side of the jetty.) Add some imported sand and a full-service bath house and you have an awesome beach experience. It opened in 2000, and the Icelanders have quickly become experts at beach culture.

a late-night dip Janet swam a little extra during the event, as she had accidentally set her sights on a buoy farther afield than the course marker. Even that was not enough for her, though, so she went back in after the conclusion of the swim waves for a dip with some locals from the Sea Swimming Association. I watched from the end of the jetty and saw a loooong seal swim by them!

The beach was so lovely that I returned solo on my last day in Iceland. Lucky for me, the same locals were there, and I was able to join them for a swim to the other side of the bay. They told me that they’ve tried polo and synchro in the sea, and I told them about our shoreside synchro routines at the beach in Brooklyn. We are kindred spirits, for sure. They also said that in the winter, the water gets so cold that they have to break through ice in order to take their dips! We don’t have it quite so rough at Brighton Beach, but then again we don’t have a hot trough.

Said trough again proved helpful for my secondary diplomatic mission. John had asked me to try to get the pattern for knitting his own bathing suit, as we saw in an Iceland tourism video by the Movie Star (watch for this at 8:50). Sure enough, one of my fellow swimmers and soakers is the e-mail checker for the Sea Swimming Association, and she said that if I send an e-mail through their website she will track down the pattern.

All I ever want to do after a chilly swim is take a nap. Usually I have to go home for that, because it’s too cold to hang out at the beach on Brighton after being in the freezing water. Here, the hot trough had warmed me up perfectly, so I chose a wind-sheltered encampment alongside the jetty and stretched out for a nice snooze. When I awoke, the tide had come in and was just a few inches from my feet. That was my signal to get up and find one last pool.

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#29 & #30: Laugardalslaug Indoor and Outdoor Pools

Laugardalslaug key elements labeled

Location: Reykjavik, Iceland

Configuration: Indoor pool: 10 lanes of 50 meters
Outdoor pool: 8 lanes of 50 meters
Also includes water slide, 9 hot tubs, and a large play area

Fee*: 500 ISK (Icelandic kronur), approximately $3.84

Fees to Date: $159.09

*This is the regular day-use fee. I paid a lot more for the meet that brought me here four days in a row, but the meet included a lot more than pool entry.

I had no idea that I would be seeing such a fabulous pool complex when I signed on for the trip to Iceland. Laugardalslaug surpassed even my wildest dreams about pools in Australia, and yet here it is in the much more temperature-challenged country of Iceland. Thank you, geothermal energy! Doing it justice requires a looong photo essay, starting with the above image where I’ve labeled some key areas.

water slide!First things first: the water slide. I foolishly waited until day 2 of the meet to try it instead of making it my first order of business. How was I to know that it is the craziest, most fun water slide ever? Most sections are dark except for polka-dotted or striped lighting effects, which you pass as you twist, turn, and drop along the way. Thanks to the Internets, we learned that the best technique is to lay on your back with your arms crossed and tighten your core, so that only your heels and shoulder blades touch the slide. Anything soft will slow you down, and that could be hazardous not to mention less fun!

The first time down, the order was Amanda, Janet, me, and then our teammate Ryan. We didn’t all know the magic technique at this point, and I could tell from Janet’s shrieks of laughter that I was catching up to her. Little did I know that Ryan was about to rocket past me, so well banked on a sidewall that he barely touched me. He and Janet shot out into the pool at the same time and I was close behind. Amanda said that the Icelanders watching had very funny expressions on their faces. We laughed for a looong time, and from then on we made sure to do water slide repeats with a focus on technique throughout the rest of the meet. I tried looking up at the ceiling instead of down at my feet the last day, at the suggestion of my teammate Federico, and that was a whole new experience that even cured my migraine.

Take note that the slide and the stairs are fully enclosed. Chilly weather will not stop this slide!

shallow hot pothot pot with rock features When you tire from all that stair climbing, a soak in the hot tub is in order. There are plenty to choose from, including this shallow one at left. People camped out in it all day and had the sunburn to prove it! I worried that I might nod off and drown so tried not to linger too long.

As you look through the pictures, notice that there are people of all ages enjoying the water. Icelandic law stipulates that schoolchildren learn to swim at age 6. Before then, kids avail themselves of water wings available by the tubfull at the pool entrances. Notice, too, how many people are at the pools. I’d estimate that a couple thousand passed through here each day, a huge number considering Reykjavik’s population is just 110,000. Statistics from 2000 posted in the lobby state that Icelanders swim at least 15 times a year, and I bet that number is higher now as the country grows ever more enamored of its pools. Entry costs about the same as an ice cream, making it one of the most affordable pastimes in this very expensive country. Tourists are encouraged to visit, and the pools are included in top-10 lists of Icelandic attractions.

hot potsAlong the far side of the outdoor lap pool are four more hot pots of increasing temperature, one of which has massage jets. Helpful signage provides the following instructions:

The hot water in Reykjavik’s swimming pools has a particularly good effect on stress. First you enter the hot pot and relax for 15 minutes, before getting out and cooling down for a while. Then you go back in, this time in a hotter pot, and sit for 10 minutes before getting out to cool off. After that it’s back to an even hotter pot (if you choose) and sit for 5 minutes. Then you cool off and swim as slowly as possible for 200 meters. When finished you take a good shower and rest.

Wow, I’m relaxed just thinking about all that soaking.

outdoor poolHere’s the 8-lane outdoor pool for those easy 200 meters. It remained open to the public and for warm-ups and cool-downs while the meet was under way. On the last morning, I was the first one in, and it reminded me of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale with its large bleachers as it steamed away under the bright sun.

Speaking of sun, my visit lasted seven days with nary a drop of rain or even very cold temperatures. I’d been told that the island was misnamed, but I still was not expecting such good weather. My packing list included all kinds of rain and cold-weather gear that I did not need and lacked things like sun screen that would have come in handy.

Laugardalslaug indoor pool viewMoving on, let’s take a look at the recently added indoor pool, which is where serious training takes place. This is the deep end, opposite from where all of my races started. Although from here it looks like there are just 9 lanes, that’s because of the funny math involved in the signage. Really there are 10 lanes, unless you are doing backstroke, in which case there are only 8. The water was on the warm side . . .
hot pot. . . but not as warm as the hot pot right here on the other side of the deep end! The pool-to-hot tub transitions had been a major focus of my training, and I’m glad to say that my efforts paid off. I headed straight for a soak here after many a swim and got rejuvenated for future efforts.
team pictureTNYA took over a section of bleachers close to the start blocks, the “green room” where we had to go before our heats, and the café–a very strategic location. It was also convenient to where heat lists were posted, and that was a smart move, since the lists changed frequently. There’s my team on the last day with relay, split, and record mastermind Coach Christopher in orange in front. I am proud to report that our invasion of Iceland was a complete success; we won the swim, diving, water polo, and Pink Flamingo competitions!
indoor pool ceilingI mentioned that there were only 8 lanes for backstroke. That’s because the ceiling was out to get you. The blue lines on the ceiling look nice and straight in this view, but as you make your way through the pool under them, they appear to veer off at angles due to all the other things going on. The bleachers are curved, the windows are curved, and the ceiling has flared piping. Almost nothing outside the pool has right angles, which makes it very confusing for us (former) backstrokers accustomed to navigating by using the ceiling or the wall. Even our team’s former world-record backstroker found herself bouncing off the lane lines due to the optical illusions. The worst was when you came to the flags, which appeared as if they were strung at an angle across the pool.

When this pool first opened several years ago, there were no blue lines on the ceiling; they were added after a disastrous backstroke race. I’m not sure why only 8 were striped, but that is the reason we only used 8 lanes for backstroke and medley events. The wacky ceiling made me grateful for my choice to not swim the 200 back and instead do the 400 IM–if it is possible to be grateful for doing a 400 IM, that is.

That event was another training focus. I’d never swum it before, and it definitely provided a complete pool experience, as it incorporates every different type of stroke and turn. Despite having done a lot of early morning laps in Riverbank’s 50-meter pool, this pool felt even longer. As I slogged my way up and down the looong lane, an image popped into my head that made things much more enjoyable:

Long cat iz loooongSomeone had posted this picture on Janet’s blog after she wrote about joining in on my long training swim at the West Side Y, and it’s been cracking me up ever since. It helps that I’m a big fan of orange cats, and that I’ve encountered so many loooong things recently: the pool, the water slide, the meet, and my shadow in the midnight sun. Next time you are struggling through a long set, just think of looong cat and you’ll feel better.

lane line disappearing into a holeHere is one last cool thing about the pool: the lane line sucker. Instead of having to roll the lines up onto a reel, you just feed them down into a hole in the deck until they are needed again. Clever.
shoe areaThe locker room is also an important part of the culture. As I learned at Vesturbæjarlaug, there is a multistep process involved with getting into and out of the pool–no way can you run in for a quick dip. I came to realize that the remove-shoes, claim-locker, take-shower, dry-off, put-on-suit rituals serves to prolong the process and build the pool community, since each step gives you time to ease into pool mode and connect with your fellow pool-goers. I never saw any locals checking their e-mail or talking on a cell phone, even though they seemed to spend the whole day at the pool.

At left is the shoe area outside the locker room and a handy shoe horn attached to the wall. Photography was not allowed in the locker rooms, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that the lockers were wonderfully tall and the showers even taller.

original LaugdarslaugThe pool complex is situated near a hot water spring that was perviously a laundry area, of all things. The translation I’d seen of the name Laugardalslaug was “Pool of Pool Valley,” but I think “Baths of Spring Valley” is more accurate. The street Laugardalsveg is the main drag through town, thanks to all the washer-women and, later, horses who trod the route from the center of town out to the springs to do their laundry in the naturally occurring warm water. A stone-sided outdoor pool opened here in 1908 and remained in use until the fancy outdoor pool above opened in 1966.

A short distance from the pool, this installation and sculpture celebrate the springs’ history. One of the panels explains: “The hot water in the swimming pool was also a major attraction for foreign visitors, who were very impressed with its qualities.” Amen to that.

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Sundhöll Reykjavíkur

Sundhöll Reykjavíkur

Location: Reykjavik, Iceland

Configuration: 5 lanes of 25 meters + play area

Fee: 500 ISK (Icelandic kronur), approximately $3.84

The “Swim Palace of Reykjavik,” Sundhöll Reykjavikur was designed by the architect of some of Iceland’s most famous buildings. It doesn’t “count” for this project because I didn’t actually swim here, but I visited on Friday for a diving and synchronized swimming exhibition and can’t resist posting about it. Reykjavik’s first indoor pool and the city’s only diving facility, Sundhöllin opened in 1937. Brand-new diving boards were installed just in time for our meet, and the TNYA diving team took top honors!

Hallgrimskirja interior

The building was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, who later designed the nearby Hallgrímskirkja (left), the iconic hilltop church that is Iceland’s tallest building. The interiors feel similar to me with the way they allow light to come in to areas typically not known for their brightness–i.e., pool decks and church pews. Samúelsson was Iceland’s state architect from 1924 until 1950, and his other credits include the National Gallery, National Theatre, and University of Iceland.

The day after the diving  competition, the divers put on an exhibition together with synchronized swimmers from San Francisco. In the opening remarks, Iceland’s head of aquatics spoke of the country’s wish to use the event as a literal springboard to encourage the sport of diving.

TV camera at diving and synchro exhibition

Visiting swimmers and locals packed the deck for the excellent exhibition, during which the respective coaches explained some technicalities of their sports as their athletes gave demonstrations. It was a great show, and this pool tourist especially enjoyed the education in other pool disciplines. A TV camera showed up to film the action.

I read that the facility also includes outdoor hot pots with city views but didn’t have a chance to see them for myself. With all the big outdoor pools around town and not that much time left, I’m not likely to return here for an indoor pool workout.

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Not a Pool: Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Photo from the Blue Lagoon website, because the picture is far better than any I took. Click through to their site and scroll part-way down for more images of this amazing place.

Imagine traveling for an hour on desolate roads, then walking down a path through the middle of a lava field and finding yourself at the most amazing party ever–with a disco soundtrack, dozens of your favorite people, and hundreds of other swim tourists from around the world. That was the IGLA opening party at the Blue Lagoon on Wednesday night, after the first day of competition. It was so. much. fun.

The setting was Iceland’s #1 tourist attraction, which we had all to ourselves for a few hours starting around 9:00 p.m. This being Iceland, it was bright and sunny out the whole time, and even the 1:00 a.m. walk back to our apartment after the return trip was in light you could read in, although the moon was also hovering over the city.

Blue Lagoon pop

Thanks to Kozo for capturing my ice cream moment.

The lagoon is a milky, steamy blue with a salty taste, and the temperature is comfortable enough to lounge in for hours on end. You wear a bathing suit and go through the pre-swim cleansing routine the same as at the pools, but this is not a swim destination. Rather, it is for soaking and relaxation. Sure, you can scoop white mud out of a tub and smear it onto your skin, or you could go hang out under a hard-pounding waterfall, but mostly you are just supposed to lounge here. When you need nourishment, wade on over to the bar for drinks, fruit smoothies, or ice cream. You can guess which one I chose.

power plant steampiping hot water into the capitalThe lagoon is an accidental industrial by-product. To understand why it’s here, it helps to understand geothermal energy generation, which Amanda and I learned about on our Golden Circle tour the previous day (and which I may or may not be explaining here correctly). Iceland, you see, is at the meeting point of two continental plates: North America and Eurasia. This gives warmth from deep inside the earth room to make its way to the surface, resulting in things like geysers, volcanoes, and hot springs. Enterprising sorts can drill down to the warmth in order to harness it. The bore-holes go down a couple kilometers in order to bring up steam, which is used to turn turbines and cooled down to a hospitable temperature by mixing with cold water from lakes. On our bus tour out of the city, we saw a power plant and the well-insulated pipes that feed hot water all the way into Reykjavik, where it heats homes, sidewalks, parking lots, hot pots, and pools. The leftover water is discharged near the power plants and usually soaks back into the ground.

The plant out by what became the Blue Lagoon was constructed for the nearby international airport area in the 1970s. The discharged water soon took on a life of its own, as the naturally occurring white silica caused a pool to form rather than letting the water soak back into the earth. Add naturally occurring algae for the pleasant blue color, and lo and behold you have the right mix for a tourist sensation. The power company wised up to this and built a bath house in the 1980s and added a spa more recently. Because of its proximity to the airport, it is all some travelers with quick layovers see of Iceland. I guarantee they enjoy their visits.

Danny, Janet, Hannah basking

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#28: Vesturbæjarlaug

play area of poolLocation: Reykjavik, Iceland

Configuration: 5 lanes of 25 meters + play area and 4 hot tubs

Fee: 500 ISK (Icelandic kronur), approximately $3.84

Fees to Date: $155.25

The Movie Star included directions to her neighborhood pool, Vesturbæjarlaug, in the notes she sent, which tells you both how well she understood the nature of my visit and how much Icelanders embrace their geothermally heated water. A day after I arrived, I was still sore from an action-packed weekend–kayaking in the choppy Hudson, a long pool workout, schelpping way too much stuff to and from my flight–so I wasn’t sure I wanted to go for a dip before the first day of competition. Peer pressure from Amanda and the knowledge that this pool was so close by after we returned “home” from our daylong Golden Circle tour proved too much to resist. Plus, I knew there would be hot tubs, or hot pots as per local parlance.

Amanda in a hot pot

The short swim and soak turned out to have a pleasant muscle-loosening effect, and it was also helpful to preview the local customs:

  • Scan your entry receipt in the turnstile for access to the locker room.
  • Take off your shoes before you enter the locker room.
  • Use the key provided for the locker–no need to have schlepped that lock all the way across the Atlantic.
  • Wash thoroughly before putting on your bathing suit and entering the pool area.
  • Be prepared for warm water, even in the lap pool.
  • Listen for gossip in the hot pots.
  • After your swim and shower, dry off while still in the shower area.
  • Laug means pool or bath. Sundlaug is specifically a swimming pool.

The hot pots were packed, and the rest of the facility was well used but not as popular. There were three different temperature options and a variety of depths among the four pots total, with helpful signs so you could freshen up on your understanding of Celsius.

floatin'I didn’t see a lifeguard at first but then realized he/she/they were in a fully enclosed structure on the far side. The pool is open all year round, even through the chilly and dark winter, after all.

What struck me here most was how nicely integrated the pool is into the surrounding neighborhood. People of all ages mixed and mingled. There were small groups of teenagers on their own, families with young children, solo swimmers, and friends like me and Amanda. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–a good pool makes for a good community.

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Have I mentioned that I’m going to Iceland?

Iceland mapMy long-anticipated trip to Iceland is almost here! I expect to visit several new pools while there and will try to keep the blogs posts coming. Before I take off, here’s some quick info about the trip.

Why Iceland? So many reasons, foremost being a swim meet that has been on my team’s calendar for years. I’m also looking forward to seeing the site of the world’s first Parliament, visiting the Blue Lagoon, and soaking in the Scandinavian-ness of the only Scandinavian country I haven’t been to. I’d mentally signed on to this trip ages ago, so it’s a happy coincidence for the 40 Pools Project that Iceland is a swimming mecca.

Are you going with anyone? My team has 74 swimmers ages 24 to 77 going, our largest-ever showing anywhere! There are close to 30 of us on my flight, which should be a fun experience in and of itself. Our coaches have put together an amazing roster of 41 relays.

What pool(s) will you be using? The swim events and water polo are all being held in Laugardalslaug (“The Pool of Pool Valley”), an indoor-outdoor pool complex that also has nine hot tubs. (Note to my teammates: If I fail to report for any relays, please search the hot tubs.) Diving and synchro are at the indoor Art Deco treasure Sundhöll Reykjavíkur (“The Swimming Palace of Reykjavík”). A pool called Vesturbæjarsundlaug (West Side Pool) is closest to where I’ll be staying.

What events are you swimming? My schedule is as follows (all long course meters). The swim competition is in the morning only.

  • Wednesday: 1500 free, 4 x free 200 relay, opening party at the Blue Lagoon
  • Thursday*: 400 IM, fly leg of 4 x 100 medley relay, Pink Flamingo competition (I’ll explain later)
  • Friday: 800 free, 100 back**, 4 x 100 free relay, 9:00 p.m. 250m open water swim followed by geothermal hot tub plunge
  • Saturday: 400 free
*I am not a butterflyer or an IMer. I’ll be glad when Thursday is over.
**One of my teammates is the former world record holder in the 50 back, and I’m in the same heat as her. So exciting!

The preliminary heat sheets show little to no competition in my age group, so I’ll try to get through those swims legally and really focus on the relays. If only I were swimming 100 meters more, I’d be doing the maximum amount possible.

What’s the meet? The meet is the annual championship for the IGLA league, which my team is part of. IGLA championships have been held in exotic destinations all over the world. Last year’s was in Hawai’i, and Copenhagen hosted in 2009. Alas, the only one I’ve been to was in the arguably less-glamorous College Park, Maryland, in 2008.

Where are you staying? I am swapping apartments with an Icelander who lives by the beach not far from downtown Reykjavik; Janet and Amanda will be staying with me there. The Icelander arrived in New York with her boyfriend yesterday, and as far as I can tell they are very nice people not likely to commit any serious crimes while living in my home. She is an actor, henceforth known as the Movie Star, and her BF tells me that we’ll be seeing her work on the plane. She is also in the confirmation e-mail from Icelandair that I received a few days ago.

Reykjavik is famous for its nightlife. Where do you plan to party? Um.

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